The 60s – From Beat to Beatles
Trying to explain the rise of the left from my personal experiences in the first part of this article I looked at the 1950s.
Post war Britain, genuine austerity amidst rationing, piles of fenced off rubble where Jerry had paid a visit still existed in places.
Teddy boys and Beatniks were the first signs of a new generation trying to forge its own identity.
The Teds were not political, their ideology consisted of jiving, drinking, fighting and a quick shag. If they could combine all four in one day then life was good. They would morph during the late 50s into Rockers and continue in the grand, time honoured tradition.
Beatniks had different roots however, their influence was not rock and roll, they stemmed from the Beat generation, a post war American school of thought.
Their mentors, amongst others, were Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg.
They would not be rocking around the clock anytime soon. They listened to Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, they smoked a bit of dope and they read poetry.
Not Emily Dickinson poetry but angry stuff like Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. It opens with this;
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
It’s not one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock, is it? When recited it is performed as a jazz bop refrain.
Here’s where it gets interesting in the grand scheme of things. Musicians like Phil Ochs and Patti Smith would cite Ginsberg as an influence but he also hung out with a young Bob Zimmerman, Bob Dylan as he restyled himself.
Both of them fish out of water, hip young Jews far from home, lost in New York City. Ginsberg was political but Dylan less so. He was ambitious even back then and shrewd enough to realize too much politicking divides your target market.
He couldn’t help but be influenced by the subject matter and the style of delivery though.
The original Beats were often drifters, Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was published in 1957 and the young Dylan could see the attraction of this counter culture. His 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was not called that by accident, to be cynical you could make a lot of money in the 60s by appearing to be a vagabond, a transient traveller even though you mostly travelled to gigs in a limo with an entourage.
This new music style began to influence Dylan’s peers, the Beatles were developing their own fresh approach, not wanting to hold anyone’s hand any longer, they would rather hold your spliff.
Ginsberg claimed he turned the Beatles on to pot although I suspect that was a boast, I’m pretty sure no musician ever needed a guru to get high.
The songs were all, of course, counter culture, ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, Dylan slams the entire establishment and it resonates with the target audience.
No one ever wrote ‘I work in a factory from 9 to 5 and I’m really glad to be alive’ and there are no epistles to being promoted to area salesman in the plastics division.
By the mid 60s we are a long way from Moon in June lyrics and whilst there is always normie music it is mostly disposable, like bubblegum it’s not usually a product that you keep or remember.
Even the very best Motown and Soul is just dance music, great for allnighters and Mods on pills but there is no underlying message there.
However for those who wanted some musical meat rather than the mashed potato the menu was free love, psychedelics and sticking it to the man.
Ginsberg’s buddy Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, said in 1967 at a Human Be-In in California, “Tune in, Turn on, Drop out”, this to a crowd of 30,000 hippies who were all probably way ahead of him anyway.
Yes, we had Happenings and Human Be-Ins, it was the law back then.
The torch of the 40s Beat Generation had passed via the 50s Beatniks all the way to the 60s Flower Power hippies.
You could argue that some of the Beat literary output had merit, it is still highly regarded by many critics. It was a response to a perceived lack of opportunity in post war America, the Beat generation originally referred to beat up or deadbeat according to Kerouac who coined the phrase. Their response was nihilism and hedonism and unsurprisingly many of the founders crashed and burned.
In the same way some great music came out of the 60s but the messages were inconsistent with most people’s lives.
It’s fine to say drop some acid, it will open your eyes man and the system is screwing you, absolutely fine, that’s if you are a millionaire rock star.
If you are living in a one bed flat in Willesden with a kid on the way and trying to pay the rent the same principles do not apply.
The resulting 60s legacy advocated nuclear disarmament, copious drug use, a refusal to conform to the system, altered moral standards, lack of personal responsibility and the freedom to be openly gay if appropriate. The constant mantra of the age was “If it feels good, do it.”
By this time Pandora’s box didn’t even have a lid, the guidelines our parents considered essential had been totally erased.
How has this helped the left to entrench itself so firmly in our lives, surely just a few thousand hippies get wasted and life goes on?
I won’t pretend this all happened through music and the Beat generation influence alone. There were social conditions, political changes, racial unrest, educational reforms and militant action which all had a part to play. I’ll attempt to make sense of it next time.