The 1960s was an exciting decade of significant change and upheaval throughout the UK, the US and around the world. It was a period marked by sweeping social, cultural, and political changes, as well as technological advances and scientific breakthroughs.
It is also often cited as an extremely exciting and enjoyable decade to have lived through, and is sometimes said to have begun in black and white and ended in splendid technicolour.
The 60s are synonymous with the emergence of youth culture, the counterculture, new forms of music, fashion, and expression that challenged the established norms of British society. In this article, we will look at the key events, cultural phenomena, and social movements that shaped the 1960s.
The 1960s saw a significant shift in British culture, particularly for young people. The emergence of the large teenage demographic (now the generation known as the boomers) as a distinct cultural group brought with it new music, fashion, and attitudes that challenged the establishment.
One of the most significant cultural phenomena of the 1960s in Great Britain was the emergence of the ‘Swinging London’ scene. This was centred around the fashionable area of Carnaby Street in London, which became a hub of mod culture, fashion, and music. The mod look was characterised by sharp suits, skinny ties, and trendy haircuts among young men, while women’s fashion was characterised by mini-skirts, bold prints, and bright colours. Brands, boutiques and designers like Biba, Mary Quant and John Stephen pioneered this look.
Music played a significant role in the cultural changes of the 1960s, with the emergence of ‘beat groups’ dominating the pop music scene. The Beatles were undoubtedly the most influential band of the decade, and their music had a profound impact on popular culture, capturing the imagination of the public and making them a worldwide sensation. The Beatles helped to put their home city of Liverpool on the cultural map, leading to an explosion of ‘Merseybeat’ groups, and the ‘British Invasion’ of the US by British rock and roll bands. The Rolling Stones were another hugely successful British band of the era, with their blues-infused rock music and bad-boy image appealing to a slightly more rebellious demographic.
During this period, Great Britain once again led the world in aspects of culture, music, fashion, and design, making it in many ways the coolest country on earth for a while. The decade saw the UK and the US trade musical and cultural ideas back and forth across the Atlantic – the UK gave the US the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who, and Cream, while the US gave the UK Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, and The Doors.
The emergence of folk rock and progressive rock also characterised the musical landscape of the later 60s. British bands such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Jethro Tull pioneered the early progressive rock genre, with their complex, ambitious music and intricate live performances. Folk rock, on the other hand, blended traditional British folk music with contemporary rock and pop sensibilities. British bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle were at the forefront of this movement, and their music has influenced countless other artists in the decades since.
For many, this era is still widely regarded as a golden age of popular music, with sophisticated variety and thoughtful, poetic lyrics elevating pop music to an art form.
Pirate radio stations, often broadcast from boats floating out at sea around the British coast, played an essential role in broadcasting this new and experimental music to young audiences eager to hear something fresh and exciting.
Broadcasting, radio and TV
The Goon Show, a radio comedy program featuring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers, was hugely popular during the early 1960s. The show was known for its surreal humour and helped to launch the careers of its stars, who would go on to achieve great success in film and television.
Juke Box Jury was a popular television show of the era – one of many pop music focussed TV programmes that aired at the time. The show featured a panel of celebrities who would rate and review new pop songs, providing an important platform for emerging musicians.
That Was The Week That Was (TW3) was an innovative satirical television programme that also aired in the 1960s. It was a ground-breaking show that pushed the boundaries of television broadcasting, with its irreverent take on current affairs, political satire, and social commentary. The program was notable for its sharp wit and fearless criticism of politicians, institutions, and authority figures. TW3 helped to redefine the role of television in society, and its influence can be seen in the many satirical and political programs that followed in its wake. The show was instrumental in shaping the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s, and its legacy continues to resonate in popular culture today.
The birth of pop art is another significant cultural development of the 1960s. Pop art was characterised by its use of bright colours, bold designs, and references to popular culture. British artists such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake (designer of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover) were at the forefront of the movement, which challenged traditional notions of high art and elevated popular culture to the status of fine art.
The 1960s was also a period of significant social and political change. The counter-culture movement emerged in response to the perceived injustices of the status quo. The movement was characterised by a rejection of traditional values and institutions and a search for alternative forms of expression and meaning.
The hippie movement was a significant aspect of the counterculture in the late 60s, with young people seeking to reject the values of mainstream society and embrace alternative lifestyles. This period crystallised in the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’, which witnessed the release of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The album’s innovative use of studio technology and experimentation with musical genres, instrumentation, and lyrics represented a new era of artistic creativity in the field.
The hippie lifestyle was generally characterised by a rejection of materialism, a focus on communal living, and experimentation with mind and consciousness expanding drugs and practices – like meditation and yoga. Hippie style was a celebration of self-expression, with a rejection of traditional beauty standards and an embracing of individuality and non-conformity.
Generally, hippie ethos sought to create a more peaceful and inclusive world, with a love and respect for nature, and their lifestyle reflected these values. The clothes they wore were often loose and comfortable, with natural fibres like cotton, linen, and wool being preferred over synthetic materials. Bright, bold (psychedelic) colours and intricate patterns were also popular, as were unconventional shapes and styles. Bell-bottom flared trousers, tie-dye shirts, long flowing skirts, vests, and kaftans were common hippie fashion staples. Accessories such as headbands, beads, and fringes were also popular, as were natural materials like leather and feathers. Many hippies also embraced a more natural – some might say primitive – personal look, with long hair and beards for men, minimal makeup, and a focus on a healthy, natural lifestyle.
Protest and civil rights
The Vietnam War was a significant catalyst for the counter-culture movement – particularly in the USA. However, the war was also deeply unpopular among young people in Britain, who – like their American counterparts – saw it as an unjust and unnecessary conflict. The anti-war movement gained momentum throughout the decade, with large-scale protests and demonstrations taking place in cities across both countries.
The Civil Rights movement in the United States also had a significant impact on British society. The struggle for racial equality and justice resonated with young people in Britain, many of whom saw it as part of a broader struggle against oppression and injustice.
Led by figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, the movement fought for equal rights and an end to racial segregation. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 were major victories for the movement in the US, but racial inequality and discrimination still persisted in many areas of society.
The 1960s also saw the rise of the feminist movement, which fought for gender equality and challenged traditional gender roles. Women began to demand access to education and job opportunities, and the birth control pill allowed for greater control over their reproductive rights.
Major events and developments
Despite the many positive developments that occurred during the decade, the 1960s was also marked by several darker moments. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and the assassinations of President John F Kennedy (JFK), his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr. caused deep distress around the world, ending a period of hope and optimism in American politics. The Vietnam War also dragged on throughout the decade, with ongoing protests and opposition.
Technologically, however, the 1960s was a decade of incredible innovation and progress. The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing, with the Russian, Yuri Gagarin, becoming the first man in space in April 1961, and the US Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Also, let’s not leave out Michael Collins, who stayed in the control module during the Apollo 11 mission.
The moon landing happened just weeks before the famous Woodstock rock concert, a three-day music festival that took place in August 1969 on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. The festival is widely considered to be one of the defining moments of the 1960s counterculture movement. It was attended by over 400,000 people, who gathered to celebrate music, peace, and love. The festival featured performances from many legendary names in rock music, including Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Despite the huge number of people in attendance, the festival was remarkably peaceful, with only a handful of incidents reported. The success of the Woodstock festival has made it an enduring symbol of the hippie counterculture and an important moment in the history of music and social movements.
1966 saw England famously win the Football World Cup for the first and (to date) only time, defeating West Germany 4-2 in the final. The victory was a significant moment of national pride and brought joy to millions of people across the country.
Also in 1969, Prince Charles (now King Charles III) was invested as the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle, Wales, in a ceremony that marked his coming of age. The investiture was a significant moment in the history of the British monarchy, and it symbolised the continuity and stability of the British institution in the face of the major social and cultural changes that had taken place during the decade.
The development of computer technology also took off in the 1960s, with the creation of the first computer mouse and the founding of companies like Intel.
Around the world
As well as in the UK and US, the 1960s was a time of change and upheaval around the world, with many significant events taking place.
Just before the start of the decade, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, leading to the establishment of a communist government in Cuba. This event had significant implications for the Cold War throughout the 60s, as the US saw Cuba as a threat to its national security and attempted to overthrow the Castro government through the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
In 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in China, a political campaign aimed at purging capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society and promoting Maoist ideology. The campaign led to widespread violence, political purges, and the persecution of intellectuals and other perceived enemies of the state.
In 1968, Czechoslovakia experienced a period of political liberalisation known as the Prague Spring, in which the government sought to implement reforms and democratise the country’s political system. However, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries saw this as a threat to their control over Eastern Europe, and they invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the movement.
In May 1968, a series of protests and strikes broke out in France, involving millions of students, workers, and other citizens. The protests were fuelled by a variety of grievances, including dissatisfaction with the government, the education system, and capitalism. The protests ultimately failed to bring about significant change, but they had a lasting impact on French society and politics.
The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City were marked by controversy and tragedy, as several athletes protested against racial discrimination and political oppression. One of the most iconic moments of the Olympics came when two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race. The Olympics also saw the extraordinary long jump world record set by Bob Beamon of the USA. His new world record of 8.90 metres beat the old one by more than two feet and remained unbeaten for 23 years.
Overall, the 1960s were a time of tremendous change and growth, both culturally and politically. The decade saw the emergence of new ideas and movements that transformed society with unusual speed and frequency (almost, it seemed, on a weekly basis), and the legacy of these changes continues to be felt today.
While there were certainly some darker moments during this period, the overall spirit of the era was one of fun, hope and optimism, and it remains an exciting and enticing period to look back nostalgically on today.
The decade’s importance only seems to grow with each passing year; however, the 60s, almost more than any other decade, is often viewed through rose-tinted ‘granny-takes-a-trip’ glasses. It should be noted then, that the era wasn’t all peace, love, incense and peppermints, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. And anyway, as the saying goes: if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there!
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