London Letter: Brexit recalls rebel spirit of the 1960s

A new exhibition about the decade celebrates Britain when it was at its most thrilling

The Beatles  entered their most creative phase in the second half of the 1960s: costumes used on the  cover of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” feature in the V&A exhibition. Photograph: BIPs/Getty Images

The Beatles entered their most creative phase in the second half of the 1960s: costumes used on the cover of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” feature in the V&A exhibition. Photograph: BIPs/Getty Images

 

Pick your way past Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery and avert your gaze from Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear and you will find the latest blockbuster exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is a riotous, immersive exploration of the culture and ideas of a half decade which transformed British society.

Before you enter, you snap on a set of Sennheiser headphones. The soundtrack of the period, drawn from DJ John Peel’s vinyl record collection, accompanies you as you snake through a labyrinth of images and artefacts from this period of radical change and utopian visions. The exhibition ranges across the United States and continental Europe, flower power in San Francisco and the Paris événements of 1968, second-wave feminism, gay liberation and the Black Panther movement.

But at its heart is the cultural and social revolution among the young in Britain, particularly in London, which made the city one of the most exciting on the planet. Despite Philip Larkin’s assertion that sexual intercourse began “between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban and the Beatles’ first LP”, Britain was still a deeply conservative society in 1965.

New generation

The next few years saw homosexuality decriminalised and abortion legalised, the death penalty and theatre censorship abolished and racial discrimination outlawed. The Beatles entered their most creative phase, and Chelsea became home to a new generation of the young and beautiful dressed by Mary Quant and coiffed by Vidal Sassoon.

“Local residents stared and pointed as young women catwalked up and down the King’s Road,” recalled publisher Alexandra Pringle, who was a child at the time, two decades later.

“They wore big floppy hats, skinny ribbed sweaters, key-hole dresses, wide hipster belts, and, I believed, paper knickers. They had white lipsticked lips and thick black eyeliner, hair cut at alarming angles, op-art earrings and ankle-length white boots. They wore citron-coloured trouser suits and skirts that seemed daily shorter . . . They had confidence and, it seemed, no parents.”

One of Sassoon’s hair salons is recreated in the exhibition, with live models sometimes on display getting their hair done. Around the corner are the costumes used for the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and in another room there is a fragment from one of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars. There are so many relics from the psychedelic era that one critic said it was “like Lourdes on LSD”.

LSD may have helped to open young minds, but the counter-culture was driven by two less ethereal factors: demographics and economics. The children born in the post-war baby boom were coming of age, so that half the US population in 1966 was under 25 and one in three in France in 1967 was under 20. Growing affluence and a move from blue-collar to white-collar work were eroding traditional class distinctions, nowhere more so than in Britain.

The utopianism which flourished at the end of the 1960s was largely smothered by the economic consequences of the oil crisis in the early 1970s and individualism transformed into consumerism by the 1980s. Utopianism has made a political comeback in recent years, and activists in the Occupy movement would recognise something of themselves in their idealistic forebears from the late 1960s.

Recent referendum

During the recent referendum, Remainers liked to sneer that the Brexiteers were nostalgic for the vanished, or imagined, Britain of the 1950s. But that decade, redolent of boiled beef, rationing, national service and censorship, is scarcely the stuff of nostalgia.

The England many middle-aged Brexiteers truly mourn is that of late 1960s, the strutting, velvet-clad peacocks of Carnaby Street, the Swinging London of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, with its easy sex, great music and thrilling uncertainty. Brexit has delivered the uncertainty, whatever about the rest.

The optimism celebrated in this exhibition remains one note in the mood that made Brexit, even if it is often drowned out by discordant tones of xenophobia and bloody-mindedness. In the last room, John Lennon’s Imagine plays, but as you leave the exhibition, it is followed by Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem, with its final, stirring lines: “I will not cease from mental fight,/ Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land.”

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 runs until February 26th, 2017. vam.ac.uk

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