A few years ago I was asked to write a memoir of my favourite year in pop music: 1965. Of course, we know that the 1960s is such a fertile decade that almost any year could be mined for spectacular results, musically and culturally. Witness 1963: the arrival of Beatlemania, JFK's assassination, the death of Pope John XXIII, the Profumo affair. Or 1964: Merseybeat, the "British invasion" of the US pop charts, classic UK R&B from The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Them and The Kinks. Or 1967: the Summer of Love, Sergeant Pepper, Jimi Hendrix, the Monterey pop festival. Or 1968: the year of revolution, the slayings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Or 1969: Woodstock, Altamont, the fall of the Beatles, the end of an era.
In selecting a single year, Jon Savage has opted for the populist choice, 1966 and all that: pop art, boutiques, England winning the World Cup, and more. Structurally, his book is divided into months of the year, with the author selecting a particular disc, then expanding the narrative to take in related record releases and contemporaneous cultural events, detailing novels, art movements, films and television plays, plus political upheavals on both sides of the Atlantic.
Savage is rightly regarded as one of the finest cultural critics of the past 40 years, with a vast knowledge of popular music genres and their links with mainstream trends. A voracious reader and astute tastemaker, his essays here cover intimidatingly huge subjects, including US politics, feminism, dance, gay rights, gender studies and psychedelia. Indeed, it is a tribute to the breadth of his vision that these 12 chapters could easily have spawned a dozen books.
The book begins in January 1966 with Simon and Garfunkel's American chart-topper, The Sound of Silence. In a year nostalgically remembered for bright sunny afternoons and unrelenting optimism, here was a composition whose opening line spoke of darkness. Savage is fascinated by the notion of silence in an age of noise, and brilliantly connects this with The Ugly's memorable B-side, The Quiet Explosion, a song about corrosion with connotations of impending nuclear war. This, in turn, prompts discussion of banned TV drama The War Game, after which Savage hurtles back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bomb culture, the Cold War, CND and the Cuban missile crisis.
His restlessness and refusal to be timelocked in 1966 is one of the surprises of the book and transforms it into something far greater in scope than could have been expected. Oddly, he fails to mention that Simon and Garfunkel's's The Sound of Silence, for all its resonance, did not enter the UK charts. It was The Bachelors, a mainstream vocal trio from Dublin, who took the song into the UK top five with their atypical but strangely alluring version. Later, Savage points out that 1966 pop embraced both teenage fare and "mum's and dad's" music, and the Bachelors cover was a revealing example of how that gap could be bridged.
Savage’s writing style ranges from the reportorial to the sociological, but it is his music criticism that proves most appealing.
There are some glorious descriptions in which he teases out the mystery and majesty of particular songs. Describing the Stones's 19th Nervous Breakdown, he notes that "there is something volatile and barely controlled about its tempo . . . A first verse mixes, in equal measure, contempt, boredom and empathy . . . The whirling, whirring stasis between verse, chorus, instrumental breakdown and chorus makes the point that there is no hope." Even when writing about the less lovable The Ballad of the Green Berets, he describes it memorably as "a monolith . . . hewn from the very rock of the nation". A treatise on Vietnam follows.
Savage became a teenager in 1966 and some of the book's highlights occur when he steps beyond his studious remit to conjure moments when he was immersed in the sights and sounds of the age, tirelessly listening to Radio Caroline and TV's Ready Steady, Go!, always in pursuit of the new.
Refreshingly, he relies largely on contemporaneous commentaries in favour of revisionist hindsight. He celebrates hip American rock writers, such as Paul Williams and Richard Goldstein, but also champions astute Brits, such as Disc's Penny Valentine, Record Mirror's columnist Tony Hall and the NME's senatorial Derek Johnson. All these figures were unpretentious arbiters of taste, whose incisive contributions are often overlooked by modern music writers.
Given Savage's immersion in the era, it is disappointing that he cites the Record Retailer chart as a prime source. Infamously, this was the listing that did not place Please Please Me or 19th Nervous Breakdown as number-one singles. Unlike the NME charts – used by the national press and Radio Luxembourg – or the BBC's authoritative listing for Top of the Pops, the Record Retailer had little or no credibility in 1966. It is almost infuriating that a great connoisseur, such as Savage, should give it any credence.
Elsewhere, he impresses with a procession of psychedelic obscurities and a definitive listing of the year’s great singles.
Although insightful and authoritative, Savage is not infallible. While his scholarship is frequently dazzling, a few howlers remain. Oddly, he claims that Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone was a number-one single, incorrectly elevates the Beatles's Rain to A-side status and mistakenly refers to the Bach-inspired A Lover's Concerto, by The Toys, as "A Lover's Symphony".
As expected, Savage pricks the myths of 1966. Swinging London, with its boutiques and bistros, is exposed as a boom-and-bust capital. After a glorious summer, economic caesura beckons. Darker elements are ever-present: the Aberfan tragedy, the sentencing of the Moors murderers, and the deaths of Brian Epstein and Joe Meek.
In the final three chapters the narrative quickens and the focus widens, taking in multiple themes. Savage reaches an astonishing apogee while reflecting on a metaphysical mystery. "Something very strange was happening to time in popular culture," he says. Nor was it merely the result of Edwardian fashions, mind-altering drugs or retro outfits such as The New Vaudeville Band. The songs, too, reveal a neurotic nostalgia (Goin' Back), exile from 1966's "now" in-crowd (Out of Time), temporal dislocation (Happenings 10 Years Time Ago) and an escape into the eternal mesh (Tomorrow Never Knows). "It was as though a time tunnel opened up in the sounds of pop modernism," Savage writes. Such speculations make this an enthralling, exhilarating read.
Johnny Rogan’s books include biographies of The Byrds, Neil Young, The Smiths, Van Morrison and Ray Davies