It was the seventies by the time I got to London to join the sixties revolution, so it was the pretty much over. As a teenager, I had followed it enthusiastically from the sidelines.
I remember the excitement of The Beatles broadcasting All You Need Is Love live to the world, the thrill of student revolts (I even ‘sat-in’ overnight at Leeds University until the cleaners threw us out) and the wonder of Woodstock.
You Say You Want A Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-1970 at the V&A tries to tie it all together. With the distance of 50 years and the perspective of seeing exciting moments pulled together into neat categories of music, fashion, drugs and so on, it becomes clear the youth ‘revolution’ wasn’t as revolutionary as it seemed.
The key was, I think, the size of the youth market. The first baby boomers came to maturity and were a dominant force in the market. Their tastes dominated news and commercial thinking. However, wearing kaftans, developing the quality and depth of popular music and espousing idealistic causes doesn’t make a revolution.
Yes, there was a revolution in the arts, especially music, photography and fashion, and that was led by the young. There were also massive demonstrations by students against the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons and the establishment in general.
The Revolution was led by the establishment
Ironically the social revolution was being led by the despised establishment, in effect their parents. Legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the abolition of capital punishment, the relaxation of book, theatre and cinema censorship, and many other liberal measures were the work of much older people.
The leaders of this older generation whether Labour or Conservative also supported the mixed economy wherein capitalism created wealth and the state provided the public services and infrastructure. They also embraced internationalism of NATO and the Common Market.
For that matter, the gurus of the youth revolution were older people like Timothy Leary, Marshal McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.
If an older generation made its impact in the sixties, the question is, what impact has the generation which reached maturity in that decade when it came to power? Social liberalism has continued. Legalisation of homosexuality has led to gay marriage. We are pretty much free to enjoy what we want in private. A majority now oppose capital punishment. We continue to create exciting music, fashion and other art.
The Revolution was mainly about lifestyle
But politics is a different story. The majority either abandoned the revolution or were never fully on board in the first place. The neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era was not reversed by baby boomers like Blair and Clinton. Far from undoing the inequalities it created, they and, it seems, the majority of their generation positively embraced uncontrolled markets and the way in which every aspect of our lives has been turned into a commodity.
Yoko Ono is still telling us war is over if we want it but the most powerful representatives of the formerly anti-war generation, Blair and Bush, took us into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Love children who once saw themselves as members of a global village now vote for nationalism, xenophobia and self interest. It may have produced exciting music and grown its hair long but it turns out the revolution was mainly about lifestyle.
John Lennon was right when he sang, ‘You say you want a revolution, we’d all love to see the plan.’ When the time came for those most vocal in the sixties to make a difference, they had neither the vision nor the courage of the previous generation.
You Say You Want A Revolution exhibition is at the V&A until 26 February 2017