I wrote in the first of this series of pieces on Songs and Tunes about the rise of idealism as expressed in social conscience and consciousness of larger and unwieldy political issues; about how the big issue of The Cold War and its threat of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was taken up by Barry Macguire in his song ‘Eve of Destruction’.
The reverse side of the coin to this ‘protest’ type of song was one which acted to celebrate the new mood of pacific solidarity amongst young persons.
(The cynic here will refer you to the opportunism of the recording companies jumping on the bandwagon of the social revolution in the blooming so as to make a killing in profits from it. S/he will also point up to you that there was in this movement a certain flimsy veneer of idealism which covered over many sins committed under its banners; which is a truth; but a limited truth; in that for there to be smoke there must be a fire; meaning that ‘hangers-on’ and ‘charlatans’ had to depend upon and be parasitic upon a real and solid positivity of outlook of some kind which able to and was bringing together masses of young men and women in a loose and shaky unison but as a force for change which their union felt was needed badly and for the general good. This is my take on what was happening back then, when I was teenaged).
Certain songs were written recorded sung and became popular which acted to help consolidate the generally amorphous crowds of youngsters who had aery but passionate dreams for the future; songs such as those sung in ethereal style by The Byrds; and those freaky but comic songs like Tiny-Tim’s ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ (a song version which became popular and which could not have become so at any other time than at this; a time when was waking a consciousness of and a toleration for difference, and an embracing of allowance for eccentricity; all of which had been relatively stifled in Western societies, and forced underground and into twisted and agonised modes of life.
Thus was the emphasis, in the thinking at least, on gentleness and on peace between peoples. The newspapers were quick to put to prominence the ‘make love; not war’ mottoes bandied about by that generation; many newspapers took the moral high-ground of hypocrisy and condemned this ‘free love’ whilst casting a jaundiced envious eye at the young persons enjoying their youth; and by this means the newspapers and media managed to typecast a whole generation as depraved and of ‘loose morals’ etc.
Of course there was a lot of falsehood and falsity about many young persons who took to becoming ‘flower people’; of course there were many there for the beer only – and the sex – although as I have said the movement as a whole was being driven by a general upsurge of popular revolt at the way the ‘grey suits’ were running things (ruining things).
The same divorce of sympathies as is being seen today was then to be seen between the men and women of politics and the people of the workplace and of the streets. It was apparent just as it is now; with a difference that comparatively many more persons back then were willing to put in quite a bit of their free time so as to make a protest and to be heard en mass as of a single accord. We have today smaller groups of persons congregating outside the US embassy in London to protest at the US President and his behaviour; in the USA itself there were some quite large crowds for some weeks doing the same on the streets, but these appear to have subsided and dwindled away; petered out. The slugging match which appears to be going on there now looks like it is between one bunch of big businessmen and another bunch of big businessmen; and for unchallenged dominance in the field.
Of course there were large evils going on which stimulated and fed this pacific and mass response to them; The Vietnam War was a very powerful catalyst spurring its growth; but there was also particularly in America, and to some extent in Britain, the racial tensions which shook the nation; and there was also the coming of TV newsreels like never seen before which depicted first hand and graphically the upshots and results of such civil and military disturbances. Never since then has the news media shown such graphic and prolonged scenes of wars Britain or the US have been involved in; the lessons of giving too much information were quickly learned and have not been forgotten.
So, I hope I have established that there was indeed a core of idealism at the centre of the movement of ‘peace and love’; even though all of its participants and adherents were only human beings; and so more often than not they failed to live up to their high pretensions and too often stooped or else fell into habits and activities which could not match their noble purposes and intentions. There’s nothing here surprising; did not St Paul complain of the very same thing which he found working in himself?
“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing”
In as far as these perhaps hopelessly high ideals were expressed in song, no song was more resonant and popular, loved and played than was Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco – (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)”, which seems to me even now to have been almost a hymn to ‘flower power’.
The song has all the loose and vague timbre and air of the movement it became the anthem to. A plummy heavily bouncing backdrop of bells – bells were emblematic of those times and of those people – together with almost a wall of richly textured sound kept the lyric moving forwards. McKenzie’s voice itself was a high tenor, not falsetto, and had just the right ‘gentleness’ about it to fit the imagery.
To listeners of today it will sound disgustingly sloppy and slushy. I don’t suppose objectively it is really a very good song; but songs have a way of clinging to oneself simply because they connect one to something else which was/is personally precious. The lyrics were celebrating in particular the city of San Francisco, whereabouts particularly in Haight Ashbury district had grown up as it were spontaneously a kind of ‘commune’ of ‘beautiful people’.
Thus San Francisco , the song and the city, became Western-world-wide the potent symbol and centre of the general consciousness of ‘hippydom’. Indeed what was to become the gay movement began there; wand it was successfully to lobby for civil rights for gays which are present in society today. This upsurge of gay activity in San Francisco into the light from its underground darkness was of course shocking and abhorrent to many people, and again the media made hay with it.
The song San Francisco itself has a soppiness about it which kind of parodies or stereotypes ‘softness’ and ‘delicate flowers’; attributes which were associated with being gay in the common mind back then.
There’s little in the song which is aggressive or even openly assertive; in fact its lyrics a pretty passive and annunciatory rather than challenging or revolutionary; as I said, celebratory and a kind of song behind which to rally as being a member of something. A hymn. An anthem.
There is however a nice moment in the final iteration of the main melody; when there is an engaging key change which lifts the song out of danger of too much monotony; thus reinvigorating the listener’s attention and making a fitting, almost triumphal, finale to the rallying call.
Personally I remember young girls wearing cow bells and long hair unloosed and having Indian clothing on dyed in what I guess were natural plant dyes in the east from where they originated; and similar in their ‘authenticity’ of colour to those colours which are to be found used on the inside of old English church roofs – usually plain green, red, and blue only. I remember many what seem now sunny hours at festivals and at social gatherings when indeed one never did feel one was in anything but a warm, pleasant, and social situation.
Of course here in Britain at the very same time there were motor scooter riders who along with their rivals, the motor cycle youths would drive on Bank Holidays to the coast and there do pitch battle for real with one another on the sands and to the horror and abrupt condemnation of older generations sunning themselves there and attempting to get in some of their own kind of R&R. There were here, as in America, many black people whose rights were at best dubious compared to whites. Our blacks here in Britain had come from the British West Indies; many of them having served in HM Forces during the war; and London needed bus drivers and conductors; the railways needed porters and guards; and many of these jobs were being filled by black guys from the Caribbean.
I can recall cards in newsagent’s windows offering lettings of a room or a flat which audaciously said hurtful things like : ‘No dogs; No blacks’. We’ve come quite a journey since then; thank God!
There was plenty to be uptight about as well as to feel at peace with; and maybe the one depended heavily upon the other for its existence? There is a Beatles song, more or less forgotten now, with a lyric ‘How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people/ You spend all your money on a big fast car/ That’s what you do’’; and this song I guess was being critical, in so far as it meant anything at all, about that side of ‘hippydom’ which perhaps The beach Boys tapped into very well; who could sing with mad glee; ‘We’ll have fun,fun, fun, till Daddy takes the T-Bird away’.
This side of hippydom was the sons and daughters of the rich; who were what we might term ‘Playboys’ and ‘Playgirls’; grown up kindergarten stuff; a slur and a reality which did great harm to any ideals any person might have had for the movement as a whole. Like in the late 1920s here in UK there had been a great surge of conspicuous triviality and squandering of money and resources by an upper crust part of the young generation – often thought to have been a sort of gut reaction of ‘eat drink and be merry’, to the cost in lives of World War One – in California (where everyone want to go to – especially after they’ve died) in that age of hippies the same playground for the rich was considered par for the course.
Over here in UK our perceptions of California were of such an earthly paradise of drag racing and of surfing and of beautiful girls swarming all over etc; and everywhere you went there was more money than sense.
So, all in all, the follies of yesterday match blow for blow the follies of today; they look silly and quaint, even embarrassing in hindsight; but will we not look so when others look back on us?
What was it Otis Redding, that great great voice of soul, sang back then?
“I’ve got dreams, drea-ea-eams to remember!”
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