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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
How 60s beat stirred baby boom youth
The first of the baby boomers - the generation now turning 60 - came of age in the 1960s. As part of a BBC series, record producer Joe Boyd looks back at a decade in which music provided the sound track for a social revolution.

Women in a mini-skirt and maxi-skirt (file picture, 1970)
Some blame the 60s for rebellion, drug use and the rise of short skirts

A good way to judge the legacy of the 60s is to observe how annoyed some people get when discussing it.

The decade is blamed for undisciplined classrooms, short skirts (and all that they imply) and widespread drug use, but its implications are far more profound.

Racial and sexual equality - and, in England, equality of birth and opportunity - were not widely accepted concepts in 1959.

A quaint and common assumption then was that authorities knew whereof they spoke and should be treated with respect.

The journey from the innocence of the 50s to the revolutionary chaos of 1968 was accompanied by a musical sound track that resonates today like the social and political changes for which it provided the downbeat.

'Jungle' beat

This revolution was born in the mid-50s with the discovery of black American rhythm & blues by white teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Beatles, photographed in June 1965
Mass popularity and innovative brilliance have rarely combined to such effect as in the emergence of The Beatles

Music business executives were caught unawares, unable to stop this "jungle" beat from sweeping up the charts for a few years before heavy investment in a clean-cut, watered-down version regained their control of mass tastes.

But once opened, that door would be hard to shut.

The American Civil Rights movement of the early 60s mobilised to the strum of folk guitars and protest songs, while in Britain the imitation-American pop stars were shadowed by a blues-obsessed underground of jazz clubs and coffee bars.

These trends alone, however, can't explain the explosion of creativity from 1962 to 1970; this is where history-altering personalities take centre-stage: The Beatles and Dylan.

Mass popularity and innovative brilliance have rarely combined to such effect as in the emergence of The Beatles.

The "guitar group" - inspired by Chicago blues bands - was dismissed by both America's elite folk singers and the vocal outfits confected in New York's Brill Building, but became the model for aspiring British musicians and simmered in the back of the most adventurous musical minds in America.

Bob Dylan, photographed in 1965
Bob Dylan traded in his acoustic guitar to take music in a new direction

In 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan turned his back on the political commissars who had sponsored his emergence as a folk prophet and split the night air with a wild cry that took popular music in a new direction.

This combination of non-linear lyrics, rhythm & blues guitar licks, anti-showbiz dress and attitude and maximum volume was what we now call "rock music".

Having been led to that moment by The Beatles, Dylan returned the favour, handing them a joint in the back of a limo and showing them how to turn their genius in a far more subversive direction.

From that night to the end of the decade, new stars and startling recordings seemed to emerge monthly: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sgt Pepper, Tommy, Beggars Banquet, Music from Big Pink, Pink Floyd, Cream, Otis Redding, James Brown... the list seems endless.

It was a time when things were not nailed down - the mechanics of dissemination were as fluid as the musical forms that passed through them, allowing wildly original music to reach far and wide.

Record companies learned how to relax and count the money.

Activism and hedonism

The music helped to inspire politically aware kids in the streets of Paris, Mexico City, Chicago - and even London.

Demonstrator lies on the ground during clashes with police in Paris, 6 May 1968
France led the way in the violent suppression of student protest

Governments were forced to re-think how to control their rebellious youth. No more could the Pentagon wage war with an army of unwilling conscripts.

Mexico and France led the way in the violent suppression of student activism while Britain and America's responses were more subtle.

By the early 70s, excess had claimed the lives of many of music's pioneers and a constricted post-Oil-crisis economy had clamped down on the carefree hedonism of the mid-60s.

Today, the world is still having trouble coming to terms with the social and political changes born in the 60s.

In music, we are left with box-sets, reissues and sound-alike tribute bands.

Ponderous heavy-metal guitar solos mock Dylan's night in Newport and Oasis' pallid imitations do their best to sully the legacy of The Beatles.

"Underground" or "revolutionary" music now comes with a corporate sponsor and doesn't even try to lead its followers into the streets to protest government misdeeds.

History is cyclical. Let's hope we don't have to wait too long for the next '60s' decade.

Joe Boyd is a record producer and author of White Bicycles: making music in the 1960s




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