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Last Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Look back for anger
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine


This week's number one single by Sandi Thom paints a wistful, nostalgic picture of the late-1960s and late-1970s. But what do today's twenty-somethings really know about these eras?

"Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair, In '77 and '69 revolution was in the air," sings Sandi Thom in her nostalgic chart-topper - extolling the virtues of the rebellious days of punk rock and the psychedelic Sixties.

In her musical history lesson, these glorious days were before pop music became an accountancy exercise and youth culture became an extension of corporate branding.

But what do today's young people really know about these years? And what is it that gives them such an appeal? Is it just viewing the past through Che-tinted glasses?

Love, peace and three TV channels

In 1969, Britain's most high-profile example of student radicalism was the London School of Economics - with the university being shut down for three weeks after demonstrations and dozens of arrests.

Natalie Black, LSE
Natalie Black says London in the 1960s would have been her ideal

Serious young men with beards the size of hedgerows and women who listened to Joan Baez albums talked of occupations, sit-ins and revolution.

But what about the leaders of today's students at the LSE? Would they like to join in Sandi Thom's hankering after the rebel years?

Yes, says 23-year-old Natalie Black, very much so, there is a real sense of nostalgia for what's seen as less cynical, less work-obsessed times.

"I imagine that in the Sixties people would have been sitting on the grass, talking to each other, someone playing a guitar. Everyone loved each other. It was more relaxed, there were more opportunities and the clothes looked fantastic," says the student union officer.

And her image of the late-1970s is of creativity and conflict. "It would be have been a lot of fun. People shouting through megaphones, organising sit-ins. People could live for the day."

There are still protests and campaigns, she says, but now they have been "professionalised". Instead of something spontaneous, she says that even rebellion has become something to organise and image-manage.

"We've grown up in the era of spin, people have become much more cynical," she says. Even organising a protest can be something to add to a CV.

Soul memories

Instead of leafleting and megaphones, now she says that the way that most of her peer group share information is through a website called Facebook.

And never underestimate the transforming power of nostalgia.

John Lennon's bed-in
John Lennon and Yoko hold "bed-in" for world peace
Woodstock Festival
Student protests at the London School of Economics and the 'Days of Rage' in the United States
Stonewall riots in US gay rights campaign
Monty Python first broadcast

Only having three television channels was better, she says, because individual programmes could have much more impact. And Ms Black sees the second-hand clothes culture as being more imaginative than a designer-clothes addiction.

In terms of music from the 1960s, she likes Motown soul and Bob Dylan, and she has fond childhood memories of her parents' vinyl record collection.

"There was something more precious about having these records that could be damaged so easily." With iPods and digital downloads, everything is immediately available all the time - and she feels that it loses that sense of being something special.

She is also aware of the benefits of being about to leave university now. Unemployment is a non-issue for these young people - and she acknowledges that her generation has more spending power than its predecessors.

And cheap international flights have made a huge difference. The Isle of Wight still counted as overseas travel for teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s.

But globetrotting is now a budget activity - and Natalie, as a random example, has been to countries including China, South Africa, Mozambique, India, Lebanon and Mauritius.

'Grotty' Seventies

Another of the current crop of the LSE's sabbatical officers, 20-year-old Chris Heathcote, has a less nostalgic view - saying that people looking back tend to "only remember the best and forget how much rubbish there was as well".

Chris Heathcote
Chris Heathcote says people are going to 1980s yuppie parties

While he admits that the 1960s has a certain style-appeal, he is unconvinced by the charms of the late-1970s. "It just seems grotty and run-down, seedy people with scruffy beards. There was a three-day week, unemployment and shortages."

The decade that has more attractions, he says, are the 1980s. "There are Eighties parties now where people dress up as yuppies in double-breasted suits and with big mobile phones."

And he likes the thrusting style of 1980s architecture, such as around Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

But Mr Heathcote is curious about how his predecessors worked in the pre-computer age.

Large parts of his day are now spent in front of a computer screen - leading him to wonder how union officers, without an e-mail mountain to scale each day, used to fill their time.

Digital generation

As part of the digital generation, he keeps all his music on portable players, and has no hankering after shelves of CDs or scratchy seven-inch singles.

The Clash, 1977
The Clash, west London's finest in 1977

In political terms, he says that the radical legacy of the LSE is still remembered - but that student politics are less ideologically-divided.

The Greens are the largest political grouping, but under the environmental umbrella he says there are shades of every opinion from the far left to the more recent phenomenon of "Green Conservatives".

While aware that there are people always harking back to "golden ages", he says that the present generation has the best life - more spending money, better job prospects, better technology, more travel.

Mr Heathcote's already visited Turkey, Russia, the United States and large parts of Europe - and says he has no enthusiasm for going back to the years of students living in freezing flats.

Although maybe when looking at the recent past, the biggest differences are sometimes harder to see.

For instance, it's easy to forget how there was once so much less of so much. The punk music Sandi Thom sings about was played on a handful of radio programmes and often could only be bought in a limited number of record shops.

There was less television, less radio, no internet, no fancy coffee, less spending power, less travel, less eating out, fewer cars, no mobile phones, shorter shopping hours.

"You couldn't even Google something. I think we'd miss that," he says.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The late 1970s were great - the variety of music was brilliant and the biggest technology argument was about Radio 1 being on MW. I was 15 in 1979 and had a great time without coffee, Google, iPods - somehow I managed with a a tranny (radio), a tape recorder and stereogram (my Dad's record player!).
Claire Jones, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I'm an 18-year-old student who could be fairly described as a wannbe hippy, amongst my favourite musical artists are Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Floyd etc. I can't help but feel intensely jealous when my father tell of all the times he went to see Led Zeppelin. Music back then was so very much better.
Peter Lyons, Southampton

I'm 24 and I would love to have been around in the 60s if for nothing else than the music! I'm really into the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Rolling Stones etc so to have seen this live and in their prime would have been amazing! Everything was so innocent before it, it must have been amazing to experience such things. Peace, love and bananas.
Seedy, Warrington

Yeah, the world really has gone downhill bigtime! I was born in '64 and can barely remember the 60s except for the moon landing, 'Star Trek', 'The Monkees', starting school and the funky music! Life has been OK up until this new millenium. I just loved the 80s, the energy of 'Live Aid' and so on but I wish now I had been more aware of the 60s as am a real hippy at heart!! Deffo a child of the 60s and I mean it man! We grew up fine without technology and we turned out alright!
Carole Young, Glasgow

You just have no idea what you missed in '77, amazing music that you'll never hear again as alas John Peel is no longer with us. He fundamentally changed the music scene, and all without one single download.
Jeff, Newport

Why does no one mention the 1950s? Beat poetry and modern jazz (Parker, Davis, Coltrane) set the template for radical movements in music and literature for decades to come.
Richard, London

Why would you want to go back to the days of race riots, high unemployment, smokers in every public place, repression of minorities and awful food?
Louis, London

Of course things are much better now with more cars clogging up enlarged motorways, irritating mobile ringtones, selfish mobile phone users, the constant drone of a 24/7 society, the incessant bombarment of your email inbox by porn spammers and the ability to track and monitor the workforce.
Andrew, London

If I were a teenager during the 60s, I certainly wouldn't have had the opportunity to go to university and pursue a career. I would love to have seen the Beatles and Stones live, but am happy that being born a few decades later meant that I didn't end up a housewife with four kids under my belt before I was 30.
Liza, Oxford

Personally I wouldn't miss the sophistication of the technological age we live in today - I often wondered as a 15 year old in 1997 weather I had been born in the wrong era as consumerism, designer labels, money money money has never appealed to me. So I grew dreadlocks, dropped out of college, got a job and found I could live by morals and ethics of days gone by today. Personally, I love scratchy vinyl and would rather have a shelf full of CD's than everything on MP3 players and lap-tops. Less television, few channels....sounds like paradise to me!
Rose, Cambridge

Without all the multimedia distractions of today's world, young people concentrated more on being creative and could express themselves through music and fashion. Today's music and fashion is derivative and bland. I was born in 1961 and was a teenager in the 70s, and although we had less money, and life could be grim at times, I wouldn't have wanted to grow up in any other era. I feel sorry for today's young people who seem to be obsessed with personal wealth and material possessions.
Chris, Surbiton

Yes, much better to stay in the days of 10 year old drug users, knives in school, no NHS dentists, repression of majorities and McDonalds! No era is the better, it's just better for the people who were there, and at least you had to talk to people to communicate, not just press the send button. Strike one for the grumpy old men !
Mark, Manchester

Ahhhh.. the Sixties and Seventies still rule! Groovy music and even groovier outfits...
Leanie Kaleido, Tunbridge Wells

Of course the music was better. But more importantly, it seems like it was easier to be happier, with less. People were less stressed out, more care-free, less spoilt and less alienated by technology, and by our security-obsessed, productivity-obsessed contemporary society.
Nicolai, Brussels

One thing that sticks in my mind of the 60s and 70s is the many stylish cars they made (Jaguar E-Type, MGB, Escort Mexico, Mini Cooper, Cortina 1600E..). Good to drive, good to ride in ... ...and good at rusting and breaking down!
Paul Seabury, Telford

Please don't let's pretend that the late 70s were great! With the exception of the rise of punk and ska they were completely dismal. Unemployment was terrible, there were race riots, and the demise of virtually every industry meant that no-one had any cash at all. As kids we had nothing to do except fight each other over whether Mods, Skins, Punks or Rude Boys ruled - or else we just glue-sniffed because it was the cheapest way to get high. The end of that decade is captured perfectly by The Specials "Ghost Town" and will be remembered by myself and most other British teenagers of the time as appallingly grey, mind-numbingly depressing and unremittingly bleak.
Andy Scott, Guildford

People have amazingly selective memories - what about all the awful architecture of the 60s which almost destroyed our city centres. The 60s and 70s seem most attractive to those who didn't participate!
Alan Jackson, Bristol

More spending power? Better job prospects? This is all news to me! Here in the 21st century, I'm still dirt-poor, but now I have to deal with gridlocked roads, chavs and high living costs. At least thirty years ago, Britain had an industry - and a future.
Rob, Maidenhead

My formative years were in the 70s and I often wish I was stuck back in the innocence of youth. I hadn't had to deal with the loss of close family members, I'd never heard of the rat race, it was all long summers and "exotic" trips to Devon. In my memory, I brush over the crippling strikes and inflation, the fact my chemistry graduate father couldn't find work, the winter of discontent and the utter crappiness of the England football team. I never had any worries about playing out late at night though. Not sure I would say the same now.
David Robinson, London

My time would have been the Manchester music scene of the 1980s when, out of the dull depression of the city streets and high employment, there were some amazing bands including New Order, Happy Mondays, The Smiths and loads of others.
Ross, Birmingham

The 60s and 70s were a safer time to grow up in (born 1962) because there was a lot more respect for authority and personal possessions. People were a lot happier with what they had and could afford, materialism was a dirty word ... Overall, yes the 60s and 70s were better and I wish the feeling of community was still alive today.
Jeremy Vickers, Boston

Would I prefer to go back to the late-1960s and 1970s? Yes, I would. Revolution was not in the air, but hope for a better society and world was (which, in my view, has not happened). Of course, we were not financialy so well off back then, but we were certainly less cynical, less work- and money-obsessed and, I think, happier.
Mark Darlison, Nottingham

My teenage years were in the 1980s. I clearly recall discussing with my friends how dire the music scene generally was. We had Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and OMD, whose music is now looked upon as being classic, but we also had Samatha Fox's dire attempts at singing and tv presenting, the Sinclair C5 and the ZX81. I also remember wearing some truly dreadful burgundy drainpipe trousers, but I've destroyed all the photographs. I've got some happy memories of that period, but life is better now than it has ever been. We just remember the happy bits. Except for the drainpipe trousers.
Matthew Clatworthy, St Albans

I think the 60s and 70s pop culture was more radical, ordinary people for the first time had a shared culture that crossed class boundaries. Music was not only about money but about politics and the possibility of influencing ideas through a shared culture.
Dave, Glasgow

I think there's a lot of retro myth-making about the 60s and 70s! Popular history remembers student protests and counter-culture but in reality only a small minority were involved. Proportionally far more young people are active in anti-war and anti-capitalist movements now than then - and social attitudes on race, gender and sexuality are immeasurably more liberal.
Ben Drake, York

Unemployment was actually lower in the 1970s than it is now, and for all the lack of modern creature comforts like lattes and i-pods, there was job security, much less complaining, much less cynicism and people actually looked out for each other. Things started to go wrong in the 1980s with spiralling unemployment, yuppie consumerism, and the emergence of the "I'm all right jack" mentality. From these three things we can trace all that is wrong with today's society, with its obsession with consumerism, work, stress and lack of security.
Andy , London

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