You Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels, 1966–1970
(Victoria & Albert Museum)
US: Oct 2016
Those who don’t know the past are often doomed to repeat it. Or so variations on the saying have gone since time immemorial, each speaker using the benefit of hindsight to point out the flaws in previous generations as a warning to their contemporaries threatening to fall prey to similar social and ideological missteps as those who found themselves on the wrong end of history. Granted, our modern era is without precedent—at least here in the United States—there are still lessons to be gleaned from the successes and failures of previous generations faced with similarly seemingly insurmountable odds.
Given the overreliance on social media and abstract forms of interpersonal communication, modern society can feel like a far more perplexingly vast sea of confusion on which we are all solitarily adrift, perhaps not so secretly hoping to one day bump into a fellow castaway. While ‘60s idealism may not have ultimately prevailed, at least it had, at its core, a sense of community grounded in the real world within which to garner support in a genuine attempt to affect change in a country viewed as rapidly slipping out of their collective grasp.
With the current administration’s attempt at totalitarian governance and a full media blackout in the form of petty social media bullying and an overreliance on “alternative facts”, the time seems more than right to revisit the thoughtful resistance movements and actual revolutions of art, society and thought of the Sixties (the idea of the era rather than merely the numerical decade) in all their complexities, wrong-headedness and idealistic frivolity. Yes, it’s easy to look back on much of the hippie tribe’s antics now as overly quaint and a bit too lovey-dovey, but at the heart of the civil rights and anti-war movement (and more), was a real desire for change in the face of powerful opposition.
Our generation finds itself faced a government that’s hell-bent on ruling through fearmongering, hate, and boorishly oppressive behavior. It’s time we began taking notes on the collaborative efforts of those at the heart of each movement in the Sixties, analyze their successes and failures, and take what we can appropriate and learn from their wins and losses. We are, after all, in this together and the only way in which we can and will be able to affect the change many of us so desperately seek—especially in the wake of the events of the last several weeks—is by banding together and making our voices heard loud and clear, together. You say you want a revolution? Hell, yeah!
In this, You Say You Want a Revolution collects and distils the very essence of the Sixties in a riveting collection of period ephemera, landmark albums, political and artistic statements and photographs. Here authors and exhibition curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, along with a handful of additional essayists (including Jon Savage and Howard Kramer, among others) contribute on a range of topics pertinent to the ideals of the decade, and present the very real, physical artifacts of a period in our recent history that arguably saw the greatest seismic shift. In a mere five years, as documented in this lavishly assembled coffee table book, both the United States and the United Kingdom—not to mention much of the rest of the world—went from an extension of repressive post-war conformity to unprecedented social, political and artistic change, all largely at the hands of the post-war generation of so-called “baby boomers”.
As we find ourselves once more on the cusp of extraordinary change in the face of an aging opposition, these very real reminders of the sheer magnitude of change that can transpire if enough like-minded individuals come together are heartening. From the declarative voices behind the Port Huron Statement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Power movement—all well represented herein—real change occurred within an incredibly short period. This accelerated timetable of change is exemplified in Marsh’s hypothetical diary entries from the years 1966-70 set in San Francisco and London, the two epicenters of for the greatest change as put forward by the collection. Here, Marsh presents an on-the-ground perspective of a handful of monumental historical events delivered in a barebones, first-person point of view to help not only allow for maximum impact but also to waste no time in getting to the heart of each revolutionary event, be it in music, politics or social change.
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This type of contextualization has been done time and again with the ‘60s generally and the Sixties specifically, always hitting the same highlights in music (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, et. al.), film (Blow-Up, Easy Rider, et. al.), leftist political rhetoric and action (the Black Panthers, SDS, Yippies, etc.) and the increasingly intertwined worlds of art and fashion (Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Andy Warhol, et. al.) In this, You Say You Want a Revolution? offers little in the way of new analysis; however, it benefits from striking full-page photographs, posters and other assorted artifacts of the era. Through this sort of curatorial approach, the authors remove these oft-retold stories from an academic context and present them as the real-life, living, breathing individuals and events they were. It’s easy with hindsight to idealize and romanticize events like the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock or even the Stonewall Uprising (all covered here), but by including photographs, flyers, clothing and firsthand accounts regarding each they suddenly become actual events stripped of the mythology accrued over the ensuing decades.
The problem with such a broad range of topics is that there will always be those that don’t get the degree of attention they deserve. While music and student action both politically and ideologically are, as to be expected, given the majority of the ink, it’s at the expense of the literary, sociological and artistic revolutions that ran concurrently. While civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights and other actual revolutions are covered, they are but a footnote compared to the space afforded the music and political rhetoric of the era. While it’s certainly an understandable approach in that more readers are apt to be interested in the definitive albums of the years 1966-1970, the major concert performances and performers (Jimi Hendrix clearly steals the show) and the drug culture—easily fetishized elements, all—the disproportionate focus on the pop cultural over the broader cultural revolutions tends to undermine the overall impact.
That said, You Say You Want a Revolution serves as a fine reminder of the extreme nature of change that can transpire in a short period of time by a group of thoughtful, motivated individuals dissatisfied with the status quo. While music, art and fashion, are the easiest reference points for the Sixties, it’s the ideals behind each form of expression that need greater emphasis in order to inform future generations. Fetishizing an era is fine from an aesthetic standpoint, but in order to really learn anything from the past, we need to analyze the motivations behind the drastic shifts in thought. You Say You Want a Revolution offers an overview of the era, but it doesn’t go deep into the subjects. It can serve as a jumping off point for modern radicals faced with an equally daunting and uncertain future. The images will inspire, the ideas behind them offer a potential spark to ignite another, much needed cultural revolution.
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