Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

Richard Nixon, runaway unemployment, fuel shortages, Uri Geller bending spoons, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Why was everyone so paranoid?

Strange Days Indeed -- The '70s: The Golden Days of Paranoia

Length: 352 pages
Author: Francis Wheen
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-03

The 2009 release of Zack Snyder’s film The Watchmen found me rushing back to re-read the 1986-87 comic book series I consumed as a teenager. Revisiting Alan Moore’s gritty post-industrial wasteland where civil liberties are endangered and nuclear apocalypse threatens made me wonder what sort of imaginative world I had re-inhabited. Rather than some alternate dystopia it really seemed like our own world with one or two variables shifted ever so slightly.

Then it hit me. The world of The Watchmen was simply a place the '70s never ended. It’s a reflection of an American dystopia that actually happened, an axial point of disillusion, anxiety and fear where you can stand and, as far as the eye allows, see Nixonland stretching away from you in every direction. It’s a place we’ve lived, minus the masked adventurers and the blue ubermensch.

Francis Wheen’s new narrative of the '70s reminds us why it is so easy to confuse a relatively recent decade with a dystopian society. In his trademark style that manages to combine elegance with a breezy clarity, Wheen makes the case the '70s gives off a “pungent mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fervour”.

It did. It was the decade where political leaders from Idi Amin to Richard Nixon played out their private paranoia on a grand stage. Meanwhile, the British military played a Kafkaesque game with the provisional IRA as undercover informants ratted on what turned out to be other undercover informants. It was a time when conspiracy thrillers like Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor competed with disaster films as the most popular theatrical releases. All this took place against a backdrop of rising unemployment, runaway inflation, UFO sightings, David Bowie and Eric Clapton playing fascist, and Uri Geller bending spoons. Wheen leaves no strange tale untold of this decade during which it seems every word was caught by a hidden microphone.

For a book named for a John Lennon lyric, Wheen spends surprisingly little time on popular culture. Instead, he focuses on the role of politics shaping culture. Wheen, thankfully never descends into simple descriptions of political change. He tends to favor the well-wrought tableaux centered on a major figure that tells us much about the ghastly nature of the times they lived.

Wheen's description of the complete mental breakdown of Sir William Armstrong, Britain’s powerful chief civil servant, becomes a kind of metaphor for the whole decade. Armstrong’s infamous collapse, ending in his warning civil service employees that they should “prepare for the apocalypse” and rambling about “red armies fighting blue armies” tells us much about what had become of the stiff upper lip in this decade of runaway unemployment, inflation, electrical outages, and fuel shortages. Oh yes, and the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon.

The ability to link global events certainly represents one of the real strengths of Strange Days Indeed since most histories of the decade focus on the United States. In one of the best sections of the book, “Going Underground”, less time is spent on the Weatherman and the Symbionese Liberation Army than on odd phenomenon like Britain’s Angry Brigades and, most significantly, on Germany’s Baader-Meinhof movement. And, it feels like every national leader must have been out of their minds. Wheen moves seamlessly between Nixon’s rantings and Madame Mao’s conviction that her domestics sought to drive her mad with noise.

Sometimes it feels a bit too seamless, especially when the reader steps back from Wheen’s seductive style. It may not be possible to grant him that this was truly a “golden age” for the paranoid style since there are simply too many claimants for that title. Does the decade beat out the American '50s? Do the British '70s have much on the British '80s when economic distress blossomed angrily into strong right-wing movements (a germination that obviously began in the late '70s with the rise of the National Front)?

Moreover, how exactly are we supposed to interpret this rampant paranoia? Once the reader takes a breather from Wheen’s breakneck pacing, it’s a little hard to decide whether or not to buy into his interpretation of this decade. Yes, the paranoia of Richard Nixon is easy to prove and equally easy to laugh at, at least at this distance. But what about the anxiety of the average person living through it all, those poor British souls that Wheen himself describes as wondering if that “muffled whimper” is “the sound of the next door neighbor being strangled by a KGB hitman?” Maybe more sympathetic, what about those who wondered if “those army tanks at Heathrow airport” are conducting “a routine military exercise, or (as Harold Wilson suspected) preparing for a military takeover?” Didn’t they have reason to wonder?

American science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick seems to embody Wheen’s thesis. The author of classics such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick himself dreamed of neo-nazi and/or Soviet conspirators seeking to use his novels to convey messages to underground agents. But in Dick we also have someone whose tendencies toward paranoia fed off very real anxieties. He had been under surveillance by his own government since a youthful flirtation with socialism. Paranoia had firm roots in reality.

Francis Wheen has, indeed, found some strange days in his exploration of those bad-haircut days not so long ago. But, as he writes in his conclusion, “flickering glimpses of déjà vu” for that era are all around us in the 21st century. Given the first ten years of this new millennium, there is every reason to believe some future historian and her wide-eyed audience will guffaw at our definition of the normal. Or perhaps I am just being paranoid?







A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.