“If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there,” somebody said. It might have been a Beatle George Harrison, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane Grace Slick or the actor Robin Williams – the quote remains unallocated. Nevertheless, people who were there remember some juicy bits and stories. And when you put them all together like some kind of psychedelic puzzle, you get the picture which shows the richness and freshness of the decade.
Ultimately, it was the time when London experienced a revolution, swinging in a gentle manner with all the mods and hippies. What defined the capital back then? We should start with the counterculture-promoting Indica Gallery owned by Barry Miles, Peter Asher and John Dunbar, where Yoko Ono met John Lennon during her exhibition. Then we should talk about the International Times – the first independent newspaper located in the basement of the aforementioned gallery. But the answer wouldn’t be complete without the things that defined the youth of Swinging Sixties as a whole – fresh fashion and music, which manifested that they are related to each other and different than their parents.
A journey across Swinging London starts in King’s Road. Mary Quant, Alexander Plunket Greene and Archie McNair teamed up to buy a lease on Markham House. With five thousand pounds that Greene inherited on his 21st birthday and a share of McNair’s money, they planned to start a jazz club in the basement, adapt the ground floor into a shop and change the rooms above into workshops. They didn’t get the entertainment license, so the basement became the restaurant called Alexander’s. Soon it turned out that the shop-restaurant combination was getting popular quickly. Mary Quant’s revolutionary designs – the mini-skirt, for instance – and the extraordinary shop windows attracted a whole lot of customers. For instance, they would hang their mannequins upside down to attract attention; once they filled the window with empty milk bottles and put the back departing tailor’s dummy there with a sign “Gone fishing”. The other time, they recreated Gerard de Nerral taking his pet lobster for a walk on a golden chain. Bazaar quickly became so successful that the customers would buy clothes there without even trying them on – just to get those original designs.
Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones manager, worked for the shop when he was sixteen. He claimed that he learned all the useful skills for music industry there. “Fashion was the first British pop business. It was pop. It did everything that the music business did later,” he stated. Without any doubt, he was right – and “Dedicated follower of fashion”, the song released in 1966 by the Kinks, was another part of the portrait of a young person who ‘flits from shop to shop just like a butterfly’.
King’s Road was the place of residence for Fantasie – the second London’s coffee shop, owned by McNair. He worked and lived there, and after the Bazaar’s opening Quant moved in too. The other popular places were the Ad Lib and 2i’s coffee bar. They became the gathering points for Chelsea set – the artistic bohemia. In her autobiography, Mary Quant recalls that the coffee at McNair’s place was often infused with alcohol, and participants of the parties at Alexander’s would end up upstairs, in the shop, drinking whiskey after midnight.
To get into the swing even deeper, we should move to West End. The legendary club of the Sixties was opened in Tottenham Court Road, and even if it was demolished to make way for retail development, the atmosphere still hovers somewhere. The club was opened in December 1966, replacing an Irish ballroom. The rent was 15 pounds a night – that allowed the admission to cost 50 pence. However, the loud music wasn’t permitted before 10.30pm, because the sound would leak and disturb the screenings in the cinema above. During two insanely popular opening nights, Pink Floyd performed; soon, the place became a venue for many groups – usually, two bands played two sets each night. If there wasn’t a band onstage, they played entire albums with pauses between the tracks to allow people to think and start conversations. There were plenty of opportunities to do so: as Paul McCartney recalled, the club was “studenty” and people loved to discuss various ideas there. Also, celebrities could party there without being disturbed – students wouldn’t let them know that they recognize them. Jimi Hendrix would often arrive late at night and jam. Pete Townshend from the Who went there every week (unless his band played the gig) with his girlfriend. The place made him change from the mod to hippie – he wore different clothes and discussed mysticism while his partner danced around to Roger Water’s hits, high on LSD without bra and knickers. That combination confused some of his mates who tended to show up there from time to time.
Nevertheless, the music wasn’t the only thing that attracted people. One of the attractions were the light shows. Firstly, the wide staircase where people usually sat after dancing was drowned in lights that create the illusion of a constant snowstorm. Jack Bracelin, who firstly developed light shows as a therapy to mental hospital patients, ultimately getting the opinion that they were “too loaded” for them, took care of the light design for dancefloors, too. Ideas also came from Jorey Gannon and Mike Leonard, and apparently, they sparked Pink Floyd’s interest in spectacle and light. There were also movie screenings, which included Monroe and Chaplin classics, experimental films by Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Antony Balch and William Burrough’s “Towers Open Fire” and “Cut-Ups”. What attracted youngsters the most? Joe Boyd, who founded the club along with John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, related that magnetism to almost limitless freedom. “There’s no attempt made to make people fit into a formula, and this attracts the further out kids of London. If they want to lie on the floor they can, if they want to jump on the stage they can, as long as they don’t interfere with the group of course”.
The club had a bizarre relationship with the police. Hippies often confused them – for instance, once they captured a 22-year-old hippie while looking for a runaway girl. Many times, they would catch hippies on drugs on Tottenham Court Road to protect them from being run over, then call the UFO saying, “We have one of yours”. There was a special room in the back where the caught hippies could rest. But the cooperation ended after a series of articles in the gutter newspapers, which condemned the club. The owner of the building was warned that if he continued renting the place to hippies, he might lose his liquor license. The UFO was left homeless. Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, who bought the Saville Theatre in 1967 and changed it into a huge venue, offered it to Hopkins. They didn’t reach the agreement, though. The club moved to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. However, the place lost a lot from its previous obscurity and intimacy. There was a problem with local gangs as well, so hippies couldn’t just wander around as they used to in the previous area. Higher rent determined the fact that the bands with bigger names were hired, so the UFO lost a lot of its “alternativeness”. The end was near – after half a year the club was closed, entering the pop culture with all of those amazing events, remembered by its guests.
Another important club was located in Wardour Street. The Marquee was at first occupying a place in Oxford Circus, and its guests were attracted by R’n’B and jazz. Then it was moved, but the name, which came from a circus-style interior décor, remained the same. From a poetry reading, a meeting point of the Spontaneous Underground rose there. It’s the venue where Who and the Yardbirds had residency. Besides, Pink Floyd met their management in this club; Syd Barrett saw Keith Rowe playing there for the first time.
Speaking about all the music which made London swing, we’re heading north. In St John’s Wood, there is the most famous street in the history of popular music and the studios where a lot of outstanding artists recorded their smashing hits. Abbey Road studios are the place where a lot of artists of the decade worked, to name a few: the Beatles, the Shadows, Manfred Mann or the Hollies. The history of popular music was created in the EMI studios; for instance, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” album was recorded there. And obviously, the cover photo for the last Fab Four album ever recorded was taken there. It caused a lot of confusion – the Beatles fans who believed that Paul McCartney died in 1965 in a car crash as always looked for clues on the cover. According to them, one of the hints was the fact that Paul was the only one who crossed the road barefoot. The order in which John, Ringo, Paul and George crossed the road was apparently symbolising a cortege. Unfortunately for the singer, the number on the plate of the car parked nearby was ’28IF’ – and somebody noticed that he would be “28 if” he was alive.
Talking about their generation, we should also mention a comedy/drama series called “Take Three Girls” aired on BBC1. The heroines – cello master Victoria, single mother Kate and art student Avril – lived in the flat located at 17 Glazbury Road, W14. The series is considered a brilliant example of post-war youngsters – nevertheless, only ten episodes of two seasons remained to this day.
Besides the things that I had heard or read before, I used those books while writing this post:
- “London calling: a countercultural history of London since 1945”, Barry Miles
- “In the city: a celebration of London music”, Paul du Noyer
- “White Heat”, Dominic Sandbrook
Go read them!