Why The Sixties Didn’t Really Swing


Marianne Faithful has done the maths and reckons that ‘Swinging London’ consisted of no more than 300 people in the know. In the same way that British punk mainly existed around a single shop on the King’s Road and later in a handful of West End streets, London’s swingers were a privileged group of bright young things who had cash to splash in the early sixties. Most of them knew each other, and the times had little impact on the rest of the country.

Michael Caine said; ”In the sixties, everyone you knew became famous. My flatmate was Terence Stamp. My barber was Vidal Sassoon. David Hockney did the menu in a restaurant I went to. I didn’t know anyone unknown who didn’t become famous.’ He has a new film out called ‘My Generation’, in which he travels across London reminiscing about its swinging past.

Mick Jagger said it was about the first generation to question the last generation, but he was only partly right. This is an excerpt from ‘Hall Of Mirrors’, which comes out on Thursday.

‘After the war, austerity had dragged on for another decade. In railway stations it was impossible to buy a cup of tea without queuing. Stores were more shut than open. Shelves remained empty, meals stayed small and fruit came in tins. Coal was rationed. Sweaters and socks were darned. Even hotel sheets were patched. Across the capital, the cheapest option was exercised without consideration. Cracked church steeples were demolished instead of being repaired, bomb sites were boarded up instead of being built upon and prefabricated homes sprouted like mushrooms where proud family houses had once stood. Stone and mahogany was replaced with asbestos and plywood. Stop-gap measures became so permanent that soon no-one could remember how life had been before.

The war’s warriors had died to make way for an army of lovers; nearly half of all Londoners were now under twenty five, and an aura of unwarranted confidence lit up the capital. For kids with credit, contraception and cool, the city was suddenly sexy. And those who had fought were forced to confront the first generation of people who did not need to know the meaning of obligation.’

The problem was that the projected image did not match the reality, and the swinging city already carried the seeds of its collapse. Time magazine’s article helped to define an image for a country desperately seeking to dump its sooty past. But PM Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’ speech had actually been cobbled together the night before he delivered it, and did nothing to stave off his demise, to be replaced by Edward Heath – and we all know what happened in the disastrous years that followed. The image of corpses being pulled in alleyways because even the morgues were on strike still lives with many of us.

Swinging London looked forward to a bright, wealthy, freewheeling future, but it also looked back; the empire had only just been lost and there was already a huge nostalgia for it, hence shops like ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. Victoriana was popular too, because the detritus of empire, from busts to chamber pots, could be picked up cheaply and repainted. I can’t recall a London flat in the seventies that didn’t still have some kind of purple or lime green Victorian knick-knack on its shelves.

Despite the dream’s collapse, the idea of swinging London lived on gave its name to an era. While the swingers included stars of screen, design and fashion, it didn’t apply to ordinary working people. It did, however, have a beneficial economic effect, by selling ‘Britishness’ as a product and creating the tourist market. But was it really cool? Yes, if you were among the handful of  people within its golden circle.


16 comments on “Why The Sixties Didn’t Really Swing”

  1. Jan says:

    No Chris I don’t think you’ve thought this one through far enough. Like yourself I was too young to participate in the sixties experience. (I was 14 in 1970 ) The activities, ideas + ideals of this relatively small group of “connected” young folk did filter down to permeate into the consciousness of a whole generation. The generation following it (us!) caught a whiff of this too. Freedom and change was in the air.

    For perhaps the first time in history the movers and shakers were not necessarily wealthy folk from a certain strata in society. Caine was a young working class man full of a healthy scepticism about his “betters”. Dunno so much about Jagger I can remember him on a telly talk show absolutely trouncing Terry ( somebody- from Terry + June can’t recall his surname.) who was trying to belittle him. As a young girl it registered with me that Jagger was right to tackle the older man and that older folk were capable of being wrong and out of step. Mr Stamp was and in my mind probably still is the most beautiful man in the world. Dunno where in society he is from.

    As a young kid I remember watching Granada local news and one night there was a group of four young men singing on the show. All their kit; drums + guitars had been pinched the night before. Granada had found musical instruments for these lads to use. These lads were the “Beatles”! It felt like change was coming.

    You are far too Londoncentric in your thinking. Swinging London was a small part of a massive thought change. The sixties phenomenon was in the U.S. all of Europe, everywhere. Wasn’t just about a small group of folk in town not at all. Although I should mention this I play bowls with a gent in his 80s who is a contemporary Vidal Sasson (a bit of a rival in fact.) You only hear about the lead figure the one guy to attract publicity but for that one person theres 50-500 others you don’t know about. Ivan worked in a Mayfair salon but was a working class east ender.

    Some of the things that I experienced well yes I am talking about watching tv or reading magazines and papers. But if a young lass from a steel town near Manchester feels the worlds different and changing well it is.

    It’s a bit like the “Reaganomics” trickle down theory ideas permeate through.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Jan-it was Terry Scott, a nasty man. Guess which one of the two walked off with a Knighthood?

    I agree with Jan. If Chris does actually have a fault it is that he sees everything from a London point of view. Foreigners begin at the Watford Gap.

    I was born in 1951 in Liverpool, and it was a “fab” place to live and be brought up.The city was alive and abuzz with everything modern in pop music. Kids didn’t think their parents taste in music was “sguare”-not only was my Dad mad about the Beatles, so was his Mum.

    The class system took quite a denting. Boys and men could walk round in pink shirts, suede shoes and long hair without being called a cissie. The social changes brought about the partial decriminalisation of gay sex. People’s wages were better in Britain than they had ever been. Fashion blossomed, right across the country.

    The USA was copying our music for the 1st time ever.

    Bette Davis on coming to Britain to make the film “The Nanny”-“I finally new I was a has-been when my grand children and all their friends insisted I got the Beatle’s autograph.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    Every age has an odd monika, the 20’s The roaring 20’s, flappers and Jeeves (although he also straddles the Devil’s Decade.) But also the depression and mass hunger and the effects of the lost generation. I guess The 60’s was The same.

    The 70’s was as much glam rock as punk, as a kid I bought The Clash and Boney M, but it was the attitude and the way we dressed, although the first real music movement I really got into was the Ska revival with the 2-tone bands. But the attitude of punk was there even in Manchester. In the 80’s we were told we would be the 1st generation worse off than our parents, sadly it was true (Cheers Margret and those who supported John M.) But we had electronica and a mad fantastic future with computers to look forward to, as a working class lad I still remember fondly my grey pointed leather shoes and my ZX Spectrum, this was also mixed in with metal look in the 80’s, whatever got the most response, usually from my dad.


  4. admin says:

    I have a mate who was in the original Vivienne Westwood ‘punk’ photo taken outside her shop ‘SEX’. He’s an obstreperous, scathing and snobbish individual who may embody the spirit of punk but certainly doesn’t believe in it! I take the point that swinging London trickled down, although linking it to say, the Paris riots and the Prague spring might be a bit of a stretch. It was as much about population demographics as anything.

  5. Steveb says:

    Jan, I’m the exact same age as you!!
    It’s interesting because people talk about the empire now but growing up in Norwich I was completely unaware of it. Obviously with hindsight it was a big deal for the politicians of the time, but the funny thing is I have just one clear nemory of the empire from my childhood. All our schoolbooks were handed down from year to year with ling columns of names going back sometimes to the 30s. And I remember looking in the atlas and all these countries were coloured red. So I went back to my dad and said, wow I had no idea all the places were ours. And he just said, not any more; and I still remember the disappointment! But I think because of immigration people are far more aware now of the empire than my generation. Of couse, history is also taught differently now; history started in 55bc and stopped at 1485 in my school!
    Swinging Lindon: There were certainly a lot of drugs around in the early 70s, LSD Speed and Heroin. At my uni you had to be careful not ro jab yourself with used needles. But I think that was about it. I remember more things like the poverty, dirt and corruption.

  6. John Griffin says:

    Contemporary of Brian Evans – some of the swinging 60s made it to cotton towns north of Manchester, we paisley-shirted youths went to dives like the legendary Magic Village in Manchester (http://tinyurl.com/k22ur86) and hobnobbed with the likes of Bolan while listening to early Jethro Tull (2/6d) and loads of blues/rock bands. You have to remember it was the Americans who started the 70s mess that killed our economy (the 1971 Volcker Shock was not a rock band) and the 73 Arab Israeli War, and the oil price rises – more or less did for us. The late 60s/early 70s had great music, IMO never equalled but for most of us, London was a small group of ‘swingers’ and a lot of poverty. I was a social worker in North Ken, and my abiding memories were multiculturalism, snobby arts events, dodgy birds and being clubbed by coppers for speaking to my black clients on street corners. Mind you, I did rehouse a family and received a jar of best Jamaican grass as a thanks that kept my mates stoned for weeks.

  7. Jan says:

    Terry Scott – course it was. He was a sneery sort of bloke even in his comedy persona.

    See Ringo got his knighthood today. Good lad!

    Thing is even if the economy is going down the toilet, retired Russians oligarchs + spies are dropping like flies, Brexits brought the pains on……it’s always wonderful when you are young just because you are….everything’s on its first few times round it’s all new and exciting and wonderful.

    My young nephew complete with a good degree from a good red brick university has been job hunting for months. Youngsters have paid out a lot of dosh out to find it’s just a different route to the dole. Dunno that this generation has got it particularly easy.

    No generation gets it all but them lucky 60s kids did alright. To be reaching young adulthood in those years must have been pretty special.

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    I feel that I was fortunate to have my teenage years in the sixties. A good education has never been, before or after, so accessible. That and other good things rode on a momentum from the previous decade.

    We also lost our way in the sixties, betrayed by a mix of socialism and capitalism that forgot the importance of creating and making things.

  9. Jan says:

    Think you have got your woolly thinking cap on again Chris.

    Course the same demographics which existed in London were operating in much of Western Europe and the states and that is precisely what brought about the major international public disorder of the late 1960s. There’s was much to protest about unfair treatment of black people, the Vietnam war, the draft and social injustice for many.

    There was then a much larger young ” baby boomer” generation who could afford to leave home and live independently at a very early age. Not only wealthy socialites but ordinary youngsters could afford to live independently in shared housing in central areas of many large cities. Not many youngsters wanted to be on a property ladder. They rented with the freedoms that brought. Young people relatively unencumbered by material possessions are open to change. They don’t feel as attached to a system as say when they buy property in their mid 20s. These same people had much greater access to higher education. Helped by local authority grants no less! Everything knitted together to create the right environment for social change.

    This independence from property ownership may even reoccur in the next couple of decades where young people have been priced out of a property market distorted by international buyers, buy to letters and the like. If there were more to believe in and less. Material dependence it would enrich people’s inner lives. I think a lot of people in the 21st century are increasingly coming to realise that the sole pursuit of material goals may simply leave you high and dry. Things could tip over into deeper change sufficiently for radical social upheaval once more. No one really knows.

    Or maybe that’s my woolly thinking cap! Very probably is.

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    I come from Great Yarmouth and was ten in 1965.. People still holidaying in seaside towns, nightmarish for the inhabitants. Don’t remember the Swinging Sixties except for the T.V. programs; Tony Hancock’s Half Hour, Up Pompeii, Monty Python. Top of the Pops was an institution , no episode was ever missed. I loved Take Three girls and the music by the
    unforgettable Pentangle. Everyone dreamed of going to London it was the centre of the world. II was lucky, spent school holiday s with my sister who lived in London. She was much into fashion, so we combed the shops. I remember Biba – beautiful clothing – heavy coats – everything was purple including clothing and the ostrich feathers. I kept the purple eyeshadow and lipstick – loved the Art Nouveau lettering.

  11. Jan says:

    Oh Denise I remember that “Take three girls” programme and it’s theme very well. And Biba come to that!

    You are right Denise everyone did sort of believe London was the centre of things . Reading through This post lots of people’s memories of this time are connected with the media. Wonder how the present FB generation, with the BBC largely relocated to the North will look back on their formative years? The BBC TVs relocation to media city Salford I think will prove really important in the long run.

    You know how the internet is supposed to be this massively important thing? Well apparently far more people LISTEN TO THE RADIO both in the USA and Europe than use the interweb.

    Makes you wonder a bit doesn’t it? Talk about old technology!

    Wonder if these smart advertisers and media specialists really factor in the radio playing in the background when they work their media budgets out? Or that the people who listen to the radio aren’t considered worth advertising to…..

  12. Denise Treadwell says:

    Another remembrance , my transistor radio and the challenge of trying to find radio Caroline every night!

  13. Steveb says:

    @ Denise, same age as you and grew up in Norwich. Used to go ice skating in Yarmouth! Also remember Take Three Girls! My mother went twice a year to London for a special day out shopping. Anyone from outside Norfolk was already foreign.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Jan, a lot of radio is available on the t’internet so the new tech is helping revive the old and allowing access to stations around the world like the old radio hams.

    BBC 4extra on digital & online has some lovely old programmes, the old Carlton Hobbes Sherlock Holmes are being repeated. Not all progress looks forward.


  15. Helen Martin says:

    It’s interesting that the latest word is that companies can and do harvest massive chunks of private information. There is a movement away from Facebook in particular beginning to surface, especially since some people have found themselves spending far too much time there.

  16. Jan says:

    Wayne no you are right. Wonder if any one has worked out who is listening in each of the various ways? How radio is being accessed – wonder even if that could be done

    Must admit cos I am in the deeply idle club I listen to radio either through digital telly or in the accurately through the tape/radio/CD gizmo.

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