This playlist is a unique first — it’s the first playlist made about a particular city while in that city, inspired directly by my impressions of it. London is a place of grey skies and incessant drizzle, of whitewashed concrete and well-worn brick, of faded glories and encrusted grime. A multicultural metropolis, the most diverse in the UK, it looks to the future, yet is inseparable from its imperial past. And as this country looks towards a cold, dark winter, with recession and inflation looming, bereft of a well-loved symbol of continuity, and headed by an unelected and untested PM fresh off a scandal-ridden predecessor, one’s mind returns to the past, to the last time that Britain felt like the center of the Western world — the ‘60s.
At the end of the second Elizabethan era, Carnaby Street is draped in black, a sharp contrast to the sparkly Union Jacks festooned all over it in celebration of the Platinum Jubilee earlier this year. Both events, however, harken back to a golden past, that which the French call les Trente Glorieuses, the “Glorious Thirty” years after World War II.
Queen Elizabeth was undoubtedly an icon of that era. In coming to the throne in 1952, she symbolized British renewal, in its difficult transition from Empire to island kingdom, from aristocratic deference to quasi-social democracy. And it was in the ’60s that this transition seemed to coalesce, as Britain shed its empire with gathering speed and a new generation of baby boomers came to the fore.
With the ’60s in full swing, the Wilson government promised to lead Britain into the “white heat of technology”, as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones conquered the charts, James Bond battled SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Mary Quant’s miniskirt took the fashion world by storm, and Bobby Moore guided England to its first World Cup victory in 1966.
While these patriotic triumphs were unfolding, something else was in the air. Inspired by the cultural currents from across the Atlantic, the hippie counterculture spread from the US to the UK, bringing with it the promise of peace, love, and a new sort of society. The conventions of traditional society were being challenged by a new idealism, mind expansion, alternative fashions, and a whole new vocabulary — in short, a counterculture, with celebrated figures like the Beatles and Cream leading the charge.
But by decade’s close, the hopes of both conventional and countercultural society were fading in a whirlwind of chaos. A single year best illustrates this: 1968.
Fresh off the devaluation of the sterling in November 1967, in January 1968 PM Harold Wilson reneged on commitments made to Singapore and Malaysia, announcing a withdrawal of all British forces east of Aden by 1971. On January 30th, the Tet Offensive broke out in Vietnam, dramatically expanding the scale of the war and bringing images of ruthless street fighting to televisions worldwide. In March, an anti-Vietnam War demonstration at London’s Grosvenor Square led to 91 injured and 200 arrested. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while in the same spirit, Conservative MP Enoch Powell made an openly racist appeal in his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, to applause from his Birmingham audience. In May, student demonstrators stormed Paris, forcing President Charles de Gaulle to resign and flee, while in June, leading presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles. In August, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, brutalizing peaceful citizens, while in Chicago, police did much the same to demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention, in what was later described as a “police riot”. In October, just before the opening of the Mexico City Olympics, police shot and killed several hundred student protestors at Tlatelolco, while in Derry, Northern Ireland, the beating of civil rights demonstrators marked the beginning of thirty bloody years of the Troubles. And in spite of the best efforts of the counterculture, it was Richard Nixon, not Hubert Humphrey, who was elected in November as President of the United States.
With the British economy facing severe difficulties, and the “near-civil war conditions” (as Henry Kissinger put it) in the US inspiring radicalism and violence in the UK, France, and elsewhere, the Trente Glorieuses seemed to be coming apart at the seams, while on the other side of the looking glass, with the abject failure of the hippie movement to end the Vietnam War (which would continue until 1973, and indeed, expand in scope and violence throughout) and achieve its grand vision of a new society of freedom, mutual support, and spiritual awakening, the countercultural moment seemed to be passing.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates this more than the ultimate icons of the ’60s, the Beatles. In 1967, the year of the ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco, they appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in full psychedelic garb, in the defining album of the hippie movement. Early the next year, filled with idealism, they decamped to India to find spiritual awakening, which did not materialize (save for George Harrison). Upon returning, they established Apple Corps, their own record label, a self-described “exercise in Western communism”, which, due to their naïveté (like the broader hippie movement writ large), quickly collapsed, like the real deal, into a mess of hangers-on and embezzlement. Amid the troubles of 1968, the Beatles nearly broke up in recording sessions for the White Album, a chaos reflected in its jumble of confused ideas and contrasting styles (including the epically helter-skelter “Revolution 9”, Lennon’s attempt to put the sounds of a revolution down on record). And by 1969’s Abbey Road, the Fab Four had spiralled into pessimism (“You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Carry That Weight”), appeals to conventional notions of love and propriety (“Something”, “Her Majesty”), and pure fantasy (“Octopus’s Garden”), with just the slightest occasional hint of their previous idealism showing through (“The End”).
Yet the ’60s were the most significant decade in the postwar era for a reason. It was in 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, and abortion legalized and provided free of charge by the NHS. The counterculture left its mark in the rise of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll as a cultural and social paradigm, and in the introduction of Eastern conceptions of spirituality and culture. And in the scientific and industrial advances of the decade, like the first oral contraceptive and new contraptions like the vacuum cleaner, a freer society did emerge for the common man (or woman), albeit one much more limited in scope than the idealized utopia of the counterculture.
It’s this fin-du-décade mix of pessimism, idealism, and halting liberation that this playlist, Sounds of London, ’69, hopes to capture. Every song is by a British artist (or in the case of Jimi Hendrix, by a majority-British band which recorded in London) and released in the period 1968–71, a very tight timeframe which lends this playlist an exceptional sonic cohesion, capturing precisely the sound that defined the era: a strutting, solo-centric blues-rock led by the great first generation of guitar heroes — Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Albert Lee, and Jimi Hendrix. But unlike the mid-late ’70s iteration of the same blues-rock, based around a libidinous, sweaty excess of the likes of Foghat or Peter Frampton, this sound is far more restrained, flaked with jangly acoustic left-overs from the folk rock boom of 1965–66, highlighted by an increasingly heavy use of soul-inflected horns and multi-track vocal harmonies, and backed by a great rollicking groove that underlies everything.
The first thing you might notice is that the sound of the Rolling Stones dominates this playlist. As the Beatles collapsed into mutual acrimony, a number of new contenders vied for the title of world’s biggest band, among them the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Led Zeppelin. But before Led Zeppelin’s eventual ascendancy in 1971 with their landmark Led Zeppelin IV, there was a brief moment where the Rolling Stones, more than any artist, captured the title of ‘The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band’, and with it, the zeitgeist of the era. It was during their set at the infamous Altamont Free Concert in 1969 that definitively saw the counterculture face reality: the free concert, intended as a “Woodstock West”, descended into violence, mayhem, and murder, all captured on tape and released as a concert film in 1970. And it’s their swaggering slide into darkness, their prancing descent into pure sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, that defines their raunchy and rowdy opener to this playlist, 1969’s “Honky Tonk Women”.
But this playlist is defined most fundamentally by its contrasts and juxtapositions, its political statements and directionlessness. After “Honky Tonk Women” comes the Kinks’ lovely “Lola”, a barrier-breaking description of love between a straight man and a trans woman, probably the first portrayal of a relationship with a trans person in a mainstream pop song. On a similar theme, Eric Clapton gives a powerful reflection on the wonders of love in his brilliant “Let it Rain”, on finding the way to love in the midst of trying times:
Her life was like a desert flower
Burning in the sun
Until I found the way to love
It’s harder said than done
Now I know the secret
There is nothing that I lack
If I give my love to you
You’ll surely give it back
Let it rain, let it rain
Let your love rain down on me
— “Let it Rain” | Eric Clapton — Eric Clapton (1970)
In doing so, both of these artists showed the ’60s were not quite dead. The ideals of love, freedom, and peace were still very much alive, at least on a personal level. In a similar vein, on a spiritual level, the ’60s led some to self-discovery and fulfilment. Take the prime example, George Harrison, who went to India in 1968 and never really came back. His stunning “My Sweet Lord”, hailed by Elton John as the “last great single of the era”, is a deep-rooted cry for universal enlightenment — in featuring both “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna” in the same verse, Harrison emphasized the universal nature of spiritual peace, no matter your faith, and no matter your path.
But for others, the ’60s left a vacuum that spirituality was unable to fill. For Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, an attempt to follow in the Beatles’ psychedelic footsteps ended in arrest and imprisonment for drug possession, stripping them of any illusions about seeking spiritual peace. Instead, they went straight back to the essence of rock ’n’ roll in their four ‘Golden Age’ albums of 1968–72, summed up in Jagger’s laconic response to whether he was at long last “satisfied”: “Sexually satisfied, financially dissatisfied, philosophically trying.”
It’s exactly this element of “philosophically trying” that Jagger explores in his 1969 masterpiece, “Gimme Shelter”. Apocalyptic in sound, scope, and intensity, in an unforgettable experience of a song, Jagger lays out in one fell swoop the escalating anxieties of his generation:
Ooh, a storm is threatening
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
I’m gonna fade away
Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’
Our streets today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost its way
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
— “Gimme Shelter” | The Rolling Stones — Let It Bleed (1969)
But despite the best efforts of students, hippies, and the counterculture writ large acting on their hopes, dreams, anxieties, and fears, the revolution failed, for much the same reasons as the Beatles’ experiment in “Western communism”. As John Lennon put it:
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We’d all love to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
— “Revolution” | The Beatles — The White Album (1968)
But if revolution in the streets of Paris and Chicago could not succeed, what else was there to do, what else could one do? Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World” describes the ensuing apathy so aptly:
I’d love to change the world
But I don’t know what to do
So I’ll leave it up to you
— “I’d Love to Change the World” | Ten Years After — A Space in Time (1971)
But despite this spiritual and political confusion, the fact remained and remains that the world is far from ideal, and there is so much we can indeed do. When a devastating cyclone, famine, and civil war laid waste to Bangladesh in 1970–1, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan rallied to its aid, playing the first-ever supergroup benefit concert in the Concert for Bangladesh, and releasing an urgent appeal for humanitarian assistance in Harrison’s “Bangla Desh”:
Such a great disaster, I don’t understand
But it sure looks like a mess
I’ve never known such distress
Now please don’t turn away
I want to hear you say
Relieve the people of Bangladesh
— “Bangla Desh” | George Harrison (1971)
And while Harrison and company’s efforts did help save lives in Bangladesh, a profound sense of dissatisfaction remained. The old order was forever gone, but what was to follow? In the Kinks’ biting Arthur (Or the Fall of the British Empire), Ray Davies breaks down the essence of the old order, of Britain’s pre-Great War Victorian mentality:
I was born, lucky me,
In a land that I love
Though I’m poor, I am free
When I grow, I shall fight
For this land, I shall die
Let her sun never set
— “Victoria” | The Kinks — Arthur (Or the Rise and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)
But in the dislocations of two world wars, a worldwide economic crisis, and the atomic age, this social compact had to break apart eventually against the spirit of a new generation, the generation of the “Street Fighting Man”:
Everywhere I hear the sound of marchin’, chargin’ feet, boy
’Cause summer’s here, and the time is right
For fighting in the street, boy
Hey, said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream
I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well now, what can a poor boy do?
‘Cept to sing for a rock ’n’ roll band
’Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
— “Street Fighting Man” | The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet (1968)
But what did this revolution achieve? Ted Heath, Richard Nixon, and Leonid Brezhnev, and indeed, the Queen herself, were still around, the war in Vietnam still raged, and the universal peace and love promised by the hippie revolution never emerged. Indeed, it often seemed that those who benefitted most from the massive shocks of the ’60s were the people that most represented capitalism and its apparent ills: Allen Klein, Peter Grant, and countless others who used rock ’n’ roll and revolution to enrich themselves. Ultimately, then, the answer for many, where it concerns revolution, was that we “Won’t Get Fooled Again”:
A change, it had to come
We knew it all along
Wee were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
’Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war
I’ll tip my hat to the new Constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
— “Won’t Get Fooled Again” | The Who — Who’s Next (1971)
And it’s this incomplete revolution that has left us with the Britain we find ourselves in, where the strictures of the Victorian era concerning duty and deference that the Queen stood for have been abandoned in the name of individual freedom, but without the accompanying social and economic reforms to make it a state of liberty, and not of license. We see it everywhere on the streets of London, in the growing numbers of rough sleepers in Lambeth and Peckham, the fire sales of Russian mansions in Mayfair and Belgravia, and in the rarity of Northern, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh accents here in what should be the capital of all the United Kingdom, not just the home counties. And ultimately, it is precisely this legacy of the ’60s that we live with today in Britain, and one we must deal with urgently, lest its aftershocks consume us in cold, hunger, and misery during the coming seasons.