Published on: 6/8/08.
by Peter Laurie
I came of age in the sixties, spending most of those years abroad.
It was a tumultuous decade, and its peak, 1968, was a year full of
The American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated.
American presidential candidate Robert Kennedy is assassinated.
In Britain, Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivers his infamous
anti-immigrant "rivers of blood" speech.
The feminist, black power and anti-Vietnam War movements reach their peak.
In Jamaica, students protest the banning of "black consciousness"
lecturer Walter Rodney, and, amid rioting, close down the university
for two weeks.
In communist Czechoslovakia, freedom sprouts in the spring as leader
Alexander Dubcek initiates popular reforms, only to be crushed under
Soviet tanks rolling into Prague in August.
French students and workers rise up in May and occupy Paris, almost
bringing the government down.
In Canada the most charismatic leader in its history, Pierre Trudeau,
is elected prime minister and redefines the country.
Pope Paul VI issues the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the
ban on artificial contraception, provoking worldwide dissent among
Catholic clergy and laity.
And that's just the tip of the sixties iceberg.
The Germans have a word "zeitgeist" to describe the spirit of the
times. The zeitgeist of the sixties
was a restless spirit of freedom that flowed around the world,
bubbling up here and there in sometimes colourful and weird
manifestations, as in the Hippie counterculture ((think beads,
headbands, sandals, bell bottom jeans, peasant blouses, 'peace and
love', 'psychedelic' anything, LSD and cannabis, 'flowers in your
hair', the Grateful Dead, etc.). That freedom brought about a
progressive social revolution in human rights in all spheres, though
it led at times to wanton excess (the Eagles' big hit of 1977, the
beautifully haunting Hotel California – "you can check out any time
you like, but you can never leave" – is the requiem for an age of
reckless hedonism and self-destruction.)
The Cold War fifties had been an era of stifling conformity, whether
in the politically repressive communist countries, or in the socially
oppressive capitalist countries, or in the racially exploited
But cracks soon appeared:
The colonial world, shocked by the assassination of the great
anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, awakens with a thirst
for independence, not least in the Caribbean.
A youthful John F. Kennedy is elected president of the United States
in 1960, promising a "new frontier" of unfulfilled hopes and dreams.
Pope John XXIII, inaugurating the Second Vatican Council in 1962,
says he believes the "human family
is on the threshold of a new era".
Martin Luther King Jr in 1963 proclaims to 200 000 civil rights
supporters: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day
live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their
by the content of their character." (On that same date – August 28 –
Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic
But more than anything else, the sixties saw an explosion of popular music.
The names are legendary: the Beatles (the group whose musical genius
and lifestyle defined the decade), the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles,
B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha
Franklin, the Supremes, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding,
Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, to name just a few.
Songs that stick with me, perhaps less for their musical value than
their particular associations, include: the Ronettes' Be My Baby
(1963); Dylan's Don't Think Twice (1963); Simon & Garfunkel's
The Sounds of Silence (1965); Procul Harum's Whiter Shade Of Pale
(1967); Bee Gees' Massachusetts (1967); Marvin Gaye and Tammi
Terrell's Ain't No Mountain High Enough (1967); Creedence Clearwater
Revival's Bad Moon Rising (1969) and Fifth Dimension's Aquarius/Let
The Sunshine In (1969).