6 Jun 2009
Henry Johnson reviews Rock'n'Roll Babylon 50 Years of Sex, Drugs and
Rock'n'Roll, and The Swinging Sixties: When New Zealand Changed Forever.
ROCK'N'ROLL BABYLON: 50 Years of Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll
Plexus, $29.99, pbk
THE SWINGING SIXTIES: When New Zealand Changed Forever
HarperCollins, $49.99, pbk
Two books published in late 2008 on the social world of popular music
do much to remind the reader of the opening up of attitudes towards
music, particularly from the 1960s.
This was a period when sex and drugs seemed to be at the heart of the
pop music industry, something that often brought hardship and tragedy
for many associated with and connected to this domain, and so often
branded and remembered in a somewhat contradictory way as a
flamboyant era inherently linked with peace and love.
Rock'n'Roll Babylon commemorates 50 years of sex, drugs and
rock'n'roll, as its subtitle indicates. The symbolic half-century
conjures up images of nostalgia, a turning point or mark of success.
But while any survivors from this period certainly do have reason to
celebrate their longevity, the topics depicted in the book observe
this era in terms of the social behaviour that did much to destroy
the lives of many, yet at the same time produced a legacy that has
literally gone down in history as a period of immense discovery and
The book is laced with images of the rock business, something that
helps the reader contextualise the music industry and many who work
in it. The book's 16 chapters take the reader on a journey of social
discovery into the world of the rock musician.
With chapter themes such as rebels without a cause, road fever,
blinded by the light, black rage, sex and drugs, and celebrity
courtroom, the purpose of the book is quite obvious - the wild,
salacious and extravagant lives of rock musicians who "are prey to
all the vices that a society obsessed with money and power has
cultivated for centuries".
This is a book with a general audience in mind. Anyone with an
interest in popular music of any style will be fascinated by the
sometimes lurid lives of many performers and those connected with them.
So often reminisced as an era of radical change, peace and love, the
darker side of rock'n'roll's alluring connections is brought to life
in a fascinating book that helps celebrate some of the incredible
music that was so often partly the result of this behaviour in the
The Swinging Sixties: When New Zealand Changed Forever is a book that
localises some of the rapid and sometimes radical social changes that
are characteristic of the decade that claimed the summer of love.
Packed with 40 sections in a book of 256 pages, the themes range from
prosperity to disasters, and religion to race relations. Other topics
include Beatlemania, smoking, fashion, cars, sex, New Zealand music,
education and protest.
The swinging '60s, it seems, was an era of radical change at "a time
of distinct divergence from the traditional certitudes of Kiwi society".
Graham Hutchins has written a book that will interest many people.
For anyone who remembers the '60s, the book will have a nostalgic
element, where the reader can reminisce over the age of Ten Guitars
and the Vietnam War, lament over the Wahine, or recall the test match
when Sid Going really got going.
The chapter on the youth revolution is particularly potent. It
recollects, as its subtitle expresses, dropping out, communes and the
mixed blessing of mixed flatting.
Starting off as an era of conservative materialism, the '60s soon
turned into an era of musical giants (including The Beatles, Rolling
Stones and Bob Dylan), drug abuse mixed with creative genius,
hippies, the pill and the miniskirt.
The historical construction of eras is often neatly packaged into
distinct periods, events and cultural movements. While rugby, racing
and beer continued to dominate the lives of many during the 1960s,
Hutchins graphically portrays an era that substantially weakened this mantra.
The US moon landing in 1969 seemed to have signalled symbolically a
momentous achievement for the human race but it also helped close an
era that is remembered for being radically different, exciting and
The only problem with The Swinging Sixties is that each of its
sections is far too short. The reader becomes engrossed and is left
wanting more. But Hutchins does a remarkable job of summarising in
detail a plethora of events in the '60s.
Laced with black-and-white pictures that help contextualise the
people and events, this book makes great reading on a decade that
earned a fitting label - "swinging".
Professor Henry Johnson is head of the Department of Music at the
University of Otago.