1967: The truth about the summer of love

Don't buy the myth that 1967 was all pot, psychedelia and Carnaby Street. No; 40 years on, if you were there, it's Simon Dee, The Seekers and Carry On Doctor you remember.
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The Independent Online

It was 1967, the year that was dominated by a song recorded by one of the most successful groups of the decade. It's one that still defines an era for an entire generation, and one produced by four of the most talented musicians in the history of pop music. Even four decades later, whenever and wherever "Georgy Girl" is played, countless middle-aged music enthusiasts across the world are transported back to the days when The Seekers were still together.

A wonderfully wholesome folk quartet from Melbourne, The Seekers were three soberly suited young gentlemen (twin acoustic guitars and double bass) and Miss Judith Durham, their demure and very gifted lead singer. It was a winning combination, and by 1967 it had outlasted such UK beat combos as The Searchers or Gerry and The Pacemakers and, in the US, initially enjoyed far more commercial success than The Who or The Kinks.

To celebrate this fame the group made a colour travelogue, The Seekers Down Under. Thanks to the wonders of DVD, viewers can now experience the other Fab Four exploring their home city with the aid of the obligatory stilted camera angles and plummy-voiced narration.

Best of all, the film captured their 1967 performance at the Melbourne Music Bowl. For two glorious reels, The Seekers top the bill at the kind of 1967 pop concert where absolutely no clothes were removed and no gentlemen ever wore flowers in their hair, quite possibly because they could have clashed with their Brylcreemed side-partings.

Memories of the Summer of Love four decades after the event all too often seem to concentrate on the clichéd imagery parodied by Mike Myers in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. But such artists as The Seekers are as much a part of the summer of 1967 as The Beatles, and their vast record sales cannot be entirely explained away by their appeal to a middle-aged public. The fact that "Georgy Girl" was the theme song to a popular film certainly boosted its success. It also garnered the only known Oscar nomination for a member of the Carry On team; the lyrics were by Jim Dale.

But this was also the year that Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me" beat the best double-A side in pop history, "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane", to No 1 in the hit parade, Vicky Leandros sang a much-hummed Eurovision entry, "L'amour est bleu", and Des O'Connor entered the Top 10 with "Careless Hands".

All such songs were ostensibly aimed at the respectable record-buyer, for whom seeing Frankie Vaughan in cabaret at the Talk of the Town was the acme of sophistication. They were also secretly listened to around the world by suburban would-be hipsters who could face no more of the boring passages from Sgt Pepper, or most of The Rolling Stones' one excursion into psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request. The Seekers provided a real alternative for the teenager who could face no more George Harrison with a sitar or the future Sir Michael Jagger's determined efforts at decadence.

Buying a Seekers disc could involve a covert, perhaps after-dark, trip to the local electrical store, for admitting that you preferred to spend five shillings and ninepence on the songs of Miss Durham as opposed to those of Mick Jagger amounted to social death in terms of overall grooviness.

Today, The Seekers and their ilk rarely seem to appear on those occasions when British television relentlessly unearths that same Pathé newsreel of Carnaby Street to "celebrate" yet another 1960s anniversary. Instead, their music seems to belong to the provincial England on which the 1950s are rather reluctant to loosen their grip. In 1958, Tony Hancock recorded one of his finest radio half-hours, Sunday Afternoon at Home, a Pinteresque evocation of the miseries of suburban life where every form of entertainment is either closed or broken, and where the laws of time no longer apply. This is the same realm found in the photo archives of local newspapers – yellowing monochrome pictures of short-back-and-sided youths awkwardly lined up in their Civil Defence Corps uniforms; the sea of tweed coats that was the Winchester Young Farmers meetings of the late 1960s; and the local grammar school's celebration of its rousing success at the county chess tournament.

The local advertisements of the time portray a relentlessly grey world of sales of sensible slacks at the local tailors and barbers offering a short-back-and-sides for a mere 4s 6d. In the papers, you'll read about the local controversy about the possibility of automatic level-crossing barriers in the very near future, and the searing excitement of Michael Miles (of ITV's Take Your Pick fame) opening a new shoe-shop – also in the very near future.

In this England, respectable fathers would favour car-coats, listening to Mrs Dale's Diary and driving Morris Oxfords with starting-handle brackets and leather upholstery rather than sporting a kaftan at the wheel of a psychedelic Mini. Just as in a Ladybird book, red telephone boxes would still require the user to press button A and dial the operator for long-distance calls and, if the railway branch line had escaped the ravages of Beeching, the train arriving at the gas-lit station might still be steam-powered.

This, after all, was the year when David Frost and Simon Dee were still a middle-aged person's idea of what was young and hip. But 1967 was also the year Derek Cooper published his classic The Bad Food Guide, wherein he memorably skewered the frozen/deep fried/artificial cream/close at 5pm experience of typical British cuisine. The local "all night café" probably closed at 8.45pm. In 1967, a holiday abroad meant loading up the Hillman Superminx with Wonderloaf, lest the honest British tourist be forced to eat foreign food.

Of course, the wireless might provide exciting escape in the form of the all-new Radio 1, but even there, among the ex-pirate ship names, many of the DJs were reliably velvet-voiced middle-aged ex-actors such as Pete Murray. There was also the problem of the "needle-time agreement" with the Musicians' Union, which limited the airtime devoted to record playing as opposed to live studio broadcasts.

To supplement sessions by leading groups of the day, the station was heavily reliant on its in-house session band and, according to the late John Peel, one of V C Radio 1's early highlights was the Northern Dance Orchestra's version of "Hey Joe". At least the band's middle-aged vocalist did his very best to emulate Jimi Hendrix while wearing a cardigan in order to display his essential youthfulness.

As for British pop television, one of the very few 1967 moments from Top of the Pops that the BBC has thoughtlessly neglected to wipe – only four complete editions from the 1960s survive – boasts The Rolling Stones miming to "Let's Spend the Night Together". It is an iconic televisual moment, not least for those times when the camera pans to the audience to reveal cardiganed young blades clad in Hank Marvin glasses dancing with grim determination opposite eminently respectable mini-dressed young ladies. Fortunately, the BBC employed DJs with the demeanour of a particularly tolerant housemaster to explain away Jagger/Richards's more risqué lyrics.

The year 1967 also saw one the Stones' major controversies. Overshadowing their drugs bust was the infamous "Not Waving Bye-Bye Scandal" of 22 January. Sunday Night at the London Palladium was the jewel in ITV's light entertainment crown, so the Stones' decision to commit a foul act of sabotage – not waving goodbye to the audience in the closing credits – was guaranteed to shock prime-time viewers. It also rather helpfully detracted from the question of precisely what such an anti-Establishment group was actually doing there in the first place.

Such programmes were broadcast in black and white – in 1967, BBC2 was the first and only channel to provide very limited colour broadcasts, and ITV's colour shows were for export only. So, for many Britons, the alternative to this monochrome world was their local cinema. There, for a mere 1s 9d, the bill of fare might still include a newsreel and a B-film. The former would typically have a smooth-voiced announcer proclaiming the latest colonial disaster (it wouldn't be a proper 1960s newsreel without a British sporting victory and footage of at least one governor's residence in flames). The latter would be one of Merton Park Studios' Scales of Justice criminal shorts, as fronted by "the eminent criminologist Edgar Lustgarten".

The studio's 1967 offering, Payment in Kind, offers a fascinatingly bleak view of Wilson-era suburbia, with tallymen in their Vauxhall Victor Supers offering hire-purchase fantasies to bored housewives trapped behind their Tricity Deluxe cookers, combined with the traditional trilby-hatted Inspectors and police Wolseleys, black, with clanging bells. Then, following an Eastmancolor travelogue praising the beauties of Bournemouth as a holiday resort – "Dancing until 11 o'clock! This really is a swinging seaside town!" – there was, at long last, the main feature.

Here, one might at least expect to see some prime 1960s Technicolor clichés, such as the obligatory crane shot of five hipsters zooming over Tower Bridge in a Mini Moke, or general decadence and nudity along the lines of Antonioni's 1966 Blow-Up. But, of two of the best British films released that year, Bedazzled and The Deadly Affair, the former actually re-affirmed conventional morality (as well as demonstrating that Dud was a far better actor than Pete) and the latter was about a world of middle-aged despair.

Both were inevitably in complete contrast to the 1967 film that was to taint British cinema for quite a while after – Casino Royale. It may have boasted one of the most expensive casts ever, but it also used five studios, seven directors and countless scriptwriters to produce a film where the only abiding memories are of the Herb Alpert theme music and of poor David Niven's moustache visibly wilting in despair at the strain of carrying one of the most appalling films of this, or any, decade. It was a movie that had most British filmgoers eagerly awaiting the National Anthem that was played at the end of every cinema bill.

Fortunately, that year's Bond film, You Only Live Twice, was a safe option, with a hero who, as he previously informed us in Goldfinger, would not even contemplate listening to The Beatles without ear-muffs, and who philandered for Queen and Commonwealth. In the 1960s, Commander Bond spent precisely no on-screen time in Carnaby Street, and You Only Live Twice appropriately commences with Bond in the (then) colony of Hong Kong, where British military police in Sam Browne belts control the natives.

Almost as popular as 007 in box-office terms was Carry On Doctor, where the sole concessions to the new age were Barbara Windsor's miniskirt and Jim Dale combing his hair forward, and that immortal classic Calamity the Cow, an everyday Children's Film Foundation story of how cattle rustlers in deepest Surrey were defeated by a gang of Italia Conti students led by a notably well-spoken Phil Collins.

In fact, it was often British-set films that subverted or entirely ignored the (American funded) myth of universal hedonism that were the most interesting offerings of the decade; Michael Reeves's The Sorcerers used the horror-film genre to attack the impulses behind much of Britain's youth culture, and Nigel Kneale's screenplay for Quatermass and the Pit was inspired by the experiences of his wife as a young Jewish girl in 1930s Germany. The film's budget may seem pitiable, but the conclusion of the "ethnic cleansing" of London hasn't been equalled by films costing 20 times as much. Elsewhere, the Carnaby Street myth was applied by middle-aged film-makers with appalling results, none more so than in Corruption, with Anthony Booth doing his best to copy David Hemmings in Blow-Up with dialogue along the lines of "Freak out, baby!" Far out.

To reduce any era to ill-researched and increasingly banal images is to remove the fascinating ambiguities caused by the fact that periodisation can never be rigid. In 1967, the BBC was still screening The Black & White Minstrel Show. Homosexual acts were partly decriminalised. Forty years ago, Britain was fighting a bloody colonial battle in Aden, unmarried women might still be refused the Pill, and "orphans" would still depart from Tilbury to a new life in Australia. Glossy TV shows such as The Saint or The Avengers continue to peddle a 1960s myth precisely because they were shot on colour film as opposed to countless shows that were recorded on black-and-white video tape, only to be wiped a few years later.

This was a time when millions of viewers might enjoy Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton in Meet the Wife (name-checked by John Lennon on Sgt Pepper) or Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott in Hugh and I, in addition to the self-conscious radicalism of Till Death Us Do Part. The surviving tapes of such shows, recorded in a cramped studio before live audiences, now appear as hilarious as an edition of Newsnight, but they were as much a staple of the Radio Times as The Billy Cotton Band Show.

Indeed, just as many viewers tuned into Jack Warner in Dixon of Dock Green as they did to see Simon Dee cruising through Manchester in his white Jaguar E-Type for Deetime. It was equally possible to view the ambiguities of The Prisoner and the mysteries of The Mike & Bernie Winters Show together with the enigma that was Hughie Greene in Double Your Money and the reassuringly respectable "Supt Lockhart of the Yard" of No Hiding Place – all on the same evening.

Just as there are Britons who refuse to admit that the nearest they came to the world of Miami Vice in the 1980s was seeing an L-reg Hillman Avenger doing a handbrake turn in Southampton, there are countless citizens in their sixties who should have the courage to admit that their favoured listening of 1967 was not so much "A Day in the Life" as The Seekers' "When Will the Good Apples Fall" or David Bowie's "The Laughing Gnome" – for do not all these songs hail from the decade that supposedly celebrated individuality? So, whenever anyone of late middle-age vintage trots out the cliché that "if you can remember the 1960s, you weren't there", bear in mind that the nearest they came to a freak-out was probably a caffeine overdose in a transport café on the A303.

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