1966 – a seminal year in pop culture and now the subject of our latest cinema series. Marking the publication of his new book celebrating this momentous year, writer Jon Savage introduces the three documentaries he’s chosen to encapsulate the energy, culture, and of course, the music of 1966.
‘Pop was everything in 1966. It wasn’t just simple good times, courting rituals or an industrial process, but a radical new aesthetic. Condensed within the 2-3 minute format of the 45rpm single, the possibilities of that year were expressed with an extraordinary electricity and intensity – whether it be the flourishing of Holland-Dozier-Holland at Motown, the breakthrough of black American dance culture in the US and the UK, the start of psychedelia and the beginnings of Rock.
It was also a time of enormous ambition and serious engagement: music was no longer commenting on life, but was indivisible from life. It had become a way of seeing, the prism through which the world was interpreted. There remains an overwhelming urgency that marks the music and movies of that year, as young artists and musicians pushed ever forward, into doing what had not been done before, into uncharted territory – and at the time, adults and conservatives pushed back.
These three films – although their ostensible focus is music – are documents of the period’s ferment. They carry that ambition and that tension in their style and their subject matter, not the least the way in which they treat pop – still thought to be a mere teenage fad by adults, who included many film producers and directors – seriously and on its own terms. There is no stupid voice-over, no concessions to then contemporary mass-media tropes: this is what you get and you’re in it.
Music was no longer commenting on life, but was indivisible from life
The earliest is Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, an extraordinary record of the Rolling Stones’ early September 1965 visit to Ireland – filmed just as the group were on the point of becoming superstars with the success of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. The chaos of the shows are counterpointed by the quiet backstage/ hotel scenes, where the group are shown not as teenage monsters, but quiet and thoughtful young men. Like D.A.Pennebakers’ Don’t Look Back, Charlie is My Darling captures a pivotal moment.
The Velvet Underground (aka A Symphony of Sound) is a simple record of the Velvet Underground performing a particularly vicious improvisation in Andy Warhol’s Factory during the early part of 1966. With wild zooming in the style of the day, this was probably intended not for theatrical consumption but to be projected during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows that year. It ends with the arrival of the NY police, and the final pan gives a rare view of the E47th Street Factory.
Slipstreaming into the scandalous, sensational genre premiered in 1962 by Mondo Cane, Robert Carl Cohen’s Mondo Hollywood concentrates not just on a group but a city. Shot between 1965 and 1967, his film captures Hollywood in all its wildness and squalor, with actresses, exhibitionists, and all manner of outsiders – including the singer Bobby Jameson, seen belting out his protest about Vietnam – counterpointed by the looming threat of Ronald Reagan. It distils the neon madness of Los Angeles in the mid 60’s.
Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded is published by Faber & Faber
1966 with Jon Savage takes place on 13 & 14 November.