This is the first article in our “Dark Side of the 60s” series.
In many people’s minds, the 60s are synonymous with “flower power”, which, in turn, is often associated with pictures of happy youth partying carefreely at Woodstock in brightly coloured clothes – or, sometimes, in no clothes at all. These images of boundless freedom and happiness are the reason why many younger people today are drawn to this time of social and cultural revolution. The 60s are often voted the best decade to live in, even when the respondents are not old enough to have any first-hand memories to justify their answer.
Undoubtedly, a series of very positive political changes, starting in the mid-60s, helped establish more equal societies in the western world. A new generation was growing up, rejecting the old norms and embracing new values. Novel ideas were expressed through immensely innovative new art movements, and often with the help of mind-expanding drugs, which boosted the creativity of some and led to the demise of others.
But the increasingly popular rock ‘n’ roll music wasn’t the only soundtrack to the decade. Other important sounds that will never be forgotten include the gunshot that killed President John F. Kennedy, the bombs that were dropped in Vietnam, and the cries of Sharon Tate and her friends before they were murdered by Charles Manson’s disciples.
Visually, some of the darker shades of the 60s were captured by John “Hoppy” Hopkins. As a freelance photographer for Melody Maker magazine, Hopkins immortalized many of the greatest stars of his time, as well as their less glamourous surroundings. And we don’t need to over-analyse some of the best songs written by these artists to realize that a lot of their inspiration came from those obscure corners of the world where no flowers grew.
Bob Dylan is one of the 60s musicians not famous for expressing feelings of happiness in his songs. His classics like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ helped make the voice of the counter-culture movement heard, offering some poetic and philosophical commentary on contemporary politics.
Although the Beatles have very much become the symbol of the idealistic and optimistic collective state of mind that defined the decade, many of their hits weren’t light-hearted and cheerful love songs. For instance, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (1966) and ‘Yer Blues’ (1968) explore themes of loneliness. The lyrics for ‘Run for Your Life’ (1965) voice threats by a jealous boyfriend, and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ (1969) is about a serial killer.
The Rolling Stones didn’t shy away from darker themes either: ‘Paint It Black’ (1966) is about the death of a lover, while ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (1968) talks about the Devil’s historic “accomplishments”. ‘As Tears Go By’ (1964) and ‘Sister Morphine’ (1969), both written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards but first recorded by Marianne Faithfull, are ballads of the darker kind. The former mourns the loss of childhood, and the latter, co-written by Faithfull, is about the detrimental effect of drugs, in particular heroin and cocaine. In ‘Sister Morphine’, the haunting emotion in her voice creates an eerie atmosphere that almost predicts her heroin-fuelled breakdown the following year.
Pink Floyd are noted for their thoughtful lyrics about the depths of the human psyche, and it seems that the deeper they dig, the darker the message becomes. This was no different during the first years of their career, dominated by the surreal and psychedelic visions of Syd Barrett, whose fast-deteriorating mental health has been largely attributed to his frequent use of LSD. ‘See Emily Play’ (1967) is about the not-so-happy aspects of childhood, and ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’ (1967), the first song written and sung by Roger Waters, speaks of a person’s physical and mental decline. ‘Corporal Clegg’ (1968) is the first of the group’s many anti-war songs, telling the satirical story of a soldier who’d lost a leg in the war, but only received a medal and met the Queen in his dream.
Two of the darkest tracks of the entire decade are ‘The End’ (1967) by the Doors and ‘Heroin’ (1967) by Velvet Underground. Ironically, these were both written in the same year when the famous “Summer of Love” took place. Unlike ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, these two songs couldn’t be mistaken for a merry love song, even if one didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics: the sinister poetry of Jim Morrison and Lou Reed is complemented perfectly by the gloomy musical atmosphere. The same can be said about the Doors’ ‘Strange Days’ (1968) and ‘Unknown Soldier’ (1968), and Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’ (1967) and ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ (1967).
Much like Faithfull, Nico was also brilliant at channelling her melancholic beauty through her voice, which is evident in her work with Velvet Underground and beyond. Performed by Nico, ‘Femme Fatale’ (1967) is an homage to the darker side of femininity, written by Lou Reed about Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, who tragically passed away four years later, at the age of 28.
Released the year after Velvet Underground’s debut album, St John Green’s only, self-titled record is another fine example of dark psychedelia, albeit one that has truly stayed underground. Tracks like ‘7th Generation Mutation’, ‘Messages from the Dead’ and ‘Goddess of Death’ are reminiscent of a bad acid trip, representing the quintessential dark side of the 60s.
Two of the earliest concept albums also don’t shy away from a dark subject matter: the Pretty Things’ ‘S.F. Sorrow’ (1968) follows the title character through his adventures in love and war to his final moments of loneliness, while the Who’s ‘Tommy’ (1969) tells the story of a deaf, dumb and blind child. Although not a concept album, King Crimson’s debut ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ also has a sombre thread stretching through it.
Other examples of the darkest pieces of 60s music are ‘The Sound of Silence’ (1964) by Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Eve of Destruction’ (1965) by Barry McGuire, ‘Butcher’s Tale’ (1968) by the Zombies, ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie, ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969) by Creedence Clearwater Revival and ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans.
By the end of the decade, a new genre defined by sinister guitar riffs and gloomy lyrics was on the doorstep. Widely considered the first ever heavy metal album, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut was recorded in October 1969, but not released until February 1970.