The first time I remember hearing the word ‘hippie’ was when my sister Linda and I were looking at the Sunday Mirror, and there was a photo of a bearded American guy in some kind of Friar Tuck robe sitting on a desk. Linda told me that he was a hippie and that hippies didn’t believe in working. She was 14 and a year older than me, so I believed her. It was early 1967 and the times they were a changing.
I lived in Sunderland and the first manifestation of hippiedom that I saw there was in the summer of that year when I passed someone in the town centre wearing coloured glasses (green, I think) with a small flower in their hair. August that year was very sunny, and this helped all manifestations of flower power. My mate and I went up to Edinburgh trainspotting – yes, even then we were living pretty close to the edge – and there were loads of young people sunning themselves in the park by Waverley Station suitably clad in the latest colourful fashions. I was all in favour of it and when we got back to school in September for the first time ever we had school ‘socials’, which were discos where we actually mixed with girls. I’ve never been noted for my sartorial elegance and I started as I meant to go on by adopting some token flowery garb. Unlike a few of my friends, I didn’t have the money to buy a nice flowery shirt of the kind that the garment industry had soon cashed in with, so I reverted to the next best thing: a baggy old blouse of my grandma’s, which was a bright blue colour and had a lot of flowers on it. Despite its funny shape I still wore it more than once. I didn’t score. My God, I’ve just remembered that I also got hold of some light brown plastic beads, the kind that pop together, and wore them round my neck.
Many people look back on 1967 as the peak year for 60s music, but for me that was 1966, both because nearly every week a great new record would send a buzz around me and my schoolmates, and because we were all aware that exciting changes were ahead and things were still on the way up then, and not overblown and pretentious as they sometimes were not long afterwards. I remember the first time I heard ‘Sergeant Pepper’ in early July in my friend’s front room and ‘Within You, Without You’ in particular sounded very exotic. The epitome of that summer for me is a memory of being at a fair in Morpeth, Northumberland with ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’, swirling around the sunny fairground. In retrospect, though, I think ‘Revolver’ was the better album as it contains more good songs.
Of course, this was when the artwork on LP’s really exploded and gatefold multicolour sleeves became the norm, whereas before that they’d usually been boring black and white jobs with a photo or two and some notes on the back, as well as an advert for Emitex (a record-cleaning product). The Beatles recorded some of ‘All You Need is Love’ on the global TV show ‘Our World’ on 25th June 1967 and both they and their friends were all dolled up in the latest hippie gear, while the song itself was an anthem for the time. That’s why for me at any rate both that song and ‘Pepper’ haven’t aged as well as most of the other Beatles albums, as they’re so closely linked to a certain period and so seem dated. I watched ‘Our World’, but like most people, I knew we only had a black and white TV.
The conflict between the establishment and the flower power generation was exemplified by the drug trial of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in July 1967, which resulted in them being initially jailed and then released after one night due in no small part to the efforts of William Rees-Mogg, the editor of The Times. Keith was in Wormwood Scrubs Prison and Mick in Brixton. If I remember rightly, Mick was quoted as describing the conditions there as being slightly better than a hotel in Minnesota.
As I said, I was only thirteen at the time and the major cultural effects of the hippie movement went over my head, though as I grew older, I would be influenced by them like millions of others. Back in 1967, my mates and I dressed up a little, got into some great music and that was about it. I didn’t take any drugs, have sex with anyone, live in a commune, go to a festival or any of the other clichés. I think that in many ways, I’ve lived 1967 in retrospect, as, apart from the lifestyle aspects, most of the groups that I really like from that period such as the Doors, Love, Captain Beefheart, Jefferson Airplane et al, I didn’t actually hear till a year or more afterwards. I never heard about Monterey, Golden Gate Park and all the big happenings till later too. At that time, it was all just another fad for me, and, as time would prove, for most other people, too. Hippie music and fashions were very quickly cashed in on by sharp businesses and we had ‘Let’s Go to San Francisco’ by the Flowerpot Men on ‘Top of the Pops’ and hippie dresses in Marks and Spencer’s.
Though the hippie period is often mocked these days and the phrase ‘old hippie’ is a derisory term, it gave birth to such well-established movements as green politics, women’s liberation, popular music festivals, vegetarianism and alternative medicine. Rather than millions of people living in yurts up in the hills, the hippie ideals have been incorporated into the mainstream. Other aspects such as interest in oriental religions and astrology have also left a considerable mark on the modern western world, but these mean nothing to me personally. From my own experience five or six years later, I still believe that by carefully monitored use of hallucinogenic drugs we could achieve great insights into the true nature of our lives, but just dropping a tab casually could well have a terrifying effect and cause long-term damage. I agree with the essence of what William Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Jim Morrison certainly agreed, too.
Back in 1967, being a hippie was a reaction against the lifestyle of parents, but now it’s sometimes the parents who are the hippies and the children who are the capitalist straights.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.