Modern day cliches would have you believe that the Sixties were all about thick milkshakes, cute diner dates and times where ‘men were REAL men’. I was lucky enough to grab first dibs to Revolutions: Records and Rebels – an internationally-acclaimed journey through five iconic years in music, fashion, art, politics, sex, equality and technology. The real Sixties. And it was absolutely brilliant.
The first phase of the exhibit sets the scene, providing a snapshot into the early Sixties in the western world. The early Sixties was an era ran by and seemingly for, older, white, well-connected men. It was shaped by powerful events. John F Kennedy, the most progressive president in a generation was assassinated. The Profumo scandal saw senior British politicians caught in a whirlwind of mess. An overwhelming sense of dissent for authority wafted transatlantic and beyond. The Beatles, activism and LSD (which, in the 60s, was perfectly legal) helped encapsulate the collective consciousness of a young rebellious generation.
This first phase is littered with memorabilia from a bygone era – Levi jeans, vinyl covers from The Who and The Supremes. I’m humbly overwhelmed by the precision, detail and sheer information on show. I want to read everything, but I am conscious of time. But I read everything anyway and proceed to Phase Two – Fashion.
‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ by The Kinks aptly plays through my headset as I walk into the fashion phase of the exhibit. Enter Swinging London, 1996. “Great curation,” I think as I tap my foot, eyeing the frillies and frocks displayed, my eyes eventually drawing to the word ‘Youthquake’ written on a wall.
“Youthquake – A significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”
This Youthquake combined with a rise of earnings drove the opening of new destinations aimed at young people. These destinations included boutiques and late night fashion galleries where revellers could dance and drink whilst shopping. Fashion took on a new form of self expression with materials like PVC and Perspex making their debuts on the scene. Hippie-chic was rife and ethnic patterns and textures began to be incorporated in the latest looks.
The gallery sways to pop music, and although I’ve barely digested the fashion appetiser, I’m already drooling over the main event. I read about Pete Townshend of The Who, Barrett and Waters of Pink Floyd and Keith Richards who explored progressive ideas at art school. I froth at the information about the huge influence African-American Blues had on British bands. Music became one of the most vital forms of communication and defiance for young people, overriding Hollywood’s media grip.
“A curious alliance has been struck between teenagers, the hippies, commercial pop and the young intellectuals. Somehow, all have crystallised into a seperate society or ‘scene'” – The Observer Magazine (3 December 1967)
John Lennon’s hand-written lyrics to ‘Tomorrow Never Know’ are centimetres from my face, Black Sabbath vinyls from my native Birmingham fill me with pride, my Canadian friend points out a Joni Mitchell LP and levels the score. I marvel at the old Dansette record players they have on show, gargantuan things that could only hold a few records at best, then take a picture from my hand-held 128GB, map, games and dictionary ringing device. Incredible.
LSD was hugely credited for creating a ‘revolution in the head.’ The drug went part and parcel with the ‘psychedelic’ aesthetic the 60’s carried. Many musicians were noted to have used it before its criminalisation in late 1966.
“No matter how many raids and arrests the police make… there can be no final bust because the revolution has taken place WITHIN THE MINDS of the young” – Tom McGrath, editor of International Times (1967)
I’d be lying if I said drug use and hippies didn’t pop to mind when thinking about the Sixties.
“Smoking dope and hanging up Che’s picture is no more a commitment [to revolution] than drinking milk and collecting postage stamps. A revolution in consciousness is an empty high without a revolution in the distribution of power.” – Abbie Hoffman, American political and social activist
These words from Abbie Hoffman leave me feeling unsettled, what comes next in the exhibit increases those inhibitions tenfold. Stories of women’s rights activists filled the corridor. Anti-war posters attempting to rebuke the horrors that were present at the time. It made me think about today’s activism, sports stars tweeting the same pictures in ‘solidarity’ then returning to their estates. I take a minute to think about the sacrifices made, I read about the university students killed on campus whilst protesting peacefully, the black activists falsely imprisoned.
Of course, any activism is better than nothing, but I feel even more uneasy reading about John Lennon and Yoko Ono protesting with ‘Bed-Ins’ on the same poster as Alice Herz, a Nazi Germany survivor who set herself alight in Detroit, protesting against US involvement in Vietnam. ‘By any means necessary’, the message, life and death being the polar realities.
The Black Panthers exhibit resonates deeply with me, artefacts from times that were a display of the sheer racism and adversity people were fighting not too long ago. Again, I can’t help but think how cool it would’ve been to don all black leather gear, fighting for the cause, my naivety taking for granted the sacrifices these people made. “No Vietnamese ever called me a n****r,” reads one of the placards, a powerful yet poignant indictment of the situation.
The exhibition draws to an end. Technology and advertising from this era are showcased around the room. Consumerism culture takes grip of the planet, the introduction of credit cards enhances consumer power. The desirability of goods is no longer tied to usefulness but the perception of an ever-evolving lifestyle for the young. Change for change’s sake. I’m blown away by the enhancements in technology, the dawn of celebrity endorsement can be seen on shelves in front of me. The Who ‘sell out’ by marketing Heinz beans and deodorant.
A Woodstock room filled with bean bags, a huge concave multi-panel screen and a booming speaker system teleports you to the American festival. “Imagine escaping your small town and mixing with 400,000 other young people for a weekend of music and fun.” It’s hard to conceptualise that feeling in an age of no social media, just how amazing that would feel.
My time at Revolutions: Records and Rebels has come to an end, I’m awestruck after learning so much about the era my parents grew up in. I’m saddened by the atrocities endured not so long ago. I’m humbled by the sacrifices made by my predecessors and somewhat optimistic about the future. Activism is still alive and kicking, like the students striking for climate change.
So, if you can look past the racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality and war… the Sixties actually seemed pretty darn rad.
If you want to step into the Sixties, Revolutions: Records and Rebels is open now until 25 August 2019 at the Melbourne Museum.
Grab tickets to the Revolutions: Records and Rebels exhibition here.