Some Reflections on the 1960s

Most Australians born after 1970 could not be blamed for acquiring the impression that the 1960s was one long party of sexual abandonment, drunkenness, the defiance of authority, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, British pop, anti-Vietnam protests, marijuana, hippies, flower-power and so on in that colourful style. One saying is that if you remember the 1960s, you were not there. A witty comment, but the small number abusing themselves to the state of memory loss are all long dead and in no position to make that boast. I can report first-hand, however, that this picture of widespread youthful abandonment is fanciful, designed to impress those who could not know better.

In July 1960, I turned fourteen. I was in my second year of secondary school. My father carried his camera around with him, ever at the ready to shoot photos of his adored children. We have thus a pictorial record of those years when five of my parents’ six children were in their teens.

Until I left school at the end of 1963, my dear mother with her keen sense of decorum forced me to wear my school suit to formal occasions. I was particularly peeved that at seventeen I had to wear my St Ignatius Riverview suit to my sister’s wedding in August 1963. On less formal occasions my older brother and I wore a natty combination of navy blue blazer (which we called a reefer jacket) matching slacks, black shoes, and a white shirt with the indispensable thin black tie. Our hair was worn short, oiled and neatly parted, except for a brief period in 1960 when we tested my mother’s sense of respectability by hacking away at our hair until we sported a close-cropped hair-do like Murray Rose’s. Celebrated champion swimmer Murray Rose had again won gold at the Rome Olympics.

From memory, I stopped rubbing oil into my hair sometime late in 1963, when the Beatles were just beginning to make an impression on the Australian music scene. But it is more likely my abandoning hair oil had more to do with the ‘surfie’ period that took hold until the Beatles and British pop became an overwhelming influence on Australian youth. I grew up on Sydney’s North Shore and frequented Sydney’s northern beaches like Manly, Harbord and Newport. So I was aligned with the surfies. It is significant that photos of the beach music group, the Chantays, show a foursome of suited oiled lads, a couple with pompadour-style hairdos. The Chantays produced the surf music number par excellence, ‘Pipeline’, which on that strength alone got them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The most popular television program for the youth was Brian Henderson’s ‘Bandstand’ which was shown on TCN 9. During 1963, the performers on ‘Bandstand’, male and female, were dressed smartly, the boys oiled, some pompadoured, and in suit and tie, and the girls in brilliant frocks which on viewing makes them look adorably female.[i]

It might surprise some to learn that the first attempts to introduce the Beatles to an Australian audience in February and August 1963 failed. They scored their first number one late December 1963 with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. The Rolling Stones’ first number one was not until February 1965 (‘Under the Boardwalk/Walking the Dog’). Their signature number (I can’t get no) ‘Satisfaction’ made it to number one in August 1965. Until a critical moment in 1964, music, the great expression of youth culture, was a continuation of fifties music somewhat influenced by the Beach Boys and the surfing culture. Elvis Presley was still scoring hit after hit. Most of the music and popular performers were American: Bobby Rydell, Crash Craddock, Connie Francis, Bobby Vee, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, to name a few of the chart-toppers. In Australia, we had the irrepressible Johnny O’Keefe, Col Joye, Johnny Delvin, Judy Stone, Vicki Forrest, Lana Cantwell and others that competed with the American stars. The style of music and dress was that of the fifties as I have described it. All this fits the notion of the ‘long fifties’ spanning the years 1946 to 1964.

The first time the mention of the Beatles made an impression on me was late winter in 1963, near the end of the schoolboy football season. After our match, a teammate and I were discussing the latest hits. I was a fan of Del Shannon’s, his ‘Run Away’ one of my favourites from the time. I mentioned his latest song, ‘From Me to You’, which was attracting attention. My teammate scoffed at it, declaring that Shannon’s version was nowhere near as good as the Beatles’ version. The Beatles’ harmonies, he declared, no comparison! He then gave a horrible mocking imitation of Shannon’s falsetto. It did not take me long to succumb to his musical authority. The entire youth of Australia succumbed. From a whiff of a breeze over calm waters, the Beatles’ music whipped up and arrived in Australia with gale force, their UK hits released one after another. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was just the first number one. Beatles songs held the number one position on the music charts for the first half of 1964, only interrupted in the second half by Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Cilla Black, Mary Wells, The Honeycombs and Ray Columbus and the Invaders.

Apart from the Beatles’ unoiled, silky clean ‘mop-tops’, the four boys dressed in a slightly modified fifties style of suits, white shirt and (thin) tie. It was not until around 1967 and the appearance of the Sgt Pepper’s album that the Beatles had abandoned the suits and ties and dressed in a manner that reflected the cultural upheaval of the second half of the 1960s. Equally important from a cultural point of view was that their songs in their early period (say 1963-1965) were about the same issues that have ever preoccupied teenagers: love and heartbreak. The difference was that the Beatles, under the genius of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, plundered all the categories of popular music of the previous fifteen years to compose songs in which one can hear strains of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Everley Brothers, Fats Domino and so many other influential performers. Their lyrics were matched with engaging melodies and a performance of mesmerising harmonies.

Although I can admire the creative genius of the Beatles’ ‘mature’ period, the songs of the first period have forever marked my late teenage years. Songs like ‘All My Loving’, ‘P.S. I Love You’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ were the background music to all those buffeting emotions that plague or give joy to one’s youth – and I was visited by plenty of them. The Beatles had brought their genre of popular music to its creative high point. About the dramatic change in dress, it was the Rolling Stones who introduced the biggest change. At least, that’s the way I remember it. When they first appeared on our television screen in our middle-class lounge room sometime in 1965, my parents were appalled by their slovenly dress and long hair. The Rolling Stones presented a picture of decadence to my parents’ generation.

While photos of my brother and me at Christmas time from 1960 to 1964 show us in our smart slacks, navy blue reefer jackets and shirt and tie, I’m dressed in black stove-pipe slacks, black jumper, pointy black shoes and white skivvy at a family occasion in 1965. My hair in Beatles style gleams in now enviable silky blackness. The change in dress and style, a combination of Beatles and Surfie culture, was a modest glimpse of the cultural changes that were being unleashed.  There were others from a less conservative background who went the whole hog and dressed as though they had just emerged from Carnaby Street.

Within a few years, the untidy look with long hair in the fashion of the Rolling Stones would be seen everywhere, especially with the youth coming up behind me. I did not venture further than my 1965 look in the following years. I was snapped after a niece’s baptism in late 1967 in a splendid navy blue suit, white shirt, black tie, and wrap-around sunglasses, with a cigarette elegantly dangling from the tip of two fingers. My shampooed hair, considered longish in 1965, was at the same length, but now entirely unexceptionable. Most of my friends and the groups I mixed in remained at the same stage of fashion development. I did not realise, and I don’t think many of my peers realised, that the long hair and casual dress were an expression of the youth rebellion that was building. Until 1966, we weren’t conscious of any significant social or political movement behind the changes in fashion. The social views of the great bulk of youth were still in the fifties.

It seems looking back that the girls I mixed with were as unconscious of any political cause behind the changing fashions as my friends and I were. To the extent I listened to their talk of fashion, it seemed just that. British fashion dominated, and the aim was to stay abreast of developments but to maintain style and good taste. But one development in female fashion had a far greater impact, socially and politically, than the long hair and slovenly dress of the girls’ boyfriends. It was the introduction of the miniskirt in 1966, the dress that raised the hemline above the knee to bare the female thigh. The miniskirt broke a rule and understanding about the relations between male and female that had existed for generations, indeed centuries, in Western Civilization. And it was intended not only to break that rule and understanding but to outlaw the rule and reverse the understanding.

Put simply, it was until that time understood and accepted in the culture that men and women responded to each other in different ways. Men initially responded more to appearance than women while women sought an emotional connection over the physical. Men were taught to respect women and control their urges. Women were not to exploit what amounted to an advantage over men whose physical constitution made them easy prey to a woman consciously or unconsciously deploying her physical charms. While the rule for men was to control their urges and respect women, the rule for women was to act discreetly and dress modestly. Men who fell into the trap would sometimes be told to desist or stop acting the goat. More serious transgressions were treated seriously – some severely. The oversight of women was stricter. You see, women knew what women were up to (as they do today) and they knew what embarrassing fools men could be when they abandoned their self-control. The strict oversight of young women was the task of the older women who usually had no stake in the mingling of young men and women – apart from seeing their relations well connected. I am talking about grandmothers, great aunts, and senior aunts. My grandparents were born between the1875 and 1894, and my mother and father’s generation was born between 1910 and 1925.

My irascible grandmother Wilson held court over the family females in her kitchen from which the men were banished or if they passed through were not to say anything other than give a meek greeting. As a child in infant school still allowed in the kitchen, I was exposed now and then to my grandmother holding forth over one or other social misdemeanour of a younger member of the court. That misdemeanour usually concerned the different degrees of the ‘forward’ unladylike behaviour I have just described. She did not restrict her judgement to family members, either, but cast her censorious net wide enough to include any failing female who happened to pass in her vision. And there were many.

Although it is right to ascribe the introduction of the miniskirt into Australia to 1966, the catalyst for its appearance was the year before on Derby Day at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, on 30 October 1965. The spectacularly beautiful British model Jean Shrimpton appeared in a white Orlon fabric minidress whose hem was four inches above the knee. You could hardly have had a more powerful vehicle to force a radical fashion change through centuries of custom, a fashion that defied all social conventions and Derby Day protocols. Shrimpton said (and maintains) that it was all due to flukish circumstances. The dress was made short because the fabric manufacturer Dupont du Nemours International, who contracted Shrimpton to promote their product in Australia, supplied Shrimpton’s dressmaker with too little material. A dress designed and planned for a top national sports occasion was made four inches above the knee because of a random mistake by the fabric manufacturer? Pull the other one. I don’t believe a word of it. In 1969, Shrimpton was the girlfriend of one of the world’s counterculture leaders.

The reaction on Derby Day was predictable. Men who had overcome their paralysis at the vision of an incomparable beauty – hatless, gloveless and stockingless – baring so much flesh in a formal public occasion and place, began wolf-whistling and catcalling. The women, at first stunned into silence, gave voice to their outrage with scorn and jeers. The scorn and jeers would be in vain. Shrimpton’s fashion coup, engineered behind the scenes, was not restricted to Australia. The revolution rippled worldwide. On Derby Day a year later in 1966, most hems were above the knee, if not as daring as four inches of bare flesh.

That exposed strip of bare flesh, however, was not any strip of bare flesh. It was bare flesh in the female erotic zone. Men do not view below the female knee in the same way as above. The attire of any prostitute or call-girl testifies to that. A man sitting opposite a woman in a lounge chair in a public place may admire her shapely calves without being further distracted, but the moment the hem slides above the knee the feelings provoked, and the message conveyed are different. The miniskirt, the making public of the female erotic zone, proclaimed the message that it was acceptable for men to view women in general as sexual objects, there to satisfy their animal urges. It was just a matter of getting over a few obstacles. The miniskirt, whose invention is attributed to London fashion designer Mary Quant, was a principal weapon in the smashing of centuries-old moral codes and the views about the natural relations between men and women.

If in 2019 all this sounds more than a trifle weird, then I invite the reader to consider the logical continuation of the miniskirt breakthrough – if it were as uncontroversial as is popularly claimed. Shrimpton’s dress was four inches above the knee. Why not six inches? Why not ten inches? Where do you stop? Today many 18-year-olds go out on a Saturday night in six-inch stilettos, wearing a skirt or dress whose hem is around the line of the crotch. They appear no different from the call-girls conducting their trade in the venues they frequent. For those who don’t get the point, a call-girl is someone who sells her body to men who want to satisfy their animal urges. It is a business contract with no emotional commitment – certainly not on the man’s part. As with any product, call-girls present themselves to achieve maximum attraction to their product – they bare as much erotic flesh as permissible. It is not just teenage girls caught up in the Shrimpton breakthrough. It is now not uncommon to see 12-year-olds dressed as little call-girls with their mothers looking proudly on.

It is either delusion or ideological pretence to dress in a way that strongly appeals to a man’s animal nature and expect him to react as if he were walking among a group of women dressed in black Burkas. No feminist, however, should fear such regressive talk. The delusion, protected by such stunts as the SlutWalk, is now unshakable in our disintegrating Western culture. The endgame of the 1960s sexual revolution, in which the miniskirt was seminal artillery, is today’s Marxist developed Safe Schools Coalition anti-bullying program. That program is primarily to rid society of all moral codes about sexuality and sexual behaviour.

[i] See DVD ‘The Best of Bandstand 1963’, Vol. Six, Umbrella Entertainment.