We hear a great deal of talk these days about how inventive and magical and bold the Sixties were. In fact, it's not uncommon to hear people speak of those times as if they were somehow better than any time that has come since. Do you share that perspective?
Every time is special, surely, unto itself. But to actually say it was better in 1964 or '65 – I find that a bit strange. I mean, maybe it was a bit better, because you were, like, twenty years old back then, and you looked better, and you didn't have any responsibilities. You splashed around the beach and didn't have a mortgage and five children to look after. Given all that, it might appear better, though the truth may be that you were having a hard time back then, because you were strung out on too many acid trips or something. You forget about all that. I'm not talking about my own personal experience. I'm talking about people that actually, um, nostalgize. Is that a verb? It should be.
But yes, things were very different then than they are now. And they're never going to be the same.
I mean, there are two views of the Sixties: one, that it was just a big hype; the other, that it was a wonderful – I hate to use the horrible word renaissance, but I suppose I can't think of a better one – that it was a wonderful renaissance of artistic endeavor and thought. But the underside to it all, of course, was the war in Vietnam and various other colonial-type wars. Also, all the political unrest of the times, particularly in Europe. I realize that most people tend to think that all the political unrest took place in America, but I really think it was on a much smaller scale there than you realize. To be honest, I don't think real political change ever took place at all in the United States. I mean, there were all the protest movements and so on, and I suppose there was some philosophical change, but in terms of deep political change, I don't think it ever really happened.
That's one of the ironies about all the current nostalgia for the Sixties: although we seem to believe that those times awakened our best ideals, I'm not convinced that we've carried them over to the present day with any lasting practical political or social impact.
Nor am I. On the other hand, one can't ignore all the social undercurrents of the time – how people became more tolerant of certain kinds of ideas and looks, and how that tended to influence general social thought. For example, look at the changes in civil rights. It's just tolerance of other people's ideas and the way they look and think. Perhaps that was the one political change in the United States that really took hold. It may not be perfect, but in the area of different minority groups achieving the political weight they deserve – or in the acceptance of feminist thought – at least there's been some improvement. But perhaps none of that alters the political power structure.
Looking back at the early and mid-Sixties, the political climate in both the United States and Britain seemed relatively liberal – at least, compared with the political climate in both countries today. Do you think that atmosphere helped contribute to the sort of cultural explosion that rock & roll became during that decade?
No, I don't really think so. By the time the Labour party came into power in Britain in 1964, youth culture was already a fait accompli. That is, youth had already benefitted from the prosperous inflationary period of the early Sixties – that whole period of teenage consumerism that Colin MacInnes wrote about in books like Absolute Beginners. I mean, in the early Sixties the cult of youth was already well on its way. In Britain, youth was already largely economically independent, and it just got more that way as things went on. So when the Labour government came in, they had no choice but to run with youth culture as an idea, because they couldn't afford to put it down. They wanted to be seen as trendy – all socialist governments want to be seen as trendy. They want to be seen as the friend of the young, because the young are the ones that are going to vote for them. You know, [former prime minister] Harold Wilson used to invite black singers to 10 Downing Street to try to look trendy.
Meanwhile, the government's policy really was to stop all this going on, because youth culture was entrepreneurial – not really socialist at all. Also, much of what was going on in youth culture wasn't really considered the nice thing to do.
At the time, it seemed that if there were any real leaders, they were artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Did you ever feel that you and the Beatles were helping to break the culture open?
It was more a sense of sharing a joke that these people were taking it all so seriously.
To be honest, we never set out to make cultural changes, though as they were coming, one was dealing with them on a natural basis. We were making certain statements and so on, but I don't recall actually intellectualizing those things – at least early on. Initially, I think the driving force was just to be famous, get lots of girls and earn a lot of money. That, and the idea of just getting our music across as best we could.
And I think that's perhaps where that attitude of defiance really came from: those times when you'd come up against somebody who would say, "No, you can't do that. You can't go on television, you can't do this." But that had all been done before, really, back with Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show and all that. What was happening with us wasn't anything new.
But nobody had really talked about the idea of Elvis Presley wielding political power. By the mid-Sixties people were talking about artists like the Stones, Beatles and Bob Dylan as having genuine political and cultural consequence.
What I'm saying is, I don't think any of us set out with a political conscience. I mean, I exclude Dylan, because he definitely had a political consciousness. And there might have been a seminal conscience in both our groups, but I think it really only applied itself to the actual mass culture at hand. You know, questions like "What do you think of people wearing their hair long?" or "What do you think about your clothes – aren't they a bit scruffy?" That was the real thrust of it all at the beginning. I think it was more social than it was political. You know, you'd go into a restaurant without a tie and get thrown out. It was really pathetic.
But wasn't there something implicitly defiant or contemptuous about the band's stance? For example, that famous incident in which the band got arrested for pissing against a garage.
I didn't take that as a social event. It was just bullshit, really. And I bet Andrew Loog Oldham [the Stones' manager in the Sixties] paid ten quid to the garage man to ring the police [laughs]. That was the level it was on.
Yet with songs like "Satisfaction," "Mother's Little Helper" and "19th Nervous Breakdown," it certainly seemed that the Rolling Stones had something of their own to say – something a bit tougher and more questioning than one was accustomed to hearing in typical songs of teenage love and unrest.
As you got older during that time, you know, you got a bit more mature. Still, you've got to remember that for every one song that took some serious social view – like, say, "Mother's Little Helper" – there were loads of others that were just teenage bullshit. From the Stones, from the Beatles, from everyone. I mean, perhaps what we did in this period was to enlarge the subject material of popular music to include topics outside the typical "moon in June/I've got a new motorbike" teenage genre. We said you can write a song about anything you want. And that was really a big thing – it's certainly one of the big legacies in the songwriting area that we left, along with other artists.
I guess what I'm saying is that very early on, the Stones – more than the Beatles, more than Dylan, more than anybody – were viewed as something akin to social outlaws. One manifestation of that image was the way in which the Stones were seen as adherents of illicit drugs.
Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary were the real proselytizers of that. I don't recall ever being a proselytizer myself. I don't ever recall saying, "This is what I do, and you should do it, too." I'm not saying I didn't privately think it, but I never was one who went out and actively said anything about it. Actually, you kind of kept quiet about it, because it was like hip peer-group behavior that musicians and other artists had indulged in for decades. It wasn't something that you wanted to spread outside. Just the opposite, because it was your little thing, and your little group of people did it. That was what made your group different, really, from the rest. You didn't like the idea of everyone else doing it. It was just this thing for creative artists.
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