Thursday, 28 December 2006

The Sixties

With the New Year only a few days away it seems natural to engage in a bit of nostalgia. Today I find myself thinking back to the decade of the Sixties. My memories of the Sixties are very fuzzy. After all, I was born in 1963, making me only six years old when the decade ended. Much of what I know about the Sixties then stems from books I've read, TV shows I've seen, and so on. Still, I can't help but think that pop culture reached its pinnacle in that decade.

Indeed, it seems to me as if nearly medium that existed at the time was going through some sort of Golden Age or Silver Age. It was a time of fresh, original ideas, and a time of unbridled energy. Much of this seems odd to me in a way, as the Sixties was also a very tumultuous decade. It was not simply an era of long hair and love beads. By the middle of the decade the Vietnam War was well underway, as were the growing protests against it. Riots were not unheard of in the Sixties. Some were associated with race, such as those in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles and on 12th Street in Detroit. Others were associated with the politics of the day, such as the one at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I can easily understand why some might view the Sixties as a dark period in American history.

Despite this, I have to disagree that it was a dark period. As I said earlier, it seems to me as if almost every medium was going through some sort of Golden Age or Silver Age. And while the headlines in the Sixties could sometimes be bleak, it seems to me that there was a good deal of optimism in the air. The space programme was well underway and man reached the moon in 1969. And behind the various protests, there seems to me to have been the idea that one could ultimately change the world for the better. I think much of this optimism in the face of what were sometimes rough times was ultimately responsible for the high quality seen in the various media in the Sixties.

Indeed, I honestly think the heyday of American television may well have been the Sixties. There are many who identify the Golden Age of television as roughly being in the Fifties. Given the high quality of many of the dramatic anthologies (such as Playhouse 90 and Studio One), it is hard for me to argue with that. That having been said, however, I think the Golden Age of series television may well have been the Sixties. It seems to me that the decade produced more classic TV shows with continuing characters than any other. I must admit that if I were to make a list of the greatest sitcoms of all time, most of those shows on the list would have either debuted or aired during the Sixties: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, The Monkees, The Addams Family, and Batman. Of course, the Sixties was also the heyday of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and action-adventure oriented programming. It was the era of Thriller, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Star Trek. Indeed, some of the best comedies (including some of those listed above) were also fantasies. The Sixties was also a time when the American networks would actually air some of the best British shows of all time, including The Avengers, Danger Man (once under its original title, later under the title Secret Agent, The Saint, and The Prisoner. And while most people think of spies and beautiful, blonde genies when they think of the Sixties, it did produce some quality dramas. The Defenders, Route 66, The Fugitive, and Bonanza all aired during the decade.

Indeed, I have to say that quite frankly I think even the commercials were better in the Sixties. This was the era when a shining knight would "zap" clothes clean in ads for Ajax laundry detergent. It was also the time when ads for Hai Karate asserted that the cologne made men so irresistible to women that they'd have to fight them off. It was also an era of animated ad spokesmen, from Tony the Tiger to Cap'n Crunch. I don't think commercials have been nearly so good ever since.

While I suppose some might disagree with my assessment of the Sixties as the Golden Age of Series Television, it is agreed by most fans that it was the Silver Age of Comic Books. This was the era during which DC Comics revived some of their biggest names in new forms. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Atom were all revived during this time. For better or worse, the TV show Batman (a classic in its own right, but hardly representative of the original Caped Crusader) fueled new interest in the Dark Knight. And while DC Comics was creating new characters based on Golden Age ones, Marvel Comics was introducing entirely new characters and a new approach to comic books. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, and most of Marvel's classic line-up were introduced in the Sixties. What set Marvel Comics' characters apart from any superheroes that went before them is that they actually had personal problems. Indeed, some could be considered downright neurotic. And it must be kept in mind that DC and Marvel were not the only comic book companies who saw a resurgence in the Sixties. Charlton, Archie, and Dell all tried their hands at superheroes, sometimes even with a small degree of success.

While comic books were going through their Silver Age, I would also say that pop music was as well. Of course, much of this was due to the British. In 1964, The Beatles arrived on American shores and changed American music forever. In their wake followed several classic bands, such The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Hollies, and many others. For a time, the British literally dominated the American pop charts. This is not to say that American music was not good in the Sixties; actually, it was better than it ever was before or since. This was the heyday of Motown, with such artists as Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. And great American music did not end with Motown in the Sixties. This decade was when the late, great James Brown was at the height of his success. The decade also marked the first stirrings of power pop, in the forms of such bands as Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Monkees. Throughout the decade, rock music would get harder and harder until the subgenre later called "heavy metal" was developed. Such artists as Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, The Move, and others were fundamental in the development of the subgenre.

The Sixites also saw the publication of several books now considered classics. This was the period when To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were all published during the decade. And while it was published earlier, it was in the Sixties that The Lord of the Rings first attracted widespread attention. It was also a good time for children's books. Such classics as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, and The High King by Lloyd Alexander were all published in the Sixties.

I must also that the Sixties was a good decade for fashion. Okay, the bouffant hairstyle was definite hair don't, but by mid decade fashions were the best that they would be for fifty years. It was the era of the Mod look, with button-down shirts, wide lapels, kipper ties, turtlenecks, and flared pants all the rage for a time. And, of course, the decade also brought us the mini-skirt (the greatest fashion development in the 20th Century, in my humble opinion). The Sixties was the heyday of such designers as Mary Quant and Ben Sherman, when for a brief time Kings Road and Carnaby Street were the centre of the fashion world. Of course, later in the decade fashion would go downhill again, with such hippie fashions as love beads and sandals taking over, but for a time I think fashion was at its best in the Sixties.

The one medium I honestly think was not experiencing a heyday was the movie industry. Indeed, it seems to me that at that point the major studios were stuck in a rut. I honestly think they were out of touch with their audience and, as a result, were content to try to make movies similar to previous successes. The success of the classics Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, and of the not so classic Sound of Music (I love the songs, but hate the movie) would lead Hollywood to try a number of big budget musicals that would bomb at the box office (Dr. Doolittle comes to mind....). That is not to say that the Sixties did not produce its share of classic films. This was the Golden Age of the action movie in my mind, with such classics as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Planet of the Apes being released during the decade. It was also a good time for comedies, particularly spoofs. This was the era of Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Days Night, The President's Analyst, Cat Ballou, and many others. The Sixties was also a time when filmmakers pushed the envelope as to what was permissible in films, to the point that the Motion Picture Association of America finally replaced their Production Code with a ratings system. It was during this period that the movies Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen upped the ante on screen violence, that the movies Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's His Name let slip "the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words (as it is called in A Christmas Story)," and films from The Graduate to the Bond movies were a bit more frank about sex than movies made in earlier eras were. Of course, whether all of this is a good thing or a bad thing I guess depends on one's point of view.

Quite simply, it seems to that almost every medium that existed at the time was hitting on all six cylinders in the Sixties. To me, this is when television and music were at their very best, and comic books and books were nearly so. I can't think of any other decade that was quite so productive when it came to creating high quality pop culture artefacts. Sadly, it was not to the last. As the Sixties wound down, the British Invasion came to an end, Motown started producing fewer hits, television started airing more mundane fare, and the comic book industry stopped churning out new superheroes. Eventually, the Sixties would give way to the Seventies, when it seems to me that television, music, and especially fashion were at low ebb. I guess it really is true...all good things must come to an end.

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