You Say You Want a Revolution (Part I)

But did we? asks Portsmouth pop historian Dr Dave Allen in this first part of a series of articles on the impact of ’60s counterculture on our city, the legendary Birdcage venue playing a key role.

Who wanted a revolution? Well John Lennon for one, since the enquiry comes directly from his lyrics to ‘Revolution’ on the Beatles’ White Album of 1968 – the year of the revolutions.

But did we? And who are we anyway? Alexis Petridris seems to know. Young Alexis, born in September 1971, is the music critic for the Guardian and reviewed for them (7.9.2016) the exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ which is at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum from September 2016 – February 2017. Perhaps he felt the topic would be so obvious that he didn’t even bother to explain its subject matter at the opening of his review, although the subtitle, ‘Records and Rebels 1966-1970’, adds enough detail to get us going.

Alexis felt that the V&A (and one is tempted to wonder exactly what Their Majesties would have thought if they were still alive) had hit on the topic in trying to find a ‘pop cultural follow-up to 2013’s wildly successful ‘David Bowie Is’’ show, which is still on tour. He acknowledged, too, that the period chosen contained sufficient and sufficiently interesting music, fashion and ‘social upheaval’ from which to construct a show.

All well-and-good so far. But then young Alexis, whose knowledge of the 1960s is necessarily gleaned entirely from ‘our’ accounts let us know what he really thinks. Beginning with the requisite ‘But …’ he continued:

The people involved in the late 60s counterculture have barely shut up about it since the decade ended. Few generations are as self-mythologising as the baby boomers. It’s hard to imagine there’s a human being out there who hasn’t heard the story umpteen times.

And while he suggested that it is still possible to offer revised accounts of the period he noted that this show ‘is not much interested in that … Instead it opts to retell the traditional version of events’ (I think he’s correct). Ultimately however, Alexis relents and admits there is ‘a lot to enjoy’ on what is ‘quite a trip’. But is he right? Is it time to stop telling those tales? Are there more revisionist opportunities in the style of Jon Savage’s recent publication 1966, or have we baby boomers said it all?

The period in question begins with the early stirrings of psychedelia in 1966 when it seemed London ruled the world, although in truth historians of the British version tend to locate its origins at least a year earlier with the International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall in June 1965, and its star, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Some months later, in mid-April 1966, the American Time magazine published its edition on ‘London: The Swinging City’ acknowledging that for that brief period the capital had succeeded Paris and New York as the place to be. The icons of that brief period in the sun, most obviously the Beatles and Stones, Mary Quant, Twiggy, David Bailey, Julie Christie and the British ‘op’ and pop painters are all sufficiently familiar to need no introduction here.

In the summer of 1966, England’s footballers joined in, winning the World Cup at Wembley and a couple of weeks later the Beatles released what is probably their finest album, Revolver, with its sitars and reversed studio tapes, plus the seminal psychedelic track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. In the same month they played what were effectively their final gigs, culminating at the end of August in San Francisco. It is almost as though in doing so, they passed the baton from their adopted home, London, to the Californian West Coast, for by the following year it was San Francisco that was the place to be and be seen. Indeed, George Harrison and wife Patti Boyd made their own ‘trip’ there, fully dressed in hippie regalia to check out what was happening.

What was happening was the ‘Summer of Love’, focused on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and drawing thousands of young people to the city, advised by singer Scott McKenzie – to the ridicule of the Haight ‘originals’ – to ‘be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’. McKenzie appeared at midsummer’s Monterey Pop Festival alongside the Mamas & Papas, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, the Who, Otis Redding and all the major San Francisco rock bands – among whom Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company attracted the most attention while perhaps Country Joe & the Fish gave the most psychedelic performance with ‘Section 43’ from their album Electric Music for the Mind & Body.

But you know all this don’t you? As Joe would sing a couple of years later, ‘Here I Go Again’. And even if you don’t know, it’s all out there – look no further than Wikipedia which will tell you too about the opening of London’s UFO Club in late 1966, the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in the following April, the Legalise Pot Rally in Hyde Park in July 1967 and the publication of the UK’s major ‘underground’ papers International Times (October 1966) and Oz (early 1967).

That was London, and note that Time advertised its special edition as about the capital – it was ‘London: The Swinging City’ not England/Britain the Swinging Country, although it did suggest that ‘London is not keeping the good news to itself’, and while the article seemed to suggest that London was busy exporting all these new styles and attitudes to Czechoslovakia, Paris and New York, that was perhaps an inevitable American perspective.

Most of the rest of this multi-part article (collect the series!) will take up that idea but explore it in terms of how what was happening in San Francisco, London and other style centres impacted also on less obvious locations – in this case taking my home city of Portsmouth as an example. Whether it can function as the kind of ‘case study’ that would encourage extrapolation to generalise about places like perhaps Birmingham or Brighton, Liverpool or Leeds, is not the purpose of this brief account, but it might work.

Initially it might seem that focusing on Portsmouth is not too promising. It is the UK’s only island city and its huge natural harbour was then still the reason when the main employers were HM Dockyard and the Royal Navy. It was essentially a conservative military working class city stuck right on the cusp between the affluent south-east and the rural southwest. But it was itself, a flat city of heavily populated streets made special only by around four miles of parks and beaches in the once thriving seafront resort of Southsea.

After World War II, Billy Butlin led the way in reviving that seafront, much of which had been commandeered in 1944 to prepare for the D-Day invasion. With a local population seeking entertainment, enhanced by young naval ratings (some still on National Service) and summer holidaymakers, light entertainment flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s – notably the dance halls, pubs and cinemas. That cultural economy changed through the 1960s but as it did, younger people became more affluent, and many venues focused on attracting the younger punters.

In addition, the badly bombed Guildhall re-opened with a new concert hall in 1959 and so it was over the next few years that among the ‘popular’ musicians that came to town were Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, the Kinks, Donovan and Duke Ellington. Then, in the mid-1960s, new clubs – some unlicensed – opened to attract in particular the young mods who created a vibrant scene around three venues, Kimbells in Southsea, the Rendezvous (Oddfellows Hall) in Kingston Road and the Birdcage Club in Eastney.

Here the teenagers displayed the latest fashions and dances, heard the DJs playing the latest soul, R&B and Motown sounds and were thrilled by the live performances of a wide range of the latest acts, from the Animals to Rod Stewart, the Who, Ike & Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, the Small Faces, Little Richard and Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames. As in London, the mods lived largely for the weekend and being essentially materialistic – a particular prerequisite for the constant purchase of new clothes – they did not generally embark on any ‘consciousness-raising’ enterprise, although many took pills to keep themselves awake from Friday night to Saturday morning. The more adventurous often visited London, returning with tales of the latest fashions in clothes and music and, when the Birdcage closed, there was a scooter ride or last train to Bognor, where the Shoreline Club ran all-night.

Of all the venues in Portsmouth, the Birdcage is the legendary one, identified recently in a survey of mods across the country by Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson (The New Religion) as one of the key venues outside London. The central figure there was Rikki Farr who, spying an opportunity, had come from Brighton and opened up in February 1965. From 1968-1970 he was also the highly visible MC and stage manager at the Isle of Wight Festivals, but before that he entertained the young people of Portsmouth with what they wanted – and sometimes with what they didn’t yet know they wanted.

In that respect, there was a moment when the Birdcage recognised a split in the unanimity of the mods. One key characteristic of the early mods, ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’, ran alongside a resistance to uniformity. Mods rode scooters (except the ones who didn’t), wore parkas (unless they wouldn’t be seen dead in them), ordered bespoke suits to fit them and no one else, searched second hand clothes shops for the finest matching silk ties and handkerchiefs, and hitched to Petticoat Lane to buy leathers in colours no one else had. But around 1966 some Mods adopted the rather more fixed styles that are characteristic of what you find today in a shop like Brighton’s Jump the Gun. Alongside this uniformity came the new sounds from Jamaica which often appeared in the UK on the Bluebeat label. Ska had arrived and the skinheads were on their way. Midweek, the Birdcage started a ska/bluebeat records night with the ‘geezers’ sporting porkpie hats, but as we reached the end of 1966, changes were occurring

It probably started there in mid-1966 with a residency by the Move, who mixed soul, pop and embryonic psychedelia with a high energy stage show; then came the VIPs (who would go on to contribute members of Humble Pie, Art and Spooky Tooth), The Birds (including Ronnie Wood), the In Crowd (subsequently Tomorrow) who appeared on John Peel’s first Radio One show, and the first great ‘supergroup’ Cream. There were still soul acts, and mods and soul records but on Saturday 21 January 1967, the Pink Floyd arrived in town with their light show.

There is no doubt that the mods were surprised. Some who were there, still recall the event but there is neither memory nor evidence that their reception was hostile – it was simply that what they offered was unexpected. In fact, they were booked back a couple of months later and that didn’t tend to happen unless an act made some impression. In the next few weeks came the Who, the Syn (with a couple of future Yes men), and the In Crowd (again) although soul acts still arrived. The split among the committed mods and those who were attracted by new sounds and more flamboyant fashions was growing and the club was no longer attracting sufficient numbers to remain viable. In June 1967 it re-invented itself as The New Birdcage but it closed for good on Saturday 26 August. By Christmas 1967, it was re-fashioned and re-opened as a nightclub the Brave New World and continued to offer cutting-edge rock acts alongside British jazz, folk, and cabaret. But it was never quite the same again.

On the other hand, after a brief and suitably quiet period of mourning, Portsmouth recovered and burst into a new life, with 1968 and 1969 being perhaps the highpoint of its ‘Summers of Love’.