“I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair; ’77 and ’69, revolution was in the air”, or so sang erstwhile MySpace ‘phenomenon’ and purveyor of the insipid Sandi Thom. The rest of this forgettable track aside, these lyrics (and Thom can claim none of the creative spark for this sentiment) provide an interesting insight into the prescriptive nature of music history. There seems to be a general consensus, usually by those with a vested interest (Stuart Maconie et al I’m looking at you) that there are certain dates that are intrinsically ‘magical’ when it comes to music production, and thus are etched into our collective musical minds as significant. 1969 is one of these sacrosanct years. Even the most cursory of glances at the music press at the moment will yield myriad articles singing the praises of this year. Yet all will focus on one band, one album and one conclusion: the Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’ and that 1969 was a full stop at the end of a creative surge in popular music.
Ok, let’s get the necessaries out of the way. Yes, the Beatles were (and still are) unparalleled. They are among the most significant products this country has ever produced, and I don’t just mean musically, I mean they’re up there with the Magna Carta and the NHS! Yes, ‘Abbey Road’ is an amazing album and it did serve as the perfect end to the Beatles’ career. But the way 1969 has passed into musical history, you’d be forgiven (well, not by me) for thinking that the whole of the music industry shut down, entering a dark-age of self-indulgent stadium rock until punk came along and breathed, or rather spat, vitality back into British music.
The points I’d like to try and get across in this article are firstly, that 1969 doesn’t simply represent the ‘end of an era’ and that a lot of exciting musical ventures took root in that year. Secondly, I want to try and dispel somewhat this prescriptive vision of ‘great years’ or even ‘great period’ of music in history. The sanctifying of an imagined past (almost always viewed in comparison to an un-favoured present and negatively projected future) is an overly simplistic and detrimental way of viewing music.
1969 is traditionally seen as the year that the 60’s hippie culture had its last hurrah – the year that the hedonistic, ‘free love’ finally caught up with itself, looked in the mirror and shuddered. It is regarded as an ending. This view is forged almost entirely from three facts, as far as I can see; that the Beatles recorded what was (when viewed with a healthy dose of hindsight) inevitably their final album, that the Woodstock festival had left many with a feeling that something so (logistically and culturally) huge had taken place, that it was unsurpassable and (most conveniently) it was the end of a decade – a nice little bookend to package what had indeed been a significant period for the still burgeoning art form of popular music. However, a look at some of the other albums released that year will show that 1969 was as much a year of births and new beginnings as it was deaths and ends of eras. I’d like to pick out three examples that demonstrate this.