Originally published in ARC Magazine 21
There are perhaps no greater indicators on the end of an epoch than when its relics end up in the glass cases of museums—a moment that no doubt abounds with existential dread for those who still own the relics. And while the sixties remain vividly imagined yet further from reality with each passing day, those of us born after can only ask: just whatever happened to all those good-looking youth with the munificent helpings of hair?
It was perhaps to bring them out of hiding that was at the heart of the V&A’s most recent retrospective, You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70, for the overall impression left on you is more that of family scrapbook than archaeological dig.
In the first room we are witness, on a series of monochrome screens, to black men being harangued by police officers in Alabama; then, seconds later, Martin Luther King giving his famous address; JFK waving to the masses; man stepping on the moon. Associated audio for each blares out, only slightly out of sync, through a pair of headphones provided to all who enter. From this unvarnished, newsreel lens of reality we move swiftly on to the technicolour dream being made on the very streets of the late 1960s, where areas that aren’t filled by psychedelic whorls and vinyl records then by those looking at them. It’s Monday morning and you can barely move for people.
According to the very swanky exhibition brochure—a hardback tome that costs more than the entry fee to the exhibition itself—curator Victoria Broackes refers to the sixties as not one revolution but as a series of revolutions, with this plurality manifest in the space as a series of themed rooms: revolution in youth identity, revolution in style, revolution in consumerism, revolution in communications. Revolution in the head. And so on. In reality though your first impression of the sixties here is not of revolution, but stuff: through narrow corridors that bottleneck constantly with the sea of people you are bombarded on all sides by dresses, catalogues and vinyl; pamphlets and protest posters; gig tickets, letters and fanzines. Books, like The Divided Self or The Female Eunuch, with just the right amount of wear. A salvaging what is or was lost, both real and spiritually; things that at the time nobody thought about salvaging. The only revolution alluded to in the very literal sense of the word is Mao’s Cultural Revolution, one that does not strike as the kind anyone would be keen to repeat.
Once you fight your way to the plaques you quickly pick up on a common theme. First signs of it appear in the reverence given to particular London street names that, when paired with their modern incarnations, feels quite alien; King’s Road, Carnaby Street, Tottenham Court Road. Then you realise this very same reverence—this particular tone, this particular enthusiasm—extends to every plaque in the exhibition. And in this tone is a presumed consensus. Your agreement in the sixties being a revolutionary time is implicit, rather than proven. And all blending seamlessly with the closure that is inherent of a museum context—telling us that not only are the sixties behind us, but so are the good times.
I passed two old women who stood, with rheumy eyes, before an elaborate display of the original Sergeant Pepper uniforms. ‘That’s exactly how it was,’ said one. ‘Yes, it was,’ said the other. It was clear from the ensuing conversation, but most of all their tone—that same tone as the plaques, verbally expressed—that they aren’t talking about the Beatles but something far more profound. They are talking about an essential essence. An essence that lost its scent long ago, but for those who remember it can still be discerned just from the ashes. They laugh as though at a private joke; a joke so funny you can always laugh, provided you heard it right the first time. Then suddenly you see everyone else around you is laughing, all except you, ha, ha, ha.
It may seem a little gormless to get irritated about nostalgia at an exhibition all about the past—especially a period as romanticised as the sixties—but it’s this feature that sets apart exhibitions that are truly historical from those concerned with things still within living memory. After a certain amount of time, the narrative cast upon a particular era becomes set—we can question that narrative, even offer our own alternatives, but ultimately our guess becomes as good as any, if not merely a different interpretation of the same facts. And until then there is limitless potential for revision. The period itself becomes unimportant by the time it reaches its final impression: that which is uttered upon the very last breath.
But then it’s one thing to be aware of nostalgia when it’s being thrown at you and something else entirely to resist it. In one of the latter rooms, suddenly all of the fawning plaques fell away to the periphery, replaced by a facsimile of some dear green place; a dedication to that other sixties invention, the open air music festival. Sly & the Family Stone play Everyday People across three giant screens as I enter, buoyed by the drone of a crowd that’s just off camera; then the camera turns, and there they are, those whose exertions we have spent the past hour or so ogling at but have so far themselves been absent: the good-looking youth with the munificent hair, the happy faces of the future. Even before Sly fades out and is replaced by Jimi Hendrix shredding the Stars and Stripes I knew I wanted to be there—and after checking myself disappointed to accept I wasn’t, and never would be.
Utopian ideals can only ever be naïve with the foreknowledge of how they panned out, but perhaps for those who didn’t know—those who tried their best to live those ideals—reaching the end wasn’t what mattered anyway. Perhaps it was all about just being able to talk about those ideals without caring who rolled their eyes. Could any of us be in a crowd without feeling like we’re being watched, nowadays?