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13 November 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 9:59am

The teen magazines that caught the Sixties as they happened

All the confusion, power and excitement of the Sixties could be seen unfolding in its teenage pop press.

By Jon Savage

In November 1966, Rave magazine put a colour picture of the Small Faces singer Steve Marriott on the cover. Sitting on a raised concrete flower bed, he is sporting a perfect centre parting, a three-colour Lord John polo shirt, tightly pressed mohair straight legs and white leather shoes. Yes, this exemplar of up-to-the-minute mod style is looking at the camera with a gaze that is half amused, half quizzical – as his thumb reaches up into his mouth in a child-like gesture of uncertainty.

The year 1966 had been a frenetic time for the Small Faces, giving them three top-ten hits, including the September number one “All Or Nothing”, and a number three album that stayed in the charts for half the year. At the beginning of November, they were preparing the release of their new single, “My Mind’s Eye”: a reflective, pretty song about an unspecified but fundamental revelation that ended with a minute of so of the group harmonising around a melody taken from the old Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard on High”.

Rave’s staff reporter Dawn James asked what made the “pale”-faced Marriott tick. “I believe we came from the earth and we go back to it when we die,” he replied; “the earth gives you and the earth takes back, and you become the bark of a tree, or a cluster of grass. That accounts for the desire of people to get close to the earth. Haven’t you ever felt such emotion from the scent of a flower that you wanted to crush it in your hand?”

Nothing could have been more different from the hard-headed East Ender who, earlier in the year, had been bellowing out “Picked her up on a Friday night” on “Sha-La-La-La-Lee”. James found the 19-year-old agonising about the big questions: “It takes a lot of thinking about, I don’t know enough about it yet. If anything really worries me, it’s this business of where we came from, where we go to and why. I could go potty thinking about it. I think a lot. Thinking is a gas.”

The revelation that lay behind all this was, of course, LSD. The Small Faces had taken the drug in May that year and, soon afterwards, they announced themselves to the press as totally changed beings. As the group’s Ronnie Lane told the NME, “there are other things I’m finding out about –they’re as old as time”. LSD became illegal in Britain and America during 1966: to talk openly about the drug was unwise, but the codes were there for those in the know (“my mind’s eye”, indeed).

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LSD and the counterculture would shortly change the mid-Sixties youth press as pop became rock. But the remarkable thing about 1966 was how many of the year’s currents and preoccupations were openly discussed in the pages of Disc and Music Echo, Record Mirror, Fabulous 208, Rave and the like. It was a rapid-fire, obsessive arena that was rich in content, all building up to a very vigorous youth media that was broadcasting the period’s rapid changes in newsprint, every week.

This was the year when an experimental and forward-looking mass youth culture – awash with money and confidence after the unprecedented success of the Beatles – came up against the realpolitik of economics and political reaction. It was a time of voices clamouring for liberation. In the US, it was the year of fast developments in the civil rights movement, the nascent women’s movement (propelled by the formation of the National Organisation for Women in the US) and the still underground gay (or, as it was then called, homophile) movement. It was a year when, in the UK, legislation to liberalise the restrictive laws concerning abortion and homosexuality was discussed in parliament and the House of Lords.

In popular culture, it was a period of fertile communication between black and white music: Otis Redding covered the Rolling Stones, while Holland-Dozier-Holland listened to Bob Dylan and came up with “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, a force of nature and the year’s most unstoppable record. The Beatles were so enamoured by the music coming out of the Stax studio that they seriously thought about recording their next album in Memphis – an idea scotched at the last minute because of concerns about money and security.

There was a new sense of freedom in pop. Money helped, but the dissolving impact of marijuana and LSD created new countercultures and fostered alternative ways of thinking. There was a fresh generational assertion, as more and more young people saw that they didn’t have to live like their parents, that they could dream of a different world. In the youthtopias of Swinging London, Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip, they made these ideas manifest in a theatre of peacock provocation.

While many adults were at once bewildered and disturbed by these manifestations, the pop press in America and Britain got on with the business of reporting events. It was a time of enormous ambition and serious-minded engagement: music was no longer commenting on life, but had become indivisible from life. It had become not just the focus of youth consumerism but a way of seeing, the prism through which the world was interpreted – and the press reflected that change.

America was less well served. In such a big country, television programmes such as Hullabaloo and Shindig! were randomly syndicated and were subject to the whims of the networks. The only regular nationwide programme with pop content was The Ed Sullivan Show. There were pop magazines such as Teen Beat, Tiger Beat and 16: most of these were monthlies with long deadlines, a definite handicap by 1966, when things were moving very quickly.

There was one important weekly, however, based in Los Angeles: the KRLA Beat. It frequently featured letters pages and “Teen Panels” that expressed dissident opinions. When the magazine heavily criticised the Beatles’ infamous “butcher cover” for Yesterday and Today, one reader wrote back: “Why is the sight of a few decapitated Barbie dolls and freshly butchered sides of beef more sickening than the lurid daily photographs of the effectiveness of our bombing and napalming in Vietnam?”

With its centralised media, Britain had two national TV shows – Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go!, the times of which varied around the regions. Apart from
the music weeklies – which also included Melody Maker and the New Musical Express – there were weekly women’s magazines such as Mirabelle, Boyfriend and Jackie, which had pop content. Add in monthlies such as Honey and Rave, and you have a market of considerable complexity and sophistication.

These magazines collectively sold over a million copies every week. They both reflected and shaped the messages broadcast by pop musicians to teens throughout the United Kingdom: it didn’t all happen just in London. Most of the writers were young – some of them even in their teens – and were, or had recently been part of the culture that they reported on. The style was informative and breezy, with a lack of self-consciousness that is both refreshing and useful to historical researchers.

The best British writers, such as Dawn James at Rave, Penny Valentine at Disc and Music Echo, and Norman Jopling and Tony Hall at Record Mirror, captured the changes as they were happening – either because they were expert young fans, close enough to their readers to verbalise what they might have thought – or because, like Hall, they were so tuned in to what was going on that they could predict trends, such as the popularity of soul music or west coast rock, before they happened.

In 1966, the pop weeklies wrote about topics as diverse as Peter Watkins’s banned TV film The War Game, drugs, the Vietnam War and the song “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (“terrible . . . crap”, commented the Beatles), Swinging London true or false, the full onset of soul and Motown into the country’s charts and the black experience from which that music came. As Lee Dorsey told Record Mirror, ‘‘Soul is expressing the emotions of the inner self, being able to get people to feel what you are doing.”

The weeklies asked musicians and their readers about the issues of the moment: the swinging capital, the latest Beatles single –  “Paperback Writer” was “not as good as they used to be”, said Vera Shotton (19). In autumn 1966, Disc’s Bob Farmer took a tour round the UK: Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol. In Birmingham he found that the youth might have loved Tamla and soul but they also had “a distaste for the droves of coloured immigrants”.

In Rave’s March 1966 issue, Dawn James took the Who’s Pete Townshend to task when he talked openly about taking drugs: “smoking hashish is harmless and everyone takes it”. As she retorted, “He is wrong, of course, everyone doesn’t. I don’t. Cliff Richard doesn’t. Twinkle my sister doesn’t. Lulu doesn’t. Paul Jones doesn’t. Dozens of people involved in pop lead normal lives. But to the world of the Who drugs are a normal thing.”

As Disc and Music Echo’s regular singles reviewer, Penny Valentine was on the front line of the year’s overwhelming onrush of styles, sounds and attitudes. She had to make snap judgements and more than often she got it right. Confronted with the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, she wrote, “If you have ever been lonely, if you have any soul or any heart at all you must go and buy this disc now. After you have heard it you will never need to listen to another record for as long as you live.”

That didn’t stop her becoming infuriated by the Yardbirds’ third single of 1966, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”: “I have had enough of this sort of excuse for music,” she said. “It is not clever, it is not entertaining, it is not informative. It is boring and pretentious. I am tired of people like the Yardbirds thinking this sort of thing is clever when people like the Spoonful and the Beach Boys are putting real thought into their music. And if I hear the word psychedelic mentioned I will go nuts.” The record was a chart flop.

The stresses and strains of the year were all there. In a similar way, the weeklies and monthlies aimed at young women were poised between traditional roles – the idea that marriage was the summit of female aspiration – and the new freedoms tentatively proposed by contemporary icons such as Dusty Springfield (the one female singer who was in charge of her music) and Cathy McGowan, the charismatic, much-imitated presenter of Ready Steady Go!.

Honey’s February 1966 issue contained adverts for “Modern Wedding Etiquette” – and even a feature that proclaimed “Bride of the Month” – but there was also a long feature about “jobs for the girls”, which announced, rather optimistically, “Anyone Can Do Anything Anywhere”. At the same time, Rave had women’s style pages proclaiming “Fashions for the Jet Set”, posing young models next to BEA aircraft and wearing two-piece “go-anywhere” suits by Biba, among others.

Rave’s regular advice feature “This Is Your Life” discussed topics such as drugs and premarital sex. The May issue addressed the mid-Sixties phenomenon of young women leaving home and finding bedsits in central London. The answers from Ian McLagan (Small Faces) and Wendy Varnals (from the new TV show A Whole Scene Going) were sensible and realistic: “London swallows you up. It is madness to come here without a job and a home.” As Rave warned, “there are a lot of lonely girls in London, still-on-the-outside-looking-in”.

In general these magazines constituted a thorough investigation of the teenage mindset, its hopes, its obsessions, its fears and aspirations. Because, in 1966, pop was for youth: coverage in mainstream newspapers and monthlies was comparatively rare – often very well observed (as in John Heilpern’s Observer piece on Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the business brains and managers of the Who), but not from within. It was the arena of the time, but not burdened with self-consciousness or filtered through an excess of opinion and ego.

In 1966, it still seemed possible to write for a unitary market. That would change in 1967, as drugs and the counterculture did for the old-style music press. Already in late 1966, the weeklies were struggling, as were their readers, with the onset of psychedelia: partly because it demanded a new language, partly because it so obviously espoused drugs. Letters to the Melody Maker castigated marijuana as “evil” and psychedelic music as “a contrived studio sound to hide the inadequacies of many new groups”.

New publications were launched to chart this change. In America, Paul Williams’s Crawdaddy! began presenting serious pop writing a year before Rolling Stone and, in late 1966, invented the term “rock”. Underground magazines such as the Los Angeles Free Press, London’s International Times and the East Village Other charted the politicisation of youth in the Sunset Strip curfew
riots, the Provo riots in Amsterdam, and the protests at UC Berkeley. The age of innocence – or willed ignorance – was over.

Like the UK top ten, which in early 1967 featured a high proportion of ballads (“Release Me”, “This Is My Song”), the UK pop magazines began to lose their central position. It was their job to reflect the charts, after all, and these were becoming increasingly polarised. For most of 1966, however, they held all the different strands in their hands. Pumping pop nationwide in all its complexity and paradoxes, they remain one of the best historical records of a powerful and still contested time.

Jon Savage’s “1966” is published by Faber & Faber

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain