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1969: One month to change the world

Over four weeks in 1969 a succession of cultural shocks – the moon landings, Manson murders, Woodstock and the Beatles’ walk across Abbey Road – ended the Sixties. But, at the time, we had no idea what we were living through

Around lunchtime on Friday 8 August 1969, as a policeman held up traffic, the four members of the Beatles crossed and re-crossed the zebra crossing outside the studio in St John’s Wood where they were making their latest and what would turn out to be their last album. The photographer, who had erected his ladder in the middle of the road, took just six exposures before they went back into the studio to complete it.

That same night, thousands of miles away, four other long-haired people, this time acting on the orders of a jailbird and would-be rock star called Charles Manson, descended on a luxury home in the Hollywood hills and butchered the five people they found there, the most famous of whom was the beautiful actress Sharon Tate.

Fifty years later those two events continue to reverberate, benignly or otherwise. People who weren’t even born when the Twin Towers came down in 2001, let alone when the Beatles were up and running, still make pilgrimages from all over the world to snap Instagram pictures on what is Britain’s only listed zebra crossing. Some may also go to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s well-timed new film set in Los Angeles against the background of the Charles Manson murders. The former doesn’t seem quaint nor the latter repellent. In a way, they’ve both turned out to be classic or, as the present prefers to put it, iconic.

Communications being as slow as they were in 1969, it was still possible for the most celebrated stars of their age to have their pictures taken on a busy thoroughfare without any word of it, let alone photographic evidence, leaking into the press. This absence of electronic connectedness granted similar privacy to the murderers. The police had very little to go on beyond their suspicion that the carnage at Cielo Drive had all been somehow connected with drugs. On the weekend of the Tate murders, the Sunday Times ran a story headlined “Actress, heiress die in hippie ritual killing” on the basis that the word “pig” had been written in blood on the wall and “the word pig is used by hippies for police”. Following that the paper had nothing further to add until 2 December, when it reported the police’s conclusion that the crime had been perpetrated by “an occult band of hippies, directed by a leader who calls himself Jesus”.

In the summer of 1969, when Bryan Adams was only ten, I was a 19-year-old student. That summer I hitchhiked repeatedly between Yorkshire and London, labouring for my father in the north and enduring Withnail-level squalor in the capital. For those of us who were there, 1969 is simultaneously the day before yesterday and the Ancient World. A standard exercise in mortality mathematics will remind us that if we subtracted 50 years from 1969 we would end up at around the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. It’s a long time ago.

I don’t know anyone who was there that hankers to go back. However, thanks to posterity and the media, the shipwrecks and seamarks of 1969 seem to live even more in the collective memory of people who weren’t then alive. They may not have been there, but they have read the books, watched the documentaries and probably have a far more extensive selection of souvenir T-shirts than any of the survivors.

Those images of 1969 – Redford and Newman leaping off that cliff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” before the exhausted survivors of Woodstock (“you can leave if you want to – we’re just jamming”); Neil Armstrong making that little jump from the ladder to the surface of the moon; the scarf-framed face of Leila Khaled, the first photogenic hijacker; and, more than any other, four blokes on that north London zebra crossing – are now, thanks to the magic of full colour visuals (which weren’t available in anyone’s living room at the time), simply part of everyone’s shared repository of cultural reference points.

For those of us who were around it’s often difficult to distinguish between what we remember and what we have learned to remember. The events of 1969 are now more distant from the present day than the events that Anthony Powell was recalling when he began A Dance to the Music of Time in the 1950s. In that he says: “Nothing establishes the timelessness of Time like those episodes of early experience seen, on re-examination at a later period, to have been crowded together with such unbelievable closeness in the course of a few years; yet equally giving the illusion of being so infinitely extended during the months when actually taking place.”

Sharon Tate in 1968: the Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor described her murder as “pretty nasty” ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

I wasn’t aware at the time that life was moving at a pace it would never move at again. When the Rolling Stones played for free in Hyde Park on 5 July, it was the day after Brian Jones had died in his swimming pool, which was less than a month since he had been told he was no longer in the band. Obviously there was much going on that we couldn’t be expected to be aware of until later. If I’d been waiting in a bank on the Uxbridge Road a few days after that Stones concert and noticed a man dressed as a character from a Walter Scott novel queuing to cash a cheque, I wouldn’t have been aware this was Michael Palin on his way to the first day of filming of a new show that would come to be called Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

I turned 19 on 27 July 1969. On that same day the crew of Apollo 11, who had splashed down in the Pacific three days earlier following their trip to the moon, were still confined within their capsule at an air force base in Texas because the doctors were concerned about what pestilence they might have brought back with them. Their wives turned up to be photographed alongside them, waving from outside the capsule as if through the plastic window of a child’s play tent. I note from looking at the footage on YouTube that nobody wept. This is one indication of how different the world was in 1969. Man went to the moon, walked around a bit, ­miraculously returned and yet at no stage did the cameras catch anyone having so much as a sniff.

My father and I had stayed up to watch Neil Armstrong gingerly descend the ladder from the module and put his foot on the lunar surface. Our viewing experience was rendered more unreal by the fact that the pictures were black and white and the camera, which was supposed to capture all this history, had ended up on its side. Thus we pretended we could see what James Burke was describing, but really we were as wise as an expectant father trying to decipher his first ultrasound. Is that the Sea of Tranquillity or a baby’s penis?

We were slow to enthuse in 1969. OMG culture had not arrived. We armchair witnesses to this unprecedented demonstration of the power of technology and the mad courage of three crewcuts were as difficult to impress as the audience for the Stones in the park, most of whom had kept their bony backsides firmly on the royal grass throughout. This was only three years, don’t forget, since England had won the football World Cup at Wembley and even that hadn’t led to parties in the street. In the morning after the moon landings my mother asked, “Did you see it?” and I said, “I think we did.”

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That much-memorialised decade, the Sixties, may have been drawing to a close but in many ways it still felt like the Britain of the 1950s. It was still a country of bank managers, door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen, tramps, Teddy boys, students wearing college scarves and unshaven working men laboriously transporting heavy items across town on rusty pram wheels.

There was much talk about the future but it seemed to be eternally delayed. In 1969 I wasn’t aware of knowing a single out gay person. As Paul McCartney said of the Beatles’ gay manager Brian Epstein: “We weren’t against it – we just thought it was funny.” When the Stonewall riots took place in June, the New York Times appeared to take the police’s side. Nobody talked about diversity. When the underground press featured pictures of people of colour they tended to be young, female and had neglected to put their shirts on.

The underground press, which could be bought wherever they sold Health & Efficiency, was enjoying itself doing things that nobody else would. The cover of the March 1969 issue of Oz featured Germaine Greer rummaging in the flies of a scandalised Viv Stanshall. I remember a near-obsession with the novelty of public nakedness. The reason that Hair was the hottest ticket in the West End was that its climactic scene featured the entire cast standing entirely bare. The light was kept low enough to ensure you couldn’t see much, particularly if you were sitting as far away as we students were. It was also the year Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestled naked before a roaring fire in the film of Women in Love. Even that seemed curiously unsexual. When the first album from Eric Clapton’s new group Blind Faith came out that summer and featured a topless 13-year-old girl on its cover, most were prepared to take Clapton’s word that it was an image of innocence rather than an invitation to depravity. You could certainly buy it in Boots.

The hip world co-existed with the straight. TV was just three channels, all of which went off before midnight. The Black and White Minstrel Show, in which white singers in blackface sang “Ol’ Man River”, was at the height of its popularity on the BBC. ITV had just launched Please Sir!, a situation comedy in which secondary school teacher John Alderton fended off the attentions of girl pupils who were under 15, this being the age at which most people still left school. Hits like Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” and “Space Oddity” – which the unknown David Bowie had released to cash in on the moon landings – genuflected in the direction of the altered states offered by drugs, but the overwhelming majority of people who bought these records never went near the drugs that might have inspired them.

The average age of the people working on the Apollo moon mission was 26, which ought to have made the moon landings every bit as much the achievement of youth as any free concert. However, it was never seen in this way. The world was to all
intents and purposes divided between those who were long-haired and went around talking about how they were going to “fuck the system” and those with short hair and pocket protectors who zealously guarded that same system.

In April 1969, Rolling Stone, which was not yet the Time magazine of the baby boomers, carried a cover featuring a state trooper belabouring a prone demonstrator and the line “American Revolution”. Its big advertisers, the record companies, objected and this was therefore as far as Rolling Stone went in promoting insurrection. The same big record companies were only too happy to tap into America’s national pain if it meant selling a few records, but no further. One of the most popular tracks on the first album by Chicago Transit Authority, which came out that year, was a recording of the demonstrators at the previous year’s Democratic Convention in Chicago taunting the police with their chant “the whole world’s watching”.

There clearly wasn’t as much at stake in Britain as there was in America, which had Vietnam, an issue that combined Brexit-level bitterness with a good chance of getting killed. Nonetheless, 1969 was the year for marching against everything, from that war to the kind of college regulations that stipulated that visitors to women’s halls of residence had to keep one foot on the floor at all times. We could march for these things because we were suddenly, excitingly guaranteed to be in the majority. We products of the postwar baby boom were now in higher education, which afforded us sufficient leisure to mill around carrying copies of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, wielding banners that read “We Are The People Our Parents Warned Us Against” and following the precepts of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who, upon being asked what he was rebelling against, answered “What have you got?”

The weather that summer was decent and so huge crowds of late teens and twentysomethings seemed to gather at any opportunity. Once gathered, they provided the mainstream media with a story of which they never tired. The meat of this story was “What has the world come to?”, its spice provided by the fair to middling chance that somebody would take their clothes off for the photographers.

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The biggest of these gatherings, which took place just a week after the Tate murders, was Woodstock, which was covered even by the major TV bulletins in the UK, thanks to its unprecedented scale. Woodstock turned out to be the hippie Dunkirk, a logistical disaster spun into a triumph before most of the survivors had found their way home. Joni Mitchell wrote the song about how the people were stardust and golden in a motel room because the roads were too blocked for her to get there. The newspapers that covered it focused on the apparently amazing fact that all these people had gathered there without doing each other any harm, which was contrasted with what apparently ensued when people with short hair convened in a field.

Woodstock was turned from a cultural to an entertainment phenomenon months later when Warner Brothers released the movie and the triple soundtrack album. Everybody could recite the stage announcements. They were our favourite bit. “The New York State Thruway is closed, man!” The couple who were seen on the poster for the film and on the cover of the album embracing in a blanket only stayed one night and never got to see any bands. Happily, Nick and Bobbi Ercoline are still together 50 years later. So are a few of the bands.

We are stardust, we are golden: Joni Mitchell wrote her famous song about the Woodstock festival in a motel because she could not access the site. Elliott Landy/magnum photos

Two weeks after Woodstock, Bob Dylan turned up to headline the Isle of Wight Festival. Beforehand he submitted to the usual earnest questions from news reporters. Why the Isle of Wight? Because I want to see the home of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he deadpanned, presumably amazed they didn’t realise that he did it for the same reason most of us went to work: for the money.

There was a race on to sell all this youth-culture activity to the wider public. The Beatles were preparing the film of Let It Be, and Mick Jagger was worried the Stones might be missing the bus. Which is why he decided that the Rolling Stones’ autumn tour of America should climax with a free concert at Altamont Raceway in northern California. This would be filmed, the Hell’s Angels would provide security
and his group would thus claim their rightful place at the head of this huge worldwide movement.

The concert turned out to be memorable because of the death of Meredith Hunter at the hands of those Hell’s Angels. By that time the Manson Family were helping police with their inquiries. Journalists at the time and historians ever since have taken the coincidence of these two events as an excuse to write about the end of what they called the Sixties Dream. I’m not sure how much we thought there had been a dream or even how conscious we were of this being the end of something called the Sixties.

I can’t say with any conviction that the Manson murders represented any hinge moment where the scales fell from everyone’s eyes and the Age of Aquarius was revealed as the Age of Carnage. I never knew anyone who was such a believer in peace and love that they would have been shocked to find that there were some people with long hair who liked the same music they did but were nonetheless capable of terrible crimes. I thought what Joan Didion, living in Hollywood at the time, thought: “I remember that no one was surprised.”

On 10 August, the day after the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends, Beatles press officer and man about town Derek Taylor was making another desultory attempt to begin his memoirs. He recalled that when he and his wife had visited the house on Cielo Drive some time before, it was the first occasion they had encountered gates that could be opened via an intercom. He described the previous night’s events, at the end of which the body of the eight-months-pregnant Sharon Tate had been hung on the fake Tudor beams that he and his wife had admired, as “pretty nasty”. That’s very 1969. The greater the enormity of the event the more likely it was to be met with words that made no attempt to match that enormity. In this manner, Woodstock became “really nice”, Vietnam was “a bummer” and a messianic cult bent on slaughter was “pretty nasty”.

Looking back, nobody seemed particularly shocked about anything in 1969. This may have been some indication of how much change we had lived through in the previous few years. It could be that we had been stunned by the pace of it all and our nervous systems had decided the best way to respond to it all was with a studied nonchalance. Maybe the shrugging acceptance of the hippies had more in common with the stiff upper lip of their parents than anybody knew? It was difficult to imagine being surprised by anything now that we had seen men walk on the moon. At least we thought we had.

David Hepworth’s most recent book is “A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives” (Bantam)

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special