Great pop songs of the 1960s

So if I ask you about great pop songs of the 1960s – what would you say?

Decades of music often get narrowed down to a handful of bands. If TV music channels are to be believed, the 80s could be reduced to Duran Duran while the 60s were all about the Stones and the Beatles. I love the Stones. I’m more lukewarm about the Beatles. But that decade had a massive variety of pop songs and I want to share some gems here.

Let me broaden your horizons!

Going to start with The Easybeats and the song Friday on My Mind. Such a cute number from the Australian popsters and this performance below was on French TV in 1967. Lead singer Stevie Wright had something of a long and sad decline after the band split up. He was the subject of a less than flattering biography which detailed his drug addiction in painful detail.

On a happier note, rhythm guitarist George Young was the brother of Malcolm and Angus who went on to form the hugely successful rock combo – AC/DC.

When looking at the greatest 1960s pop songs – then you have to check out this chap. Chris Farlowe was never going to win a beauty contest but what a voice. Just hypnotic. Out of Time is such a heart string plucker of a number. Farlowe started out in skiffle bands and then after this crooning phase ended up in the 70s rock band Atomic Rooster for a while. They were one of those bands that had never ending line-up changes including drummer Carl Palmer who went on to form the 70s mega prog rock outfit: Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Carl Palmer is still going strong and has been growing radishes during the Coronavirus lockdown!

The Box Tops started out looking like your average clean cut early 1960s soul pop combo but then embraced a more grungy hippy vibe. Lead singer Alex Chilton had been drafted into the band at quite short notice and told by the record company to affect a growly voice. Incredibly, he’s only about 16 in this recording below. He went on to form Big Star, which influenced groups like REM. But he never attained – or maybe wanted – the kind of stardom he deserved. This song – The Letter – is for me, one of the top 1960s pop songs.

The Dutch 1960s pop combo Shocking Blue released Venus in 1969. I just find it hard to believe that this is 50 years old. And it still pops up on TV in various guises. It’s one of those quintessential pop songs of the 1960s that nobody can name the band.

Dionne Warwick and Don’t Make Me Over. Dionne was a backing singer for Elvis who got the recognition she richly deserved. And as you may know, she was related to the late Whitney Houston. I hardly need to argue the case for this being one of the great pop songs of the 1960s.

Growing up with the films of Stanley Kubrik

Clockwork Orange

For film-loving Baby Boomers there was one director who made iconic and yet very different films from the 1950s until his death in 1999. That was the brilliant Stanley Kubrik.

Costume from Clockwork Orange at the 2019 London exhibition on Stanley Kubrik (image: Tony McMahon)

In 2019, I went to an exhibition in London celebrating his decades of cinematic achievement and some of my iPhone snaps are here for you to peruse. A curious mix of Roman togas; eighteenth century courtly costumes and fashion from a space age future. All reflecting the very broad palette of his movies.

As a kid I watched the epic Roman slave revolt movie Spartacus with the late Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis plus a supremely malevolent Laurence Olivier. There were always sword and sandals moves on TV in the 70s like Cecil B DeMille’s 1949 classic Samson and Delilah or the Mervyn LeRoy directed Quo Vadis from 1951. But Spartacus was different – superior – and gripping from start to finish.

That was how Kubrik began the 1960s before giving us entirely different offerings such as the seedy tale of Lolita, the darkly comic Dr Strangelove parodying our fears over nuclear war, and then the overblown sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I hope this doesn’t sound callous because it isn’t intended to be but watching my mother’s gradual mental decline as a result of vascular dementia often made me recall the fate of the ship’s super-intelligent computer in Space Odyssey.

The scene, if you recall, is where the astronaut David Bowman removes one-by-one the “modules” that make up the mega-brain of HAL9000. And as he does so, the computer initially pleads for him to stop then its speech becomes more slurred until it stops to function. Any of you who have watched the effect of dementia will know what I mean.

Kubrik then gave us the nihilistic and very controversial A Clockwork Orange – a movie that was banned for years. The first time I saw it, in the sixth form, was at a friend’s house on a pirate video with Spanish subtitles. The grim, relentless violence carried out by its main protagonist, Alex, was believed to have inspired copy-cat incidents. Though I suspect the tabloids hyped this beyond any measure of reality.

Into the 1980s and we had this slew of Vietnam movies in 1987 with Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill jostling for position at the box office. At the time, I think most of us plumped for Platoon as the best of the lot. But it’s Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket that has stood the test of time. Apparently, I’ve read, Vietnam veterans thought Hamburger Hill was the most realistic but who remembers that movie – apart from me?

What Laurence Olivier wore in Spartacus (image: Tony McMahon)

Meeting people from the 19th century

Many younger colleagues and friends find it completely crazy to think that people of our generation – and we’re not ancient yet – met people born in the 19th century.

When I was six years old, I met my great-grandmother in Portugal who was born in … 1884. That is mind blowing even to me now. There was also my grandmother’s second husband who was basically my grandfather as a child – born in 1899. He used to have a joint birthday every year in the 1970s and 1980s with a woman born in the same year. Sadly they have obviously both gone.

In my road as a kid there was a First World War veteran – also born in the 19th century. Part of his face had been burnt very badly and the greater part of one ear had gone. Upsetting to think back that he was referred to be crueller children as the “lizard man”.

Did you know people born in the 19th century?

My step-grandfather born in 1899 – impersonating Hitler in the 1940s

Martin Luther King – a widow grieves

When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, there were always colour supplements lying round the breakfast table. They were the magazines that came with Sunday newspapers like The Sunday Times and The Observer. And the selling point was the strong images they conveyed of key political events. Occasionally, we’d get a copy of Life – the American publication – and I kept copies with the most iconic images.

The “golden age” of Life magazine is normally regarded as being between 1936 and 1972. It’s the photos that adorned its front pages in the late 60s that really struck me. The mad staring eyes of Charles Manson or students in France revolting in 1968. But this one is the most moving. Here’s Coretta Scott King – widow of the assassinated Martin Luther King.