When the 1960s began, I was in the sixth form of a run-down private school on the Isle of Wight with no prospect of going to university and no thought that my future could be any less miserable and monotonous than my past. When they ended – literally, in December 1969 – I was on tour with Eric Clapton.
In those days before interviewers were dogged by protective PRs, I travelled with Clapton and his band (soon to metamorphose into Derek and the Dominos), hung out with them between gigs and watched every show from the wings. At the back of the stage, unnoticed by their audience, stood a bearded extra guitarist in a buckskin jacket and Stetson hat. It was George Harrison, whom Clapton had invited on the tour to escape the trauma of the Beatles’ breakup and get used to playing live again after years shut away in the recording studio. Sixties memories like that can still make me close my eyes and whistle through my teeth.
Many more will be stirring this autumn – and not only thanks to the Victoria & Albert Museum. This month sees the London premiere of Eight Days a Week, a documentary about the Beatles’ touring years, 1963-66, directed by Ron Howard. Hard on its Cuban heels, two more books about the 1960s will join the pile to which I myself have contributed more than my share. Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year reconstructs the band’s exploits in that eventful season (also recently commemorated in Jon Savage’s weighty 1966: the Year the Decade Exploded.) In October comes Paul Howard’s I Read the News Today, Oh Boy, a biography of Tara Browne, the young Guinness heir whose death at the wheel of a Lotus Elan inspired John Lennon’s masterpiece, A Day in the Life.
The flurry of 60s homage will arouse interest but no surprise, for this is the decade that never dies. At regular intervals since the mid-80s, glossy magazines have announced that the 60s are back with fashion spreads of Paisley fabrics, Mary Quant-ish bobs, shorter-than-ever miniskirts and elastic-sided chelsea boots. Sixties pop music eternally dominates radio playlists while its most notorious band, the Rolling Stones, though now withered old-age pensioners, are still widely reckoned the coolest, most dangerous dudes on the planet.
Much of the worship, of course, comes from the surviving participants, those one-time flower children who in some cases went on to be wealthy industrialists or media moguls and, in others, sad gits with grey ponytails. But the 60s’ most fervent acolytes tend to be people who never experienced them first-hand, yet still yearn for them in a syndrome that psychologists call “nostalgia without memory”. (Tony Blair’s concept of Cool Britannia in the 90s, for instance, pastiched the swinging London of 30 years earlier, right down to the union jack carrier bags.) In popular memory they live on as a rosy blur of psychedelic colour, sexual permissiveness and Beatles music, their complexity and manifold horrors (the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war, the Moors murders, the ever-present threat of global nuclear war, to name just a few) either unrealised or disregarded.
I’m thought of as an expert on the period, thanks to my books about the Beatles and the Stones, but actually I consider myself somewhat of an imposter. I didn’t make it to swinging London until after the 60s’ halfway point when, many sensed then and historians now say, its best was already over. Latecomer or not, my life was to be transformed beyond the wildest dreams I’d never had.
I had left school and the Isle of Wight aged 18 to become an “editorial apprentice” on a weekly newspaper on the fringes of East Anglia. I therefore missed out completely on London’s first phase of totally unexpected fashionability, which was mainly about film and theatre and the first satire worthy of the name since the 18th century. On my second day at work, a vicar from whom I was soliciting news informed me kindly I had no chance of getting to Fleet Street without a university degree. I had already despaired of joining the stripe-shirted Oxbridge satirists currently flaying Harold Macmillan’s clapped-out Tory government on BBC TV’s That Was the Week That Was, at Peter Cook’s Establishment club or in the newly founded Private Eye. An obvious vain hope on my measly two A-levels.
Shackled to my boring round of funerals and whist drives, I watched from afar as the Beatles appeared on the Royal Variety Performance in 1963, sending entrenched class barriers tumbling, and then in 1964 as they left on their first trip to America, the point where the decade really exploded. I could only read in the new Sunday colour supplements about what seemed to follow in their wake; the sudden concerted burst of youthful creativity in fashion, art, photography and graphics. All the new mega-celebrities – David Bailey, Twiggy, Julie Christie, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay, Terence Stamp – were my age or a little older and seemed to congregate in the same, unpublicised clubs and bistros; the most emblematic pop single, among so many, was Dobie Gray’s The “In” Crowd.
In 1966, Time magazine dubbed London the style capital of Europe, bringing hordes of young Americans across the Atlantic intent on meeting the Beatles and, maybe, the Queen. From then on, the 60s became industrialised; the “in” crowd was everyone. Even the snack bar around the corner from my Newcastle upon Tyne bedsit put a sticker in its window saying JOIN THE SANDWICH SET. By then I was 22 and a reporter on a north-eastern daily paper but no aspirations beyond, if I was very lucky, the Guardian’s Manchester office. Each weekend, I devoured the Sunday Times Magazine with its ads for Scandinavian furniture, stereo systems and white Kosset carpets that were part of the new “swinging” ethos, as were its recipes for exotic dishes like chicken kiev and beef stroganoff using quantities of butter and cream that in the very recent war and postwar years would have seemed downright immoral.
Hugely wealthy from its advertising revenues, the magazine viewed itself as a stand-alone international title on the same level as Life or Paris-Match, employing a galaxy of top international photographers headed by the Queen’s brother-in-law Lord Snowdon (classless or what?) and including Bailey, Don McCullin, Terry O’Neill, Eve Arnold and Diane Arbus. From opulent sales pitches for After Eight mints or Smirnoff vodka, you’d turn to running spreads of Glasgow slums or the Biafra famine or Napalm-scalded child victims of the Vietnam war.
The “quality” Sunday papers, above all, were known to recruit only from Oxbridge. But in 1966, in a quintessentially 60s moment, The Sunday Times magazine announced a talent contest for writers under 23. I just met the age qualification and sent in a 2,000-word profile of my wicked, irresistible old Grandma Norman, who used to sell seaside rock on Ryde Esplanade. I won the competition and was rewarded with a job as a staff writer at a stupefying £30 per week.
Thus I made my belated arrival in London in June 1966. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album had just been released and the Beatles’ Revolver was soon to be. The weather was continuously glorious; Chelsea’s King’s Road thronged with boys in Victorian military tunics and “dolly birds” in wasp-striped minidresses and floppy hats; the new Post Office tower, which then had a revolving gourmet restaurant at its summit, glittered thrillingly on the skyline.
A couple of weeks later, England won the World Cup. I was outside the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington when the victorious team appeared on its balcony with the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, taking a break from economic problems as bad as today’s (another aspect of the 60s no one wants to know about). Later, I went to one of the parties held every night throughout South Ken’s and Earls Court’s bedsitter lands. You didn’t have to be invited: you just walked in. Some people made a living out of stealing from the heaps of coats left on beds.
During the evening, I heard one wasp-striped minidress ask another if she and her boyfriend would be going on to the Guys and Dolls coffee bar in Chelsea. “No,” was the reply. “We’re going to bed. Honestly, I’m feeling so-o randy tonight.” Quite a change from my late Newcastle girlfriend’s stern injunction: “Gerroff, ya booger.”
Nothing better illustrates the 60s’ phenomenal indulgence of youth than my career on the Sunday Times magazine. When I arrived, the newspaper was sponsoring Sir Francis Chichester’s first solo circumnavigation of the world in his ketch, Gipsy Moth IV. My first assignment was to interview him before his departure. Coming from the Isle of Wight I was presumed to know about yachting, although throughout my childhood on Ryde pier I’d never set foot in a sailboat. My maiden voyage was with Chichester as he tried out Gipsy Moth in the Solent, just off my former home. I next went to Oxford to talk to a former professor of Anglo-Saxon named JRR Tolkien, whose books about hobbits and elves had thus far sold mainly on American college campuses.
A year later, I was given a first-class Air France ticket and $1,000 of travellers’ cheques and sent to America on a dream assignment: drive Route 66 in a Ford Mustang from Chicago to LA for a 5,000-word cover story, then write about Harlem’s Apollo theatre, see James Brown on stage and meet Big Mama Thornton and Screaming Jay Hawkins. For my stay in New York, I was booked into the Algonquin hotel, famous haunt of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and the New Yorker wits. As I sat in the lobby in my Take 6 suit, kipper tie and Anello & Davide boots, a judge and his wife from Cincinnati, Ohio, told me that they’d seen all my movies and would be honoured if I’d have dinner with them. They were too nice to tell me who they thought I was; I didn’t ask and we passed a pleasant evening that provided my first-ever taste of green pasta.
Like William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, I’d pictured Fleet Street as a place where “neurotic men in shirtsleeves and eyeshades … rushed from telephone to tape machine, insulting and betraying each other in surroundings of unredeemed squalor”. That was not how things were on the Sunday Times magazine. Picture the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – that portly, guffawing figure, seated on a heap of turkeys, strings of sausages and crackers – and you have a fair idea of my new editor, Godfrey Smith. Under Godfrey, life was a constant round of champagne parties and lunches and dinners at his favourite restaurants, Chez Victor, Mario and Franco’s La Terrazza and the Gay Hussar. While it didn’t teach me much about writing, it taught me to open champagne, smoke only Havana cigars and guiltlessly enjoy what Godfrey called “Nooners” – lunch with a female companion, then the rest of the afternoon in bed.
Around the first week of December, work virtually stopped for a sequence of pre-Christmas treats including a trip to the Oxford v Cambridge varsity rugby match (when I rooted for Cambridge as fervently as if I’d been there) and a lunch at which executives entertained their secretaries with the thinly disguised objective of Nooners to follow. Our office Christmas party was an occasion to which all London’s in-crowd fought for invitations, and might well contain Lord Snowdon in one corner and the East End gangster Reggie Kray in another. We would push all the desks together, then dance on top of them, Godfrey leading the measure.
When I tell young journalists about the expenses, they simply don’t believe me. These you drew in advance with a pink slip which any magazine colleague could countersign; then you took it to a cashier’s window from which old big, blue £5 notes were unquestioningly shovelled out. From the (never challenged) accounts we submitted, the business manager Bill Cater once offered an “Expenseman of the Year” award. It was won by my office-mate James Fox – later author of White Mischief, and Keith Richards’s ghostwriter – for an entry reading simply: “Taxi, there. And back.”
The magazine’s huge profits in fact subsidised the paper, which led to as much mutual dislike and suspicion as between old East and West Berlin. Our black-and-white colleagues thought us all drunkards and sexual perverts while we referred to them contemptuously as “the Steam Section”. The paper’s then proprietor, Lord Thomson, was the most benign ever known; so long as the ad revenues kept rolling in, even our worst editorial blunders and bungles received no word of censure. Far from dreading the sack, we had the job security of monks illuminating manuscripts in some medieval cloister.
Godfrey was not answerable to the Steam Section’s editor, the dynamic Harry Evans, but directly to Lord T through his chief executive, CD Hamilton (which explains why subsequent ST editors have wanted to make their mark on the magazine rather than the paper). We did whatever we pleased, without any regard to topicality, the PR machine or, indeed, our readers.
In 1968, Godfrey decided to profile Elizabeth Taylor for no other reason than she was the world’s biggest celebrity and most beautiful woman. Such was the magazine’s prestige that she was instantly at our disposal. Godfrey was to have written the 5,000-word cover piece himself, but when the research was all in, he decided he couldn’t face it and handed the job over to me.
I spent two days interviewing Taylor and her husband, Richard Burton, in the Austrian Alps, where Burton was filming Where Eagles Dare – as usual without a PR in sight. I rode with them in their limo, carried their pet Pekinese around, had dinner with them at their hotel, then sat up drinking brandy with Burton, who still wore his Nazi officer’s uniform from the day’s filming. A drunken American expat joined us uninvited and when Burton told him to fuck off, he pulled a handgun. The tense situation was alleviated when Elizabeth Taylor came downstairs in her nightdress (pink chiffon) to see what all the noise was about.
I never took holidays because every day was like one. After work, if there was no champagne party in the office, I’d go to a club: the UFO in Tottenham Court Road to see Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, the Speakeasy, off Regent Street, where you entered, Narnia-like, through a glass wardrobe door, or Revolution in Bruton Place where Christine Keeler, the woman who brought down the Macmillan government, danced alone every night.
Swinging London’s great charm was that three quarters of it wasn’t swinging yet; exploitation of its youthful swingers was still at a minimum. Dinner for two in a bistro cost around £3.50. At my friend Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba boutique in Kensington Church Street, the stuff was so reasonable that the lowest-paid office worker could afford a new outfit every week, trying it on in the communal changing-room with the likes of Cilla Black, Julie Christie or Cher.
I didn’t partake of everything in the sensory smorgasbord. I seldom encountered pot (other than in the magazine’s art department) and was never offered LSD. My first and only line of cocaine didn’t come until the early 1980s, albeit through the good offices of a 60s icon, Marianne Faithfull.
Nor did I get into eastern religion following the Beatles’ example or join the hippies, who arrived post-1966. I would rather have swallowed hemlock than grown a beard, worn a kaftan, burned a joss stick or murmured “love and peace” in the peculiar, teeth-clenching flower-child accent whose last living practitioner seems to be Sir Richard Branson. But, naive and deluded though they may have been, the hippies’ festivals, love-ins and “happenings” brought hundreds of thousands together without the slightest violence; there were moments when even a cynic like me wondered if they might really be a force for changing the world for the better.
Normally, people are impatient to get out of an old decade and into a new one, but not those of us for whom the 60s had turned into a non-stop party. Their final year brought a series of epic open-air festivals — Woodstock, Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight, the Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park – as if to squeeze the very most from every second. The Beatles had clearly been falling apart for months but the finale couldn’t come, one felt, so long as 1969 were kept alive.
I’d never considered writing anything substantial about the Beatles: too many people were already doing it and the magazine, for all its trendiness, had an odd blind spot about pop music. But now an American magazine asked me to look into their troubled business organisation, Apple Corps, and their new American manager, Allen Klein, who had apparently caused the fatal rift between John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Though on this occasion I was moonlighting for New York’s Show magazine, my Sunday Times credentials opened every door as always. The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor allowed me to hang around Apple’s offices at 3 Savile Row for several weeks pretty much as I pleased. I spent a morning with Lennon and Yoko Ono in their office, sat in on a George Harrison photoshoot, chatted to Ringo as he ate egg and chips, even got to meet the terrifying Klein. With McCartney already in self-imposed exile in Scotland, it became clear that the band was disintegrating under my nose.
In 1969 I also returned to America to interview Charles Atlas, the strong man, in Florida and 87-year-old PG Wodehouse at his home on Long Island. Wodehouse gave me autographed copies of two of his books, one a pristine 1909 paperback subsequently valued at £2,000. I came home on the newly launched QE2, travelling first class, as I explained to Godfrey, “so that I’ll have time to think about what I’m going to write”. Wodehouse sent me a box of cigars as a “sailing gift” and – sweet man! – a dust-jacket quote for my debut novel, which had just been accepted by the first publisher to which it was offered.
Back in London, Lord Snowdon had been assigned to photograph Eric Clapton for my profile. Snowdon shot Clapton alone with his guitar at the Lyceum ballroom in the Strand, looking like something from Wagner’s ring cycle amid swirling, icy clouds of carbon dioxide. So for me even the end of the 60s was a gas.
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