The Sixties ended 40 years ago in October 1973. Puzzled by that assertion? Let me put a question to you – when does a decade truly start and finish? You may think this a senseless question, but bear with me. I’m referring to the character, or spirit of a decade. A common approach to 20th century history is to examine it decade by decade, particularly from the 1920s onwards – as if each decade had its own character, shaped by the people, events, and culture which dominated it. When I reflect on the Twenties, for example, I immediately think of the Charleston and hedonistic ‘flappers’, and also the General Strike of 1926. The Sixties conjure up powerful images of The Beatles, Swinging London, James Bond, Mary Quant’s fashions and the heyday of Carnaby Street. But as Francis Wheen remarks, ‘ Don’t believe the calendar: decades have no fixed duration. What many of us think of as “the Sixties”…started in Britain three years behind schedule, sometime, as Philip Larkin observed, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. 1
One of the most remarkable and attractive features of Sixties culture was the incredible, seemingly unstoppable optimism of much pop music, beginning with the Beatles’ breakthrough in ‘63, and it was an optimism that carried on into the early Seventies, despite Vietnam, the violent deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the outbreak of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Pop culture did reflect changing times, with darker tones creeping in, reflected in tracks such as ‘Sympathy for the devil’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones, but the dominant mood music of the times was best summed up by tracks such as ‘The Age of Aquarius’ from the musical ‘Hair’ and ‘Up up and away’ by The 5th Dimension. This supercharged optimism was boosted by the historical achievements such as the rolling-out of Concorde (first test flight March 1969; first non-stop transatlantic flight September 1973) and the first moon landing (July 1969). These events gave rise to a feeling that everything was possible.
‘Even the bad times are good’
Despite some bleak indicators in the early Seventies – I would single out the Dawson’s Field hijackings of September 1970, the escalation of ‘the troubles’, power blackouts in late 1970 and early 1972 and increasing worry about inflation and unemployment – the optimism continued in British pop culture – though the underlying attitude would be best described as a wilful determination to have a good time, despite the darkening backdrop. Though the break up of the Beatles caused an hiatus, British pop music regained a sense of swagger, reflected in the exciting, spiky rock and roll riffs of T. Rex, the musical and theatrical genius of David Bowie, the celebratory anthems of Slade and the glitz and showmanship of ‘glam rock’ in general. To coin a song title from The Tremeloes, it was a case of ‘even the bad times are good’. Increasingly, there was an element of escapism to all this, though the glam bubble was close to bursting by the autumn of 1973.
On the domestic political front in 1973, Edward Heath’s government continued to ‘dash for growth’, determined that Britain should gain full benefit from its newly acquired membership of the EEC, whilst unfolding new stages of its prices and incomes policy, ‘the programme to control inflation’.
But then – on 6 October 1973, Syria and Egypt launched an attack on Israel, sparking the ‘Yom Kippur War’. Furious at US support for Israel, OPEC, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (mainly consisting of the Arab nations) imposed an embargo on the US and restricted oil supplies to most other western countries. On 16 October, the Gulf States announced a 66 per cent increase in the price of crude oil – by January 1974 world oil prices had quadrupled. The Saudi oil minister proclaimed ‘we are masters of our own destiny’. The West plunged into recession as a result of the price hikes.
Edward Heath’s strategy unravels
The ‘oil shock’ was disastrous for Edward Heath’s government. Chancellor Anthony Barber was quick to realise that the landscape had changed overnight. As Heath’s biographer John Campbell explains ‘Britain was particularly hard hit, partly because it depended on imported oil for 50 percent of its energy needs, the proportion having been deliberately increased over recent years as the coal industry was run down…but more specifically because British inflation was already very high and the Government had staked its authority on a prices and incomes policy designed to bring it down’. 2 The oil crisis boosted the bargaining power of the National Union of Mineworkers, who decided to implement a ban on overtime in support of a huge pay claim. A state of emergency and petrol shortages followed. By 12 December, the situation had deteriorated sharply. The government implemented power restrictions, and began planning for a three day week. Anthony Barber ‘slammed the brakes’ on public expenditure – he proposed major reductions which were approved by Cabinet.
The shockwaves reverberated throughout the western world in October 1973. It really was a profound, deep sense of shock – the impotence of the West in the face of this power shift to the oil producing Arab nations was exposed. Dominic Sandbrook described it as ‘the moment when globalisation made itself felt, when the western industrial powers realised that they could not have everything their own way, and when millions of ordinary families felt the shuddering impact of distant events hundreds and thousands of miles away’. 3
The oil crisis didn’t just affect essentials such as heat, light and petrol. Most plastics and synthetic fibres were derived from oil, so these materials became more expensive, which pushed up the prices of household goods, so inflation accelerated. The crisis also had a direct effect on the music industry – because vinyl was a product of oil. The price of albums sharply increased at this time, and in some cases, records became thinner. Even this form of escapist entertainment was affected – there was a powerful symbolism associated with this.
The oil crisis confronted Britain with difficult new realities. The party was well and truly over in October 1973, and any residual optimism from the Sixties was crushed – hence my dateline for that golden decade, which in spirit, started and finished late: 1963-1973.