Swinging into the 60s

1964 was the year that the 1960s really arrived in the United States. In the counterculture enclave of Greenwich Village in New York City, a young singer called Bob Dylan had just released his first album of self-penned songs, including the track The Times They Are A-Changin’. It was not so much a prophecy as an observation.

The Beatles arrive at JFK Airport in New York City for their first US tour. GAB Archive / Redferns / Getty Images
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For any clean-cut, all-American family, the breakfast table talk in April 1964 was all about the opening of the World’s Fair in New York. Here was a utopian vision of things to come: a world of sleek monorails and men in jet packs; of Moon colonies and picture phones. There was even a laser-powered machine that could cut a swath through impenetrable jungle and leave a freshly paved road in its wake.

The reality was somewhat different and arriving rather sooner; 1964 was the year that the 1960s really arrived, kicking and screaming, like a birth, all bloody and bawling.

In the counterculture enclave of Greenwich Village, a young singer called Bob Dylan had just released his first album of self-penned songs, including the track The Times They Are A-Changin’. It was not so much a prophecy as an observation.

For many parents, the first troubling signs that the world was turning upside down might have come from their daughters’ bedrooms. At Christmas 1963, the Billboard Hot 100 featured Bobby Vinton, The Caravelles, and Dominique, by The Singing Nun.

Just 12 months later, the same chart would be dominated by The Beatles, The Zombies, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Animals. Even the names were scary; the music was something else. This was the year of the British Invasion, the year that popular music slipped out of the control of anyone over 25.

Strange and terrible things were also happening to the world outside beyond the suburban front door. After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 came Vietnam, civil rights, racial equality and oppression, Che Guevara, James Bond, Martin Luther King and voting rights efforts in Mississippi to mark the passage of 1963 through to 1965. The two dates mark the transition from one era to another, the cultural and political landscape reworked as rapidly and completely as if by a hurricane.

These changes had been coming for some time, but like a seed that finally bursts above ground and unfurls its first shoots – 1964 was the first time that ordinary folk saw what was happening and also saw that it was happening to them. It thrilled some, frightened others. Most people felt a little of both, although the old order felt mostly fear.

The year began on the other side of the Atlantic. Britain might no longer be the workshop for the world, but its pop cultural exports in the 1960s were formidable. Later in the year, Goldfinger would dazzle audiences worldwide (a model of the Aston Martin DB5 complete with ejector seat was the year’s best-selling toy) and August saw the premiere of Mary Poppins.

But it was pop music that provided the soundtrack to 1964. The Beatles arrived first, touching down in New York on February 7, 1964, for the first of three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show that would introduce them to more than 70 million fans.

By April 4, The Beatles held the top five positions in the US singles chart, from Can’t Buy Me Love to Please, Please Me, something never done before or since.

The rest of the British Invasion was soon storming ashore, with the first Rolling Stones album released the next month and a world tour in June, and The Kinks’ You Really Got Me a summer hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Later in the year, a young guitarist called Pete Townshend in a new band called The Who would destroy the first in a long line of musical instruments on stage.

The sound of youth rebellion, though, was more than playing music that your parents actively loathed. This was the year in which racial bigotry and oppression became a concern to more than just those who personally felt its ­affliction.

While Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field, two months later, in June, another prominent black man, Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa. In August, the International Olympic Committee took the momentous decision to ban South Africa from the Tokyo Summer Games for its refusal to renounce racial segregation in sport.

In America, another form of racial oppression suppressed and effectively disenfranchised millions of black voters, keeping a status quo little changed from the time of slavery. Thousands of idealistic young Americans, both black and white, headed to the Deep South to support voter registration drives against implacable opposition from white ­supremacists.

In June, three civil-rights workers disappeared, murdered in a conspiracy by local police and members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. One month later, an outraged US Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex and national origin.

In October, the Nobel committee awarded its Peace Prize to Dr Martin Luther King, the civil-rights leader, with the citation “first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence”. Less than four years later, King was assassinated. More radical voices were already forcing their way to the front in 1964: the activist and Muslim and the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world Cassius Clay, who would go on to reject his “slave name” in favour of Muhammad Ali.

The summer of 64 also ended the fiction about America’s role in Vietnam. Under President Kennedy and then Lyndon B Johnson, the US had placed about 16,000 troops in South Vietnam as “military advisers”.

On August 2, the destroyer USS Maddox came under fire from North Vietnamese patrol boats while in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. Hours later, the US claimed that its naval forces had come under fresh attack, using this as a pretext for retaliatory action that would dramatically escalate the conflict.

On August 7, Congress gave President Johnson the authority to conduct military action in Vietnam without a declaration of war. By December 1965, about 200,000 American troops had arrived in Vietnam. The US casualties rose from 200 dead in 1964 to about 2,000 in 12 months.

The sense among many young Americans that they were being drawn into a bloody conflict of which they strongly disapproved saw the first burning of draft cards in public protests in May 1964.

This was part of a more general sense of rebellion against the political establishment and its institutions by the young that defines what we now think of as the 60s. In September, Katherine Towle, the dean of the University of California at Berkeley and a former director of the women’s US Marine Corps, instituted a ban on all political activity on a popular stretch of campus road.

The following month, a young civil-rights activist manning a stand on the street was arrested for refusing to show his identity card to university police. Within minutes, hundreds and then thousands of angry students surrounded the car, preventing it from moving.

The stand-off lasted 32 hours, with students occupying the university’s administration block, where they were led by the folk singer Joan Baez in a rousing chorus of We Shall ­Overcome.

On the orders of the governor of California, hundreds were arrested, but the sit-in and the demonstration were established as the tactics of radical politics in the 60s, and Berkeley the spiritual heart of the free-speech movement. In December, Che Guevara would address the United Nations’ General Assembly as a “revolutionary statesmen of world stature” to denounce capitalism, racism and imperialism.

In the coming years many of the elements of 1964 – civil rights, anti-war protests, the growing assertion of youth culture in music and ideas – would fuse to create what we now think of as the 1960s.

Ali would be stripped of his boxing crown and convicted for refusal to serve in Vietnam, Guevara’s image would stare down a million middle-class bedrooms as an icon of radical chic, The Beatles would embrace eastern philosophy, and both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X became martyrs for the cause of black equality.

Looking back half a century, it can be said that the decade born in 1964, despite the late start, prevailed long past the last day of 1969.