Flower Power! The best hippy music of the 1960s

Writer Henry Jeffreys admits he would have made a rubbish hippy: when he sees footage of Woodstock he worries about the toilet facilities. And yet, flower power did produce some truly magical pop music – which is your favourite hippy classic?…

By Henry Jeffreys

 

People often talk about how wonderful it would have been to be young in the 1960s. And I can see their point. Imagine seeing the Beatles before they were famous or a wrinkle-free Rolling Stones. And the clothes! I’d have made a good mod, I think, if I lost a little weight; staying up all night dancing to Motown followed by a visit to an old Jewish tailor in Hackney to get my new mohair suit fitted.

It would have been great until about 1966 when musicians started taking themselves seriously. This was the start of the hippy era. Suddenly it wasn’t just about having fun; it was about changing the world. You can see the exact crossover in the documentary Rock Revolution where Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits and Graham Nash from the Hollies have a bit of an argument. Roughly 35 minutes in Graham Nash says: “Pop musicians they could rule the world, man….What Donovan is trying to put over will stop wars dead… We can get up there and say Hitler was wrong and shout it to the world…we can stop world wars before they ever started!”

I love Peter Noone’s laconic response, “I disagree.”

Imagine thinking that this man had the power to stop wars:

 

One can see a trajectory from Nash’s deluded witterings to Bono today. If I’d been alive in the late 60s, I would have been totally uncool like Peter Noone. There would have been no free love for me. I’m not comfortable with being naked the whole time anyway. Especially not in England. When I watch footage of Woodstock, I worry about the toilet facilities.

And yet, and yet, despite my dislike of the hippy ethos, I have to admit that some of the music from this period is phenomenal. Joni Mitchell didn’t actually go to Woodstock. She did the Dick Cavett show instead. Better toilets I imagine. She wrote this song in tribute to Graham Nash, her lover at the time, who was there. Altogether now:  “We are stardust, we are golden.. . .”

 

Before music became important, though, things had already begun to change in England. Rather than just doing their own versions of American music, British acts, such as the Kinks, the Small Faces, and of course, the Beatles, mined folk and music hall to create a whimsical peculiarly English style of pop music.

One of my favourites from this era is Flowers in the Rain by The Move. It’s joyful stuff and literally about nothing more than watching flowers in the rain. This single was the first one played on totally groovy new station, Radio 1 (though there is some debate on the internet about whether it was actually Beefeaters by John Dankworth or whether that was being used as a jingle so didn’t count). Roy Wood from the Move later formed ELO with Jeff Lynne and achieved festive immortality with Wizzard’s I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day.

 

Over in California young people were expanding their minds and liberating their bodies. Graham Nash swapped the Hollies and rainy Manchester for sunshine, Laurel Canyon and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and sometimes Young. Here they are ‘sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind’ on Marrakesh Express.

 

It was further north than LA, however, where flower power really originated. Forget Scott Mackenzie’s dreary San Francisco, the real sound of hippy SF were Jefferson Airplane. One listen to this and you’re transported to brightly painted houses in Haight Ashbury and surrounded by lots of beautiful people wearing very little looking for somebody to love:

 

As the sixties progressed songs became longer and more complex, the Beach Boys went from Surfin’ USA to Good Vibrations.  This might have something to do with the drugs that musicians were taking. No song charts the experience of taking acid better than Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s Just Dropped In, a song brought to a whole new generation when it featured in the Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski:

 

But it wasn’t all good times. There was a powerful strain of paranoia in the late 60s. It might have been bad drugs or the fact that America was a deeply divided and unhappy place, plus ca change, one might say. Nobody captured this hippie paradox better than Love. This multi-racial band from LA mixed rock n’ roll with folk and psychedelia to create some of the most vivid music of the era. One of the greatest musical experiences of my life was catching, Arthur Lee, their lead singer on the comeback trail at a festival in Kent in the early 2000s. He died of leukemia in 2006.  This is Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale, I have literally no idea what it’s about but it rocks.

 

Finally the Small Faces, Tin Soldier. What I love about it is that it contains all of the best music from the era in one song: it starts psychedelic and whimsical with stuff about Little Tin Soldiers wanting to jump into fires, then for a moment the band invent heavy metal but discard it in favour of a full-blooded soul stomp with PP Arnold’s uplifting vocals. This song encapsulates what is so wonderful about the music of the late 60s. Forget the politics, forget the silly clothes, forget about Donovan stopping wars, it’s about a time when people lived to watch the flowers grow, and musically anything seemed possible…

 

Henry Jeffreys writes about drink, books and popular culture in The Spectator, The Guardian, The Oldie, The Lady and many other publications.  He is the author of ‘Empire of Booze’  – a history of Britain told through alcoholic drinks. 

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