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Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Rock Stars, Revolutionaries and the Myth of the Sixties

Gary Fraser


‘Come together’


Two discourses informed the politics of the 1960s. The first was opposition to the Vietnam War and the second a series of social movements in America and throughout the Western World which included the demand for civil rights by African Americans, followed by the birth of the women’s movement and then the gay rights movement. What happened was a revolution in human rights and the accomplishment of a political project which had started with the European Enlightenment. Young people, especially students, were the lifeblood of these new social movements and by 1968 the movements had united into one amorphous mass ubiquitously labelled the ‘counter-culture’.

The counter-culture transformed the arts, particularly popular music and film. In the mid-60s, beginning with Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and then culminating in the Beatles Sgt Pepper, rock music went through its golden period. We should also note the transformations in other music, especially music associated with black artists. Jazz is just one example, where artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman changed the structure of jazz; called free jazz it seemed to, unconsciously perhaps, represent the chaos of the changing times and the innate anger and frustration of the black artist.


‘You say you want a revolution’


Revolution was the word of the counter-culture. ‘Everybody knows the revolution is coming’ said rock musician Neil Young. According to the great beat poet Gill Scott Heron, ‘the revolution will not be televised’. ‘One solution, revolution’ was a regular cry of the Black Panthers. Meanwhile, an excited John Lennon sang, ‘we better get the revolution on right away’ in his anthem Power To The People. The word ‘revolution’ seemed to catch the spirit of what was taking place in the streets and college campuses across America. As early as 1966 there were signs that the anti-war protests, which had sprung up at university campuses were merging with anti-racist and feminist movements. By the end of 66 the revolution was heating up. Yet, during this crucial period the aristocracy of rock music were notably absent from politics.


‘Turn off your mind relax and float down stream’


Bob Dylan had done more than any other figure to politicise popular entertainment. In the early 60s, at a time when the Beatles were singing about holding their girlfriends hand, Dylan was setting the tone for what anti-establishment songs should sound like. His music contained a fusion of anti-war and anti-racist narratives combined with a brilliant use of poetry seldom heard before in a folk song. In the space of three short years Dylan had penned some of the greatest and most lyrically interesting folk tunes ever recorded. Yet by 1966, the year the social movements joined forces, the counter-cultures greatest icon was strangely silent on what was the biggest issue of the day, the Vietnam War. Many could not figure out how author of Masters of War and Chimes of Freedom could not bring himself to attend an anti-war demonstration. ‘Where’s Bob?’ the protestors regularly asked Joan Baez when she turned up at a benefit concert or rally. ‘Is he coming?’ they enquired. He never did.


Meanwhile, just at the moment when Vietnam and racism defaced the real world, The Beatles turned inwards and embraced Eastern spirituality. It was an escape from reality into the void of one’s own self, perhaps an easy journey for a group a very wealthy group of young men to make. In fact, The Beatles were so rich that in 1967 they considered buying a Greek island from the then military dictatorship running Greece. When questioned about the ethics of such a move Paul McCartney replied that he didn’t do politics. Their venture into buying a Mediterranean hideaway occurred at the same time they came under the spell of a curious little Indian man called the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a man who was part business man and part guru. Maharishi’s message was simple; what the world needed was love: ‘I don’t become angry with those who are suffering’ he said pompously, ‘because I know through love I could make them happy’. Quite what this gibberish would have meant to a black kid getting beat up by white cop in an American ghetto is another thing but somehow it inspired the usually cynical John Lennon to write the banal All You Need Is Love. On the question of communism Lennon’s guru revealed a nastier side, ‘if someone hangs on to community, then he is a weak individual’ he said. Allen Ginsberg thought Maharishi’s social philosophy was ‘dim and thoughtless’. In fact, the guru was taking The Beatles for a con and they soon realised it. Yet when the Fab Four returned from India, they like their hero Bob Dylan made no attempt to connect with the political struggles taking place in the outside world.

Instead they went on a Magical Mystery Tour that promised to take everyone away. ‘Turn off your mind relax and float down stream’ sang Lennon, no doubt in an LSD state of consciousness. It was hardly a threat to anyone. George Harrison was the only one to make an attempt at political commentary but in a pattern that would become all too familiar his efforts were completely inane. He believed that the solution to the war lay in mass meditation which he said would conjure up peace right in the middle of Vietnam, especially if everyone chanted the Hare Krishna Mantra at the same time. In 1968, The Beatles established Apple Records. In later years Lennon liked to portray Apple as a ‘workers co-operative’. In reality it was a business scam conjured up by their accountants primarily so the Fab Four could avoid paying taxes in Britain. Incidentally, the only time before 1968 that the Beatles ever penned a political song it was in protest at the high taxes they were paying under a Labour government, Harrison’s Taxman from the Revolver album.


‘The time is right for fighting in the streets’


By 1968, the mood on the streets was getting so hot that even the Beatles, who were in Lennon’s words floating down stream (the end of the stream was the stock-broker belt in conservative south of England where they all lived) started to feel the heat. The slogan of 68, a year like no other according to the journalist Mark Kurlansky, was ‘one solution, revolution’. The Vietnam War was growing ever more unpopular not just in America but across the world. In the jungles of Vietnam the heroic Vietnamese Lieration Front had the American conquerors on the defensive. Back in the US, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown for refusing to be inducted into the US army. He said that ‘no Viet-Cong ever called me nigger’ in what turned out to be one of the great lines of the sixties. It was a line that with a single stroke connected the war with anti-racist narratives.


In March 68, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. King at the time of his murder was becoming ever more critical of Vietnam whilst moving closer to the political milieu of the left. His slaying spurned riots in the ghettos of cities throughout the US and provoked a deepening militancy amongst black activists. King’s strategy of non-violence and pragmatic reform within the system was giving way to the more revolutionary concept of black power. ‘We have to fight a revolutionary struggle for the violent overthrow of the US government and the total destruction of the racist, capitalist, imperialist, neo-colonialist power structure’ said Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in a moment of typical Panther hyperbole.

Meanwhile, those with more modest aims looked towards Robert Kennedy as someone who could heal the divisions in American society. Kennedy, recently elevated to saintly status in Emilio Estevez’s cinematic re-write of history, Bobby, was in reality a more problematic figure. Regarded by many as the more ruthless of the Kennedy brothers he had been a keen supporter of the Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba and an advocate of CIA plans to murder Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. During the Missile Crisis in 62 he took the hawkish position of advocating a first strike against Cuba, an act that would have led to nuclear catastrophe had he got his way. He was in favour of the Vietnam War, initiated by his brother, and in the years leading up to 68 he had voted in the Senate to increase the military budget on several occasions. Yet by 68, Kennedy who by now was a shrewd political operator, had positioned himself as an anti-war candidate even though he offered no concrete plan for ending the war other than vague platitudes. In the end none of this was to matter because he was gunned down just like his elder brother by an assassin’s bullet. Coupled, with King’s murder only two months previous, it seemed that America was incapable of reforming itself via the traditional political process.

The turmoil of 68 was not just confined to the US. In Britain, war protestors engaged in running street battles with the police. Meanwhile, a strong anti-war movement emerged in what was then West Germany. The movement led by students was highly critical of American imperialism, equating it with the fascism of the Nazi era. The most tumultuous events of 68 from a European perspective occurred in France, and like West Germany it was students who emerged as the new revolutionary vanguard. Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, Alexander Dubcek, initiated his own perestroika out of which he hoped would emerge, ‘socialism with a human face’.



‘The street fighting man’

The first great rock song about 68 came not from The Beatles but from The Rolling Stones. Street Fighting Man was Mick Jagger’s response to 68 and it captured perfectly the mood in the streets. Jagger yelled, ‘the summer is here and the times are right for fighting in the streets’. For a time he became a hero to the protestors. Yet whilst Jagger dabbled in anti-establishment politics, Dylan continued his silence, and in 68 he released a country and western album called Nashville Skyline which was about as remote from what was happening in the streets as anything released by Engelbert Humperdinck that year. Dylan reportedly said to protest singer Phil Ochs, ‘the stuff you write is bullshit’ adding that ‘politics is bullshit too’. When interviewed by a couple of left leaning journalists Dylan told them, ‘people shouldn’t look to me for any answers’ before adding that some of his best friends supported the war.


‘Don’t you know that you can count me out/in?


In 1968, John Lennon, the thinking man’s Beatle, was finally turning his attentions to world events. Whilst his song-writing other half was busily writing Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da, Lennon pondered the meaning of revolution. Jagger’s song demanded militancy. Lennon on the other hand urged caution. His song, Revolution offered no direct challenge to political rule. Instead listeners were advised to ‘free their mind instead’. Then he included a line which rejected violent revolution, ‘if you talk about destruction don’t you know that you can’t count me out’. He ended the song by reassuring his listeners not to worry because in the end everything would be alright.

The response to the song from the left and others in the counter-culture was fury. John Hayland was the first to denounce the song and he penned an open letter to Lennon in which he stated that ‘free your mind instead’ was not an adequate response to a ‘repressive, vicious and authoritarian system’. He then set up Lennon up for the proverbial knock out by dismissing the sentimentality of the hippy All You Need is Love. ‘Love which does not pit itself against suffering, oppression and humiliation is sloppy and irrelevant’ said Hayland. It was a good line, perhaps slightly pompous, but it must have wounded the intuitively rebellious John Lennon. It must also have got him thinking too because Lennon went back into the studio and re-recorded Revolution only in the new version when it came to the line about violent revolution Lennon now sang you can count me out/in. Having denounced violent revolution Beatle John was now unsure. He even penned a ‘very open letter’ to a surprised John Hayland in which he said he didn’t care what the left or any other ‘fucking boys club’ thought about his song. Yet by penning a reply he obviously did.


‘There is too much confusion’


Unlike his peers Lennon was actually taking the time to think through his politics. Jagger on the other hand was merely posturing as a revolutionary. The self proclaimed ‘street fighting man’ didn’t attend any of the demonstrations against Vietnam. When questioned about the war his politics turned out to be an incoherent mess. In one confused rambling he argued that the police and the protestors were one of the same thing. It was an insight into the fact that the musings of rock stars could be either blindingly innate or highly pretentious.

Others we should note were sometimes downright reactionary. The seriously un-cool Beach Boys advised their fans to stay away from demonstrations in their song Student Demonstration Time. Jimi Hendrix, according to Peter Doggett, supported the war and argued that America was fighting for the free world. Meanwhile, the Who’s Roger Daltrey missed the mood altogether when he said that what was needed was a leader like Hitler who according to Daltrey had done some good for the German people in his early days. Jim Morrison, one of rock’s biggest hedonists and no stranger to pretentious ramblings, said that he liked the disorder and chaos of revolution but added that what really turned him on were ideas that had no meaning. It was probably a throwaway remark, no doubt made when he was high, but it did illuminate the intellectual vacuum and confusion at the heart of the counter culture. Spencer Dryden, drummer in the band Jefferson Airplane summed it up well when he said that rock music was ‘confrontational yet empty at the same time’. Frank Zappa was even more critical of the counter-culture and dismissed the demonstrations as street theatre that had no connection with reality.

The high point of rock’s involvement with the counter-culture is the much lamented but grossly mythologised Woodstock festival. Woodstock is often presented as an event which celebrated free love and rebellion. The reality was somewhat different. From the beginning it was a corporatised event with private fences erected to keep non-paying fans out. Meanwhile, the performers or the ‘stars’ had their own private security and arrived at the gig via helicopter. The only attempt to politicise the festival was made by Abbie Hoffman, who tried to storm the stage just at the moment when The Who were getting ready to perform. Hoffman, apparently off his head on LSD wanted to make a statement about Vietnam. A nervous and clearly agitated Pete Townsend told him to ‘get off my fucking stage’ and then proceeded to attack Hoffman with an electric guitar. Woodstock represented the ease with which record companies and corporations incorporated radicalism, branded it as Radical Chic, and sold it back to the radicals. Revolution had become a brand. Zappa had been right; revolution was more theatre than reality.


‘A working class hero is something to be’


John Lennon didn’t attend Woodstock. By 1970, the now ex Beatle was fully embracing the very left wing politics that he had earlier questioned. Tariq Ali believes that it was the much vilified Yoko Ono who nudged Lennon’s politics to the left. Now when the question turned to revolution, the once hesitant Lennon sang in Power To The People, ‘we better get it on right away’. Mixing politics with art can more often than not lead to aesthetic disaster. For a time Lennon successfully combined both, especially on songs like Imagine and Working Class Hero. In the latter song Tariq Ali noted that Lennon seemed to refuse to accept any natural equation between rock music and politics. According to Ali, Lennon concluded that the working class superstar was nothing but a convenient safety valve for bourgeois society.

Was Lennon a genuine radical or like Jagger a revolutionary tourist? Ali, who got close to Lennon, believes that Lennon’s politics were genuine enough but recalls how they suffered when he left England for America. In the US, Lennon was taken in by Yippy Leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two lefts of an ‘infantile disorder’ (to borrow a different Lenin’s term) who reduced politics to a series of self seeking publicity stunts. Under the influence of such toy town revolutionaries Lennon released an album called Some Time In New York City an album which is the most overtly revolutionary record ever recorded by a major rock artist. The song-list reads like a list of left wing causes, and features everything from songs about women’s liberation and anti-racism, to tracks about prisoner’s rights and condemnation of British solders in Northern Ireland. Yet the music sounds forced and unusually for a Beatle the songs lack melody. Moreover, the lyrics appear contrived and full of ultra-left sloganeering. ‘Free the prisoners and jail the judges’ Lennon sang on Attica State;  this might have gone down well with pretentious middle class radicals like Hoffman and Rubin but to most people such sloganeering sounded infantile and absurd.


‘The dream is over’


By the early 1970s the counter-culture, like John Lennon’s muse, was in free-fall. In the US, Richard Nixon easily triumphed in the 68 election, and again in 72 when he casually defeated the leftish George McGovern. In Britain, the Tories returned to power and in France the student movement was defeated by the return of De Gaulle. No where was revolution on the agenda. The self proclaimed revolutionaries who stayed faithful to the cause either became irrelevant or extreme. For those that chose the latter path terrorism became a strategy to be pursued. The notorious group, The Weathermen (named after a line in a Bob Dylan song), who encouraged their members to sleep with one another in order to break down what they dubbed ‘bourgeois morality’, ended up engaging in a pointless bombing campaign which made them number one on the FBI’s most wanted list. Meanwhile, the Black Panthers split due to bitter infighting, although they probably would have disappeared anyway. By the mid-70s, drugs had taken their hold on the black ghettos and the very people the Panthers represented. Drugs dumbed the pain of urban deprivation and ended the desire for political militancy.

By the mid 70s the social movements lost their impact. Radicals talked more about personal transformation than collective action with the result being the emergence of identity politics and the first influences of post-modernism. The ‘personal is political’ became the slogan and was repeated like a mantra until it reached the point where the politics dissolved and all that was left was the personal. Perhaps this was a response to the fact that ‘the system’ was not as inflexible as the radicals had initially imagined. The ‘system’, especially if it was democratic, could be changed without violent revolution or destruction.


‘Something is happening but you don’t know what it is’


Something happened in the sixties yet few at the time understood it. In 68, many radicals were convinced that Western society was ripe for revolution. Since the end of the Second World War these men, and they were mainly men, had lived their lives as revolutionaries without a revolution. 68 rekindled their hope. No wonder they were furious at John Lennon for dismissing their dreams. The Trotskyite theoretician Tony Cliff, who devoted his life to making a revolution in Britain, wrote in 1968 that the capitalist powers were not immune from working class revolution. He hoped that an alliance of war protestors and militant trades unionists would overthrow governments throughout the West and like Neil Young he was convinced that the revolution was just around the corner. ‘A blow against the boss is a blow against Vietnam’, Cliff said. In one statement, which turned out to be spectacularly wrong, he argued that the time was coming when capitalism and trade unions could no longer co-exist. When asked to be more specific about the time period he said that it would be about 1973. Other revolutionaries placed their hopes in the student movement. In 68, the radical newspaper, the Black Dwarf ran a banner headline that read, STUDENTS-THE NEW REVOLUTIONARY VANGUARD. Excited radicals hoped that an alliance of students, workers, oppressed minorities, empowered women and rock stars could collectively usher in the era of socialist revolution.

Of course such politics was based on mere wishful thinking. The reality was that revolution was never going to occur at a time of economic prosperity for many people in the West. In the opening line of The Internationale, revolutionaries sing ‘arise ye starving from yer slumbers’. Yet by 68 the proletariat of 68 enjoyed the luxuries of automobiles and vacations abroad whilst their homes were equipped with refrigerators, televisions and record players. By the 60s, most serious students of Marx must have understood that socialist revolution was unlikely to ever happen in their own lifetime, a fact that qualitatively changed the psychology of being a socialist.

With the clarity and wisdom of sober analysis, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm understood the sixties better than most. For Hobsbawm, the autonomy of youth as a separate social stratum, which emerged in the sixties, was itself the product of developed market economies. The adolescent as a self conscious actor was increasingly recognised, enthusiastically by the manufacturers of consumer goods. In the US, in 1955 the youth market was worth around £277 million. By 1959 it was £600 million and by 1973 an incredible two thousand million. Western capitalism had created a new generation whose identity was constructed in consumer goods. It was the beginning of the ‘me generation’ whose values were soon to clash with the duties required of being drafted into the army. More than any other factor the policy of the compulsory draft fuelled the protests against Vietnam.

The real revolution that occurred in the sixties was the triumph of the individual over society. It was a revolution of the mind body and soul. John Lennon had been right after all, ‘you better free your mind instead’. It’s hardly surprising that the most influential social commentators and Marxists of the period also happened to be psychologists and psychiatrists. Equally it’s hardly surprising that a movement based on individualism and hedonism would look to egotistical image obsessed rock stars for inspiration.


Narrow minded hypocrites’


In the decades that followed the sixties the artistic output of the rock aristocracy diminished considerably. Paul McCartney, who seldom wrote a decent tune after he split with Lennon, created a complex financial empire that was elaborately conceived to avoid him paying his fair share in taxes. He has since been rewarded by the British Establishment with an MBE and a knighthood and is regularly wheeled out like a performing seal every-time the British establishment has a party. The Stones like McCartney have written only a handful of decent songs in the last 30 decades. Today, they trade only on their former glories. The exception of the sixties generation is of course Bob Dylan who still makes music that is interesting and groundbreaking. In the 80s he joined his fellow rock aristocrats in the cause of charity and world hunger. Live Aid was the epitome of the Thatcherite ideal that the best way to tackle poverty was through the kindness and benevolence of the rich. There was something slightly nauseating about seeing McCartney and other famous tax avoiders like Jagger and David Bowie, led by Bob Geldof a man bereft of any substantial talent, lecture the world about world hunger. The gig itself was a mess. McCartney’s microphone didn’t work when he went to sing Let It Be and when Dylan performed with Ronnie Woods and Keith Richards of The Stones all three of them looked absolutely wasted and their version of Blowin In The Wind is genuinely comical with Dylan making every effort to make the song sound awful giving the impression that we was trying to sabotage Live Aid.

John Lennon of course never made it. He was gunned down outside his New York home by a deranged maniac late one December evening in 1980. By then he had long abandoned any pretence of being a rock and roll revolutionary. John Lennon espoused the contradictions of the sixties better than anyone. The hypocrisy, political naivety and self obsession could be found in Lennon. But also there is a genuine anger that is born out of his childhood in working class Liverpool, anger against injustice and class. On the question of the sixties, Lennon can have the last word: ‘of course there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes’ he told Tariq Ali. ‘But nothing changed except that we all got dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything’.




The quotations used throughout this article come from the following books:

Ali, Tariq, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties

Birchall, Ian, Tony Cliff A Marxist For His Time

Doggett, Peter, There’s A Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Starts and the Rise and Fall of the Counter-Culture

Doggett, Peter, You Never Give Me Your Money: the Battle for the Soul of The Beatles

Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Extremes 1914-1994


External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books