THE FONDNESS for a particular decade centres around our gilded memories of growing up, those seldom angst-ridden, often euphoric teenage halcyon days, when the world was still “all right” and waiting to be discovered.
My father experienced this time in the 1940s. He was glad to leave his adolescence behind, war, food shortages and ‘making do without’ providing salient reasons for his not so rosy recollections. Today’s youth will probably feel much the same in the years to come, albeit for entirely different reasons. They have too much too soon, having already been force-fed their world via the television, 24-hour news coverage and a plethora of Big Brother-type reality shows, culminating in disillusionment, apathy and computer game generated escapism. But in between these two defining periods of the 20th century lie the golden years, the decade of your choice, pinpointed by such momentous occasions as when you shared your first kiss and to what music, the first unaccompanied visit to the cinema, or your party debut.
For the older generation, the Fifties embody all the values that have sadly disappeared in the autumn of their lives. This was baby-boom time, making up the tragic losses of the war years, a time when prime ministers did not wear jeans, people actually got arrested for being drunk and disorderly and an AA patrolman saluted you if your car displayed an AA badge. You could call dustmen “dustmen”, not “refuse technicians”, parents didn’t swear at their children in public and olive oil was something you put in your ear not on your salad. Parking was free, going down to London did not incur a congestion charge and real people, not machines, answered if you telephoned a business.
The family unit was still intact, 14-year-olds worried about acne, not taking the morning-after pill, and women in their fifties became grandmothers not mothers. Richard Burton, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Dirk Bogarde and Jean-Paul Belmondo starred opposite Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Juliette Greco to epitomise the age. On the greater stage, a young Princess Elizabeth was recalled from safari in Kenya to ascend the English throne, Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest and the Americans battled the perceived Communist threat in Europe and Korea. Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in England and the Kray brothers terrorised London’s East End. But, on the whole, the 1950s was a period of recuperation, rebuilding and conserving the pre-war way of life. Until Elvis Presley gyrated to the top of the charts with ‘A Fool Such As I’, heralding the arrival of the Sixties.
Suddenly, “The Times Were A Changing” as Bob Dylan announced, and quickly. A new age seemed to dawn almost overnight, young people challenged the old order and acquired an independent conscience. The heirs of James Dean were rebels but with any number of causes. Macmillan’s England, which he likened to Greece as opposed to America’s Rome, was fading rapidly, giving way to the hippy culture, peace and free love. The Sixties quite deliberately rejected conservatism and replaced it with anti-Vietnam, anti-establishment and pro-individual freedom attitudes and, in 1963, the Profumo Scandal put the country in contact with the Cold War.
Dan Dare and Enid Blyton were pushed aside in favour of J. D. Salinger, Andy Warhol and The Beatles. Music in general took on completely new dimensions with The Rolling Stones, The Who and Cliff Richard competing not only with the Fab Four from Liverpool but also London’s vibrant fashion scene. The attitude of the time was perfectly illustrated by ‘The Graduate’, Dustin Hoffman shutting out all that had gone before to the haunting tunes of Simon and Garfunkel.
Resisting peer pressure had its more violent manifestations too. In America, the war against Vietnam led to bloody protests and, in France, students fought street battles with the police. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King represented opposite wings of the same cause, the black man’s struggle for emancipation, a natural and God-given right. The Cold War escalated, almost plunging the world into a nuclear conflict over the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert were both assassinated as was the advocate of peaceful change, Martin Luther King. England won the World Cup and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The heroes now were George Best, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and Rudolf Nureyev, while girls modelled themselves on icons such as Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy and the fresh-faced sensuality of Ali McGraw.
Radical political action gave way to comedy, originality and innovation with only the Unions finding themselves trapped in a time warp. A recent BBC 4 poll put the Seventies in top spot as the greatest decade ever in terms of technology, television, music and cinema. LED watches, pocket calculators, the Apple II computer and the Sony Walkman all made their debut to the distinct sounds of Abba, Pink Floyd and the Bay City Rollers. Artists still popular such as David Cassidy, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, The Sweet and Mud only added to the individualistic appeal of these years. On television, the Sweeney, the Two Ronnies, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Porridge and many others broke new ground, while US imports such as Mission Impossible, Kojak and Charlie’s Angels are still being turned into Hollywood blockbusters 30 years on. The big screen featured one classic after another, relaxed censorship laws producing anything from Francis Ford Coppola’s Deer Hunter to Spielberg’s Jaws, Stallone’s Rocky, Star Wars and Dirty Harry. This was the heyday of legends: Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, while Diane Keaton and Sigourney Weaver proved that women could be more than just pretty faces.
Delia Smith launched the ongoing popularity of TV cooks and Liverpool FC laid the foundations for their present-day cult status. Seventies fashion broke all the rules, its rebellious provocative styles promoting the “be yourself” ideal. Afro hairdos, hot pants, platform shoes and ridiculously extended flares sprang into the face of conventionality and set standards that are now being repeated once more. Metric measurements were adopted, Britain joined the Common Market and America withdrew from Vietnam shortly before the Watergate Scandal forced Nixon to resign. It was a time of growing freedom and prosperity that was not to be repeated.
Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 apart, my personal favourite, the 1980s, followed. Growing up in London was exciting, although the ominous signs of the end of the world as we now know it could already be felt. We were living through the last days of a glorious period reminiscent of the Great Gatsby ahead of the Great Depression, deliberate in its intensity, a sort of dancing feeling while the Titanic sank under our frantically swirling feet. Renovation, change and liberation was shifting eastwards towards the former Soviet States while decadence, selfishness and the quest for money started to dictate the values in our society. The Eighties became the closing chapter of a great book but were nevertheless a great read until the last page was reached. Paedophiles had not yet surfaced and there were neither armed policemen nor gang wars on the streets. We felt carefree and safe. O and A Levels clearly defined our academic objectives and student grants ensured that we were able to reap the rewards of our endeavours. Holidays were spent working and then ‘inter-railing’ around Europe, weekends were one never-ending party and Spurs were still winning back-to-back FA Cups. The decade was also defined by its music.
Even if I try to be completely objective, I cannot find a more creative and, above all, diverse period of time in the history of popular music. Week in and week out the charts were populated by songs representing all manner of musical tastes and directions. Sky’s classical ‘Toccata’ rubbed shoulders with the new romantic movement headed by Spandau Ballet and OMD. Jean Michel Jarre’s electronic beat competed with the tortured screams of the Sex Pistols. Gary Numan, Elvis Costello and Squeeze all enjoyed a huge following while, at the other end of the musical spectrum, the deafening sounds of Rush, Saxon and Rainbow proved equally popular. In between, Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Specials created a two-tone craze of their own, there was soul music and I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Supertramp, Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits. Add enduring greats such as Bob Marley, Queen, Diana Ross, David Bowie and Kate Bush into the equation and you have an Eighties musical heaven, not forgetting a continuous flow of unforgettable one-hit wonders. The radio was constantly on, Sunday’s chart show a must and everyone I knew spent every penny they had on coloured vinyl.
Television was dominated by the Professionals and Blackadder and the Dallas v Eastenders rivalry dominated viewing figures. Any free time away from audio visual entertainment was spent on the skateboard. I remember many a Saturday spent hunting for the latest fibreglass board or a set of extra soft multi-coloured wheels, a combination of which was then tested extensively in Richmond Park on Sunday afternoons in front of the admiring glances of my contemporaries.
Yes, for me, the Eighties were the wonder years, a time I have put in a capsule and preserved. What has followed I have already alluded to at the beginning of this reflection. Everything started going wrong somehow but no one knows exactly how and why. Things got a bit worse and a bit greyer every year and everything cost more and more every month. The music has turned full circle, cover versions of previous hits dominate the airwaves and former stars are regrouping to fill the void left by today’s lack of originality. There is no more joy, a lack of sense and an absence of that sensation of wide-eyed wonder. Or am I just growing old?