The Swinging Sixties – really?

Groovy! (image courtsey of

It’s a familiar theme on British TV documentaries, so often portrayed and referred to that we assume it must be correct in all details: the Swinging Sixties.

This was the time when all the music pouring out of Radio Caroline and other pirate radio stations was hip, revolutionary and exciting, there was free love, the girls were beautiful, though the men wore dodgy outfits, everyone had flowers in their hair, people took mind-liberating drugs, joined protests against the Vietnam War and generally rejected authority.

But was it really like that in the UK? I suspect the truth is that a minority lived the kind of life portrayed in these documentaries, while some folk enjoyed some aspects of this lifestyle – mostly listening to the music – and for some people these revolutionary times just did not happen.

Here’s a question. Which act had two UK number one hit singles in 1967, staying at the top of the charts for a total of 11 weeks. Well, must have been The Beatles?

In fact it was Engelbert Humperdinck, not the classical composer of that name, but a ballad singer who you might think would have been more at home in the early Fifties, or at least in Las Vegas cabaret. If you are too young to remember here he is on YouTube…

His big songs that year were Release Me and The Last Waltz, the first of these keeping The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane off the top slot.

Of course, if you are too young to remember Engelbert you will get a chance to see him in all his glory as the unexpected choice to sing the UK entry into this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan. Isn’t life strange?

Engelbert wasn’t alone in flying the flag for middle-of-the-road music in 1967. Other UK number one singles that year included Petula Clark’s This Is My Song, Nancy and Frank Sinatra singing Somethin’ Stupid and Long John Baldry’s Let The Heartaches Begin.

Of course just hearing the latest fab, groovy and hip music on the radio might not have been so easy if you lived outside the south-east of England. The signals of the pirate radio stations would not have reached Wales or the north of Scotland, possibly not even some inland areas of England.

But back to 1967 – the year often highlighted in TV documentaries about the Sixties. I’d like to tell you about a fascinating second-hand book I bought recently for £2.

Published in 1967, the so-called year of flower power, it is called Celebrity Cooking. It contains favourite recipes of the famous, along with potted biographies. You might think such a book would feature, say, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and the like. Well, no. Val Doonican, Max Bygraves and Liberace, yes.

The book has some great recipes and the biographies are fascinating. But it is also notable in two respects which tell you something about life in the Swinging Sixties.

Firstly, in the acknowledgements the book’s compiler says: “A big ‘thank you’ to the many wives who patiently wrote out their husband’s favourite recipe.”

So, not of all these grand men were cooking their favourite recipes? There’s a surprise. I suspect very few of them were doing so. The book is, in fact, a book of favourite dishes.

Secondly, the potted biographies alongside each contributor are very polite and deferential. How about this one, for The Earl of Avon?

“Formerly Sir Anthony Eden – Distinguished former Prime Minister of Great Britain 1955-1957 noted for his handling of international affairs and impeccable elegance in dress. As Prime Minister his term of office was cut short by ill health. With Lady Avon, a niece of Sir Winston Churchill, he winters at his home in Barbados in the British West Indies.”

What a wonderful Prime Minister he must have been and how sad his term was ended by ill health.

But wait a minute. Isn’t this the Prime Minister who took Britain into an ill-advised military invasion of Egypt after the Suez Canal was nationalised? A war that was organised while the British public were being misled?

No, not that war, you’re thinking of Tony Blair and Iraq but I admit there are similarities. The names of Blair and Eden will forever be associated with disastrous intervention in the Middle East, whatever else they did during their careers.

The flamboyant pianist Liberace is also featured in Celebrity Cooking. His biography says: “America’s piano-playing idol. Mothers all over America swoon when Liberace, in his sequined outfit, appears playing soulfully, Chopin or Gershwin, on his candelabra-bearing piano.” Even in 1967 that description must have been a bit of a stretch.

Their recipes? For the record, Lord Avon chose chicken liver mould – that would be a gift to today’s comedy writers – and Liberace’s choice was stuffed squab or baby pigeons.

There is only one person featured in the book who could be considered, as we might say now, “cool” and that is Dusty Springfield.

But this book is about the famous, the rich, the powerful. What was life like for ordinary people in 1967 in the UK? I suspect it was not as it appears in the Sixties documentaries.

Free love and the pill for all? Yes, the pill became available on the National Health Service in the Sixties and abortion was legalised in 1967. But I suspect many young women would not easily talk to a GP about that sort of thing back then and clinics may not have been available outside big cities. For many women sex was probably scary, with uncertain consequences. What if you became pregnant? That was likely to bring shame on your family, and may lead to your baby being taken away for adoption.

How was it in 1967 if you were black? I expect you faced routine racial discrimination. I was at secondary school from 1969 to 1976 and, like my classmates, had passed the Eleven Plus, an exam which singled us out for the grammar school stream. But amongst this supposedly bright and educated group our attitudes to black people were shamefully archaic.

And how about being gay, say in 1967? As it happens it was the year that the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised private homosexual acts between men over the age of 21. It was a big step forward but growing up as a homosexual was not easy for most people in the Sixties, and for many decades to come.

Yes, the Sixties were a big influence on our lives today and started many movements – black consciousness, equality, improved contraception, gay rights – that have blossomed over the following decades.

But I expect many young people – particularly in small towns or remote areas – lived ordinary lives of sexual fumbling, perhaps scared to be gay, perhaps prejudiced against black and gay people, perhaps facing bigots as a matter of course.

Hopefully, they were at least able to enjoy some of the great music from the Sixties.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

P.S. My next blog will be about my recent to Southern California. Watch this space.

To find out more

Radio Caroline still broadcasts today via satellite and the internet. You can even get an app for your iPhone. They play a great variety of music. I’ll return to this in a future blog but meanwhile give them a listen:

The image at the top of this blog is courtesy of

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

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