the tl;dr – Just go watch Forever Young: How Rock n Roll Grew Up on YouTube (it’s an hour) and then come back if you want to see and hear a little more
Even though I set up a YouTube playlist for this batch, this is much more of a ‘choose your own adventure’ set of documentaries — and quite a bit is only tangential to the music. There is no need to watch all of the videos, and I fully encourage you to check out the whole list (reading this post to the end) before you start clicking on any of the embeds or links. You can easily pick a 2 hour or 3 hour block and save the rest for a rainy day when nothing good is on TV.
When we’re talking about the 1960s, it can be difficult (even for historians) to separate the times from the music. Even after an 8 hour slog through the 60s (mostly by way of the BBC – thanks, Auntie Beeb!) I found myself chasing loose ends on Wikipedia and attempting to digest the whole so I could go back to just enjoying the music again. The 1960s bring a lot of baggage, especially the way the decade has been mythologized in the 40 to 50 years since.
The revolution didn’t start in the 1960s — the hippies’ grandmothers were the first, in the era of flappers, speakeasies, and Jazz (free thesis there, for you grad students). And the music (while fantastic) wasn’t a revolution either: The early Beatles were covering Motown and Chuck Berry; The Rolling Stones played the blues and R&B. [note, note]
The music didn’t magically spring into being in the summer of 1960 when the first of the baby boomers turned 14, the threads (and in many cases, also the musicians) came from the generation before. The music was more evolutionary than revolutionary*, though I appreciate the process and love the eventual outcomes: by the late 60s, we see Lennon/McCartney come into their own as songsmiths, and scores of bands that were inspired by the Beatles, Stones, et al. would go on to record many of my favorite rock albums of the 70s. (It would be negligent as well to ignore the parallel line of Folk music and the singer-songwriters that followed Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger; Dylan was playing in Greenwich Village at the same time the Beatles were playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool and taking jaunts to Hamburg.)
What did change by the 1960s? The new media of Television played a role – and the huge record companies that didn’t even exist until the 50s (the LP was introduced in 1948, the 45 in 1949, the transistor radio in 1954) – and a record number of teenagers (“teenager” as a concept comes from the early 1940s) – the weight and long hangover of the Depression and War finally lifted – and the corrupting influence of the almighty dollar (and pound sterling) as consumer culture firmly took root.
Socially? A large youth bulge poisoned by decades of huffing leaded gasoline exhaust (especially in the cities) is likely enough to explain the revolutionaries. I don’t mean to hand-wave away the 60s: when faced with a collective and international insanity, maybe the only response is a little insanity of one’s own. I also don’t mean to discount the real social change that took place, starting in 1955** and continuing throughout the 60s, but the answer to these large-scale problems needed large scale solutions — solutions often precipitated by protest — but the protests are not the solution. After the (inevitable?) crackdown turns the sit-ins into riots, both sides have lost.
** depending on how you define it; we could argue the 60s began in 1918 with Gandhi.
There is no way to concisely describe any decade and it is folly to try; at best we can fall back on stereotypes and cliché as a sort of universally-understood shorthand for a decade — at worst, we bury the history and real meaning of the times under stereotypes and clichés.
I’m sure this is why the documentary playlist inflated to 8 hours — because there is no easy way to summarize the 60s.
For folks who are much more interested in the Music, I’d stick to watching the first and last videos — the time commitment is only a couple of hours and these two are music documentaries, not documentaries that cover the history that was tied into the music.
The YouTube playlist for the documentaries (in this order): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkoXqXAGvkE&list=PLT6vaQUDmjIKO2×04aSYCoW10pQ6xc93v
Born To Be Wild – The Golden Age of American Rock | 1960s
“The 60s, The Beatles Decade” from the BBC. Each of the 5 episodes is 45 minutes.
The 60s, The Beatles Decade – Episode 1: Teenage Rebels
The 60s, The Beatles Decade – Episode 2: Sex, Spies and Rock and Roll
The 60s, The Beatles Decade – Episode 3: Swinging Britain
The 60s, The Beatles Decade – Episode 4: Street Fighting Years
The 60s, The Beatles Decade – Episode 5: The Party Is Over
Counterpoint, also from the BBC –
Why I Hate The Sixties (59min)
Embedding is disabled on this one, so you’ll have to click the link to watch it on YouTube:
The Sixties – The Years That Shaped a Generation (2hrs)
This video can and likely will be taken down at some point for blatant copyright infringement; the DVD rip that was uploaded even includes the piracy warning. Until such time as it disappears: enjoy. To be fair to PBS, I won’t embed the video here.
Last one — and as I noted at the top of the post, if you only have time for one this might be the most accessible (and will only tie up one hour of your day).
Forever Young: How Rock n Roll Grew Up (BBC) (59min)