Why can't we get over the 60s?
The Stones are coming back ... and The Who, The Likely Lads and the Marquee. Even Spider-Man was born in 1963. Why, asks Juliette Garside, Arts Correspondent, do we still live in the shadow of a decade which swung so briefly?
Pete Townshend is decades beyond the deadline he imposed on himself when he wrote My Generation. The immortal line 'Hope I die before I get old' has returned to haunt The Who each time the ageing rockers release a new song or, as they are preparing to do, set off on another farewell tour.
The Who are far from the only 1960s hangover to have hung around from their g-g-g-generation.The umpteenth Rolling Stones tour, announced last week and billed as the biggest yet, begins in the US this September and will continue into summer 2003, with dates yet to be announced in Mexico, Europe, Australia and perhaps even China. And still they will Not Fade Away.
The Stones and The Who will not be playing to a thinning gaggle of post-midlife-crisis fans. These latest outings, like all those preceding them, will be huge. Promoters are whispering greedily about figures upwards of £70 million. Tickets will fetch £200 for some venues, while the top price for The Who's farewell concert this summer is over £350.
Then there's Bob Dylan, whose Never Ending Tour returns to Britain later this year; Pink Floyd; Neil Young; Paul McCartney, whose current tour of the US is his most successful in years ... even that staple of the swinging sixties, the Marquee club, is to reopen, only moved to ultra-fashionable Islington.
It's not just music. The shadow of the 1960s looms over film, literature, television, publishing, photography -- virtually every aspect of our culture.
Last year, we had Tim Burton's remake of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, and the first instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on a book written in the 1950s but popularised by the 1960s counterculture, made more money than any other film in 2001. Even this year's biggest blockbuster, Spider-Man, is based on a cartoon character invented -- guess when? -- in 1963.
British television is getting in on the act too. The Likely Lads (born in 1965) are being revived for a one-off sitcom, this time with Ant and Dec replacing James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in the lead roles.
One of the hottest exhibitions in London this year will feature the photographs of Justin de Villeneuve, 1960s iconographer and husband of Twiggy, whose portrait of Marsha Hunt, taken for Vogue, became one of the visual images that defined the decade.
When Robert Love was ousted in April as managing editor of Rolling Stone magazine -- itself yet another icon of the 1960s that steadfastly refuses to gather moss -- after five years as editor and 20 in total on the magazine, he said the best part of his job had been editing and publishing writers such as Hunter S Thompson, P J O'Rourke and Tom Wolfe. In the 30-odd years since gonzo journalism was invented, the editor of a magazine which has consistently championed America's best new writers could think of no greater literary heroes.
Rolling Stone is changing its editorial strategy to move away from the political essays on which it forged its reputation and adapt to the snappier, shorter content of competitors such as Blender. And who founded Blender? Felix Dennis, once part of the team that produced the legendary 1960s British underground magazine Oz.
The Arpanet, precursor to the internet -- and what could be more noughtie, more now than that? -- was switched on in 1969.
Subsequent decades have thrown up their influential artists and movements, but none has had an impact as deep or reverberations as lingering as the 1960s, when the blueprint of popular culture was drawn. Since then it has been twisted and tweaked but never reinvented, never -- not even by the punks -- torn up and thrown away. It seems we can't get away from the 1960s; that we're victims of severe cultural constipation.
Simon Frith -- music critic, academic and chairman of the Mercury Music Prize -- prefers to call it a freezing of history. Frith sees the obsession with the past as something that particularly plagues the music industry. And he blames it on The Who's generational clarion call.
'There is something about that particular rock culture which is a refusal to age,'' says Frith. ''You kind of feel that the new Rolling Stones record is probably not about having a body you can no longer control, or what it's really like to be a father. Or in any case that is not why people go to see them.'
Nobody likes the thought of growing old, but no other generation has been as embarrassingly determined to prove its youth credentials. Why is Tony Blair so keen for us to know of his ability on the electric guitar? Politicians have not traditionally felt it necessary to portray themselves as down with the kids.
'The whole raison d'tre of the Mercury Music Prize was attempting to make grown-up people listen to music that wasn't the Rolling Stones,' says Frith. 'But it's extremely hard to persuade people to do that.
'Rock has sustained itself in that the stars who were big in 1965 to 1975 are still really big. There is so much music out there, you don't have to go and see the Stones. But the ind ustry has bec ome so dependent on its back catalogue. They're still making money out of it, so why try to establish another enduring act that will sell for generations to come?'
Stuart Cosgrove, former New Musical Express (NME) media editor and now head of nations and regions at Channel 4, believes the introduction of the CD was responsible for keeping alive the music -- and, by extension, the culture -- of the 1960s. Record companies aggressively marketed the golden oldies as a way of convincing people to replace their record collections with CDs.
'When they needed to roll out CD as the new format they did it through bands that were already universally popular, so they turned to The Rolling Stones, The Beatles ...'
Younger people were switching their allegiance from the traditional guitar band to a new brand of music star -- the DJs who dominated the dance scene. Far from falling out of use during the 1990s, vinyl enjoyed a revival because DJs needed it to mix their music. So the bands chosen to market CDs had to appeal to an older generation.
Cosgrove believes that today's more diverse and fragmented music market militates against another boom that could galvanise an entire generation. From about 1972 onwards, popular music began to fragment into distinct strands, each with its own tribe of followers. Black music eventually spawned rap and hip-hop; punk was followed by post-punk; bands like Black Sabbath spawned heavy metal, then thrash, then nu-metal; acid house gave birth to the dance scene.
'We are using the models of the 1960s and 1970s to analyse a much more fragmented culture,' argues Cosgrove. 'And why is bigness a value? Sixties architecture proved that bigness is ugly. Will there ever be music that connects more directly with young people? Yes. There is already and it's not The Rolling Stones.'
Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Rec ords, hero of the film 24 Hour Party People and champion of the post-punk and acid movements, questions the very notion of the supergroup and recoils at the idea that the golden age lasted as long as a decade.
'People have this idea that The Beatles were a great band continuously through-out their existence. But around 1965 there was a year or more when they were utterly irrelevant and finished. They were wonderful in 1963 and 1964 but they kept doing pop for too long. So they sat down and said 'we have to reinvent ourselves', and they started doing Bob Dylan story ballads.'
Wilson says the 1960s lasted about three years. He also quotes Hunter S Thompson, who argued that the 1960s ended when Muhammad Ali was beaten by Joe Frazier in 1971. Predictably, for Wilson The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays were as important as The Stones and The Beatles. Not that he hates the 1960s per se.
'We do live in the shadow of that era and I don't have a problem with that. The problem is that our culture is mediated by us journos. Whenever another new generation comes along, it comes along in an era controlled by people who were part of the last one and to whom it's never as good as the last one.'
Charles Shaar Murray -- veteran rock critic, baby-boomer, and former NME writer -- agrees that today's culture militates against the creation of new supergroups of long-term appeal.
'What record companies want from new signings is a fast turnover and immediate profits. They are not prepared to stick with a band that is not going to be successful immediately, they will let the independent labels do that. What the cultural imperative demands now is celeb gossip and trivia. The dominant cultural ethos tells us that popular culture is not worth taking seriously.'
Fragmentation and fast bucks aside, Shaar Murray also believes there is something intrinsically special about the bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s and about the era that produced them.
'The Stones were special because, I think, they were surfing a social tide. They were genuinely plugged into the excitement of the era. There was great excitement in every cultural area in that time. It was an era of great optimism and vitality. We are now in an era of pessimism and low vitality. To produce better bands we need a better era. And for that we need political change.'
But most people don't like change. Maybe we cling to the icons of the past because we have nothing to replace them with. Or maybe that's just what the baby-boomers want us to think.