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The Rise and Fall of the 1960s Counterculture in Britain and America | Kenny Wilson

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The 1960s was a unique period when change was rapid and people’s attitudes were challenged by increased affluence, the tensions and uncertainties of the cold war and the growth of mass media and leisure opportunities. This talk looks at one aspect of the 1960s: the development and differences of what happened socially and culturally between those born before the start of the Second World War and those born afterwards, especially about what is now referred to as the “Counterculture”.

But what is the Counterculture? What does it mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary actually writes it with a hyphen i.e. “counter-culture” and defines it thus:

“A radical culture especially among the young that rejects established social values and practices; a mode of life opposed to the conventional or dominant.”(OED)

This doesn’t tell us a lot. In fact, the first use of the phrase “Counter Culture” was used by Theodore Roszak in 1968 in his highly influential book “The Making of a Counter Culture”.

Writer and Philosopher Allan Watts wrote of this book in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969:

“If you want to know what is happening among your intelligent and mysteriously rebellious children, this is the book. The generation gap, the student uproar, the New Left, the beats and hippies, the psychedelic movement, rock music, the revival of occultism and mysticism, the protest about our involvement in Vietnam, and the seemingly odd reluctance of the young to buy the affluent technological society- all these are here discussed, with sympathy and constructive criticism, by a most articulate, wise, and humane historian.”(Allan Watts)

What many people think of now as the 1960s Counterculture is the period between approximately 1965 and 1973 when mostly white, middle class, and mainly young people decided to reject the established system and attempt to create an alternative society based on their ideas of love, sharing and communal values (among many other things). It emerged more or less consecutively in Britain and America but soon spread to many other parts of the World, especially Western Europe, South America (and Mexico), Australia and Japan. It also had a profound effect on Eastern Europe to the consternation of the established Communist powers there who saw it as a threat to their political hegemony and was ruthlessly repressed.

The name the Counterculture gave itself at it’s beginning was The Underground, something of a misnomer considering the theatricality and visibility of the movement in the West. However, in the East, it was a much more appropriate label with books and records being passed around clandestinely and a constant fear of arrest by the authorities. Czech poet, playwright and politician Vaclav Havel has written extensively about the importance and the inspiration of the Counterculture, and especially the music of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, on the struggle of the Czech people after the Soviet invasion of 1968. The “Prague Spring”.

An important rock group called The Plastic People of the Universe (based on a song by Frank Zappa) was formed by Milan Hlavasa after hearing a recording of the Velvet Underground, and achieved popularity on an underground level. Rock bands in Czechoslovakia required a license from the government, and in those days of Communist “Normalization” the Plastic People’s was soon revoked. The band continued to play, but only at weddings (one of the few activities beyond the government’s control) and at secret, one-time shows, advertised through paranoid word of mouth. The Plastics acquired a Warholesque “artistic director,” the crazed alcoholic imp Ivan Martin Jirous, and eventually replaced its English-language repertoire with a bunch of Czech originals derived from the poetry of various banned authors. The songs weren’t political in any conventional sense, but when the state dictates culture, all unapproved acts become political, like it or not.

Forced underground by the censors, the Plastics and their followers christened their own artistic movement as The Underground (in English), or Druhá Kultura (“second culture”). It was alternative before there was Alternative. As Hlavasa would tell an interviewer in 1997, “Our community, which was, probably imprecisely, referred to as ‘underground,’ was a pocket of normal life. . . . People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts. Their music preferences were not necessarily similar, but music wasn’t as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while. I don’t know if anything like that would be possible had the Plastic People of the Universe not existed then.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean it was welcomed with open arms by Western governments. It was actually met with incomprehension and derision and, as protests and student unrest increased, the eventual use of force and violence. It’s also important to realise that the participants of the Counterculture were, in fact, a relatively small minority of people, although it’s cultural expressions, like fashion and music, had a wide influence and appeal, especially after popular groups like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones identified themselves with it.

Background of the Counterculture

So where did the Counterculture come from?

To answer this question we need to look at the aftermath of the Second World War. Britain and America were allies who shared a similar language and cultural background but had a very different experience of war. After victory was celebrated, America emerged as an economic and military Super Power whilst Britain was virtually bankrupt and the British Empire was collapsing. In the U.S. the American Dream, based on home ownership, consumerism, job security and affluence established itself, whilst Britain continued to have some form of rationing until 1954, nine years after the war ended! Also, many large British cities had been badly bombed leaving a lot of people homeless.

Looming over all of this was the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear holocaust. The U.S.A. had become increasingly paranoid about Communist infiltration and activity, especially after the atomic bomb secrets were passed to the Soviet Union by the Rosenbergs. This led to the House Un-American Activities Committee being established that investigated alleged communist activities, especially in the entertainment industry. They created a blacklist of performers, like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, who either refused to cooperate with the committee, or who actually admitted to being communists. They could not perform on Radio or T.V. and their concerts could only be produced independently. The Folk Music scene became associated with radicalism, ironically at the same time as Folk Music became commercialised and popularised by non-blacklisted groups like The Kingston Trio and later on Peter, Paul and Mary. Folk Music managed to be both politically dangerous and very popular! It was a heady mix.

In Britain, with it’s recent experience of near apocalyptical destruction by the German bombers, the reality of the possibility of nuclear annihilation was even more keenly felt and led to the formation of CND (Campaign For Nuclear Disamarmament). This organisation was made up of several groups dedicated to peace and disarmament. Their distinctive badge was made up of the semaphore signs for N and D and has become the global symbol for PEACE and is forever associated with the Counterculture, and especially with the stereotypical image of Hippies.

How the CND sign was designed. It has since become the universal symbol of peace.

On the weekend of Easter 1958 there was a massive march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, which was the site of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. This was attended by thousands of people who walked the 52 miles holding more than 500 symbols aloft. At the head of the march a jazz band was leading the way and people had guitars and were singing songs, another aspect of youth culture that was emerging in the 1950s. This received a lot of press coverage and was the first mass protest of the post war period. But the event was not just a protest, it brought people together and created a sense of belonging and community. This was undoubtedly the beginning of the Counterculture in the U.K.

Michael Foot on making a stand:

It was the novelty of nuclear weapons, plus the evidence of the lingering torture that radiation could inflict, which gave the main impetus to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Nothing so evil had ever happened in our world before. Why had the truth about the crimes committed both at Hiroshima and Nagasaki not percolated to the outside world?

In February 1958 we set up a committee that included Bertrand Russell, J.B. Priestley and Canon Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral, among others. I was there representing Tribune, which had already played a leading part in reporting the general H-bomb debates in the country.

For many of us of that period and generation, it was CND that best expressed the response which the human race must make to the bomb: the moral outrage that such an instrument should ever have been invented, the awareness that a new kind of politics would be needed to bring it under control, the determination to act together at once, whatever the cynics or sceptics might say.

The first Aldermaston march was bigger than any of us had expected, with so many people from all generations, from all walks of life and from all over the country showing the strength of feeling about the horrors of nuclear war.

The music was crucial in rallying support and the songs kept up the spirit of the marchers. I feel very proud to have been a part of it.

But today, far from slowing down, the pace of the arms race is accelerating and its dangers are as great as ever. Why are we still spending billions of pounds on weapons that could destroy the world? We must continue to campaign against them.” (Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party from 1980-83.)

Beatniks, Coffee Bars and Folk, Jazz and Skiffle

In 1957 a book was published called “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac. It had been written much earlier and existed in several versions. The book became a sensation and made famous a group of people Kerouac described as The Beat Generation. Kerouac became a somewhat unwilling celebrity and the reluctant “leader” of a youth subculture which became known as the Beatniks. This name was invented by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1958 using a combination of the words Beat and Sputnik, the recently launched Russian rocket.

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The Beatniks were really a media invention right from the start. Kerouac saw The Beat Generation as an artistic movement similar to Ernest Hemingway’sLost Generation” of the 1920s. Both Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg were incensed by the commercialisation of the Beats. Objecting to the term, Allen Ginsberg wrote to the New York Times to deplore “the foul word beatnik”, commenting, “If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.” Ginsberg, as you can see, was often given to grand, theatrical statements which often proved to have some truth in them!

The essence of the Beat Generation was one of spiritual quest and spontaneous experience. They were influenced by the style and melodic invention of modern jazz. Kerouac and Ginsberg wanted to write poetry and prose that resembled a Charlie Parker, Be-Bop saxophone solo. It was hip and underground and used the flowing cadences and the language used by jazz musicians, they weren’t trying to create a spectacle or draw attention to themselves (apart from maybe Allen Ginsberg who was the ultimate showman!). They viewed themselves as outsiders, looking in. They were, in fact, American Existentialists, which actually sounds like a contradiction in terms. Although Kerouac was extremely ambitious as a writer, his eventual fame and celebrity became a burden to him and he lost focus, and eventually his mind. as he descended into self-destructive alcoholism.

Coffee Bar New York Figaro Chicago Tribune 1960
A Chicago Tribune article about Coffee Bars in New York 1960. This is an almost exact description of a coffee bar I went to in Leicester England, called the Chameleon, in the 1960s.

Although the commercial promotion of the Beatniks was a sensationalist media hype that created the most ludicrous stereotypes, it did achieve one thing. It gave an America in the grip of a rigid conformity, an escape valve. Beatnik Parties became all the rage allowing ordinary Americans to play at being Bohemians. It also attracted the attention of many young people in the U.K. who were also trying to escape a rigid class based conformity of their own. This, coupled with the growth of Espresso Coffee Bars (sometimes called Expresso) in Britain and America, meant there were places they could meet. These places sold “frothy coffee” and usually had a Juke Box in the corner playing the latest hits. As time went by they also started promoting live music, especially Jazz and Folk.

The following video clip is from the fascinating first film by John Cassavettes “Shadows” made in 1959. It is an improvised film set in the Jazz and Beat scene of New York. It really gives you an idea of the social and artistic scene at the time with the ubiquitous smoking and intense discussions about Existentialism!

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Writer Sue Townsend, of Adrian Mole fame, has described her time as a Beatnik in her home town of Leicester, England visiting coffee bars, and she explains how it helped her escape from a repressive working class background that didn’t value literature and art in the way she did, and opened up new horizons and possibilities. To illustrate how important the coffee bars became; in Los Angeles in 1966 when the city authorities decided to re-develop Sunset Strip they closed down a popular coffee bar and live music venue called Pandoras Box which led to a full scale riot of thousands of young people! The Strip was one of the few places in LA where people could walk and was consequently a major meeting place for young people. This incident is commemorated by rock group Buffalo Springfield in the iconic song For What It’s Worth and also in the excellent, but lesser known, Mamas and Papas song Safe in my Garden.

The scene was set for a developing Counterculture and also a nascent and growing Generation Gap between young people and their parent’s generation. It’s true to say that without the Coffee Bars the Counterculture and the emerging live music scene that produced The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Donovan etc. would probably never have happened. Another important factor was that the ending of National Service (Conscription) for anyone born after 1939 meant that musical groups and friendships could endure and develop. For example, if National Service had continued into the 1960s the Beatles would probably never have existed!

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The Beatles (Quarrymen) at the opening night of the Casbah Coffee Club, Liverpool, modelled on the 2i’s Coffee Bar, Soho
Beatles Casbah
The Beatles (Quarrymen) at the opening night of the Casbah Coffee Club, Liverpool August 1959

The Beatles did their first gigs at the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool which was modelled on the famous 2i’s Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street, Soho, London which was the home of British Rock and Roll. They helped decorate the club. It was opened by Mona Best, the mother of the Beatles first drummer Pete. Cynthia Powell also helped, and painted a silhouette of her future husband John Lennon on the wall; it can still be seen there today.

“John, Paul and George went around to see Mona, who told them they were welcome to play but she was still painting the cellar for the club’s opening the following week. The three boys grabbed paintbrushes and helped her finish it off. John mistook gloss for emulsion – because of his short sight – which took days to dry.

The boys played at the club’s opening on August 29, 1959, and I was there to watch them. They played with another lad, Ken Brown, on guitar, but without a drummer, as they couldn’t find one. About three hundred people came along that night, and the boys played rock and roll hits for a couple of hours. The place heaved, with kids jiving and swinging, and the temperature soared until it was hard to breathe.

That was the evening when we first met the Beatles’ future roadies, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, both friends of Pete, but Neil was also his mother’s boyfriend and the father of his younger brother, Roag [born in 1962.

(Cynthia Lennon “John”)

The Angry Young Men

In the 1950s Britain had it’s own version of the Beat Generation. They were called the Angry Young Men. Again, this was very much a creation of media hyperbole. The AYMs had very little in common with each other (unlike the Beats) apart from the fact that they were all mainly working class writers who had achieved publishing fame. This was a considerable achievement as, apart from D.H.Lawrence, there were hardly any working class writers published before the Second World War in Britain. The AYMs included John Osborne, Colin Wilson, Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter and also an angry young WOMAN, Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the brilliant A Taste of Honey. This movement opened up the flood gates for artists, musicians and writers from modest, working and lower middle class backgrounds to become successful in a new Meritocratic Society. The old class barriers were breaking down. The new confident attitudes are expressed in this clip from the film “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”. Of course, these people weren’t trying to create a Counterculture, they were after a bigger slice of the cultural and social pie. They were no longer content to be just office and factory fodder. They were creative, enterprising and ambitious and wanted to be successful.

Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney) may appear brash and confident in this extract and on the whole this film is about a hedonistic young man who flouts convention by having an affair with a married woman (who becomes pregnant) and pursues another woman (who is more conventional and refuses to have sex before marriage) whilst drinking and carousing and insulting the people around him for being boring and acting like sheep. He is not political in a conventional sense but, although most critics dwell on the details of the story praising it’s gritty realism and working class subject matter, for me it is elevated to the status of Greek Tragedy with Arthur desperately trying to break away from his background and kicking out at all those around him, but all the time knowing deep down that he will never get away. The end of the film shows Arthur and his fiance Doreen sitting on a hill in Nottingham watching a new housing estate being built, with the implication that his rebellion is over and he will settle down into boring conformity.

It is, perhaps, significant that this film was released in 1960, the beginning of the period we are looking at although it is dealing with attitudes and social conditions prevalent in the 50s. It is also the year that the Birth Control Pill first became available. If Saturday Night and Sunday Morning illustrates the dangers and consequences of unprotected sex The Pill heralded the beginning of the Sexual Revolution where attitudes became became relaxed and sex could be a recreational activity unencumbered by it’s reproductive role. For some, sex became a leisure activity without fear of unwanted outcomes apart from, perhaps, STDs which were relatively easily treated at the time with antibiotics. The idea of Free Love became a core part of the ideology of the Counterculture (although, in retrospect, it was probably much freer for men than women, one of the factors that eventually brought the Women’s Movement into being!). It also gave rise to one of the most famous slogans of the Vietnam War protest era: “Make Love Not War!” which some attribute to Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse whose work had a profound influence on the attitudes and beliefs of the 1960s. He was a critic of both Western Capitalism and Soviet Communism and saw them both as repressive and authoritarian. His book “Eros and Civilisation” gave the Sexual Revolution intellectual credibility although, in the main, the Counterculture rejected intellectualism for a Dionysian inspired spontaneity.

The Flowering of the Counterculture

The scene was set for something to really happen. 1965 proved to be a watershed for the Counterculture. Bob Dylan “went electric” and threw the established folk and pop music worlds into turmoil. With the release of Like a Rolling Stone he completely changed the possibilities of pop music and recorded what many consider to be the first Rock song, with a different set of values and aspirations. Pop music had grown up!

“That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” Bruce Springsteen said when he inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. “When I was 15 and I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, I heard a guy who had the guts to take on the whole world and who made me feel like I had to too.”

Dylan’s song writing proved to be very popular and influential. As well as many other groups and performers having hits with his songs (e.g. The Byrds with Mr. Tambourine Man, Sonny and Cher with I Got You Babe and many others), a lot of songwriters were writing similar songs, and even imitating his voice and style.

Two records were particularly successful in 1965 and played almost continuously on American radio. They were also popular in Britain (and the rest of the World) even though there was very little recorded music played on British radio at the time. The BBC had a monopoly and only used live musicians. They played mainly light orchestral, easy listening music. This was another aspect of the Generation Gap which found many young people rejecting mass media like radio and TV and getting there culture from other places, like buying records and listening to Juke Boxes in coffee bars. At this time, Radio Luxembourg was the only station playing pop music, and that wasn’t always easy to get. It was very influential though.

The two records were Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire and Universal Soldier by British singer and songwriter Donovan (who, at the time, looked and sounded very like Dylan). In the same year, incidentally, Dylan had a top ten hit in Britain with his song The Times They Are A-Changin’, his anthem to political and social change. Universal Soldier was actually written by a Greenwich Village contemporary of Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, a songwriter of Native American descent who also dealt with issues of betrayal, conquest, and eventual genocide of the American Tribes.

Although neither of these two songs were a call for radical action they both raised questions about the state of the World, especially in regard to wars and the threat of nuclear destruction. This, coupled with the escalation of America’s “intervention” in Vietnam meant they had a particular resonance, especially with young Americans. In fact, for the first time since the end of World War 2, American civilians were being conscripted (drafted) into the army. In a blatant example of Institutionalised Racism, the number of Black Conscripts far outweighed their proportion of the population of America as a whole.

The Vietnam War was becoming a catalyst for protest and activism amongst the young but it was only one aspect of the growing Counterculture. Music was becoming it’s main cultural expression , especially Rock and Folk music, and Bob Dylan and the Beatles were becoming it’s most influential performers. In fact, Bob Dylan was looked upon by many as the leader and spokesman of his generation, a role he has continuously rejected since the mid 1960s. “It is not my duty to remake the World at large, nor is it my intention to sound the battle charge” he sang in 1974, but many of his songs became battle cries of the Counterculture. Radical American, New Left organisation The Weather Underground even named itself after a lyric in Dylan’s song Subterranean Homesick Blues recorded in 1965. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”

While young America was being radicalised by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement Britain was becoming far more self-confident and creative. The success of the Beatles had inspired what is now called The British Invasion where a myriad of British groups and singers dominated the American pop charts. The Mods, a home grown youth subculture were changing fashions and creating a network of live music clubs which gave birth to legendary groups like The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Small Faces. Off-shore Pirate Radio Stations appeared that became incredibly popular, playing records that gave an outlet for the burgeoning independent record labels. Undoubtedly, England was really beginning to Swing.

Wholly Communion Ticket

Perhaps the most significant event for the Counterculture in England was the poetry performance on Friday 11th June 1965 at the Royal Albert Hall. This was filmed by iconic film maker Peter Whitehead and is often known as Wholly Communion. It was at this event that many people with alternative ideas realised they were not alone. Against all the odds, and to the amazement of all concerned, it sold out and they were turning people away from the door. 7,000 attended the event which was organised by a group of poets and writers at the influential shop Better Books, (Charing Cross Road, London) to commemorate the arrival of Beat Poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso to London. There had never been a poetry reading on this scale before, anywhere in the World, and it made the organisers realise the possibilities of what they could achieve.

Surprise star of the show was British poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell who read his powerful poem “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”.

This really was the beginning of the British Underground that led to the publishing of radical, underground paper International Times, Psychedelic all-night music and arts club UFO, the London Free School and the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace on 29th April 1967.

If 1965 was a watershed year 1966 really built up the momentum. The added ingredient to an already visible alternative culture, that was attracting negative attention from the authorities, was LSD. LSD is an extremely powerful psychedelic drug which in 1966 was still legal in both Britain and America. It had been developed and researched by the CIA for use as a possible truth serum or psychological weapon. American novelist Ken Kesey, one of the laboratory guinea pigs, decided LSD was beneficial and could open up and free everyone’s mind. He believed if everyone had a Trip (dose of LSD) it would create a better World! He organised a group of people called the Merry Pranksters who drove across America from California to the East Coast in a brightly painted bus, creating Happenings, and giving away Acid (LSD) on the way. Incidentally, the driver of the bus was Neal Cassady who was the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s influential novel On the Road. The journeys of the Merry Pranksters are chronicled in the best selling book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

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On the other side of America Dr. Timothy Leary along with Richard Alpert were exploring the effects of psychotropic substances on the human mind at Harvard University. This involved giving volunteers psychedelic drugs like Psilocybin and LSD and recording their effects. Leary and Alpert’s colleagues challenged the scientific merit of their research, as well as the “seemingly cavalier attitude with which it was carried out”. Editorials printed in the Harvard Crimson accused Alpert and Leary of not merely researching psychotropic drugs but actively promoting their recreational use. They were both eventually dismissed by the university in 1963.


From then on Leary did promote the use of psychedelics and came up with the influential phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” (which he says was originally given to him by media guru Marshall McLuhan in a restaurant in New York). He wrote several influential books e.g. The Psychedelic Experience, The Politics of Ecstasy, Start Your Own Religion etc.


LSD was introduced to England by Michael Hollingshead. He was British, and the person who had introduced Timothy Leary to LSD in the first place, through the medium of writer Aldous Huxley, who was a keen consumer of psychedelic substances. After staying at Leary’s New York Milbrook Centre he came to London in 1965 with enough Acid for 5000 trips and opened up a club in a large flat in Belgravia called the World Psychedelic Centre. Leary was impressed by what he had heard of the poetry reading at the Albert Hall and wanted to rent the hall in January 1966 to have a Psychedelic Jamboree over which he would preside and the Beatles and Rolling Stones would be invited to perform. This never happened but many famous people were introduced to Acid by Hollingshead at his centre before he was arrested and sent to Wormwood Scrubs Prison for 21 months, not for possessing LSD (which was still legal) but a small amount of Marijuana. At this time draconian sentences were increasingly being given for relatively minor offences. There he met and befriended mega-spy and double agent George Blake, and introduced him to LSD, which, apparently, gave him the inspiration to escape! To this day, we still don’t know what secrets George Blake gave to the Russians, but they must have been pretty important!

LSD made a big impact on the music of the Beatles. It’s influence was already beginning to be felt on the album Rubber Soul with trippy songs like Norwegian Wood and The Word. By the time they made the album Revolver in 1966 many of the songs were overtly psychedelic with one song, Tomorrow Never Knows, containing lyrics taken from Timothy Leary’s book The Psychedelic Experience based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It also contained the first real use of Indian Music on Love You Too, and everyone knows the best music to trip to are Classical Indian Ragas played on the Sitar and Tabla!

1967: Hippies and the Summer of Love

Acid Test poster with a picture of Allen Ginsberg. Nakedness was part of his idea of liberation.

It was the San Francisco Chief of Police who inadvertently coined the name The Love Generation to describe what became known as The Hippies. The Underground scene in San Francisco had been growing throughout 1965 and 66. There were various factions. The old Beats were based there at the iconic book shop City Lights. The New Left were developing revolutionary ideas at the University of California, Berkeley which became the first American university campus to stage sit-ins and protest marches, mainly against the Vietnam War, but also about petty rules and a curriculum that many students found irrelevant.

In the Haight/Ashbury district there was an alternative culture developing with Hippie Shops and restaurants, LSD and Cannabis consumption, and a growing Music and Performance Scene especially a theatre group called The San Francisco Mime Troupe. The success of some of the events used to raise money for this group attracted the attention of serious concert promoters and record companies who would play a significant role in the later decline of the Counterculture. One show raised the enormous amount, for the time, of $12,500. The main entertainment for these shows were The Mime Troupe, The Merry Pranksters and rock bands Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish and Big Brother and the Holding Company (which included singer and future rock and roll casualty Janis Joplin).

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Separate from this developing scene were the Black Panthers. Much has been said and written about how the Counterculture and the Hippies were primarily a white, middle class affair and the Black experience was quite different. The Panthers had strong links with the New Left at Berkeley, especially with people like Angela Davis who was a teacher there, but their Revolutionary approach separated them from the mainstream because it involved, in their minds, the inevitable use of violence rather than just peaceful protest. There were similarities however in the fact that they involved themselves in community projects and food and education initiatives. They even had a pre-school breakfast programme for kids, something which was way ahead of it’s time. They also shared an obsession with the music of Bob Dylan. Apparently, the album Highway 61 Revisited was played continuously at the Panther’s HQ with leaders Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale reading all kinds of messages into it, especially the song Ballad of a Thin Man. They were also keen to make their community more proud and confident with slogans like “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Power” and the Raised Fist Salute so powerfully used by black athletes at the 1968 Mexico Olympics!

Berkeley Protests 45

Their political agenda was, however, far more extreme and even separatist. They wanted to establish a country just for black people, amongst other things. Their beliefs were quite different from the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King who wanted black and white to work together and sought Equality and Integration. They also had a military style uniform and carried arms externally, which, unbelievably, was actually legal in California at the time. This, obviously, put them at the opposite end of the Love and Peace spectrum! They also became a significant target for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI who were determined to wipe them out, and eventually did!

A Gathering of the Tribes

Human Be-In 14th January 1967

Gathering Tribes 1

Towards the end of 1966 there was a split in The Mime Troupe and a new group emerged called the Diggers. They took their name from the radical, proto-anarchist group of the same name formed during the English Civil War (1649-50), who envisaged a society free from money and private property. They were ruthlessly suppressed by Oliver Cromwell.

The San Francisco Diggers were critical of much of the prevailing Counterculture because of it’s hierarchical nature and they also disliked the psychedelic scene which they saw as naive and not radical or political enough. They were interested in creating a Free culture. They opened shops that gave away the produce and provided a free meal service at Golden Gate Park using food which had either been donated or stolen. They saw themselves as latter day Robin Hoods stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. They also published a Free Paper expounding their ideas and criticising other aspects of the Counterculture they thought were too commercial. It was they that coined the phrases Do Your Own Thing and Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

The Gathering of the Tribes was an event in January 1967 that heralded what has become known as The Summer of Love (a phrase that was later copyrighted by concert promoter Bill Graham in an act of extreme, gratuitous commercialism!). The Diggers provided the food, and speakers were invited including Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Berkeley radical Jerry Rubin, the ubiquitous Allen Ginsberg and many others, whilst rock bands Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service provided the music. The Diggers didn’t actually want a stage or celebrity guests but they went along with it because they thought it could increase awareness of their ideas.

As it turned out, between 20 and 30 thousand people turned up for this event (no-one really knows the exact number, or even close). The whole nation was stunned by it’s popularity and it led to thousands of young people all over America making the trip to Haight Ashbury to see what was going on and be a part of it. Most of these Hippie pilgrims were very young, often no more than 16 or 17 years old and some even less, and many were runaways from home.

This became a stampede with the release of two best selling records in the Summer of 1967 “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie, which was originally intended as a kind of advert for the up and coming Monterey Pop Festival, and “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles, which was played to over 400 million people Worldwide when it was the first global satellite television broadcast ever. The Hippies became a global phenomenon and there were Be-Ins and Love-Ins everywhere. The Hippies had gone International over night, the World had become a McLuhanesque Global Village!

As a sixteen year old I went to a Love-In on Victoria Park, Leicester, England in August 1967 and I can honestly say it opened up a whole new way of life for me, with new friends, a new community and a whole new set of beliefs! Prior to this there was an event at Alexandra Palace in London called the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream that celebrated British Hippie culture in a similar way to the San Francisco Human Be-In.

But events were moving fast. As San Francisco sank beneath the weight of tens of thousands of teenage visitors who had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, and no real idea of what they were doing there, the city authorities decided to do nothing to help, hoping they would just go back home. The Diggers provided some support giving away free food, providing shelter and eventually opening a Free Medical Centre manned by volunteer medical students from Berkeley. In October, The Diggers staged a Death of Hippie procession as Haight/Ashbury sank into a cesspit of rape, violence, hard drugs and crime. In perhaps the most pointless act of all, even the Free Shop got burgled. Many of the original inhabitants left to form communes in the countryside. They blamed the media and commercialism for destroying the achievements of the Love Generation.

1968 Love Turns to Anger: Revolution in the Streets

As the Hippie dream in San Francisco turned to nightmare, the streets of Paris erupted. May 1968 saw the students of the Sorbonne join up with the mainly Communist French Trade Unions to create a general strike that nearly toppled the De Gaulle government. This alliance did not last for long though, the Trade Unions mainly wanted more money for their workers and the French Government willingly and quickly gave it to them. They were also following instructions from the Soviet Union who did not want an insurrection in France and were very concerned about the motives and methodology of the New Left. They felt threatened. The ideological differences between the Stalinists and the Trotskyists had widened and the Soviet Union was no longer part of an Internationalist movement. Consequently, the Revolution in France never happened.

The students, however, carried on their struggle for University, Curriculum and Education reform and were inspired by the charismatic and Dadaist political group Situationist International. This group had a lot in common with the American Yippie Party led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. They have both been described as Groucho Marxists because of their use of Humour, Art and Theatrical Performance. They were also as critical of Soviet Communism as they were of Western Capitalism and saw them both as reactionary and repressive. The Situationists made extensive use of Graffiti and Street Art and produced many memorable slogans e.g. beneath the paving stones, the beach”, “be realistic, demand the impossible”, it is forbidden to forbid”, and my personal favourite down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom.”

During 1968 their were increasingly violent demonstrations all around the World. An anti-war demonstration in London became a riot when police charged the crowd with horses. In Chicago there were many injuries when the police broke up an anti-war demonstration outside the Democratic Party Conference. Russian tanks rolled into Prague to end demonstrations for Democratic Reform in Czechoslovakia, the “Prague Spring”. There were demonstrations in Mexico and Japan and Jim Morrison of popular Rock group The Doors sang “they’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers, gonna win yeah we’re taking over!” and “we want the world and we want it now!” At this point, Jim had probably sealed his fate with the FBI and, with their anarchic shows, The Doors found it increasingly difficult to find anywhere to play!

Just to add to an already volatile mix, in a surprise election result ultra-conservative Richard Nixon became the President of the U.S.A. With great solemnity he announced that Timothy Leary was the MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA! No Richard, that’s YOU! Attitudes to the Counterculture became hardened and by May 1970 four students were shot dead by State Troopers at an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio. This is commemorated in a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young called Ohio.

You may think that all of this sounds terrible, that the World was falling apart, that we were, indeed, on the Eve of Destruction! But NO – back in Leicester, England I was, literally, having the time of my life. I think I can honestly say it was like being in heaven (except maybe even better as I have no idea what heaven is actually like). There was an atmosphere of freedom and creativity. I felt like I could do anything. The local music, fashion, art and poetry scene were amazing. If I could have stayed there forever I probably would have done, and I am sure I would have been happy. I really felt truly liberated!

The Decline of the Counterculture

By the early 1970s the Counterculture as a visible and global phenomenon was beginning to diminish and fade. Some people had lost faith in peaceful change and were moving to extreme left wing political and even terrorist beliefs e.g. The Angry Brigade in Britain, Baader Meinhof in Germany, The Weather Underground in America and The Red Army Faction in Italy. These groups obviously alienated a lot of people who otherwise might have been drawn to their message. They were scared of them. The rhetoric became increasingly violent and extreme. They had none of the humour of the Situationists or the Yippies.

Another factor was the divorce of Rock Music from the Counterculture. The Music Industry had become hugely profitable and successful musicians had become extremely rich. Festivals like Woodstock and the Isle of Wight created an almost feudal hierarchy that was resented by the original Hippies who wanted everything to be free and equal. An audience member at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival described it as a “Psychedelic Concentration Camp”.Their activism broke the fences down at both festivals but the damage had already been done. From the 1970s onwards the Festival Scene became enormous and profitable, although some tried to maintain their alternative roots, like the Glastonbury Festival which originally supported and gave money to CND and then Greenpeace. It has been said that after Woodstock the Acid was never again free.

At least part of the collapse of the popularity of the Counterculture can also be attributed to negative media coverage of Hippies and Communes. The whole World was shocked when Charles Manson and his Family committed some atrocious and senseless murders in Hollywood. Suddenly, rather than being charmed and entertained by the Flower Children people realised you might end up being murdered by them. The Love and Peace movement of the 60s had morphed into the “Bad Craziness” of the 1970s. But this is not the whole story.


Much has been written about the decline of the Counterculture but, in reality, it never really went away. Many of the meta-narratives of the 1960s became the big issues of the 1970s onwards e.g. Gay and Lesbian rights, the Women’s Movement, Sexual and Racial Equality, Vegetarianism, Animal Rights and the Environmental Movement. Many of these campaigns have been so successful that they have become part of the mainstream and are written into the laws and policies of many countries, and World institutions like the United Nations and the EU. Even the alternative life styles and philosophy of the Counterculture have prevailed with New Age Travellers, the Occupy Movement, Yoga and Mindfullness and Anti-Capitalist demonstrations. I believe it is true to say that the 1960s Counterculture has influenced modern life and society in a most profound way that touches on nearly every aspectof it, from fashion and design to politics and lifestyle choices.

I am going to finish off this talk now with an extract of a Bob Dylan song which I believe contains the essence of the true meaning of what the 1960s Counterculture was really about.

Bob Dylan It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)


7 responses to “The Rise and Fall of the 1960s Counterculture in Britain and America | Kenny Wilson”

  1. Michael Katz Avatar
    Michael Katz

    Love the article, Kenny. Very thoughtful and informative. Was wondering; where did the Haight-Ashbury map come from? Looks like a detail from something larger.

    1. Kenny Wilson Avatar

      Thanks Michael. It is part of a bigger map that you have to pay for. Can’t remember the address unfortunately.

  2. khadija Avatar

    i enjoyed this article very much.

  3. khadija Avatar

    i enjoyed this article very much.

  4. […] become true icons of comedy and performing in their respective fields. They were born into a very counter-culture driven England eager to leave behind the prudish and uptight Great Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. All of […]

  5. […] become true icons of comedy and performing in their respective fields. They were born into a very counter-culture driven England eager to leave behind the prudish and uptight Great Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. All of […]

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