Aladdin Sane: 50 Years Exhibition @ Festival Hall

This surprisingly extensive and greatly enjoyable exhibition on the ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall is premised on the notion that the cover to David Bowie’s 1973 album, ‘Aladdin Sane’ – the photo of Bowie’s face with the ‘lightning bolt’ drawn across it – was an epoch-making, benchmark-setting, game-changing, epochal work of art. On the wall labels and in the exhibition publicity the curators go so far as to claim that the cover photo is ‘the Mona Lisa of Pop’. Do you agree? This exhibition tries its damnedest to persuade you.

Cover of Aladdin Sane by David Bowie, released 19 April 1973

The album

‘Aladdin Sane’ was Bowie’s sixth studio album, released on 20 April 1973 on RCA Records. The previous albums had been:

  • David Bowie (1967)
  • David Bowie/Space Oddity (1969)
  • The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
  • Hunky Dory (1971)
  • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

The concept album ‘Ziggy’, creating an elaborate mythology about an ill-fated, fictional rock musician, was Bowie’s breakthrough LP. It sold over 100,000 copies and catapulted him into the realm of real stardom. Concerts sold out, the music press started to treat him as a player, his fan base exploded. It established him as a leader of the more thoughtful, cerebral, art student end of Glam Rock, far more ambitious in his skilful deployment of a persona and concept than rivals like Marc Bolan, let alone the pure pop end of Glam such as Sweet or Slade.

The follow-up, ‘Aladdin’, is closely linked to ‘Ziggy’. Bowie recorded it with the same backing band (led by guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson) and it was recorded between gigs of his extensive Ziggy Stardust tour. The songs were mostly written on the road in the US between shows. This explains why the subject matter is often directly American (‘Panic in Detroit’) and also has a heavier, harder rock feel than Ziggy. The track listing is:

Side one:

Side two:

It contains one solid gold hit, ‘The Jean Genie’, which is a classic of a certain kind of style of repetitive, one-riff rock. It started with Mick Ronson fooling around with a Bo Diddley riff on the tour bus. Back in New York Bowie developed lyrics to entertain Andy Warhol acolyte, Cyrinda Foxe. In fact the way the lyrics describe a certain New York type is strongly reminiscent of Lou Reed, whose album Transformer, full of such portraits, Bowie had just finished producing and playing on. A cursory listen to both shows that Transformer is, quite obviously, much better than Aladdin, more varied, more interesting tunes (‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’), has stood the test of time far better.

The bassist on the Jean Genie session later claimed it was recorded in an hour and a half flat. It went to number 2 in the UK chart (a chart which, one of the many entertaining and nostalgic wall labels tells us, had recently featured Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’ and Jimmy Osmond’s ‘Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool’). But I find most of the other tracks on the album boringly repetitive and too long. And the lyrics?

Crack, baby, crack, show me you’re real
Smack, baby, smack, is that all that you feel
Suck, baby, suck, give me your head
Before you start professing that you’re knocking me dead

It was ‘daring’ and ‘risqué’ at the time to describe blowjobs in a song, 50 years later…not so much. And ‘professing’?

It’s surprising that this contrived performer, this cracked actor, so keen to display a glammed-up, self-consciously theatrical character, should include a Rolling Stones track, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, on the album. He said in interviews it was a tribute to the Stones-inspired feel of many of the songs, but it’s dire, isn’t it? The main difference is Bowie swallowing or snatching the word ‘together’ in contrast to Mick Jagger’s lazy sexy drawl, which is definitely worse, and the spoken ad lib at the end:

They said we were too young
Our kind of love was too young
But our love comes from above
Let’s make love

This sounds like a blatantly commercial play for the adoration (and money) of pimply misunderstood 15-year-olds everywhere.

Who is Aladdin Sane? In interviews Bowie simply described him as ‘Ziggy Stardust goes to America’, where he discovered urban decay, drugs, sex and violence on a scale you couldn’t get in Britain. Critic Kevin Cann is quoted describing him as ‘a kind of shell-shocked remnant of his former self’.

Installation view of ‘Aladdin Sane 50 Years’ at the Southbank Centre showing a contact sheet and blown-up images of Bowie dressed for his performance of ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops. Note the red-and-blue colour scheme already much in evidence. Installation photo by Pete Woodhead. Bowie photo by Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive ™

The album had 100,000 advance orders which meant it went ‘gold’ and to number 1 in the UK album charts, staying there for 5 weeks and in the top 10 for 27. It’s estimated to have sold 4.6 million copies in total, the kind of figures record companies, accountants, and rock music geeks adore.

The exhibition includes an area dominated by a fantastic old-style hi fi system comprising record player, amp and big speakers, on which the album was playing. (For techies, the deck is a Michell Transcriptor, with Celestion 66 loudspeakers and a Rotel RX-1203 amplifier.) Someone must have been continually turning it over or putting the needle back to the start of the side. There are bean bags to slump on. Tellingly I came across someone’s daughter, obviously not very interested in the exhibition, slumped on a bean bag with headphones on, and when I asked her what she was listening to, it wasn’t Bowie.

However, the thing about this exhibition is that it isn’t really about the music. The actual content of the album is barely discussed. The focus of the exhibition is the cover art for the album. This, we quickly discover, was shot by fashion photographer Brian Duffy, was the most expensive rock album cover made to date and, according to the curators, is one of the most iconic rock images of all time.

Brian Duffy

Thus an immense amount of time is devoted to the background and build-up to the famous cover image. I counted no fewer than 84 photos devoted to telling the story. First the context and key personnel. So there are photos of each of the band members with wall labels explaining who they are and their contribution, the largest number devoted to the extremely photogenic Mick Ronson in various rock star poses, but also shots of the bassist and drummer. (The curators speculate that some of these shots were meant to be used in the gatefold of the album sleeve, but the power of the final slash image swept them aside.) There’s photos of Bowie’s producer, Ken Scott, manager Tony Defries, two photos of Bowie’s wife, Angie.

So much for the music. More central to the story of the iconic cover is the extensive section devoted to the photographer of the iconic image, Brian Duffy. We learn about his career before the shoot, that he was one of a trio of young London photographers, what older photographer Norman Parkinson called ‘the Black Trinity’ – the others being David Bailey and Terence Donovan – with contemporary newspaper clippings to that effect.

We learn that Duffy, as he was universally known, was a leading fashion photographer, which is backed up by a wall of 27 of his very impressive fashion photos. These powerfully convey not only the style of the day as found in glossy mags such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan, Elle and the Sunday Times, but also indicate the fashion, rock and celebrity figures of the era, such as John Lennon, Michael Caine, politicians.

There’s a cornucopia of 1960s gossip: Duffy’s collaboration with Len Deighton on the 1969 movie ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’, technical influences such as the way graphic artist Philip Castle used an airbrushing technique on the poster for A Clockwork Orange, which Duffy was to ask him to repeat on the Aladdin cover, the way the cover of Hunky Dory was printed as black and white and then hand coloured by Terry Pastor, how the cover photo of Transformer was taken by ‘legendary’ rock photographer Mick Rock, was accidentally over-exposed but Reed liked it that way, and so on.

The shoot

But there’s more, lots more, as the exhibition zeroes in on the creation of the iconic image. We learn about Duffy’s studio manager Francis Newman, and designer Celia Philo. We are treated to photos of the interior and exterior of the Duffy’s studios at 151a King Henry’s Road, Swiss Cottage NW3. where the famous shoot took place.

We learn about the canny strategic thinking of Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries. They shared a vision of how the marketing of a pop performer could be transformed into high art – or at least a good impression of what pop music consumers thought of as art. One extremely practical and canny reason is that Defries knew that, the more they spent on the cover art, the more record label RCA would be forced to cough up to boost sales in order to recoup their investment. Hence he and Duffy agreed on using an extremely expensive seven-colour printing technique which was then only available in Switzerland.

In order to justify the process the image had to be simple and striking. It had to make maximum use of bold colour. Hence the development of a bright red (with some blue shading) against artificially pale bare skin.

This explains why nobody on the shoot saw the final version on the day because the negatives had to be sent away for commercial processing to achieve that hyper-real effect.

Then we’re on to the photo session itself. An immense amount of resources go to describing in great detail how the shoot was conducted and where the idea for the famous zigzag across Bowie’s face came from. Bowie was 26, had hit new peaks of fame, was deeply aware of the importance of image and media presentation. He wanted something striking and new but didn’t know what. The shoot was crammed in between dates on an international tour.

Duffy had never done a shoot for an album cover before. Both star and photographer were in new territory. So the most striking thing about the shoot this whole exhibition is making such a song and dance about is it was all over in an hour,

In fact, rather disappointingly, or maybe fittingly, right at the heart of the story is uncertainty/mystery. Turns out nobody really knows where the idea for the iconic red flash came from. There are several possible sources. Bowie shared his birthday with Elvis and the King had developed a motto, ‘Taking Care of Business – In A Flash’, and accompanying logo:

Elvis Presley’s Taking Care of Business logo

Rather more prosaically, Duffy’s studio had a National Rice cooker and their logo was a red flash. In 1970 the company had created the world’s largest neon sign depicting the logo on the side of an office building in Hong Kong. From some source, Duffy conjured up the idea of painting a flash across Bowie’s face. It took make-up artist Pierre Laroche to achieve a first draft, establishing a pale ground for his face and chest, and then the red flash.

Then the background was brightly lit in order to burn it out or render it invisible. Bowie was positioned against it wearing only his underpants and Duffy started snapping (as the curators carefully inform us) using his Hasselblad 500 EL camera, using a David Cecil ring flash unit on Ektachrome ASA 64 120-format film. Turn to the left, turn to the right, look straight ahead, two rolls, 24 images, all knocked off in well under an hour. Clean make-up, free to go.

The exhibition features a wall of contact prints of the ‘outtakes’ or unused images i.e. other almost identical shots of made-up Bowie which were rejected for various reasons. The decisive factor was the eyes. In all the rejected versions Bowie has his eyes open. Seeing the final version among all the rejected ones makes you realise that the one with his eyes shut is head and shoulders more powerful than the rest. Why?

Aladdin Sane contact sheet by Brian Duffy

The curators explain that using the image of Bowie with his eyes closed broke with all the conventions of portrait photography. Usually there’s some kind of eye contact with the viewer, the eyes establishing contact or rapport. Even if they’re looking away, we get a stronger sense of someone’s character if we can see their eyes. Thus choosing the eyes shut image immediately created an aloofness and mystery about Bowie, exactly the kind of androgynous, alien effect he and Defries were cultivating.

The second big artistic decision Duffy took was to add the blob of mercury on Bowie’s collarbone. It was added by graphic artist Philip Castle. The curators, like all modern art curators, obsessed with sex, describe this blob as ‘phalliform’ i.e. shaped like a penis*. Is it, though? If it’s the shape of anything, I’d pick up on Bowie’s obsession with aliens and interpret it as being a a ray gun. At the time, this kind of special graphic effect was relatively new, and so I think I interpreted it as a sort of science fiction detail, the kind of thing you might get on a Hawkwind or Emerson, Lake and Palmer album.

Anyway, it certainly emphasises the other-worldly, disembodied vibe of the whole image. For the curators, constricted by their framework of gender and sexual identity, the image emphasises Bowie’s gender fluidity. Not being so constrained, I see it as far more playing to Bowie’s alien from another world schtick.

Anyway, any interpretation is equally irrelevant to the actual music which I outlined above, grimy, gritty portraits of New York types, the Jean Genie or Lady Grinning Soul. You only have to listen to half the album to realise that the cover image is wildly misleading as to its contents.

Last word about the lettering. This is Rémy Peignot Cristal with a blue-white-red gradient. It was Duffy who changed the dot over the i of Aladdin into a small flame shape.

Why the fuss? Gender, obvz

Personally, I was never that particularly struck by this album cover because it came from an era overflowing with striking album cover art. At the time it seemed just one among many amazing, imaginative and striking images, so I don’t quite get the fuss.

What comes over with increasing insistence as the show progresses is that the arguable over-valuation of this one image is in part because it is also being considered and valued as an emblem of gender, queer and identity politics. Aha. This explains why the actual music – its composition, production and performance, its lyrics and its value – are more or less ignored by the exhibition. Nobody says whether the album is any good, probably because it isn’t really.

Instead, as you progress into the second half of the exhibition you realise the whole thing is being seen through the lens of contemporary concerns about gender and identity. Seen from this perspective you see its value in a completely different light, namely that Bowie’s poses in the early 1970s, as bisexual, asexual, strange and alien (the aspect of his persona which was foregrounded in Ziggy, Aladdin, Diamond Dogs, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ and, maybe, ‘Low’) helped a lot of people who were struggling with their sexuality. It’s made pretty plain in the show’s press blurb:

With a focus on the photo session that gave us Bowie’s ‘lightning bolt’ portrait, this exhibition explores the continuous reshaping of Bowie’s image, and his part, along with Duffy’s, in a reimagining of sexual and gender identity.

It explains why in the last part of the show – once we’ve got past the 80 or so large photos of the band members, manager, wife, and all the contact images from the shoot itself, past the wall-sized blow-ups of Bowie in full glam pose, and past the room with the hi-fi system playing the album – we come to a space with sheets hanging from the ceiling bearing quotes from people who grew up in the 70s and 80s, who struggled with their sexuality and identity, and who found solace in Bowie’s confidence and unashamedness and bravura performance of alternative sexualities.

Personal testimony room in the ‘Aladdin Sane 50 Years’ exhibition at the Southbank Centre. Installation photo by Pete Woodhead

In a world dominated by macho movie stars and football hooligans, Bowie offered an alternative, an imaginative way out, a refuge. He made a lot of troubled, embattled people realise they weren’t alone. Bowie showed that you could not only feel confused and uncertain and not fit into any of society’s categories, but become a star on your own terms, appear on the telly, pack out concert halls, and make a fortune.

As the curators out it, Bowie’s message for generations of outsiders, not just sexual outsiders but alienated, unhappy teenagers, was:

Ignore what society wants you to be. Be what you want to be – including how you look to the outside world.

This part of the show – and the first-person tributes from young people who Bowie, with his many-changing masks and fluid sexual identity, helped and reassured and inspired – was genuinely moving, but also a bit disorientating. It was weird walking from the world of trash glam throwaway pop hits into quite a more serious and troubled realm, a world of gender anxiety and liberation, freedom but worry, which seems to be with us more than ever.

I doubt if Bowie set out to be sex therapist to a generation but, this exhibition suggests, that was the impact he had, for a lot of people.

Nostalgia

For me, though, being neither troubled by my sexuality (no more than average, anyway) and no particular fan of Bowie’s early music, I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition because it is an absolute riot of nostalgia. The opening rooms set the scene for the Great Photoshoot by establishing the social and political and music context of 1973.

Probably younger visitors walked swiftly past the background panels describing Britain in the 1970s, the collage of newspaper headlines from the period, the oil crisis, the four day week, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, the endless strikes, but I lingered long and lovingly, reliving the long-ago days of my boyhood.

Next to the politics was a similar size panel with a collage of contemporary music paper articles, giving an impressionistic sense of who was who in rock music, circa 1973, many of them, apparently about Elton John, whatever Paul McCartney and John Lennon were up to, a new young band named Queen, and so on.

Far more visually striking, though, was another collage establishing the context of classic rock album covers from the period. These included actual vintage copies of Sergeant Pepper, Abbey Road, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, Slider by T Rex, early Roxy Music, Music from Topographic Oceans by Yes and many more. This is what I meant by the Aladdin Sane cover image being just one among many. Surely the cover of Dark Side of The Moon is as, if not far more, iconic than Aladdin Sane, is far more widespread in the culture, you’re more likely to see it on t-shirts or spoofed in cultural references.

Album cover of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd, released 1 March 1973, 6 weeks before Aladdin Sane (19 April 1973)

And indeed the exhibition confirms that the Music Week Sleeve Design Award 1973 gave first place to Dark Side (with Aladdin coming a very creditable second). Looking more broadly, a quick internet search for rock albums of 1973 turns up:

  1. Gram Parsons – GP (January 1, 1973)
  2. Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (January 25, 1973)
  3. John Martyn – Solid Air (February 1, 1973)
  4. Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (February 7, 1973)
  5. John Cale – Paris 1919 (March 1, 1973)
  6. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (March 1, 1973)
  7. King Crimson – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (March 23, 1973)
  8. Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure (March 23, 1973)
  9. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (March 28, 1973)
  10. Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire (March 29, 1973)
  11. The Beatles – 1962-1966 (April 2, 1973)
  12.  The Beatles – 1967-1970 (April 2, 1973)
  13. David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (April 13, 1973)
  14. Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (May 25, 1973)
  15. Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy (July 1, 1973)
  16. Mott The Hoople – Mott (July 20, 1973)
  17. Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin – Love Devotion Surrender (July 20, 1973)
  18. New York Dolls – New York Dolls (July 27, 1973)
  19. Lynyrd Skynyrd – (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (August 13, 1973)
  20. Faust – Faust IV (September 21, 1973)
  21. The Who – Quadrophenia (October 19, 1973)
  22. Paul McCartney & Wings – Band on the Run (December 5, 1973)

Of which you’d have thought the cover art for Dark Side, Raw Power, Houses of the Holy, Tubular Bells, the two Beatles compilation albums and Band on the Run are getting on for being as ‘iconic’ as Aladdin Sane.

And a quick Google also turns up Rolling Stone’s list of top ten rock album covers of all time which doesn’t even include Aladdin Sane.

Consideration of general album covers from the period then moves onto another section focusing on album covers specifically by or closely related to Bowie i.e. the covers of his previous albums, especially the androgynous or sexually ambivalent ones such as The Man Who Sold The World where he’s lying on a divan wearing a dress, or Hunky Dory; and the equally ambivalent, but in a different, far more butch way, cover art for Lou Reed’s Transformer, produced by Bowie, which he and Mick Ronson both played on, and released a few months before Aladdin, in November 1972.

Front and back cover of Transformer by Lou Reed

All this is great fun, to see the great album art and play in your mind all the great tracks from long ago. There’s also a guilty pleasure: off to one side of the ‘classics of rock’ album covers is a montage of ‘square’ albums from the period, to remind us older guys how dire most music and entertainment of the period was. So there are the covers of albums by The Black Watch, the TV show Opportunity Knocks, the musical Godspell, Break-Through, character-based albums by Alf Garnett, Benny Hill and Tony Hancock, by Ken Dodd and his Diddymen and, a bit more acceptably, by ‘pop sensation’ Gilbert O’Sullivan. Half a century ago.

Montage of retro 1970s album covers at the ‘Aladdin Sane 50 Years’ exhibition at the Southbank Centre

*Camille Paglia

A little further on into the exhibition I discovered the curators’ use of the word ‘phalliform’ is lifted from one of the lengthy quotes from American feminist academic, social critic and renatagob, Camille Paglia which are printed on the walls.

I remember Paglia’s presence on the scene in 1980s TV and magazines, touring her leather-jacketed, spike-haired form of aggressive New York feminism, and churning out page after page of mashed-up, hot-wired Beat prose poetry. The exhibition relies very heavily on her for its central premise, namely that the Aladdin Sane photo:

with its red-and-blue lighting bolt across Bowie’s face, has become one of the most emblematic and influential art images of the past half century, reproduced and parodied in advertising, media and entertainment worldwide.

This is the premise of the entire exhibition. Here’s another slice of Paglia’s all-about-everything, showily eclectic, name-dropping prose:

It contains all of Romanticism, focused on the artist as mutilated victim of his own febrile imagination. Like Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, whose body was scarred by lightning in his quest for the white whale, Bowie as Ziggy is a voyager who has defied ordinary human limits and paid the price.

‘…and paid the price’ – this is sentimental tripe, a facile, clichéd, pre-modern view of the artist as specially damned and cursed for his gift, the kind of thing that Byron invented in the 1810s, felt a little ridiculous when Baudelaire did it in the 1850s, lived on into the poets maudits (damned poets) of the late nineteenth century (Rimbaud bunking off to Africa, Verlaine crying into his absinthe); was a thorough-going cliché worthy of mockery a hundred years ago.

It’s superficial magazine writing, rewarded for being exaggerated, over-written, sentimental and stereotyped. But, like wearing a leather jacket and having a spiky haircut, it was enough to persuade many people that Paglia was cool and has something to say, back in the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s. If you like this kind of 6th form showing off, then it usefully underpins the exhibition; if you don’t (and you might have noticed that I don’t) then it undermines it.

Afterlife of an image

But back at the exhibition we haven’t finished yet. There’s more. This really is an exhibition for Aladdin Sane completists, because the exhibition goes on to chart further highlights of Bowie’s career after the album was released, and the long afterlife of the Aladdin image. For a start the curators aren’t backward in pointing out that Bowie himself had long links with the South Bank Centre, from his debut in 1969 in the recently opened Purcell Room, to his curation of Meltdown, their annual contemporary music festival, in 2002.

In the same year that the album came out, 1973, Radio 1 broadcast a series called ‘the Story of Pop’ in 26 episodes, and the cover of the first part of the associated part-work featured the Aladdin Sane image.

As to Duffy, he went on to work with Bowie on two further album covers, namely: Lodger (1979), Scary Monsters And Super Creeps (1980).

In 2002 Absolut Vodka ran an advertising campaign which used classic album covers, and one used the Aladdin Sane image.

In 2003 Kate Moss appeared on the front cover of Vogue sporting her version of the Aladdin Sane lightning to celebrate 30 years of its impact on culture and fashion (fourth photo down on this page).

After the 2008 financial crisis some parts of Britain issued their own local currency (news to me). Apparently a currency was issued local to just Brixton in south west London. Since Bowie was actually born in Brixton (at 40 Stansfield Road) the Aladdin Sane image featured on the Brixton £10 note.

In 2013 the Victoria and Albert Museum staged a huge exhibition about Bowie, titled David Bowie Is. it ‘set a new benchmark for immersive music exhibitions’ and was a sellout, going on tour round the UK and then abroad.

Bowie passed away on 10 January 2016. The following year Royal Mail issued a set of ten commemorative stamps for what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday year. Six stamps featured album covers, including Aladdin Sane. The first day cover was franked with a copy of the lightning bolt logo.

All these occasions are lovingly recorded, with appropriate illustrations and detailed captions. Bowie has been turned into an institution. All images have to be licensed by ‘the David Bowie Archive’. To quote the Clash, ‘turning rebellion into money’.

Chris Duffy

Things fall into a place a bit more when you learn that the exhibition is curated by Duffy’s son, Chris Duffy, and accompanies a book of the same name. Ah. And that it was Chris who described his Dad’s work as ‘the Mona Lisa of Pop’. Ah. And that Chris Duffy has set up the Duffy Archive to preserve his father’s work and legacy. Ah.

I loved this exhibition. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a relaxing, easy-going wallow in 1970s rock and pop and social nostalgia, full of nuggets and gossip and factoids. It’s a broad walk down memory lane. Like everything, it’s capable of multiple meanings and interpretations. The curators go heavy on the gender liberation aspect, which I see and understand. I responded more fully to the nostalgia elements. But once I understood the lead involvement of Duffy’s son, I also came to see it as a rather touching act of filial respect.

Installation view of ‘Aladdin Sane 50 Years’ at the Southbank Centre showing Bowie posing in the flash make-up against a flash backdrop. Installation photo by Pete Woodhead. Bowie photo by Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive ™


Related links

Rock reviews

Texts

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: