What Made the Sixties Great
by David Soulsby,
author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"
The Sixties started out full of uncertainty and angst: the icy tentacles of the Cold
War were everywhere, creating tension and mistrust between east and west. No one was sure what was going to
happen to our world. For a time things looked bleak. Would we all be blown to pieces in a nuclear war or
would we survive to make the world a better place? We seemed to be walking a fine line.
Yet we came through it and managed to be part of an era that is regarded as the 20th
century’s most defining decade.
Certainly that’s the verdict of Brits who took part in a survey conducted by the
Yesterday television channel to mark the first showing in Britain of the highly regarded documentary series
And it was decided that the most defining moment of the decade took place in July
1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon from the Eagle landing craft. It was without question
a giant step for mankind. It confirmed the vision, courage and inventiveness of the human race and gave
millions upon millions back on earth a sense of wonder and awe. The Eagle had indeed landed! The grainy black
and white images of that historic event were broadcast across the globe. In Britain, Thunderclap Newman’s
Something In The Air was top of the charts — an apt title in the circumstances. In the US, Zager and
Evans claimed the number one slot with their futuristic song In The Year 2525.
There was a strong feeling of optimism around following the event. Despite the
traumas of the Vietnam War, violent demonstrations and the horror of assassinations, there was fresh hope
that peace would eventually prevail among all nations. It was perhaps too big a dream but nonetheless it was
an admirable one and not one to be treated lightly. So much had been achieved in the previous ten years:
society was changed, maybe not always for the better, but changed it was and the world would never be the
A third of those polled in the survey said
if there were an era they could go back to and live in it would be the Sixties. One thing that captured the
imagination was the era’s feeling of great optimism. They said it was a feeling that isn’t around today. And,
surprisingly, many felt that despite today’s technological advancements, people had a better standard of
living in the Sixties. Myself, I’m not too sure about that — many aspects of our social and economic lives
have improved immensely since the Sixties but perhaps what they meant is that people back then were more
content and happy with what they had.
Adrian Wills, general manager of Yesterday, said of the survey: ‘By far and away the
1960s won every category.’ It came out tops for music, fashion and
Brits, he explained, have a very strong sense of nostalgia for the music and history
of the era, regardless of whether or not they were around at the time.
‘Even teenagers of today will be aware of the significance of key figures in history
like Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles and the story of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King,’ he said.
Although she died in 1962, Marilyn Monroe was voted the 60s greatest female icon.
She was ahead of model Twiggy, described as the Face of 1966, and
follow actresses Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. President John Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline
Kennedy also made the list, as did singers Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.
Actors dominated the Male Icons list. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine
figured prominently. Sean Connery as James Bond also made the top list. It was October 1962 when Dr
No hit the cinema screens. It earned mostly thumbs-up reviews but I don’t think there were many people
at the time who realized just how big the film would become and how influential the Bond franchise would
prove. It was no surprise that the Russians regarded the film and Bond as the personification of capitalist
evil! That was the Cold War uneasiness rearing its ugly head again.
James Dean figured at number five in the greatest male icon section, which is
testament to his huge appeal. He had been dead for nearly five years before the decade started, yet his image
and impact on a generation lived on, and still does today.
John Lennon was placed number four in the Male Icon category and the music of The
Beatles was miles ahead in the Best Records category. In the Top Ten they had six songs: She Loves
You was number one, followed by Can’t Buy Me Love. I Want To Hold Your Hand, We
Can Work It Out/Day Tripper and I Feel Fine. Only Elvis Presley stopped the Fab Four claiming
the first five of the top places with his operatic It’s Now Or Never, which earned fourth
Elvis, however, was king elsewhere, holding off Martin Luther King for the title of
the era’s Greatest Male Icon. The assassination of Luther King in
1968 was one of the major defining moments, along with his I Have A Dream speech in 1963. Nelson
Mandela’s life prison sentence in 1964 was also hailed as a moment to remember.
Of course, no defining moments discussion could go by without mention of the
assassination of President John Kennedy. It was a shocking event and one that touched people all over the
world. The poll placed it at number two, with the start of the Civil Rights movement also etched on people’s
When it came to films, it was the family friendly Mary Poppins that ruled
the roost, followed by The Sound Of Music. Both starred Julie Andrews and had audiences packing
movie theatres. They were pure escapist fun, shedding sunshine and laughter, a welcome antidote to the darker
events that often plagued the era. Both films are regularly shown on TV, often at Christmas time. I doubt
there are many people around who haven’t heard the Mary Poppins nonsense word
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and also delight in the mangled cockney accent of Dick Van Dyke as Bert
the chimneysweep. And when The Sound Of Music enters our
radar who doesn’t recall the simple songs such as Do Re Mi and My Favourite Things?
Innocent pleasures from an era usually better remembered musically for its innovative rock music and
Other movies that were held in high regard were Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,
The Graduate, Bonnie And Clyde and Easy Rider. These are all classic films that
have stood the test of time.
Adrian Wills summed up the survey and its findings by reiterating that few decades
had had the breadth of impact as the Sixties. ‘From protest to war,’ he said, ‘to the space race, the
Beatles, innovative technologies, fashion and politics, the events of that tumultuous ten-year period
transformed the world, making it the most transformative decade of the modern era.’
David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national
newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan,
Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer
and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel
about four friends growing up in the