The 60s Official Site


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 The Sixties.

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 same again.

 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 significant events.

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 spot.

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 memories.

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 experimentation.

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 SoulsbyDavid Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now Somewhere in the Distanceretired 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 Sixties.