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Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible! - Mary Hopkin, Lulu Selling Tea and the Spirit of 1968

In 1990, The Proclaimers released a four-track EP, the lead track of which was a cover of King of the Road, Roger Miller’s countrified blue-collar paean to life as a permanent road trip, cheap, easy and positively revelling in its commitment-free existence. Released by Miller in 1964, the song’s crossover smash hit status chimed with the new freedoms that the decade was starting to open up. As such freedoms trickled down the class scale, the song’s breezy optimism was the perfect soundtrack to male middle-aged spread turned to a collective mid-life crisis which suggested that, for ‘a man of means by no means’, as Miller would have it, nothing was impossible.

In its own home-boy way, the sentiments of Miller’s song chimed with the burgeoning would-be revolution that had been building, and which would bear various fruit over the next few years. This saw 1967’s so-called Summer of Love explode into the seismic events of the following year, when pop, protest and proletarianism saw workers, students and the intellectual avant-garde collaborate for a fleeting alliance down at the mythical barricades just before the tanks rolled in. 

‘Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible!’ went one of the Situationist slogans daubed on Parisian walls during the May ’68 uprising that took everyday spectacle onto the streets. ‘Under the Cobbles, the Beach’ went another, it’s misty-eyed desire to reclaim a more primitive existence beyond the inner-city grid systems later forming an umbilical link with the wilful nihilism of punk. One might also argue the latter phrase was misinterpreted by global urbanists on a grand scale as an excuse for regeneration, gentrification and the property developers’ paradise currently burying whatever beaches are left flat out of existence.

Whatever, it was the third track on the Proclaimers King of the Road EP that caught the real spirit of the ‘60s. The second track, a cover of Lefty Frizell’s Long Black Veil, recorded by Johnny Cash in 1969, was a similar country classic reinvented by Craig and Charlie Reid with a Caledonian common touch that has consistently and quite rightly transcended their local origins to take the global village by storm.

The song that followed, Lulu Selling Tea, was a Reid brothers original which took issue with how the 1960s as a decade had been immortalised. ‘May I be allowed to voice dissent / Over the Sixties, and what they meant’, the song began, before going into a nostalgic reverie of pop cultural totems, from George Best, to Mother’s Pride bread, Batman on TV and the eponymous Lulu selling tea. It’s key line, ‘Now I don’t recall too much long hair’, may not have referenced 1968 specifically, but it nevertheless served up a small-town working-class corrective to the myth-making.  

Lulu’s own accidental flirtation with the counter-culture wouldn’t come until 1969, when her Saturday night prime time TV show featured Jimi Hendrix as a guest. With Lulu and Hendrix scheduled to do a duet, Hendrix stopped mid-way through playing Hey Joe for an impromptu take on Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love.

In a largely two-channel country, TV moments like this were remembered. Indeed, this was how most people experienced the 1960s, with the fetishised fashions of swinging London as far away and as untouchable as the events on the streets of Paris and Prague.

The same year as the Jimi Hendrix incident, Lulu won the Eurovision Song Contest with Boom Bang-a-Bang, the first ever joint winner of the contest alongside entries from Spain, the Netherlands and France. The song’s title was as nonsensical as the previous year’s winner, La, la, la, won by Spanish singer, Massiel. Yet, for all the infectious appeal of its hormonally-charged bubble-gum melody, the phrase Boom Bang-a-Bang itself was a piece of accidental Dadaism, a pop-powered grenade worthy of Kurt Schwitters. So seemingly powerful was the song’s unintended incendiary air that it was one of several records banned from airplay during the 1991 Gulf War.

Prior to Boom Bang-a-Bang and in ’68 itself, Lulu had a hit with I’m A Tiger. Ronnie Scott and Marty Wilde’s jaunty lyric probably wasn’t a homage to the café scene in Lindsay Anderson’s film, If…, released earlier that year, in which Malcolm McDowell’s public school rebel Mick Travis cavorts with Christine Noonan’s surly waitress beside the juke box which plays the Sanctus from the Missa Luba performed by a Congolese choir. The iconic image of McDowell wielding a machine gun flanked by Noonan at the film’s end became a favourite pin-up of many a bedroom-bound teenage revolutionary. ‘The rest is up to you’ said Anderson following a screening of If… at Cannes.

One of the biggest hit records of 1968 was Those Were the Days, an Anglicisation of an early twentieth century Russian romance sung by Welsh chanteuse Mary Hopkin. Hopkin had been recommended to Paul McCartney by Twiggy after being spotted on TV talent show Opportunity Knocks.

As one of the first artists to be signed to the Beatles Apple label, McCartney produced Hopkin’s version of Those Were the Days, which was a global smash that went to number one for six weeks in the UK. With a lyric by Greenwich Village folk singer Gene Raskin set to a melody by Russian composer Boris Fomin, the song looks back with ennui at a time of youthful idealism, by September when it hit the top spot, it already seemed to be sound-tracking an age just past.

Beyond such seemingly saccharine chart-bound sounds, 1968 is remembered as the year of Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles’ White Album. The cover of the latter was designed by Richard Hamilton, and was a long way from Peter Blake’s groovy collage for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the year before.

Beggars Banquet opened with the ethnographic diabolism of Sympathy for the Devil, a song recorded in June of that year, when its genesis was filmed by Jean Luc Godard in his sprawling counter-cultural cut-up, One Plus One. The film also looked at black power, Marxism and deconstructing power in a film later compromised by producers, who re-edited and re-titled the film as the more commercial Sympathy for the Devil. In light of the events of May 1968, the film was pulled from its scheduled screening at Cannes, and on release was derided by Situationist-on-high Guy Debord as ‘the work of cretins’ and derided as what Tom Wolfe would later dub radical chic.

The second side of Beggars Banquet opened with Street Fighting Man, which Mick Jagger wrote about Tariq Ali after attending an anti-war rally at London’s US embassy, attended by some 25,000 people. The spirit of events in Paris too filtered through the song.

On the White Album, meanwhile, John Lennon’s song Revolution 1 was explicit enough, but the tape experiment of Revolution 9 took flux-inspired musical concrete into the mainstream. Also on the album was Piggies, George Harrison’s copper-baiting nursery rhyme-styled singalong favoured by Charles Manson and family alongside another track from the album, Helter Skelter. Both albums were pretty grown-up stuff.

Elsewhere, Waiting for the Sun by the Doors contained both The Unknown Soldier and Five to 1, featuring the legend-sealing line, ‘No-one here Gets Out Alive’, which became even more loaded when Jim Morrison died in a Parisian bath-tub three years later. Then there was White Light White, the Velvet Underground’s post Warhol second album, which maxed-out the volume into something fuzzier than the sunshine-eyed productions people turned on, tuned in and dropped out to elsewhere.

None of this may have been in Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall’s still seminal frontline study of the counter-culture, which was published in 1968, but it remains a vital study of how things got to this point. Written in Nuttall’s muscular and deeply personal voice, it wasn’t afraid to lay bare the era’s scars just as the flesh that was now possible onstage after the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s archaic censorship.

All of the 1960s luminaries good, bad and ugly turn up in Bomb Culture, along with variations of every anecdote that turns up in every book about the British counter-culture ever, so you realise just how small and necessarily incestuous the scene was RD Laing, Alexander Trocchi and Tom McGrath, the unholy trinity of Scotland’s counter-culture, are in there, with all that stuff about anti-psychiatry and Project Sigma that has by turns lionised, rejected and reassessed ever since.

Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc imprint picked up on Trocchi in the 1990s, republishing Scotland’s original Beat figure’s neglected novels, Young Adam and Helen and Desire. Young Adam was later adapted for the big screen by David Mackenzie, with Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan.

RD Laing was reimagined on film in Mad to Be Normal, Robert Mullan’s film, which starred David Tennant as Laing. More interestingly, artist Luke Fowler was nominate for the Turner Prize for a body of work shown at Inverleith House in Edinburgh that included All Divided Selves, a film collage drawn from archive footage of Laing.

As for McGrath, it would take a decade, but he would go on to take the spirit of ’68 to Glasgow by way of the Third Eye Centre, the city’s first real arts lab, which helped house a plethora of underground artistic activity in the city. In May 1979, McGrath transposed his experiences of the 1960s underground and his descent into heroin addiction into his semi-autobiographical play, The Innocent. Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Innocent drew its title from a barbed description of McGrath by Laing in an anecdote recounted by Nuttall, both in Bomb Culture and in interviews with McGrath.

Nuttall would do something similar to Bomb Culture a couple of decades later with his less sung tome, Art and the Degradation of Awareness, another phlegmatic critique of received orthodoxies in a post-punk, post YBA climate.

Nuttall had been a key member of The People Show, the very English performance art troupe he co-founded in 1966, originally performing in the basement of underground mecca, Better Books, on Charing Cross Road. At various points in 1968, Nuttall and co took People Shows numbers 3, 11, 20, 21, 8 and 19 to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh’s then revolutionary studio theatre still in its original home up a close in James Court, where it had opened in a former brothel five years before.

If Bomb Culture marked the end of something, a necessary taking stock before the real revolution began, as the Proclaimers make clear in Lulu Selling Tea, such seismic activities would take a while to affect a couple of young shavers growing up in Fife. Their generation had other concerns.  

In truth, culturally speaking, the spirit of ’68 didn’t really start taking shape until the ‘70s, when the strung-out post-hippy come-down subsided and people started to agitate, educate and organise. When punk went boom bang-a-bang then La la la almost a decade later, all those Situationist slogans had come of age. Lulu selling tea might have been a lifetime away, but, in the words of Hopkin, by way of Raskin and Fomin, those were the Days, my friend. Those were the days.

Bella Caledonia, May 2018


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