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1969: The Year The Dream Died

An extraordinary decade was drawing to a close, but the final year of the Sixties had several stings in its tale. By Simon Evans

1969 was the hangover after the Sixties party, a time to reflect on where the decade had taken us, but also to retrench and acknowledge that many of the hopes and ideals of the previous few years had come to nothing.

As John Lennon put it at the time, “the people who are in control and the class system are exactly the same, except there are a lot of middle class kids with long hair walking around London in trendy clothes. We’ve grown up a little, there has been a change and we’re all a bit freer and all that, but it’s the same game.”

Even such momentous events as man walking on the moon and the Woodstock festival seemed to be not so much new beginnings as false dawns. The moon landing that summer did not, as was hoped, provide a springboard for mankind’s journey to the stars, and the gathering of the hippie tribes at the Woodstock festival the following month proved to be more a coda for the Sixties dream than its culmination; the Manson murders the same month saw to that.

The Beatles were breaking up, Rolling Stone Brian Jones was dead and Bob Dylan had retreated to the comforts of the countryside, but it was Peter Fonda’s line in Easy Rider, released during the summer of 1969, that best summed up the spirit of the times; “we blew it”.


The tone for the year was set when rioting broke out in Northern Ireland on January 5. A peaceful nationalist march had been attacked by off-duty Ulster Constabulary officers and Ulster loyalists, and there were reports of Catholics in the Bogside area of Londonderry being assaulted in their own homes. As a result barricades were put up and vigilante patrols set up to keep the police out of the area, resulting in the declaration of ‘Free Derry’.

Tiring of ever-escalating industrial conflict Harold Wilson’s Labour Government produced a white paper. In Place of Strife, which aimed to curb trades unions’ ability to call strikes. After opposition in Cabinet, led by future Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, the proposals were dropped, but the mistrust caused by In Place of Strife would fuel divisions in the party for the next decade.

There was also much strife in evidence as The Beatles convened at Pinewood Studios to begin shooting their film Let It Be. Underneath the arc lights, in the cavernous, antiseptic studio set, divisions that had been bottled up for years went on full public view, with George Harrison at one point leaving the band. Tensions eased slightly when filming moved to the group’s own Apple studio, and on January 30 the group gave their last-ever public performance on the rooftop of their record company headquarters in Savile Row.

Just over a week earlier Richard Nixon, sworn enemy of the counter-culture, had been sworn in as President of the United States. The times they were a-changin’.


In February there was a brief respite from the fast-descending gloom as Lulu wedded Bee Gee Maurice Gibb, shortly before sharing first place in the Eurovision Song Contest with France, Spain and the Netherlands. Her song was the charmless but inoffensive Boom Bang A Bang, which did not stop it being briefly banned by the BBC during the 1991 Gulf War.

March saw the maiden flight of the much-touted Anglo-French supersonic aircraft Concorde but it would be another seven years before commercial flights were launched. It was finally abandoned in 2003, an example of Sixties technological innovation that proved, ultimately, to be a white elephant.

Rather more enduring was the Victoria Line, officially opened by the Queen on March 7. It was the first entirely new Underground line in more than 50 years and is now used by 200 million passengers every year, its trains running faster than anywhere else on the Tube network.

During their heyday the Kray Twins became emblematic of Swinging London’s flirtation with criminality, freely mixing with aristocrats, politicians, musicians and DJs while at the same time unleashing a reign of terror in the East End. Photographed by David Bailey and often interviewed on television they became celebrities of a sort, but in March 1969 both were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of two of their associates.

There was happier news in Beatleland in March as John Lennon married Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney revived memories of Beatlemania when he and his bride Linda were mobbed at their wedding at Marylebone Register Office.


As the Sixties dream started to fade many erstwhile insurgents retreated to the countryside to ‘get their heads together’, to use the lingo of the time.

Country music, until recently regarded as redneck and reactionary, now expressed a yearning for a simpler, more natural way of life. The Byrds had been first out of the blocks with their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo and it was followed by Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which was released this month.

It’s a sign of how the times had changed that the hero of the counter-culture was now hymning the joys of hearth and family, dueting with Johnny Cash and enjoying a Top Ten hit with the uncharacteristically tenderLay Lady Lay.

Notable landmarks this month included the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, Robin-Knox Johnston completing the first solo, non-stop voyage around the world, and Charles de Gaulle, the great resistance hero turned president of France and Cold War warrior, resigned from office. A nationalist at heart De Gaulle closely guarded his country’s independence, resisted integration with both NATO and what was then known as the Common Market and vetoed Britain’s application for membership of the latter – twice. His resignation paved the way for Britain to be admitted to what would become the European Union.

Rather less momentous in retrospect was the radio series Mrs Dale’s Diary being taken off air, having first being broadcast in 1948 on the old Light Programme (later Radio 2). The serial centred on Mrs Mary Dale, a doctor's wife, husband Jim, and their friends and acquaintances in the fictional London suburb of Parkwood Hill.

Despite many attempts to modernise the show, including relocating it to the fictional new town of Exton, changing the title to The Dales, and tackling the subject of homosexuality, by the late Sixties it was regarded as hopelessly out of touch. The final show ended with Mrs Dale referencing her now familiar catch phrase, “There’s one thing that won’t change – I shall always worry about Jim...”

May- June

By mid 1969 rock music was big business, with stars of the biggest groups assuming almost Messiah-like status. Some, understandably, found this rather troubling, and they included Pete Townshend of The Who, whose rock operaTommywas a parable of the dangers of such blind hero worship. Originally released as an album it has enjoyed a considerable after-life, spawning a film, soundtrack album, stage show, theatrical production and, more recently, live performances with an orchestra.

In contrast the documentary Royal Family has remained securely locked away in the vaults ever since it was screened in June 1969.

The programme, which for the first time displayed the royals in private, intimate, unguarded moments, was ground-breaking; up to that point regal appearances and utterances were carefully scripted, the Queen being very careful to preserve the mystique of monarchy that she regarded as essential for its preservation.

Two-thirds of the population of Great Britain tuned into the programme, which the Queen herself had commissioned to mark the investiture of her eldest son Charles as the Prince of Wales the following month.

The sight of the Royals indulging in such ‘ordinary’ pastimes as tucking into a family barbecue was every bit as alien to the TV audience that summer evening as when they would catch their first glimpse of the lunar surface the following month. If the aim was to portray the essential ordinariness of the royals it succeeded perhaps too well, as the Queen soon realised, and the film has never been seen in its entirety since. But the pandora’s box had been opened and the relationship between rulers and ruled would never be the same again.


The death of ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones, just a month after he was ejected from the band he had founded, was surely confirmation, if any were needed, that the Sixties dream was turning sour. Jones was booted out of the Stones because of his erratic behavior and drug problems; for all their trappings of hippie bohemianism the Stones were essentially a bunch of hardnosed businessmen, and the errant Jones was starting to hold them back creatively and commercially.

He drowned in the pool of his house, Cotchford Farm, in Sussex, the former home of Winnie The Pooh creator AA Milne, and there have been repeated rumours that he was murdered by a builder he had fallen out with.

Two days after his death the Rolling Stones headlined a free concert in Hyde Park, dedicated to his memory, but it was one of the support bands, King Crimson, who captured the mood of the moment with doom-laden songs like 21st Century Schizoid Manrather than Mick Jagger in a blouse reading a poem by Shelley before releasing a load of half-dead butterflies into the 500,000-strong audience.

There was a rather optimistic mood around, however, when families up and down the country huddled in front of their television sets in the small hours of July 21 to watch Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon. It was at 3.56 am precisely (UK time) that Armstrong uttered those immortal words, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” just eight years after President Kennedy had committed America to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

It seemed an impossible dream, but such was the pace of social, cultural and technological change at the time that, in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it was expected that mankind would soon be journeying to Mars and beyond. It wasn’t to be, as within a few years, the harsh economic realities of the Seventies, and declining interest in the whole Apollo moon programme, led to its cancellation.

Just two days before the moon landing President Kennedy’s brother Senator Edward Kennedy had driven his car off Chappaquiddick bridge, sending his companion Mary Jo Kopechne to her death and himself into a career permanently hobbled by his ability to save himself but not her.

If the Sixties was the decade when class barriers started to break down then Tony Jacklin, a 25-year-old lorry driver’s son from Scunthorpe, was its epitome, becoming the first Briton to win golf's Open Championship in 18 years. There was more for British sport to celebrate, too, with Jackie Stewart triumphing in the British Grand Prix on his way to the motor racing world championship and Ann Jones winning the women’s singles title at Wimbledon.


The Woodstock Festival, held on a dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains north of New York, is now regarded as a pivotal moment in rock history. The venue was reputedly chosen because it was close to the home of Bob Dylan, the high priest of the counter-culture, a role he neither sought nor relished.

It was thought some 50,000 people might attend; in the event it was ten times that and the organisers soon had to bow to the inevitable and declare it a free festival – the authorities declared it a disaster area. There were some great moments but history has not been kind to Woodstock; Joni Mitchell’s song celebrating the festival as the harbinger of a generational spiritual revolution could only have been written by someone who wasn’t there.

Truer to the spirit of the occasion was Pete Townshend physically ejecting hippie radical Abbie Hoffman off the stage as he tried to preach to the audience during the Who’s performance of Listening To You.

Bob Dylan had stayed away from Woodstock, instead preferring to perform his first show in more than three years at the Isle of Wight Festival, which became known as the British Woodstock, perhaps because it was just as badly organised and ill-tempered as the American original. The Beatles were in attendance for Dylan’s hour-long set, the great man, dressed in a white suit and sporting a few extra pounds and a beard, delivering countrified versions of a few of hits intermingled with more recent songs.

It was not what the crowd had come to hear, but the general disillusionment would only grow worse when news started to filter through of some horrific murders in the Hollywood hills, committed by a bunch of hippies calling themselves The Family, led by would-be guru Charles Manson. “Don’t follow leaders,” Bob Dylan had sung four years earlier, but his words had fallen on deaf ears – Manson claimed to have been inspired to order the killing spree after listening to The Beatles White Album. Filmmaker Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was among the victims.

September- October

In September the Beatles released Abbey Road, containing their final recordings as a group, and ending with the plaintive lines, “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” They knew it was over, we knew it was over, but it didn’t make the bitter conclusion of the decade’s greatest fairy story any easier. At the centre of the storm, all four Beatles were deeply affected by the split, George Harrison saying later the only thing that kept him sane was the new Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV show, which was first aired in October.

And over in Belfast there were more reminders of how things had changed in the two years since the high summer of peace and love. The province saw some of the worst rioting since the Twenties, which soon became known as the Battle of the Bogside, and the British Army was sent in to keep the peace. Although initially welcomed by the catholic community as protectors, the troops soon got sucked into the conflict and by 1972 were regarded as the enemy, following the events of Bloody Sunday, in which 14 people were killed.

There were protests across the country on October 14 but this time over something rather more trivial, the introduction of the new seven-sided 50p coin to replace the old ‘ten-bob’ note. It was the latest decimal coin to be introduced as the country prepared for full-scale decimalisation in February 1971 and it prompted retired Army colonel Essex Moorcroft to form the Anti-Heptagonists who objected to the coin as “ugly” and “an insult to our sovereign whose image it bears.”


Well and truly into his ‘weird’ era, which involved staying in bed for a week for peace, filming people’s bottoms and writhing around in black bags, John Lennon returned his MBE to the Queen in protest at the Vietnam War, the famine in Biafra – and against his recent single, Cold Turkey, slipping down the charts. In December ITV would name Lennon as man of the decade.

There were no doubting the sincerity or urgency of Lennon’s single Give Peace A Chance, which was sung on protest marches around the world as the Vietnam War ended a bloody new phase. President Nixon had announced his ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy, which involved preparing the South Vietnamese forces to assume a more prominent role in combat operations, allowing US troops to gradually disengage from the war. As bombing of the country increased, anger against the war mounted, especially when journalist Seymour Hersch published details of the My Lai massacre the previous year, in which American forces were accused of rounding up and murdering 560 civilians in a Vietnamese village, mostly women and children. Mainstream America, not just its young, was now turning against the war, although it would be several more years before the troops finally came home.

With grim symmetry this violent, troubling year drew to an end with the Altamont Free Concert, which saw the Rolling Stones appear at a festival in northern California, performing Sympathy for the Devil while a young man was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels bikers who had been employed as security guards. Writing in the New Yorker, Richard Brody said Altamont laid to the rest, “the idea that, left to their own inclinations the young people of the new generation will spontaneously create a higher, gentler, more loving grassroots order.” The dream was over.

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