Freak Out: How a Musical Revolution Rocked the World in the Sixties


Tony Wellington

Monash University Publishing, $34.95

“If you remember the ’60s,” goes winking the old line, “you weren’t really there.” Author Tony Wellington was there as a child and teen: young enough to avoid terminal brain damage; old enough to be infatuated by the music. He became a musician himself, as well as an artist, film-maker, photographer, columnist and author (once in collaboration with the current writer). He was also Noosa’s mayor, and perhaps being inside the political process allows insights that are alien even to specialist journalists.

Certainly this polymath background lent him broad expertise when looking back at that tumultuous time, and especially at how music seeped into the fault-lines of political and social upheaval, and widened the cracks just a little. His book allots a chapter to each year of the decade, with The Beatles and the Vietnam War providing through-lines.

Bob Dylan. Photo supplied.

An ersatz revolution with rock music as its soundtrack, the 1960s shook up the West’s ingrained conservatism across matters of politics, conscription, the arts, sexual mores, marriage, drug-taking and fashion, while also stamping civil rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, gay rights, multiculturalism and environmentalism on the mainstream agenda. The era’s emphasis on sharing and camaraderie was not just a counter-culture phenomenon, but something entrenched in the wider community, hence JFK’s famed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” As Wellington points out, can you seriously imagine a western political leader saying that today?

Jimi Hendrix. Photo: James White.

Despite his obvious fondness for it, Wellington does not whitewash a decade that ultimately saw that spirit of collectivism give way to greed and egocentricity in the ’70s, and that was capped by violence and self-indulgence before its end. Putting the terrifying calamity of Vietnam to one side, the violence included race-hate crimes, the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr, the Manson murders and the debacle that was the Altamont Speedway Free Festival trying to replicate Woodstock. The indulgence included drug-use coming to be an end in itself, rather than a purported agent of change, and musical creativity losing something of its regenerative power.

Joan Baez. Photo: Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Wellington essentially confines his political and sociological observations to Australia, the US, the UK and Vietnam. Culturally, he restricts himself to populist forms: primarily rock music and its cousins, with forays into folk, film and literature as suits his purpose of tracing intersecting areas of catalysis. Jazz – undergoing its own drastic revolution in the ’60s and, closely associated with the Civil Rights movement, lies outside his purview.

Of course the decade has been exhaustively covered before, so Wellington makes no pretence at uncovering radically new information. Rather the book rides buoyantly along on his illumination and interpretation of the facts and anecdotes he selects, the connections he makes, and the quality of his critical judgement. In contextualising an album or even just a line of a lyric, he often manages to shine fresh light on it, and – the best outcome of all – incline one to engage with the music again (or discover it). He catches afresh the sheer excitement and chaos of The Beatles’ 1964 Australian tour, and provides highly perceptive critical commentary of such works as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Graduate.

The other strength comes when the assorted strands of interest are most tightly intertwined. But even when they aren’t, one acclimatises to the leaps between politics, sociology and culture, and becomes confident that, with a little patience, another knot will soon be tied in the interrelationships.

Tony Wellington. Photo: Judy Ditter.

Wellington’s tone is generally wry and genial, while still being authoritative. He has a keen eye for the snippet that constitutes a telling snapshot of an era or episode, and only relies on longer quotes (as from Beatles producer George Martin) when they accelerate rather than slow the narrative momentum.

Near the end he quotes the always erudite and perspicacious Joan Baez, who was definitely there (and still remembers the fact!), and who aptly describes the decade as “that outrageous, longed for, romanticized, lusted after, tragic, insane, bearded and bejewelled epoch. It is over and will never return. I do not miss it.”