- Historic Sites
1964 - The Year The Sixties Began
Viewing a transformation that still affects all of us—through the prism of a single year
October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
The Beatles were one of dozens of Liverpool-area skiffle-rock acts trying to make it big in the early sixties. The Searchers, the Merseybeats, the Beatcombers, the Four Jays, the Undertakers, Faron’s Flamingos, Kingsize Taylor and the Dominos, Gerry and the Pacemakers … but for fortune, any of them could have swept the American market in 1964. By force of luck, talent, sweat, and brutal, hard-nosed business sense (with very little ceremony, the band fired its longtime drummer, Pete Best, on the eve of its first recording session in 1962), it was the Beatles that wrote the soundtrack for the decade.
Having refracted the sound waves of early American rock through the acoustics machine that was British popular culture, the Beatles arrived in America at exactly the right moment to sell a “new” sound to American youth—just as the first batch of baby boomers was packing off to college and as the last batch was emerging from the womb.
Courtesy of the population bubble that produced 76 million children between 1946 and 1964, a higher birthrate than in any era before or since, young Americans not only represented a larger portion of the general population but also formed a more unified, self-conscious entity. Whereas fewer than half of all Americans completed high school in 1946, by 1970 over three-quarters did, and just under half of all 18-year-olds were receiving some form of higher education.
Even as early as the 1920s, when school enrollments began to climb, the sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd wrote in their famous study Middletown , that “high school, with its athletic clubs, sororities and fraternities, dances and parties, and ‘extracurricular activities,’ is a fairly complete social cosmos in itself… . Today the school is becoming not a place to which children go from their homes for a few hours daily but a place from which they go home to eat and sleep.”
This observation held even more strongly in the 1960s. As teenagers spent more time with one another and less time with adults, and as they enjoyed increasing amounts of spending money, thanks to part-time jobs and allowances, they naturally sought a culture of their own. The Beatles delivered it—even if at the time very few fans understood how wholly American the roots of the new British pop-rock were.
Moreover, because the Beatles were so manifestly exotic and foreign, they could safely cross the musical color line without raising too many hackles. They were the right people, at the right time, in the right place.
In the end it hardly mattered how their music developed. The Beatles unleashed a pent-up force in America that created fertile ground for artistic experimentation. Ultimately, the four Britons helped American youths seize the cultural institutions of their country. Who could have anticipated that these same American youths would soon demand control of its political institutions as well?
In later years Carolyn Goodman would remember her middle son, Andy, as gentle and soft-spoken—“sotto voce,” a peacemaker among his brothers, who were “always at each other’s throats,” and among his friends. “When he would come running to me,” she wrote, “it usually was to complain not that a brother was picking on him, but that someone was unjustly picking on someone else. I still hear his little voice piping, ‘It isn’t fair .’”
One of Andy’s high school friends from New York recalled him as a deeply “serious” individual with an abiding interest in “political and moral issues.” Though he enrolled in Queens College in 1962 intending to devote himself to theater and the arts, Andy soon discovered the civil rights movement.
A year earlier college authorities had banned the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X and the black Communist Benjamin Davis from speaking on campus. Following the example of the Southern civil rights movement, whose revolt against Jim Crow was shaking the nation to its core, the Queens College student body went out on strike. In a demonstration of will that presaged the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, more than 70 percent of the student body boycotted classes and attended a rally in the center quad to register their disapproval of President Harold Stoke’s summary crackdown on political expression.
By the time Andy Goodman arrived on campus, the Queens student body was consumed by politics. His parents noticed that “a change began to come over Andy. His excitement over the theater began to fade, and an interest in the real world began to grow.” He switched his major to anthropology and wrote a research paper on the Black Muslims, arguing that “while it is somewhat of a fantasy to believe that all white men are devils, it is true that the white man (and by this I mean Christian civilization in general) has proved himself to be the most depraved devil imaginable in his attitudes toward the Negro race.”
He likened the ascendance of black radicals to “the rise in temperature that follows upon the sickness” and maintained that “the source and cause of the need for reaction can be attributed to white contempt and neglect. The historical contempt that the white race held for the Negroes as created a group of rootless degraded people. The current neglect of the problem can only irritate the deplorable state of affairs.”