1963: from the Stones to Dr Strangelove, a year of social and cultural upheaval

“1963: from the Stones to Dr Strangelove, a year of social and cultural upheaval” by Tariq Ali for the Guardian, May 7, 2012


Was it a prefigurative year? I think so. Not that one thought of it as such at the time or even a few years later, when it was totally forgotten in the turbulence that engulfed the world. I am trying to recall that year, to find deep down some memories, even a few impressions on the basis of which I could reconstruct a misted-up past without too many distortions.

When I arrived to study at Oxford in October 1963, the bohemian style was black plastic or leather jackets for women and black leather or navy donkey jackets for men. I stuck to cavalry twills and a duffle coat, at least for a few months. The Cuban missile crisis had temporarily boosted CND: the Labour party conference had actually voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1960, before changing its mind again the following year, influenced strongly by leftwing icon Aneurin Bevan’s deathbed refusal to “go naked into the conference chamber”. Bertrand Russell thought CND was too moderate and resigned to create its direct action offspring, the Committee of 100.

Talk was of the Beatles. Those who had been at the Carfax assembly rooms that February to hear them were bewitched. Even so, there were huge arguments at parties between the Beatles partisans and those of us who thought the Rolling Stones were simply superior, certainly more exciting, more sensual and better to dance to. At one such party we voted on who we would dance to and the women, with a few exceptions, preferred the Fab Four. The “real men” demanded the Stones.

Bob Dylan was in the air too. His album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan had just been released and Mr Tambourine Man provided the backdrop for myriad eye contacts, a prelude to seduction or not, as was often the case. The pill had changed attitudes and given women much more freedom, but the discrimination was appalling. It was Judith Okely (Jude the Baptist), fresh from the Sorbonne, who argued the case for feminism and introduced some of us to the work of Simone de Beauvoir.

That same year Dylan moved in with Suze Rotolo in the Village. Her parents were communists who had survived McCarthy. Together they radicalised Dylan. The Times they are a-Changin’ (1964) was the result, helping to fuel the civil rights movement and radicalise students who had expected a great deal from President Kennedy, but had got the Bay of Pigs invasion and Vietnam instead, and later Lyndon B Johnson. In August, Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech electrified a whole generation. Almost a century after the civil war, African Americans were being lynched, denied basic human rights, not allowed to register for the vote in most southern states, and discriminated against in the north. The Ku Klux Klan had supporters in both Republican and Democrat parties. They had decided to fight back: peacefully if we may, said Dr King; violently if we must, replied Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. Read more