It’s the 1960s – where’s the music?

Beginning soon, Ronnie and Barry, the two scamps from Mrs Moran’s class in 1960, who’ve introduced us to ‘Food in the 1960s’ will be taking us with them on their journey through the music of their formative decade. Here, Ronnie sketches out what they were up against.

It’s looked back on now as a kind of golden age. Of social progress and civil rights. Of post war austerity finally ending. And particularly, the 1960s are remembered as a golden age of popular music. But at the time, living in a northern provincial city, albeit one that was briefly at the centre of the earth, the music could be pretty hard to find. And that was largely because of ‘light entertainment.’ Let’s go back there.3687473649_f0fd3439a8

It’s New Year 1960, we’ve only recently rented our first television and I’m watching a strange ritual. An old man in a wheel-chair, the Old Year, is being wheeled off stage. Seconds later the New Year, clearly the same portly old gent, comes bouncing back on. And the celebrations for the new year and the new decade begin. This is Billy Cotton, and whatever else you might remember from the 1960s, he will bestride the decade with his light entertainment.

Him and his band were actually a 1930s dance band that had simply kept going until they became a staple of both radio and television in the 1950s. There was no getting away from them. Every show would begin the same, Billy hollering ‘Wakey, Wakey!’ And the band playing ‘Somebody stole my gal.’ And every show would continue the sing-along-the-same. To our utter despair.

There was also a Scottish equivalent, ‘The White Heather Club’ – a horribly tartanised version of Scottish culture that seemed to contain the same people and the same songs every week. I would eventually come to love traditional Scots and Gaelic music but it took me years to recover from years of this. Go on, just see if you can stick more than a minute of it.

While these two were annoying and boring, they were at least harmless. Not so the most popular of the 1960s light entertainment programmes.Whilst Rosa Parkes and Martin Luther King were standing up to the discriminations of America and saying ‘Enough and no more’ – we were having to watch the Black and White Minstrel Show.The-George-Mitchell-Mins-The-Black--White-459238

It beggars belief now but throughout the 1960s this throw-back piece of black-face ‘entertainment’ was regularly pulling in audience figures of 18million per programme. From 1967 onwards the BBC were receiving complaints about it being racist. But they let it run until 1978.

Not that I knew enough to know it was racist in those early 60s days. I just thought it was yet more boring light entertainment and it was weird the way the women were all white and the men were all wearing this bizarre make up. I didn’t realise how bizarre. Apparently on black and white TV black make up didn’t work well so during the nine years that the show was broadcast in black and white, the black-face makeup was actually red!

‘Well, no one was making you watch this stuff’ I hear you saying about me putting up with this boredom back then. But actually two things were conspiring to make it almost obligatory. First, there was definite family pressure to all sit together and watch the same things in those days. Second, there was no central heating yet, so for much of the year the living room where the TV lived was the only warm room in the house.

Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Waiting and wading through more hours of post war 'variety' waiting for something good to turn up.

Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Waiting and wading through more hours of post war ‘variety’  for something good to turn up.

But as we move towards the mid-sixties things do start to improve and it becomes easier to find the real music. Which is just as well because even on the radio, up to then, things had been hard. You’d sit the whole way through ‘Two way family favourites’ on a Sunday just praying somebody would request the Dave Clark Five or Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, never mind the Beatles, and the best you’d probably get was some game but lame British cover of an American hit by the likes of Craig Douglas.

So thank goodness for Brian Matthew, Saturday Club, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Top of the Pops and, best of all, Ready Steady Go! All of which we’ll be returning to, along with Radio Luxembourg and the pirate stations, as Barry and I recall both growing up in the golden age of pop music in the 60s and how hard it could be for us to actually find the music.

Val Doonican, cosy.

Val Doonican, cosy.

And how, sadly, as the 60s progress, access to good music doesn’t continue to improve. Light entertainment strikes back in the form of a seemingly endless series of cosy variety programmes hosted by Val Doonican, Rolf Harris, Harry Seacombe and, sadly, our Cilla. Where they mostly all do guest slots on each other’s programmes and we wait forlornly for the very occasional ‘proper’ guest to appear.

Like an episode of the Billy Cotton Bandshow from 1968 (yes, I told you he would bestride the decade) where I recall voluntarily sitting through an age of the usual slush for a two minute glimpse of Scott Walker. Some things are just not right and never were.

Growing up in the 60s? We had it hard!1960s

Much more of this coming soon as Ronnie Hughes and Barry Ward, intrepid juvenile explorers of ‘Food in the 1960s’ turn their attentions to the glorious music that coloured in their lives.

13 thoughts on “It’s the 1960s – where’s the music?

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      I watched the Billy Cotton and White Heather Club films hoping my memories had got it all wrong again and actually they were really good. They really weren’t. But at least they weren’t that minstrel show, carrying on until just before the Brixton, Bristol and Liverpool riots! What a society we lived in.

  1. Stanley Cotter

    Hi Ronnie, I always believed the fifties was when real music started eg Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Frankie Lane, Johnny Ray, Guy Mitchel, Lita Rosa, Doris Day, the list is endless my friend.

    By the way, I used to love the Black and White Minstrels at tea time on Sunday when we actually sat down at a table as a family for our meal. For tea time that was usually a salad or maybe sandwiches, followed by a desert, often a great cake madeira with jam and cream between the slices and icing over the top, on a proper glass stand in the centre of the table. Oh dream on Stanley!

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Well, I think we love the music we first become conscious of!

      And I assume you were listening to the Minstrels on the ‘wireless’ Stan – so, a bit like ‘Sing something simple’ later on?

  2. Stephen Roberts

    Remarkably astute observations which resonate with me as well. I am a bit younger, but still remember Billy Cotton, The Black and White Minstrels and all that pseudo Scottish stuff. I remember the same enforced sense of occasion as well, as the family sat down around the tele on a Saturday night. I experienced a different reaction to you in that I withdrew from all kinds of popular music and entertainment, even the Beatles and as for Bowie and all the other pop groups of the 1970’s – I never did and still don’t “get” them. What is all the fuss about? I won’t be as derogatory about them as I feel because I know you won’t agree with me, but I do agree with you about proper Scottish and Irish music, especially when it’s spontaneous and not commercialised. Thanks again for an interesting blog.

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Hi Stephen and thank you. Sad you’ve missed out on David Bowie and the Beatles though. They’re not the only things that have lit up my life, but I do treasure them both.

  3. jbaird

    Having also grown up in the sixties, but in upstate New York, I find it fascinating the similarities and differences between our two countries.

    I can’t believe that minstrel show lived so long, courtesy of the BBC.

    We had central heating even in the fifties using oil in our basement furnace. But despite having adequate heat in every room, we still all gathered around the TV in the evening, watching whatever was broadcast while my mother sewed or knitted.

    We had the likes of Lawrence Welk and the Dave Clark show, as well as the Ed Sullivan show, where the Beatles first were seen by millions of Americans. Parts of that era were good, and other parts not so. But I think that is true of every decade in which we live. Write on! xo

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Wasn’t that ‘Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’? Our Dave Clark was a drummer, though I know his band was more popular with you than us, so I could be wrong?

      1. jbaird

        There was definitely Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and I may have had that in the back of my mind. But I might have been thinking of the Dave Clark Five, especially with their pop hit “Glad All Over.” They may have been more popular with us; they were part of the “British Invasion.”

  4. cheethamlib

    I love the 1960s sitting room and I saw some of those awful shows on television at boarding school – yes occasionally if we had been good we could watch “music shows” but of course what we really wanted to see were the new up and coming rock and pop stars.

    Yes the Black and White Minstrel Show in all its ugliness came to the southern hemisphere. We thought it was boring, the overtly racial tone didn’t occur to us.

    I don’t remember the White Heather Club (so boring,I couldn’t watch the whole clip) but I do remember Andy Stewart. Remember that dreadfully ‘naughty’ Donald where’s your trews?

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Sorry British racism made it all the way across the world.

      And yes, it was really annoying to hear the same songs from Andy Stewart all the time. I can still hear ‘Scottish Soldier’ now.

  5. lindsay53

    Oh God! This resonates with me so much!! I remember all the shows & programmes you mention, Ronnie. Obviously, the same ritual applied in many of our households. That sitting down together to be almost forced to sit and listen or to sit & watch. ‘Sing Something Simple’ how I dreaded that programme coming on! Croony, dreary & boring. My parents loved it all as they loved 2 Way Family Favourites (this was the backdrop to Sunday lunch) & the B&W Minstrels. I must admit to being quite taken with their jazzier numbers as a child. ‘Yes sir that’s my baby’, for instance. I’m just a sucker for rhythm. New Year’s Eve & Andy Stewart was the ONLY thing being broadcast on tele. Awful! There was a Moira someone in there as well. Wasn’t she a Stewart too? Can’t wait for the next instalment of ‘tracks of our lives’!

    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Feel almost guilty about reminding you of these awful things!

      ‘Sing something simple’ is still my idea of the sound of suburban hell. Smug hymns to a life where nothing ever changes and nothing interesting ever happens. Even worse than Billy Cotton and the Black & White Minstrels.

      And the name of the other guilty participant in the White Heather Club was Moira Anderson. Moira Stewart was and I think still is a blameless newsreader!


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