Jon Savage looks at pop's peak year 1966 at Harrogate Festival

Part of the cover of Jon Savage's brilliant new book on pop music, culture and society.
Part of the cover of Jon Savage's brilliant new book on pop music, culture and society.

Forget Greil Marcus, to many real music fans, there is only one true music critic – Jon Savage.

The most cultural of cultural commentators, his previous books such as England’s Dreaming about the Sex Pistols and punk concerned themselves as much with ideas of society as much as music.

Not that the award-winning Savage isn’t also the world’s biggest music fan at the same time.

“My least favourite Beatles album is Let it Be,” he tells me down the phone, “I don’t think songs such as The Long and Winding Road are good songs.”

There will be plenty more of talk like that when this most erudite of rock critics who often flies in the face of criticial opinion visits Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival next month.

The focus of the talk will be on just one year in pop history, 1966, the key year in pop history, he believes, and the title of Savage's latest acclaimed book.

A year when the charts bulged with ground-breaking music by the likes of The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, it’s a year this erudite author himself remembers well from listening to pirate radio stations as a child.

But 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded is anything but a stroll down memory lane, the 62-year-old music journalist and broadcaster Savage says.

“I hate when music is written about like it was sport. The book is about music I grew up with and I do love Revolver and Aftermath and Face to Face but it isn’t an autobiography.

“1966 was the last year when everything still revolved around the singles charts before the move to LPs in 1967 with Sgt Pepper.

“All the groups were still vying to be in the pop bands but they also wanted to experiment.

“Everything was concentrated into a narrow space. It meant you got very odd, quite mental records such as The Who’s I’m A Boy near the top of the charts.”

What makes his new book and, indeed, Savage himself, different is the way he interweaves the broader currents of political and social turbulence with the hits we all know and love.

“The book is not definitive. You can’t do it, really. I didn’t do the Dylan tour, for example. A book has its own requirements.

“I learnt from my experience of writing Teenage when I got bogged down trying to explain everything.”

Another aspect of 1966 which makes it a cut above other musical histories is that Savage mainly used primary sources from 1966 itself, the ephemeral pop magazines and newspapers which sometimes fly in the face of what we think we know.

I tell the author the chapters on the Velvet Underground and Soul Music, in particular, are a complete revelation.

Savage replies: “The pace of everything that year was insane. It was an enormously exciting time. Things changed incredibly quickly.”

The book also makes the reader think about the conventional story of the Fab Four in a new way.

Savage says: “I’ve got the Beatles LP with the ‘Butcher’s sleeve which was released in the USA in 1966 with the band surrounded by cut-up pieces of meat and dismembered baby dolls.

“It’s printed on canvas-like textured paper with a horrible grey washout. They’re flaunting it. It was a very arsey thing to do. There’s a lack of willingness to please their audience.”

I suggest to the great critic that The Beatles’ actions imply more than that. It’s clearly an act of self-destruction.

But the thoughtful Savage is no David Hepworth or Mark Ellen.

A critic who sees more deeply than others, Savage pauses for a moment and then replies, choosing his words carefully as always.

“It was an extradordinary thing for The Beatles to do. It’s pretty extreme. It’s meant to be shocking. In the context of its time it’s very punk.”

Jon Savage – 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded takes place at The Crown Hotel in Harrogate on Saturday, July 9 at 1.30pm.