Why August 1966 Was Pop Music's Apex and the Beginning of Its Decline

Pop singer Donovan
Pop singer Donovan holds his Rickenbacker guitar, with a flute, a sitar and other guitars in the background, London, 1966. Keystone/Getty Images

It was summer, and the time was right. In New York, temperatures were down slightly from the almost unbearable 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) peaks of June and July. On August 1, 1966, the city was boiling again as the tempera­ture soared once again to over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). In Britain, the heatwave that had occurred at the end of June had dissolved into a more familiar pattern: changeable weather, with frequent rain and the occasional hot day.

The charts favored songs that caught the summer mood of relaxation, escape, some kind of surcease. On August 1, the top two U.S. singles were throwbacks, basic party records: Tommy James and the Shondells' "Hanky Panky" and the Troggs' "Wild Thing." Coming up fast were Bobby Hebb's "Sunny," a hang-loose, vibes-driven tune that became an almost instant standard, and Billy Stewart's funky bebop reworking of "Summertime."

The fastest riser was 'Summer in the City', the fifth single by the Lovin' Spoonful, which went from #21 to #7 in the Billboard chart of July 30. This would be the American song of the summer, reach­ing #1 on August 13 and staying there for three weeks. By the end of the month, there would be four sunny summer songs—"Summer in the City" at #1, "Sunny" at #2, Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" at #5 and "Summertime" at #10 – in the U.S. Top 10, just as the tem­perature reached 32 degrees Celsius in New York.

"Summer in the City" offered momentary relief from the unbear­able heat. From the opening two-note lick, it was tougher than any­thing the Lovin' Spoonful had yet recorded, with an insistent riff, ringing guitars and pounding drums. In the breaks, all the instru­ments faded out; while dancers paused in mid-spin, they heard electric drills and a variety of car horns—the inescapable sounds of the city.

In the U.K., the beginning of the month saw the afterglow of England winning the FIFA World Cup for the first and, so far, only time, as the host country. While the celebrations continued, the Who marked the occasion in their own way. Headlining the Sixth National Jazz and Blues Festival at Windsor, they kicked in the footlights and threw microphones around; the show ended in utter chaos. Was this, as one pop paper put it, "the ultimate in pop violence"?

In Britain, the #1 record on that day was Chris Farlowe's "Out of Time," the first major hit for the R&B pioneer. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and released on Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate Records, the song was a putdown cloaked in a sweet, string-enhanced melody. "You're obsolete, my baby," Farlowe sang: /in the modernist demand for perpetual novelty, even personal relationships were rendered throwaway. At #4 was the previous #1, Georgie Fame's "Get Away," a hymn to holiday escap­ism with a novelty horn curlicue that betrayed the song's origin in an advertising jingle. Even Fame's smoky voice and deep immer­sion in soul and jazz—with a multiracial band and his residency at the Flamingo Club he was a major interpreter and popularizer—couldn't rescue the song's slightness. Much more substantial was the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," still at #5.

The Kinks
The Kinks, (L-R) Peter Quaife, Ray Davies, Dave Davies, and Mick Avory, pose on a cannon in a promotional picture with Tower Bridge in the background, London, circa 1966. Reprise Records/Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images

This was the fourth and the greatest in the Kinks' contemporary run of social commentary songs, preceded by "A Well Respected Man," "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?" and "Dedicated Follower of Fashion." It wasn't a raver but a mid-paced, almost music-hall piece, as the Kinks developed the descending riff into a devastating portrait of an upper-class waster in his stately home—a summer anthem with dark presentiments of decay.

Ray Davies had already turned his sharp eye on the class sys­tem and the absurdities of Swinging London. After his breakdown in March 1966, the songs had poured out. "I tried not to write," he told me, "then I came out of it and wrote 'End of the Season,' 'Sunny Afternoon' and 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else.' I was very clear afterwards because my mind had been rested, and I went into 'Sunny Afternoon,' which was like magic."

"It was a strange time," he remembered later. "At the time I wrote 'Sunny Afternoon' I couldn't listen to anything. I was only playing the Greatest Hits of Frank Sinatra and Dylan's 'Maggie's Farm.' I just liked its whole presence." Partly inspired by his upper-middle-class managers, Robert Wace and Grenville Collins, Davies con­structed a lyric that caught a person, a class and a lifestyle on the point of dissolution.

As effective as the song's lyric was, Davies' vocal performance, a deliberately world-weary croon. "I didn't want to sound American," he said. "I was very conscious of sounding English." And yet, after everything, it was a summer song, as Davies, trapped as ever within his own ambiguities, managed to make decadence sound like fun: "I love to live life so pleasantly / Live this life of luxury / On a sunny afternoon."

On the flip was something entirely different. "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" was a snarling rocker with a minatory opening guitar figure and an extraordinary vocal by the still teenage Dave Davies that oscillated between quiet menace and barely restrained fury. This was a brutally direct statement of outsider alienation and aggression: "I won't take all that they hand me down / And make out a smile, though I wear a frown."

Both "Sunny Afternoon" and "Summer in the City" had a wider resonance that neither writer could have foreseen. The Kinks' song caught the mood in Britain after Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced a major freeze on prices and wages on July 20. A pro­longed seamen's strike had resulted in a poor balance of pay­ments and a run on the overvalued pound. During the previous three years, wages had risen ahead of retail prices, and this was an attempt to jam on the brakes.

With immediate effect, hire purchase rates, purchase tax and petrol duty were increased, while there was an immediate six-month wage freeze. The full effect of this was obscured by World Cup euphoria, but it marked the end of the British high sixties. "The Age of Pop" seemed to be swinging "to a stop," observed The Sunday Times that August, and "Sunny Afternoon" caught the sigh­ing exhalation of a deflating boom.

This piece is an extract from the Jon Savage's book 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded. The book is published by Faber & Faber.