They say that, if you remember the Swinging 60s, you weren’t really there. However, perhaps the more pertinent question is whether the era itself, as it has been mythologised, was ever really there. Now, 37 years after Liverpool introduced its highly successful Magical Mystery Tour, London has its own bus tour, Swinging 60s Experience, setting out to find some answers, The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates hopped on board to swing back in time.
The label “Swinging London” first appeared on a Time magazine cover in 1966, rather endorsing the view that the whole thing was dreamed up by the Americans as a fantasy escape from their own period of Civil Rights disturbances, political assassinations and the Vietnam War. However, the music of the era is no fantasy and, rightly, this is where the tour’s focus lies, taking us back to a time when Paul McCartney could only imagine what it would be like to be 64 and Mick Jagger still had plenty of time on his side.
The tour’s normal starting and finishing point is the Victoria and Albert Museum, but, on this occasion, our bus, a gleaming red 1965 Routemaster, sets off from the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly and a soundtrack of 60s classics begins, to be interrupted only by the voice of our guide. As the engine revs up, Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes of the Broken Hearted hardly seems the most optimistic start, but, by the time we get to a near-gridlocked Hyde Park Corner, the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place expresses the views of most passengers perfectly.
The traffic eases (very slightly) as the bus reaches Sloane Square and the beginning of King’s Road, which, the tour guide informs us, was built in the 1640s “before any of the Rolling Stones were even born”. Nowadays, the road has many more locations with stories of the 60s than it has red ‘phone boxes. We see the hotel, then named the Royal Court, where the Beatles stayed on their first visit to London in 1963 to record their Please Please Me album. We pass Ringo Starr’s current London home and the Chelsea Potter pub where Michael Caine and Terence Stamp hung out back in days when the price of a pint could have stretched them.
The is some alarm when we pass the Chelsea Drug Store, associated with the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, to discover that it is now a McDonald’s restaurant and there is further bad news for Stones fans when we reach the venue where Bill Wyman first auditioned for the band and see that it has become a branch of Paddy Power. The site of Mary Quant’s boutique, the town hall where Judy Garland made the last of her many marriage vows, Jimi Hendrix’ pad and the flat once shared by Mick Jagger and Brian Jones all attract passing interest; Benny Hill’s home less-so, but then he had to wait until 1971 to have a number one hit.
Theatre addicts could well observe that it was all happening between the Royal Court and the Finborough in those days, even though a lot of what we are told feels like insignificant trivia. However, the Troubadour in Earl’s Court is of real importance, being the venue where little-known Bob Dylan and Paul Simon played early gigs. Once the tour gets fully into its stride, greater efforts will hopefully be made to coordinate the music being played with the locations visited. Without this, the whole experience tends to feel a little disjointed.
By marketing this one-hour ride as a tour of “West London’s cradle of rock”, the organisers get out of having to negotiate further heavy traffic by taking in, say, Abbey Road and Carnaby Street. Two and four-hour tours are also on offer. As a parting thought, it would be a nice touch if the last tours of the evening could end on Waterloo Bridge. Unlike many of the sites seen on the ride around Chelsea, the sunset there is something just as spectacular as when Ray Davies wrote about it half a century ago.
Ticket information on www.60sbus.london