You say you want a sexual revolution: why 1967 is the year pop came out

Fifty years ago, homosexuality was decriminalised and pop was never the same again. From Dusty and Motown to Mick Jagger and the Kinks, here are the songs, clubs and clothes that liberated Britain

In one of his very last acts as Beatles manager, Brian Epstein signed a contract for the group to represent Britain in the Our World global satellite television event, broadcasting the band to an estimated 400 million people in 25 countries. So on 27 July 1967, the day that male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK, the UK No 1 was All You Need Is Love.

Exactly one month later, Epstein was dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. Nowhere in his obituaries was his homosexuality mentioned. He didnt hide who he was, even if it caused him anguish, and the fact was common knowledge among the pop milieu. But even after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, it was not thought of as a topic worthy of discussion. Perhaps the Beatles magic still held, perhaps it wasnt thought suitable.

There is no doubt that Epstein was largely responsible for the Beatles success. He believed, when everyone else mocked, that they would be bigger than Elvis, and they were. Andrew Loog Oldham worked with him briefly in early 1963: When you sat down with Brian, he wrote in his memoir Stoned, you knew you were dealing with a man who had a vision for the Beatles and nobody was going to get in the way of that vision.

Epstein was only one of many gay men who were involved in the music industry at every level in the 1960s. Showbusiness in its widest sense provided a safe haven in a world where the simple physical expression of who you were laid you open to blackmail, prosecution, and even incarceration in prison or a mental hospital. It promised validation, money and the possibility of alchemising personal sexual attraction into the creation of that often ambiguous figure, the pop star.

A rally organised by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty
From early on, British rock stars, from
Cliff Richard and Billy Fury through to the Beatles, had a softer masculinity that reflected the gay showbiz milieu as well as the target market of young females. The groups that followed after the Beatles the Rolling Stones, the Kinks exhibited an even more extreme version of this blurring between the genders.

However, despite the flamboyance of managers such as Larry Parnes, the creator of British pop culture in the mid to late 1950s, with his stable of stars, and indeed Epstein himself, they were essentially back-room boys. Who or what they were didnt ultimately matter to the public and the press. No major British star came out as gay during the 1960s: the influence of homosexuality, while embedded deep within pop culture, was still covert.

Its also important to note that the passing of the act had no direct input from pop culture. Unlike America, where the homophile movement as it was called in 1966 was pursued by young activists and determined pressure groups, the attempt to change the UK laws was undertaken within traditional lobbying and parliamentary guidelines. Most of the people concerned the two politicians who undertook the brunt of the work in the houses, Leo Abse and Lord Arran, as well as the members of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality were older, pre-pop.

Although the Sexual Offences Act loosened the legal restrictions against gay men, people werent dancing in the streets when it was passed. If anything, the acts reception was muted, dulled by the viciousness of the final debate and the highly partial nature of the freedoms granted. Some people thought it was about time, while some older gay men, born well before the second world war and steeped in the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, resented the fact that the whole topic had been made public and the supposed glamour of illegality removed.

Attitudes within the gay world were to some extent dictated by a generational divide. Epstein was born in 1934, and took his marginal status hard. For a younger man like journalist Peter Burton, born in 1945, things were different: I never thought I was the only person who felt as I did, he wrote in his memoir Parallel Lives. I never worried about whether my homosexuality was right or wrong because it seemed perfectly natural to me and by the time I had become aware of society and the laws attitudes, it was too late for me to change mine.

Mod fashion makes it to America LIFE magazine, 13 May 1966.

Although it did not directly contribute to the changing of the law, the saturation of 60s pop in androgyny and homosexuality contributed to a more liberal climate. In 1966 and 1967, for instance, Britain was famous worldwide for its Carnaby Street fashions largely dominated by one gay man, the designer John Stephen. His clothes were worn by the Beatles, the Small Faces, Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds, and the Rolling Stones pictured in John Stephen finery on the cover of their Aftermath LP. In May 1966, he was the subject of a Life magazine profile.

Encouraged by the mod movement and their own increasing confidence, young gay men were beginning to cast off the guilt. As Burton remembers: Those of us from the immediate postwar generation were developing our own tastes and inventing our own styles. We were evolving our own look and we had adopted our own music. In 1966, Burton teamed up with Bill Bryant to open a new club, Le Duce. Located on DArblay Street, Soho, in the centre of London, it was conceived as a gay version of the mod venue the Scene a club for dancing.

Burtons list of tunes from Le Duces jukebox contains a great deal of Motown (the Elgins, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes), soul (Otis Redding, Bob & Earl) and Dusty Springfields You Dont Have To Say You Love Me. Dusty was a huge gay favourite in the mid 60s, mainly because of the no-holds-barred nature of her performances and her often melodramatic material.

The Supremes in 1967, who played with the drag troupe The Jewel Box Revue. Photograph: RB/Redferns

She was a constant presence on the most influential pop programme of the 1960s. Ready Steady Go presented all the hot, young British groups – the Animals, the Kinks, Them – and there were specials on Motown (March 1965), James Brown (March 1966) and Otis Redding (September 1966). With frequent black American and female guests and the gay presenter Michael Aldred, it was a vision of a more pluralistic world to come.

There were gay records released in the mid 1960s, but they were comparatively few and aimed at an audience still strictly within the ghetto: drag queen records by the likes of Mr Jean Frederick, or the extraordinary series of singles released on the Camp label, with titles such as Id Rather Fight Than Swish. Just like today, that left young gay men free to project their own feelings and desires into mainstream pop records.

Motown was popular because it was perfect for dancing and the lyrics were all about falling in and out of love. The Supremes, in particular, often tipped over into melodrama in an almost knowing way. The stylised appearance of many female performers fed into the gay appetite for drag queens the Supremes had performed with the American drag troupe The Jewel Box Revue in 1964.

The Beatles also had gay fans, although that is little discussed. Accounts of their season at the Paris Olympia and footage of their Washington concert (both in early 1964) bear this out. The androgyny of the groups that followed was also appealing. In their early days, the Rolling Stones, in particular Mick Jagger, flirted heavily with camp, and the Kinks further broke convention with the appearance of the 17-year-old Dave Davies with the longest hair seen in the UK for decades.

Almost a queer song sheet music for Im a Boy by the Who.

Homosexuality was not openly discussed but the more alert picked up on songs such as the Kinks Dedicated Follower of Fashion, or their elusive, slippery See My Friends. In autumn 1966, the Who had a No 2 hit with Im a Boy, an extraordinary record which had as its subject the angst of a young boy dressed by his mother as a girl helpfully described by bassist John Entwistle as almost a queer song in the pop press of the time.

Its tempting to think that 1967 would be full of gay pop statements: this was not the case. There were several iconoclastic records early in the year: the Smokes My Friend Jack (about LSD) and the Rolling Stones Lets Spend the Night Together (premarital sex) for instance. Coincidental with the wave of progressive legislation put forward by the Labour party (laws concerning abortion, homosexuality and, later in the decade, divorce and equal rights), a younger generation encouraged by 60s pop culture were beginning to agitate for greater freedom.

Perhaps the most oblique yet powerful of these outre statements was Pink Floyds first single, Arnold Layne, about a clothes fetishist who enjoys wearing womens clothes. Although presented as a morality tale about social disapproval Arnold Layne: dont do it again the song was shocking for the time and the group were seen as part of the wave of taboo busters: as Disc and Music Echo put it, Meet the Pinky Kinkies! As if to seal the deal, the record was banned by Radio London.

According to Jenny Spires, Syd Barretts friend at the time, this provocative aspect was deliberate: Arnold Layne was about a knicker snatcher but it was also a nod to the decriminalisation of homosexuality bill. In a time when it was shocking for men to have long hair even, to cross dress was seen as almost criminal but we all cross dressed. Syd and I had several gay friends and we followed the controversy around the bill.

David Bowie in a dress designed by Mr Fish on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World

In the autumn of 1967, the Kinks released David Watts, a song about Golden Boy envy that had its roots in an encounter with a gay promoter. The band had long been fascinated by gay styles and behaviour, and, in his Top of the Pops performance of Autumn Almanac that year, Ray Davies let rip with the full gamut of camp gestures in what is perhaps the most overt performance of this nature before the early 1970s. On the way to Lola, hes clearly having a great time.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was in many ways compromised as Peter Tatchell has noted, convictions for various gay offences went up in the years following its enactment but, as with the laws concerning abortion and divorce, it began to loosen up society in a manner that reflected the openness of pop at the time. It was all about freedom for everyone and its full impact would not be seen until 1972, when David Bowie, having laid aside his Mr Fish man-dress, openly stated that he was gay and in fairly short order became a superstar. Thats when the fun really began.

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