James Riley is a writer and academic based in Cambridge. Along with project director Yvonne Salmon, James ran The Alchemical Landscape, a Research Network at CRASSH, from 2016-2019.
His book The Bad Trip, is a new cultural history of the late-1960s, which looks at the dark side of the decade that gave us psychedelia, The Beatles and the Summer of Love.
Q. James, what is your book The Bad Trip about?
The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties is a cultural history of the late-1960s and early 1970s. The book pivots on the idea that there’s a clear difference between the popular idea of the ‘Sixties’ and the historical period of the 1960s. One narrative of the Sixties is that the decade and its achievements came to a catastrophic close sometime around 1969. This is typically attributed to the Charles Manson murders of August 1969 and events like the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in December 1969 at which members of the Hells Angels killed an audience member, Meredith Hunter. These were terrible events but the rest of the 1960s was hardly a period of harmony and wellbeing. The belief that all the points of crisis happened at the very end tends to cover up the strain of violence and apocalyptic thinking that pervaded the decade as a whole. In The Bad Trip, I focus on these more sinister elements to show that the culture of the 1960s was suffused with a sense of disorder right from the start.
Q. What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?
I’ve had an interest in the history and culture of the 1960s for many years, probably since childhood. In particular, I was fascinated by the way the mood, look and attitude of the decade seemed to radically change as it drew towards 1969. As the years rolled by the hair got longer, the music got louder and the whole world seemed to become so much weirder. Listening to Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings would sometimes yield a brief flash of this, when Brian Matthews would play something like ‘1969’ by The Stooges alongside the usual pop playlist of The Honeycombs and Peter, Paul and Mary. Thanks to my father’s record collection and a local library that had battered copies of Philip Norman’s Shout! The True Story of the Beatles (1981) and Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (1984) I began to fill in the gaps. Coming across stories of Manson and Altamont was like holding up a dark mirror to a happy period of day-glo colours. Seen from this angle the decade was one long, terminal tailspin that ended in a spectacular crash. Clearly, there was more to the idea of the Sixties than hippies, Woodstock and England (sort of) winning the World Cup.
Later, when the film and literature of the 1960s became part of my work as an academic I felt that there was a good story to tell about the Sixties and its presumed narrative of catastrophe. It was a fiction very far removed from the historical reality of the 1960s, but a resonant and attractive one nonetheless. The specific impetus to develop The Bad Trip as a book came after an invitation to curate a sequence of screenings at Nottingham Contemporary looking at ‘The Death of the Sixties on Film’. It seemed there was still a lot of interest in this image of the Sixties as a glorious period that declined into death, burnout and what Hunter S. Thompson called ‘bad craziness’.
There were other signs too. In early 2017 the news broke that Manson, then 83, had been taken to hospital. I was approached by various outlets to comment on this turn of events because sometime before I had written an academic article about Manson’s enduring ‘cult’ status. ‘We’ll call you if he dies’, said a researcher at the BBC. It felt odd to be linked to Manson, however briefly and tenuously. I was also uneasy about preparing any kind of obituary, not just because of his terrible crimes but also because I was unsure who I exactly would be talking about: the prisoner and con-man Charles Maddox Manson, or the monstrous popular culture icon and America’s favourite villain Charles ‘Helter Skelter’ Manson? The news cycle moved on, but to me the time seemed right to start unpacking these two figures and the strange link between the end of the 1960s and the end of the Sixties.
Q. How did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?
The Bad Trip combines narrative with analysis and interpretation of various cultural forms: mainly literature, film and music. There are a number of intersecting stories told over the course of the book and several key ‘characters’ recur at various points such as Charles Manson, Roman Polanski, Yoko Ono, Joan Didion, Donald Cammell, Kenneth Anger and others. I wanted the book to be wide-ranging, engaging and I wanted to actually tell a story to show how certain figures crossed paths within the period. That said, within this deliberately eccentric form, I also used a framing device based around the making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s film Apotheosis (1970). This is a short film that records the flight of a hot air balloon. It was a good starting point of for the narrative, but it also allowed me to quickly put into play the image of an escape attempt: one of the book’s key themes.
Q. In your view, wherein lies the book’s main contribution to our understanding of the Sixties, a decade well remembered and already well documented?
The Bad Trip offers an uncanny view of the Sixties. It takes a very familiar moment in modern culture and renders it strangely unfamiliar by pointing out the difference between the era and decade. You could say that as a book about the 1960s its got all the ‘hits’, as it were, but they’ve been remixed and placed alongside a set of obscure B-sides. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are in, but so too are The Process Chruch of the Final Judgement and The Church of Satan. Woodstock is discussed but alongside Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s conspiratorial masterpiece Illuminatus! (1976).
Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book?
One of the figures whose career I chart in some depth in the book is the film-maker and novelist Peter Whitehead. He made a series of documentaries across the 1960s such as Wholly Communion (1965) and The Fall (1969) which effectively charted the rise and decline of the counterculture in Britain and America. Between 2010 and 2014 I worked very closely with Whitehead editing and collating his archives. He sadly passed away last year. His influence and pivotal role in the narrative of the 1960s is, I think, only just starting to emerge. I hope that in telling a key part of his story via The Bad Trip readers might be pleasantly surprised and interested to learn of his significant body of work.
• The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties is published by Icon Books.
• Find out more about James Riley’s work on his blog.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.