We’ve just had another mental health week (message ‘be kind’). Even the future King of England wants to be talking about mental health, mental health is everywhere, we recognise that there are parallels with physical health, it fluctuates, maybe there are things in daily living that can make it better or worse. Most importantly there’s the possibility of talking about it. In the 70’s things were a lot more brutal and clearer cut. Either you were ‘ok’ or mad. If you were mad you got put in the loony bin and could officially be a loony.
In the early 70’s madness held something of a fascination. The 60’s had been a time of consciousness expansion but that had led to some people just expanding their consciousness too far. We didn’t know enough about mind expanding drugs such as cannabis and, most significantly, LSD. People experimenting with these drugs were pushing the psychological barriers as early mountain climbers, polar explorers and astronauts tested physical limitations, they really were going where nobody had been before, at least in their heads. Inevitably some of them lost their minds. In most cities you would encounter the odd longhair wandering about in some state of confusion, often, in an attempt to self-medicate they had turned to harder drugs or alcohol which just compounded their problems. But the fascination lay in the fact that they had travelled so far out they couldn’t get back.
Bowie was an early disciple of madness. His own brother had significant mental health problems, but Bowie had also come across 50’s Rocker Vince Taylor who had allegedly overdone the LSD experience and was wandering the streets of London telling people he was Jesus. This set the seed for Ziggy Stardust in Bowies fertile mind. Pink Floyd, understandably considering their frontman Syd Barret’s plight had explored ideas around madness on Dark Side of the Moon and would continue to do so.
The mental health establishment has started to question itself. Psychiatrist RD Laing set himself up as an anti psychiatry figure arguing that madness could just be a logical response to an insane society, Ironically Laing was addicted to alcohol for a lot of his life and despite his criticisms of the family unit was a pretty awful father and provoked mental health problems in some of his own children. He was however posing some pretty significant questions about the nature of mental illness and how society defined this. Also significant was the Rosenhan experiment where basically a bunch of researchers were able to fake their mental illnesses, and all were admitted to psychiatric institutions with the minimum of fuss and bother. In popular culture ‘One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest’ was an extremely popular and influential film. It wasn’t real of course but most of us believed that it was an accurate representation of life in the ‘loony bin’.
We were getting the message loud and clear, maybe madness was ok, maybe society was wrong, probably psychiatrists and nurses were evil bastards and being labelled as crazy would inevitably be a bad thing. It wasn’t that clear cut of course but the general belief was that you were sane until you got labelled mad which meant you would be put in a ‘loony bin’ and given horrible drugs for an indefinite period of time. What that missed was the subtleties that contributed to mental health. The film ‘Withnail and I ‘perfectly captures the way that intelligent young men and women were happy to live in the 70’s. Poor sleep, diet, accommodation, lack of exercise and lack of purpose contributed as much to mental health issues as drugs and alcohol, but we simply didn’t know about those things in the 70’s.
Most musicians, in Britain at least, would be living in those circumstances, for a group of people who were attracted to being outside straight society madness was almost a badge of honor. ‘Looning’ had been a pastime of musicians since the 60’s, generally crazy behaviour almost certainly with alcohol was something of a badge of honour. Keith Moon was known as ‘Moon the Loon’ not just to an easy piece of rhyming most people would claim he was crazy. No one meant lock them up and full them with Thoridazine crazy obviously, that was no fun at all and not what we would expect from our loons. No, rather we favoured a mixture of eccentricity and mental health usually with some involvement in alcohol and or drugs. The trouble was it was a thin line to tread, take Moon the Loon himself, a young man full of fun and mischief to a prematurely aged and burnt out man with an alcohol problem. Our loonies were never quite as much fun as we wanted to believe they were.
Next week I’ll look at 4 of the most crazy men of rock (70’s UK version only)
My own visit to a psychiatric institution is covered here as part of my acclaimed ‘Who Month’