The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home captures a moment in the late 1960s when thousands of young people fled their homes to live in Utopian communities. Benjamin Ramm looks back.

Fifty years ago, a song topped the UK charts that expressed the fears of a generation of parents. She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles tells the story of a girl who runs away abruptly, leaving only “the note that she hoped would say more”, and of her parents’ shock and sadness at awaking to her absence. It is based on the true story of Melanie Coe, a teenager from north London, whose account is told in counterpoint to the laments of her parents: “we gave her most of our lives / sacrificed most of our lives / we gave her everything money could buy”.

The song succeeds in capturing the trauma of the ‘generation gap’, which was particularly acute during the late 1960s. Although overshadowed by more catchy and colourful tracks, She’s Leaving Home has an abiding resonance, in part because it helps us understand the lack of mutual understanding. Conceived by Paul McCartney, the ‘Greek chorus’ of sorrow was added by John Lennon, “based on typical sayings of his Aunt Mimi”.

The teenager in the song feels “something inside that was always denied for so many years”, and Coe later told the press that “as a 17-year-old I had everything money could buy – diamonds, furs, a car – but my father and mother never once told me they loved me”. Like Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 song Richard Cory, She’s Leaving Home explores the disconnect between wealth and happiness (“what did we do that was wrong? / we didn’t know it was wrong / fun is the one thing that money can’t buy”).

Alarming tales of runaways filled the tabloids – Paul McCartney read about Coe’s case in the Daily Mirror, and has said that “there were a lot of those [stories] at the time”. For Karen Staller, author of the book Runaways, 1967 was the “crisis year”, when panic gripped the media. Children who once played on the streets now drifted into areas associated with the counterculture, such as New York City’s East Village or San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the ’67 Summer of Love.

In her essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the writer Joan Didion recalls seeing a notice on Haight street in the late spring of 1967, which began: 

Last Easter Day
My Christopher Robin wandered away.
He called April 10th
But he hasn’t called since
He said he was coming home
But he hasn’t shown.

Children of the revolution

Between 1967 and 1971, over 500,000 people in the US left home to move into experimental communities. In San Francisco, a group called the Diggers (named after the agrarian socialists during the English civil war) offered social services and emotional support to runaways. In the context of war in Vietnam, a runaway – like a draft-dodger or prisoner – acquired a political status, regardless of their motivation. 

Widespread concern reached the US Congress, resulting in the Runaway Youth Act of 1974

Widespread public concern about this phenomenon soon reached Congress, resulting in the Runaway Youth Act of 1974. San Francisco had drawn disillusioned youth from around the country, including a set of largely suburban students who formed an urban guerilla group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).One of them was Emily Harris, a successful student from conservative rural Indiana. A few days before the SLA’s notorious kidnapping of Patty Hearst in February 1974, Harris wrote a letter to her parents attempting to explain her radical departure.

“I see suffering all around me,” she wrote. “These are realities which exist and which you have chosen to ignore in your life. These realities exist because some people insist on being rich regardless of whether they must utilize the blood and sweat of others. I do not see my freedom and happiness as something that comes when I grab as much as I can from someone else. This means that I can no longer relate to the aspirations you have for creating a comfortable life for yourselves because they ignore the tortured lives that others lead in an attempt to survive.”

The final paragraph of Harris’ letter is illuminating of the chasm of inter-generational understanding:

“I love you because of the independence you gave me in the past to get to the point where I am now, but I realize we are headed in totally opposite directions and we can never hope to turn those around and go back towards a point in the past where we had something in common.” She concludes: “My love for you has not changed, it’s just that my love for other people and purposes has far exceeded it. Goodbye with the past, forward with the future.”

For the activists of the New Left, the past was irredeemably tainted by oppressive forces: society has to be reconstructed from the bottom up. The new egalitarian community would be free of hierarchy, patriarchy, racism and the ‘false needs’ of consumerism and organised religion. The ‘replacement society’ would eliminate alienation and provide community for young people who, like the teenager in She’s Leaving Home, felt they were “living alone for so many years”.

In with the new

At the heart of this vision was an unprecedented attack on the nuclear family – as an incubator of oppression in the name of social order. The philosophy of ‘free love’ was not mere libertinism: it expressed a rebellion against the ‘chains’ of monogamy. As consumerism created envy, so monogamy repressed desire, created neuroses, and enslaved women in the home. Rather than inheriting social bonds, the communes imagined creating their own identities.

These communities sought to exist beyond the legal reach and morals of capitalist society

These communities sought to exist beyond the legal reach and morals of capitalist society. A stark artistic expression of this is the 1973 film The Wicker Man, based on the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner. In a Celtic cult in the Scottish Hebrides, ‘free love’ is celebrated as a religious rite, with an ideal of pagan liberty opposed to Christian orthodoxy.

The ‘back-to-the-land’ movement conceived of itself as returning to an ideal of the past, in which man lived in harmony with nature. In an attempt to reflect this equilibrium, some of the communes adopted the design of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome – beautiful spheres in which fragile parts stabilised each other to make a strong whole. In organisational terms, the communes sought to mimic this notion of “the organism of many who act as one”, in the words of member Molly Hollenbach.

Yet as Adam Curtis has shown, this “organic balance” proved to be a poor model of governance, and the communes reverted not to natural justice but to a state of nature. By rejecting the coercive culture of laws, the communes removed rules that restrained human behaviour, and strong personalities came to dominate. The communes ended up recreating some of the paternalistic dynamics that the runaways sought to escape.

Back in the Bay Area, the SLA were attempting to ‘live the revolution’ – sharing everything from kitchen chores to a communal toothbrush. But their experiment in free love soon disillusioned female comrades such as Emily Harris. Freed of the straitjacket of monogamy, they found themselves enslaved to the libido of the dominant men – instead of having one master, a female comrade had many. (She did not have to consent, but as Hearst later wrote, “it was ‘comradely’ to say yes”).

Even after the communes were dissolved, their radical designs endured – and fuelled the corporate forces that they once opposed. In 2016, both Apple and Google revealed plans for new headquarters in Silicon Valley, with designs strikingly evocative of an earlier vision of the future. This shift from counterculture to cyberculture was incubated by Stewart Brand’s influential Whole Earth Catalog, published regularly between 1968-71. Steve Jobs described the Catalog as “Google in paperback form”, and its offices were housed in a moveable geodesic dome. This style became known as ‘hippie modernism’, defined by soft and circular shapes, in contrast to the hard-edged, inflexible buildings associated with bureaucratic modernism. But while Apple and Google’s plans adopt the designs of free communal association, their spaces are privatised – a commons only for the few.

For the runaways, liberation was closely tied to a social vision of the self, in a community away from the trappings of family life and private property. For a sense of how far some strayed from this vision, look no further than the subject of She’s Leaving Home. Fifty years on, Melanie Coe is married with two children. The runaway now runs an estate agency.

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