Chapter 3: The Sixties Sound Explosion
In the 1960s pop music exploded into many different subgenres. The Billboard charts were topped by acoustic folk music, sweet harmony songs, electric rock bands, and an updated R&B style called soul. By the late sixties these styles had been woven together in numerous combinations such as folk rock, country rock, blues rock, and psychedelic pop masterpieces that defied classification.
Unlike the rock-and-roll revolutionaries of the 1950s, most sixties chart toppers did not emanate from the South. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan hailed from Minnesota; rock bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were British; the Beach Boys played surf music from Southern California; guitar wizard Jimi Hendrix grew up in Seattle, Washington; and the hottest soul music on the air came from Detroit, Michigan. This geographical spread shows that rock and roll had achieved an amazing influence far beyond its Southern roots. Most sixties superstars, however, were strongly influenced by rock's 1950s founding fathers.
In 1959 Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was “to join Little Richard,”22 that is, to play in his band. Hendrix actually did play in Little Richard's band in 1964, and soon began imitating Richard's flamboyant style of dress. Two years later, just as he was becoming famous,
Hendrix told a reporter, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”23
Southern American music also had a major influence on British teenagers. When Beatles founder and guitarist John Lennon was growing up in Liverpool, England, in the early 1950s, he listened to country and western, blues, and R&B on the radio. When he heard Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio in 1956, he decided to
become a rock-and-roll musician. Lennon later explained the pull of his early musical influences: “Rock'n'roll was real, everything else was unreal. … I had no idea about doing music as a way of life until rock'n'roll hit me.”24
Breaking Down Gender Barriers
There is little doubt that some of the biggest names in 1960s pop were inspired by the first generation of rock and rollers, but these new stars were baby boomers. They had different experiences and expectations, and this was especially true for young women. In the United States in the early 1960s, women were attending college in record numbers. The invention of the birth control pill meant, for the first time, women could experience more sexual freedom without fear of pregnancy.
Sexism and traditional gender discrimination remained in place throughout society in the 1960s, however. Women did not have equal rights to men even though they were playing larger roles in many areas, including the pop music business. This was obvious to those who worked in the Brill Building, an eleven-story office building in New York City.
Home to more than 160 music businesses that created, published, recorded, and promoted pop music, the Brill Building was a modernized version of Tin Pan Alley. The songwriters and record producers who worked in the building catered to the needs of millions of teenage baby boomers by creating memorable dance music and songs about love and broken hearts.
Although the music business had long been dominated by men, in this new era, three of the most celebrated Brill Building tunesmiths were young women. Carole King, Cynthia Weil, and Ellie Greenwich were married to their writing partners, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, and Jeff Barry, respectively. Many of the songs written by the husband-wife teams of the Brill Building were number one hits recorded by “girl groups,” which comprised both black singers and white singers.
It was the Goffin-King song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” that launched the girl group industry in January 1961. The song was recorded by four young African American women, who had formed a group called the Shirelles several years earlier when they were in junior high school. King was barely out of high school herself, just 18 when she wrote the lyrics to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” about her ex-boyfriend. After the first hit by the Shirelles, Goffin-King hits dominated pop radio. The duo composed songs about dance crazes, like Little Eva's “Loco-motion” and girl group classics about love and longing like the Chiffons' “One Fine Day.”
Motor City Soul
The Brill Building was not the only hit factory in early sixties America. In Detroit, African American songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. founded the Motown Record Corporation in 1959. Gordy assembled teams of songwriters, producers, musicians, singers, and record promoters who labored in a small bungalow marked only by a sign that said “HITSVILLE, U.S.A.” The motto of Motown was “the sound of young America,”25 because Gordy's goal was to reach all teenagers, of all races.
Some of Motown's biggest early hits were written and produced by the songwriting brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, who teamed up with Lamont Dozier. These men, known as Holland-Dozier-Holland, came to define the Motown sound, writing and producing songs with popping rhythms, catchy hooks, soulful lead singers, and soaring background harmonies.
The songs of Holland-Dozier-Holland were the driving force behind the Motown girl group success of the Supremes, composed of singers Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross. The Supremes, who grew up together in the same Detroit housing project, went on to become one of the best-selling pop groups of the 1960s. In total, the Supremes sold more than 100 million records. Their hits included “You Can't Hurry Love,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In The Name of Love,” and “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Holland-Dozier-Holland also wrote a string of soul hits for other Motown superstars, including the Four Tops (“Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can't
Help Myself,” and “Reach Out I'll Be There”) and Marvin Gaye (“Can I Get a Witness” and “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You”).
Smokey Robinson was another talent at Motown. He wrote pop hits for the Temptations like “My Girl” and a string of number one songs, including “You've Really Got a Hold on Me” and “The Tracks of My Tears,” for his own band, the Miracles. Robinson sang in a soulful falsetto, and his songs explored romance, love, and heartbreak with clever turns of phrase. The lyrics to songs like “When the Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “Tears of a Clown” led Bob Dylan to call Robinson “America's greatest living poet.”26
Between 1961 and 1971, Motown had 110 top ten hits written by Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Marvin Gaye, and others. Nearly every song started with a great dance beat, what Gordy called “that funk … that groove,”27 followed by a memorable musical hook. To get into that groove, Gordy said, “We would try anything to get a unique percussion sound: two blocks of wood slapped together, striking mallets on little glass ashtrays, shaking jars of dried peas … a whole group of people stomping on the floor.”28
The Beatles Pop Music Masterpieces
Motown hits might have been the sound of young America, but they were heard around the world. In 1962 the Beatles, a bar band in Liverpool, England, played live sets of Robinson's “You've Really Got a Hold on Me,” as well as Brill Building girl group hits such as “Chains,” “Boys,” and “Baby It's You,” and rock-and-roll classics by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. The group, made up of guitarist John Lennon, bassist Paul McCartney, lead guitarist George Harrison, and drummer Ringo Starr, had learned to sing sweet, high harmonies covering Motown and other American pop songs.
The Beatles also wrote their own songs, and their catchy tunes made them major pop stars in England in early 1963. By December they had a number one hit in the United States with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which went platinum, selling more than a million copies in a few days. This set off a fad
called Beatlemania, a term invented by the press to describe the intense adoration the Beatles inspired in their fans.
When the group made their first American TV appearance, on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, about half the country—some 73 million Americans—watched. As John, Paul, George, and Ringo shook their long, shaggy hair and sang “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” TV cameras showed teenage girls shrieking hysterically in the audience. By April, the Beatles had surpassed Elvis Presley's record-setting sales achievements. The top five Billboard hit songs were all by the Beatles and the group had fourteen singles in the Hot 100.
Lennon and McCartney were the primary songwriters for the Beatles and they rarely composed songs based on the twelve-bar blues form typical in rock music. Instead,
their songs were built on complex chord patterns played on the guitar with seventh chords used for a blues feel, minor chords used to create a moody sound, and jazz chords inserted to add a unique harmony. Their melodies ascend to high points that excite the listener, and their lyrics often use clever or humorous wordplay like “please please me” or “a hard day's night.”
The Beatles never repeated their musical accomplishments from album to album. Each LP was sure to be a surprise, sounding completely different than the one before. Within the first three years of their success, they released seven albums containing enduring hits such as “Yesterday,” “Ticket to Ride,” “We Can Work It Out,” and “Nowhere Man.” In the mid-1960s almost everyone under the age of thirty in the Western world could sing along to these three-minute pop music masterpieces.
The Beatles let their creativity run wild in the recording studio, where they employed string quartets, the Indian sitar, and French horns, instruments never before heard in rock music. Along with their brilliant producer George Martin, the group invented new sounds by tinkering with tape recorders and other electronic gadgets.
Social and Musical Revolutions
The Beatles were the first British pop group to have major success in the United States and their popularity caused a wave called the British Invasion. Suddenly, previously unknown British groups such as the Dave Clarke Five, Peter and Gordon, the Animals, and Herman's Hermits had number one hits in America. The Rolling Stones began their career as a British Invasion band, achieving their first success in 1965 with “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.”
Around 1966, the British Invasion was replaced by another kind of revolution. America was in a period of social upheaval that became known as the counterculture or hippie movement. Millions of baby boomers began to question accepted beliefs in their own lives and those held by society at large. They adopted their own slang and fashions that included long hair on both men and women, tie-dyed
shirts, blue jeans, and love beads. These young adults, including pop stars like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, began experimenting with marijuana and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide or acid). LSD was at the root of the hippie counterculture. While most people took the drug for enjoyment, it caused some users to experience “bad trips” filled with paranoia and extreme anxiety. It also caused users to hear colors and see sounds, which provided profound musical inspiration for some musicians. As a result of this intense, drug-fueled examination, many hippies became antiwar, antiauthority, and critical of powerful corporations.
In February 1967 the Beatles released a single that was unmatched in pop history. John Lennon wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever” during a period when he was experimenting with LSD, and the song is a dreamlike kaleidoscopic trip of swirling sounds. Lennon and George Martin created the song with layers of cellos, keyboards, backward cymbals, and a multistringed Indian instrument called a swarmandal. “Strawberry Fields Forever” showed that the Beatles, who were the biggest pop stars in the world, were making music that was experimental, eclectic, and progressive—and beyond classification. The song proved to all listeners that pop music could be more than rock, blues, R&B, or soul.
A Decisive Moment in Pop Music
“Strawberry Fields Forever” was the warm-up for the Beatles' psychedelic LP, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967. Kenneth Tynan, music critic of the respected London Times, said Sgt. Pepper was such a revolutionary, game-changing piece of music that the album represented a “decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.”29 While some might consider this statement overblown, the album undoubtedly changed the way pop music was produced and marketed.
Sgt. Pepper was one of the earliest concept albums, in which all of the songs were based on a single idea or theme. On this album, the idea was that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were no longer the Beatles, but instead members of the fictional music group Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club
Band. The album contained several exceptional psychedelic rock masterpieces like “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Day in the Life.” The lyrics of Harrison's “Within You Without You” discuss deep spiritual and philosophical concepts, while the music is a hypnotic mix of Indian instruments, such as the multistring sitar and the tabla drums.
The album cover of Sgt. Pepper is as unique as the music. The Beatles are surrounded by dozens of life-size cardboard cutouts of famous people including Bob Dylan, Communist philosopher Karl Marx, and actors James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Mae West. The lyrics are printed on the album, another first, so listeners could sing along.
Part of the Beatles' appeal was always that they were funny, down-to-earth guys who easily related to their fans. According to Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman, Sgt. Pepper took this concept to a new level:
[The] album was constructed to invite listeners' participation in an implied community. The record is a clearly and cleverly organized performance that … Page 55 | Top of Articleactually [addresses] its audience. The opening song, “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” formally introduces the “show” to come and acknowledges the listeners with lines like “We hope you will enjoy the show.” … It [positions] the rock album as the creator of an audience community.30
Sgt. Pepper sold 8 million copies upon release, remained on Billboard's album charts for four and a half years, and remains one of the best-selling albums of all time.
The record was evolutionary in another way. Before the album was released, the pop music business was driven by sales of 45 rpm singles. Sgt. Pepper showed that a piece of popular music could be longer than a three- to six-minute single and that a pop artist could create a musical masterpiece that filled an entire album. As a result, LP albums became the dominant method of marketing music in the aftermath of Sgt. Pepper.
Dylan's Hard Rain
Nearly every pop musician who has topped the charts since the 1960s will acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the Beatles. Many will also credit the influence of Bob Dylan, whose trajectory to stardom occurred during the middle of Beatlemania. Unlike the early Beatles, however, Dylan did not begin his career writing playful three-minute love songs for teenagers. Instead, he composed songs up to eleven minutes long that contained lyrics that were profoundly poetic, bitingly political, or even insulting, angry, and vengeful.
Dylan grew up in the small town of Hibbing, Minnesota, in the early 1950s, listening to Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, folksinger Woody Guthrie, and bluesmen like Charlie Patton. After he moved to New York City in 1961, Dylan made a name for himself writing songs about critical social problems.
The 1962 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan contains several songs labeled “protest music” by the press. “Blowin' in the Wind” poses questions about war, prejudice, and repression. The song was a major hit for the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and became an anthem for the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Other songs on Freewheelin' are
angry commentaries about current events. “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall” is a prediction of an apocalyptic nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, while “Masters of War” is a scathing attack on war profiteers.
Dylan rejected the protest singer label, telling music critic Nat Hentoff in 1965 that he only started writing antiwar songs “because I didn't see anybody else doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs.”31 Although the media continued to call Dylan a protest
test singer, he stopped writing obviously political songs in 1964 after recording another sixties anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin'.”
In 1965 Bob Dylan shocked his fans when he picked up a Stratocaster guitar and jammed with a full electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Some members of the audience booed and yelled catcalls as Dylan ripped into “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the event has become part of
sixties lore, still remembered as the day Dylan “went electric.” Despite the reaction from folk fans, Dylan continued to write amazingly creative, poetic songs unlike any other in pop history, including “Positively 4th Street,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Memphis Blues Again.” These songs are included on four groundbreaking LPs recorded in only two years, between 1965 and 1966: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and the double album Blonde on Blonde.
Backed by pianos, electric organs, cutting lead-guitar riffs, bass, and drums, Dylan's new style was dubbed folk rock by the press. He disavowed the folk rock label, but bands like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Lovin' Spoonful, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Turtles were able to blend folk and rock into chart-topping pop masterpieces in the mid-sixties.
Dylan might have been the first to blend folk, rock, and blues into pop hits, but bands that grew out of the hippie scene were adding yet another dimension to music. In the second half of the sixties, young middle-class teenagers from across America were flocking to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, California, where an ongoing hippie celebration of peace, free love, and psychedelic drugs was taking place. Dozens of bands made up of mostly local musicians formed to play psychedelic or acid rock for these eager music fans. This style, best represented by the band the Grateful Dead, could blend folk, rock, jazz, blues, and country into a single twenty-five-minute free-form jam.
Two of the most famous psychedelic bands were fronted by women who broke society's gender stereotypes and were proud of it. Former model Grace Slick was the lead singer for Jefferson Airplane. Unlike the sweet Brill Building girl groups and polished Motown signers, Slick's acid-drenched
vocals were commanding, dramatic, and almost operatic. Jefferson Airplane's 1967 “Somebody to Love” is a psychedelic rock anthem, with a driving beat, soaring harmonies, and heavy, distorted lead guitars. The group's number one 1967 hit “White Rabbit,” based on Lewis Carroll's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was among the first chart toppers with blatant drug references.
Janis Joplin, who fronted Big Brother & the Holding Company, was even more outrageous than Slick. Joplin shrieked, cried, rasped, and swayed with her eyes closed, singing blues, R&B, rock, and even Tin Pan Alley hits while swigging from a bottle of Southern Comfort. Big Brother's album Cheap Thrills reached number one on the album charts and showed a generation of young women that they too could be rock stars. Rock journalist Lucy O'Brien writes, “When Joplin stood on stage and screamed out [the song] ‘Piece of My Heart,’ there was a sense of megalithic
rock being resung and reinterpreted through a woman's perspective.”32
Jim Morrison's Revolt, Disorder, and Chaos
Most San Francisco bands celebrated psychedelic drugs, love, peace, and freedom, but down in Los Angeles, California, Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, had a darker view of the world. Morrison was a poet, and his lyrics often touched on stark observations about spiritual and bodily death. He told the New York Times that his songs were “about revolt, disorder, chaos. … It seems to me to be the road to freedom—external revolt is a way to bring about internal freedom.”33
Morrison formed The Doors in the summer of 1965 with keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore, and guitarist Robby Krieger. The group attracted a huge following playing in Los Angeles clubs and became major pop stars in April 1967 when the song “Light My Fire” was released as the first single from their debut album The Doors. The song “Light My Fire,” with lyrics about getting higher and setting the night on fire, set the tone for all Doors albums to follow.
Morrison's revolution was self-destructive. In concert he was often drunk and high on drugs. He stumbled, yelled, jumped, and fell on the stage as if shot. He insulted the audience, then urged them to incite revolution. These antics troubled authorities and by 1968 the group was banned from playing in most cities. However, The Doors continued to produce number one hits, including “Love Me Two Times,” “Hello, I Love You,” “Touch Me,” “Love Her Madly,” and “Riders on the Storm.” Morrison's drug and alcohol abuse contributed to his death in July 1971, but fans continued to buy Doors music for decades. By 2011 the group had sold more than 90 million records worldwide.
A Decade of Hits
The Doors were among the dozens of creative geniuses who dominated the Billboard Hot 100 between 1964 and 1969.
During any given week, the Beatles were competing with the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Rascals, James Brown, and half a dozen Motown artists. Songs by these acts are played on the radio every day and continue to sell in the twenty-first century.
The Beatles broke up in 1970, but their music continued to top the pop charts. When the entire Beatles catalog was offered on the iTunes Store for the first time in November 2010, more than 2 million individual songs and 450,000 Beatles albums were downloaded within days.
Dylan, who turned seventy years old in 2011, not only continued to sell his thirty-four studio albums and thirteen live albums, but he also remained a popular concert artist. Dylan toured the world performing new songs, old songs, and his immortal classics such as “Blowin' in the Wind,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” to three generations of fans.
Sixties pop music remains popular today and sets standards by which most music is measured. American pop music would not sound the same without the second generation of rockers who rose to fame during that turbulent decade.