Spectropop presents

Pop and Rock Music in the 60s
A Brief History

Essay by Jack Madani

Copyright 1998 Jack Madani. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author

The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll:

In 1945, World War II ended. By 1946, American servicemen began returning home to start up the families they had had to put on hold for 4 years. Thus began the unusually large bubble in the population curve of America known as the Baby Boom, as gazillions of babies were born all of a sudden in the span of five to ten years. Remember that all those babies born in 1946-1947 would be 18 in 1964-1965 (and eventually 22 and out of college, and into the marketplace in the early '70's, to kick off the Me Decade). What that means is that American society would suddenly find itself catering to a generation of young people in a way that had never occurred before.

Sixties rock finds its roots in several places, starting as far back as the big swing bands of the pre-war era that the 60's kids' parents listened to as youngsters: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington's bands are some of the most famous. Except for Duke Ellington, all those bands were primarily dance bands, with big swinging backbeats. You can still hear some of their greatest hits today in such unusual places as the Chips Ahoy commercial (1,000 chips in every bag).

There were also the smaller, "rhythm combo" groups, usually of only four or five players. Their tunes were popular on the jukeboxes of the day, but were not considered artistically important which is why we have mostly forgotten them today. The recent Broadway show "Five Guys Named Moe," which highlights the career of Louis Jordan, tells about one of the most popular rhythm combos of the day. Nat King Cole also had a small jazz combo that had popular success, before he became a Sinatra-style pop ballad singer in the '50's.

Then there was Country & Western--especially what was called "Texas Swing," of which Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys was the king. Hank Williams Sr. was another important singer/songwriter of that era and genre.

Over in Memphis there was Sam Phillips and his Sun Studios, where rockabilly and Elvis Presley were born. Besides Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison all began their recording careers at Sun Studios.

Two other sources of modern rock'n'roll, absolutely essential to the sound we think of as 60's rock, were, first, the Blues. Blues began as the music of black sharecroppers in the poor cotton-farming region of the Mississippi Delta, and traveled north to Chicago with the sharecroppers as thousands of them moved north in search of a better life. It was in Chicago that the blues went from acoustic solo guitar music to electric guitar-electric bass-drums combos. Muddy Waters, Little Milton, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf were just a few of these important Chicago blues artists.

The last source of modern rock'n'roll is actually a single man. Les Paul was a studio whiz and guitar player who designed the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, and pioneered the technique of overdubbing, allowing one person to play more than one part on a recording. Working with his wife Mary Ford, who sang the vocal parts, Les Paul created a series of two-person recordings that sounded like an entire band was playing--and the music was all guitar-based.

The 1960's Begin:

As the late fifties gave way to the early sixties, the rockabilly stars of the previous decade (the Everlys, Elvis, Roy Orbison) were still having hits, but the older pop-music stars were fading away as they struggled to find material that would click with this new and energetic generation of kids. Pop music gradually became controlled by new young "vocal"-groups, taking their power from a combination of the performer's charisma along with the songwriting talents of the production team, who operated behind the scenes. Eventually rock artists came to be expected to write and even produce their own songs, becoming responsible for everything about how their records sounded--but that would have to wait for Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson and Lennon & McCartney.

In general there were four main pockets of early 60's pop:

the East Coast DooWop and girl groups were singers and groups whose origins are in the streetcorner a cappella groups found in many urban centers. With very rare exceptions, these groups did not write their own songs, but relied on their handlers to set up the recording sessions, pick the material, and produce the records. In fact, many of these behind-the-scenes people eventually became stars in their own right in the seventies.

The R&B and Soul scene included many talented people who often didn't receive the popularity of less-talented white groups, because of barriers and prejudices against buying "race" records. Later in the decade, after the British groups acknowledged their debt to soul music, and as the civil rights movement inspired black pride, the general American public rediscovered these performers.

the California scene was first dominated by instrumental surf groups like the Surfaris, the Crossfires, and Dick Dale & the Del-tones. Dale, the "King of Surf Guitar," in particular helped define how modern rock guitar solos would sound. Then the Beach Boys added vocal harmonies to the surf sound. This surf-&-drag, fun-in-the-sun sound was so popular that the style showed up all over the place, even in tv theme songs such as the Munsters and Hawaii Five-O. But the real important stuff was happening in the recording studios, where young studio wizards like Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and the team of Sloan & Barri began turning the studio itself into their instrument, looking for new sounds in a quest not for records but for productions. There were studio svengalis back east, too, including Bob Crewe and the team of Burt Bacharach & Hal David. Modern artists like Prince, Lindsey Buckingham, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis who use synths and samplings, are rather like the spiritual descendants of those white suburban teenagers, taking their distinctive sound with them regardless of the particular artist they happen to be working with.

The Motown record label in Detroit was founded by Berry Gordy Jr., and while its recording stars were all black, still you couldn't necessarily call this totally black or "soul" music. Instead, Gordy controlled the performing styles, clothes, even hairdos of his artists, grooming them for success in the wider mainstream (read white) American audiences. The label's slogan, "the sound of young America," and their nickname, "Hitsville USA" point to the wide net that Motown attempted to cast. Among the many successful performers who recorded for Motown, one ought to mention Marvin Gaye, who was first to take control of his own career and insist on artistic control over his recordings. Later Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson would also prove to be outstanding writers and producers, but Marvin Gaye was the first at Motown.

The British Invade:

With 1963 comes the end of rock'n'roll and the beginnings of "rock." Of course, in 1963 John Kennedy was assassinated, and his vice president Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president. Soon LBJ escalated the United States' involvement in Viet Nam and declared war on poverty as part of his Great Society program, a systematic widening of the government's powers that required higher taxes and spurred ruinous inflation. Meanwhile, the televised police beatings of members of Martin Luther King's nonviolent Civil Rights movement made it plain to many people that the powers that be were not necessarily interested in protecting people's human and constitutional rights. Thus it wasn't long before the youth of America was finding itself deeply questioning its country's leaders. A large part of the innocence went out of pop music. And then came the British.... The Beatles were merely the most visible of the many British music acts that found success in America in the mid-60's. Many people count the Fab Four's landing at La Guardia airport on February 7, 1964, and their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show a week later, as the official beginning of what came to be called the "British Invasion." The Beatles were hugely popular; at one point they had the top five records on the Billboard Hot 100 list. Their sound and attitudes influenced everything that came afterwards--even today, when kids sing along with pop tunes on the radio and sing soft Britty "r's", they're unconsciously mimicking the English sound. Like the killer meteor that caused mass extinctions 65 million years ago, clearing the way for a whole new evolutionary path based on mammals instead of reptiles, the British Invasion killed off almost all the existing American groups (only the Beach Boys, Four Seasons, and the biggest Motown acts managed to survive). In their place rose up all sorts of American groups who dressed and sounded just like the Brits, as for instance the Knickerbockers, Beau Brummels, Buckinghams, Sir Douglas Quintet, and Turtles--before the Turtles became famous they used to hang out at bowling alleys and order tea with plenty of milk, speaking in fake English accents and trying to pass themselves off as Gerry and the Pacemakers. Then the folkies went electric. For this the great turning point was 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival. Bob Dylan turned up to perform with an electric guitar, and was practically booed off the stage, but he had shown the new path for folk music. And the Byrds had their first big hit with Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," using that record to show how folkie songs could be built on a Beatle-esque sound (the first time group founder Roger McGuinn saw the Beatles on tv, he went right out to buy a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar just like George Harrison's). From Songs to Productions: Rock'n'Roll's death and the Birth of "Art Rock": The next two years, from 1965 to 1967, saw the most amazing experiments and changes in rock music ever. The simplest way to watch those changes is to review the back and forth record releases by the Beatles and the Beach Boys, perhaps the two most innovative recording groups of the mid 60's. Back in 1964, these groups produced such fun energetic pop as:

A Hard Day's Night I Get Around
By 1965 these groups became more studio-oriented and less interested in performance-friendly songs. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had a nervous breakdown while on tour at the beginning of 1965, so he stopped touring and concentrated on working in the studio. John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles also became more interested in the production angle, collaborating more with their longtime producer George Martin.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) God Only Knows
Michelle Pet Sounds

In 1966 the Beatles announced that they would no longer tour at all and retired full-time to the recording studio. John was particularly interested in using recording tricks in Beatles songs, and the subject matter of their songs was becoming more and more openly radical. Brian, meanwhile, was now working completely with studio musicians, often using 25 musicians at a time in what was in effect the first rock-orchestra. He stopped writing songs in the traditional manner, instead "constructing" songs out of recorded bits and pieces (pre-dating Todd Rundgren's recent forays into "interactive music" by 25 years).

Eleanor Rigby Good Vibrations
Love You To Heroes and Villains
Tomorrow Never Knows Cabinessence

1967 saw the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile. Sgt. Pepper was a complete and revolutionary album, full of weird effects and songs about drugs. Smiley Smile was also a revolutionary album, full of weird effects and songs about drugs. But it was not a finished album. Brian went through another breakdown, this time caused by LSD, and the album he released wound up a pale imitation of what he had intended to produce. Sgt. Pepper became the anthem for 1967's "Summer of Love;" it was the height of flower power, arty progressive music that seemed to influence the social fabric, and of the youth movement's naive sense that a new age was about to dawn.

Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds Fall Breaks and Back to Winter
Within You Without You Wind Chimes
A Day In The Life Vegetables

1968 & 1969: The Unraveling:

No sooner had 1967's "summer of love" passed than it all started to come undone in 1968. In that year both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. LBJ had so escalated America's involvement in the Viet Nam conflict that across the nation's campuses students were rioting, while the "war on poverty" seemed to be going nowhere. The constant criticism from every corner finally convinced Johnson not to run for re-election. There were riots in the inner cities of many urban centers around the country (which would continue to occur each summer for the next several years). The civil rights movement gave up its nonviolence philosophy as SNCC was taken over by radical extremists; in Oakland the Black Panther movement, the extremest of the extreme, was born. Richard Nixon was elected president, and Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California; both ran on strong law-and-order campaigns.

Rock music took a step back from its drug-fueled experiments of just a year before, and turned to less-experimental sounds, while the topics became angrier. Creedence Clearwater Revival was the most successful of the roots rock groups, with hits ranging from "Green River" and "Proud Mary" to the ferocious anti-Viet Nam song "Fortunate Son." Even mainstream acts like Elvis Presley and the Supremes released protest songs. The Yardbirds broke up, and Led Zeppelin, the quintessential seventies hard rock band, grew up out of its ashes (that was also the year that the first version of Pink Floyd appeared, although it would still take a couple years of tinkering with the line-up to create the progressive-album-rock juggernaut that would reign over the FM airwaves in the next decade). Finally, the rise of the Black Power movement helped spur soul music to heights of popularity never before experienced. Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin became major stars.

The next year, 1969, saw two important rock festivals, Woodstock in August and Altamont in December. While people tend to remember Woodstock fondly because the hippies were mostly able to organize and run a 450,000-person three-day festival with few major problems, in retrospect its overwhelmed facilities (only 200,000 had been expected) and lousy weather were a symbol that Woodstock was in reality the end of an era, not the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Only a few months later, at a concert in Altamont, California, (which was documented in the movie "Gimme Shelter,") a fan was knifed to death in the audience as the Rolling Stones performed on stage.

In 1969, Charles Manson and his gang were living in Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's house, sponging off Dennis and using his credit cards. Manson was writing songs and trying to break into the music business. At the same time he was also trying to build up a new religion with himself as God, with followers who were willing to do his bidding. Musically, he got as far as to get the Beach Boys to record one of his songs ("Never Learn Not to Love," on the album 20/20), before Dennis got fed up and kicked him and his gang out. A month later, Manson and his followers committed the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders. The grizzly multiple murder was part ritual sacrifice to show loyalty to Manson, and part warning to the music business not to mess with Charlie (a producer used to own the house in which the murders took place). One of the clues that led to their finally being caught was the fact that Manson had smeared "Helter Skelter" (a Beatles song title from the White Album) in blood on the walls at the scene of the crime. Seems like '60's rock no longer pointed the way to a better world.

By the end of 1969, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix had all died of drug overdoses. In England, the Beatles produced a documentary ("Get Back") that had been meant as a kind of new start for the group, but which instead showed how the boys could barely stand to be in the same room with each other anymore. In America, on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick off Martha's Vineyard, Senator Edward Kennedy was involved in a car crash in which a young woman died. The bizarre and ambiguous circumstances surrounding the fatal accident put a stain on the remaining Kennedy brother's reputation that he was never able to shake.

In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but when that singular moment in the history of mankind was announced at an Earth-bound rock festival, the self-absorbed audience booed the news. A year later, the Beatles broke up and Diana Ross left the Supremes; one year after that, Berry Gordy moved his Motown operations from Detroit to Los Angeles. The musical decade of the sixties was over.


1950's pop music
the "popular vocalist" type such as often recorded in Los Angeles for Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, The Four Freshmen, Patti Page, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett

Rhythm'n'Blues, Rockabilly

"Race" music (which eventually became soul music)
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, The Coasters, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Billy Haley & The Comets, The Everly Brothers, Rickie Nelson, Little Richard, LaVern Baker.

1960's early pop music
the behind-the-scenes people who wrote and produced songs, especially for the NY groups (and who eventually in many cases became the sensitive singer/songwriters of the 1970's), Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich, Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Quincy Jones, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman.

New York Doo Wop and girl groups
The Skyliners, The Tokens, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, The Shangri- Las, The Duprees, Dion & The Belmonts, Little Eva, The Four Seasons.

R&B, Soul
Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Isley Brothers, Jackie Wilson, The Impressions, Inez Foxx, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters, Ike & Tina Turner, Percy Sledge, James Brown, Ray Charles, Booker T. & The MG's, Ben E. King, Otis Redding.

California Studio Wizards and Surf Groups

Beach Boys/Brian Wilson, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Phil Spector, Dick Dale & The Deltones, The Surfaris, The Ventures, The Fantastic Baggys (Phil Sloan &Steve Barri), Terry Melcher, Gary Usher, Curt Boettcher, Gary Zekley.

Detroit Motown (Berry Gordy, Jr., founder and producer)
The Supremes Marvin Gaye, The Temptations Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops Mary Wells, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Holland, Dozier & Holland (producers & songwriters).

The British Invasion:

in their own category
The Beatles

the mop-tops
Chad & Jeremy, Peter & Gordon, Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, Gerry & The Pacemakers.

mods and rockers
Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Spencer Davis Group, The Hollies, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Kinks, The Small Faces, electric blues, Derek & The Dominoes, Cream, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin.

the phonies and wanna-be's, and other heavily-influenced's
The Standells, The Monkees, The Buckinghams, The Searchers, Tommy James & The Shondells, The Turtles, The Beau Brummells.

Electric Folk
The Byrds, The Lovin' Spoonful, Donovan, The Band, The Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

White Blues, Blue-eyed Soul
Janis Joplin, Mitch Ryder, Three Dog Night, The Animals.

Mainstream Protest Songs
War (What Is It Good For), Eve of Destruction, Think, Who'll Stop The Rain, Cloud Nine, Abraham Martin & John, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), What's Going On, Living For The City, Love Child, Have You Ever Seen The Rain, Ball of Confusion, Fortunate Son, In The Ghetto.

Copyright 1998 Jack Madani. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.