Musical history: Rock rolls through the U.S.

by Bungalow Bill, Contributing Writer

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In the early sixties there were many kinds of popular music in the Top 40, and none of them were rock.

Straight pop tended toward sentimentality and appealed to the norms of a society at ease.  The charts were still full of old-fashioned adult “tunes” like Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly”  and Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta.”  Teens danced to infectiously polite rhythm and blues (R&B) like “The Shoop Shoop Song,” and played surfing songs and teen ballads on the jukebox.  Then there was folk music–sincere, straight, and sung in behalf of “the people.”  Peter, Paul & Mary made Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” an anthem of social consciousness in 1963, singing it to the assembled multitudes at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Different as they were, all these forms of popular music had two things in common: they conformed to white aesthetic standards and they depended upon professional producers and marketers.

The Beatles descended into this pop scene in February 1964, and within weeks had altered the landscape of popular music.  Their souped-up pop featured old rock’n’roll tunes and energetic original that drew heavily on polished American R&B.  By early April twelve of their singles were in the Top 40, including the top five.  By the end of the year they had three number one albums and a fourth rapidly moving up the charts.  This unprecedented success enabled The Beatles to shape their own musical output in way that had never before been possible.

As The Beatles were leading the British invasion of America, Dylan was chafing at the restraints of being “spokesman of a generation.”  His rejection of that title let loose a poet into the pop world, and challenged John Lennon and Paul McCartney to write more seriously.  At the same time, Dylan himself was moving toward electrified music, much to the disgust of “serious” fans who booed him routinely as he began to divide his concerts between acoustic and electric sets.

Together, The Beatles and Bob Dylan cleared the ground for rock music.  The Beatles by their unprecedented commercial success forced record companies to acknowledge that musicians were creators, not commodities, and thus deserved greater control of their art.  Dylan by his poetic gift and artistic integrity transformed the possibilities of a music that had previously been all about good times, social conformity, and radio play.  Most bands after 1964 sought to emulate these broad artistic values.

There was no clear division between a pop song and a rock song in 1965, but by 1966 the concept of “rock” was taking shape.  Rock music more consistently featured an electric lead guitar, and more creative use of drums and bass, which had previously been employed as backing instruments.  Putting the guitar out front created a space for marginalized blues enthusiasts.  Their twelve-bar blues structure provided a framework for molding, shifting, and distorting the guitar sound without losing the shape of a song.

The Who and The Kinks began experimenting with feedback in 1964.  Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix both began to use the wah-wah pedal shortly after its invention in 1966, and Hendrix continued to experiment with the fuzz face, octavia, and other forms of distortion.  Lennon’s direct injection of the guitar signal into the mixing console provided the “dirty” sound he was after in “Revolution.”  By the end of the sixties, it was clear that the players knew far more about the technological capabilities of their instruments than the professionals who had been producing their records just a few year earlier.

Whereas most previous pop songs had been crafted by professional producers for dancing and radio airplay, rock bands increasingly spoke to the wider culture in more complex ways.  In 1964, for instance, not a single song in the Top 100 for the year dealt with a serious contemporary issue.  In the following year, Barry McGuire confronted American military policy head-on in “Eve of Destruction;” Dylan critiqued the corroding personal effects of cultural conformity in “Like a Rolling Stone;” and The Rolling Stones recorded “Satisfaction,” the decade’s anthem of youthful alienation.

From that point, every subject was open for exploration: religion, drug use, depression, government policy, race relations, and of course, love, sex, and dancing.

When The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was released in December 1965, it was played in its entirety on WNEW (New York), heralding the golden age of the record album.  Instead of a vehicle for selling one or two hit singles, the album became the point– a forty-minute musical canvass, open to every audio shape and conceptual possibility.  The ultimate measure of a song became its contribution to the album, rather than its viability on commercial radio.

Thus, the Moody Blues could record with the London Festival Society a song cycle on the passing of a day (Days of Future Passed); Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice could compose  a rock opera on the life of Christ (Jesus Christ Superstar); and Pink Floyd could employ techniques of musique concrète to explore questions of materialism and madness (Dark Side of the Moon).

With a larger palette and more control of the product, rock musicians could be more creative in their use of sound and sound combinations.  Electric violin (“Baba O’Riley”), sitar (“Norwegian Wood,” “Paint it Black”), flute (“Nights in White Satin,” everything by Jethro Tull), theremin (“Good Vibrations”), tape loops (“Money,” “Tomorrow Never Knows”), song sampling (“All You Need is Love”), and spoken word interludes (“Days of Future Passed”) were all employed.

By the late sixties plenty of danceable, pop singles were still on the charts, but rock music had largely abandoned the single and the dance floor.  The Top 40 and AM radio reflected pop trends; the album and FM radio were the vehicles for rock.  While bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Eagles had a foot in both worlds, less pop-oriented groups proved that rock had its own space.  Creativity and a real musical chops could make you rock superstars, even if you couldn’t dance to “Dazed and Confused” or “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

Listen. . . .

Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)

The Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction” (1965)

The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)

Jimi Hendrix, Are you Experienced (1967)

Led Zeppelin, “Dazed and Confused” (1969)

Pink Floyd, “The Great Gig in the Sky” (1973)

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