New York City: The folk movement
Los Angeles: Surf music
Detroit: The Motown sound
London: The British Invasion
Los Angeles: Folk-rock
London: Acid rock
San Francisco: The Summer of Love
London: Prog rock, metal, and arena rock
Los Angeles: Soft-rock and country-rock
Oh, the 60s. You've heard it way too many times - "Things were different back then," they say, "It was, like, a revolution." "So what?", you retort, "who cares?" Music is better now. We've got rap, alternative, punk, techno, disco, all this stuff, and it's all better-produced and more sophisticated than any of that 30-year-old junk. Plus we've got music videos!
This is hard to argue with. If you don't care about history, then you don't, and I'll let you go on living your pathetic little unexamined life. If you do, the 60s are a fascinating destination for your mental time machine. It was a time of revolution, not just in music, but in art, fashion, politics, lifestyles, technology, everything. And as with any revolution, 60s rock didn't merely witness a rapid transition from bubble-gum AM dance music to "modern" FM Audio Entertainment, but a startling orgy of bizarre experimentation that will never be seen again. Sure, these days any band can knock off any damn music it damn well pleases on any damn $400 portable four-track. But it was only in the 60s that you could pick up the latest disc by the World's Greatest Rock Band - the Beatles - and find yourself listening to a nine-minute audio collage, a 1920's Dixieland sendup, a blistering electric blues, a gentle folk ballad, and a slew of brilliantly crafted pop-rock masterpieces - all on the same disc.
Now that I've so successfully sucked you in, I'm going to assume that you know nothing at all about the history of 60s rock. I'll dish out a vapid, clueless, semi-chronological summary that is organized along geographical lines, focusing on the major "scenes" that rock historians frequently use as convenient peg-holes. Unlike the modern rock industry, the 60s rock industry was relatively small, poorly organized, and inept enough to be commandeered by a small brat pack of artistes whose gigantic popularity gave them the leeway to experiment like crazy. These avant garde personalities tended to cluster in small social groups localized to a few major urban centers, most importantly London and Los Angeles. But we'll start with New York, which up to this era had been a dominant force in the music industry.
New York City, the early 1960s: The folk movement
A lot was happening in New York in 1962. It was the home of the still hugely popular Broadway musical theatres; a similarly popular TV variety show and film-making industry; a thriving, nationally important "Negro" entertainment industry, concentrated in Harlem; and a budding "beatnik" cultural scene in the Village. And much of 50's and early 60s rock was recorded in New York studios, with some of the most popular doo-wop acts coming from places like Queens. In light of this, it's not surprising that New York housed the nation's best professional Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including future rock stars like Carole King and Paul Simon.
From the revisionist point of view I'm forced to take, however, the single most important musical event of the early 60s was the breakthrough of the folk movement. And the most important player in that event was a skinny Jewish kid from Minnesota named Bob Dylan, who had changed his name from Zimmerman and come to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, he wrote brilliant, insightful, and poetic lyrics that almost single-handedly created a fad. Artists like Joan Baez, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, and Donovan all followed quickly in his footsteps. Eventually this movement became hugely influential in rock music, but at this point it was still a fully isolated phenomenon.
Los Angeles, the early 1960s: Surf music
Meanwhile, rock 'n' roll was showing signs of collapse. Buddy Holly was dead, Elvis had returned from two years of army service and transformed himself into a shallow movie idol, and other stars like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and even Chuck Berry had suddenly stopped scoring hits. Novelty records, treacly doo-wop, whitebread pop songs, and dance craze tunes like Chubby Checker's "The Twist" were left to dominate the charts. Into this breach stepped - no, not the Beatles in 1964, but the Beach Boys in 1963.
Having already scored a hit with "Surfin' Safari" the year before, Brian Wilson and his clean-cut backing band proceeded to tear up the charts with numbers like "Surfin' USA" and "Surfer Girl," single-handedly popularizing a short-lived "surf rock" movement that included Jan and Dean, pioneer guitarist Dick Dale, and a host of minor acts. Before the year was out, the group had popularized yet another fad: the car craze, featuring odes to hot rods and drag-racing ("Little Deuce Coupe").
How did this happen, and why did it all matter? Los Angeles in the early 60s was primed for a major musical innovation. With MGM musicals at their peak and film production a long-entrenched part of the scene, the city was filled with first-rate recording studios, orchestras, and session players. Although it may seem trivial now, surf music's high-energy blend of smooth vocal harmonies and driving rock guitar was an innovation in 1963. In fact, its sound was almost indistinguishable from the Beatles' "Merseybeat" of the next year. At first, the chief difference was that the Beatles played even louder and faster - plus they had those cute, effeminate haircuts and Liverpool accents.
Detroit, the 1960s: The reign of Motown (and competitors)
There were other signs of life in the early 60s, however. Most importantly, a small "Negro"-owned record company whose name was a feeble pun - Motown, from the "Motor City" of Detroit - was creating a unique blend of pop, R & B, and rock 'n' roll that virtually dominated the airwaves throughout the 60s. The key to Motown's success was the careful recruiting of talented singers, songwriters, and studio musicians.
The most famous included the Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team; the brilliant bass player James Jamerson, who performed on virtually every record the company made in this era, and whose influence is almost immeasurable; a long parade of "girl groups," the most important being the supremely popular Supremes; male vocal groups like the Temptations and Four Tops; and individual performers like Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, and Little Stevie Wonder.
It's easy to forget now, but throughout much of the 60s Motown really was the sound of teenage America. Every American's memory is perfused by a long list of Motown hits, even though many of us don't realize that songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Bernadette," "Stop! In The Name Of Love," "I Was Made To Love Her," "My Guy," and "My Girl" all came from the same hit factory. And of course, the famous white "rock" performers I discuss elsewhere on this page - from the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones to Janis Joplin - were all strongly influenced by the Motor City.
Motown wasn't the only center of the vigorous African-American music scene in the 60s. Throughout the decade, influential A-sides were cut by Stax-Volt artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T. & The MGs; by semi-independent acts like the Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone; and, of course, by the one-man music industry called James Brown. Although many rock fans aren't familiar with him, Brown's demonic vocals and unstoppable rhythm section were the #1 inspiration for British R & B devotees like the Who, the Small Faces, and Traffic - not to mention directly giving rise to the funk and disco movements of the 70s.
London, 1964: The British Invasion
And now we get to the Beatles. Yes, you know way too much about these guys already. You know about the Beatles' "invasion" of the U.S. in February, 1964, starting with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. And you probably realize that a swarm of British acts quickly followed in their wake. There are three points that might be worth repeating, however.
First, the Beatles might have been more talented and better-advertised than any group that came before, but their music was solidly in the rock 'n' roll/show tune/R & B tradition that was already universally received at this point (see above). Second, despite (or perhaps because of) this fact, the Beatles were hugely successful. In 1964 they placed five singles in the Top 10 at once. All of their records continued to sell like crazy throughout the rest of the decade, and with a dozen major LP releases and 30 singles in that era, this amounted to a heck of a lot of vinyl. No artist before or after has even vaguely approached this level of popularity and productivity.
And third, the earliest British Invasion records were terrible - even the Stones sucked at this point, being lame blues/R & B imitators. But many of those bands went on to make wonderful, greatly influential records. The "first wave" consisted not just of the Stones, but a innumerable groups from every part of the United Kingdom, including the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, the Hollies, Them (featuring future pop star Van Morrison), and the Zombies. Perhaps the best of the lot was Ray Davies' Kinks, an initially clumsy band of Beatles imitators who later produced some of the most thoughtful and interesting concept albums of the late 60s and early 70s. A "second wave" erupted in 1965 with heavier, blues-oriented acts like the Yardbirds (the ultimate source of England's three greatest guitar heroes, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page) and R & B/James Brown-influenced "mods" like the Who and the Small Faces. Several of these acts persisted and prospered as the decade wore on.
Los Angeles, 1965: Folk-rock
The initial response to the British Invasion was a virtual surrender by the American music industry. Only the Beach Boys and Motown acts like the Supremes were able to weather the storm, each of them adapting to the Beatles' thunderous sound. However, within a year rock was again thrown into turmoil by the invention of a new, but essentially synthetic genre: folk-rock, the happy collision of Bob Dylan's lyrical approach (and often his own songs) with the Beatles' sound.
The first and greatest exponents of this style were the Byrds, a Los Angeles band consisting of former folk singers turned Beatles imitators. With a unique folk harmony-plus-jangly 12-string sound, the band was all over the airwaves in '65 and '66 before collapsing. But during that time, they inspired a legion of tightly harmonizing acts like the Buffalo Springfield and Love (in Los Angeles); Simon and Garfunkel (in New York); and numerous others from San Francisco (see below).
Not only that, but Dylan himself had already "gone electric" (much to the horror of his fans), legitimizing the movement and inspiring other folk singers like Canada's Joni Mitchell (still an obscure folkie at this point), L.A.'s Tim Buckley, and Britain's Donovan to head in that direction themselves. Finally, folk-rock rebounded to London and pressured acts like the Beatles and Stones to adopt more sophisticated, political, and introspective lyrics. By 1966, the Beach Boys had composed a "pop symphony" (Pet Sounds) that veered radically from the teen anguish love song format, which rock had subsisted on from the very start; and the Beatles followed this soon after with their own, even more radical break with pop tradition, the LP Revolver.
London, 1966: Acid rock
By late 1966, three factors had now collided to produce a complete revolution in rock. The first was the trend towards increasing musical and lyrical sophistication that was spearheaded by the Beatles and the folk-rockers. The second was the advent of loud, distorted, experimental guitar playing, pioneered by the Yardbirds's Jeff Beck in 1965-66. And the third was the increasing availability of marijuana and LSD, not just in elite musical circles, but on every college campus in the Western world.
All of this came together in the person of one modest, self-effacing guitar player with a misleadingly wild stage persona, an experienced American blues and R & B sideman named Jimi Hendrix. After years of struggling, Hendrix burst onto the scene in late 1966 when ex-Animal Chas Chandler brought him to London, recruited a top-notch English rhythm section, gave them the trendy name "The Jimi Hendrix Experience," and financed the recording of their first single - "Hey Joe."
The effect in Britain was devastating and immediate. At just this time, the Beatles had yet again pushed the boundaries of modern recording techniques with their double A-side "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever." Within a few months, established bands like Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, the Kinks, the Zombies, and the Who had all changed their sound to follow the lead of Hendrix and the Beatles; new, deeply strange groups like Traffic, Pink Floyd, and the Nice had capitalized on the trend; and other acts like the Stones and the Hollies, which up to this point had been keeping pace with the Beatles, failed to adapt and temporarily fell to the wayside. Much of this occurred even before the Beatles released their famous, never-surpassed LP Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the late spring of 1967.
San Francisco, 1967: The Summer of Love
But London wasn't the only locus of madcap innovation in late 1966 - early 1967. In New York, a self-consciously deranged band called the Velvet Underground was cutting some of the wildest experimental rock ever, under the banner of Andy Warhol. In Los Angeles, Frank Zappa had already put out several albums that pushed the envelope even further with completely non-musical sound collages, bizarrely humorous lyrics, and brilliantly complex orchestral arrangements. And at just about this time, a new band from L. A. called the Doors invaded the American subconscious with a self-titled album of dark, haunting pop songs whose lyrics were written by the ever-mysterious Jim Morrison.
Most importantly, however, the newly-born hippie movement was gathering around the city of San Francisco; and with it, local bands were quickly formulating a unique sound, based on extended improvisation and provocative, drug-laden lyrics. The leaders were a previously established folk-rock group called the Jefferson Airplane, but the Bay Area was crawling with new acts like Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company; the guitar wizards of Quicksilver Messenger Service; the bluesy, folksy, acid-drenched Grateful Dead; and a short-lived and crassly commercial, but oddly clever group called Moby Grape. Meanwhile, the Bay Area sound was being incorporated into the American R & B tradition by a radical innovator named Sly Stone, a major player in the birth of 70s funk. All of these acts went through major transitions during just one year - 1967 - and their rising influence was showcased at a spectacular rock festival that summer in Monterey, just two weeks after the release of Sgt. Pepper's. Over the next several years and well into the 1970s, the San Francisco bands continued to popularize their home-grown psychedelic sound. However, only the Grateful Dead lasted long enough to attain Elder Statesman status.
London, 1967: Prog rock, British blues and folk, metal, and arena rock
After an initial 12 months or so of fevered attempts to rip-off Sgt. Pepper's, the British music scene disintegrated into a variety of genres during 1967 and 1968. The most important were prog-rock, directly and at first entirely inspired by the Beatles' late catalogue; the intertwined British blues boom and British folk-rock movements; heavy metal, a similarly shameless rip-off of Jimi Hendrix; and the pop-rock/arena-rock approach of the ex-Beatles, the Stones, and the Who.
Prog-rock's goals were to integrate "modern" jazz, classical music, Dylan-esque lyrics, and the Beatles' smooth pop sound. Pioneered by the pathetically tacky Moody Blues, the movement occupied a spectrum between relentlessly psychedelic burn-outs like Pink Floyd and nauseatingly pretentious Serious Musicians like Yes, with acts like the Nice, Genesis, and King Crimson falling in between.
Blending into the early prog-rock scene was the less pretentious, if equally scholarly school of British blues and folk-rock that sprung up around mid-60s London blues ringmasters like Alexis Korner and John Mayall. These acts ranged from blues purists like the early Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, to medieval folk revivalists like Fairport Convention, to hard-rocking, but Dylan-influenced working class bands like Mott the Hoople, to out-and-out hippy stoners like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the early David Bowie. Several acts like Jethro Tull and Traffic were strongly influenced by jazz or (as in the case of Procol Harum) classical music, and therefore leaned towards prog-rock; while others like Free mined American soul and R & B sources. Although short-lived, this scene did eventually give rise to Bowie, Mott, and T. Rex's equally transient early 70s glam rock genre, not to mention major 70s rock acts ranging from profound (Richard Thompson) to crass and commercial (Bad Company; later incarnations of Fleetwood Mac; Robin Trower).
Meanwhile, the electrified blues of Hendrix and his neck-and-neck imitators, like Cream and the Jeff Beck Group, directly spawned a movement that to this day plagues the airwaves - heavy metal. Although all the major elements were worked out by Hendrix within six months of his getting a recording contract, metal sensu stricto was created by the efforts of Jimmy Page's Led Zeppelin, their main innovation being to dumb-down the lyrics and concentrate on the loudest and most bombastic arrangements imaginable. Within just a few years, bands like Deep Purple, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath had adopted the mind-bogglingly stereotyped, testosterone-ridden, lily-white formulas that still smother the genre.
Despite all this, established acts like the Beatles, Stones, and Who had their own agendas. After crafting a few brilliant pop-rock albums in the late 60s, the Beatles split officially in early 1970. For the next several years they generated enjoyable solo records based on the same formulas, before retiring and/or losing touch with musical fashion. Their approach was slavishly imitated by such 70s mega-stars as Elton John. The Stones quickly abandoned the acid rock efforts they'd been diverted into by Brian Jones, and invented a uniquely grungy R & B-influenced sound that brought them even more massive popularity throughout the 70s. Despite being closely followed by the Faces and Rod Stewart (and arguably Joe Cocker), this style remained somewhat idiosyncratic until being revived by "alternative" and "grunge" acts like the Black Crowes and Nirvana in the 90s. Finally, the Who had come up with a crafted-but-head-banging "concept album" approach by 1969, which lent itself to high-volume arena performances. This propelled them to Major Rock Band status, and their sound (ultimately derived from the Beatles) became influential with a wide variety of lesser 70s rock acts (Aerosmith, Bad Company, Queen, Rush), perhaps contributing to the ossification and final overthrow of the "arena rock" genre by the late 70s.
Los Angeles, 1969: Soft-rock and country-rock
With folk-rock long since buried by the events of 1967, the L.A. music scene headed towards a pair of intertwined genres that were to find massive popularity by the early 70s. The first was the soft-rock singer-songwriter sound, epitomized by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Joni Mitchell and Carole King, who had finally made the big time as solo artists; and latecomers like Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt, Carly Simon, and James Taylor. Dominated by folk-rock veterans and localized to the Laurel Canyon district of L.A., the scene was heavily mixed up with the avant garde Hollywood film-making crowd (Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, the Monkees, etc.).
The second major innovation was country-rock, an L.A. product from the very start. Like the previous movement, most of this one evolved directly from two mid-60s bands - the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield. These two bands gave rise to the late-era, countrified Roger McGuinn-dominated "Byrds," the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco, and although none of these splinter acts saw much success, other groups like the Eagles (at first a knock-off of Poco) and "southern" rockers like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Allman Brothers quickly showed up to exploit the genre's huge market.
My little narrative stops here. By 1971 the major 60s rock figures were history, with Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison all dead; the drug-addled Brian Wilson a recluse; the Beatles, Cream, Airplane, Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel all broken up; and other major acts like the Stones, CSNY, the Kinks, and the Who increasingly ossified. Motown, meanwhile, had pretty much ceased to exist as an independent creative force, with James Jamerson ruined by alchohol, Diana Ross split from the Supremes, the Temptations brought low by personnel changes, the Four Tops and Holland-Dozier-Holland leaving the label, and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder about to strike out in radically different musical directions. The best Motown could manage at this point was a bubblegum act called the Jackson Five. But as pop music continued in the 70s, it grew and prospered - and, to my ears, became much less interesting. For a peek into that era and later ones, check out our 70s - 90s pop record reviews.