The times were ripe for change, but a catalyst was still needed.
"Mersey-beat" changed the story of rock music forever. Mersey-beat came out of nowhere, but it came with the power of history. Britain had had a lousy music scene throughout the early Sixties. Mainly, British rockers were mimicking Presley. Mainstream Britain did not identify with rock and roll, was not amused by their "rebel" attitudes, did not enjoy their frenzy rhythm. To a large extent, though, the seeds had already been planted. Britain had an underground before America did: the blues clubs. Throughout the Fifties, blues clubs flourished all over England. London was the epicenter, but every major English city had its own doses of weekly blues. Unlike their rock counterparts, who were mere imitators, the British blues musicians were true innovators: in their hands, blues became something else. They subjected blues to a metamorphosis that turned it into a "white" music: they emphasized the epic refrains of the call and response, they sped up Chicago's rhythm guitars, they smoothed down the vocal delivery to make it sound more operatic, they flexed the choruses, enhanced the organ arrangements, added vocal harmony. In a few years, British blues musicians were playing something that was as deeply felt as the American blues, but had a driving power that no other music on Earth had.
In the early Sixties veterans of that scene, or disciples of that scene, led to the formation of bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Animals. The Rolling Stones became "the" sensation in London and went on to record the most successful singles of the era. The Yardbirds were the most experimental of them all, and became the training ground for three of the greatest guitarists ever: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Page. From their ashes two blues bands were born, the Cream and the Led Zeppelin, that in a few years will revolutionize rock music again.
Liverpool did not have a great underground scene but had a more commercial brand of rock bands. The producer George Martin was instrumental in creating the whole phenomenon, with both Gerry And The Pacemakers and the Beatles, the band that went on to achieve world-wide success. The smiling faces of the Liverpool kids were in stark contrast with the underground club's angry blues animals. But the two complemented each other. "Beatlemania" stole the momentum from the blues scene and understood how to turn that music into a mass-media attraction. Rock music as a major business was born.
The most influential bands of the second generation were the Kinks and the Who. Both went on to record concept albums and "rock operas" that paraphrased the British operetta at the sound of rock music. While Kinks were still proponents of melodic rock, the Who's manically amplified guitars were already pointing towards a noisier and less gentle future. The Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who represent the triad of British rock bands of the mid 1960s that would influence entire generations of rock bands for decades. The Who were composing autobiographical songs of the angry and frustrated urban youth. The Rolling Stones were composing autobiographical songs of the decadent punks of the working class. The Kinks were composing realistic vignettes of ordinary life in bourgeois England. The three together provide a complete picture of the time.
Cream and Led Zeppelin upped the ante when they started playing very loud blues. Cream's lengthy solos and Led Zeppelin's fast riffs created the epitome of "hard rock".
The impact of British electricity on the American scene was equivalent to an earthquake. Kids embraced electric guitars in every garage of the United States and started playing blues music with a vengeance.
On the East Coast it was Dylan again who led the charge. His first electric performances were met with disappointment by his fans, but soon "folk-rock" boomed with the hits of the Byrds and Simon And Garfunkel.
The psychedelic movement that had been growing across the country somehow merged with the wave of electric rockers and the protest movement. They became one both in New York and in San Francisco. The Velvet Underground and the Fugs turned rock and roll into an intellectual operation.
On the West Coast both San Francisco and Los Angeles reacted to the boom of rock and roll in typically eccentric manners. San Francisco, that was becoming the mecca of the hippies, begat "acid-rock", and Los Angeles, whose milieu had produced countless literary and cinematic misfits, begat Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, two of the most influential musicians of the century. Zappa and Beefheart recorded some of the most experimental records ever and turned rock and roll into a major, serious art. San Francisco's bands, led by the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, endorsed complex harmony and improvised jams, thereby moving rock music towards the intellectual excesses of jazz music. Blue Cheer and Quicksilver laid the foundations for hard-rock.
Psychedelic rock was spreading across the country, and spilling over into Britain. Soon America produced the Doors and England produced the Pink Floyd, two bands whose influence will be gigantic. Texas psychedelia went unnoticed, but bands like Red Crayola were far ahead of their time. Detroit was also left out of the main loop, but nonetheless the MC5 and the Stooges helped move rock music one notch up the ladder of noise.
The boom of rock music in the United States helped resurrect the blues. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin became stars, while countless white blues musicians flooded the clubs of Chicago and San Francisco. The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doobie Brothers reached new peaks in the revisitation of traditional white and black music. In the south this revival movement will lead to the boom of "southern rock" and the likes of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Country music was still a Nashville monopoly, but several artists were merging it with eastern meditation, jazz improvisation and rock's freedom. Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho and John Fahey were playing long instrumental tracks that easily rank with the most ambitious pieces of the avantgarde.
In the meantime, black music was going through a metamorphosis of its own. Soul music turned into a form of party music with Tamla Motown's acts such as the Supremes, and rhythm and blues mutated in a feverish genre called "funk" for obscene performers such as James Brown.
In Britain, rock music took more of a European feel with the underground movement that was born out of psychedelic clubs. Canterbury became the center of the most experimental school of rock music. The Soft Machine were the most important band of the period, lending rock music a jazz flavor that would inspire "progressive-rock". Among the eccentric and creative musicians that grew up in the Soft Machine were Robert Wyatt, David Aellen, and Kevin Ayers. Their legacy can be seen in later Canterbury bands such as Henry Cow, no less creative and improvisational.
Progressive-rock took away rock's energy and replaced it with a brain. Traffic, Jethro Tull, Family and later Roxy Music developed a brand of soul-rock that had little in common with soul or rock and roll: long, convoluted jams, jazz accents, and baroque arrangements derailed the song format. King Crimson, Colosseum, Van Der Graaf Generator, early Genesis, Yes and started playing ever more complex, theatrical and hermetic pieces. Arrangements became more and more complex, insturmentalists become more and more skilled. Electronic instruments were employed frequently. Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Third Ear Band and Hawkwind created genres that at the time had no name (decadent cabaret, world-music and psychedelic hard rock).
The paradigm soon spilled into continental Europe, that gave its first major rock acts: Magma, Art Zoyd, Univers Zero.
Even Britain's folksingers sounded more like French intellectuals than oldfashioned storytellers. The folk revival of the Sixties was mainly the creation of a fistful of three collectives: the Pentangle, the Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. But around them singer songwriters like Donovan, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake , John Martyn, Syd Barrett and Van Morrison established new standards for musical expression of intimate themes.
The 1960s were the "classic" age of rock music. The main sub-genres were defined in the 1960s. The paradigm of rock music as the "alternative" to commercial pop music was established in the 1960s. Wild experimentation alloweds rock musicians to explore a range of musical styles that few musicians had attempted before 1966. Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground also created a different kind of rock music within rock music, a different paradigm within the new paradigm, one that will influence alternative musicians for decades. More than musical giants like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, humble musicians like Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground and the Red Crayola may be the true heroes of the 1960s.
continues... | back... | Index