The History of Rock Music: 1955-1966Genres and musicians of the beginnings
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(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi)
The Counterculture 1965- 66
(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")
The Greenwich MovementTM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
The British bands changed the way rock'n'roll was played. At the same time, USA folk-singers were changing the way rock'n'roll was "consumed". The fusion of music and politics that occurred in the early 1960s had lasting effects on the very nature and purpose of rock music. Rock music became a primary vehicle for expressing dissent within the Establishment, and therefore one of the most relevant aspects of the "counterculture".
Even when the political element was not predominant, rock music came to adopt a stance that was "countercultural" in nature. Rock'n'roll had been discriminated against. Protest folk-singers had been discriminated against. There was a tradition that made rock music an "underground" phenomenon by nature.
The youth of the USA was still searching for an identity, the process that had begun with rock'n'roll. Underground music provided several ways to achieve that goal. Fans of underground music repudiated the passive kind of listening that was typical of pop music (humming the melodies that are played often on the radio, hailing the star that is publicized by the media) and adopted a more independent and critical judgment of music. They actually went the other way, preferring what was not famous, not publicized, not easy. They developed an alternative system of communication, "alternative" to the system of the mass media, alternative in the sense that it dealt with and promoted those phenomena that were ignored by the mass media. Being a minority became something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of. They, discriminated against by the adult society, sympathized with all discriminated groups (blacks, foreigners) and considered them their peers. All of these attitudes had political overtones, which in some cases became explicit, and thus bridged alternative music and left-wing politics.
The revolution began with the folk-singers, who soon came to be identified as singer-songwriters. It all started with Bob Dylan, who would remain the leading persona of rock music throughout the decade.
Bob Dylan (114),
born Robert Zimmermann, was a lot more than a
singer of protest songs.
While that's how he started, he soon revealed
a lyrical and musical
talent that was far more developed than in any
other folk-singer of his
or any previous generation.
The transition from the folk-singer to the electric singer-songwriter created all sorts of artistic opportunities. Jesse Colin Young (1) made one of the most innovative albums of folk music, Young Blood (? 196? - mar 1965), backed by jazz musicians. Fred Neil (1) was one of the most original artists of his era, and very few precedents can be found for his art. While Dylan descended from Guthrie, Neil descended from nobody: the music on Bleecker And McDougal (mar 1965 - may 1965) is blues-tinged psychedelia ante-litteram. >Tim Hardin wrote Reason To Believe (1965), If I Were A Carpenter (1967) and Hang On To A Dream, in a vein tinged with blues and jazz. Philip Sloan was the Los Angeles songwriter who penned Eve Of Destruction (1965) for Barry McGuire, the first protest song to climb the pop charts, as well as Johnny "Rivers" Ramistella's Secret Agent Man (1966). Richard Fariña (who died at the age of 30) was the most literate of the group, as documented by Celebrations For A Gray Day (? 1965 - apr 1965). Jackson Frank was a USA guitarist and folksinger who moved to England and familiarized with the crowd of the British folk-rock scene. He recorded only one album, Jackson C Frank (apr 1965 - dec 1965), in a style halfway between the erudite and the fairy tale.
Neil Diamond, a veteran of the Brill Building, grafted elements of soul (Solitary Man, 1967), gospel (Thank The Lord, 1967), country (Girl You'll Be A Woman Soon, 1967), and even reggae (Red Red Wine, 1967), onto the format of the folk-rock ballad. In his best songs, such as Cherry Cherry (1966) and I'm A Believer (1967), catchy refrains coexist with exciting guitar riffs and rousing arrangements. A romantic at heart, Diamond composed some of the most romantic melodies of all times, best epitomized by Song Sung Blue (1972).
Paul Simon (2) was the poet who best captured the psyche of his generation. While Dylan was the spokesman of the peace marches and the campus sit-ins, Simon & Garfunkel represented the average, shy, introverted kid, lonely in his bedroom, distressed by post-puberal sensitivity. Simon did not write angry protest songs, but tender, fragile, ethereal, melancholy odes, notably Sounds Of Silence (1965), I Am A Rock (1966), Mrs Robinson (1968), Bridge Over Troubled Water (1969), The Boxer (1969). He employed the simplest and most recognizible of vehicles: vocal harmonies and the folk ballad. He fused them in an austere structure that had the magnificent translucence of the madrigal and the motet. On his own, Paul Simon (after breaking up with Art Garfunkel) shifted the emphasis on ethnic music, achieving a sublime fusion of western and African traditions on There Goes Rhymin' Simon (mar 1973 - may 1973), Heart And Bones (? 1981/?1983 - oct 1983), and Graceland (feb 1985/apr 1986 - aug 1986).
The Scottish minstrel Philip Leitch, better known as Donovan (2), represented the quintessence of the hippy ideals. The sweet, mellow, bucolic ballads of Fairytale (sep 1965 - oct 1965) evoked a world of peace and love, of communes in the woods. His experiments with eastern music and jazz, mainly on Sunshine Superman (jan/may 1966 - aug 1966), predated acid-rock and progressive-rock. Donovan was Dylan's alter-ego: Dylan was the crude realist, Donovan was the daydreamer; Dylan belonged to a historical period, Donovan lived in a transcendent Eden; Dylan was the crusader vowed to epic missions, Donovan was the hermit overwhelmed by nature; Dylan was the visionary prophet, Donovan was a humble friar. He would continue blending hippy elegies, Franciscan canticles, acid trips and Tibetan mantras (best in Hurdy Gurdy Man, 1968).
Another Briton, Bert Jansch, recorded the melancholy and intimate Bert Jansch (sep 1964/jan 1965 - apr 1965).
speaking, Dylan's counterpart on the West Coast was
"Country" Joe McDonald (2),
a legendary agit-
prop performer during the heydays (1964) of Berkeley's
Leading what was fundamentally an electric jug-band, he soon discovered
Francisco's hippies and LSD and managed to wed his political stance
acid-rock's visionary format on
Electric Music For The Mind And
Body (jan/feb 1967 - apr 1967) and
I Feel Like I'm Fixin To
Die (jul/sep 1967 - nov 1967).
In the meantime, the wedding of folk and rock led to the brief fad of "folk-rock". Folk-rock was not much of an artistic movement: it was the invention of two producers (Tom Wilson, the one who "electrified" Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, and Terry Melcher, the one who "electrified" the Byrds). Folk-rock was a way to interpret the spirit (without reproducing the sound) of the Mersey-beat bands in a USA context. The "folk revival" had been a New York phenomenon, but folk-rock ended up being a California phenomenon as much as surf music. The Beau Brummels in San Francisco and the Byrds (3) in Los Angeles pioneered the "jingle-jangle" sound, a frantic accompaniment of eletric guitars to a catchy folk melody (which was often sung in the multi-part harmony style of the Beach Boys).
As the band that co-developed (and popularized) folk-rock, acid-rock, raga-rock and country-rock, the Byrds were responsible more than anyone else for creating a USA sound (and, more specifically, a California sound) in the 1960s. Historically, they bridged the era of surf music (and Mersey-beat) with the era of acid-rock. In reality, there were three groups called Byrds: the folk-rock group, musically dominated by Gene Clark and best represented by I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better (1965) although best remembered for the Dylan covers; the psychedelic group, largely an invention of David Crosby; and the country-rock group. Their version of psychedelic-rock, as announced by Fifth Dimension (may 1966 - jul 1966), one of the earliest psychedelic albums, and perfected by Younger Than Yesterday (dec 1966 - feb 1967), was more complex and erudite than the average, borrowing elements from free-jazz and Indian music (Eight Miles High invented raga-rock). The Byrds also equated the "acid" trip with space exploration, thereby coining a form of "space ballad". When David Crosby left and Gram Parsons joined, the sound took a turn towards country music. Notorious Byrd Brothers (dec 1967 - jan 1968) was still an eccentric hodgepodge of acid-rock, raga-rock, pop and country, but Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (may 1968 - jul 1968) is one of the two albums credited with inventing country-rock. These three groups had in common two things: the name and Roger McGuinn's guitar.
Other California acts to emerge during the golden age of folk-rock were the Turtles, who delivered the more traditional melodies of Happy Together (1966) and Eleonore (1968), and the hippie duo Sonny (Salvatore Bono) & Cher (Sarkasian), that penned the sentimental I Got You Babe (1965) and the dramatic Bang Bang (1966). The Mamas & The Papas employed sophisticated vocal harmonies a` la Four Freshmen to fuel the celestial refrains of California Dreaming (1966), Go Where You Wanna Go (1966) and I Saw Her Again Last Night (1966), all written by their leader John Phillips, who also penned Scott McKenzie's ethereal hymn to flower-power San Francisco (1967).
The songs of these groups were celebrations of a new culture, the youth culture.
The New York bands of folk-rock were less obviously melodic. Loving Spoonful, in fact, were a jug-band, and their Do You Believe In Magic (1965) and Summer In The City (1966) placed more emphasis on the instrumental arrangements (the latter included noises of the city).
Los Angeles' folksinger Jackie DeShannon wrote The Great Imposter (1962) for the Fleetwoods, Come And Stay With Me (1964) for Marianne Faithful, Needles And Pins (1964) for the Searchers, and Bette Davis Eyes (1973) for Kim Carnes.
Bobby Fuller sang the anthemic I Fought The Law (1966), written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets.
>Tim Buckley (122) synthesized a new genre of music by fusing folk, blues, jazz, psychedelic rock and chamber music. Very few rock musicians ever achieved the monstrous intensity and lyrical tenderness of his work. Buckley's songs were journeys through the psyche of the singer. Buckley was therefore more interested in mirroring the emotions of the soul than in emphasizing a melody. A Buckley song is a stream of consciousness. Buckley changed the very idea of what a folk or rock song is supposed to be. Tim Buckley also boasted one of the most original voices ever, a combination of African melisma, Tibetan droning, jazz scat and acid-rock wailing, a combination that set a new standard for any future vocalist. He turned the voice into an instrument of the orchestra, not just a vehicle for words. If Goodbye And Hello (jun 1967 - ? 1967) was simply a poor man's version of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the six lengthy compositions of Happy Sad (jun 1968 - ? 1968), performed by a combo that was the folk-rock equivalent of the Modern Jazz Quartet (notably Lee Underwood on guitar and David Friedman on vibraphone), coined an ethereal folk-jazz style that had no precedents (except, possibly, Fred Neil). After the more conventional Blue Afternoon (nov 1969 - feb 1970), Buckley pushed his intuitions to the logical conclusion on Lorca (sep 1969 - oct 1970), one of rock's all- time masterpieces. Here the music leaves this world, and enters an oneiric and metaphysical landscape. Buckley sings as if in a coma. Melodies appear and disappear in an atmosphere of lugubrious suspense. Starsailor (sep 1970 - nov 19701970) is perhaps his most formally perfect album.
Another Los Angeles band,
the Buffalo Springfield (1),
angular and almost neurotic guitar-based instrumental parts,
new era for folk-rock.
Neil Young's compositions propelled their second
Buffalo Springfield Again (mar/oct 1967 - nov 1967), into
were still unexplored.
Other musicians used folk-rock to feed the counterculture. The Fugs (3) were the quintessential satirical/political group of the Sixties, the foremost parodists of the Establishment and defenders of the counterculture. Their obscene, agit-prop vignettes updated a tradition that dated from Chuck Berry's early hits and predated Frank Zappa's operettas. Their use and abuse of cacophony and collage was way ahead of their time. In 1966, the year they recorded Virgin Forest on their second album, nobody else was even thinking of using the studio to create what was pure sonic folly. They would later transform into a surprisingly musical outfit, finding enough inspiration to sustain at least It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest (? 1968 - ? 1968) and Tenderness Junction (jul/dec 1967 - ? 1968).
Their fellow conspirators the Holy Modal Rounders (11) would come into their own during the psychedelic season, coining a unique, drunk form of acid-folk on their two masterworks, Indian War Whoop (? 1967 - ? 1967) and Moray Eels Eat (? 1968 - ? 1968).
The only band that could compete with that tribe were the Godz (1), whose masterpiece is the spastic, cacophonous Contact High (sep 1966 - ? 1966).
more unconventional stance was adopted by
the Nihilist Spasm Band (1),
formed in 1965 in Ontario (Canada),
which used to
perform blues-jazz numbers on home-made instruments
(kazoo, gut-bucket bass, found percussions, slide clarinet, etc).
Record (? 1967 - ? 1967) is their classic album, displaying
range from New Orleans' spasm bands to Albert Ayler and
The supreme genius of counterculture was the Los Angeles
arranger, freak and jester Frank
Zappa was more than a brilliant and prolific composer.
He was a new kind of composer, one who knew no stylistic barrier: he
bridged rock and pop and rhythm'n'blues and jazz and classical music.
And one who knew no rules of harmony: he would play anything that
sense to him, not to a certain tradition.
Zappa co-invented the concept
album (he even released a double album when most
rock musicians were
barely beginning to make LPs), the rock opera,
the first rock musician to consciously use the
studio as an instrument.
He did not just use the band or the orchestra as ensembles of
In a post-modern vein, Zappa
composed music using snippets
of music inspired to pre-existing music:
his unit of composition was
not a "sound" but was an organized sound,
that the listener could
relate to an established genre.
And he made no distinction between tv
commercials, doo-wop, music-hall,
classical ballets, jazz improvisation
or dissonant music.
A living musical encyclopedia, Zappa managed to
excel in all of these genres.
He could have been a giant in any of
Possibly the greatest rock musician of all times,
and certainly one of the
most original and influential geniuses of the
20th century, Don Van Vliet,
also known as Captain Beefheart (214),
completely erased all musical dogmas
and simply reinvented music on his own
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