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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Rock and Roll Reigns Supreme

The 1960s produced a depth and diversity of music like no other decade, building on the past, it reached new musical heights, and although Nat King Cole sung “Unforgettable” in 1964, the most unforgettable sound of the 1960s was definitely rock music:

By the end of the 1960s rock had replaced folk music as the principle antiestablishment music.  Rock music had come to epitomize revolution, in its often sexual lyrics, hard driving power, associations with drugs, even in its tragedies, such as the early deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.  It represented a rejection of the culture of one’s parents and a breakdown in the established order. (Rielly, 2003, p. 172)

Although rock and roll began in the 1950s it soared to new heights on the wings of the British invasion, led by The Beatles.  Already popular in Britain after releasing “Love me Do” in 1962, The Beatles’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sold more than a million copies before it was released.  When The Beatles made their Ed Sullivan Show appearance in 1964, Beatlemania swept the United States. This was the start of the British Invasion since  “a multitude of other British groups followed The Beatles's path to America, bringing with them also the “peacock” look, with textured vests, paisley shirts, and very wide ties” (Rielly, 2003, p. xi).  Such groups included The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry And The Pacemakers, and the Dave Clark Five.

The Beatles had twelve records in the “Top 100” during 1964, and they had an even more amazing impact on Western culture, in addition to their music, because their explorations into drugs, different cultures, and religions profoundly influenced the entire 1960s generation.  In 1967, the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album debuted, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” poetically described a psychedelic trip.  That same year, Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit,” with similar drug allusions, took off and their album Surrealistic Pillow was a smashing success.  The Grateful Dead combined folk and rhythm and blues along with psychedelic rock.  Prior to adopting the Grateful Dead moniker, they performed at Ken Kesey’s acid tests, where participants took LSD to enhance their experiences.  Although The Grateful Dead’s albums were popular, they were most well known for their concerts and ever-loyal fans, called “Dead Heads,” who followed them from concert to concert.

The Rolling Stones’s music was more unsettling than that of The Beatles, and appealed to the more oppositional elements. The Rolling Stones were “deliberately pitched as an ‘anti-Beatles group” and “projected an image of sex, drugs, violence and occultism” (Rielly, 2003, p. 165).  Their music, “derived ultimately from the earthiest versions of rhythm and blues, also differed from the Beatles’s Liverpool or Mersey sound, which evolved out of the rock and roll music of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers” (p. 165).   The Stones’s first record “Come On” (1963) was followed in 1965 by the paradigmatic: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and they appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1967 with “Lets Spend The Night Together,” toning down the lyrics slightly for the more conservative prime-time television audience.

Television, wanting to cash in on all of this success, created their own made for TV rock group, the Monkees.  The Monkees television show ran from 1966-1968 and featured the "fabricated four’s" the wacky antics.  The group made several albums, and some of their songs are still played on the radio today.  According to Rielly (2003) “one of the unsuccessful aspirants for a role was future mass murderer Charles Manson” (p. 165), although others claim this to be an urban myth.

Simon and Garfunkel, in addition to creating the soundtrack for The Graduate, had many other famous albums including Scarborough Fair and The Sounds of Silence. Synchronisitically, Sounds of Silence came out the same year, 1966, that the Supreme Court issued its Miranda decision regarding the right of criminal defendants to remain silent.  

Although 1967 ushered in the “Summer of Love” at the Monterey International Pop Festival, it was not long before the darker side of rock and roll took its toll.   Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Doors epitomized the darker side of Rock and Roll:

The combination of extraordinary talent, drugs and an early tragic death made Hendrix for many people a symbol of the promses, confusions, and excesses of the 1960s. Jans Joplin's life followed a parallel path of stardom to early death . . . .

The Doors, for example burst onto the scene in the late 1960s to become a symbol of that decde's combination of enormous talent and tragic lack of self discipline . . . . The Doors performed at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go Club in the mid-1960s but eventually were fiered for their sexual comments on stage. At the time the group was heavily into drugs, a preoccupation that Morrison would follow until his early death in 1971. (Rielly, 2003, pp. 167, 170)

Jimi, Janis, and Jim Morrison of the Doors all flew too close to the fire and ended up engulfed in it, their young creative lives cut tragically short. Just after the end of the decade, Jimi and Janis died within two weeks of each other in the fall of 1970 due to drug overdoses and Morrison died in the summer of 1971 of heart failure. 

Rock soon began to articulate that separate sensibility that youth wished to express, a worldview that rejected the values of the establishment and embraced a new “consciousness,” open to mystery and mysticism, spontaneity and fun, sensuality, and, in direct affront to the emphasis on private satisfactions that typified the Fifties, the virtues of communal spirit.  The civil rights movement had already established the power or camaraderie in the interest of change.  With song like “All You Need Is Love,” the Beatles helped youth, too, conclude that the route to happiness lay in seeking a little help from their friends.  Their friends sometimes included drugs . . . (p. 293)


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