The Rock and Roll of the 1960s is often considered both a window and a mirror to culture and society of culture and society. Two of the most important bands of the 1960s were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Consider their earlier music and answer the following: What was the Beatles’ view of the world as they saw it? What was the Rolling Stones’ view of the world as they saw it? Be sure to use musical examples, as well as information from the textbook and other outside sources to support your analysis. Use the mashup tool, and include at least one song by the Beatles and one from the Rolling Stones.In response to at least three of your peers, consider if you agree or disagree with their viewpoints. Offer an additional musical example (use the mashup tool!) to support your views and your agreement or disagreement. Remember, always explain why you believe what you believe to be true!When sharing your musical selections with the class, you may use the mashup tool for YouTube. If you are uncomfortable with that or would like to post a traditional text response, that is acceptable as well. Below are the Mashup direction should you choose to use that option. Using Mashup is NOT mandatory.
- How to Create a YouTube Mashup How to Create a YouTube Mashup – Alternative Formats
- YouTube Instructions
The Rock Revolution
Rock and Roll as a genre was developing at a rapid rate during the 1960s. The subculture that developed in the 1950s takes hold in the 1960s and the verbal and musical messages that they wished to convey became more radical. The lives of teenagers and college students in the 1960s were quite different from the lives of their parents. Young people began to blatantly reject the more conservative “establishment” values of their families and they began to speak out against widespread discrimination against blacks, women, Chicanos, gays and Native Americans. Young women now had access to oral contraceptives, and this brought about a revival of feminism and sexual freedom form women. Recreational drugs, especially marijuana and LSD spread to a larger segment of the middle class. The military escalation in Vietnam and the subsequent military draft had a powerful influence on American young people.
The result of all of these events happening in such a short amount of time contributed to the rapid development of Rock and Roll. New technologies in music enhanced the production and performance of music. Lyrics were meant to speak directly to audiences. Rock and Roll became more multicultural and influenced by African American styles as well as music from around the world. Rock and Roll itself was more revolutionary genre because it was eclectic; artists attempted to embrace real-world issues and the attitude shift of the 1960s generation made this music more egalitarian than any other previous popular music genre.
· Identify the musical genres and subgenres that arose out of the 1960s.
· Identify the core instrumentation of the rock band.
· Explain the musical role of the rock beat.
· Discuss the variation and diversity found within Bob Dylan’s music.
· Describe some ways that music can be considered both a window and mirror to society and culture in the 1960s.
· Read, view, and engage with
Readings and Resources
· Actively participate in the Unit Discussion.
· Complete and submit the Unit 3 Assignment.
· Complete the Quiz in MindTap.
Readings and Resources
Readings and Resources
Textbook or eBook:
Campbell, M. (2019).
Popular music in America. 5th ed. Cengage Learning.
This reading will explore the genres and sub-genres of rock and roll music that arose out of the 1960s and the four dominant issues that were prevalent at this time. This unit addresses four issues (Civil and Minority Rights, Sexual Freedom, Drugs, and War) and how music was both a window and a mirror of rock and roll music at this time.
· Chapter 12: The Rock Revolution (pgs. 197-228)
Articles, Websites, and Videos:
The following website contains a great deal of detail concerning the life and works of Bob Dylan. You can explore the different songs he has written throughout his career. This resource will help you with your listening assignment this week.
Bob Dylan was the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for the songs that he wrote during the 1960s. You can listen to his speech from when he received this award here.
Bob dylan nobel lecture
Nobel Media AB 2019.
The textbook includes some verbal descriptions of the role of rock and roll backbeats. In this video, you will be able to listen to a recorded backbeat and hear a description of the role of backbeats in the Rock and Roll music of the 1960s.
Guide to Drums – Intro to Backbeat
User: n/a –
The Rock Revolution: A Historical Perspective
Among the musicians knighted by the Queen of England are the esteemed conductors Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Georg Solti, the opera star Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin … and Sir Paul McCartney. Other key figures in 1960s rock elevated to the peerage include Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey of The Who, and Ray Davies of the Kinks. These venerable and venerated rock stars are the old guard of rock-era music, and their music fills classic rock playlists. It is comfortable music now, not cutting edge, because of decades of familiarity. But when it came out, it disrupted an industry and fueled a cultural and social revolution.
To this day, the rock revolution still seems like the most momentous change in the history of popular music. In the fall of 1963, who could have predicted the extraordinary developments of the next four years, capped by the release of Sgt. Pepper? Nothing since has transformed popular music to such a degree in such a short time, and only the modern-era revolution of the 1920s has had a comparable impact.
The new music of the 1960s—an extraordinary range of rock substyles, Motown, soul—was both the soundtrack and an agent of change for a decade of turmoil. A generation eager to overturn the values of their parents found verbal and musical messages that embodied their radical ideas.
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47-1Social and Cultural Change in the 1960s
Those who came of age during the latter half of the sixties grew up in a world far different from the world of their parents. A decided majority experienced neither the hardships of the Great Depression nor the traumas of World War II and the Korean War. They were in elementary school during the McCarthy witch hunt; in most cases, it had far less impact on them than it did on their parents. A good number came from families that were comfortable financially, so as teens they had had money to spend and time to spend it.
A sizable and vocal segment of these young people rejected the values of the group they pejoratively called the “establishment.” They saw the establishment as excessively conservative, bigoted, materialistic, resistant to social change, obsessed with communism and locked into a potentially deadly arms race, and clueless about sexuality. Fueled by new technologies and drugs—both old and new—they incited the most far-reaching social revolution since the twenties. For college-age youth of the mid-1960s, there were four dominant issues: minority rights, sexual freedom, drug use, and war.
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A generation that had grown up listening to rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz found it difficult to comprehend the widespread discrimination against blacks that they saw as legitimized in too many segments of American society. They joined the drive for civil rights—through demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and, for some, more direct and potentially violent support, such as voter registration in the South. The successes of the civil rights movement created momentum for other minority rights movements: women, Chicanos, gays, Native Americans.
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Commercial production of an effective oral contraceptive—the Pill—began in the early sixties. For some women, this was the key to sexual freedom; it enabled them to be as sexually active as males, with virtually no risk of pregnancy. It precipitated the most consequential change in sexual relations in the history of western culture. Moreover, it extended the drive for equal rights from the voting booth—in the United States, women were granted the right to vote only in 1920—into the bedroom and sparked a revival of feminism, which sought, among other things, to extend these rights into the workplace.
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During this same period, the recreational use of mind-altering drugs spread to large segments of the middle class. Previously, drug use had been confined to small subcultures; for example, many jazz musicians in the post-World War II era were heroin addicts. Marijuana, always a popular drug among musicians and minorities, became the most popular drug of the sixties among young people, and especially the counterculture. However, the signature drug of the sixties was D-lysergic acid diethylamide, a semisynthetic drug more commonly identified as LSD or acid. The drug was developed in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist; Hoffman discovered its psychedelic properties by accident about five years later. Originally, psychiatrists used it therapeutically, and during the Cold War, intelligence agencies in the United States and Great Britain apparently ran tests to determine whether the drug was useful for mind control. The key figures in moving LSD from the lab to the street were two Harvard psychology professors: Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. They felt that the mind-expanding capabilities of the drug should be open to anyone. In reaction, Sandoz, Dr. Hoffmann’s chemical firm, stopped freely supplying scientists with the drug, and the U.S. government banned its use in 1967. Underground use of the drug has continued despite this ban.
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In the latter part of the sixties, the Vietnam War replaced civil rights as the hot-button issue for young people. In 1954, Vietnam, formerly French Indo-China, was divided—like Korea—into two regions. The north received support from the USSR and communist China, while the southern region received the support of western nations, especially the United States. A succession of American presidents saw a military presence in South Vietnam as a necessary buffer against communist aggression.
As a result, U.S. military involvement gradually escalated over the next decade. Finally, in 1965 the government began sending regular troops to Vietnam to augment the special forces already there. This provoked a hostile reaction, especially from those eligible to be drafted. Many recoiled at the prospect of fighting in a war that seemed pointless; a few fled to Canada or elsewhere to avoid the draft. Massive antiwar demonstrations became as much a part of the news during the late sixties as the civil rights demonstrations were in the first part of the decade. The lies and deceptions of the government and military, which among other things reassured the American people that the war was winnable and that the U.S. forces were winning, coupled with news reports of horrific events such as the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed close to 500 unarmed civilians in a small village, further eroded support for the war.
The gulf between the older establishment positions and attitudes of young Americans on civil rights, sex, drugs, and war widened as the decade wore on. Still, there was a major shift in values. Civil rights legislation passed, the role of women in society underwent a liberating transformation, recreational drug use became more common and socially acceptable in certain circles (although it was still illegal), and the war eventually ended in failure. As a result of this revolution, ideas and practices that seemed radical at mid-century—such as multiculturalism and equal opportunity in the workplace—are accepted norms in contemporary society, in theory if not always in practice.
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A small but prominent minority of young people chose to reject mainstream society completely. They abandoned the conventional lifestyles of their parents and peers; some chose to live in communes. They followed Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” They dressed differently, thought differently, and lived differently. They were the ideological heirs of the Bohemians of nineteenth-century Europe and the Beats of the late 1940s and 1950s. Members of the group were known as hippies; collectively, they formed the heart of the counterculture. Many gravitated to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Throughout the sixties, the Bay Area was a center for radical thought and action. The free speech movement led by Mario Savio got started at the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1964; it led to confrontations between student protesters and university administrators over student rights and academic freedom. In 1966, in Oakland—next to Berkeley and across the bay from San Francisco—Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Richard Aoki formed the Black Panthers, a radical black organization dedicated to revolutionary social reform by any means necessary, including violence. Hippies generally followed a less confrontational path.
For hippies, Mecca was San Francisco; their counterpart to the Sacred Mosque was Haight and Ashbury, an intersection in what had been an ordinary neighborhood in San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, the largest public park in the city. The area became a destination for those who wanted to “make love, not war” and travel the fast route to higher consciousness by tripping on psychedelic drugs. Migration to San Francisco peaked during the 1967 “summer of love,” when an estimated 75,000 young people flocked to the city.
In San Francisco, Memphis, Detroit, London, and elsewhere, the new music of the 1960s, from acid rock to southern soul, was both a soundtrack for social change and a voice to articulate the new values that transformed life in America and abroad.
A Message Of Peace, written in dust on the side of an old army tank.
The Intersection Of Haight And Ashbury, the countercoulture destination in San Francisco.
47-2Rock: A Revolutionary Music
Why did the new music of the 1960s connect so powerfully with this generation? There are at least three key reasons: the sheer novelty of the music, the power of the words, and the messages embodied in the music. The music of the rock revolution was novel because the innovations were comprehensive, not cosmetic. Every aspect of the music—its influences, creative process, authorship, sound, musical message, and end product—evidences the impact of new ideas and resources. The music took advantage of brand new and still evolving technology in both performance and production.
Song lyrics spoke to and for the audience, in language that was often frank, personal, topical, and occasionally challenging, but the more powerful message was in the music itself. We highlight significant changes that made rock decisively different from the popular music of the previous generation.
47-2aA Fully Integrated Music
Rock is an integrated music. It isn’t just that the music of the sixties was more profoundly influenced by black music than any earlier mainstream style. It’s also that the influence went both ways—we hear black influences in music by white bands and white influences in music by black performers. And, most important, these various influences are assimilated into a new sensibility and a new sound. Embedded in the music is the idea that integration is about not only being together but also blending together.
47-2bSong Ownership and the Creative Process
From the outset, rock changed the relationship between composer and performer. Most of the early rock stars, such as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard, performed original material—Elvis was an interesting exception to this trend. In their music, the song existed as it was recorded and performed, not as it was written, if indeed it was written down at all. With rock, a song was no longer just the melody and the harmony, but the total sound as presented on the record—not only the main vocal line but also guitar riffs, bass lines, drum rhythms, and backup vocals.
Increasingly, rock musicians took advantage of multitrack recording, an emerging new technology, to shape the final result even more precisely. Multitrack recording made it possible to record a project in stages instead of all at once. Strands of the musical fabric could be added one at a time and kept or discarded at the discretion of the artist or the producer.
This ability to assemble a recording project in layers fostered a fundamental change in the creative process. It was possible to experiment at every stage of a project, and it was normal for one person or group to stay in creative control of the project from beginning to end.
Because the composers were typically among the performers on the recording and maintained control throughout the creative process, the artistic vision of the act and the message of the music reached its audience more directly. This in turn strengthened the bond between act and audience.
47-3The New Sounds of Rock
The sounds of rock were startlingly new. Rock and roll and rhythm and blues had laid the groundwork, but when these new sounds arrived—with Dylan and the folk rockers, the ascent of Motown, the British invasion, the “guitar gods,” soul, and more—the impact was stunning.
The core of the rock band—electric guitar, electric bass, and drums—was in place by the early 1960s, and by the latter half of the decade, rock and soul musicians had developed new ways of playing these instruments, for example, the sonic flights of Jimi Hendrix, and Motown bassist James Jamerson’s reconception of the role of the bass.
Moreover, electric instruments benefited from a huge boost in amplification. Marshall stacks, the amps used by the Who, Cream, and so many other rock bands, weren’t even available in 1960, but by the end of the decade their sound was filling arenas. Other companies kept pace, replacing tubes with transistors and boosting output many times over. A performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, at the time an outdoor baseball stadium with a capacity of almost 50,000, would have been a bad idea in 1960, the year it opened; in 1966, however, it was the venue for the Beatles’ last public performance.
With increased amplification and a balance of power among the instruments, what had been the background component of a band in modern-era pop became, in many cases, the whole band, or at least the center of the action. This shift flipped the balance between horns and rhythm instruments. Horns, when used, were usually an extra layer; they were no longer in the limelight except for the occasional saxophone solo. And particularly in white rock, they were no longer an integral part of the band.
This core nucleus laid down a new beat, a
. The defining characteristic of a rock beat is the layer that moves twice as fast as the beat. Played forcefully, this faster, more insistent rhythm is far more assertive than shuffle, swing, or two-beat rhythms.
In the rock of the sixties, producing a rock beat became a collective responsibility. With the liberation of the bass line to play a truly creative role, the instruments became both more independent and more interdependent. No instrument, not even the rhythm guitar, was absolutely locked into a specific pattern, like the bass player’s walking pattern, the banjo player’s “chunk” on the backbeat, or the drummer’s ride pattern in pre-rock music. The distinctive groove of rock was the end product of the interaction of all the rhythm instruments. Take one away, and the groove was gone.
This sharing of responsibility also applied to melody. Up to this point, the main source of melodic interest in the songs we’ve heard was, appropriately enough, the melody—the vocal line when it was sung and the lead instrumental line when it was played. That changed with rock: melodic interest was spread out to the other instruments. In many of the songs we hear in this unit, the song is immediately identifiable from an instrumental riff, generally the first of several melodic hooks. The hook identifies the song well before the singer enters. Typically, other instruments also had parts with some melodic interest. One result was a greater variety of texture, from delicate tapestries with a few well-spaced parts to densely packed free-for-alls.
All of these changes—in instrumentation, rhythmic and melodic approach, and texture—applied to both white rock and the black music called “soul,” through the mid-seventies. The difference from one style to the next was usually a matter of emphasis or interpretation; indeed, new ideas flowed freely in both directions.
47-4Rock Attitudes and the Musical Message
These innovations give us a musical perspective on the wholesale shift in attitude that was at the core of the revolution. Three qualities of this new attitude stand out: Sixties rock was egalitarian, it was eclectic, and it was real. Until 1960, most groups had a leader, who fronted the band, or a featured performer. In the thirties it was Benny Goodman with his orchestra. After the war, it was Muddy Waters, or Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. Even Buddy Holly fronted the Crickets. Vocal groups—from the Mills Brothers, a popular black vocal group from the 1930s through the 1950s, to the girl groups—were the almost singular exception.
By contrast, most sixties rock bands took group names: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Who, Jefferson Airplane. In so doing, they projected a collective identity. There was nothing in their name that said one member was more important than the others. The interplay among voices and instruments was another key. In hooking the listener with a catchy riff or in laying down the beat, no one person was consistently in the spotlight.
The sources of the new rock style, and the way in which they made their way into rock and soul, also evidenced this new attitude. Rock took a pragmatic approach to musical borrowing—musicians took what they needed, no matter what its source, and transformed it into something new.
Contrast that with music before 1960. Pop artists gave country songs a shower and a shave before putting them on record, as a pop cover of any Hank Williams song will attest. If the recordings are any indication, neither the singers nor the arrangers made much of an effort to understand either the sound or the sensibility of country music. Similarly, rhythm and blues hits usually got a bleach job when covered by pop acts: the Chords’ cover of “Sh-Boom” is one example among too many. Even many of the teen idols, from Pat Boone to Fabian and Frankie Avalon, dressed the part but neglected the sound and the style of rock and roll.
Most sixties rock bands projected a collective identity. There was nothing in their name that said one member was more important than the others.
In the sixties, sounds came from everywhere: Delta blues, East Indian music, symphonic strings, jazz, music hall, folk, country—if it was out there, it was available for adoption. More important, rock musicians didn’t necessarily privilege any particular style or family of styles. There is no sense of connection between the social standing of a style and its use in rock, unless it’s an inverted one: the grittier the source, the more it was admired, as in the case of Delta blues. The Beatles’ music epitomizes this egalitarian, eclectic approach: one track can be sublime, the next can sound like a children’s song.
There was a hierarchy of importance within rock, especially in the wake of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The possibility of making an artistic statement in rock has been part of its collective understanding since Dylan went electric. But these artistic statements were typically crafted out of seemingly ordinary materials. Even when rock emulated classical music and other established traditions, it did so on its own terms; the Who’s Tommy was a rock opera but a far cry from conventional opera. For the best rock bands, the sound world of the sixties was like a well-stocked kitchen; bands simply took what they needed to create the feast.
Finally, rock was real in a way that earlier generations of pop had not been. Rock formed a bond with its audience that was different from the connection between Tin Pan Alley popular song and its audience. Tin Pan Alley songs offered listeners an escape from reality, whereas rock songs often intensified the reality of life in the present. Songs were not written so much for something—such as a musical or a film—as to say something.
Rock’s concern with the present, combined with its direct and often personal communication between song, singer, and audience, elevated the role of the music for many members of that audience from simple entertainment to, in the words of noted rock critic Geoffrey Stokes, “a way of life.” Sixties rock and soul was a revolutionary music; the rock revolution is, in fact, the only widely acknowledged revolution in the history of popular music.
47-5The Ascendancy of Rock
During the latter half of the 1960s, rock swept away the modern-era pop that had dominated the music industry for decades. By 1970, rock music had become the new mainstream, a new family of styles. Virtually every other kind of music that was not rock or rock-influenced was out of fashion. In this respect, the rock revolution and its reverberations paralleled the coming together of popular music in the late twenties: the blend of foxtrot song, jazz, and blues. But the range of styles within this new mainstream was much broader than in that earlier time. This is a reflection of the openness of rock musicians toward music of all kinds—and the openness of the rock audience toward musicians and music of many different kinds.
The Beatles were the poster boys of the rock revolution. Their invasion of America sparked it: their commercial and musical impact was crucial to rock’s ascendancy. By the time they disbanded, the revolution was complete.
More importantly, the Beatles played a key role in reshaping the music and the industry that supported it. Among the most significant developments to which they contributed substantially were: establishing rock as the new popular music, making rock an international musical language, creating a new kind of popular song, proposing rock as art, confirming the recording as the primary musical document, and expanding the range of musical influences and sounds, from sitars and calliopes to tape loops and crowd noises. These and other changes helped reshape popular music in the sixties.
The death of the Beatles as a group and the tragic deaths of so many important rock stars, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison, might superficially seem to have echoed the troubles that plagued rock and roll at the end of the fifties. Although the losses were significant and tragic, rock didn’t miss a beat. The revolution that had toppled pop was over. Rock was now big business and would grow even bigger in the coming decade.
Bob Dylan Makes Rock Matter
For those who have grown up with digital downloading and compact discs, playing a long-playing record might seem like a labor-intensive task. You have to remove the disc from its sleeve, place it on a turntable, which is probably located on shelving containing the speakers, amplifier, and other hi-fi equipment, and then place the stylus at the beginning of the disc, or let the turntable do it automatically. Only then can you return to where you were sitting or lying, to listen to about 30 minutes of music. When one side was finished, you have to get up, flip the disc and place it on the turntable with the other side up, and once again place the stylus at the beginning of the disc.
So it’s easier to listen to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home on a CD or iPod than it is on vinyl, but these newer formats obscure the message implicit in the layout of the original LP. On one side of the album was acoustic material. The other side was electric—Dylan performing with a large backup band. The first side documented where he was coming from, and the other side revealed where he was going.
Through high school, Dylan (b. 1941) was a rock-and-roll musician. He played locally in several bands during high school and declared in his high school yearbook that his ambition was “to join the band of Little Richard.” However, he quickly gravitated to folk music after enrolling at the University of Minnesota. He dropped out of school after only one year and relocated to New York, where he soon became the most influential figure on the emerging Greenwich Village folk scene.
Dylan moved forward by returning to his rock-and-roll roots. For his folk followers, going electric was the beginning of the end. But viewed in relation to the rest of his career, it was the end of the beginning. From that point on, Dylan was a rock musician, not a folk singer. Still, the folk phase of his career was crucial to his development.
48-1From Folk to Rock
The folk revival that began in the late fifties had a short lifespan, even by pop standards. As a movement with mass appeal, it began in 1958, when the Kingston Trio’s recording of “Tom Dooley” topped the pop charts. It ended seven years later, when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and folk fathers Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger went ballistic.
In its revived form, folk music was an urban music. Recall that the earlier folk revival of the forties and early fifties, sparked by the work of the Lomaxes, Woody Guthrie, and—most popularly—the Weavers, had brought folk music into the city. The second revival, which began in the late fifties, made the separation between country roots and contemporary urban performance even wider. By 1960, this old/new folk music was flourishing in coffeehouses, often located in the more bohemian parts of major cities (Greenwich Village in New York, North Beach in San Francisco) or near college campuses.
The folk revival was apolitical at first. Its audience seemed to like folk’s tuneful melodies, pleasantly sung. That soon changed, as this new folk revival quickly rediscovered its activist past.
48-1aBob Dylan as Folksinger
Dylan’s music from the early sixties recaptures the substance and spirit of the songs of Woody Guthrie. His eponymous debut album contained mostly traditional songs, but his three subsequent acoustic albums featured original material, which ranged from “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” which he delivered in the “talking blues” style often used by Woody Guthrie—resonant speaking over a strummed guitar accompaniment, with an occasional harmonica interlude—to anthem-like songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In either case, the words were preeminent; the guitar accompaniment typically consisted of simple strumming of the I, IV, and V chords. The main musical variable was the melody—including whether there was one.
Bob Dylan, 1965. “I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go”—Bob Dylan on the Beatles.
However, by 1964 Dylan’s lyrics were becoming more surreal and stream of consciousness. He had written “Mr. Tambourine Man” in February 1964 and performed it at the Newport Folk Festival that summer. Perhaps to counterbalance the more abstruse lyrics, Dylan added rock-oriented instrumental accompaniment to his music, to help communicate the general mood of the song. The impact of the additional instruments is evident on the electric tracks from Bringing It All Back Home, which was released in March 1965.
Among the most provocative tracks on the album was “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The lyric is proto-rap: a stream of obscure references, inside jokes, stinging social commentary, and cinéma vérité-type images—all delivered much too fast to understand in a single hearing.
The density of the lyric and the speed of Dylan’s delivery challenged listeners to become engaged; one could not listen to him casually and expect to get much out of the experience. For this track, Dylan added a full rhythm section behind his acoustic guitar and harmonica. The band sets up a honky-tonk feel with a clear two-beat rhythm. At the same time, it’s a free-for-all for the guitarists; their interaction evokes electric blues. The ornery mood it sets up right at the start is an ideal backdrop for Dylan’s words and voice.
What’s so remarkable and significant about this song and others like it is that it simultaneously elevates popular music to a higher level of seriousness and brings it down to earth by wiping away traditional forms of pretentiousness. Dylan’s lyric is far more complex than anything that had been done before. Similarly, his singing is not pretty by any conventional standard—it was ordinary enough to convince Jimi Hendrix that he could start singing—but it’s certainly appropriate for the song. And Dylan embeds his words and singing in a down-home setting.
Dylan’s unprecedented combination of words and music reverses the traditional pop approach to artistry. Before, those who wanted to create artistic popular music emulated classical models: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or musical theater productions like West Side Story. Dylan’s music sends a quite different message: One can be sophisticated without being “sophisticated”; that is, without taking on the conventional trappings of sophistication, such as symphonic strings.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first single to chart. His earlier folk songs had enjoyed success, but through others: Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” had reached No. 2 in 1963. Dylan was not averse to commercial success, although he wanted it on his own terms. The Byrds, a Los Angeles-based group that helped create folk rock, provided additional motivation. Their radically reshaped revision of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a cover of an acoustic track from Bringing It All Back Home, topped the singles chart in June 1965.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965)
STYLE Blues/country/rock synthesis ⋅ FORM Blues form with expanded first phrase
Listen For …
Voice, harmonica, acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, piano, drums
Dylan’s raspy voice was a drastic departure from almost any other kind of popular singing—pop, R&B, folk, country, or blues
Strong two-beat rhythm with emphatic backbeat; fast delivery of words
Not a conventional melody: rather, streams of words on a single note, occasionally interrupted by a riff-like idea (“Look out, kid”)
Stretched-out blues progression
Provocative lyrics, delivered very quickly
RAISING THE BAR
Street poetry with a bluesy, hard-country accompaniment = serious musical statement without classical sounds
Honky-tonk beat, blues sounds and form, contemporary folk lyric, blended together
ROCK ATTITUDE VS. STYLE
Rock in attitude but not in style features (no rock beat or rock band instrumentation)
Listen to this selection in the unit playlist.
Dylan officially entered the rock era with his next album, Highway 61 Revisited. Recorded in August, 1965, the album brought into full flower the power latent in the electric side of Bringing It All Back Home. The songs mix blues, country, rock—and even pop, in “Ballad of a Thin Man”—into a new Dylan sound. The title of the album suggests this roots remix. Highway 61 runs through the heart of the Mississippi Delta, and the title track is a hard shuffle with strong echoes of “deep blues.”
“Like a Rolling Stone,” the first track to be recorded, shows how he harnessed his verbal virtuosity to write an accessible rock song. The words still have sting: the song paints an “I-told-you-so” portrait of a young girl who’s gone from top to bottom. But they tell a story that we can follow, even on the first hearing.
The song sounds like a rock song from the start. A free-for-all of riffs overlay Dylan’s vigorous electrified strumming and a straightforward rock beat on the drums. This sound is maintained throughout the song, with Dylan’s harmonica competing with Mike Bloomfield’s guitar in the instrumental interludes.
The body of the song consists of four long sections. Within each section, verse and refrain alternate, as they do in many rock songs. However, Dylan immediately puts his own spin on this rock convention. Each section has, in effect, two verses and two hooks. The first verse of each section consists of two rapid-fire word streams, saturated with internal rhymes—typical Dylan. But each word stream paints only one picture, and each phrase ends with a short, riff-like idea (such as “Didn’t you, babe? …”), followed by a long pause. The slower pacing of the images and the break between phrases help the listener stay abreast of Dylan’s lyric.
The second verse serves as a long introduction for the first of two melodic hooks: Dylan’s voice drips scorn as he sings “How does it feel?” followed by a memorable organ riff; this is repeated, the question left hanging in the air. Dylan then gives a series of equally scornful responses that fill out our picture of the girl’s plight. These culminate in the title phrase. By expanding each section internally, Dylan also expands the dimensions of the song; it lasts over 6 minutes, twice the length of a typical song.
“Like a Rolling Stone” established Dylan’s rock credentials and his originality as well as any one song could. Despite its length, the song would become one of Dylan’s most successful singles, briefly reaching No. 2 in the summer of 1965.
“Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)
STYLE Rock ⋅ FORM Blues; expanded verse/chorus, with both verse and chorus containing two sections
Listen For …
Voice, electric guitars, electric bass, piano, organ, tambourine, drums
Dylan’s gritty voice usually finds a midpoint between speaking and singing
Loose rock rhythm at a medium tempo
Melody has lots of repeated pitches and a narrow range
Melodic peak at end of the chorus
Thick texture, with multiple instruments in mid range supporting and surrounding Dylan’s voice
PRIMACY OF THE WORDS
The words are the primary focus; the story makes the song special. There is minimal melodic interest, especially in the almost monotonic verse.
ROCK ENHANCING THE MESSAGE
At the same time, the spontaneous interaction of the band behind Dylan—who was extremely casual about the accompaniment—gives the music an edge that enhances the lyric and the grating sound of Dylan’s voice. The overall impact of the song is far greater than it would have been with just an acoustic guitar accompaniment.
EXPANDED RANGE OF ROCK
By integrating thought-provoking lyrics into a rock song, and scoring big with it, Dylan essentially freed rock. After songs like this, rock could be anything; it could say anything, as the Beatles and others would soon prove.
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However, it was the album taken as a whole that would fully reveal what Dylan would bring to rock. The next five tracks on the album are extraordinarily diverse:
· “Tombstone Blues,” an uptempo song with a hard honky-tonk beat
· “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” a Dylanesque transformation of the blues, set to a medium groove shuffle rhythm
· “From a Buick 6,” a blues-form song with piles of riffs and a honky-tonk beat
· “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a ballad with slithery pop-ish harmony and a light shuffle beat
· “Queen Jane Approximately,” an early 1960s-style rock ballad
There are no recurrent stylistic conventions, such as a basic beat, harmonic approach, or formal plan. Instead, Dylan used these and the other songs on the album to invest rock with a freewheelin’, anything-goes attitude.
In the process, Dylan thumbed his nose at the conventions of pop music, and the pop music business. Songs ranged in length from just over 3 minutes to well over 11 minutes; most were 5 minutes or more. The song titles could be descriptive, evocative—or not. The title of one song, “From a Buick 6,” has no apparent connection to the song itself. These are outward signs that the songs themselves are unconventional: shockingly original, despite their deep roots in rock and roll, blues, folk, country, and Beat poetry.
The songs seem to have come about almost by spontaneous combustion. They would take shape in the recording studio, with seemingly arbitrary decisions—such as guitarist Al Kooper playing organ on “Like a Rolling Stone”—crucially shaping the final result. The songs juxtapose the sublime and the ridiculous and package elusive ideas in images that brand themselves on your brain. Above all, they democratize popular music while elevating its message in a way that had never been done before. With Dylan, high art did not have to be high class.
Dylan’s most far-reaching musical innovation was the evocative use of musical style. He used beats, instruments, harmonies, forms, and the like to create an atmosphere. In “Highway 61 Revisited,” the title track from the album, the rough-and-tumble ensemble sound recalls Delta blues, which contextualizes the title. Earlier generations of pop artists had used style evocatively, but no one before Dylan had let it penetrate so deeply into the fabric of the music. Highway 61 Revisited became one of the most influential rock albums of all time.
Following that album, Dylan gravitated toward country music. His next three studio albums—Blonde on Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1967), and Nashville Skyline (1969)—were recorded with Nashville session musicians. His country excursion strengthened the connection between rock and country, just as his earlier work helped link folk and rock. This was another of Dylan’s major contributions to rock in the sixties: He played the key role in bringing both folk and country into rock.
48-3The Importance of Bob Dylan
Dylan raised the level of discourse in rock in a completely original way. Drawing on blues and folk, the topical songs of Woody Guthrie, and the Beat poets—after hearing Dylan, Allen Ginsberg said, “The world is in good hands”—he synthesized all of this into something radically new. The contrast between Dylan’s lyrics and what had come before is so pronounced that it is hard to conceive of them as part of the same musical tradition.
Similarly, Dylan’s musical settings opened up new sound worlds, and—more important—new possibilities for the integration of words and music. Precisely because the lyrics were often so provocative and challenging, Dylan used musical settings to evoke mood—to convey the general character of the song without overpowering the words.
Dylan made his music important completely on its own terms, rather than by emulating an established style. By not only giving rock credibility but also redefining what credibility in popular music was, Dylan raised the bar, for rock and for popular music. Overnight the music grew up. It was no longer possible to mock rock—or at least Dylan’s music—as mindless music for teens.
Dylan challenged his audience to meet him at his level, rather than playing down to them. As a result, he never enjoyed broad commercial success. However, his music profoundly influenced many of the important acts of the 1960s and beyond. Nowhere is Dylan’s influence more evident than in the music of the Beatles.
On August 28, 1964, Bob Dylan and the Beatles met face to face for the first time. The Beatles were on tour in the United States and staying at the Delmonico Hotel in New York. They had acquired The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album while in Paris in January 1964; according to George Harrison, they wore the record out, listening to it over and over. John Lennon, in particular, seemed drawn to Dylan’s gritty sound and rebellious attitude. Somewhat later that same year, Dylan was driving through Colorado when he heard the Beatles for the first time on the radio. Later he would say, “I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go.” Each had something that the other wanted, and perhaps found intimidating. The Beatles, especially Lennon, wanted Dylan’s forthrightness. Dylan responded to the power of their music and envied their commercial success.
Whatever initial uneasiness Dylan and the Beatles may have felt with each other went up in smoke. Upon learning that none of the Beatles had tried marijuana, Dylan promptly rolled a couple of joints and passed them around. As Paul McCartney later recalled, “’Til then, we’d been hard Scotch and Coke men. It sort of changed that evening.”
The Beatles’ encounter with cannabis is credited with helping to change the course of their music. Ian McDonald, author of Revolution in the Head, a track-by-track account of the Beatles’ recordings, observed, “From now on, the superficial states of mind induced by drink and ‘speed’ gave way to the introspective and sensual moods associated with cannabis and later LSD.”
Still, there was more to this meeting than turning the Beatles on. It seemed to further motivate both parties to learn from the other. For Dylan, it was yet another reason to go electric. For the Beatles, Dylan elevated the standard to which the Beatles would hold their music. More specifically, his music occasionally served as a model for their songs, especially those in which Lennon provided the more significant creative input. Later, in explaining their musical breakthrough in the mid-sixties, McCartney said, “We were only trying to please Dylan.” Without question, the music they created after the meeting, especially from Rubber Soul on, represents a far more substantial legacy than their earlier work. Still, the Beatles and their music had already had a commercial and cultural impact.
49-1Beatlemania and the British Invasion
By the time the Beatles got together with Dylan, they were riding the crest of Beatlemania. The band had scored their first U.S. No. 1 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” in January 1964 and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time in February. In little more than a month, the band developed a passionate following, one that would surpass Elvis’s; the media dubbed it “Beatlemania.”
Other British bands followed the Beatles to the United States, and within a year the
was underway. The first wave, in 1964, included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, and several others.
The sudden popularity of British bands in America abruptly reversed the flow of popular music between the United States and the rest of the world. Up until the early sixties, popular music had been largely an American export. Before the sixties, few European musicians performing popular music enjoyed much of a following in the United States. All that changed with the British invasion.
Of course, the music that they played had deep American roots. Many of the bands began their careers by covering songs by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and other rock-and-roll acts. The Rolling Stones’ name underscores the musical impact of bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. But what they brought back to the United States was an altogether new music. What’s more, it was never viewed as exotic, and it soon became mainstream. Indeed, the British invasion, more than any other event, fueled the ascendancy of rock in the United States during the sixties.
The Beatles—(left–right) Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon—on the August 28, 1964, cover of Life magazine at the height of Beatlemania.
What is surprising is the ease with which rock—and by extension popular music—became an international music. Up to this point, popular music in America and popular music from America were pretty much the same thing. After the Beatles, that was no longer true. Although Americans acknowledged, even celebrated, the Britishness of the Beatles and the other invading bands, there was no sense that their music was foreign. Perhaps it was because the sounds were at once familiar (because they were so deeply rooted in American culture) yet fresh (because they represented a new way of interpreting American music). Perhaps it was the open-minded spirit that seemed to pervade the sixties. Whatever the reason, their nationality was a nonissue.
49-2The Musical Evolution of the Beatles
We can trace the beginning of the Beatles back to the summer of 1957, when John Lennon (1940–1980) met Paul McCartney (b. 1942) and soon asked him to join his band, the Quarrymen. George Harrison (1943–2001) joined them at the end of the year; the group was then known as Johnny and the Moondogs. They went through one more name change, the Silver Beetles, and one more drummer, Pete Best, before settling on the Beatles and Ringo Starr (b. Richard Starkey, 1940), who joined the group after they had signed a recording contract.
The major phase of the Beatles’ career lasted just under eight years. For all intents and purposes, it began on June 6, 1962, when they auditioned for George Martin, the man who would produce most of their records. It ended on April 10, 1970, when Paul McCartney announced that the Beatles had disbanded.
The Beatles’ musical growth was unparalleled in popular music; the suddenness with which their music matured remains an astounding development. Among the most important reasons for the exceptional quality and appeal of their music are these three:
· Knowledge of styles. They had firsthand familiarity with a broad range of styles. In their dues-paying years, the band performed not only rock-and-roll covers and original songs but also pop hits of all kinds. From their years of apprenticeship, they had a thorough knowledge of pop before rock, and they absorbed styles along with songs.
· Melodic skill. Along with the Motown songwriting teams, the Beatles were the first important rock-era musicians to write melody-oriented songs that were in step with the changes in rhythm, form, and other elements that took place during this time. No one since has written so many memorable melodies.
· Sound imagination. Aided by the development of multitrack recording and the consummate craftsmanship of their producer, George Martin, the Beatles enriched their songs with startling, often unprecedented, combinations of instruments and—occasionally—extraneous elements, such as the crowd noises and trumpet flourishes of “Sgt. Pepper.”
The Beatles’ music went through four phases, each lasting about two years:
· Beatlemania: from 1962 to the end of 1964
· Dylan-inspired seriousness: 1965–1966
· Psychedelia: late 1966–1967
· Return to roots: 1968–1970
Not surprisingly, transitions from one phase to the next were gradual. Still, the differences between representative examples are easily heard. As their music matured, it became bolder and more individual. The songs are more clearly the work of the Beatles—no one else could have made them—and less like each other. The contrast from song to song had clearly deepened. One can almost reach into a bag filled with song titles, pull out any five, and marvel at the distinctive identity in meaning and sound of each song and the pronounced differences from song to song. To convey some sense of their growth from a rock band with a difference into one of the creative forces of the twentieth century, we consider tracks from the first three phases.
49-3“A Hard Day’s Night”
A Hard Day’s Night was a feature film shot in March 1964 and released that summer, first in England, and then in the United States. It is about fans’ hysterical response in both countries to the Beatles’ live performances, and an attempt to capitalize on it—the more cynical parties in the production process expected the Beatles’ star to fall as quickly as it had risen. The film came early in their career; the soundtrack was their third American album. Despite their relative inexperience, the Beatles had significant input into the film, choosing both the screenwriter and the director, Richard Lester. They also chose the title, which came from an off-hand remark by Ringo that caught their fancy.
As they did in so many other areas, the Beatles confounded the experts with a film that broke new ground in almost every important respect. The film was quasi-autobiographical. Shot documentary-style in black and white, it purports to present a “day in the (incredibly hectic) life” of the band. It captured their cheeky good humor—Paul’s cinematic grandfather was a running gag—even as it dramatized the relentless pressures of stardom, which would compel them to retire from public performance less than three years later. The group’s naturalness in front of the camera, coupled with cinéma vérité, resulted in a film far different from standard commercial fare and the rock-and-roll films of the 1950s.
“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)
John Lennon and
STYLE Rock ⋅ FORM AABA
Listen For …
Lead, backup singers, twelve-string electric guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and bongos
Both vocal sounds and instrumental support have an edge
Straightforward rock rhythm, but with double-time (twice as fast as rock rhythm) rhythm on bongos; syncopations in the melody
Pop-style AABA song in which A section grows out of a riff
Basic harmony with occasional modal chords mixed in
FROM ROCK AND ROLL TO ROCK RHYTHM
Aggressive rock rhythm in guitars, drums, and free-moving bass line confirm collective conception of rock rhythm
FROM ROCK AND ROLL TO ROCK SOUND
Aggressive vocal sound, innovative opening chord, dense texture presage new sonic directions in 1960s
MODAL AND TONAL
Beatles interpolate modal harmonies into standard pop harmony, e.g., under “working like a dog.” Mix of tonal pop and modal chords expands rock harmonic vocabulary.
Although a rock song, melody and form are more typical of pre-rock pop: AABA form, plus phrases developing from title-phrase riff
ing chord/outro, vocal harmony, double-time bongos, shift in texture at bridge all show Beatles’ keen ear for distinctive elements
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The title track from the album reveals the qualities that made their music stand out right from the start and anticipates the directions that it would soon take. In its sound and rhythmic approach, the band is leading the way in the transformation of rock and roll into rock. The band is locked into a rock beat (which Ringo enhances with double-time rhythms on bongos); the interplay among the rhythm instruments goes well beyond basic rock timekeeping. The sound of the band has an edge—the ring of the opening chord, the vocals, the strident guitar sound, and the relentless drumming. Compared to 1950s bands, and even the Beach Boys’ sound, it is aggressive. At the same time, it is friendly: Lennon’s song recalls pre-rock pop; so does the vocal harmony. The lyric is innocent enough, at least on the surface; in tone, it is more like “Sh-Boom” than the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” which would appear within a year. There are numerous innovations: the search for new sounds, the extensive use of multitrack recording, the opening and closing sounds, and use of modal harmony. (
consists of chords built from modal scales, rather than the major and minor scales used in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century pop. Like major and minor scales, modal scales also have seven notes per octave, but in a different arrangement. Modal scales are common in British folk music; “Greensleeves” is a familiar example.) The mix of conventional, modal, and blues chords brought a fresh sound to rock harmony.
Like the film itself, the mix of old and new shows the Beatles beginning their move away from convention. Teen-themed songs would soon disappear, as both the band and their audience quickly grew up.
49-4Dylan-Inspired Seriousness (and Humor) in “Eleanor Rigby”
The Beatles’ maturation in the wake of their encounter with Dylan is evident in Rubber Soul (December 1965), Yesterday and Today (June 1966), and especially Revolver (August 1966). Dylan’s influence is evident in the lyrics, which were more meaningful, less teen-oriented, and wider ranging in subject matter and tone. It is also evident in the music, although it takes a quite different form. Like Dylan, the Beatles were expanding their sound world but in a more adventurous and more encompassing way. Dylan drew mainly on existing popular styles and used them evocatively. By contrast, the Beatles reached farther afield, into musical traditions far removed from rock and its roots, such as classical Indian music (for instance, the sitar and finger cymbals heard in “Norwegian Wood”) and string playing reminiscent of classical music. Moreover, they synthesized these extraneous sounds seamlessly into their music; they became part of the fabric of sound behind the vocals.
The sitar and finger cymbals heard in “Norwegian Wood.”
As their music matured, it became bolder and more individual. The songs are more clearly the work of the (new) Beatles—no one else could have made them—and less like each other. The contrast from song to song had clearly deepened. Among the most distinctive tracks is “Eleanor Rigby.”
A song about the unlamented death of a relationship is unusual enough in popular music. A song about an unlamented death was unprecedented. “Eleanor Rigby,” recorded in June 1966, for the album Revolver, broke sharply with pop song conventions in both words and music. McCartney relates the story of Eleanor Rigby with a detachment rare to this point in popular music. There is no “you” or “I,” even of the generic kind. The story is told strictly in the third person. Her tale is as gloomy as a cold, damp, gray day. Even the refrain is as impersonal as a Greek chorus. They simply observe: “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” There’s no particular empathy for either Eleanor Rigby or Father McKenzie.
The musical setting is as bleak as the words. A string octet (four violins, two violas, and two cellos), scored by George Martin from McCartney’s instructions, replaces the rock band; there are no other instruments. The string sound is spare, not lush—the chords used throughout emulate a rock accompaniment, not the dense cushions of sound heard in traditional pop. Like Eleanor Rigby herself, the melodies of both chorus and verse don’t go anywhere. Set over alternating chords, the chorus is just a sigh. The melody of the verse contains longer phrases, but they too mostly progress from higher to lower notes. The harmony shifts between chords; there is no strong sense of movement toward a goal. Lyric, melody, harmony, and the repetitive rhythm of the accompaniment convey the same message: time passes, without apparent purpose.
“Eleanor Rigby” (1966)
John Lennon and
STYLE Art rock ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus, with the chorus framing verses
Listen For …
Voice, string octet (violins, violas, cellos)
Vigorous, rhythm-section-like string playing, not lush cushion of pop
Rock-like rhythm implied in string accompaniment; some syncopation in melody
Arching phrases with long descent in chorus
Oscillation between two chords: no sense of direction
A song about seemingly pointless lives, told in an emotionally detached manner
STRING OCTET AS ROCK GROUP
For rock, this is a completely novel instrumentation; for popular music, this is a completely novel way of playing strings
PORTRAYING MISERY MUSICALLY
The long melodic sighs, static harmony, and restless string accompaniment amplify the mood of the lyric; it captures the desperate lives of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie
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With “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles announced that their music—and, by extension, rock—was, or could aspire to be, art. The most obvious clue was the classical-style string accompaniment. However, the subject of the song and the detachment with which it is presented have more in common with classical art songs than pop or rock songs. Having recorded rock’s answer to the art song, the Beatles soon created rock’s answer to the art song cycle: the
49-5The Sound World of the Beatles in “A Day in the Life”
Increasingly, during the course of their career, the Beatles’ “style” was not so much a particular set of musical choices, as was the case with Motown recordings heard next, but an approach to musical choices: write tuneful melodies and embed them in evocative sound worlds. Settings—instruments, textures, rhythms, even form—were purposeful; their function was to amplify and elucidate the message of the lyrics.
In Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967, there are not only strong contrasts from song to song, but also occasionally within a song, as in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the even more remarkable “A Day in the Life.”
In “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles create two opposing sound worlds that highlight the contrast between the mundane, everyday world and the elevated consciousness of an acid trip. The distinction is projected by the most fundamental opposition in music itself, other than sound and silence: music with words versus music without words. The texted parts of the song are everyday life, while the strictly instrumental sections reflect the influence of tripping—they follow “I’d love to turn you on” or a reference to a dream.
“A Day in the Life” (1967)
John Lennon and
STYLE Art rock ⋅ FORM Imaginative hybrid form: elements of AABA form (the pattern of the mundane sections) and verse/chorus (mundane = verse, string blob = chorus)
Listen For …
Simple rock band instrumentation: acoustic guitar, electric bass, drums, maracas, alternating with orchestral strings performing slow glissandos (gradual changes in pitch); orchestral winds and brass in “dream section”
Strong contrasts in tempo: slow rock tempo; double-time; pulse gradually disappears in instrumental sections
Tuneful melody with short phrases in narrative sections, which expand, then dissolve into trill, which dissolves into indeterminate pitch
Simple harmony with occasional modal chords in vocal sections; dissonant blob of sound in instrumental section; simple tonic chord at the end
Open texture in vocal sections: voice, light guitar, and maracas in mid-range, bass and drums in a lower range; thick texture in instrumental sections
CONTRASTING LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Underlying message of song is contrast between everyday “reality” and altered consciousness. Expressed most fundamentally by opposition of words/no words. Shift from pop to orchestral instruments and tuneful to avant-garde music underscores shift in consciousness.
Song begins simply: strummed chords. It ends on an “OM” chord that lasts for over 30 seconds. In between are slowly elevating globs of string sounds, shifts in tempo, trills that dissolve into completely new music, and more. All are novel effects for rock (and the pop that preceded it) ca. 1967.
Stylistic diversity of the song, so essential to its meaning, stretches boundaries of rock. The “altered consciousness” music has virtually no connection to rock, and even the ordinary music is some distance from conventional rock.
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This contrast is made even more striking by the nature of the words and music. The text of the song and the music that supports it paint four scenes. The first scene is the singer’s response to a newspaper account of a man who dies in a horrible automobile accident while, one suspects, he was tripping. The second portrays Lennon attending a film—perhaps an allusion to the film How I Won the War, in which he had acted a few months prior to recording the song. The third depicts the singer in the workaday-world rat race. The last one is a commentary on another even more mundane news article. It is news reporting—and, by extension, daily life—at its most trivial: who would bother counting potholes? The music that underscores this text is, in its most obvious features, as everyday as the text. It begins with just a man and his guitar. The other instruments layer in, but none of them makes a spectacular contribution. This everyday background is opposed to the massive orchestral blob of sound that depicts, in its gradual ascent, the elevation of consciousness. The dense sound, masterfully scored by George Martin, belongs to the world of avant-garde classical music—it recalls Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and other works of that type.
The apparent simplicity of the vocal sections obscures numerous subtle touches. Starr’s tasteful drumming and McCartney’s inventive bass lines are noteworthy. So is the doubling of the tempo in the “Woke up …” section. What had previously been the rock beat layer is now the beat. This expresses in music the narrator’s frantic preparation for work, without disturbing the underlying rhythmic fabric of the song. Perhaps the nicest touches, however, are found in the vocal line: the trill heard first on “laugh” and “photograph,” then expanded on “nobody was really sure …,” before floating up to its peak on “Lords.” It is precisely this melodic gesture—the trill, now set to “turn you on”—that presages the move from the vocal section to the orchestral section, and by extension the beginning of an acid trip. When the trill/leap material returns in the film-viewing vignette, this connection becomes explicit; the melodic leap is followed by the trill, which blends seamlessly into the orchestral texture. As a melodic gesture, the trill/leap sequence is also a beautiful surprise, strictly on its own terms.
The final chord is an instrumental suggestion of the clarity of enlightenment after the transition, via the orchestral section, from mundane life in the “normal” world. It is a striking ending to a beautifully conceived and exquisitely crafted song.
“A Day in the Life” encapsulates the art and achievement of the Beatles as well as any single track can. It highlights key features of their music: the sound imagination, the persistence of tuneful melody, and the close coordination between words and music. It represents a new category of song—more sophisticated than pop, more accessible and down-to-earth than classical, and uniquely innovative. There literally had never before been a song—classical or vernacular—that had blended so many disparate elements so imaginatively. Critics searched for a way to describe the song and the album. They labeled it a “concept album” and declared it the rock-era counterpart to the song cycles of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art music.
For Beatles historian Ian McDonald, the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” and the final chord of “A Day in the Life” frame the group’s “middle period of peak creativity.” Certainly, Harrison’s chord announces that the group isn’t just another rock band, and the seemingly endless chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” has a sense of finality, not just for the song, or even the album, but also the most creative period in their career. The Beatles recorded much memorable music after Sgt. Pepper, but none of it stretched boundaries and expanded possibilities to the extent that the music of Sgt. Pepper did.
49-6The Legacy of the Beatles
The Beatles remain rock’s classic act, in the fullest sense of the term. Their music has spoken not only to its own time but also to every generation since. Their songs are still in the air; they remain more widely known than any other music of the rock era. The Beatles’ music is a cultural artifact of surpassing importance. No single source—of any kind—tells us more about the rock revolution of the 1960s than the music of the Beatles.
The Beatles had begun their career by affirming what rock was, in comparison to rock and roll and pop. As they reached the zenith of their career, they showed what it could become. Their contributions played a decisive role in reshaping rock, the music industry, and western culture.
When Berry Gordy Jr. (b. 1929) got out of the army in 1953, he returned to his hometown of Detroit and opened a record store. He stocked it with jazz, a music he loved, but he refused to carry rhythm-and-blues records in spite of a steady stream of customers asking for them. Two years later he was out of business. He would learn from the experience.
After a couple of years working on an assembly line at the Ford plant, Gordy returned to the music business, first as a songwriter, then as the founder of yet another independent record company. This time around, his goal was to create the first black pop style to cross over completely—to find a large audience among blacks, whites, and everyone else. He would succeed.
50-1The Motown Pyramid
Gordy’s Motown empire blended careful planning and tight control over every aspect of the operation with inspiration and spur-of-the-moment decisions. As it developed during the early sixties, Motown’s organizational structure was a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was Gordy. Underneath him were songwriters and producers like Smokey Robinson and the Holland/Dozier/Holland team. Underneath them were the house musicians. Berry recruited his core players from Detroit’s jazz clubs. He relied on the skill and inventiveness of musicians such as bassist James Jamerson (the man most responsible for liberating the bass from its pedestrian four-to-the-bar role), keyboardist Earl Van Dyke, and guitarist Joe Messina to bring to life the songs brought by the arrangers to the garage-turned-recording studio christened Hitsville U.S.A. The fourth level were the acts themselves: Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha (Reeves) and the Vandellas, (Smokey Robinson and) the Miracles, and Marvin Gaye.
The Motown sound grew out of this pyramid structure. At its core was Gordy’s guiding principle: to create music with the widest possible appeal. To that end, he focused on the most universal of all subjects—love won and lost—and required songs that told the tales in everyday language. Smokey Robinson recalls that Gordy told him early in their association that a song should tell a story; Robinson (and the other Motown songwriters) followed that advice.
Gordy’s songwriters followed his plan, not only in words but also in music. Motown songs set the story to a melody with memorable hooks. The songs usually unfolded according to a proven strategy: part of the story building to the chorus containing the hook; more of the story, followed by the repetition of the chorus; still more story—if there’s time—followed again by the chorus. This template was easy for listeners to follow.
The house band created the beats, the grooves, the memorable instrumental riffs—within seconds we know both of the songs discussed below, before the vocalists begin singing—and the colors. These musicians, so essential to Motown’s sound and success, were virtually anonymous. Often they would go to bars after a recording session and hear on the jukebox songs that they’d helped create; few if any of the patrons would know how much they had contributed.
It was the singers who took turns in the spotlight. Not surprisingly, they received the lion’s share of Gordy’s attention. He determined what songs they recorded, what clothes they wore, their stage routines, and almost everything else related to their professional lives. Many artists came from disadvantaged circumstances, and Motown ran what amounted to a charm school to polish the public personas of its stars. Gordy did everything he could to have them project a smooth, cultivated image, both on stage and off.
50-2The Motown Sound
The product of this multidimensional interaction among Gordy, the songwriters and arrangers, the house musicians, and the acts was the
. Among its most consistent and outstanding features were these four:
· Melodic saturation. Songs are full of melodic fragments. The lead vocal line is the most prominent, but there are many others: backup vocals, guitar and keyboard riffs, horn fills, string lines. The presence of so much melody, all of it easily grasped, helped ensure easy entry into the song; it also was a good reason to listen over and over again.
· A good, but unobtrusive beat. Motown songs typically feature a strong backbeat and an understatement of other regular timekeeping. In particular, timekeeping in the mid-range register is subdued to give greater prominence to the voices.
A broad sound spectrum. Motown recordings gave listeners a lot to listen for. The instrumental and vocal sounds cut across all social, racial, and economic lines. In the forefront are the relatively untutored singing styles of the vocalists, both lead singers and backup vocalists. There are sounds as simple as a tambourine and as sophisticated as French horn swoops and orchestral string sounds. The rhythm section typically included more than the minimum number of players; usually there were at least two guitars, several percussionists, and keyboards. With all of this richness, there were sounds for everyone, regardless of background.
· A predictable form. From the two songs discussed next, one could construct a pretty reliable template for a Motown song: layered instrumental introduction, solo two-phrase verse, bridge, title phrase, and commentary. There is enough variation in the form and in the other features of the song to keep it fresh, but we can certainly anticipate the events in the story.
These features were designed to engage listeners and keep them listening again and again. All four features offer basic points of entry: melodic hooks, a clear backbeat, interesting and varied instrumental sounds, and an easy-to-follow form. The combination of easy entry and rich texture was a key element in Motown’s success. We hear the Motown sound realized in two No. 1 Motown hits, the Supremes’ “Come See About Me” and Marvin Gaye’s memorable version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
The Supremes—Florence Ballard (1943–1976), Diana Ross (b. 1944), and Mary Wilson (b. 1944)—went from a Detroit housing project to international celebrity in the space of a few years. The group was originally a quartet, the Primettes, the female counterpart to the Primes, who would soon become the Temptations. As the three-singer Supremes, they signed with Motown in 1961, started charting in 1964, and soon had five consecutive No. 1 singles. They became the most popular female vocal group of the 1960s and the main reason that Motown kept challenging the Beatles for chart supremacy.
The Supremes, (l–r) Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross, the group that embodied the whole Motown package.
The Supremes embodied the whole Motown package. In the television performances from their peak years, they appear in performance dressed in matching dresses or gowns, and with matching wigs. They move gently to the beat or step lightly; the athletic movements of today’s divas are still well in the future. It’s all slick and wide-eyed at the same time: the look, the gestures, the moves that match the vocal exchanges. The impression is of a more sophisticated version of the Shirelles, yet they still project the innocence of youth and inexperience. The visual impression of the group was one key to their success. It is also evidence of Gordy’s overriding control in all aspects of performance.
The sounds of their voices match the look. Ross is clearly the most skilled of the three, but her vocal quality has a naturalness and naiveté that rigorous training would have disguised. The other two Supremes were less distinctive; by 1967, the group was called Diana Ross and the Supremes. (The name change may have had as much to do with Ross’s favored status as Gordy’s mistress as with her singing ability.)
The third hit in the string of five No. 1 singles was “Come See About Me,” which topped the charts at the end of 1964 and the beginning of 1965. The song explores the plight of the jilted lover.
The lyrics present Ross’s plea in everyday, if somewhat melodramatic, language. The song and the Supremes’ singing of it suggest that Ross’s imaginary partner is a passing fancy; the song is relentlessly upbeat, as are the exchanges between the singers.
The musical setting follows the Motown template: instrumental introduction with catchy sound (the drums) and catchy riff; verse over static harmony; bridge to the hook; melodic hook repeated several times; repetition of the form two more times with an instrumental interlude. All of this takes place over an unobtrusive, bass-heavy accompaniment that lets the spotlight shine on the Supremes. And, as with so many Motown hits, there are features that deviate enough from the template to give the song a distinctive stamp: the handclaps on the beat, the “extra” phrase in the bridge, the other Supremes completing Ross’s phrases.
By the time “Come See About Me” topped the charts, the Motown hit factory was a well-oiled machine. Songs from Motown acts such as the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Miracles poured out of car radios, jukeboxes, and fraternity houses. By 1966, three of every four Motown releases hit the charts, an astonishing percentage. Two years later, Motown released one of the great songs of the rock era, Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
“Come See About Me” (1964)
STYLE Motown ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus
, with bridge split between verse (new lyrics) and chorus (repeat lyrics)
Listen For …
Lead and backup vocals; full rhythm, with electric bass, electric guitar, piano, drums, vibraphone, hand claps; horn section (trumpets, saxes) briefly between choruses
Ross’s wispy-voiced singing; untutored sound of other Supremes
Light rock rhythm: beat keeping in handclaps, backbeat on guitar, rock layer in background, more varied rhythm in bass
Vocal melody consists of short phrases—exchanged between Ross and Supremes
Vocals in the forefront, strong bass, open sound in mid-range behind vocals
Typical Motown sound: open mid-range and light marking of rock rhythm to highlight voices; strong, free-moving bass line anchors sound
Individual realization of Motown formal template: verse/bridge/chorus; chorus includes second part of bridge and title-phrase melodic hook
SOUND OF THE SUPREMES
The Supremes offer a more refined and mature version of the girl-group sound. Ross’s wispy-voiced singing mixes innocence and worldliness
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Of all the Motown artists, none sang with more emotional intensity than Marvin Gaye (1939–1984). His turbulent life—stormy relationships with his wife and other women, drug and alcohol abuse, and his death at his father’s hand—seemed to find expression in his music. Whether singing about love, as in “Grapevine,” or contemporary life, as in several songs from his groundbreaking 1971 album What’s Going On, he communicated an extraordinary range of feeling: pain, hope, joy, and frustration.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a drama in miniature. It is beautifully integrated: Every element blends seamlessly to convey the sense of the text, in which a story of love gone wrong gradually unfolds. The opening keyboard riff, harmonized with open intervals, immediately establishes a dark mood. Other instruments enter in stages, leading to the entrance of the voice. Each statement of the melody of the song contains four sections. The first two are blues-like in that they generally stay within a narrow range and go down more than up. The third builds to the final section for the hook of the song, “I heard it through the grapevine.” It is the emotional center of each statement. A Greek chorus–like commentary by the backup singers ends each section.
It’s worth noting how well the musical setting of “Grapevine” helps project the lyric. From the first ominous keyboard notes, the instrumental backing matches Gaye’s despair. (Another version by Gladys Knight and the Pips, which charted the previous year, projects an altogether different mood.) Some have accused Motown of being formulaic—pop music’s answer to the Detroit auto assembly lines; but emotional, as well as musical, variety was possible within a consistent overall plan.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968)
Barrett Strong and
Marvin Gaye, vocal.
STYLE Motown ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus
Listen For …
Lead and backup vocals. Rhythm section with extra percussion (electric piano, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, tambourine, and conga), and orchestral instruments (violins and the French horn just before the voice enters)
Moderate tempo; rock rhythm with strong backbeat but subdued marking of the rock rhythmic layer—mainly drums and conga on deep-sounding drums
Vocal melody consists of short phrases—longer than the opening riff. Bluesy quality because of downward direction.
Minor key version of I-IV-V with a few additional chords (minor keys have often been associated with sad moods)
Layered texture, distributed over wide range: Bass and percussion are low, voices and keyboard in the middle, strings usually in a high register. Considerable variation from the empty sound of the opening to the full ensemble in the chorus.
DEPICTING MOOD MUSICALLY
The dark mood of the song is established at the outset by such features as the ominous opening riff, the choice of an electric keyboard to play it, the open harmony, and the subtle, open-sounding rhythm. The melody of the song, which moves mainly from high to low, reinforces the mood.
The Motown template is predictable in its general features but accommodates considerable variation in detail and mood, as a comparison of “Come See About Me” and “Grapevine” reveals
The strained sound of Gaye’s high-register singing also helps communicate the despair described in the lyrics
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50-5Motown: Updating Black Pop
Motown updated black pop. From Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters through Nat “King” Cole and the Mills Brothers, into doo-wop and the girl groups—one direction in black music had been a distinctly African-American take on popular song. Motown continued that tradition but went well beyond it: It was not just a new take on pop but a new, black popular style—and a new kind of romantic music.
In its pop orientation, Motown was heading in the opposite direction from rock. Rock tended to look at love cynically (the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” comes to mind), lustfully (the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”), or not at all. Motown songs preserve the romance in earlier popular songs even as they bring both lyrics and music into the present. Romance is evident not only in the sound—the rich string writing, the understated playing of the rhythm section—but also in the look. The groups wore tuxedos and gowns, like Las Vegas acts, not tie-dyed T-shirts and jeans, like the Woodstock crowd.
Motown was one of the remarkable success stories of the sixties. For the first time in history, a black style was on equal footing with white music. Motown would lose its toehold at the top in the seventies; the Jackson 5 was Motown’s last big act. Stevie Wonder gained artistic freedom as a condition of his new contract, and he used it. Marvin Gaye also sought and got independence, eventually leaving Motown altogether. The company has remained an important player in pop music, and though it is no longer the dominant and innovative force that it was in the sixties, its legacy is still very much with us.
In 1969, the Rolling Stones began to be billed as the “world’s greatest rock and roll band.” Whether the label came from the band itself or—as Jagger claimed—from an enthusiastic master of ceremonies is open to debate. Regardless of who used it first, the label has stuck; it has become as much as a part of their brand as Jagger’s tongue. One can attribute some of its staying power to the Stones’ longevity—who would have predicted in 1969 that they would be a hot ticket in the twenty-first century?—and some more to media hype. But at the heart is their mastery of rock’s core sound.
Implicit in the billing is the assumption that in the space of five years, rock had evolved from a brand new sound to a timeless style. In 1964, the rules were just being written; by 1969, the essence of rock style had been worked out. From this point on, rock becomes, in effect, a timeless style. For the Stones and others, “rock and roll” is not a revival of Chuck Berry, but the purest form of rock.
When we think of timeless rock, we expect to hear bands with a core of electric guitar, electric bass, and drums playing songs with heavy riffs over a rock beat at a loud volume. Within these general parameters, there are two primary options: solo-oriented versus group-oriented rock. In this chapter, we trace rock’s progress toward its timeless form through tracks by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
51-1Group-Oriented Rock and the Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones grew out of a chance encounter in 1960, when Mick Jagger (b. 1943) saw Keith Richards (b. 1943) standing in a train station with an armful of blues records. It was not their first meeting; both had grown up in Dartford, England, and had attended the same school for a year, when they were six. Their meeting eleven years later would be the beginning of their band.
Both spent a lot of time at the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, where they met Brian Jones (1942–1969) and Charlie Watts (b. 1941). At the time, Watts was the drummer for Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which would also include Jagger after 1961. The Rolling Stones came together in 1962 when they added bassist Bill Wyman (born William Perks, 1936) after an audition. Keyboardist Ian Stewart (1938–1985) was also a member of the band at the time. Stewart stopped performing with the group soon after their career took off but retained a close connection with the Stones and performed on many of their recordings.
The “world’s greatest rock and roll band” in 1964 (l–r) Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards. In the work of the Stones, blues became part of the sound of rock.
Like other British bands, the Rolling Stones began by covering blues and rock-and-roll songs. Within a year, Jagger and Richards, inspired by the success of Lennon and McCartney, started writing original songs for the band. They broke through in 1965: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Out of Our Heads, the album from which it came, topped the charts that summer. By the time they recorded the song, they had pretty well defined their sound, style, and image.
Their conception of rock began with an attitude: sexually charged, down and dirty, swaggering, real. All of this was an extension of the bluesman’s persona, and it is embodied most powerfully in Mick Jagger. Although he came from a comfortable middle-class family and was attending the London School of Economics in the early sixties, Jagger didn’t simply imitate the bluesmen he admired—he forged his own identity, one that reverberated with their influence but was also different and credible. The rest of the band also assumed this attitude; Keith Richards’s sneer is the visual counterpart to the nasty riffs for which he is so well-known. Andrew Loog Oldham, who became their manager in 1964, actively promoted this image. By his own admission, he wanted them—or at least their public image—to be the opposite of the Beatles. Their music matched their image.
51-2The Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones’ first major hit, acknowledges the enormous influence of the blues, and Muddy Waters in particular, on the group. Both the band’s name and the song title trace back to two of Waters’ early recordings: a 1950 recording entitled “Rolling Stone” and a 1948 recording entitled “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”
As this track evidences, the Rolling Stones built a new sound from rock and roll, blues, and their own inspiration. From Jagger’s sound to Wyman’s bass lines, it was all of a piece. We highlight two of its qualities, the rhythmic groove and the dark, nasty sound.
· The groove. Like many other Rolling Stones songs, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” starts with a syncopated riff; Watts enters only after the song is pretty well under way. Rock’s characteristic groove grows out of the interplay between the basic rock rhythm, the backbeat, and the layers of syncopated riffs and lines, much as the swing in swing is the product of riffs over a four-beat rhythm.
· A dark, nasty sound. Jagger’s singing—rough, highly inflected, almost drawled, and more speech-like than sung—is the most obvious expression of the nasty Stones sound. Complementing it is the thick, dark texture produced by Richards’s low-register rumblings, Wyman’s bass, and Watts’ use of the bass drum. Typically, the highest sound in a Stones song is Jagger’s voice, which stays in a mid-range. Both Jagger’s singing and the thick texture come directly from the blues; in the work of the Stones, blues becomes part of the sound of rock.
The compelling rhythms and the dense, riff-laden texture set the tone for the stories told in the songs. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a study in sexual frustration: The music says what the words do not. As Jagger vents his sexual frustration with harangues about petty matters, the opening guitar riff never changes. It embodies Jagger’s frustration because it tries (and tries) to go somewhere but never does. The form of the song also reinforces Jagger’s frustration, because the sequence of verse and chorus are switched. What is usually the verse is the part that returns again and again. It builds to a peak, at which point Jagger begins to rant. There is no release, and the section ends futilely in a drum break.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)
Mick Jagger and
The Rolling Stones.
STYLE Rock ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus
Listen For …
Lead vocal, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass, drums, tambourine
Fuzztone guitar sound, Jagger’s vocal sounds, from title-phrase whisper to verse-like rant: aggressive, edgy sound
Rock rhythm, with strong beat keeping and even stronger syncopations
Vocal melody constructed from simple riffs; verse-like section on one note; guitar riff most memorable melodic idea
Thick texture: low-register electric guitar, low-tuned drums, electric bass, all under Jagger’s vocal most of the time
MEMORABLE GUITAR RIFF
Richards’s fuzztone guitar riff sets mood for song and returns periodically throughout the song—one of several signature guitar riffs appearing ca. 1965
BEAT-ORIENTED ROCK RHYTHM
Watts plays rock rhythm with heavy emphasis on the beat. The other rhythms—guitar riff, bass line, and Mick’s tambourine and vocal line—weave around the strong beat.
Most of the sounds, including Richards’s guitar riff, are in a low register; Jagger’s singing is the highest sound = a dark-sounding texture, which helps convey mood of the song
The inversion of verse and chorus is an innovative twist on conventional verse/chorus form; it seems to help project the message of the song: Jagger’s inability to get satisfaction
The impact of blues style is evident in dense, heavy texture, with interplay among the instruments, reliance on repeated riffs, Jagger’s vocal style, aggressive sound, and subject of song
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To an audience raised on pop, all of this had the taste of forbidden fruit—it was a far cry from the teen-themed rock and roll songs of the fifties or the early Beatles, or the surf music of the Beach Boys. The Stones’ lives mirrored their public personas: Brian Jones’s death “by misadventure,” the Altamont riot, the occasional brushes with the law—all were real-life analogs to the world depicted in their songs. In effect, the Rolling Stones helped bring a blues sensibility into the mainstream. Both words and music thrilled a new generation and repulsed an older one.
The group followed Out of Our Heads with Aftermath (1966). It was their first album to feature only original songs by Jagger and Richards. The group briefly fell under the spell of the Beatles: Their Their Satanic Majesties Request was an ill-advised answer to Sgt. Pepper. They soon returned to rock and roll, recording such rock-defining hits as “Jumping Jack Flash” (1968) and “Honky Tonk Women” (1969). With songs like these, the group refined its groove and defined its place in the history of popular music.
51-3Solo-Oriented Rock and Jimi Hendrix
Among the most compelling new sounds of the late sixties were power trios. These were bare-bones bands—just guitar, bass, and drums—set up to showcase the skills of their exceptionally able guitarists, most notably Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. These musicians took one additional element from blues—the guitar as the bluesman’s “second voice.” With the aid of the solid-body guitar, they used it as a point of departure as they introduced a new element into rock: virtuosic soloing.
51-3aThe Solid-Body Electric Guitar
The solid-body electric guitar dates back to 1948, the year in which Leo Fender, a radio repairman turned instrument maker, introduced his Broadcaster. Fender’s Broadcaster, which became the Telecaster, and his Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, became standards by which other solid-body guitars were measured. The sudden increase in amplification in the sixties made the instrument far more powerful. An array of sound modifiers, such as the wah-wah pedal, made the instrument more versatile. It remained for Jimi Hendrix to use these new resources to effectively turn the electric guitar into a new instrument. Hendrix drew deeply on the blues for inspiration.
Jimi Hendrix, 1969
51-3bBlues Guitar and Rock
Throughout the recorded history of deep blues, the guitar had been a melody instrument as well as a harmony and rhythm instrument in support of the voice. From Blind Lemon Jefferson on, bluesmen would answer sung phrases with vocal-like guitar lines, double the vocal line, or showcase the guitar’s melodic capabilities in an instrumental solo. While Berry and others were creating rock guitar styles, electric bluesmen such as Guitar Slim and Buddy Guy were playing the guitar in a style that paralleled their raw, earthy singing, exploiting such novel effects as severe distortion. Their style served as a model for a new generation of rock guitarists. The most important was Jimi Hendrix.
51-3cJimi Hendrix Going Beyond the Blues
Hendrix grew up with the blues, hearing it as part of a broad spectrum of black music that also included jazz and rhythm and blues. He used electric blues as a point of departure, but he greatly increased the range, volume, and variety of sounds, even as he helped morph blues guitar styles into the dominant rock solo style. Hendrix was the trailblazer in both his expanded vocabulary of riffs, scales, and bent notes and his use of electronics. His playing opened up a world of new sound possibilities. As described by the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll,
Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Rockers before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but he turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues he began with.
His transformation of blues into rock is evident in “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” a track from his 1968 recording, Electric Ladyland. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is a blues-inspired song, on several levels. The vocal sections of the song inflate and reshape the twelve-bar blues form. The lyric begins as if it were a conventional rhymed couplet with the first line repeated. But Hendrix adds a refrain-like fourth line to the lyric, which contains the title phrase of the song. Hendrix also modifies the musical features of blues form by extending the length of the phrases and by using a strikingly different harmonization: static in the first part of the song, then fresh-sounding chords in the latter part. The relationship between voice and guitar recalls the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the passages where the guitar line parallels the vocal line (the guitar version of the melody is usually far more elaborate) and the call-and-response between voice and guitar. The vocal sections serve as formal pillars, supporting what is in essence an unbroken five-minute improvisation. Hendrix ignores the harmony of the vocal section in his solos; they take place over one chord.
Hendrix’s brilliant improvisations are the expressive focus of the performance. The variety is astounding. He roams over the entire range of the instrument, interweaving sustained bent notes, rapid running passages, riffs, and chords in a dizzying sequence. He draws a dazzling array of sounds from his guitar, ranging from the pitchless strummings of the opening to the sustained high-note wails, distorted chords, and hyper-vibrated notes in his solos. And he mixes them together in dazzling sequences that seem completely spontaneous in their unpredictability. It is, in effect, an inventory of the sound possibilities of the instrument.
Hendrix’s solos represent a new kind of genius, one that emerges from the particular demands of rock improvisation. In them, he elevated sound variety to a level of interest comparable to pitch and rhythm, and he enormously expanded the vocabulary of available sounds: Hendrix plays in Technicolor. In a Hendrix solo, how a note sounded became just as important as its pitch and rhythmic placement. In so doing, he built on the expressive sounds of the blues and the artistry and melodic inventiveness of jazz, merging and transforming them into a definitive improvisational style in rock.
Hendrix’s playing helped define rock-based improvisation more than the work of any other artist, but it also helped redefine the possibilities of improvisation within popular music. It echoes through much of the music of the 1970s and 1980s, especially heavy metal and hard rock. Others have built on it, but none have surpassed it in imagination and originality. It remains the standard of rock guitar playing.
“Voodoo Child” (1968)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
STYLE Power-trio rock ⋅ FORM Modified blues form in vocals; open form over one chord in solos
Listen For …
Electric guitar, electric bass, drums, maracas
Hendrix’s varied array of new sounds: pitchless strumming, bent notes, etc., that exploit the full range of the instrument
Medium-slow rock rhythm with considerable syncopation, activity, and rhythmic play from guitar, bass, and drums; maracas maintain rock rhythmic layer
Guitar solo features instrumental-style melody: wide range, fast-moving notes, complex riffs
Augmented blues form in vocals; static harmony in solo passages
Hendrix’s virtuosity involves sound as well as speed. Both are unprecedented in rock
The vocal section is a modified twelve-bar blues: The last phrase is repeated with different harmony. As in electric blues, the guitar lines pair with the voice and answer the voice, but the solos go well beyond the typical blues guitar solo.
Typical sound of Hendrix-style power trio—strong bass and wide-ranging guitar; no consistent middle register sound
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Like too many of his musical contemporaries, Hendrix was a drug casualty. He died after a drug–alcohol interaction in September 1970 in the midst of plans for new projects that reportedly would have taken his music in quite different directions. Although we regret his premature death, we remain grateful for his substantial legacy, made all the more impressive because it took only three years to compile.
Hendrix’s improvisations set up a powerful dialectic within hard rock: how to balance individual brilliance with group impact. The tradeoff is between the groove produced by the interplay of several lines (as we heard in the music of the Rolling Stones) versus the expressive power of a soloist’s inspiration and virtuosity. The influence of Hendrix and the Rolling Stones echoes through much of the music of the early seventies and beyond. Among the most important bands of the era are those, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, that found a balance between group interplay and solo brilliance.
For much of the 1960s, “soul” was the umbrella term for black popular music. Indeed in 1969, almost after the fact, Billboard changed the name of its rhythm-and-blues chart to “Soul.” And much of it was popular, by any measure. The Motown success story was the most spectacular evidence of the ascendancy of black music, but Motown artists were not alone: Twelve of the top twenty-five singles acts during the decade were black. It was a diverse group that included James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, and the Supremes; they represented not one style but several.
52-1Soul and Black Consciousness
Soul was more than a musical term. It came into use as an expression of the positive sense of racial identity that emerged during the decade. “Black is beautiful” was the slogan of many politically active members of the African-American community. This shift in attitude, among blacks and some whites, was the social dimension of the relentless pursuit of racial equality. It went hand in hand with the enfranchisement of so many African Americans through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As the drive for racial equality peaked, then deflated in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., black music occasionally became a vehicle for social commentary. James Brown released a series of exhortations, beginning with the 1968 song “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Marvin Gaye’s landmark album What’s Going On appeared in 1971. But most of the music did not contain overt references to social conditions or racial issues. More often it dealt with the subjects that so frequently transcended race: love won and lost, and the good and bad times that resulted.
Black music charted a musical path different from white rock. There are three main reasons for the divergent paths. The first and most significant is the strong gospel tradition. Most of the major African-American performers of the sixties had grown up singing in church. There is no better example than Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”: Aretha’s father was pastor of one of the largest churches in Detroit, and she sang at his services from early childhood.
Another was the difference in rhythm (a more open, syncopated, and less emphatic approach to rock rhythm), instrumentation (horn sections were the rule in R&B, but not in rock and roll), and texture (the bass was in the foreground, the guitar typically more in the background).
A third reason for the array of distinctly black styles in the sixties was the artistic control of a few key producers. Berry Gordy was one. Another was Jerry Wexler, who had helped build Atlantic Records into a major pop label. Memphis-based Stax Records relied more on the musical intuition of its house musicians, who included Booker T. and the MGs, and the Memphis Horns, to create a “house” sound.
Although, in the 1960s, virtually all of the new black music was called “soul,”
really refers to the emotionally charged black music of the sixties that draws deeply on gospel and blues. It is best exemplified by the music that came from two southern cities—Memphis, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama—and two performers—Aretha Franklin and James Brown. This was music of real commitment: Percy Sledge bares his soul when he sings “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and James Brown was, among other things, the “hardest-working man in show business.” The music expressed deep feelings, with little or no pop sugarcoating; when Aretha asks for respect, she spells it out.
The soul music of the mid- and late sixties came in two speeds: fast and slow. In either case, the music was raw. There was nothing particularly pretty about the voices of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave (Sam Moore and Dave Prater), Percy Sledge, or James Brown, but there was no mistaking the energy or the emotion. The instrumental sounds were painted in primary colors: strong bass at all times, powerful horns, vibrant sax solos, drums, guitar, and keyboard. Power won out over finesse.
The soul band of the sixties was an updated version of the jump bands of the late forties and the early fifties and Ray Charles’s bands of the late fifties. Fast songs, propelled by agile bass lines, had a relentless rhythmic drive, the product of rhythmic play: a decisive backbeat, steady timekeeping, and lots of syncopated riffs. The balance within the band is different from rock: Most of the syncopation comes in the bass line and the horn parts; compared with rock, the guitar part (usually there’s only one guitarist) is typically less prominent. By contrast, slow songs provided a more subdued accompaniment; they surrounded the singer with a rich halo of sound.
Vocalists like Redding rose to the challenge of singing over this powerful and relentless backing. They sang, shouted, growled, moaned, and groaned. Their singing—laced with explosive consonants and short vowels—is almost percussive.
The songs continue to mine a familiar vein in rhythm and blues. In his sexual potency and his willingness to brag about it, Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” is a direct descendant of Roy Brown’s “mighty, mighty, man” and so many other rhythm-and-blues heroes.
James Brown (1933–2006) at once epitomized the “soul man” and stood apart from the other male soul singers. Not shy about positioning himself in the popular-music pantheon, Brown billed himself as “Soul Brother Number 1” and the “Godfather of Soul.” As with the Rolling Stones’ claim to be the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, Brown’s claim was based on fact: He was the most important male soul artist of the sixties.
The innovations that transformed Brown’s music (and catapulted him to stardom) happened almost overnight. He had been working actively since the mid-fifties—his first R&B hit came in 1956—but he did little to set himself apart from other R&B artists until his breakthrough 1965 hit, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” (In sixties slang, a bag is an area of expertise.) Brown’s new bag was a breakthrough in rhythm.
Brown created his unique rhythmic approach by addition and subtraction. He had a good-sized band—drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards (when Brown chose to play on recordings)—plus a full horn section: trumpets, saxophones (including a baritone sax), and trombone. This is the addition: his backup band is larger than most rock bands. Except for the bass, however, all the instruments have a reduced role. Guitar and drums are in the background, and often only the drummer supplies any kind of steady rhythm. The bass line is typically the most active and varied. The horns play riffs; the baritone sax part is usually just a note or two every eight beats. Brown sings only now and then; we imagine his footwork in the silences. This is the subtraction: less vocal and less involvement from most of the instruments.
All of this—more instruments doing less—creates an irresistible rhythm and an airy, open texture. There is no melody to speak of; Brown’s voice becomes a percussion instrument—especially in the nonverbal sounds. (Try to emulate his singing and you’ll find that your voice will explode and die away quickly, like many percussion sounds do.)
The interest comes in the interaction among the instruments. The beat and the rock rhythm are felt more than heard; everything else is over or against the time. It is a complex, if repetitive, rhythmic texture. And it is very close in principle to the rhythms and textures of West African music.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965)
STYLE Soul ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus blues form, with one-chord interludes
Listen For …
Lead vocal, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, trumpets, trombone, saxophones
Brown’s singing is percussive
Light rock-beat timekeeping in drums only regular rhythm; strong backbeat, other parts (bass, vocal, horn riffs) mainly syncopated
Either blues progression or static harmony (in verse sections)
EMPHASIS ON RHYTHM
Song is about rhythm. No continuous melody, just fragments tossed back and forth between Brown and the horns. Harmony is basic blues progression or one chord. Absence of melodic and harmonic interest directs our attention to groove.
All of the instruments and Brown’s singing are percussive: emphatic consonants (papa, bag), explosive single note on baritone saxophone, guitar chord, fingered electric bass sound, in addition to drums
None of the parts is interesting enough to stand alone. Brown’s voice stands out mainly because of the words and distinctiveness of sound, but it is not dominant. Collectively, the parts—vocal and instrumental—interlock to create a seamless flow.
Because there is just enough activity to maintain groove, the musical flow is buoyant—no thick guitar chords or heavy bass lines to weigh it down. Brown’s trademark groove was one of most distinctive and influential sounds of the 1960s.
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Brown’s subsequent music brought popular music closer to its African roots than it had ever been before. Indeed, John Chernoff reported in his 1971 book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, that African musicians felt more at home with James Brown’s music than with that of any other popular musician of the time.
Brown’s music has been profoundly influential. With its emphasis on intricate rhythms and de-emphasis of melody and harmony, it would create the blueprint for funk and rap. With deep roots in gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz, and its blending and modernizing of these styles, it represents a unique soul synthesis. In its originality and individuality, it stands apart from all the other music of the sixties. It remains one of the most influential styles from that decade.
If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, Aretha Franklin (b. 1942) was its reigning Queen and one of the singular talents of popular music. Aretha grew up in a privileged yet painful environment. Her father was C. L. Franklin, pastor of one of the largest churches in Detroit and one of the most admired preachers in the African-American community. Through him she came in contact with some of the great names in music (for example, gospel great Mahalia Jackson was a family friend). Aretha grew up in a hurry—singing in her father’s church and then on the road as a child; a mother at sixteen; a pop/jazz singer on Columbia Records at nineteen (which turned out to be a dead end); and a series of abusive relationships.
Jerry Wexler jump-started her career in 1967 when he signed her to Atlantic Records and took her to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Rick Hall had previously recorded such soul hits as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” From the first note, Wexler knew he had something special. When the recording session ended disastrously (because of an alcohol-fueled fight between one of the session musicians and Ted White, Aretha’s husband and manager at the time) and Aretha went into hiding, he tracked her down, brought her musicians to New York, and finished the album. It was a huge success; it established her reputation as one of the supreme talents in popular music.
Many of Aretha’s first hits talked about heartbreak, like most soul ballads of the time. However, her first uptempo hits, most notably her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and her own “Think,” emotionally redefined “fast soul.” What had frequently been a forum for men to boast about their sexual prowess became the backdrop to a demand for dignity in “Respect” and a tongue-lashing in “Think.” In both songs, the groove is as good as it gets, but it supports a call to arms rather than an invitation to sensual pleasure. “Respect,” in fact, took on a meaning beyond the intent of its lyric: It became an anthem for the women’s movement, which was just gathering momentum.
Aretha Franklin, the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performing in 1968.
The musical formula for “Respect” is typical for 1960s soul: interlocked rhythm section, with horns playing riffs or sustained chords. The two major differences are Aretha’s singing and the backup vocals, which give the song a churchier sound. The most memorable and individual section of the song is the stop-time passage when Aretha spells out what she wants—“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”—so that there’s absolutely no misunderstanding. What had been a straightforward verse/chorus song suddenly shifts up a gear. The remainder of the song features the dense texture previously heard in the chorus: a series of riffs from the backup vocalists—“sock it to me,” “just a little bit,” and finally the repeated “Re-re-re-re” (not only the first syllable of “respect” but also Aretha’s nickname)—piled on top of the beat and horn riffs, with Aretha commenting on it all from above.
Having quickly established her credentials as the Queen of Soul, Aretha began to explore other musical territory. She has been one of the very few artists of the rock era who can cover songs convincingly. Her versions of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and Paul Simon’s gospel-influenced “Bridge over Troubled Water” are all standouts. Several of her own songs give further evidence of her expressive range: in “Rock Steady,” she tips her hat to James Brown, while “Daydreaming” is as tender and romantic a song as any released in the early seventies.
Aretha Franklin, vocal.
STYLE Soul ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus, with interlude and stop-time section at the end
Listen For …
Lead and backup vocals, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, tambourine, trumpets, saxophones
Aretha’s edgy gospel/blues mix; aggressive guitar sound; loud horns
Rock rhythm with strong backbeat at moderate tempo; syncopation prominent in vocal, bass line, sax solo
Melody = series of short riffs
Thick texture = Aretha high, horn, guitar, piano, bass, drum parts fill in middle/lower range
CHANGE GENDER, CHANGE MEANING
Aretha’s presence brings woman’s point of view to fore
Unmatched in expressive range, power, sensitivity, and emotional impact
SOUTHERN SOUL PLUS
Song adds backup vocal group to typical soul instrumentation of vocalist plus rhythm section and horns. They are integral to the impact of the song, especially in call-and-response sections.
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Aretha’s music is deeply personal and, at the same time, universal. The responsive listener feels her communicate one-on-one, yet her message transcends such a relationship. The best of Aretha’s music seems to demand both empathy and ecstasy. We can give ourselves up to the groove even as we listen to her tough-time tales. No one in the rock era has fused both qualities more powerfully and seamlessly than she.
52-5The Decline and Legacy of Soul
The soul movement went into a slow decline with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. James Brown and Aretha Franklin continued to perform and record successfully, but racial tension seemed to affect the chemistry within the interracial house bands at Stax in Memphis and Fame in Muscle Shoals, and between the bands and the performers they backed. There were still successes: Isaac Hayes produced Hot Buttered Soul in Memphis, and Al Green, another exceptional voice, enjoyed considerable success in the early seventies. Green, who had grown up singing gospel, became an ordained minister shortly after a friend flung hot grits on his back, then killed herself. He finally left the pop world behind altogether in 1979, after injuring himself during a performance.
Soul music lasted less than a decade on the charts. The first soul hits appeared in 1965; by 1975, only James Brown was still carrying the soul banner. Its influence, however, has been evident ever since. Soul brought a more contemporary version of the deep feeling of the blues into black music. In this respect, it is the insider’s counterpart to the British blues bands: a new view of blues sensibility by those who grew up with it.
San Francisco and the Diversity of Rock
From the start, rock has been not a single style, but a heterogeneous mix of styles linked by common musical features and shared attitudes. This became even more apparent during the latter part of the sixties, when rock became the dominant popular music and simultaneously went in several different directions, musically and geographically.
We may perceive the diversity of rock through geography in two ways. One is to note the numerous regional dialects of rock that surfaced in the sixties. In the United States, there was surf music from southern California, soul music from Memphis, Motown from Detroit, in addition to the music coming from England.
The other way is to observe the activity within a geographical region. During the latter part of the sixties, one good place to do this was the San Francisco Bay Area. Because of Haight-Ashbury, “flower power,” LSD, and the other trappings of the hippie scene, the music most associated with the Bay Area during the late sixties was acid rock. However, the notoriety of the counterculture masked the diversity in the Bay Area music scene. Many of the important acts active during that time and place went beyond acid rock or had no connection with it. They included the Grateful Dead, whose music embraced much more than the drug culture; Creedence Clearwater Revival playing down-to-earth rock and roll; Santana’s Latin rock; and the proto-funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The two examples discussed next hint at this diversity.
53-1Acid Rock and Jefferson Airplane
As tripping on acid became more widespread, artists used words, images, and music to capture the psychedelic experience. Psychedelic art—rich in color, dense and distorted, and often suffused with religious and mystical images—became an important new direction in the visual arts; among the most famous and memorable visual images of the psychedelic sixties was “Further,” Ken Kesey’s old school bus painted in a rainbow of colors.
Music was even more integral to the psychedelic experience because it was used not only to evoke but also to enhance tripping on acid. Music could contribute to the experience, depict the experience, and be a product of it. The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” does all three.
The band that first directed the spotlight to San Francisco and to acid rock was Jefferson Airplane. Vocalist Marty Balin (b. 1942) and guitarist Paul Kantner (1941- 2016) formed Jefferson Airplane in 1965; the next year, Grace Slick (born Grace Wing, 1939) replaced Signe Anderson as the female vocalist with the group and soon became the face as well as the dominant voice of the group. Her good looks and extroverted and uninhibited stage personality were key elements in the success of the group. The rest of the group during the late sixties included lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (b. 1940), bassist Jack Casady (b. 1944), and drummer Spencer Dryden (1938–2005).
“White Rabbit” (1967)
Grace Slick, vocal, with Jefferson Airplane.
STYLE Acid rock ⋅ FORM Modified AABA form
Listen For …
Vocal, electric guitar, electric bass, drum
Shifts between Spanish-flavored march rhythm and rock rhythm; little syncopation
Slowly rising melody, built around long notes
Spanish modal harmony at start; rock modal harmony at ends of phrases
Muted sound: vocal highest and strongest, guitar, bass in low register
IMPORTANCE OF WORDS
Message of the song is mainly in the words; the melody is not a stand-alone melody, like those found in Motown or Beatles songs, nor is the accompaniment interesting enough to stand alone
Spanish rhythms and harmonies connect to rock mainly by association; they are certainly not typical in rock music
Gradual crescendo makes final line of song sound like a call to action—an emphatic exhortation to take an acid trip
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Slick brought two songs with her from the Great Society, the band she had formed with Jerry Slick, her husband at the time. As reworked by Jefferson Airplane, they became the group’s two Top 10 singles: “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” Both songs appeared on Surrealistic Pillow (1967), the first album the group recorded with Slick.
Of the two, “White Rabbit” connects more directly to the drug experience. The title of the song refers to the white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In Carroll’s tale, the rabbit, dressed in a waistcoat, leads Alice into a hole and into a fantasy world where she has all manner of strange experiences. The lyric comments on a scene in the story where she meets a caterpillar that seems to be smoking opium. Slick would later remark that the song was an indictment of parents who read stories like Alice in Wonderland to their children and then wonder why the children do drugs. However, the connection with LSD was oblique enough that the song made it past the censors, although the drug references (such as “feed your head”) seem quite clear in retrospect.
In “White Rabbit,” the lyrics (and Slick’s singing) are primary; the music plays a supporting role. Among the defining features of the song are the flamenco-inspired instrumental accompaniment (adapted for a rock band) and the sustained crescendo to the final “Feed your head.” Slick remarked that the inspiration for the accompaniment came from her repeated listening to Sketches of Spain while tripping on LSD. Sketches of Spain was an adventurous album by the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis; the most extended track was a drastic reworking of a guitar concerto by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. Another remarkable feature of the song is its slow, steady crescendo (a gradual increase in volume). The song begins quietly with an extended instrumental introduction in which the instruments enter one by one—bass, drums, then lead and rhythm guitars. Both the rhythm and the chord progression evoke Spanish music. Slick also enters quietly. The music gets louder as the song proceeds, reaching a climax on the line “Feed your head.” As Slick belts out the lyric, the band shifts from the Spanish-flavored rhythm with which the song began to a straightforward rock rhythm; it is as if music, like the mind and Slick’s voice, has been set free from the restrictive Spanish rhythm.
Jefferson Airplane remained one of the leading psychedelic rock bands into the early seventies, when the group reconstituted itself with Slick and Kantner as Jefferson Starship. Although their new name implied that they had become even more adventurous—starships fly higher than airplanes—the band actually became more mainstream and enjoyed even more commercial success during the seventies and eighties.
53-2The Decline of Psychedelia
Both the psychedelic scene and psychedelic rock lost their potency around 1970. The 1967 “summer of love” devolved into a bad trip as the decade drew to a close. Haight-Ashbury went into decline; it would become gentrified a decade later. For many, LSD lost its status as the mind-expanding drug of choice.
The absence of a distinct musical identity made it difficult to sustain acid rock as a vital rock substyle; the style neither evolved (like heavy metal or country rock did) nor achieved a more or less permanent stasis (like hard rock). It was—and remains—very much a period piece, a sound of a particular time and place.
Acid rock lacked a distinct musical identity in large part because the drug experience was an overlay; it was not an integral element of the style. It was the connection to LSD and the environment in which it was used extensively, rather than a specific musical feature, or set of features, that linked the widely varied music identified as acid or
. The musical products were seemingly as varied as the acid trips themselves. The connection could be in the music, in the words, or both.
Whereas Grace Slick took her listeners into a fantasy world in songs like “White Rabbit,” Janis Joplin got real by drenching herself in blues and soul.
Most of the major acid-rock acts rooted their style in folk and blues. The Grateful Dead began as a jug band; the members of Jefferson Airplane had prior experience in folk, blues, and R&B; and both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, who were also associated with acid rock, had deep blues roots. For many of the top San Francisco–based acts, this connection with American roots music was a stronger musical bond than the drugs. Perhaps the clearest example of this came in the music of Janis Joplin.
53-3Down to Earth: Janis Joplin and the Blues
The only female performer in the San Francisco rock scene with a more commanding presence than Grace Slick was Janis Joplin (1943–1970). Like Slick, Joplin fronted a band, had a let-it-all-hang-out stage personality, and wrestled with a severe substance abuse problem. Both looked the part of the counterculture diva—both dressed and undressed. But there were differences. Slick had a striking appearance and had come from a high-class background. Before joining Jefferson Airplane, she had modeled for three years at a high-end San Francisco department store and had begun her undergraduate education at Finch College, a finishing school for young ladies. Joplin had grown up a social outcast in a Texas oil town; music was her escape. Joplin sipped while Slick tripped; Janis’s taste for Southern Comfort was legendary. (Ironically, it was Slick who later developed an alcohol abuse problem, while Joplin died of a heroin overdose.) And while Slick took her listeners into a fantasy world in songs like “White Rabbit,” Joplin got real by drenching herself in blues and soul.
Like many other young musicians of the time, Joplin migrated to San Francisco during the mid-sixties. Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin began performing in coffeehouses in her native state before traveling to California in 1965. There, she began performing with a local blues band: Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group made an enormous impact at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, thanks mainly to Joplin’s dynamic stage performance. Signed to Columbia Records, they recorded only one album with Joplin, the 1968 release Cheap Thrills. Critics praised Joplin’s singing but criticized the band for its ragged playing. Joplin soon separated from the band and became an important solo act for the rest of her brief life.
“Piece of My Heart” (1968)
Jerry Ragovoy and
Janis Joplin, vocal, with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
STYLE Acid rock ⋅ FORM Verse/chorus form
Listen For …
Lead, backup vocal, electric guitars, electric bass, drums
Joplin’s raspy voice and vocal pyrotechnics—stutters, and so on; blues-influenced guitar style
Rock rhythm in slow tempo, with frequent double-time rhythms; contrast between leisurely verse, busy verse, rock-rhythm chorus
Active, almost instrumental melody because of Joplin’s elaborations
Strong contrasts: thin texture in verse, thick texture around Joplin’s singing in bridge and chorus; all instruments active, mainly with riffs and busy lines, plus high backup vocals
BLUES-INFLUENCED ACID ROCK BAND
The standard instrumentation, blues-inspired riffs, and effects—such as the distortion and the spacey sounds and feedback at the end of the song—all connect the song to blues-oriented acid rock
Joplin’s singing is unique, not only for its basic quality, which recalls the voices of the great male soul singers, but also for its uninhibited use of an array of vocal devices and many shifts of mood
ROCK THAT IS REAL
There were dozens of bands that dug into the blues in order to invest their music with the kind of emotional honesty heard in the music of the best blues artists. Few white singers, male or female, could match Joplin’s intensity or emotional commitment.
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Joplin was rock’s original blues diva. Before Joplin, few women sang with anything approaching the supercharged passion and freedom inherent in her singing, and all of them were black. Indeed, Joplin’s singing seems to owe more to Otis Redding and other male southern soul singers than to any woman, because what distinguishes Joplin’s singing from that of other female singers is the rawness of her sound and the sheer exuberance of her performing style. She had a voice that often sounded like she had gargled with broken glass, although she could also sing as tenderly as any crooner. She combined that with a unique kind of vocal virtuosity. With its stutters, reiterations, rapid-fire streams of words, melismas, interpolations, and the like, her singing style is almost operatic in its exhibitionism.
Although Joplin thought of herself as a blues singer, most of the songs that she recorded were not blues, at least in the formal sense. Unlike the classic female blues singers of the twenties, who recorded mainly conventional blues songs, Joplin recorded a wide range of material. However, she brought blues feeling and style into everything she recorded, blues or not.
“Piece of My Heart,” a track on Cheap Thrills, was the only song of hers to reach the singles charts during her lifetime, and the album topped the charts for eight weeks in 1968.
“Piece of My Heart” remains the song most closely associated with her; two biographies include it in the title. The song had been a modest R&B hit the previous year for Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s younger sister. Her version was a solid and straightforward slow soul song. Characteristically, the lyric tells the story of a troubled relationship, here from a woman’s point of view: She is at once vulnerable and—as the lyric says—tough. Given Joplin’s history and personality, it is easy to understand why she would be eager to cover it.
The thorough transformation of the song begins with the band; the instrumental accompaniment features the kind of blues-tinged rock that was often a part of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, rather than a bass-heavy R&B sound. The instrumentation is standard: two guitars, with some distortion in the lead guitar, plus bass and drums. The rhythms are more active and freer than in a straightforward rock song.
All of this is a foil for Joplin’s soulful singing. There is enormous contrast, in volume and vocal quality, from the almost screamed opening (“Come on”) to the almost whispered verse (“Didn’t I make you feel”) to the half-spoken/half-sung (“Each time I tell myself”) and the wailed chorus. As she delivers the song, she lays herself emotionally bare—as if she had stripped off all of her clothes. Few singers of any era were willing to throw themselves into a performance the way Joplin did, and fewer had the vocal agility and range to carry it off successfully.
Janis Joplin defined a new role of women in rock. It was no longer simply being a pretty face in front of the band; Joplin matched men—black and white—in power and presence. In this respect, she paved the way for others: Patti Smith, Annie Lennox, Bonnie Raitt, and Madonna, are among those who benefited from her trail-blazing efforts.
She paid a price for her passion. With her premature death, she joined the not-exclusive-enough club of rock icons who lived too hard and died too young. Ironically, she did not live long enough to enjoy her biggest hit; “Me and Bobby McGee,” written for her by Kris Kristofferson, one of her ex-lovers, appeared on Pearl, an album released after her death. She left the album incomplete; she was to have added vocals to a track entitled “Buried Alive in the Blues” on the day she died.
Joplin and her music embody the tensions of the new womanhood that emerged in the sixties. On stage and in the studio, she is the equal of men, yet vulnerable in a specifically feminine way; she is modern in her sensibility, yet deals with timeless issues in her songs. For a new generation of women, she showed both what they might aspire to and the dangers of getting it.
The dramatic differences between “White Rabbit” and “Piece of My Heart” only hint at the diversity of the music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, which clearly evidences the stylistic explosion of the late sixties. As late as 1964, even an astute observer of rock music would have needed superior foresight to predict the many directions that rock-era music took in the latter part of the decade. The differences among songs and styles touch every aspect of the music—what songs are trying to communicate and how they communicate their message in words and music. No region more clearly exemplified this trend.