In a world recently released from the hardships of the second world war a new species emerged, that of the teenager. No more interested in the grey drabness of the austere 1950’s, the children who later became known as the Boomers found they suddenly had money of their own to spend in ways previously unimaginable by the generations who came before them. This group became fashion conscious, hip and cool. They searched out ways to entertain themselves with the centre of that new obsession being the pop culture emerging from the United States of America. Cinema, with film stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, excited. Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and hip artists like Jackson Pollack grabbed the consciousness. Most important, however, was Rock ‘n’ Roll with its roots in Black American music being made by the likes of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly making this art form the most important development in culture of the late twentieth century.
This art form was very much in the here and now. It had to be affordable and instant, but also exciting. Something that manifested itself in the 45rpm single, a format that was easy to market, cheap to supply and, in a world before streaming services and downloading, simple. A song of two or three minutes length on side one and one or two songs on the flip. Easily played by radio disc jockeys, in café juke boxes or on simple Dansette record players in teenagers bedrooms, the single became king. The Billboard 100 in the USA and the Top 40 in the UK it’s bible.
Although originating in the USA by the early 1960’s the centre of the singles world had moved from Nashville and Memphis to the UK. And more specifically to the North West of England, to the city of Liverpool, where its future was entrusted to a pair of Scouse songwriters; John Lennon and Paul McCartney and their band The Beatles. Between 1962 and 1970 The Fab Four racked up number 1 after number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and in the process inspired other acts in the UK and the USA.
One thing John, Paul,, George and Ringo were not content to do was to sit on their laurels. To continue just doing the same thing as easy and profitable it would have been to do so. They were true innovators. By 1967, when they released the psychedelic masterpiece, Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they had developed their music to truly stamp their mark on the rest of the history of popular music. This development meant moving away from being a single’s band with albums being ‘just’ a collection of 10 or 12 two minute songs about love to creating albums that would later be referred to as concepts. Songs had stories and depth, meaning and messages. Perhaps as a reaction to their audiences growing up with many of their fans by 1965 leaving their teens moving into work or higher education bands like the Beatles felt confident to supply a product that cost more money but also required and rewarded greater intellectual and emotional involvement. From the middle of the 1960’s albums became the prevalent art form in popular music with this blog examining the importance of a number of albums from that period that have had, and continue to do so to this day, an influence on the art form.
For many people my age, born two years after the Fab Four split, our first introduction to the band was through the two compilation albums known as the red and blue albums that seemingly every household in the late 70’s had. Even people who weren’t huge Beatles fans had these albums in their vinyl collections. I still own my parents original copies. These albums were handily split into two distinct sections, 1962 – 1966 and 1967 – 1970, and comprised the singles the band released in those two eras. I do not think it was by accident, other than the handy demarcation of splitting the career approximately in the middle, that this split was chosen. As I explained in the introduction, there was a moment in time when The Beatles moved from being a ‘singles’ band to an ‘album’ band for which the release of Sgt.Pepper’s in 1967 the right moment to highlight. The process to get to this point, for which the later Beatles albums become barometers of how to create this art form, was an evolution that had started a couple of years previous with an album released in December 1965. In the list of influential albums of this decade the most important Beatles album is Rubber Soul.
This album was the point at which you can see the Beatles music develop with the introduction of new instrumentation, George Harrison’s interest in Eastern mysticism saw him bring the Indian Sitar to be played on songs like ‘Norwegian Wood’. Add to that the production of George Martin who brought his experience of classical music to include string arrangements or unusual instruments such as harpsichords to the process Rubber Soul is more than one or two steps away from the two guitars, bass and drums with vocal harmonies that had characterised popular music for the previous decade. That’s not to say that the band had eschewed the format entirely. The 14 songs on the album weighed in a little over 35 minutes in total with you ‘You Won’t See Me’ lasting 3 minutes 18 seconds the longest track. The album still delivered number one singles too. The singles did have a harder edge, typified by the proto heavy rock of ‘Day Tripper’, a song that was later covered by The Jimi Hendrix Experience in an incendiary version, that was seemingly a world away from the ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Love Me Do’s’ from earlier in their career. Without a doubt Rubber Soul is the point at which British pop music began to grow up and mature.
Rubber Soul didn’t just throw a rocket up the British scene either. Over on the West Coast of the USA another musical genius was sprinkling magic dust on the recording process. Brian Wilson, a founder member of the surf band The Beach Boys, had retired from touring to concentrate on creating what he wished to be ‘the greatest rock album of all time.’ Undoubtedly inspired by The Beatles and their experimentations Wilson created Pet Sounds. An album, like much of his Liverpudlian counterparts work, almost impossible, with the constraints of technology of the time, to perform live. Wilson layered instrumentations and arrangements that created the blue print for studio production that has both stood the test of time and can still be seen influencing bands and artistes to this very day. This album took almost nine months to create instigating and innovating many techniques that are now standard procedures in the creative process. It would be too simplistic to say that albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon would not have existed without Pet Sounds, for sure The Floyd would have developed these skills for themselves, but it is not untrue to say that thanks to Wilson and his obsessive attention to detail and innovation that he hastened the creation of the concept album. And it is also true that this album also inspired Paul McCartney, in particular, to create their concept album masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Whilst the Beatles were leading the US Invasion of British beat music, taking American Rock ‘n’ Roll and developing it to have a British voice, a different section of the UK music scene was helping to keep alive another genre of music from the other side of the pond. Influenced by the records brought across by American servicemen hip young British music fans were discovering the recordings of the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Robert Johnson. The Rhythm and Blues music of the deep south, electrified in Chicago, had made its way to the turntables of youngsters who picked up electric guitars and learnt to play the Blues. By the early 1960’s bands had formed playing covers of those American greats, many of whom, at that time, were largely forgotten or ignored in their homeland. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that bands like The Bluesbreakers, The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones saved American blues music from obscurity and death.
It is also true that in those early days these bands were not perhaps developing the music. Rather more they paid homage to those influeces. Those bands did, however, start the careers of virtuoso players of the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. All players who went onto to develop blues music in the latter years of the 60’s into the 70’s through bands such as Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. But a spark was needed to inspire those developments which came on the day in late 1966 when Chas Chandler, the bassist with The Animals, brought over from the States a 24 year old former paratrooper and session guitarist with acts such as the Isley Brothers and Little Richard to London. That guitarist was James Marshall Hendrix, better known as Jimi, who went on to front the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The Experience, formed with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, created the template by which blues music developed into a powerful and heavy sound, begetting in it’s wake the genres such as progressive rock and heavy metal. It was, though, a development that was very nearly still born with an alleged argument about the bands debut single, a version of an Appalachian folk song, Hey Joe, chosen by manager Chandler. Hendrix it is suggested wasn’t keen on recording a song that to him at least, and potentially many other African-American’s, had racist connotations and initially refused to record it. Chandler was determined that the band would release the song and told Hendrix that if he didn’t he’d be put on the next plane to New York and obscurity. Suffice it to say the track was cut and history was made.
The next step after garnering a reputation as an incendiary player on the UK live circuit was to begin work on the debut album to be called ‘Are You Experienced.’ Recorded in late 1966 through to April 1967 the original UK release featured 11 self-penned songs that, whilst firmly in the Blues tradition, showed off Hendrix’s skills as an innovator bringing in elements of psychedelia all played with a power stemming from the rhythm section behind him. It would be easy to suggest that Are You Experienced is just a proto heavy rock album to be listened to with the amps turned up to 11 but that would be doing this work an injustice, There are moments on this album, such as the beguiling ‘May This Be Love’ which opens side two, that have an almost gentle and persuasive tone. Albeit one that drives with the throbbing power that Redding and Mitchell were able to provide.
The importance of ‘Are You Experienced’ and the emergence of Hendrix is three-fold. Firstly Hendrix inspired a white hot streak of British power blues that lasted for the remainder of the decade. Albums like Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears’, ‘Led Zeppelin 1’ and ‘2’ and ‘Truth’ by The Jeff Beck Group all took blues music on a journey that inspired guitar based music. Secondly it showed what could be done with the music that had come before and that you could develop it anyway you wanted to. Rules were there to be broken but broken with respect to the music that inspired. And thirdly it inspired a new generation of players who were more than happy to break the rules and create something new, shocking and exciting.
In 1967 a group formed in North London by teenage friends called Fairport Convention. They were initially influenced by the music emanating from Greenwich Village of the likes of Bob Dylan before their undoubted talent took them in new directions. Despite the tender years of the band’s core members, guitarists Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson and bassist Ashley Hutchings, within two years they had created and started a whole new sub genre of music that came to be known as folk rock. The band went through a number of personnel changes between inception and the release of it’s seminal album, Liege & Lief, in 1969 with drummer Dave Mattacks, singer Sandy Denny and fiddle player Dave Swarbrick augmenting the line up. The result of this, which started with two albums, What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking, in early 1969, inspired by the traditional roots of Denny and Swarbrick, was an immersion in the world of English folk songs. However, Fairport were much more than just a folk band given that they had exceptional songwriters in their midst coupled with one of the greatest lead electric guitarists, Thompson, on the roster. What this meant was, like Jimi Hendrix two years before, Fairport Convention were able to take traditional music in a direction that was, whilst remaining respectful of it’s influences, truly innovative and fresh and in the process revitalising a format that may easily have become moribund and irrelevant. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have been met with resistance, to this day folk traditionalists will fight and fight against the introduction of electrification into ‘their’ music. However, a seismic event had occurred 3 or so years before that had allowed bands like Fairport Convention, to take traditional music on a journey into the future.
The importance of Liege & Lief to the world of music is immense. It paired, helped no end by the abilities of the players, fiddle and electric lead guitar in a way that has endured to this day. It opened up a world of songs that continues to be mined. Songs that tell the history of the people of the British Isles keeping those stories alive in the 21st century. It inspired some of the world’s best musicians to create their own folk tinged works. Would Led Zeppelin IV have been the album it was without Liege & Lief?
It wasn’t just in the UK that traditional music was being taken on a journey into the future. The USA, and in particular music city Nashville, Tennessee, was in need of a re-boot. By the late 1960’s country music was in a bit of the doldrums. Stars like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie had long left the rocky road whilst others, Johnny Cash especially, had found the temptations of drink and drugs too much for any continued creativity. Whilst there were new stars appearing in Nashville, their hey day was a little further away. In 1968, however, salvation came from an unexpected quarter with psychedelic pop hippies, The Byrds, shipping over from California to record a new album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in the capital of country music. Originally intended to be an exhaustive history of 20th century American music encompassing not only country but also jazz and rhythm and blues the album became, with the recruitment of a little known young Texan called Gram Parsons, known as the first country rock album.
The enigmatic Parson’s sojourn with The Byrd’s was short-lived. His relationship with the band, and in particular guitarist Roger McGuinn, was fractious, perhaps due to his hard livin’ hard partyin’ lifestyle, and resulted in him leaving the band within six months. In those six months, however, the band had written and recorded, albeit with Parson’s vocals being replaced on the initial release, an album’s worth of songs that became the template for what became known as Country Rock. This was a genre that showed the country world a road to take, a route taken by the likes of The Eagles with the attendant success they achieved in the 1970’s. In the process of this it also gave rise to bands from outside of the Nashville centre to put their own stamp on their version of country music from the Texan blues of ZZ Top through the deep southern rock of the likes of the Allman Brothers and Lynard Skynard to the Californian sounds of the aforementioned Eagles.
If Fairport Convention and The Byrd’s were at the forefront of taking existing music formats and going somewhere new in the sixties the decade was also responsible for the creation of completely new music forms. Perhaps fuelled by experimentation in mind altering substances, and most prevalently LSD, bands and artistes were keen to open up the doors of perception and to disappear down a rabbit hole of seemingly unlimited potential. Known as progressive music this was music that seemingly ignored the rules of short snappy songs designed for chart success. Indeed, progressive bands had more in common with classical music. Tracks would be full of almost orchestral arrangements using the latest technologies. Later developments would see whole sides of albums given over to one piece of music separated into sections or suites. This was music to be listened to. It was music based round themes often based in mythology or literary works. It was music purely designed for more mature adult listeners.
The commonly acknowledged moment that progressive music became a thing was the 26th of May, 1967 the day on which The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It can be argued that even then this was an album still with half an eye on singles success. The Beatles would never ever really cast off the shadow of their earlier years. The album did, though, open a door through which other acts were happy to follow. The late sixties saw the emergence of acts like The Nice, King Crimson and Soft Machine who all created quasi-classical masterpieces. Indeed Keith Emerson of The Nice teamed up with drummer Carl Palmer and King Crimson’s Greg Lake to form ELP recording albums overtly influenced by art and classical music. Before all these bands there was an album released just two or so months after that famous Beatles album.
Pink Floyd was formed by friends and students Keith ‘Syd’ Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason in 1965. Spending the next 18 months or so building their reputation as an experimental live band in London clubs such as the UFO the Floyd were able to team cutting edge psychedelic light shows to their music that owed as much to free-form jazz fusion as it did to the rock and blues to create a scene and a stir not previously seen in hip and happening London. Along with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton taking blues in a heavy direction Floyd chartered as yet unexplored musical waters that culminated in their debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn that was released in August 1967. Named after a chapter in Kenneth Graham’s children’s book The Wind In The Willows the album gave main songwriter Barrett license to build into his lyrics his love of nonsense poetry and fantastical tales of the likes of Lear and Carroll. And with the playing of his bandmates replicating as best they could the sheer sonic audaciousness of their live performances Piper rates as one of the most far out debut albums of all time.
It is well documented history that Syd Barrett’s star was one that burnt brightly but quickly. Early in 1968 David Gilmour was brought into the band to firstly augment as a guitarist to cover Barrett’s increasingly erratic behaviour as his reliance on mind altering drugs became more problematic before Gilmour eventually replaced Barrett later that year. Barrett did release two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, but he was unable to cope with public life and settled into life as a reclusive artist in his home city Cambridge dying, aged 60, from pancreatic cancer. With this one album he recorded with Pink Floyd Barrett fully opened up possibilities for those acts that followed most importantly in the subjects and influences that lyricists could use for inspiration. Add to this the ability of all five members of Pink Floyd to push the boundaries of what could be achieved sonically with that influence being seen in not only progressive music but also electronica to this very day.
The next album in this blog was actually released in February 1970 but as the recording took place on one single day in October 1969 it qualifies as a sixties album. It is also the defining album to show how far music had moved in such a short time. From the release of Hendrix’s Are You Experienced to Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut was less than 36 months. A period that saw more musical roads created than almost the rest of popular musical history. It is without doubt the most shocking and visceral debut album of the 1960’s. Music fans hearing the darkly satanic overtones that emanated from Messrs. Osbourne, Iommi, Ward and Butler will have been challenged and quite possibly frightened like never before.
The sound that Black Sabbath created was very much borne of the bands environment. Hailing from the industrial heartlands of Birmingham, growing up on the edge of the Black Country, into social deprivation and a life ahead of them working in dark, dirty and unhealthy foundries and factories like their fathers and grandfathers before them, the future for young lads in these towns and cities was grim and potentially short. A nihilistic outlook on life was almost guaranteed. An attitude that went into Sabbath’s music.
What set Sabbath apart was two-fold. Firstly the sound came from what could now be seen as a lucky accident when guitarist Tony Iommi. aged just 17, trapped two of his fret hand fingers in a sheet metal press crushing them. Adversity being the mother of invention in this case Iommi, in order to be able to play his guitar, set about creating false finger tips fashioned out of washing up liquid bottle tops. Finding he still couldn’t play a normally strung guitar he had to make adjustments concentrating on playing chords and using banjo strings amongst other changes giving the distinctive down tuned and heavier sound. It should also be no surprise that this sound is reminiscent of the heavy industry that Iommi had worked in and which had contributed to creating the circumstances by which the heavy metal guitar template was created.
The sound alone was not enough to totally set Sabbath apart from other heavy bands of the time. Lyrically they had to create something different. Here the influences before them of bands like Pink Floyd exploring the world of books and fantasy gave the lead. Black Sabbath broke through a taboo though exploring the world of the occult and writers like Aleister Crowley to create songs that invoked devils, death, sacrifice and other nefarious acts. In doing so they created controversy amongst god fearing self appointed guardians of morality resulting in indignation and criticism from church leaders and politicians alike. Of course, in creating this furore, Sabbath’s music only became more interesting and needed by impressionable and rebellious young music fans.
Black Sabbath went onto become a by word for hedonism, least not through the behaviour of their lead singer and appointed prince of darkness Ozzy Osbourne. Their excesses are legendary the crashes spectacular and the comedowns mind-blowing. All of them have lived the rock and roll cliché for all it is worth. Sabbath are, however, much more than just comic book rock stars. Their legacy in creating heavy metal is never lost upon acts like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Metallica and is always acknowledged. Their debut album is both a fitting epitaph for the development of album music in the late 1960’s whilst heralding in the next decade of music that saw an another explosion in different forms of guitar rock such as glam and punk.
The seven albums highlighted in this blog all took music in new directions. They all are by acts prepared to bend and break rules without fear. To risk the wrath of traditionalists or to confound music fans alike. To be brave in what they were doing. To take risks and to trust their audience to understand what they were trying to achieve. Would these bands, however, been able to do this without an artist having the sheer audaciousness to break the rules in the first place? I would suggest no. There was a need for a messiah like figure to rise up to show the music world the potential that was ahead of them. That messiah was a young Jewish folk singer from Duleth, Minnesota called Robert Zimmerman, better known to the world as Bob Dylan.
Up to 1965 Bob Dylan, working out of Greenwich Village in New York, playing an acoustic guitar and singing songs of protest inspired by his hero Woody Guthrie, had become the poster boy of traditional American music. Dylan, though, in ’65 committed the ultimate folk heresy. He plugged in and went electric. The catalyst for this was the release in August of that year his masterpiece album Highway 61 Revisited. We say masterpiece, but to many people this album was received with revulsion and outright hatred. The stories are legendry, from folk godfather Pete Seeger taking an axe to the electric wires at the Newport Folk Festival to the cries of ‘Judas’ that greeted Dylan on his UK tour later that year as shown in Martin Scorcese’s excellent documentary film ‘No Direction Home’. The reaction was violent and visceral.
To this commentator looking back and not having been around in those days the reaction seems incredulous and remarkably short-sighted. From the opening drum fill and Hammond organ majesty of Like A Rolling Stone through the following eight tracks to the final acoustic 11 minute epic Desolution Row Highway 61 Revisited is an album that rewards and confounds in equal measure. It doesn’t so much break the rules as rip up the book and re-write them. With the one and only rule being there are no rules. And in doing so became the most important and influential album of all time. An album that holds a resonance to this day. An album that has it’s fingers in the pies of all the other albums mentioned in this blog.
There are so many parts of this album that seep into all the other albums written about here. The songs don’t proscribe to being radio friendly snippets of verse, chorus, instrumental, verse, chorus 2 minute wonders. The two opening tracks are both six minutes long. Musically innovative pairing up instruments not previously heard on recordings up till now that gave permission to other bands to experiment with their own interesting combinations. It is also an album that took time to create, not necessarily in the studio recorded as it was in 6 or 7 days over two sessions in New York, but in the process to write and build the songs. Dylan had returned from a UK tour in early 1965 burnt out and disillusioned with the music business with the result being he took himself away into almost reclusiveness to re-find his mojo and embark on a new creative process.
Perhaps most importantly, and the element of this album that has inspired and influenced most heavily, is Dylan’s lyricism. On this album Dylan goes full throttle with his narrative full of meaning from the absurd to the profound. As previously commentated music up to this point had been mostly from the She Loves Yous and Since My Baby Left Me school of song writing. For certain no one had ever had even the thought to add a line like ‘the sun ain’t yellow, its chicken’ to a song. Dylan is a master poet as demonstrated by his Nobel Prize for Literature’ with Highway 61 Revisited being the album where the artist really hit his straps.
Highway 61 Revisited is an amazing album on which Dylan absorbed all the elements of American music that made him the man he was before remoulding it into something so unbelievably new and fresh it couldn’t help but inspire those around him and those that followed. This is the legacy of this album. From Rubber Soul to Black Sabbath the influence of Dylan’s masterpiece is obvious. And it is an influence that permeates through out the music that followed. August 30th 1965 was the day music grew up and the catalyst for that was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.