The summer that rock grew up

guitar-756322_1280 I’ve been on a buzz with classic rock lately, inspired by recent reunion concerts and especially by the 50th anniversary of a very consequential summer for rock & roll.

As mentioned in detail in an earlier post, The Byrds’ recording of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”—with its surrealistic flow-of-consciousness imagery—was a paradigm break for popular music, kicking off the summer of 1965 in poetic fashion. Suddenly, lyrics were worth listening to on AM radio. But that song was only the beginning.

Three groundbreaking singles followed it up the charts over the next two months: “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones; “Like a Rolling Stone” by Dylan himself; and “Help!” by the Beatles. Thanks to a swerve in direction by what had quickly become the ruling troika of rock—Beatles, Stones, and Dylan—popular music as an art and as an industry began a major pivot that summer which is still being felt a half-century later.

Though The Beatles had single-handedly resuscitated rock & roll as a life form 16 months earlier—and would breathe new life into it in subsequent years—it was Dylan’s influence that had rock critics and fans take "the words" seriously. Dylan had already re-imagined folk music, but now he was lobbing a grenade into the musical mainstream. Prior to that, few would confuse art (or poetry) with rock & roll. And few would look to rock songs for serious truth-telling.

While “Mr. Tambourine Man” was still climbing the charts, the Stones released “Satisfaction”—their most primitive and primal song to date, yet with an urban literary flourish. Delivered with a driving beat and sneering cynicism, a song written explicitly about sexual non-satisfaction became the #1 song in America for a month! Over the last half century “Satisfaction” has remained the Stones’ most popular tune—and tops many critics’ lists as the best rock song ever.

Then out of nowhere John Lennon and The Beatles sang what he was actually, really, honestly feeling (“Help! I need somebody”)—which served as a wake up to Beatle fans who were beginning to pay attention to lyrics. (Lennon had bared his soul seven months earlier in “I’m a Loser,” but that song was performed with so much good-time spirit, the message was lost on most listeners.) From then on The Beatles too would be truth-tellers.

The day after the release of “Help!” Dylan came out swinging with his six-minute-and-thirteen-second interrogative blast (“How does it feel to be on your own?”). It’s no surprise that Rolling Stone Magazine picked “Like a Rolling Stone” as it’s #1 choice in its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.“ It also reported, “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time."

The fact that these four amazing songs could be heard that summer blasting out of transistor radios on the beach in the same hour told us the planet’s gravitational field had just shifted.

Dylan’s live pivot occurred at the Newport Folk Festival five days after the release of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Many have written about the tectonic change that Dylan’s live appearance with an electric band wrought—and none better than Elijah Wald in his recent tome, Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties. (This book deserves a review here, which I will post in the coming weeks.) As Wald put it, Dylan signaled “the end of the folk revival as a mass movement and the birth of rock as the mature artistic voice of a generation.”

The music industry of course had to respond to these new currents by signing more artistically oriented acts in the coming months and years—and releasing albums that actually had literary merit.

There’s a larger point to be made about innovation which shouldn’t be overlooked here—which I’ve been beating over the head of my patient blog readers for eight years. Innovation is essentially “recombinative.” As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” As author Oded Shenkar said, it’s a “novel recombination” of what already exists. (See my earlier post on that here.) Dylan fused poetic literacy with traditional folk music, R&B, and rock & roll (among other things). The result was a stunningly original musical landscape.

The Beatles continued the alchemy by absorbing Dylan’s pioneering into their music—which was immediately felt in Rubber Soul, their most sophisticated album to date.

Thanks to the summer of 65, popular music would never be the same again.

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  1. Recombinative. Good word.

    My mysteries are at the overlap of noir and cozy (I call 'em Chandleresque cozies.) Steal from both, appeal to the thin slice rather than the masses.

    I wish I could do recombinative better.

    Musically, it is bizarre that the chords to Like a Rolling Stone are

    C Dm Em F G

    which don't make no sense. Except it works. You don't write "C D E F G" in a song. Except, he did.

    Not necessarily recombinative, but certainly unorthodox.

    1. Well, folks that were learning to write songs on the white keys of a piano would often play that progression. (I think I did, many moons ago.) You just start with C and move up the scale. I'll bet Dylan was doing that.

  2. Good post, John.
    The Beatles and Dylan made "intelligence" popular in music. Before them, music was simply entertainment either for dancing or in the background... musicians weren't required to be smart, thoughtful, or introspective, just good looking (like nowadays).

    So, I guess we've come full circle.

  3. Great post John. I hope you will find a way to combine all of these into a definite book on music and culture in the sixties and how it affected our generation and the American experience.

    1. Thanks, Bill. Like I always say, if anyone wants me to write a book on anything and is willing to pay for enough copies in advance, I'll get started on it right away. :-) But I also have a business book to get out this millennium.

  4. Boy, that summer lasted a really long time. I would not have thought all of that musical talent emerged all at once. I think that is when I began liking music (yup, I was slow to join in).

  5. I loved those moments and remember clearly the first time I heard each song... I also fell helplessly in love. My life was each of those songs at that time

    1. Yes, if you were lucky enough to be on the planet then (and old enough to assimilate song lyrics) how could you NOT be knocked out by those songs? Each one was a game changer. (Some might argue that "Help!" wasn't as monumental as the other three, but I'd rank it among the best of the Fab Four tracks — and it did set a new lyrical direction for Lennon.)

  6. Don't overlook the Beach Boys! By 1965, they'd given us "In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby," "When I Grow Up To Be a Man," "I Get Around" and many others. Maybe these songs aren't lyrically up to the same standards as Dylan but I'd put them easily on a par with the Beatles and the Stones, maybe ahead. Teenage symphonies to God...

    And I haven't mentioned Chuck Berry yet. The reason rock n' roll turned to mush in the early 60's was largely a backlash against the great man. (OK, great rock n' roll artist. The stories about him as a person aren't so appetising.)

    1. Fair point, Mark. The Beach Boys belong on Mt. Olympus too but I see summer 1966 as their pivotal year—with Pet Sounds and "God Only Knows" (which ranks in my Top 10 for greatest pop songs of all time). The lyrics to many of their songs (when supplied by Mike Love or Brian himself) often didn't match Brian's harmonic and melodic genius, BUT when Brian found himself a talented co-writer (like Gary Usher for "In My Room" or Tony Asher for "God Only Knows," "Caroline, No," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," etc.) the results were stellar.

      1. If you haven't already seen the recent film, "Love & Mercy" then I'd strongly recommend you do so. Here in the UK it got some mixed reviews because people didn't like that it focused on just 2 periods in Brian's life; it used a different actor for each period; and it keeps jumping back and forth in time - it isn't linear. I thought it was one of the best films I've seen in a long while. Oh, and when the credits start to roll, stay seated... you'll soon see (and hear) why.

        1. Thanks, Mark. It's on my list. But I'm way behind in my movie-viewing. It will be available in Betamax, right?

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