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.