Today, it’s our pleasure to once again welcome back our very special guest blogger John Walker Ross! John, as many of you know is the Curator and Creator of the music blog ‘The Round Place In The Middle‘. There you’ll find John’s unique and always fascinating views on music and the world.
Please join us in welcoming John back to SMS with a thought provoking question that is sure to stir some debate. Here’s Johnny!
The 1960s were the most tumultuous American decade since the 1860s. Other decades (say the 1930s) may have experienced more hardship and depredation, or endured far more sacrifice (say the 1940s), but the 60’s—our 60’s—set the world on fire and upside down, promising, sometimes even delivering, more challenges to tradition, good and bad, than any generation before or since.
Is it really possible to sum up a decade like that, not merely in one album, but in one single side, be it 45 or album cut? Probably not. Yet, if we’re going to be true to the wild, contradictory spirit of the 60’s, we can’t let that stop us from trying, now, can we?
- The size of the hit doesn’t matter.
- Sound over sense.
- It had to be recorded and released in the 60’s.
- Most important: Each record had to stand alone and be epic—tell a complete tale, even if it can never be THE complete tale.
The Kinks “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (1966)
The 60s as pure anger, shouted from the underground as the world passed by. There would be a whole lot of sense in ending this discussion right here, with a Kinks (and isn’t that the perfect 60’s band name?) B-side from the decade’s rough middle, with brother Dave taking a rare lead on one of Ray Davies’ epic lyrics, as if the writer himself were a little afraid of what he had wrought. What could be more liberating than announcing you’re not like everybody else? What could be lonelier or more frightening? You could almost sum up the 60’s just by reciting the title. But there’s also the sound—entirely new and angry, not in the manner of the 70’s punk to come or the anthem-like style of the Who’s “My Generation” from the year before. Not, in other words, like anybody else.
Blues Magoos “Tobacco Road” (1966)
And if the 60’s were a sound, a feeling (and why shouldn’t it be?), why wouldn’t it be this sound? If you stuck to lyrics the Magoos’ big hit “We Aint’ Got Nothin’ Yet” would be as definitive as anything. But with this, maybe not even the tenth most famous version of J.D. Loudermilk’s perfect imitation of a folk blues that Leadbelly might have dug up somewhere, you get everything you could want: A snotty vocal, a psychedelic guitar break that, thanks to Woody Woodpecker percussion, a shredding session straight out of Dick Dale, ape calls that predated Led Zeppelin by three years and a couple of thousand other details I’m sure all these decades of listening to it pop up out of nowhere on Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets compilation haven’t revealed in full. And, if you want to get into an argument about whether that guitar break is really psychedelic or merely faux, well, what could be more definitively “60’s” than that?
Wilson Pickett “I’m In Love” (1967)
Of course, if the 60’s were a sound, you couldn’t really get to the core of things quicker than Wilson Pickett pleading over shining soul guitars, courtesy of Bobby Womack and Reggie Young, which is all this song is and all it needs to be.
Del Shannon “Runaway” (1961)
If it were just a matter of being a visionary, Del would win this little contest hands down. In the right mood, preferably long after the sun has set, this sucks in everything and does it far sooner than anything else here. At the end of the decade when John Fogerty asked who would stop the rain, didn’t everyone just assume the rain he meant was the one Charles Westover had walked in when the decade, and the country, were still young?
The Impressions “People Get Ready” (1965)
Well, the New Testament has to figure in here somewhere. When I worked for an ad agency in the 80’s, I once had to gently inform my boss and a co-worker who were going on about Rod Stewart’s cover of “this old gospel song” that it had been written by Curtis Mayfield, the same guy who did “Superfly,” in the ancient year of 1965. I’m not sure they ever believed me. But the funny thing is, “People Get Ready,” like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” could ONLY have been written in the moment when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak. I give it the edge because, if you listen closely, there’s an Old Testament warning residing within.
Peter Paul & Mary “500 Miles” (1962)
When Mary Travers died, I wrote the following:
“’500 Miles’ was recorded in 1962 and, with the tumult still largely in front of her, Travers used that completely artificial confection as a vehicle for collapsing time. Standing on the cusp of a cultural earthquake that would not have been entirely possible without her, she made a commercial folk song sound as if it had always existed and always would, as if everything that was about to happen had already been and gone and she was the only one left to speak of it. Much like the sixties themselves, her version can make you smile behind the eyes or rip your heart out–can be steeped in as much hope or damnation as a listener chooses.”
I’ll stand by that.
The Beach Boys: “The Times They Are a Changin’” (1965)
My favorite version of what plenty of people would call the definitive 60’s lyric, maybe because the Beach Boys, alone among the dozens who took a shot at it, had something to lose.
Jimi Hendrix Experience “All Along the Watchtower” (1968)
Jimi’s version of Dylan was the only one that was so great it threatened to consume Dylan himself. You want to have a shot at defining the 60’s? Consume Bob Dylan.
The Beatles “Hey Jude” (1968)
A big enough hit to make many who experienced it on the radio in ’68 sick of it forever. For those who came later, the sound of the 60’s bleeding out, available nowhere else.
Jerry Butler “Only the Strong Survive” (1969)
A record that could have only been made at the end of the 60’s, when the flame of hope that had sprung to life mid-decade was just beginning to flicker on its way to going out. If the 60’s wanted to leave a single message for the ages, it could never do better than these words and this voice.
Donovan “Season of the Witch” (1966)
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. A complete abstraction and everybody knows exactly what it means. An album cut that no one escaped. The 60’s rendered as a series of jagged images contradicting and reinforcing each other by turns. After this, I’m not really sure why anybody thought they needed drugs. To escape maybe?
Elvis Presley “If I Can Dream” (1968)
In the summer of 1968, recording a Christmas Special, Elvis stood on a sound stage in Hollywood, draped in an ice cream suit straight out of Pentecostal America accented by a red scarf some say was meant to represent the blood being shed in Viet Nam and asked the world that had supposedly passed him by “Where you been?” The words were an obvious homage to Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 speech, an encomium to utopian dreams of universal brotherhood. Elvis’s vocal turned it into the angriest record to ever be a major American hit.Not just “Where you been?” but “For God’s sake what have you done?”
Dusty Springfield “There Is No Easy Way Down” (1969)
From her epochal Dusty In Memphis album, courtesy of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. If you imagine the 60’s as a state of being suspended in time and space, floating free, just beginning to wonder if it can possibly last, then “each road you take, is one more mistake, there’s no one to break….your fall,” isn’t just a triple internal rhyme to make Cole Porter eat his heart out. It’s your worst fear realized….and confronted. It’s almost unfair to confine it to a decade, but if it must be, we don’t need to think twice about which decade earned it.
The Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird” (1963)
Hey, why shouldn’t the 60’s be defined by a record that is total gibberish…and understood by all? And why shouldn’t that record be by a surf band from the bright shining beaches of Minneapolis, Minnesota? Hey 60’s! The bird is the word. Take that!
But really, for me, if one 60’s record had to bind us all…..
Sly and the Family Stone: “Dance to the Music” (1968)
What you need an explanation? Come on now. A year later, everything was about togetherness: “Let’s Work Together,” “Get Together,” “We Can Be Together.” But the promise of Rock and Roll America, as Fats, Elvis and Richard had defined it, was that, before we could work, or get, or be together, we would have to learn to dance together and all the squares would have to go home. Sly remembered, even while everyone else was in the process of forgetting, a process that destroyed his own life and has continued apace in the long, dreary decades since. If you want to define the 60’s you have to get back there first. Then you have to want to start over and get it right this time.
If that ever happens you can bet there will only be one theme song.
But let’s be honest: Everybody has their own version of the 60’s. We’re hoping you’ll share yours!