I throw myself on the altar of your art.
Publicist Diane Gardiner, to Jimi Hendrix
Change comes from unlikely places… in this case, coffee dens, German nightclubs, second-hand blues records, and a collection of recordings made decades ago. In the backwash of rock’s first tide, creative misfits take the lead.
England, Germany, France and other nations catch rock-n-roll fever even as it dies down in America; here, though, many fans prefer authentic blues to the whitewashed product humming on U.S. airwaves. An armful of blues and rock recordings sparks one of music history’s most significant partnerships; Keith Richards re-encounters his childhood friend Mick Jagger on a train bound for London in 1960. That same year, a rough-hewn pack from Liverpool changes names from the Quarrymen to the Moondogs to Long John and the Silver Beatles, the Silver Beatles, and eventually just the Beatles. Similar collaborations spark a “British Invasion” a few years later; for the moment, though, these miscreants pay their dues in smoky dives and sweaty dance halls lodged out-of-sight in tattered Europe.
Back in the States, there’s anger in the land. War in Korea, a near-war in Cuba, and rumbles of war in Vietnam, plus race wars in the Deep South and the looming Cold War everywhere… it seems like William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” has come true. Fired by poetry, caffeine, pot and other drugs, the coffeehouse philosophers of the Beat subculture renounce mainstream America and pursue deeper authenticity. The 1952 release of the six-disc Anthology of American Folk Music answers that desire; a collection of blues and folk recordings from the ‘20s and ‘30s, the Anthology becomes a talisman of underground credibility. By the early 1960s, this coffeehouse culture breeds new heroes – most notably Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – whose voices will shape the coming storm.
(Sweet Home Alabama… Does your conscience bother you?)
Across the Southern States, the brutal oppression of black Americans sparks civil rights protests and backlash violence. Decades of faith, sorrow and rage coalesce in rhythm & blues – an energetic fusion of church gospel, backroom blues, and gritty rock-n-roll. Channeling the soul of Black America, this music rocks harder than old-style blues, yet holds jazz polish and deep-heart power. Veering, within a breath, from sacred to profane, R&B retains the defiant spirit of early rock-n-roll. James Brown storms the barricades as “Soul Brother #1,” while Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and a host of other artists turn human pain into transcendent art.
Meanwhile in the “Motor City” of Detroit, black entrepreneur Barry Gordy Jr. turns his family’s prosperity and hard-work ethic toward the smooth-soul sound of Motown Records. Realizing that success depends on acceptance from the vast white audience, Gordy takes gospel, blues and R&B artists under contract, polishes their sound and image, and then equips them with the best songs, production and backup band that money can buy. By the mid-1960s, Motown’s assembly-line approach crafts the largest string of hit records in music business history. The Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and many other artists – up to and including the Jackson 5 – rack up over 100 #1 hits within roughly a decade, driven by phenomenal songwriting teams and the often-neglected Funk Brothers backing band. And while critics claim (with some truth) that Motown tames black soul for white consumption, Gordy’s success helps break old barriers of race and industry.
The final pieces slide into place from a bizarre conflux of military politics. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the U.S. government – arrogant with power yet terrified of losing it – sends “advisers” in to take part in the Vietnamese revolt. Meanwhile, the CIA sponsors modern art as part of a culture war with Europe, and conducts secret experiments with psychotropic drugs. The Vietnam conflict escalates, and the experiments unwittingly popularize a compound called Delysid… more popularly known as LSD. When Dr. Timothy Leary and Army guinea pigs Ken Kesey and Robert Hunter go rogue (Leary with the Millbrook estate psychedelic commune, Kesey with the Merry Pranksters, and Hunter with the San Francisco music scene), rising disgust with government abuse meets psychoactive adventurism.
Around 1964, it all goes BOOM…
The gunshots that murder President Kennedy in late 1963 whips these building forces into a perfect storm. Within roughly four years, the arcane combination of war, fear, conspiracy, drugs, social upheaval, popular culture, chemical experiments, technological gadgets, mystical seeking and existential unrest sweep across the world. And at the heart of that storm is music: soul music, acid music, acoustic folk, bebop jazz, proto-punk and hard-edged metal. Music of every conceivable style, and many more besides. The artists of the age throw every drug, idea, instrument and influence imaginable into the stew. Nothing is too weird or sacred to employ. Sixties music is as vast and ineffable as the human experience. Books cannot contain it; albums simply scratch the surface. Nothing quite like it has been seen before… and really, nothing like it will ever be seen again.
Between 1960 and 1970, the modern world transforms. It’s an age of bright games and bad trips, flowers in guns and blood in the streets. A revolution in thought and mind and culture, it channels man’s best and worst aspects. Though it’ll look fun in hindsight, this era is a shooting war, with body counts and shattered homes. Through it all, music becomes the era’s most potent weapon; guns break bodies, but music blows minds. The symbols of muddy Woodstock and bloody Altamont epitomize rock-n-roll’s extremes – wild fun and brutal murder. Some artists become gods, a handful become corpses, most fly high and flame out, and quite a few wind up broke by decade’s end.
In a very real sense, this era is an act of magic. Its musical alchemy is often deliberate. Sonic shamans like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix wind occult philosophies into song; magicians like Kenneth Anger and Anton LaVey work music into rituals; faerie tales, science fiction, comic books and straight-up horror stories infuse bands like Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull, Donovan and, of course, Black Sabbath. Rolling Stones dance with Death and offer “Sympathy for the Devil.” Beatles peel glass onions and climb hills in the company of fools. The air buzzes with Iron Butterflies, Led Zeppelins, Jefferson Airplanes and Solar Arkestras. Concerts become magical rites… especially in San Francisco, where movie screens, light shows, occult invocations and copious drugs fuel mass visonquests and occasional breakdowns. An intentional tool of ex stasis, ‘60s music takes America, and the world at large, “beyond boundaries.” This scene can’t last, of course, but its music changes everything.
(Jimi, by Sebastian Whal)
This decade is the flashpoint of preceding centuries. More than just a collection of sounds and symbols, it’s a watershed of human history. Every element of that era and its music is a product of that time. Later years will lay claim to a “new Beatles” or “next Hendrix,” but those claims are impossible. The soul-shamans of the psychedelic age will become legends not simply because of talent or marketing (though most of them have plenty of both), but because of who they were, where they were, at the time they were there. On many levels, the artists who die young – the Morrisons and Hendrixes, the Joplins, Joneses, Nicos and Reddings – are the lucky ones. Those who survive the end of that era get stuck having to live up to it… and, for the most part, failing miserably.
A new, louder, darker breed of artist shambles out of the hippie-dippy shadows, too. Heralds of oblivion, they turn the most subversive impulses of the counterculture and the deepest frustrations of its betrayal into an abyssal stew. Emerging at the decade’s climax, two British ‘60s blues bands adopt sinister new names, themes, and iconography for their 1969 makeovers: Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. That same year, lyricist Pete Sinfield coins a new term for Lucifer: King Crimson. A trio of openly Satanic musicians forms the band Coven, releasing the ironically titled Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, also in ‘69. That same year greets the Charles Manson cult murders, the Altamont Speedway concert riot, the publication of LaVay’s Satanic Bible, and the birth of a malevolent musical misfit – Brian Hugh Warner, later known as Marilyn Manson – whose work will combine them all.
A small but impassioned surge of musicians adopts horror-movie trappings and gender-bending outrages: the Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Arthur Brown, and the New York Dolls. Although a planned “Satanic Woodstock,” the Black Arts Festival, winds up cancelled just before Halloween 1969, the ominous prophecies of the Doors bubble up in the following decade as heavy metal, glam, punk, and Gothic rock.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Altamont, the Manson murders, the breakup of the Beatles, and the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all occur within the two years bookending 1970. Such vast forces can’t play at that level of potency forever. As the ‘60s storm subsides, its soundtrack mellows too. The next few years see booming sales but fading inspiration. Rebellion becomes institution. Worse still, it becomes product… very tacky product.
Next up… “Sucking in the ’70s.”
(Because Fuck subtlety…)
[This article is the sixth part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2014 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]
The rest of this series can be found below: