"We do not use any original material - after all, can you imagine a British composed R&B number - it just wouldn't make it."
- Mick Jagger, Jazz News
For a music lover of my disposition and vintage (I was born in 1969), the mid sixties seems like an almost impossibly adventurous, optimistic, forward thinking and accelerated era in popular music. By today's glacial standards, such progress and ambition seems almost too good to have actually happened within such a brief time span. Yet, if I am to believe history (and my record collection), it most certainly did.
Did the journey from "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" to "I Am The Walrus" really only occur within less than three years? And did it also encompass "See My Friends", "Norwegian Wood", "Eight Miles High", "Friday On My Mind", "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "Ballad Of A Thin Man", "Seven And Seven Is", "Pictures Of Lily", "Summer In The City", "I'm Only Sleeping", "Reach Out (I'll Be There)", "Good Vibrations", "Visions Of Johanna", "Third Stone From The Sun", "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night", "Penny Lane", "Light My Fire", "See Emily Play", "White Rabbit", "A Day In The Life", "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago", "Itchycoo Park", "Expecting To Fly", "A Whiter Shade Of Pale", Forever Changes, Odessey And Oracle, "Paper Sun", "I Can See For Miles", Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, "2000 Light Years From Home", and many more too numerous to mention?
(One need only consult the seemingly endless number of LPs in the Nuggets, Pebbles, and Rubble series for a seemingly bottomless well of diamonds in the rough. In the CD age, many of these highlights are collected in handy boxed sets. And, for fans of the era, there are countless new gems to discover. I myself only heard Timebox's stunning "Gone Is The Sad Man" less than two years ago.)
Seen with hindsight from an era when You Are The Quarry follows on 6 or 7 years after Maladjusted (is Morrissey mope rock's own Axl Rose?), and even the comparatively brisk pace of the Strokes, White Stripes, or Flaming Lips (a mere 2 or 3 years between LPs) reveals no great progress or seeming connection with any forward moving collective gestalt, the "psychedelic era" seems downright incredible. And more than a little inspiring/inspired.
There is no debating that the delusional hubris of psychedelic drugs played some part in the rapidly changing landscape of pop (circa 66-67), and even an enthusiast like myself is happy to concede that trendiness and cynicism infected some portion of this snowballing evolution - yet, I don't consider "Pictures Of Matchstick Men" (Quo), "She's My Girl" (The Turtles), "Incense And Peppermints" (Strawberry Alarm Clock), "Good Thing" (Paul Revere And The Raiders), "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" (Amboy Dukes), "It's Wonderful" (Rascals), "I Saw Her Again" (The Mamas and Papas), "Reflections" (Diana Ross and The Supremes), "Green Tambourine" (The Lemon Pipers), "Fakin It" (Simon And Garfunkel), "Colour My World" (Petula Clark), or "Porpoise Song" (The Monkees) anything less than glorious relics of a time when seemingly everyone (bar Dave Clark, perhaps) was carrying the torch for a colourful naive ambition which seemingly knew no bounds. Yes, even the squares were looking for new sounds.
Does much of it sound quaint now? Well yes...and no. There is an element of "Listen To The Flower People" or "Cups And Cakes" in much of Donovan's work, and I can chuckle snidely in my own knowing way at "My Friend Jack" (The Smoke) with its thinly veiled and clumsy drug shorthand. Yet - and let there be no mistake about it - "My Friend Jack" absolutely fucking rocks! Was it naive? No more so than any other optimistic movement in popular music. XTC's Dukes Of Stratosphere LPs may be a good laugh, and may conceal some knowing snideness within ticklish and playful lyrics like "2033/ Cannabis in tea/What in the world/Acid is free" - but considering that it was this very exercise which eradicated the very dreary dead-end of The Big Express, I'd like to think that the Swindon mob were looking back somewhat fondly and wistfully at such a hopeful and experimental age.
Based on the evidence above, one could accurately state that pop musicians (certainly the likes of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, and Dylan - and in their own way, even the likes of the Bee Gees and Jimmy Webb) were on a rapidly expanding course of boundless optimism, experimentation, and forward momentum.
So, what went wrong?
If I'm being realistic, any number of factors could be seen to have contributed to the hasty retreat of the experimental brigade.
Yet, what received wisdom (certainly that of the music press) now tells me is that (and I'm being horribly over simplistic and broad about this) seemingly every one of these musicians heard the Band's Music From Big Pink and immediately felt outdated and insincere.
Suddenly, it was time to discover/return to one's roots (which I mostly consider a crock of shit. If one truly has roots, they'll flourish and inform one's work without being deliberately emphasised). With great haste.
Psychedelia and ambition were out. Traditional and decidedly non-baroque plaintive stylings were in. Mellotrons were out. The blues and country were in. Sitars were out. Beards were in. Unusual melodies, chord changes and harmonies were out. Acoustic guitars and hillbilly song structures were in. Studio experimentation was out. Affected rural/regional accents were in.
(I quote the following excerpts from John Harris' masterful and highly recommended article on the effects of Big Pink/Basement Tapes in MOJO 121: "....(this) music played the key role in wrenching London's musical aristocracy out of the glassy-eyed reverie of psychedelia, and pointing the way back to an altogether more timeless approach." "Suddenly the quest for endless novelty, lysergic visions, and ever-more strange sounds seemed strangely behind-the-times." "Cellophane flowers, mice called Gerald, and people who could hear the grass grow now seemed like totems of an altogether different age.")
Indeed, there was a new trend - and it seems that all but a few of pop's princes were racing each other to get there first.
Witness the shift between The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (see "Phenomenal Cat") and Arthur (see "Brainwashed"). Davies' newfound mushmouth vocal technique underlined this transistion quite nicely.
The Bee Gees (once dark lords of mid sixties experimentation - "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You", "New York Mining Disaster") even turned in their own cack-handed hillbilly/Band readymade ("Marley Purt Drive") on the shell shocked Odessa.
Eric Clapton, of course, seems the most vocal and prominent turncoat of them all. He immediately disbanded Cream, and time and time again he has credited the Band with forcing his hand (I'm sure it has nothing to do with Cream's inherent naffness, right?). A friend of mine who has no love for Big Pink claims that intial exposure left him proclaiming "That sounds like Clapton. I hate it!"
What do we think happened here? Was Clapton merely following his muse? Or is/was he (as I've always suspected) one of those musicians whose insatiable quest for "authenticity" prevents them from making any worthwhile contributions to the forward momentum of popular music (not to be churlish, but - absent a Keith Relf, Jack Bruce or Duane Allman - Clapton was generally a sideman in frontman's clothing)? Or was he merely hiding from the far more advanced, singular, and gifted Jimi Hendrix - who almost cruelly appeared on the London scene within months of the "GOD" graffiti? This last question is not entirely without merit - to this very day, Clapton bitterly (and somewhat inaccurately) whinges in interviews about how Cream could scarcely get arrested in the US because fans and the press were so besotted with Are You Experienced? Did Clapton have to change his game plan and fast?
Luckily, the Rolling Stones were just hitting their stride - and (despite great efforts to pander to the new rootsy approach) couldn't help but produce one lyrical, singular, and forward looking masterpiece after another ("Sympathy For the Devil", "Gimme Shelter", "Jumping Jack Flash", "Midnight Rambler", "Honky Tonk Women", "You Can't Always Get What You Want"). As far as I'm concerned, they got lucky. They were just too good to fuck up at this point. Left to their own worst magpie tendencies, they'd have plunged head first into this new rootsy abyss faster than you can say "Sing This All Together".
As for the fabs - well, they held out briefly. The Beatles was no less accomplished than what had preceeded it (to my ears, "Happiness Is A Warm Gun", "Hey Jude", "I'm So Tired", "Revolution 9", "Julia", "Martha My Dear", et. al. demonstrate an older/wiser continuation of their tireless progress). Get Back/Let It Be, however, was an ill conceived rootsy dead end for which they paid dearly.
(I can leave Brian Wilson out of this, as he seemingly abandoned the race for newer things well in advance of Basement Tapes/Big Pink/John Wesley Harding.)
Ah, yes. Bob Dylan - to what degree is he culpable? I think the fact that he sat out 1967 is significant. The mystique built up around him must have been incredible. Whereas the average pop fan might not have been looking to Dylan for "the next big thing", you know Jagger, Lennon, Harrison, Hendrix, and Clapton did. Were my heroes more in thrall to him than I would like to admit (seeing as Bowie ruins a perfectly good album with the imaginitively titled "Song for Bob Dylan", I think this question is largely hypothetical)? Was he the uber "followed leader"? Would pop's vanguard all have gone prog if Dylan had surfaced with In The Court Of The Crimson King instead of Basement Tapes/John Wesley Harding?
And what of the british beat enthusiasts who refused to back down? Tommy was, presumably, well under way when the likes of Clapton and the Stones were licking their wounds, and Townshend had a long, long way to go (Who's Next, Quadrophenia) before his own quest for the new was tempered by mid 70's rock bloat and a gargantuan identity crisis. Townshend may have paid lip service to the idea of "good old rock and roll" during this changing of the guard, but the records don't lie - he was on a mighty quest, and stood his experimental and futuristic ground.
It seems worth noting that black popular music - at least in America - kept right on progressing*. Motown - slightly timewarped, perhaps - grew ever more baroque and experimental (neither Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye seemed too fussed about something as spurious as "roots" or "authenticity" - their evolution into a more genuine place seemed nothing short of highly ambitious and forward thinking). The likes of the Chi Lites, Delfonics, Stylistics, and Dramatics seemed to be hitting a glorious post-psychedelic peak in the early 70's. Ditto Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, and Barry White. Perhaps Clapton, et. al. were following the wrong leaders and watching the wrong parking meters.
Was this a good thing? Does the fact that an "I Am The Walrus" would have been out of step just a few months after release speak well or ill of a fickle and seemingly very trendy pop music scene? Does the rapturous response granted to the likes of Soft Bulletin, OK Computer, or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in later years indicate that people, in the main, wanted this naive momentum back and felt shortchanged by the rustic search for credibility and roots?
And where did all of this "back to the roots" business ultimately lead, anyhow? Sha Na Na? 461 Ocean Blvd.? Wolfman Jack? Jonathan Edwards? Rock 'N' Roll? Singer/songwriters? The Eagles? Urban Cowboy? UNCUT's Americana CDs? The dreadful "Unplugged" craze? Sheryl Crow? Riding With the King?
Is it possible that - had things taken a more linear course - the likes of today's electronic music would have surfaced at an earlier point in pop's evolution? Would post-punk have been pre-punk? Did all of this "keeping it real" serve only to derail and backtrack the front guard of modern music, postponing healthy inevitable developments for many years?
Had the drug culture become more ugly, and therefore begun to taint the music with unpleasant associations? Was the link between psych and prog (specifically virtuosity) frightening to mere mortal musicians (eg. Clapton vs. Hendrix)? Was the very notion of authenticity so romantic and irresistable to the likes of Clapton and the Stones (see Jagger's quote at the top of this post for salient evidence of their desire to be more "real" and "worthy" than they ultimately perceived themselves to be), that "modest" and "reverent" became the new "ambitious" and "modern"? Was this new gambit every bit as facile, trendy, and cynical as the most garish excesses of psychedelic music had been a few months earlier? Was the modernism/futurism of 65-67 as boundless as it appears to me, or as finite as this changing of the guard suggests? And, lastly, are constructs like "authenticity" immaterial in the face of genuine inspiration?
As you might imagine - my own view is that a most exciting and provocative era of music was abandoned almost TOO hastily and traded for a new set of clothes that I find considerably less attractive and compelling. My post on this subject is composed mostly of questions - and a great number of gaping holes. I have no great theory to share, merely one query after another, posed to a group of people who often write quite informatively and insightfully about music.
I look forward to reading this thread.
*Also, due credit to the Brazilians and Germans (among many others I'm sure). Groups like Can and Os Mutantes were seemingly comfortable enough in their own aims to resist the farmboy makeover that had halted their (largely) English and American peers.