What were the 60’s all about then? Well in terms of music it was a period of construction, building on the impact of the emergence of Rock and Roll in the 50’s, where Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry laid down a ground-breaking, sexual blueprint and taking that ignition into a million other spaces. The artists of the 60’s found themselves in a brave new world and whilst the decade started with the 7″ single very much to the fore, it ended with albums becoming just as important, forming bodies of work, rather than a snapshot. But whatever the format, the power of song was key. The songs that were being written at the end of the 60’s couldn’t have been imagined at the start and there are a multitude of factors for this, sexual permissiveness, mind-altering recreational drugs and the social movement of a youth culture that wanted to define itself by what it wasn’t, namely anti-establishment and pro-innovation. So if we define the 60’s as a period of building, what did it lay the musical foundations for? The answer is pretty much every type of music you love and cherish today be that pop, rock, folk, metal, soul, dance or funk. More importantly, it laid down the blueprint for how songs were written and performed. Whilst the ethos of what a band could stand for was created, the medium of their message was ultimately in the songs they wrote. Some ground rules, here are twenty songs that were ground-breaking, but it’s limited to one song per artist and in each case, it’s the song that defined them. Timothy Leary famously said ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out.’ Whilst the first two parts of his sentence are certainly true of the 60′, the songs here are nothing to do with dropping out, in their own way they all helped to shape the music of subsequent and future decades and in 1,000 years’ time the 60’s will continue to be revered as much as the time of Shakespeare in literature is today. So read on and remember, turn on and tune in, but don’t drop out.
1. Jefferson Airplane White Rabbit
Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick created an incredible dynasty; artists from Patti Smith, PJ Harvey to Florence Welch have surely been influenced by her style, vocal gymnastics, and ethereal lyrics. Alongside Janis Joplin, Grace Slick carried the flag for female pioneers in the rock music of the 60’s, which was no mean feat for an arena that was very much the playground of the boys. But Jefferson Airplane was by no means a one-woman show, and the band made wonderfully weird music that you could somehow hum along to. ‘Somebody to love’ became their most famous song, but ‘White Rabbit’ was their masterpiece, a subversive and not at all subtle reference to the effects of hallucinogenic drugs that were the source of inspiration for many musicians of the mid to late 60’s. What makes ‘White Rabbit’ such an important song is the way it juxtaposes two key elements that came, to sum up, 60’s music as the decade came to a close innocence and menace. The innocence is executed wonderfully, using a children’s story as the basis for the lyrics, however, the musical setting is anything but, it could have been the theme tune to a Hammer Horror film. This innocence and menace literally came to life in the festivals at the end of the decade, and Jefferson Airplane played ‘White Rabbit’ at both of them – Woodstock with its wide-eyed exuberance and fun versus the darkness and tragedy of Altamont. So here’s a song that provides a synopsis of the late 60’s for you to analyze to your heart’s content, or alternatively, you can just sit back and listen to a wonderful piece of music and enjoy.
2. The Monkees – Porpoise Song (Theme From Head)
In the days before American Idol and The X-Factor, The Monkees were the first ‘manufactured’ band and when the call went out for members of a group who would have to live in the same house, make a hit TV show based on The Three Stooges and release the odd record, there was no shortage of credible musicians who auditioned. The Monkees were an instant hit but where they really made a mark in the 60’s was when they decided to do their own thing. Breaking away from their TV show, they made the amazingly subversively titled film ‘Head’, and ‘Porpoise song’ was the lead song from it. On the face it this is a copy and paste of late-era Beatles, trippy laid back drums with heavily reverbed vocals, but what made this such a landmark in the sixties was that was complete commercial suicide committed by a successful, manufactured group, think of them as the lead character in The Truman show, realising that they were living their lives on TV for the benefit of the masses. Because that was the reality for The Monkees, they were put together in exactly the same way that One Direction was, a group of good-looking individuals designed to have wide-reaching appeal and tap into Beatlemania. Well the plan worked well, and provided some great songs in ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, but ‘Porpoise Song’ embodied the singularity of the 60’s, they got tired of being puppets, and decided to do what they were best at, even if that meant saying goodbye to their teenage fans and record sales.
3. The Count Five – Psychotic Reaction
The Count Five were the ultimate garage band and ‘Psychotic Reaction’, which was their only hit but a true beat anthem, stands up there with the best of anything that was released in the 60’s. The song mined a timeless theme (boy meets girl, boy gets the girl, boy loses girl) and set it to a tune which seamlessly glued two different tunes into a wonderful whole. The lyrics could have been written at any point in time, who can hear the line “I feel depressed, I feel so bad, because you’re the best girl that I ever had, I can’t get your love, I can’t get satisfaction.” and not have felt that way at some point in their lives? And how many guitar bands have strived to have written as compulsive a beat and riff-driven tune as this? The answer is all of them, no matter what genre of music they play. The Count Five were certainly idiosyncratic (they chose to dress up as vampires when they played live) but here they laid down the marvelous template for garage bands that can still be heard today, decidedly low-fi, catchy as you like, an uncommercial take on commercial rock. Finally, what a tune, there comes a point where you should stop analyzing and just listen to how good song this is. And then listen to it again.
4. Buffalo Springfield For What It’s Worth
This is a cri de coeur but in keeping with the hippy vibe of the times, one of the most laid back protest songs ever written. The title itself perfectly sums up the mood of the song, that of a weary acceptance of oncoming change. It heralded a new type of anti-establishment song; in the 60’s songs that spoke about social unrest moved into the mainstream and became the voice of the masses. ‘For what it’s worth’ has been the subject of debate about the actual event that inspired it, (it was apparently a ruck outside a club where the band had a residency) but the literal inspiration is far less important, this is a song that is all about drawing the battle lines between the emergent counterculture and the establishment. The lyrics “What a field day for the heat, a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying, “Hooray for our side.” signposting an imminent battle, and stating the individuality that any music scene has, it’s us against everyone else, particularly against those in power. It was also a landmark in establishing two of the leading lights of 60’s music, providing the home for Stephen Stills and Neil Young, who would go on to define the supergroups of the 70’s, but that’s a story for another time.
5. The Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore
Scott Walker, there would be no Jim Morrison, no Jarvis Cocker and no benchmark for what it meant to be a cool, detached poet in pop music. He was pop music’s original existentialist, and that’s what made him a wonder. What made him even more of a wonder is that he pulled off all of this despite being the 60’s heartthrob equivalent heartthrobyles. He dressed up the glamour of his supermodel good looks with songs of the blues and heartbreak and with ‘The Sun Ain’t gonna shine anymore’ played an ingenious trick on the record buying public, there was a hit with a catchy chorus that had some of the saddest and solitary lyrics you will ever hear, can you imagine One Direction singing a line such as “Loneliness is a cloak you wear, a deep shade of blue, is always there”? What made the song so magical was that it tapped into what was going on in the music of the time, multi-tracked vocals, strings, flirting with Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of sound’, to create a heady ballad that sounded light-years ahead of anything recorded so far in the history of pop. Scott Walker would go onto make equally intensely serious records, but here he laid down his game plan and this was an unstoppable work of art.