Review of 1965 in PopMatters

 

Andrew Grant Jackson wasn’t even born in 1965, but in his new book, he does a credible impression of a baby-boomer author with firsthand experience of that year’s revolutionary music. Jackson, whose two previous books focused on the Beatles, considers 1965 to be “the most groundbreaking twelve months in music history”. “It was”, he writes, “the year rock and roll evolved into the premier art form of its time and accelerated the drive for personal liberty throughout the Western world.”

As that quote demonstrates, Jackson’s focus isn’t solely on music qua music, but also as a marker of and force for social change. Throughout the book, he contextualizes the astonishing surge of musical creativity and innovation during the mid-‘60s, making connections to the rise of youth culture, to the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, to the emergence of “second wave” feminism and gay liberation. The music, whether rock, R&B and soul, jazz or country, was formally inventive and it “expressed powerful new realities”, as one of 1965’s premier figures, Bob Dylan, would later say about his own songs.

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music is a work of synthesis and interpretation, not original research. Jackson has cobbled the book together from existing sources, including YouTube videos. But he uses his sources well, weaving them into a clear and cohesive narrative, and his own assessments are thoughtful and convincing. He brings a fan’s enthusiasm and a critic’s considered judgment, which makes the book an enjoyable read and a useful reference work.
In 1965, “You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a new classic,” Jackson observes, going on to list three-dozen hits to support his claim, among them “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, “Respect”, “A Change is Gonna Come”, “My Generation”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “In the Midnight Hour”. These, and many other entries in the year’s hit parade, are still with us, as classic radio fare, in TV commercials and movie soundtracks, and in the concert repertoires of the still-performing artists (Dylan, the Stones, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, etc.) who recorded them.

Jackson reminds us, though, how different the year that produced such indelible music was from these times. Because of the post-World War II baby boom, half of all Americans in 1965 were younger than 25. The United States was predominantly white, and “many whites were still rural residents”, as many of the most popular TV shows – “Bonanza”, “The Andy Griffith Show”, “Petticoat Junction”, “Gomer Pyle” – reflected. Despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act, racist violence and segregation persisted (the Beatles, Jackson notes, included riders in their contracts stating that they would not perform in segregated venues) and 12 states banned interracial marriage. In 1965, if you had homosexual tendencies, “your parents might take you to a psychiatrist who would give you shock therapy, as happened to future Velvet Underground member Lou Reed.” If you were a left-winger, you probably didn’t broadcast your beliefs, because it was illegal to be a member of the Communist Party and the House Un-American Activities Committee was still seeking to root out Reds.

But “recent technological and pharmaceutical innovations” were beginning to “affect the collective unconscious.” Television broadcast into millions of homes the horrific images of Southern cops brutalizing civil rights demonstrators and the high-tech destruction the US was unleashing on Vietnam. When the Supreme Court struck down state laws banning the sale of contraceptives, the ruling liberated women from unwanted pregnancies and fostered a revolution in sexual mores and behavior. Pot and LSD relaxed inhibitions, opened minds, and inspired brilliant songwriting and technical innovations in recording.

Jackson generally is at his best when writing about the three titans of ‘60s white rock: Beatles, Stones, Dylan. The Fab Four “loomed over their era like possibly no other artist has since” not only because they made great records, but also because their six Number One singles in 1965 spanned an “emotional arc” that reflected “the shifting mood of that extraordinary year”. “I Feel Fine” and “Eight Days a Week” were “sunny” and hopeful, but two other Beatles hits from later in the same year, “Ticket to Ride” and “Help”, expressed melancholy and desperation.

The Stones’ “Satisfaction” was, as Jackson rightly says, “the anthem of the decade”. But its authors didn’t love their classic-to-be. Keith Richards thought his unforgettable guitar riff was “unexceptional”, a mere placeholder for the horn section he believed the song needed. Both he and Mick Jagger didn’t want to release it as a single; they considered it too raw, and unfinished. In a vote, the other Stones and then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham overruled them. Up to the recording of “Satisfaction”, the Stones were largely a blues and R&B cover band with a few original numbers to their credit. But with their June 1965 breakthrough, they “found their golden formula, mixing the beat of Motown, the lyrics of Dylan and [Chuck] Berry, and the novelty of the new technology to synthesize their own style of R&B/pop/rock.”

Jackson also is fairer to Jagger than many rock writers have been. It has become practically de rigueur to say that his performance at the 1965 T.A.M.I. concert in Los Angeles was a failed attempt by an unseasoned white artist to imitate a great and accomplished black one, James Brown. Jackson corrects the record: “When one compares Jagger’s performances on TV shows before and after T.A.M.I., it becomes clear how direct (and skillful) his copying of Brown was…” Writing about an early Rolling Stones composition, “Play with Fire”, Jackson notes that Jagger’s lyrics were more sophisticated than what the Beatles were coming up with, bringing to rock “a lyrical specificity” that until then “only Chuck Berry and his disciples the Beach Boys had explored.” The Stones’ folky ballad about a young socialite on the decline preceded by several months Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, also about “a rich girl’s descent to the streets.”

Although 1965 concentrates heavily on the white artists who clearly are the author’s favorites, the book nonetheless offers solid assessments of that year’s brilliant black music, which arguably has had a greater and longer-lasting influence on American – and world – pop and jazz. In 1965, John Coltrane released one of the most radical, and most influential jazz recordings, A Love Supreme. Berry Gordy and his Motown crew of singers, songwriters, session musicians, and producers were pioneering exciting new sounds (and production techniques) that appealed across racial lines. The Memphis-based Stax Records countered Motown’s urban slickness with a grittier, more bluesy sound; Jackson cites two versions of “My Girl” – the original, by the Temptations, on Motown, and Otis Redding’s cover, on Stax – to illustrate the differences. Curtis Mayfield, the Staple Singers, and Sam Cooke brought gospel flavor and Civil Rights-inspired idealism to black pop, with masterpieces like “People Get Ready”, “Freedom Highway”, and “A Change is Gonna Come”.

Jackson gives James Brown his due as a revolutionary of rhythm who, with hits like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” invented funk, a style in which “every instrument became just another form of drum/percussion – guitars, keyboards, horns just bursting single notes”. Brown also created complexity by simultaneously overlaying different rhythms. His innovations would later inform the rhythmic vocabulary of both disco and hip-hop.

The pop music charts often were more integrated in 1965 than today; Top 40 radio stations played the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and British invasion bands like the Who and the Kinks along with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Motown stars like the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, and the Four Tops. Moreover, black and white artists listened to and influenced each other. Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet”. Lamont Dozier, of the legendary Motown songwriting/producing team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland, remarked that he and his partners would “listen to John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney) and Brian Wilson and see what everybody was doing. They probably inspired us to be better than we even felt we could be. When they got hot, we tried to get hotter.”

Jackson generally is good when tracing the intersections of pop music and social change, and how music “chronicled and propelled a social reformation”. But he comes up short when he tries to explain today’s ultraconservatism as a reaction to the upheavals (and excesses) of the ‘60s. The right-wing resurgence isn’t simply a backlash against sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. (Consumer capitalism, in its omnivorous adaptability, has managed to absorb and market these once-disruptive forces.) Nor is it just about opposition to the ‘60s political and social movements. Since that decade, class struggle increasingly has become class war. Political conservatives seek not only to undo the New Deal but also to eliminate anything that might benefit working people and challenge corporate hegemony, especially organized labor. New Deal legislation and unions helped create the postwar prosperity that nurtured the social and cultural advances of the ‘60s. Today, the struggle simply to survive seems to have squelched oppositional forces, with perhaps the exception of the nascent Black Lives Matter movement.

If Jackson is less than persuasive in attributing today’s right-wing dominance entirely to anti-‘60s backlash, he does remind us that the open and unabashed racism of so many contemporary conservatives indeed has roots in that era. In 1965, the future conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who loathed hippies, political protesters, and rock music, declared, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so”. Pop music in the ‘60s spit in his face; today, it does its best not to offend. No wonder writers like Jackson and so many others keep looking back to what happened half a century ago.

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