(Pictured on 1965 home page: Francoise Hardy)
Here in the media-saturated 2010s, we get to relive the events of the momentous 1960s in an inexorable year-by-year march.
Last year, the Beatles re-invaded America. Next year, 50th-anniversary journalism will see to it that the miniskirt and Star Trek are born again. In 2017, we’ll be tripping on a Summer of Love rehash.
This year, there’s a lot on our plate – 1965 was a turning point in American history. As depicted in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, it was the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights march to Montgomery, Ala., spurred Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act into law.
In Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein showed how it was also the year that reaction to the Watts riots in Los Angeles helped create the culture-war divide that still defines American political discourse.
And as socio-political tumult grew, pop music stretched itself in response. With rock and roll then a decade old – the Elvis Presley youthquake detonated in 1955 – the music was growing more sophisticated in its rebelliousness.
Was it the greatest single year in the history of pop music? It’s hard to argue with James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
It was not only the year that Dylan made Pete Seeger really mad by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, it also saw the release of not one but two of his greatest LPs: Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.
Similarly, the Beatles let loose both Help! (an underrated masterpiece that began their ambitious music-making period in earnest) and Rubber Soul, and their bad-boy counterpart the Rolling Stones were also quite busy, with three U.S. releases – The Rolling Stones, Now!, Out of Their Heads, and December’s Children.
That’s not to mention such soul cuts as Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Motown hits like the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” and the Temptations’ “My Girl” or hippie twists like the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” or Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover.”
Can any other year stack up?
Maybe 1977, with the punk explosion delivering debut albums by the Clash, Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and Elvis Costello, plus two Ramones albums, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome and Culture’s reggae classic Two Sevens Clash.
You might be partial to 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain ruled the charts while the American underground was raging with the Replacements’ Let It Be, Husker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, and a young upstart named Madonna was remaking sex roles in pop music.
If you came of age a generation ago, you could argue for 1994, when Nas’ Illmatic and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die ruled rap, and Green Day’s Dookie and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral were mega-platinum hits. Beck and OutKast were just starting out, and Nirvana was coming to a tragic end.
Or maybe you have no desire to live in the past. Sleater-Kinney, Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Barnett, Waxahatchee, Drake, and, yes, Bob Dylan, have already put out excellent music in 2015, and who knows, maybe those Alabama Shakes, Rihanna, and My Morning Jacket albums on the way will be works of genius.
Speaking of genius, isn’t any year Kanye West puts out an album the greatest year in the history of recorded music?
Seriously, though, I’m bringing up all those other eras not just to get an argument started, but because questions as important as this have no single satisfying answer.
Music is personal, and we all have our allegiances and biases. Understanding and appreciation may grow and deepen over time, but most people’s favorite is the music they grew up with, the sounds that they cared most desperately about when their sense of self was in flux.
When push comes to shove, I say the Clash are my favorite band of all time, not just because they were incredibly great – which they were – but because I saw them in 1981 at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square when I was 18 and it seemed everything was at stake for me, and for them.
Which brings us back to 1965, and the music of the ’60s in general. One reason we’re having this discussion is that the baby boomers of the Vietnam War era were the first to come of age in a time of all-consuming generation-defining pop culture.
And as they have aged, they have brought their “classic” music with them. Take a look at your 2015 concert calendar: Paul McCartney is the festival headliner at both Lollapalooza and Firefly, the Stones are on another stadium tour, and John Fogerty is playing the Mann Center on June 27 on his 1969 tour, so called because he released three albums with Creedence Clearwater Revival that year.
That sort of productivity was not so out of the ordinary then. Along with ever more ambitious singles such as “California Girls,” the Beach Boys put out three albums that year, a common practice when the concert industry was not so well-developed. With less time spent on promotion, acts got back to the studio to satisfy the demands of record labels hungry for product.
The mid-decade creative explosion is the subject of Andrew Grant Jackson’s new book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music. Not everything that came out was brilliant, however. Case in point would be Barry McGuire’s Dylan-damaged anthem-of-doom “Eve of Destruction” – which also provides the title of James T. Patterson’s 2012 book Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Changed America. The No. 1 Billboard hit on this day 50 years ago was the charming trifle “I’m Telling You Now” by Mancunian pop act Freddie & the Dreamers.
It is remarkable, though, how much music was made in 1965 that was both innovative and enduring, from the Who’s “My Generation” to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
The times were a-changin’ – as Dylan had announced the year before – and the music was, too, with both social upheaval and mind-expanding substances as impetus.
That culture-wide quest for discovery led to such breakthroughs as Brown’s hyper-energetic invention of funk on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” And it was accompanied by a competitive spirit that spurred the leaders of the pack to outdo one another.
“Like a Rolling Stone” argued there were no limits to what a rock song could be, and the Beatles took up the challenge with Rubber Soul. And that, in turn, would spur Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds, an album so great that it’s almost enough to convince me that this column should really be about 1966.
Go to philly/com/inthemix to stream a Spotify playlist of music from 1965.