Monday, February 10, 2014

The 50s of ‘60s

It’s always 50 years after something, but in the present decade we’re working our way through 50th anniversaries of the 1960s. The ‘60s are the decade dearest to the hearts of Baby Boomers, born 1946-64, who, in the US and much of the West, form a huge bulge in the population pyramid; they felt they owned the 1960s, and, as consumers of popular culture, they very nearly did. (In the 21st century, the Millennials finally have edged out the Boomers in absolute numbers, but they are a much smaller percentage of the total population than the Boomers were at a similar period in their lives, and consequently have less proportional clout.) In the ‘60s, most Boomers reached their tweens, teens, and/or 20s (I was ages 7-17), which always are the years that weigh heaviest in one’s life. Boomers’ own direct nostalgia is accompanied by a second-hand nostalgia by younger people who see the ‘60s as a colorful era – akin to the way I once thought of the 1920s.

The ‘60s indeed were a colorful decade, and one full of significant events and social changes. (Boomers like to act as though we were responsible for them, but, by and large, we really just experienced them, riding the wake of people older than ourselves – including The Beatles, none of whom was a Boomer.) The anniversary gaining much retrospective attention this past week is that of the first American tour by The Beatles. Some of the commentary on the anniversary has been a little over the top: “…and the world was never the same,” in the words of one newscaster. Well, it never was, true enough, but then it never is. Nevertheless, the ‘60s were pivotal years, and The Beatles to a very large degree were their soundtrack.

Stylistically, The Beatles were not, in fact, a particularly innovative band. What they did in 1964 wasn’t much different from what Bill Haley and His Comets had done a decade earlier; when they experimented with psychedelic rock a few years later, they were following the lead of numerous pioneering California bands. They usually did it better, though, and they did it at exactly the moment when the largest audience was ready for it. (Here the Boomers can take a little credit: we were a very willing audience.) Moreover, they did it with their own original music; there is no denying the skill and prodigious output of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team. Tom Wolfe once said that it doesn’t pay to be more than five minutes ahead of your time. The Beatles always were spot on with the zeitgeist. You can hear the progression of the ‘60s in their music and see it in their very appearance; even their eventual break-up paralleled the way ‘60s idealism soured in the ‘70s.

Yes, I saw the famous Ed Sullivan Show broadcast: the family watched it on a black & white TV in a motel room in Islamorada FL. At age 11 in February 1964, I listened to the musical advice of my savvier worldly-wise 13-year-old sister and became a Beatles fan. I still have the well-worn 1964 Introducing the Beatles album, bought that same month, on my shelf. I followed her advice a year later, too, by shifting preference to other bands of the era, though our tastes started to diverge at that point: she became a Rolling Stones fan while I tended more to The Animals and edgier (for the day) bands such as The Sonics. (Actually, I still like Eric Burdon, vocalist for The Animals, and bought the septuagenarian’s 2013 album a few months ago.) But that didn’t mean either of us ignored The Beatles. They were much too embedded in the era to ignore. Whatever else we played, Beatles records always were part of the mix. It simply is not possible to have a proper ‘60s music collection without albums such as Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road.

Soundtracks, whether to movies or to life, are just that. 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been a good movie with a theme by someone other than Strauss. The ‘40s would have been just as world-changing a decade (far more so than the ‘60s) without Glenn Miller or the Andrews Sisters. But both would have been poorer without them. For the ‘60s, we could have done a lot worse for an iconic band. Many of the upcoming 50th anniversaries will be grim ones. This one isn’t, so if some of the nostalgia for the Fab Four is over the top, at least this anniversary is frownless and harmless.


  1. It's been very interesting to see the mini-Beatle-mania that has swept the world these past few weeks. I've always enjoyed their music, but I'm not sure I'd say I was a fan. I respect their place in musical history, but I never find myself reaching for an album to play. My wife is actually much more of a Beatles fan. Her family always enjoyed music from the 50's and 60's a bit more than my family did. When I first met her she had a button on her backpack with a silhouette of the fab four that said "I believe in yesterdays". This was back in '93, and you didn't see too many girls with Beatles love in the age of PM Dawn and C+C Music Factory (during that odd proto-hip hop era of the early 1990s before grunge bursted onto the scene).

    Still there is that conversation in the film "True Romance" about how you have to decide if you are an Elvis man or a Beatles Man. When the film came out, I was firmly behind the Beatles. But these days, I might be more of an Elvis man. :)

    Your comment on "2001" music is interesting. Kubrick actually had a composer for that film, Alex North. North had worked with Kubrick on "Spartacus", and was a very popular composer for the era. He was also very modern in his approach to film scoring. If you search around, you can actually find North's very modern score for "2001" floating around. It's and intriguing listen, and one that would have made the film a much different experience.

    What happened was that Kubrick was using the classical pieces as his temp track for the film, fell in love with the tracks and just kept them. He never told North about this, and according to the stories, the first time North saw the film he was shocked that none of his work was actually used. But I agree with you and Kubrick. The film needed something more familiar to ground it in some ways (and lace some scenes with Kubrick irony). It was so abstract from a plotting point of view that I think those classical pieces helped the viewers experience the film. North's more abstract work might have been too much of an experiment.

    Jump ahead nearly a decade, and Jerry Goldsmith was working on "Star Trek: The Motion Picture". In some of his early work for the score, his style is very much like North's approach to "2001". Eventually director Robert Wise asked Goldsmith to flesh out a more heroic theme for the Enterprise. Goldsmith complied and created one of his most iconic themes. One of the exciting things about the 3 disc release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" score is that early unused material. Listening to it, you can tell that North was certainly a mentor to Goldsmith and influenced his original take on film.

    Ok... enough of my babbling. Teach you to mention film music in your blog. ;)

    1. Thanks for your detailed comment. I didn't know about Kubrick and North. That score indeed would be fun to chase down.

      I tend more to Elvis, too. A quick look in my CD tray (which holds 5) reveals the following: the twin CDs of "Widowspeak" by Lydia Lunch, the offbeat songwriter/performer who hit her full stride in the 90s; The Animals "Retrospective," a pretty good compilation album; Pamela Moore's 2013 album "Resurrect Me", basic metal; and Disc 1 from "The Essential Bob Dylan." So, I guess neither Elvis nor the Beatles made the cut during the last loading, But, I think the truck driver from Tupelo will get into the tray first.

  2. I agree that starting out The Beatles were about on the same par as Bill Halley & the Comets, and many other bands from that period. They even played cover songs of some of those musicians. However, I'd disagree that they remained on that level as musicians, and started to supersede it with their Revolver album, and certainly going forward to Sgt. Peppers, and onward. Their music took a more sophisticated flair, which may be due in part to George Martin.

    I'm much more of a Beatles fan, though I have some Elvis albums, and certainly his earlier stuff I enjoy more, although I don't listen to him much these days. His later persona in the movies might have something to do with that--sort of a slick tough guy punk.

    But back to the comparison of Bill Halley or any other band at their time--I don't own a Bill Halley record, nor listen to much music from that period. I'd say the Beatles had a much more profound influence on modern bands in comparison.

    1. Nearly all the revolutions which came to fruition in the 60s had their roots in the 50s. Popular music was no exception. 50s rock’n’roll changed the whole nature and culture of popular music; all the rock that has followed derives from it. We hear little of it these days, but since 1950s teenagers (who are most attached to those sounds) are now +-75 y.o., I suppose that’s to be expected. Most 50s fare was simple and unsophisticated, naturally enough. Rock evolved rapidly in the 60s, and the Beatles were right in the middle of it. As you say, the band transformed enormously in just a few short years, creating complex and stylish songs and albums before the end of the decade. The 20-somethings (including a niece and her friends) of my acquaintance play a surprising amount of 60s music along with contemporary fare, but it’s true I don’t hear Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, or other 50s artists in their mix.

      As for Elvis, in the 70s he became the first Elvis impersonator. I know a lot of people preferred his later over-the-top persona (the Vegas shows always sold out), but I have to concur in preferring the earlier material. I think he peaked with the 1968 TV special – his “comeback” at age 33, available on DVD.