Oh 1966…. fifty years ago this year, that year of incipient hopey-ness and changey-ness. But not too much hopey-ness and changey-ness. Yet.
If anything, it was a year of transitioning uncertainly between two extremes: conformity and rebellion. To my mind, there’s no better illustration of this musically than the fact that the uber-patriotic, pre-body bags, pre-Tet Offensive “The Ballad of the Green Berets” topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts in March, while “Paint It Black”, the Rolling Stones’ raga-esque ode to depression and bleakness, accomplished the same feat only three months later. Aftermath, the Stones album featuring the song, was released in April, and marked the first time the band had relied exclusively on their own compositions. (Ironically, the album also included Sixties-destroying Altamont showpiece “Under My Thumb”.)
Even if demands for radical social change weren’t yet fully on their agenda, in retrospect it’s clear that rock musicians knew something was going on. The Animals had been speaking to this sentiment for a couple of years already; they’d planted their earliest roots as purveyors of British blues, basically carving out the template others would be following within a year or two, and they were at least cognizant of the evolution they were part of. Their “Story of Bo Diddley” from 1964 had already taken a stab at tracing the history of rock up to that point, starting with the early history, following its descent into Bobby Darin not-rock death sentence crooning, and giving a nod to the Beatles. Though they could scarcely have known what was coming, they knew at least that it had a heritage and that it was a “something”. And they knew it would be heavily weighted in the blues. For now, anyway.
With that in mind, other than the clichéd observation about growing social upheaval and its thematic presence in rock in 1966, the three competing musical themes that year were electric blues, folk rock and early psychedelia. The eponymous debut album by L.A. band Love in March ’66 marked an early (partial) departure from the jangly pop sensibilities of the decade’s first half. Serving as an inspiration for the likes of Jim Morrison, they pioneered early psychedelia and the addition of actual bottom end to rock, and released a version of “Hey Joe” nearly a year before Jimi Hendrix. Fronted by singer Arthur Lee, whose vocals found an echo in Joe Strummer’s a decade later, their second album Da Capo, released late in the year, was even more experimental, being only the third album in history to have a single extended length track occupying a full side. Not only was the sonic landscape changing; rock was becoming “art”. And to an extent, the vice would be versa the following year.
The Sonics’ second album, Boom, was released in February, and dared to ask what the combination of heavily distorted guitar paired with vocals located somewhere between Little Richard and John Lennon with a shredded larynx might sound like. The answer was basically “punk rock” a decade early, with the underappreciated Gerry Roslie at the mic. Particularly notable is their cover of “Louie Louie”, coming three years after the Kingsmen’s much more famous version and blowing that version away in a mess of gloriously grungy overdriven sludge. In a similar vein two months later, The Seeds’ eponymous debut plays like American punk tinged with psychedelia. So sort of a marriage between punks and those despised by punks. Or a bridge between hippies and The Stooges, given singer Sky Saxon’s voice.
On the lighter end of the spectrum, the spring saw the release of two seminal works, though seminal for very different reasons. The Mamas and the Papas released their debut If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears in March, showcasing some of their most historically enduring songs and bidding an early welcome to California as the nexus of the growing counterculture. Two months later came the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. If the manner of its inclusion here seems a tad dismissive, I plead guilty: despite several listens (including yet another as I write this), and despite enjoying “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” as much as anybody, it’s never done much for me beyond that. However, I acknowledge that I’m shouting into the wind, since it’s widely viewed as highly influential on the genre: various among the commentariat have dubbed it the “first concept album”, or pointed out that it’s utterly devoid of filler, or noted that its orchestration was revolutionary and new. Okay, fine. Good. But even a philistine like me can appreciate Brian Wilson’s intent behind it: to create a great rock album that wasn’t just a hodgepodge of relative crap built around a couple of good singles to boogie to, but which deserved to be listened to as music from beginning to end. And in that, he unquestionably succeeded. Hell, I’ve listened to it several times just to figure out what all the fuss is about. Respect.
The Small Faces’ debut in May 1966 paid homage to several of these new influences at once, featuring the bluesy proto-psych instrumental “Own Up Time”, laden with distortion and Who-esque energy. Perhaps in hindsight demonstrating that the direction of the future was still a mystery, the band freely pilfered “You Need Loving” from bluesman Willie Dixon, crediting only their own Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott and neatly avoiding the lawsuit and supposedly hefty settlement paid out to Dixon twenty odd years later by Led Zeppelin for the very same transgression. Then again, Robert Plant himself gleefully borrowed Marriott’s primal wail “woman… you need it” for his band’s version a few years later and became a sex symbol while Marriott didn’t. Justice can pull some funny shit sometimes.
By June, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention had offered an offhanded fuck-it to convention and released their acid-trip-set-to-music debut Freak Out!, which plays for the first few tracks like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma a couple of years early, but then takes a U-turn into doo-wop. And the embryonic sexual revolution got a boost in “Help, I’m A Rock”, which features what was probably the first female orgasm shoehorned into a mainstream recording.
On Roger The Engineer, their first album following Eric Clapton’s departure, the Yardbirds continued to swap out their blues roots in favour of psychedelic pop, best exemplified in “Ever Since The World Began”. Hardly surprising that Clapton took off for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers the year before. Not that it was a bad move on his part; Blues Breakers With
Eric Clapton, released in July, was supposedly the first album to pair a Les Paul with a Marshall amp, which set the stage for all the British blues and rock that followed. Plus it gave Clapton his first vocal solo, on a cover of iconic rock ancestor Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind”, one of the first covers of a Johnson blues standard by a 60s rock band, and of which there would be many more in the years to follow.
Speaking of such things, the previous year a young resident of the Windy City named Paul Butterfield had released his eponymously-named band’s first disc in America, a pretty faithful Chicago electric blues recording. It’s been said that, before the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, white blues musicians treated the music with “cautious respect”, afraid of seeming inauthentic. Butterfield, however, adopted (?) his most “authentic” blues vocal stylings and cranked out a second killer album, East-West, in August of ’66. While most of the mainstream attention on the blues at that time was focused across the water in Britain before being exported back to America, Butterfield
managed to keep the flag flying stateside in fine style.
If one thing was clear at least, it was that British rock in 1966 was inexorably breaking out of the straitjacket of vapid early/mid 60s pop, of whose last gasp Herman’s Hermits (who briefly rivaled the Beatles on the US charts until ’66) were certainly a part and whose decline was well underway by the following year. The same fate befell Manfred Mann, which had started as a grand, dirty British blues band with jazz influences, with some great covers of blues standards in their repertoire. Sadly, with their second album, Mann Made, in 1965 they started drifting towards inconsequential pop-ish dreck and completed the transition with their third album, As Is, in 1966. Nodding to the counterculture in 1965’s “L.S.D.” from Mann Made might have saved them from this temporary descent if the song had dared to actually say anything about the counterculture, but alas. For bands of their pedigree, though, there were a few keys to avoiding this fate; Donovan’s Sunshine Superman expanded folk rock a few steps further, with vocal stylings picked up by Lou Reed shortly after. Donovan’s work that year suggested early Renaissance Faire-ish pop, similar to the Hollies’ approach on For Certain Because. Because, I suppose, the harpsichord was seen as a natural lead-in to folk/protest rock? Don’t know. In any event, the Beatles realized that sitars were easier to carry than harpsichords, hence Revolver‘s further exploration of trippy raga influences on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It also bears mentioning that Revolver features one of the Fab Four’s most overtly political songs, “Taxman”, with its references to British government figures and their revenue policies that were crushing poor rock stars.
The lesson was clear in hindsight: pop bands could survive the year if they evolved with the times. Which is always true to an extent I suppose, but with the evolution being so fast and furious in ’66, it was clearly a struggle to keep up. Timing was everything, or at least a big part of the everything.
The Byrds nailed the timing with their third album, Fifth Dimension, marking their shift into psychedelia. “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)” is a bizarre bit of trippiness, with an early example of vocal sampling and repetition. Though they would soon fracture, in the meantime they set the template for folk rock and country rock, and could even afford to be a bit obvious about what was influencing their songwriting (“Eight Miles High”).
It’s been suggested that the Byrds influenced Bob Dylan to start experimenting with electric rock, which he’d done in part on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited while pausing briefly to create his own controversy over this change of direction when he performed electrified at the Newport Folk Festival that year. 1966 saw him release Blonde On Blonde, rock’s first double album, and with it bring his electric trilogy (and his own first era) to a close.
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, their pre-Grace Slick debut, included their cover of Chet Powers’ “Let’s Get Together”, an earlier version of the Youngbloods’ seminal Summer of Love hit “Get Together”. The to-be-iconic artists of ’67 were starting to close ranks and define their movement, but they weren’t there yet; they needed a few more nudges in order to usher in “The Sixties” as we know it today.
Simon and Garfunkel, who had devoted much of their first two albums to exploring Christian themes (to a degree I admit I hadn’t appreciated previously), changed direction noticeably on their third album, released in October. Though it showcased some of their now best-known songs, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme also includes a very Dylan-esque bit of frustration and paranoia entitled “A Simple Desultory Philippic”. It ends with “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”, featuring a newscaster reciting a typical day’s rotten mid-60s headlines of Vietnam escalation and unrest over the titular Christmas hymn – an omen of things to come, beautiful and haunting in its despair.
The 13th Floor Elevators and the Blues Magoos released their debuts a month apart in late 1966, both with “psychedelic” in the title. The nascent acid culture was coming out into the open; they absorbed the sounds and hallucinogenic embrace of the music of mid-’66 during their recording processes, and finally it spilled out with a name and even a label for a genre. This coincided with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the growing opposition to it, which first started to show up in the mass media in 1966. What an evolution since the beginning of the year…
December seemingly brought a stampede, as if there were a concerted effort to ensure that rock didn’t pause and take a step back into conformity as it had in the early Sixties, but instead plowed relentlessly forward into rebellion and change. Buffalo Springfield’s December debut combines a mix of early-mid period Beatles sounds crossed with blues influences, and one of the now-obligatory pop-folk anthems/nods to protest (“For What It’s Worth”). The Who’s A Quick One gave a glimpse of the band’s future direction on side 2 with “A Quick One, While He’s Away” – a rock operetta about sexual betrayal which served as a harbinger for Tommy, their full-on creation, three years later, of the concept album as a form of musical expression. The lads even gave bassist John Entwistle an odd spotlight on “Boris the Spider”, which contains one of the earliest uses of death metal growl vocals, decades ahead of time.
One thing seems clear: by December, the stage was set for a tumultuou
s and unpredictable 1967. Pretty tough to argue otherwise with Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker’s newly
launched Cream releasing Fresh Cream and both kicking the already burgeoning British blues scene square in the ass, and giving 1967 another of its first anthems in the form of “I Feel Free”. And when your band’s debut album not only does both of those things, but also shows off the first extended drum solo in rock (“Toad”) that doesn’t involve blowing up your kit in the process (no slag on Keith Moon intended), well… enough said, really.
On to 1967….