1960'S MUSICAL INNOVATION
I won't posit that the sixties were the most innovative time in music...okay, I will, because it was. No one can definitively say why, but I have a couple of theories.
I'm truly not one hundred and twelve years old, but I'm old enough and I've watched enough television documentaries to know that the nineteen fifties were a rather staid time. Yes, of course, Elvis showed up on the scene in the '50's and he was scandalous, what with that one leg bouncing up and down, and all the shimmying. Proper gentlemen just didn't do that. Good thing the oldsters didn't get a gander at Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard. But these guys were anomalies. One was much more likely to catch Pat Boone or Patti Page on their new-fangled television sets. If you've never seen Pat's rendition of Tutti Frutti, you're missing a real funky finger-snapping, sweater vest, canvas sneaker-clad performance. Little Richard would have turned over in his grave if he wasn't actually very much alive and in his performing prime.
Even the president was old, at least he looked old. Why, in 1958 he was all of 67 years old! Thank goodness we don't elect old guys anymore. And I bet he also wore a fedora when out and about. His press conferences were marked by reporters' raised hands and deferential standing when called upon. It's a wonder they didn't bow. The fifties were simply a polite time.
The cars on the road were not so much boxy as squat and turtle-shaped. And they were all black, or so it seemed. Mothers wore house dresses and only donned pants for dirty jobs like scrubbing the floor, and only when they were sure no one would stop by unexpectedly. They wore hats to church. Men's leisure wear consisted of Dacron trousers and white short-sleeved shirts, some with the tiniest bit of embroidery, but not so much as to appear gaudy. Nobody wore jeans. Really. Despite what notions Happy Days and Marlon Brando have embedded in your head.
In the fifties, everyone followed the rules.
Then in 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected president. JFK was as young as Eisenhower was old. JFK had little kids, he was (ostensibly) physically fit, his pretty wife was a Life Magazine staple. Kennedy sent men into space. Nobody remembered it was Ike who initiated the space program. JFK got it done!
Laura Petrie wore capri pants, and not just to scrub the floor. In fact, her floors were magically spotless, although she did haul out the vacuum cleaner a couple times. She couldn't care less if anyone rang the doorbell while she was wearing those outrageously tight slacks. In fact, she'd sometimes sit them down and entertain them with a dance routine right there in the middle of her living room (after serving them coffee, of course).
Cars became sleeker - the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Corvette, the Plymouth Barracuda. And they came in weird colors, like blue and red.
Everything suddenly became glossier and faster.
People, especially young people, were no longer in the doldrums. The sky above jettisoned its grey hue. Like magic, anything they could conceive was possible.
Who said pop music had to keep following the Brill Building model? Who said everybody had to emulate Phil Spector's warmed-over fifties ditties, distinguished only by more echo?
Nashville, Detroit, LA, Liverpool, Memphis, artists huddled and separately invented their own styles. Motown was as distinct from the Beach Boys as Bobby Darin was from Chuck Berry. Bobbie Gentry found a home on AM radio right next to The Rolling Stones.
And like space travel, technology skyrocketed. Recording on only two tracks was limiting and frustrating. Parts could not be isolated. If one of the musicians messed up, it required a complete retake. Now the four-track became more ubiquitous. It allowed for experimentation. This was no longer Nelson Riddle conducting the orchestra on Track Two while Sinatra crooned onto Track One.
Artists began penning their own songs. They were no longer satisfied thumbing through a publisher's catalog to find their next hit. If JFK could whip-sail across Nantucket Sound, artists craved the wind in their hair, too. They had a decade of pent-up creativity bursting to be unleashed.
Ultimately that optimism devolved into despair -- assassinations, war -- yet the music went on. Darker, sure, but heartfelt; not cookie-cutter. It acknowledged reality, didn't prop Pat Boone up on a soda fountain stool to snap his fingers and yearn for some of Mom's cherry pie.
I have my own personal Spotify playlist for the sixties, comprised mostly of number ones from the decade (not deep album cuts). Everybody who's a fan of sixties music will remember the decade whichever way they choose. But there is no denying its scope, its sweep. Its individuality, its innovation.
Take a listen if you're interested: