My outlook on pop music changed dramatically when I read Cameron Crowe’s liner notes to the Bob Dylan box set “Biograph,” which came out on five LPs in 1985. One might also note that lives were changed by “Biograph” itself, essentially the first box set, but that would be an argument for another day.
Or maybe even elsewhere in this story. Who knows … it’s still early.
In a section of the notes in which Crowe and Dylan were talking about his songwriting, some comparison shopping came up. Dylan, perhaps defending his legacy, as he is wont to do, or perhaps miffed that great songs don’t always sell as much as … some other ones, noted that when he was writing and recording “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Beatles were doing “Love Me Do.” Or maybe it was “From Me To You.” Makes no diff.
The point was made that Dylan was a serious songwriter … and at that point the Beatles, individually as well as collectively, were not. They rallied, obviously, with innovative, game-changing albums such as “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but they had to rally … because they were behind.
So I got curious. When did the Beatles and other bands start to catch up? When did the lightbulb go on and cries of “we don’t have to write only songs about dancing with our girlfriends!!” begin echoing off the studio walls and the tenement halls and out of the speakers of radios and stereos.
It was 1965, and the Beatles really didn’t lead the parade. Dylan still was way ahead of them, but other bands and artists were, too, with the last will and testament of the great Sam Cooke injecting a key spark. But more on that later.
Some background. Of course residence on the Billboard top 100 is no guarantee that a song is either good or will last. And, until 1991 when the Nielsen Sound Scan came into use, the Billboard folks could not even guarantee that their No. 1 even was outselling the other singles.
That’s because Billboard used to call disc jockeys (these were people who decided which songs got played on the radio) and ask them what was selling. Not a good system, obviously. But in fairness, even a system based on actual sales only gives you information on which singles are selling and not which ones are any good. Those are deeper, more dangerous conversations.
I mean, really, does anyone think that “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies was the best song of 1969 or that “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs was the best song of … 1965? Those who do probably should not read any further.
Dylan released “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his ode to peace, war and other key questions of the day on Aug. 13, 1963, although it was recorded in July 1962. The Peter, Paul & Mary version was No. 13 on the 1963 Billboard Hot 100, one spot below the drug anthem “Puff the Magic Dragon,” also sung by PP&M. The No. 1 song of the year, “Surfin’ USA” by Beach Boys, sounded good with the top down but hardly qualified as poetry.
The Trini Lopez version of the folk classic “If I Had a Hammer” was No. 30 that year, showing that the airwaves weren’t totally full of bubblegum. It should be noted, however, that the song was first recorded in 1949. “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers, which charted at No. 28, also offered some social commentary – “everybody’s talkin’ ’bout a new way of walkin’ ” – but its origin went back to 1929.
Dylan came out of the folk/country/blues tradition that produced work songs and story songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” and he followed “Blowin’ ” with the massively influential “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” from his January 1964 album of the same name. The title said it all, but at that early date his followers were few given the overall size of the pop market.
The song was not released as a single until 1965, with 1964 dominated by the Beatles. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was No. 1 and “She Loves You” was No. 2. Excellent, spirited pop songs both, and the Fab Four riang up seven more slots on the top 100 that year. But where was the social sizzle? The best from the top 100 was “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore (No. 36), an early blast of female empowerment sung by a 17-year-old and “Keep on Pushing” by the Impressions at No. 56 (more on them later, too).
The year of change
Then came 1965, and Dylan’s admonition about change finally caught on, mainly through some monster songs by British Invasion bands.
First, on June 6, the Rolling Stones, already a powerful blues-based quintet, uncorked “Satisfaction,” a manic ode to alienation and consumerism, with perhaps the most recognizable guitar intro in pop history. The first of an unbelievable series of Mick Jagger-Keith Richards classics.
On July 17 it was the Animals, another blues-based ensemble, which brought forth “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.” The title pretty much says it all, and it is a great example of the pop song as the road map to escape, a genre pioneered by Eddie Cochran with his 1958 classic “Summertime Blues.”
On July 19 the Beatles entered the fray with “Help!” The song helped sell a movie but also was a departure into realms beyond their “yeah, yeah, yeah” period. It wasn’t romance John Lennon was seeking. It was his balance and footing. He was teetering on the edge and needed HELP! The song strongly foreshadows Lennon’s solo work.
In early September it was the Kinks’ turn. Ray Davies and the lads tore off in a completely new direction with “A Well Respected Man,” a satire on conventional thinking and living. Aside: The Kinks were trailblazers the previous year with “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” two proto-punk blasters that celebrated sex … while the Beatles were celebrating holding hands. End aside.
On Sept. 10 the Animals burst out again, releasing “It’s My Life,” with its searing opening line “It’s a hard world to get a break in, all the good things have been taken.” Aside: One of the reasons for the anger that festers and splutters throughout some of these British Invasion tunes is a function of the class system that British kids had to fight their way out of. It was a different story in the States. End aside.
On Sept. 13 the Beatles released “Yesterday,” essentially a Paul McCartney solo record. Yes, it was a boy-loses-girl story. But it hit home with its “I’m not half the man I used to be” introspection and honesty. Yes, I know, McCartney had just turned 23 … but still.
On Sept. 26 the Stones unleashed “Get Off of My Cloud,” an emphatic defense of … just being left alone “on the 99th floor of my block.”
On Oct. 29 it was the Mods’ turn as the Who put out perhaps the best record of the bunch, “My Generation” in which a pill-addled teenager asserts that adults don’t understand kids and that “I hope I die before I get old.”
One more 1965 hit in this vein remained. The Beatles released “Nowhere Man” on Dec. 3. Similar in tone to “Well Respected,” it’s a bit harsher with its indictment of a guy “sitting in his nowhere land making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” The song was recorded around the time of “Rubber Soul” but was not placed on the US version of the album (it remained on the UK version). Too bad. “Rubber Soul,” with all of its appeal and craftsmanship, is really just 12 girlfriend songs without “Nowhere Man.”
Again the pioneer
So where was Dylan during all this? Reinventing popular song craft, torquing off the folk purists by going electric and participating in the most mythical and dangerous tour in pop history.
The songs were mind-blowers: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with the killer opening lines “Johnny’s in the basement, mixin’ up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinkin’ about the government” and the bitter diatribe of “Positively 4th Street.”
Then, on July 20, he erupted again with “Like a Rolling Stone,” a “single” that clocked in at a tick less than 6 minutes and seemed to mimic a Mahler symphony. It was about … everything. Relationships. The generation. Hopes and dreams that get flattened. And since the observer is Dylan we hear about people who deserve what they get. I first heard it on a bad (yes, that is redundant) car radio in a Mercury Comet coming back to the Bay Area from a Lake Tahoe vacation. I, who was 12, was convinced it was at least 15 minutes long, and in later years have come to be stunned that my parents never punched the button that would have silenced it.
Dylan released two monster albums, “Bringing it all Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” in 1965 (another masterpiece, “Blonde on Blonde” came in June 1966), he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival (they booed him) and went on tour with musicians who ultimately became “The Band.” Again, he faced boos for betraying the folk scene, which, after all, was about love and peace and brotherhood and justice … things Dylan obviously opposed.
It was like Paris in 1913, when a ballet audience came unglued at Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” or Berlin in the 1930s when Bertolt Brecht handed out whistles to his actors so they could whistle back at the audiences critical of his plays.
That’s what great art does. It challenges you, mocks you, startles you … and makes you think.
Sam Cooke’s message
In February of 1964 R&B crooner Sam Cooke (“Cupid,” “Wonderful World,” “Another Saturday Night”) released an album called “Ain’t That Good News.” On it was a song called “A Change is Gonna Come.” It was the result of a harrowing and insulting experience Cooke and his entourage endured on tour: They were refused rooms at a whites-only motel in Louisiana.
The chorus includes the line “It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gon' come, oh yes it will.”
The song had a modest run on the charts and Cooke, who died at age 33 in a December 1964 motel shooting, wasn’t around to see how “Change” would ultimately produce a legacy far beyond his earlier work. He did, however, have a chance to perform the song on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. The date was Feb. 7, 1964. No tape exists of the performance, and the NBC studio aide who was monitoring the broadcast wrote down the title as “It’s a Long Time Coming,” according to rock historian Peter Guralnick.
Two days later the Beatles appeared for the first time on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” They played five songs in two short sets: “All My Loving,” “Till There was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Fine songs all (well, if you can forgive their use of a song from the “Music Man”), but there is a clear sense of the Beatles still being perhaps more spirited but less thoughtful than other artists. That thoughtful thread also applies to the Impressions as well, with their “Keep on Pushing” (1964) and “People Get Ready” (1965) anthems that, along with Cooke’s “Change,” became part of the chorus for Civil Rights activists. The Impressions were hurt by their entry into the pop market from the doo-wop/gospel track, but it was a train that meshed perfectly with the pulse of the Civil Rights movement.
And it’s worth noting how far ahead Cooke and the Impressions, led by Curtis Mayfield, really were. It wasn’t until 1968 that James Brown released “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and it wasn’t until 1970 that Marvin Gaye rejected the advice of Motown mogul Berry Gordy and released the album “What’s Going On,” which included the incendiary title cut, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” and “Save the Children.”
Sometimes these things take time. After all, Gaye, who, like Cooke died young in a shooting, leaving a huge hole and an agonizing sense of what if, had his biggest hit of 1965 with “I’ll be Doggone” (it was No. 58 for the year). Sometimes these things are a long time coming.
Kids in America
So what else besides Dylan was going on in the States during this year of risk in 1965? The Beach Boys were moving away from their image of bombing up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in hot rods, barbecuing wieners and ogling the girls on the beach. But they weren’t there yet. Their hugely influential “Pet Sounds,” came out in May of 1966 and Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, “Good Vibrations,” was released as a single in October 1966.
The Byrds, who emerged from the same folk to folk-rock scene as Dylan, were jangling their electric 12 strings to the top of the charts with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the folk anthem “Turn, Turn, Turn!.” But they didn’t take a serious turn until 1966 and 1967.
And then there were Simon & Garfunkel, a folk duo that became a folk-rock duo that morphed into a record-selling pop machine with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by 1970.
They released the very adult single “Sounds of Silence” in September 1965 and the album of the same name in January 1966. The album’s side two started with back-to-back songs about people who committed suicide, not exactly American Bandstand material. Good for Paul Simon for taking the risks.
So what happened to those fiery, serious, take-it-to-the-next-level speaker burners of 1965 that I alluded to earlier? Well, the charts are the charts, as they say.
“Satisfaction” was No. 3 and “Help!” was No. 7. “Like a Rolling Stone” was No. 41, “All Day and All of the Night” was No. 62 and “We Gotta Get out of This Place” was 86th. Cooke’s lone charting single that year was “Shake,” a fine song later immortalized by Otis Redding at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. “Shake” was No. 66, one spot ahead of a Herman’s Hermits cover of Cooke’s “Wonderful World.”
And the beat went on. But it was a new beat, one with the addition of brains. Dylan had helped pop grow up. And it would never be the same again.
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