Historians love to talk about “memory.” The idea goes like this: there is history as it was experienced and there is history as it is remembered, and never the twain shall meet. But that’s okay–in between the two lies a world of insights, insights not only into the past but into those doing the remembering. The following, therefore, represents an attempt to apply these ideas to contemporary understandings and appreciations of American music—particularly rock ‘n’ roll—during the 1960s. By comparing contemporary celebrations of the decade against the realities of popular musical consumption, the following explores the ways in which the creation of a musical canon shapes and distorts our understanding of cultural history, exposes artistic appreciation as a limited, subcultural phenomenon (rather than as a widely shared experience), and concludes that the celebration of a canon is as much a process of forgetting as it is of remembering.
In America in the Sixties, historian John Robert Greene declared the second half of the 1960s as “universally seen to be the ‘golden age’ of rock and roll.” The sixties, the story goes, saw the apex of popular music. Our most-celebrated artists reached their creative and productive peak. The Beatles plowed across the musical landscape. Bob Dylan arguably exhausted the genre’s creative and artistic capacity. The Rolling Stones harnessed rock’s edge, the Beach Boys perfected their easygoing California rock, and Simon and Garfunkel mastered their poetic emotionalism. The Velvet Underground meanwhile played to modish hipsterism, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound set the ceiling for pop music, and on and on and on the sixties defined what popular music could reasonably aspire to. Moreover, music seemed to matter: genre-defining bands were not only widely consumed, they were relevant. Music grappled with real issues and confronted longstanding cultural taboos. Or, put another way, the sixties predated rock’s sad decline into an unceasing replication of old forms and old influences, into what critic John Strausbaugh, in his Rock Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia, derided as “colostomy rock.”
Such glowing judgments of the decade reverberate across critics’ innumerable “best of” lists. An aggregate of 14 major “best albums of all time” lists [tallied on the ever reliable Wikipedia], using sources ranging from The Guardian to VH-1, found 8 of the top 10 all-time albums arriving from 1965-1973 (what, in academic terms, might be called the “long sixties”). In 2003 the self-appointed canon-makers at Rolling Stone polled 271 insiders, hired Ernst & Young to tabulate the results, and found that the top-five “greatest albums of all time” were all released between 1965 and 1967.
I am not arguing that the period from 1965 to 1973 does not represent the pinnacle of rock music; the period witnessed the greatest outburst of relevant, genre-pushing music in the history of rock ‘n roll. I am arguing instead that such judgments are statements of art and of a particular culture, not of history. The purpose of this lecture is not to challenge the canon, it is contextualize it. In other words, the creation of a canon says more about our time than its own. When we listen to the rock canon, we don’t listen to the music of the sixties, we listen to a curated core of music from the sixties, a playlist taken from a particular subculture and celebrated by a particular subculture. It is extracted from history and ripped of context. This lecture is designed, then, to put the canon in context by recovering the forgotten music of the sixties.
It is important to remember what we forgot. The Billboard charts complicate the notion of a widely experienced golden age. Billboard’s Hot 100 quantified radio play and sales of singles and a separate chart measured album sales. Never a perfect measure, and recently complicated by the digital revolution, these two charts were nevertheless widely accepted industry standards and remain our best tool for appreciating the reality of historical musical consumption. Time and memory have veiled much of the musical landscape of the 1960s. What happens then, when, ripped of our accumulated hagiography, we attempt to reconstruct the full picture of music of the 1960s?
The charts muddle our picture of the golden age. Nothing better illustrates this as well as the forgotten chart-topper of 1966. That year, when the Beatles released Revolver and the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds (and the year after all-time greats “Like a Rolling Stone” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), Barry Sadler took the year’s top spot with his patriotic “Ballad of the Green Berets.” Sadler, a Green Beret combat medic who served in Vietnam, topped the singles chart and the album chart for five weeks and “Ballad” finished 1966 as the year’s top single. Sadler also played the Ed Sullivan Show and won a mass following with such lyrics as “He has died for those oppressed/ Leaving her this last request / Put silver wings on my son’s chest/ Make him one of America’s best/ He’ll be a man they’ll test one day/ Have him win the Green Beret.” This not only draws attention to the heretofore underappreciated conservative subculture of the 1960s (Bruce Schulman and other historians have properly pointed to Sadler in their reconstruction of that world), it properly casts the canon-makers into a subcultural world of their own.
The titans of the canon often struggled to break through the charts. 1965 saw the release of two of the most highly regarded rock songs of all time: The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Satisfaction” did in fact spent a month at number one—before being toppled by the mighty Herman’s Hermits and their “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” “Like a Rolling Stone”—the closest perhaps to a consensus all-time greatest rock ‘n’ roll song—struggled to summit, peaked at number two, and saw Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” reach number one while it descended back down the charts.
But 1965 and 1966 predated the tumultuous years of the “sixties.” What does the landscape look like after 1968, for instance, after Tet and the protests and the riots and the assassinations? In the first full year that followed, 1969 (the year of Woodstock), the Archies, a group of animated cartoon characters, won the charts with “Sugar, Sugar.” Such patterns of popular consumption minimizes the historical prevalence of the canon.
What about the album charts? Bands such as Led Zeppelin, for instance, never charted a number-one single but achieved several number-one albums. In the main, the album charts reveal much of the same. Amid Beatlemania, for instance, after the famed Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964 and the band’s much-mythologized top-five capture of the Billboard charts later that April, the soundtrack to Mary Poppins intervened and claimed the chart’s top spot for almost four months. Later, from November 1966 to November 1967, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s topped the album charts for fifteen weeks; the Monkees held it for thirty-one. In 1969 The White Album had the top spot for nine weeks; the soundtrack to Hair had it for thirteen. And yet the canon obscures these popular hits.
A cursory glance at the measurable consumption of music in the 1960s reveals a simple fact: we don’t listen any longer to the music of the sixties—we listen to a carefully curated canon, an edited collection removed from history and context, shaped by present tastes that a group of like-minded musical consumers have imparted onto the past.
This, of course, is not unique to the 1960s. Moby Dick is one of any number of famous examples of a now-hallowed artistic triumph ignored in its time. A proper accounting of literature in that time would properly discount Melville’s epic and privilege the mass-market of forgotten dime novels, sentimental literature, and cheap grotesques. But art distorts our picture of the past, and artistic appreciation interferes with historical memory.
In closing, it is important to recognize that the cultivation and worship of a canon also prejudices us against our own times. By imagining a past golden age we implicitly indict the present. If we accept the subcultural theory of the sixties, we can redeem our times, instead. We can put our own epoch in a proper context. Because perhaps, in fifty years, we will collectively forget the chart-toppers—think Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen—and instead memorialize an age in which indie-faves Radiohead and Arcade Fire ruled our musical hearts. Or perhaps, more likely, the unpredictable judgments of the future will have moved from rock-centric judgments and crafted a narrative that we ourselves could never recognize—maybe we’re in a golden age and don’t even know it.