Original Thread: The Music of the Counter-Culture Era
The Music of the Counter-Culture Era
From the dawn of man, music has played an important role in defining the culture of an era, offering a glimpse into the lives of our predecessors. From the psalms written by David thousands of years ago, to the melodic symphonies of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and to the edgy pop songs of the modern age, music has defined culture. For many, music provides an escape from the rigor and anxieties of daily life. It separates one from the material world, allowing its creator and its listeners to dissociate themselves from the suffering and pain of living. For the young Americans of the nineteen sixties, the Vietnam War was the quintessential representation of the suffering and pain of the material world. The sixties brought about a new age and an entirely new outlook regarding secular life. The emergence of a unique, peculiar, and rebellious counter culture carried with it an entirely new perspective of music. Music defined the counter culture. Never before in American history did music have such a profound impact on society. It was music that brought people of all race, gender, and background together to create such a diverse counter-culture. Music did, in fact, entirely change American society in the sixties.
For Americans of all ages, the early sixties appeared to be a new world, younger and more energetic than the world before. A spirit of optimism, brought about through the election of John F. Kennedy and the growing Civil Rights and feminist movements, swept over the nation (Batchelor, Introduction). The post-war “baby boom” created an unprecedented number of young people coming of age during this time period, unaffected by the trying times of World War II their parents endured. This growing sense of optimism, however, soon disappeared when prominent figures such as John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were assassinated. The Vietnam War, generally supported by Americans earlier in the decade, soon evolved into a representation of the horrors of modern warfare, witnessed by millions of Americans glued to television sets (Batchelor, Introduction). The war became a catalyst for social protest, and other events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis exposed the nation’s vulnerability and the potential threat of nuclear war. The “baby boomers” witnessed these events with growing skepticism and dissatisfaction of the political scene in the United States. A counter-culture emerged, dominated by young people struggling to find their place in a world seemingly filled with hatred and anger.
The sixties witnessed intense upheaval. As Bob Dylan eloquently stated in 1964, “The times, they are a’changin” (Dylan). The Vietnam War and the rights of women and minorities, the political turmoil of the 1968 presidential election, changing sexual attitudes, increased drug use, and radically different styles in clothes strained not only the country as a whole but also individual families. Children and parents found themselves disagreeing over many areas of everyday life (Batchelor, Introduction). Thus, a generation gap ensued; the “baby boomers” distanced themselves from their parents, and contributed to the growth of the emerging anti-establishment movement. The counter-culture driven by the rebellious nature of its participants was fueled by music. It was music that united those disgusted with the social aura of the fifties and the Vietnam War. Music exposed the distaste young people had with their government. It represented their social opinions and feelings. Music also embodied the psychedelic drug use that was a trademark of the counter-culture movement. It changed the social structure of the sixties in a way no one could have ever predicted. It was music that changed America.
The fifties gave the world rock’n’roll. Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley introduced rock’n’roll to the world, a genre dominated by teenage affections and a violent back beat. The genre originated in the 1940’s and 1950’s in the United States, though it soon crossed the Atlantic and dominated popular teenage culture in Britain. By the end of the fifties, however, rock’n’roll lost some of its initial shock value (Buskin). This would all change, especially in the United States. A group from a town called Liverpool in Britain known as the Beatles, exploded onto the popular music scene in America with their arrival in the United States in 1964. Their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show launched Beatlemania and the beginning of the “British Invasion” (Pierce). The “British Invasion”, a term invented by radio announcers and journalists, was an era of British dominance on U.S. popular music charts. Artists such the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, The Who, and the Kinks experienced unprecedented success in America, if not to the degree of the Beatles (Pierce). The music industry transformed overnight, and suddenly the ever growing youth subculture dominated American culture. The seeds had been planted for a counter-culture to emerge, though the bands of the early sixties, such as the Beatles, were originally clean cut and well dressed. It was not until the mid to late sixties that the music created by these artists represented the counter-culture that created an irreparable divide between those who participated in the new movement and those who did not.
While the “British Invasion” sparked interest in popular music to an unprecedented degree, folk music experienced a rebirth as musicians moved into the forefront of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movement (Batchelor, Pop). The music created by folk artists represented the philosophy that would soon serve as foundation for the counter-culture movement. Folk artists such as Baez, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary crooned softly over melodic acoustic guitars and a soft, gentle back beat. Their lyrics were often poetic and laded with symbolism. Bob Dylan was widely regarded as a poet just as he was a singer and musician. His lyrics resonated with young, dissatisfied protesters of the war and other social aspects (Batchelor, Pop). If the seeds for the emergence of a counter-culture had been planted by the rock’n’roll of the “British Invasion”, then folk artists watered the ground upon which the seed had been planted.
By the end of 1965, folk rock acts such as The Byrds had fused folk music with that of rock’n’roll to create the folk rock phenomenon (Buskin). The Beatles, seeking to capitalize on the growing folk rock craze in the United States, released Rubber Soul in 1965. It was Rubber Soul that inspired Brian Wilson, songwriter and leader of the California band The Beach Boys, to create in his own words, “the greatest rock album ever made”, that would ultimately pave the way for future “hippie” acts (Buskin). The Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds did just that. Pet Sounds served as a major source of inspiration for other contemporary acts, most notably directly inspiring The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Davis). Wilson’s writing was interpreted as a plea for “love and understanding”, principles that reflected the counter-culture movement (Buskin). “Free love” and sexual freedom were some of the basic components of the growing counter-culture (Batchelor, Pop).
Beginning in 1966, after the release of Pet Sounds and other psychedelic albums such as The Beatles’ Revolver, the psychedelic revolution had begun to unfold. Psychedelia was inspired by the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, and was rooted in the counter-culture movement. Psychedelic rock emerged as an entirely new musical genre, glorifying drug use in its lyrics as its sonic distortions reflected altered perceptions (Batchelor, Pop). Glorious, avant-garde arrangements appeared in songs such as The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. The Beatles were to become the most prominent commercial exponents of the new genre with the release of the revolutionary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 (Buskin). The album changed popular music forever, and the seed that had been planted had grown into an adult tree. The counter-culture had been born.
San Francisco was the epicenter from which all things related to the counter-culture were born. LSD, the new “wonder drug”, caught on among young teenagers living in San Francisco smitten with the folk rock boom happening in Los Angeles (Buskin). In 1967, the San Francisco “sound” popularized by groups such as The Grateful Dead, became the backdrop to the “Summer of Love”. The “Summer of Love” saw teenagers across the nation rejecting their parents’ values and joining together to grow their hair long and espouse brotherly love instead of supporting the expansionist war the United States was fighting in South-East Asia (Buskin). “Hippies”, as these people became to be known, transformed American culture.
On the heels of the psychedelic revolution came the electric revolution. Bob Dylan began playing electric guitar, and other various artists began exploiting the new “electric” sound. However, the real revolution occurred when a young black musician by the name of Jimi Hendrix took the sound of blues guitar out of the Mississippi and “launched it to space” (Buskin). Hendrix and his band The Experience combined LSD-inspired lyrics with revolutionary guitar sounds to become one of the most influential rock acts of the late sixties. The counter-culture fully embraced Hendrix for the few short years of his life as a rock star. He did however, die at the tragic age of twenty seven (Buskin).
The late sixties witnessed the emergence of pop music festivals as a uniting factor for the counter-culture movement, where all could gather and bask in the unabridged glory of popular psychedelic music. In fact, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where Jimi Hendrix notably lit his guitar on fire, ushered in the “Summer of Love” (Batchelor, Pop). Monterey signified an iconic moment of the decade, though it would soon be surpassed by the monumental Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held in Bethel, New York from August 15 to 17, 1969. Artists such as The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who all played at Woodstock. Between four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand people attended the event, many times the number expected. The festival remained peaceful despite overcrowding, rain and mud, and inadequate restroom facilities (Batchelor, Pop). It became the defining moment of 1960’s counterculture, and it was a moment defined by music.
The counter-culture movement, however, came to an abrupt end before the seventies. At the Altamont Festival, a free concert held by the Rolling Stones, Hell’s Angels security guards clashed with an audience member and killed him (Buskin). The death signified the end of the “love-in” era, and soon the psychedelic genre had disappeared. Artists returned to their roots; raw rock’n’roll witnessed a comeback and drugs were no longer the driving creative force behind popular music. In 1969, The Beatles broke up, and the decade ended on a sour note (Buskin). The Vietnam War still had not ended, and though the counter-culture continued to exist, albeit in different form, music was no longer its driving force. An era of American history had come to an end, though the music that was created during this time period did not die with the culture that accompanied it.
The music of the sixties defined the counter-culture era, acting as its driving force and reflecting the principles behind the movement. Music became more than an expression and an escape. It became a way of life, a life driven by the use of drugs and resistance to the established order. Music contributed to the growth of the counter-culture; it offered solace to those disgusted with the Vietnam War and other social aspects of American culture. The music of the counter-culture era resonates with modern listeners, though in different form. It offers a glimpse into the lives of the “hippies” sleeping in the mud at Woodstock; into a trip induced by the use of LSD; into the life of an embattled poet struggling to express his disdain with the war in Vietnam. The music of the counter-culture era changed the social structure Americans lived in during the sixties, and it continues to influence artists of the modern age who are trying to do the same thing.
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Last edited by Påsan; February 16, 2013 at 07:33 AM.
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