The 60’s seem very dated. Even Sean Connery couldn’t rescue how dated they look now. That’s because they happened lots of years ago, I know that, but I’ve always wondered if all those newsreels of people being hip and swinging and psychedelic and groovy baby really reflected society at large. Of course they didn’t, any more than punk really reflected late 70’s society. It was just a movement that was enthused upon by a group of young whipper-snappers and that was it. Culture manages a few cross generational coups but all in all it reads like them and themselves, not them and us. To understand how diverse pop culture was in the 60’s you just have to remember that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane’ (whiny and trite respectively, both gluey nostalgia) was kept from the number 1 spot by Mr Humperdinck’s ‘ Release Me’. Personally I think that’s brilliant. It broke The Beatles monopoly and in a strange way things for them were never quite the same. That said ‘Hey Jude’ wasn’t too far round the corner – arguably the most over-celebrated song in existence, worse so because it’s so very, very dreary. Like having BBC News 24 on in the background. Na, na, na.
Point of interest – I didn’t realise that Engelbert Humperdinck was born in India and that his real name is Arnold George Dorsey. If you scroll down in an internet search you’ll find that the name is also that of a 19th Century German composer. Now look me in the eye and tell me you knew that already.
Psychedelia in general is another sore point. The problem here is that you really did have to be there and you really did have to take drugs to properly ‘get’ it. All this little musical fad produced were swirly, vomit inducing backgrounds, daft names (bands and songs) and long winded, nonsense, ‘child with learning difficulties’, lyrics that just got boring far too quickly. Most of the big hitters swerved towards psychedelia at some point during 1966/1967, an act equivalent to swerving over the edge of a bridge into a lake of guano. There is not one truly, wholly successful album that came directly from it. What about Sgt Peppers? Amongst the very worst examples; with the exception of the first 10 seconds of ‘Lovely Rita’ and most of ‘A Day In The Life’ it’s all pretty twee and crummy AND it has the most punchable cover art of the entire decade.
The Beatles did make some astonishing music but for me I could gather all the truly great music they made on a double CD and be done with it. They should always be praised for having the balls and wit to kick the door open and spark the imaginations of a whole generation of musicians, but in my head the best of what followed The Beatles also ended up lapping them several times. Just as Queen were for the 70’s and The Smiths for the 80’s so The Beatles shall always be the most galactically over-rated act of the 60’s. Well, that’s in my honest opinion. Let’s look at the pick of the pops then.
- Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones. What it must have felt like to be a Rolling Stone at the end of the 60’s. They were stronger than ever while the mop-tops had drawn into themselves, wussing away from playing live to concentrate on perfecting the sound of pretentiousness in the studio. Don’t believe me? Then try listening to Revolution #9. The Stones released plenty of crap but would never have been so misguidedly arrogant to expect anyone to like that kind of drivel. Instead Mick and Keith just turned up the amps and got very dirty. This kicks off with ‘Gimme Shelter’, which gets my vote for greatest song of all time. And I can’t see Mumford and Sons challenging that any time soon. Few songs swing as much as the title track. Fair enough, ‘Midnight Rambler’ is an anaemic, underfed, spotty cousin compared to its live relative (on Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, or even better at the Round House in 1971). But the other real rip-snorter is ‘Monkey Man’. If you’re not a Stones fan or have never really got into their singular charm then put this on for a too-cool intro then turn it RIGHT UP at about 2.35 and listen to how the world’s greatest rock and roll band bring everything together so beautifully. It’s almost like they planned it all along. Scarily, this isn’t even their best album.
- SMiLE, The Beach Boys. Never released at the time, this would have trumped Pet Sounds by some distance. At least I think so. Did poor old Brian Wilson really think we wanted his own, old man version of SMiLE instead of the whole dam original thing, The Beach Boys Holy Grail and Eldorado wrapped up in one. I used to swoon and salivate over every snippet of SMiLE I could find to the extent that when The SMiLE Sessions were finally released it felt like a bit of an anti-climax. But then I just had to suspend that notion and listen again because the best of this is some of the most spellbinding, breath-taking music ever created by human beings. I say that only to stop you coming back at me with a spellbinding, breath-taking collection of whale song or giraffe humping noises. It may not have a choker like ‘God Only Knows’ but it does have ‘Heroes and Villains’, ‘Cabinessence’ and ‘Wind Chimes’ to name but three and it is also home to ‘Surf’s Up’; which I want played at my funeral at the moment everyone breaks down in tears. Of joy. I genuinely can’t recommend The Beach Boys enough, and you’d get even more bored if I did.
- In A Silent Way, Miles Davis. The start of my favourite Miles Davis run of studio material that went right up to Big Fun and Get Up With It in 1974. This is so assured and hip and well balanced I doubt anyone but Miles and his chums could have thrown it together. It can suit a multitude of occasions and prefixes the rise of both the fusion and ambient music parties that got out of hand in the 70’s. For genuine thrills let the whole thing play naturally and then turn it up at 13.09 of the second half as the band unleash a controlled explosion of sound which will put a great big smile on your face. No album to come out of the 60’s is as classy as this. Miles Davis changed jazz with this! I bet I couldn’t do that, even if I tired really hard.
- Odessey And Oracle, The Zombies. The misspelling is correct, or the other way around, just like it is on the album cover. The Zombies were a very cool little outfit; although they looked like Cambridge law undergraduates, and came from the mighty St Albans, a town not so far away from me this very second. Although it clearly owes some debt to psychedelia it’s not a big enough debt to get in the way of delicious songs, every single one. ‘Care Of Cell 44’ is as uplifting a song about prison as you could hope for and ‘A Rose For Emily’ so beautiful it reaches Beach Boy levels. Just goes to show – St Albans wasn’t always full of twats with buggies.
- Astral Weeks, Van Morrison. ‘Sweet Thing’ was one of my pre-wedding ceremony choices. Astral Weeks is always high on the critic lists but for nearly 20 years I had no idea why. I suppose like strong cheese, some things don’t sit well on the palate until you’re a little more mature. If you let Van into your life he won’t leave unless you ask him to, and why would you do something stupid like that?! It just pours out, this music, and it doesn’t make much difference if you don’t know what he’s talking about half the time. He was 23 when he made this. Did you do anything this remarkable when you were 23? Incidentally, if anyone ever tells you that ‘Moondance’ is their favourite Van Morrison song then they aren’t really a Van Morrison fan. So feel free to jump in and start talking about something else.
- Anything by Bob Dylan. It’s so hard to single this man out for just one thing. He was cooler and hipper and higher and smarter than any other musician of the 60’s and always two steps ahead of the rivals that he didn’t even think of as rivals. You can have the clever indignation of the protest/pure love records (The Freewheelin…. works best) or his mighty mid 60’s trilogy that sits at the peak of intelligent, literate rock music and which still stands up today (Highway 61….., if I had to). Or, if you’re feeling more light hearted, you can wallow in his late 60’s come-back albums. I’ve been very fond of Nashville Skyline since I picked it up on cassette in the Portsmouth HMV in 1998. It has ‘Lay, Lady Lay’ on it. But even better is ‘I Threw It All Away’ which is one of the most beautiful songs Dylan has ever written. Simple and stately, it just has to be heard. Bob Dylan is without doubt the single greatest songwriter modern music has produced and as such he must be respected! Whether you like him or not is your problem, but if you don’t I’m fairly sure you’re missing out, old chap.
- Dusty In Memphis, Dusty Springfield. This is here primarily because it’s fantastic but also because it represents all of the sublime soul music that the 60’s chucked up. I always preferred Stax to Motown; Berry Gordy threw out too much fluff and glitter, but Dusty In Memphis seems to sit beautifully in between all the avenues of soul and what’s more incredible is that she was a stubborn, pasty white girl, well out of her patch. I find Otis can go on a bit and Marvin didn’t really swing into his imperial phase until What’s Going On, so 60’s soul is really down to the more obscure, deep, stuff and the divas, of whom Dusty and Aretha are the two that count for me. Aretha’s string of Atlantic records are without peer and I would have picked This Girl’s In Love With You but that snuck out in 1970, so we’ll leave it with Miss Springfield to make your heart melt in a strangely sexy kind of way. She even just about rescues ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’, which must make her a magician.
- The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground. No, not the one with the banana, the one with the grainy band photo of them looking like a bunch of college geeks. The music within is marvellous, despite the lack of John Cale, from one of the great, sad love songs ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ to the pure rhythm of ‘What Goes On’. Lou Reed never wrote stuff this good again (though he did come close) and their live output from this time is also well worth looking out for. Hey now baby, I’m beginning to see the light. Me too.
- Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crosby, Stills and Nash/The Band, The Band. Chosen for the brilliance of the music not the lazy album title choices. These two pearlies provide a nice microcosm of where American music was heading in 1969. I was a late comer to CSN but Stills showed me the way in the end. The harmonies on ‘Helplessly Hoping’ and ‘You Don’t Have To Cry’ are almost edible and the closest anyone came to touching the poisoned brotherly love of The Beach Boys. Try the CSN boxset for a version of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ that soars above this albums version. The original was no slouch to start with. The Band were one of the very coolest groups of any era with possibly the coolest name too. Americana may not have started exactly here but they will always be keeper of the keys. Although their albums gently declined in quality due to fatigue and assorted interests in narcotics, they remained a ferociously good live act and any opportunity to watch The Last Waltz should not be spurned. ‘And what do you call that?’ asks Martin Scorsese of drummer/singer Levon Helm, wrapped in his own haze of smoke. ‘That’s rock and roll’ comes the reply. Sir, you’re not kidding.
- Bayou Country/Green River/Willy And The Poor Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival. You can’t get a cigarette paper between these three funky little gems. What’s even more remarkable than the sheer quality of the music is that they were all released within 10 months of each other; a purple patch for John Fogerty that even Lennon and McCartney at their prime would have struggled to emulate. Highlights are in abundance from the voodoo churn of ‘Born On The Bayou’ to the spooky fun of ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and the effortless good cheer of ‘Down On The Corner’, home to the titular Willy and his Poor Boys. There is never a bad time to listen to Creedence and with the exception of their last effort (Mardi Gras, which doesn’t count because the band was up on bricks by this point) there is no such thing as a bad Creedence album. Cheer yourself up and a git a hollerin’. Truly magical.
Look at the time, hasn’t it flown? There are floods of people to mention. Story by Honeybus is an obscure delight and Fairport Convention were at their prime. Sly Stone was just hitting the big time and Elvis was emphatically back by the end of the decade. The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers almost snuck into the list too. Yes, despite myself, I do like The bloody Beatles too, just not as much as I’m supposed to. Abbey Road would be the one for me and at this time of writing ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ (White Album) is the song that ticks all my boxes. I could easily go on. I was watching Austin Powers last night (fuck knows why) and I thought it would be nice to end this with kind words about Burt Bacharach and Hal David who between them created some of the finest confections in the grown up pop music cannon. It almost makes me wish I was born earlier.
G B Hewitt. 8.4.2016