It’s a shame that the story of 20th century music always seems to be written exclusively by white, male, rock music fans (like myself). This means that anything other than rock music produced by white males rarely gets the credit it deserves. You just have to look at those ‘Top 100 Albums’ lists that Q Magazine produces. You’ll probably find one Stevie Wonder record in the top 20, but the rest will be REM, Radiohead, Joy Division etc.
Nowhere is this problem more evident than when considering music from the 1960s. There was a compilation album released a few years ago called “Alternative 60s”, which purported to show the other side of music from the decade. But of course, it didn’t stray from British and American rock music; it just featured slightly less well known artists.
To counter this blinkered view of the 1960s, I have here compiled a brief introduction/reminder of all the different types of music that were around at the time. See after the jump, for the real alternative 60s…
Folk – There was a huge folk boom in the 60s. Even before Bob Dylan, pioneers like Joan Baez and Pete Seger were hugely popular. The folk scene was big in Britain and America, and Paul Simon bridged the gap between the two. Folk went mainstream as early as 1961, when Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman manufactured the pop-folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. In the mid to late decade, folk-rock became popular, with bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle.
Jazz – 1959 was well regarded to be one of the best years in the history of Jazz, with Miles Davis popularising Modal forms, Ornette Coleman introducing Free Jazz and Dave Brubeck bringing in ‘world music’ elements and unusual time signatures. This brought about a renewed interest in Jazz which lasted well into the next decade. In the mid-sixties, jazz became politicised and was linked with the civil rights movement. Later in the 60s, Davis would go on to bring in electric instruments to create Jazz Fusion.
Musical Theatre – From 1964 to 1966 the only artists to reach number one in the UK album charts were from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. The only other album that reached number one during this period was the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. Many other stage musicals were made into films around this time, each spawning very popular soundtracks. And of course, the shows themselves were a huge draw at theatres and concert halls.
Comedy – This was the golden age of the comedy LP. Seemingly every comedian would release a record of their act, and many like Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins released comedy songs. Later in the decade, the Bonzo Dog (Dada/Doo Dah) Band and the Mothers of Invention became the first ‘comedy bands’. Although that label doesn’t really do them justice.
Bossa Nova – Joao Gilberto is credited with inventing Bossa Nova music in the late ‘50s, and it increased in popularity quickly. In 1964, Gilberto and Stan Getz recorded an album which included the massive crossover hit ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. This spawned a huge interested in Latin American music. Watch any movie or TV from the mid-60s and you’ll find bossa novas and sambas on the soundtrack.
Calypso – The Calypso craze started in the late 50s, with Harry Belafonte, but it was still going into the early 60s. The Kingston Trio amongst others were hugely popular early in the decade.
Crooning – Many people might think that The Rat Pack were a 1950s phenomenon, based on what they wore and how they sung, but they reached their peak of popularity in the 1960s. Sinatra was probably the biggest of the group, with ‘Strangers in the Night’ and ‘My Way’ being hits in ’66 and ’69, respectively. Britain’s own Matt Monroe was a huge star too.
Big Band – Popular orchestras were big business, with band leaders like James Last, Ray Conniff, Count Basie and Buddy Guy leading the charge. While not strictly a big band (they were only six people), Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were a massively successful ensemble throughout the decade.
Jamaican Music – Although reggae didn’t really evolve until the 1970s, rocksteady and ska were in full swing. Desmond Dekker had a crossover hit with 007 (Shanty Town) in 1967, which brought Jamaican music to the popular consciousness in the UK.
Blues – It’s easy to think of blues being the precursor to rock music, but in fact legendary bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were still around and kicking in the 1960s. Robert Johnson’s 1930s folk-blues recordings were released on LP in 1961, helping to spawn a new interest in the blues.
R&B/Soul – I wouldn’t know where to begin talking about the African American music scene in the 1960s: it was just such a massive phenomenon. Just read the Wikipedia pages for Motown and Stax records, to see the sheer number of great artists and songs they produced in this era. It was a popular live draw too, with the Stax/Volt tour of 1967 packing them in around the UK.
Classical – Classical music thrived in the era of the long playing record, with improved recording techniques and stereo sound adding to the experience. This was the era of celebrity violinists, pianists and conductors. Otto Klemperer and Yehudi Menuhin were household names, even if the names were often mispronounced.
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed my whirlwind tour of alternative-alternative 60s music. As you’ll no doubt be able to tell, I’m no expert on the subject, just an enthusiastic amateur. Your assignment for tonight is to go and listen to at least some of the music I’ve written about, and then report back. That’s right; I’m giving out homework now.