The 60s may not be rock’s most prolific decade, but it was inarguably its most important and quite possibly its best. A social revolution began, driven by the injustice of the Vietnam war, the intensifying conflict of race in America, the popularization of hallucinogenic drugs, a postwar boom in culture and leisure, the first real advancements toward gender equality, improved infrastructure, a growing consciousness of philosophy and art and an increasingly high standard of living in the first world. This merged with several niche subcultures sprouting around the western world, and eventually rock, soul, and rhythm & blues were used as tools of change and revolution. The populism of these musical traditions, and the innovative art they created, was unprecedented and will never again be seen. There was a cross-pollination of commerce and cultural influence between the U.K. and America that reached previously unthinkable heights early in the decade.
Britain had its artsy mods and working class pop groups, while America had a burgeoning country music scene as well as a world-famous soul and Motown hit factory for black musicians. They both drew heavily upon their past, utilizing classical and music hall (Britain) and jazz and gospel (America). They likewise mutated country, blues and folk music together, while incorporating totally new sounds generated by cutting-edge technology and (sometimes) an influence of the avant-garde and Eastern instrumentation.
After the social repression and homogeneity of the 1950s, things came to a head in this tumultuous decade. In this time of contrasting prosperity and conflict, numerous social icons preached positivity, liberal ideology and change. These ideals spread, and there was an embrace of love and peace, culminating in the so-called “Summer of Love” in 1967. Songs began to have a countercultural meaning, as rebellion was popularized by these same figureheads. It finally became economically and artistically viable for both local groups and music publishers to spread their influence and make more money than ever before in the record industry. This relatively new pastime finally completed the transition from being merely functional to being true self-expression and creative exploration.
All of this creativity and free-spiritedness mushroomed into the drug-and-idealism-fueled Summer of Love, which would soon be shattered by the reality of war and a flagging economy. As cultural signifiers of love and goodwill, the Beatles’ breakup in early 1970 heralded the end of an era, while the troubling accidental deaths of concertgoers at a 1969 Rolling Stones show (at Altamont) foreshadowed the tumult and darkness to come. The decade as a whole was divided between the teenybopper crazes of 1964; the trippy, peace-loving experimentation of 1967; and the harder-edged, more expansive and angsty roots rock of 1969. Music (as well as other art, being conveyed by an increasingly present media) served as the common denominator linking all these movements and ideologies together. With that said, here are the most notable threads of that decade-long revolution in sound.