The Sixties started without a bang. If rock fans expected the new decade to bring fresh excitement they were in for a big disappointment because we were waist-deep in the soggy middle ground between Rock & Roll and The Beatles, who at this point were about to visit Hamburg for the first time, having just completed a lacklustre tour of Scotland backing Johnny Gentle.
In the company of Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Duffy Power and his biggest acts Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde, Johnny Gentle was a transitory inmate of Larry Parnes‘ “Stable of Stars” – all of whose names were said to have been selected as an indication of their sexual characteristics! Gentle was destined to remain in obscurity.
The UK pop scene in 1960/61 was dominated by what we now would call ‘Light Entertainment’: wholesome vocal groups, cheeky chappies, pretty girl singers/male heartthrobs who were also actors, chipper moppets. Each of these would be marshalled, moulded, and manipulated by svengalis in astrakhan coats chomping huge cigars.
In America, no pretenders had threatened Elvis Presley as King of Rock & Roll. The month after his army release in March 1960, Stuck On You bolted to Number One to be followed by It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight? later in the year.
In London, the first rock groups began to emerge, but most of them sounded pretty weak and unimaginative compared with the Americans. Some even had hits: Nero and The Gladiators experienced five-minute stardom with Entry Of The Gladiators and In The Hall Of The Mountain King.
Eventually, the British pop scene of the Swinging Sixties was bursting with vocal groups, solo artists and instrumentalists.
But at the outset, teenagers had to listen to the latest hits on the café jukebox or a basic record player.
Their only other lifeline was a nightly dose of music from Radio Luxembourg or Alan Freeman’s ‘Pick of the Pops’ on BBC radio on Sunday afternoons.
Then in 1964 came the offshore pirate radio stations – Radio Caroline and Radio London, which broadcast from ships anchored just outside British waters – but in 1967 the government closed them down as a risk to shipping.
In the re-organisation of BBC radio into Radios 1,2, 3 and 4, Radio 1 became the new station for pop music and ex-pirate DJs like Tony Blackburn and John Peel. By 1964, for the first time in rock history, America was looking up to Britain, and the rampant Beatlemania at Kennedy Airport heralded a full-blown British Invasion.
The curious counterpoint to such a rich outpouring of great Rock & Roll music in the 60s was a parallel boom in middle-of-the-road pop. So for every My Generation and You Really Got Me there seemed to be an equal number of drippy ballads selling in vast quantities, like Ken Dodd‘s Tears, Val Doonican‘s The Special Years and The Bachelors singing Marie.
So the soundtrack of the 60s was in many ways a curious mix of Soul music, British Beat, psychedelia, R&B, romantic schmaltz and records by British comedians, wholesome vocal groups, cheeky chappies, pretty young girl singers and male heartthrobs who were also actors.
The Sixties saw a revolution in popular music. In a few short years, interest switched from singles to albums, from mono to stereo and from dance music to move the body to cerebral music to please the intellect.
New styles emerged out of old ones – Girl Group pop, beat music, folk-rock, country-rock, acid-rock, soul – and the spirit of Rock & Roll was re-enlivened by four young self-taught beat musicians from Liverpool, England.
Yet the decade began with little hint of the upheaval to come. Rock & Roll had reached a low creative ebb by 1960, not least because several of the original purveyors were missing in action: Chuck Berry was in jail for abducting a minor; Jerry Lee Lewis was in disgrace after marrying his 13-year-old cousin; Little Richard had renounced Rock & Roll for religion; Buddy Holly was dead, and Elvis Presley was serving his National Service with the US Army in Germany.
In the USA, more young girls than ever before were buying records and a new musical subculture was to emerge, based on the tastes, fantasies and hormones of Little Miss America. Teenage magazines appeared, packed with fan gossip, love stories and exclusive interviews with the new, male, teen idols.
Meanwhile, a sharp black businessman named Berry Gordy Jr put the city of Detroit on the music map with a string of small record labels that were soon amalgamated into one huge corporation called Motown.
Britain seemed like the most unlikely place for a musical revolution, and British teenagers had traditionally looked to America for excitement – on record, on television and in the cinema.
But the real impetus for British rock music came not from these infatuations (and imitations), but from the skiffle boom of the late 50s. Skiffle was do-it-yourself music at its simplest: the ‘authentic’ line-up was guitar (three chords would suffice), washboard and thimbles (percussion) and a tea-chest with a strung broom handle (bass).
Guitar sales rose phenomenally and a new British pop music began to develop – especially in provincial cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle where one-time skiffle outfits were evolving naturally into Rock & Roll groups. In 1961 it was estimated that around 350 groups were operating in Liverpool alone, and it was almost inevitable that one of these would rise to the top eventually.
What nobody could have foreseen was what an effect The Beatles would have on rock music around the world.
The success of The Beatles revitalised the music scene as never before. Literally, thousands of groups were formed in the aftermath of Beatlemania, and between 1964 and 1966 home-grown British beat music swamped Britain and the world.
The Fab Four effectively put America back in touch with its own rock heritage, reviving the dynamism of Rock & Roll and breathing new life into half-forgotten styles.
As in Britain, they sparked off a massive explosion of new groups – an explosion which was further enhanced by the ‘British Invasion‘ of other innovative groups from the UK.
As the music world entered the late Sixties, many of the changes set in motion earlier in the decade ultimately came to fruition.
Popular music became more socially aware, more experimental, and musicians attained a degree of artistic control over their music that would have been unthinkable a short ten years before.
Whilst established stars, especially The Beatles (three Number Ones with We Can Work It Out, Paperback Writer and Eleanor Rigby) and The Rolling Stones (three Top Five hits with Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown, Paint It Black and Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?), were releasing brilliant recordings, new British acts couldn’t seem to come up with anything substantial in 1966. Most appeared to have an aura of novelty about them as if they were just more products of the trite and ephemeral pop machine.
Other successful British acts of the year included The Troggs and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. If Dave Dee’s television appearances seemed contrived, so too did those of The New Vaudeville Band. Their brassy oompah and megaphone vocals recalled The Temperance Seven, and though they weren’t around for long they had a pair of sizeable hits with Winchester Cathedral and Peek A Boo.
Neil Christian, a rocker since the late 50s, had his first and last hit with That’s Nice, New Yorker Roy C had a UK-only smash hit with Shotgun Wedding, Crispian St Peters had a quick fling with You Were On My Mind and The Pied Piper, and The Merseybeats reappeared as a trimmed-down duo called The Merseys but Sorrow was to be their only success.
Alan Price – a refugee from The Animals – went on to carve a respectable solo career after his 1966 debut, I Put A Spell On You. He had six trips into the Top 20 and subsequently snuggled into television and cabaret work, and by the 70s had established himself as a film soundtrack writer.
Meanwhile, clubs around the country were still vibrating to the sound of blues from groups like John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, The Graham Bond Organisation and Chris Farlowe and The Thunderbirds. All had released singles to little response, but in 1966 Farlowe broke through with the Mick Jagger/Keith Richard-penned song Out Of Time, which became a surprise #1. Farlowe never repeated the feat, and after a chequered career with Colosseum and Atomic Rooster he retired to his London antique business, performing sporadically throughout the late seventies.
Bobby Hebb had an impressive start with Sunny but disappeared almost immediately – as did a number of bright and not-so-bright prospects including Robert Parker with Barefootin’, The Capitols with Cool Jerk, Napoleon XIV with They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Ha, and The Count Five with Psychotic Reaction.
The Happenings, a harmony group in the Four Seasons mould, made their mark with See You In September and I Got Rhythm, and a young New York group called The Left Banke made a stunning debut with Walk Away Renee. After a less powerful follow-up, Pretty Ballerina, the group’s main man Michael Brown left, and their brilliance withered.
Perhaps most significantly – thanks, especially to the efforts of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – rock music, was coming to be seen as an instrument of change.
The late sixties were a time of great social and political upheaval, a time when traditional values were being questioned or discarded altogether. A new spirit of affluence and optimism engendered a liberal atmosphere which the youth of the Western world could embrace and exploit, albeit with the inevitable clash with authority, in the shape of parents, laws, and governments.
Popular music underwent a change which was both a reflection and an essential ingredient of the social revolution. A whirl of psychedelic noise ushered in the ‘Summer of Love‘ and as word spread there was a sudden migration of young people to the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco.
By 1966 the area was a thriving artistic community and also boasted two of the most influential radio stations – KSAN and KMPX – which were forerunners of the FM radio boom.