For a dozen years I made my living as a rock and rock DJ. It was an exciting time of my life. I even had a different name when on the radio. It also gave me a skill that is totally useless in the real world: I can name any rock hit from 1958-1980 after hearing only 2 or 3 notes. It is great fun at parties, but irritating to my wife when I still do it in the car.
Music was part of my job, and I'm willing to bet it was an important part of your life, too. Studies show that the music you hear in your teens and early 20's becomes the music you take with you for the rest of your life. While you are likely to enjoy different styles of music as you age, those songs on the radio during high school and college became part of who you are. Music has an incredible power to trigger memories and feelings like almost nothing else.
Recently, I was looking at a list of some of the top songs of the 1960's and 70's. It occurred to me that some of the song titles were perfect representatives of how we thought and felt during that time. As the years advanced, the changes in society and culture could also be marked by the music. Just for fun I picked a handful of songs to make my point.
I Want To Hold Your Hand. I can still remember where I was when I heard this song for the first time. I was listening to a transistor radio hidden under my pillow well past my school day bedtime when the song played. The Beatles sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Instantly I was captivated. At age 14 radio suddenly became my constant companion. While the music was up tempo and loud and different, the lyrics were not much different from the rest of the songs of that time. The focus was on innocence, acceptable limits of contact, and a form of chaste puppy love. Two of the biggest hit songs of the late 50's were April Love and Young Love. Their message was really no different from the one sung by the Beatles. Upheaval and rebellion were yet to come.
Ballad of the Green Berets. Staff Sargent Barry Sadler had a number one song in 1966, extolling the bravery and glory of the Green Beret soldiers. This song reflected the mood of the country: military service was an honorable way to serve the United States, and Vietnam had not yet become a political land mine. The song was used in a movie of the same name staring John Wayne. Society was only a year away from the Beatles openly singing about drugs and the rumblings of discord on college campuses.
To Sir with Love. From the movie of the same name, British artist, Lulu, sang of respect for teachers and authority. She was expressing appreciation for an adult figure who helped change her outlook on life. The one interesting subtext in the song was the message of interracial tolerance and acceptance. Though the teacher in the movie was black (Sidney Poitier), Lulu's character in the movie didn't care. While the other students were less than open about having a black man as a teacher, she simply accepted what he could teach her. During the time this song was released (1967) racial tensions in the U.S. and the rest of the world were building toward a climatic event just one year later in Memphis.
People Got to be Free. Only a few years earlier the Rascals had sung about Good Lovin'. Now, in 1968, the mood of the country had begun to sour. The riots in Chicago were only a few months in the future. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were soon to occur. The tide had begun to turn against the Vietnam war and the government. The Beatles were experimenting with LSD, and the movie Easy Rider became an instant hit among the young, glorifying a lifestyle of easy love, drugs, travel, and no responsibilities.
Songs demanding social change became an important part of rock radio. Ohio, about the shooting at Kent State helped propel Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to stardom. Edwin Starr sang against War. Helen Reddy became a feminist icon with her hit, I am Woman. Music was angry, aggressive, and demanding changes.
Flash forward half a decade. The Vietnam war was history. The campus riots and political tensions had stopped. The gas shortage of the early 70's had faded from memory. The country's mood had changing dramatically since the late 1960's.
Music that was meant for dancing and sex took over the airwaves. The Bee Gees dominated the charts with the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever and #1 songs like You Should be Dancing and Staying Alive. Such a heavy use of falsetto hadn't been as popular since the days of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons. Everything was about the beat. Lyrics of disco songs were either unimportant, or strongly sensual. Society had become liberated in a way that made I Want to Hold You Hand look like a song from another lifetime. Rod Stewart wanted to know if you "Think I'm Sexy." The group Exile wanted to "Kiss You All Over."
As the 1970's end disco fades away. The 1980's begins with hard rock groups, solo super stars Madonna and Michael Jackson and country flavored artist Kenny Rogers. There is a variety to the types and styles of music that radio hadn't played since the early 1960's.
I trust the handful of songs and artists I've highlighted began prompting memories from that jukebox in your mind. What songs had special meaning to you growing up during this time? Which groups or artists dominated your LP collection? What about Elvis, Motown, Simon and Garfunkel, Three Dog Night, or The Righteous Brothers? Do you remember You're So Vain, Wild Thing, or Paint it Black?
Maybe I should start a regular feature that highlights some of the great music of this time. Would that interest you? Or, maybe I should just go back to my 8 track tape collection of the Partridge Family.
Comments, music references and memories are strongly encouraged. Please add your thoughts!