Explaining Grownup Music to Kids: The British Invasion & '60s Rock

Adam P. Newton recently became a father for the first time, so he has decided to explain the entirety of post-WWII Western pop music to his new daughter, "Fig"...one genre at a time.

What’s happening, Fig? Ready to dive headlong into a decade that changed the face of rock music? Sure, the artists we discussed a few installments back introduced the world to this curious blend of gospel, blues and country in the ’50s, one that inculcated a fear of teenaged libidos in grownups everywhere, but the artists in this segment cemented that legacy. This happened in large part because a bunch of bands from across the pond (most of whom lived in Great Britain) started making really great music. Known as the “British Invasion,” these groups gleefully imported the sounds of American folk and blues, turned them on their head with great pop lyrics, and then exported this new twist on rock back to its home country. The radio seemingly changed overnight, and there was no Paul Revere warning the colonists — he actually participated this time around!

This isn’t to say that American rock acts folded under the pressure, though many did. Much of the surf-rock that dominated radio in the late ’50s and early ’60s either retreated underground or expanded its vision to compete with the Brits. Other American acts welcomed these new sounds and then pushed rock and blues headlong in new directions. So, while it would be nice to discuss excellent songs like “Walk, Don’t Run” by The Ventures, Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” and the inimitable “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris — not to mention acts like Herman’s Hermits and Paul Revere & the Raiders (see?) — I felt it best to focus on acts that truly moved rock forward as a genre.

Admittedly, I’ve tried to ignore one-hit wonders (or at least bands with only one real recognizable track) in order to introduce you to acts with long-standing impact in the history of music. But it was hard to leave out this one. Another one of those rock songs that birthed hundreds of bands, the Kingsmen's “Louie, Louie” stirred up a bunch of controversy in its day. The lyrics of this 1963 track were slurred into oblivion by Jack Ely, leading to wide-ranging misinterpretation and an eventual FBI investigation into potential obscenity charges. Yet the reason this song has stuck around for so long is its catchy simplicity: The three-chord organ phrase is replayed ad infinitum and the drums clatter about in 4/4 meter, while that delicious lead guitar is packed with warbling, surf-inspired tremolo. It’s a stone-cold classic.

Bridging the gap between the ’50s and ’60s with aplomb, Orbison possessed such a gloriously warm voice and the knack for a great pop hook. The Texas native borrowed capably and easily from rockabilly, country and blues to develop his own take on rock and roll. You can hear this all come to bear in his most well-known song, “Oh, Pretty Woman” from 1964. A straightforward drum break kicks it off, that unmistakeable guitar lick enters the picture, and then Orbison’s voice beckons and croons toward the focus of the song. In retrospect, the track is a bit of a catcall to a woman who might not be at all interested in Orbison, but musically it remains pretty rad to this day.

Simply put, the Beach Boys managed to break out of the trapping of smiling, adolescent surf-rock to create one of the best records of all time in 1966’s Pet Sounds. But let us not forget that the group cut its collective teeth creating tight vocal harmonies and refreshing pop in the form of “I Get Around”; “409"; “Help Me, Rhonda” and more. Nevertheless, the version of the Beach Boys I want to celebrate is the one heard on “God Only Knows.” Flugelhorns, strings and jangly acoustic guitar strums complement stirring harmonies, heartfelt lyrics and a jazz-inspired arrangement. And when you combine that musical genius with lyrics that are both realistic and romantic, it all adds up to one of my favorite songs ever — in fact, it was on the set list that powered the dance party that concluded the reception at your Mom’s and my wedding.

Like many of the world-changing artists we’re talking about during the course of this series, it’s often difficult to choose just one song to represent that group or singer’s style. And it’s certainly true when it comes to The Beatles — not only because the band officially recorded together for barely a decade, but because their sound morphed so distinctly during that time. This quartet formed in Liverpool, England, in 1960 as a folk-pop band singing sprightly tunes about young love (e.g., “Love Me Do"), and then voluntarily closed up shop  ten years later as a psych-rock act exploring the limits of spirituality and recording technology (for example, “Come Together”). I guess that’s what happens when three of the most talented songwriters of all time (plus the luckiest drummer in the world) decide to make music together.

It’s in this spirit that I selected “Day Tripper." Recorded in 1965 as part of the Rubber Soul sessions — the first of a stunning three-album run that included Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — this stellar tune best exemplifies both halves of the band’s careers. It begins with a superb guitar phrase, features fantastic three-part harmonies, sustains an excellent rock groove, and showcases Lennon and McCartney’s penchant for wry jokes and veiled references in the lyrics. It’s not the band’s best or most memorable song, but it’s definitely one I like a lot.

Representing the flip side of The Beatles’ love of expansive pop music, The Rolling Stones embraced American blues with vigor, both in terms of lyrical power and engaging guitar riffs. It definitely helped to have one of the best front men of all time in the form of Mick Jagger convey the darker and more dangerous side of rock music. The band made the concept “sex, drugs and rock and roll” come to life like few bands before or since, and it did so with a sustained dedication to strong guitar, sultry arrangements and superlative live performances. While I could have selected such standouts from the ’60s (and I ignored the ’70s standouts) like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Time Is on My Side,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or “Ruby Tuesday,” I went with “Paint It Black” from 1966. This minor-key tune explodes with verve and swagger as psych-rock merges effortlessly with a Middle Eastern raga. And that slithering lead-guitar line drips with an eerie malice that puts you ill at ease while still drawing you into its spell. Such a wonderful song on so many levels.

In another world, The Kinks are celebrated alongside the Stones and the Beatles as a top-tier British Invasion act. Instead, they’re a band whose profile rose in prominence only when bands 10-15 years later started listing them as big influences. Admittedly, the Kinks had great radio hits throughout the ’60s (and beyond) with “You Really Got Me,” “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Sunny Afternoon,” but a four-year ban from American audiences during the heart of the decade meant that the band would never have the successes of its contemporaries. Thankfully, the ban didn’t prevent “All Day and All of the Night” from affecting 1964 and the next few decades of rock. The gritty power chords, hooky chord progressions and rollicking drums helped lay the groundwork for garage rock, punk rock, power-pop and more. There’s so much goodness happening in this delightful track, and it’s less than two and a half minutes long.

When you think about the folks who made up this band, you’d think it was rock music’s first supergroup. Instead, the Yardbirds came first, serving as the launching pad for three of the most celebrated rock guitarists in history — Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Even better, the band earns its own slot in this list by combining folk arrangements with blues pastiche and psychedelic sensibilities into a coherent and rocking core. On 1965’s “Heart Full of Soul,” Beck’s fuzzed-out lead guitar introduces the song with plenty of punch, as Clapton and Page provide complementary rhythm-guitar fills atop the swaggering drums of Jim McCarty. Yet I would contend that the strong baritone of Keith Relf truly brings the band to another level; it’s one part croon, one part belt and one part entrancing intonation — all without sounding hokey.

Another act whose primary single had an impact on the direction of rock in a short span of time, the Animals merged their love of American blues tropes with a resplendent organ to great effect. Born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the early ‘60s, the group rocketed to stardom in 1964 with “House of the Rising Sun,” a song that featured a chord progression you can hear young guitar players evoke to this day. Yet the song’s true power comes from the ragged bellow of Eric Burton as he recounts a haunting tale of his experiences at a troubled abode in New Orleans. The individual instruments don’t do anything necessarily special, but as an organized whole, the effect is mesmerizing as it transports you to the front porch of that house while imploring you to say away. Sometimes, a group really only needs one good song to solidify its presence in rock history.

The benefit of history is you can look backwards to unearth art that happened to be forgotten or neglected in its original context. This isn’t to say that The Byrds didn’t have acolytes and fans during the ten-plus years they made music (your paternal grandmother had a couple of their records in her collection), but the group had more of a cult following at the time. But with tracks like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” from 1967’s Sweethearts of the Rodeo, you can hear entire genres like Americana and alt-country being born. Hell, I’m not sure Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would have careers without the slightly broken harmonies, guitar twang and shuffling drum rhythms you hear throughout a track that’s just under three minutes long.

This installment draws to a conclusion with a three-part study of musicians who died well before their time but still managed to deliver music that has truly stood the test of time. First up is Jimi Hendrix — celebrated guitar god, technological innovator and another unfortunate member of the “27 Club.” Jimi’s star burned so very brightly for just a few years, but his impact upon how a guitar can be played, the equipment through which it can be played, and his capacity for deconstruction cannot be overstated. He began his music life early in the ’60s with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, but ended the decade tearing down blues and rock with tunes like “Purple Haze” and “Voodoo Chile,” not to mention his searing take on the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. However, I want to introduce you to “Foxy Lady” instead: Released in 1967 on Are You Experienced?, the song first represents a blistering take on blues, rock and the impact of the British Invasion, and then helps introduce the template for hard rock and metal, complete with the use of heavy distortion, overdriven effects and thundering drums. Music really was not the same.

Next up is The Doors, a band out of Los Angeles that merged blues sensibilities and arrangements with beat poetry and psych-rock from San Francisco to wild acclaim. Led by the charismatic Jim Morrison, who passed away in 1971 at age 27, the group blew the hinges off rock radio for a few years with raucous tracks like “Break on Through to the Other Side,” “Love Me Two Times” and the still-popular “Light My Fire.” Yet I selected 1968's “Hello, I Love You,” not because of its overtly stalker lyrics, but because the song crackles with a fantastic energy. Morrison wails and caterwauls with preternatural power as the organ, guitar and drums swell, swirl and crescendo around him. The effect is completely delirious.

Finally, we draw this discussion to a conclusion by talking about the only woman on our list. Janis Joplin was born in my hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943 and passed away in 1970, only 16 days after Hendrix died. While she willfully drew upon the voices of Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton for inspiration, her powerful bellow was all her own. Leading three different bands during her tumultuous career, she brought an infectious and otherworldly talent to bear on the male-dominated rock world. Just try listening to her 1967 version of “Piece of My Heart” and not feeling your skin crawl as she wails, croons and implores the lover who has scorned her, all while Big Brother and the Holding Company provide a stellar brand of rock that’s equal parts Delta blues and Bay Area psych. Janis remains one of the patron saints to many women making rock music.

Up Next: A few more decades of jazz and blues.

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