When you think of music of the 1960s, what pops into your mind? The Twist by Chubby Checker? Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou? Maybe it’s Come Together by the Beatles, or Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. All of those songs were popular in the 1960s. But the first two were in the early sixties. Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone hit the charts in 1965 and Come Together was released in 1969. Needless to say, the volatile decade of the 1960s saw a huge transformation in the music everyone heard on the radio. Looking back, the first few years of that decade seem like a continuation of the 1950s, while the middle and late sixties come across as a new era with a a more complex sensibility.
I’ve been re-listening to some of those songs as I write my latest novel which comes out this fall. The story is set in 1966-67 as musical tastes underwent a tectonic shift. It’s surprising now to think that the actual top forty playlist as my novel opens in September of 1966 included such varied songs as: Sunshine Superman by Donovan, Summer in the City by The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Land of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett and Stevie Wonder’s version of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, all in the top ten. Then at #11 was Wouldn’t it Be Nice by The Beach Boys and #12 was Lil Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
The Sixties, of course, was a time of great social upheaval, with opposition mounting to the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement gaining momentum, growing demands by women for equal opportunities, and the gay rights movement picking up steam. The music we listened to incorporated or reflected growing social consciousness. Some popular songs were overt political statements. It’s amazing when you realize we went from Brian Hyland’s 1960 hit, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, to James Brown’s Say it Loud, I’m Black and I'm Proud in 1968… and from 1961’s My Boomerang Won’t Come Back by Charlie Drake to Barry McGuire’s 1965 anti-war anthem, Eve of Destruction.
This musical evolution took us from silly novelty songs like 1962’s Monster Mash to 1965’s My Generation by The Who – a teen rebellion anthem if there ever was one. But the airwaves were also filled with anti-war songs. Think Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Peace Train by Cat Stevens, Universal Soldier by Donovan and the very powerful War by Edwin Starr – “War, huh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” There were songs calling for equal treatment of black Americans such as A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke and Southern Man by Neil Young. There were also songs that became anthems for women, like Aretha Franklin’s Respect, Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me, and on the Country and Western side, there was Dolly Parton’s 1968 hit, Just Because I’m a Woman.
From a novelist’s perspective, the Sixties, itself, is like a character – so rich was that period as a decade of change. Our country was undergoing a dramatic transformation and our music was changing as well. What a gift for me as a writer. And I make use of popular songs the characters listen to in my novel to help create that Sixties vibe.
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