Everyone knows that the 1960’s were the most influential years in music culture. Your parents know it, you know it, hell that one girl who keeps posting “born in the wrong generation” knows it. There is no doubt that todays music influence traces back to the Swinging Sixties. The creativity explosion that was seen both inside and outside of the studio was all thanks to talented pioneers who used their instruments differently from the rest of the white noise. Today, lets give it up to a few of my favorites, specifically in the 60’s rock genre, whose bold use of their respective skills have inspired generations past their inceptions.
The voice is perhaps the most drawing aspect of music for some listeners, to the point where my friend Snapper won’t listen to music without a human voice. And if I think of the 60’s, there are two voices that come to mind: Janis Joplin and Robert Plant. Both are respected greats that have inspired new techniques in singing, but perhaps more impressive is their widespread popularity during the time. Not 6 years before the release of Big Brother & Holding Company and Led Zeppelin’s first album the public preferred musicians with more classically trained voices. The 50’s were dominated by crooners and plentiful doo wop ensembles with singers harmonizing for a lighter listening experience. Comparatively, Joplin and Plant utilize a raspy pitch that is more akin to yelling than the early 60’s standard of showmanship. Robert Plant is at his finest in “Since I’ve Been Loving You” as he gives a painful portrayal of his frustration with love. The gravely notes that he hits express a profound form of the anger and betrayal he feels in the song. Janis Joplin shows her gift best in the 1968 album “Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother & Holding Company. The album has some of her more well known hits like “Ball and Chain” and “Piece of My Heart”, but I encourage you to look at the vocals on the rest of the album, including my favorite “Combination of the Two”, as she sets herself apart from other singers that were in the scene at the time of the album’s release (also the album art can’t be beat). The schism is what paved the way for a more widely accepted wave of rock n’ roll in the sound of the 60’s and 70’s that encouraged a harder approach to the effort of “stickin’ it to the man”. Another impressive aspect of these two is how their talent could distinguish them from the rest of their towering accompanists. Both were backed with defining bands of the 1960’s that showcased a serious amount of talent.
Since the guitar is the second striking feature of music, naturally I was now supposed to talk about the guitarists of the sixties but since I don’t have a spare 12 hours to discuss them, I have narrowed it down to two important distinctions: LSD and cocaine. Now at first these two seem a little off color and perhaps you’re asking what they have to do with a six stringed instrument. But in many ways, these two drugs have a lot to do with the emergence of some amazing guitar players. Take LSD or “Acid” for instance, its associated with mellowness and creativity. It is supposed to bring euphoria and make you feel loose. Now put that into music and you have Jerry Garcia. One hand, the Grateful Dead wouldn’t be a band without the use of Acid in their jam sessions in Palo Alto. Jerry Garcia personifies the Acid stereotype as his music follows an improvisational tone. They’re the stereotypical stoner group. But that doesn’t come unintentionally. Garcia’s use of guitar gets glossy at some parts, it speeds up, it slows down, and it knows when to shut up and listen. It seems to simulate a drug effect as he plays with dynamics in a way that guitarists have worked tirelessly to replicate. Say what you will about his guitar playing, but it can’t be argued that he is in any hurry to finish a song. He allows the notes to find their mark in their own time. I believe he best exemplifies this in the 20-minute Grateful Dead cover of “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)” by The Four Tops or in their original “China Cat Sunflower”. Conversely, cocaine is a stimulant. It is supposed to you feel energetic and euphoric but has a severe capability to manipulate emotions. Unlike Acid, cocaine is addictive and can make its users irritable. When translated to guitar, you get a ferocious approach that oppositely seems like it is in a hurry to end; not to say that that’s a bad thing. And nobody does “cocaine guitar” better in my opinion than the great Duane Allman. His voice in his guitar seems to replicate the highs and lows of a drug addiction. When listening to The Allman Brothers Band (or most of the southern fried band’s that emerged in the wake of the Allman Brothers), it’s not hard to hear the influence of cocaine in their playing. The southern bands seemed to thrive on it with the emphasis of long shed sessions live with fast tempos. Duane Allman and the rest of the band were no exception to the fancy for “blow” and it showed in their playing. Duane could bust out insane licks for songs like “Statesboro Blues” that made you question if he sold his soul to the devil. But he could also draw you in with his “crying songbird” technique that could be seen in more popular tunes and even the famous outro of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla”. The irritability in tone that is associated with a cocaine addicted musician (though sad for their personal life) does make for some genius music.
On the topic of genius, there is perhaps no better instrument to be associated with intelligence than the piano. But the piano had been a prominent staple of popular music throughout the 20th century already seen many variations, so it became crucial to make a distinguished style with the keys to really stand out. Greats like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder popularized the organ funk that a keyboard can produce. And though many distinguished musicians impacted the music scene with their use of the organ, nobody in my opinion brings the groove like the genius of Ray Manzarek. In the emerging rock scene of the 1960’s, most pianists were coming from blues backgrounds. But in 1967 on The Doors debut self-titled album, Manzarek emerged with his new sound fusing jazz, blues, and Latin to lull their audience in a trance. On The Doors next three albums, he finished out the 60’s continually redefining the sound of piano in rock as he switched from different styles like honky tonk and soul. Beside his genius on stage, were 3 other powerhouse musicians that helped him. Morrison and Manzarek captivate audiences to this day with their combination of self-reflection and trance like riffs, and this is best seen in their famous Hollywood Bowl performance in 1968. It’s all on YouTube so throw it on next time you’re studying, it’s scientifically proven to improve test scores by 10%.
Ironically, the next instrument wasn’t even included in The Doors ensemble. All of the bass being produced live was either on a guitar or an organ, so a bass guitar wasn’t in the picture. And sadly, that’s what seems to be the case: the bass player is usually forgotten… symbolically. Sure, you can name your favorite guitarist off the top of your head, but can you conjure up who your favorite bass player is? Most people can’t. But the bass is an important instrument. You wouldn’t listen to your favorite rapper if they didn’t make your subs rattle. Bass is a staple of the emerging rock scene in the 60’s and the success of the genre wouldn’t be the same without it. It holds songs together, adds more substance, and has a variety of variations. And bassists took advantage of this in the 60’s. We saw the rise of legendary Cream bassist Jack Bruce innovate the classic instrument. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin lit the stage on fire with his bass efforts but I strive not to be cliché and beat the Zeppelin horse to death. Besides, there was only one king of rock and roll bass of the 60’s and his name was John Entwistle. Nobody attacked the bass with the same ferocity as the maniac bass player that belonged to The Who. Entwistle had a high energy approach to the four stringed bass. He danced around stage in fits of madness as he pioneered the rocker lifestyle along with the hard-hitting bass licks that backed his reputation up. John Entwistle and the band’s edgy attitude also gave inspiration to punk legends like the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Now if bass was the shell that held 60’s rock together, then drums would be the gunpowder. Though the drums had been mastered my jazz musicians like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa about 40 times over, they had never been translated to a rock back drop. In the early 60’s, rock and roll didn’t really know what it wanted to be. Listen to any song that fits the genre and you’re not hearing anything too flashy. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits. If you look at any of the drum tracks isolated, they’re nothing flashy. But as rock became denser through musical combination, so did the drums. The craft was refined and refined until amazing drummers started emerging in the rock scene: Bonham, Baker, Mitchell, Moon, whoever the drummer for The 13th Floor Elevators was, the list goes on. But I gotta be crazy not to shed some light on this unsung hero, who performed one of the finest drum solos I’ve ever seen at only 20 years old: Michael Shrieve in Woodstock. Using Santana’s massive rhythm section, Shrieve creates a pocket that the band just falls into. The bass and the Latin flare of the music weighs heavily on Michael Shrieve’s shoulders and he handles it flawlessly. His effort on the debut album is also unprecedented, with a pocket cooler than a polar bears toenail on tracks like “Evil Ways” and “Waiting”. Also, if you’ve never seen Soul Sacrifice live at Woodstock where Santana is accidentally on drugs and still kills it, now you know how to fill 10 minutes of quarantine boredom.
So for any of you unfamiliar with anyone mentioned above I suggest that you sign up for a crash course being offered on Spotify called “the shuffle button”. Thank you.