Friday, September 08, 2006

Music's Greatest Generation, 1964 -1980

Reflecting back on the history of popular music I have come to the conclusion that not only was much of the best pop music of the world produced during the period from 1964 to about 1980 but that is also the era in which pop music was most revered. I contend that never before in history has music meant so much to a single generation. It is a phenomenon that may never happen again. Even allowing for the fact that this is the era I grew up in, and came of age in, (and therefore I may look upon it with both prejudice and some fondness) I still believe my thoughts are accurate. This premise is strictly based on my observations. I have no hard data.

During that decade and a half poets and literary types embraced popular music. Folk music became mainstream. Could Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Peter Paul & Mary get played on rock radio today? Radio embraced them all in the 60s. Jazz made the pop charts. Could Miles Davis be played on rock music stations today? He was then. Progressive rock was heavily influenced by classical music. There were many social commentary and political songs. The British invasion was the first and only time music from another country would dominate the American airwaves and sales charts. I could go on and on. This eclecticism contributed to music’s popularity during this era. Motown, Stax-Volt, Southern California country-rock and folk-rock, British prog-rock, good ol’ boy southern rock, and more, were all played on popular music radio together and they could all be enjoyed by the same listener.

It all began when The Beatles stormed the world beginning with their Ed Sullivan appearance in February of 1964 and this love of music continued until most of the artists who came of age in the 60s began to peter out. The end of the 70s and the dawn of the 80s saw the break up of Led Zeppelin, The Band, and The Who. Jon Anderson left Yes. Elvis left the building for good. John Lennon was assasinated. Lowell George died. There are lots of other examples, too many to mention. Punk and disco were taking over.

Why will a love of music that went beyond the norm be unlikely to happen again in future generations? There are a multitude of reasons. Here are a few.

1 - Computers And Video Games. Do you remember going to a friends dorm room or house and sitting around listening to and discussing music? Today the kids born of my generation will go over to their friend's house and play video games instead. They may listen to music but they have other interests.

During the era I'm speaking about music often was the reason friends got together. The music was the event. Listening was often so intense that friends would gather around the stereo just as families gathered around the TV. While today's kids may be listening they are probably more focused on other activities such as computer games. During the era I am talking about there were no PCs, VCRs, or DVDs. No one had heard the name Atari.

I had friends who would invite me over just to hear a new album they purchased. That is how I was introduced to Terry Kath's extended solo on Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4." Before that day the single version of the song was all I knew. I'll never forget it. Today that kid extending me the invitation would probably be asking me to come preview his new X-Box video game.

2 – Radio. Radio is too fragmented today. There was a time a top 40 station could play The Rolling Stones, followed by Frank Sinatra, followed by The Temptations, Neil Diamond, The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Cash, The Four Seasons, and James Brown all in a row. We were exposed to a lot of different genres of music. That won’t happen today. Demographics now dictate that ratings aren't enough. Radio stations aim for a target audience. Therefore a station that plays Norah Jones most likely isn’t playing Radiohead too. If a station plays Michael Bolton they won't be playing Eminem.

3 – The Beatles. There is no icon like the Beatles today. Love them or hate them no single artist has ever taken over our culture like the four young men from Liverpool, England did. They not only influenced our music but all youth culture in general. The main reason men and boys of the mid-60s to about 1980 wore their hair longer is because of the Beatles. They also caused a lot of kids to take up music as a hobby.

4 – The Political Atmosphere. The Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam, and Watergate combined to force a lot of people with something to say to find an acceptable outlet for expressing how they felt. A lot of this spilled over into the music of the day. It isn't a coincidence that this musical era started to decline after America settled down beginning with the age of Ronald Reagan.

5 - MTV. It's birth twenty-five years ago may have had more influence on the decline of this era than many realize. The popularity of music videos frequently made it impossible for the viewer/listener to separate the video images from the music. MTV helped spawn the Ashley and Jessica Simpson types who are everywhere today. Image and appearance seem to be more important than the music. Way too many musical acts of today are pre-packaged with both visuals and image in mind.

I am not stuck in my era. I'm not a music fan who dislikes everything that was recorded after I graduated from college. There is still an abundance of outstanding new music everywhere, there always will be, but to have a culture in which music permeates so much of our American society as it did in 1964, and have it last almost a generation, is not likely to happen again anytime soon.


  1. Charlie,

    It may cheer you up some to know that in high school one of my close friends and I would get together to discuss music regularly and a few of my other friends and I would also discuss music quite intently on a semi-regular basis. This was in the early 1990s and rather than embrace the music of that era we were grooving to the music of the seventies and eighties.

    One of my friends got me heavily into Pink Floyd, Queen, and the Doors and introduced me to Rush. Another friend of mine introduced me to Bad Company and REO Speedwagon, I introduced him to Toto's Kingdom of Desire album.

    1) I disagree partially as I forsee a fusion of music and video "games"- I forsee consoles becoming considerably more interactive. With the recording and distribution of music becoming far more cost-efficient and accessible to the average teenager. I forsee a shift from an enjoyment of merely listening to music to an enjoyment of performing and sharing music with others. It'll be like singalongs in the 19th century but more high tech and on a global scale.

    2) There are at least 2 stations in Chicago that actually DO play music in this format. I've heard Johnny Cash, Metallica, and Sinatra all played on that station within the span of an afternoon. Granted these stations do seem to gravitate towards specific artists as I heard an overabundance of Bon Jovi on said station.

    3) Can't argue but I will say I believe there will be another similar musical movement in the future... maybe not in our lifetimes-- and someone (or plural someones) will completely change the way we think about and listen to music.

    4) History is cyclical. The issues may not be the same, but there is still that socio-political voice in the music of several artists. The difference is that in the 60s that voice was often calling for positive change whereas the political songs today seem to merely be whining and complaining about how things are rather than suggesting positive change.

    5. Video did kill the radio star, but I do see an increased interest in music from the past. This isn't just because the music of the past was good but because the music of the present is so vapid.

    This is one of your best posts, Charlie! Keep up the great work!

  2. Great piece Charlie. I've got a very similar theory that I haven't had time to flesh out, but I see a golden age for music from approximately 1970-1975 when many artists on both sides of the Atlantic reached creative peaks that mere coincidence cannot explain. I'm speaking of Yes, Genesis, ELP, the Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Band, and many many others.

    My underlying premise is that popular music has never had an artist operate at the level that the Beatles did with artistic excellence in every aspect from songwriting to performance to production and even productivity. When you think what the Beatles accomplished within a short span of seven years it is still mind boggling.

    When the Beatles broke up in 1970, all these other artists whose careers were just starting were both influenced by the Beatles and motivated to try to take what the Beatles did and take it further (hence "progressive rock"). This I sincerely think is why all these groups produced such great work during this period, and although there are always great artists making great music at any given time, a renaissance like this is unlikely to happen again. Thanks again for your thoughtful piece of writing.

  3. I'm very late getting to this, Charlie, but I agree with the bulk of your analysis. I especially like William's theory that the Beatles pushed everybody to greater heights. I think that's right on--when people heard and saw what they did, they realized that in order to compete, they'd have to take their game up.

    I don't see something like that happening again, largely due to the fragmentation of the audience you cite in your original post. Not just the Beatle-inspired era William notes, but the entire "classic rock" era you write about. There was a critical mass of ears and a particular media environment in which the white-hot creativity of the era thrived. That's not coming back.

    Nice work
    The Hits Just Keep on Comin'

  4. No doubt about it: you pegged the exact years, composing music's greatest era. At age 60, I was there at the beginning - thank God - personally witnessing 400 performances by Top 40-type groups of all genre. Only a couple months ago did I further organize these performances on MSexcel; and for the first time was able to really 'look' at my musical experiences in overview.

    And, wouldn't you know, it all started in 1964; and it all ended in 1980! Below confirms such, in my mind anyway. These are my musical concert experiences primarily, divided into four approximate 15-year periods, which encompass my life - one before the golden era, the golden era itself, and two since. (The 400 group performances DO NOT represent 400 concerts, just the # of top musical groups seen.)

    1964-1969: Saw 15-20 group performances
     Yeah, I know: Roger Williams and Ferrante & Teisher (est 64-65)aren't exactly The Mamas & The Papas, but they were cool enough to get me into live scene.
     Good radio and great frat parties fueled the interest. Hell, who could resist the '65 dance vibes of Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts or The Box Tops?
     At Arkansas between 65-69, great musical variety broadened my interests further: Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, James Brown, Johnny Rivers, the Outsiders, and Steppenwolf.

    1969-present: Primarily Memphis and Atlanta provided the urban environments for my seeing anybody and everybody ON TOUR. And I took full advantage in ways you would simply not believe &/or I won't publicly admit. BOTTOMLINE: Just sitting in the concert audience wasn't usually enough!

     Memphis (1969-1974): Saw 150 group performances
    o Met or Socialized with: Lou Reed, Mick Ronson twice, Alice Cooper drummer, Steve Marriott, Mark Bolin, Billy Gibbons, Ian Hunter, Iggy Pop bass guitarist, Beach Boys, Mountain, and Black Oak Arkansas.
     Atlanta (1974-1980): Saw 200 group performances
    o Met or Socialized with: Joan Baez, Lynyrd Skynrd, Kiss (out of costume), Black Oak Arkansas, Bob Segar, Ruby Starr, Mother's Finest, Elvis Wade, Tina Turner, Eddie Money, Dr. Hook, Van Halen, Gino Vannelli, Elton John, Johnny Winter, Todd Rundgren, Royce Jones, Kenny Rogers, and Edgar Winter.
     Atlanta (1981-2007): Saw 30 group performances


     A staggering 87.5% (350 out of 400) of total group performances occurred 1964-1980, a period encompassing about 25% of my life till age 34.
     Of significance are the facts that: (1) growing up and graduating ('65) from high school just 45 minutes from Memphis, (2) being sociably active with high school fraternity mega-dances (e.g., Peabody Hotel Grand Ballroom in Memphis) since age 14, (3) being caught up with the "British Invasion" on the car radio, and (4) being mobile 'on-demand' & financially-able, still did not present any notable touring concert opportunities during this first quarter of my life; otherwise I could have 'been there'. Meaning that there wasn't much going on musically BEFORE the mid-sixties.
     And 8% since: nearly 30 years will have passed since 1980; and my passion for good music has not wavered one ounce. Yet I've only been 'drawn out' for around 30 group performances, which averages but one per year. Mind-blowing, and worse...depressing.
    o To simplify, let's round off the numbers a little to make some points, with 'the greatest generation' being 15 years, and time since being 30 years (or twice that).
    o Being a young-thinking sixty-year old - active as ever - had the 'golden years' continued on pace, that could have logically added another 700 group performances, which would have been 23 TIMES MORE THAT I ATTENDED in reality [=or 670 more].
    o BUT: no offense to the music since or to those into it, but none of it 'holds a candle' to what preceded it [before 1980]. Music fuels my soul, and even contributes to my health (both mentally and physically), and has since birth. And it is this period's music that does it best. While it's been difficult to adjust to this sad reality of little new in the way of this golden era, the computer and easy access to those great oldies, has enabled me to get into their words and them individually more than ever before. And this has helped a lot.

    So, as to any question of whether those years represent "music's greatest generation":
     It is simply irrefutable, by evidence presented.
     It can never, ever again be replicated for every conceivable reason and logic of any diverse nature.
     Conditions, in America/Europe anyway, could never present the collision of circumstances and conditions to rekindle such a SPIRIT of CREATIVITY.
     The computer alone would have been enough to single-handedly bring about its demise; and it alone will make sure it's permanent.

    Thanks for what you do.