‘Countercultures and Popular Music’ Is Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

A fascinating, thorough, and highly intellectual exploration of how popular music shaped the counterculture of the '60s, this is a must read for any fan of music and/or modern anthropology.

To just about anyone who lived through it (as well as countless observers who’ve studied it a priori over the last 54 years), the ’60s essentially birthed the concept of the “counterculture”. Indeed, just about every subsequent year brought wild deviations [and innovations] to established facets of life, challenging preconceived notions of what people could do, hear, touch, and see in both public and private arenas.

The World War II generation clashed constantly with the Beat generation over things like social mores, political agendas, and of course, entertainment. Although many factors played a part in making the ‘60s counterculture so revolutionary, vibrant, and influential, arguably none had a bigger role than the ever-changing world of popular music. (One need only follow the creative and visual trajectory of the Beatles to see how profoundly and rapidly these modifications occurred.)

Naturally, many texts have been written about how the music of that era affected the world around it, but few, if any, do it as sophisticatedly, diversely, and captivatingly as Countercultures and Popular Music, an expansive, varied, and complex new scholarly investigation into one of the most colorful and impactful cultural movements of the 20th century. Utilizing the fascinating insights of several authoritative music aficionados (each of whom contributes a fascinating and focused essay on his or her finite topic), editors Jedediah Sklower and Sheila Whiteley compile a collection of informative reflections and analyses that every fan of music and/or modern anthropology should find incredibly immersive and enlightening.

In the first section of the book, “Preface: Dissent within Dissent” Sklower sets up the incoming material by stating that the ensuing pieces “analyse the counterculture in the wake of twentieth-century artistic modernism,” a concept that he breaks down into three classifications:

1) aesthetic vanguardism as an individualistic attack on formal tradition;

2) the belief in the capacity of art to change society and individual consciousness;

3) a specific relationship to modern life, whereby art either 1) flees from modern life to find aesthetic absolute in the absurd, madness, the unconscious, abstraction, other civilisations, or 2) on the contrary, in the postmodern phase beginning in the 1950s, ‘harness its creative energies in order to transcend its limits’, greeting it ‘as a field of artistic experimentation’.

In addition, Whiteley, in the official introduction to the text, states that the submissions to the collections culminate to showcase “counterculture’s non-specificity: ‘it was an entity with a significant degree of fluidity such that it could incorporate diverse groupings and, thus, manifest itself differently at specific times and within specific places depending on local socio-economic, cultural, and demographic circumstances.’” If these description seems too erudite and pedantic for your tastes, little else contained within Countercultures and Popular Music will appeal to you; however, if you can perceive, and even appreciate, the implications behind such grandiose inferences, you’ll find everything else here to be joyfully insightful, intelligent, and interesting.

As for the chapters, well, there isn’t a single one that isn’t utterly gripping and meticulously researched. For example, Simon Warner, in “The Banality of Degredation: Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the Trash Aesthetic”, explores a plethora of relationships between visual art and popular music, decreeing that “it is little wonder that Pop Art and popular music, which despite their common adjective enjoyed a somewhat contrasting genealogy, should eventually share a bed in the shape of numerous high-profile album sleeves for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Cream.”

As the title suggests, he also includes some musings on the connection between Warhol and the Velvet Underground circa 1967, surmising that the latter severed its association with the former a mere few years before allowing its “final and disorderly dissolution in the early ’70s” to become “the blueprint for a thousand Angelo-America acts who would trigger a string of crucial rock manifestations in the 1970s and 1980s: glam and glitter, punk and new wave, industrial, goth and grunge.” As anyone who’s heard the Velvet Undergrounds prophetic amalgam can attest, Warner couldn’t be more correct.

Expectedly, there’s also a chapter chronicling the impact (both good and bad) of the Beatles’ boisterous ode to disorder and amusement park slides, “Helter Skelter”. Written by Gerald Carlin and Mark Jones, this short but sweet examination makes several precise observations, such as that the song, combined with associated reign of terror by Charles Manson, “catalyzed the splintering of the decade’s countercultural coalition.”

The duo also discuss the wide array of cover versions that have emerged over the successive years, including new takes by Aerosmith, the Ramrods, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pat Benatar, and even Mötley Crüe. Rather than merely cite these different interpretations, though, the authors go into great detail about the structural changes each artist made, which will surely intrigue any reader with a basic understanding of fundamental music theory.

While Countercultures and Popular Music is arranged well by thematic partitioning, many readers will want to dive into it simply to see what the authors have to say about their favorite artist(s). On that end, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being disappointed with the book, as dozens of unique and crucial musicians are featured. For example, legends like David Bowie, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Joni Mitchell are mentioned alongside more obscure acts like Amon Düül II, MF Grimm, and Saint Just. Really, the degree to which these allusions vary is astounding, making it quite clear just how much these writers cared about, and delved into, their subjects.

As brilliant and groundbreaking as the aforementioned players were in developing the ‘60s vibe, arguably no one was as multifaceted and bold as satirical compositional genius Frank Zappa, who went one step further by mocking the counterculture of his generation on early albums like We’re Only in It for the Money (whose cover was a spoof of Sgt. Pepper). Fortunately, he’s talked about several times throughout the book, with many more of his works, including Freak Out!, Baby Snakes, and Sheik Yerbouti receiving distinction.

Even with all of these topics taken into consideration, I’ve only scratched the surface of what this book has to offer. Honestly, this is probably the most in-depth and wide-ranging assortment of popular music exploration I’ve ever read, which is saying something. Its synthesis of accessible concepts, vivid examples, and heavily intellectual writing makes it appealing for just about anyone with a curiosity for the subject matter, be they casual listeners or tenured musicology professors.

RATING 9 / 10