At this point, the 1960s have been analyzed and dissected in such minute detail that it would seem any future study of the decade would require an extremely narrow, niche focus. As a whole, the basic outline of the decade’s idealized — mainly in hindsight — start and tumultuous end serve as an exaggerated bookend to one of the most turbulent decades in recent memory.
In order to find anything new to contribute to the volumes upon volumes of text solely devoted to the decade, authors need to find a new approach or angle to their analysis so as not to simply become yet another retread of already well-worn territory. Any discussion of the decade’s popular culture will always touch on the usual high- and low points scattered throughout, generally culminating in the unspoken death of the ‘60s that was Altamont.
But in between those start and end points there was a fascinating wealth of talent, originality, and a vital thread of social and political commentary going on. It’s one of the few times in history during which popular music played a role in shaping the culture rather than being the result of the culture in which it was created. Because of this, the popular music of the era, along with its myriad leading lights, has long been a source of fascination and examination at the hands of critics and social commentators. With so many adding their voices to the conversation, those looking to join now must refine, hone and narrow their focus to a specific event, album or, somewhat ambitiously, an entire year.
Last year, Andrew Grant Jackson released the impressive 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music wherein he defended and expounded upon that year’s biggest movers and shakers. Marking the 50th anniversary of the year in question, Jackson examined not only the vital pop hits and artists of the day, but also expanded his focus into jazz, country and folk, three genres often overlooked in favor of a more straightforward examination of so-called popular music of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, et. al. In this, Jackson adopted more of an overarching approach to his examination of all 1965 had to offer.
One year later we’re faced with Jon Savage’s massive 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded and its examination of the titular year on its 50th anniversary. Well aware that the subject has been covered time and again, Savage limits his focus to pop music, exploring month-by-month the parallel changes within the charts and society as a whole. By examining this correlation, Savage is able to draw a linear through line that connects societal changes with the changing landscape of popular music and its role within not only popular culture, but in how it shaped an entire generation’s way of thinking.
Often overshadowed by the more easily defined music of 1967 and onward — the flower power hippie bands and psychedelic rockers — 1966 proves to be a wildly diverse year, one of the last in which a multitude of genres found their way onto both the singles and album charts. From the rise of Motown to the explosion of what would come to be known as rock, 1966 had something to offer nearly everyone.
Savage uses the year’s singles to help serve as demarcation points for specific cultural analyses to show the massive shift from January to December, touching on all the decade’s hot button issues in the process. Using this narrative device allows him to somewhat seamlessly paint a picture of the year in real time, connecting the pop charts with the news headlines and vice versa.
What comes across as most startling is just how much of an impact pop music had not only in terms of the industry itself, but the sheer cultural impact individual artists could have. From the Rolling Stones to the Velvet Underground and beyond, these artists who came to prominence in 1966 had parents and politicians alike fearing for the safety and security of the growing number of teenagers and young adults taking to the streets and exploring the possible afforded them by living within a free society. In essence, this, coupled with the contentious political climate, helped widen the already cavernous generation gap.
Beginning with with the burgeoning folk/folk rock boom that would come to define the sound of mid-’60s pop, Savage wends his way through “Swinging London”, the seemingly improbable chart-topping success of Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets”, the rise of Motown, drug culture and civil rights issues. As Savage shows, it’s a radical shift from January’s light-weight chart toppers to the harder, more aggressive sounds that took over as tensions increased across the country. Similarly, gay rights, the underground and even a backwards glance to the early part of the 20th century help inform the singles that speak to the social changes taking place within the year.
As he makes clear from the onset, Bob Dylan played a major role in shaping the year in pop music, yet he remains something of an ancillary character, always on the perimeter, an ephemeral figure with the power to change the entire industry with the slightest provocation. But this conscious decision to largely leave Dylan out of the narrative helps the other, often marginalized voices come to the fore. With the focus being on singles rather than albums, Dylan’s voice appears filtered through that of others rather than his own, his material covered by a host of folk rock artists.
With 1966 essentially serving as the last year for the 45rpm single as a dominant cultural force, this decision to avoid albums allows Savage greater room to explore the diversity of the charts rather than revisiting the era-defining albums that have been covered time and again elsewhere. It’s an unusual approach that allows him to provide equal space to both the aforementioned “Ballad of the Green Berets” and Love’s swirling, anarchic “7 and 7 is”, two singles released within the same year diametrically opposed in terms of theme, tone and demographic appeal. This approach allows for a better, more accurate and nuanced examination of the music people were actually buying and listening to at the time.
In this, Savage makes it abundantly clear that, despite the revisionist treatment the history of pop music has been afforded over the course of the last several decades, the fact remains that the majority of listeners in 1966 in both the United States and United Kingdom were not listening to the Velvets or 13th Floor Elevators or even the Jefferson Airplane. Rather the charts of the day show the listening tastes of the majority to be very much to the contrary, with The Sound of Music and Frank Sinatra leading the way, well ahead of even the Beatles or Rolling Stones.
While several of the connections made feel admittedly somewhat tenuous and the discussion forced to correspond with the social issue complementarily explored, Savage largely manages to neatly place a handful of select singles within the broader cultural narrative, helping to show the climate within which they were recorded. As the year progressed, more and more the music began to have an equal impact on the culture as that of culture on the music.
There have been few times since that music has played such a prominent role in shaping and identifying an entire generation of individuals to the point of altering the cultural landscape as a whole. By significantly narrowing his focus, using archival charts and period articles as his primary points of reference, Savage is able to present a historically accurate, compelling examination of the year in which rock dropped the ‘n roll and moved beyond mere commodity into something more profound.
As with his equally impressive analysis of the punk movement in The England’s Dreaming Tapes, Savage proves with 1966 an uncanny ability to approach a well-known subject in new and different ways. Anyone with even the slightest interest in ‘60s popular music, culture and events will find much to like in 1966.