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The Psychedelic Era

Every week, Finger Lakes Public Radio presents “Stuck in the Psychedelic Era,” a two-hour show about music; specifically the recorded music that came about as a result of the temporary democratization of the U.S. record industry in the mid to late 60s. This democratization was due to a convergence of several factors at exactly the right time.

The first wave of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, itself inspired by early 50s rhythm and blues, laid the groundwork for music as a voice of youthful rebellion. The older generation of the time was at first bemused and befuddled by this new music. As its popularity increased, however, the older generation’s reaction to it changed to fear and anger. Rock ‘n’ roll was seen in some circles as a threat to the American way of life. Ultimately, the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll was co-opted and compromised, becoming a multi-million dollar industry. Many of the early stars of rock ‘n’ roll found themselves outside of this industry, replaced by safer, made-to-order pop stars. Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of early rock ‘n’ roll, found himself drafted into military service, his career temporarily derailed at a crucial time. Other big stars, such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, found themselves having legal difficulties. Still others, such as “Little Richard” Penniman, chose to leave rock ‘n’ roll altogether.

Meanwhile, a new grass-roots folk music movement was sweeping the nation. Major folk music voices of the 1940s such as Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie, having been silenced by the McCarthyism of the early 50s, began to make themselves heard once again by the end of the decade, soon to be joined by a cadre of new talent that included Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and a young man calling himself Bob Dylan. At the same time, a new phenomenon was developing across the nation: regional rock ‘n’ roll bands were springing up, playing local sock hops and occasionally getting limited airplay on local radio stations alongside the national hits. Although all of these new musical “scenes” were direct descendants of 50s rock ‘n’ roll, each had its own unique take on the music. Bands in the Chicago area had a solid blues influence, while those in Detroit were more R&B oriented. The New York metro area boasted several “Blue-Eyed Soul” bands and doo-wop, while bands in Texas incorporated traditional Mexican arrangements and instrumentation.

The most successful regional music scenes, however, were up and down the affluent West Coast. The Pacific Northwest region was home to the loudest and brashest musical scene of all, producing, among others, the song “Louie Louie1” in 1963. From further down the coast, vocalists Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys were joined by instrumental groups such as the Ventures and Dick Dale and the Del-Tones to make Surf Music a national phenomenon in the early 60s.

Against this backdrop of a grass-roots folk scene and the various regional rock ‘n’ roll scenes came the catalyst that would make the democratization of the American music industry not only possible but inevitable: the British Invasion.

In the early 60s, the heart of the pop music industry in America was New York City. Rock impresarios such as Don Kirschner, who controlled the songwriting factory known as the Brill Building, and top record producers such as Phil Specter with his “wall of sound,” dominated the industry. A typical hit song would start out as a composition by a Brill Building songwriter or teams such as Neil Sedaka or Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The song would then be turned over to a producer like Specter, who would book studio time and line up professional (but uncredited2) studio musicians to record the instrumental tracks. Once those tracks were recorded, the featured vocalist(s) would come in to record vocal tracks, and then anonymous backup singers would be brought in to flesh out the final recording. The final step in the process of manufacturing a hit record would be to send the final take out to a record pressing plant3. From there it was simply a matter of promotion and distribution, most of which was ultimately controlled by the major record labels.

Led by the Beatles, the British Invasion changed all this. In part necessitated by the economic realities of the British music industry, the British bands were much more self-contained; they wrote their own songs, played their own instruments and sang their own lead and backup vocals. The total production costs were far less than in the U.S. and were often paid for by the band members themselves. Perhaps more than any other factor, it was this economic model that led to the democratization of the U.S. music industry in the late 1960s.

From a business standpoint, the essential reality of the British Invasion was that it was now possible to sell more copies of a relatively inexpensive British recording than a more expensive American recording. As it was virtually impossible to significantly lower production costs (due in part to existing union wage scales for studio musicians), industry leaders found themselves at a loss as to how to stay competitive.

The answer to this dilemma would not come from the music industry itself. Instead, it was the members of the folk music movement and the various regional music scenes who found a way to beat the British at their own game.

Folk music artists had always performed a repertoire that was a combination of traditional songs and original compositions. There were no professional writers of folk songs that were not themselves performers. Although many folk singers would perform each other’s songs, going outside the community for the material was simply not part of the equation.

At the same time, the regional music scenes were populated mainly by self-contained four or five-member bands making a living by covering the most popular songs of the day. Although songwriting was not a priority for these “cover” bands, many of them came to realize that having one or two original “signature” songs was a way to make them stand out from the pack without alienating their core audience: the young baby boomers who would turn out at the local teen clubs and high school gymnasiums to dance to their favorite tunes.

Sensing vulnerability at the traditional power centers of the music industry (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), smaller regional labels and promoters began signing more and more local bands, creating more regional hits. The more ambitious local promoters, along with national record distributors sensing an opportunity, began to pick up these regional hits for national circulation.

There were external factors playing a part in the democratization of American popular music as well. As the first wave of baby boomers graduated high school and entered college, they began to develop a new political and social awareness, becoming intertwined with the Civil Rights and Peace movements. The psychopharmacological experiments of Dr. Timothy Leary and others, combined with the natural rebelliousness of youth, resulted in an explosion in the popularity of mind-expanding drugs. First folk music, then regional rock, became the voice of a new generation of young Americans. In 1965 Bob Dylan, to the chagrin of many of his early fans, began experimenting with rock instrumentation overlaid onto his own unique style of folk music. The result was a whole new musical hybrid, Folk-Rock, which took root in the L.A. club scene, giving birth to such bands as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Love, all of which boasted multiple songwriters.

By early 1967, American pop music had reached its peak of democratization. The British Invasion was still going strong, with newer bands like the Who and Cream joining the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and a rapidly maturing Kinks. Several bands from psychedelic epicenter San Francisco, including Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, were on the verge of becoming a national phenomenon, as was a young guitarist who had just relocated to England and formed a new band: The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Rhythm and Blues, which had given birth to rock ‘n’ roll in the early 50s, had itself evolved into several regional sounds, including Detroit’s “Motown Sound” which overlaid the traditional R&B beat with a highly accessible form of melodic pop, and “Memphis Soul,” with its decidedly Southern gospel flavor. The Beach Boys, the top group of the surf era, were still going strong and had just released the most expensive single ever produced, the classic Good Vibrations, and were reportedly working on a new project called “Smile.” Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention had released their first album Freak Out, which incorporated an avant-garde element inspired by early 20th-century composer Edgard Varese. There were even hits coming from groups like the Four Seasons, throwbacks to the pre-Beatle methods of producing songs. And of course there were all those regional bands hitting the national charts, if (in most cases) only for one song.

Perhaps the most significant byproduct of the democratization of American Popular music was a sense of ownership shared by both artist and audience that has not been equaled since. This sense of shared ownership persisted into the early 70s for most people and still exists today among a fortunate few5.

And that is what getting Stuck in the Psychedelic Era with the Hermit is really all about. I invite you to join me to share the music.