Monday, May 18, 2015

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson

A few years ago Bob Dylan was quoted in an interview saying "I guess the Fifties would have ended in about '65," and Andrew Grant Jackson, in 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, sets out to lay out the reasons that this is the case. In roughly chronological order, Jackson sums up the year in politics, civil rights and (of course) music and shows us how the country pivoted in this tumultuous year. It's an ambitious task that Jackson is not quite up to, but the book remains a fun read of a year of change in music and culture.

The book is divided into four sections, based on the seasons of the year. 1965 began with the recording of The Rolling Stones' early self-penned numbers The Last Time and Bob Dylan's transitional Bringing it All Back Home album in January and ends in December with The Beatles' experimental Rubber Soul and the heavy debut by The Who (as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas special, to which Jackson points out the oddness of launching a neurotic cartoon character with jazz accompaniment to massive appeal).

Naturally, there are a number of names that loom largely over the year 1965's music. Bob Dylan shifts from protest singer to rocker when controversially bringing out an electric backing band at the Newport Folk Festival (and later attacks the folkies with Positively 7th Street). The Rolling Stones were transitioning from an R&B group to one that favored exotic instrumentation in its hard rock hits. The Beatles try LSD for the first time in March and mix new Dylan influences with sitars and string quartets. Brian Wilson brings the Beach Boys to a new experimental level as he shifts from surf to Pet Sounds. James Brown creates a new kind of funk. The Byrds bring jangly Dylan covers to the masses. All in all it was not a bad year for music!

Lurking in the background of these musical changes are the societal crises that influenced a new kind of musician and music consumer. 1965 was the year of the Selma to Montgomery march, the assassination of Malcolm X, the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam (and protests spurred in response), new sexual freedom and increased drug experimentation. The author tries hard to make sure that we know the background behind the changing sounds.

Jackson works hard to integrate these threads into the overall story, and while they are essential to know about, they don't necessarily fit his chronological structure. Likewise, while it's great to hear about the development of the various subgenres of music that rose during the year, many of the sections of the book come off as long, interesting sidelights. But while Jackson probably bit off more than he could chew in trying to link politics and music, it still remains an enjoyable snapshot of a particularly eventful year.

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