As we ponder the ’60s, in all their mythic, mind-blowing glory, it’s instructive to remember that things looked fairly dire for rock & roll at the decade’s inception. Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard had found God, Jerry Lee Lewis was temporarily down for the count, and tepid crooners like Fabian and Bobby Darin ruled the airwaves. There was still exciting music out there, but rock & roll — the high-octane stuff that got a generation of mojos working — seemed stalled, its moment in danger of fading away.
Then, in 1964, the universe shifted. Four lads from Liverpool hipped us to just how bloody amazing the musical form we’d nearly abandoned had been all along. Right behind them came a brash young folkie-cum-rocker named Bob Dylan, who sang about having ”a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.” And once those ideas took hold, there was no turning back.
Right behind them came a young folkie-cum-rocker named Bob Dylan, who sang about having ”a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.” Once those ideas took hold, there was no turning back.
Rock — the bastard progeny of rock & roll — became the soundtrack of our lives, and its possibilities appeared infinite. Soon there was psychedelia and soul, Motown and white blues, folk rock, jazz rock, and acid rock, all rubbing up against and influencing each other. Music became less segregated than at any time before or since, with Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding being embraced by the same audiences that grooved to Cream, the Stones, and Steppenwolf. Against a backdrop of roiling upheaval, we bonded in a shared sense of outrage against Vietnam, social injustice, and the straight world’s putative hypocrisy, embracing sounds and songs that would alter our mind-set forever. From this vantage point, it’s easy to scoff at the era’s naive rhetoric (”Got to revolution!”), dated fashions (remember Nehru jackets?), and dunderheaded belief in better living through chemistry. But musically…aw, man, musically, the ’60s were righteous.
The First Payola Hearings Begin: 2/8/60
The congressional investigation of radio deejays may have been a politically motivated attack on rock & roll, but the government panel had a point: The illegal practice of accepting money in exchange for playing records was widespread in the late ’50s. Dick Clark and other music bizzers testified, but Cleveland DJ Alan Freed (left) — who had refused — was hardest hit by the probe. He eventually pleaded guilty to commercial bribery (he was fined $300 and given a six-month suspended sentence) and his career never recovered. He died five years later at 43. Rank 54
Dylan signs with Columbia Records: 10/26/61
Bob Dylan was 19 when he arrived in New York City in January 1961 and hit the folk-club circuit. On Sept. 14, he met legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond Sr., who asked him to audition. Though no record exists of the session, Hammond later said that Dylan performed ”Talkin’ New York,” and that made up the producer’s mind. But a Sept. 29 New York Times review marveling at the unsigned Dylan’s ”searing intensity” couldn’t have hurt. On Oct. 26, Bob Dylan became a Columbia recording artist — and around the label’s offices he became known as ”Hammond’s Folly.” After all, what possible audience could there be for someone with a voice like that? Rank 27