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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

That rule began to change during the 1960s. As popular music styles continued to develop along with the rest of “sixties” culture, pop began claiming the loyalty of its audience into adulthood irrespective of educational level; and it began claiming the mantle of “authenticity” as well. The watershed, both in terms of musical content and in terms of audience tenacity, was the advent of the Beatles, an English rock ‘n’ roll group that first performed in America in 1964, soon to be followed by additional British “invaders” like the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many others. They now became the chief model of emulation for American pop performers.

The British “Invasion”

fig. 7-4 The Beatles returning from America, 1964.

Unlike the earlier generation of rock ‘n’ roll performers, the British groups performed almost exclusively material of their own creation. Two of the Beatles, rhythm guitarist John Lennon (1940–80) and bass guitarist Paul McCartney (b. 1942), were prolific songwriters who often collaborated (though never in the traditional lyricist-tunesmith fashion; both contributed both words and music). The lead guitarist, George Harrison (1943–2001), also wrote some much-noticed and influential songs for the group, leaving only the drummer, Ringo Starr (originally named Richard Starkey, b. 1940) confined for the most part to the role of performer.

The British “Invasion”

fig. 7-5 Electric guitar made by Bruce BecVar in 1974.

Their styles were ultimately beholden to the black-American R&B antecedents of all rock ‘n’ roll; and they all conformed to what had become the standard rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation (amplified electric guitars and keyboards plus a “trap set” or one-man jazz percussion outfit). But the British groups were far more eclectic in their stylistic range than their American counterparts had been, and their creative aims were far more ambitious, emulating those of jazz and classical musicians, on whom they eventually had an influence that the original “authentic” rock ‘n’ roll performers never approached.

Mostly comprising middle-class youths with at least a full secondary education, the British groups had a native inheritance of Anglo-Celtic folk music (partly mediated through the hymnody of the Anglican church) that gave their melodies a “modal” character that distinguished it from the American product, lending it a “folk” aura that conveyed both authenticity and exoticism, heightening its charm for Americans. The irony was that these were precisely the aspects of their music that seemed most formulaic and conventional (= commercial) at home, while it was the black-American component that gave them there the authentic/exotic aura.

Beyond that, Lennon and (especially) McCartney had a nodding acquaintance with the jazz and classical repertoires, including their most modern varieties, and Harrison had enough curiosity about non-Western musics to learn to perform creditably on the Indian sitar. Their record producer, George Martin, was a conservatory graduate who not only was responsible for writing arrangements for the group whenever the performing forces exceeded the original quartet, but also gave them technical and technological pointers that contributed greatly to their distinctive, and ever broadening, sound image. The basic creative work, however, was done by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, who like virtually all pop musicians worked exclusively by ear, none of them having been trained to read musical notation with any facility.

Their appeal was phenomenally—to many, incredibly—broad. At first their music was of a lightweight, sweet, and simple if spirited character, and it was to the traditional audience for male pop-singers that they appealed, namely adolescent females (now called teenyboppers). During their second American tour, in the summer of 1965, they filled New York's Shea Stadium (capacity 55,600) with screaming girls and their less excited boyfriends. Some observers were disgruntled by their success, attributing it to dilution. Nat Hentoff (b. 1925), a jazz critic and a left-leaning political commentator, tried to write them off by suggesting that the Beatles “turned millions of American adolescents on to what had been here hurting all the time,” but (turning the venom now on the audience) “the young here never did want it raw so they absorbed it through the British filter.”7 But Elvis Presley's raw success had already belied Hentoff's nationalistic grousing; moreover, by then the music of the Beatles was attracting fans from unprecedented walks of musical life, whose enthusiasm, first at home and eventually in America and continental Europe, began influencing the group in unexpected ways. The remarkable synergy thus initiated made the Beatles the truly emblematic musical phenomenon of the sixties, with far-reaching consequences for music history, including the kind of music history this book has been tracing.


(7) Quoted in Ned Rorem, “The Music of the Beatles,” New York Review of Books, 18 January 1968; in Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman, The Lennon Companion (New York: Schirmer, 1987), p. 100.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 The Sixties. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007003.xml