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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

As early as 1963, a very dignified English classical music critic—William Mann (1924–89), the chief reviewer for The Times of London, who had seriously studied piano and composition in his youth—surprised his readers by naming Lennon and McCartney the outstanding new composers of the year, and comparing an “Aeolian” chord progression in their song “Not a Second Time” with the heartrending ending of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, about the loftiest comparison a critic could make in the heyday of the Mahler revival (Ex. 7-1).


ex. 7-1a Progression from John Lennon/Paul McCartney, “Not a Second Time”


ex. 7-1b Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, end

Mann went on to describe “pandiatonic clusters”8 in another song, and praised the Beatles’ modulations to the flat submediant, hallowed as an expressive device since Schubert's day. His article was greeted mainly with chuckles and filed away as an eccentricity (critics, too, sometimes like to “shock the bourgeoisie”). The correspondences Mann found between his favorite classical music and that of the Beatles were not taken seriously as a comment on the Beatles’ creative sources or range, but were taken only as an inventory of the critic's own musical tastes and memory. Besides, the net effect of such praise from an established critic was to declare the music “safe” for establishment consumption—perhaps not the greatest endorsement for a pop group in an age of social rebellion.

Their music continued to evolve with the decade, however, in ways that affected both its content and its musical range, and continued to broaden its appeal to various audiences. Beginning with two LP disks, Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the Beatles produced “concept albums” in which all the songs on an LP record were coordinated, like the individual numbers in a romantic song cycle, to contribute to an overall impression that was unified not only by textual content but by aspects of the musical treatment as well.

Revolver contained songs about social alienation and economic injustice—and not always injustice to underdogs: one song, “Taxman” by Harrison, concerned the perceived injustice of the British tax system on high-income earners such as the Beatles had become. The music was enhanced by whirling electronic effects that seemed to provide a sonic analogue to the visual hallucinations brought on by psychedelic drugs, already reflected in the work of “pop” and “op” artists then straddling the edge between avant-garde and commercial art, and in the graphic designs of Peter Max (b. 1937), the quintessential visual embodiment of the “sixties” spirit.


ex. 7-2 John Lennon/Paul McCartney, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” opening

This taste of the avant-garde was mainly contributed by McCartney, who spent the early months of 1966 (when the other members of the group were away on family vacations and honeymoons) attending concerts of electronic music and listening to recordings of Stockhausen and Berio. The first fruit of this experimental phase was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a song recorded in April 1966 for Revolver (Ex. 7-2). Lennon's words (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…”) conjured up a “drug trip” while the music unfolded a slow arpeggio over a single C-major triad (inflected at times by neighbor notes in inner voices and a “blue” seventh), accompanied by a drone from Harrison's sitar and further enhanced in the recording studio with reverberation effects, tape loops, and guitar chords recorded and run backward through the tape machine—virtually the whole panoply of musique concrète devices pioneered in the studios of Paris, New York, and Cologne during the previous decade. These devices gave the song a quality that could be captured neither in vocal score (produced, like all popular “sheet music,” after the fact), nor even in live performance. In a sense, the Beatles were no longer writing songs. Like some of the avant-garde icons of the day, they were creating collages—finished artworks, artifacts on tape that could not be adequately reproduced in other media. Accordingly, they stopped touring at the end of the year in which their second concept album appeared.

In its songs of social criticism (generally mild but occasionally pungent, as in “Eleanor Rigby,” a hopeless portrait of urban loneliness) and its psychedelic electronic colors, Revolver struck an authentic “sixties” note, charting territory never previously visited by popular music meant for mass dissemination, partly at the expense of the usual pop subject matter like young love. That new conceptual and musical seriousness was intensified in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cover showed the newly shaggy, bearded Beatles dressed like the imaginary vaudeville band of the title, standing amid a crowd of cutout portraits of their acknowledged models and mentors. They included all-purpose saints of modernity like Albert Einstein, and all-purpose icons of right thinking like Mahatma Gandhi. And also there, for those who recognized him, was Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Traditional pop entertainment values were by no means abandoned; but, rather daringly, the possibility was skirted. The title song casts the album as an imaginary stage show given by an imaginary concert band. The album ends (or seems to end) with a reprise of the opening number, enclosing not only the concept but the musical contents in a structure transcending the individual songs. But the album turns out not to end with that musical recapitulation. There is a harrowing coda of commentary in the form of “A Day in the Life,” the final song, which (in the words of the critic Ian MacDonald) seemed to anticipate “the shift from 1967, the year of peace and love, to 1968, the ‘year of the barricades.’”9 Its ending is shown in Ex. 7-3.

This unusually long song (5′33″, too long for a 45 RPM single, or for conventional disk-jockey treatment) was inspired by the violent death of a friend, Tara Browne, a rich dilettante who savored the countercultural scene and who (possibly under the influence of LSD) had crashed his sports car into a parked van. The lyrics consist in part of a surrealistic collage of glumly dispassionate newspaper reports—of Browne's death, of a story on potholes in a Lancastershire town, of a military victory (surely an oblique reference to Vietnam)—followed by an invitation to a drugged escape (“I'd love to turn you on…”).

The real message of the song, ambiguous and disquieting, is delivered between the verses, by a sound effect borrowed directly from the avant-garde's bag of tricks. Forty London orchestral musicians (twelve violinists, four violists, four cellists, two double-bassists, a harpist, an oboist, two clarinettists, two bassoonists, two flutists, two French hornists, three trumpeters, three trombonists, a tubist, and a timpanist) were recruited for the recording sessions, which took place in January and February 1967. They were each given a chart consisting of a low note and a high note, and were instructed to play gradually from the one to the other over a span of twenty-four bars, choosing the exact pitches ad libitum, making no attempt at rhythmic coordination with the other musicians, and getting louder all the while. As McCartney knew, it was the kind of thing one expected in a score by John Cage (or perhaps by Krzysztof Penderecki); and George Martin, who helped plan it, was delighted that the hired musicians reacted to the idea with the same bewilderment otherwise reserved for the likes of Cage and Penderecki.


ex. 7-3 John Lennon/Paul McCartney, “A Day in the Life,” end

The powerful chaotic crescendo thus produced appears twice in the recording; once in the middle and again at the end, where it is followed by a big E-major triad banged out by three pianos (dampers raised) and a harmonium. As the chord faded away, the recording engineer “rode gain,” compensating for its decay by boosting the volume, so that the sound hung uncannily in the air for almost a minute, more than a fifth of the song's total running time. To conclude, a bit of “empty air” from the studio sessions was spliced on, which was not really empty but contained some low, incomprehensible background muttering and laughter from the members of the group. On the LP album as originally issued, this final component was recorded on the continuous inside groove, so that (as the critic Allan Kozinn put it) “the Beatles could be heard chortling continuously until the listener lifted the stylus from the disc.”10 What did all this mean? What could all this mean? The latter, of course, was the operative question, for a large part of the album's reception took the form of endless speculation, exegesis, and debate—unequivocally an “art” (as opposed to “entertainment”) reception.

William Mann saw vindication in this, and came back with a more elaborate essay in the Times, “The Beatles Revive Hopes of Progress in Pop Music,” published on 1 June 1967 in the immediate aftermath of Sgt. Pepper. The very title carried a freight of “classical” discourse, for it was only in the “historicist” realm of the classics that stylistic progress had become a byword. Pop traditionally trafficked in (indeed, was often defined by) quick—even planned—obsolescence. (The nice thing about popular music, the snobbish quip used to go, is that it is not popular for very long.)

Now, Mann observed, the Beatles were producing a music that did not fade so quickly, in part because they were growing up with their audience, and in part (reciprocally) because their audience was staying loyal to them in a fashion that defied pop precedent. Their secret, he suggested, lay in their ever-expanding eclecticism:

The young teenagers of 1963 who fell like hungry travellers upon the Merseyside Beat [i.e. the music emanating from Liverpool, the Beatles’ hometown, on the Mersey River] are now much older and more sophisticated, and more experienced in adult ways. Pop music still has to cater for them and for the distinctive characteristics they have by now assumed. Mod, rocker [i.e., followers of London “sixties” fashions in dress and music respectively], intellectual, rebel, permissive, careerist, all get comfort of inspiration from different music, and The Beatles have held their supremacy because they can dip into all these inkwells with equally eloquent results.11

Mann pointed to the powerful lyrics of songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and rightly sensed the influence of Bob Dylan in stimulating the new social consciousness of pop. He welcomed the “oriental” sitar into the stylistic mix, along with the “more or less disciplined whorls of electronically manipulated clusters of sound”12 (for which, he primly noted, “the vogue word” was “psychedelic music”). He cited the “hurricane glissandi” and “whoosh noises” of “A Day in the Life” as the reason for the song's notoriously misguided temporary ban on the BBC, although (as he pointed out) the lyrics of several other songs also contained “ambivalent references to drug-taking.”

Mann ended his piece with a combination of taunt and prayer, noting that the banned song “is more genuinely creative than anything currently to be heard on pop radio stations, but in relationship to what other groups have been doing lately Sgt. Pepper is chiefly significant as constructive criticism, a sort of pop music master class examining trends and correcting or tidying up inconsistencies and undisciplined work, here and there suggesting a line worth following.”13 This was “art” talk. It envisioned improvement as its own reward, implying art for its own sake.

Others were prepared to go further. Ned Rorem (b. 1923), an American composer with the reputation of a specialist in art songs, faithful to the prewar American “pastoralist” idiom and therefore suffering a loss of prestige in the heyday of academic serialism, contributed an essay, “The Music of The Beatles,” to the New York Review of Books, a highbrow literary weekly, early in 1968. It opened with a calculated shock—“I never go to classical concerts anymore, and I don't know anyone who does”14 —and went on from there to settle a bunch of old scores.


fig. 7-6 Ned Rorem in 1968.

For Rorem, the Beatles were a resurgence of genuine musical creativity after the long drought inflicted by the postwar avant-garde. Significantly, given the ethos of the sixties, “it is not through the suave innovations of our sophisticated composers that music is regaining health, but from the old-fashioned lung exercise of gangs of kids.”15 Rorem dismissed Nat Hentoff's complaint: “That the best of these gangs should have come from England is unimportant; they could have come from Arkansas.” The important thing was the very opposite of what Hentoff (and most rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts) thought it was. “Our need for them,” Rorem insisted, “is neither sociological nor new, but artistic and old, specifically a renewal, a renewal of pleasure.” Referring to the “new sensibility” proclaimed in literature by critics like Susan Sontag (1933–2004), who had recently published a book of essays, Against Interpretation (1966), calling for “an erotics of art”16 to replace the intellectualism of the avant-garde, Rorem accused contemporary music of lagging the way music had always lagged: “All other arts in the past decade have to an extent felt this renewal; but music was not only the last of man's ‘useless’ expressions to develop historically, it is also the last to evolve within any given generation—even when, as today, a generation endures a maximum of five years (that brief span wherein ‘the new sensibility’ was caught).”17 The secret of the Beatles, according to Rorem, was the secret of all good music: good tunes, leavened with what Rorem pretentiously dubbed “the Distortion of Genius.” Like many others, Rorem pointed to the unexpected harmonies that spiced the music, attributed by some to the influence of folk music, by others to the Beatles’ unschooled amateurism. But his prime example was “A Day in the Life,” in which “crushing poetry” is “intoned to the blandest of tunes.” Rorem compared this with the ironic strategies of modern dance, citing the choreography of Martha Graham (“she gyrates hysterically to utter silence, or stands motionless while all hell breaks loose in the pit”18). But “because The Beatles pervert with naturalness they usually build solid structures, whereas their rivals pervert with affectation, aping the gargoyles but not the cathedral.”

Where William Mann had allowed himself a specific reference to Mahler and an implicit one to Schubert, Rorem went overboard with comparisons, calling upon Monteverdi, Ives, Poulenc, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, and finally, inevitably, Mozart:

The Beatles's superiority, of course, is finally as elusive as Mozart's to [Muzio] Clementi [1752–1832, a once-famous English composer and pianist of Italian birth, probably chosen because readers of the New York Review were likely to have played his much-assigned sonatinas as children]: they spoke skilfully the same tonal language, but only Mozart spoke it with the added magic of genius. Who will define such magic?19

And this was his conclusion, tinged at once with nostalgia and with cold-war anxiety:

If (and here's a big if) music at its most healthy is the creative reaction of, and stimulation for, the body, and at its most decadent is the creative reaction of and stimulation of the intellect—if, indeed, health is a desirable feature of art, and if, as I believe, The Beatles exemplify this feature, then we have reached (strange though it may seem as coincidence with our planet's final years) a new and golden renaissance of song.20

It is easy enough to see what Rorem was trying to accomplish in this hyperbolic essay. It was an obvious “co-option,” an attempt to use the Beatles as a weapon in his own battle of revenge with the academic avant-garde. The most direct sally came in a parenthesis, an attempt to preempt and neutralize the predictable defenses of his highbrow readers against the incursion of popular culture into their domain:

There are still people who exclaim: “What's a nice musician like you putting us on about The Beatles for?” They are the same who at this late date take theater more seriously than movies and go to symphony concerts because pop insults their intelligence, unaware that the situation is now precisely reversed.21

In effect, Rorem was issuing an invitation to the concertgoing public to defect. And the invitation was heeded, very likely well beyond Rorem's expectation or wish. The late 1960s were precisely the time when sociological surveys stopped showing university students switching their taste allegiances as a matter of course, as a normal part of the “maturing” process. Henceforth, that rite of passage would no longer be required. From this point on, popular music was seen increasingly as part of an “alternative culture” to which not just hippies but educated people of all stripes, even “intellectuals,” could adhere.


(8) Quoted in Allan Kozinn, The Beatles (London: Phaidon, 1995), p. 74.

(9) Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), p. 15.

(10) Kozinn, The Beatles, p. 159.

(11) William Mann, “The Beatles Revive Hopes of Progress in Pop Music,” The Times, 29 May 1967; The Lennon Companion, p. 89.

(12) Ibid., pp. 91–92.

(13) Ibid., p. 93.

(14) Ned Rorem, “The Music of the Beatles,” in The Lennon Companion, p. 99.

(15) Ibid., p. 104.

(16) Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1964), in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Delta Books, 1967), p. 14.

(17) Rorem, “The Music of the Beatles,” in The Lennon Companion, p. 104.

(18) Ibid., p. 105.

(19) Ibid., p. 106.

(20) Ibid., p. 109.

(21) Ibid., 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. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007004.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007004.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007004.xml