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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

That alternative culture was located at first in “alternative media,” shoestring newspapers and magazines that began proliferating in the mid-sixties to serve the counterculture and the protest movement as the two began drawing closer together, and to provide an alternative source of information and opinion, uncorrupted by commercial or “official” constraint. The first—The Los Angeles Free Press (1964) and the Berkeley Barb (1965)—appeared in California. The East Village Other, the paradigm alternative journal, started publication in New York in October 1965, and then came a deluge: Rolling Stone (1967), Rat (1968), and many others. All of these publications featured music criticism—serious criticism, of a kind formerly reserved only for classical music and, less often, jazz—evaluating and explicating the music deemed relevant to their clientele: the loosely defined genre of pop that around 1966 took the name “rock.”

Rock was not merely an abbreviation of rock ‘n’ roll, although that was obviously its derivation. Rather, it designated music consciously composed and performed as part of that combined counterculture/protest movement that the alternative press addressed. That music now traced its lineage only indirectly to the rural or working-class African-American sources that nourished rock ‘n’ roll. The counterculture was not listening to Elvis. The direct ancestor was the British wave, and the immediate model was Sgt. Pepper. This meant that rock was a music created and performed by white musicians, largely for an audience that was white and bourgeois (however antibourgeois its posture). Although it celebrated the voluntary poverty of the counterculture and the high idealism of protest, it was the product and expression of a moneyed and materialistic segment of society, as betokened above all by the emphasis it placed on high technology.

On this basis, the British sociologist Arthur Marwick has described the rock scene between 1966 and 1975 as an expression of financial elitism that justified itself by paying lip service to themes of social amelioration while enjoying the benefits of affluence in the form of expensive drugs and the even more expensive sound systems it now took to get the full effect of rock records.22 The bands that arose in emulation of the post–Sgt. Pepper Beatles were also bound to make large financial outlays. As the investment in electronics technology became more critical, the more attenuated became the connection between rock and the original sources of rock ‘n’ roll, and the more pop aspired to the prestige of art. Thus the alternative culture became a meeting ground of art and entertainment categories formerly pigeonholed categorically as high and low. This was the first symptom, in the sphere of art and entertainment, of what is now called postmodernity.

On the pop side of the ledger, the kind of upward “sociostylistic” mobility associated with Gershwin's “symphonic jazz” resurfaced. In his 1967 review of Sgt. Pepper, William Mann noted with approval the attempt to unify the whole album around a recurrent theme that involved musical reprises. The unity, he allowed, was loose and “slightly specious,” but eminently “worth pursuing.”23 He confidently predicted that “sooner or later some group will take the next logical step and produce an LP which is a popsong-cycle, a Tin Pan Alley Dichterliebe.” Although his terminology was excruciatingly out of date, Mann was on the mark. To strive for larger statements than a pop single could allow became a prime characteristic of British and American rock. In 1969, the Who exactly fulfilled Mann's prediction with an album, Tommy, in which the constituent songs—all composed by lead guitarist Pete Townshend (b. 1945)—were linked in a continuous sequence describing the life of a “deaf dumb and blind boy” with a genius for playing pinball machines, whose success makes him a role model for underdogs everywhere. Although it was in fact a narrative song cycle, Tommy was promoted as “the first rock opera.” Eventually it was adapted for stage production, and even (very gaudily) for the movies. It became a milestone in the development of “progressive rock.” That term was borrowed from the “progressive jazz” of the 1950s, an esoteric and artistically ambitious outgrowth of bebop associated with the Beat poets. Progressive rock bands like Velvet Underground (from 1965) or Blood, Sweat, and Tears (from 1968) often included members with jazz and classical training. The trio Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (Keith Emerson [b. 1944] on keyboards, Greg Lake [b. 1948] on electric bass, Carl Palmer [b. 1951] on drums), widely regarded as the quintessential progressive rock band, specialized in arrangements of popular items from the classical repertoire like Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (album released 1972) and Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (single released 1972).

By the 1970s, there were even more “advanced” pop strains known as “art rock” and “avant-garde rock,” associated with individuals such as Frank Zappa (1940–93), Robert Fripp (b. 1946), and Brian Eno (b. 1948), and with groups like Queen (from 1971) and Talking Heads (from 1976). These musicians sought to subvert the “low” associations of rock ‘n’ roll with even more explicit appropriations from what the musicologist and rock historian Michael Long (borrowing the term from medieval rhetoric) calls “high expressive registers.”24

Queen's single “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975) announces (and ironically joshes) these sociostylistic aspirations in its very title, as did the name of the album, A Night at the Opera (borrowed from a Marx Brothers film comedy), in which it was rereleased the next year. Mainly composed by the group's lead singer Freddie Mercury (1946–1991), it is a sort of seven-minute rock cantata (or “megasong”) in three distinct movements, the product of upwards of 100 hours of studio work—a figure touted in promotion much the way Elliott Carter's 2,000 pages of sketches for his String Quartet no. 2 were touted. A Night at the Opera was advertised as “the most expensive album ever made,” recalling the way in which the RCA Mark II synthesizer had been touted when it was purchased for the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center about a decade before, and it contains long strings of esoteric allusions like the one in Ex. 7-4. The song was never performed live. For promotional purposes a prerecorded videotape was prepared, in which the members of the band “lip-synched” the lyrics to accompany the original single on the soundtrack.

Rock ‘N’ Roll becomes Rock

ex. 7-4 Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody, A-major section

These overtures met with a strong response from some “classical” musicians, perhaps strongest among certain “unaffiliated” or nonacademic sectors of the avant-garde. Luciano Berio, whose music had previously been a stimulus for Paul McCartney (as Berio may or may not have been aware), welcomed the developments that had transformed rock ‘n’ roll into rock as early as the summer of 1967 in an essay (“Commenti al Rock”) that appeared in the Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana, then Italy's most prestigious musicological journal. Berio's article effectively—imperialistically?—reclaimed rock for the European tradition. “It is remarkable,” he started off by observing, “that the phenomenon of rock (whose origins can be found in American popular music) needed an English group, The Beatles, in order to burst into full flower.” The next paragraph explained just what “full flower” entailed:

Rock as it is at present in the USA (above all in California) and in England (above all in The Beatles’ records) represents an escape from the restrictions of its stylistic origins, a tribute to the liberating forces of eclecticism. The musical eclecticism which characterizes its present physiognomy is not a fragmentary and imitative impulse and it has nothing in common with the spent residue of abused and stereotyped forms—which are still identifiable as rock and roll. Rather, it is dictated by an impulse to accept and include and—using rather rudimentary musical means—to integrate the (simplified) idea of a multiplicity of traditions. With the exception of the beat, loud and often unvaried, all its musical characteristics seem sufficiently open to allow for every possible influence and event to be absorbed.25

There is always a whiff of patronization when a sophisticate like Berio admires “freshness,” “naturalness,” or “spontaneity,” the rock virtues he singled out for praise, and more than a whiff when he remarks that “one of the most seductive aspects of rock vocal style is, in fact, that there is no style.”26 A very old-fashioned neoprimitivism shows through when Berio detects in rock the “Utopia of a return to origins,” or when he celebrates the “purity” of its instrumentation. When a rock band imports “foreign” sounds, he marvels, it always purifies them. In rock, “the sound of the trumpet, for example, is always simple and spare, without mutes or special effects, as in a painting by Grandma Moses: its sound is either baroque or Salvation Army.” The essay concludes with the wry observation that “the ‘decadent’ sound of trumpets played with mutes would be the signal that the moment for Rock at the Philharmonic has arrived; I sincerely hope that this moment will never come.”27 Concern for the authenticity of the other is a traditional imperialist (or “ghettoizing”) concern. Some might detect a parallel if somewhat contradictory implication of racism (though surely not consciously intended) in a white European's celebration of rock's “escape” from its origins in African-American culture.

But it is clear, withal, that Berio was genuinely impressed by rock's absorption of high technology, even envious of it. It put rock “ahead” of contemporary developments in classical music, and that was the highest criterion of value that a classical avant-gardist knew. “Microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers,” he wrote, “become not only extensions of the voices and instruments but become instruments themselves, overwhelming at times the original acoustic qualities of the sound source.”28 Rock held the promise of a true integration of the electronic and acoustic in a performed music—a problem that (as we saw in chapter 4) the avant-garde (including Berio) had had some trouble solving.

The beginnings of academic respectability attached to rock at around the same time, and this was perhaps the ultimate portent of change. It can be read clearly, if only in retrospect, in “On the Music of the Beatles,” an essay by Joshua Rifkin (b. 1944), an eminent American musicologist and early-music conductor. It was written in 1968, when Rifkin was enrolled as a graduate student at Princeton University studying musicology with Arthur Mendel and composition with Milton Babbitt. (Earlier he had studied at Darmstadt with Stockhausen.) But it was not published until 1987 (in a retrospective anthology, The Lennon Companion), by which time Rifkin himself, in a trenchant preface, was able to put his own essay in a historical perspective.

The article lavished praise on the music of the Beatles for its “remarkable economy of means and organization,” and on the Beatles themselves for their “tight integrative control over detail,” the “tensile propulsive force” of their rhythm, their “complex textures,” their “unprecedented richness and structural depth.”29 Theirs was “the first popular music that not only sustains detailed analysis but even demands it.”30 And Rifkin supplied in abundance what he thought the music demanded, backing up his assertions with musical examples and analytical charts of a kind habitually employed in classroom dissection of canonical texts (and by their very nature unintelligible to the artists whose products they sought to elucidate). The culminating argument was adapted from “Who Cares If You Listen,” Milton Babbitt's credo of the ivory tower, an unlikely source of praise for anything popular, perhaps, but a high authority in the eyes of the readers to whom Rifkin was addressing his arguments.

Writing in the late 1950s, Milton Babbitt stated that a popular song “would appear to retain its germane characteristics under considerable alterations of register, rhythmic texture, dynamics, harmonic structure, timbre and other qualities.” Perhaps the most significant innovation of The Beatles—and one that has not yet received adequate attention—is that they have created a popular music that resembles “formal” or “serious” music in the relevance of every detail to the identity of the composition.31

If this was an argument that sought to insulate the music of the Beatles from the strictures of the academic elite, representing it as exceptional among popular musics rather than as an indication of what popular music had (or might) become, that is because, as Rifkin candidly and very perceptively pointed out in 1987, his article was “an attempt at justifying the Beatles in terms of a particular ideology and, in so doing, to encompass them safely within its boundaries.”32 That was the ideology of academic modernism, “the heady blend of Schenker, Schoenberg and logical positivism once so prevalent in certain academic corners of the American musical landscape.” It did not allow Rorem's appeal to dumb “pleasure,” and so a more circuitous route to appreciation was necessary.

The article, in short, was an attempt to exorcise a threat that could not be openly acknowledged at the time, and that presaged a crisis. For, as Rifkin noted in hindsight, “anyone aware of such things” from the vantage point of 1987,

will also know how much the grip of that ideology has now slackened on even some of its most enthusiastic adherents. Ironically, for me, as for not a few of my friends and colleagues, The Beatles themselves played no little role in that slackening process. The very passion that we conceived for them provoked troubling questions: how could these musically unlettered kids, operating more or less collectively, produce something that we could see as somehow coterminous with the products of those fearsomely learned individuals who alone, we imagined, could create “serious art”? Faced with such contradictions, we could either abandon the passion, try to reconcile it with the aesthetic and other paradigms to which we knowingly and unknowingly subscribed, or start to wonder about the paradigms themselves. We couldn't do the first; for a while, as my article attests, some of us tried the second; but ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, most of us wound up with the third.33

Rifkin implied at the time that his was the first serious critical article on the Beatles, or on rock, since it was the first to use the methods of formal academic analysis. “Most criticism of pop music,” he alleged, “contents itself with breathless accounts of the writer's responses to the pop scene; critics who have attempted to deal with actual music usually betray a comprehension so severely limited as to obscure rather than clarify the subject at hand.”34 But as he later attested, his recourse to analysis was a dodge. Rifkin, a skilled composer and arranger, paid a more direct sort of tribute to the Beatles with The Baroque Beatles Book (1965), a record of clever arrangements of Beatles’ tunes in the form of fugues, keyboard variations, trio sonatas, and suite movements scored for a typical early-eighteenth-century “Bach” or “baroque” orchestra replete with continuo. It had a big sale among record collectors who, like Rifkin, were primarily committed to the classical canon but found the Beatles irresistible.

But as Rifkin surely knew, by the time he wrote his ultra-academic tribute to the Beatles a new breed of pop critic had emerged in the alternative press, and was even then beginning to infiltrate the mainstream media and the academy. These writers, while they often avoided “textualizing” the performances about which they wrote (thus remaining true to the “oral” processes of pop creation and dissemination, in which notation comes last, and serves only commercial purposes), nevertheless wrote as “serious” and even erudite critics, with a high awareness of history—both of the medium itself (in terms of styles and influences) and of its social and cultural environment—and an often superior grasp of sociology and cultural theory to ground their judgments.

Although they came to their profession during the heyday of rock's claim to intellectual status, their detailed knowledge and critical purview encompassed the earlier history of rock ‘n’ roll and its sources in folk music and blues. They were able to draw previously unchronicled connections between those genres and between rock ‘n’ roll and earlier genres of American popular music both white and black, not only uncovering the true (and academically disreputable) historical sources of the styles that had begun to impress white educated audiences, but also establishing a popular-music canon (yes, pop “classics”) that furthered the arrival of popular music studies as a legitimate branch of both musicology and cultural history.

The pioneer publication was Crawdaddy!, a mimeographed sheet with a press run of 500, founded in 1966 by Paul Williams, then a seventeen-year-old student at Swarthmore College. (By the end of 1968, when Williams sold it, it was a professionally printed magazine with a circulation of 25,000.) At first it consisted entirely of the editor-publisher's own musings. One such, a much-reprinted article called “How Rock Communicates,” gave the flavor of the new pop criticism. It opened with a group of epigraphs that included one from Pete Townshend of the Who, and one from Feeling and Form, Susanne K. Langer's weighty treatise on aesthetics (quoted as an inspiration by Elliott Carter in chapter 6).

Another widely anthologized early essay from Crawdaddy!, later expanded into a book, was “The Aesthetics of Rock” by Richard Meltzer (then a philosophy student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; among his teachers there was Allan Kaprow, the avant-garde artist associated in the late 1950s with “happenings”—see chapter 2). Meltzer's range of reference went from James Joyce to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit to Lennon and McCartney to the pop artist Andy Warhol to Bob Dylan and on to the analytical philosopher W. V. Quine. There is no whiff of neoprimitivism here. What these students were doing, clearly, was putting their response to popular music in touch with their other intellectual pursuits, something that would never have occurred to earlier generations of British or American students. It was at once an illustration of and a stimulus to the change in the patterns of consumption that so transformed popular music, and then all music, in the sixties.

Among the more professional breed of rock critic who fostered (and were fostered by) this change were Robert Christgau (b. 1942) and Greil Marcus (b. 1945). Christgau gained wide exposure as a columnist (1967–1969) for Esquire, a popular men's magazine, and then went to the Village Voice, a somewhat older, respectable counterpart to the alternative press of the sixties, where he eventually became a senior editor and reared a new generation of critics. Marcus became recordings editor of Rolling Stone in 1969, while pursuing a graduate degree in American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of several scholarly books on American popular music, including Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (1975), which laid the foundation for the serious historical study of the genre.

A breakthrough was reached in 1970, when the Los Angeles Times hired Robert Hilburn (b. 1939) as a permanent staff critic after publishing occasional pieces of freelance rock criticism (by Hilburn and others) for four years. During Hilburn's tenure the paper developed the widest coverage of popular music of any American newspaper, where previously only the classical concert scene had been regularly reported in the daily press, reflecting the economic status and cultural interests of its presumed readership. The New York Times followed suit in 1974, when it hired John Rockwell (b. 1940), a Berkeley Ph.D. in German cultural history who was already covering classical music for the paper, as a permanent rock critic. (Later Rockwell served a term as general editor of the paper's Sunday Arts and Leisure section.) The incorporation of rock criticism on newspaper “culture” pages, all but universal by the end of the 1970s, was perhaps the most decisive symptom of the revolution the sixties had wrought in the patterns of musical consumption.

Rockwell's All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (1983) was another symptom. It was the first “synchronic” survey to treat the whole spectrum of musical activity within a nation at a certain moment in its history in what became known as “multicultural” terms, implying a studied avoidance of hierarchy and an equally studied eschewal of norms. Rockwell's twenty chapters covered everything from “The Northeastern Academic Establishment” (with Milton Babbitt the focus) to Broadway musicals to art-rock, black “soul” music, and “Latino” pop, not just in an effort to paint a musical portrait of American society, but also to identify and communicate the value of each musical manifestation, however controversial.


(22) See Arthur Marwick, British Society since 1945 (London: Pelican Books, 1982), p. 128.

(23) Mann, “The Beatles Revive Hopes,” in The Lennon Companion, p. 93.

(24) Michael P. Long, “Is This the Real Life? Rock Classics and Other Inversions,” University of California at Berkeley musicology colloquium, 1998.

(25) Luciano Berio, “Comments on Rock,” Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana, May/June 1967; The Lennon Companion, p. 97.

(26) Ibid., p. 98.

(27) Ibid., p. 99.

(28) Ibid., pp. 97–98.

(29) Joshua Rifkin, “On the Music of the Beatles,” in The Lennon Companion, p. 116ff.

(30) Ibid., p. 126.

(31) Ibid., p. 124.

(32) The Lennon Companion, p. 113.

(33) Ibid., pp. 113–14.

(34) Rifkin, “On the Music of the Beatles,” in The Lennon Companion, p. 115.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007005.xml