The 1960s - Radio and Music Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 1960s - Radio and Music

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For some, it's the radio programmes that stick in the mind more than television:

Sunday afternoon, after dinner, with The Clitheroe Kid, H-H-H-Hancock's Half Hour, The Navy Lark, Professor Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray, and my eternal favourite Round The Horne - I can remember falling about laughing at Julian and Sandy and the strange language conjured up by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick (though of course I had no idea what they were talking about), or the balderdash twittered by Rambling Sid Rumpo, (Williams again) about splods, cord-wangles, and the like. The ridiculous plays sending up film styles, the digs at the BBC hierarchy, the stock characters that developed a life of their own. Even the announcer (Douglas Smith) had parts written for him, and would complain in his 'BBC voice' about the lack of characterisation.

Another radio favourite was I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, early contributors for which went on to create The Goodies and Python team...

The Sounds of Music

I contend that 'The Sixties' as we know it from the media didn't actually start until 1963, when The Beatles released their first single. The years before that can be referred to as 'nineteen fifty-ten', 'fifty-eleven', and 'fifty-twelve'.

The 1950s had seen the emergence of a strange phenomenon that could never have been predicted by scientists - the teenager. Created out of a combination of the post-war baby-boom and the end to both rationing and 'utility lifestyle', teenagers had spending power, their own ideas and a sense of optimism and determination that their parents had been denied. Suddenly, music got fast. Music got sexy. Music got Elvis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Little Richard.

In the UK we got 'King of Skiffle' Lonnie Donegan and 'Pop Prince' Cliff Richard. Hardly seems fair, does it1?

The music of the early 1960s seemed little different to that of the previous five years. As is often the case with decades, the 1960s took a while to warm up. For every Johnny Kidd and the Pirates begging to be 'Shakin' All Over' there was still a teeny-bopping Johnny Tillotson crooning about 'Poetry in Motion'. Even Elvis seemed to do his bit, reworking an old European folk song into the cheery but atypical 'Wooden Heart'. Lonnie Donegan and Cliff Richard continued to churn out chart-toppers and everything seemed nice and safe. That was, until 1963...

Liverpool, Merseybeat and Global Domination

Inevitably, when we think back to the 1960s, it's the Liverpool sound of 'Merseybeat' that immediately comes to mind. Liverpudlians were no strangers to the Singles Charts: The first British artist to achieve a solo Number One was the Liverpool-born Lita Roza (sadly this was with the slightly less-than-rock 'n' roll 'How Much is that Doggy in the Window'), Frankie Vaughan had been a mainstay of the charts since 1954 and Michael Holliday held the distinction of nabbing the first Number One spot of the 1960s. But back then, Liverpool was merely another part of industrial Lancashire.

Historically, Liverpool had been the route to the 'New World', with Europeans leaving from there to start a new life in America. Through the 1950s, American music found its way into the UK via the ports. It's not surprising therefore that it was Liverpool that first managed to learn what the States had to offer and start beating the Americans at their own game... for a while, at least. In the 1960s, its music alone was enough to make it stand out as a city in its own right and become (unbelievably) a World leader in pop. This is thanks in no small part to one man, artist manager Brian Epstein, whose discovery of a cheeky four-piece Skiffle band is credited with changing the world.

While Epstein's own camp gave us the Beatles, Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J Kramer (a Liverpudlian who fronted the Manchester band The Dakotas), his influence extended beyond those under contract to him. Of the 19 British Number One singles in 1964, more than half of them came with a Liverpool pedigree (and eight of those came from Epstein acts). The Beatles' songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney wrote songs for other artists, including The Rolling Stones ('I Wanna be Your Man'), while McCartney also supplied Peter and Gordon ('A World Without Love') and Mary Hopkin ('Those Were The Days') with their respective debut Number Ones.

Brits Invade the USA

Though again we might assume that the Beatles led that British invasion of America, they were actually a fair way behind bands such as The Stones and The Who, who had already broken America and played the all-important Ed Sullivan Show. The difference was simply that when the Beatles broke the USA, they did so bigger and better than anyone else.

When The Beatles took off, they were doing music that was either covers of American artists or else highly derivative of them. But by the time of their third album, A Hard Day's Night, you could really hear a definite 'sound' that was an evolution from, yet markedly different to, American rock 'n' roll. Suddenly, that fusion of music from the Liverpool docks became something huge.

Unlike their contemporaries, the Beatles refused to go to the States as unknowns. They were already proud Number One artists in the American chart, so their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was as stars in their own right rather than humble newcomers. At a time when the Liverpool Football Club was also making a name for itself for the first time, it was really the best time to be a 'Scouser'.

Brit Pop

Though Liverpudlians might convince you otherwise, Liverpool was not the be-all and end-all of music in the 1960s. Surprisingly, for a sound that had dominated British music to such an extent, 'Merseybeat' really only lasted two years. By 1965 it had been engulfed into the wider 'Brit-pop' movement that was slowly taking over the World.

The focal point of British Culture quietly but swiftly moved south, to London's Carnaby Street. The clean, Beatle-patented mop-top haircut joined forces with the fashions of Mary Quant to create a style so 'modern' it became known as 'The 'Mod' movement. Simplicity was the order of the day; Leather jackets were out, smart suits were in; A-line skirts and simple, straight haircuts replaced the overly-lacquered hair-towers and frilly frocks of the 1950s. And thanks to the Beatles and the Stones, guitar-based bands started to write their own material and as a consequence were much more in control of their destinies than their predecessors. The Small Faces, The Who and The Kinks enjoyed levels of freedom that the great Elvis Presley could only dream of.

This is the point where we feel far too much could be said about the fashions of the 1960s. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the Conversations below, but for now, here are just two responses from our Researchers:

The Sixties started with teens whose idea of rebellion was hot rod cars and smoking cigarettes. They were a generation who had seen their older siblings go off to war in the US and lived through it in Europe. As the Baby-Boomers (myself included) began to emerge as the new generation the music changed, clothing changed, and lifestyles changed. Long hair, old recycled clothes and brightly painted mini-vans became common sights among the young...
Button on frills for the shirt fronts of trendy lads. Beatle boots. Double breasted 'Monkee' shirts...
Please don't tell me it's all over! The truth is I missed the 1960s but I still think the clothes, music, films... well just about everything apart from possibly architecture, is better than anything before or since. Hence the ridiculous clothes, mates in ridiculous clothes, scooter, egg chair and stereo that looks like a UFO. I always like to say 1960s style is timeless but if I really accept that then I'd have to take on board that there might be another reason why I get laughed at in the street. (I'm too sensitive to that just now). As for 'you've never had it so good', I'm glad I'm living now, but I reserve the right to wear daft shoes.


...the first whiff of the 1960s explosion was the sound of surf music typified by the Beach Boys, and revised later through the nasal twang of Bob Dylan enshrining a sub-culture...

The tide of change hit nowhere harder than the Good Ol' US of A. The changes brought music to the forefront where it became a voice for social and political causes - the sexual revolution, feminism, and Black Power to name just a few.

It all started as far as we're concerned with a folk roots revival, where artists and audiences were revitalising the traditional music forms of their ancestors; and on their way inspired a wave of similar trends across the rest of the world. The rise of the Bakersfield Sound was a popular example of this folk revival, led by Merle Haggard. At the same time bluegrass became a major influence and bands like 'Muleskinner and Old And In the Way' invented a progressive form of it that came to be known as newgrass. Although this never really achieved much mainstream success, newgrass has become a major part of the American country scene. Other folk forms that found success as part of this revival included Cajun and Hawaiian folk.

When the [British] invaders arrived, they found a few acts already here. In Texas, one of the most memorable was Janis Joplin, who died in 1970. Born in a small redneck oil town, she ended up a little... different. I still remember a video of Mama Cass (of the Mamas and Papas) watching Janis perform at the Monterrey Pop Festival - Cass' jaw literally dropped.
The VH1 list for 'Best Rock 'n Roll Bad Girl' has Janis at the top, ahead of Courtney Love and Madonna. I read a hilarious report of Janis attending her 10th highschool reunion - she took one look at all the 'big hair' classmates and headed for the bar. Her will called for 200 of her friends to throw a party at her favorite bar...

Joplin wasn't alone in fending off the famed 'Brit Invasion'; America pushed to the front artists like The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas and the Papas and The Monkees (who themselves boasted a Mancunian as their lead singer, seemingly the only ones who stood any chance of challenging the Beatles and The Who. The infuence of folk singers like Peter Paul and Mary ('Puff the Magic Dragon') and Bob Dylan cannot, however, be underestimated. Their songs became (unintentionallly perhaps) closely associated with the drugs culture. The Woodstock Festival, the most famous rock festival of al time, represented the culmination of the counterculture movement and the high point of this 'hippy era'. It became a defining symbol for this young generation who were actively involved with the anti-war movement, civil rights and feminism.

The Soul Train

In the early-to-mid-1960s, soul music and R&B ('Rhythm and Blues', as opposed to the modern 'Rhythm and Bass') took off. It was the first time African-American music gained popularity in an undiluted and culturally 'black' form. Specialities included girl groups, blue-eyed soul, brown-eyed soul, Memphis soul, Philly soul and, the ever popular, yes, you guessed it - Motown. Motown defined 1960s America representing the sound of American youth through most of the decade and, for an independent record company, achieved unprecedented success. Among its most influential stars were singers like Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, who all dominated the Billboard charts.

But one of its biggest male stars was undoubtedly Marvin Gaye. Originally marketed as a bit of a 'black Sinatra', a sophisticated ladies man, Marvin rejected this label and adapted to the new face of popular music by taking soul to the next level, expanding it from the realm of the single into producing cohesive and socially-aware album orientated soul. In late 1969, Marvin began writing his concept album, What's Going On? - a massive worldwide success. The inspiration for his lyrics came from major events happening in the US, including his brother's experiences in the Vietnam War. The album voices Marvin's feelings and anxieties of sadness of the effects of war and poverty, and his deep longing for fairness and justice.

Other innovative performers like James Brown, invented a new style of soul called funk, which was heavily influenced by psychedelic rock. American bands such as Parliament, War and Funkadelic merged soul with psychedelic rock but achieved little popular success. Meanwhile, Sly and the Family Stone managed to make pop funk popular to the masses, a vibe that really exploded the following decade.

The End of Days

The end of the decade saw 'Cosmic' songs like 'The Legend of Xanadu' (by the improbably-named Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch) and Zager and Evans' pessimistic ode to future evolution, 'In the year 2525' mixed together with the drug-hazes of Prog-rockers like Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. The arrival of Ska (in the form of the Equals) and reggae (with Desmond Decker) showed a change in the racial demographics of the British record-buying public. Sexual permissiveness was represented by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's jaw-saggingly raunchy collaboration 'Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus', and the great sense of British humour found us electing Rolf Harris's sentimental tale of loyalty and friendship 'Two Little Boys' as the final Number One single of the 1960s.

It was still a more innocent time back then. You'd never get away with a song called 'Two Little Boys' nowadays...

Further Reading

h2g2 boasts a number of entries relevant to the 1960s. Here's a small selection of them:

More on the 1960s

See Also

1Sarcasm aside, these two gentlemen were the biggest British stars of the 1950s and early 1960s, and both continued to enjoy chart success for years to come. Cliff Richard currently holds the distinction of being the only British recording artist to have Number One singles in five different decades.

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