Sunday, 10 June 2012

My Favourite Year ... 1966-67, Transitions and Mad Men

No surprise to anyone who's spoken to me within the past couple of months or so that I've become a Mad Men addict (Maddict). And this season (which wraps up tonight) took place over the latter half of 1966 and early 1967. My favourite pop cultural year (and a half) of all time. This post is about why.


1965 had marked the end of the old and beginning of the new in pop music. 1966, with new musical styles crystallizing all over, was still very much a transitional year.

1966, musically, had everything. In rock music, the British Invasion had settled down somewhat, but was still going fairly strong with a new wave of bands, louder and more delirious sounding than those of a couple of years earlier. The Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Kinks were joined by the likes of the Who, the Troggs and Them (featuring Van Morrison). Lesser known in the US at the time, was the explosion in bands playing a post-mod/pre-psychedelic style known nowadays to music collectors in this genre as freakbeat. Hanging out on Carnaby Street in London would mean hearing songs like "Making Time" by the Creation with its screeching electric violin, the angry, snarling "How Is The Air Up There" by the La De Das or "Midnight To Six" by the Pretty Things. Even the music of the bigger names was on the move: "Don't Bring Me Down" by the Animals, "Mother's Little Helper" by the Stones, "Shapes of Things" and "Over Under Sideways Down" by the Yardbirds. The warped guitar, the endlessly reverbed voices, the encroaching sitar-influenced chords, all mirrored by the increasingly polka-dotted, candy striped, flowered and paisley-ed clothing, seemed to be signs of things racing forward.

And as has been increasingly clear over the course of seasons four and five (thus far), the drug culture of the time added fuel to the acceleration. It, specifically marijuana followed by LSD, began to blur the boundaries between things, not just in the minds of its users at the time, but also between musical and artistic genres. The early British Invasion pop of the Beatles and the Searchers had already cross-fertilized with the folk music of Bob Dylan and other artists to create folk rock, played by artist on both sides of the Atlantic: the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful in the US and Donovan and the Seekers (England via Australia) in the UK. Folk rock guitar playing, by 1966, could be heard throughout the rock and pop landscape.

But, by far the angriest music that year came from a new rock mutation, borne of the above styles plus the frat and surf rock styles of the early 60s. The blues rock moving back and forth between the UK and the US, the wall of sound production of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson and the stomping beat of Motown began to crystalize around snarling vocals, fuzztone guitar and harmonica, and cavernous Farfisa organ into garage rock, a proto-punk style named so as its main participants were the countless teenage and young bands rehearsing and recording (or so it was perceived) in their garages. Some of the music sounded amateurish, much of it sounded for from it. Garage rock could be found from coast to coast, in Canada, and in various other parts of the world. Stateside, bands included the Standells, the Shadows of Knight, Love, the Leaves, the Seeds, Count Five and the Syndicate of Sound. The Tex-Mex border produced groups like ? and The Mysterians while eastside LA sent forth bands such as Thee Midnighters, the Premiers and Cannibal and the Headhunters. The Pacific Northwest had already had groups like the Kingsmen, the Wailers (no relation to the Jamaican group) and the Sonics since the early 60s, but 1966 brought others like the Daily Flash (who relocated to LA), the Shockers and the Nocturnals. From the San Francisco Bay area came the Mystery Trend, the Chocolate Watch Band and the Stax soul influenced Sons of Champlin.

The midwest garage band scene included everything from the poppy Outsiders to the grungy MC5. In New York City, the arty Velvet Underground and the radical-political Fugs set their edgier lyrics to a very stripped down, minimal garage rock foundation. Gradually, the influence of psychedelics began to warp the sound of some of these bands. The average teenage garage band member did not quite take to the LSD experience the way a university-educated hippie, ten years his senior, did. There was not much Eastern religious inspiration here, but instead, dark, hallucinatory trips through jealousy, paranoia and B-movie beasts. The 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me", The Bees' "Voices Green and Purple", Gonn's "Blackout of Greteley" and The Humane Scoiety's "Knock, Knock". The stuff of movies like Riot on Sunset Strip and Psych-Out. By 1966-67, psychedelic garage bands were beginning to chart: The Electric Prunes, The Blues Magoos.

Their influence on Top 40 pop at the time could not be underestimated. Even, a pre-fab TV band like the Monkees incorporated fuzztone guitar ("I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone"). Sixty percent of American youth were in a band of some kind. In the years following the original British Invasion, a revolutionary shift had taken place; rock music had not only become the corner stone of youth, but of modernity itself. Bands influenced by garage rock or the British Invasion, or both, could be found all over the world: Europe (East and West), Latin America, Japan, Thailand, the Middle East. This legacy lives on in the form of indie bands worldwide.


In 1966, the world seemed, as it did to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, to go from black and white to colour. The first all-colour prime-time season on television aired that fall although there were still a few black and white series, like the northern gothic Dark Shadows. As sure as the metallic mini-dresses designed by Paco Rabanne and the vogue for silver clothing, make-up and accessories, the future was very, very in on the small, but colourful, screen with Batman, Star Trek, The Green Hornet and The Time Tunnel all debuting that season. The first reincarnation of Doctor Who happened in October. More earthly, although edgy, content included Family Affair (dealing with a broken family) and That Girl (a single woman making it on her own). BBC's contribution came in the form of the sitcom 'Till Death Do Us Part, the prototype for the American 70s series All In The Family.

Top grossing films included The Bible: In The Beginning and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, some of the films that caught the zeitgeist in 1966 were Blow-Up, Wild Angels, Chappaquah and the Czech film Daisies. 1966-67 also announced the beginning of a renewed Western film genre with classics such as Django, A Bullet For The General, The Good, Bad and The Ugly and Fistful of Dollars.

In bestselling fiction, while speculative and sci-fi works such as Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage, Phillip K. Dick's The Unteleported Man, Roger Zelazny's The Dream Master ruled, the contemporary world was also fair game in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot '49.

Album oriented FM radio began on shaky footing in July 1966. New York City's WOR-FM began its broadcast life while its disc jockeys were on strike: managers spun records and played commercials through the first few weeks. The official, post-strike debut was on October 8, 1966. Playlists were diverse and loose with very little talk presaging the progressive rock formats of just a year or two later. Radio, along with its growing legions of counterculture audience members, was morphing like much else that year.


Soul music came of age in 1966 and 1967. A genre for which there was never an official beginning, it had simply grown out of the gospel and rhythm and blues of the postwar years, began to be called soul around the time of the Beatles' arrival in the US. A couple of years later, with Motown firmly established and pumping out regular hits, the Chicago sound of the Impressions and Chess Records, Atlantic Records making inroads into the regional southern soul market and James Brown turning soul inside out by putting his rhythm section upfront and making lyrics into punctuation, soul was beginning to grow up.

This paralleled the turning point in the Civil Rights movement that summer when, during the Meredith March in Mississippi, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began to insist on indigenous marches and that white supporters form their own, supportive movements. "Black Power" as a slogan gained currency and a rift formed between SNCC and Martin Luther King, Jr. 's organization the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC). The first Black Panther Party, an African-American third party slate in Alabama, ran its candidates for the first time that summer. That fall, the other Black Panther Party was cofounded, in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. For soul music not to absorb these radical, new developments somehow, even in mood, would have been well nigh impossible.

Perhaps the best Motown song ever, The Four Top's "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" brought Dylanesque lyrics and delivery, a galloping forward drive, an eastern music influenced bass-line and woodwind undercurrent together into a musical hurricane to the top of the R&B and Hot 100 Charts. James Brown oscillated between the fairly conservatively arranged "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and the full-on assault of "Money Won't Change You". Brown's polyrhythmic influence could be heard far and wide (Jamaica, Nigeria, Belize). Chunkier basslines and sparse horns could be heard on records like Don Covay's "Sookie, Sookie", Dyke and The Blazer's "Funky Broadway" and Rodger Collin's "She's Looking Good". The Hammond B3 organ based jazz on labels like Blue Note, Prestige and ATCO was not insulated from these developments either as Brother Jack McDuff's take on the standard "The Shadow of Your Smile" made clear.

Sultry southern soul scored high on the charts: Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman", Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y" and Sam and Dave's "When Something's Wrong With My Baby". The themes in each of them, very adult, the adolescent stylings of early rock and roll and doo-wop gone. Music for growing up.


A musical transition of a different sort was happening in Jamaica. Ska, the unofficial national music (it never got played on the national radio service ) for some years by now, had grown out of the imported sound of early rhythm and blues, particularly its swampy, New Orleans variant. Its fast, busy pace had kept young people skanking up a storm, that is, until the sweltering spring and summer of 1966. The unusually hot (even for Jamaica) weather as well as other factors (economic dislocation, political turmoil) led to the music's radical slowing down and increasingly sparse, bass and rhythm guitar dominated rhythm. Over the top, crooners crooned and vocal groups harmonized. At first, almost in keeping with 1966's dark undercurrent, the songs focused on the increasing violence on the streets of Kingston's Back-O-Wall district and at dancehall's between gangs hired by the two national political parties. The Valentine's "Blam Blam Fever" was cautionary, Prince Buster's "Judge Dread" punitive and the Wailers' "Treat Me Good" almost spiritual. By early 1967, however, most of what was now being called rock steady music was romantic ballads, using doo-wop and Chicago soul as its source. As new groups made records, new musicians (many of them ex-members of the ska supergroup The Skatalites which had broken up in 1965) discovered new ways to play the rhythms and a new generation of entrepreneurs started and ran indie labels.

In 1967, Desmond Dekker's "007 Shanty Town" charted in the UK, US soul singer Johnny Nash met Bob Marley for the first time and Prince Buster had an R&B and Pop chart hits in the US. The world had not heard the last of Jamaican music.


Perhaps it is only fitting that such a transitional year would see the beginnings of the trans rights movement. Mere weeks before Harry Benjamin's book The Transexual Phenomenon was published, trans and gender variant youth, discriminated against by the Tenderloin outlet of the San Francisco area Compton's Cafeteria chain, revolted early that August (others had done so at Dewey's Restaurant in Philadelphia the previous year). The first ever LGBT youth publication, Vanguard, published its first issue that summer. Public awareness of the full spectrum of human sexual orientation and gender identity would grow exponentially in the decades to come.


So, as Mad Men winds down this evening, I will remember this season, with its own deaths, rebirths, brave souls charting their own paths forward, as one of my favourites.



  1. I love the connection drawn here between musical transition and political transformation--you offer a powerful reminder that transition in its many guises is worthy of celebration! As always, your knowledge of 20th century music history is amazingly rich and fine-grained, and you elaborate a thought-provoking reading of what pop cultural shifts have meant for society and how they've intersected with liberation movements. Brava, Dolce V. -Alana Chuk