Don't you know that I danced, I danced till a quarter to three
With the help, last night, of Daddy G
He was swingin on the sax like a nobody could
And I was dancin' all over the room
Oh, don't you know the people were dancin' like they were mad
It was the swingin'est band they had, ever had
It was the swingin'est song that could ever be
It was a night with Daddy G
Few on that dance floor could have predicted that in only six years rock would evolve (or de-evolve, depending on your point of view) from "a night with Daddy G" to "Nights in White Satin." Indeed by 1967 rock-and-roll went from being (at its best) the youthful drive to piss off your parents with only four chords and a backbeat, to a full-fledged art form which made raising the consciousness as legitimate a function for rock as raising the roof. And it pissed off your parents even more.
Why the dramatic shift in rock quality in such a short period of time? In terms of musical influences, folk singer Bob Dylan has to be given credit for giving currency to the idea that it was okay for songs to "say something." Given that the years 1961-1967 were filled with controversies over civil rights, Vietnam, feminism and much else, there existed lots to say something about. In terms of recording techniques, the Beach Boys' classic "Pet Sounds" (1966) used experimental arrangements to produce a kind of "art rock" that might be difficult to perform live but could be reflected on in privacy or in groups like a great novel. Guided by the "Pet Sounds" example, bands moved away from the standard 2-3 minute track with guitar/bass/drums and mostly innocuous lyrics to lengthy, orchestral tunes often featuring deeply personal lyrics or social commentary.
In terms of social movements, the west coast hippies like the "Beats" of the 1950s mixed a rejection of middle-class norms with an acceptance of personal liberation to create a space for rock as more than "mere entertainment." The hippies experienced rock as a vehicle for sending messages to the masses, as a peaceful weapon to provoke emotions in a culture made numb by hyper-consumerism, and as the most striking symbol of the values of the new generation; they saw rock-and-roll as nothing less than the soundtrack of the REVOLUTION. As such, they helped shape an audience of listeners that came to expect and appreciate maximum levels of creativity in songwriting and sound.
For me, more important than musical and sociocultural influences in the development of rock-and-roll was the emergence of FM radio as a space for non-commercial rock music. In 1967 popular San Francisco deejay Tom Donahue wrote an article for the new Rolling Stone magazine called "AM Radio is Dead and its Rotting Corpse is Stinking Up the Airwaves." That article and the work of Donahue and other like-minded jocks led to the creation of the "free-form" style of programming. For the first time, deejays could play whatever they wanted, not just the "hits." In the free-form format, a deejay might play an obscure track, or an entire album, or maybe just spend some time talking about the meaning of the music. Donahue pioneered the free form on KPMX and KSAN in Frisco. In my home town of New York City, WNEW-FM became the archetype of what a "progressive" rock radio station should be, featuring deejays in-tune (pun intended) not just with new music but with society. (Just as an aside: I've yet to meet anyone raised on that era of FM radio who believes that FM radio today is--with few exceptions--anything other than awful, pathetic, mindless crap. Another great venue ruined by corporate greed.).
So thanks to those and other factors, by 1967 rock and roll had been transformed from mostly fun to a major force for social change. Hordes of youth headed out to San Francisco to find out what all the buzz was about, and the June 16-18 Monterey Pop Festival is widely recognized as the event that ushered in the "Summer of Love." The Beatles did not perform at that concert, but their "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album (released in June in the United States) became the iconic record of the times.
Sgt. Pepper is an important, great record, but its notoriety unfortunately overshadows the fact that there were many important, great records released that year. Given that we are in the 50th anniversary of 1967, I thought I would list my own personal favorites from that year (organized by the month in which they were released.).
January: The Doors, "The Doors" and Laura Nyro, "More Than A New Discovery."
The Doors first album is a classic example of a record that would not have been heard (or possibly even made) without the existence of a viable FM radio band. Today the album is pegged as a seminal recording in the "psychedelic" or "acid" rock category (mostly because of the songs "Break on Through" and "The End" and lead singer Jim Morrison's burnout image), but for me it's just a great example of modern blues played by a group of white guys from California.
Everything on this record rocks, but "White Rabbit" is by itself worth the price of admission. Grace Slick's penetrating vocals belting out subversive lyrics might be THE highlight of the music of 1967.
The first album from the most legendary jam band of all time. As with the Doors first album, the Dead's debut effort is often unfairly pegged as vital mostly because of its connection to psychedelia. But listen to "Viola Lee Blues" and it's clear that from their earliest days the Dead found a way to create a blues-rock-folk hybrid unlike anything heard before or since.
April: The Electric Prunes, "The Electric Prunes"
The Electric Prunes were the ultimate American garage band. When I teach "The Rhetoric of Rock and Roll" for contemporary students, lots of them get a kick out of this album's featured track "I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)." A few years ago I asked a student why he liked that song and he said, "The words sound like something they came up with after smoking some really good weed." That sounds about right.
I touched your golden hair and tasted your perfume
Your eyes were filled with love the way they used to be
Your gentle hand reached out to comfort me
Then came the dawn
And you were gone
You were gone, gone, gone
Too much to dream
I'm not ready to face the light
I had too much to dream