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Soundtrack To The Sixties

Except for a few college stations, there’s absolutely no creativity left in music radio. All playlist decisions are left to big city consultants, who conduct surveys and test songs before live audiences before giving the go ahead for their local client stations to add them to their playlists. According to these consultants, there are no regional differences in musical tastes. According to them, beach music is not more popular in the Carolinas than elsewhere, nor does New Orleans have a fondness for jazz.

This is so unlike the golden age of music radio, when local stations called themselves “hitmakers” and would brag about hit songs “that you heard here first.” Countless rock bands of the sixties, signed to small labels with even smaller promotion budgets, owed their success to Music Directors at local stations who played their first release because “it sounded like a hit.” These days, any local radio employee who dared to make such a move would find a pink slip in his or her next pay envelope.

However, during the sixties we heard more than just the hits on our radios, for during that time an unusual radio format briefly flourished – primarily in the big cities. At the time this format was called “progressive rock,” and today is referred-to fondly by those who remember it as “free form FM.” These stations did not rely on Billboard charts or sales reports to determine what they played. Instead, they relied on the good taste of their disc-jockeys, who knew that there was more to music than the top forty songs of the day and that a song didn’t have to be released on a single to make it worthy of air play.

They played what they liked, not what Billboard or Record World told them we wanted to hear. Because of them we learned that music was more than the Beatles, the Stones or Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars,” and that there was more to the Jefferson Airplane than “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” They introduced us to groups who otherwise had no prayer of commercial success, like Fairport Convention, Captain Beefheart or the Mothers of Invention.

Sadly, much of this music has been lost to history. Classic rock stations, the self-proclaimed guardians of this tradition, seem to think that progressive rock started with Led Zeppelin and ended with Bob Seger (who wasn’t even known outside of Detroit in those days). The changeover from vinyl to CD also hurt, causing many of these artists and titles to disappear from music catalogs – seemingly forever.

It would be impossible to list all of the important albums or artists from the late sixties who are all but forgotten but who still deserve to be heard. The era represented something of a musical renaissance, with much music moving away from the common theme of romantic love to deal with ideas like individual moral values, unconditional love and social injustice.

Music is very personal, so what follows is only a brief list of the soundtrack of my life that is no longer heard on the radio, but which are still available in stores. Your list of the top five forgotten albums from the sixties would undoubtedly be different.

Winds of Change. Eric Burdon and the Animals.

Cheap Thrills album cover

In 1966, Eric Burdon discovered the drug culture but the rest of his band did not. He left his native England to hang-out in San Francisco, where he formed a new band, turning away from the blues influenced rock of the old Animals to embrace the psychedelic music being popularized by Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Winds of Change, released in 1967, paid homage to his new hippie lifestyle and was a must in any real “freaks” record collection for many years.

Cheap Thrills. Big Brother & The Holding Company.

Most Janis Joplin that’s played on the radio these days comes from her final album Pearl, which was undoubtedly her most polished work. However, Janis was at her best when raw and untamed. There are plenty of gems on this album that received heavy FM air play during the late sixties and through much of the seventies. The recording of “Ball and Chain” is one of the best blues numbers to ever be captured on vinyl and her version of “Summertime” finds new musical nuances in this Porgy and Bess standard. The cover art is by “underground” comic artist R. Crumb – creator of Mr. Natural and the phrase “Keep on truckin’.”

Highway 61 Revisited. Bob Dylan.

As hard as it may be to believe today, for much of the late sixties most people in the hippie counter-culture saw Dylan as a spiritual leader along the lines of Gandhi, although he later showed himself to be a fallible human like the rest of us. After his fall from grace, the National Lampoon’s send-up of the counter-culture, Radio Dinner, had Dylan referring to himself as “Jesus Zimmerman.”

This is his first electric album and is Dylan at his best, both musically and lyrically, backed by a band that includes Al Kooper on keyboard. Notable cuts include “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Desolation Row.”

Blood, Sweat, and Tears album cover.

The Child Is Father To The Man. Blood, Sweat & Tears.

If you’ve always thought of Blood, Sweat & Tears as a sappy Chicago rip-off, that’s because this “first” album never gets played on the radio. Actually, this is not even the same group as the albums that followed. Al Kooper formed this band with some musician friends and recorded the definitive (for the time) album of jazz-rock fusion. When Columbia Records asked for another album, Kooper refused and the record magnates hired vocalist David Clayton Thomas and some session musicians to churn-out some self-conscious “arty” fluff. Unfortunately, the radio guys all seem to prefer the fluff and this album has been largely ignored. Accept no substitutes, this is the only Blood, Sweat & Tears album you’ll ever need!

First King Crimson album cover

In The Court Of The Crimson King. King Crimson.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the best “concept album” ever recorded. The lineup of this group reads like a Who’s Who of musician’s musicians and includes Robert Fripp, Greg Lake and Ian McDonald. The story told on this album is a complex and sophisticated allegory that uses the troubles in Northern Ireland to illustrate the transcendence of political and social oppressiveness. The title cut is as good as anything that Pink Floyd ever recorded – at least post Dark Side of the Moon.

There are many others who deserve to be on this list of forgotten music of the sixties. For example, there’s the Truth album by Jeff Beck which features Rod Stewart before he sold-out to the seventies, semi-great hippie groups like Blue Cheer, or the divinely depressing lyrics of Leonard Cohen. If history is any guide, the conditions will not be right for music to flourish like it did in the sixties until well in the next millennium – and that’s a crying shame.