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Why Popular Music Peaked in the 1960s
And Why It's Been in Decline Ever Since
I have a theory about why popular music peaked in the 1960s and has been in decline ever since, with an especially precipitous drop-off in quality around the mid-1990s. I don’t have anything like the technical knowledge or training of a Rick Beato or Ted Gioia, but as a lifelong music lover, a (very) amateur pianist and songwriter, and someone who has mastered the use of a car steering wheel as a percussion instrument, I think I have the musical chops sufficient for getting a pretty good read on this situation. In fact, I believe I can summarize in just two words the real reason why popular music so dramatically blossomed and flourished in the 60s: “The Beatles.”
The Beatles were a cultural black swan event . . .
“The days of the guitar band are over,” or at least that’s what a Decca Records executive allegedly told The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein in 1962 when explaining why the label was rejecting the group. And it probably looked that way at the time. The most popular song in America in 1962 was “Stranger on the Shore” by Acker Bilk. I’ve embedded it below. I’ll warn you, though, you may wanna put your dancing shoes on before listening to it, because Bilk’s killer clarinet definitely prefigured funk and disco and will make you wanna “boogie-oogie-oogie, till you just can’t boogie no more . . .” (as Taste of Honey, a disco band named for a Beatles song, would no doubt have described Bilk’s music):
Not saying Bilk wasn’t talented or that his vanilla offering isn’t still light years ahead of today’s overly-autotuned, pre-programmed music. And not saying all of 1962’s hit songs were this bland: Booker T & the MG’s classic “Green Onions” came in at #53 for the year, and that song definitely still holds up. But compare 1962’s most popular song to the biggest hit of 1964: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles (who also had the year’s second biggest hit with “She Loves You”). A clip from their Ed Sullivan performance on February 9, 1964 is embedded below:
Now their performance on Ed Sullivan was a watershed cultural event, heralding a profound shift in the direction of popular music, but compare what the Beatles were doing in 1964 to what they were doing a mere two years later on their wildly innovative album Revolver, with songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows”. . .
And “Eleanor Rigby” . . .
And “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which, though it was on Revolver in 1966, wasn’t released as a single until ten years later, six years after The Beatles had disbanded, yet even at that untimely date it still made the Billboard top ten (note: Earth, Wind & Fire — but not water — released their version of the song in 1978):
I watched Ron Howard’s documentary 8 Days a Week — The Touring Years, which features surprisingly sharp video footage of the band’s frenetic concerts, as well as scenes showing their playfulness offstage, their humorous exchanges with the press, and the constant chaos swirling around them in the form of their omnipresent screaming fans. All of these video and audio clips are masterfully arranged into a solid narrative arc that really draws you in and almost makes you feel like you’re there with the band on their wild ride, as they go from playing small Liverpool nightclubs to gigantic open-air stadiums in short order.
I came away from watching this film with a sense that everything about The Beatles — their meteoric rise to rock and roll stardom and the staggering scale of their success — was truly a black-swan event. Nobody from the music industry saw them coming, and none of the executives or talent scouts from the big record labels had any idea what to make of them after they hit Western culture like a category six hurricane.
There was no formula to follow: The Beatles broke every mold. They wrote their own songs. They played their own instruments, and when they got tired of the standard fare of playing guitar, bass, piano, and drums, they went looking for other instruments to learn, like the Indian sitar, which Harrison picked up from his friend Ravi Shankar. They sang all their own vocals. They turned the studio into an instrument in its own right. They experimented like nobody before or since, and pretty much everything they did worked, artistically and commercially.
And the Suits Let the Artists Lead the Music Revolution . . .
So what happened next? As far as I can tell, the record labels threw up their hands and said, “Screw it; sign ‘em all to a recording contract!” It was a golden era of opportunity, and for all anyone knew, any other rock band out there could be the next big thing. The floodgates were flung open wide, and over the next few years, a dizzying array of crazy-looking but extremely talented musicians and songwriters led the music industry. The unimaginative suits stepped back and let the artists have an unprecedented degree of latitude in the studio, and the result was the golden age of popular music in our culture.
The concept of artistic autonomy proved so successful that it spread to other genres of music, such as R&B, with Motown giving Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye the space to follow their own visions and create masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life and What’s Going On.
But Unfortunately, All Good Things Must Pass
Unfortunately — to borrow a phrase from the title of the debut solo album of George Harrison, who, incredibly, was merely the third-best songwriter in the Beatles — “All Things Must Pass.” And like all great things, this incredible artistic renaissance in popular music flourished for a time, and then it, too, passed into memory.
It didn’t happen all at once. The 70s, especially the early part of the decade, had some great music, as did the 80s. But with each passing year, it seemed the pre-Beatles model gained back more of the ground it had lost in the wake of Beatlemania. Record producers became more important, while the singers and musicians became mere instruments in the producers’ hands. This trend eventually brought us that abomination known as “Boy Bands” in the late 80s and 90s, in which the producer was everything while the “band” members were little more than stylish actors, merely playing the roles of musical entertainers. (Hey, how the hell can you call yourself a BAND when nobody in your group plays an instrument?! And yes, I know the Jackson Five were a boy band in the 70s, but I give them a pass, because, well, Michael Jackson really was a force of nature, and also because at least one of them — Tito, I think — actually played an instrument onstage.)
Eventually this also led to the phenomenon of rap, which can scarcely even be called music, and which Sam Kinison correctly analyzed in his HBO special Family Entertainment (clip embedded below) from 1991 (the problem has only gotten worse since then):
Speaking of rap, did you hear that a bunch of rap artists and mainstream country singers got together to create a new form of music called “country rap,” or, for short, “c-rap” or “crap?” (Cue the sound of a rim shot . . .)
There were occasional organic movements of musical artists willing to do their own thing, rather than whatever dreary garbage the record executives thought would sell, and every now and then those movements broke into the mainstream and shook things up — for a while, but inevitably, the empire struck back, co-opting and sterilizing and neutering these styles until they disappeared back into the mediocre mainstream of uninteresting, unimaginative garbage dumped onto the airwaves (and later the streaming platforms).
Bill Hicks theorized that Satan was also likely involved in this concerted effort by the record labels to degrade popular music:
Oh well, at least ChatGPT is busy writing synopses of hypothetical movies and getting into deadly (to it) debates with Mark Bisone, instead of writing and recording popular music, although I’m sure the demonic abomination of AI-generated popular music is coming. Although at this point, most of the popular music is so computerized and formulaic anyway, that it may as well be the product of a soulless AI program.
The last time something really interesting and innovative and good happened in any kind of big and sustained way was the Seattle sound of the early 90s. Since then, it’s just been an occasional song or artist here or there. Alecia Keys and India Arie both had pretty decent debut albums in 2001 (both also played musical instruments and wrote their own songs). Lauren Hill had a truly great album — and by that, I mean her hip-hop folk song album Unplugged, which actually was unplugged, consisting only of her voice and her acoustic guitar. Of course, the album was a commercial failure. I guess she should have known the record industry would refuse to promote a hip-hop singer’s/rapper’s album without the studio electronic wizardry, especially an album full of spiritual themes instead of the ol’ reliable “bling bling ice on muh wrists mu’fuka!” clichés.
Anyway, I suppose all that great music in the 60s and early 70s got popular music lovers spoiled, thinking that it would always be that way, that it should always be that way. Instead, I think that in music (as with most forms of popular art), top-down, mass-produced mediocrity is the historical norm, unfortunately, while all the incredible rock and roll and R&B from the 60s and 70s was a historical anomaly, a truly magical mystery tour of musical wonder. And we have The Beatles to thank for that amazing explosion of artistic excellence that defined much of popular music during that time. It was sure great while it lasted.
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P.S., let me just leave you with this video montage from The Beatles:
This article was inspired by L P Koch’s comment on a previous post in which he postulated that popular music’s downhill slide has been caused by a decline in audio engineering. I lack the technical knowledge to explore this possibility and have no experience with recording studios, but just being a music listener and reflecting on the “sounds” that typified various eras, I think Koch’s onto something. For one thing, there’s an aliveness and warmth that comes through on records from the 60s, even those with a ton of studio engineering, like Pet Sounds, Sergeant Peppers, and Electric Ladyland, that is badly missing from today’s music.