Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Rock & Roll of the 60s

For a long and unforgettable season, rock was a voice of unity and liberty

George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn and Bob Dylan.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage
August 23, 1990

In the 1950s, rock & roll meant disruption: It was the clamor of young people, kicking hard against the Eisenhower era's ethos of vapid repression. By the onset of the 1960s, that spirit had been largely tamed or simply impeded by numerous misfortunes, including the film and army careers of Elvis Presley, the death of Buddy Holly, the blacklisting of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and the persecution of DJ Alan Freed, who had been stigmatized by payola charges by Tin Pan Alley interests and politicians angered with his championing of R&B and rock & roll. In 1960, the music of Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, Connie Francis and Mitch Miller (an avowed enemy of rock & roll) ruled the airwaves and the record charts, giving some observers the notion that decency and order had returned to the popular mainstream. But within a few years, rock would regain its disruptive power with a joyful vengeance until, by the decade's end, it would be seen as a genuine force of cultural and political consequence. For a long and unforgettable season, it was a truism — or threat, depending on your point of view — that rock & roll could (and should) make a difference: that it was eloquent and inspiring and principled enough to change the world — maybe even to save it.

How did such a dramatic development take place? How did rock & roll come to be seen as such a potent voice for cultural revolution?

In part, of course, it was simply a confluence of auspicious conditions and ambitious prodigies that broke things open. Or, if you prefer a more romantic and mythic view, you could say that rock & roll set something loose in the 1950s — a spirit of cultural abandon — that could not be stopped or refused, and you might even be right. Certainly, rock & roll had demonstrated that it was capable of inspiring massive generational and social ferment and that its rise could even have far-reaching political consequences. This isn't to say that enjoying Presley or rock & roll was the same as subscribing to liberal politics, nor is it to suggest that the heroism of R&B and rock musicians was equal to that of civil-rights campaigners like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks, who paid through pain, humiliation and blood for their courage. But rock & roll did present black musical forms — and consequently, black sensibilities and black causes — to a wider (and whiter) audience than ever before, and as a result, it drove a fierce, threatening wedge into the heart of the American musical mainstream.

By the 1960s — as the sapless Eisenhower years were ending and the brief, lusty Kennedy era was forming — a new generation was coming of age. The parents of this generation had worked and fought for ideals of peace, security and affluence, and they expected their children not only to appreciate and benefit from this bequest but also to affirm and extend their prosperous new world. But the older generation was also passing on legacies of fear and some unpaid debts — anxieties about nuclear obliteration and leftist ideologies and sins of racial violence — and in the push to stability, priceless ideals of equality and justice had been compromised, even lost. Consequently, the children of this age — who would forever be dubbed the baby-boom generation — were beginning to question the morality and politics of postwar America, and some of their musical tastes began to reflect this unrest. In particular, folk music (which had been driven underground in the 1950s by conservative forces) was now enjoying a popular resurgence. Under the influence of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, folk was turning more politically explicit, becoming increasingly identified with civil rights and pacifism, among other causes. But it was in the nasal-toned, rail-thin young Bob Dylan — who had moved from Minnesota to New York to assume the legacy of Woody Guthrie — that folk found its greatest hope: a remarkably prolific songwriter who was giving a forceful and articulate voice to the apprehensions and ideals of the emerging restless generation. With "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" in 1963, Dylan penned songs about racial suffering and the threat of nuclear apocalypse that immediately acquired the status of anthems, and with "The Times They Are a-Changin' " in early 1964, he wrote an apt and chilling decree of the rising tensions of the coming era. "Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land," he sang in a voice young with anger and old with knowledge. "And don't criticize/What you can't understand/ Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/Your old road is/Rapidly agin'/Please get out of the new one/If you can't lend your hand/For the times they are a-changin'."

But for all its egalitarian ideals, folk was a music of past and largely spent traditions. As such, it was also the medium for an alliance of politicos and intelligentsia that viewed a teen-rooted mass-entertainment form like rock & roll with derision. The new generation had not yet found a style or a standard-bearer that could tap the temper of the times in the same way that Presley and rockabilly had in the 1950s.

When rock & roll's rejuvenation came, it was from a place small, unlikely and far away. Indeed, in the early 1960s, Liverpool, England, was a fading port town that had slid from grandeur to dilapidation during the postwar era, and it was viewed by snobbish Londoners as a demeaned place of outsiders. But one thing Liverpool had was a brimming pop scene, made up of bands playing tough and exuberant blues-and R&B-informed rock & roll, and in December 1962, the city's most popular group, a four-piece ensemble called the Beatles, broke into Britain's Top Forty with a folkish rock song, "Love Me Do." There was little about the single that heralded greatness — the group's leaders, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, weren't yet distinguished songwriters — but nonetheless the song began a momentum that would forever shatter the American grip on the U.K. pop charts.

In many ways, Britain was as ripe for a pop cataclysm as America had been for Presley during the ennui after world war. In England — catching the reverberations of not just Presley but of the jazz milieu of Miles Davis and Jack Kerouac — the youth scene had acquired the status of a mammoth subcultural class, which was the byproduct of a postwar population top-heavy with people under the age of eighteen. For those people, pop music denoted more than preferred entertainment or even stylistic rebellion, it signified the idea of autonomous society. British teenagers weren't just rejecting their parents' values — they were superseding them, though they were also acting out their eminence in American terms — in the music of Presley and rockabilly, in blues and jazz tradition.

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