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

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Combined, the Beatles and Dylan had a seismic effect on popular music and youth culture. They changed the soundscape and ambition of rock & roll in thorough and irrevocable ways that, a quarter-century later, still carry tremendous influence. They also had a sizable impact on each other. The Beatles opened up new possibilities in style and consensus; without their headway, Dylan probably would never have conceived "Like a Rolling Stone," much less enjoyed a smash hit with it. But if the Beatles opened up a new audience, Dylan determined what could be done with that consensus, what could be said to that audience. His mid-1960s work single-handedly reinvented pop's known rules of language and meaning and revealed that rock & roll's familiar structures could accommodate new, unfamiliar themes, that a pop song could be about any subject a writer was smart or daring enough to tackle. Without this crucial assertion, it is inconceivable that the Beatles would have gone on to write "Nowhere Man," "Eleanor Rigby," "Paperback Writer," "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "A Day in the Life," or even that the Rolling Stones would have written the decade's toughest riff and most taunting and libidinous declaration: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

Dylan also influenced the Beatles in two other important respects. For one thing, he was reportedly the person who introduced them to drugs (marijuana, specifically), during his 1964 tour of England. This brand of experimentation would gradually affect not only the Beatles' musical and lyrical perspectives but also the perspectives of an entire generation. Indeed, in the mid-1960s, drug use became increasingly identified with rock culture — though it certainly wasn't the first time drugs had been extolled as recreation or sacrament, or exploited for artistic inspiration. Many jazz and blues musicians (and truth be known, numerous country & western artists) had been using marijuana and narcotics to enhance their improvisational bents for several decades, and in the 1950s, the Beats had brandished dope as another badge of nonconformism. But with 1960s rock, as drugs crossed over from the hip underground (and from research laboratories), stony references became more overt and more mainstream than ever before. Getting high started being seen as a way of understanding deeper truths and sometimes as a way of deciphering coded pop songs (or simply enjoying the palpable aural sensations of the music). Just as important, getting stoned was a way of participating in private, forbidden experiences — as a means of staking out a consciousness apart from that of the "straight world." Along with music and politics, drugs were seen as an agency for a better world, or at least a shortcut to enlightenment or transcendence. And though the Beatles would stay demure on the subject for another year or two, by 1965 hip kids and angry authorities were already citing various Dylan and Rolling Stones songs for what were perceived as their "druggy" meanings. "Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" were among the singles targeted by conservative critics.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

The other thing Dylan did for the Beatles was help politicize them (in fact, he helped politicize a vast segment of rock culture), inspiring the group to accept its popularity as an opportunity to define and speak to a vital youth constituency. More and more, Lennon and McCartney's music — and rock at large — became a medium for addressing the issues and events that affected that generation.

This interplay between Dylan and the Beatles was one of the central dynamics of mid-1960s rock, but it didn't make for the bulk of the action. Some of the most pleasurable and enduring music of the period was being made by the monumental black-run Detroit label, Motown — which by 1965 alone had scored over two dozen Top Ten hits by such artists as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas and Mary Wells. By contrast, a grittier brand of the new soul sensibility was being defined by Memphis-based artists on the Volt, Stax and Atlantic labels, like Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, William Bell and, most memorably, Otis Redding. In other words, black forms remained vital to rock and pop's growth (in fact, R&B's codes, styles and spirit had long served as models for white pop and teen rebellion). And as racial struggles continued through the decade, soul — as well as the best jazz from artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Sonny Rollins — increasingly expressed black culture's developing views of pride, identity, history and power. By 1967, when Aretha Franklin scored a massive hit with a cover of Otis Redding's "Respect," black pop signified ideals of racial pride and feminist valor that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.

Yet perhaps the greatest triumph of the time was simply that all these riches — white invention and black genius — played alongside one another in a radio marketplace that was more open than it had ever been before (or would ever be again) for a shared audience that revered it all. Just how heady and diverse the scene was came across powerfully in the 1965 film The T.A.M.I. Show — a greatest-hits pop revue that in its remarkable stylistic and racial broad-mindedness anticipated the would-be catholic spirit that later characterized the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals. For those few hours of The T.A.M.I. Show, as artists like the Supremes, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Jan and Dean, James Brown and the Rolling Stones stood alongside one another onstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, rock & roll looked and felt like a dizzying, rich, complex and joyous community in which any celebration or redemption was possible.

In many ways, this longing for community — the dream of self-willed equity and harmony, or at least tolerant pluralism in a world where familiar notions of family and accord were breaking down — would haunt rock's most meaningful moments for the remainder of the decade. Unfortunately, the same forces that deepened and expanded music's social-mindedness were also the forces that would contribute to the dissolution of the dream. In 1965, after waging the most successful "peace" campaign in America's electoral history, President Lyndon B. Johnson began actively committing American troops to a highly controversial military action in Vietnam, and it quickly became apparent that it was the young who would pay the bloodiest costs for this lamentable war effort. Sixties rock had given young people a sense that they possessed not just a new identity, but a new empowerment. Now Vietnam began to teach that same audience that it was at risk, that its government and parents would willingly sacrifice young lives for old fears and distant threats — and would even use war as a means of diffusing youth's sovereignty. The contrast between those two realizations — between power and peril, between joy and fear — became the central tension that defined the late-1960s youth culture, and as rock increasingly reflected that tension, it also began forming oppositions to the jeopardy.

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