This week in rock history, Joan Baez headlined the inaugural Monterey Folk Festival, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece, Elton John toured the USSR, boy-band mogul Lou Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison and metal god Ronnie James Dio passed away.
May 17, 1963: Joan Baez headlines the first Monterey Folk Festival
The tiny, idyllic Northern California town of Monterey was once the stomping ground for Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and many more of the most influential singer-songwriters of their generation. Without the Monterey Folk Festival, the modern rock fest may never have come to fruition. The inaugural event was just brazen enough to work – it spanned three days at the county fairgrounds in Monterey and was headlined by Baez. The lineup also boasted Dylan’s West Coast debut, though when it came to the billing, "folk" was a bit of a misnomer. Protest folk was proving increasingly popular by the spring of 1963 — a trend Dylan capitalized on during his set with a legendary take on “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” his frustrated eulogy of racial politics and the murder of black civil rights advocate Medgar Evers — but blues and gospel artists also factored heavily into the Monterey bill. Performers included Peter Paul & Mary, Mance Lipscomb, the New Lost City Ramblers and the Greenbriar Boys, among others. In 1967, the Monterey Folk Festival was replaced by the Monterey Pop Festival, the bacchanalian rock camp meeting that properly introduced the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who and Janis Joplin to American audiences. It served as a major template for all festivals to come.
May 16, 1966: The Beach Boys release Pet Sounds
Not many American rock bands survived the mop-topped hordes of the 1964 British Invasion, but the Beach Boys endured — perhaps they knew presciently that their masterpiece was soon to come. It arrived in 1966, while America was still in the thrall of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and was met by many dubious ears, including those in the band: When group mastermind Brian Wilson played rough cuts of the songs, singer Mike Love derided them as music for dogs, inadvertently inspiring the title. Pet Sounds was a glorious, heart-rending experience, one miles away from the SoCal surf dudes’ previous happy-go-lucky pop. In somber, rich symphonics, Wilson exposed the deep pain of growing up, confessing his conflict wistfully in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “Caroline, No.” Yet he conveyed wonderment, his true gift, in the swoon of “God Only Knows” and “You Still Believe in Me” — and, in doing so, captured the timeless complexity of living romantically. Despite initially lackluster sales, Pet Sounds has since been embraced as the Beach Boys’ most enduring and acclaimed record. However, a few fans recognized the genius of the record instantly: The Beatles cited it as the inspiration for their own magnum opus, 1967's Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the lone record to top Pet Sounds in Rolling Stone’s "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list.
May 21, 1979: Elton John starts an eight-date tour of Russia
Three years after Elton John announced his retirement from the road, he reversed it with an unprecedented move: an eight-date tour of the Soviet Union, making him the first solo Western rock artist ever to tour the then-USSR. The decision followed a creative nadir for John: After releasing a string of successful albums in the Seventies (especially 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and 1974’s Caribou), his 1978 offering, A Single Man, charted poorly in the States and sold under expectations. John’s tour of the USSR was a sensation in the international press and a needed boost to his flagging year. It inspired a tour documentary, To Russia With Elton, and his performance at the Rossya Hall in Moscow was broadcast live on BBC Radio One back home in England. He was accompanied by percussionist Ray Cooper, another popular British draw; their performances were allegedly attended mostly by Communist Party members instead of the general citizenry of Russia, which John expressed dismay over when he returned to the U.K., but the concerts were a groundbreaking move nonetheless.
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