Well, my friends, it appears that the 1960s are still alive and well in the realm of music. That immensely prolific and infinitely informative decade not only left an indelible mark on the music industry, but it forever changed the perception of what popular music could be. And it could be argued that it laid the groundwork for the teenage-driven culture we live in now. It is clear that many of today’s artists are pulling heavily from the trends and styles of their parent’s generation. It may even signal a 60s music revival. What’s that? You say it’s a crackpot theory? Don’t be too quick to judge. My little presentation may just make you change your mind…
Case #1: Echoes of Motown
When speaking about major music movements in the 1960s, one of the first examples that comes to mind is Motown. What began as a little Detroit music label featuring artists from and catering to an African-American community, grew stronger and farther reaching than anyone could have expected. Famous for breaking through the barriers of race and culture, groups like The Supremes, The Temptations, and Little Stevie Wonder brought soul and rhythm & blues to mainstream (read: white) listeners across the country. American music from the late 19th through the mid-20th century is literally crawling with similar examples of music styles created by black artists, adopted by a white audience, and co-opted by a white controlled industry. But for the first time in this long history, the art of the racial music crossover experienced and benefited from new heights of commercial success the likes of which had never been possible before. And one of the best examples of the genre can be found in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. An American rhythm & blues act, they were the first group on the Motown label to achieve wide-spread success. Their song Tears of a Clown is a classic specimen of that Motown sound, and features a bouncing bass line, circus-like organs, smoothly harmonized backing vocals, and a healthy dose of tambourine. (Technically, this song came out in 1970, but close enough!)
Today’s answer to the Motown scene is unquestionably found in Fitz and the Tantrums. Characterized as a soul indie pop band from Los Angeles, they have painstakingly replicated the familiar image of bright young men in dark suits with narrow ties and sultry female backing singers in tight little (now) vintage dresses. Fronted by Michael Fitzpatrick, and joined on vocals by Noelle Scaggs, they draw heavily from the R&B influences of Detroit’s music pedigree and pull it off without sounding at all dated. Vibrant and soulful, they simultaneously pay tribute to their forebears while breathing new life into the style. The song Breaking the Chains of Love from their 2010 album Pickin’ Up the Pieces is the perfect modern example of the Motown method.
Case #2: British Invasion – Ladies Edition
My second example of a 1960s music style cropping up in today’s music is none other than the infamous British Invasion! Sure, most people when ruminating on the 1960s music scene will automatically bring up bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But did you know that there was also a female-led charge in this onslaught of English rockers? Singers like Petula Clark, Cilla Black, and Marianne Faithful all made major in-roads on the charts during this time and often created a softer and more melodic counterpoint to the often raucous sounds of their male equivalents. But one of the strongest and most enduring female artists to lead the charge was the consummate Dusty Springfield. Nicknamed the “White Queen of Soul”, she possessed an amazingly smooth and rich voice that easily handled both upbeat pop songs and classically inspired serenades alike. Her 1967 song entitled If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas) is a prime illustration of the latter category and perfectly showcases both her sonorous voice and enchanting stage presence. Incidentally, it also highlights her talent for singing in French…
The last few years have seen a renewed blitz of British sirens, and they are all channeling (sometimes quite heavily) the sounds of their 1960s ancestors. Among their ranks are artists like Duffy, Joss Stone, and the late Amy Winehouse. But when dealing with the likes of a music icon such as Dusty Springfield, only one name can stand up: Adele. I realize that I have spent time on this artist in previous entries, so I don’t want to go into too many details here. But when you view their videos back to back, the similarities are unmistakable, both in look and sound. Her tragic tale of love passed-by, entitled Someone Like You (2011), is what drives this concept home.
Case #3: The American Girl (Group) Grows Up
The last major player in early 60’s music that I will examine was affectionately known as the “girl group”. There are many examples of this phenomenon–many of them associated with Phil Spector and his “Wall of Sound”–including greats like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, and The Dixie Cups. Their songs were often pure bubblegum in subject content, but with high production values and a wholesome image, it could be said that they were some of the first female artists to be taken seriously. However, the term girl group is misleading because it was used to refer to any female artist during this time, including both ensemble and solo acts. And one of the best known solo artists of this genre has got to be Leslie Gore. Famous for the song It’s My Party and its follow-up Judy’s Turn to Cry (1963), Gore cranked out hit after hit in the States from 1963-68. She was so popular that occasionally she was given songs that reached beyond the usual fluff of the era. 1964’s You Don’t Own Me–with its defiant feminist tone–being the most obvious exemplar. But here I will focus on something from the middle of her range, not quite pre-teen cotton candy but far from the independence anthem. Here is her song (also from 1964) called That’s the Way Boys Are.
The perfect contemporary answer to Leslie Gore is Best Coast, an indie band hailing from Los Angeles and fronted by former child actress Bethany Cosentino. Sporting a tinny sound filled with echoes and over-dubbed backing vocals (that inevitably reminds me of The Beach Boys), their songs focus on the pitfalls of dysfunctional relationships–both timeless and novel. The subject matter is often more mature than the classic themes girl groups generally dealt with (including friends-with-benefits and casual drug use) and as a result the traditional image of the girl-next-door is a bit tarnished. But the themes of devotion, jealousy, longing, and angst are all present and accounted for. To make my comparison even easier, Best Coast actually covered Gore’s That’s the Way Boys Are.
It can not be denied that forty years on the music of the 1960s is still actively shaping and inspiring today’s artists and industry. Obviously, the popular music scene was more faceted than is reflected in this blog post and included psychedelia, folk, surf, progressive, and beat groups (aka the male face of the British Invasion). But I get the feeling there are probably bands out there currently working to keep those flames alive as well. And if there are… Well for starters, I won’t just be a crackpot…
Have you found echoes of the 1960s in a current band? Do you have a favorite retro band?