The decade began innocently with the Beach Boys, The Beatles and the British invasion and ended with Hard Rock from Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Steppenwolf. Solos kept getting longer with the Iron Butterfly putting a capper on it with their 17-minute epic, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
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The Beatles sit right at the center of the 1960s music scene… and rightful so. After spending years playing gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney honing their songwriting skills, they stormed Britain before taking their act worldwide. In the U.S. they owned the charts in the spring of 1964.
They also opened the doors for fellow countrymen: the Rolling Stones (“I Can’t Get No ‘Satisfaction’,” the Animals (“House Of The Rising Sun”) and Yardbirds (Shapes Of Things”). A lot of second-rate acts crossed the Atlantic riding only on the strength of being British. But the Brits usually presented themselves admirably.
The Beach Boys, who had been America’s top band, with songs about cars and surfing looked dated as Dion (with or without the Belmont’s), Leslie Gore or even Brenda Lee. Roy Orbison was one of the few American acts to have a #1 hit in 1964. But the success of “Pretty Woman” was short-lived.
A second generation led by The Who (“I Can See For Miles”), Cream with ex-Yardbirds guitarist Eric Clapton (“Crossroads”) and Led Zeppelin featuring guitarist Jimmy Page, another Yardbirds alum. A telling point was that one of the best, if not the best, guitarists in the U.S. went to London to become a Rock star. Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix (“Purple Haze”) did nothing short of re-inventing guitar playing. Always an innovator he was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the mid-60s there was a cultural shift taking place in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District. Several bands emerged from the hippie haze.
Most notable were Jefferson Airplane (“White Rabbit”) fronted by singer Grace Slick, Big Brother & The Holding Company (“Piece Of My Heart”) with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead (“Trucking’”).
Outside the City by the Bay Blue Cheer made their mark blowing up Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and coming dangerously close to Heavy Metal. The Electric Prunes scored with the psychedelic soaked “Too Much To Dream.” From the east coast Vanilla Fudge took pop songs and slowed them way down delivering heavy handed covers. In England, Deep Purple started down the same road before they opted for Hard Rock.
Then there was the Iron Butterfly whose claim to fame is a seventeen-minute opus “In-A-Gaddi-Da-Vida” which extended guitar and organ solos… plus Ron Bush’s innovative drum solo.
It was said that Led Zeppelin dumbed down the Blues. If that’s true Grand Funk Railroad dumbed down Led Zeppelin. Guitarist/vocalist Mark Farner could get more out of a single riff than anybody else. To Farner’s credit he was an expressive performer but radio ignored the band. Even so, they sold millions of albums.
The Psychedelic vein merged with Garage Rock to produce Hard Rock, a sound with power and urgency. One of the first to hit was The Doors (“Light My Fire”) followed by Steppenwolf (“Born To Be Wild”) and Deep Purple (“Hush”). As the decade ended, Led Zeppelin released its debut album (“Led Zeppelin I”). Hard Rock was in accession… but it wouldn’t last. Heavy Metal was just around the corner.