The Sixties: rock and roll's most pivotal decade
by Victoria Disque


Rock and roll was dying. Elvis joined the Army, Little Richard found religion, and Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin, putting an everlasting dark mark on his career. Apathetic balladeers like Bobby Darin and Fabian filled the airwaves. It seemed as if the exciting music of the ‘50s was finished. Then in 1964, the stars aligned and the Earth shifted and four gods of music landed in America, bringing with them endless rock and roll possibilities. The Beatles were just the beginning of a very pivotal musical revolution. In this decade, rock and roll music would split off into several subgenres, including Motown, surfer music, protest folk, and psychedelic rock. The decade’s biggest singers, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan would transform music into art rather than just entertainment. The 1960s were arguably the most critical, revolutionary, and, I will say it, bloody awesome years music has ever seen.

            Until 1964, singers did not write their own music, so it was shocking when four adorable “mop tops” from Liverpool, England, hopped on a plane to America that year and showed the entire country, and the world, what they were missing. The Beatles used the same basic layout that Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard had structured and then turned it on its ear. Unlike these singers, the Beatles wrote their own songs. They created the catchiest hooks (particularly in “She Loves You”—yeah, yeah, yeah), formed unique sounds with unfamiliar instruments (for example, the harmonica in “Love Me Do”) and transformed rock forever. Not only did they fashion music that could be danced to, they turned music into conceptual art (Galenson). 

Following in the Beatles footsteps, many Brits found themselves venturing across the Atlantic, hoping to make their marks. The Animals, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark, and Dusty Springfield were just a few of many acts that hit it big in the US. Several British artists aided in the evolution of not only rock, but music in general, particularly the Animals. The Animals were one of the first bands to use new technological instruments to their advantage. Mainly, they put the guitars in the background and the electronic keyboard in the driver’s seat ("100 Greatest Moments"). This created a synthesized, almost organ-like sound that would inspire countless artists to come, from the Doors to Timbaland. Like the Beatles, their songs were deep and full of substance. For example, their most popular hit to date, “House of the Rising Sun,” was about young boys being lured into a brothel.

            For listeners who did not want such multilayered songs to listen to, surfer music was the way to go. In the early 1960s, rock and roll turned beachy. The Beach Boys and the Sufaris were two “surf” bands that helped kick start the division of rock and roll into several different subgenres. The Beach Boys gained deserved fame by combining a Southern California sound with uncanny vocal harmonies. They mainly sang about cars, girls, and, wait for it, surfing ("100 Greatest Moments"). They showed that even though music was going through a new meaningful change, their music could go in a different direction and still be relevant. The Sufaris followed the Beach Boys lead, producing what is probably the most famous “surf” song of all time: “Wipeout.” Though this song had no words, it infected teenagers with dance fever.

            The 1960s were not all sunshine and surfing however. By 1966, teens were angry and confused. The war in Vietnam had started and thousands of young men were drafted to fight in a war they did not believe in. Enter protest folk music. This music was much slower than the music produced in the early ‘60s. It promoted peace and understanding. Most of the people who listened to this kind of music were hippies. The forefather of this musical genre was Bob Dylan. He claimed that he had too many thoughts built up and did not know any other way of expressing them (Galenson). His song “Blowing in the Wind” encouraged non-violence and asked how much killing had to go on before the world figured out that war was not the answer. If Bob Dylan was the king of the protest genre, then Joan Baez was the queen. She turned music into activism. She, along with Dylan, brought folk music to national distinction.

            Let us not forget one of the biggest forms of rock and roll to come out of the ‘60s: Motown. Motown was created with the intent to be the “black” rock and roll that white people could listen to. This type of music mixed rhythm and blues with soul and pop rock. Produced mainly in Detroit, Motown was the wrecking ball that broke down the wall of musical segregation. No longer were blacks limited to “Negro” stations. With ground breakers like James Brown and Little Richard, black artists were quickly gaining on white artists’ popularity ("Music Played"). Earlier Motown artists like Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, and Mary Wells paved the way for artists and bands that are still ubiquitous today such as the Temptations, Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Why, without Motown, who knows if we would have Beyonces and Ushers or even rap and hip hop today?

            Last but not least, in the late 1960s, a new form of rock and roll was being cooked up: psychedelia. Sounds like a made up word, right? This type of music was hard-rocking, contained lyrics that did not make a shred of sense, and was best experienced while being in a drug-induced stupor. Most of the songs that formed from this genre were inspired by Middle Eastern culture. Psychedelic rock encouraged one’s mind to escape and bridged the gap between rock and roll and the hard and glam rock subgenres that would become customary in the ‘70s. Groundbreakers in this type of rock were the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Even the Beatles stuck their feet in this pond (Lazarescu). 

            As you can see, it is hard to dispute the fact that the 1960s were the best years of rock and roll, if not music in general. It evolved so rapidly that no matter how old the music, it is hard to not like at least one subgenre of ‘60s rock. For those of you out there thinking, “Wanna bet?” consider that had it not been for this particular decade of rock, we might not be listening to several of today’s artists. 1960s’ rockers laid the bricks that Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna are skipping on, and we should thank them for that.


British Invasion Rock

Surfer music

Protest folk


Psychedelic rock

Works Cited

"100 Greatest Moments in Rock Music: The '60s. 28 May 1999. 6 May 2010.,,273502,00.html

"Music Played in the 1960's Popular Music From the '60s." 2009. 6 May 2010.

Galenson, David W. Historical Methods (Academic Search Premier). 6 May 2010

Lazarescu, Vladimir. The Beatles Music History. 15 Sept. 2008. 6 May 2010.