Late 1960s rock music plus social and political background notes

by James K. Sayre

Background sketch:

For those of you under age 45 years, you probably don't remember the late 1960s scene. First, try to imagine a world without personal computers, cell phones, Email, the Internet, VCRs, CDs or 24-hour satellite television news. For the Vietnam War, substitute the current U. S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Beatnik and Bohemian roots

The Beatnik and Bohemian roots of 1960's protest, activism and social change. There has always been a continuous thread of alternative culture in America. From the solitary writings, living and protests of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-19th century to the Dada art movements in the 1920s and the social and political protests during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a small community of alternative culture has always existed. This evolved into the Bohemian movements and then the Beatniks of the 1950s. These activities typically flourished in some of the larger cities and around large universities, mostly on the east and west coasts of United States.

The War in Vietnam:

America was deeply involved with waging a neo-colonial war of imperialism in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The French had withdrawn from Vietnam in 1956, but the Americans decided that they had to fight "international communism" although they were unwilling to directly attack the two large communist powers, Red China and the Soviet Union. This American war was not supported by the British, the French or any other European governments. Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became President after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, initiated a strong escalation of the American involvement in Vietnam in 1965. These actions were approved bu almost every Senator after the phony Johnson Administration reports of North Vietnamese ships firing upon U. S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam. Things went downhill rapidly after that.

The Civil Rights movement and folk singers:

In the United States, the black civil rights movement had slowly been picking up steam in the early 1960s, with a series of sit-in demonstrations, pickets and boycotts. Change was in the air. Folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were leading and supporting this growing movement.

Mainstream media/alternative media:

The newspapers and television stations were generally supportive of the growing Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, they were also very supportive of President Lyndon Johnson's rapidly escalating commitments of men and material into the Vietnam War. This war support gave rise to the counterculture's "underground" small weekly newspapers, which sprouted up in most major American cities and in many college communities as well. These ranged from The Berkeley Barb in Berkeley, California to the Village Voice in New York City.


Traditional establishment drugs of choice included Coffee and Tea (caffeine), Tobacco (nicotine) and beer, wine and hard liquor (alcohol). The new counterculture hippie movement began (or continued the Beats use of) marijuana. Psychedelic drugs were also tried by some including mescaline, psilocybin and LSD.

Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n Roll Music.

To complete the new scene, loud rock 'n Roll music came, saw and conquered.

A Sampler of Rock 'n Roll Music.of the late 1960s:

album names are in italics and song names are in "Quotes."


The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George and Ringo Starr) - the Beatles were the heart of the creative English rock and pop music scene in the late 1960s.

The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, et al) - began in the early 60s doing covers of early Black American southern rhythm and blues songs; they rapidly evolved into a world famous rock band and wrote their own great original material. Still playing some forty years later.

The Pink Floyd - amazing guitar, bass and keyboard music. Produced many great albums including The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets. Songs included "See Emily Play," "Astronomy Dominé," "Intersteller Overdrive" and "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun."

Cream - brilliant driving rock band that featured Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums. Three men that could bring down the house. Their double album, Wheels of Fire, featured such songs as "White Room," "Down at the Crossroads" and "Toad."

Bonzo Dog Doh Dah Band - an obscure art/weirdo band that did some great covers of songs of others and also created some great music of their own. Their Tapoles album features such bizarre songs such as "Shirt,'"Tubas in the Moonlight," "Ali-Baba's Camel," and "Mr. Apollo." the Keynsham album featured "You Done My Brain In," "We Were Wrong," and "Mr. Slater's Parrot." Some Bonzo band members worked in the alternative television group Monty Python's Flying Circus.



Bob Dylan - began in the early 60s as a folk/protest singer; but in the mid 60s he switched into rock, much to the horror of his many "folkie" fans. He wrote, played and sang some truly amazing music and become one of the great influences of the age.

The Grateful Dead led by Jerry Garcia. Originally formed as the Warlocks in Palo Alto, California, in the early 60s. By the mid 60s they had moved to San Francisco, California, and had become the Grateful Dead. They had an original soaring beautiful kind of rock music, and had fans all over the Western world. They soon developed a hippie camp following, folks that followed their concert tours and whose young lives centered around dancing to their music.

The Doors (featuring the singing of Iim Morrison) - their first album, The Doors, was and still is truly amazing. It featured such songs as "Break on Through," "Soul Kitchen," "Light my Fire" and "The End."

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention - from Los Angeles (LA), California - Frank Zappa was an oddity in the world of rock 'n roll: he was a serious musician with a strong background in classical music and jazz. Created much bizarre and interesting music, heavy on social and political satire. Later, became simply The Mothers. Some albums include Freak Out, Absolutely Free, Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets.

Jimi Hendrix Experience (featuring (naturally) Jimi Hendrix) - a superb electric guitar player and musician. Burned out rapidly on early fame. Albums included Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland. Check out the classic Hendrix versions of the "Star-spangled Banner."

Jefferson Airplane - one of the early San Francisco bands. Check out their brilliant Surrealistic Pillow album with the "White Rabbit" song.

Butterfield Blues Band - Their album, East-West features the great long song, "East-West". You haven't lived until you've heard it.

The Thirteenth Floor Elevators - a brief and brilliant psychedelic band from Texas. Must be heard to be believed. Songs on their The Thirteenth Floor Elevators album included "You Don't Know How Young You Are," "Reverberation" and "Don't Fall Down."

The Velvet Underground (featuring Lou Reed). a brilliant edgy New York City band. "I'm Waiting for my Man" First album featured Nico, a girl singer and was produced by Andy Warhol, the pop-art diva.

The Fugs - another very gritty New York City group of beat poets, hipsters and social malcontents. Brilliant songs. "Kill for Peace" "River of Shit" and "Slum Goddess." The latter song gave rise to picture photos of attractive, young "Slum goddesses" in the weekly East Village Other, New York City's leading alternative newspaper.


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Web page last updated on 21 February 2005.