The 1960's were a time of political and social upheaval. There were assassinations of those who promised peace, the calm suburbia was transformed into a bee's hive of protest on such issues as the civil rights movement and the ever more important Vietnam War, the strapping young straight A, all American football player of the 50's gave way to the unkempt, dirty, yet liberated hippie movement of the west coast. Instead of the flag waving Americans that agreed with the country right or wrong, people woke up to the situations around them and questioned American life and American values all together. Change is the only way to describe these ten volatile years in American history.
However more than just the political and social lifestyle was changing in the 60's. Entertainment was also evolving to fit a new way of life, not just in America but all over the world. Movies were becoming more sexually explicit, the language was becoming more vulgar and movies were becoming more violent in a way to reflect the reality of life. Music too would begin to change, however not until after 1965, into a more artistic form. Songs would no longer be like those of the 1950's as far as sound or content. Elvis Presley was no longer as popular as he once was since being drafted in 1957, and rock 'n roll in general was being questioned as having true staying power. However, in 1964 rock got what it had always been waiting for when four boys from London made it big.
The Beatles Open he Door
By February of 1964 America was still coping with the loss of its beloved president John Kennedy. Their hope for the future was like glass and Lee Harvey Oswald shattered it with three bullets. Now they were left to pick up the pieces, reassemble them and try to feel whole again. Nearly three months had passed and they were still looking for that something to help them get past the tragedy that lowered American moral so much. That same month, Americans got what they wanted, however it came from a very unlikely source. And that unlikely source was the Beatles.
The Beatles were four middle class boys from Liverpool, England who swept the youth of America off their feet. Girls knew who they thought were the cutest and the guys knew who they looked liked the most. The Beatles are important because they were the first British group to ever hit it big in the States. It seems like whatever song they released went number one on the charts and stayed there for two month chunks at a time. Merchandise was selling off the shelves as well. As long as something had the Beatles logo, signature, face, or likeness, it sold off the shelves faster than the stores could keep them stocked. They were a pop rock and cultural phenomenon. The Beatles also signaled the end of the greaser rock of the 1950's such as Elvis Presley (whom, after the Beatles, never had a number one hit until 1969) and signaled the beginning of the British Invasion or Mod Rock Mod was a movement in Britain that uses an emphasis on fashion, dance, American R&B, scooters, and the use of amphetamines. When the Beatles made it big in America they opened the door to a slew of British Mod bands. The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Small Faces, and the Who (Mod).
The most influential of these bands is the latter. The Who are one of the most influential bands and have been for generations because of their bigger sound that they introduced to rock music, their thoughtful, creative, and artistic lyrics and concepts, and the aggression, anger, and feeling they processed about their music. Once the Who made it big, the rules of rock had changed.
Crack, Boom, Bang
The nineteen fifties were very primitive as far as recording equipment went. The thousand dollar sound control system with millions (so it seemed) of multicolored buttons and knobs was still very far away. The instruments were very primitive as well. Acoustic guitars had to be recorded through a microphone by the sound hole instead of being recorded through an amp. Bass instruments were still the standard jazz bass that was played while standing up that too had to record through a microphone that was placed very close to it. And the drums were still simplistic as ever. Most drum sets consisted of only a snare drum, a floor tom, a tom-tom, and a seldom used base drum. The cymbals consisted of the high hat, a crash, and a ride cymbal. This was the standard drum set used ever since the jazz age in the 1920's. Pianos were still a prominent instrument during the fifties because early guitar parts for rock songs were based around the piano. The most famous of these artists were Jerry Lee Lewis, with his hit song Great Balls Of Fire.
As far as music went with the nineteen fifties, it was all the same. Bass and drums were to keep beat, guitar to play a little lead but was still competing with the piano for the best suited instrument for rock. The lyrics were all the same message about girls, love, or heartache. The two biggest artists of the fifties, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley, are the perfect description for what was just stated in the last few lines. Ricky Nelson had such hits as I'm Walkin' and Elvis had Heartbreak Hotel, Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear, and Big Hunk O' Love. All are about love, missing their baby, or wanting to be someone's baby.
This formula stayed pretty much the same on into the nineteen sixties. Even the Beatles kept to this tried and true formula of hit making. True they did use electric guitars, and electric bass and were one of the first to popularize it. However the Beatle's early work such as Love Me Do and I Want To Hold Your Hand were simple love songs no longer than two and a half minuets with light drums, little bass, and paper thin guitar riffs. The songs were still about love, wanting to be loved, or to be able to love somebody. There was no bottom to the music. Everything had a light poppy surface, but beneath it there really was nothing much else to get into.
The Who were the first to really change all of that. They were one of the first groups to start using big equipment, bigger sounds, and have a bigger message in their music. Keith Moon revolutionized the drum set entirely. Drums were meant only to keep the beat and to be in the background with simple fills and riffs in a four-four time signature. However Keith was never truly trained on drums and really didn't know how to play. He just sat behind his kit hitting whatever sounded good at the time. Only he didn't just play the drums, he smashed them. He played with such power that when Keith first tried out for the Who, the other three members couldn't believe what they were seeing. They were blown away by the sight of this kid blasting away like a mad man. (Fletcher 79). And Keith did more than just play loud. He got bigger drums, and bigger cymbals. And by 1976, Keith Moon had the largest drum set in the world.
To try and equal Keith's massive wall of sound bass player, John Entwistle, brought bass to the fore front of rock music. Bass too was known just to be a simple instrument to keep rhythm for the guitar. However John Entwistle did the exact opposite. He played tight, fast, high pitched notes that would be like another lead instrument. The best examples of this are on the songs, Substitute and The Real Me. Perhaps the biggest influence of John Entwistle isn't in a song, but on the stage. Entwistle was the first person to use the now infamous Marshall cabinet amps. He first started using them so that he could hear himself over the crashing drums of Keith. So when most bands were using fifty to one hundred watts for an amp. John, and later Pete Townshend, were using two hundred watts (The Who 2).
Pete Townshend was the educated one of the Who. He was the chief songwriter and architect for the band as well. He also pioneered the use of power chords which became the basis of rock 'n roll even to this day. Pete is also important for his songwriting; however that will come later in this paper.
The last member of the Who that has not yet been mentioned is Roger Daltrey. Roger Daltrey stood out as one of the first rock 'n roll voices. When you heard his voice, you knew who it was that was singing. No one had a voice like him. In the nineteen sixties, his voice was a rugged, yet quiet crooning. However in the nineteen seventies, his voice had grown into a mighty roar that only Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin could compete with. He was a god on stage with his long, curly blonde hair, strapping muscles and chest that he showed through a buckskin vest on stage. Daltrey was the first rock 'n roll front man that would later be used as a model by all rock 'n roll singers.
Not only were their instruments more elaborate but their songs had a bigger sound compared to other artists at the time. I Can't Explain was their first major charting record in Britain. It is important for its fast paced guitar riffs with a tinge of distortion that was just coming into being. Bass is prevalent the second that it comes into the song at .04. And the drums were almost used as if they weren't meant to keep time. Compared to Ringo Star of the Beatles, Keith Moon seems as if he has no idea was he's doing. True his drums weren't as complex as they would later be, however Keith's drumming added a wall of sound never heard from a drum set on record. The lyrics are not romantic in anyway like those of the 1950's or even like those of the early Beatle's songs. I Can't Explain is about disillusioned teenagers who can't explain what they can't explain. (Flectcher 119)
However the most important music ever made by the Who as far as their sound went was in the 1970's. Especially in the year 1971 when they released the album Who's Next. Pete Townshend held a news conference at the Young Vic Theater in Waterloo on January 13th of 1971 to give information about the Lifehouse Project that was to be a world changing event in rock history. Not only would the project be an album, but it would be a movie as well that involved audience participation. The project told the rough story about a futuristic totalitarian society in which all rock music was banned. Yet the people of society somehow get a hold of rock music and they use it to destroy the government and find freedom in the lyrics of their music (Fletcher 300). But when Pete Townshend tried to explain the story, no one understood what he was talking about. Not even other members of his band knew the storyline or how the movie would even be pulled off since it didn't have a script. Needless to say, Lifehosue was doomed from the start and it failed miserably. Pete Townshend reluctantly let the project go and tried to salvage some material that was left.
And out of the salvaging came one of the greatest and most pioneering albums of the nineteen seventies. Who's Next was released in the summer of 1971 to rave reviews from critics and fans. It has stood the test of time as one of the greatest albums to ever be released; as well as being one of the greatest classic rock albums of rock's most creative era. The songs were all from the Lifehouse project, except for a song written and sung by John Entwistle. If you pay close attention to the lyrics you can somewhat pick out a rough story line for the album. But Who's Next is still considered an album full of non connected songs.
However, the most endearing influence from the album is the use of synthesizers. Now, synthesizers are almost common place in music. However, in 1971 the Who were taking one of the biggest risks of their career. There were feelings of being rejected by their core audience, there was fear that even if the synthesizers worked, the songs could be obsolete should better sounding synthesizers come into being (Fletcher 303).
Thankfully none of this happened. The two most notable songs on the album, Baba O' Riley and Won't Get Fooled Again are considered one of the best rock anthems of all time. Baby O' Riley is the opening song to the album that is known for the first forty seconds of the album in which all the listener hears is a swirly effect of electronic rock. And the final song of the album, Won't Get Fooled Again, is remembered for its epic length at eight and a half minutes and its message of fighting the powers that be (even though they were the people that you wanted to be in charge in the first place). Perhaps the best lyric from the song is meet the new boss, same as the old boss And the synthesizers have long since stood the test of time without sounding dated, or clich. The Who's use of synthesizer has even outlived the use of synthesizers from the very artists that they influence such as the 80's new wave lead by British bands with exotic hair styles. Indeed Who's Next has stood the test of time as one of the greatest albums ever made. It was even listed at number twenty-eight on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums list (Leavy)
And the influence on the sound goes beyond Who's Next and the synthesizer. John Entwistle's use of the Marshall cabinet amp would influence a countless number of other bands. It is often said that bands such as the psychedelic trio Cream and the awe inspiring Jimi Hendrix were first to use the Marshall cabinet amp. This is because the Who could not afford the full cost of transporting all of their equipment such as other bands when they were forced to travel outside the U.K. Therefore Cream and Hendrix were the first to be seen on stage with a set up using the Marshall cabinets (The Who 2).
Marshall cabinets are still in use to this day with bands such as AC/DC and Green Day making them even more popular as ever. On the cover of an issue of Guitar Legends Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong says that all you need to do is plug in your Les Paul [guitar] and the marshals and let it rip (Guitar Legends #81).
And besides the use of massive amps the use of drums was revolutionized by the Who as well. Ever since Keith Moon introduced his talents to the world the drum set is now one of the most highly regarded instruments in rock and his influence can be heard in all drummers today. Just turn on your radio and you can hear Keith Moon still being played. The very fact that drummers use more cymbals and use all around bigger sets is in tribute to Keith Moon. Drums now have become so complex that when you listen to Moon on Who songs, you would think that he was just another drummer who just did what his drum teacher told him. However if you compare Moon to other drummers of his time you can easily see the significance of his playing. All one needs to do is turn on a Beatles song and listen to the simplicity of Ringo Starr's drumming then listen to a Who song and everything else that needs to be said has already been stated.
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By Jon Lafollette