Sixties rock: garage, psychedelic, and other satisfactions.
ONE OF THE TRADITIONAL weaknesses of popular music scholarship has been the lack of attention to musical sound. While our bookshelves bow with high theory reflections on the social function of popular culture, literary analysis of rock lyrics, and social histories of the music industry, until recently few scholars have focused on the musical sound itself. There are several reasons for this. The analytic apparatus used to study Western art music are notoriously incompatible with most kinds of pop, and some, but certainly not all, pop music movements espouse a romantic, anti-intellectual ideology. Perhaps most importantly, past music scholars often believed that pop music was unworthy of study. As ethnomusicology and folklore began to make inroads into music departments (and as a generation of music scholars raised on rock have begun to take their place in the academy), the elitist dismissal of popular music has begun to wane. Studies by music scholars such as Stan Hawkins, Alan Moore, Robert Walser, Sheila Whitely, and myself have begun to analyze the structure of popular songs and use that analysis to gain deeper insights into the social and political meanings of the music. Michael Hicks' new book, Sixties Rock, makes some useful contributions to this project. While many readers of Labour/Le Travail may wish that Hicks spent more time connecting the music to its social contexts, his highly accessible analysis and congenial writing style will make this book an enjoyable addition to many a personal and academic library.
The garage rock of the 1960s and the psychedelic music that followed soon after are the subject of Hicks's study. A "collection of interrelated essays," (vii) the book outlines the major stylistic features of the musics in question and provides a somewhat briefer discussion of how these musics reflected the ideologies and experiences of their makers. For those who seek a comprehensive history of garage or psychedelia or an authoritative canon of these genres, this book may be a disappointment; such a project is not Hicks's goal. What he does provide is a well crafted and extremely accessible analysis of musical style in garage and psychedelia, several focused essays on particular problems in rock history, and a brief programmatic statement on doing rock music scholarship.
The first three chapters are the most tightly integrated of the book. Chapter one develops techniques for discussing the development of 1960s rock vocals from the blues and rock and roll of the 1950s, while chapter two provides a parallel history of distortion in rock guitar. Extending and critiquing Roland Barthes's notion of the "grain of the voice," Hicks identifies a variety of tone qualities used by rock singers in the 1960s, including the "roar," the "buzz," "baby talk," and the "disembodied tone." Rock singers, Hicks suggests, were able to evoke complex emotional states and depict three-dimensional characters by creatively juxtaposing different vocal techniques in their songs. This argument is suggestive and important, but at times I wanted more development. Hicks cites particular recordings to illustrate each technique, but a more detailed description would have made the text richer. The social history of guitar distortion is a useful contribution to the literature, complimenting more interpretive discussions of guitar distortion by writers like Robert Walser.
In many ways, chapter three is the center of the book. With sections discussing tempo, beat, and harmony (as well as the timbral concerns of the previous chapters), Hicks gives a careful account of what gave the garage bands their characteristic sound. While the analysis is powerful and sophisticated, readers with little formal music training will still be able to understand Hicks's clear discussion. The passages on guitar riffs (the signature chords that listeners identify with "Louis Louis" or "Gloria") will be extremely useful to any scholar working on guitar-based rock music from the 1960s forward. Finding the values of "activism," "antagonism," and "community" in the music, Hicks argues that garage rock was a type of avant-garde artistic movement, specifically a variety of futurism. Musical sound is still very much the focus, and the argument here is somewhat brief. Hicks spends little time situating garage rock within the profound social changes of the 1960s and does not attend to the impact of race, class, or gender upon this emerging musical movement.
Chapters four and six are focused studies of the development of particular songs, "Hey Joe," and the Door's "Light My Fire" respectively. Hicks does a nice job of identifying the traditional rhetorical devices of American folk music in "Hey Joe" and exploring the stylistic changes in the various versions. Threaded through this analysis is the argument that the song was less the creative product of an individual artist than it was the result of an ongoing stylistic reworking of traditional material. As a part of this argument, he suggests that William Moses Roberts Jr. (the earliest copyright holder of an identifiable version of the song) may not have actually composed "Hey Joe" but merely picked it up from the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene in which he performed. Despite the apparent continuities of Moses' "Hey Joe" with traditional models, there is no clear evidence to prove that Moses merely copyrighted a pre-existing song. As a folklorist, I was surprised to see a contemporary reference to the old and highly problematic notion of the anonymous "folk process." The discussion of "Light My Fire" admirably traces out the stylistic variations of the tune, and again the emphasis is on musical form.
Hicks finds firm ground in chapter five, where he provides the main stylistic analysis of psychedelia. The text identifies the main psychological effects of the LSD experience (temporal distortion, a blurring of boundaries between phenomena, depersonalization) and shows how the musical techniques of psychedelia artfully twisted features of the then contemporary rock and folk styles to produce the sonic equivalent of an aid trip. Hicks discussion nicely complements Sheila Whiteley's analysis of psychedelia in The Space Between the Notes: Rock and the Counter-Culture, and those teaching upper level undergraduate courses in popular music might consider using these books in tandem. Hicks's final chapter is the most structural and least interpretive of the book. Entitled "Ends and Means," it identifies a variety of ending techniques in 1960s rock. The playful discussion sheds light on an often ignored feature of the music and will stimulate anyone who appreciates rock music.
Reading Sixties Rock, scholars oriented toward ethnography, oral history, or critical theory may find themselves occasionally uncomfortable. Musical meanings are less abundant in the book than musical techniques, and little attention is given to social context or the politics of culture. Further, the analysis is mostly Hicks's. Little oral history data supports the text, and historians or sociologists may wish that Hicks discussed his structural analysis or musical interpretations with the people who made and listened to the music. But to over-emphasize these problems would be to deny the real insightfulness of Hicks' analysis and the undeniable charm of his prose. Hicks clearly has a love for 1960s rock, and I would recommend this book to those that feel the same way. For such an audience, reading Hicks's book will be time well spent.