1965: A Perfect Year for Music?

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For people who are counting, it’s the 50th anniversary of 1965, the apex year of the infamous and swingin’ 60s. Closer to home, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. That fact got me thinking about the year in a little more detail and I think we can make the case that it was a nearly perfect year for music – at least in the jazz and rock zip code. Individual creative visions were perfectly realized, new genres sprang forth, and two (or three) of the greatest rock songs of all time were released.

First, a little context and then I’ll offer 10 reasons why 1965 was a nearly perfect year of music.

1965 had the entire decade swirling around it, so it was a catalytic year in many respects – building on what had come before and pointing the way for what would follow. It was a year of big ambitions, high drama, and great tragedy. All the stuff of good art, right?

In January, LBJ declared the birth of the Great Society at home, while the Vietnam War began its metastasis abroad. In March, LBJ launched Operation Rolling Thunder, which dropped as many bombs on North Vietnam as the U.S. dropped during the Pacific Theater in all of WWII. We also deployed the first ground troops that year and soon realized that we were involved in a different kind of war. Marines repelled a Viet Cong attack at Da Nang, killing 56 guerillas. Afterwards, a sketch of U.S. military positions was found on the body of a 12-year-old boy who has been selling soft drinks to Marines the day before.

The civil rights movement was in full march, marked by horrible displays of oppression at Selma, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the tragic Watts riots in Los Angeles, in which 34 people died. Malcolm X was assassinated in February.

On the other side of the planet, Lee Kuan Yew launched the great social and economic experiment that became Singapore. The world’s population was 3.3 billion, less than half of what it is today.

We had some wild weather back then. “Billion Dollar Betsy” rolled over New Orleans, so named because it was the first hurricane to cause more than $1 billion in damages, a record that wouldn’t be equaled until Katrina hit NOLA 40 years later.

In sports, Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their championship fight with his “Phantom Punch” and Craig Breedlove set a land speed record of 600 mph.

And they seemed like small things at the time, with no inkling of how long their impact would endure, but Joan Rivers debuted on Johnny Carson, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired and “The Sound of Music” was made, despite the dismissal of Hollywood insiders.

And the music kept coming. When it wasn’t great (“Like a Rolling Stone”) it was entertaining (“Wooly Bully”). It was escapist (“California Dreaming”) and prophetic (“People Get Ready”). Above all else it was inclusive and eclectic, with hits from artists as diverse as the Sonics, Otis Redding, Charles Aznavour and The Who.

Here then, are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why 1965 was a nearly perfect year for jazz and rock.

10. The Dead are born. They started as the Warlocks, but after that fateful afternoon at Phil’s, where the phrase “Grateful Dead” jumped out of a dictionary, they set sail the ship that would travel for another 30 years. The Dead became so much more than a jam band. In many ways, they refracted the full American experience, from Thoreau and Mark Twain to Ornette Coleman, the human potential movement and viral marketing. Sui generis, then and now.

9. “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig” bring an unbelievably eclectic variety of music into the living rooms of America, including the U.S. TV debut of the Rolling Stones.

8. Keith Richards begins writing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in a motel room in Clearwater, Fla. After capturing the riff, he falls asleep, continues when he wakes up. Mick tosses off a few lyrics and the rest, as they say, is history. Rolling Stone pegs it as the No. 2 best rock song of all time.

7. The No. 1 all time rock song, according to Rolling Stone, is “Like a Rolling Stone,” which was also released in 1965. But the larger reason why 1965 was such a perfect year for music was everything that Dylan did – and it was a lot. He went electric at Newport and hypnotized the audience at Royal Albert Hall. He recorded “Bringing It All Back Home” AND “Highway 61 Revisited.” In the same year! He was, of course, approaching the zenith of an incredible period of evolution and creativity. He would soon (literally) crash and burn. In 1965, though, he revolutionized “popular” music and redefined what it meant to be a popular artist. There was no single year in Dylan’s never-ending career when he accomplished more.

6. Two of the greatest jazz statements of the 20th century were released – “A Love Supreme” by Coltrane and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” “A Love Supreme” was like one long, spiritual breath, a distillation of hard work, natural genius and great compassion. It made time stand still. “Maiden Voyage,” while less dramatic, created the template for a new kind of jazz. Herbie was just a baby, only 24 at the time, but he was fearless in the way that he let emotion and melody trump theory and technique. Like Trane, he created a sustained and fully developed work of art around a single concept.

5. Miles Davis was a veteran of the jazz scene in 1965, but he was continuing to challenge everything that had come before him. When he played the Plugged Nickel in Chicago in December, it was with his second great band – this version including Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and the young drummer Tony Williams. It was Williams that challenged the band right before the Plugged Nickel gigs to pick a few standards (e.g. “I Fall In Love Too Easily”) and then just play them any way they wanted. It was an approach that perfectly reflected the freedom and experimentalism of the Sixties and one that, in the CD box set “The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965,” created a document that puts you right in the center of spontaneous genius. Here is what the Penguin Guide to Jazz said about it (in part):

“Here it is possible to observe at the closest quarters Miles and his musicians working through their ideas set by set in ways that make the named material, the songs, more or less irrelevant. Even when it is clear he is working from “Stella by Starlight” or “My Funny Valentine,” Miles is moving out into areas of harmonic/melodic invention and performance dynamics which were unprecedented in the music, and doing so within the concentrated span of two nights at the club.”

4. “Wooly Bully.”

3. The Beatles create the template for modern arena rock (maybe not such a good thing!) when they play before 55,600 at Shea Stadium in August. They also released the incomparable “Rubber Soul.”

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2. “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Just for the cover alone.

1. Oh, did I mention the ship of the Grateful Dead set sail in 1965?

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