Culture Magazine

Somethin’s Happenin’ Here — Songs That Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Three): ‘I Protest!’

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

We tend to think of life in the 1960s in terms of happier, carefree days. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they were extraordinarily turbulent times, as the title of this series suggests.

Major occurrences, both good and bad, ruled the day: the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the Beatles, the Great Society, Vietnam, the anti-war marches and anti-establishment protests, economic uncertainty, police brutality, the Kent State shootings, and more.

"Burn, baby, burn!" was the inartful catchphrase, coined at the time by Los Angeles DJ "The Magnificent" Montague in response to the anarchic situation in the LA-neighborhood of Watts and other urban centers. There was a growing sense of despair, that many Americans' chances for betterment and upward mobility were moving farther and farther out of reach.

Does this sound eerily familiar? Déjà vu all over again?

In the midst of our current troubles, the working world of the 1960s had itself undergone a dramatic shift from where it had been. The prosperity and relative peace of the 1950s began to give way to darker elements within our society.

Because of Vietnam and the changes taking place in many corners of the U.S., more women than ever before were entering the workforce. We can thank the award-winning AMC series Mad Men (2007 to 2017) for enlightening viewers as to the true nature of the times in which we lived.

Many old timers have expressed nostalgia for a non-existent "pristine past." But make no mistake: the times were changing - and fast. As an illustration, the Women's Lib Movement had come into bloom and began to control the conversation around the company water cooler. This development occurred both from a fundamental need to rectify longstanding inequities in hiring practices and the lack of promotional opportunities for women in general. Moreover, the word "feminism," which originated in Europe in the late 19 th century, reemerged on our shores as an offshoot of that era.

Increasingly, the pressures of establishing a viable work-life balance - the pull and tug of career obligations vied with the constant needs of family - began to show not only among working women, but in their male counterparts as well. As Mad Men accurately portrayed, the competition for jobs in the high-pressure, cut-throat advertising industry was one of countless migraine-inducing professions that appeared beyond the reach of most individuals - particularly for women.

Whether male or female, young or middle-aged, your average working stiffs labored long and hard to put food on the table and money in their account. If "stability" and "complacency" can be applied to define the 1950s, then "insecurity" and "uneasiness" would become the terms of art in explaining the middle- to late 1960s.

Except for a privileged few, the median salary for working-class Americans remained stubbornly low or, at best, modest with respect to actual buying power. To put it bluntly, Americans continued to struggle to keep up with the Joneses.

When people weren't commuting from home to work and back again, they spent their nights and weekends in leisure-time activities. For the most part, these were relegated to sports watching, conventional TV viewing, going to the park, reading the daily newspaper, listening to the radio, and/or Sunday afternoon outings.

In big cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., where masses of individuals congregated in public housing projects, the mood was generally sullen. Winters were harsh and summers were scalding, especially with no air-conditioning available.

What most urban dwellers relied upon to "lighten the mood," so to speak, were movies and music, usually of the pop-rock variety.

The Vogues - "Five O'Clock World" (1965)

Before you get the wrong idea, not everything was coming up roses (as Mama Rose voiced in the musical Gypsy). The sounds that emanated from the pop-rock world of our youth were, by all accounts, emblematic of this new reality. Indeed, "peace, love and dope" were not the only concerns uppermost in the minds of young people.

One of these songs, the bouncy "Five O'Clock World" by the all-male vocal group the Vogues, epitomized the daily grind that most Americans were subjected to. The number, written by Allen Reynolds, a Country & Western producer and songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee, was released in October 1965 on the Ce & Co label.

Original Vogue members Bill Burkette, Don Miller, Hugh Geyer, and Chuck Blasko were residents of Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh. After stints in the Army or at college, the young men re-grouped to record a cover version of British pop darling Petula Clark's "You're the One." It scored a hit with record buyers, which led to their signing a deal with producer Nick Cenci to record "Five O'Clock World."

The most captivating twist behind this recording, however, was that the instrumental tracks were all performed by veteran Nashville players. For instance, that same arrangement was produced and supervised by Nashville musician-arranger Tony Moon, and the 12-string acoustic guitar that starts things off was played by Chip Young who once worked with Elvis Pressley and Dolly Parton, among others - an odd assemblage, considering that, stylistically, the song itself was pure pop. A prominent horn section caters to the Memphis-based Stax sound of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, the descriptive lyrics and the sprightly, upbeat mood (sustained throughout by the boisterous backing vocals and the periodic yodeling) were what struck a chord with radio listeners. The narrator accurately depicts what it's like to go to work and battle the rush-hour crowd:

But it's a five o'clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there's a five o'clock me inside my clothes
Thinkin' that the world looks fine, yeah

On a personal note, I absolutely HATE, HATE, HATE this much overused and hackneyed phrase "At the end of the day." In any event, after straining to get through the tasks at hand, a little lightness and joy appear headed his way:


With relief at hand in the loving embrace of the storyteller's main squeeze, what better way is there to top off one's labors? I can't think of any!

The Lovin' Spoonful - "Summer in the City" (1966)

On a totally different note, sweltering summers were no stranger to strap-hanging New Yorkers, or most urbanites for that matter. Released on a sweaty Fourth of July weekend in 1966 (not nine months after "Five O'Clock World"), one of the best remembered tunes from that period was the self-explanatory "Summer in the City" by the folk-rock group the Lovin' Spoonful.

Written by founder and lead singer John Sebastian, this talented musician was an authentic Greenwich Village creation. With a background in blues and roots music, Sebastian dabbled in songwriting and performing on the side. Teaming up with like-minded guitarist Zal Yanovsky and two others, Sebastian (together with brother Mark and bandmate Steve Boone) placed his finger on the Big Apple's pulse with "Summer in the City," the only Number 1 hit of the group's career.

According to writer Mary Catherine Reynolds (in a May 2014 post titled "Mark Sebastian Tells the Real Story"), young Mark wrote the song in three-quarter time. Big brother John liked what he heard, so he went about rewriting the verses and included some musical interludes that Steve had concocted.

Along with the addition of sound effects (i.e., jackhammers pummeling away on a sidewalk, cars honking their horns), a masterwork of stridency and dissonance was born, wrapped in the group's signature airy effervescence:

Hot town, summer in the cityDoesn't seem to be a shadow in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn't it a pity

All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

But at night it's a different world

Ah, but in comparison to the Vogues' late-1950s buoyancy (more of a throwback to doo-wop and boy groups, in general), the end result is strikingly similar - that is, you need a little lovin' (whether by the "spoonful" or not) to get through the day:

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressing so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city
Till I'm wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop

The Rolling Stones - "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (1965)

This was about as "streetwise" and "relevant" to the times as John Sebastian (who became a solo artist after 1968) and the Lovin' Spoonful got. Indeed, the bulk of their recorded output was devoted to feel-good love songs such as "Do You Believe in Magic?" and "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," pretty but inoffensive paeans to "flower power" and hippie sentimentality.

Frustration with the way things were, tempered with hefty drops of self-indulgence and dissipation, were better left to the "experts." And by that, we mean the Rolling Stones. Along with free sex and the easy availability of drugs and alcohol, no band at the time expressed the ups-and-downs of life on the road (and the rock-n-roll lifestyle in all its offensiveness) as these native Londoners.

Far be it for grade-school classmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to mock their own inadequacies. But if EVER there was a rock-star anthem to strike one's fancy, then the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" can be billed as the all-time champion. And no other song of the 1960s has encapsulated the counterculture attitude of rebellion and in-your-face sexuality as this one.

Alan Clayson, author of The Best of Rock: The Essential CD Guide, described "Richards' use of the foot-operated [Gibson Maestro FZ-1] fuzz-box" for the opening guitar riff as "the Beethoven's Fifth of rock" (p. 110). The song was released as a single, half a century ago, on June 5, 1965. Instantly recognizable, its relentless sameness drove home the message that "We're not gonna take it anymore," long before Dee Snider and Twisted Sister came to the same conclusion.

The growing displeasure that young people showed with the status quo, and the annoyance expressed at the way the era's bureaucrats and politicians were running things (called the "generation gap"), was a favorite theme of the 1970s British and American punk rock movement. The Rolling Stones happened to be precursors to all that.

I can't get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey, that's what I say
I can't get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that's what I say
I can't get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that's what I say

In addition to the pounding rhythm and Charlie Watts' explosive drum kit, there were Mick's critique of unbridled commercialism ("And the man comes on the radio" and "While I'm watchin' my TV"), and the exasperation of having sex with a girl but being hung out to dry at the last minute:

Buffalo Springfield - "For What It's Worth" (1966) by Stephen Sills

Protests and demonstrations. These are all bound up in the same package with civil rights, voting rights, the right to free speech, and the right to be heard above the din of dissent. And there are others, among which are the right to petition one's government and the right not to be judged by the color of one's skin or the origin of one's race.

When those rights have been trampled upon, our laws provide for some form of redress.

On November 12, 1966, a popular Sunset Strip coffeehouse with the prophetic name of Pandora's Box became the scene of a mass protest. Because of recently enacted curfew laws preventing young people from gathering (illicit drug use and underage drinking had allegedly taken place there), the surrounding businesses and residents filed a complaint to close the establishment.

The brunt of their ire was aimed at crowds of young people who were blamed for the increase in traffic congestion along the busy thoroughfare. Riots and crackdowns resulted, with many participants being whisked off to jail and the inevitable closing and demolition of Pandora's Box - conspicuously, after the community's ills had already been poured out.

This was the background to lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Sills' "For What It's Worth," a protest song written in reaction to the situation and recorded by his group, Buffalo Springfield, on December 5, 1966. Many mistakenly thought the song had to do with the May 1970 Kent State shootings and, to be honest, the context fits many occurrences both in the past and in the present.

In addition to Stills, the individual band members featured Dewey Martin on drums, Bruce Palmer on bass, Richie Furay on guitar and vocals, and 21-year-old Toronto-born singer, songwriter, and guitarist (and future "Godfather of Grunge") Neil Young. It was Young's employment of a tremolo (what he labeled "guitar harmonics") that lent the number its characteristic reverb and soundscape.

Unfortunately, the group was short-lived, barely lasting a two-year period. Stills went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash (with David Crosby, formerly of the Byrds, and Graham Nash, a vocalist and guitarist with the Hollies). Young briefly joined the trio, until he too left to pursue his own creative endeavors. The road he took has yet to end, but it was a most winding one.

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
Time we stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
We better stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
We better stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
We better stop, now, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
We better stop, children, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down

Today, we are privileged to have their work preserved for us in pristine condition. Check out the videos available on YouTube and you'll see these fine young artists in an entirely different light. As to the lyrics of "For What It's Worth," their significance for today's reality need no explanation:

End of Part Three

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

(To be continued....)

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