Why is 1960s music so enduring?

Rob Crossan

The sounds of the Sixties haven't faded away, and there's no chance they'll be exiting soon 

The ideals of the 1960s do live on, albeit in increasingly fragile form. The politics of the era seem in some ways archaic, in others—worryingly consistent. But, when it comes to the legacy of that far off decade, it’s the music that has held firmest over the intervening half-century.

Much as we venerate the speeches of Martin Luther King, the prose of Philip Roth, the art of Andy Warhol or the physical dominance of Mohammed Ali, ultimately, you can’t dance to any of it. 

This is why, centuries from now, it will be the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the wit of Paul Simon, the melodies of Paul McCartney and, maybe, even the ferocity of Keith Moon that will be the soundtrack that documents the era once all the living participants have passed.

"It’s astonishing that so many of the 1960s generation are with us at all, let alone still managing to display at least the occasional glimmer of their creative powers"

But, incredibly, there are still an astonishing array of the baby boomer rock and rollers who aren’t done with us yet.

Paul McCartney has recently released the third of an album trilogy entitled McCartney over half a century after the first instalment; while Bob Dylan, now pushing into his ninth decade, has just released one of his most critically acclaimed albums in years and seems set to continue his Never Ending Tour once COVID-19 restrictions allow.

Elton John released a cutting edge collaboration with Gorillaz, the animated, mostly electronic, musical melting pot curated by Damon Albarn in October, while the Rolling Stones showed they didn’t entirely abandon politics in the Nixon era by releasing “Pride Before A Fall” in late 2020, with the lyrics berating Donald Trump for “overeating, too much tweeting”.

It’s astonishing that so many of the 1960s generation are with us at all, let alone still managing to display at least the occasional glimmer of their creative powers. 

The idea of any artist from today still being creatively relevant in over half a century’s time seems less astonishing and more outright absurd.

“Bruce Springsteen, more than any boomer rocker, has managed to grow as an artist and age as an artist. That is something we haven’t seen in a rock star before, someone that has aged with his audience,” says Chris Kelly, Associate Professor of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “He is challenging his audience to embrace him as he is now.”

So what about the generational successors to The Boss? True, the careers of Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Jack White are all of an admirable duration. But it would be hard to make a case that any of them induce the levels of devotion and ardour that is displayed when McCartney picks up his Hofner bass guitar on stage.

The longevity of the baby-boomer rockers can be partly put down to sheer fortitude. It’s interesting to note that, almost without exception, all of the major stars of the 1960s had an exceptionally rough 1980s. Dylan through his abysmal collaboration with The Grateful Dead, McCartney with the unwatchable Give My Regards To Broad Street movie, Mick and Keith’s unfortunate dalliance with 1980s drum machines on their 1986 Dirty Work album. 

Yet, despite the critical and commercial downturn, none of the biggest 1960s stars retired and all recovered to enjoy late career renaissances. 

But it’s not just sheer stubbornness that has given these stars extra years of creative life. A study of the Billboard Top 100 made by Vox magazine in 2016 suggests that their choice of genre is key.

Collating the chart success of the Top 50 artists in Billboard’s “Greatest Of All Time” list showed that rock artists stay popular for, on average, over 27 years. For alternative, hip-hop and rap artists, the range is a mere 12. 

Of course, it may well be that the biggest stars of non-rock contemporary genres such as Justin Timberlake, Drake and Adele are still in the commercial stratosphere in the 2070s. But, if the acceleration of consumer culture points to anything, it’s a case of indecisiveness among the general public; a more impatient desire for the new combined with a vastly more compartmentalised cultural scene. 

Put simply, it’s just like watching the television. The rash of YouTube channels and digital options mean an end to the kind of “event” moments in movies and TV dramas which can keep an entire nation on the sofa simultaneously. By the same token there is also unlikely to ever be another generation of musicians who had such a firm grip on the public attention span as the baby boomer rock stars did, coming as fortuitously as they did in a decade where new music had infinitely fewer outlets than now.

“There will always be a business like this. We’ll always have superstars,”, long time promoter Ron Delsener, Live Nation’s New York chairman told Rolling Stone magazine. “Justin Timberlake and the National, they’re the new guys coming up... they’ll be the new U2 or the new whatever.”

History shall be the judge of that prediction. But, it seems likely that the, still living, history of the 1960s is not, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, about to go gentle into that good night just yet. 

What odds are there against a certain Robert Zimmerman being wheeled onto the stage at Carnegie Hall in the year 2041? The cacophonous applause to mark his 100th birthday might even be accompanied by the blow of a harmonica and that hoarse, familiar voice, asking “how many roads must a man walk down…”? 

The answer, if you’re a baby boomer rocker, is far more, for far longer, than anyone could have ever expected. 

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