Everybody knows that the '60s were the greatest decade of rock and roll.
Everybody knows this because we've heard it thousands and thousands of times -- from the baby-boomer pundits who grew up on the music of the '60s; from the thirtysomethings who have spent most of their adulthood being reminded that they missed out on the Greatest of All Rock Decades; and from Gen-X-ers who grew up listening to their parents' Beatles and Dylan albums.
Everybody also knows that the '70s was the lamest decade for rock. Unlike the '60s, which was full of brilliance and breakthroughs, the '70s were mired in mediocrity, limping along on wimp rock ("Seasons In the Sun" and its ilk) and disco. Instead of the Age of Aquarius, we got the Era of the Osmonds. No wonder the Beatles broke up when they did.
These are among the greatest truisms of American popular culture, accepted without qualm by almost everyone.
Such a pity they're wrong.
So let's set the record straight: The '60s were not the greatest decade of rock and roll. In terms of artistic excellence, stylistic breakthroughs and consistent quality, the '70s are clearly the most important 10 years rock and roll has seen. At best, the '60s come in second, trailed by the '50s.
As for the darkest days of rock and roll, nothing can top the '80s, a time when bands were better known for their hair (remember A Flock of Seagulls?) than their music. Think Journey. Think Kenny Rogers. Think Kajagoogoo.
What were they thinking?
Some of you may be wondering, "How can he possibly rank the artistic worth of one decade against another when there are no real objective criteria? It's not as if rock and roll keeps records the way professional baseball does."
True enough. Sales, for instance, are an absurdly inadequate gauge of quality. If we took total sales as an indicator of popular music's overall worth, then these would be the best of times, as recorded music sales have reached an all-time high, both in terms of dollar sales and units sold, over the last three years.
Even cumulative sales on specific albums make a poor yardstick. After all, would anyone seriously argue that Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" is a greater album than, say, the Beatles' "Abbey Road"? Of course not. But sales for "Bat Out of Hell" are one third greater than those for "Abbey Road" (12 million vs. nine million, respectively).
So yes, there is a certain amount of subjective thinking at work here. But in judging history, one often has to look as much at the lasting effect of a work as at its immediate success, which is why, for instance, it's reasonable to argue that Bob Marley was an extremely important artist, despite the fact that he never had a Top-40 hit in this country (his only single to chart in the United States was "Roots, Rock, Reggae," which stalled out at No. 51).
So in rating the rock decades, we'll be looking at the following criteria:
Consistency: To really see how strong an era's music was, it helps to look both at the high points and the low. Is the terrain all peaks, like the Himalayas? Or do the heights loom over the rest of the landscape like lonely buttes in the Arizona desert?
Innovation: There's no better indicator of an era's vitality than the number of new movements that were started then. Were the musicians of that time blazing new frontiers? Or did they just build on ground that had been claimed by their predecessors?
Endurance: Finally, we need to look at the degree to which these recordings still matter. Part of what made the golden age of ancient Greece so important was that it produced literature and art we still look to today. Can the same be said for the rock and roll of the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s? Or are we looking at the cultural equivalent of the Nehru jacket?
One thing we won't do is play the Forebears Game. This is the trick where the importance of one artist is diminished by pointing out his or her debt to a predecessor. For instance, it could be argued that Elton John, for all his own achievements, owed a lot to the Beatles and is therefore the inferior artist.
But it could also be said that the Beatles took from Buddy Holly, and that Holly drew from Jimmie Rodgers, and so on. Push far enough, and it's possible to end up insisting that rock and roll would have been impossible had it not been for the 16th-century Italian composer Palestrina -- an interesting insight, perhaps, but kind of beside the point.
Nor will we treat each decade as a cultural instead of chronological phenomenon. Boomers, for instance, make the '60s seem bigger by insisting that the era didn't end until Nixon's resignation in 1974. So instead of the 10 years everybody else gets, they claim 14.
We'll have none of that here, thank you. For this exercise, each decade is 10 years long and begins when the numbers change.
So, with the ground rules settled, let's see how the Decades of Rock break down:
Although some scholars would argue that the first rock and roll records were actually released in the '40s -- The Orioles' "It's Too Soon to Know" and Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight," both from 1948, are often cited in this regard -- the '50s were effectively the start of the rock era. This was the age of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, a time when the phrase "rock and roll" first became synonymous with youth culture and rebellion.
But as much as rock and roll may have electrified America in the '50s, the music hardly dominated the landscape. Perry Como, Perez Prado, Doris Day and Mitch Miller dominated the charts for much of the decade, and despite RCA's suggestion that "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong," there were still many record buyers back then who figured rock was just a fad and would soon blow over.
That alone makes it hard to count the '50s as the greatest of rock eras. But there's no denying the decade's strengths.
Consistency: Before 1955, rock and roll barely even registered on the cultural radar. Sure, there was Bill Haley and the Comets, but when "Rock Around the Clock" was first released, in 1954, it didn't even make the Top 20, whereas the Crew-Cuts' denatured rendition of "Sh'Boom" went to No. 1. (Haley got a second chance the next year, thanks to the film "Blackboard Jungle," and "Rock Around the Clock" eventually spent eight weeks at the top of the charts).
Even in the second part of the decade, though, the great rock hits had to share space on the charts with such nonrock stars as Laurie London ("He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"), Gogi Grant ("The Wayward Wind") and Domenico Modugno ("Volare"). Too many lows, not enough highs.
Innovation: This may have been where rock and roll began, but there really wasn't all that much ground being broken in the '50s. R&B; and doowop, for instance, both got under way in the '40s. So even though the decade gets tremendous points for rock itself, its other major innovations were rockabilly and teen idol pop. So figure that Fabian cancels out Gene Vincent, and call it a draw.
Endurance: Apart from Elvis, who these days is valued as much for his iconic power as for his musical achievements, much of the rock of the '50s seems today to be as old-fashioned as big-band music. True, rockabilly has retained a surprising amount of its original bite, but doowop has become a virtual museum piece. As for the era's clean-cut teen idols, these days Pat Boone and Bobby Rydell seem every bit as irrelevant as Percy Faith or Eddie Fisher.
Heck, even '50s nostalgia is beginning to seem dated (watched "Happy Days" lately?). So though this stuff may look good in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it hardly rocks anyone's world today.
Overall Ranking: Third.
There's no denying that this decade was as important a turning point for modern life as World War II. Liberals still look at it as a golden age in American history, while conservatives carp that all the problems of the present can be traced back to the mistakes of the '60s. There were Kennedy and Nixon, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam -- major crises all.
Things were equally busy on the music scene. This was the age of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Soul music sprang up from the South, and Motown became a genre unto itself. There was Woodstock and Altamont, "Sgt. Pepper" and "Blonde on Blonde." To hear people talk about it now is to have the sense that this was as good as rock and roll was ever going to get.
But was it?
Consistency: When people talk about the depth of greatness in the '60s, they tend to think of weeks like that of June 12, 1965, when the Billboard Top Ten included "Back in My Arms Again" by the Supremes, "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, "I Can't Help Myself" by the Four Tops, "Help Me, Rhonda" by the Beach Boys, "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds, and "Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles. That sort of thing, we're told, happened all the time in the '60s.
Trouble is, it didn't. For every week like that, there were others like July 6, 1963, when the Top Ten included "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto, "Blue on Blue" by Bobby Vinton and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" by Rolf Harris. Or April 20, 1968, which had "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro at the top of the charts, followed by the Union Gap's "Young Girl" and Georgie Fame's "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde."
It wasn't all "Respect" and "Satisfaction," in other words. Rounding out the decade's Hall of Shame are such best-selling stinkers as "Winchester Cathedral" by the New Vaudeville Band, "Danke Schoen" by Wayne Newton, and "The Unicorn" by the Irish Rovers.
It's also worth remembering that even though "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" spent 15 weeks at No. 1, "More of the Monkees" spent 18 weeks atop the charts the same year. Allan Sherman, Henry Mancini and Herb Alpert were major artists, Lawrence Welk was still having hits (including his only No. 1 single, "Calcutta"), and the decade's top-charting album was the soundtrack album from "West Side Story."
So there were plenty of valleys surrounding those peaks.
Innovation: Although the '60s was a time of great change, not all of those changes were for the better. For instance, does anyone really want to argue that acid rock was a step forward, culturally? Moreover, a number of the era's biggest breakthroughs were fairly short-lived; folk rock, for instance, was a big deal when Dylan went electric but has had only sporadic success (e.g., Tracy Chapman) since.
On the plus side, the '60s gave us funk (Sly Stone and James Brown), reggae (though no one in this country knew it then), heavy metal and surf music. On the negative side, there was psychedelic, art rock, jazz rock and all that cheesy lounge music currently being reissued. Obviously, the good outweighs the bad, but not by as much as people think.
Endurance: Classics are classics, and it seems safe to say that the best of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Simon & Garfunkel and Motown will continue to sound current for years to come. On the other hand, only the camp-crazed or terminally nostalgic will find much to cling to in the likes of the Monkees, Herman's Hermits, Petula Clark or the Classics IV. And if you think '60s hipness has held up well, try explaining how cool "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is to a junior-high class.
Overall Ranking: Second.
Between Watergate, streaking, "Saturday Night Fever" and all those polyester clothes, it's no wonder most people think of this decade as the Age Taste Forgot.
Does it deserve that reputation, though? True, the Beatles had broken up by then, the Beach Boys were well on their way to irrelevance, and Dylan would spend the decade making some of the most peculiar albums of his career. But at the same time, the Rolling Stones hit their creative peak, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye came into their own, Kraft-werk turned what had been a novelty instrument into the blueprint for a whole new sound, and the Sex Pistols caused a greater furor than any act since Elvis. And that's not even considering Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Parliament/Funkadelic and Steely Dan.
So let's not be too hasty in our dismissals.
Consistency: When Rhino Records began its "Have a Nice Day" anthology series, the general reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of collecting '70s pop hits like Lynn Anderson's "Rose Garden" and the Pipkins' "Gimme Dat Ding." After all, what could be more emblematic of a decade's weakness than its most embarrassing hits?
Funny thing is, the "Have a Nice Day" series ended up having the opposite effect. As bad as the pop detritus of the '70s was, it was no worse than the dreck of previous decades. In fact, much of it actually remained pretty listenable, thanks in large part to the fact that it was almost all rock and roll.
Sure, there were plenty of hits by Tony Orlando, Barry Manilow and the Carpenters. But those were more than outweighed by the good stuff, which is how we ended up with weeks like that of February 8, 1975, when the Top Five was "Fire" by the Ohio Players, "You're No Good" by Linda Ronstadt, "Boogie on Reggae Woman" by Stevie Wonder, "Pick up the Pieces" by AWB, and "Best of My Love" by the Eagles.
Not bad for an "off" decade.
Innovation: Even if you believe that disco was the worst thing to happen to popular music since the Chipmunks, it's difficult to deny the importance of the breakthroughs that took place in the '70s.
First, there was country rock, which spun off from the experimentation of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers to become a full-fledged genre with Gram Parsons and the Eagles. Then there was electronic rock, which swapped synthesizers for drums and guitars and introduced a whole new realm of possibilities. Punk rock completely changed the notions of style, intensity and stardom, while rap (which burst from the clubs of the South Bronx with "Rapper's Delight" in 1979) marked a dramatic shift in popular music's sound and shape.
Endurance: If it weren't for the Eagles, we wouldn't have modern country music. If it weren't for electronic rock, we wouldn't have techno. If it weren't for punk, we wouldn't have alternative. If it weren't for rap, modern R&B; virtually wouldn't exist. And if it weren't for disco, we wouldn't have dance music as we know it today.
Overall Ranking: First.
Between the commercial prosperity of the Reagan years and advances made possible by digital technology, the '80s can be rightly called the beginning of the current era. This, remember, is when we first got MTV, when CDs hit the market, when Michael Jackson and Madonna redefined our notions of stardom and artistic impact.
At the same time came some of the worst excesses of the rock era. There were spandex-clad synth-poppers from Britain, and leopard-spotted-hair bands from the Sunset Strip. There was "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Physical." Things were done with mousse and mascara that still seem shocking.
Can we ever recover?
Consistency: The '80s actually saw more schlock on the charts than the '70s. Consider the following chart-toppers: "Sailing" by Christopher Cross. "Lady" by Kenny Rogers. "Morning Train" by Sheena Easton. "Ebony and Ivory" by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. "Truly" by Lionel Richie. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler. "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder. And that doesn't even take us up to 1985.
Even if you cheer the achievements of Madonna, the Police, U2, Bruce Springsteen and Prince, or argue that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" deserves to be the best-selling album of all time, there .. was still Wham!, Falco, Cutting Crew and Kajagoogoo to contend with. Not to mention a host of hokey hits from Journey, Starship, Poison, Bon Jovi and Belinda Carlisle.
If the stock market had been that inconsistent, Reagan would never have lasted a term.
Innovation: Almost everything that was new in the '80s actually got its start in previous decades. Synth pop was predated by Kraftwerk and Walter Carlos, house music had its roots in disco, rap got a running start in the '70s before Run-D.M.C. put on their Adidas, and alternative was just punk rock a generation later.
Basically, that leaves us with MTV. Quite a breakthrough, huh?
Influence: If it weren't for the '80s, MTV would have nothing to show on its nostalgia weekends. Even so, VH1 does better with its '70s programming. Draw your own conclusions.
Overall Rating: Fourth.
Pub Date: 10/20/96