I’ve been giving some thought to the context in which all this popular music has happened and changed. The three decades that I understand the best, and in which my tastes were shaped, were the 50s, 60s and 70s. Here’s what I’ve been thinking.
The 50s were conditioned by the austere post-war period and the need for young people to seek fun and excitement that had been in short supply in the 40s. It was the decade in which the crossover of black music into white communities in the Western world really began to happen as a trend. Rock and roll was a black music and its best and most original artists were black: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Elvis really made only a few r&r records, i.e. relative to his output as s whole, but he obviously played a huge role in popularizing the sound, as had been foreseen by Sam Phillips.
It made sense. If you wanted wild joyous fun, you weren’t going to get it from Mario Lanza or Bing Crosby. Black music fitted the bill like nothing else could have. Jazz was also crossing over to white audiences on an increased scale, albeit to slightly older audiences.
The war cast a long shadow over western youth culture in this way, I think, and helped to set in motion this category of youth music as something quite distinct, disapproved of by the war generation, and quickly coming to constitute a market to be exploited.
The black influence would continue way beyond the decline of 50s r&r. Chubby Checker and the twist, etc. The splitting of mods from rockers was one of the first real antagonisms between different youth groups and their musics.
I would say that three social developments shaped the youth culture and music of the 60s: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the contraceptive pill (perhaps one could also add the invention of LSD). The ‘generation gap’ had arrived, big time. There is a certain self-righteousness in all this, the sense of the world being remade in the image of a new set of ideals based on unlimited pleasure; the golden age of dancing in the street, fucking and drugging, as the embodiment of Freedom, as opposed to uptightness. This had to crash and burn, being based as it was on naivety and rather simplistic thinking (Altamont, etc.)
The 70s began with some of the most polarized forms of youth music that had yet been encountered: e.g. prog on the one hand and bubblegum on the other. Both had roots in the 60s though: prog grew out of ‘underground’ rock, while bubblegum grew out of the exploitative commercial scene that had been there all along as a sub-strand of youth culture. In my view, both of these were decadent and degenerate dregs of the 60s. They were also generally confined to white audiences and would not cut it indefinitely as popular music. But this was the beginning of something that has never gone away: people despising each other’s musics, with music being emblematic of identity.
What emerged were some harder edged musical forms that were all in some sense opposed to 60s idealism, including metal, disco and punk. All of them reflected a newfound cynicism, in place of the sweetness and light of the psychedelic area. The 70s were a period of economic crisis in the west (inflation, oil prices, departure from the gold standard, miners’ strikes etc.). Metal began to embrace a darker vision than 60s heavy rock had; disco was about hedonism without social ideals. Punk was the most anti-60s of all and in a way seemed to prefigure the long night of Thatcher and Reagan that was only just about to begin. Lyrics were cynical and scathingly critical of society, without hope of redemption any time soon (“no future for you”).
But early in the Thatcher-Reagan period there began to emerge what a friend of mine used to call “ugly music”, music that was downright unpleasant to listen to, a strand that has never entirely disappeared. Think of groups like DAF (or supply own examples). I didn’t really like this; it wasn’t what I’d signed up for. But worse was to come.