Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described two songs. The version of “Respect” played in 1965 was recorded by Otis Redding, not Aretha Franklin. And the song “People Get Ready” was composed by Curtis Mayfield and recorded by the Impressions, not by Marvin Gaye. This version has been corrected.
A statistician once told me his work was really pretty simple: Things tend to happen at regular intervals, though sometimes that interval is longer and sometimes not. This explains why there are occasional pockets of time that seem deeper and fuller than others, though it’s always helpful to have a smart companion who can show you the things you might have missed.
That’s what Andrew Grant Jackson does here. If you lived through 1965 and you look back at it through Jackson’s straightforward yet gently nuanced account, your reaction is likely to be some combination of “I don’t remember that, I kind of remember that, and did all that really happen in just 12 short months?”
Okay, what did happen in 1965? For starters, that’s the year Bob Dylan went electric, James Brown invented funk, psychedelia emerged as the love child of Eastern mysticism and LSD, and country rock took root. But the entire musical landscape was lit by bursts of innovation that detonated like flash grenades tossed by everybody from the Beatles to the Byrds, the Beach Boys to the Motown artists, and seemingly every artist and band in between.
People did more than make music in those days, of course, and Jackson creates context that situates the music among the rest of the arts and in society at large. For example, in 1965, he points out, “movies almost always had happy endings, unless they were foreign.” But the war in Vietnam was heating up, and the battle for civil rights was becoming more violent as protesters strove to desegregate public facilities and abolish literacy tests designed to keep blacks from voting (one question put to prospective voters, says Jackson, was “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”).
You can get a sense of both the year itself and this chronicle of it by glancing at the helpful timeline that appears in the first few pages. Thus February begins with the release of John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” and ends with the assassination of Malcolm X, with releases by Martha and the Vandellas, the Righteous Brothers, and Buck Owens in the middle.
The main thing about 1965, though, is that, in Jackson’s words, “you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a new classic,” a statement he follows with a list of 36 songs, including The Who’s “My Generation,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Otis Redding’s “Respect” and the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud.” Rock and roll and soul numbers stand out on this list, probably because those genres were fairly new and, in a bid to get them radio play, tended to be short, up-tempo and meant to be played loud. In a word, the songs that represent this golden age were danceable.
Yet the new music was quickly becoming an art form for grownups, which is why Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” appears in this list along with “People Get Ready,” composed by Curtis Mayfield and recorded by the Impressions, and Sam Cooke’s haunting ballad “A Change is Gonna Come.” Without overstating his case, Jackson points out the social and political dimensions of songs like Cooke’s, whose lonely lines target romantic unhappiness but the sorrow of segregation as well, and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” which addresses frustrated love but also became a theme song for both Vietnam soldiers and the Watts rioters whose actions kept Los Angeles on edge for six days and were a turning point in the civil rights movement.
So what made 1965 different from the year before or after? Jackson doesn’t really push an agenda, but it’s clear that, as the new class of teenagers with pocket money began to pour millions into the industry’s coffers, executives and musicians alike formalized business practices that had been more casual during the start-up days. Every Friday morning at the Motown studios, for example, staffers gathered to listen to 20 new recordings and were asked this question: If you were hungry and had a dollar to spend, would you buy this record or a hot dog? The hot dog came out ahead most times, but the songs that won the contest tended to become hits.
In good capitalistic fashion, groups competed against one another (the Beatles vs. the Stones) as well as internally (John Lennon tried to outwrite Paul McCartney and the other way around, as did Mick Jagger and Keith Richards). Jackson has a better ear than a lot of music writers, and one of the best parts of this book is his many casual citings of songs that echo others: Marvin Gaye’s first million-selling single, “I’ll Be Doggone,” builds on a riff used in the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins,” one also pinched by the Byrds for “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
Readers may think they’ve read this book before, and for two reasons. The first is that, unless you’ve just arrived in an alien landing craft, you’ll know these artists and their songs, either because you were there when they were first played or you heard them on a golden-oldie station. The second reason is that there have been books aplenty on every singer, songwriter and band in this one.
But a lot of the best insights come from writers who show us the familiar through fresh eyes, as Jackson does when he returns us to a year when a lot of us were young and poor and not as happy as we thought we were, yet there was always a great song on the radio.
Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
By Andrew Grant Jackson
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 328 pp. $27.99