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The sounds of American counterculture and citizenship

By Michael J. Kramer


We’re told many stories about the 1960s, typically clichéd tales of excess and revolution. But there’s more to the popular music of the 1960s. There are many ways in which rock music has shaped our ideas of individual freedom and collective belonging. Rock became a way for participants in American culture and counterculture to think about what it meant to be an American citizen, a world citizen, a citizen-consumer, or a citizen-soldier. These songs continue to inform the meaning of citizenship in a global society today. Here are just a few of the most influential songs of the modern American history and society.

1. Built to Spill, “You Were Right”

Doug Martsch of Built To Spill was born in 1969, a child of the children of the 60s like me. In this song, from the 1999 album Keep It Like a Secret, he chronicles the way in which the lyrics of 60s rock shaped those who came of age in the 80s and 90s in ways that were as troubling as they were inspiring. Frustrated hopes, annoying cliches, utopias gone sour, desires felt but unrealized, the whole shallowness of the 60s rock dream—they are all in this song, addressed to a “you” who is what: a parent? A cool older brother or sister? A lover? A friend? That old hippie down by the village square? The entire cast of rock star heroes who we felt betrayed us? Our own stupid belief in them in the first place? The song addresses all of these figures. But it’s the guitar playing that contains the real sting: angry, bitter, raging, it also sticks with the soaring guitar solo as expressive device, as if to say that despite all that rock has failed to live up to, something still pulls the singer back to the music—and to its elusive messages to love.


2. Neil Young, “Twisted Road”

Neil Young, an inspiration to Doug Martsch (just listen to Built to Spill’s version of “Cortez the Killer”), reminisces about the magic of rock—and about how hard it is to recapture that magic. It’s a happy song, but it’s also a twisted road, one where devils lurk and where things have gotten lost. It’s only “if I ever get home” that Young plans to “let the good times roll.” In the meantime, he’s listening to Bob Dylan and the Dead, playing where he once heard Roy Orbison perform. Lots of sadness in this song among the gladness. And there’s that guitar again, telling the story better than the words can.

3. Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”

It was cursed and lambasted by San Franciscans who had forged the psychedelic scene prior to the ill-fated Summer of Love in 1967. Written by John Phillips of Mamas and the Papas fame as the theme song for the Monterey International Pop Festival and sung by his pal from folkie days, Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco” is actually a magnificent pop song. Yes, the lyrics are a naive, even cynical call for vast numbers of young people to arrive in the City by the Bay with nary a plan or clue as to their survival. But listen a bit more carefully and uncertainty, hesitancy, and  disbelief seep into this generational anthem—the melody, which some might deem cloying, can also be heard as tender, a musical wish more than an assertion of fact. That’s what made the song so alluring in fantasy, and so damaging in reality. But pop music is like that.

4. The Grateful Dead, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”

The Dead’s version of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” The last chord is a warning, but by then it’s hard not to want to follow the band, as many would for years to come after the heyday of the San Francisco Scene. This was the group’s attempt at a pop song, but for a better sense of their Acid Test-inspired mayhem, give a listen to this next track.

5. The Grateful Dead, “Viola Lee Blues (Previously Unissued Live in San Francisco 1966 Version)” on Complete Live Rarities Collection.

Introduced by promoter Bill Graham as “the oldest juveniles in the state of California,” the Dead ramble through their scruffy, rocked-up, garage band-on-acid version of this old jug band song from Gus Cannon. They hit wrong notes, the singing is out of tune, but there’s something thick and soupy about the music that sucks you in, makes you want to bob around like a jellyfish on a dance floor under the light show. Their endless, jammy take on the Martha and the Vandellas Motown classic “Dancing in the Streets” from this time period offers similar pleasures. Later they turned it into a disco song—yikes!

6. Jefferson Airplane, “We Can Be Together”

I suppose “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love” was The Airplane’s version of “San Francisco,” but this song, which kicked off the 1969 album Volunteers, is a nice example of the kinds of hopes circulating around the Bay Area in 1969 during the time when the massive rock and arts festival Wild West, planned for Golden Gate Park, almost happened (but didn’t). What did it mean to get together, to get it together, to get it? The politics of the counterculture had grown more complex, more fraught by 1969. They were not just a simplistic message about peace, love, and flowers anymore. People in motion indeed.

Publicity photo of the Jefferson Airplane. November 24, 1970. RCA Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Publicity photo of the Jefferson Airplane. 24 November 1970. RCA Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

7. Sly and the Family Stone, “Everyday People”

Another anthem for the San Francisco Scene, this one from Sly Stone, who had been a popular disc jockey on Oakland’s rhythm and blues radio station KSOL, where he would throw in recordings by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones among the greats of mid-60s R&B and soul. He also was on the staff of DJ Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell’s Autumn Records, where Grace Slick’s first band The Great Society and the Dead, among others, would record early tracks in the San Francisco Scene’s development. With his multiracial band, Stone criss crossed between white and black audiences at a time of growing racial separatism in the US as he chronicled the painful complexities of life in late 60s and early 70s. Over in Vietnam, meanwhile, as chapter five of Republic of Rock documents, the US Army’s Entertainment Branch organized a multiracial soldier rock band with the suspiciously derivative name Jimmy and the Everyday People. Performing for troops across the war zone, the band’s shows climaxed with…Sly and the Family Stone’s “(I Want to Take You) Higher.”

8. Sly and the Family Stone, “In Time”

“Harry Hippie is a waste….” One of Sly Stone’s many amazing tracks recorded in the aftermath of the counterculture’s decline. Featured as the climatic performer at Woodstock, Stone grappled with his own demons, but managed to show how those personal problems intersected with the larger challenges that hippies faced as they tried to make Woodstock Nation a reality, unsure if such a new configuration was possible or even a good idea. Once again, the guitar tells its own story.

9. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”

“Think I’ll just drop out, I’ll go to Frisco, by a wig, and sleep on Owsley’s floor…Walked past the wig store, danced at the Fillmore…I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take the bus back home…Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet, psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street…Go to San Francisco!” Frank Zappa’s great sendup of hippie hype, a perfect satire from the mock-Sgt. Peppers cover in “homage” to the Beatles to the brilliant songs about how alluring yet imperfect the counterculture could be. Also a reminder that critique of the counterculture was vibrant and sophisticated within rock music itself.

10. Big Brother and the Holding Company, “Combination of the Two”

The ever-present Bill Graham starts yet another recording here: “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad” is how he introduces Janis Joplin and her band. To wit, the problematic gender politics are present from the get go, and yet this song is so fun, so communal, so joyous, as if another kind of call for women’s liberation springs up right up out of its opposite. For more on this read Ellen Willis’s wondrous essay on Janis, one of the best on the rock and the sixties counterculture ever written. When Joplin takes her turn to sing “Yea, we’re gonna knock you, rock you, sock it to you now,” you know a leader has arrived, a representative from the republic of rock inviting you in to this strange new land where things might be different and the stakes are high for how you—being knocked, rocked, and socked—are going to respond.

11. Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower”

Hendrix’s cover of this Bob Dylan composition took a cryptic whisper of a song and blasted off into the stratosphere. The tune blasted out over both the official airwaves of the United States Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam during 1968 and on countless cassette machines and record players in-country. To me it is soaked in the energies of Vietnam, with Hendrix’s guitar (he played bass on the track too) choppering, swooping, diving, darting, bombing, and crashing across a bewildering landscape of war. The lyrics are about a kind of imperial war of sorts too, told from the perspective of two “grunts” in the empire, unfortunate soldiers in the field, chatting, telling tales, shooting the breeze on the “bullshit band” (the unused radio frequencies that GIs would use as quasi-underground radio rock stations) as the elusive “enemy” lurks out in the darkness. As a former member of the 101st Airborne, Hendrix was a key figure for many young black and white soldiers who were drawn to the counterculture back on the home front as they served in the Vietnam War.

12. The Animals, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”

It’s a song about working class lovers, a British take on the Brill Building classic “Up on the Roof.” But in Vietnam it was, reputedly, the song played on every jukebox and by every cover band: a great drunken howl of longing to escape the ‘Nam that became, ironically, the key tune in the soundtrack of the very place it bemoaned.

13. Grand Funk Railroad, “People, Let’s Stop the War”

The Vietnamese family rock band CBC performed this song in Saigon nightclubs in the earliest 1970s to audiences of GIs, young Vietnamese, and the polyglot mix of wartime internationals stationed in the capital of the Republic of Vietnam. They did so while wearing American flag t-shirts in a confusing swirl of pro and anti-American sentiment. Longing to rock their way to Woodstock Nation, they eventually would be headliners at the Saigon International Rock Festival in 1971 (yes, it really took place!). From the depths of war, they used rock to make sense of their lives, to join the hippie modernity of the West even as they used rock to keep their family—the root of traditional Vietnamese culture—intact. CBC is still playing, part of the global bar band sublime, in Houston, Texas, these days.

14. Caetano Veloso, “Tropicalia”

Rock had a global impact as the mobile soundtrack for what we might call not Woodstock Nation but the Woodstock Transnational, a a worldwide dream of reconfiguring politics through new, hybrid forms of culture. To join in to the song of the Woodstock Transnational was not to escape local issues in the postcolonial moment of the 1960s; rather, it was to try to forge new combinations of sounds that the openness of rock music and the counterculture seemed to make possible. Join in, everybody get together, but also do your own thing, be free. Many young people around the world, from The Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia (inspirations to Vaclav Havel when they were arrested by the communist state merely for wanting to play their own music) to the dancing social club teenagers in Bamako, Mali, as photographed by Malick Sidibe, to perhaps, most amazingly, the Brazilian musicians who were involved in the Tropicalia movement (some of them later imprisoned by the authoritarian right wing government for their mere weirdness despite also being criticized from the left as well for their interest in modern rock sounds and styles), made rock their own. In doing so, they made it so much more.

Michael J. Kramer’s The Republic of Rock Countercultural History Playlist:

Michael J. Kramer teaches History and American Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture. He writes about arts and culture at Culture Rover.

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