It was the year that rock came of age.

In San Francisco, England and elsewhere, landmark albums defined a mature new era that has lasted to this day

August 19, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

In the shorthand version of rock 'n' roll history, one thing happened four decades ago - The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, forever changing the face of rock music.

But, as important as Sgt. Pepper's was - and is - it was only one of numerous iconic albums released in 1967, a year that might be the most important in the history of this popular musical form.

The music produced that year still reverberates 40 years later. Some of its albums sound as if they could have been made yesterday.

"I think of it as the dividing line between music that many are embarrassed to look back on and music that almost no one is embarrassed about," says William McKeen of the University of Florida.

"Rock kind of achieves its adulthood in 1967," says McKeen, who teaches a course in the history of rock music. "After that, it could sit at the table with the big boys."

Sgt. Pepper's, The Beatles' magnificent concept album, came out right in the middle of the year, at the beginning of June. No one called them the Mop Tops again.

But it did not arrive on a blank musical canvas. The year featured a panoply of memorable, influential albums produced on both sides of the Atlantic, and on the edge of the Pacific as some of the year's greatest music came out of an amazing artistic ferment in the city of San Francisco.

It was the so-called "Summer of Love" there as the Haight-Ashbury based hippie movement reached the peak of its cultural influence. What that meant musically was that the Bay Area attracted all sorts of musicians from across the country, bringing with them a wide variety of influences and ideas. Together, they produced sounds of a sort never heard before.

Nowhere was this creative cultural clash more evident than when Janis Joplin, fresh in from Texas with her stunning bluesy voice, joined up with a bunch of psychedelic longhairs in Big Brother and the Holding Company, which put out its first album in 1967.

"If rock had a manifest destiny, San Francisco was land's end," McKeen, editor of the anthology Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Stay, says of the reason there was so much great music in that city that year. "If you took the country and turned it on its head and shook out everything weird in those days, they would all end up in San Francisco."

Big Brother came into the San Francisco psychedelic sound from the blues direction. Another group, Jefferson Airplane, arrived from folk music.

Jefferson Airplane had released an album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, in 1966, but it was 1967's Surrealistic Pillow, the first to feature vocalist Grace Slick, that put it on the musical map. Again, it took people from across the country to make this music. Slick was from Evanston, Ill.; guitarist Jorma Kaukonen from Washington.

If San Francisco had its native band, it was the Grateful Dead, which also released its first album that year, showing influences as diverse as blues, country, folk, gospel and jug bands. The Dead's eponymous debut marked the beginning of a long strange trip that continues to this day, over a decade after the death of its lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia.

Country Joe and the Fish was another San Francisco group that appeared on the recording scene in 1967 with the very interesting and influential Electric Music for the Mind and Body. Their second album of the year was named for its iconic anti-war anthem, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die.

And the San Francisco area was the setting for 1967's most important concert - the Monterey Pop Festival, a seminal event in rock history. The gathering of musicians - almost all playing for free - might not have been as big as Woodstock, which came along two years later, but musically was probably more influential.

"The classic story about the Montery Pop Festival is that all the record labels came with open checkbooks," says Eric Charry, who teaches the history of rock at Wesleyan University. "They wanted to sign as much talent as they could out of San Franscisco."

It introduced artists like Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who famously set his guitar on fire. Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead drew wider attention when they played at Monterey. And a crowd of California hippie types was mesmerized by the power of Georgia's Otis Redding and his Memphis-based backing band, Booker T. and the MGs.

Over in England, there was more going on than the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper's. McKeen notes that Roger McGuinn of The Byrds has pointed out that it was really an intercontinental rock war. In 1966, the Beach Boys had released Brian Wilson's masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Sgt. Pepper was in many ways a response by the Beatles. Many other groups continued to ratchet up the pressure.

Much of what was coming out of England was an inventive melding of traditional blues and the new electronic sound.

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