When 1966 began, the top 20 singles in New York City included records by The Beatles, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, The Righteous Brothers, The Animals, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Frank Sinatra and Simon & Garfunkel. As it ended, among the chart’s occupants were The Four Tops. The Mamas and the Papas, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Temptations, The Supremes and The 4 Seasons. It was the year Motown peaked, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, and The Velvet Underground, Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience made their debuts, and a whole bunch of singles that were compiled on Nuggets came out. It was, as the subtitle of Jon Savage’s new book 1966 calls it, “the year the decade exploded,” and he doesn’t mean just musically. Covering the year month by month, he ties the records – singles, mostly – to the social and political swirl of events: Vietnam, Black Power, gay rights and feminism, drugs and fashion, scene-making from London to the Sunset Strip, choosing some representative 45s, some well-known (“Good Vibrations,” “Winchester Cathedral,” “19th Nervous Breakdown) and some less so (Norma Tanega’s “Walking My Cat Named Dog,””My Mind’s Eye” by the Small Faces) as illustrations.
There may have never been a pop year so alive with invention, a more perfect intersection of what was good and what was popular, a year when, before the great divide between AM and FM, nothing “didn’t fit.” Look at the hot singles list from exactly a half-century ago, a not-untypical combination of Motown (“This Old Heart of Mine,” ”Shake Me, Wake Me”), The Beatles and The Stones, blues and soul (Slim Harpo, Wilson Pickett), LA-pop like “California Dreamin’” and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” and there was room for “I Fought The Law,” “Good Lovin’” and “Inside-Looking Out.” Is it any wonder so many kids kept their radios on constantly? That may have been pop’s last gasp. As Savage writes, “It wasn’t called that yet in the UK, but late 1966 was the moment when rock began.” In his last chapters, he describes Brian Wilson endlessly tracking what would have been Smile, and The Beatles laboring over “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the blasts of something new that were Cream’s “I Feel Free” and Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” If you want to draw a pop/rock dividing line, you might as well start there.
The 2-CD set that’s the book’s companion is like spending two hours tuned to the hippest hit station of ’66, even if it doesn’t have any Beatles, Stones or Dylan (I might stick “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” on the 1966 playlist for fun, and “Paint It, Black” and “Rain”). If you can’t get jazzed about “96 Tears” leading into “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and then into the apocalyptic Motown masterpiece “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” then pop doesn’t matter much to you, and Savage mixes those up with rare tracks by The Oxford Circle, Blue Things and The Tornados (the surreal, gay-coded, Joe Meek-produced “Do You Come Here Often?”). The final three tracks of the second disc are Bowie’s “The London Boys,” The Marvelettes’ Smokey opus “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” and Tim Hardin’s “Hang On To A Dream.” You or I might pick three different singles to represent the end of 1966, but it’s hard to imagine they’d be better.
Looming over the last hundred or so pages of 1966 is a politician running for high office. He “was on the crest of a wave…He directly addressed public concerns about the apparently unraveling social fabric, speaking out passionately about rising crime levels, moral turpitude…and the riots that seemed to be spreading….[He] stood for old-fashioned values, the right of business to be unimpeded, the rule of law and order and, above all, patriotism.” He hadn’t held elected office, had hosted a television show, and scared his constituency with warnings about protesters, Black Panthers, free-speech advocates at Berkeley. That November – as records like “Bang! Bang!” by Joe Cuba, “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” by Jimmy Ruffin made the top 10 vibrant and eclectic – the people of California elected Ronald Reagan their Governor.