NEW YORK — “Sgt. Pepper” was only the beginning. Half a century after the Beatles’ psychedelic landmark, it stands as one of many musical astonishments of 1967 that shaped what we listen to now.
It was a year of technical, lyrical and rhythmic innovation, of the highest craftsmanship and most inspired anti-craftsmanship. The rock album became an art form, and the tight, two-minute hits of Motown and Stax began to give way to the funk of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone and the fiery candor of Aretha Franklin and “Respect.” It was the dawn of the rock festival, in Monterey, and of the pop soundtrack, Simon & Garfunkel’s music for “The Graduate.”
And it was the year Bob Dylan and the backing performers who would name themselves the Band quietly gathered in a pink house just outside of Woodstock, New York, and recorded dozens of songs old and new that were the birth of “roots music” and the foundation for rock’s most famous bootleg, “The Basement Tapes.”
“We were in our own little world, up in the mountains, kind of isolated from everything that was going on,” says the Band’s Robbie Robertson. “But looking back at that time, you could see that the stars were aligned and there was a magic people have been trying to dissect ever since.”
There were endings in 1967 — the deaths of Otis Redding and Woody Guthrie — but many more beginnings. Few years contained so many notable debuts, from artists who would influence punk, heavy metal, glam rock, progressive rock, new wave and other musical trends: The Velvet Underground, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Doors, along with first albums by Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company), the Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Sly and the Family Stone, who called their record “A Whole New Thing.”
The month before Woody Guthrie died, his son, Arlo, debuted with the album “Alice’s Restaurant.” Side One was the anti-war classic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” 18 minutes of deadpan absurdity about Thanksgiving and litter that would become a holiday tradition for the emerging “progressive” FM radio format.
In 1967, a 21-year-old Berkeley dropout, Jann Wenner, borrowed $7,500 and from a San Francisco loft turned out the first issue of Rolling Stone, which helped bring serious attention to music then-dismissed by most establishment newspapers and magazines. During a recent interview, Wenner said 1967 was an ideal time to launch such a publication. Rock was not only maturing, but becoming more interconnected. The Monterey festival in June helped introduce the Who and Hendrix to American audiences and musicians, while also bringing together performers from Los Angeles (the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas) and San Francisco (the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane).
“There was a lot of energy and recognition of fellow artists coming from around the world and trying to do the same thing,” Wenner says.
“All those new, highly visual acts at Monterey expanded greatly the idea of what you can do on stage,” says the music critic Robert Hilburn. “After those events alone, anything seemed possible — this rock ‘n’ roll force was unleashed in all its creative power and glory.”
Music scenes thrived throughout the United States and in England, where the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream and others were making some of their best music; and a young Reg Dwight renamed himself Elton John and began his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin.
Besides “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles released the hits “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” and unveiled their paean to the Summer of Love, “All You Need is Love.” The Stones issued the acclaimed “Between the Buttons” album and the classic two-sided single “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” The Who’s “The Who Sell Out” cleverly interspersed mock-radio commercials and jingles between such hits as “I Can See for Miles.” Cream’s “Disraeli Gears,” often listed among rock’s greatest albums, includes the band’s signature song, and one of rock’s signature guitar riffs, “Sunshine of Your Love.”
“The classic album era begins around this time and it canonizes music in a very different way than when you hear a single,” says Ann Powers, a music critic for NPR and author of “Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music,” which comes out in August. “And that’s a powerful reason why the music remains so resonant, because the album is a like a novel set to music. It’s the form we share with our children and the form we teach and the form we collect.”
In the U.S., San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury district was the home of Flower Power and Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” the unofficial anthem. It was the year Joplin, the Dead and other San Francisco acts broke through nationally and Jefferson Airplane released its two most famous songs, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
In Los Angeles, a label called Original Sound helped Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway” become a minor hit and likely the first one to include the word “funky.” The Byrds warned aspiring musicians with the single “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” while a folk trio called the Stone Poneys hit the top 20 with “Different Drum,” which helped make a star of the 21-year-old lead singer, Linda Ronstadt. Buffalo Springfield, the short-lived quintet featuring Neil Young and Stephen Stills, released its protest classic “For What It’s Worth” and the album “Buffalo Springfield Again,” an innovative blend of pop, folk, rock and country that helped shape L.A. music for years.
In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Wilson Pickett recorded his version of “Funky Broadway” and reached the top 10. In Memphis, Stax was at its peak, with a triumphant tour of Europe featuring Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Redding’s dazzling performance at Monterey and classic singles by Sam and Dave (“Soul Man”) and Arthur Conley (“Sweet Soul Music”). Stax never approached such success again; Redding was killed in a plane crash in December, days after adding overdubs to what became his greatest hit, “(Sittin’ On the) Dock of the Bay.”
One of Redding’s greatest heirs would debut the same year. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the founders of Hot Line Music Journal helped out a high school friend and released the album, “Back Up Train”; Al Greene soon dropped the final “e” from his last name. In Philadelphia, producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff had their first 10 top hit, the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart,” and in the 1970s would supplant Motown as a commercial empire. At King Studios in Cincinnati, James Brown gathered his backing musicians and recorded “Cold Sweat,” widely considered one of the first funk records and a track sampled by Public Enemy, DJ Shadow and other rap and hip-hop artists.
“We like to celebrate debut work, but the best work often happens when mature artists have to confront challenges from outside music. James Brown had been making music for quite a while by 1967. But being part of African-American culture, he’s looking at the rise of Black Power and Afro-centrism and he knows he needs to try different things,” Powers says.
“And this leads to a new phase and a new freedom. And you can still see that impact. Black Power became extremely influential with hip-hip artists. You look at Kendrick Lamar and you can imagine Kendrick Lamar as part of 1967. He has a different sound, but the sentiments and the political stance are not that far off.”
In Detroit, Motown’s golden age would soon end. The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland had left by 1968 because of a royalties dispute, and the rise of Sly and the Family Stone, in tune with the more militant politics of the late ’60s, moved commercial tastes from the label’s polished sound.
But in 1967, Berry Gordy’s “Hitsville” studios were as productive as ever, from the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duet “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “I Second That Emotion.” A rival Detroit company, Revilot Records, helped launch one of the great funk performers of the 1970s and ’80s, George Clinton, whose “(I Wanna) Testify” was a hit in 1967 for Clinton and his group, the Parliaments.
In New York, Bert Berns signed up 21-year-old Van Morrison for Bang Records and produced one of rock’s catchiest and most enduring songs, “Brown Eyed Girl.” Franklin, producer Jerry Wexler and some top session players completed Franklin’s breakthrough album, one she had begun in Muscle Shoals, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” Soon after, Franklin recorded one of Gerry Goffin’s and Carole King’s final collaborations and one of her most beloved hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
High art, social consciousness and psychedelic jams were in fashion in ‘67, but there was space for carefree, radio-friendly singles, from the Turtles’ “Happy Together” to Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” and the Rascals’ “Groovin’.” The Box Tops’ million-selling “The Letter” was a showcase for 16-year-old singer Alex Chilton, who became a formative influence on “alternative rock” in the following decades.
And the hottest act? A quartet that released four No. 1 albums and topped the charts for more than six months despite criticism that it wasn’t a real group.
“It was a halcyon time for us,” says Michael Nesmith, of the Monkees.