The Best Ten Hit Message Songs of the 60s: A Reflection

by Charles H. Smith, Western Kentucky University

     Well, if you’re reading this you’re probably wondering what kind of a nut would try to float such a verdict, likes and dislikes being so subjective.  I freely admit that everyone has a perfect right to their own list of songs from this period – or any other – that they like the best, but I’m on a slightly different track here.  In fact, the list that I’m about to offer up does not actually contain the same ten 60s songs I would personally admit to liking the best…

     For me, “60s music” lasted from about 1963 to 1969.  Before 1963 there was an entirely different dominant culture, both in music, and across the nation in general.  After 1969 popular music became, more and more, a business.  Native creativity was increasingly channeled into efforts to make money.  The period in between was a highly volatile one, both in terms of the growth of society, and the evolution of the music that reflected our perceptions and needs.

     This is not to imply that musicians were not trying to be successes during this period, any more or less than they have tried to be before or since.  But… The horizons seemed more open, and there was a good deal more experimentation going on.  Indeed, lots of different kinds of music, expressing a wide range of sensibilities, became big pop hits.  Songs as widely divergent as “Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Dominique,” “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaaa!”, “The Wooly Bully,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” “Telstar,” and “In the Year 2525” all made it to number one.

     As in earlier times, there were plenty of love songs that topped the charts, from the ecstatic “You’re My Soul and Inspiration” and “I Got You Babe,” to more restrained but equally effective numbers such as “I’ll Never Find Another You,” “A Groovy Kind of Love,” and “Cherish.”  And, of course, there was a whole parade of love-lost songs, statements of defeat like “Needles and Pins,” “The End of the World,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Go Now.”

     But, in contrast with earlier times, songs that expressed discontent or even rage and anger also became popular.  “Paint It, Black,” for instance, used a brilliantly sparse but dramatic arrangement to convey frustration, grief, and yes, anger – not the kinds of emotions that anyone would have imagined trying to build a hit from even three years earlier.  “War,” “Satisfaction,” and “Eve of Destruction” provide other familiar examples.

     So, out of all this motion, what might we look to as a guide to “best-ness”?  Certainly, the best songs are creative, timely, and often tug at our heart-strings.  But most are, in the end, as Elton John once described them, “disposable art.”  I love “I Fought the Law” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” but I would never try to argue that these wonderful trifles taught me anything useful about living in this world.  Hardly better in this regard, for all their beautifully expressed sentiments, are “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Love Can Make You Happy,” or dozens of other hits.  Still, some songs do rise above the immediate to make us both feel and think; that is, to learn something useful about ourselves.  I think these qualify as the “best” of a given era.

     Following is a selection of ten songs from the 1963 to 1969 era that I think can be singled out in this regard.  This is my list; admittedly I can’t defend the choices in any strictly objective sense, nor would I be reluctant to perhaps switch a few for others, if I thought long enough about it.  They are presented in the chronological order they came to our awareness.  A few words of justification accompany each title:

—“Blowin’ in the Wind,” Peter Paul & Mary, Summer 1963.  This is probably the best known version of the famous Bob Dylan song.  It was a hit at the height of the early 60s folk revival, but it has an undeniable timelessness.  Dylan has always been more about complaining than he has been about solving, yet at this time and place, somebody needed to provide a rallying point for emotions, and he stepped up.  The song is a powerful indictment of what has not yet been accomplished, and it helped convert many an individual to social activism.

—“Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones, Summer 1965.  Who says that all songs that inspire have to do so in a way that breeds, well, satisfaction…?  “Satisfaction” is a brilliant complaint, an observation that whether one is rich or poor, there is just too much about society that is artificial, counterproductive, and isolating.  What could be a more perfect expression of cavalier annoyance with the core deficiencies of the human condition than the line:  “…When I’m ridin’ round the world, and I’m doin’ this and I’m signing that, and I’m tryin’ to make some girl…”?  And the instrumental accompaniment to Jagger’s shout-out is just perfect: a repetitive, snarling grind of a guitar lead that oozes disgust.  The sheer success of the song (it was a consensus number one for the year), resonating with the suppressed disappointments of millions, should have turned heads in every chamber of every government on the planet.

—“Turn! Turn! Turn!,” The Byrds, Fall 1965.  Pete Seeger wrote the music for this song in the 1950s, using as lyrics passages from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  But it only became a major hit with The Byrd’s version, which enlivened the message with a majestic, Bach-like rock arrangement that was nothing short of anthemic.  The notion that there is a time and place for all things is a settling one, but Seeger’s one addition to the lyrics, the last line “…a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late” provided focus and hope for a listening public that only weeks earlier had been assaulted by Barry McGuire’s doomsday vision of society, “Eve of Destruction.”

—“In My Life,” The Beatles, Winter 1965/66.  What we have here is either the simplest of love songs, or a profound treatise on the primacy of self-respect.  As the song’s author was John Lennon, I highly suspect the second interpretation is the correct one.  This is the last song on Rubber Soul, ostensibly its “climax,” yet it is possibly the most sparingly-arranged of all Beatle works.  I think this is part of John’s point:  you don’t want to make a big deal about it, but if you can’t truly respect yourself first, above all other things, then neither can you be of a mind fully respecting all others.

—“Kicks,” Paul Revere & the Raiders, Spring 1966.  The response to this brave song, by the well-known writing team Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, was different in different places.  In Chicago, where the street drugs problem was real and up close, the song was number one for four weeks and stayed in the top-ten for more than ten.  In other places it was a lesser hit, in part because it was actually banned in some markets for being about drugs at all.  It was also regarded as “uncool” by many in the burgeoning psychedelic drugs culture.  Few people on either side objected to the way the message was presented musically, with the intense vocals of Mark Lindsay playing well against a tight, tension-filled guitar line and relentless thematic development.

—“Here, There and Everywhere,” The Beatles, Summer 1966.  Okay, I admit it’s a sappy love song.  But it’s just – so good.  If there were ever a song that gives domesticity, faithfulness, and commitment a good name, this is it.  Apparently Paul McCartney wrote it after attending a Pet Sounds listening party in early 1966.  He probably was especially inspired by the Brian Wilson song “God Only Knows” (which might also be on this list, for the same reasons).  Many sources rank “Here, There and Everywhere” among the very best popular songs ever written, and I have no problem with that.

—“She’s Leaving Home,” The Beatles, Summer 1967.  This song was one of the most memorable tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; still, it is not often as highly rated as many other Beatles works.  But there are few songs about change that are as multidimensional as this one is, cleverly set out as a rather simple vignette almost anyone can appreciate.  The “should I stay or should I go?” dilemma is one that everyone eventually has to face, whether it be in the literal sense, or in a more metaphysical one connected with any of the attachments in one’s life: at what point do you leave the sinking ship?  Eventually the tipping point is reached, and it becomes time to say “Bye, bye.”

—“Waterloo Sunset,” The Kinks, Summer 1967.  Although not a hit in the U. S., this wonderful Ray Davies piece did reach #2 on the British charts.  Despite its London connection, it’s not really about a place, but instead an allegory on self-reliance.  When the protagonist says “But I don’t feel afraid; as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise” he is putting a positive spin on the paradoxical.  Yes, the world is often a grubby, troubling, and isolating place, but it is also filled with splendor, and with opportunities.  Thus no one is truly alone, at least no one who can be impressed by the vast expanses of possibility.  A question to be posed, however: “How does one evolve to such a lofty state of being?”…

—“Days,” The Kinks, Fall 1968.  This song, also a hit only on non-U.S. charts, has the interesting distinction of completing a thought begun in an earlier work – the preceding item on this list.  “Days” veritably glows with positive, if somewhat nostalgic, vibes, right from its ascending first notes.  Its line “But it’s all right, now I’m not frightened of this world, believe me,” emphasizes a most important point:  that the roads leading to happy futures most often begin with early influences on us featuring caring and respect.  This is the fuel that ultimately leads to positive engagement.  And it is a universal fuel.  The lyrics give no hint as to particulars:  the person being thanked in the song might just as easily be a minister or guidance counselor, as a parent, friend or lover.

—“Leaving on a Jet Plane,” Peter Paul & Mary, Fall 1969.  Written in 1966 by John Denver and covered by many artists, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” is perhaps the most eloquently and subtly penned anti-war statement of all time.  Yes, it can be taken as a simple love song (or in several other ways, as traffic on the blogosphere proves), but please:  this was the time of an escalating Vietnam War (and surely PP&M viewed it in this light).  What could grind one up inside more than the idea of a goodbye that might end up being a last goodbye?  The poignancy meter is off the scale here:  the reality of war, brought home quickly.  And even if taken merely as the story of a goodbye from an eighteen-year-old going off to college, it still hurts.

     I suppose one could refer to these ten works as “message songs.”  But they are especially notable for their restraint: you don’t feel like you’re being beaten over the head when you listen to them.

     For what it’s worth, among these ten, which one do I personally consider the “best of the best”?  I feel torn between “Satisfaction” and “Days.”  The first is simply the last word in sly, devastating, social criticism – a truly great artistic accomplishment; the second, a recipe for changing the world, beginning with the goodness in others, and one’s ability to absorb it.  In a world in which we must take the ACs with the DCs, one must be both alert, and engaged!

P.S.:  For those interested in this track, an additional list of ten “honorable mentions,” placed in no particular order:  

—“Respect,” Aretha Franklin (1967), written by Otis Redding.
—“Mrs. Robinson,” Simon and Garfunkel (1968).
—“Sounds of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel (1965).
—“We Can Work It Out,” The Beatles (1965).
—“You Were On My Mind,” We Five (1965).
—“Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan (1965).
—“Born to be Wild,” Steppenwolf (1968).
—“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie (1967).
—“A Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin (1967), written by King/Goffin/Wexler.
—“Society’s Child,” Janis Ian (1967).

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Also see my essay "We Five's 'You Were On My Mind': Ode to a Sometimes-Maligned Song".

Copyright 2014 by Charles H. Smith. All rights reserved.