Music: Heart and Soul of the People

A Review of Rock Odyssey: A Musician's Chronicle of the Sixties
by Ian Whitcomb

Author Biography

Ian Whitcomb was born on July 10, 1941 in Woking, Surrey, England. He attended Trinity College, starting in 1961, where he earned his degree in Modern History and Political Science. Whitcomb has written ten books, besides Rock Odyssey, including After the Ball, which chronicles the history of pop music. He now lives with his wife in Pasadena, California where he works for the state, giving lecture-concerts at rural libraries.

“Like most Europeans at that time,” when Ian Whitcomb crossed the pond and came to the United States, he “was both attracted and repelled by flagrant Americanism” and felt a “touch of culture shock.”1 Coming from an upper-middle class British upbringing that included boarding schools, holidays, and speaking “the king’s English,” Whitcomb was fascinated by the fast-paced, fast food obsessed world that was, and is, America.2 Deciding to become a musician at age eight after witnessing Charlie Danvers’s comedy show, Whitcomb became engrossed in all things pop and rock. His quest to become famous eventually led him to many twists and turns where he met some of rock’s biggest legends in the process. Rock Odyssey chronicles Whitcomb’s fleeting success, his sudden demise, and the history of all things rock and roll in the sixties.

Whitcomb began his narrative with a stark description of the bleakness of post-war Britain and how it compared with the livelihood of sixties America. American culture and music offered the British people an escape from the harsh reality of their own lives. Because the depressed British society wasn’t much of a creative outlet, at least initially, people there relied on the outpouring of music from America’s West Coast and the surf generation. Once he arrived in America, Whitcomb realized how important pop music was becoming. Noting what pop was, Whitcomb remembered that he “knew that sexiness was at the essence of pop music…[a]nd who doesn’t want to be popular?”3 Because of the rising popularity of pop and rock music, clubs sprouted up across England, with bands like the Rolling Stones pioneering the English rock sound. It became sexy and intimate, and young audiences were enthralled. As this scene was manifesting in Britain, another scene entirely was emerging in America. The surf culture, starting with the Beach Boys and Dick Dale, overtook the West Coast. The Beach Boys commanded the charts and Dick Dale’s innovation on the guitar was unprecedented. This sensation was nothing however, in comparison with the British Invasion. With the rising popularity the Beatles had in Britain, the fab four decided to go to the United States—Beatlemania was born. From the instant they arrived on February 7, 1964 and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show two days later, the Beatles spawned the biggest pop revolution America had ever seen. Out of this was born a concept relatively new to the music industry—marketing. The Beatles’ name was plastered on everything from T-shirts to lunch boxes, but their manager, Brian Epstein, “drew the line at sanitary napkins.”4 No one could deny the impact the Beatles were having on America. Even the great Bob Dylan noted that their music was “‘young and pure and sassy and honest’” and was “‘pointing…the direction…music has to go.’”5 By this time Whitcomb himself was making progress as a musician and was playing at Seattle University.

As Whitcomb’s account continues into the year 1965, he delves more deeply into the increasingly evident fact that music was becoming a meaningful form of expression and not just entertainment, the “archaic term” Rock & Roll being replaced by the more “austere, hard-staring, all-questioning, and all-embracing ‘rock’” in the process.6 Beatlemania died down and artists like the Byrds and Bob Dylan took center stage with powerful lyrics that inspired a generation. Events like the Vietnam War inspired the poignant poetry that these artists used as their weapons against the injustices they saw in society. It was in this climate that Whitcomb achieved his first, and last, pop hit, “You Turn Me On.” At the same time as Whitcomb’s short-lived success, one of rock’s most important bands emerged—the Who. The Who had a way of “expressing a general, vague anger at the hidebound, claustrophobic atmosphere of England” and creating “such deafening, wonderful noise” that caused quite a stir in Britain.7 Added to that was Townshend’s creation of the windmill on guitar and his onstage antics that caused the Who to become an underground sensation in Britain. Also making waves was Bob Dylan, “who [used] bad grammar to make beautiful poetry and a rough-edged voice to sing spellbinding songs” that also had meaningful connotations.8 Dylan reinvented himself with a whole new style and sound that mixed blues, country, and rock with his old folk origins. Whitcomb stated Dylan’s transformation best when he said, “gone was the Greenwich Village cheerleader. Present was the Pop Star.”9 While Dylan was breaking away from his folk roots, the Byrds were the first group to fuse folk music with rock. As Dylan and the Byrds began to take off, Whitcomb began his descent. Whitcomb’s quick temper caused his album to become blacklisted and no radio station would think to play his songs. Reflecting on his career and travel so far, Whitcomb realized that he’d “seen America—and yet [he’d] seen little outside of the homogenous motel rooms with the same stormy TV reception, Impressionist wall prints, and Gideon Bibles.”10 This cynicism kept Whitcomb down for a while until he met the flamboyant front man of the Stones, Mick Jagger. Jagger told Whitcomb to lighten up and enjoy the business, and life itself. This pep talk, along with the Beatles’ release of “Yesterday” and the subsequent hope for the return of good music, led Whitcomb to close 1965 on a positive note.

1966—it was the year Elvis began his decline and John Lennon proclaimed the Beatles to be “‘more popular than Jesus.’”11 During this time, it became progressively clear that the pop music genre was splitting into three distinct sections: “records for the teenyboppers, records for the heads, [and] records for the mums and dads.”12 With the release of Rubber Soul, the Beatles created a stir, as the title and meaning of the album weren’t clearly and instantaneously understood. Though the record still sold as impressively as all the others, there was chaos underneath the seemingly perfect façade. John and Paul weren’t cooperating, as they had once been, and their August 29th performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco turned out to be the group’s last. As the Beatles flame began to die, a new duo sparked—Simon and Garfunkel. With their “bookish” look, their “lyrics…studded with literary devices and allusions,” and their “feather-light” beat, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel took everyone by storm with “The Sounds of Silence.”13 Around this time, Whitcomb had his first, and last, experience with the hard-hitting hallucinogen, LSD. Though he refused to be part of the drug scene, others, like the rock groups the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, embraced the culture and “became the most well known of the San Francisco acid-rock bands.”14 Instead of creating music that was political or had deep meaning, these bands made music that was meant to entertain. Some of the influence of bands under the influence of drugs, like the Grateful Dead, even extended to older, more mainstream acts. The Beach Boys came out of their shells in a sense, and put themselves in the limelight with “Good Vibrations,” while Bob Dylan pulled away from his fame; the year 1966 ended with these changing attitudes of both artists and the public.

The split in music that began with changes in 1966 continued through to 1967, with a major division between rock and pop. “Rock meant producing concept albums” and “subscribing to certain philosophical views,” while pop “entailed making hit singles” and “being nice to the mums and dads and senior citizens.”15 At this time, Pink Floyd, one of the most definitive bands of the sixties, emerged with an innovative blues, R&B, rock sound. As Whitcomb stated, at a live performance “they could be tedious or trippy depending on one’s predisposition, but on record they fit nicely into novelty rock.”16 Cream and Jimi Hendrix also broke out around this time with completely different styles that both worked flawlessly. Cream was downplayed with subtle onstage shows, while Hendrix was a flamboyant performer who was renowned for setting his guitar on fire. This was also the year of the famous concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles. Though the idea of a concept album created tension, the band members were all headed in different directions anyways—musically and in life—which eventually led to their downfall. As Whitcomb’s narrative came to a close, he returned back to Charlie Danvers and spoke of his meeting with the comedian. Danvers said to Whitcomb, “we can’t live in the past. We must progress.”17 In the end, that’s what rock was all about: moving, changing, evolving, and progressing within the social climate.

In this chronology, Whitcomb stresses the differences between music in America and music in Britain, as well as the differences between pop and rock. Whitcomb emphasizes how music changed from being for simple enjoyment to having meaning and a true purpose. He did so by highlighting the most influential groups of the period, dissecting their lyrics, and comparing them to one another by way of “meticulous scholarship.”18 Whitcomb didn’t take the work at face value, but instead looked for some deeper meaning. As an insider, Whitcomb was able to get a different view of the time, and because of that, he made judgments about artists’ characters and intentions that a regular historian couldn’t. The events of the sixties also influenced his work. Whitcomb’s struggle to make it as a pop star, when what was popular in music changed every six months, set the stage for this book. Whitcomb was also biased due to his closeness with the issue at hand. As a pop and rock music lover, Whitcomb showed the effects music had on the sixties as being positive, where as more conservative people might’ve seen the effects as negative.

Criticisms of Rock Odyssey are mostly positive, attributing much of Whitcomb’s success with the book to his knowledge. As Richard W. Grefrath of the University of Nevada notes, Whitcomb entered the American pop scene from England, and was therefore able to report from a different perspective about rock culture. However, as Whitcomb only had one hit single, some feel he used his fleeting fame to gain respect for his non-existent expertise. Critics of the novel also note how while Whitcomb paid excellent attention to the pop and rock scene of the sixties, he completely ignored the rise of Motown in America. Even with “its small lapses,” however, the book has been hailed by Stephen Holden of The New York Times as “the best-written personal chronicle” of the sixties.19

After reading the book, it is clear that the statements made by critics of Whitcomb’s novel are extreme. They give him too much credit as being an amazing pop star with astonishing knowledge of the industry. If he knew so much, why didn’t he have more success? However, they are also too harsh in criticizing his knowledge of the musicians. Whitcomb lived, toured, and partied with these people who most of the population only sees as immortal rock gods, so he had to have known them well. Critics are accurate, however, in citing Whitcomb’s lack of discussion of Motown. He noted how “most young blacks…had no interest in black music unless it was of the Here and Now” but that “Here and Now” included Motown, which Whitcomb omitted from his otherwise complete chronology.20 The book’s vivid descriptions also add to the overall appeal of the novel, which the critics didn’t accentuate enough.

According to Whitcomb, music’s impact on the decade was incalculable. The words and ideas that came from all the great poets and lyricists that were the rockers of the sixties inspired and influenced the youth of the counterculture world. By discussing serious topics at times, but also understanding the need for enjoyment, artists balanced their products and delighted their devoted listeners. Whitcomb also noted how the older generations viewed rock. With the communist threat still heavy on the minds of many, to some, even “folk music was a part of the communist arsenal of weapons” and was dangerous to America’s children.21 In general, though, Whitcomb saw music as a way to understanding as opposed to an arsenal for conflict.

Whitcomb’s portrayal of the period also indirectly describes the impact music had on the relationships teenagers had with their parents. Noting how bands like the Stones did everything they could to differentiate themselves from the previous generation, Whitcomb showed how music gave the baby boom generation an identity and a purpose. With music as a tool, youths were sparked into the defense of their beliefs. Many mainstream musicians felt “that their hearts, minds, and—worst of all—bodies were threatened by great dark forces controlled by the State.”22 Out of this sense of desperation came many of the powerful songs that led teenagers of the sixties. These feelings teenagers in the sixties had still carry through to this day. Today’s youths still look to the powerful lyrics of the legends of the sixties and can still identify with them almost fifty years later. Whitcomb notes how important the risks these bands and artists took were and how dramatic of an impact they’ve had on all the music that has been created since.

Through Whitcomb’s own experiences and the descriptions of the rise and fall of other musicians, it is clear that the sixties was a time during which public opinion highly influenced the direction music went. Changing much over the course of only five years, popular music in America went from being California surf, to anything British, to loud and proud, to downplayed and introspective, to simply entertaining. The music of the sixties had a profound impact; “it was awful; it was wonderful; it was breathtaking; it was god-given,”23 and it changed lives forever.

review by Sarah Mallough

  1. Whitcomb, Ian. Rock Odyssey: A Musician’s Chronicle of the Sixties. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1983, 39.
  2. Whitcomb, Ian 3.
  3. Whitcomb, Ian 28.
  4. Whitcomb, Ian 124.
  5. Whitcomb, Ian 126.
  6. Whitcomb, Ian 145.
  7. Whitcomb, Ian 157.
  8. Whitcomb, Ian 174.
  9. Whitcomb, Ian 182.
  10. Whitcomb, Ian 191.
  11. Whitcomb, Ian 214.
  12. Whitcomb, Ian 213.
  13. Whitcomb, Ian 219.
  14. Whitcomb, Ian 260.
  15. Whitcomb, Ian 282.
  16. Whitcomb, Ian 286.
  17. Whitcomb, Ian 361.
  18. Holden, Stephen. “Rock Odyssey Book Review.” The New York Times Book Review 1984: 1.
  19. Holden, Stephen 1.
  20. Whitcomb, Ian 35.
  21. Whitcomb, Ian 68.
  22. Whitcomb, Ian 242.
  23. Whitcomb, Ian 242.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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