Music: Heart and Soul of the
A Review of Rock Odyssey: A
Musician's Chronicle of the Sixties
by Ian Whitcomb
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
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
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
review by Sarah Mallough
- Whitcomb, Ian. Rock Odyssey: A Musician’s Chronicle of
the Sixties. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1983, 39.
- Whitcomb, Ian 3.
- Whitcomb, Ian 28.
- Whitcomb, Ian 124.
- Whitcomb, Ian 126.
- Whitcomb, Ian 145.
- Whitcomb, Ian 157.
- Whitcomb, Ian 174.
- Whitcomb, Ian 182.
- Whitcomb, Ian 191.
- Whitcomb, Ian 214.
- Whitcomb, Ian 213.
- Whitcomb, Ian 219.
- Whitcomb, Ian 260.
- Whitcomb, Ian 282.
- Whitcomb, Ian 286.
- Whitcomb, Ian 361.
- Holden, Stephen. “Rock Odyssey Book Review.” The New
York Times Book Review 1984: 1.
- Holden, Stephen 1.
- Whitcomb, Ian 35.
- Whitcomb, Ian 68.
- Whitcomb, Ian 242.
- Whitcomb, Ian 242.