Were popular songs from 1918 played widely in 1968?
How about songs from 1928 in 1978?
Or songs from 1938 in 1988?
So how come songs from 1968 are still widely played in 2018?
Want to know why? Here are ten songs from the top of the charts in 1968, from the Billboard Hot 100 of that year:
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (#1).
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream (#6).
“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (#9).
“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (#13).
“Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone (#20).
“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (#31).
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones (#50).
“Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano (#52).
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (#57).
“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Aretha Franklin (#93).
I don’t think I need to write any more words today. The point proves itself. We don’t need to know why. The songs speak for themselves. They sing for themselves. Our attachment is primal, mystical, enduring.
Given the fifty years between the 1960s and the 2010s, not a day goes by that we don’t celebrate the 50th anniversary of something, for many of us our own time on the earth.
Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This year it’s The White Album.
The Rolling Stones already have a 50 and Counting tour on their resume. Last year Fleetwood Mac hit 50 and headlined The Classic West and East stadium tours alongside iconic peers the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.
Paul McCartney will likely tour until he can no longer stand on the stage. Ringo is still regularly on the road with his All-Starr Band. You’ll remember that The Beatles led The British Invasion shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Yes, “all those years ago!”
So what is the endurance factor of what we now call classic rock? Is it simply that the baby boomers who shepherded these bands in youthful acts of defiance are living a lot longer? There might be something to that, but it doesn’t explain why so many millennials are subscribing to the same Spotify channels as their parents.
Certainly improvements in studio and consumer technology have made it easier to preserve and share high-quality recordings of later eras, but the conduit of access is a mechanical bridge, not an emotional path to replay. Variety shows on television in the 1960s and 1970s harkened back to songs of prior times, but not with the same urgency, devotion, or pervasiveness. The sheer volume of fifty-year-old songs populating playlists across age groups today tells us that “something’s happening here.”
Walk into a downtown bar or hotel lounge and you might be as likely to hear a cover band playing “Suzie Q” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, #97 in 1968) as you are anything from Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I’m not suggesting every roadhouse on the highway basks in nostalgia, but when you walk into a live club and hear “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors, #14 in 1968) little about it seems dated or out of place. Of course there is an entire segment of the population who couldn’t care less about fifty-year-old relics, but the fans who forever revel in these not-so-ancient hits will stay up all night on the dance floor as long as the song list rolls.
It’s the music. It was good fifty years ago and it’s good today. For many who loved the music when it first hit the airways, this is the soundtrack of our lives. We love it, we love the memories that come with it, we love the way it makes us feel. We are silly enough to believe it keeps us young, and we want to share the beat with anyone who can’t sit still once the guitar licks begin pouring from the stage.
It doesn’t matter if that stage is a tiny corner platform in a pizza joint or a grand proscenium dragged into Dodger Stadium. We love the famous original acts when they are on the road, but we also love the young house bands who take the time to learn to play the hits well and then sneak in an original song of their own.
We love the occasional current star who braves an interpretation of a long-ago track (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” covered by Devlin with Ed Sheeran is mighty powerful material). We love the new beside the old. We feel those classic rock tunes as part of our being, whether live, broadcast, streamed, satellite transmitted, or silently resonant in our minds.
Surely there is context to consider in a half-century of resilience, the voices of youth and diversity fighting for equal footing with established authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet context doesn’t make a pop song last. Composition does. Performance does. Texture does. Maybe artists under contract just got better at the whole Tin Pan Alley game. Maybe they started to care as much about their legacy as their commercial acumen. Maybe connecting the generations came to mean more to them than the hunger for flowing cash. Well, maybe.
I’ve been thinking and writing about these songs most of my life, linking them to stories and plays, stitching their lyrics into the fabric of modern and historical philosophy. I’m never quite satisfied with the words I choose to explain why this music matters to me as much as it does. I suppose the songs are an organic whole without explanation. As so many of the young artists declared of their work when it was created, it was never meant to be analyzed. The songs were meant to be felt.
That doesn’t adequately address why this half-century is different, and why people like me believe so many of these songs are not likely to evaporate from the earth when we are no longer here to listen to them. The magic has emerged without anyone showing how the trick is done. That’s probably because the magicians don’t know how they did the trick.
It’s probably better that way. It keeps things authentic.
Keep listening. Keep embracing the beat. Feel young and stay young. You know I will—with any luck for another fifty years.
Ken Goldstein is the author of This is Rage and Endless Encores, both published by The Story Plant. His new novel, From Nothing, is now available for preorder.