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1966 – The Year That
Built Rock

Fifty years ago, the world changed for ever – and music was at the heart of it. Out went the squeaky-clean heroes, and in came grubbier anti-heroes. It was goodbye rock’n’roll, hello rock.

Look closely at those numbers. Change and evolution seem to be built into the very graphic shape of 1966. The first two digits pronged into the ground, stable, glancing backwards. The next two on wheels, speeding forward, reaching out and up, one like the hand of Levi Stubbs, the other the windmilling arm of Pete Townshend, pointing the way towards the future. Not just 12 months ahead, but towards where we are now, 50 years later.

1966 was the beginning, the zero hour. The end of teenyboppers and the Scream Age. The birth of serious music fans and the Ear Age. It was the big bang of everything that is celebrated by rock lovers today and by extension, this magazine. Even that word “rock” was new. Shedding its 10-year sidecar “roll”, it became simultaneously more modern and open to all kinds of new sidecar possibilities – acid, folk, freak, garage, psychedelic.

Just consider a few of the still-vital innovations the 1966 rock explosion brought us: the 33 rpm album as a cohesive artistic statement, the guitar hero with the Les Paul and the Marshall stack, the rock opera, the concert light show, the artist who has not only hits but informed opinions about the world, the first live bootleg, and songs that went far beyond boy-meets-girl to explore sex and drugs, disillusion and depression, rebellion and defiance, happenings and higher consciousness. Also, songs that went beyond the de rigeur two minutes 50 seconds. There were multi-track freak-outs like the screaming seagull tape loops (actually a sped-up McCartney laughing) behind the mind-bending Tomorrow Never Knows, and humble-but-hip experiments like the Coca-Cola bottle tapping out time behind Bobby Fuller Four’s Let Her Dance. There was a collision and melding of musical styles and cultures – from the sitars that snaked through Paint It Black to the electrified John Coltrane jazz riffs channelled on Eight Miles High, from the fingerpicked Celtic drones of Roy Harper’s Legend to the amped-up Tchaikovsky of The Move’s Night Of Fear and minstrel show jug’n’jive of Daydream

That Lovin’ Spoonful song, the biggest hit of the summer in the UK, gave birth to Lazy Sunday Afternoon by The Small Faces, Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks and Good Day Sunshine by The Beatles. That was another magical thing about 1966. Everyone was being influenced by each other, constantly upping the collective creative ante. Paul Simon lent David Crosby a female chorale album called Music Of Bulgaria. Cros said: “Those chicks can sing!” and borrowed some of the harmony magic for Wild Mountain Thyme. Dylan turned The Beatles on to pot, and The Beatles turned Donovan on and he wrote Sunshine Superman. The Small Faces, Spencer Davis Group, The Beatles and the Stones hung out together backstage at the NME Poll-Winners show. “It was euphoric,” said Spencer Davis. There was a unity, a community, all about friendly competition and mutual admiration. Artists were facing the same direction – forward - and suddenly, they were tossing aside those sketchbooks with studies of past masters to create something new on a big, anything-goes canvas. 

One of the last major releases of 1965, Rubber Soul, lit the fuse to it all really, introducing the game-changing idea of the album as a deeper experience than the single. Famously, Rubber Soul was the gauntlet thrown down before 23-year old Beach Boy Brian Wilson that inspired him to leave behind the surfboard serenades for the symphonic sound of Pet Sounds, the 1966 album that Andrew Loog Oldham called the “equivalent of Scheherazade, the most progressive album of the year”. But Brian wasn’t the only one who benefitted from dropping the 45 rpm mentality.

Oldham’s charges the Rolling Stones stopped pretending they were living in the Mississippi Delta circa 1930, and for the first time, wrote all their own songs, for Aftermath. Nasty songs they were too, about pill-addicted housewives, groupies and scheming hustlers, set to tough grooves that twisted the blues with marimbas, sitars and Jagger and Richards’ push and pull into what we now know as the unmistakable Stones style. As Richards told Hit Parader in ’66, “Two years ago, our sound was a mixture of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. We have our own sound now.”

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