|Following the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in February of ’64 there was an explosion of bands across the U.S. The next few years would see thousands of singles released by individual bands, professional and amateur, which we now consider to have the ‘garage’ sound.
These prime years for teen bands closely coincide with the beginning of America’s war in Vietnam. In August of ’64, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Johnson authority to use military force in Vietnam. The Resolution responded to attacks on U.S. ships stationed near North Vietnam, but these supposed attacks are now known to be bogus. (Check the Gulf of Tonkin Incident entry in Wikipedia to read how the truth was distorted to justify military action.)
In March of 1965 Operation Rolling Thunder began the bombing campaigns on North Vietnam. Initially only a few thousand troops were stationed in Vietnam to support the bombers, but this number grew to 200,000 by the end of ‘65. Troop levels increased to 500,000 in 1967. The Tet Offensive occurred in January of 1968, marking a turning point in the war and U.S. public opinion.
As teenaged boys started bands in the wake of the Beatles, they were facing the possibility of being drafted within the next few years. Most had more immediate concerns – girls, school, cars, and the number of songs about Vietnam or the draft are a tiny minority of all teen beat songs from the period. It was easier to write lyrics that imitated the relationship-oriented pop songs of the era than to sing about political opinions and personal fears.
For those that did, their lyrics display their ethical dilemmas – feeling a duty to serve but ambivalent about whether the war is right; being afraid of dying; not wanting to be told what to do either by the government, society or the anti-war front. These lyrics range from idealistic to cynical. Early on there were very dogmatic patriot songs, but as the draft widened and sentiment turned against the war the imagery became more violent and the jingoism subsided.
Stylistically they had few models to draw from in 1965, as most major U.S. and British Invasion acts weren’t writing political lyrics yet. Some groups would draw from the folk styles of Bob Dylan and Barry McGuire. Others could look to a long tradition in country and pop of making novelty adaptions of hit songs. An example of this would be the Beach Bums’ “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret”, or the Midnight Sons rewrite of “Summertime Blues” to show chagrin at the draft.
At least as far back as the Civil War there had been an industry of professional songwriting and production teams to craft songs about war for the public. (See the Civil War Preservation Trust’s article Patriotic Songs of the War to read about the professional origins of the most-well known songs of the era.)
The Vietnam War would be a different case, as by 1965 young bands were the lifeblood of the music industry. For the first time in modern history, the generation actually serving in the war became the primary voice of the conflict.
I: Shutup the Folksingers
In 1965 Bob Dylan was just starting to make inroads on pop radio with “Like a Rolling Stone”. Earlier protest songs like “Masters of War” were rarely heard on commercial radio but their influence was an intellectual force behind the anti-war movement: a voice that had to be answered by those in favor of the war.
Teenagers in bands may have been unaware of the anti-war songs of Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs in 1965, but they certainly couldn’t miss Barry McGuire’s #1 single “Eve of Destruction” on the radio during that summer and fall. This anti-war, pro-civil rights, anti-nuclear song provoked answer songs and parodies, most not sympathetic to McGuire’s sentiments.
There was plenty in “Eve of Destruction” to upset the mainstream: comparing America’s failure on civil rights to a communist totalitarian state (“Think of all the hate there is in Red China / Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama”) and equating anti-Christian values to hypocritical religiousness (“Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace”) are but two examples!
There’s a sting of truth to lines like these which would put people on the defensive. Most grating of all was the singer’s repeated dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country. Love it or leave it pal!
|An early rebuke to McGuire is “The Prophet” from 1965. One thing that’s striking is the sheer belligerence of the singer as he rants!
Fight for their right to be free … of conscience!
This is the classic turnaround – the one exposing the problems is accused of doing nothing positive to help the situation, of being cynical and emphasizing the negative. The patriotic citizen has ‘hope’ and faith that things are getting better.
|A straightfoward inversion of Barry McGuire’s song is the Jayhawkers’ “Dawn of Instruction”. The attitude of the lyrics is similar to The Prophet, with lines like “Step aside, Mister Doom Peddler” and “[we’re] not old enough to vote, but ain’t young enough for runnin'”.
“Eve of Destruction” was an easy target for some of its over-the-top lyrics (“even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’” or “my blood’s so mad feels like coagulatin’”), and the Jayhawkers made the most of these exaggerations.
|Billy Carr’s “What’s Come Over This World” saw release on Colpix, and is obviously a professional songwriting and studio effort. Lyrically it is a flag-waving message, with plenty of disdain for the dissenting elements of the younger generation. The production co-opts more than a little of Dylan’s style, and not in parody either, a sure sign that the old guard was desperate to keep relevant. Dylan-esque harmonica shows up on so many of these answer songs, whether mocking him or in sincere imitation, that his influence must have been inescapable.
|More nuanced (and much better music) is “So the Prophets Say”, released in April 1965 by a group in their late teens the Centurys of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The echo engulfing the tom-tom drums, dense guitars and eerie organ creates a doom-laden atmosphere, but lyrically the song repeats anti-communist propaganda. More than anything, though, it stresses individual choice against conformity. “So the Prophets Say” was written by lead guitarist Billy Beard, who passed away this past July 31, 2008.
|In early 1966 Sgt. Barry Sadler had a #1 hit with that paen to the american soldier, “Ballad of the Green Beret.” The Beach Bums (actually Bob Seger singing when he was with Doug Brown and the Omens) adapted it for their “protest against protesters”, “The Ballad of the Yellow Beret.” It’s not really a parody of the Sadler song as a straight up mocking of draft-dodgers.
|Next installment: Democracy and the Draft
Thank you to Bernard Watts (Scratuglia) and to Pete Sofinski for the label scan. Thanks also to portofranco and Justin for the Billy Carr scan.