Bás an cheoil

Were you there “the day the music died”? That line from Don McLean’s hit “American Pie” sums up for me the impact of the 1960s pop revolution. The death of music.

I have described here how one man tried to stymie that revolution, at least in Ireland. But nothing could halt the juggernaut for very long and by the end of the 1960s British and American pop had spread to virtually every part of the world.  So what were the consequences for our musical tastes? The answer dawned on me recently when I was listening to some old episodes of the long-running BBC radio series, Desert Island Discs

For those who don’t know this venerable British institution, each edition consists of an interview between the host and a well-known guest. The big difference between it and other chat shows is that the interviewee must choose eight records or discs for their possibly lengthy stay on a mythical desert island. It is a rather quaint way of allowing listeners to hear what the guests regard as their favourite recordings.

In May 2011 listeners to the show were asked which discs they would pick. The results can be seen on the Desert Island Discs web site. As well as the top 100 tracks, the site also shows what it describes as “Your Top 100 Artists”. Here are the first five:

1. The Beatles

2. Bob Dylan

3. Ludwig van Beethoven

4. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

5. Pink Floyd

To find out who might have participated in the poll we must turn to the BBC’s own research:

The average age of the Radio 4 listener is 56 years old and skews towards an older audience.[1] 

So that “older audience” would probably include people like me who grew up in the 1960s. Does this explain the mix of Beethoven and the Beatles in the list?

I recalled here how exciting I found the Beatles when I first watched them perform in a cinema newsreel. But I did not mention another musical influence I came across while watching our new black and white television: Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Karajan’s quiet intensity as he brought to life Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was quite different to the hysteria whipped up by the Beatles in that clip, but the impact on my young mind was equally mesmerising.

I never thought about it at the time, but I must have accepted implicitly that the best pop music was just as worthy of my attention as anything by the greats of the classical world, like Beethoven or Mozart. Much later that talented writer Melvyn Bragg dismissed distinctions between classical and popular music as “the refuge of the merely snobbish”. In the same article Bragg reflected the attitude of many children of the 1960s when he wrote:

There are times when Beethoven takes you into his music so overwhelmingly that you feel your skin will burst with the sound inside your body. Yet listening to or, better, listening and dancing to the Beatles can provoke a not dissimilar ecstasy.[2] 

Among the very first albums or LPs I bought in the late 1960s were the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the latest release by Welsh singer, Tom Jones. The first featured classical music so modern that the composers, Aram Khachaturian and György Ligeti, were still alive at the time. But I was also entranced by the sound of Tom Jones’s powerful voice. So I saw no contradiction in liking both.

I still like both, but I do not regard them now as indistinguishable works of art. A legacy of 1960s cultural conditioning is the insinuation that we are snobs if we value one above the other. Melvyn Bragg would have us believe that Paul McCartney or Andrew Lloyd-Webber are the modern-day equivalents of Beethoven and Mozart. But they are not. 

What the Desert Island Discs poll demonstrates is the truth of Noël Coward’s quip, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. It’s safe to assume that if such a survey were taken among a younger audience, Beethoven and Mozart would be well down the rankings, supplanted perhaps by Queen or Abba. 

In a transformation akin to the alchemy said to have been performed by medieval necromancers, gold has been replaced by lead.  That is what I believe happened during the 1960s and whether we like listening to Beethoven or not, we are all the poorer as a result. 

But can this shift in musical tastes be linked to a specific date, as these lines from "American Pie" suggest?

I saw Satan laughing with delight

The day the music died.

Impossible to know but I wonder if it was Tuesday September 11th 1962, the day I proposed here as the launch date of the 1960s cultural revolution.

[1] BBC Marketing & Audiences, BBC Radio 4: 44 Minute Drama (c. 2017).

[2] Irish Times, 23 Sep. 2000.