The great inflation of the 1960s

No, I don’t mean price inflation.  Rather this will be a sort of stream of consciousness on the explosive change of the 1960s.  I’m using “inflation” in the cosmological sense—when things suddenly change really fast, and then slow again.  To take one trivial example; is there any doubt that the speed and complexity of change in the pop music sector accelerated sharply after 1963, and then slowed again in the 1970s and 1980s?  (Maybe there is, and I’m just a deluded boomer.)

Patrick Sullivan sent me the following amazing video from 1965.  (I still can’t get the hang of “embed.”)

Since I’m a right-winger, and thus racist by definition, it took me about 4 or 5 minutes to realize how absurd this video really is.  Yes, that’s exactly how I remember Michigan when I visited all-white areas in 1965, but Detroit was already more than 1/3 black by that time.  The fact that blacks were totally ignored in the video surely tells us something about what went wrong.  And the speed of the change was breathtaking.  The Detroit race riots (among the worst in American history) occurred just two years later.  By the early 1970s Detroit was rapidly becoming a bad joke.  And I mean “bad joke” literally, people would make jokes about Detroit with strong racist implications.  And yet it’s hard to say how important the riots were.  The demographic changes occurred both before and after, and the 1992 race riot in LA doesn’t seem to have impacted that city’s development.

The great America boom of 1961-69 also saw an explosion in violent crime, as rising prosperity and sharply falling poverty rates had exactly the opposite effect from what liberals predicted.  That played no small part in the rise of conservatism in the late 1970s.  The Economist reports (in an excellent story) that crime rates are now plunging all over the world, despite the lousy economy in recent years.

No matter how old I get, I still think of “before and after” in terms of the late 1960s.  Attitudes toward race, women’s rights, sex, formality in clothing, politics, film, music, etc., all changed very fast.

In the 1970s I was greatly influenced by a book on China by Simon Leys, called Chinese Shadows.  I learned that things can be very different from how they seem, or how they are perceived by most experts.  Leys was ostracized in academia, where most China experts had a positive view of Mao.  Of course that doesn’t tell us which conventional wisdom will be wrong today, and in which way.  Is the superficial prosperity of Shanghai just a glittering facade, about to collapse like Detroit in the late 1960s?  Or is the conventional wisdom (in the blogosphere) that China is a bubble wrong?  Might China successfully become a developed country?

Time will tell, but the Detroit video is a reminder that change can come very fast, and in very surprising directions.

PS.  Conservatives are at their best when they are on the fringes, attacking liberal orthodoxy.  Leys was a very nuanced and subtle writer.  Unfortunately conservatives get sloppy and overconfident when they gain the upper hand.  In 40 years we’ve gone from Simon Leys to Fox News.

PPS.  This piece in the NYRoB makes a very persuasive claim that 1979 was the key turning point.  Perhaps that was the year that the explosive change of the 1960s led to a backlash.

Not merely did the experts not have the faintest clue about the series of turning points that were in store. In most cases, they would have struggled to identify who would be the leading actors in those turns. How could they? Only five years before 1979, Deng Xiaoping was in disgrace and living in a tractor repair shop, on the run from the rampaging Red Guards. The Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Iraq, soon to be shunted on to the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was a rookie education minister, familiar to the public only as Thatcher the Milk Snatcher for having deprived younger pupils of free school milk. She had been promoted to the Cabinet mostly because she was a woman; the prime minister, Edward Heath, despised her as a garrulous nuisance. Karol Józef Wojtyła was archbishop of Cracow. The chances of his becoming the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI in 1522 seemed slim. . . .

What had taken hold at a deeper level was the idea that we were living through “late capitalism.” It is remarkable how many economic classics of the 1930s and 1940s had predicted a short shelf life for capitalism as we knew it. Although no longer a Trotskyist by then, James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution opined that “the capitalist organization of society has entered its final years.” John Maynard Keynes predicted “the euthanasia of the rentier” and the disappearance of shareholder capital. Joseph Schumpeter predicted that, faced with the increasing hostility of the legislative and administrative environment, entrepreneurs and capitalists would eventually cease to function.

With the ground so thoroughly prepared, it is not surprising that the claim that the Soviet system would soon bury ours should find such a receptive audience. Nor was the admiration for the achievements of a state-led economy confined to the Communist world. The admiration extended to the shah’s Iran as well as to Honecker’s East Germany.

There was, besides, an unconsciously patronizing assumption that, while Westerners might be inclined to “possessive individualism,” most people in the second and third worlds were more collectively minded. The Chinese were thought to be especially well adapted to real socialism, and there was much fascination with the progress of Mao’s great experiments, as shown by the success of William Hinton’s book Fanshen and David Hare’s play drawn from it. The go-getting behavior of the overseas Chinese seemed to have escaped notice.

In retrospect, what is so startling is the breakneck speed with which the mainland Chinese took to the market once Deng let them off the leash. As Caryl writes, only two years after Mao’s death Deng became supreme leader and was telling his confidant Yu Guangyuan that “we must work in the spirit of Meiji Japan and Peter the Great.” In no time at all, 98 percent of peasant holdings had in effect gone over to private operation. Throughout the 1980s China’s economy grew by nearly 10 percent a year. Today the percentage of economic assets in private hands in China is higher than in some European countries. With all China’s internal repression (on which it now spends more than it does on external defense), this was a genuine leap forward such as the world has seldom seen.

By contrast, the belief that the free market might still have something to offer stagnant economies was rather slower to take off in some Western countries. In Britain, the conventional belief remained that the nationalized industries were simply too entrenched to be disturbed. The constitutional expert Sir Ivor Jennings had pronounced that the labor unions were now an inviolable part of the British Constitution. Nor was it thought practicable any longer to run a modern economy without some sort of state supervision of prices and incomes. Reform of all these things might be desirable, but it was “politically impossible.”

Almost nothing that Margaret Thatcher advocated to the contrary was novel; many of her arguments had been anticipated by Conservative spokesmen opposing the 1945 Labour government. “During her first prime ministerial campaign,” Caryl writes, “she was known to cite the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the Scandinavians who had already started comparable reforms in their own countries.” What was fresh was her zest, her optimism, and her sense of possibility. She was fortunate at coming in just at the moment when almost everyone felt that the nation had run out of road.

Read the whole thing.

PPPS.  Speaking of 1979, this video is a great example of Robin Hanson’s recent claim that in the modern world it’s the singer and not the song.  And when did that change in music occur?  In 1965 . . . how does it feeeeelll . . .



28 Responses to “The great inflation of the 1960s”

  1. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    28. July 2013 at 13:42

    “The great America boom of 1961-69 also saw an explosion in violent crime, as rising prosperity and sharply falling poverty rates had exactly the opposite effect from what liberals predicted.”

    You can thank LBJ and his “Great Society” reforms in large part for that.

  2. Gravatar of Neal Neal
    28. July 2013 at 14:13

    Are you sure the pace of change of your late childhood and adolescence aren’t coloring your memories?

  3. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    28. July 2013 at 15:28

    As I pointed out in the earlier post;

    The boosterism video leaves out a big part of the story; ‘urban renewal’. Detroit was named a Model City in 1966. The Mayor prating in that video being responsible for that, and he seems to have thought of himself as the next JFK.

  4. Gravatar of Luke Carlson Luke Carlson
    28. July 2013 at 16:49

    I completely disagree with your claim about music. Rock music isn’t that special (I hate to break it to you). The big innovation in American music has always been gospel music and its secular version, the blues (this occurred in the late nineteenth century). Jazz, rock, R&B, and many other genres derive many of their defining characteristics from gospel/the blues. Rock music may have made the drums, bass, and guitar the standard for a while, but that ain’t a big deal. You could make just a good a case for the ’20s being this incredibly innovative period in the music, since it spawned jazz, which dominated the American music scene at least until the late ’40s.

  5. Gravatar of JTapp JTapp
    28. July 2013 at 17:36

    I’m reminded of Kevin Drum’s recent article highlighting the (international) research linking lead and violent crime– the seemingly conclusive answer to the much-researched question as to why violent crime decreased so much after the 1970s. Might lead have played a large role in Detroit in the 1960s?

  6. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    28. July 2013 at 18:03

    What percentage of China bears got the idea from Michael Pettis? Are there *any* bears who don’t read Pettis?

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. July 2013 at 18:44

    Neal, No, I’m not sure.

    Patrick. That was near the period of “peak liberal delusion.”

    Luke, It’s not the formation of rock music that interests me, that happened in the 1950s. But after 1963 the genre changed at a supercharged rate for 6 years, after evolving slowly for many years.

    I’m certainly not claiming rock is better than jazz, or more important. Just that it went through a period of very fast and very radical change. But maybe that’s just me. BTW, I was actually too young to understand what was going on in the 1960s. It was only in the 1970s that I started to collect albums, and that’s when I noticed that the late 60s stood out. It was already “classic rock” by the time I started buying albums. I missed the party, I was 10 years old in 1965.

    JTapp, I’m very skeptical of that research, but I’ll keep an open mind.

    Steve, I actually think that Pettis is mostly right about China, I just think he is too pessimistic. There’s a lot of ruin in a nation–especially China.

  8. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    28. July 2013 at 20:58

    USA TODAY survey:

    “Thirty-two economists said they expect Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen to succeed Chairman Ben Bernanke next year. Four predicted Obama will nominate Larry Summers, his former economic adviser and President Clinton’s Treasury secretary.”

  9. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    28. July 2013 at 21:30


    FWIW Jane Jacobs cited Detroit as a prime example of what she called a “company town”, a city dominated by a single industry and its factories. This brings with it little diversity and innovation. As a consequence these towns, she predicted, are doomed to stagnation in the short run and decline in the long run because they can’t adapt to changes in the economic landscape of the main product. Jacobs contrasts efficiency (of a factory/company town) with creativity (of a diverse, inefficient and “messy” but vibrant town, example NYC). Jacobs’ other examples for un-innovative company towns doomed to decline include Rochester (Kodak/chemicals), and of olden times, Manchester (textiles) of the industrial revolution UK. Oh, and she wrote this (The economy of cities) in 1969. Definitely an out of sample predicition.

    Agree on rock music too.

  10. Gravatar of MichaelM MichaelM
    29. July 2013 at 01:08

    Music (and art in general) took off in the 1920’s and never looked back. The pace of change has only really ever quickened, never slowed down. Rock music may have changed significantly in the 60’s, but its changed a lot in the last ten years, too. It’s always changing. It was even changing in the 50’s, you would just never notice if all you paid attention to was the major label pop.

  11. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    29. July 2013 at 03:28

    Scott, Willem of Occam advises one to interpret crime (and many other) statistics through a demographic lens.

    Also, thanks for another “Amazing Trip Down The Amazing Baby Boomer’s Amazing Memory Lane”- a genre that seems to have mercifully ebbed in recent years. Now, y’all gotta figure out how to fix the nation’s finances you screwed up before passing to the Great Reward. Hop to it.

  12. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    29. July 2013 at 04:19

    Is Jon Hilsenrath now channelling Scott Sumner?

    It appears that Janet Yellen would be due a bonus under the Sumner plan.

  13. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    29. July 2013 at 04:52

    I really enjoyed this one and the fact that “your late childhood and adolescence aren’t coloring your memories” make it better and authentic. It had to be a good feeling being on the right in seventies/eighties. Even if I incline more to the left nowadays it is thanks to some of the victories that were fought at that time that spare me some especially frustrating discussions today. In a way we already stand on the shoulders of giants of these times (including their mistakes)

    Anyways I totally agree with you on sixties. What stands out is that it was by no means western phenomenon. Being from central Europe I can relate (from talks of my parents and such) that this was very exciting times beyond iron curtain too. Sixties were very liberating – especially if one considers that this brief period was enclosed by the terror of Stalinist 50ties on one side and terrible 70ties that were called “normalization”. This whole decade was in a spirit of “normalizing” society after aspiration to modernize socialism (known as Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia where I am from) and make it more endurable was crushed decisively by Soviet Russia.

    I agree that the combination of pace, depth but also durability of change that we went through in sixties was unique even in times that were witness to two world wars and changing regimes with breathtaking speed.

  14. Gravatar of dwb dwb
    29. July 2013 at 05:24

    “The great America boom of 1961-69 also saw an explosion in violent crime, as rising prosperity and sharply falling poverty rates had exactly the opposite effect from what liberals predicted.”
    this is my new favorite subject.

    There is an old Cato paper (probably more than one I have not had time to do a lot of research) looking at prohibition. From 1918 – 1933 nationwide homicide rose from about 6.8 per 100k to 10, and then dropped back to 6.8 within 5 years of the repeal of prohibition. Violent crime, homicide, incarceration… the parallel is pretty persuasive but i am sure you have seen it.

    Once again, I don’t think that you can solely blame “great society” liberal welfare giveaways for the explosion of crime. I have no doubt about the (dis)incentive effects of welfare, but the 60s coincides with the stepped up criminalization and enforcement of drug laws culminating in the “War on Drugs.”

    One can make 4-5k per month moving drugs, tax free. If you have any doubt, the leader of the BGF gang was just moved to federal prison (from MD state prison) because he made about 240k from a jail cell selling drugs and cellphones to inmates, and managed to pay off 13 correctional officers with cars and purses and sex to let him do it. I know quite a few MBAs who don’t make that kind of money. Once he was moved to federal prison, Baltimore saw a wave of violence… coincidence or turf wars?

    “black on black” homicide in my mind is no different than “italian on italian” homicide during prohibition. The mafia controlled alcohol, now the black and hispanic gangs control the drugs in the city.

    You can slave through college and not make that money. If you are convinced the “system” is against you, that only adds to the incentive to take a black-market job.

    Violent crime, esp homicide has trended with the war on drugs (city gentrification really comes down to the opportunity cost of various legal vs illegal jobs, which clearly plays a role). 1991 was the peak of the “crack epidemic” and stepped up drug enforcement, although homicide itself really has a peak in the early 80s as well. [if you want to look at statewide, or agency specific data, the FBI has a query tool going back to 1960, before that you need to use the statistical abstract of the US].

    My personal prediction is that once the Federal govt genuinely stops enforcing drug laws, states that decriminalize drugs will see a faster drop in violent crime / homicide. They will also see drop in people on welfare rolls and other entitlements. They will see this *regardless of what they do to other entitlements.* One of the things that keeps people on entitlements is a felony conviction. Early adopters will serve as a very interesting policy lab.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. July 2013 at 06:18

    Thanks Travis.

    mbka, Good observation, but I wonder if that’s really true. Rochester has lots of what were regarded as high tech firms in the 1970s–Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, etc. I don’t see why other tech firms couldn’t have moved in as Kodak gradually declined.

    Machester has recently done well I believe, but no doubt there was a very long period of decline. So I think her theory is part of the story, but there’s more.

    Michael. I’m not convinced. I still think there was an explosion of change and diversity in the late 1960s, far beyond any other period of pop music. And I’m not the only one, any list of pop music classics for 1950-2013 will be dominated by stuff from 1965-70. Not a majority of listings, but way out of proportion. Classics tend to be the first songs in a new style. There were lots of new styles. I’d compare it to the Renaissance and mannerist painters. The mannerists were probably just as talented, but came too late. Radiohead and Beck might be just as talented as the Beatles or Dylan, but they came too late to the rock music party. (Almost) all the good ideas were taken.

    Brian, Yes, demographics are important. BTW I wasn’t actually praising 1965, at least in a political sense. But sorry about the boomer nostalgia. I do have older readers too . . .

    Thanks Vivian.

    JV, Very good observation. In 1968 there were big protests in Mexico City, America, China, Paris, Prague, etc. These places seem unrelated–but something was in the air.

    dwb, Yes, I’m very aware of that 1918-33 murder bubble, and prohibition. Good point. Another factor in the 1960s was weaker penalties, which was then reversed in later decades with penalties that are now often too strict.

  16. Gravatar of Mike from UpstateNY Mike from UpstateNY
    29. July 2013 at 07:08

    Rochester has had many spinoffs from the big tech companies of the past…and still has many technology companies…peaple like living in Rochester..the fingerlakes is great area…but the business climate in poor and smaller companies are much more free to move or expand elsewhere than Kodak was in the past…

    Upstate NY suffers from state government which is dominated by downstate. NYS has had the most “progressive” state governments in the country and yet the GINI index now ranks it as the most unequal in the country….Much of the Update NY countryside has basically become an extension of Appalachia with additional urban poverty…..the poverty rate in Oswego country is one of the worst in the nation. The dropout rates in update city schools is > 50%.

    All the cities still have some very upscale neighborhoods…and I think the quality of life is great…but
    when I tell peaple around the country how much we pay in property taxes..they are astonished…

    Speaking of Detroit utube videos…I just watched this one of the Detroit light rail system … wow…talk about a bridge to nowhere….build it and business will come…public mass transit spending at it’s finest..

  17. Gravatar of mpowell mpowell
    29. July 2013 at 08:26

    The environmental lead – crime wave correlation is remarkably robust at all levels of analysis, local, regional, national and international. And there is a compelling medical causation argument. But much of the detailed analysis has only been done recently. I think you have to re-examine stories about crime in the 60s/70s with this new information. It was probably just coincidental with other political developments (and if anything crime was the driving factor, not the other way around – except for policies impacting environmental lead levels).

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. July 2013 at 09:20

    Mike, Good post.

    Mpowell. The crime rate virtually doubled in a very short period of time. I doubt lead levels changed much at all during that stretch.

    To be clear, I agree that lead is harmful, I just have doubts about the claims that are being made. I think other factors mattered more.

    But then I was exposed to lots of lead, so perhaps it clouded my judgment. 🙂

  19. Gravatar of Doly Garcia Doly Garcia
    29. July 2013 at 10:05

    I agree that some decades have more changes in them than others, but if we’re talking the 20th century, you can’t really argue that the most change happened in the 60s. The 60s were clearly a leisurely walk in the park compared with the 40s. Imagine you were trying, on 31st Dec 1939, to predict where things would be by 1949. Not only it’s almost impossible you’d guess the correct answer to the geopolitical situation in 1949, you probably wouldn’t guess either how the interior of homes would be radically changed with a whole lot of appliances, or in car manufacturing and how that would affect the streets of cities, or in movies (Ever noticed how all “classic” movies seemed to happen in the 40s?).

  20. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    29. July 2013 at 10:46

    Conservatives are at their best when they are on the fringes, attacking liberal orthodoxy.

    Everyone looks better in opposition– pure, unhypocritical, reasonable; but to exercise power, they get dirty from accountability for actual results, from compromises and trade-offs to sustain power (all for the cause), etc.

    Current examples include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hollande, Obama. From history my understanding is that Gandhi was pretty awful when it came to advising a free Indian government. I always wondered what kind of politician MLK Jr. would have made and I wonder what kind of president Rand Paul would make.

  21. Gravatar of Tom Tom
    29. July 2013 at 12:28

    I think a couple crucial things are missing from this and many people’s Detroit stories.

    The by far biggest wave of black migration to Detroit was during the war. Even then prejudice was so strong that training was mostly reserved for whites while blacks were given unskilled jobs. The first major race riot was during the war.

    The by far most important period of white migration out of Detroit and also by far most important period of job reductions in Detroit was in the late 40s to early 60s as first the war industry scaled down and recession prevailed, and then the auto industry consolidated and moved out to the suburbs that were being built, driven by policy encouragements at local and federal levels. These policy moves were bipartisan and largely in reaction to the black migrations from the south. We Americans like to think we sprawled out because we’re cowboys at heart who love open space, but actually it was motivated mainly by racism and accomplished through pressuring pols to give out sprawl subsidies.

    I agree about the ’60s, talking about the masses. The musical and lyrical sophistication that came to pop-rock music around 65-66 was there much earlier in jazz and folk, but those were small subcultures. I also think that the change of style in rock slowed way down after the late ’80s. On the whiteboy side of things, Led Zeppelin I sounds very different from Progressive Rock which does from Disco which does from Punk which does from New Wave which does from U2, but since then, styles have been fairly stable. My impression is black music hasn’t changed a whole lot since early hip hop either.

    A right-wing NGDP targeter? How bizarre. I think you have to face that if you want an official authority to manage the spending level you will only accomplish that through fiscal spending; your NGDP futures market proposal is silly. But then I’m a classical liberal Democrat so we have nothing in common.

  22. Gravatar of MichaelM MichaelM
    29. July 2013 at 23:12

    Scott: The early 90’s, when Radiohead and Beck were big, were actually a slow time for changes in the rock genre. The early 90’s were just when all the massive changes that happened in 80’s alt went mainstream. The real innovation after that was when electronic instruments really started making headway, rather than just being back-up or support for the standard guitar-bass-drums combo.

    What the 90’s were good for was the mainstreaming of actual electronic music. Techno will forever be the 90’s genre.

    Not trying to be too argumentative, just saying, you might be looking back with rose-colored glasses. I guess everyone goes through that classic rock phase, because I can remember thinking the same thing when I was in high school and I’m probably twenty or thirty years younger than you.

  23. Gravatar of Larry Larry
    30. July 2013 at 03:21

    The sixties saw passage of the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. It also was the start of the War on Poverty and great changes in the role of women and sexual mores.

    The sixties were the last time there was sufficient political will to do something to benefit the middle class, successful or not. President Eisenhower warned us of the military-industrial complex in 1961. It’s too bad the military-industrial complex won. Now we just argue over different ways to benefit the rich and powerful.

    The sixties also saw the Vietnam War. I cannot understand why our leaders, to this day, think that making war is an effective policy tool. It’s too bad our leaders didn’t take to heart that famous saying from the sixties, “Make love, not war.” America would have been richer, safer and happier for it. The dirty fucking hippies had it right.

    So, yes, I agree the sixties were a watershed decade. And there’s hope! Another 50 years and we’ll be back in the sixties again.

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. July 2013 at 07:03

    Doly, I agree about movies, although there were lots of classics up until The Godfather, and then they stopped being made.

    The 1940s were more of a watershed in terms of politics

    Bababooey, Very good point, but I was actually thinking of something slightly different. They aren’t really in power now, but are more dominant (Fox News, talk radio etc) than in the 1960s and 1970s, when conservatism was very weak in visibility sense (even when Nixon was in charge.)

    Tom, You said;

    “We Americans like to think we sprawled out because we’re cowboys at heart who love open space, but actually it was motivated mainly by racism and accomplished through pressuring pols to give out sprawl subsidies.”

    I have doubts about this. Sprawl also occurred in cities with very few blacks. At the same time I agree that where blacks moved in, whites tended to move out. But that didn’t create sprawl. Population growth plus the auto created sprawl.

    You said;

    “But then I’m a classical liberal Democrat so we have nothing in common.”

    I’m a classical liberal independent—sounds like we have a lot in common.

    Michael, Like a lot of commenters you are focused too much on quality and not enough on diversity. The notable thing about the 1960s was the explosion in diversity. Dozens of hyphonated categories were created which even today largely define rock music.

  25. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    30. July 2013 at 10:36

    “To take one trivial example; is there any doubt that the speed and complexity of change in the pop music sector accelerated sharply after 1963, and then slowed again in the 1970s and 1980s?”

    There’s clearly “doubt,” I think, though how strong the doubt is, I’m not really knowledgeable enough to say. But from 1945 to 1963 there were a lot of complex changes in the pop music sector, with the transition from swing to vocal pop to the Presley Haley Berry et al type of thing. There’s the rise of C&W and R&B and big changes (and big sales increases) in the recording industry. Think of the Erteguns and the rise of Atlantic.

    Certainly the 63-69 (or 65-67) period has a certain prominence compared to what came before and after….

  26. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    30. July 2013 at 13:11

    “Michael. I’m not convinced. I still think there was an explosion of change and diversity in the late 1960s, far beyond any other period of pop music. And I’m not the only one, any list of pop music classics for 1950-2013 will be dominated by stuff from 1965-70. Not a majority of listings, but way out of proportion. Classics tend to be the first songs in a new style.”

    I agree with the first statement here, but would like to raise gentle doubts about the rest of it. My first piece of evidence would be the following:

    The top sellers: Thriller, Eagles Greatest Hits, Back in Black, Saturday Night Fever [soundtrack], Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon, The Bodyguard [soundtrack]. As you go through the lists, the only 63-69 albums are Sgt. Peppers and Abbey Road. To some extent “classic pop music” is correlated with “popular.” (I’m not vouching for the accuracy of the list, as the idea that a Shania Twain album is above Led Zep IV, or Jagged Little Pill has outsold Sgt. Peppers, amazes me – but I think the overall thrust of the list is accurate).

    I believe that “any list of pop music classics for 1950-2013 will be dominated by stuff from 1965-70” is simply false. In Film you actually have lists of classics that have at least some level of “scholarly” effort behind them, but for Pop Music I don’t think you do. What you do have are things like the Rolling Stones Top 500 Albums of All Time, the top 5 of which is all 65-67 (Sgt. Peppers, Pet Sounds, Revolver, Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul; Blonde on Blonde is #9). I think this sort of list is very America-centric and very older-mainstream-person-centric. doesn’t have a 60’s list, unfortunately, but I think it’s fun(*) to compare their 70’s list with the top 70’s albums in the RS list:

    RS (70’s rank on RS list, (overall position on RS list), album title, [position on Pitchfork list]):

    1 (6) What’s Going On [49]
    2 (7) Exile on Main Street [11]
    3 (8) London Calling [2]
    4 (16) Blood on the Tracks [5]
    5 (18) Born to Run [absent]
    6 (23) Plastic Ono Band [60]
    7 (24) Innervisions [26]
    8 (26) Rumours [41]
    9 (28) Who’s Next [15]
    10 (30) Blue [86]
    11 (33) Ramones [23]
    12 (35) Ziggy Stardust [81]
    13 (36) Tapestry [absent]
    14 (37) Hotel California [absent]
    15 (41) Never Mind the Bollocks [51]
    16 (43) Dark Side of the Moon [70]
    17 (44) Horses [absent]
    18 (49) At Fillmore East (Allman Bros) [absent]
    19 (51) Bridge Over Troubled Water [absent]
    20 (57) Songs in the Key of Life [absent]

    Pitchfork (Pitchfork rank, album title, [RS overall rank/RS 70’s rank]):

    1 Low [257/?]
    2 London Calling [8/3]
    3 Marquee Moon [130/?]
    4 There’s a Riot Going On [99/?]
    5 Blood on the Tracks [16/4]
    6 Trans Europe Express [256/?]
    7 Led Zeppelin IV [69/?]
    8 Entertainment! [483/?]
    9 Unknown Pleasures [absent]
    10 Another Green World [429/?]
    11 Exile on Main Street [7/2]
    12 Funhouse [191/?]
    13 Pink Moon [321/?]
    14 Loaded [110/?]
    15 Who’s Next [28/9]
    16 Singles Going Steady [360/?]
    17 Maggot Brain [479/?]
    18 Bitches Brew [95/?]
    19 Ege Bamyasi [absent]
    20 Electric Warrior [160/?]

    I would just observe that if RS re-does their list 10 years from now, the albums that are in the RS top 20 of the 70’s but not in the Pitchfork top 100 – Born to Run, Tapestry, Hotel California, etc., will be falling like rocks. The albums that are in the Pitchfork Top 20 but absent or very low in the RS list – Another Green World, Unknown Pleasures, Entertainment!, etc., will be rising. I’m not basing this on my personal opinion of their artistic merit (too much), more on what I think influential younger people see as seminal. The Pitchfork voters know the 70’s music on the RS list much better than the RS voters know the music on the Pitchfork list.

    Last, I’d ask, as a big fan of Dylan, do you think Dylan himself represents a good illustration of your overall point? I wonder if he’d agree with you. Dylan had/has a tremendous knowledge of a lot of now/then-obscure pre-1960’s music and I would think he would view the excellence of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde arising less from the invention of new forms than from the mastery of long-existing forms. I’m not really a big fan, but anyone can see the awe he was held in by his contemporaries (many of whom I do love) and the brilliance of his song-writing. And it seems to me that the merit of his songs doesn’t depend in any significant way on when they were written. Will people in the future prefer Highway 61 Revisited to Blood on the Tracks because the former was the first in a new style? Perhaps those aspects will turn out to be ephemeral….

    Going back to the RS top 5 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan), I’d suggest that Dylan and the Beach Boys could fade less in the esteem of listeners as time passes because their music is less about the exploitation of new styles and technologies; the Beatles could fade more. But of course I could have it exactly backwards.**

    * (And helps fulfill my ambition to become the new MF)

    ** (Though it may appear otherwise, my purpose is not really to disagree with any of your assertions – I think your view could well be correct – so much as to suggest that there might be other ways of looking at things).

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. July 2013 at 18:39

    anon/portly, That’s an interesting comment, and I wish I had more time. It would make a good bar discussion.

    I think the mistake is to forget how many styles developed in the 1960s. I agree that popular music changed in the 1950s with Elvis, etc, but those changes occurred much more frequently in the 1960s. Instead of discussing endless examples, let me ask you to think about the career of the Beatles, or Dylan, or another innovative group. Did artists in the 1950s go through so many new styles in a 6 year period as the Beatles? Or did they stick with one or two basic styles.

    As far as the 1970s, I concede the Pitchfork list looks more interesting, less conventional wisdom–so it’s probably better. (But where are Sticky Fingers, This Years Model, Heat Treatment?) And some of the work there (Exile, Led Zep IV) I see as follow ups to the big breakthrough of the late 1960s. That’s why I extend the period past your 1965-67, it seems to me that 1969 songs like Gimme Shelter and Dazed and Confused were radically different from mid-1960s rock.

    It’s funny how Springsteen’s reputation has fallen–he’s not even in the top 100? I used to love his stuff, but maybe it doesn’t age well. I don’t think Dylan just extended older styles, songs like Gates of Eden and Visions of Johanna were a radical departure.

    The only point of yours that I strongly disagree with is album sales. Those will grow over time due to population growth. People will buy the best of whatever’s out there at the time. I would not use that as a metric for quality or even classic status.

    I think it’s also interesting that the best groups have become much more “difficult,” just as in film and literature. That’s a sign the best ideas have been taken. The Beatles were very accessible, Radiohead is less so. Perhaps that’s why hip hop is where quality and popularity have intersected in recent years.

  28. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    30. July 2013 at 19:55

    The music that seems to be the common language of young people more than anything else these days (and yes I do go to rock concerts) is EDM. Tell me that that doesn’t owe more to Blue Monday and Eno than Helter Skelter or (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. (Also the stuff that the “cool music geeks/hipsters/college paper journalists” have their taste shaped most by is indie, which had its whole baptismal roots in transformations that occurred in underground rock in the 80’s (the best rock ever IMHO) which in turn owes itself to the invention of punk in the 70’s, which was a MASSIVE transformation which should get credit for much more of today’s music than a lot of people realize, ask any music journalist). (But then I’m biased…)

    To me obviously the big thing today is literally how all the kids have access to basically all the music ever at their fingertips, and immerse themselves in whatever styles they want. This has generally led (perhaps predictably) to people I know gaining highly specialized sub-genre knowledge in particular types of metal or electronica, whilst more likely that your average kid can’t even name the Beatles (“did you say John Legend?”); with less fandom left over for the remaining pop-rock type bands (even good ones like Muse or Blink-182) playing that mainstream social-watercooler role – but it’s so relatively easy to find those who share your specialized tastes! (even those of your friends of whom you might not have expected it). With the atomization of music sharing in the modern digital system people are also more likely to be fans of particular tracks or albums than whole groups (as it probably should be). What I’m saying is that this must go some way toward explaining the phenomenon Scott is observing – you can be more expected to “level up” before you’re ready to listen to the masters of the particular craft you’re appreciating.

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