The Hits of 1963 - All Over the Map
Hearing the History - the Songs of 1963
The third year of the 60s was a tragic one for Americans - President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on the 22nd of November. The previous 10 months of the year had been upsetting and unnerving, so the tragedy of the loss of the young and popular president was felt deeply. Vietnam was becoming the major event on the world stage, with the US increasingly committed, and with many early casualties. The Civil Rights movement hit its stride with marches and demonstrations in the South turning violent. When Kennedy was killed, Lyndon Johnson became the President, lending a surreal air to the overall feeling in the country - he was not nearly as well-liked as Kennedy had been, and was immediately taking on a very difficult job. By the end of the year, it's safe to conclude that most Americans were in various states of shock at what was happening in the world, while becoming more a part of the global scene in every way.
What happened in 1963's music?
There was a new awareness that America was not isolated and that invasions of different kinds were happening. In the pop music world, several new trends were evident and important for the future. The sweet and innocent popular song was still as popular, but with the influx of outsiders and a sonic palette that was expanding to include grittier and more interesting approaches to what a record should sound like, it was a year of many changes. For example, one of the huge hits of 1963 was Hey Paula, a duo-sung pop confection that would not have been out of place in 1955. Another big hit was a song sung in Japanese - Sukiyaki - and yet another was a party song that was performed and recorded in such a distorted way that the lyrics were unintelligible. That didn't stop it from being banned and burned for being obscene - in fact the bad publicity probably helped the song shoot up the charts.
The British Invasion Stage 1
The Beatles started their conquest of the world in 1963, but it took them another year to make real inroads into the US. In the meantime they had number 1 songs all over the world, and had modest success in the states. Their colleagues were doing well too - English groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and the Searchers had hit singles in America. A scruffy British band with a funny name - the Rolling Stones - released their first single to little fanfare, while Cliff Richard and the Shadows continued putting out the hits. But he would soon be overshadowed, so to speak, and all but forgotten in the deluge of music that was just around the corner.
Rock and roll had always had a seamy side that might show up in the sound - distortion, either by accident or purposeful - and suggestive lyrics sung in a way that was not easily understood by the grown-ups. Low budget recordings were the norm, after all, and rock and roll's birth from the blues gave it a pedigree in being simple, sexy and sly. But the Kingsmen song entitled Louie Louie broke new ground. Recorded on a single microphone with the peak meter constantly in the red, it sounded like nothing had before - gritty, noisy, distorted, and impossible to sit still to. It was also impossible to understand exactly what the singer was saying, making it even more tantalizing and slightly sleazy, and a trend was begun that continues up to the present day. When the raucous instrumental Wipe Out and a song by the Trashmen called Surfin' Bird became hits too, it was clear that trashy 3-chord rock had a place on the hit parade.
Girl Groups and Walls of Sound
Phil Spector's songs and girl groups made their first real impact on the musical world this year. The Ronnettes had a smash Be My Baby, and the Crystals sang Da Doo Ron Ron, while Spector's trademarked wall of soundtook him all the way to the bank. His approach to recording was similar to the trashy style, but opposite in many ways. He would record a large band, orchestra, and singers all wailing away, and mix the song so that the result had a huge sonic impact - it was big music, distorted and unclear, but with an overall coherent feel that listeners loved. It was a style that was imitated too, and there were many other girl group hits of 1963 that sounded like Spector but weren't.
Folkies and Surfers
Two other big trends in 1963 were the folk sound and the surf sound. Peter Paul and Mary had a hit with Puff the Magic Dragon, Trini Lopez with If I Had a Hammer, and the Kingston Trio continued to sell records. Bob Dylan released his second album, Freewheelin,' and Peter Paul and Mary recorded their version of Blowin' In the Wind and made it his first big song. The Beach Boys and their imitators continued to sing about hot rods, tanned beach bunnies, and surf boards, and life went on in the usual way.