The 60’s sound and the church: thoughts on the lost beauty of group dynamics

I went to the elliptical machine for the morning workout, and on this day decided to plug in “Monkees Radio” on my Apple iTunes account. I have a thing about 60’s pop, both because it’s catchy and fun, and also because it brings up happy memories of being a child in (but not necessarily of) the 60’s.

Of course, the Beatles dominated the era, musically speaking. I was in the first grade when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan. Not having a sister beyond third grade, we were a younger family and thus not clued into the big event. However, the next day and for the following week, our entire school seemed hypnotized by the show. Recesses were filled with children, arms around necks walking as one, singing “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” and “I wanna hold your hand-a-an-a-anna-and. I wanna hold your hand.” It didn’t take long for me to get hooked to the sound, when I could finally hear it for myself.

I may have missed the televised musical moonshot, but heaven for a tyke like me came soon enough when The Beatles launched their thoroughly enjoyable Saturday morning cartoon series. Normally, I missed the best cartoons on Saturday morning. Being a Catholic kid who attended public school, Saturday mornings meant something between three to forever hours in religious instruction (CCD) classes. There, nuns crammed an entire week of religious instruction into one single morning. But, it was not just any morning. CCD was held on blessed Saturday morning — i.e., the time of prime time children’s programming. All three major networks devoted the time with the best and latest cartoons, along with advertisements of the latest toys, candy, and sugared cereals. There was no better place (or maybe worse) for a kid to be on Saturday morning except plastered in front of what my father called “the nut box.”

Yet for some reason, The Beatles cartoon show came on late enough in the morning that we could catch it when we got home. This act of mercy was almost enough to believe in God and unmerited grace (though not necessarily the sanctifying kind, which the nuns drilled into us through the Baltimore Catechism Q and A format).

So, I love the 60’s. I tell millennials and gen-Xers that 60’s music was so awesome, especially in its peak of 1967, that you didn’t dare stray too far from a radio. It was the Summer of Love, followed by the autumn of Hair, the release of Sargent Pepper, and Light My Fire. The radio burst with amazing sounds. And yet, for a suburban kid like myself anyway, AM Top 40 radio also served as a sort of filler while we waited for a big announcement: the “world premiere!” of the latest Beatles release. What would it be? Another Eleanor RigbyYellow Submarine? (we kids loved that) Strawberry Fields Forever? So, the radio was on…Wait for it…wait for it…Monkees now playing…cool…still waiting for it…Incense and Peppermints, cool….wait for it….and then: I Am the Walrus!!! with Hello Goodbye on the flip side. WOW! They did it again.

Imagine the following year, 1968, waiting with your ear to AM 40 radio for the next release…and getting Lady Madonna in the spring, and then….HOLY COW! Revolution and Hey Jude in the summer. Not only that, but both tracks available on the same inexpensive 45 RPM. Not a bad deal for a kid on a limited paper route budget.

But roughly around that time, with the release of the White Album, and the introduction of Led Zeppelin, the pop music scene began a gradual change. Mostly, one noticed many of the most popular bands of the 60’s began to drop out of the Top 40 radio. Of course, it was at this time the Beatles broke up, and we were curious about what each member as a solo artist would bring forth, albeit with no more breathless “Coming up! The world premiere!” sort of thing — not even for Lennon or McCartney’s solo efforts. And many new artists showed up, seemingly out of the blue, taking the place of many disappearing acts: Carole King, James Taylor, Creedence Clearwater, Bread, Carpenters, The Eagles, Elton John, Led Zepplin, Chicago. The music stayed great. Many would argue it got even better (“Classic Rock” feeds mostly off the 70’s, it seems).

But what had puzzled me for some time is why so many of those great 60’s bands so quickly disappeared: The Byrds…gone. The Association…gone as well. The Turtles….ducked into their shells. The Mama and the Papas…divorced. Even the Beach Boys suddenly became an instant nostalgia band, their songs instantly dated. And it always made me wonder…why?

So, while working a sweat to the Turtles aforementioned Eleanor, released in 1968 as the last Turtles hit, I was enjoying the beautiful harmonics of the voices, and suddenly a thought occurred to me: What was largely abandoned in pop music entering the 70’s was the harmonizing sound made so popular, particularly by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys began the idea of a harmonizing group within rock n’roll with great talent but no headlining artist taking the lead. Here, to be fair, I must also give a nod to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but whereas one can callout The Beach Boys without mentioning Brian Wilson, it seems the Four Seasons needs a Frankie Valli qualifier. And my bias may be showing if I don’t mention the girl harmonizing groups like the Shirelles.

But it was the Beatles who took that harmonizing sound to a new level, and even as the Fab Four became household names unleashing the sound that defined Beatlemania, it was understood that the parts were not replaceable but rather integral to the whole. Although Lennon and McCartney were at the forefront, Richard Starkey was Ringo, an irreplaceable Beatle, and replacing him would be tearing the fabric of a seamless garment. George Harrison as well.

Other groups followed in the “English invasion”, and copycats along with newly inspired artists appeared in the States: The Vogues, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mama and the Papas, many of whom who learned their craft in the folkie bands that harmonized the folk tunes so well, yet now discovering a new sound to reach for. Even mega folk stars Peter, Paul and Mary had to learn how to “dig rock n’ roll music” and brought the joy to their mimicking of that sound in their big 1967 hit of that name. And the pattern followed for these groups: while recognizing great individual talent, still the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and it was the harmonizing that made the band one entity.

This was true for Motown as well, as the Four Tops, the Temptations, The Miracles, The Spinners, created wonderful harmonies, working hard to create that Motown sound and bring it to greater heights. And in many cases, they truly reached perfection in their harmonies. But as harmonic perfection seemed reached, something new was apparently needed to strive for. And so perhaps partly due to that pursuit, many groups followed the Beatles and began to fracture into solo acts, with the top talent looking for new ground to explore. Mama Cass left the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees went their separate ways, and each went nowhere. Eddie Kendrick left the Temptations to try to become as big a name as Marvin Gaye was becoming. The Byrds uneasily morphed into Crosby, Stills and Nash, perhaps the best harmonizing band of them all. Yet even though they stayed together, they too began to fade from the charts.

So the 60’s moved into the 70’s and a new focus on headliners appeared. The sixties of course had its own headlining solo acts, but the bands and even the sounds that made the decade stand apart — the group harmonics — withered from the scene. In their place were the great solo acts or the superbands with the tremendous front man. The Turtles were outlasted by Roger Daltrey and The Who, Freddie Mercury and Queen, Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, and etc. The Association were replaced by Karen Carpenter and her brother. In fact, to underscore the point, Karen created her own harmonics with the famous Carpenter “WAAAHHHHH” — no need for six Association male voices when one overdubbed Karen Carpenter would do the trick. It wasn’t long before the star maker machinery kicked in and did the inevitable: turning the Supremes, first into Diana Ross and the Supremes to the inevitable Diana Ross…alone. Cher dropped Sonny of course…and yes, the beat went on to greater stardom.

Meanwhile, in the Christian world, a scene similar to the one in music was taking place. For example, like Elvis Presley, Billy Graham was himself having a hard time staying relevant. Group dynamics, for lack of a better word, were driving the vehicle of evangelization. Pope John XXIII was a superstar with his charisma and call for Vatican II. But John died early in the decade and the work of creating a new Catholic “sound” (if you will) of local language services and guitar masses was done by anonymous men and women working in committees. And on the heels of this “spirit a movin’ all over the land” was another powerful spiritual movement taking place: the charismatic moment. Common folks in churches all over the landscape were being baptized into the Holy Spirit, with prayer cells throughout the denominations springing up in the odd hours between the regular services. There were powerful and new sounds in praying, prophesying, signs, words of knowledge and wisdom, encouragement, and even the making of beautiful music with the vocal chords, all in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

No one superstar stood out, outside of maybe David Wilkerson of Sword and Switchblade fame. Rather, the “stars” of this Jesus moment were the Jesus people, also known as the Jesus freaks. If one looked hard enough, one would find the Lennon and McCartneys, the Roger McGuinns of the movement. But to the public eye, they were anonymous: a Jesus freak was a Jesus freak was a Jesus freak. Like the Hippies, to the public they stood out in their anonymity. The Jesus People created a less formal, yet highly spiritual vibe. Consider the biggest Christian 60’s hits: Oh Happy DayPut Your Hand in the Hand and even the Doobie Brothers Jesus is Just Alright with me. Can you name a single performer in those recordings? (of course, this point is countered by the mega hit of the scene: Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky).

It was a glorious moment for the church. Yet following it into the 70’s, much like the music scene, there was also a rise of unusually powerful charismatic leaders (charismatic in a natural and not a spiritual sense) who stepped out and asserted their headlining power. Often, this led to great new works of evangelism. Standing out perhaps was Pat Robertson and the 700 club. The name “700” suggested an anonymous group performance, but the rising program had a definite superstar front man. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the charismatic front man meant we’d also have our cultic disasters, the Jim Jones mass murder/suicide being the most horrifying. This was followed by lesser scandals by other front men, notably Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. But the trend was set — big name performers in the church — and continues to this day.

What we have seen in the Christian world since then is a phenomenon similar to the popular music scene: super evangelist/pastors/teachers headlining big ministries backed by anonymous men and women that seem interchangeable. The superstar is the important person — working alone on the stage, builder of the large megachurch. The megachurch is in fact the star making machinery behind him paying the bills and doing the essential work in support of the superstar pastor. But when the superstar falls, be he a Ted Haggard or a Mark Driscoll, great can be that destruction (and great as well, can be less noticed restoration). Certainly the anonymous foot soldiers go on. Still, we have lost much of that “Jesus sound” of the 60’s.

The charismatic (spiritual, not natural) prayer meetings however were, and still are, powerful ensembles of harmony and unity in purpose — when the Holy Spirit is given charge. I’ve heard amazing chiming out of the mouths of simple unassuming women that blow away anything The Byrds and Tom Petty did with their guitars. It’s a supernatural thing, done when the Holy Spirit is in charge. Similar was the sound I experienced the first time I heard a group baptized in the spirit and praying in tongues: fresh and exciting. Or…words of knowledge from normally quiet saints being offered the loving freedom from a loosely or tight knit group of a prayer team. Operating under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the saints were encouraged to step out and try something new, to harmonize their gifts and help to turn a simple meeting into a powerful encounter with the Divine. Like the latest Beatles release of my youth, I long to hear those things again, in the next release.

Perhaps, and I fervently pray so, we are entering a new period in the church, in which the superstar is not flesh and blood, but the invisible Holy Spirit, creating a united sound among thousands of charismatic followers to lift up the name of Jesus in divine harmony. It would be a sound beautiful to the ear, with the fruit of changed and transformed lives following in its wake, and millions more whistling along and tapping their feet.

Now that would be truly groovy.

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