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Fifty years ago rock and roll became 'rock'

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 6/14/2015 Jim Farber

Music often changes its sound.

But 50 years ago, it also changed its meaning.

On July 10, 1965, a group of hairy louts called the Rolling Stones hit No. 1 with “Satisfaction,” a song whose witty complaints about sexual frustration and social hypocrisy sowed the seeds of genuine protest.

The next month, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” shot to No. 2, fired by poetic language that spoke of the freedom, and the fear, of leaving every societal convention behind.

By December, The Who released “My Generation,” a stuttering, slamming anthem that drew a violent line between young and old.

Statements that incendiary proved music could be more than entertainment. It could be art, community, religion, even a spur to political change.

To mark so huge a sea change, the sound got a new title — or at least an amended one. Fifty years ago, the music previously known as “rock and roll” morphed into the emphatically named “rock.”

The word was both a description and an instruction. Followers had to be ready to move beyond the form’s earlier function as teen-pop that simply implied sex, freedom, and change. “Rock” made those things explicit, and their implementation extreme.

It’s not that music had never acted as social critic, or as protest soundtrack, before. A wide variety of folk styles carried political messages, and social commentary, going back centuries. There even existed a movement simultaneous to early rock and roll — from strummers like the Weavers and Joan Baez — which made their worldly concerns plain.

The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” in 1965 was one of the songs that marked a change in popular music: from being mere entertainment to more of a social statement. - Michael Ochs Archives © Provided by New York Daily News The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” in 1965 was one of the songs that marked a change in popular music: from being mere entertainment to more of a social statement. - Michael Ochs Archives

But it was the choice of one such troubadour, Bob Dylan, to combine folk awareness with the new rock power that made him THE bellwether artist of ’65.

In fact, Dylan pushed so far ahead of the pack, some fans turned on him. When he and his band played an electric set at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, that year, it drew the famous cry of “Judas” from an audience member. Then in July, his plugged-in music at the Newport Folk Festival drew boos.

With those moves, Dylan became the Johnny Rotten of his day, a proto-punk primed to plow ahead, whether the world was ready or not.

Soon, they were. Dylan’s uncompromising stance trained the audience to respect artists who followed their own path. The charge of “sellout” became not just a put-down but a virtual crime.

The new movement even affected the top band of the day: The Beatles greatly expanded their style on December 1965’s “Rubber Soul,” pivoting them towards more experimentation on “Revolver” in ’66 and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” the next year.

Even songs that had already been hits were repurposed as political anthems. When Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” came out in ’64, Motown czar Berry Gordy denied that its stirring lyrics about bringing people to the streets had a larger social meaning. After the summer race riots in the L.A. ghetto of Watts in ’65, the audience took that meaning for itself.

Further north, in San Francisco, music’s connection to social consciousness found a new voice with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Both formed in ’65, though they wouldn’t become part of the national conversation until two years later, when they created the soundtrack for the Summer of Love.

By then, everyone accepted rock’s new depth. The music had become a secular religion. In the process, it started what, decades later, became known as the “classic rock” era — from 1966 to ’72.

The period set the bar for music so high, all the sounds since have either aspired to its intensity, or veered as far towards its opposite — flagrant commercialism.

The belief system behind classic rock may strike some modern listeners as anachronistic, pretentious, or even quaint. But many young stars remain awed by its values and creativity.

To them, it may seem like rock of such meaning always existed. Approaching its 50th birthday, it’s good to remember that, once, it was all new.

jfarber@nydailynews.com

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