The Pop Presidents: Johnson

vice-president-lyndon-b-johnson-everett

by John Ellis

One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.

President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office under turbulent and unsettling circumstances; and, he assumed the mantle of leadership during one of the most turbulent and unsettling times in our nation’s history. With the Civil Rights Movement pushing towards some sort of resolution and the Vietnam War heating up, the comforting simplicity of the 50s was being quickly overthrown by the complexities and nuance of the 60s. President Johnson understood that rock and pop music were the best forms to articulate the upheaval of society.

Rising to President Johnson’s challenge, the musicians began to actively search for ways in which their art-form could evolve and communicate the shifting and, at times, conflicting opinions that characterized the country during the Johnson administration. Artists like Jimi Hendrix demonstrated the transcendent potential of the electric guitar; Brian Wilson locked himself away and, taking his cues from Bach, created a masterpiece; the super group Led Zeppelin was formed and released one of the greatest debut album of all time[1]. And Bob Dylan and the Beatles produced their greatest works. It’s hard to argue against the success of President Johnson; but, time will tell.

Honorable Mentions: Revolver, Beatles; Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan; Something Else by The Kinks, The Kinks; Fresh Cream, Cream; Father of the Folk Blues, Son House; At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash; The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators, The 13th Floor Elevators; The Doors, The Doors; The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd; I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Franklin.

  1. Surrealistic Pillow – Jefferson Airplane, February, 1967.

It’s difficult to think of a better representative album for psychedelic rock than Surrealistic Pillow. But that’s not the main reason that Jefferson Airplane’s best known album is President Johnson’s tenth best album; Surrealistic Pillow is not only a tightly written and produced pop album, but it also helped break the stranglehold that the bands of the British invasion had on the pop charts. Plus, who doesn’t love Grace Slick’s voice? 

  1. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks, November, 1968.

If Thomas Hardy had been a drug-addled pop musician in love with Baroque music during the 1960s, he would have penned The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. But, Hardy wasn’t and didn’t, so it was up to The Kinks to introduce Americans to the mix of the comfortable and magical found in visiting English hamlets while high. One of the masterpieces of the British invasion, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is often overshadowed by the album’s Baroque Pop peers. In fact, many people aren’t even aware of its existence, which is unfortunate.

  1. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison, November, 1968.

President Kennedy had Ray Charles, with his beautiful, soulful, R&B soaked voice, reimagining the sounds of rural white America. President Johnson found an Irishman to create a mystical Celtic album with long roots snaking into the rich soil of the musical sounds of the African-American experience.

  1. Music from Big Pink – The Band, July, 1968.

To hear the current crop of privileged hipsters, this generation of “authentic” people discovered roots rock. Those types of myopic Williamsburg hipsters should be pelted with eight-track copies of Music from Big Pink on a fairly consistent basis. President Johnson and company were producing roots rock without the stench of gentrification decades before today’s hipsters drove the cost of living sky high in Williamsburg. On a personal level, I could listen to this debut album from The Band all day; and, sometimes I do. Those are good days.

  1. Are You Experienced – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, May, 1967.

A musician’s musician, Jimi Hendrix, while also being fully and quickly embraced by the audiences of his day[2], was sought out by many of his awed “peers,” including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger. Are You Experienced is regarded by most to be one of the greatest debut rock albums of all time; three of the debut albums vying for the distinction of “greatest” are on this list. However, none of the other three, regardless of the order for “greatest debut album,” had a greater impact on the way that the electric guitar is used in rock and roll than Are You Experienced.

  1. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin, January 12, 1969[3].

Breaking the fourth wall a bit – Led Zeppelin is my personal favorite album on this list; and, I really, really wanted to rank it #1; that should tell you something about the four albums ranked above Led Zeppelin. And, that should tell you something about the quality of the music that President Johnson gave us.

  1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club – Beatles, June, 1967.

The ubiquitousness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club on lists and in discussions about the “best of” should be all the evidence needed for the uninitiated to actually listen to this album; assuming, of course, that there are still people out there who haven’t listened to it yet. If you’re one of the uninitiated, and you know that this album is one of the most important musical acts of the modern era at their peak; and, if you know that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club is one of the most innovative albums among a group of very innovative and influential albums produced during the late 60s; and, you still haven’t listened to it; well, you must have voted for Barry Goldwater.

  1. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground, March, 1967.

In the late 1960s, heading into the Summer of Love, the country appeared destined for a cultural implosion. The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album filled with explicit drug, BDSM, and prostitution references, was dropped into the swirling tension during the spring of 1967 and created an immediate uproar. Radio stations refused to play it, record stores refused to sell it, and the moralists roundly condemned it. On top of the subject matter, the album was highly experimental with more than a tinge of Dadaism in the music; the country and the market were not ready for The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967. Andy Warhol’s music masterpiece, although bold and unpopular at the time, is now widely regarded as an example of something that the critics were wrong about during President Johnson’s administration.

  1. HWY 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan, August, 1965.

Hwy 61 connected the North and the South (specifically Bob Dylan’s hometown with some of the great Blues towns of the South); HWY 61 Revisited connected the 60s of President Kennedy with the 60s of President Johnson.

  1. Pet Sounds – Beach Boys, May, 1966.

What 17th century Baroque musicians called “affections,” Brian Wilson called “feels.” Locking himself away for months, Wilson, guided by his “feels” composed a musically complex album that has one leg in the hybrid psychedelic-sunshine pop that had made the Beach Boys famous, and the other leg in the world of Bach, concertato medium, and counterpoint. Besides the musical genius of the album[4], Pet Sounds reflects the clashing dissonance, colorful themes, and the swirling mix of engaging viewpoints of the 1960s like no other album. Pet Sounds is an absolutely brilliant album that is also a lot of fun to listen to.


 

[1] Several other albums on this list are some of the biggest challengers to Led Zeppelin for the title to “Best Debut Album.”  

[2] It took just a little over a half a year for Are You Experienced to cross the one million units sold mark.

[3] Eight days. President Johnson gets this great album by a mere eight days.

[4] Not to mention the musical genius of The Wrecking Crew.

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