Changin’ Times in Hyper-Drive: Pop Culture in the Summer of ‘66

Our Fest for Beatles Fans in-depth study of Revolver has reached the mid-point. Throughout 2023, we moved song-by-song through the album, enjoying the insights of Beatles music experts, historians, and biographers. Before plunging into Side Two of this transformative LP, we asked the Executive Editor of Beatlefan magazine, Al Sussman, to put Revolver into perspective against the rich backdrop of 1966’s diverse and creative plethora of hit songs, films, and television programs.


Al is a lifelong member of our Fest family, and for many years assisted Mark and Carol in the planning of the Fest experience. He also hosted many of the weekend’s panels and events. Furthermore, Al is the author of the respected historical work, Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Changed a Generation about the importance of that unique historical period between 22 November 1963 and 1 March 1964.  


With his meticulous, introspective look at history, Al shares his insights into the kaleidoscopic pop culture of 1966. Sit back and enjoy! – Jude Southerland Kessler

Most Beatles fans know that Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys masterpiece Pet Sounds had a major influence on The Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney, and many have seen the photos of the group in the studio perusing the new Rolling Stones LP Aftermath. And of course, The Beatles had a mutual admiration society going with the Byrds and their folk-rock brethren the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas & Papas.


The pop culture world of the summer of 1966 was awash with such communal creativity, and much of that was centered in Swinging London, but also in Los Angeles and New York, in the burgeoning scene in San Francisco and in small southern studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Indeed, The Beatles flirted with the idea of recording at the Stax studios in Memphis that year but never quite made it happen.


The week that the single of “Paperback Writer”/“Rain,” the first release from the sessions that produced Revolver, reached American record stores, the Stones had the No. 1 single with “Paint It, Black,” which featured Brian Jones on sitar – just months after George Harrison had brought that instrument to the pop world on Rubber Soul’s “Norwegian Wood.”


But folk-rock was very much a part of the Top 10, with the Spoonful’s “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” the Mamas & Papas’ “Monday Monday” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock.” West Coast pop craftsmanship was represented by Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “Green Grass,” which was largely recorded by the L.A. session players known as the Wrecking Crew and arranged by session pro Leon Russell.


1966 was arguably soul music’s greatest year, and that Top 10 featured two classic R&B ballads: Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” and James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” And smack in the middle of the Top 10 was a soon-to-be No. 1 by that standard-bearer for traditional pop music, Frank Sinatra, with “Strangers In the Night.” Indeed, in July, the Chairman of the Board would have a No. 1 single with that song and a chart-topping LP named after the hit.


But The Beatles would oust Frank from both perches with their “Paperback Writer” single and the “Yesterday”…And Today album, once the “butcher cover” controversy had subsided and the album was released with the more traditional cover.


Unlike the tightly-formatted charts of the 21st Century, musical variety was the hallmark of what one heard on the radio that summer. The album charts were dominated by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Their What Now My Love LP spent eight weeks at No. 1 that late spring/early summer and, for the week of June 18, Herb and the Brass had three of the Top Five, with Whipped Cream and Other Delights and Going Places also in that Top Five.


By mid-July, “Paperback Writer” had been ousted from the top of the charts by a two-year-old recording of a song written by Brill Building songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Tommy James and the Shondells’ recording of “Hanky Panky” suddenly exploded as a result of airplay from a Pittsburgh disc jockey. After topping the charts for a couple of weeks, “Hanky Panky” was dislodged by a slice of in-your-face hard rock. The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” became a rock anthem that Jimi Hendrix would perform the following summer in climaxing the Monterey Pop Festival.


The summer of ’66 was the hottest of the decade in the U.S., so it was fitting that the No. 1 single for much of August was the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City.” If one wanted to escape the heat and humidity, a visit to a movie theater was a great option, with the fare on the screen nearly as varied as it was on the radio.


There was the domestic potboiler film treatment of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the all-star cast Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!, the scenic Born Free, yet another in the series of increasingly bad vehicles for Elvis Presley, Paradise Hawaiian Style, the science fiction adventure film Fantastic Voyage, and a romantic comedy out of Swinging London that made a star out of 30-year-old Michael Caine, Alfie, which also starred Paul McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher.


Television’s three networks were in rerun season during that summer of ’66, but interesting changes were on the horizon. For instance, NBC’s Monday night rock showcase, Hullabaloo, was canceled after a season-and-a-half and was replaced in September by a sitcom about a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Monkees. Modeled after the two Beatles feature films, The Monkees was a pioneering effort in the area of music video, and the group created for the show had tremendous success right from the start, just as some younger, more conservative Beatles fans were becoming disenchanted with that summer’s controversies and the adventurous new Beatles music on Revolver.


The Monkees (the show and the group) were a tailor-made alternative, and their first single, “Last Train To Clarksville,” was just starting to get radio airplay in late August, even as The Beatles were finishing up what would be their final tour.


It was in the summer of ’66 that rock radio listeners got an alternative to the screaming DJs and pimple cream commercials of Top 40 radio. As a result of a Federal Communications Commission ruling that AM stations could not simulcast their programming on their FM affiliates full time, other forms of programming had to be installed. So, in New York at the end of July, the FM affiliate of WOR began playing rock music but without constant jingles and other characteristics of Top 40. WOR-FM played the current hits but also new music not yet on the charts.


For instance, young Janis Ian’s song about interracial dating, “Society’s Child,” which wouldn’t become a hit single until the following year, received heavy exposure on WOR-FM. By that fall, when the station began using on-air personalities, former Top 40 DJs like Murray The K and Scott Muni, WOR-FM became one of the first commercial outlets for an intelligent presentation of rock music


But, whichever side of the radio dial was one’s preferred listening form, the summer of ’66 was brimming over with great and lasting music. At any moment, one could hear the likes of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” Petula Clark’s “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” Motown’s “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by the Temptations, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops and “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes.


Bobby Hebb and the Cyrkle, among the opening acts on that final Beatles tour, each nearly topped the national singles chart with “Sunny” and “Red Rubber Ball,” respectively. There was great soul music from Wilson Pickett (“Land Of 1000 Dances”), Lee Dorsey (“Working In The Coal Mine”), the Capitols (“Cool Jerk”), and Billy Stewart (“Summertime”).


A vocal group from New Jersey, the Happenings, put a Four Seasons-style spin on the end-of-summer ’50s hit “See You In September” while the Seasons themselves were re-interpreting Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”


Donovan, who emerged in 1965 as a Dylan-esque folkie, re-emerged with a new pop sound, courtesy of producer Mickie Most, and a chart-topping single with “Sunshine Superman” while Brill Building-trained singer/songwriter Neil Diamond had his breakthrough hit, “Cherry Cherry.” And there was so much more…


And, by the second week in September, the No. 1 album in the U.S. was an amazing, transformative LP by The Beatles, awash with creativity from London. Revolver opened a new chapter in their already-revolutionary career.


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