How do we explain that?
We do so by remembering the sheer schizophrenia of the American record-buying public of that time, one that not only flourished on either side of the AM/FM divide, but also across the chasm that yawned between the parallel universes of rock and pop. And, in doing so, we can paint some very peculiar lines across the popular face of the underground.
Restricting our generalizations to the best-selling artists alone, artists like the Jefferson Airplane (whose 1968 opus Crown of Creation really doesn’t receive the respect today that it deserves), The Grateful Dead, Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Cream and Big Brother (plus comparative veterans like the Beatles, Stones and Dylan) were popularly believed to represent the conscience of the age.
Outside of their domain, everything else was inconsequential pap, marketed and manufactured for an audience whose collective IQ barely reached room temperature.
The divide between pop and rock, between what was “acceptable” and what was not, had grown immense over the last couple of years. Pop was no longer an abbreviation of “Popular”; now it suggested something so wholesome that it was unwholesome, something that crept into your house whilst you slept, cleansed your spirit, corrupted your sister and left a sticky trail of slime everywhere it went.
It appealed to the idiot masses and led them, sheep-like, into the corporate embrace of The Man, dulling what little spark of intellect the listener might once have possessed with its hypnotic repetition of the message that everything was FINE.
Rock confronted the burning issues of the day, and through the weight of public opinion, it extinguished them. It was held in the blood-free hands of the Revolution. The pop groups, on the other hand, were the establishment’s way of making people forget what was going on in the real world.
But really, who was kidding who? Who really sold the Underground?
Jefferson Airplane signed to RCA, Janis Joplin to Columbia, The Doors to Elektra, the Dead to Warner Brothers. And suddenly, a heartfelt opposition to the war became a commodity, packaged as neatly as love and peace and going to San Francisco with a flower in your hair.
The bands themselves were undoubtedly sincere in their motives, but to the major record companies who, at the end of the day, controlled the purse strings, they were simply filling a demand.
The kids wanted protests; the record companies sold them protests. It was quite possibly the most callous marketing campaign ever launched, and so successful was it that most people weren’t even aware how many of the labels involved were simply subsidiaries of vaster corporations who were equally bound up in the war effort itself.
That, perhaps, was the ultimate irony; the war being financed by the very people who wanted it to stop!
The pop groups, on the other hand, were firmly in the hands of the independents. Labels like Buddah, Bell, Team, Calendar and Kirshner might have been allied, through distribution, to the major labels, but their interests were entirely self-serving.
Sure, they manipulated the market, but they manipulated it for their own ends. It was capitalism, but it was honest capitalism. When you bought a 1910 Fruitgum Company single, you put a few cents more toward somebody’s next limo. When you bought a Jefferson Airplane album, who knew how many bullets you’d just put into a gun?
Bubblegum was formula music, but if only people had cared to look beyond the next chorus of whichever revolutionary chest-beater they were chanting today, they would ha