The Theme of Liberation

JOHN: The sixties saw a revolution among youth — not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking.

GEORGE: We were the generation who didn’t suffer from the war and we didn’t want to have to keep being told about Hitler. We were more bright-eyed and hopeful for the future, breaking out of the leftover Victorian mould of attitudes and poverty and hardship.

PAUL: There was a big period of freedom, which I always liken to God opening up the waves for Moses and then closing them down again.

JOHN: I think now the kids sing and want to hear about reality, whether that’s love or sex, or whatever it is.

PAUL: I suppose the fashion thing was a kind of eruption. We were erupting anyway, as The Beatles; and it’s very difficult to separate The Beatles’ eruption from the fashion or the cultural or the mind eruption. It was all happening at once, as a whirlpool.

RINGO: I feel The Beatles were doing what they wanted to do, and a lot of it was that youthfulness of trying to change ideas. I think it allowed people to do things they wouldn’t have done if we hadn’t been out there.

— The Beatles
The Beatles Anthology

The theme of blues music might be stated as the human response to oppression. This is most obvious in the lyrics, which speak of the suffering and pain caused by events outside of the singer’s control. This response to oppression is also expressed in the heartfelt vocals of the singers. It is even present in the form of the music itself, chained as it is to a fairly rigid song structure and limited chord progressions. You can see it in the structure of the lyrics, in the way that an initial statement of a condition is often repeated in the second line of a verse, without modification.

I went down to the Crossroads, tried to catch a ride.
I went down to the Crossroads, tried to catch a ride.
But nobody seemed to know me.
Everybody just passed me by.

— Robert Johnson

The great theme of jazz, on the other hand, is freedom. Jazz musicians most often start with a popular song, state the melody, and then go on to improvise variations. The musical statement is clear: I can be free, I can express my own personal identity, even when working within the confines of a structure that is not mine. Every variant note, every swinging chorus, every improvisational foray, restates this basic theme of freedom. Even when starting with a blues structure, the implication is different, because the song is only a point of departure. As John Litweiler says in The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958, “The quest for freedom with a small f appears at the very beginning of jazz and reappears at every growing point in the music’s history.” (Litweiler 1990)

The theme of rock music, as I will show, is liberation: release from constraints of every kind. In a way, then, rock is positioned precisely between the blues and jazz. Blues captures the state of oppression, while jazz expresses the opposite state of freedom. Rock does not express a fixed state at all, but captures the transition, the movement from one state to another, the act of throwing off the chains.

In many ways, rock music was a product of its time. For the United States and many other Western nations, the fifties and sixties were a period of extraordinary liberation. Following on the heels of two World Wars and the Great Depression, these societies were enjoying an unprecedented combination of peace and prosperity. Modern industry freed many people from the demands of tough, physical labor. In terms of psychologist A. H. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the lower-level biological and safety needs were mostly satisfied, freeing up energy to pursue needs higher up the scale: feelings of belonging and love, self-esteem, self-actualization, learning and artistic expression. The whole generation of baby boomers, conceived in record numbers after the end of WW II, grew up in this new era of economic and social freedom. In both England and the US, record numbers of students were participating in higher education, in art schools or universities, giving them the time and encouragement to pursue aesthetic ambitions.

The atmosphere in which music flourished then had a lot to do with economics. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity. People are supposedly wealthier now, yet most feel they haven’t enough money and time is at an even greater premium.... In the sixties, we had surpluses of both money and time.

Friends of mine lived comfortably in Greenwich Village, Harvard Square, Bayswater, Santa Monica and on the Left Bank and were, by current standards, broke. Yet they survived easily on occasional coffee-house gigs or part-time work. Today, urbanites must feverishly maximize their economic potential just to maintain a small flat in Hoboken, Somerville, Hackney, Korea Town or Belleville. The economy of the sixties cut us a lot of slack, leaving time to travel, take drugs, write songs and rethink the universe.

— Joe Boyd
White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s

This was also a time of extraordinary sexual liberation. The combination of the birth control pill with the lack of any threatening sexually transmitted diseases allowed a whole generation to enjoy the pleasures of sex without having to experience any of its normal consequences. In addition to these medical advances, many members of this generation had grown up with two parents and a family of siblings, giving them the sense of security and belonging that allowed them to be sexually adventurous without feeling a strong need for commitment.

During the fifties and sixties many technical advances also imparted a sense of liberation. Industrial mass production allowed many young members of society to experience a new sense of freedom and mobility through personal and public transportation. Record players, transistor radios, television and movies made musical performers more accessible than ever before. Electronic amplification of vocals and instruments allowed smaller groups to play to larger audiences, and allowed skilled instrumentalists to alter the sounds produced by their instruments.

This was also a period of great political hope. The US had survived the Cuban missile crisis. President John F. Kennedy brought a sense of style and youthfulness to American politics. Blacks in the US were making great political gains. The Viet Nam war was finally ended, in part due to popular protest. President Richard Nixon was forced to resign after the Watergate revelations. Although there were certainly many terrible events during this time, there was also a sense that right would eventually prevail, that popular enlightenment could overcome political inertia and conservatism.

In the US, racial integration was also at its peak during this period. Rock and roll had started as a mixture of rhythm and blues with country and western — essentially combining popular musical styles from both blacks and whites. Black performers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley championed the new style, along with white performers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. White performers like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton used their enormous popularity to bring attention to the black bluesmen who had influenced their styles. At the same time, most of the legal and physical barriers to racial integration were falling, even in the American South.

One of the great benefits of this progress was the unrestrained ability of musicians to cross racial boundaries in order to work together. Several bands of the sixties and early seventies were racially diverse, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sly and the Family Stone, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Booker T. and the MGs, and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. There was a sense that musicians of all colors now shared a common musical heritage.

Drugs also imparted a feeling of liberation to many members of society. Alcohol was freely available, and helped to liberate many from the squalor and violence of their surroundings, as with The Beatles while they were playing in Hamburg. Uppers freed musicians from the need to rest, allowing them to play long sets, party into the night, and travel from one engagement to the next. Marijuana and LSD liberated musicians from their normal thought patterns, from linear thinking, and from the sensory filtering that is a normal part of adult human existence. In some cases, as with The Beatles, the experiences they had while on drugs led them to pursue Eastern spiritual paths and transcendental meditation, as healthier ways of altering their consciousness. (There was also a dark side to drug use during this period, of course, including harmful addictions and many drug-related deaths.)

The political and social juggernaut of the 60’s rolled on wheels of music, and that music owed both its aesthetic and ethical impetus to psychedelics. Eyes and hearts were opened — frequently by way of the ears — to fresh perspectives and utopian possibilities.

— Tom Robbins
Wild Ducks Flying Backwards

Finally, rock music itself proved to be a vehicle of liberation for practitioners of the art. Strings of hit records and successful tours were able to liberate the artists from otherwise limiting economic and class restrictions. Nowhere was this more true than in England, where rock music actually provided the ability for commoners to achieve social recognition such as knighthood. So the Queen’s recent celebration of her fiftieth year on the throne was attended by Sir Paul McCartney.

All of these liberating influences had an effect on the evolution of rock music. In many cases, liberation was the explicit theme expressed in the lyrics of the songs. Take this excerpt from “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen, off his Born to Run album.

Well, now I’m no hero:
That’s understood.
All the redemption I can offer, girl,
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow,
Hey what else can we do now?

Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair.
Well, the night’s busting open,
These two lanes will take us anywhere.

We got one last chance to make it real:
To trade in these wings on some wheels.
Climb in back,
Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks.

Oh, come take my hand,
Riding out tonight to case the promised land.
Oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road:

Lying out there like a killer in the sun.
Hey I know it’s late, we can make it if we run.
Oh Thunder Road, sit tight, take hold,
Thunder Road!

Notice, throughout, the emphasis on liberation from romantic illusion, the notion of trading in “these wings on some wheels.” There are also powerful images of physical liberation, of rolling down the window, feeling the wind rush through your hair, and heading off down the road, knowing that the two-lane highway just outside your door can take you literally anywhere in the world. Finally, there is the promise of spiritual liberation, of “riding out tonight to case the promised land.” Many of rock’s best songs, like this one, directly express this theme of liberation, of breaking free from the past, from spiritual and physical restraints, and pursuit of a utopian vision.

This sense of liberation was also present in the music that accompanied the lyrics. Look at the structure of “Thunder Road,” and you see that Springsteen was liberating himself from the traditional verse-chorus-bridge song structure, with a much looser organization to his composition. This feeling of breaking free is also present in Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo on Springsteen’s recording of this song.

Much of the best rock music has a feeling of “coloring outside the lines,” of not quite fitting into a predetermined pattern, of being barely under control. This is another way in which the theme of liberation is expressed.

Liberation was not just an implicit theme in rock: it was an overt goal and sacred mission of much of the music. Bruce Springsteen talks about this often, as in this 2003 interview with ABC News.

For me the greatest pop music was music of liberation: Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Public Enemy, the Clash, the Sex Pistols. Those were pop groups that liberated an enormous amount of people to be who they are. (Springsteen 2003)

Another great quotation often attributed to Springsteen is that “Elvis Presley liberated our bodies, and Bob Dylan liberated our minds.” This expresses the great power of rock music: by combining rhythms and sounds that make you want to move, with lyrics and vocals that make you think and feel, the best rock music liberates its listeners from programmed responses and helps them uncover their deeper, more authentic and more integrated selves.


The following recordings are particularly good examples of this element in action.

Next: Recordings as Creative Input