Courtesy of Grateful Dead Records

March 6, 2018

GUEST ROOM | The San Francisco Sound

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Walking down Haight Street in San Francisco, it is hard to see that this place was once the heart of the “hippie scene” in the 1960s. The sidewalks of modern-day San Francisco are littered with boutiques, internet cafés and modern restaurants. Nevertheless, there are a few image-evoking shops and buildings hidden away behind the high-end clothing stores. These smoke shops, novelty emporiums and record stores are the best modern-day glimpses into the times of tie-dye and LSD.

During the ’60s, new fashion and new ways of thinking emerged in the Bay area. These aspects, which soon became identifiers of 1960s culture,  were all embodied by the music at the time.

The Bay Area continues to be thought of as a liberal hearth. Through its revolutionary sounds and themes, this unfamiliar music demonstrated the new and radical environment of the bay. The lyrics written in these radical songs spoke about the controversial issues such as the Vietnam War, The Civil Rights Movement and the struggle against communism. In general, counter-cultural songs were anti-establishment, and preached a new way of living.

The San Francisco Sound is commonly thought of as rock-related music with a focus on free-form organization and the defiance of stylistic categorization. It is not just one sound — the whole point of it is to have as many sounds as possible.

Bands ranged from Jefferson Airplane to Santana. The experimentation with different musical instruments and effects led a stark contrast to other popular music of the time. The genre, like the cities it originated from, went against the previously established way of doing things. This version of rock extended into new riffs and chord progressions, thus creating a more psychedelic vibe.

San Francisco Sound flipped the pop-music industry upside down because it put the artists in control of what they were writing, recording, and making, rather than the record labels. It was a progressive genre, and it encapsulated the communal-hippie lifestyle by promoting love and self-identification throughout the region. The sharing and “free society” ideals of the hippies is evident in the San Francisco Sound through its free concerts. Through its new sounds and reformist themes, the San Francisco Sound demonstrated the innovation of the Bay Area, and helped to symbolize the change in traditional customs of the nation, not only in pop music, but also culturally.

One of the most popular bands that is associated with the San Francisco Sound is The Grateful Dead. The band formed in 1965 in Palo Alto. The Dead weren’t the first to hit the Bay Area music scene, but they certainly helped shape it. They were one of the most prominent music groups that didn’t fit under a pre-existing musical genre. The Dead, along with others like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape and Country Joe and the Fish, helped form the basis not only of the San Francisco Sound, but of psychedelic rock. It was the soundtrack for the hippie movement and its exploration of self-identification and communal living. The Dead thought outside of the box, combining sounds from rock, reggae, folk, bluegrass, jazz and many other genres, as well as experimenting with sounds of their own. This new type of music, that the Dead and other bands were producing, spread across the country along with the themes behind the songs. But it was not just the sound that spread, the ideas behind the songs spread, such as the academic ideals of the free speech movement, the “free society” preached by the Haight’s hippies and the racial justice fought for by the Black Panther Party. They expanded throughout the country because their messages were carried by the songs.

Music is not just an add-on to the radical identity of the Bay Area. Music fuels the progressiveness of this region with its profound lyrics and innovative sound. These movements didn’t envelop the music, the music bore the principles behind the movements and allowed those principles to spread quicker and farther.

As radical as this music was at the time, the subgenre of rock n’ roll has taken a backseat to many new styles of music. Just as the San Francisco Sound and psychedelic rock once served as a platform for political messages and social outcries, now modern rap lyrics carry on the mantle. The evolution of music is ever-changing, fitting what is needed by society at a specific moment in time, so it is no surprise this style of music did not last long after its birth in the 1960s. It is always sombering to see a genre fade, but reassuring when a new one comes along. As much as it changes throughout the years, one thing will always be constant: music will continue to serve as an unparalleled means of expression and communication, capable of carrying much more than a rhythm you can tap your feet to.


AJ Stella is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.