Based on the British singles chart in January 1963, you would have got long odds on the coming year being a revolutionary one for pop.
Arguably the most innovative record it has to offer is by, of all people, Rolf Harris: Sun Arise, on which producer George Martin, in a precursor to the kind of experiments he would indulge in later in the decade, employed eight double bass players to mimic the sound of a digeridoo. Somewhere at the lower end of the top 20, there are flickers of something happening; the Beatles are singing Love Me Do and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound is arguably reaching its zenith on the Crystals' peerless He's a Rebel. But they are easy to miss amid the glut of MOR crooners – Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Mel Torme, Frank Ifield yodeling his way through Hank Williams's Lovesick Blues – and the sound of the Joe Loss Orchestra.
There is an overwhelming sense that British popular culture is moribund. Nothing new appears to have happened since 1956, an explosive year that brought the UK rock'n'roll, the Angry Young Men, pop art and commercial television in quick succession. The charts are filled with posthumous releases by Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, and tracks that seem so redolent of the previous decade that you mentally file them away as being products of the 50s, rather than the 60s: Susan Maughan's Bobby's Girl, Brenda Lee's Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Elvis Presley's Return to Sender.
But by the end of the year, the charts have changed almost beyond recognition. The top five has been almost exclusively colonised by British bands – the Beatles, the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Tremeloes. Not far outside it lurk the Hollies, the Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield's I Only Want to Be with You. The reductive explanation is that the shift hinges on one thing, which you can hear at its most brilliantly realised on With the Beatles, released in November: British musicians attempting to copy black Americans and stumbling on a sound entirely of their own – raw, swaggering, exuberant – in the process. But the truth is more complicated. Pop music as a whole has begun gathering momentum, pushing at the boundaries of what it can achieve and express.
Aside from the Beatles staring solemnly down Robert Freeman's camera lens, their faces half in shadow, the year's other defining pop image is of Bob Dylan hunched against the cold as he walks down a snowbound Manhattan street, a girl clinging to his arm. Like With the Beatles, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is an authentically brilliant album in an age when pop albums were usually an afterthought: Big Girls Don't Cry and 12 Others, as the title of a Four Seasons album released that year put it, with an admirably honest shrug of indifference. In contrast to his eponymous debut, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is filled with original songs that somehow contrive to be both entirely of the moment and utterly timeless – Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, A Hard Rain's a-gonna Fall, Don't Think Twice, it's Alright – and which permanently expand the lexicon of subjects and emotions pop music can address.
Elsewhere, Motown began to hit its stride: if it hadn't worked out what to do with the Supremes yet, as evidenced by their game attempt in June to sing something called (The Man with the) Rock and Roll Banjo Band, it still released Martha and the Vandellas' Heatwave, Marvin Gaye's Can I Get a Witness? and Stevie Wonder's Fingertips. Brian Wilson wrote and produced three Beach Boys albums in 12 months, a workload that would drive him to a nervous breakdown: the second album, Surfer Girl, contained In My Room, the ballad that was the first step on the road to Pet Sounds, its desperate melancholy and yearning for solitude the first sign that all wasn't well with the architect of America's Favourite Band.
Today, it's hard to imagine the jolt these records must have delivered to a teenage audience stultified by what was previously on offer: their impact has been dulled by 50 years of ubiquity. But that in itself tells you something about how far-reaching their effect was: half a century on, we're still living in the world they created.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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