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1965 was pop music's annus mirabilis. Bob Dylan went electric, Uncle Sam went into North Vietnam. And the airwaves were filledwith the classics of the future. It was 30 years ago today . . .

THINGS changed fast in 1965. It just happened. You didn't even have to try. Here's a vignette from one day in the spring of that year; perhaps it says something about what things were like, and how special it felt, even then, even in the margins.

It's a Friday evening. In a house in the Midlands, an 18-year-old boy is waiting to take a 17-year-old girl to the opening night of Bob Dylan's first British concert tour. He has two tickets in his pocket: Sheffield City Hall, grand circle, front row, seven shillings and sixpence each.

As they prepare to leave her parents' house, the television is on. It's Ready Steady Go!, live from London. The weekly hotline to the heart of whatever's hip. One of the presenters - either the incongruously avuncular Keith Fordyce or the dolly-bird Cathy McGowan - announces a new group, from America called the Walker Brothers. It's their first time on British TV. Their song is titled "Love Her".

On the small black and white screen, the face of a fallen angel appears. The boy and girl are already cutting things fine for Dylan, but still the girl freezes in the act of putting on her coat and, as if in slow motion, sits down to watch as 21-year-oldScott Engel, clutching the microphone like it was a crucifix, delivers the straining teen ballad with its waves of orchestral noise in a dark-brown voice borrowed from the romantic hero of a picture strip in Romeo or Valentine.

As the song ends and the image fades, the girl shakes herself lightly, refocuses on her surroundings, wakes up. She pulls on a brown suede jacket. Okay, she says. Ready to go.

They get to Sheffield on time. The audience is assembling, in the later reminiscence of Dylan's tour manager, "as if they were going to a church. In their minds Dylan was a legend, and you could see the awe in their faces."

At this moment, Dylan is the hottest thing in pop. He's experiencing that magic instant at which cult worship turns into mass acclaim. Neither phenomenon, yet, has taken its toll. Some of his songs - "Blowin' in the Wind", "The Times They Are a-Changin' " - are already anthems. A new single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues", is on the radio, indicating a move away from solo acoustic performance towards a ramshackle kind of electrified rock'n' roll. Arriving at Heathrow, he's greeted by a posse of Fleet Street reporters, looking for good quotes from the King of Protest. "Always keep a good head and carry a lightbulb," he tells them. He himself is carrying a lightbulb the size of a small watermelon.

The release of his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is still a fortnight away. So the boy and the girl - and a thousand others of similar age and temperament assembled in Sheffield that night - are the first people in Britain to hear "Mr Tambourine Man", "It's Alright Ma", "Gates of Eden", "Love Minus Zero" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", a flood of dazzling images and ideas, bringing the unformed thoughts of his audience into focus, inventing new emotions and redefining old ones: Take me fora trip upon your magic swirling ship . . .

The vagabond who's rapping at your door/Is standing in the clothes that you once wore . . .

The lamppost stands with folded arms . . .

. . . everything from toy guns that spark to flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark . . .

She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all . . .

Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked.

. . . in the jingle-jangle morning I'll come following you . . .

Reeling out into the night, speechless with awe, saturated by these visions, what they didn't know was that Dylan himself was already bored by what he was doing. "It was too easy," he said years later. "There was nothing happening for me. Every concert was the same. It didn't mean anything."

Like the boy and the girl and every other teenager in Britain at the time, he had fallen in love with the crash and flash of the beat groups: the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals. He loved their harsh, bright, sinewy sound, a synthesis achieved by inexperienced young men who worshipped the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and the Motown soul of Smokey Robinson, wanted to play both, and ended up with something that took on a life and originality of its own. He loved their mod clothes, too: the high-collar jackets, the dandyish shirts, the stovepipe trousers, the Cuban heels.

At the end of the tour, staying in the Savoy Hotel, Dylan was visited by the German model and actress Nico, who was in the middle of a three-month affair with Brian Jones of the Stones, another dark angel. Nico wanted Dylan's approval to record a song he'd given her in Greenwich Village earlier in the year. "He was completely drugged up and moody and arrogant as ever," she recalled. "He was asking me all the time about the Stones and their clothes. What do they wear now? What shirts? What boots?" He wanted to be Brian, she said, "not a folk singer".

Less than two months after that night in Sheffield, Dylan convened a full-tilt rock'n'roll band in a New York studio to record "Like a Rolling Stone", the first six-minute 45. In July he took the band with him on to the stage at the Newport Festival, where he was booed and jeered for his supposed heresy. Highway 61 Revisited and "Positively 4th Street" followed, in all their ornate, misterioso arrogance. This was music that would change everybody else's ideas as much as the English bands had changed his. But although his shift of direction was a shock, it was not a surprise. Because in 1965 change was expected: every month, every week, every day. Every time you walked into a record shop, opened a book, bought a magazine, turned on the TV. Between picking up your coat and putting it on.

"ANYONE unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-67 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture," Ian McDonald writes in the perceptive prologue to his recent book, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties. "A sunny optimism permeated everything and possibilities seemed endless." That's the conventional wisdom: the heart of the Sixties, we are always told, was the time of Sgt Pepper and Haight-Ashbury. In fact, the best had already gone.

The year 1965 enjoys no particular individual reputation to match 1967 (the Summer of Love) or 1976 (the birth of punk). Yet it was more profoundly pivotal, and more fertile, than either. It started with the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " (the greatest of all orchestral pop records), ended with the Beatles' Rubber Soul (their most satisfying album), and contained so much great music that it would take a year to listen to it all even now. In the sense that musicians were still waking up to their own economic power, and had not yet taken the logical step of seizing the means of production, this was the last year of innocence in popular culture.

It was filled with perfect examples of what we think of as Sixties moments. David Bailey wore a crewneck sweater and no shirt to marry Catherine Deneuve. Mods and rockers spent the Easter holiday hurling deckchairs at each other on the Brighton seafront.Marianne Faithfull, much to her own surprise, turned down Bob Dylan (she was pregnant, and about to get married). Julie Christie starred in John Schlesinger's Darling, Jane Birkin in Richard Lester's The Knack, defining images of Swinging London. The Beatles made Help!, played Shea Stadium, visited Elvis at home in Beverly Hills, and went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs - not quite all on the same day, but almost.

Liverpool, probably not coincidentally, won the FA Cup for the first time. Jean Shrimpton (whose sister was going out with Mick Jagger) lived with Terence Stamp (whose brother was managing the Who) and horrified Australian society by turning up to the Melbourne Cup in a simple shift that terminated four inches above the knee.

That's how simple it was to shock people in those days. When a small rip opened up in the weakened crotch seam of PJ Proby's velvet trousers on stage in Croydon on January, he was banned by the ABC theatre chain and excoriated by the newspapers. When three of the Stones - Jagger, Richards and Wyman - urinated against a wall at a petrol station on the way home from a show in Romford, they made the front pages and were fined £5 each. There was a fuss about these incidents, but generally they were thoughtto add to the gaiety of the nation.

In what was left of the real world of Great Britain, the Krays were remanded, Hindley and Brady were charged, Harold Wilson's government announced an experimental 70mph speed limit, legal blood-alcohol limits were brought in, and incitement to racial hatred was outlawed. Heath succeeded Home as Tory leader and declared his intention to take Britain into the EEC - to which, in any case, the government had just applied for a £500m loan. Internationally, the big issues were Vietnam and civil rights, both of which commanded the attention and concern of young people throughout the West.

It's easy to be cynical now, but the response to these questions went deeper than fashion, in a way that has no real parallel today. In January, Lyndon Johnson sent US planes to bomb North Vietnam. In June, the first American troops went into action on the ground against Vietcong bases near Saigon; by the time they got there, the VC had vanished. The President's answer: send more troops. Martin Luther King was arrested in an electoral reform protest in Selma, Alabama; eight weeks later he marched back into town at the head of 25,000 people, protected by 3,000 federal troops and the cameras of the world's television networks. Between times, Malcolm X had met an assassin's bullet in New York. In August, 28 died and 676 were injured when Watts exploded into three days of rioting.

Everything seemed connected, somehow or other. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, that was a part of the bigger deal: the youthquake, the struggle for black pride, the feeling that the Establishment was there for the taking. Of course Liston and Patterson were black, too, but other, older kinds of black. Clay was Dylan's age, Jagger's age, Lennon's age, our age.

AND OURS was, above all, a visual age. Coming between the studied sloppiness of the Beat generation and the romantic self-indulgence of the hippies, it was the time of the mods, whose aesthetic may have ended up with the National Front but had begun in the liberal atmosphere of the London art colleges, among people who knew about Fellini and Jasper Johns.

"What I liked about the Who and the Beatles and the Stones was that they took what they wanted from previous generations but there was this whole new thing going on," the graphic designer Pearce Marchbank remembered in Jonathon Green's oral history of the Sixties underground, Days in the Life. "It was primary colours, it was hard-edged, it was crisp. Ready Steady Go! sums it up . [It] was targets, chevrons, bright colours, crisp hard edges. There were fantastic art exhibitions in London . . . a whole room [at the Tate] full of American pop art: Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, targets and flags and what have you. Then you'd drift off to see the Who and you'd put two and two together. There seemed to be a direct line between what was on at the Tate and what was on at the Marquee. Listen to the first chords of `I Can't Explain' by the Who. One of the best openings of any pop song written and it's absolutely clean and concise, just like what they wore on stage . . . tight and clean, just like the look of the catalogues at the Robert Fraser Gallery."

The Who began the year with their first single, "I Can't Explain", its terse, staccato guitar chords benignly ripped off from the previous year's Kinks hits, and ended it with the anarchic feedback of "My Generation". In between came "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere", des-cribed by Pete Townshend, its composer, as "anti-middle age, anti-boss class and anti-young marrieds". If they'd packed it in at Christmas, after those three singles, they'd have been eternally regarded as the greatest rock group of all time, no contest.

British rock music, high on its own huge success in the US and fuelled by a profound admiration of Dylan's wilful unpredictability, was moving away from cover versions of Chess and Motown songs and exploring its own creativity. The Beatles began to explore the regions beyond their mastery of two-dimensional love songs, distilling the darker complexities of "Help!" and "Norwegian Wood", both indelibly marked by Dylan's influence on Lennon, while George Martin's expertise enabled McCartney to achieve the imaginative feat of "Yesterday".

The Stones, with Jagger and Richards forced into composing by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, used the influence of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters to define riff-based rock music with "The Last Time" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", benefiting fromKeith's acquisition of something called a fuzz-box and from the funkier acoustics of American studios. The Animals built a denser sound on the bedrock of Alan Price's jazzy organ with "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "It's My Life". The Yardb irds were experimenting with mood and structure on "For Your Love" and "Still I'm Sad". Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames emerged from the all-nighters at the Flamingo with the finger-popping "Yeh Yeh". The Kinks progressed from the kinetic power chords o f "Tired of Waiting for You" to the prophetic quasi-Oriental drone and oblique lyric of "See My Friend". The Small Faces (real, rather than art- college mods) made their debut with the pugnacious "Whatcha Gonna Do About It?". Out of Belfast came the incomparably surly Them with "Baby Please Don't Go", "Here Comes the Night" and the opening chapter of the Van Morrison legend.

"Gloria", the B-side of "Baby Please Don't Go", may have been the first punk-rock record. Or perhaps that was the pounding "I Want Candy" by the Strangeloves, a non-existent group invented to counter the British invasion by a bunch of New York hack writer-producers. Or possibly Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully", or the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover", both out of Texas that year. Or, again from New York, the McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy", a kind of punk-bubblegum hybrid. The year was full of one-offs like these as American groups fought back, producing guitar-driven music at least as creative and influential as that of their British contemporaries, even if the motives and methods were sometimes unconventional. The Byrds took a 12-string guitar to Dylan's "Tambourine Man" and invented folk-rock. Music publisher Lou Adler bought his staff songwriter P F Sloan a corduroy Bob Dylan cap, gave him a copy of Highway 61 Revisited and an acoustic guitar, and locked him in a Hollywood bungalow for a weekend. When he emerged, Sloan handed Adler the demo of "Eve of Destruction", an instant worldwide No 1 for the harsh-voiced Barry McGuire.

Harold Battiste, a veteran of the New Orleans R&B scene, helped a pair of Hollywood brats, Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn LaPier, to become Sonny and Cher with "I Got You Babe", a folk-rock minuet. Brian Wilson, fiddling about in the studio while the rest of the Beach Boys went out on tour, pushed the enrichment button on surf music so hard that it turned into the sunlit symphonies of "Help Me Rhonda" and "California Girls". The Everly Brothers, relics of pop's first golden age, were reborn in the crunching drive of "Love is Strange", as powerful a sound as any in the whole year.

In Detroit, Chicago and Memphis, soul music had reached its mature phase. Hitsville USA, the little white frame house on the Motor City's West Grand Boulevard, was in top gear with Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar", Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run", Kim Weston's "Take Me in Your Arms", Jr Walker's "Shotgun", the Marvelettes' "I'll Keep Holding On", the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" and "It's the Same Old Song", the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again", and hal f a dozen Smokey Robinson masterpieces: three for the Temptations ("My Girl", "It's Growing" and "Since I Lost My Baby") and three for his own group, the Miracles ("Ooo Baby Baby", "Goin' to a'Go-Go" and the incomparable "Tracks of My Tears"). In Chicago , Curtis Mayfield was borrowing his grandmother's sermons for "People Get Ready". The Stax house band was launching Wilson Pickett into "In the Midnight Hour" and Otis Redding into "Respect" on the sloping floor of the old cinema on Memphis's East McLemo re Avenue.

To say nothing of Barbara Mason's wistful "Yes I'm Ready", the Dixie Cups' "Iko Iko", Lou Christie's falsetto tour de force on "Lightning Strikes", Shirley Ellis's "Clapping Song", Betty Everett's "Getting Mighty Crowded", the Shangri-Las' "I Can Never Go Home Anymore", the Ronettes' ecstatic "Born to Be Together", the Drifters' "At the Club", Dusty Springfield's glowing "Some of Your Lovin' " and the boiling gospel-driven "Heartbeat Pts 1 and 2" by Gloria Jones.

Or Dionne Warwick's "(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)", the Byrds' interpretation of Pete Seeger's take on Ecclesiastes in "Turn Turn Turn", the Searchers' "What Have They Done to the Rain?", Wayne Fontana's "Game of Love", Len Barry's "1-2-3", Roy Head's "Treat Her Right", Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)", Fontella Bass's "Rescue Me", the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?", Dobie Gray's "The `In' Crowd", Little Richard's crazed "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me", and two further Walker Brothers classics: "Make It Easy On Yourself" and "My Ship is Coming In". And a hundred or two more.

The curious counterpoint to such riches, at least in Britain, was a parallel boom in complete rubbish. Tom Jones's "It's Not Unusual" and Petula Clark's "Downtown" represented the acceptable face of middle-of-the-road pop. But for every "My Generation" or "Yeh Yeh" there seemed to be an equal number of drippy ballads like Julie Rogers's "Like a Child", Ken Dodd's "Tears", P J Proby's "I Apologise", the Seekers' "The Carnival is Over", Matt Monro's "Walk Away", Val Doonican's "Walk Tall", and the Bachelors' "Marie". Almost surreally, it seems now, "Tears" occupied the No 1 slot for five weeks, between "Make It Easy On Yourself" and "Get Off of My Cloud". In death, Jim Reeves became a kind of anti-Dylan: a symbol of pre-pop values.

It was, lest we forget, the year of "A Walk in the Black Forest", and of US No 1 hits for Herman's Hermits and Freddie and the Dreamers.

BUT, MOST significantly, and paradoxically in the light of such frantic activity, 1965 was the year when pop music started to slow down.

First there was the deceleration of the working process, a result of increasing affluence and the freedom it gave musicians who had formerly been the slaves of managers and record companies, and of a desire to spend more time creating records in the studio, exploring the potential of both the developing technology and their own imaginations. In 1965 the Beatles, as they had every year since signing with EMI, released two albums, Help! and Rubber Soul. The Stones released No 2 and Out of Our Heads. The Beach Boys released Today and Summer Days. That was the standard working schedule. But in the following year there would be only one album from each of those three leading bands: respectively Revolver, Aftermath and Pet Sounds. And that would remain the pattern.

The music also slowed down in a more literal way, thanks to the combined influence of the soul singer James Brown and the conceptual artist Andy Warhol. Together, the effect of Brown's one-chord funk and - less obviously, but just as profoundly - Warhol's understanding of the appeal of repetition thinned out the music's layers, simplified its structure and reduced its content. This was the birth of minimalism, and it also led directly to a complete inversion of the music's weight distribution. Where theaural focus had been on the solo voice (a legacy of the old "vocal with rhythm accompaniment" legend printed on the labels of pre-war 78s), now the bottom end of the rhythm section - the bass and drums - began to take greater prominence, with the other elements arranged on top. In that sense, the most important records of 1965 were not "Satisfaction", "My Generation" or "Ticket to Ride" but Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)", whose long- term effect on the time-frame andevent-horizon of popular music is all around us today.

Buried within 1965 were the seeds of 1966: the debut of Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix in San Francisco and of the Grateful Dead at the first Acid Tests. In November, the two bands shared the bill at the opening night of Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. Around the corner lay Hendrix, Cream, Pet Sounds, "Paint It Black", the aloof visions of Blonde on Blonde and Dylan's motorcycle crash. And The Velvet Underground and Nico, with which another future would begin.

`Days in the Life' was published by Heinemann in 1988; `Revolution in the Head' by Fourth Estate in 1994.