When Music Turned to Sex—And Changed the World

They were impossibly young, tremendously gifted, and very, very attractive.

Diana Ross was 20. Mick Jagger was 21. Brian Wilson was 22. Marvin Gaye was 25. The biggest star on stage, Lesley Gore, wasn’t old enough to drink or vote.

It was October 29, 1964, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It was the T.A.M.I. show, and for two hours the heavens opened. The gods of the future poured out, strolled among us, and created magic effortlessly. After almost half a century the show has been released on DVD. You must see it. Stop reading this, go buy it or order it on netflix, and then come back here. I’ll wait.

The show opens innocently enough, with a long, silly song about the acts ahead. There’s lots of surfin’ shtick—America was just discovering California.

Out come hosts Jan & Dean, boys in matching polo shirts. They introduce “the guy who started it all back in 1958,” and everything changes. Out strides Chuck Berry—38 (oldest performer on the bill), coal-black, legs apart, lascivious grin. After just a few bars about Maybelline, Johnny B Goode, Nadine, and a few other characters, the whole audience (99% white, 97% girls) is jumping, screaming, and shaking. Sweet Little Sixteen, he’s leering about you.

In succession, we see the people who defined music for a generation (or two or three or four). White and black, male and female, everyone gets a few songs. And we get the gift of generously long, extreme close-ups, something concert videos no longer provide.

We see raw talent on the verge of ripening, kids who know their future is to be adored by the world. Their confidence is astonishing. They are already cultural hurricanes, and they know it.

Here’s what else stands out: every song is about sex, love (including the agonies of infidelity), or both. And so is everything else about the show: the go-go dancers, in high-cut shimmy dresses and low-cut bikinis, shaking everything; the guys’ pants, so tight you can tell who’s circumcised. At some point almost every performer has a wink, a coy turn of the head, a dropped shoulder, a seductive sigh. These aren’t the first sexy singers and sexy songs. But these are kids singing to kids—mainstream kids, thousands of them here, millions of them on the radio. That’s news.

Before then, songs were about many things, including love. When teenagers started making records for teenagers, popular music stopped being about anything but love—and sex soon followed. Less than 48 months after T.A.M.I., Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and others went from “Baby Love” to “Back Door Man,” from “Judy’s Turn to Cry” to “Are You Experienced?”

The Rolling Stones close the show. Jagger is already rubber-lipped, pouting, demanding, already bending bar lines and chords as if obeying a slightly different scale and rhythm than the rest of us.

But the show has already climaxed with the second-oldest guy on the bill—James Brown. He’s a force of nature, frenetically dancing in ways white people have never seen. He’s sweating, shouting, grunting, dropping to his knees, doing the splits. It’s so personal, so intimate, we almost have to look away. It’s so powerful we absolutely can’t. James is making love to everyone in the audience, to his band, to the girls on stage, to the lights, to the camera. When he’s done, helped off with a cape around his shoulders, we are both exhausted and energized. We’re coming down from the group orgasm.

Watching this show, you can feel the universe turn. The music, the erotic new dancing and fashions that came with it, the consciousness experiments it predicted…well, if you were around just a few years later you know exactly what happened (assuming, as they say, that you remember it).

The internet? IPad? Just little curiosities compared to how that music changed the world.

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