"When we think about the 1960s, the first thing that comes to mind is not the harpsichord. Colorful and distinctive yet chameleonic, it can be both hard and easy to miss. Yet the harpsichord’s dappled, stained-glass light pervades the artifacts of the decade, from The Avengers to The Addams Family, The Graduate to Rosemary’s Baby, The Fab Four to the Four Tops, and far beyond. Unlikely as it now seems, this donkeyish uncle of the piano rose with the momentum of the era to become an indelible sign of the times. The harpsichord was reborn in the 1960s into a prevailing spirit of alchemy. As popular music’s sonic palette broadened—to take in distortion, flanging, and wah-wah effects; sitars; feedback; new keyboards and electronics; even tape machines being played as instruments—so did the harpsichord’s versatility and appeal. Its celestial chime recommended it to the baroque inclinations of the day: it could glint through a lush orchestral arrangement like lemon through butter, highlighting a song’s contours. With a magical zing at once familiar and new, the harpsichord could imply more in sound than it said in notes. Its regal overtones not only fit but fed the velvety Victorian dandyism that came into bloom in late 1966 and ’67. And as the roiling international wave of disaffection, youth solidarity, and collective consciousness came to a series of heads in 1968, the harpsichord was not only part of the soundtrack, it was part of the zeitgeist. Listen along here for an impressionistic, alternative understanding of the decade."
Tom Greenwood's history of the harpsichord in the 1960s is featured in the current issue of the Believer. Purchase a copy of the issue here [single issue link], and subscribe today [sub link] to receive the next six issues for $48.