Note from CM: We are going to move our classic Michael Spencer posts back to Fridays for a while, and renew our “Music Monday” theme to start each week.
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Fifty years ago. 1966. I was ten years old.
An article in The Guardian asks the question, “Was 1966 Pop Music’s Greatest Year?”
I hesitate to say it was the best in my lifetime, but I would say that perhaps it was the most formative. In particular, it was in 1966 that the public was introduced to the concept of the album. That is, a record that was more than a mere compilation of songs, but rather a song set that equalled more than the sum of its parts, made to be listened to in one setting, inviting the listener to take a journey of sounds, thoughts, feelings, and imaginings that truly “took” him/her somewhere.
During that year I bought my first album (“The Best of the Kingston Trio”) and became a fan of one of the British Invasion groups (The Dave Clark Five) — HERE is a post about those days. I was too young to appreciate the Beatles fully. Dylan was a total mystery. The Beach Boys were all about fun in the sun, mediated through my little AM radio. But in 1966, these three acts put together albums for the ages.
Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson, who stayed at home because of a panic attack he had suffered on a flight while the rest of the Beach Boys toured Japan, was inspired by the Beatles album, Rubber Soul, to compose his introspective masterpiece. Rubber Soul may be seen as the wellspring for all these albums, as Rolling Stone said, “We’re all living in the future this album invented.” Rubber Soul was released in December, 1965, and it represented a new day in studio recording. The Beatles grew up at that moment and began an incredible run of mature creative output in the second half of the decade. When Wilson heard Rubber Soul, it sparked something deep in his soul. As Charles J. Moss at Cuepoint writes:
When Brian Wilson first heard the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul, he was so astonished by the album that the next morning, he went straight to his piano and started writing “God Only Knows” with his songwriting partner Tony Asher.
Wilson knew that Rubber Soul — an album that contained the most mature songwriting from John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison yet, and exhibited the beginnings of a studio effects revolution — was a glimpse into the future of rock music, and that the Beatles were at the forefront. As cofounder of the Beach Boys, he knew that music was changing and for his group to stay on top in the industry, he would have to make something just as good, or better.
The result was Pet Sounds, released May 16, 1966. It was the Beach Boys’ greatest artistic achievement; one that would never be reached by the group again.
The studio history of Pet Sounds is the stuff of rock music mythology. Wilson called in the best unknown band in rock music history — a group of master studio musicians who became known as the Wrecking Crew — and worked as a composer, arranger, and producer with them, often spontaneously, until the “feel” of each arrangement was right. Sessions were long and costly and often frustrating, but the end result is one of the greatest albums of all time. The Rolling Stone review said, “With its vivid orchestration, lyrical ambition, elegant pacing and thematic coherence, Pet Sounds invented – and in some sense perfected – the idea that an album could be more than the sum of its parts.”
On the same day, Bob Dylan released his masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde.
This album is also famous not only for its content, but for its recording sessions. Blonde on Blonde is the record that put Nashville, TN on the map as the place to record. Dylan assembled a great band that included guitarist Wayne Moss, guitarist/bassist Joe South and keyboardist Al Kooper, along with legendary blind pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Dylan also brought in Robbie Robertson of The Band for some sessions. Once again, the recording procedure was strange to studio musicians who were used to getting full arrangements and finishing their work in an allotted time. Instead, they would often find themselves sitting around while Dylan was working on lyrics and ideas until he was ready, sometimes late into the evening or overnight. The schedule was always unpredictable. However, as per the musicians, the atmosphere was also fun and low pressure, which you can hear in the album’s buoyant spirit.
Of the first Nashville session, Dylan has said: “The musicians played cards, I wrote out a song, we’d do it, they’d go back to their game and I’d write out another song.” Actually, the band was often woken up and summoned to the studio in the middle of the night. The musicians were arranged in a circle, so as to feed off one another. And most of the songs from those first sessions were indeed completed by a first or second take: Fourth Time Around, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and the record’s two haunting and haunted masterpieces: Visions of Johanna and Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. (Ed Vulliamy)
Vulliamy also reminds us of the context in Bob Dylan’s career for this album: “Five months before recording began, Dylan had made arguably the most significant step in his career, and perhaps in all rock music, when on Sunday July 25, 1965, he played the Newport folk festival with a band that included Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield and proceeded to rip the night apart with searing electric accounts of Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
This is Dylan the rebel, refusing to fit into people’s preconceived notions of who he was or should be. From the opening raucous strains of Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 (Dylan was enamored of obscure titles) to the remarkable Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, which took up one entire side of an LP, Bobby the court jester thumbs his nose at conformity, saying essentially, “Do what you want. This generation is going to have its pipe and smoke it too.” Blonde on Blonde is one wild ride as we try to keep up with Dylan during the most productive and creative period of his youth.
On August 5, 1966, The Beatles released Revolver, which many consider their finest album. George Harrison was quoted as saying he saw it as Rubber Soul, part two, a continuation and extension of the creativity and possibilities explored in the first record. It was also a further foray into psychedelia and spirituality, aided by the band’s experiments with LSD, that introduced an entire era in the 1960’s.
A rock song accompanied by a string quartet? Yes. Eleanor Rigby. Sitar and strains of Indian classical music? Yes. Love You To. Sweet and sentimental love song? Yes. Here, There, and Everywhere. Blistering social commentary? Yes. Taxman. A description of an LSD trip, complete with lyrics from Timothy Leary’s version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead? Sure, why not? Tomorrow Never Knows. Something, on the other hand, for the kiddies? Yes. Yellow Submarine.
Creative studio techniques? How about replaying McCartney’s guitar solo in Taxman backward in Tomorrow Never Knows? Multilayering of voices automatically rather than manually? It started on this record. Tape loops? Yep.
The album also saw the rise of George Harrison, who wrote several of the songs, and Ringo Starr, who sang Yellow Submarine, to new places of prominence within the group. Ringo said, “”Musically, I felt we were progressing in leaps and bounds. Some of the stuff on this and the Rubber Soul album was brilliant. There was nothing like it.”
And it all came together in a coherent, satisfying whole, preparing the way for the next album, the one everyone thinks of as the epitome of “the album” genre: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
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How good are these three albums, and how do they hold up over time?
Well, if you take Rolling Stone’s voting committee seriously, Blonde on Blonde is #9 of their top 500 albums, Revolver is #3, and Pet Sounds is #2. In 1966, they all prepared the way for Sgt. Pepper, which RS ranks #1.
For those of us who grew up in the 1960’s, these are the formative sounds of our lives. Though some may ask how these “secular” influences could be healthy or make any contribution toward a Jesus-shaped spirituality, it seems a foolish question to me. For each of us is also more than the sum of the parts and influences that have shaped us. As a human being of a particular age, I find in this music the experiences and cries that my own generation has felt. These songs, these feelings, these thoughts, these pursuits of creativity and longing are mine. A part of the life God is in.