May 1, 2015
It’s nice, in its way, that all the albums in the top five hover around a specific period of time, and all speak to each other in more or less direct ways. Of course, three of them are all by the same band, but even the other two–Pet Sounds and Highway 61 Revisited–join in on that conversation to some extent, the former falling between Rubber Soul and Revolver and serving as a mutually inspirational/ arms-racey bridge between them, and the latter having established a kind of intelligence and depth in pop songwriting that influenced all of these albums to one extent or another. If you’re not a fan of this era or these artists, of course, it’s not nice at all that they’re cluttering up all the top spots. But for my purposes, it seems like a pretty solid grouping, and a validation of my own prejudice that popular music peaked in this mid-60s window–due in part to these five albums, but also to lots of other incredible music, much of it non-album oriented, that was being made at the time.
Of the three Beatles records that populate every other one of the five top spots, this is the middle one chronologically, and also in Rolling Stone’s ranking. This follows the traditional narrative that The Beatles’ middle period, generally regarded as their artistic high point, followed a linear upward progression culminating in their glorious 1967 masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–the number one greatest record of all time according to this list. There is, however, a competing narrative, itself pretty well established by this point, which holds that, really, the whole idea of Sgt. Pepper–its concept and its bright, attractive packaging–seduced everyone into thinking it was their best album, whereas actually, Revolver represents their true artistic high water mark. Proponents of this theory feel that this is the more solid set of songs over all, and the point at which the group’s studio (and psychoactive) experimentation was new and exciting enough to really change the way everyone thought about how pop music could sound. In this view, Revolver is secretly the genuine psychedelic masterpiece of The Beatles’ career, and Sgt. Pepper comparatively sort of an uneven confection that couldn’t even hold its alleged “concept” together for more than a few songs. It parallels the argument that, while everyone talks about 1967 and the “summer of love” and all, really 1966 (the year my father graduated from high school, incidentally) was the year that everything really got cool, and that by 1967, it was all kind of for tourists, existentially speaking.
I’ve generally steered clear of picking a side in this argument, averring my preference for the warmer, simpler pleasures of Rubber Soul. For the sake of this project, and in the absence of having been able to listen to any of the albums for a number of years, I have committed to remaining neutral in deciding a favorite until the very end, although so far Rubber Soul is holding strong. I don’t know if it was just the mood I was in listening to this one, or if my expectations had grown too high or what, but I found myself almost shockingly underwhelmed by it. I mean, of course it’s a great album–one of the greatest–and of course I love it, and will continue to listen to it for the rest of my life. But right on this listening, thinking of it in relation to the albums that surround it, I found myself kind of let down by its neither here nor thereness. The music on Rubber Soul, while admittedly not as adventuresomely orchestrated or augmented by backward tape loops and the like, at least presents a relatively unified aesthetic front–it all hangs together quite nicely and the songs feel more than incidentally related to each other. And looking ahead, while its true that Sgt. Pepper doesn’t continue to reference its specific conceit–that The Beatles are this other, brightly attired community band or something–the quality of cheerful, carnival psychedelia pervades most of the album, and once again the majority of the songs–though there are exceptions–feel of a piece with one another.
But this album in many ways doesn’t really have that quality. What it does have is all The Beatles arriving at a new level of artistic achievement and adventuresomeness together, but approached from radically different angles. For the most part this works quite well, and most of the songs that comprise the album are both individually great and not in the main jarringly incompatible with each other. But there is definitely more than one thing going on with this record that gives it an almost disjointed quality. It’s all great enough that one tends to forgive this, but it also colors the experience in a way that, at least for me this time around, made it feel like slightly less of a real album than either of the other two that surround it.
One hates to make it all about drugs, but, well…it’s definitely all about drugs. Because one can’t listen to this record without hearing with almost embarrassing clarity that the rest of the band–or at least John and George–had taken acid by the time this album was recorded, and that Paul had not. So (leaving George aside for the moment), while John and Paul were both operating at a very high level making unprecedentedly rarefied, spectacular music, it’s almost as though their creative processes–so closely intertwined just a few years prior–by now existed in separate and not entirely reconcilable universes.
In the main, I think it’s the emphatically psychedelic music on here that one most immediately associates with this album and its legacy as a real groundbreaker. At the same time, those tend to be the parts that have not necessarily aged all that well. The tape loops, the backward guitar parts, the influence of Indian music, the shimmery guitars–by now they’ve become cliches, but at the time, no one had ever heard anything like it before. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which closes the album, is the most famous example–a masterpiece of unconventional song structure and studio trickery, fleshed out by lines lift from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It really is an amazing piece of work, and yet I confess that I never quite loved it. I think it’s very much a “you had to be there” kind of track–something that would have felt unearthly and world changing in its time. But those of us born into the world in which it already existed have had to work a little harder to properly appreciate its magnitude. It’s not really like a…catchy number. I’ve grown in my ability to appreciate both its innovative technique and its starling effect, and yet it remain not really my favorite piece of psychedelic music. The stuff Brian Wilson was doing on Smile, for example, which was directly influenced by this music, strikes much deeper into the heart of the psychedelic experience, at least to my ear. In some ways, I think I always sort of took this track for granted, and it wasn’t until its rather stunning use on Mad Men (so shocking in part because the royalties The Beatles’ music commands means that one never hears their songs on TV) that I was able to almost put myself in the position of someone who had never heard anything like it before.
“She Said She Said” fares a little better, at least in that its more of a real song. But it’s also never been a big favorite of mine. Hearing it this time in its full glory (good mono pressing playing through a tube amp) was perhaps the most I’ve ever enjoyed it. The wall of affected guitar noise that runs throughout and shifts about it is truly stunning. I especially like the upward sense of where the music goes in the “when I was a boy” part. It’s really just the “like I’ve never been born” melodic hook that I’ve grown to find rather cloying over the years.
“I’m Only Sleeping” is in spirit more of a weed song, but its backward guitar solo sounds invitingly trippy–dreamlike, I guess you’d call it–and is perhaps my favorite of the “special effects” on the album. It’s the first such moment on the album, and the one that, to me, holds up the best. I like how the guitar part, though backwards, makes a certain kind of musical sense in the context of the song. It’s like the musical equivalent of the way “the man from another place” speaks on Twin Peaks. It’s one of three songs that Capitol pulled from the American version of the record, which is the version I grew up with. The change, while abhorrent, was less convoluted than some, because they didn’t add in any tracks from elsewhere. It’s just a shorter, slightly worse version of the same album. However, it’s noteworthy that “I’m Only Sleeping” is really the only of those three tracks that I have come in adulthood to feel as an essential part of the album.
The other two songs they pulled, “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Dr. Robert,” are great songs–even minor favorites of the period for me. And yet in their comparative straightforwardness, I don’t find them all that well situated here. Even though one is a delightful piece of nonsense and the other is about a drug dealing M.D., and both are by John, neither of them feel all that druggie to me in a way that would make them fit this album (or at least my scheme of divvying it up) more naturally. Both songs are especially strong in the guitar department, but it isn’t any kind of phase shifted or backwards or otherwise weirdly affected guitar. “And Your Bird Can Sing” is in some ways all about the guitar riff–a neat, angular little composition unto itself, whereas “Dr. Robert” finds George giving us a warm, almost overdriven update on his classic Carl Perkinsian style. Though I’d surely feel different if I’d grown up with the real album, I must confess that I kind of liked these two songs better as they fell on Capitol’s Yesterday and Today album. (I think I need to find a copy of that record, or at least dig out my old one from my Mom’s basement.)
George also lands with what kind of qualifies as a psychedelic number on “Love to You,” although it’s perhaps better understood simply as a spiritual song. In general, it’s not a phase of Harrison’s writing I’m all that fond of, and indeed, I don’t love this song. The conclusion of it’s chorus–“I’ll make love to you, if you want me to”–seems kind of blunt and rude almost, especially as it arises up abruptly out of a lot of vaguery about impermanence and whatnot. Still, the track itself feels a little more muscular than some of his other, more tepid quasi-Indian songs like “The Inner Light.” I’m surprised to learn it’s actually George playing the sitar, because he’s shredding pretty hard on that thing. And, while its virtues are limited for contemporary consumption, it is kind of cool to imagine people hearing this stuff on a pop album in 1966. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything that came before it.
George’s other two songs are less explicitly psychedelic/spiritual, but both weave in trippy elements in pretty effective ways. “Tax Man” is the best of the lot, and a fine choice of opener for the album, at least musically. It’s got a nice hard, sharp sort of attack to it, and its repetition of the titular phrase gives it a faintly comic bookish feeling, referencing Bat Man, I suppose, and also kind of echoing Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” Its famous guitar solo is the trippy part, but its in a harder, more spastic vein of psychedelia, almost prefiguring the kind of dissonant Coltranesque soloing that would become popular among Bay Area bands in the years that followed. It’s a great solo, and a fine, tight song. The only thing that weird about it is that it’s kind of just about George Harrison complaining about having to pay his taxes. It seems an oddly quotidian, whiny subject for a song–and kind of an oddly conservative sentiment to find at the outset of what is regarded as one of the founding documents of the psychedelic era. “I Want to Tell You” is a decent one too–a little more vague feeling, like it could have used a bit more tightening up. But it stands up pretty well, and introduces some cool, trippy backward tape parts at the end that resemble the sound of one of those pitchy Middle Eastern horns.
That leaves us with the much cleaner, profoundly unpsychedelic Paul songs. To his credit, he does engage in a bit of studio trickery here and there that mirrors, if tentatively, the psychedelic excursions of his bandmates, but they feel more like incidental effects than something central to the songs’ conceptions. I guess the closest he gets to cleaving in a trippy direction for a whole song would have to be “Yellow Submarine,” which really sounds like someone who has never taken drugs at all trying to write a druggie song. Still, it’s got an easy, campfireish sensibility to it, and it earns some points for being the first Beatles song that most kids probably ever get into. I don’t think it really merits having been a single (though it did quite well), but it’s a harmless enough little trifle of a song that interrupts only slightly the progression of the more mature songs that surround it. More troubling to me, at least most days, is the cloyingly bright “Good Day Sunshine.” It tries to be simply a cheerful, optimistic little pop song, and every once in awhile I can hear it that way. But mostly, it tips over into that vein of mawkishness that prefigures much of the unlistenable dreck of McCartney’s solo career. He feels good…in a special way. Slightly better is “Got to Get You into My Life,” which shares a bit of that same over-brightness, but at least adds some horns to give it the patina of soul music. It’s not terribly soulful, but it’s a good enough little tune, especially in its arrangement of horns and the guitar parts in between.
But really, the places where Paul really shines on this album are in a series of small, delicate art music pieces. It’s a range of McCartney’s output that began with “Yesterday” and seemed to kind of peter out after “She’s Leaving Home,” but finds its fullest expression on this album. It’s Pauls’ biggest contribution to the serious and groundbreaking qualities of the record–making lovely, quasi-classical songs almost in the vein of Schubert’s lieder in the context of a pop album. It’s what he could do to move the music forward on his own steam while his bandmates were reaping the benefits of having severely altered their consciousness–and it does count for something.
Truthfully, I don’t love the most famous of these, “Eleanor Rigby,” which seems kind of bathetic and overwritten, and whose sawing, arpeggiated melody starts to grate on me by the end of the song. Perhaps its just that I was exposed at too young an age to Doodles Weaver’s fine evisceration of the song to ever quite be able to take it as seriously as it’s asking to be taken. (Although in a poignant denouement, I just learned that Doodles Weaver killed himself, which sort of folds some gravity back into the whole thing.) Much more satisfying to my ear is “For No One,” a chillingly polite little song of heartbreak whose structural formality nicely mirrors the iciness of the couple growing apart in the songs lyric. It’s piano accompaniment is so harpsichordishly staccato that an almost funky kind of rhythm starts to emerge subtly and almost incidentally beneath song’s classical trappings. It’s punctuated by a sweet, clear horn solo of the type McCartney would reprise on “Penny Lane.” I think it’s a very fine song, if not exactly a fun one. Also very fine is “Here, There and Everywhere.” Rhythmically, it has more of a modern–or at least in the twentieth century ballpark–feel to it, but the delicacy of its melody, the sweetness of its harmonies and its subtle arrangement makes it belong to this camp of what I’m calling Paul’s “art songs.” It might even, in its own quiet way, be the among the best songs on the album.
The only question is, how does a song like “Here, There and Everywhere” tie in with a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows”? What possible conversation could those two songs have with each other that wouldn’t swiftly devolve into mutual rankor and misunderstanding? I don’t think there’s a good answer for that, except that by the force of The Beatles’ presentation, it all kind of works out. It’s almost like the White Album of the mid-period in that way. On this one, they were still all getting along and collaborating and working together toward something, but to some degree, the basic differences in artistic and even existential orientation become hard to ignore nevertheless. Perhaps that tension–or just diversity, I guess you could call it–is part of this album’s appeal. And yet, at least this time, I found it a bit distracting. If Sgt. Pepper is not as innovative as this one, or not as strong song to song, I would say in its favor that it at least manages to blend its various elements together in a way that feels a bit more harmonious and cohesive, more on the same psychoactive page, and if only for that reason, might still trump this one after all.
Source: the 2014 Mono Reissue. On the strength of Rubber Soul and the other records I’ve heard from this set, I had really high hopes, and yet I found myself a little unsure of how I liked the way this one sounded. It felt maybe almost a little too transparent, like I could feel the spaces around all that studio trickery a little too acutely. It seemed to kind of thin out in places, and bunch up in others. Maybe, although it contradicts both my own expectations and the popular consensus of the day, this one works better in stereo. And maybe my slight reservations about the album as a whole was in part a function of this sonic uncertainty. Or maybe I was just cranky at the time.
March 15, 2014
An old friend of mine had a standard outfit that he wore to every Phish show I ever saw him at: a nice, flowing Indian print skirt, and a T-shirt that said something like “If You can’t be a hippie, at least look like one.” I always liked it for the uncomfortable truth it broadcast: we may have had long hair, and listened to a certain kind of noodley psychedelic music, and our drugs of choice may have tended in a certain direction, but at bottom, we were a bunch of pikers. There was no real deal revolutionary fervor underlying the superficial trappings of our youth culture. It was the 90s, not the 60s, and although some subset of the population aped the style of that earlier era, the existential conditions we found ourselves in were completely different. The revolution of that earlier generation had already been absorbed and commodified, and our reenactment of it was not merely toothless, but was a more or less manufactured outcome: the channelling of undifferentiated adolescent unrest into circumscribed pageants of ersatz, nonspecific dissent. Basically, the options presented to me seemed to be “punk” or “hippie,” and I gravitated toward the latter, both because the aesthetic maintenance seemed lower, and because I liked the music better.
Arguably, I also had some slightly deeper roots in that direction. At a tender age, before the onset of adolescent angst and the solutions to it I pursued, I became enamored of the music of my father’s generation. (He graduated from high school in 1966, which increasingly strikes me as the most fascinating possible year to graduate from high school, more or less ever.) It was partially a function of paternal influence, though not entirely: my gateway interest was in The Beatles, who my father was not a big fan of. I branched out from there, watching a copy of Woodstock taped off PBS obsessively, and developing a general familiarity with the luminaries of that musical and cultural generation.
Because the music of the 60s constitutes one of my larger musical enthusiasms, I have perhaps approached the relevant albums on this list with a kind of misplaced authority. I associate myself with the music of this era, but forget on some level that that doesn’t make it mine. I often find myself recapitulating some version of my father’s opinions, only to find after the fact that they have changed or softened over the years–or perhaps I’m just misremembering. Too often, I have asserted an opinion about a song or album that neglects a proper understanding of the cultural context from which it sprung: the no fucking around weirdness and intensity of that era, the specter of the war specifically, and the general drift from good vibrations to bad over the course of a few short years.
All of which leaves me a bit uncertain about how to characterize what I felt in listening to this album. Historically, I’ve always had a somewhat muddled, uncertain opinion of this group. Back in the 90s, I once saw a girl standing on top of a bus in a Phish show parking lot, belting out an unaccompanied version of “White Rabbit.” A small but appreciative crowd had gathered, and she did capture the bracing quality of Grace Slick’s vocal quite well. But the whole spectacle struck me as ridiculous–largely for the cross-generational concerns stated above, but also just for the oddness of someone standing on top of a bus, whatever the year, singing those strange (perhaps too deliberately strange) words. It rubbed off in my mind on the original, leaving me with a sense of the song, and by extension the band, and really, the whole furthest reaches of the San Francisco psychedelic sound, as an almost comical relic that had failed to age very well at all. This impression was softened some decades later by the minor but excellent Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man, in which the wild, psychedelic strains of “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” are depicted as turning a mild mannered middle American kid (a stand-in, one assumes, for the film makers) on to the broader currents of change music of this sort portended. It didn’t make the music seem any less dated, but it gave me more sympathy for the role it may have played in its own time.
All of this, though, concerns preconceptions of the sort I purportedly strive to disavow in my listening to these records, and says nothing about my actual experience of listening to it. This is somewhat deliberate, as that experience was oddly indistinct for me, and I’m not quite sure what to say about it. I’ve recently made some changes in my dietary intake, including an elimination of sugar and a steep reduction in caffeine, so my head was a bit swimmy and unfocused–not an entirely inopportune state, I realize, in which to take in this kind of music. It was about as “stoned” as I get these days.
I guess my main impression was how committed it was to its sound. It really, really sounds like 1967 San Francisco acid rock–there is perhaps no purer document of that time. In a lot of ways, it’s an exciting and still surprisingly exotic sound, full of beguilingly obtuse chord changes and acidy guitar solos, paradoxically embodying both an eastern sort of detachment and a blues-based intensity of feeling. Slick’s voice remains faintly ridiculous to me in its stentorian hyper-drama, but it works well enough in the context of this music. The predominant male voice, whoever it is, has a subtler but still weird tone of voice, as though everything he sang was delivered without any facial expression, and from a three quarter profile.
While some albums open themselves up to a song by song sort of analysis, this one was much more of a lump sum experience for me. The last song on the first side, a mellow, pretty ballad, stood out for being the only respite from the maelstrom of psychedelia. And the two previously mentioned songs of course stood out for their familiarity. Given my earlier experience, I was pleasantly surprised by how awesome “White Rabbit” actually sounded to me in its proper context–haunting and persistent, smolderingly intense, and surreal as all get out, even abstracted from the Alice in Wonderland imagery. Everything else, though, resisted being understood in discrete parts, and just washed over me as undifferentiated, kind of groovy sound.
I liked the album, but I do think there’s a reason this group didn’t manage to stay relevant to future generations in the way that many of the other big artists of era did. The music is interesting, but is extremely dated sounding. It’s ironic, in a way–one of the big selling points of the psychedelic experience is its universal quality, a sense of connecting to something bigger than oneself. And yet this music, so closely inspired by and associated with that experience, didn’t quite manage to make the leap into universal–which is to say timeless–appeal. It sounds “trippy,” but almost generically so, like a caricature of what trippy ought to sound like. I don’t know if that’s a failure of their vision, or if what is most important about their music spoke more to the sum total of their immediate experience–what it felt like to be tripping in 1967–than it did to some more platonic absolute of psychedelic experience. As someone born several decades too late, that awareness is implicitly closed to me. If anyone was who was there would care to chime in, I’d be interested to hear what you think.