May 19, 2015
Okay, well, it’s been more than a week since I laid the primary work of this project to rest, and I find I’m dragging my heels on getting through this final round of posts intended to tie it all up and imply that it has all meant something. Once I’m done, I’m implicitly faced with getting on with the business of whatever else my life is supposed to be about, so forgive me if I’m drawing it all out a bit. Just so we all know where we stand, here is the endgame structure: this is a music-centered, list-intensive piece that goes over some of my favorite and least favorite albums of the project and things like that. After that, I’ve got a fun little bonus list-based post in mind, and finally, I will write a more reflective piece that probably only my Mom will read about music and life and parenthood and what it feels like to be done with my listening project and that kinda junk. Alright, then…
My own personal best of list is the obvious place to start. All along, I assumed I would offer up a top ten list at the end. At some point, a reader suggested a top fifty list, which seemed a bit excessive. And yet, as I faced the painful constriction of what just ten slots actually felt like–how many beloved albums I’d need to leave unmentioned, fifty came to seem like a good number, and so that’s what I have to offer–a list of my fifty favorite albums from the project, more or less. There are some caveats involved.
Like the list it is drawn from, it is an imperfect one. Unlike that list, there is only one person to blame. The Rolling Stone list I worked from, while obviously not without its problems, at least had an aura of quasi-objectivity about it, as it was the result of a poll of various music industry figures, fed through some kind of algorithm, let’s say. My distillation is wholly my own, and is meant to be understood first and foremost as my favorites–not an attempt at some kind of objective best of list that would force me consider albums that I personally have no interest in ever hearing again. That said, I did find myself at least partially swayed by the specter of consensus, and found myself taking things like diversity of genre and era and iconic status of the albums into account–but only up to a point. For example, although Dark Side of the Moon is probably not one of my personal twenty most essential albums, I felt it important to get it into the top twenty of my list, if only to correct one of the more persistent criticisms of the Rolling Stone list. On the other hand, I certainly should have made room for Thriller, and yet since I only really love a handful of its songs, I couldn’t quite do it, regardless of its obvious importance to the broader musical landscape.
In constructing the list, I chose to establish a few rules for myself to avoid certain obvious pitfalls. Most importantly, I limited myself to one album per artist. Like The Rolling Stone list itself, mine would have been disproportionately clogged with Beatles albums, which, while a fairly accurate reflection of their value relative to everything else, gets kind of boring. I’m glad the Rolling Stone list didn’t limit itself along these lines, but for my personal list of fifty, it seemed like a worthwhile constraint. The one exception is that I included The Basement Tapes on the somewhat lawyerly grounds that technically, Bob Dylan and The Band is a distinct artist from either Bob Dylan or The Band, both of whom are also on the list.
The other guideline–too blurry to really call it a rule–concerned compilations. The inclusion of compilations–both single and multiple artist–is one of the biggest complaints leveled against The Rolling Stone list. I’ve talked a fair amount throughout the project about why I ultimately support that decision, based both on the somewhat tenuous origins of the idea of an “album” in the first place, and on the obvious fact that some of the greatest and most important music of the twentieth century was made by artists who didn’t really specialize in albums of the deliberate post-Rubber Soul variety. In any event, for the purposes of my list, I tried to keep compilations to a minimum, without eliminating them entirely. Since its a short list (fifty turns out to not be too many at all), I didn’t want to get bogged down in scenarios like having to concede that Chuck Berry, say, is of greater historical and musical significance than, say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of course he is, but one of their albums happened to be a big part of my life, whereas the particular compilation of his singles that made this list has not been. So the guideline I established is that compilations are allowed on my list, provided that, in some intangible, hard to pin down way, they feel like “real albums”–to me, and, ideally, to a broader spectrum of the populace. My list is imperfect, even to me–some unsatisfying combination of legitimate enthusiasm, nostalgic resonance and ambivalent, inconstant concessions to my sense of what “should” be on here. But its what I came up with, at least from the vantage point of having just finished working though the list they’re drawn from. In any event, here we go:
My Top 50
- The Band – The Band
- The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- The Beach Boys – Smile
- Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
- Joni Mitchell – Blue
- Stevie Wonder – Innervisions
- Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!
- Randy Newman – Good Old Boys
- Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis
- The Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed
- James Brown – In the Jungle Groove
- Sly and the Family Stone – Greatest Hits
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love
- John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
- Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
- The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It for the Money
- Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon
- Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
- Various Artists (Soundtrack) – The Harder They Come
- Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77
- Bob Dylan and The Band – The Basement Tapes
- The B-52s – The B-52s
- The Pixies – Doolittle
- Nirvana – Nevermind
- Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
- Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay
- The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society
- The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle
- Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger
- Blondie – Parallel Lines
- Bob Marley and The Wailers – Legend
- Steely Dan – Aja
- Various Artists – Anthology of American Folk Music
- The Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead
- Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle Vol. 1
- Beck – Sea Change
- Parliament – Mothership Connection
- Radiohead – Kid A
- The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
- Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf
- Various Artists – Phil Spector: Back to Mono – 1958-1969
- Moby Grape – Moby Grape
- John Prine – John Prine
- The Meters – Look-Ka Py Py
- David Bowie – Hunky Dory
- Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
- Big Star – #1 Record
- Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
I could probably fill another couple of pages with further caveats and commentary, though I’ll try to keep it limited to just a few important things. Regarding my choice of The Band in the number one slot–this one caused me some consternation in the final days of the project. I had confidently announced that it was going to get the top spot back in my entry on that album (at #45). And yet as I listened to the uppermost echelons of the list–and the top five especially–I found myself wondering how I could possibly stick to that decision. There’s just so much spectacular artistry that went into some of those records–the sublime orchestral complexity of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds in particular. It’s a stretch to call something as comparatively, purposefully simple (which simplicity, incidentally, was a direct reaction to the baroque excesses of the Sgt. Pepper era) their equal, let alone their superior. But in the end, I decided to stand my ground. Ultimately it’s a personal decision–it’s the record that feels most emblematic both of who I am as a music lover, and of albumhood in the context of my own life. Its rustic, funky charms, its sepia-tinged autumnal quality–let’s just say it’s a very hunkered down kind of album. I think it also gives all those other albums a legitimate run for their money in terms of soulfulness and depth of both feeling and musical solidity. Relatedly, I really believe that it’s a perfect album within the context of what it sets out to do, whereas none of the aforementioned quite achieve that status, though their ambitions are admittedly higher. In any event, its less a matter of defensible assertion than it is just kind of a gut feeling–it’s my number one record, even as much as I might love many others almost as strongly.
Speaking of Sgt. Pepper, I’m as surprised as you to find it in my number two spot. As I started making tentative stabs at this list before I was actually done listening to all the records, Rubber Soul was the placeholder Beatles entry. In a spirit not dissimilar to The Band, its rustic, autumnal sort of quality felt more me than the technicolor splendor of Sgt. Pepper. And true though that is, I couldn’t upon listening to the top five albums of the project, carefully and in fairly short order, deny that Sgt. Pepper really does achieve some unique artistic height that no other album–by The Beatles or otherwise–quite equals.
If there’s one that might have come close, at least in terms of its fusion of classical and psychedelic complexities, it would be Smile, which lands at the number three spot on my list. Admittedly, this one deserves at least an asterisk, since it was famously left unfinished, and spent most of the intervening decades being arranged into workably “finished” versions by enthusiastic bootleggers. It was finally “finished” and released a few years ago as part of a five disc set of every last scrap of music that Brian Wilson recorded during the “Smile Sessions,” and when the list was revised, they added this collection to the list somewhat arbitrarily up in the two hundreds somewhere, I believe right where the lesser Sunflower had been previously. In some sense, I’m fudging it by putting “Smile” on this list, since I’m referring neither to that five disc collection (which even Rolling Stone misnames as “Smile” instead of “The Smile Sessions”), nor am I even referring to just the “finished album” which constitutes the first disc of that collection. It’s a good honest effort, and as close to a finished Smile as we’re ever going to get. But its length and tripartite structure could not have existed on a single LP, and their decision to string the many iterations of the “Heroes and Villains” motif all together, rather than peppered throughout the album–as some of the more elegant bootleg reconstructions did it–make it neither the album it really would have been in 1967, nor a perfect belated realization. In some sense, the album I’m putting in my number three slot doesn’t entirely exist, and yet its raw materials (which are represented, if imperfectly, on The Rolling Stone list) are so startling original and beautifully strange that I couldn’t leave it off–even as it means, according to my rules, that Pet Sounds gets left off.
Don’t worry–I’m not going album by album through the whole thing. The top three just all seemed to merit a bit of unpacking. Otherwise, I guess I’d just like to preempt those who would balk at seeing a Randy Newman album in the top ten. Indeed, this high placement may in part be a reaction on my part to the widespread derision he seems to attract in the popular imagination. And yet I think he also comes by the spot honestly. There are a good many singer-songwriter types who garner more baseline respect from the general music loving populace–I won’t start any arguments by naming them here–who have never written as genuinely dangerous a diatribe as “Rednecks,” as profoundly and complexly moving a love song as “Marie,” as psychologically acute a lament as “Guilty,” as elegiacally stately a song as “Louisiana 1927,” or as darkly absurd a vignette as “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” and none of them wrote and conducted their own orchestrations either. So you’re damn right he’s in my top ten. Lastly, I’ll confess that Let it Bleed makes it into my top ten as much as a function of something like peer pressure as out of a genuine connection I have to it. I acknowledge that The Stones are both important and great enough to demand a spot up near the top, and this is the one that seemed close enough to their masterpiece to take the spot. But in reality, my knowledge of their albums is not as comprehensive as it should be, and the spot could almost as equally have been given to any of the other three albums of their classic late 60s–early 70s period. Otherwise, I’m just going to leave it there. In the end, it’s only my list, and not even totally satisfying on that level. It’s not easy. You try it sometime.
One thing that seems hard to miss (at least for me) is that the constitution of the list overwhelmingly favors music I already loved at the outset. I had heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) once shortly before the project began, although my overall respect for Kanye West’s musical artistry has grown as a result of the project, so that’s something. But I think Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is the only truly new to me album from the big list to make my personal list. But ultimately, I think that’s to be expected. I’m really past the age when my tastes could be expected to undergo a radical shift, and the gains of this project have been more perspectival and provisional than would have been likely to affect my list of favorites more heavily. In that spirit, here’s a list of the fifteen albums (ten, again, feeling a little too confining) I was most edified to be introduced to by way of this project (excluding Exile in Guyville for the sake of diversity, or whatever). It’s a bit off the top of my head compared to the list above, and the specific numerical rankings don’t necessarily count for much, but here goes:
- Radiohead – In Rainbows
- Kanye West – Late Registration
- Brian Eno – Another Green World
- Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica
- Bob Marley and The Wailers – Natty Dread
- David Bowie – Station to Station
- Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
- Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
- Prince – Sign o’ the Times
- Nas – Illmatic
- Muddy Waters – Folk Singer
- The Replacements – Let it Be
- N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
- Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
- Eminem – The Slim Shady LP
Or something like that. I’ll talk more in the upcoming essay about the effect this project had on my tastes and listening habits in a way that will hopefully be more meaningful than this list. Truthfully, I have gone back and relistened to fewer than half of the albums I mention here, making the value of my exposure to them somewhat theoretical.
Inexorably, this leads us to the least favorites list. This one I’m going to keep to an even ten. I could add quite a few more, of course, but I don’t want to luxuriate in too much negativity, nor invite too much vitriol at this late date. There are a couple of outliers, but generally, the albums that make this list fall into one of two categories: schmucky low-hanging fruit that it doesn’t cost me too much to disparage, and a certain strain of “challenging” darlings of the cognoscenti type numbers that I am well aware that I’m losing cool points for refusing to pretend I find interesting. In general, as frequently exhibited in this project, I am pretty stubbornly averse to music that is too aggressive, loud or dissonant in its basic character. I can simply call a truce with much of it–Nine Inch Nails, say, might well be interesting, but just isn’t ever going to be my thing. That’s fine. But where that loud/dissonant/aggressiveness seems to bring with it a patina of a “you probably wouldn’t understand” kind of too cool for schoolness–when it is both smug in its aggressiveness and aggressive in its smugness–then it tips over into actively pissing me off. In any event, of the many possible options, here’s my best crack at a “bottom ten,” with apologies to whomever it might offend:
- Billy Joel – The Stranger
- Linda Ronstadt – The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt
- Public image Ltd. – Metal Box
- Suicide – Suicide
- Lou Reed – Berlin
- Neil Diamond – The Ultimate Collection
- Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
- Def Leppard – Hysteria
- Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
- Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends
I’m not going to get way into unpacking or defending this list, but there are a few things to mention. For one, John Lydon receives a special commendation for being the only artist involved with albums on both my best and worst lists. So well done on that. Otherwise, the main point that needs addressing is my choice of the number one worst album on the list. For a long time, I was assuming that the Linda Ronstadt collection would grab the top spot. The aggressive soullessness with which she breezes through songs I love by great artists like Smokey Robinson and The Everly Brothers was truly one of the more maddening experiences of the entire project. And yet in the end, my old nemesis Billy Joel came roaring back to claim his proper position at the center of my most heartfelt disdain. There’s a variety of possible reasons–I heard his album much more recently than hers. Linda Ronstadt is in ill-health and has retired from performing, which inspires a little bit of sympathy, whereas Billy Joel has emerged from semi-retirement with a trumpeting of spurious critical reevaluations, and an air of bullshitty elder statesmanly gravitas, centered around a monthly “residency” at a massive arena a few short miles from where I sit. So there’s that.
But I think the real answer comes back down to effort, intention and pretension. Linda Ronstadt is essentially a cover artist–there is little to distinguish her from the average nightclub singer beyond her airlessly tight backup band (AKA the fucking Eagles) and her inexplicable commercial success. (And yes, I know that both she and the Eagles sang back up for Randy Newman. I never said they weren’t highly competent vocalists.) That a compilation album of her vacuous, pointless cover songs should make a list of the greatest albums of all time is genuinely puzzling–offensive, even. But it’s also just a kind of nothing that fades back into the nothingness from whence it sprung once the sting of actually having to listen to it subsides. Whereas Billy Joel was really trying to make a great album. And while there’s something admirable in that, it also means that everything terrible about that album–its unconvincing poetry of the common man pretensions, its cumbersome cast of two dimensional characters, its saccharine schmaltzy melodies punctuated by ill-advised attempts at “rocking out,” that fucking album cover–make it the more spectacular failure. You might not think that it would matter whether the worst album was a “real album” or a compilation, the way you would for the best album, and yet somehow it does. That sense of having really strived for greatness makes it that much more compellingly, viscerally loathsome. Man, what are you doing here?
The idea of keeping statistics for the project–likes and dislikes and number of albums that were new to me–arose initially because one reader accused me of not liking anything, and I wanted to prove her wrong. It turned out at the time that I was enjoying, more or less, about half the records I heard. That ratio held pretty steady for much of the project, only escalating dramatically for the final 100 albums. My final count of albums I liked (added up from previous recaps–I didn’t have it in me to count again)–came out to exactly 300. The count of albums I had never heard before started up around 75% and, again, didn’t not change dramatically until the final 100, when it dropped down close to 20%. Of the 500 albums on the list, it turned out that I had never heard 310 of them before. The statistic I wish I had kept track of–the one that really would have made the most sense–is how many of the albums that were new to me did I like. It’s just stupid that I didn’t do that. And yet I figure that the great majority of ones I didn’t like were ones I had never heard before. So if I hadn’t heard 310 albums before, and didn’t like 200 albums, we can estimate that there might have been about 100 records on this list that I had never heard before and liked–which is not too shabby. Although in some broader sense, the purpose of the project wasn’t so much about finding new music to like as it was about wading into the pool of consensus and seeing, for better and for worse, what I had been missing out on. That I liked some of it is great, and that I hated some of it is both unsurprising, and maybe a little bit vindicating.
Let’s see–what else? Well, I had a couple of other lists in mind and nowhere else to put them, so I guess I’ll stick them here. (Lists are fun, right?) The first one loosely prefigures a possible future writing project I’m considering, but fits here too: it’s a list of ten artists I wish had earned a spot on the 500 albums list. It’s a bit of a mix between artists who seem foundational and important enough that they really ought to have been here (even if they were not primarily album artists), and then some who absence is unsurprising, but whose work I think surpasses a lot of the artists who did make it. There are many more, and any music lover could come up with their own list of this sort (the progressive rock crowd in particular seems to have a lot to complain about), but off the top of my head, here’s my short list:
- Louis Jordan
- George Jones
- Fats Domino
- The Everly Brothers
- Roy Orbison
- Ricky Nelson
- Little Willie John
- Harry Nilsson
- Townes Van Zandt
- Michael Hurley
The last list I have in mind goes slightly outside the lines of this project since it contains a few albums that weren’t on the list, but whatever. In the final handful of entries, I found myself putting a good deal of thought into my personal ranking of all the Beatles albums, since they occupy so many of the top spots. Somewhere along the line, I thought through their catalog and came up with my personal list. It includes only the “canonical” albums, which is to say all the British releases and the American version of Magical Mystery Tour (which was released as a double EP in England.) So no other American records, no singles collections, etc. Just the main albums, a few of which didn’t make the Rolling Stone list, but most of which did. (Magical Mystery Tour being the most conspicuous omission). Here’s what I came up with:
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Rubber Soul
- Abbey Road
- Magical Mystery Tour
- The Beatles (The White Album)
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Let it Be
- Beatles for Sale
- With The Beatles
- Please Please Me
- Yellow Submarine
It’s possible that subsequent listenings will push Revolver back into my top three, where most would say it belongs. But on the basis of the listening I did for this project, I was a little let down by it. It should be noted, too, that Beatles for Sale has a handful of really great songs on it that are quite significant in the evolution of Lennon and McCartney as “serious” songwriters–“No Reply,” “I’m a Loser,” “I’ll Follow the Sun”–but lands as low on the list as it does because of an excess of R&B covers right at the moment when they were becoming truly superfluous on Beatles records–an unfortunate compromise brought about by the pressure to keep churning out new albums. Also, I wouldn’t fuss too much if the order of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! was swapped. The latter does have some of their more mature, impressive efforts of their pre-psychedelic period, and yet it also falls apart in the track listing department near the end, including one by then distractingly superfluous R&B cover (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”), while A Hard Day’s Night as a whole really stands out as probably the most polished, well put together albums of their early years, and is noteworthy for being the only Beatles album to consist entirely of Lennon and McCartney songs.
It feels perhaps inelegant to finish up this recap on what is essentially a side note, although The Beatles’ music looms large enough in the annals of twentieth century music and on this list that it doesn’t lead us too far afield–they do, obviously, occupy a very particular place in this project.
So, that about wraps ‘er up for this one. As I said, I somehow have more to say on a general reflective basis, for whosoever might be inclined to read it. But this is about it as far as looking back on the albums I just spent all these years listening to–though as I said, I do have a little bonus project in the pipeline as well. Thanks, as always, for slogging through it with me. We’re almost there.
May 2, 2015
I remember as a kid listening to a friend of my father’s rhapsodizing about how much Roy Orbison’s music had meant to him in his youth. He recalled being out on his paper route, riding along with a tinny little ear piece connected to his transistor radio, and becoming so absorbed by the climax of “Running Scared” that he crashed his bike into a tree. It always seemed to me a striking model of perfect attunement to music–a level of engagement that only a truly, uniquely compelling kind of song could provoke.
Many years later, in my early twenties, I had my own version of that experience. I was taking a summer class at a community college in Massachusetts, and drove there every morning along misty, unpopulated country roads. It was kind of a rough summer for me–I was nursing a broken heart, and was generally unenthused about life. Sometimes, I felt very sad. (Don’t cry for me. It all worked out okay.) Anyway, I listened to this record just about every morning on that drive, and far and away my favorite track at the time was “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, if it didn’t speak all that specifically to my condition, at least resonated in a general way with my profound sense of self pity. The rousing “sometimes I feel very sad” chorus was, of course, a particular highlight, and one morning I got so into it that I simply drove right off the road. Nothing happened. I was fine. I just rolled onto the grass, slammed on the brakes, collected myself, and sheepishly pulled back out onto the empty morning road. It’s not great that I actually lost control of my car, and the whole thing feels less archetypally resonant than a kid on a bike crashing into a tree. But still, on some level, I felt gratified that I had finally found a song powerful enough to lull me into that kind of singular absorption.
It was not ever thus. Compared to albums by The Beatles, for example, I had very little connection to this album as a kid. It’s not something I really grew up with in the same way as all the other albums in the top five. I first heard of it by way of my Beatles obsession, as one does, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. When I first learned about it, the idea seemed preposterous–that The Beach Boys, with their striped shirts and surf boards and squeaky clean fun in the sun ethos–should also have made an album that was regarded as something not only on par with Rubber Soul and Revolver, but as an entry in a kind of artistic arms race–a friendly competition with The Beatles to elevate the status of the pop album to something approaching real art. I was intrigued, if skeptical.
I wound up buying my father a copy for his birthday one year, since it was he who had told me about it. I don’t think he really listened to it much, since he hadn’t actually ever been much of a fan of the record–he just knew enough about it to help me round out my interest in the music of his generation. I listened to it once or twice, and was unimpressed by it. I don’t remember exactly what about it didn’t sit right with me–I guess a lot of it seemed kind of vague and unengaging, and the songs that did jump out more–like the opening track “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”–just sounded like…The Beach Boys. I didn’t get it at all.
It was many years until I came back around to it. I started hearing about the fabled Smile sessions, and tracked some of that remarkable music down in the waning days of Napster. The almost mind-altering brilliance of that music, even in murky unfinished fragments, was harder to miss, and I became an immediate convert to the idea of Brian Wilson as one of the singular geniuses of twentieth century popular music. And so naturally, I gravitated back toward this album, which, if not as jaw droppingly complex and compelling as the fragments of Smile I had managed to track down, did have the advantage of being an actual, finished, readily available album.
I’ve been a fan of this album ever since, although having backed into in that way, I will perhaps never quite shake the slight taint of feeling underwhelmed by it. To cite the most obvious (really the only truly relevant) point of comparison, it would be as though you had spent a lot of time absorbing Sgt. Pepper before ever hearing Rubber Soul. I’m a big fan of Rubber Soul, but there is some obvious sense in which it is less overly amazing than the wizardry of the later album. Now, some–quite possibly including myself–might argue that what Rubber Soul lacks in orchestral ornamentation, it makes up for in a warmer, more emotionally accessible feeling. And one could also perhaps say the same about this one compared to the album that would be Smile.
Smile is, after all, not only a good deal more overt in the brilliance of its orchestrations, but also much more psychedelically abstract in its lyrics. While Wilson was able to come up with broad strokes of what he wanted his songs to be saying, he was not a wordsmith at heart, and on both projects, he employed third party lyricists to help him realize his vision. For this album, he worked with Tony Asher to come up with a set of songs that, in the main, addressed in an intimate, almost artless way, some of Wilson’s nascent existential confusion and melancholy. That state of mind, of course, fueled by psychedelic experimentation and artistic pressures from within and without, eventually grew into the full blown mental breakdown which is the chief reason he never quite finished Smile in 1967. On Smile, he employed the more ambitious and experimental-minded Van Dyke Parks to write a suite of songs that was intended generally as a kind of fantasia of the American experience, but which is characterized especially by a very psychedelically-tinged kind of obscurity. On paper, the former sounds more up my alley–emotional immediacy over flippant, stylish abstractions. And yet for whatever reason (possibly simply because Parks was more gifted than Asher), I tend to be more seduced by the cavalcade of brilliant nonsense on Smile. God help me, but “Dove nested towers the hour was, strike the street quicksilver moon” just sounds cooler to me than, say, “I went through all kinds’a changes, took a look at myself and said ‘that’s not me.’”
Many people, of course, found this album disappointing from the opposite direction. Not everyone who grew up with “Little Deuce Coup” and “Fun Fun Fun” was willing to follow Wilson over to this more personal, maudlin kind of territory. There are even a number of critics out there who maintain that this album is overblown and overrated, and that Wilson’s genius is really best enjoyed on some of the gorgeously orchestrated but more unpretentiously themed songs in the years leading up to it, such as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Let Him Run Wild,” “Please Let Me Wonder” and “California Girls,” the last of which, despite its quotidian subject matter, was the first song Wilson wrote under the influence of LSD. I have an old family friend I discuss music with a lot who graduated from high school (with my father) right around the time this album came out, and he has never been able to understand what the big deal is with this album. To him, it’s just less fun and less immediate than the simpler pleasures of The Beach Boy’s classic cars, surfing and girls material. And he’s not a terribly conservative, “I like what I like” kind of music lover. He just regards himself as insufficiently musically educated to understand what’s so special about what Wilson is doing on this album. He simply doesn’t hear it, and sometimes asks me to explain it to him.
It’s a somewhat daunting task that I’ve never managed to pull off to his satisfaction, which is regrettable, since that’s also the job that lies before me here. What I don’t want to do is a song-by-song analysis of the sort I’ve fallen into over the past several entries. Briefly, the only song I actively (though not intensely) dislike is “Sloop John B.” It’s not just that a Caribbean sea shanty feels out of place with the more personal nature of the album (even factoring the double meaning of the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”), though that is part of it. It’s also that it feels like a rare misstep in Wilson’s vocal arrangement, so that the “hoist up the John B. sails” chorus feels kick of shrill and off-putting, or always has to me, anyway. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” also feels slightly out of place, as though it’s there primarily to meet the obligation for a good, accessible single rather than to contribute to the presiding spirit of the album. But it’s a good solid tune, so it gets a pass. It’s really one of the very last songs Wilson ever wrote that fits in easily enough around the teenagerly concerns of The Beach Boys‘ first and most commercially enduring period.
Beyond those better known, single-type songs, I feel like part of the reason some people have trouble finding their way into this record is that it does not, truth be told, have an overabundance of what you’d call great songs on it. Certainly there are a handful. “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulders” and “Caroline, No” are both heartbreakingly gorgeous ballads, and exceptionally fine solo vocal performances by Brian Wilson. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” though it’s one close to my heart, may not in the end be a great song so much as just the “Sometimes I Feel Very Sad” part has a unique and transfixing power. And a lot of songs, like “I’m Waiting for the Day” or “I Know There’s an Answer,” while certainly nowhere close to bad, also don’t really have that immediately graspable aura of great songness about them. The one song that best matches that description and more is the magnificent “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney famously considers the greatest pop song ever written, and whose peculiar spiritual power is undiminished by the passing decades. When people say (and they do) that Brian Wilson’s music will endure in the same way that Mozart’s has, this is surely one of the songs they have most prominently in mind.
So it is, of course, not principally in the songs that this album’s greatness resides, but in its spectacularly thoughtful, adventuresome and gorgeous orchestrations and production technique. But let’s be clear–it’s not fair to say that what makes the album great is just its orchestrations, any more than it makes sense to say that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a nice decoration. It’s really where the action is–in the ethereally uplifting vocal harmonies, in the rich tapestry of timbres and unusual instrumental sounds (marimba, bass harmonica, that clicking hooves percussion sound, and on and on). One who is confused about why this album is so important might do well to start by focusing on the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Let’s Get Away for Awhile” and the title track, since, though they could almost be dismissed as like cinematic sort of background music, one can at least more easily hear the level of thought (and playfulness) Wilson is putting into his instrumental arrangements. Indeed, though the meaning is obscured by the presence of farm animals on the album’s cover and the barking dogs at the album’s end, the title “Pet Sounds” actually refers to the specific timbres and tones that Wilson was most excited by, and lovingly wove throughout this album.
The fact of having had to defer listening to all of these emphatically great albums until the very end of the project has been a trying one, but the bang of finally being able to hear them now under more ideal sonic conditions than ever before has proved to be worth it, and never more so than with this one. I’ve long admired the gorgeous orchestration and harmonic complexity of this album, but I was never before able to hear it so clearly, and so movingly, as I was this time around. “God Only Knows” didn’t happen to make me well up with tears this time, as it sometimes does (such as, let’s face it, at the end of Love, Actually). But much of the album got much more deeply under my skin than it ever had before.
Near the end, a thought that I never imagined I would have struck with me a certain force and clarity: this album is, by a wide measure, greater than anything The Beatles ever did. I don’t mean that I like it more, necessarily, or that it has better songs on it. I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s the better pop album, since the song has always and rightly been the measure by which pop music is usually judged. But evaluating it by some other, more distant vantage point–one that extends a good deal further back than Elvis or Chuck Berry–there’s just no way to compare what Brian Wilson did here with The Beatles, or with any of his contemporaries. (Frank Zappa’s music may approach a similar degree of impressiveness, but is far less emotionally compelling.) Brian Wilson may not be a Mozart or a Bach, but he is the closest thing that music understood to be twentieth century popular music ever got.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that he was much more of a self-contained artist than The Beatles. Sure, he needed help with the lyrics, and he wrote with the voices of his brothers and other bandmates in mind, but as an orchestrator–or composer, really–he was a wholly singular artist. As The Beatles developed more “classical” aspirations, they would come up with their own general ideas of what they were looking for, but would ultimately leave the actual working out of all the parts to George Martin, who was an extraordinary producer and arranger, but ultimately more a deftly interpretive technician than a real artist in his own right. Wilson, who had a good deal less formal musical education than Martin (and no more than Lennon or McCartney), figured out every last bit of the music on this album all by himself. It’s kind of mind-boggling. Even Wilson’s hero, Phil Spector, generally relied on his arranger Jack Nitzsche to hammer out the specifics of his musical vision.
While the sort of aspirations toward art music that both Wilson and The Beatles displayed in this period pretty quickly devolved into a morass of overblown pretensions in later, lesser artists, Wilson’s work on this album strikes me as anything but pretentious. There is a kind of innocence and purity of motives one hears in Wilson’s music that has rarely existed alongside such obvious genius. Certainly this music is ambitious, but it seems to me to be an ambition of the very best kind–to express that which was within himself as clearly as he could, and to give to the world music that would be uplifting, healing, and ultimately spiritual in intent and in effect.
Source: LP. I have a Capitol copy from the 60s–maybe an original, though I’m not sure. But I have heard from a lot of people that, oddly enough, the copy they threw in as a bonus with their 1972 album Carl and The Passions – So Tough (which seems a pretty poor indicator of their confidence in that album) is regarded by many as the best this album ever sounded. When I found a copy I snapped it up, and have been eagerly waiting to hear it ever since. And yeah–it’s absolutely incredible–transparent and immediate feeling, practically glowing with sonic beauty. I haven’t done a side by side with my Capitol copy yet, but this one seems destined to become my go to.
Before I close this one out, I’d like to pay tribute to a fallen comrade of musical appreciation. Bob Fisher, who very dearly loved this album, was one of the warmest, most generous and genuinely spiritual people I ever had the privilege to meet. Though we first met in real life, I came to know him better in an online capacity. At some point, he found his way to my blog, and quickly became my most treasured reader and interlocutor. Bob was a few years younger than my father, and a good deal less cynical (sorry, Dad), meaning that he came of musical age right at about the time a lot of these great records were coming out. But, like a true and dedicated music lover, he kept right on exploring and discovering new music his whole life through. His love and knowledge of music was incredibly, often unexpectedly, far reaching. What was both wonderful and challenging about talking music with Bob was that he loved everything. Or damn near everything, anyway. He at least gave it all a good honest try. But the music of this period–and that of Brian Wilson in particular–I believe remained a particular favorite, a touchstone whose spiritual sort of beauty I think really resonated with the person that he was.
We often disagreed on the merits of any given album, since I do not love everything in the way he did. But no matter how indelicately I treated an album that he held dear, he always responded with remarkable generosity. He would often write long, articulate rebuttals to my reviews, revealing a keen intelligence, a more personal perspective than I had, and a patience with my particular musical predilections that was unerringly kind. (I only wish that he had posted them here, rather directly to Facebook, so that I could more easily access them now.) I began to listen and write with him in mind, with the result that I found myself trying (imperfectly) to approach every album I heard with a kind of generosity and curiousness. He reminded me of what the core purpose of my project really was, which was to remain as open as possible to new music, and to enjoy as much of it as I could, rather than merely to sharpen my critical acumen or develop the “right” kind of tastes. I didn’t do it as well as he did, but he helped me to reaffirm that a love of music was what was–and should be–driving me as I made my way through this project.
Somewhere along the line, Bob let it slip that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but he seemed so unworried about it that I didn’t quite grasp the immediacy of his condition. As the project wore on, he became less consistent in replying to my posts, but would sometimes come roaring back, writing a series of passionate defenses, personal reminiscences and general appreciations of the role some of these albums had played in his life. Even where we sharply disagreed, he seemed glad to have the opportunity to reflect on the music that he loved. The last such outpouring came just a few weeks before I received word that he was within the final hours of his life. Though I didn’t even know him all that well in person, I wept when I heard the news.
The blog carried on, of course, but it never felt quite the same without having Bob there to read and offer his thoughtful replies. Though great conversations carried on with other readers, an essential voice was missing from the mix which I have missed terribly. And especially here, near the very end, and on an album I know Bob loved, I feel a real sadness that he’s not here to round this thing out with me. Best to you, Bob, wherever you are–and thank you.
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.
April 28, 2015
Now we’re getting somewhere. The three albums that comprise The Beatles’ glorious middle period constitute three of the five of the greatest albums of all time, according to this list. Not coincidentally, they are also pretty central components of the musical appreciation part of my life, which is a pretty central part of my life. So because I resolved to not listen to the albums on this list until their proper time, and because this project has wound up taking much longer than expected, I have been without some fairly important pieces of my life for quite a few years now. I’ve heard individual songs from the albums here and there, but I haven’t been able to sit down and enjoy these albums in full in far too long. What is more, in that span of time, I’ve upgraded to a much better stereo system, and what are likely to be the definitive vinyl reissues of these albums for our time have been released. So I have really, really missed being able to listen to these records. And goddamn, it felt good to be able to listen to this one, the first of the three, and possibly my favorite.
I read a pretty good book recently called To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s quite good. I guess I could say I’d recommend it, depending on who you, the reader, are. In any event, it includes this brief scene in which the protagonist finds himself in a mall music store:
I should try to find some new music, I thought, because there was a time when new music could lift me out of a funk like nothing else. But I wasn’t past the Bs when I saw the only thing I really cared to buy. It was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which had been released in 1965. I already owned Rubber Soul. I had owned Rubber Soul on vinyl, then on cassette, and now on CD, and of course on my iPod, iPod mini, and iPhone. If I wanted to, I could have pulled out my iPhone and played Rubber Soul from start to finish right there, on speaker, for the sake of the whole store. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to buy Rubber Soul for the first time all over again. I wanted to return the needle from the run-out groove to the opening chords of “Drive My Car” and make everything new again.
It’s a nice passage–one that speaks to the importance that great music can play in our lives, and which makes a canny choice in picking this as an album that might have that kind of lifelong resonance. And yet it also set off a nerdish inaccuracy alarm bell in my head that frankly, slightly diminished my regard for the entire book. Everything is fine right up until the end, when he recounts putting the needle down on the opening chords of “Drive My Car.” “Drive My Car” opens with more like individual notes than chords, but that’s not the part that bugs me. The protagonist is an American of roughly my generation, which means that if he first owned Rubber Soul on vinyl, as I did, than “Drive My Car” wouldn’t have been the first song on the album. On the American version of this album, the first track was “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
It’s a travesty, of course, that their American record label, Capitol, undermined the integrity of The Beatles’ albums, mostly by shaving off cuts that could then be put onto other albums for which there was no British equivalent. The mixes are also said to be quite different, although I’ve never personally done a side by side comparison. It’s especially egregious that it was allowed to last as long as it did, up through Revolver, by which point these albums had a conscious, decisive sort of integrity that ought not to have been fucked with. And yet I know a lot of people who grew up with the American records who retain a soft spot for “our versions” of these records. For the most part, I have made the transition over to the real albums pretty comfortably, and yet I must admit that I miss hearing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” at the beginning of this album. Its acoustic, bluegrassy feeling sets up the tone of the album perfectly–the presiding folky, autumnal quality that is a big part of the reason I have always considered this my favorite Beatles album.
This was not an accident. While most of Capitol’s rearrangements seem capricious and arbitrary–mostly just thieving tracks to monetize elsewhere, in this one particular case, they seem to have applied a bit of their own real aesthetic logic. They borrowed two songs off of Help!–“I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” and put them at the beginning of each side with the explicit intent of making the album feel more folk-rocky. (Indeed, one of the treats of discovering the British releases later in life is realizing how continuous Help! and Rubber Soul in many ways are. The songs Capitol pulled from Help! fit perfectly on the American version of Rubber Soul, as would have other Dylanesque songs like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” In turn, some of the poppier moments of Rubber Soul, like “You Won’t See Me,” would have fit right in on Help! The earlier album doesn’t have the same aura of album as intentional art piece–especially where the track listing gets ridiculously slapdash feeling right near the end–“I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Yesterday,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”–but much of the actual songwriting is operating a similarly high level.)
Capitol’s choice in this regard wasn’t purely aesthetic, of course–they were trying to capitalize (no pun intended) on the popularity of Bob Dylan and The Byrds. But the fact is, at least in the case of the opening track, their selection is one that, in its way, works better with the album than The Beatles’ own choice. On the other hand, they left off a number of other songs that fit it quite well with the dominant ethos on the original, particularly “Nowhere Man” and the jaunty, countryish “What Goes On.” So there are definite limits to the wisdom of their decision making here.
Ultimately, of course, one must affirm the integrity of the original release, which is the version I now listen to almost all the time. (Full disclosure: I did kind of cheat on the not listening rule with this one a few years ago when I played a nice old mono copy of the American release I had just bought, on the lawyerish grounds that it wasn’t technically the real album.) The most jarring incongruity remains the opening track, “Drive My Car,” which is a great song, and a great album opener. (Capitol wisely used it as the opener of their quite good but in principle unconscionable frankenalbum Yesterday and Today.) What’s odd to me is how the style of that song mirrors the album title in a way that very few other songs do. From the woodsy cover photo to the stoney, gentle sound of most of the music on this album, the aesthetic of the album feels uniformly folksy, even without “I’ve Just Seen a Face” kicking it off. But for whatever reason, they went with a title that indicated an album that would be rooted in more of an soul influence, despite really only having a few explicitly soul-based tunes.
I guess “The Word” could also be construed as somewhat soul-influenced, though I’ve never really thought of it that way. Actually, I try to think of it as little as possible, since to me its the one true clunker on the album. I saw a poll once asking what people’s favorite song on Rubber Soul was (a small, informal poll, possibly disproportionately targeting aging hippies), and I was stunned to see that “The Word” was the winner, which is just preposterous. I have no problem with its basic message–I love “All You Need is Love,” for example. It’s just the writing on this song–“in the good and the bad books that I have read”–feels so clunky, and parts of it–“it’s so fine!, it’s sunshine!” feel so teeth-gnashingly boosterish that I have historically struggled to imagine anyone not hating it. But I guess it was the first time they introduced the concept of love as a global force for good into their music, which is an important piece of their cultural legacy, so maybe it “matters” in that sense. And I must admit that this listening was the most I ever enjoyed it. I found myself almost looking forward to the hard angular groove it starts off with, and hearing it better than ever before, I noticed for the first time how impressive Paul’s rolling, fast-grooving bass line is. But still, it’s never going to be anything but my least favorite track on the album.
That anyone would think to call it the best song on here is especially absurd, of course, because there is a clear and objectively agreed upon best song on the album, and it is “In My Life.” I saw another, larger and more widely disseminated poll which elected it the best song of the twentieth century tout court. That overstates the case a little bit–probably that honor should really go to something like “White Christmas” or “Stardust.” But it does underscore what an incredibly fine song it is. As much as I love The Beatles, I don’t always look to them for maximal emotional connection. But a song like this seems to capture the joys and sadness of being human in such a clear and generous way that it reliably can bring a tear to my eye, as it did this time, even after hearing it untold hundreds of times. More so even, really, as I get older and have both more life to look back on and more to love right now. And while it’s arrangement is more chamber-folky in orientation, John’s vocal is probably the most emphatically soulful thing on the album. The track is also noteworthy, of course, for George Martin’s harpsichord solo in the middle, which, if it hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of the song, remains an important benchmark in establishing–or really, underscoring–the seriousness of The Beatles’ music as real art.
Earlier, I referred to this album as “possibly my favorite” Beatles album. For a long time, I would have dropped the “possibly,” and just went with calling it my solid favorite. If I’ve grown more tentative in that decision in recent years, it is largely in the vacuum of not having had this album in my life. In that time, a friend I often discuss music with has also made the confidence-eroding point a few times that, really, there’s a lot of conspicuously minor songs on an album of this stature. And there is some truth to that. What is more, some of the more noteworthy songs on here–“Norwegian Wood,” “Nowhere Man,” maybe “Michelle”–are ones that I think of myself as having grown somewhat tired of through heavy early exposure. By the flintiest of metrics, one could level the claim that “In My Life” is really the only irreducibly, eternally great masterpiece on the album.
But in listening again for the first time in a long time, and with better sound than ever before, I was pleased to affirm anew how much I really do love this album as a whole. Those songs I feared I had grown tired of felt refurbished in my estimation, and a number of what might qualify as lesser songs–“I’m Looking Through You,” “You Won’t See Me”–are positively delightful, whatever their stature in the broader canon. “Run for Your Life” is a good one, if you can get past the violent misogyny at its core. “Girl” is pleasantly dreamy. “Wait” is maybe a bit forgettable, but is entirely pleasant in the listening.
I’ve grown especially fond of “What Goes On,” which features some of George’s hottest (yet most old fashioned) guitar playing in this era of their music. It’s the only Lennon-McCartney song that Ringo also got partial credit for, though he says he just wrote a line or two. I both hope and doubt in equal measure that the line “you didn’t even think of me as someone with a name” was his. It’s such a heartrendingly deft way of expressing the crushing feeling of anonymity in the shadow of a distant, idealized beloved, and all the more so coming from a man who has spent his entire adult life laboring under an infantilizing pseudonym.
Also noteworthy are the two solid George numbers on the album, particularly “Think for Yourself.” It’s a sharper, heavier song than most of the album–perhaps a bit soul inspired in its buzzy kind of groove–and also a darker one. It’s a nice solid shot of that good old fashioned George Harrison misanthropy, before he got stuck in that backwater of tepid, passive-aggressive spiritual drivel that made The Beatles’ best period overall among his worst as a songwriter. I like his songs on Help! too, but I think this one gets my vote as his best work in the wide timespan between “Don’t Bother Me” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Listening to this album under better conditions than I ever had before (sonically and circumstantially) I was able to really appreciate a lot of the subtlety that went into creating the sounds on this album that give its distinctive character: the refinement of their harmony singing, sometimes into pieces that almost mirror instrumental parts; the greater emphasis on acoustic instrumentation; the real beginning of their experimentation with divergent and unlikely instrumental choices. I’ve always known it was a great album, but I never quite realized just how beautiful it is.
At the same time, I think part of its strength lies in its restraint. Revolver and Sgt. Pepper certainly represent great leaps forward from this album in terms of sonic complexity and studio wizardry. And they are (obviously) great too. Until I hear them both, I’m remaining agnostic on declaring a definite favorite. But to a great extent, there’s a real virtue in the cleaner, less elaborated structures that this album traffics in. What it lacks in aesthetic razzle dazzle (and only in comparison to what came after), it makes up for in a more emotionally immediate listening experience. Whatever the song-to-song virtues of the album, I think this album does a better job than the others at creating an overarching mood–one whose sepia-tinged warmth and integrity is almost endlessly inviting to me.
In the narrative of drug experimentation that paralleled and strongly informed The Beatles musical development, this album is understood to be the culmination of their “weed period,” which began in earnest on Help!, whereas Revolver and Sgt. Pepper (and Magical Mystery Tour) constitute their full on psychedelic period. To extend that historical reality into something like a metaphor, I would say that the psychedelic albums–especially Sgt. Pepper–are rare and splendid things, great special occasion albums. Whereas this album in its more resolute comfortability, feels like something one could easily settle into enjoying on a more regular basis. I love Sgt. Pepper, but I don’t think I could listen to it everyday. This album, on the other, I could easily listen to everyday, at least for awhile. And now that I’m allowed to again, I just might.
Source: LP – The 2014 Mono release. I just can’t say enough about how great–and truly definitive–these records sound. I have various other copies of this record, but this is the definite new go to.
April 15, 2015
The opening track of an album is among the most important structural decisions an artist or producer can make in putting an album together. You need something that sets a tone for the album, usually but not always something upbeat, maybe not the very best track you’ve got, but certainly one of the best–something that will reach out and grab the listener. Debates erupt over the best opening tracks of all time (or at least they did in High Fidelity). One very solid candidate for the greatest opening track of all time, for example, would have to be “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan’s album just prior to this one–a masterpiece of a song to kick off a masterpiece of an album.
And then you’ve got this album, which is unbelievably great, also very much a masterpiece, except that it starts with…a piece of garbage. “Rainy Day Women #s 12 and 35,” colloquially known as “Everybody Must Get Stoned” is a perplexingly slight, annoyingly unfunny, non-endearing little nothing of a song. It doesn’t belong anywhere near an album of this calibre. And yet there it is, for all time, puzzling the music loving world by leading this tremendous album off. And it was a single! I have no idea what that’s about. And I should say that I’m no staunch opponent of baudy, intoxicated silliness, provided it’s good at what it does. “Please Mrs. Henry,” for example, from The Basement Tapes is a tremendously fun, endlessly amusing song. I could listen to that one all day. But this one is not, and never was to me, no matter the age or state of mind. Was it funny in its own time? Was it all that endlessly titillating to say “stoned” over and over? What’s the appeal? It’s hard to figure. Even Simon & Garfunkel managed to satirize it–though maybe that was meant as an homage. Either way, it’s embarrassing.
Otherwise I have very few complaints about this record. Although, since I’ve found myself of necessity leading with the negative, I will also take this moment to confess that I have never really loved the side length closing track “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” nearly as much as I feel I am supposed to. I have no qualm with the basic long and wordy format Dylan indulged in from time to time, provided it manages to hold my interest. Indeed, some of his very finest songs, like “Desolation Row” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” fall into that category. Those I can listen to frequently and without fatigue. But this one, whether for its rather lugubrious pacing, or its relative lack of captivating images, or both, always feels like a bit of a snoozer to me.
I realize that mine is not a popular opinion. Many people seem downright reverent about this one, and regard it as among Dylan’s true masterpieces. My theory is that he was so smart and wise-assed and evasive that people are suckers for those rare times he offers up some glimpse of tender, heartfelt emotion, and tend to overestimate the songs in which he does so. Vast swatches of Blood on the Tracks fall into that category, as does “Sara,” another long, lugubrious song which specifically references this one. Even Dylan himself proudly announced that this was the best song he’d ever written shortly after he recorded it. But he was young and in love–with the subject of the song, and with his own seemingly bottomless capacity for generating smart, surrealistic verses–and perhaps was inclined to overestimated his latest creation. I doubt he’d say the same thing now.
Many critics have observed that it seems in some indistinct way to echo “Visions of Johanna” back toward the beginning of that album, and I think I kind of sensed that on this listening as well. Or at least I held “Visions of Johanna” up as a song that accomplishes much more with much greater economy. With no disrespect intended toward “Pledging My Time,” the fine little blues that precedes it, it is the album’s first emphatically great song, and one of Dylan’s most enduring masterpieces. It swaps out the compelling strangeness of “Desolation Row” type material for something equally brilliant but more mature feeling. In lines after line of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity, it manages to create a scene that feels as much like a short story as it does a poem, albeit one without all that much in the way of a narrative thrust. It’s a lovely, slightly occluded view of a small, intimate cast of characters and the brooding, self-conscious reflections of its narrator, and it sounds absolutely beautiful. A perfect song is rare, and a perfect song clocking in at over seven minutes almost unheard of, but to me, this one really qualifies for that distinction.
It’s possible that it’s the best song on the album, although it has a lot of competition. Through an impressive array of musical styles and emotional tenors, song after song operates at a stunningly high level. Hard, stinging Chicago blues sits comfortably next to lilting acoustic folk tunes, interspersed with things that sound about as close to real pop songs as Dylan ever wrote. Overall, it’s certainly a candidate for his most musically satisfying album, and it is the one he famously described as coming closest to the sound he had in his head–“that thin, that wild mercury sound.” The mood shifts around similarly, though with style not necessarily predicting tone. One of the harder blues tunes, for example, “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” is also one of the most jubilantly surreal and hilarious. Here and elsewhere, one hears his voice verging in the direction of the standard stupid Dylan impersonation, but what those unimaginative imitators miss is how much fun he’s having–how in he is on the joke: “I saw you making loooove with him–you forgot to cloooose the garaaaage doooooor!” Though the album moves through as many emotional tones as it does musical ones, if there is a presiding spirit to the album, it is Dylan’s irrepressible joy in his own remarkable powers. He is a genius at play, and it’s downright uplifting to hear.
Some core of the “big songs” on this record I long ago concluded I had grown tired of. And maybe I had–I did listen to this record an awful lot in my teens. But I hadn’t really listened to them in a long time, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed songs like “I Want You” and “Just Like a Woman.” If the titular choruses of those songs still feel a bit shopworn to me, the rest of the songs were a delight to hear again. It’s not just the brilliance of the lyrics, but the elegance–the real musicality–of how it the lines flow together, almost prefiguring an Eminem degree of verbal dexterity. Other songs I had not bothered to listen to for awhile, such as “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” were similarly revealing to hear again, though in those cases perhaps more for their musical power than their verbal brilliance. The latter in particular has a handful of lines that feel like clunky overextensions of Dylan’s penchant for clever nonsense–“she just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette”–but which are redeemed by the great, driving rock feel of the song, carried especially by the excellent session drummer. “One of Us Must Know” is pretty great too, in a more brooding, sinister way, and is noteworthy for being the only track to feature a plurality of Hawks (or future members of The Band), whereas Robbie Robertson is the only one whose playing appears throughout the album.
A lot of the songs that I never did tire of–ones that I have listened to with pleasure all these many years–are from the back half of the album, the region where a double album might usually be expected to start losing focus. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Obviously Five Believers” in particular are perfect, tight little rockers, tracks who comparatively minor stature are thoroughly redeemed by being some of the most convincingly kick ass rock ‘n roll on the album. “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” in addition to containing one of Dylan’s most quoted aphorisms–“to live outside the law you must be honest”–also contains one of the more fantastically preposterous lines on the album, in which Bob Dylan sings “Anybody can be just like me, obviously.” Right…
A few of the prettier, folkier songs later on the album are also enduringly great. “Temporary Like Achilles” is especially fine–one of the most quietly fervent vocal performances on the album to the tune of a of drowsy, low-key barrelhouse blues, and a fine melody that sort of connects the line drawn between “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” “4th Time Around” is an interesting one–if perhaps a bit more conceptually than in practice. It’s an answer song to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which in turn was among the most explicitly Dylanesque of their efforts. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s quite as good a song as that one–or at least not as memorable melodically. The lyrics are better, because Dylan was a better lyricist than John Lennon, but don’t stand out as much as a highlight in the context of his own work–especially on an album this great. I have always loved the gum thing, though–in the course of the song’s narrative, he offers his lover a stick of gum early in the song. Several verses later, they’re arguing and he tells her “you’re words aren’t clear–you better spit out your gum.” It’s like a small, perfect little comedic vignette in the midst of an otherwise slightly precious story song, and reminds me of Chekhov’s axiom about a gun appearing in the first act. It’s like an unusual little show of above and beyond craft on an already extraordinarily well constructed collection of songs.
Of Dylan’s three mid sixties masterpieces, of which this is the last and most ambitious, this was also the last to come my way. Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited seemed to come into my life almost simultaneously (or at least I can’t remember which one my father gave me first). The two of them opened my ears to Dylan’s genius, and in some sense ushered in my adult taste in music (even if I was just thirteen or so). It probably wasn’t that much later that I got this one, and I surely listened to it just about as intensively, and yet it has never had that same symbolic gravity in my musical life. Prior to this listening, I would have unreservedly named Highway 61 Revisited as Dylan’s best record. But right at this moment, I’m not so sure.
Those earlier records bring with them an exciting sense of discovery–the sound of one of the twentieth century’s most important artistic figures coming in to his own–simultaneously discovering and revealing what he was capable of, stretching himself out over a void of artistic improbability. And if the first of those albums is slightly tentative and uneven in its brilliance, the second is a much more bold and cohesive statement–and the forth best album of all time according to this list. But even so, there is a sense in which Dylan was still operating in uncharted territory, and for all his bravado, it surely couldn’t have been easy being met with such vicious resistance from the folk traditionalists who had once been his fan base.
But by the time this album was being made, he had been somewhat vindicated. Even if the folk zealots were still calling his “Judas,” the tremendous success of “Like a Rolling Stone” had endorsed his musical vision, and secured his status as a major cultural figure–a role he was deeply uncomfortable with, but which also must have given him a certain degree of confidence and sense of freedom as he began work on this album. And that brash, confident spirit certainly shines through in this music. It is an album of overflowing excess–the first major double album in rock ‘n roll, and one whose density of creative accomplishment makes it still among the best ever released.
Part of the enduring joy of the album is Dylan’s gregarious grandiosity–a sense of fun and absurdity and a refreshing kind of wonder at his own genius that percolates through the entire album, and which feels entirely deserved and not the least bit unseemly in its pretensions. It’s also the very last we ever saw of this Dylan, before he retreated to the woods and reemerged as an entirely different, more quietly brilliant kind of artist. And perhaps that was just as well–it feels impossible to imagine him continuing to top himself in the same vein as this and the proceeding two records. But these three albums taken as a whole clearly represent the best of the many sides of Dylan we’ve gotten to see–the archetypal, conquering hero of wildly eccentric folk rock brilliance–and this album, the last, the longest and the most self-assured, might well qualify as the best of the lot.
Source: LP – The three disc 45 RPM MFSL set. I can’t say I loved it. It sounded very clear, of course, but it didn’t draw me in with the same immediacy as the Mono Box Set reissue, and the three disc format obscured the natural double album format of the album. Also, the mix of “4th Time Around” seemed kind of screwed up, with the insistent instrumental part almost drowning out Dylan’s voice.
January 28, 2015
I’ve always felt vaguely oppressed by the fact of The Who. While they don’t rise to the level of The Beatles or The Stones, they come pretty close in the pantheon of big ol’ historically significant rock bands. And here am I, a self-professed classicist and general admirer of music of the decades preceding my birth, and I’ve never managed to like The Who. It’s vexing.
A few weeks ago, I was riding in a cab at night. My wife needed cake, badly, and the only good option was way across town. The cab driver, a rare Caucasian American left in the profession, had his satellite radio tuned to a classic rock station, and as I took my seat and announced my destination, The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” came on. I had only heard it once or twice before, but I knew what it was–or thought I did. (I briefly entertained the idea that it was a similar sounding song called “Teenage Wasteland,” but sorted it out eventually.) In that moment–in a cab driving through a Central Park transverse at night–I felt a surge of genuine fondness for the song. I asked the cab driver to turn it up, and he did, though not loud enough. It wasn’t a perfect moment–the music should have been louder, and it should have been summer with the window open, and in the best of all possible worlds I’d be a little drunk–but it was still pretty good. It wasn’t the first time I saw some possibility of resolving my Who impasse–the past few albums on the list have treated me better than the first several–but it might have been the first time I heard them in the wild like that and was genuinely into it.
That song opens this album, which boded well for it, and, since I’ve been steadily enjoying the albums more as the project wore on, I figured my chances for liking this, their highest rated one, were pretty good. And, yeah–it was okay, although I can’t say I loved it. It may be that my low expectations on the previous few albums helped, whereas my belief going in that I’d actually like this one may have butted up against the limits of my lifelong resistance to the group, which had only recently begun to tentatively soften. It didn’t help that I recognized the second track on the album, “Bargain,” from my long ago days of involuntary exposure to a Classic Rock station in the workplace. I’m not sure I even knew it was The Who at the time, it was just one of the songs that I heard almost every day which seemed kind of stupid and over the top in that 70s classic rock kind of way.
But as the album wore on, I relaxed back into it a bit, and had a realization of sorts–that The Who are weird. I don’t mean that as an insult, particularly. Over the course of writing about all this music, the word “eccentric” is one I’ve tended to use in a particularly salutatory way. I mean eccentric in the sense of sui generis–music that seems to proceed in an unusually direct way from the distinct particular makeup of the person writing it. I think of artists like Sly Stone, Joni Mitchell, John Lee Hooker. It’s not to say that such individuals are without precedent or influence, or that they exist wholly outside the stream of their musical tradition. It’s just that there’s a kind of inimitable inner rhythm driving their output that I find fascinating. And although I have always found The Who’s music in some ways problematic, I think that Pete Townshend is one of those of those artists.
The defining character of his music is a kind of theatricality. I’m not referring only to the broader “rock opera” structures he experimented with, or just to the long form, multi-sectional songs he wrote, but even just within his regular three minute songs–the way in which they ebb and flow, their system of emotional peaks and valleys, have like a Jesus Christ Superstar quality to them. “The best I ever haaaaaddd…” This explains in part why I’ve never been attracted to The Who’s music–I hate that kind of shit. But it also points toward a kind of heart on his sleeve sincerity that is perhaps not so easily dismissed.
Listening to this album, two images kept coming to mind. One was Townshend’s trademark windmill motion. You can actually hear it in the music, as though its not merely a theatrical gesture, but like a pacing mechanism–the distinctive way he has of keeping time and meting out emotional structure as his band’s primary lead instrumentalist. The other image was of Townshend as a child pretending to be a rock star. That is, however pretentious the idea of a “rock opera” sounds (and this album, interestingly, is the dregs of a failed attempt at one), underneath it all is a vision that proceeds at least as much from a kind of innocence rather than any kind of calculation or artistic self-importance. It feels to me as though the quality in his music I’m defining as theatrical proceeds less from some deep abiding love from the stage per se and more from the conditions of Townshend’s childhood–unhappy, immersing himself in books and fantasy, growing up amidst the first great wave of American rock ‘n roll, all roiling around in his person and coming out in his particular–weird–musical style. It’s an obvious point, but it’s like, to Pete Townshend, this is how music is supposed to sound.
I realize that the idea I’m forwarding borders on the inane–that the same could be said of most any band, or certainly at least of various other “acquired taste” kind of bands, including some, like Steely Dan, for whom I have very much acquired a taste. And yet it felt like some kind of minor epiphany–that there is an engine of real sincerity and purpose driving this music, just in a direction that I don’t personally found moving or particularly interesting. I think it accounts for why The Who have always seemed on the one hand one of rock’s biggest bands, and on the other hand something of an acquired but deeply felt taste. I’ve spoken with lots of people who feel as I do–that The Who’s music seems dissatisfying and unengaging on some fundamental level. We just don’t respond to Townshend’s vision is all. But there’s lots of people who really do–who feel every swell and emotive apex in his songs and experience a very strong connection to this band and their music. And then probably in the middle is lots of people who don’t really feel all that strongly either way, but the music kind of rocks, and is on the radio, and they don’t really think about it all that much. I think my cab driver was of that camp.
That the music really does rock–that The Who were among the loudest and most aggressive sounding of the big 60s bands–is not irrelevant to this conversation. If their music didn’t rock, the faintly mawkish undercurrents of Townshend’s writing style would collapse into irredeemable schmaltz– British Billy Joel, basically. That was part of my basic quarrel with vast swaths of Quadrophenia. And it’s why Tommy, despite my misgivings about its broader conceptual context, wound up being probably my favorite of their albums on this list–the music itself is mostly good, tight, focused rock ‘n roll. The earlier albums were a bit too much–their sound was too chaotic and untamed, rendered nearly insensible by the busy, hyper-melodic bass style of John Entwistle and especially the volcanic, furious drumming of Keith Moon. But once they managed to tighten that sound up a little–to exercise a touch of discipline amidst the unruliness–even a sceptic like myself found the sound undeniable in its power.
This album represents a further refining of that sound. Moon and Entwistle remain impressively busy on instruments whose traditional virtue is humility, but the overall effect is such that it is almost completely undistracting. I’m not sure if this victory belongs primarily to the group, or if producer Glyn Johns had a hand in fine tuning the sound to present a unified front amidst the underlying tumult. There is also the noteworthy addition of synthesizers, most prominently on “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which adds a new dimension to their sound that is pleasing enough, at least in the limited doses that are present on this record. Roger Daltry remained stubbornly irrelevant to my enjoyment of the music. But overall, it was almost certainly the easiest Who record on the list to listen to.
It was not, however, the decisive victory I had been halfway hoping it would be. “Baba O’Reilly” didn’t really hit me the way it had on that cab ride, although I got kind of into the weird fiddle solo near the end. “Love Ain’t for Keeping,” a quiet but relatively sturdy little tune–stood out as one of the highlights of side one. Surprisingly, so did Entwistle’s one songwriting contribution, “My Wife,” which felt like a good straight ahead rocker amidst Townshend’s more proggish eccentricities. Overall, I liked side two better, and felt it began exceptionally well with “Getting in Tune,” one of my favorite songs on the album. “Behind Blue Eyes” sounded familiar, probably also from Classic Rock Radio, but not in a way that invited much reaction either way. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is obviously positioned as the album’s “big song,” but by the time I got to it, I was a bit too hunkered down in my generally lukewarm response to the album to get very involved in it.
In the end, it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. It’s interesting that the highest rated Who album on the list should fall right next to the highest rated Led Zeppelin album. The latter is a band I entered the project explicitly intending to improve my relationship with. I had no such ambitions regarding The Who, but have found to my surprise, at least in the last few entries, that a grudging appreciation for the group has burgeoned nonetheless. In light of that, I had hoped perhaps that this album–one I had never heard of going in, and which seemed an odd choice for the top slot–might be the one to push me over into a more consistent sort of admiration for the group. I liked especially the idea that it was initially developed as yet another rock opera, but that the broader premise fell apart, leaving only the songs. This to me seemed ideal. But alas, I only kind of liked it–if anything, a little less than the more formally pretentious Tommy. It seems likely, then, that I will never really count myself a fan of this group, but I have appreciated the opportunity to hear their music, to reflect on why its not really for me, but to see at least a glimmer of what others see in it.
January 21, 2015
I think of this as my favorite Stones album, and as the one of their four most acclaimed albums that I knew best coming in to this project. Listening this time corroborated the favorite part, at least so far. But I find that I really didn’t know it that well at all–at least not as well as I should. As with the rest of these albums, that patchy familiarity is an error I look forward to remedying in the years to come.
If I think of it as the one I know best, it is because it’s the one my father brought home for me as a kid (it being somehow absent from his existing collection), and which he used as an explicit, not entirely successful, fulcrum point to segue me from Beatles obsession to Stones appreciation. There was, of course, the titillating similarity of title to a Beatles album (not strictly an answer record since Let it Be, though recorded earlier, came out later). I got the sense that my father appreciated the implicit undercutting (in the title and the music) of the optimistic 60s vision as espoused by The Beatles. But I was young, and hadn’t lived through that tumultuous time, and “peace and love” sounded like a better idea to me than “heart of darkness”. And I guess I still feel that way, even if not with much actual optimism to support it at this point.
Musically, the main song my father emphasized was the album’s closing track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which, with its big, boys choir-enhanced sound and complexity of arrangement relative to The Stones’ usual fare, felt like maybe it could be used to seduce a Beatles fan into taking The Stones a little more seriously. And it did have some of that effect. I recall liking the song a lot, and playing it a fair amount on my Dad’s stereo downstairs. But it’s noteworthy that I don’t have much memory of trying out the rest of the album, and the record (this was before the CD era hit our house) stayed firmly among my father’s library without ever migrating up into my room.
Over the years, more or less by osmosis, I began to pay more attention to the album’s opening track, “Gimme Shelter.” There’s no shortage of appreciation out there for what a spectacularly dark, malevolent masterpiece this song is, and how perfectly it captures the incipient dread seeping in all over as the dream of the 60s died away. So I won’t embarrass myself trying to come up with more words on the subject, but I’ll just add to the chorus of those citing it as The Stones best song, and an uncommonly great work of art–a genuine–and genuinely troubling–masterpiece. I hear the song pretty frequently, but hearing it from an analog source on a nice stereo this time, it sent a chill up my spine. I would maintain that The Beatles were the more consistent and the more evolutionarily significant band all told, but I think it’s reasonable to suggest that they never managed to make a track quite this powerful.
Those two songs–the opener and the closer–give the impression of being the album’s two “big” songs. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of great ones in between–just that it’s those tracks that have the feeling of being focused, ambitious works, indicative of a self-consciously striving for a kind of greatness that the other tracks in their looseness and laziness don’t really try to approach. Many of those in between tracks are great too–just in a more off the cuff, unpretentious, almost jam-sessiony way.
Of the songs that did feel more or less familiar to me going in, the second track, “Love in Vain,” is among my favorites. For all my grousing about white British blues, and for my lack of interest in Robert Johnson when compared to other, earlier greats of the Delta Blues, I just love the way this song sounds. It’s a Robert Johnson song (the original of which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard), preformed by a bunch of (mostly) British white guys, and yet it feels right at home to me. I love its looseness, the laconic kind of interplay of the mostly acoustic instruments, the rough hewn loveliness of the melody, and even Mick Jagger’s thick (but by no means embarrassing) performance.
Speaking of laying it on thick, the title track, which closes the first side, is yet another on the growing list of otherwise enjoyable country-tinged songs that Jaggger diminishes by his seeming inability to approach the genre without laying on a heavy, not very good parody of a southern accent. Everything else in the song suggests an all on board allegiance with the music they are playing, but Jagger’s accent just throws it all into question–and not in an interesting way. Still, it’s mostly a good one.
These two tracks also share a guest musician in Ry Cooder, who above and beyond his supportive role on these two tracks also looms somewhat large in The Stones’ legacy for having exposed Keith Richards to the open guitar tunings which would radically changed his approach to the instrument, and which were directly responsible for some of his most indelible riffs. This deserves (or at least I’ll indulge in) a bit of a sidebar here, because somewhere along the line, it came to my attention that Ry Cooder feels that he wasn’t adequately recognized for his contributions to this record, or to Keith’s development as a guitarist, and as an added quibble, feels that The Stones’ weren’t always very good about attributing their sources when borrowing a motif (or entire song) from old blues artists.
This seems kind of small minded and bitchy to me, since Ry Cooder, while a consistently excellent musician with some decent records (comprised almost entirely of other people’s music) under his belt, doesn’t really hold a candle to Keith Richards as artist. So, okay, he taught Keith some tricks on the guitar–ones that might easily have obtained from a book. But the thing is, all Ry Cooder can do is apt, respectful impressions of musicians who have come before him (or, more recently, find obscure musicians in other countries to make records with). He completely lacks Richards’ gift–genius, really–for being able to translate that kind of source material into new and interesting and kick ass music. If The Stones were a little sloppy about attributing every last little lick they borrow, I’m just about certain it wasn’t out of greed or malice, but just was part of their artistic process–one, incidentally, that mirrors the way old blues artists worked much more closely than Cooder’s indefatigable accuracy in reproducing and attributing other people’s material. Cooder is a masterful curator, and even, on records like Chicken Skin Music, an artful collagist of unlikely and disparate sources. But he’s basically never played an original note in his life as far as I can tell, where as Keith, amidst the traces of the tradition you hear in his playing, is still fundamentally and absolutely himself as an artist. So Cooder’s complaint, it seems to me, is naught but the petulant whining–the ressentiment–of the lesser man.
Anyway–the other familiar-to-me track on the first side was “Country Honk,” a loose acoustic version of “Honky Tonk Woman.” As “Love in Vain” segues into this track, I felt the thrill of familiarity and pleasure in this alternate vision of one of their bigger songs of the era. The campfire-ish informality of the track felt at first like a cool undercutting of the ever so sightly corny big polished rock feeling of the better known single. And yet as it wore on, I was compelled to concede that I sort of missed the proper version’s singular big riff, and the almost solemnly in the pocket solidity of Charlie’s Watts’s drum part. It’s fun that this other version exists (though a little weird that it appears on a proper album like this), but there’s scant ground for saying that it improves upon the more polished version.
So I guess I really did know side one pretty well, the only exception being “Live With Me,” which I’ll get to. Side two (prior to its momentous closing track) felt a good deal less familiar. I sort of knew “Midnight Rambler,” going in, though not all that well, and I feel like I still don’t. It’s one of those song that makes me feel as though I’m missing something. It’s been cited as being the quintessential Jagger-Richards songs, and one of the highlights of this album. But I pretty much just remember it as being about seven minutes of harmonica playing and Jagger rhyming “rambler” and “gambler” over and over again with a mantra-like persistence. Perhaps I’m misremembering, or haven’t ever paid it adequate attention. Maybe it’s one of those tracks that sets up an atmosphere–a dark, swaggering kind of vibe–more than it’s a reducible to being, like, a good tune. I don’t know. I’ll keep trying.
So that really only leaves three songs I had no specific sense of coming in to this listening–“Live With Me,” “You Got the Silver” and “Monkey Man.” Although my memory has already faded a few days out from this listening, I do recall being suitably impressed by each of the tracks. “Live With Me” and “Monkey Man” both felt like great, heavy rock songs–probably two of the tracks that are among the most emblematic of the gritty, tumultuous territory the band was exploring at this phase of their development. I was especially struck by “Live With Me”’s prominent, almost lead-like bass line, and was interested to discover that Keith plays the bass. This tidbit somehow drove home to me the extent to which, in their transition from one lead guitarist to another, this really is Keith’s album. It’s also among the first tracks they recorded with Mick Taylor, and is considered a landmark harbinger of the sound they would pursue over Taylor’s tenure in the group. I have fewer specific recollections of “Monkey Man,” except that it was good and heavy and dark feeling. “You Got the Silver” is a great one too, in a quieter vein. It’s the first recording Keith ever sang lead on, and I’ve always enjoyed his rare vocal contributions to the group. Mick Jagger’s insouciant, sleazy confidence as a singer and front man was historically my greatest aversion to the group, and while his talents have grown on me in recent years, I still appreciate the occasional interpolation of Keith’s less polished voice, a little more thin and unsure, but arguably therefore possessed of a bit more genuine, rough hewn soul.
There’s one Stones album left on the list–Exile on Main Street–which I’ve spent far too little time with. And while I know it is a great one, I still suspect that I’ll come away at project’s end feeling like this album is The Stones’ finest moment. It picks up from the most intriguing aesthetic developments of Beggars Banquet and gives them an album length exploration without the distracting residue of lesser experiments. At the same time, it’s a little more accessible and inviting than the increasingly, almost artily atmospheric (though still great) Sticky Fingers. It kind of hits the sweet spot between the two. For all its formal inconsistency from song to song, it is perhaps the most consistently enjoyable of their most important albums.
Source: LP. There’s so many variants out there that it’s impossible to nail down exactly whether its a first US pressing or what, but it’s certainly an early one. “Love in Vain” is attributed to W. Payne, let’s put it that way.