Assignment: 1966: “Paint It Black”, Pet Sounds, and Blonde on Blonde

It’s May 16th, 1966, and since the last post, things have happened. China, after detonating its third nuclear weapon (and falsely claiming that it was a hydrogen bomb) on the 9th, issues what is now known as the “May 16 Notification”, a blistering indictment of Mao’s perceived enemies from within, including the recently outed party leaders. So, yeah, things in China? Only getting worse. Also decaying is the situation in Rhodesia, as a whopping thirty African countries demanded on the 10th that the UN enforce harsher penalties against the majority white government there. On the 8th, Sportman’s Park in St. louis hosts its final Cardinals game, and Busch Stadium opens on the 12th. Two days later, over 400,000 college students across the country take the draft deferment exam. There were anti-war protests outside a great deal of the test sites. And on the 16th itself, Janet Jackson is born in Gary, Indiana, and Thurman Thomas is born in Houston (his football helmet was not reported missing ūüėČ ), while Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his first speech on the Vietnam War (unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan).

But the big news is in the music world. The #1 song in the country is “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and the Papas, which is a stone cold classic. Also in the top 10: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” by Bob Dylan and “Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys (more on those songs later), as well as Percy Sledge’s iconic “When a Man Loves a Woman”. And for reasons unknown, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen returns to the charts even though it’s three years old. But The Rolling Stones released “Paint It Black” in the UK as a single (it was released on the 7th in the US) while the 16th sees the release of¬†Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys and¬†Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, and it’s literally one of the biggest weeks in music history (Janet Jackson’s birth being a big part of this claim, but we’ll talk about her some other time).

“Paint It Black” is infamous-and deservedly so-for a number of reasons. First, it was the first song by the group to reach¬†the top of the charts in the US and the UK. Second, it helped to solidify the leadership of the band by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as Brian Jones’ notorious, tragic fall began to accelerate. Third, it was the first hit single to make use of the sitar as rock groups (in this case, Jones) began exploring Indian culture and incorporating instruments from the same. And finally, especially for my generation, “Paint It Black” is an undeniable symbol of the Vietnam War, in no small part because of its use as the theme song for the classic war drama,¬†Tour of Duty. And it’s no wonder: with the exception of The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” (which was amazingly popular with GIs serving in Vietnam), no song of the era encapsulates the bleak hopelessness of the war quite as effectively.

This brings us to¬†Pet Sounds. There’s a¬†lot to unpack here. First off, it marked a major departure for The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in particular. Gone were the happy-go-lucky songs about surfing and girlfriends, or even the informal¬†atmosphere of¬†Beach Boys’ Party!, which was rather hastily recorded while¬†Pet Sounds went through its lengthy production process. Secondly, it marked a new high for production in a rock ‘n roll record, with layered and elaborate instrumentation to go along with The Beach Boys’ typically strong vocal performances. And lastly, it set a standard that the group would never surpass.

There are a lot of reasons why this happened, but the big one is a major panic attack that Brian Wilson suffered on December 23rd, 1964 on a flight from LA to Houston not long after the group appeared on¬†Shindig! (which, despite being a swiftly-conceived replacement series, became a big hit….until ABC changed its time slot). While Wilson had a shaky relationship with appearing at live shows before this (he was skipping tours prior to his breakdown), this officially ended his time as a touring member of The Beach Boys (he wouldn’t resume touring until well into the ’70s). This freed Wilson to experiment in the studio and by the latter half of 1965, with drugs. At the suggestion of fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine, Wilson started to adapt the Caribbean folk song “Sloop John B”, which was set aside, mostly completed, while¬†Beach Boys’ Party! was produced, and then resumed at the end of 1965 as¬†Pet Sounds started to take shape.

And then there’s the issue of¬†Rubber Soul. The Beatles’ sixth album (or, rather, the bastardized US version, which was the band’s¬†tenth American LP) was released in December of 1965 and instantly became a major inspiration for¬†Pet Sounds. Wilson was amazed that the album lacked any filler tracks, but again, he was listening to the American release, which Capitol had reformatted into a folk-rock album to capitalize on that fad. Two holdover tracks from Help! had been inserted, and three tracks from the UK release (including the classic “Drive My Car”) omitted. So, really, Wilson’s decision to give¬†Pet Sounds a unified, “filler-free” tone was based more on the Machiavellian machinations of both groups’ label than on anything John, Paul, Ringo, and George did.

However, the key catalyst for¬†Pet Sounds was lyricist Tony Asher. Asher, who had previously written commercial jingles, met Wilson and the two hit it off. While Asher has always maintained that he merely interpreted of clarified Wilson’s thoughts, he’s the only other credited songwriter with any real contributions other than “I Know There’s an Answer” (which was written with the band’s road manager, Terry Sachen) and “I’m Waiting for the Day” (which was a two year-old song co-written with Mike Love). (It must be noted that Mike Love was awarded a co-writing credit for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Know There’s an Answer” in 1994 along with a number of other Beach Boys songs at the conclusion of one of his many lawsuits against Brian Wilson, but that’s generally considered to be a load of bunk, and Asher testified to that effect.) Married with Wilson’s novel approach to production (he began constructing songs in segments, using state-of-the-art 4- and 8-track tape decks to layer even the vocals, and even using looped, or repeated, segments at times),

The result is a beautiful, introspective album that has great lyrics, impeccable production values, and some incredible vocals, even by the high standards of The Beach Boys. Four songs (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”, “Sloop John B”, and “Caroline, No”) are stone cold classics. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is hopeful, sweetly romantic, and I’m sort of convinced that it’d make a fairly decent duet. “You Still Believe In Me” is a pretty honest voicing of Brian Wilson’s insecurities, and “That’s Not Me” is a rumination on what kind of man he is. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” is incredibly sad (famously so, in fact), and “Im Waiting for the Day” is a dramatic reaction to the breakup of a friend. “Let Go Away for Awhile”, the album’s first instrumental track and Brian Wilson’s personal favorite, is the happiest of accidents: Capitol didn’t give time for the recording of lyrics, so the song as it is is a charming romantic interlude that Wilson admits was subconsciously inspired by Burt Bacharach’s work. “Sloop John B”, despite being anything but a love song (it is, at its heart, a lament over “the worst trip I’ve ever been on”) sounds upbeat and playful, but it’s about as dire lyrically as any track on the album.

To start side two, “God Only Knows” (which, due to its use of “God” in the song title, made it highly unusual) is simply one of the finest love songs of all time, with some incredible instrumentation (provided, as with the entire album, by the infamous Wrecking Crew). “I Know There’s an Answer” was, internally, even more controversial than “God Only Knows”. Originally “Hang On to Your Ego”, the song has¬†clear references to LSD use, which royally pissed off Mike Love (hence the title change and lyrical adjustments). The final result is a song that, instead of dealing with self-discovery via LSD, is just a more genericized track about self-discovery. “Here Today”, despite sounding cheery, probably the most pessimistic track on the album, as the lyrics are all about admitting that all relationships end in sorrow. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is more honest about its tone, as it’s another track where Wilson gives voice to his insecurities. The title track, however, is a total change of pace. Originally titled “Run James Run”, it was intended to be offered to Eon Productions to serve as the theme to the next James Bond movie (which would end up being the Japan-centered¬†You Only Live Twice) but never sent their way. It sounds like a Bond theme in every way, but not for¬†You Only Live Twice, which would come to be steeped in a Japanese aesthetic. The album ends with “Caroline, No”, and is sad, forlorn, and incredibly beautiful. Inspired both by Tony Asher’s encounter with an ex-girlfriend named Carol and Brian Wilson’s wishes for a return to the simpler days of the band, “Caroline, No” speaks that part of us that¬†longs for something we miss but can never have again.

Upon release, American critics and buyers were cool on the album. Sales were lower than The Beach Boys’ usual standard, and Capitol was confused by the effort, releasing “Caroline, No” as a solo single by Brian Wilson in the months before¬†Pet Sounds‘ release. Worse, they sabotaged the album by releasing a compilation album,¬†Best of The Beach Boys two months later. In the UK, however,¬†Pet Sounds was seen as it is currently in America: a game-changing triumph. The biggest impact would be, ironically, on The Beatles, who would soon begin planning an answer to¬†Pet Sounds after recording their next album,¬†Revolver. We’ll eventually visit both¬†Revolver and that other album later on, but let’s get on to our final topic: Bob Dylan’s¬†Blonde on Blonde.

1596 was in many ways Bob Dylan’s year, what with the fuss over him going electric and two classic albums,¬†Bringing It All Back Home and¬†Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan could have easily rested on his laurels after¬†Highway 61 Revisited, which was a triumph on all levels, with direct, powerful lyrics and a driving rock sound, but instead, he upped the ante even further. For one thing,¬†Blonde on Blonde was a double album-a first in rock ‘n roll. But perhaps most crucially, it would be Dylan’s last rock album for nearly a decade.

Blonde on Blonde was not an easy record to record, however. The original sessions in New York from October 1965 to January 1966 were almost completely fruitless, with only¬†“One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” making it onto the final album. In retrospect, this frustration is even more astonishing, because Dylan’s backing group, Levon and the Hawks, became-as The Band-one of Dylan’s greatest collaborators (and a highly successful act of their own as well). Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, looking for a solution, suggested that production shift to Nashville (where Johnston lived, as was aware of the city’s burgeoning music scene). Dylan’s manager vehemently opposed the move, but history has long since vindicated Johnston for his suggestion (and Dylan for agreeing).

The result is an accomplished, bluesy album that’s matches its high reputation. (Full disclosure: I personally prefer¬†Highway 61 Revisited since it features the title track and one of my favorite songs of all time, “Like a Rolling Stone”. Also, I just prefer the aforementioned driving rock sound of that LP.) It’s also ballsy as Hell: the opening track is the notoriously comedic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, whose refrain, “Everybody must get stoned!” is probably the most obvious drug reference of the entire era. The song itself has always filled my mind of images of late night parties in New Orleans (Disclaimer: I’ve never set foot in Louisiana, much less New Orleans), and is Bob Dylan at his most playfully sarcastic. And the fourth and final side of the album is one song: the 11 minute long “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which was written for Dylan’s new wife, Sara.¬†No one in rock had ever filled an entire album side with one song before, and few acts were anywhere near as impassioned in their declarations of love. (Again, the song is¬†11 and a half minutes long. If that’s not a sign that Dylan was deeply in love, I don’t know what is.)

In between these tracks are some very strong, very bluesy songs, with the peak being “Just Like a Woman”. The song is not without controversy: the lyrics can be easily seen as misogynist, which is muddled because Dylan is a master of sarcasm and put-downs (it’s this biting turn of phrase that draws me to “Like a Rolling Stone”). So, even though his tone is warm, there’s a precedent set for many when the album opens with a gleefully sarcastic track, and even more so when the preceding song, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, is even more biting and on-target in its criticism of a woman. But that aside, the song is just fabulously put together, and is very much the standout track of a great album.

Next time, we inch ever closer to more regular reviews as we’ll take a look the last of our first season Star Trek¬†cast members.

Assignment: 1966: China’s Cultural Revolution

It’s May 7th, 1966, and history is being made, or about to be. Yesterday, South Vietnamese Prime Minister¬†NguyŠĽÖn Cao KŠĽ≥ reneged on his promised to hold election is September, instead changing that election into one to choose an assembly that would draft a constitution. Under this (frankly bullshit) plan, a legislature would then be elected upon completion of the constitution, and then the legislature would then appoint the new civilian government. The end result: the current South Vietnamese government would stay in place for “at least” a year. But we’re not here to talk about Vietnam: it’s all China, and that’s because Chairman Mao Zedong issued the “May Seventh Directive”, one of the many planks in what is now known as the Cultural Revolution.

Some words about the Cultural Revolution first before we discuss the Directive: the Cultural Revolution was one of the most vile periods of the 20th Century. That’s the TL;DR version, but let’s step into the weeds here, because¬†HOLY FUCKING SHIT, you guys. After Mao’s Great Leap Forward (which was intended to industrialize China) ended with the notorious Great Chinese Famine, moderates rose to power and started to marginalize Zedong. His response was to declare that these moderates were threatening to return capitalism to China, and to begin a series of brutal purges that basically crippled an entire generation.

Part of the problem is that Mao went more than a little batshit crazy as the moderates reversed much of the Great Leap Forward’s policies. And then the Chinese Communist Party denounced the Soviet Union, because of Mao’s distrust of Nikita Khrushchev, which effectively ended all goodwill between the two largest Communist countries on the planet. (Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 also added to Mao’s fears of being removed from power, which only increased his growing madness.) In 1965, the Five Man Group was established, and the purges started ever so slowly, until the Group itself was purged because they, too, pissed off Mao (for not finding the play¬†Hai Rui Dismissed from Office to be anti-Mao in nature).

Seriously, I am not making this up.

(Side note: the Cultural Revolution Group, with replaced the Five Man Group, would also end up dissolved, and some of its members purged. Seriously.)

This brings us to the May Seventh Directive. Among other things, the Directive declared, and I quote (thank you, Wikipedia), “the phenomenon of bourgeois intellectuals reigning over our schools can no longer be allowed to continue”. So, basically, Mao and his loyalists declared the education system to be corrupt, and that these anti-Communist elements needed to be purged. And while there was certainly an anti-intellectual bent in play here, let’s remember the pre-text: Mao was trying to reassert his control over Chinese government and society here. In fact, I’d argue that most anti-intellectual movements are about people in power trying to consolidate power over regular people. (I’m looking right at you, Republicans.) This Directive is the core of the Cultural Revolution: crushing dissent and criminalizing thoughts other than that which Mao Zedong considered acceptable (something which ultimately seems as futile as Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football). From this Directive sprang forced labor camps, imprisonment, torture, and all sorts of similarly vile stuff (like, for instance, the mass destruction and defacement of Chinese landmarks). And while, yes, the post-Mao regime has moved past this ugly chapter in Chinese history (including a massive show trial for Mao’s Gang of Four), it’s not spoiling further posts to say that China is¬†still a horrendously oppressive country that uses these tactics to take care of dissenters. The only difference is that later regimes weren’t led by a delusional, possibly insane man like Mao Zedong.

Next time, it’s a much more pleasant look back on 1966, as we discuss two of the greatest albums ever released.

Guardians of Forever: Jerry Finnerman

Star Trek was stupidly lucky to have William E.¬†Snyder and Ernest Haller shoot the two pilots. And Gene Roddenberry, in needing someone to specifically mimic Haller’s style following “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, shot for the stars: Harry Stradling, Jr., the son of legendary director of photography Harry Stradling, Sr., and the DP for¬†Gunsmoke.¬†Gunsmoke, being a major, long-running hit series, was not the type of job that any sane person would turn down for an untested, special-effects laden series. But still, Roddenberry had Bob Justman call Stradling repeatedly, until his father stopped by at Desilu to communicate that the younger Stradling would absolutely not be working on¬†Star Trek…..and to recommend someone for the job.

Jerry Finnerman was Harry Stradling, Sr.’s godson, as well as being the son of Perry Finnerman, a veteran cinematographer who had died of a heart attack while filming James Garner’s final episode of¬†Maverick in 1960. Jerry had been a part of his father’s crew that day, and Stradling the elder had helped him out immensely by adding the mourning young man to¬†his crew for such films as¬†My Fair Lady (for which Stradling had won an Oscar). The recommendation of a multiple Oscar winner held a lot of sway, as did that of James Goldstone, who was still providing some advice to the new show. And with Justman swayed, Finnerman met with Justman, Roddenberry, and Herb Solow, and he was offered the job.

For one episode.

It was a huge opportunity for someone with no experience as DP, but there was a problem: if fired, Finnerman would be sidelined for half a year under union rules, and he was itching to be a part of the crew for Stradling’s next project:¬†Funny Girl. Finnerman took the job.

It’s no secret now that it was¬†Star Trek who was fortunate for the opportunity, and not the reverse. Stradling was absolutely right to recommend his godson, and Finnerman’s impact was so great that¬†Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s original DP, Edward R. Brown, was specifically instructed by Roddenberry to mimic Finnerman’s style. I could list all the things he brought to the show, but that’s what the episode posts are for. Suffice to say, we’ll be talking about Jerry Finnerman.¬†A lot. And it’s going to include a ton of praise.

Next time, we get a second chance to discuss China’s Cultural Revolution.

Guardians of Forever: John D.F. Black

Today, television shows have¬†massive writing staffs, and they typically “break” (read: plot) episodes together, with specific episodes assigned to specific writers. And everyone except the most junior writer on staff is credited as a producer of some sort. But in the ’60s, this was far from the case, and in fact,¬†Star Trek started off with one staff writer: Gene Roddenberry. Granted, Bob Justman was¬†actually a pretty good judge of story, but his primary task was that of attending to the actual nuts and bolts of making a TV show. So, another writer was needed.

The choice for the show’s second associate producer was John D.F. Black. He first got the writing bug when he was a child in Pittsburgh, when his neighbor, Bob Gerstrich, a writer for the radio show¬†The Fat Man (a follow-up to the massively popular series,¬†The Thin Man) paid him $5 for ten storylines, which was a huge sum for a fourth grader at the time. And Black’s authorial name was the result of his Catholic upbringing: while going through Confirmation, he chose his second middle name, so that John Donald Black became John Donald¬†Francis¬†Black. (Later in life, Black would joke that the D.F. stood for “Damn Fool”.) His next step was writing for The Carnegie Library System’s radio show,¬†The Sponsor Show while in high school (a job Black got because of his credits on¬†The Fat Man). He was quickly able to rise to the position of producer on the program, starting his career in earnest.

After a stint in the Army, Black moved to LA, and scored a job writing a movie called¬†The Unearthly. Released as part of a double-bill with¬†Beginning of the End, the film was a financial success despite both pictures being legendarily terrible (both would be selected for mockery on¬†Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the ’90s). But Hollywood values hits well above quality, so Black was soon writing for television. He gained wide attention in 1962 with an episode of¬†Combat!, “Survival”, which, while it didn’t earn Black an Emmy nomination, it did earn one for series star Vic Morrow. Black eventually did earn an award for his work, in 1966, for an episode of¬†Mr. Novak, and that’s how he met Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry invited Black, his parents, actor Jim Goodwin (a friend of Black’s), Mary Stilwell (who would eventually marry Black), and legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who had also won an award at the same event held by the Writer’s Guild (and whom will get his own post next year).

That evening, Black and Ellison scored script assignments for¬†Star Trek, and that seemed to be the extent of it. That is, until a couple of days later, when the offer to serve as Associate Producer¬†and Executive Story Consultant came in. As Roddenberry told Black, he needed someone to work with the writers because of all the people he’d alienated by rewriting them on¬†The Lieutenant. This way, Roddenberry wouldn’t have to rewrite as much because Black would be able to give the writers the instruction they needed.¬†This was a huge promise: while writers were protected to a great extent by the Writer’s Guild, they were rewritten without any sort of consent. Worse, if the person doing the revision work changed enough and was given credit, the writer saw their royalty checks halved-or more. (While it’s true that modern staff writers are rewritten to varying degrees by the showrunner, the collaborative nature of the the story breaking process means that such changes are accepted with full consent of an episode’s assigned writer.)

The truth of the situation, however, would be something much, much different.

Next time, we’ll introduce the man most responsible for how¬†Star Trek looked.