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 😉 ), 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.