My music reviews for music originally released in 1965.
1.The Beatles: Rubber Soul (10/10)
Rubber Soul is the last of the early Beatles albums for many reasons.
- For one thing, it is the last thing Norman Smith worked on with them before he was promoted to producer – a job which would see him produce the early Pink Floyd albums. So it is the last album before the Beatles were paired with their team of engineers extraordinaire.
- It is the last Beatles album to feature a conventional cover of the band until Let It Be four and a half years later.
- It is the first Beatles album – aside from the debut – recorded in a single session with a goal of releasing all the material together – a goal that wasn’t met, as an outtake of Help! made it onto the final record.
- It is the first album to feature more than just a little in the way of non-rock instrumentation – and in the past that had been only percussion.
- But, more importantly, it is the last Beatles album to feature only songs that could be labeled pop or rock in a traditional sense. (Even the Beatles’ attempts at folk and country still owed a lot to rock and roll or pop music.)
- And though it was hardly released at the midpoint of the decade, with its release the first half of the “musical” ’60s could be said to near a close.
Rubber Soul contains more ideas – especially more non-rock and roll ideas – than any other Beatles album up until that time. But it still has enough hallmarks of a traditional Beatles album to resemble previous efforts in terms of songwriting and arrangements.
“Drive My Car” is a goofy, joke song that is immaculately arranged and produced so you don’t realize the silliness if you are not paying attention. As such it is most definitely a step forward by McCartney and foreshadows his later, better and funnier satires. (These later satires are directed at other bands rather than everyday people, like the woman who believes she will be a movie star despite her lover who is only good for sex in this song.) It is a folk song in structure but, of course, sounds nothing like that. It is the first example I know about of Harrison playing bass on a Beatles song, and he seems to excel on it. (McCartney played yet another lead track, which is why it is noticeably more gritty and out of step with the tone of the rest of the song.) The backing vocals don’t really match the style of the song either.
“Norwegian Wood” was also explained as a joke song by at least one of the Beatles, but it’s had a far bigger impact on popular culture. Though the drones of Indian classical music had made their way into popular music on occasion before – particularly in the Kinks’ song “See My Friends,” released as a single in July – “Norwegian Wood” is thought to be the first documented use of a sitar on a pop / rock record – although Harrison had yet to master the instrument. The sitar, more than any other Indian instrument – and Indian music, more than any other source of music – would come to dominate the music of the psychedelic era, beginning with this recording. More often than not, when psychedelic pop and rock bands sought extra-rock influences, they would seek Indian music influences, not always using Indian instruments but approximating the sound of them. Though the Beatles had yet to put out music that resembled Indian music – raga rock as it has since been labelled – this song began it all. The song is also in very unusual time, which further breaks from folk rock tradition. The lyrics are regarded by McCartney as a bit of a laugh but they apparently described an actual affair Lennon had which he was trying to sing about but hide behind his wife’s back at the same time. It is one of the landmarks of the Beatles’ catalogue and one of the pop-rock highlights of the decade.
“You Won’t See Me” is about relationship trouble – the first time McCartney wrote about actual relationship trouble rather than theoretical relationship trouble, like with “Yesterday” – and so marks a point at which McCartney had joined Lennon in attempting to write confessional songs a la folk songs via the influence of Bob Dylan. (This despite the music of the song being a Motown tribute instead of Lennon’s more obviously folk-influenced work.) The Beatles’ personal assistant, Mal Evans, made his recording debut playing the organ note that drones through the end of the song, another subtle Indian influence – droning notes are not common in the Western tradition. It’s also notable for being the longest song the Beatles had yet recorded at 3:24. (This was nothing, however compared to what had been the Stones’ most recent effort in that department.)
Though its lyrics have dated rather badly – Lennon’s knowledge of existential philosophy being apparently very, very, very small in 1965 – “Nowhere Man” marks an important step in the Beatles’ – and pop music’s – development as it is the first time the Beatles – and really, anyone aside from Dylan – wrote about something that had absolutely nothing to do with love or the acquisition of commercial goods and services – by that I mean cars…mostly cars. It is certainly the first instance I know of that existential pseudo-philosophy featured in a pop song, whether Lennon was aware of the origin of his sentiments or not. The harmonies are good – the song opens a cappella, which was quite novel at the time – and the guitar line is memorable, although perhaps a little too influenced by the Byrds. So you can sort of forget the very clumsy attempt at meaning greater than “ooh baby I love you baby.”
Speaking of clumsy attempts at meaning: “Think for Yourself” was Harrison’s first attempt at writing a non-love song. The lyrics are not the greatest in the world but the song is notable – and interesting – for featuring two separate bass parts, both played by McCartney. The more noticeable one is the “fuzzy” one, which is the first time that a distortion effect had been applied to a bass guitar on a rock recording. (The effect would be made more famous with “Satisfaction”, though that was played on guitar, not a bass.) The chord progression is on another planet compared to most rock songs of the era and you can’t really figure out what key it’s in, though this was relatively common for Beatles songs of the day.
“The Word” is notable for being the first Beatles love song to be about love in general – in the hippie sense, which the word was about to take on – as opposed to in a personal sense. In that sense alone it is notable, despite what we might feel about hippie sentiments. It also features a very compressed piano – the sound has been, in essence, flattened. It is the second Beatles song to feature a harmonium, this time played, with a little more flair than Lennon exerted on it, by Martin. Apparently it is best listened to in stereo, where there are all sorts of neat tricks.
“Michelle” has quite silly lyrics – which has apparently endeared it to many, many people – but that was sort of the point. It is notable for being the first time any Beatles guitarist – and according to McCartney, any rock and roll guitarist – used proper finger-picking on a song by a rock and roll band. (This claim seems dubious to me, given the partial origins of rock and roll music in country.) This innovative arrangement makes it much more listenable than it would have been had it just been the transparently dumb lyrics. Though the key and melody are reminiscent of classic pop ballads, the chords are not. The guitar solo almost sounds low enough to have been played on a bass, but it was not.
“What Goes On,” though originally a song Lennon wrote on his own, marks the lyrical debut of Ringo Starr, who evidently wrote a few of the lyrics for the final version. It is the most traditional song on the album – and the most country – which befits the fact that Lennon wrote the majority of it years earlier before he had reached his current songwriting maturity. It also features the most traditional lead playing from Harrison on the album, as he goes all Carl Perkins on us – though even in that tribute there are interesting ideas. Really the interesting guitar playing is in the rhythm and bass. The song evolved into an unreleased jam session that later appeared on Anthology. This was the last country number the Beatles wrote for Starr, who would get a wider variety of stuff in the future – from novelty songs to an honest to goodness standard. When I say that Rubber Soul was the last of the early Beatles albums, it is because it contains songs like this one, clearly something that belongs on Help! or an even earlier record.
“Girl” is a fairly significant leap forward for Lennon as he fully embraces “Eastern” – in the very limited sense of Greek – music for the first time. There had been intimations of some Mediterranean ideas in earlier songs – “And I Love Her” for example – but this is the first time a Beatle had written a song that really sounded Eastern and broke with the English and Western traditions. (They had, of course, used embellishments that broke with the tradition, but these were always choices in the arrangement: the “Indian” touches on other songs on this album are provided by instruments, not by the song itself.) The vocals have a somewhat drugged-out sound that would become quite common – overdone really – in the ensuing psychedelic era.
“I’m Looking Through You” is the second confessional McCartney song on the album, further indicating McCartney’s new-found interest in writing more personal songs. The song is notable for its dynamics – perhaps more so than any other Beatles song to date – and less for being the keyboard debut of Starr. Incidentally, there doesn’t seem like there is a full drum kit present, which is yet another break with tradition. Harrison may or may not have appeared on the song, more evidence of McCartney’s growing perfectionist – and egotistical – streak.
“In My Life” is arguably the second standard written by the Beatles but, unlike “Yesterday,” there is debate over who was actually responsible for it. It is the edited version of a much longer poem Lennon wrote when encouraged by a critic to write songs about his childhood. The debate is about the music: McCartney claimed that he wrote the music by himself whereas Lennon has claimed he wrote it with a little bit of help from McCartney. (It was hardly uncommon for the two to disagree in retrospect regarding songwriting contributions.) It seems as though Martin should perhaps get a co-writing credit for the music as he may have completely originated the bridge which features a piano sped up to sound like a harpsichord – the second time Martin had used this trick but this time far more effectively, giving the bridge a baroque feel that could be seen as one of the earliest examples of “baroque pop.” For me it is the highlight of the song, though I know for most others it is the lyrics. There’s not much else to say: it’s a standard.
“Wait” is an outtake from Help!, which was improved with overdubs to ensure the Beatles had 35 minutes of music for Rubber Soul. (They were trying to have the record out for the Christmas shopping season and so used “Wait” in place of attempting to write a new song.) It sounds noticeably less progressive than the other songs – even though it is predated by a number of them, or parts of them, such as “What Goes On” and “Michelle” – in part because it embodies the “I’m away touring, don’t you forget me!” theme of “When I Get Home” from A Hard Day’s Night. Like other Beatles songs of its time – i.e. the Help! sessions – it features an early experiment with an effect pedal by Harrison.
“If I Needed Someone” tells us this is the second album in a row with two Harrison songs on it, and it is a further sign that he was beginning to compete with the other songwriters – at least just a little. “If I Needed Someone” is far easier to accept than “Think for Yourself,” not just because the Hollies used it as a single, to little success, but because it shows the Beatles doing the Byrds – rather effectively I might add. This is funny because Harrison himself had been the direct inspiration for their sound; so things had at this point come full circle. Like “Norwegian Wood,” it is in a mode – albeit not an odd one – rather than the more traditional diatonic scale of western music, and so is another indication of the Beatles’ movement away from pop / rock traditions. The use of modes was something that had become quite common in jazz since a Kind of Blue in 1959, but was relatively uncommon in rock music outside of the Beatles catalogue at this point. The lyrics are again a little ambiguous in meaning, which seems to be the thing for Harrison in 1965.
“Run for Your Life” is far and away the most mean-spirited song the Beatles had recorded to date, essentially threatening the life of a girlfriend. Obviously Lennon wrote it as it is just about impossible to imagine McCartney writing something like this. It is possible Lennon played the solo as it is repetitive. The song features many of the Beatles’ usual genre-defying flourishes, such as a blended verse-chorus and the use of blues and pop traditions interchangeably. And with this bit of politically incorrect spite ends possibly the greatest album in pop / rock to date, on one of the most bitter notes sounded in the supra-genre, which certainly is a bit of a shock, given the overall mood of the album and its reputation as a pop masterpiece. (When we think of pop we don’t necessarily think of spousal abuse.)
Rubber Soul shows the most popular and innovative rock band in the world at its very best – it was far and away their most consistent and impressive album and their most forward looking to date – but it was also the last time they made a thoroughly conventional album according to the production standards of the time. And based on those standards it has few if any peers. The Beach Boys by this point were still only putting out the odd song that broke with their traditions and Rubber Soul is often claimed to be the primary influence – or one of the primary influences – on Pet Sounds. The Byrds had indeed become folk rock incarnate but were still very much that – as their second album, basically a retread of their first, came out days after Rubber Soul. The Kinks had tossed out album after album in the past year and a bit but had yet to record anything close to a classic. (It would take most of another year for one to emerge.) The Rolling Stones were in a similar position, having yet to record a consistent album to go with their ever-improving singles. (They would do so in 1966.) The Who released their debut album the same day Rubber Soul came out, and as much as that is a pure distillation of the “Maximum R&B” power pop of the Who – at which the Beatles never could have excelled me thinks – that’s about all it was at this point. The Velvet Underground were still not much more than a bunch of guys recording drones in an apartment and Zappa hadn’t even begun recording his debut. The other major rock bands of the ’60s didn’t yet exist.
The only competition the Beatles had for “best pop / rock album of the ‘early’ ’60s” at this date was Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, released a few months earlier. I find it impossible to compare the two, as both are extremely strong – though Dylan’s songwriting is obviously better and the Beatles’ production and arrangements are, on the whole, better – but I guess what I will say is that if the proverbial gun is put to my head, the Beatles had the best pop album and Dylan the best “rock and roll” album made prior to 1966 – as much a banner year as any in popular music history, as we will soon find out. So even if Rubber Soul isn’t the greatest pop / rock album of the “first half” of the 1960s – i.e. the pre-psychedelic era of rock music – it is very much the second best, and I really think that distinction is a matter of taste. At this stage of my life, I like Highway 61 Revisited more – as I care more about songs than I used to, and I like grit a lot more than I used to – but I’m not sure that I can convince myself that it is greater – and certainly not more influential – than Rubber Soul. Until psychedelia debuted in March 1966 – and, frankly, well after that – the limitations of popular music were defined by Highway 61 Revisited and Rubber Soul.
1. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (10/10)
It’s hard to put this into words, but I’m going to try.
Dylan’s first fully electric album is one of the watershed records of the twentieth century. It finished developing his mid ’60s electric sort of “folk rock” sound, while providing yet another set of incredibly dense lyrics that could be studied in a university-level English course.
The songs are not necessarily the strongest of Dylan’s career, or even his strongest to date. But what they are (among) the most iconic, I think. “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the title track and “Desolation Row” in particular have some of Dylan’s most famous (and most quotable / singalong) lines despite their obscure meanings.
And the songs are also daring. When “Like a Rolling Stone” became a top 5 single, it became the longest hit single in history. And “Desolation Row” is the longest popular song I am aware of to this point in time. And Dylan trusted himself and his audience to make these songs interesting enough to warrant their, for the time, insane length. (These are, after all, just rocked up folk songs. It’s not like this is jazz.)
It helps that his band is excellent. Bloomfield in particular is on fire. (See, for example, “Tombstone Blues.”) And Kooper’s famous organ riff absolutely makes “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s so hard to imagine the song without it. This band helped expand the sound of what folk rock could be, incorporating blues to a heretofore unheard of extent (except, I guess, for the electric side of Bringing it All Back Home) and making this more “rock” than “folk rock.”
And I think the quality of the songs plus the quality of the performances makes this the single greatest rock album to be released up until this point. If you think that’s hyperbole, what’s the alternative?
1. John Coltrane: Ascension (10/10)
The last word in free jazz?
4. Bob Dylan: Bringing it All Back Home (10/10)
It’s kind of difficult to put the importance of this album into words, especially for those of us who weren’t alive. Dylan had already perfected and arguably killed protest song writing. And on the album before this one he took popular music lyrics to places nobody could have imagined in 1963. But those were all folk albums and, especially prior to the Beatles inventing folk rock and the Byrds making it a phenomenon, folk was not the same as pop rock. (Even if folk evolved from a popular music, by the early ’60s, NYC folk was very much a niche thing.)
But here, on the first side, he brings these lyrics to rock music and the music has never been the same again. I mean, prior to this album, the point of the vast majority of rock music lyrics – even those that use sexual innuendo – was to be understood. But these lyrics – you can claim you know what he is saying, you can argue about it, you can debate it, you research the sources for his allusions and pull apart his metaphors; you could, in theory, run a university class about these lyrics and those of the albums before and after it. (Incidentally, my personal favourite is probably “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, which is just nuts.)
As to the music, well I am reminded of No Direction Home, when that idiot calls his backing band a “bloody pop group”; now, this isn’t the same band, but it ain’t no bloody pop group either. If it’s folk rock, as I guess it is, it’s far dirtier and bluesier than the folk rock then being propagated.
And though the folk side is obviously less revolutionary, it still contains two or even three classics, as well as the original version of the song that started the folk rock boom (which, here, among some of his best material, doesn’t sound very good).
An undisputed classic and one of the five best popular music albums of the “early” 1960s, if 1965 can still be considered “early.”
5. Alberto Ginastera: Harp Concerto, op. 25 (10/10)
Ginastera’s Harp Concerto is flat out awesome. A work that manages to combine both the late Romantic obsession with local folk music with developments that had occurred since the so-called “Crisis of Tonality,” the concerto is everything I hoped it would be: it is loud, it is challenging, it is clever, it is dynamic, and it’s mostly pretty fast. This is everything I love about modern “classical” music combined with an instrument I love but don’t spend enough time listening to.
6. Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio: Smokin’ at the Half-Note (10/10)
7. The Beatles: Help! (10/10)
Whereas For Sale was a bit of a mixed bag with very strong originals and covers that ranged from good to terrible – depending on your perspective – Help! is clearly a return to consistency. Boasting only two covers, it contains yet another strong set of songs including the Beatles’ first true standard. More than previous albums, Help! is also the first Beatles album to have notable tracks left off of it – as opposed to songs omitted because they were not considered up to snuff or because they were given to other artists – most notably the song “Wait,” which was saved for Rubber Soul – wrapped in new overdubs. Two other songs were written for the movie but never released. So the Beatles were again at the stage where they had too much material for the standard album. Help! is probably the stronger for it, being perhaps their definitive folk-rock statement at a time when folk rock was becoming the thing in the world of popular music.
“Help!” represents another leap forward in Lennon’s songwriting and it may be the first “it is hard to be famous” song ever released by a pop / rock band, though obviously that legacy is a mixed one. It was released ten days before the premier of their second film but it’s a far cry from the joviality of the first film’s title track. It’s an alternative approach to folk rock than what the Byrds had been doing since April. (By the way, Dylan had gone electric in March.) Essentially what the Beatles were doing was making rock songs of Dylan-inspired lyrics as opposed to electrified covers of Dylan and other folkies, which is what the Byrds were mostly doing. For me this puts them closer to Dylan; so this is probably the – second – closest the two got to sounding like each other, only Dylan would never be so exuberant musically.
“The Night Before” is a solid, up-tempo pop number – which contains elements of the blues – that features more of McCartney’s increasingly prominent lead guitar playing – this time paired with Harrison. The song is notable for its prominent pianet part played by Lennon; the pianet was an early electric piano. It is a good of example of how McCartney just tossed off strong melodies and how the Beatles were always thinking of neat little instrumental touches to make these songs sound more substantial than they might otherwise be.
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is the most transparent attempt by Lennon to be Dylan – actually lapsing into some kind of parody / tribute during the verses. The song is notable for being far more folksy – the time signature for example – but unfortunately I think Lennon’s vocal is rather weak. Traditionally this song has been seen as the sign that the Beatles were mature songwriters but I think “No Reply,” “I’m a Loser” and “Help!” are all stronger songs. Personal preferences aside, it is an important landmark as it marks the first use of session musicians by the Beatles – the flutes – and the complete absorption of Dylan’s path-breaking songwriting into Lennon’s.
“I Need You” is another technical landmark, containing Harrison experimenting with an effects pedal – a volume pedal in this case – apparently for the first time. (“Yes it Is”, which also contains the effect, was likely recorded after “I Need You,” though it was released earlier.) As such it has been the subject of much interest as it is certainly one of the earliest recordings of anyone using an effect – other than distortion – on the guitar. Aside from that little effect, it is far from his greatest song, but still an improvement from his first contribution on With the Beatles and a signal that musically he was moving into areas few other pop / rock artists had been exploring. Lyrically it is, like his first contribution to the band, a distinct, downbeat position not shared by the other songwriters – Lennon may be depressed but it always seems like he can do something about it, unlike Harrison.
“Another Girl” is another in the line of up-beat “rockers” that McCartney wrote. It features yet another guitar solo by McCartney on top of Harrison’s and Lennon’s rhythm parts. This is one of McCartney’s lesser songs, but at least the arrangement is compelling – McCartney showing that he is quite the guitarist – and that helps you ignore the inanity of the lyrics.
“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” is a now rare collaboration between the two main songwriters. And it is rare because it is seemingly in a style similar to some of their earlier work, to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was written prior to the album sessions: but no, it was written around the same time as “Help!” The arrangement contains the odd trick: using the opening section to finish the verses and shortening the bridge, for two examples. Such straight-up collaborations between Lennon and McCartney were becoming very uncommon; though one songwriter might help the other with a line or two or a section most songs were now written individually with the other acting as editor later on.
“It’s Only Love” is a rather mild song given Lennon’s latest contributions – and which he later detested – but it features the trick of running Harrison’s electric guitar through the speaker of a Hammond organ which gives it its shimmering quality – which makes it sound a bit Indian. This trick was later employed by Clapton among many others – it’s a more or less signature psychedelic sound despite its origins in a folk-rock song – and it represents yet another example of the Beatles’ willingness to break recording rules, even for – perhaps especially for – songs that weren’t themselves breaking any compositional rules. With both the “tone” pedal effect and this effect – and the layering of guitar overdubs evident on this song in particular – the Beatles had positioned themselves at the forefront of rock guitar innovation, despite the fact that as players they weren’t on the same level as Beck or Clapton, both of whom were now gaining attention. (Clapton more so.)
“You Like Me Too Much” is Harrison’s second contribution to the album. It features multiple pianos in the beginning, as Martin and McCartney play two ends of a Steinway and Lennon plays an electric piano, giving the song a very strange and unique intro, with a deliberate “honky tonk” tinge. (And it’s fair to say that a “piano orchestra” was a really novel thing in 1965, given that guitar orchestras were just becoming a thing.) It is just another example of the subtle studio trickery that had become prominent now that the Beatles were using 4-track. (Even though, as I mentioned already, they were way behind the United States in terms of technology.) The song makes use of a ridiculous number of chords but they do not progress in the way one would expect – upwards – instead moving both up and down, as the song progresses. The lyrics are highly ambiguous.
“Tell Me What You See” shows McCartney writing in a more mature light than he had previously and musically it moves away from some rock and roll conventions, featuring a recurring instrumental break giving prominence to McCartney’s electric piano. There is also a bunch of percussion overdubs, probably the most they had used on one song since they started making use of this device. The heavy percussion gives the song a slight Latin feel; the first time really since With the Beatles that they had focused on that sound. I had alluded to the growing division between Lennon and McCartney in terms of focus, but a song like this shows McCartney maturing as well, even if he was, at the same time, still writing the odd throwback to their original sound.
McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is probably the second best song he had written up until this point and is notable for being bassless and as country as anything they had yet written. Also, like “Eight Days a Week,” it features an extended intro but this time the song behind the intro is arguably much stronger. Starr plays brushes instead of drumsticks, in addition to maracas. The tune does not fit in with the other Beatles songs of the period which is perhaps why it is so notable. Though it is rather simple – outside of the intro – it is compelling despite – because of? – this simplicity.
The obvious candidate for the best song he’d written is “Yesterday,” the first time a Beatle had written a song that was pretty much immediately adopted into the popular music songbook. It has since become one of the most covered songs of all time – and certainly the most covered song ever by a rock band – with more than 1600 versions. Like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” it features session musicians, this time a string quartet arranged by Martin. (Though apparently Martin did get input from McCartney; it is unknown whether or not John Scott arranged his own flutes on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”.) It was only released as a single in the United States partly because the other Beatles didn’t think it representative of the band as a whole, which makes sense since none of them played on it. (This would become more and more common with McCartney’s songs as their career progressed.) We all know the song so it’s tough to say too much about it but one thing to note is that the string quartet never plays exactly the same each time through. So that’s something neat, and a testament to Martin’s skills. Otherwise, what can we say? There’s a reason it’s a standard.
“Act Naturally” is a cover Starr sang that was used in place of a Lennon and McCartney collaboration that many view as one of the worst songs they ever wrote, “If You’ve Got Trouble.” “Act Naturally” is the kind of jolly country track Starr was good at singing. It is the most country thing they had yet done – as opposed to written, as “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is almost as country – and certainly helped legitimize country music in a pop context in the eyes of their biggest fans, the Byrds. It was the last cover the Beatles recorded for an album – they recorded it after “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” – for the next four years. The Beatles added some slight changes, as they were wont to do, but nothing too drastic; the only really noticeable thing is the use of the break for the intro and coda.
“Dizzy Miss Lizzy” seems an attempt to close out the album like they did in the old days – on their first two albums – with a loud, raucous rock and roll song. It is one of their best of these covers but it still feels like it belongs to another era. Their version is significantly longer than the original – the breaks are doubled, a verse is repeated – and it is, of course, louder.
So Help! is a transitional Beatles album. The early era is evident in the covers and continued attempts at writing songs in more traditional modes – though the songs are better. But it also features all sorts of new touches which are arguably less obvious and less jarring and more sophisticated than For Sale. (Though personally I think I like the latter better even though the former is the stronger record.) Help! is certainly one of the definitive folk-rock albums even if it doesn’t remain strictly in the genre, unlike both of the Byrds’ releases from this year. Help! shows the growth of songwriting ability in all three main Beatles, in addition to their increasing skill with arranging and their increasing technical prowess. But, perhaps because of the covers, or perhaps because of a few originals that sound a little more traditional by our standards, it does still stand out as something made in the early ’60s; it does not yet sound “modern” in the sense of the sound of most classic rock.
8. The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man (10/10)
This isn’t really the first folk rock album ever – as the Beatles had been dabbling in somewhat similar sounds on their past two albums and Dylan had done the same on his last – and it’s not the greatest ever – that could go to other Byrds albums or some Fairport Convention records – but it is the most important, and as such, it is great in its influence, if not quite in its actual content.
The term was coined for this album (even if the style of music already existed). The album launched the brief folk rock boom and the career of one of the most important bands of the 60s. Jangle pop – and any music described as jangly – does not exist without this.
Sure, McGuinn isn’t quite the greatest rock 12-string player ever just yet, and the songs aren’t exactly amazing compared to some of their later material, but that sometimes happens with influential albums (see Sgt. Pepper). We cannot forget context. The musical world we live in is pretty unimaginable without this.
9. Luciano Berio: Laborintus II (9/10)
I should eat this up. This is a work written by my favourite Italian composer of the second half of the 20th century (and with Busoni and Puccini, a contender for my favourite Italian composer of the 20th century), and it is incredible. Berio was always so forward thinking, even when he was looking back (like in his folk song adaptations for Berbarian). Few people challenge me like Berio does. He was clearly open to much more than the average composer born in the 1920s and its great to hear how he combines influences from musical theatre, free jazz, and the traditions he was schooled in himself.
10. Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice (9/10)
11. Andrew Hill: Point of Departure (9/10)
This is an aggressively “avant” post bop / hard bop (and modal!) album that skirts the edges of bop so much that you could almost mistake it for free (even though it is decidedly not).
The compositions are ambitious, as is the band itself – substituting flute and bass clarinet for sax at times. And the solos are as out there as possible without going quite so far as to be completely free.
It’s great stuff. It’s certainly dense stuff too, and it might take me a few more listens to fully decide what I think about it. But it’s hard to look negatively about something like this, an all-star session with some truly forward-thinking music.
12. Bert Jansch (9/10)
Jansch’s debut is hard to place in context if only because this particularly thing has been done so many times since, and better.
But in 1965 in Britain there were few British singer-songwriters this good, especially this good at guitar. And that’s the real value of the album: the guitar playing – Jansch is the British John Fahey only he sings… Jansch was a huge influence on, among others Jimmy Page – who I believe stole from Jansch as he stole from everyone he admired – and Neil Young.
Jansch’s lyrics are a little less strong: they range from pretty great – for their time – to as cliche as folk and blues lyrics get: “Baby, now that I got you pregnant I have to move on. You can’t change me!”
But in the context of the British folkie scene of the 1960s, there’s really nobody else to compare with. Jansch was a better songwriter than the Incredible String Band guys, and he’s as good a player. This is more significant and influential than it is great, but it’s still enjoyable.
13. Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (9/10)
14. The Who: My Generation (9/10)
Though we think of The Who as being firmly part of the British Invasion, they really weren’t part of the initial wave. Their first hit single wasn’t even released until 1965, at which point the Invasion had been in full swing for most of a year. When My Generation came out, The Kinks had already released their third album. The Beatles were on their 6th. The Stones were on their 3rd UK record and their 5th US record.
So it should come as no surprise that this record has a great deal of assurance for a debut. And that it sounds significantly louder than the other British bands (save the Kinks). Because The Who had a long time to learn. It’s evidence in their sound – possibly the loudest rock music yet recorded in studio and containing more emphasis on bass and drums than any rock band had ever tried before – and also their lyrics – confessional ones that (to my ears) owe an awful lot to John Lennon.
That being said, I do think the record is maybe not quite as strong as we’d like to remember. Some of Townshend’s rhymes are rather brutal and if you think too much about his lyrics, sometimes they stop making sense. He would definitely improve as a lyricist. And, of course, the band would get significantly louder in studio (I’m sure they were already extremely loud live).
So, though this is an impressive debut, it’s still not quit a classic.
15. Mauricio Kagel: String Quartet I (9/10)
Kagel’s first quartet is certainly one of the more radical I’ve ever heard (as well as brief), most of the music does not resemble the music a string quartet would normally contain, instead featuring lots of picking and foreign noises that suggest that at least some of the instruments (if not all) were “prepared” (i.e. have odd things attached to them). It feels like a very “60s” piece of music, intent on blowing you away with its radicalism, rather than trying to put forward a coherent musical statement. That being said, it’s so damn out there that it’s pretty impressive.
16. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (8/10)
When this came out, it was sort of a big deal. I guess it seemed that way, especially to (white) critics – a mixed blues band that sounded like the real deal. (Of course, Booker T and the MGs were mixed and had been recording for some time…)
But in retrospect it’s a little hard to see the big deal. Yes, Butterfield was perhaps the first American white man (that I know of) to pull of the blues singer thing. I guess that’s something. And Bloomfield is awesome – the greatest American white blues guitarist of his generation. But look at all those qualifiers. They exist because there were plenty of great black blues singers and guitarists. And because there also seemed to be a few great white and British ones. And the British ones were adding something to the blues – namely rock and jazz, depending on the band – that the PBBB wasn’t necessarily doing (at least at this stage).
Yes, this is a very good – perhaps great – mixed blues band. But that’s all they are. And there was much more interesting music being made inspired by the blues, including the music Bloomfield was making with Bob Dylan.
This is excellent Chicago blues, but that’s it.
17. Grant Green: Idle Moments (8/10)
Note: this was actually recorded in late 1963 but not released until 1965.
Sometimes great music happens by accident. Apparently that’s what happened with the title track – it was never supposed to be so insanely long but somebody messed up and the band played the melody too many times. The result is pretty wonderful, if you love your cool jazz.
And you know I don’t really. But I can respect it. And it’s not all cool, they do get “hot” (so to speak) on one of original tracks. The band is pretty stellar, particularly Hutcherson. Henderson appears to be really going against the grain, especially on the title track.
But Wes was my first love when it came to jazz guitar and, though I’ve moved on, I think there’s probably only one post-Christian pre-Hendrix jazz guitarist I really love and that’s Montgomery. Green is fine, but if I am going to listen to such mainstream jazz from this era – and I’d rather listen to something a little more boundary-pushing – I prefer Montgomery’s playing to Green’s.
18. B.B. King: Live at the Regal (7/10)
This record is often thought of as the pinnacle of BB King live records, as far as I know, the record that influenced an absolute ton of guitar players and cemented his reputation as sort of the ambassador for the blues.
It’s a little too polished and urbane for me, frankly. I prefer a rougher-edged version of the blues, especially live. And though I understand the appeal (especially the crossover appeal) of something like this, I’m kind of surprised of how… well, what the opposite of gritty, it is.
King is a phenomenal player, and obviously hugely influential, not just on other blues guitarists, but on rock guitarists. But I prefer my blues gritty and grimy and dirty. This is none of those things. (Though the lyrics sure are dirty sometimes, yuk yuk yuk.)
19. Jaki Byard: Out Front! (6/10)
I must say I was at least a little interested to see what Byard would do on his own as I am a big fan of his work with Mingus. And so far I can’t say I’m all that impressed.
This is, for the most part, very traditional stuff for 1965. The covers are pretty standard and most of the originals are attempts at reviving past jazz genres. There is a variety of those genres, which keeps things from getting boring, but it is still safe stuff. And the fact that he plays with different combinations – and even includes an older recording with him on alto saxophone of all things – makes the set less consistent: it’s a piano-trio album that also has quintet tracks and a quartet track. I’ve never understood why artists do this – whatever floats your boat I guess – but it does give the set more inconsistency that only adds to the inconsistency created by all the different sub-genres.
20. The Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy (6/10)
The Kinks’ first few albums are apparently not worth listening to. I certainly haven’t. But what I hear about them is that they were very much a singles band and that their album tracks were really weak. This record is supposed to be where that changed.
But it’s kind of hard to hear it. Davies is one of England’s great popular songwriters, but he sure wasn’t there yet in 1965. These songs are all fine, but they’re hardly stellar. There’s only a few that really resonate with me, and only because I’m consciously looking for proof of Davies’ talent.
It’s pretty meh British Invasion rock for the most part. And it still feels a fairly long way from Davies’ late sixties genius. This is one to skip, I think.
1. James Brown: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (10/10)
2. B.B. King: “Blue Shadows”(8/10)
This features some excellent playing from BB. Though it’s hardly forward-thinking stuff, it is really a quality performance.