Music reviews for albums originally released in 1966.
1. The Beatles: Revolver (10/10)
It’s difficult to understate the importance of Revolver, despite the summer it emerged in, where it has stiff competition in terms of greatness. But Revolver is a decisive departure from earlier pop and rock music. First off, it sounds more like music today than anything the Beatles had recorded before – we’re used to sound effects, groups of session musicians on every track, and the huge variances in style from track to track, all of which originated on Revolver. Say what you will about Blonde on Blonde or Freak Out! – and I am a huge fan of both – but neither contains the stylistic differences Revolver contains, which have become part of the conventions of popular music. As a rock musician, you are now expected to tackle different styles of music. Dylan was a better songwriter and Zappa was more musically aware – and would soon eclipse the Beatles as the most innovative rock musician on the planet – but neither combined both songs and innovation to the same effect as the Beatles and, consequently – at least I would like to believe this is the reason – the Beatles were more popular.
“Tax Man” is the loudest thing the Beatles had yet recorded, featuring absolutely ferocious (for its time) lead guitar playing from McCartney. It is hilariously prescient as well, as soon the Rolling Stones would go into tax exile – and write their greatest music as a result. Harrison co-wrote the lyrics with Lennon, though of course the tradition of the time didn’t mention such things. This probably explains why they are so funny. I suspect that McCartney didn’t play bass on this but who knows. If he did then I don’t know what Harrison did. Unless Lennon didn’t play on it. But anyway, it’s not important really. The only important thing is that, when he wanted to, McCartney could blow in the studio.
“Eleanor Rigby” is the first Beatles song to be devoid of any conventional rock instrumentation – as even “Yesterday” had a guitar. Martin contributed a classic arrangement by doubling the conventional string quartet. (McCartney is sometimes attributed for helping with it, though, since he didn’t write music, it’s hard to know what he did beyond saying “I want it to sound like this” and then humming.) Starr apparently contributed some lines, which is funny because of all the songs that I would have thought he contributed to, this would be the last one – and “Yellow Submarine” is the first one that I would have thought of. It is also the most serious and penetrating song McCartney – with help – had yet written and it is certainly one of the earlier pop songs to deal with death and loneliness. It has rightfully become a standard.
“I’m Only Sleeping” is a marked contrast to “Eleanor Rigby.” It is one of the earliest uses of a backwards guitar fill in pop music history, and Harrison apparently spent five hours working it out – something that could be done more and more often given that they quit touring during the sessions for the album. The song is fairly obviously about a drug-induced stupor – attributed as sleepiness or laziness by some – which is at least hinted at by the sound of Lennon’s voice, a sound again achieved by the types of tape manipulation they used on “Rain.”
“Love You To” is another landmark as it is the first piece of Indian music – rather than rock music inspired by Indian music – recorded by a rock band. As such, it drastically breaks from musical traditions as much as the final and far more infamous track on the album. Raga rock was just an emerging style, but this goes beyond that, leaving out the rock element pretty much altogether. It’s impossible to really explain how far of a departure this was from rock music for a rock band. It might have been expected by a forward-thinking jazz ensemble – Indian music had been influencing jazz musicians for at least half a decade at this point – and it certainly would have been not very far out for a composer in the early part of the 20th century, but for a rock band in 1966 it was absolutely, utterly unheard of. The only other way I can convey that to you is to get you to listen to popular music pre-1966 and play “spot the Indian ‘classical’ music!” FYI, the virtuoso sitar performance was likely not from Harrison himself – though credited to him by many – but rather from an uncredited Indian session musician, as with the tamboura; the tabla was credited.
“Here, There and Everywhere” is apparently McCartney’s attempt to sound like the Beach Boys, which is funny because he recorded it before he heard Pet Sounds. The song has been covered a gazillion times. It is a far cry from the Indian music before it or the novelty shit after it. It is what I might call “tasteful” though it doesn’t do anything for me as it is not a genre I like. But it’s definitely astutely arranged pop. And, like so much other stuff on Revolver, it involved tape manipulation – again with the lead vocal.
“Yellow Submarine” is an incredibly popular novelty song – so popular they made a movie, so popular it became a camp song – that I personally detest. It makes sense Donovan helped write the words because it reminds me of some of his hippy nonsense. However, it should not go unnoticed, even though it is a novelty song; it is notable in the Beatles canon for a number of reasons. First off, it is the first time the Beatles employed obvious, easy to spot sound effects. The song features more people on it than any pop song previously featured, probably, and certainly any Beatles song, as the credits for the gang vocals and people creating noises is far longer than any of the Beatles’ album credits so far. It is, for all its silliness, a remarkable recording and sometimes I wish I didn’t hate it so I could at least try to appreciate the progressive nature of the it: for example, they once again employed the ever more common trick of varying the instrumentation backing the verse from one verse to another. This technique has found its way into post-rock-influenced indie rock.
“She Said She Said” has a confusing lyric in part because, as the story goes, Lennon took many of the lyrics from a conversation he had with some rather famous people while they all did drugs. But I guess that fits the mood of a number of songs about drugs – and really wasn’t that all psychedelia was about, anyway? Like many of Lennon’s and Harrison’s other songs it is in an unconventional mode and it is in two different time signatures. Apparently Starr’s drums are really great on this – I guess I should listen to it once again to see if I agree. The song is as close to what became standardized as “psychedelic rock” as anything on the album so far.
“Good Day Sunshine” is one of those McCartney songs that just oozes so much positivity it is almost suffocating – for those of us who prefer our songs a little dirtier. It was the first sign of McCartney’s growing nostalgia for old-timey music – though in this case it’s not very old timey – which would come to be a regular feature of his efforts even after the Beatles stopped making “psychedelic” music. Like many of those efforts, it is mostly his work, with Starr helping him out. Leonard Bernstein reportedly liked it.
“And Your Bird Can Sing” is somewhat in the same musical vein as “Tax Man,” though obviously its lyrics are a lot more vague. It features some excellent guitar playing from Harrison – originally on a 12-string but for the final version he went back to a 6 – which is apparently inspired by some baroque techniques – the ritornello, for example – common to concerto grossos of the 17th century.
“For No One” is a ballad McCartney wrote which is an early example of the badly named “baroque pop” style in which chamber instruments are used for pop songs. It is actually his attempt at writing a lieder, or 19th century “art song.” It is another example of McCartney increasingly turning into a one-man band for his ballads and throwbacks. It features perhaps the most famous French horn solo in pop music, by classical musician Alan Civil. It is a near standard, based on the multiplicity of cover versions. It is also one of the earliest uses of a clavichord on a pop song, I believe. Like pretty much everything else here, it was recorded at different speeds and then altered to be put together for the final version.
“Doctor Robert” is another rock song about drugs for which there is some controversy over whether Lennon wrote it by himself or with McCartney. Unlike “I’m Only Sleeping,” this one is very explicitly about buying drugs, certainly one of the earlier rock songs to be obviously about the participation in illegal activities – unless you include driving under age. The most notable musical trick about it is that it is the key of “For No One” but sonically misleads your ears into thinking the song is actually in the key of “I Want to Tell You.”
“I Want to Tell You” is an altogether different piece from the first two Harrison songs: it’s significantly more confessional then previous outings – though Harrison was generally somewhat more confessional than the other songwriters from the very beginning. Though it is certainly conventional sounding relative to his other recent efforts, it features inventive vocal arrangements, and the discordant piano feature is also striking. There are subtle Indian influences all over the place – check out the backing vocals, for example.
“Got to Get You into My Life” was McCartney’s attempt at writing a Stax song and I think it’s rather successful. It was a hit for another band the same year; just one of the numerous examples of the Beatles writing others’ hits. This is the first recorded instance of the Beatles’ engineers recording orchestra instruments non-traditionally, as the horns were extremely closely miked to get that gritty Stax sound. Though it sounds like it’s about a girl, apparently it’s about weed. It is a good example of McCartney’s rather incredible vocal abilities, otherwise less on display on this album.
There is nothing on the rest of Revolver to prepare the listener for the final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” except maybe “Love to You,” and that still somehow seems a stretch. Though the rest of the album broke all kinds of new ground musically and showcased the Beatles as on the whole becoming better songwriters – save “Yellow Submarine” – there was nothing to suggest something so forward looking that 40 years later it might remind one of the Chemical Brothers. Lennon’s vocal was run through the same speaker Harrison’s guitar had been on Help!, flange was used, the music sounds vaguely Indian – there is a drone – and is in a mode yet again – a now common device for the Beatles. And there are numerous tape effects. Lennon’s lyrics were inspired by Timothy Leary’s manual to The Tibetan Book of the Dead and LSD trips. Though Lennon was clearly the most indebted to Stockhausen in the end – Pollack actually claims an Elliott Carter influence on the ending – this song’s most Stockhausenian contributions actually came from McCartney, who had just heard him for the first time. The Beatles created the loops themselves and then Martin and Emerick assembled about half of them to create the song. When Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead – who had yet to go into the studio, but who would soon record the nearly as revolutionary Anthem of the Sun – heard the song he thought something along the lines of “finally someone is making music like we are thinking about it.” There was nothing else like it in popular music until Zappa released Absolutely Free in May of ’67, itself also influenced by musique concrete.
There are pretty much 14 separate genres on Revolver, as compared to say the four or so on Blonde on Blonde and the genre mashups of Freak Out! If you’re keeping track: R&B, “classical” / film-score-influenced pop, “psych folk,” Indian music, soft rock / pop, novelty / children’s, psychedelic rock, traditional pop, baroque-influenced hard rock, lieder, rock, Indian-influenced pop rock, southern Soul, avant rock. The Beatles used the latest recording techniques and improvised new ones. They did more in this one record than they – or anyone else, even Brian Wilson – ever had before and they set the new benchmark for what could be done.
2. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (10/10)
The release date of this record is up for debate, but whether it was released in May, June or even July of 1966, it was probably the greatest rock album ever released up until that point.
Dylan expands his sonic palette (particularly on the drunken revelry of a opening track) and this may be his strongest set of songs on one album (which is a bit of a surprise given that it’s a double album – possibly the first pop rock double album ever, by the way).
Dylan’s lyrics are as dense and cryptic as ever, and it’s worth noting that this is the last Dylan record where every song would be like. Dylan has used a considerably more direct approach in the years since, to the point where some of his albums are full of lyrics where you can understand the meaning of every line without a codex.
The band is as strong as Highway 61, even if they have a little bit less time to show off.
This is one of the landmark albums in the history of rock music (much as Highway 61 was and it was the final salvo in Dylan’s initial run as the greatest songwriter the (English) world had ever seen.
2. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: Freak Out! (10/10)
It’s quite hard for our ears to put this record in perspective but literally nothing had ever sounded like this before. The closest thing I can think of for the most radical music here is maybe a track on the Fugs album from earlier in the year, and that is about it.But, basically, this was the most radical, forward-thinking rock music album ever released when it came out. And, as much as Revolver might be the better record, you could argue that Freak Out! remained the most innovative rock record ever made until the Mothers topped themselves the next year. Why is that so?
For the first three sides, Zappa mixes doo wop, rock and roll and rhythm and blues with ideas taken from modernism, one of the forms of classical music that emerged at the turn of the century. This isn’t just some Baroque-inspired vocal arrangement for one part of a song, or the use of conventional orchestra arrangements; this is music that most people – certainly most rock fans – had never ever heard before. The ideas of modernism infuse most of the songs on the first three sides, which are almost all otherwise conventional; weird little fills happen all the time, there are drastic changes in tempo (albeit brief ones) and other things that I cannot explain because I have no musical education, but I hear them (I just can’t put them into words). And on top of this is some biting satire – of teenage and rock and roll culture and of the greater social problems. It’s so snarky and sarcastic that when the serious social comment song appears you aren’t ready to take it seriously (even though it’s one of Zappa’s best serious lyrics, if not his best).
And then, on side 4, everything is thrown out the window for the most avant garde “rock” music the world has ever heard outside of one track on a Fugs album, and certainly that anyone who had ever heard who wasn’t a keen listener to the “classical” avant garde. Yes, this part of the album has dated particularly poorly, but that’s just because Zappa and many others found better ways to incorporate radical ideas into rock music. It’s still an additional watershed moment in the history of popular music. The first three sides were already radical enough (essentially inventing art rock and prog rock in one record), but this last side breaks the last remaining conventions in rock music.
After Freak Out!, anything is possible.
6. Miles Smiles (10/10)
7. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (9/10)
I wrote the following in 2011, about the reissue:
Well I made the mistake of reading the liner notes and…where do I begin? Though the technical notes on the recording and remastering are interesting, the notes on the album itself – by one David Leaf – is the kind of maddening revisionist history that makes one crazy – and should teach one not to read liner notes by fans who lack all objectivity. To begin with, they are excerpted from the box set and they aren’t even excerpted properly! It cuts off mid-sentence! This botch job isn’t Leaf’s fault but the deplorable content is. From Leaf we get all sorts of crazy claims, bolstered in part by quotes from Martin and McCartney so that the Beach Boys cult can finally feel that they are right in claiming that the Beach Boys were somehow better/more important…who relly knows? Pet Sounds is ostensibly the most innovative album of the ’60s and possibly all time. Pet Sounds is the best album of the 60s – and again, perhaps of all time. Pet Sounds changed rock and roll – the idea that Pet Sounds is rock and roll is about as apt as the claim that the Beach Boys’ cover of “Louie Louie” is garage rock. Brian Wilson was “innovative” by excluding his band from most of this process, rather than paranoid or egomaniacal or anything like that. Etc.
Unfortunately I have read these ridiculous notes which read like a spurned friend/lover. They colour my hearing of the album for the first time ever. But only the mostly American Brian Wilson cult can truly believe that Pet Sounds changed all music forever. What a strange idea.
Let’s get this straight. This is a pop album in the Phil Spector mode (only with a few less instruments and a lot more vocals). There is nothing rock about it. As a pop album it is remarkably well composed, arranged and producer (the engineer claims that it is the greatest production feat in musical history, another ridiculous aspect of the notes) for the work of a 22 year old in early 1966. The lyrics are a little less impressive. Even though Wilson and Asher branch out from teen concerns on a few tracks – something few others in popular music were willing to do then – most of the songs are still the whiny teen kind of shit that Zappa parodied ruthlessly on his debut months later.
As a early 60s pop music album it is very impressive. But what is the musical legacy of the 60s? If anything it is the fact that there are no rules in rock music and Pet Sounds sounds to me like there are indeed rules. It is a one genre record made literally months before the world decided they liked music that jumped genres. For all its instrumentation, it sounds remarkably samey. It is certainly a landmark and impressive in its context but it isn’t even the best album of the summer of 1966.
The rating [of 7/10] is for the reissue.
I recognize that this is a landmark recording: Vocals had never been recorded like this (in so many layers) previously. There are some “classical” influences that rarely been employed before, such as the nearly Baroque vocal parts (multiple voices competing at once) on a few songs (one in particular I’m forgetting) and a few changes of tempo. Then there’s the pioneering use of samples on one track, and the usage of non-traditional instruments and weird noises in a few songs.
But I can’t get over the hype. Try as I might, I have no idea how this could be considered The Greatest Album of All Time. It’s really The Most Overrated Album of All Time, despite its innovation and quality. Celebrators of this record go to great lengths to claim its psychedelic (it’s not remotely), that it’s rock music not just pop music (show me some electric guitars folks). And I’m not convinced that the music of Phil Spector (whose band Wilson uses here) and Burt Bacharach was particularly less innovative than what Wilson is doing here.
And I can’t help but feel strongly that, not only is it not The Greatest Album of All Time, it’s not The Greatest Album of 1966.
8. Phillip Glass: “String Quartet No. 1” (9/10)
Glass’ first quartet is a really great piece of music, in part because it doesn’t sound so Glassian as almost all of the rest of his music does. My guess is this was written so early in his development that he had failed to fully establish his style. And normally one might assume that such an early work would be derivative (it may well be, I don’t exactly have an encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century ‘classical’ music) or immature, but I don’t get that. What I hear sounds to me like the work of a great composer in the mid 20th century, bridging the gap between minimalism and other supposedly avant garde ‘high art’ music, even if it is very brief.
9. The Byrds: Fifth Dimension (9/10)
This is very much a transitional album, straddling multiple styles that had and would define the band on different records. But I’m not sure it’s as weak as people make it out to be, and it’s still pretty important in the transition from folk rock to psychedelia.
8. The Rolling Stones: Aftermath [US Version] (9/10)
Aftermath is the first great (or near great) Rolling Stones record, the first one to show they weren’t just a great British R&B band that couldn’t come up with enough original material. The Stones had showed they could write songs previously, but they had never written a whole set like this before.
9. Donovan: Sunshine Superman (9/10)
10. The Blues Project: Projections (9/10)
To some extent, I can see how the Blues Project could be dismissed as second rate Paul Butterfield, especially in their jammiest moments. Read the rest of the review.
11. The Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (9/10)
12. Buffalo Springfield (9/10)
Very solid folk rock debut.
13. The Fugs [Second Album] (9/10)
14. Monks: Black Monk Time (9/10)
15. The Kinks: Face to Face (8/10)
I really don’t think this is the first concept album ever, but it’s a good record, perhaps a little overrated. Read the review.
16. Simon and Garfunkel: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (8/10)
Is this the best Simon and Garfunkel album ever? It might be. Read the review.
17. Fresh Cream (8/10)
Though many of the elements found on their best studio tracks are already present on their debut, with hindsight we can see that this record finds them caught between more traditional British blues and the kinds of jazz-influenced, arty stuff they would do over the next two years.
Like all their studio music, this record gives barely a hint of what they were like in concert, which is where their real influence lies.
It’s still extremely well done blues rock (with the exception of some of Clapton’s rhythm parts) and it’s understandable why such high-end musicianship would have been such a big deal at the time. But this is not their best record.
18. John Coltrane and Don Cherry: The Avant Garde (8/10)
19. Love (8/10)
20. The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (8/10)
21. Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (8/10)
Well, it’s not complete and it’s certainly believable. Read the review.
22. Sam and Dave: Hold On, I’m Comin’ (8/10)
23. Yardbirds aka Roger The Engineer (7/10)
24. Randy Weston: Monterey ’66 (7/10)
Note: not released until 1994.
This is an entertaining set that fails to distinguish itself among the more radical jazz of the era.
That being said, the set contains great showcases for Booker Ervin – which shouldn’t come as a surprise – Big Black and Lenny McBrowne – who really surprises on “Afro Black” – as well as the leader. These moments are spread throughout what is otherwise pretty run of the mill post bop with “African” influences.
The closer is the best thing here and the one time the band really sounds out there. Solid, but it won’t change your life.
25. The Incredible String Band (7/10)
The Incredible String Band’s debut record is by far their most conservative. Yes, there are hints of world music here and there but, for the most part, this music is rooted in the folk traditions of the UK and, to a lesser extent, the US.
But that actually makes it probably the best entry point for newbies, as this band’s later records are not exactly traditional folk music. And this is a good collection of folk music that is accessible to fans of folk music in a way that the later stuff is not really.
26. The Seeds (7/10)
27. Bernard Herrmann: Torn Curtain [never used] (7/10)
This is the final version of the score that Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock’s 4th last film, the score that ended their relationship because Hitchcock was looking for something more contemporary, more commercial.
28. Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence (6/10)
29. The Animals: Animalisms (6/10)
30. The Guess Who: It’s Time (5/10)
Very middle of the road imitation British Invasion rock and roll.
Not Ranked: New York Philharmonic, Leonard Berstein: Ives: Symphonies Nos 2 and 3; The Unanswered Question (9/10)
Manfred Mann: “Instrumental Asylum” (8/10)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Hey Joe” / “Stone Free” (10/10)
Hendrix’s first single has become the definitive edition of “Hey Joe” but it also introduced Hendrix’s incredible hybrid rhythm-lead playing to an audience outside of the Chitlin Circuit. It’s not quite as brilliant as it would be on other songs recorded for the debut, but it’s incredible how modern this song sounds given that it was released in 1966.
“Stone Free” sounds both old and modern at the same time – the verse feels like a proper rhythm and blues track but the chorus doesn’t fit the tradition at all. Hendrix’s rhythm playing is out of this world, setting a new standard for rock guitar playing.
James Brown: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World (??/10)
Ray Charles: “Crying Time” (7/10)
I kind of like this one better than “Let’s Go Get Stoned” simply because I find the subject matter more compelling with the style. The backing vocals are far more dated than “Let’s Go Get Stoned” though, so maybe I should reverse the ranking.
Ray Charles: “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (7/10)
An R and B song that was covered by a country artist led Charles to do his signature soul country version of the song. On some level, it’s better than the songs he did in this vein in the early 60s because the backing vocals are soulful. On the other hand, he had been recording songs in this style for like 6 years at this point.
B.B. King: “Eyesight to the Blind” (6/10)
King’s version of “Eyesight to the Blind” is a strong performance, particularly vocally. But that horn section is too much for me.