My music reviews for the music released originally in 1967.
1. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (10/10)
There have been few albums written about more than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was, at the time, considered one of the most revolutionary pieces of music ever recorded – because of the recording techniques but also the sequencing, as the album ran straight through with no breaks on vinyl and it featured a reprise at the end, soon to become a popular device in ending albums – it has regularly been hailed as one of (if not the) greatest albums of all time (more on that in a moment) and, on the other hand, it has been attacked as the pillar of ’60s excess by DIY music critic revisionists who think that the Beatles ruined rock and roll. It was also the first Beatles album to be correctly reproduced on its US issue.
Initially conceived by McCartney as a response to Pet Sounds, it shows the complete embrace of the “recording studio as instrument” approach that had been making its way into the Beatles’ work, and it also shows McCartney’s growing dominance as a composer. On the non-musical side, the album also has one of the most interesting cover images for an album up until that point, containing cardboard cutouts of over 70 people – including the Beatles themselves, twice.
It is certainly not the Beatles’ best set of songs – Rubber Soul, Revolver and Abbey Road are all stronger – and it is hardly their most consistent album, nor is it their most impressive. Still, it is one of the most innovative albums ever made in any genre and it was the second or third most innovative rock album up until that time, behind only the Velvet Underground’s debut and Zappa’s Absolutely Free, which should stand as the most innovative rock album up until that point. (If Absolutely Free has been surpassed for that mantle, it was only eclipsed by its successor, We’re Only in it for the Money – which parodied Sgt. Pepper on its sleeve – the most innovative album of all time, if people are really going to be fair about it.) The Velvet Underground’s debut and Zappa’s Absolutely Free both had far less of an immediate impact on music and culture. The Velvet Underground’s influence took years to diffuse and Zappa was always way too weird to be anything more than a cult act.
So the Beatles, by being both innovate and retaining their commercial acumen, had the greater immediate influence and a more long-term influence than Zappa – and the Velvets, depending on which genre we are talking about. A big part of the Beatles’ genius was the ability to combine revolution with commercially viable music. So although Sgt. Pepper was not the most innovative rock album of the ’60s, it was the most innovative commercially successful rock album of the ’60s.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” starts off the album’s concept by introducing the band. The song begins with crowd noise, the first time this now very-overused device had been used, and the orchestra tuning up, again something that has become an overused device. It is one of the most raucous rock songs on the album, featuring prominent lead guitar from McCartney. It is also the most straightforward. It segues into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the only other song – save the reprise – that continues McCartney’s very loose and ultimately unsuccessful concept.
“With a Little Help from My Friends” is distinct for being the only standard Starr ever sang. Like a couple other Beatles songs it has been covered ad infinitum. It is in the form of a call and response song, but contains the usual Beatles tricks with the verse and chorus. It is the only other song to fit with the concept – Starr is introduced as Billy Shears at the end of the title track – as after this the sequencing abandons any of the supposed alter-ego performances that McCartney had in mind when he conceived the album as a variety show put on by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is notable for continuing McCartney’s interest in writing serious lyrics, though these are a lot more jovial than the last few times out (“Penny Lane,” much of the material on Revolver).
Popularly assumed to be some kind of hint about LSD use, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” really was based on Lennon’s son’s drawing, believe it or not. Somebody has the picture. In addition to the song’s unusual instrumentation, including a tamboura and a Lowrey organ, the song features backing tracks with all sorts of noises including distorted vocals and early samples of other instruments. It is in two separate time signatures in the verse and chorus, something that was becoming a common Beatles device, but was hardly common in the pop music world. The verses are as psychedelic as you could find in spring 1967, but the choruses provide enough of a traditional note to have made the song a bit of a radio staple. There are various other innovations: note how the bass part is different on every section of the song.
“Getting Better” is also elaborately produced but much more straightforward musically than “Lucy in the Sky.” It features lyrics by both songwriters which is why they are so starkly different. Lennon’s lyrics appear to reveal that “Run for Your Life” was not entirely a fictional scenario. McCartney’s are much more upbeat, as was his wont. It features an extremely dense and changing backing track, despite the seemingly sparse arrangement, which could fool the ears into thinking there weren’t many overdubs at all.
“Fixing a Hole” stands out from the rest of the album as, aside from the backing vocals and the double tracked lead guitar, it was recorded pretty much live in the studio. This was a rarity for the Beatles at the time and it is clearly one of the most straightforward Beatles songs of the era. That’s not to say the song is a conventional pop song, as it incorporates a harpsichord and some other unconventional musical elements: it merges a fairly traditional – by 1967 standards – jazz tune with a march for a bridge. Some have claimed that “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” continue a story begun with “With a Little Help from My Friends” but frankly I don’t see it; the larger concept has fallen apart by this time and I think such attempts to make everything work as a concept is a fruitless struggle to impose a narrative where there is none.
“She’s Leaving Home” is in stark contrast to the rest of the album too, as it is another social comment song in the mode of “Eleanor Rigby” – in the sense that the Beatles did not play instruments on it – and features little in the way of studio trickery beyond the effects on Lennon’s voice. It features a fairly conventional arrangement that wasn’t composed by Martin as he wasn’t around. (Although he apparently did conduct the session.) Lyrically, it is one of the most complex songs the Beatles ever wrote as it is a story song that features a Greek chorus. Musically, the most prominent thing on the song is a harp, no doubt the most prominent harp part in popular music.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is one of the most complex recordings for the album, featuring numerous recordings of organs and “mouth organs” – i.e. harmonicas. Lennon was apparently unhappy with the sound so, at one point, Emerick chopped up the recordings and threw them in the air to re-splice them, with the result of random noises – creating a carnivalesque sound, which was what Lennon was going for. This is one of the earliest applications of John Cage’s concept of indeterminacy in popular music – later to have much success with Brian Eno and, through him, David Bowie. The song is based around a ‘harmonica’ – or mouth organ – quintet in addition to the swirling organs, and as such is totally non-standard for a “rock song” if it can even be called that.
“Within You Without You” marks Harrison’s contribution to the album, his second piece of Indian music and a bit of a surprise after three of his songs on Revolver. Harrison actually had written another song which the Beatles recorded, “Only a Northern Song,” which has been regarded as one of their worst recordings ever – along with “Mr. Moonlight” – and apparently the Beatles felt similarly as it was scrapped and only later used for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Originally a 30 minute composition for the harmonium – evidence of where some of their musical ideas were getting them – the finished product of “Within You Without You” is, like “Yesterday,” basically a solo work. It features Indian musicians arranged and conducted by Harrison – he was apparently able to write the music for them in their own script, which sort of blows my mind – and a complementary – and I think very fine – string arrangement by Martin. Even nearly a year after the release of Revolver the Beatles were the only major band to attempt this kind of world music; other bands were trying it here and there, but none of them had the reach of the Beatles.
“When I’m Sixty-Four” is another of McCartney’s increasingly common forays into old-timey British music, and though this one he wrote way before the others – apparently at the age of sixteen, so the myth goes – it is the first one to go this far, and an omen of things to come. The song sounds conventional, though hardly in the context of the album itself – but it contains a clarinet trio, an usual device for any genre of music – and the recording is sped up slightly to make McCartney sound younger – perhaps as he sounded at 16. It stands out like a sore thumb on this record and hints at what 1968 would be like in terms of musical diversity.
“Lovely Rita” is a far cry from its predecessor as it contains far more in the way of the obvious experimentation of the rest of the album, rather than the subtleties of, say, a clarinet trio. It features panting backing vocals – probably the first time in popular music, to our detriment, this is the philosophical ancestor of “I’m a Slave 4 U” – combs with paper, and a piano modified to vary in and out of tune – again showing the indirect influence of John Cage. It’s also the first thing to resemble “rock” music since “Fixing a Hole.”
“Good Morning” has an unconventional time signature – there are different rhythms throughout – and bizarre animals noises; i.e. it features both an unconventional rhythm and heavy amounts of samples. The idea with the animal noises was apparently to arrange them so that the next one could eat the previous one. This method is followed until the chicken, which transforms into the lead guitar of the reprise to the title track – the next song – and, as far as I know, this is the first time in history a sample was edited into an instrument. It sounds less radical to our ears because it is recognizable as a rock song but, along with “Mr. Kite” and the closing track, it is the most revolutionary use of the studio here.
The Beatles brought in the reprise from musical theatre or opera – or perhaps the art song “suite.” To my knowledge, it had not been used in rock music previously. It has since become a convention for anyone attempting to have some kind of “serious” album-length statement where they intend a “concept” or a narrative. The track differs from its sibling in that the key change helps move the album from “Good Morning Good Morning” to “A Day in the Life.” Though this is something the Beatles had been playing with here and there, this is the first time it appears to have a purpose greater than “wouldn’t it be neat if…?”
Just as with Revolver, the Beatles saved their most interesting and forward-thinking song for last. “A Day in the Life” is actually two songs or song fragments written separately by Lennon and McCartney and then stitched together, somewhat like what happened to the versions of “Strawberry Fields.” The Beatles would later repeat this practice on Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles. Lennon’s lyrics are from newspapers – just as he had gotten the lyrics to “Tomorrow Never Knows” from a book and for “Mr. Kite” from a poster – and McCartney’s are more in line with what he wrote in “Penny Lane,” only less nostalgic. The songs are in two separate keys, which was a problem. The spaces between the two pieces were originally filled by Mal Evans’ voice counting. McCartney eventually came up with the idea of using the orchestra to fill it in but nobody seemed to be able to figure out how to do it. Martin then wrote the lowest note for each instrument in the orchestra on the score and then he wrote highest, connecting the two with a squiggly line. The result was an atonal ascent which has become (in)famous. The song’s final chord was played by four people on three pianos and allowed to ring out for 40 seconds. Following that – depending on whether you have vinyl, tape or CD – is some noise akin to the nonsense at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” only significantly stranger. On the LP version, the needle locks in permanently so that you are left with this noise forever, if you don’t turn off your player and you never lose power. It is one of the most famous non-single “rock” songs of all time and is a landmark in popular music. Frankly I know of nothing else like it. Zappa may have broken with convention as much or more so than “A Day in the Life”, but “A Day in the Life” still feels like a legitimate song, despite all it’s innovation. Zappa’s most innovative moments are composed of song-fragments.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band set new standards for recording techniques and song construction and mixing. It did this more so than Zappa’s work of earlier that year and it had more influence than his subsequent innovations because Sgt. Pepper got more exposure – even though Zappa was more revolutionary. Pepper is also credited by some with killing Smile, which should be the nail in the coffin of that Beatles vs. Beach Boys argument, but whatever. Pepper basically started the summer of love and became the definitive psychedelic album – which is why it is so often attacked by people who claim it as overrated. Whereas some bands merely dabbled – the Byrds for example – the Beatles had thrown themselves right in to the genre and created the definitive work of the era and genre. It might not have dated as well as some of its contemporaries but it remains among the most significant milestones in popular music history and in all music of the second half of the 20th century. Due to its sheer reach – not just artistically but in terms of sales – we can almost – almost – date albums pre-Sgt. Pepper and post-, like we can with electric guitar playing and Hendrix. That’s not nothing; quibble all you want with the weakness of some of the songs themselves – taken outside the production – but you can’t debate the album’s influence. The musical worlds of psychedelic rock, art rock and prog rock – and all the genres and styles they’ve influenced – are somewhat unimaginable without this record.
1. The Velvet Underground and Nico (10/10)
It’s hard to put into context just what a radical record this was when it came out. (Even more radical when it was recorded, nearly a year earlier.) With the exception of the opening track, which tricks the listener into thinking they might be listening to some kind of arty Dylan imitator, there is practically nothing in popular music history to have prepared the listener for the onslaught of a combination of high and low culture perhaps unequaled in music history. Avant garde “classical” music meets garage rock. It would make no sense if it didn’t make so much sense.
Not only was this record one of the couple most path-breaking pop rock albums ever made when it was released, but it also inspired so many people to try to make music themselves that it’s kind of hard to overstate its influence. Has anything sold so little and influenced so many since?
1. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: Absolutely Free (10/10)
From the opening moments, when the President of The United States can only hum “Louie Louie,” to the parody of a lounge act closing for the night, Absolutely Free is an all out assault on the conventions of popular music (and society at large). Whether musically – two suites of song-fragments arranged together in ways never before heard outside of “high art music” – or lyrically – this album arguably contains some of the most offensive lyrics yet recorded by a rock band in the incest section – this album obliterated the rules of what was possible in popular music.
It may be the first ever “post modern” album in popular music history too (if Freak Out doesn’t count): popular music (“Louie Louie,” “Havana Moon,” and “Duke of Earl” among others) is combined willynilly with Stravinsky, Varese, jazz and all sorts of other stuff, as if they are all worthy of the same attention. On top of this, the performances emphasize our awareness that this is all constructed, particularly when Zappa interrupts a song to compare it to The Supremes, but also in the vocalizations of the instrumental parts. And there are callbacks too. All of this isn’t that odd for the 21st century, but in 1967 nobody in pop rock had ever done anything like this. Nobody.
Once you listen to this album there’s no going back. This is the decisive break with the rock and roll past that rendered that past obsolete. It is the pop rock equivalent of Nietzsche.
Oh yeah, it’s funny.
4. The Doors (10/10)
When this record was released, psychedelia had begun and was starting to take over the world. Numerous bands would jump on that bandwagon, trying to get their music to sound “Eastern” or “Indian.” Not The Doors.
Instead of drawing from Indian music, Indo-Jazz, and Free Jazz, The Doors draw from Musical Theatre, Latin Jazz and The Blues and though they are lumped in with psychedelic rock, what we get is something altogether different. I’d say it was the birth of Art Rock, had Zappa not invented it 6 months earlier.
It’s still an extremely unique and different take on music than anyone else was doing at the time and extremely influential (imagine David Bowie’s early 70s records without this one).
One of the great debut records of all time.
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced? (10/10)
I have had this album on CD for nearly 20 years. It’s hard to attempt to judge the 40 minute British LP when you’ve been listening to an hour long set full of the singles and bonus tracks for nearly two decades. But I’ll try anyway.
This record changed electric guitar playing (if not guitar playing in general) forever. Given that the electric guitar was the principal instrument for pop rock for its entire existence in the 20th century, that’s a big deal.
Why did it change guitar playing? It’s a combination of two things: on the one hand, Hendrix took the primitive experiments into changing the sound of the electric guitar that people like The Beatles, The Stones and The Who had had undertaken and he took them to another planet: distortion on this record sounds like actual distortion and feedback is not just present but turned into a musical voice at times.Experiments with electric guitar effects before Hendrix sound like they are from a different time. With Hendrix they become modern and standardized.
The other thing is that Hendrix brought in this hybrid rhythm-lead playing (where he would play rhythm but hit notes that implied a melodic lead, or he would play a melodic lead but hit chords that implied a rhythm) that set new standards in rock guitar playing. Where he got it from, I don’t know, but nobody in the rock world had ever played this way before. With his use of minimal overdubs (for his solos, usually) he created the concept of a “guitar orchestra,” even though he was only using a couple parts to create this massive sound. That drastically changed hard rock.
All of this would be interesting if Hendrix hadn’t written such good songs. Though not the world’s greatest songwriter, Hendrix has to be counted among the best songwriters to also be guitar virtuosos. Usually those two skills do not go together. Though you might seek out this album for the pyrotechnics, you come back to it for the songs.
Also, Mitch Mitchell was probably the best rock drummer of the ’60s outside of Baker and Moon. Listen to “Fire” in particular, but it’s all good.
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold as Love (10/10)
You wouldn’t know it from the album opener, a fake radio interview which Jimi uses to show you just how loud and weird guitar feedback can be, but this is Hendrix’s best set of songs in his brief career.It’s a quantum leap forward in terms of songwriting from his debut – released within the past year – and the bloat of Electric Ladyland, which leans to hard into the jams. (Yes, there are jams here, but the one is very short.)
Hendrix combines his improved lyrics and sense of melody with his usual audacious (for the time) arrangements and his phenomenal, path-breaking guitar playing. In terms of songs, it contains a couple of my favourites as well.
It should have been hard for him to top his debut, one of the most significant debut albums in the history of rock music, but he does in just about every way.
7. The Byrds: Younger than Yesterday (10/10)
The Byrds are largely forgotten as the innovators they were in part, I think, because of how their records from this period seemed to straddle the past present and future. There’s folk rock here, psychedelic rock just about as “out there’ as the most psychedelic bands, and country rock. It’s a weird amalgam pretty unique in the music of the time.
I think this is probably their best record in part because it contains my favourite Byrds song (“So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”) and some others I like a lot. It also feels more coherent than 5D, even if it is even more all over the place stylistically.
The most underrated band of the 60s probably. (They weren’t at the time, of course.)
8. Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (9/10)
Coming at this as a ’70s Floyd fan sometime in my early 20s, I didn’t know what to do with it. I had been told it was a psychedelic classic by music critics so, outwardly, I pretended to like it, albeit not as much as later records, but I didn’t really get it. Listening to Barrett solo records only convinced me more that this was an extremely overrated album.
But time changes things. I have listed to an awful lot of music in the ensuing years and the sheer magnitude of what happened here has finally dawned on me.
First, there are the songs: Though I doubt I will ever be a fan of Barrett’s, Barret writes from a different place than most songwriters, using children’s stories – or stories that sure sound like children’s stories – and spiritual texts as his guide. You might not like the songs, but they are original.
Second, the arrangements are rather bonkers. The crazy thing is this is the sound of the band under considerable restraint. They were under a lot pressure to record more professional, less wild versions of these songs. The label and producer only relented for “Interstellar Overdrive.” Even confined mostly to traditional song lengths and structures, the arrangements are extremely unconventional for the era.
Finally, the production is as out there as you could get in 1967 without being The Beatles or Zappa. There are some really weird audio tricks and all sorts of musique concrete-inspired weirdness. When the Grateful Dead did this kind of thing, they forgot to write enough catchy melodies. Not a problem here.
So, though this will never be a favourite Floyd record of mine, it’s hard to deny its importance to psychedelic rock. It’s the unhinged, less professional side of that early sound, providing an alternate pathway than the one The Beatles headed down.
9. Love: Forever Changes (9/10)
A far more depressing, paranoid folk rock version of Pet Sounds, at least in terms of the ambition of marrying pretty melodies to lyrics reflecting an insecure and depressed view of the world. Maybe a little more outward looking too. I don’t usually like when music and lyrics don’t match but for some reason I have no problem with it here.
Upon reflection, the comparison above isn’t really fair. This is av very different beast, even if it shares session musicians. But I don’t really know what else to compare it to because the combination of folk rock with mariachi-inspired horn arrangements and baroque pop was relatively without precedent at the time (and not really psychedelic).
I used to rank this among the very best records of 1967 but the more I reflect upon this year, this very radical year, I can’t help but think of how relatively conservative this whole thing is.
It’s still very, very well done, and a record I can kind of listen to endlessly, but it’s not quite the transcendent classic I used to think it.
10. The Who Sell Out (9/10)
This is one of those records where I have heard it so much that I have trouble reviewing. But worse, I’ve only ever heard the extended version with all the fake ads and many more songs (some of them better than those that made the cut). This was the most ambitious Who record to date and I really do think a full hour of it would have not been a bad thing. But I’ll try to think about the 30 minute version.
The Who pretty much ignored psychedelia like the Kinks did, though they did do a hilarious Pink Floyd parody of a cover of Grieg that didn’t make the cut. Instead they went more commercial, in some sense, trying to get money from existing companies and making what they thought was super disposable music.
But Townshend has grown as a songwriter and the sheer variety of the record marks it out as clearly different from the earlier “Maximum R&B” records. You can feel Townshend straining against pop music conventions and it makes sense that the next step was a rock opera.
Perhaps the strongest record they made prior to discovering synthesizers.
11. The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (9/10)
This review is of the British double EP, not the US album.
Magical Mystery Tour has a bit of a confusing history – not as confusing as Let It Be – and must be explained. Like all Beatles albums prior to Sgt. Pepper, it was not released the same way in the United States. Unlike previous releases though, this time a full American album was released a week and a half before the Beatles released their “double” EP – i.e. two extended play records packaged together so that they could include six songs. The American album contained the singles from the past year.
The double EP concept allowed the Beatles to put their limited new soundtrack material out in an interesting and unique way – at least in Britain. Releasing an album wasn’t feasible, since they only had five new songs ready for release – seven if you include outtakes from Sgt. Pepper and these sessions, and eight if you include the infamous “Carnival of Light”. The soundtrack was for Magical Mystery Tour, a television film which was the first thing the Beatles ever did that wasn’t greeted with universal
praise. I have never seen it – though I have seen excerpts, such as the “Fool on the Hill” music video – but nearly everyone thinks it’s terrible. Another concept from McCartney, it further emphasized the growing divide between Lennon – who was taking inspiration from art outside of rock music – and himself – who appeared interested in eventually turning a Beatles album into a musical or an opera, or at least a song-cycle. As I have already noted, in this dichotomy are the origins of art rock and progressive rock, as distinct genres, rather than as the one genre they emerged as through Zappa.
The soundtrack has its moments but no question it is a let down from the previous albums. The US release is a lot stronger – which is doubtless why it has become the only US Beatles album to remain in the catalogue – because of the presence of the singles from earlier in the year.
The title track introduces the concept of the mini-album, that of a traveling show of the kind which was apparently moving around England when McCartney and Lennon were younger. They added some fantastical or supernatural elements to their description, however, as that would only be psychedelic of them. It was written and recorded well before the movie was made and the movie was made to fit the concept after the fact, which helps explain why the movie was a disaster. (Making a film from a couple of songs is kind of like making a film from a video game, only worse.) The song itself can be thought of as the overture and as such is brief and has a swift pace. Despite the changes in tempo, there is a sense of forward progress.
“Your Mother Should Know” is another in McCartney’s series of nostalgia trips highlighting his growing fascination with older pre-rock forms of music and his predilection for lyrics that romanticized the past of his childhood. It was apparently written for an old-fashioned dance number in the film. It was recorded in late summer, which shows the sporadic nature of the writing and recording for the project and the general lack of focus or drive after the celebration surrounding the previous album. Though we all might be tempted to write this off, we should note that it is far more interesting, from a compositional standpoint, than “When I’m Sixty-Four” – which is fitting given the latter’s origin in the ’50s: for example, the bridge sits in for a chorus, and the frequent Beatles trick of playing with the home key occurs here.
“The Fool on the Hill” is probably the highlight from the soundtrack – excepting “I Am the Walrus” of course. It is an attempt by McCartney to write a meaningful song in the vein of some of the social comment lyrics he had been writing more recently – “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home”. It features an elaborate arrangement – mostly performed by the composer – that shows the leaps and bounds his musical imagination had taken in only a few short years. It is another, but far more sophisticated, attempt at writing an “art song” from the Romantic period. It was recorded in the early fall along with two other tracks.
“Flying” is a jam – though it was altered later – one of few the Beatles recorded which have survived and the only one to this point to be released. (The other surviving jams can be found on Anthology, though far from every take.) It went through a number of permutations before it was released: first it featured a Dixieland-style ending; later it turned into a 9 minute sound collage – created by Lennon and Starr – seemingly resembling “Revolution No. 9” from the next year. It features wordless vocals singing the melody. It is one of the weirdest songs the Beatles ever recorded in that it resembles so few others. It’s hard not to view it as filler even though it clearly marks a further move away from traditional rock music – in its conception if not in its final state. This song is perhaps more instructive of the Beatles’ states of mind musically during this period than it is for any other reason, as both a Dixieland-style ending and a “Magical Mystery Tour No. 9” would have been out there even for the
Beatles. But alas, this time their instinct for concision may have failed them.
“Blue Jay Way” is Harrison’s contribution and, lyrically, it is not one of his more notable efforts, merely detailing exactly what he was doing when he wrote it – waiting for a friend. It is heavily influenced by Indian concepts of tonality and that music – and its pace – is aptly fitted to the lyrics. We can say that the lyrics are notable for not having any additional meanings. Nobody knows who was responsible for that cello.
Two that didn’t make the cut, McCartney’s “All Together Now” and Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” would later appear on Yellow Submarine along with the outtake from Sgt. Pepper, “A Northern Song.”
12. Buffalo Springfield Again (9/10)
Definitely more than the sum of its parts, this album is a bit schizophrenic even if you don’t know the story of the band falling apart.
The debut was a very solid folk rock album, maybe a little bit behind the times but full of strong songs. But nothing on the debut – not a single song – prepares you for this record, which is on another planet not just in terms of songwriting but in terms of ambition. Both Stills and Young seem to have internalized the ambitions of so many other contemporary bands, as both writers try things that the debut didn’t even hint at, with Young providing perhaps his most ambitious composition of his career. Furay’s work is much more traditional but still quite “country” for 1967, at a time when basically only two other rock bands in the world would ever try this stuff.
The results is a patchwork of good to great songs and ambitious arrangements that don’t really fit together in any kind of coherent whole but which show off the individual aspirations of the three songwriters about as well as any other music they would go on to make in the decade.
13. John Coltrane: Stellar Regions (9/10)
14. Phil Ochs: Pleasures of the Harbor (9/10)
Over-arranged and over-produced but what a set of songs. Read the review.
15. The Songs of Leonard Cohen (9/10)
An impressive debut but maybe not his best record. Read the review.
16. Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow (9/10)
This may be the first serious record I ever consciously listened to. I had Weird Al tapes. I had Nylons tapes. (I am trying to pretend those Nylons tapes weren’t serious.) My dad had this on tape and he would play it in the car all the way through. Before I had bought a Beatles tape, I was listening to Surrealistic Pillow, my dad’s favourite album from his youth.
So there’s a part of me that just assumed this was an absolute classic. This was before I realized that my dad has kind of terrible taste in music – taste which, like many men his age, is dictated by the attractiveness of the female singer more than anything. I recognize that the songs were memorable and that the playing was good (even if I didn’t know it at the time) and so I figured it was an absolute classic – one of the best albums of the 60s or something.
Well, it’s not. It’s very good but, like so much music made on the cusp of the Summer of Love, it’s stuck between two genres. (It reminds me a bit of where The Yardbirds and The Byrds were at this point, even if the music is quite different.) There are a bunch of quite strong folk rock and folk songs, and then there is one definitive, all time classic Psychedelic rock song (“White Rabbit”) and another that usually gets lumped in as “Psychedelic” (“Somebody to Love”) though I’m not sure how psychedelic it really is (compared it to, says “Strawberry Fields,” which had just come out).
All of this is to say that it’s a strong album caught between two trends. The Airplane would go on to make far more radical but less consistent music as the decade wore on. This is probably their best record, but it’s just not innovative enough for me to acclaim it as an absolute classic, at a time when innovation was The Thing.
17. The Doors: Strange Days (9/10)
The Doors second album feels a bit too much of a retread of their first album but that is praising with faint damnation because their debut album was one of the great debut albums of the 1960s.
Some of these songs may indeed be leftovers from their debut but there are still plenty of strong songs here (and Morrison’s one indulgence is very brief).
Moreover, the band is just as good, if not better, this time out. Having a bass on nearly on tracks helps more than it should and the whole thing feels more musically accomplished, even if its less daring by virtue of it being essentially the same musical ideas.
Still great stuff and the last truly essential Doors album until their reinvention as a blues band.
18. The Holy Modal Rounders: Indian War Whoop (9/10)
I have not heard the first two albums, but, by all accounts, this one is the zaniest to date.
And zany it is, as the band gets as out there as any “popular music” band in the States at the time, rivaled only by the Mothers. (Of course, there is a little more going on in the Mothers’ music.)
I have to admire the sheer bravado; not only making extremely noisy, and extremely goofy, recordings – including recordings of traditional folk songs that are unrecognizable, but pairing it with some bizarre narrative (one the one side). It’s like a more modest version of Odgen’s Nut Gone Flake.
But it has dated rather poorly. “Freak outs” don’t sound so crazy any more. Some of the songs work really well, but some of it does feel as if they were just trying to be provocative.
That being said, it’s hard to be too hard on this, as few other bands were making music this insane in 1967.
Like a more folsky, goofier Incredible String Band. More social comment, too.
19. The Kinks: Something Else (9/10)
While the rest of the English popular music world was zigging, Davies and co. zagged. Though there are a number of signs in the arrangements of an awareness of what was happening in that musical world – specifically, the presence of non-rock instruments and basically the entirety of “Lazy Old Sun” – The Kinks mostly eschew modernity for tradition – particularly in the lyrics, if not in the music – to an extent that no rock band up to this point really had. This is Ray’s best set of songs to date – and Dave’s songs are up to snuff – and established him as one of the great British songwriters of his generation, along with Lennon and Townshend.
Without its harpsichords and brass, this record might be among the most reactionary of its era. But the odd arrangements both echo music of the past and the contemporary baroque pop sound, putting the sound in this weird position where it seems to span different eras
This record established the sound and feel of The Kinks for quite some time (there’s basically no echo of their previous sound). Because of this it’s perhaps easy to overrate this record after all it’s short, it’s out of step, it’s not particularly innovative. But there’s enough here for me to rate it above much of what came out this year, even if this album really is out of step with the times.
Maybe I like it too much.
20. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Safe as Milk (9/10)
21. The Beach Boys: Smiley Smile (8/10)
Not what I was expecting. Zany, lo fi craziness. Read the review.
22. Cream: Disraeli Gears (8/10)
Cream’s second album is far and away their best.
The songs are better here than on Fresh Cream and the band’s sound (on record) is much more coherent – this feels like a psychedelic blues band instead of just a louder, jazzier British blues band. (Also, Clapton appears to have drastically improved his rhythm guitar playing.)
And it’s far more consistent than the weirder studio disc of Wheels of Fire. And though I like Goodbye, the studio tracks there really don’t feel like Cream.
So this is their best record. It’s not one of the great psychedelic records though, it’s just a very good one. Cream’s songs were never good enough to compete with the best psychedelic bands and, though Cream are incredible musicians, this isn’t even remotely as trailblazing as Hendrix. (And that’s because Cream did most of their innovation live, for whatever reason.)
If you’re going to listen to one Cream album, it’s this one, but you’re probably better off with a Best Of.
23. Tim Buckley: Goodbye and Hello (8/10)
In 2015, I wrote the following:
I have long been a fan of Buckley – he is one of my favourite rock vocalists – but I have only ever been acquainted with what you might call his peak years when he pioneered a fusion between singer-songwriter folk and contemporary jazz.
And so this record comes as a surprise, not just because of the hilariously dated psychedelic sound effects but because it bares so little resemblance to what he would do next. There’s literally one track on here that sounds to be me like the jazz folk (folk jazz?) Tim Buckley I know and love. Everything else sounds markedly different, not just in the arrangements but even in his singing (far less adventurous than later).
I’m not trying to be critical, this is still a unique and interesting album, with a strong set of songs, given the time anyway. (One really has to keep thinking “Remember, it was 1967!”) But I guess I am a little underwhelmed because his later stuff is not just better but far, far more original, and definitive.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment.
What I would say is that I feel like this is a pretty monumental step on the road between psychedelic folk and progressive folk as few people other than maybe Donovan were making music like this at the time – this is considerably more accessible than The Incredible String Band – and Buckley is more ambitious than Donovan.
It still sounds weird compared to his later efforts (which is hindsight speaking) and it has dated too much. But better than I think I thought at the time.
24. Moby Grape (8/10)
This is one of those legendary psychedelic albums which isn’t the least bit psychedelic. That’s not actually a criticism, in fact it means that it probably transcends its time better than a lot of deliberately psychedelic albums of its time.
There are no freak outs here. Really what you get is some very energetically performed roots rock, with folk, blues, country and, I believe, gospel influences. The songs are all pretty strong as well and the combination works quite well. Very good stuff.
25. The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (8/10)
This is a weird one – the Stones complete, total commitment to pop music (even the rock songs feel like power pop). The US version is the stronger record, naturally (it contains two singles, including “Let’s Spend the Night Together” which is one of the greatest Stones songs ever), but both versions are still strong.
This record is both proof of the band’s versatility and a weird avenue down which they never really went again. I’m glad they went back to the blues rock and rock and roll thing, but it’s still interesting to wonder what if. Jagger’s lyrics are typically misogynist and dated, but if you can get by that, it’s a near classic.
9/10 for the US release, 8/10 for the British one.
26. Nina Simone: High Priestess of Soul (8/10)
Shockingly diverse for its era. Read the review.
27. Kaleidoscope: Side Trips (8/10)
Okay, let’s get two things out of the way:
First, there are no truly charismatic or appealing singers in the band. Sure Feldthouse can sing, but his voice is not appealing. The other guys are less appealing.
Second, these guys are not great songwriters. Only a couple of these songs are good or great. They would be so much better known if they’d been able to write some memorable songs.
But holy shit are these guys cool: the genre fusion, the shit-ton of instruments, many of which had never been heard on “rock” recordings previously.
“Egyptian Gardens” is worth the price of admission alone. It may be the first time “Middle Eastern” music was ever fused with rock music, nearly 10 years before Peter Gabriel started his “world” music stuff.
I also think “Please” is a pretty good folk rock song, even if the lyrics are a little too reminiscent of another, more famous song.
Too much old timey music, sure. But some of this stuff is revolutionary. Basically the birth of world music, for better or worse.
28. Vanilla Fudge (8/10)
A classic covers album. Read the review.
29. Albert King: Born Under a Bad Sign (8/10)
Born Under a Bad Sign was itself a compilation, this time of singles King had recorded when he moved to Stax. One of the reasons the record is so well regarded is because so many blues albums back then apparently lacked strong material.
Born Under a Bad Sign is considered to be the first “modern” blues album, the album when the blues emerged from its tradition to embrace other musical genres. I understand why that’s important but I can’t say that I absolutely love it. Some of the expansion of this sound – into soul and R&B – feels dated and like a transparent attempt to sell more records. It also feels like it’s the beginning of the terrible attempts to make The Blues more poppy that emerged in the 80s.
But, putting that aside, the material is mostly very strong and King is a hugely influential guitar player.
I know too many of these songs as covers, so that was another barrier.
30. Duke Ellington: Far East Suite (8/10)
This is a great piece: it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s remarkably varied and it does sort of feel like a grand statement. But I can’t help but feel like it’s a statement made 3/4s of a decade too late. Though Ellington’s ability to make himself relevant again and to build upon people who built upon him – there is a definite Mingus influence here – is remarkable, there is also the fact that jazz musicians had been flirting with far more radical “eastern” influences for some time. I am thinking specifically of Trane but also the severely under-appreciated Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who was making far less polished – and far less ambitious – “eastern” jazz that was more boundary-breaking than this a good seven years before this record was released.
I’m not trying to diminish from this record: I like it a lot. I just think it’s importance has been greatly overstated by people who prefer their jazz in more conservative doses.
31. Mauricio Kagel: String Quartet II (8/10)
The second quartet initially really does feel like a retread of the first, utilizing much of the same techniques to create a holy racket. There is an insane moment 3 minutes in which is more powerful than anything in the first.. About 6 minutes into the piece, it takes a radical turn back into conventional (albeit very modern) quartet territory. That feels like a logical progression, from the most avant garde thing he could write to something that starts off avant garde but then makes at least some concessions to tradition. So it’s the back half that makes this thing worthwhile and notable.
32. Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding (8/10)
I think it’s fair to say that by refusing to follow the trends of the time, and by doubling down on Americana, Dylan and the Band invented roots rock in the summer of 1967. (Of course, prior to psychedelia, there was no need for such a genre.) But given that they didn’t release the music officially for 8 years, this record, made without the band, is the only sign the world got (officially) of what was happening.
This record is also notable for Dylan’s change in singing style, and an overall stylistic change from the louder, more “electric” sound of his last few records before the accident.
It’s also notable, though not necessarily in a good way, for Dylan’s more conservative lyrics – for the first time since his debut, Dylan’s lyrics sound like those of other songwriters. I’m not saying he’s copying anyone, but he’s certainly abandoned his most complex poetry for lyrics that are more accessible, often seemingly writing in a parable style.
The record is good, and it was brave of him to ignore the trends, even if it’s kind of hard for us to imagine him following those trends. But the idea that this is one of his very best records is must mystifying to me. It is the first record of a new, less brave Dylan, one who embraced tradition more than rejected it. And it is a strong set of songs and it is nice to listen to. But it’s also the first sign that peak Dylan was gone and never coming back.
33. Country Joe and the Fish: Electric Music for the Mind and Body (8/10)
For years, perhaps decades, this was regarded as a major psychedelic classic – one of the first wholly psychedelic records from the San Francisco scene, if not the first, and a major part of that scene’s development.
But time has not been kind. How many people my age or younger have heard of Country Joe and Fish? I venture to say very few. And there are reasons for that.
For one thing, it’s both considerably less radical than many of the classic psychedelic records of the era while, at the same time, less commercial than many of them. At bottom, it’s mostly blues rock with a slight psychedelic tinge – that organ (is it a farfisa?), the slightest bit of distortion (or wah) to some of the guitar, that closely-miked tambourine, and some of the licks are not quite conventional blues licks. The exception is the last track, the moody, effective (albeit creepy) “Grace,” which feels considerably more “out there” than the blues rock of the rest of the record.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a pretty great blues rock record but the degree to which it is actually psychedelic feels overstated. It’s kind of a forgotten gem at this point, but it’s not one of the great psychedelic records.
34. The Incredible String Band: 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (8/10)
The second ISB album is quite a far cry from the debut and they sound like almost a completely different band. The music is a weird mix of traditional and forward-thinking; they incorporate instruments from different cultures (most of which had yet to be explored much by western popular musicians) and they write from perspectives that feel very rooted in the ’60s, but their performances are still very much “folk” in a way that feels really traditional – untouched by rock music – and, unfortunately, this dates the album rather horribly.
Though it’s a landmark is the psychedelic folk genre, it feels so much more like a relic of its time than even efforts by similar bands like the Holy Modal Rounders (who were far more deliberately “freaky”) or by contemporary rock bands experimenting with similar instruments.Fort that, I blame Heron’s and Williamson’s voices, and their rather uncompromising reverence for the sounds of earlier folk records (which should be to their credit).
Really only something you should listen to if you like this style of music. It hasn’t dated well.
PS Saying it’s dated (and the production is dated too) doesn’t mean I dislike the songs. They’re pretty great songwriters. Daring too.
35. Nina Simone Sings the Blues (8/10)
Literally what it says. A sharp-left turn from High Priestess of Soul. Read the review.
36. Nico: Chelsea Girl (7/10)
A good record but what would it sound like without those strings and that flute? Read the review.
37. The Moody Blues: Days of Future Passed (7/10)
Received wisdom has it that this album invented progressive rock, a new genre more inspired by Classical and Romantic music, and Third Stream Jazz, than Indian music, Modal Jazz and Musique Concrete.
Legend has it that this record was originally supposed to be a rock version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. And maybe a modern rock arrangement of that symphony with new lyrics would have been the birth of progressive rock, rather than just an album-long novelty “rocking” classical experiment.
But I’m not sure this record is the birth of progressive rock. Yes, progressive rock changed drastically by 1969, when the major progressive rock bands first put out their records. And maybe it’s just time that makes this sound not like progressive rock, but I don’t think that’s true.
Because, to me, this is fairly traditional pop rock in a “classical” set of clothes – there are catchy British rhythm and blues songs (and the odd one with a touch of psychedelia) and there is a big orchestra, and there’s poetry, but that doesn’t add up to prog, especially given that the orchestra is only ever on one track the band plays on.
It’s the presence of the mellotron that really is the most influential thing in terms of prog rock. (This has to be one of the earliest uses outside of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
As to the actual music: it’s pretty mainstream pop rock. The songs are catchy even if the concept is kind of dumb. Whatever type of music this is, the musicians are talented.
But it’s on the poppier side of pop rock and, despite all the hoopla, it’s a pretty traditional record outside of the orchestral interludes, and the Beatles-esque pairing of two songs together.
38. Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter’s (7/10)
It’s been ages since I’ve listened to the other Airplane records from the era but, from memory, this is their most overtly psychedelic and experimental record, with a “freak out” and some jams (and more than a little Hendrix worship).
It’s the weakest of their classic records in my mind, and they don’t quite find a balance between wanting to write accessible, political songs and wanting to expand my musical consciousness.
That being said, everyone was doing stuff like this, and this has dated better than some of the other albums from the era.
39. The 13th Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (7/10)
More interesting and stronger than the first record. Read the review.
40. Traffic: Mr. Fantasy (7/10)
The aesthetic is good but there not enough strong songs. Read the review.
42. James Carr: You Got My Mind Messed Up (7/10)
Good but a bit of a Stax wannabe in terms of sound and songs. Read the review.
43. The Beach Boys: Wild Honey (7/10)
A bizarre detour into soul. Read the review.
44. Scott Walker: Scott (7/10)
It has the reputation it does because of what he did later. Read the review.
45. Donovan: Mellow Yellow (7/10)
This feels like a transitional effort for Donovan. On the one hand there’s still some songs that feel like they could have been on Sunshine Superman (though they feel like outtakes to me) on the other and there are some more subdued singer-songwriter things that feel nearly completely at odds with his sort of “Swinging London onlooker” persona he seemed to cultivate.
On first listen, I really didn’t like it, but with repeated listens the more weary songs are hitting home with me more. But it feels like two different records sandwiched together.
46. Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell: United (7/10)
Decent for what it is. Read the review.
47. Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle (6/10)
This was the first avant pop record I ever heard as I purchased it very early into my exploration of music outside of prog rock. And, for a very, very long time, I had no idea what to do with it. I had not ever listened to the genres of music Parks combines on this record, so I had no frame of reference. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to listen to it, it sounded so bizarre. Also, there was Parks himself who, in the words of Jason Akeny, sounds “at times insufferably coy.” (I have rarely read a line in music criticism that better captures a performance.)
This is admittedly ambitious and unlike anything of its time or of much music before or after. It is indeed a serious attempt to create some kind of serious, high art work based on pre-rock American popular music. As such, I guess it’s kind of a success. It’s catchy enough that, if you are familiar with the genres of music Parks pulls from, you can be lulled into listening to it without fulling realizing how unbelievably avant garde it is for pop music. (In some ways, it’s kind of what would happen if Charles Ives had been born 70 years later, had worshiped American popular music instead of just being inspired by it, and wrote pop songs – as well as taking some contemporary songs for his own purposes.)
But I find individual moments work better than the work as a whole, nothing better than the cover of “Colours,” which is one of Parks’ only concessions to modernity, but which is a total reinvention.
But Parks himself appears to detest rock music (at least at this point in his life). He is on record as claiming he wanted to make something uninfected by the British Invasion but he goes back even further, before Rhythm and Blues became popular. This album is so conservative as to be devoid of anything recognizable as being written since 1956 (at least as far as white audiences were concerned). Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly.
And then there is Parks himself – not only not a fine singer but, as quoted above, doing this weird cutesy performance where “coy” is basically the only word that can be used to describe it. This record would be so much more worthwhile with a different lead singer who could add some charisma to what are, indeed, very inventive reinventions of old popular music.
40 or so years later, Ry Cooder tried a similar concept with various forms of roots music and I think the results are much more successful if only because Cooder isn’t so archly conservative (even though he’s quite conservative musically himself) and because he uses the idea to try to create a bit of a narrative. (Also, Cooder, no charismatic singer, is much more charismatic than Parks.)
Even with 15+ years of knowing this record and now knowing where it comes from musically, I still can’t love it. It’s too conservative and Parks shouldn’t ever be the lead singer on anything. (And I really do enjoy his string arrangements for other people.)
48. The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (6/10)
Capping the weirdest year or so of their career, the only time the Stones completely abandoned their sound for something else, it’s easy to both understand the antipathy that greeted this record as well as its rising reputation through time.
It’s easy to understand why people hated this because of how non-Stones it was. Between the Buttons might have been too imitative of the Beatles and the Kinks but it had great songs. But this record – well, the songs are nowhere near as strong.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why so many people have had cause to re-evaluate the record over the years, as it really isn’t that bad, certainly compared to a lot of the other psychedelic crap being made at the time. Even when they abandon their roots, Jagger and Richards can still write catchy, compelling songs. Even when they dress these songs in elaborate freak-out arrangements, it’s still easy to hear their talent.
But I think the pendulum has swung too far the other direction, in an attempt to compensate for the terrible reviews this received. Because, folks, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there’s no way this record is anything other than the weakest album the Stones put out between the first time they managed to write all their own material and Goats Head Soup or something else in the ’70s. Yes, there are some catchy songs and everything is well done. But it is also very much a transparent attempt to jump on a bandwagon, months after the scene had peaked. It does suggest other avenues the Stones could have pursued but we are better off they didn’t.
It’s a curio, it’s not a great record.
48. Nilsson: Pandemonium Shadow Show (6/10)
Too slick despite its idiosyncrasies. Read the review.
49. Pearls Before Swine: One Nation Underground (6/10)
If you like the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders, you will like these guys, because they basically just copied them. Read the review.
50. Sam & Dave: Soul Men (6/10)
More of the same from the duo. Read the review.
51. Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band (6/10)
52. The Amboy Dukes (6/10)
Only for fans of interesting rock guitar playing. Read the review.
53. Gustav Holst: “Capriccio” (5/10)
This is a 1932 piece altered by his daughter Imogen. I have no idea what she added to it, having not heard the original. It certainly doesn’t sound like a “jazz band” (the original name of the piece). It’s pleasant, I guess.
The Beatles: “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” (10/10)
This double A-side single is widely believed to be the most important – and best – single of all time. Now, that sounds like quite the claim but there are a number of reasons.
First, people argue that rarely if ever had two such strong songs been pared together on a single, even when the Beatles pioneered the double A-side practice in the years previous. Second, there are the far reaching musical innovations: the recordings were, along with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the most forward thinking the Beatles had yet made and were definitely among the most forward thinking recordings – not to mention singles – yet made in popular music. In fact, nobody save the Beach Boys and the Byrds had previously released anything this daring as a single, and whereas the Byrds had merely incorporated Indian music and some free jazz into their sound, the Beach Boys and the Beatles were using the studio as an instrument, thereby creating a wholly new genre and pioneering a technique, a process that until this time had only existed in the musique concrete of avant-garde art music in Austria and France. But the Beatles attempt at the studio-as-instrument sounds to me significantly more progressive than “Good Vibrations.” “Good Vibrations” is influenced by the suite concept from art music, and by film music, but I think at its core it is still recognizable as a pop song, albeit possibly the greatest ever. I’m not sure the Beatles A-side is so traditional. And I think few would argue with the claim that the lyrics of either of the songs on this single are better than “Eight Miles High” or “Good Vibrations.”
That was the final thing: not only were the two songs individually strong but they were both about the same thing; looking back on childhood. For the first time the two main Beatles’ songwriters teamed up to write songs about the same subject,
but through different lenses. It becomes a classic study in the differences of personality and ways of looking back, and for the differences in approaches both towards the past and towards music and art. On the one hand is the dreamy / hazy, consciously artsy and “difficult” nostalgia trip, where nothing sounds quite right; and on the other is the clear, fond memory of the sounds of a particular time and place. The dichotomy of the Beatles’ two major songwriters’ preferences for different things, especially in the later years – and their subsequent affects on popular music – has never been better captured or more obviously contrasted.
“Strawberry Fields” was recorded in two or three separate versions, at two separate paces, in two separate keys. In George Martin’s most famous act as a producer – and really Emerick’s most famous act as an engineer, though it has been more attributed to Martin – Martin sped up the slower one and slowed down the faster one so that they would match keys – an absolutely unthinkable act prior to its occurrence, I should think – but taking the song out of traditional pitch. Lennon’s voice sounds particularly hazy and bizarre. The whole recording was spliced together in different pieces because the pieces were not whole songs. The best way to understand how dramatically this changed the song is to listen to the disparate versions on Anthology. It is a lesson in assembling music in this new era of the studio-as-instrument – an era begun by the Beatles. The finished product begins with a chorus rather than a verse and with a mellotron. The mellotron was essentially the world’s second sampler – there was an earlier one, the Chamberlin – a keyboard that played tapes of various orchestral instruments and human voices depending on which setting was used. It had been used by the Beatles on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and by a few bands before them, but I’m pretty sure this marks its debut on a single. The song contains numerous instruments that are fairly unrecognizable because of the changes in speed of the tape and the fact that many of them were included backwards. It fades out with a false ending and then a completely different bit of noise comes in with drums and a backwards mellotron which gave birth to the “Paul is dead” hoax – Lennon is actually saying “Cranberry Sauce”. In the words of Pollack:
The use of tape-speed variations; up close miking; limiting; playing tapes backwards; the inclusion of instruments and instrumental groups that are conspicuously non-rock in their primary association; strange chord progressions, and surprising changes of meter – all these things have their precedents on “Revolver” or its related singles, but the irony is that they are presented here in “Strawberry Fields Forever” in creative extensions such that you never feel as if the Beatles are merely repeating themselves. Also, there’s a kitchen-sink presentation of so many of these tricks in a single number that is, prior to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” quite unprecedented.
The second part of the single is a totally different approach, though arguably nearly as innovative. “Penny Lane” is a much more straightforward song on the surface. Certainly it doesn’t sound particularly off compared with “Strawberry Fields.” But there are all sorts of odd devices used for it as well. For one thing, there are something like six separate pianos on the recording – at least one of which was recorded through a guitar amp. The song features various instruments coming in and out of the mix, representing different sounds from McCartney’s memory, and it also features a prominent brass arrangement, highlighted by a piccolo trumpet solo; an idea that came from McCartney that shows his under-appreciated knack of musical satire – he has claimed it as a deliberate Bach parody rather than an homage. As was often the case, McCartney’s song contained nearly as many innovative ideas, but they were better hidden than Lennon’s.
The contrast between the two is startling despite the songs’ thematic elements in common. Though this might seem absurd, one can almost see the birth of the art rock / progressive rock divide in this recording: on the one hand is a song that embraces modern poetry, modern art (impressionism), new recording techniques in an obvious “look at me” way – essentially the aural equivalent of what was going on in the French New Wave – and non-traditional forms of music – musique concrete, Indian music – while staying within traditional pop song length. On the other side, the song hides its recording innovations behind appeals to more traditional non-rock of music, tries to tell a story in a more straightforward manner and embraces virtuoso musicianship – the piccolo trumpet player was an established “classical” musician. Maybe I’m stretching, but I see here the initial fissure of the dichotomy of art rock versus progressive rock, which had not yet split apart, as it barely existed, in a very, very early form, since the summer and Freak Out!.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Purple Haze” / “51st Anniversary” (10/10)
Other rock bands (The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks) had released riff-based rock songs prior to “Purple Haze,” but “Purple Haze” was the first rock song with a distorted guitar riff that sounds like it was recorded yesterday. The efforts by earlier bands all sound from another time, when guitar pedals didn’t exist and effects had to be added through ingenuity. Those effects sound so dated. “Purple Haze” sounds like it could have been recorded in the ’70s were it not for the psychedelic backing voices. One of the most important singles of the decade.
“51st Anniversary” is a far less impressive song, in terms of historical evidence, but shows off Hendrix’s incredible rhythm/lead hybrid playing about as well as anything from this period.
The Beatles: “Hello Goodbye” / “I Am the Walrus” (10/10)
A better contrast of the two songwriters probably cannot be found anywhere else in the Beatles catalogue, even if the entries aren’t really equal in quality this time. I know I said the same thing about a couple of their previous singles, but honestly this one is the real deal. On the one hand we have a silly little love song that was a massive hit. On the other we have one of the most progressive recordings in rock music history. And they’re together on the same little record. Ridiculous.
“Hello Goodbye” is a pretty silly song that is apparently some kind of attempt at writing about a yin/yang thing. As I have noted before, the Beatles should not be listened to for their thoughts on philosophy. The track features an unplanned, impromptu coda seemingly influenced by Hawaiian or Caribbean music – after the false ending, which was becoming a common device – which was then altered in the studio to make it sound stranger than it did when originally improvised, resulting in two codas for the finished recording. I don’t have much to say about it as I think it’s one of the Beatles weaker singles, despite its no. 1 hit status.
“I Am the Walrus”, on the other hand, stands as one of the great popular music achievements of the 1960s. The lyrics are nonsense, apparently combining three Lennon songs and then adding nonsense words for the particular goal of confusing anyone who attempted to analyze the song – as was happening aplenty with Beatles songs by this time, as there were all sorts of Beatles cults forming all over the place. The meaning was deliberately obscure, which was also becoming more common – in Lennon’s lyrics in particular, and in other Dylan-influenced songwriters’ lyrics as well – by this time. The music is extremely complex, featuring all the major chords, and a coda featuring a descending bass line and rising strings. The repetition is seven bars long so that a different chord begins each phrase. Lennon apparently had a hand in arranging this as well. It also features a choir singing nonsense words and yelping and shouting, common for Luciano Berio’s music perhaps, but not for rock music. The song contains the first radio samples, that I know of, in popular music history, including an extended sample – the longest sample yet – of a production of King Lear. Lennon participated in the mixing of this song for the first time and he would do so on later experimental efforts – eventually the whole band would get involved, as is the current practice. In the past, the Beatles and other bands using samples had recorded them themselves or used very small pieces and deliberately altered them so that they could not be traced. This is the first time the process changed. Where is hip hop – to pick but one example – without this innovation?
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “The Wind Cries Mary” / “Highway Chile” (9/10)
Released to coincide with his debut album, this Hendrix ballad was the finest showcase for his incredible “rhythm” playing yet released, creating a world of guitar with just one rhythm part. The solo is kind of out of character for the parts he was recording at the time, too, so that’s cool. It’s also one of Hendrix’s better songwriting efforts in my mind.
“Highway Chile” is another riff song, like “Purple Haze,” albeit far more traditional and far more rooted in traditional rhythm and blues. I like the song but it is not one of his best.
The Beatles: “All You Need is Love” “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” (8/10)
“All You Need is Love” was part of the first live global satellite TV broadcast in history. That explains the simple message of the song, as it was written by commission and not necessarily because Lennon was feeling lovey dovey. The single is a strange product: the Beatles, the orchestra and tons of people singing along – many of whom were famous, ooh, that’s important! – were actually playing to a prerecorded rhythm track. This didn’t work all that well – probably because of the sheer size of the group – and so the single had some repairs made to it – a new vocal by Lennon, new drum parts by Starr – before it went out. As such, it predates the hack-jobbing which has been common place for “live” albums, especially Alive! (The Beatles weren’t just pioneers in the good, it turns out, they also helped popularize some of the less wonderful aspects of studio editing.) One reason Starr couldn’t get the drums quite right live is because the time varies during the song, as was becoming increasingly common in even seemingly simple Beatles songs. In the coda McCartney performs the earliest bit of Beatles self-referential post-modernism: singing the hook from “She Loves You” – and there is a also a Bach quote, for your regular, every-day post-modernism.
Like “A Day in the Life,” “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” is two songs stitched together: the verses from a Lennon song and the chorus from a McCartney song. It has a bizarre Eastern sounding facsimile of a reed instrument which in reality is the clavioline keyboard – a predecessor of the synthesizer – looped so it runs continuously through the song. It is yet another example of the Beatles using what was then cutting edge advances in musical technology to create something not yet heard in popular music, even though this song itself was pretty straightforward given what they had just released the previous month.
Mick Jagger may sing some of the backing vocals. Hendrix’s engineer, Eddie Kramer, contributes a vibraphone, a jazz instrument rarely used in rock music up until this time. (Though one arrangement of “I’m Only Sleeping” had someone – likely McCartney – playing one back in the spring of ’66; but it was put aside in favour of the final version.) The instrument soon became a staple of the jazz-folk boom.
Both of these songs were issued on the US – i.e. album – version of Magical Mystery Tour but neither was available on the “double EP” released in the UK.
Ray Charles: “Here We Go Again” (7/10)
Listen: this is a good song with a powerful performance from Charles (both on lead vocal and the underused organ). But the world had changed by 1967 and this song feels from a different era. I mean, just compare it to anything James Brown released this year.
Ray Charles: “Yesterday” (7/10)
Charles’ cover is “Yesterday” is surprisingly good given the huge number of muzak versions that exist out there. It’s still pretty traditional for 1967.