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232: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Romulus’

Posted by jeff on Feb 5, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

Sufjan Stevens – ‘Romulus’

Sufjan Stevens – ‘All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!’

sufjan_stevensAnother week past; another pitiful, failed attempt to understand WTF is going on in this world. Befuddled, that’s what I am.

In my neverending quest to find some sense in this chaotic world, I’ve been listening to Middle Eastern jazz (Anouar Brahem, Ibrahim Maalouf, Youssef Dhafer); Brahams quintets; Susanne Sundfør, a knockout Norwegian; a lot of the new 4-CD solo set by Brad Mehldau; another 4-CD set of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh in exile, 1975; and the very lovely Możdżer Danielsson Fresco trio. And even a little Gene Pitney, just for ballast.

But my ear keeps drifting back to Sufjan Stevens (b. 1975, Detroit), a choirboy from an alternate universe.

sufjan-stevensHis parents followed Subud when he was born, a spiritual movement founded in the 1920s by Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo in Indonesia. Hence ‘Sufjan’, which is Persian for ‘comes with a sword’. But Subudians are encouraged to follow a religion, and Sufjan is apparently a devout Middle America Bible-reading Christian. Eclectic? He also plays most of the instruments on his recordings, which range in style from lo-fi confessional to alien electronica. Especially banjo.

The guy is prolific, preposterous, prosaic, persuasive, precious and profound.

Michigan-stevensProlific?

An album a year for 15 years now, oodles of collaborations and projects. A hundred styles, a thousand clips. The default is wistful, plainspoken, confessional, straightforward, close-miked, naked, like ‘Chicago’, from the KCRW sessions.

But then there’s ‘Impossible Soul’, a 25-minute electronic rampage. That somehow works.

Or “Songs for Christmas – Singalong in Stereo Hi-Fi”, a 5-EP set of 42 Yuletide ditties. Confession: there are places even I don’t go. (And every time I say that, I spend the next week bingeing on it.)

The best stuff, from what I’ve been able to glean from a couple hundred hours of listening, are the two albums from his projected 50-state project, “Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State” (2003) and “Illinoise” (2005). If you want an idea of just how far afield Sufjan ranges, these albums include songs such as:

screen-shot-2010-11-20-at-5-12-15-amPreposterous?

His first network TV appearance, ‘Too Much’ on Jimmy Fallon. He’s wearing—you know what? Words fail me. Just watch the thing.

Prosaic?

Stevens is a master of the mundane. Take ‘Casmir Pulaski Day’. Casimir was a Polish nobleman who uprose against Russia (rarely a good idea) in 1768, got himself exiled, brought to America by Ben Franklin, founded the country’s cavalry, saved George Washington’s life, got mortally wounded by grapeshot and was maybe buried at sea by privateer Captain Samuel Bulfinch. Except that some bones were exhumed in Savannah, Georgia in 1996 and studied for eight years before being reinterred.

Sufjan-Stevens-2But, of course, that has nothing to do with the song, which talks about an adolescent boy who meets a girl in Bible class. She contracts bone cancer, and the narrator and his friends pray for her—unsuccessfully. But they’re adolescents, and the hormones are pumping. So there’s a kiss, and maybe some necking, and maybe sex, and lots of emotions and drama, and then she dies. Oh, Sufjan tells it so much better:

Goldenrod and the 4H stone/The things I brought you/When I found out you had cancer of the bone./In the morning, through the window shade/When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade/I could see what you were reading/All the glory that the Lord has made/And the complications you could do without/When I kissed you on the mouth…

All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/And He takes and He takes and He takes.

Sufjan_Stevens_-_IllinoisPersuasive?

Check out ‘All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!’. That’s just damned fine, sophisticated serious music. Period.

Precious and Profound

Born in Detroit, Sufjan was raised by his father and stepmother in Petoskey, 270 miles north on I-75. His mother abandoned the family, split early on for Oregon.

Sufjan’s indie label Asthmatic Kitty was founded by his stepfather, named after the latter’s stray pet, Sara. He moved her (and, I suppose, Sufjan’s mother Carrie) to Lander, Wyoming, where the label is based, and where the thin, dry air alleviated most of the kitty’s symptoms. She (Sara, not Carrie) lived to the ripe old (kitty) age of 15 or 16, passing in December, 2008.

PulaskiCarrie visited the young Sufjan rarely and painfully, as detailed in our SoTW ‘Romulus’, a searing narrative of a forsaken child. Romulus is a suburb of Detroit, not to be confused with the mythical founder of Rome, who was set adrift on the stormy river Tiber by his evil uncle Amulius. I don’t know how factual the details in the song are, but they sure are convincing and compelling.

Once when our mother called, she had a voice of last year’s cough.
We passed around the phone, sharing a word about Oregon.
When my turn came, I was ashamed.

Once when we moved away, she came to Romulus for a day.
Her Chevrolet broke down. We prayed it’d never be fixed or be found.
We touched her hair, we touched her hair.

When she had her last child. Once when she had some boyfriends, some wild
She moved away quite far. Our grandpa bought us a new VCR.
We watched it all night, but grew up in spite of it.

We saw her once last fall. Our grandpa died in a hospital gown.
She didn’t seem to care – she smoked in her room and colored her hair.
I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her.

Sufjan-Stevens-Adz-thumb-465x309-93244Convincing and compelling, chilling but (if you have the capacity for forgiveness) uplifting.

In the liner notes to “Michigan”, Sufjan writes: “Our parents do the best they can, under the circumstances. They do what they can, and it is always the very best. Who’s to say if you were not loved or touched. There was too much to do, there were too many children, too many meals to prepare, too many sheets to fold, too many socks to match, too many floors to sweep. Oh the terrible burden, each of us doing the very best we could. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Living their lives, mowing their lawns, hanging their laundry, cleaning their clothes, arguing their arguments. You would do far worse. You would fail completely.”

Sufjan wears wings and dayglo body stickers. But he really is a consummate songwriter, and he understands a lot about acceptance. He’s weird and young and believes in giant alien wasps and stuff.  He’s not just from another generation, he’s from another universe. Do you blame me for being befuddled? But he has a largesse of soul and spirit, and I’m paying attention. Seems we have what to learn from these kids, even the winged ones. Maybe especially from the winged ones.

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231: 10cc, ‘I’m Not in Love’

Posted by jeff on Jan 29, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week
10CC_-_TopPop_1974_2

10cc

Since ‘I’m Not in Love’ by 10cc of Manchester UK was released in 1975, all 6:04 of it has been played on American radio over three million times. That adds up to 40 consecutive years of airplay. I’m guessing you’re familiar with the song.

Factoids:

10cc refers to the average quantity of sperm ejaculated by a male Homo sapiens, housing some 20 billion spermatozoa. Maybe someday there’ll be a tribute band, 20 Billion Fishies.

Founding members Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart had bounced around various minor Mancunian bands from the British Invasion era before adding studio musicians Kevin Godley, and Lol Crème. The former pair were pop-oriented hit makers, the latter experimenters in Art Rock and video.

Extenderand1mlofSperm638x850_zpsd0c8d3d1

10cc

Gouldman had early success as a songwriter. “There was one strange moment when the Yardbirds [the band that launched Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck] appeared on [Top of the Pops] doing ‘For Your Love’, which was a song that I’d written. Everyone clamoured around them – and there I was just part of an anonymous group [The Mockingbirds]. I felt strange that night, hearing them play my song.”

He not only co-wrote The Hollies’ (with Graham Nash) fine ‘Look Through Any Window’, but also a pair of indelibly beautiful baroque rock classics, ‘Bus Stop’ (The Hollies) and ‘No Milk Today’ with his dad Hyme (the Rhyme) helping out on lyrics.

You want more? From my modest trolling, it seems you’re not missing any life-changers. But if you must: “For Your Love“, “Heart Full of Soul” and “Evil Hearted You” for the Yardbirds, “Listen People“,  and “East West” for Herman’s Hermits, “Pamela, Pamela” for Wayne Fontana, “Behind the Door” for St. Louis Union (covered by Cher), “Tallyman” for Jeff Beck and “Going Home“, which was a 1967 Australian hit for Normie Rowe.

He's not in love

He’s not in love

Gouldman then moved to the US to write for the bubblegum factory of Kasenetz-Katz before returning to Manchester to join up with old pal Eric Stewart, who’d been playing with Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders (of ‘The Game of Love’). Wayne went off to bend his own mind, Eric began fronting the band, singing lead on ‘Groovy Kind of Love’ (co-written by Carole Bayer Sager, who co-wrote ‘Arthur’s Theme’ and ‘That’s What Friends are For’ with ex-husband Burt Bacharach), later covered by Phil Collins. Are you following?

She's not in love

She’s not in love

10cc was formed in 1972, and in the UK had a bunch ‘Art Rock’ hits including ‘Rubber Bullets’, ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, and ‘The Things We Do For Love’, the only one (other than our SoTW) to make an impression in the US.  They’ve broken up and disbanded innumerable times, never reclaiming their original success.

I’ve been diligently doing my homework, listening to notables such as ‘Donna’, ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ (doo-wop parodies, sounding so much like outtakes from Frank Zappa’s “Reuben and the Jets”-era noodlings). They’re brilliant and clever and embarrassing. ‘Neanderthal Man’ must be the stupidest song since Nilsson’s lamentable ‘Coconut’.

You know how for Americans, sometimes “England” connotes Bentleys and Shakespeare and Emma Thompson? And sometimes it connotes Benny Hill and fried fish and fried potatoes wrapped in a scandal sheet headlining Profumo’s orgies?

obama-checks-out-girl

They're not in love

They’re not in love

But then for their third album, Gouldman and Stewart penned ‘I’m Not in Love’. They tried it as a bossa nova, but no one liked the result. But everyone kept humming the song, so they decided to give it another try.

They decided to make the background a net of a cappella. Three of them recorded the 12 notes in a chromatic scale one at a time—breathy, long ‘ah’s. Then they looped them till they had the equivalent of 256 voices singing each note—just a long ‘ah’.  The multitracking produced a hissy, breathy sound that gave the sound of a live hall, let’s say a cathedral, with people breathing and vaulted ceilings and all. No Benny Hill there.

090603-women-flirt-02

They’re not in love

They assigned each of the notes to a channel in their 16-track mixing board, thus occupying 12 channels, leaving four for the rest of the recording. They would manually jack up the sound on three or four faders in one fell swoop, creating a chord from the tapestry of voices that gives the track its unique thrilling, enthralling sound. Then another chord, and another. Then pasting them all together to form the backing track.

Then adding the embellishments. Such as playing a section back at half speed, creating the same chord sequence an octave lower, and adding it underneath the source. Then playing along with the backing track, adding a Fender Rhodes, electric guitar, and Moog-made bass. No drums. Then bringing in Kathy, the studio secretary, to whisper “Be quiet – big boys don’t cry”, and fiddling all sorts of effects onto that. Then adding the toy music box with lots of psychedelic effects under that.

He's not in love

He’s not in love

The result? Forty years of air play. They musta did something right. The sound. The melody. The vocal (Eric). And there’s also a song there.

‘I’m Not in Love’ tells a singular story. It’s not profound or innovative – unless you’re experiencing it, which apparently a few trillion people have done. The lyric employs irony, as we used to say in lit class. The guy says one thing but means another. But it’s so thinly disguised and clearly vulnerable that we empathize – and identify – with our lovelorn narrator.

I’m not in love, so don’t forget it, it’s just a silly phase I’m going through.
And just because I call you up, don’t get me wrong, don’t think you’ve got it made.
I’m not in love, no no, it’s because…

I like to see you, but then again that doesn’t mean you mean that much to me.
So if I call you, don’t make a fuss, don’t tell your friends about the two of us.
I’m not in love, no no, it’s because…

I keep your picture up on the wall, it hides a nasty stain that’s lying there.
So don’t you ask me to give it back, I know you know it doesn’t mean that much to me.
I’m not in love, no no, it’s because…

Ooh, you’ll wait a long time for me

She's not in love

She’s not in love

Yes, he has strong feelings. But because of whatever convention, he needs to hide them. In days of yore, that might have been manly Marlboro machismo — he’s just too rugged to expose his vulnerability. In 1975, he’s admitting his weakness, with that good old British irony and understatement that we Amirkins love so much. It was 10cc’s only Stateside hit.

There’ve been a number of significant or noteworthy covers. Our old buddy Richie Havens, the toothless, soulful guy who opened Woodstock despite the rain, did a very convincing, muscular version. Dee Dee Sharp (of ‘Mashed Potato Time’ fame) gave us a 1975 woman’s perspective on it, more disco than deliberation. Will to Power had a 1990 hit with a vapid attempt to clone the original, emphasizing the exceptional staying power of the song itself.

They ARE in love

They ARE in love

But by the time Chrissie Hynde sang it with The Pretenders in 1993 for the soundtrack of “Indecent Proposal”, the song took on a different perspective: the new, empowered woman, the sexual predator, role-flipping things over on their stomach. It’s a whole new world, Virginia.

Tori Amos, that very talented, very annoying, very predatory lady, worked her weirdness on it in 2001 – Neanderthal woman on the prowl. And Ice Princess Diana Krall recently bleached it of any real feeling other than self-absorption.

Me, I’m a guy, raised on the Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore role model of mores and attitudes and self-image. But I’m modern enough to identify with male vulnerability in all walks of life. To be touched by 10cc’s portrayal of that self-effacing, insecure feeling of helplessness when faced with an emotional situation of daunting height. And to appreciate and enjoy the artistry of four talented musicians at play in the studio.

It’s a pop masterpiece, a singular, precious moment on AM radio, a soundtrack for certain magic moments in millions of people’s lives. Forty years worth. ‘I’m Not in Love’? Oh, but he is.

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230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’ (“Pet Sounds” Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14)

Posted by jeff on Jan 22, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beach Boys — ‘Here Today’

CVpqcGYWsAAOe5GI’ve been perfecting my procrastination skills since I was bar mitzvahed. Well, even before—how well I remember avoiding practicing reading the torah portion before I pedaled off to meet the rabbi.

I’ve been listening to “Pet Sounds” regularly for 45 years now, and I’ve successfully put off writing about it. Because it’s too damned daunting. Because my respect for the album is so great that I know I don’t have a snowball’s chance in heck of doing it justice.

Brian+Wilson+Pet+Sounds+Era+BrianBut if Mom shouted long enough and loud enough and persistently enough, I would finally pick up at least a couple of layers of dirty underwear from my floor. And so, I guess, the day of reckoning has arrived.

There are two kinds of people in the world – those who get “Pet Sounds” and those who don’t. If you’re one of those who say: “Oh, right, The Beach Boys. “Fun, Fun, Fun”. The stupid acned, hackneyed lyrics. The strident nasal vocals. Those painful striped shirts.”– I can only say, yeah, you’re right. (Except have you ever taken half a dozen fine singers and tried to sing “Fun, Fun, Fun”? Good luck.)

But if you’re one of those, you’re missing the transcendental melodies, the stunning internal harmonies, the genius of the orchestration, the utter beauty of the composition. You’re depriving yourself of what I think is – in strictly musical terms – the pinnacle of post-WWII popular music.

Brian-Wilson+Paul-McCartneyI call the first witness, Sir Paul McCartney: “I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.” (Paul’s extensive commentary on “Pet Sounds”)

I call the second witness, Sir George Martin: “Without ‘Pet Sounds,’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ never would have happened. ‘Pepper’ was an attempt to equal ‘Pet Sounds.'” (I highly recommend this clip of George and Brian listening together to the master recording of ‘God Only Knows’.)

I call the third witness, Brian Wilson himself: “After the Beatles heard Pet Sounds, they wanted to make a greater album, so they did Shargen Peppersh Lowly Harsh Cluband. And it was a very, very, very great album. Right up there with Pet Sounds, And it was, like, really good.”

brianinstudioIn case you just moved to earth from Planet 9: 1964 – in the plane setting out on yet another Beach Boys tour, 22-year old band leader Brian Wilson has a panic attack. He sends his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike, buddy Al, and replacement Bruce out on the road without him. “I’m going to stay in the studio and work, and when you guys get back, I’ll have lots of new material.” But unbeknownst to them, he called in The Wrecking Crew, LA’s premiere studio musicians to record the tracks (whom he’d met when observing Phil Spector sessions). The boys added the vocals upon their return.

1crew0916

The Wrecking Crew recording Pet Sounds, Carol Kaye seated foreground.

Rid of his abusive father and transported into other spheres by LSD, Brian felt liberated enough from the pressures of The Hit Machine to make his album. It was The Beach Boys’ first commercial failure.

I’ve watched films about The Wrecking Crew and The Making of Pet Sounds and The Art of Pet Sounds, listened to podcasts and read books and endless on-line accounts and analyses. I don’t remember a tenth of it, so I’m not going to try to write the definitive summary of all that is “Pet Sounds”. If you’re not already, I fervently hope you’ll be affected and infected enough to pursue it on your own.

20582.007If I have anything to contribute to the corpus of adulation, it’s from my subjective experiences from the literally thousands of times I’ve listened to the album. ‘My’ “Pet Sounds” consists of 10 of the 13 songs. I’ve always felt that ‘Sloop John B’ is an unfortunate implant, and that the instrumentals ‘Let’s Go Away for a While’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ don’t carry their weight. ‘Good Vibrations’, the original work for which was done during the “Pet Sounds” recordings, was wisely reserved for the next project (“Smile”).

(UK OUT) LOS ANGELES - 1966: Music producer Phil Spector with "Beach Boys" Brian Wilson (on left), Mike Love (in hat), and "Righteous Brother" Bobby Hatfield (right) in 1965 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ray Avery/Getty Images)

Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Righteous Brother Bobby

Every one of these ten cuts is a world of beauty unto itself, to be relished and cherished and touched by. They are collectively as beautiful as music can be.

The heartwrenching slow pieces: ‘You Still Believe In Me’, ‘Don’t Talk’, ‘Caroline, No’.

The mid-tempo cuts, masterpieces each: ‘God Only Knows’, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’.

The upbeat works: ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘That’s Not Me’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Day’, and our SoTW, ‘Here Today’.

brian-wilsonA few basic facts before we start – “Pet Sounds” was originally released in mono. In 1997 it was remixed for stereo under Brian’s supervision. Since then, there have been several rerereremasters and rerererereleases. Purists will go for the original, muddy mono. I go for the newer stereo remastered version – it lets me crawl inside the music, hear as many as possible of the bass harmonicas, ukuleles, bicycle horns, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, Coke cans, accordions, modified twelve-string mandolins, and water jugs.

I do feel humbled, attempting to add my few sense to this magnum opus. But a person’s got to do what a person’s got to do. So today we’re going to pick one of the masterpiece cuts—‘Here Today’, a favorite among favorites – and walk through the recording process via “The Unsurpassed Masters”, a 21-volume, ~50-CD bootleg compendium of Beach Boys studio tracks in process, 1962-67.

photo_7225_0-3I admit I haven’t listened to all the outtakes from “Beach Boys Party”. But I have listened to most of the “Pet Sounds” recordings, many of them numerous times. So here we go, 23-year old Brian, the finest studio musicians LA has to offer at his disposal, for the first time in his life in complete creative control. The Beach Boys Complete Unsurpassed Masters, Volume 14 (The Alternate “Pet Sounds”, Disc 2.

Takes 1 – 3 – Engineer: “I don’t have a title, Take 1”. Organ pumping on the beat, Carol Kaye’s bass introducing a stunning melodic counterpoint to the (yet unheard) main melody line (inspiring Paul’s lead bass on “Sgt Pepper”), then joined by the low drum ornament and the low brass and then the higher brass providing yet another counterpoint.

Takes 4 – 6 – Brian coaches the harpsichord(?) on the nuance he’s seeking.

Take 7, Takes 8 – 10 – We know what the full track will sound like, so we can hear the ghost interplay between the heard backing track being compiled and polished, and the unheard future vocals.

1965-brianwilsonInsert Takes 1 – 4, 11 – 20 – Fine-tuning and tightening the glorious C-part, the instrumental break after the second chorus. Listen to Brian’s perfectionism, explaining to the musicians so precisely the sounds he’s looking for. I can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s saying that the actual filming was just technical work and rather boring—the creative process had occurred at home at his desk. Bruce Johnston has said “this is the break that Brian told me was influenced by Bach – and if you’ve heard any Bach at all, you’ll know what he’s talking about.”

1st Vocal Overdub (Brian solo), 2nd Vocal Overdub (Brian double-tracked) – Brian singing a guide track for cousin Mike for the lead vocal.

1st Vocal Overdub by the band Mike (“Don’t fuck with the formula”) Love’s initial attempts at singing the lead, mostly solo, backing vocals in the background.

2nd Vocal Overdub by the band Mike double-tracked, with prominent backing vocals, The Beach Boys at their Four Freshman/Hi-Lo’s best. Worth the price of admission.

MTMwNjgzODIwNTg3MzYyOTQ3Brian, 1990: ‘Here Today’ was a work of art in my opinion. It was assertive track with utilization of basses played up higher. The trombones gave it that masculine touch…”
Brian, 1996: “‘Here Today’ was probably one of the mystery songs on the album. I don’t really know what it’s about. I liked it, but yet I didn’t. I don’t really identify with that song like I do with ‘You Still Believe In Me’, or ‘Caroline, No.’ It was just one of those songs in there, one little song.”

I get what Brian’s saying. ‘Here Today’ isn’t the most emotionally affective cut on ‘Pet Sounds’. But it is indeed unsurpassed in terms of technical brilliance. In each of the 10 cuts, Brian creates a complete sonic universe of unique beauty.

William Butler Yeats wrote in ‘Long-Legged Fly’:

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

‘Quiet! Genius at work’ was never more applicable than here. Brian’s life after Pet Sounds was marred and scarred by drugs, emotional fragility and manipulative sycophants. In these tapes we can witness the process of Brian ‘reclining on the scaffolding’ in the Los Angeles studio. But still, it all remains ultimately a mystery. God only knows how genius creates such beauty.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’ (including her lovely cover of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’)

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

118: Brian Wilson, ‘Surf’s Up’ (“SMiLE”)

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

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229: The Beatles: ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ (“Rubber Soul” at 50)

Posted by jeff on Jan 8, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

720x405-rexfeatures_11258bAs far as I can remember (a dubious premise at best), I had no inkling on December 6, 1965 that “Rubber Soul” was being released in the US. Perhaps I’d heard that it had been released in the UK three days earlier, I don’t really remember. I do remember scouring the racks of the record store frequently, lest I miss such an auspicious event. But by early January it had reached #1, where it stayed for six weeks, prompting me to write a review for my high school newspaper. (You can see the original at the bottom here, if you must.)

Untitled-3

Proto-Rock Journalist

I had forgotten that I was writing record reviews even before college, but an old friend sent me a hard copy of Bulldog Barks with my byline, so I guess it’s undeniable.

It’s a bit spooky to peek into the mind of one’s self at the age of 17 (if one can be said to have a mind at that age). But despite the occasional lapse into teenie-prose, I’m quite proud of the review. The observations are spot-on, really quite perspicacious (I’ve been waiting since a 10th grade vocabulary quiz to use that word!), especially considering the vacuum that was ‘rock journalism’ in 1965. The first edition of Rolling Stone magazine wouldn’t appear for a full two years.

So it’s me, a 17-year old music geek in Cincinnati, trying to figure out all alone just what was going on. But I did understand even back then – without the benefits of hindsight of seeing the seminal impact “Rubber Soul” would have on popular music, without any external resources other than what I could read on the record label and what I could deduce from thousands of listenings to the disc – that this album was something wholly other:

  • Artistically ambitious (an innovation for a pop album)
    If you need a hint of just how unique that was on the market of the time, the best-selling LPs of 1965 were (in order) ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, and ‘Goldfinger’.
  • No hit records to drive sales
  • All original compositions
  • Instrumental experimentation (sitar, Hammond, fuzz bass, harmonium, lead piano)
  • Slower tempi (five down-beat songs, versus two on the previous album, “Help”).

People could (and probably have) written doctoral dissertations on each of those seismic events whose portent I am quite proud to have spotted.

rubber-soul21I even spoke of the ‘folksy kind of sound’ of ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’. That was the one element I failed to plumb fully. Today I’d note that John plays an acoustic rhythm guitar on most of the cuts, with an immeasurable impact on the sound of “Rubber Soul” and on the music which would be profoundly influenced by it (i.e., everything).

‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ was recorded in June 1965, released on the UK “Help” (August 1965), but yanked from the US version of the album. It was contemporaneous with The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (June 1965), ‘The Eve of Destruction’ (September 1965) and ‘The Sounds of Silence’ (January 1966). If we had to pick a “first” folk-rock song, perhaps it would be ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ (February 1965). If ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ wasn’t the Grand Opening of folk-rock, it was at very least the harbinger of acoustic rock.

Packaging Rubber Soul

Packaging Rubber Soul

That ‘folksy’ sound is also umbilically tied to country music, which was in 1965 as far from mainstream rock as Mason was from Dixon. But George Harrison and his buddies listened to Carl Perkins almost as much as they listened to Chuck Berry. It just took a couple of years for those influences to insinuate themselves into the Beatles’ music. It started with ‘Act Naturally’ (June, 1965), which was perceived at the time (okay, by me) as a novelty one-off’er. But then came their original treatment of the same fingerpicking sound in ‘What Goes On’. And then came the giant step, that quantum shift we call ‘creative genius’, with ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’.

rubber-soul-sessionsIt’s got hillbilly all over it, from Ringo’s ra-ta-ta-tum brushes and John’s acoustic core, more pronounced in the Nashville harmony (Paul on top of Paul) of the refrain (“Falling, yes I am falling…”), complete with George’s Nashville Cat-informed acoustic lead guitar.

One intriguing conundrum of which I was unaware at the time was the variant UK and US versions of “Rubber Soul”, on which mountains of verbiage have been written. I’d like to toss my 2₵ on the pile of the ‘Which is Better?’ compost.

No question – the US version is much more organic stylistically than its British cousin. British LPs usually had 14 cuts, American ones only 12 (perhaps out of fear of fidelity loss due to “groove-cramming”. It wouldn’t be until “Sgt Pepper” that The Beatles would have enough artistic control over the packaging of their music to ensure that the same version of the album would be released on both sides of the pond. Here are the two versions – only UK in red, only US in green.

UK US
1.            Drive My Car

2.            Norwegian

3.            You Won’t See Me

4.            Nowhere Man

5.            Think for Yourself

6.            The Word

7.            Michelle

1.            I’ve Just Seen a Face 

2.            Norwegian Wood

3.            You Won’t See Me

4.            Think for Yourself

5.            The Word

6.            Michelle

 

1.            What Goes On

2.            Girl

3.            I’m Looking Through You

4.            In My Life

5.            Wait

6.            If I Needed Someone

7.            Run for Your Life

1.            It’s Only Love

2.            Girl

3.            I’m Looking Through You

4.            In My Life

5.            Wait

6.            Run for Your Life

 

It seems to me that the Capitol Suits bested EMI Suits no less than they did in 1776 and 1812. ‘Drive My Car’ is a fine, quirky, biting rocker. But releasing it as a single (in the US) was a much wiser, aesthetically satisfying decision than using it to open The Beatles’ first album conceived as a coherent whole (George Martin: “Up till then we had been making albums rather like a collection of singles. Now we were really beginning to think about albums as a bit of art on their own, as entities of their own. And “Rubber Soul” was the first to emerge that way.”)

“Rubber Soul” was strongly influenced by Dylan, both by the weed he had introduced the boys to as well as the seriousness with which he related to his music. (Here’s a piece I wrote about the Dylan/Beatles symbiosis.) Seriousness means introspection. Introspection means acoustic. “Rubber Soul” is an acoustic album. ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ is a fitting (and wonderful) clarion call. ‘Dri

Originial undistorted album cover photo

Originial undistorted album cover photo

ve My Car’ is misplaced. Quod erat demonstrandum.

But if we’re already here, let’s beat the horse a bit. ‘Nowhere Man’ has always been a non-favorite of mine, even a bit of an embarrassment. ‘What Goes On’ is interesting only as part of the process, but is a clearly inferior cut. ‘If I Needed Someone’ is the only reject I regret. But we got in its stead ‘It’s Only Love’. John inexplicably said of it “That’s the one song I really hate of mine. Terrible lyric.” I’ve always been very fond of it.

I wonder how many times I’ve listened to “Rubber Soul”. Five hundred? A thousand? Five thousand? Impossible for me to quantify that. I can certainly quality-fy it, though. There’s not a piece of music in this universe that’s dearer to me. ‘Norwegian Wood’ was a formative moment for my entire generation. As was its companion piece, ‘Girl’. Is there any song more fun than ‘You Won’t See Me’? How indelibly ingrained in my brain is the false start of ‘I’m Looking Through You’, as it appeared in the initial US pressings? Where would we be without the compass of ‘In My Life’? How different would our world have been without “Rubber Soul”?

We are who we are, to a significant degree, due to that record.

helpJust picture it – half a million children of the Woodstock generation on half a million little desert islands, each one clutching to his/her breast his own personal, worn, beloved copy of “Rubber Soul”.  In a sense, I think that does accurately describe the world we live in.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’

128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’

RS-Jeff

 

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