Saturday, February 1, 2014

Retro Album Review #1

Partly inspired by a suggestion of frequent commentator Rickard, I am going to start a new series called "Retro Album Reviews" based on the notion that it should be just as interesting, if not more so, to write a review of an old album as a new one. In reviewing new albums, there is always the possibility of an agenda in the mass market reviews: is the positive review being paid for in some way?

Rickard was suggesting that I talk about some good pop music, which got me thinking. So I am going to start by reviewing a pop album, but I won't restrict myself to those. There are some great retro classical albums out there too. By "retro" I just mean an album has been around for a while, years or decades.

So to start, I am going to review a pair of albums that are quite historically significant. I call them a pair of albums because according to one of the participants, they are really one big album that came in two parts. The two albums are Rubber Soul and Revolver. Rubber Soul was released on Dec. 3, 1965 which makes it just over 49 years old! Good grief, has it been that long! Actually, this album just precedes my musical consciousness which only came along a couple of years later.

This was the sixth studio album by the Beatles and the first one that they actually had uninterrupted time in the studio to work on. It took a couple of weeks to record and a couple more to mix and you can compare that to their first album that was recorded in one day, over ten hours. These sessions were not broken up by other commitments to touring or film so in a sense it was the first big opportunity to see what they could do, creatively, in the studio.

But first, let's look at that cover. Notice anything? The name of the group does not appear. In a very interesting reaction to "Beatlemania", the phenomenon where people just seemed to go nuts around them, the Beatles more and more distanced themselves, well, from themselves. The name The Beatles doesn't appear on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's or Magical Mystery Tour either. In fact, on that last album, neither do their faces as they are all wearing masks. This reached its maximum with The White Album that has no cover art at all, except for "The Beatles", embossed on the paper. On the original release, you could see the name if you held it at an angle to the light. Subsequent reissues have put the name in light grey, which is too bad.

One of the many, many remarkable things about this album is that it is not only a tremendous creative success, it was also a huge popular success: it pushed the Sound of Music soundtrack off the top of the charts! In today's pop world we just assume that the more creative and original the music is, the fewer copies it will sell. I'm not sure this is entirely true as artists like Gotye and Lady Gaga manage to be creative and original and still sell pretty well, but the general trend is clear: if you want to sell a lot of albums, do what everyone else is doing, but shake your booty a bit more.

But the Beatles were and are a major contradiction to this narrative. They were the most creative pop group of their time, enormously more creative than their peers, but they were also the biggest selling pop group and not only of their time, but of all time. Their only close rival is Elvis Presley.

Ok, let's look at the music. The first song, side one (yes, vinyl records have two sides which affected the way the Beatles organized the songs) is McCartney's "Drive My Car". You will notice me referring to songs as being by McCartney or Lennon when they are both credited with all the songs except for those by Harrison. Yes, John and Paul wrote a lot of songs together, especially in the early years, but by this time each song tended very much to be the product of one or the other of them. John would never have written "Michelle" and Paul would never have written "Nowhere Man".

Oh, just a note: I'm talking about the UK release, the original release in the US had somewhat different songs in a different order. This first one doesn't even appear on the US release. Since the re-release of all these albums in the late 1980s, the UK version has prevailed. "Drive My Car" is one of Paul's rocking soul numbers obviously influenced by American soul music. But I want to just point out what is interesting and original here. First of all, Paul is playing a new Rickenbacker bass and the agility and prominence of the bass lines is a big part of the sound. People forget what an incredible bassist Paul is because of all his other talents. Oh, and the bass line is doubled in the guitar an octave above, which you might not notice at first. The vocal parts are rich: the verse is harmonized in bare fifths and occasional tritones while the chorus is in thirds and the occasional tritone. This sounds a bit acerbic to us because we don't hear this kind of vocal harmony much these days. Listen to the percussion: as always, Ringo (and the boys) seem to reinvent drumming with every song. In this one, notice how the sound of cow bell and tambourine dominates. There is something interesting in every bar. Notice the triplet chords in piano that answer the line "Baby, you can drive my car".

Some interesting things about the lyrics. While the Beatles started out with the usual romantic lyrics, with every song they tried to find a new angle on them. In this song, the character speaking most of the time is a woman who is going to be a famous movie star. Lennon's contribution to the song was mostly in improving the lyrics. "Drive my car" was an old blues euphemism for sex. Paul has described this song as Zsa Zsa Gabor talking to her boy toy.

I see that I have already written a whole post and I'm still on the first song of side one!

Let me just pick one other contrasting song (what am I saying, all the songs are contrasting!) before I close. Paul was the one who talked about different characters in his songs while John's songs tended to be more self-exploratory. "Nowhere Man", the fourth song on side one, ironically came out of the frustration of trying to write a song. In an interview John related that "I'd spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good and I finally gave up and lay down. Then "Nowhere Man" came, words and music, the whole damn thing, as I lay down."

So, it's a really good song about not being able to write a good song. This might be the first pop song about existential angst; it is certainly the first Beatles song that has nothing to do with romantic love. There are some interesting cross-currents going on. You might expect the song to be dreary, but it's not. The bass is rather jaunty with a lot of syncopation and passing tones. The melody, while buried in the other two vocal lines (Paul above, George below) is pretty directional. Incidentally, you hear some "la, la las" in the background of the chorus. They might have used this same musical device in a love song (and did), but here it is just a texture. From the 48' mark to just after the one minute mark is a doubled guitar solo with George and John playing twin Stratocasters with maxed-out treble. And I do mean maxed out, when the engineer said that the treble pot was at max they said "well, put it through the faders again". Plus, if you pick the strings right at the bridge, you get more treble. The double solo ends with a high E harmonic. In this song Ringo is actually playing a backbeat, but not rigidly and not all the time.

Now go back and listen to "Drive My Car" again. See how the texture and palette is completely different? Starting with this album the Beatles in effect orchestrated each song in the studio. Every resource available was used and when they ran out they invented new ones. Every song took a unique approach.


Mark White said...

Northern Transmissions covers new music on a daily basis. It has a staff of roughly eight writers who all have a passion for various types of independent music. The site prides itself on being fiercely independent and honest in its coverage of albums. Album Reviews

Bryan Townsend said...

I love it when a company tries to use my comment section to advertise their product. It is so, uh, sensitive to the nature of this particular site. Now these "roughly" eight writers (and I have to ask, does that mean 7.9 writers, or that the writers are themselves rather rough?) who have a passion for various types of independent music, is this passion mediated by any sort of actual musical knowledge? And I'm so delighted to hear that they are not only independent, like the music, but "fiercely" independent. I just hope their prose doesn't suffer too much from all this rough fierceness.

Investigating their website ( it seems as if their roughly eight writers consist of one Charles Brownstein. Here is some of this deathless writing on music:

"Remember back in 2005-2007 when any indie band that so much as glanced at a synth or wore colourful clothes were instantly bequeathed the tag of ‘nu-rave’? Pull Tiger Tail were one of those acts lumped into this hodge podge genre that turned out to have the longevity akin to one of Kim Jong Un’s uncles. Rather appropriately PTT used to share a house with the godfathers of nu-rave, Klaxons. PTT’s lifespan was short and quickly dissolved after tangles with management and their record label. Out of the embers of their former outfit, Marcus Pepperell and John Harrison formed Thumpers and with it any nu-rave preconceptions have been brushed off for a quirky pop sound that makes up the spine of their debut LP Galore."

Somehow, that does not make me want to seek out the source of so much breathless and maladroit prose.