It Was 40 Years Ago Today…

by Russell Fox

…well, not exactly 40 years ago today. But it was 40 years ago, in 1965, that the world of pop music changed–you might say, turned a corner, or came into its own.

Sometime last week, I popped The Beatles’ Rubber Soul into the CD player at the office. How many times have I listened to that record? Twenty, fifty, a hundred? Anyway, it was in the background: "Drive My Car," then "Norwegian Wood." And then "You Won’t See Me"–just another Beatles love song, one that has never, to my knowledge, received much analysis or praise. Yet, somehow, it commanded my attention, right from the opening lines:

When I call, you up
Your line’s engaged
I have had, enough
So act your age

And I thought: what a perfectly wonderful lyric. What a perfectly wonderful melody. What a perfectly wonderful little song. And that’s really the whole story of pop music, isn’t it? The catch, the hook, the chord change and turn of phrase, that somehow makes the whole thing a work of art–disposable art, perhaps, something profoundly synthetic, repeatable, contained. But art nonetheless.

I sometimes play around with friends about what "pop music" means. If it has any meaning besides that which record companies want to give it for marketing purposes (and maybe it doesn’t), then that meaning probably resides in the idea that there are certain artistic conventions that are "popular"–not in the sense of necessarily appealing to the whole population (because what could ever do that?), but in the sense of being accessible to mass dissemination and consumption. Big, sprawling, demanding works of music and art, ones that depend upon innumerable circumstances and variables, can’t ever be "popular" in this sense, though certainly some can have a lot more fans and attract a lot more attention that others. (Think opera, for example: there’s no opera that can or ever could be described as "pop music," though clearly La Bohème is a lot more popular than, say, Elektra.) Real pop music only emerged when there was developed the sort of technology (both human and mechanical) for musicians and other artists to produce work that could be performed and reproduced in a reliable way. That doesn’t mean pop music was a completely modern phenomenon; you could, perhaps, argue that a lot of chamber music was "pop music," particularly in the hands of a master like Mozart (think of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or other such pieces: Mozart, in writing such music, didn’t really innovate, but simply wrote the same way everybody else was writing…only he did it, within those limited conventions, better than anybody else at the time could). But broadly speaking, it was only with the 20th century–after Gilbert and Sullivan, after the rise of Tin Pan Alley, with the radio revolution–that we really began to see "pop music" as a separate musical form. The four-minute song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus…), the back-up band, the singer and songwriter: all settled into a well-established groove, and its easy dominance shaped (to the fury of many musicologists and preservationists ever since) much of whatever country, bluegrass, blues and folk music managed to make it into the recording studio in the decades which followed. (Classical music went its own way, while jazz, for a while at least, managed to be an occasional exception.) The majority of the music made by both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley shared a similar "pop" architecture, however radically different their sounds.

And then…The Beatles. I like how Colby Cosh put it in this column a while back:

There are a lot of things people haven’t quite absorbed about the Beatles. I remember being dumbstruck by a passage in Ian Macdonald’s Revolution in the Head, which, incidentally, has no credible rival as the best book ever written about rock music. Macdonald paints us a scene of the Beatles’ earliest days as celebrities, after they’d just migrated to London. We meet two promising young performers whose blues-influenced band has just been signed to a contract: a Mr. Mick Jagger and a Mr. Keith Richards. They’ve swung by the studio to exchange pleasantries and watch the northern quartet at work. They watch as McCartney and Lennon, equipped with a chorus and a verse they’ve worked on earlier, try to stitch things together with a middle eight, messing around on a piano. In maybe fifteen minutes of banter and tinkling, they’ve knitted a few chords into a future hit. This is all completely foreign to Mick and Keef, and as they watch, the penny drops. They realize that a person who can play an instrument can write a song. There’s no magic to it–no massive leather-bound manual locked in a Brill Building safe that tells you how to do it. It hadn’t occurred to them that there could be such an animal as a rock-and-roll group that wrote its own songs.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as all that. Lots of innovations were always rippling through the pop music ocean; there was always tension and critical standards and expectations being overturned. Even in terms of rock-and-roll, this story is incomplete; as Colby notes, MacDonald forgets that Buddy Holly was breaking all the rules that the Beatles broke back when they were still all individually listening to skiffle music. But still, there it is–sometime in the middle of the 1960s, the whole pop music world was re-oriented, pop music became the province of those who were themselves caught up in extant musical currents, rather than those who were standing somewhere to the side of it; pop music was released from its "industrialized vial," in Colby’s words.

When was the big moment? Why not make it 1965? In 1965 the Beatles kicked off their U.S. tour playing Shea Stadium, the biggest (and loudest) rock concert ever up until that point, a concert that the Beatles later looked back on as a turning point: when it was all over, they retreated to the studio, never to tour again (though Paul wanted to). In 1965 they released Help!, the last Beatles album to feature a song they didn’t write themselves, with a couple of sublime Lennon/McCartney gems hinting at what was to come: "Ticket to Ride," and "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away." And then of course in 1965 they released Rubber Soul, with–besides what I’ve already mentioned–"Nowhere Man," "Drive My Car," "Michelle," and "In My Life." After that year, perhaps, one could really say that the Beatles had changed the world. Certainly they’d changed almost everything about what was taken to be accepted about pop music–about the relation between singer and songwriter, about the role of the studio and recording technology, about what an "authentic" performance consists of, about what you can get away with on the radio–and changed it for good. They didn’t write and record the most important or powerful pop music of the 1960s, but they did write and record just about all the best pop songs, and that’s enough.

Once, after VH1 or somebody had come out with another one of their ridiculous "Top 100 albums of All Time" lists, I got into one of those predictable arguments with some friends, about what Beatles albums should go where. I ended up suggesting that every such top 100 list should simply leave about five of the top ten slots open, with the words "insert the post-1964 Beatles’ album of your choice here." That would just about do it. They may not be your favorite, you may not care for any of their songs, but you’ve been influenced by them nonetheless. I doubt anyone who has listened to or made any pop music anywhere in Europe or America (or elsewhere!) anytime in the last 40 years can plausibly claim otherwise.

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23 thoughts on “It Was 40 Years Ago Today…

  1. You think that “Magical Mystery Tour” could be inserted in the top 5 of a top 100 list?

    I agree that Rubber Soul is the turning point. Before the advent of MP3, I was very pleased that I could put Rubber Soul and Revolver on the same CD and listen to it in my car.

  2. aRJ, I’d argue for Magical Mystery Tour — spotty in parts, but with fantastic highs (Strawberry Fields! Fool on the Hill! All You Need Is Love!).

  3. Love the Beatles. I had all the albums, and all the CDs, and I’m hoping for a group of better-mastered CDs. I was 6 in 1964 when they played the Ed Sullivan show, and I’ve loved them ever since.

  4. I think 1965 is a good pick, but not just for Rubber Soul. That was the year Dylan went electric, his “Like a Rolling Stone” hit the airwaves, and the Stones gave us “Satisfaction.”

    Maybe the Beatles changed the world, but Dylan at least deserves credit for changing the Beatles.

  5. Bah. I say pop music changed forever with the Johnny Burnette Trio. “The Train Kept-A-Rollin'”

    The early Beatles owes tons to Rockabilly. It’s unfortunate that most people just don’t know what was going on pre-1964. (Not that anyone here falls into that category – just in general)

  6. >I think 1965 is a good pick, but not just
    >for Rubber Soul. That was the year Dylan
    >went electric, his “Like a Rolling Stone”
    >hit the airwaves, and the Stones gave
    >us “Satisfaction.”

    Yeah, maybe you could say that what the Beatles (and Dylan, and the Stones, and Brian Wilson, and many others) were all about truly came together, in terms of pop music, in 1965. It wasn’t a single band effort; there were many threads in the tapestry. But the Beatles were, probably, the biggest thread of all.

  7. “The early Beatles owes tons to rockabilly.”

    Well, sure Clark; I don’t deny that. But note that Buddy Holly’s records never listed him as the writer of his own songs, which he was. For any number of reasons, Holly and the Crickets just weren’t able–weren’t allowed–to follow through on all the changes in their and our thinking about music which their songs reflected. But the Beatles were.

  8. Apples and oranges, Clark. Elvis helped a jump-start a cultural (racial, social) revolution in the music world. The Beatles put into effect a musical revolution. You can’t write a cultural history of the U.S. or Europe without talking about Elvis, but you can without mentioning the Beatles (or if you do, they’re just one of many, many bands). On the other hand, you can’t write a history of pop music–and thus, our whole contemporary aesthetic–without talking about the Beatles; you can, however, without mentioning Elvis.

  9. Elvis and the like uprooted the new generation from the previous culture. The Beatles led the way the new generation would go. I think we feel ourselves to be in the wake of the Beatles more than any other single band or performer.

    The Beatles went farther with their musical innovations than Dylan or the Stones. Dylan, of course, is an incredible message man–his gift being manifest more in his word-smithing than music.

  10. Disagree Russell. Any attempt write a history of pop music that doesn’t include Elvis is extremely problematic. On so many levels. If only for stage presence/sexuality for which Elvis started the movement that others like Jim Morrison and current Rap Stars make use of. But even as the man who brought Blues and other Black music to the masses of the 1950’s that is a huge important movement. Call it social rather than music if you want. But it was extremely important. It’s akin to saying Gershwin wasn’t important because Jazz was being done before him. Elvis also really jump started the whole multimedia aspect of music that was there prior with musicals but was intertwined far further with him. The Beatles made use of this of course. (Let’s be honest, most of the Beatles movies were inspired by Elvis movies) It all set the stage for some of the drawn out multimedia affairs of the 70’s and then finally the rise of MTV in the 80’s.

  11. I don’t know all that much about pop music history. The Beatles are a band I never listen to because most of their stuff I already know so well just from hearing it on the radio all the time. Same with the Stones. I did get into John Lennon’s solo stuff as a teen and even like some of Yoko’s stuff.

    But I’ll always have a soft spot for the Beatles for personal reasons–my cousin sang a Beatles song at my brother’s funeral. Deep baritone voice singing a very subdued “And I Love Her.”

    Bright are the stars that shine
    Dark is the sky
    I know this love of mine
    will never die

    It was really something.

  12. It’s funny that people always argue the Beatles/Elvis arguement. Elvis was big when I was small but he never made it on the radar screen in our house. We listened to more folk music back then. Then along came the Beatles and blew the door off the record player. Opened the door for the Stones (ick), the Who, The Byrds and Dylan. It was a great time!

  13. Huh, I guess I’m an outlier. I love the Beatles, especially their middle years, and I also have a fondness for early Elvis AND the Stones (ick?). How anyone can resist “Satisfaction” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is beyond me.

  14. Allison, it’s a thing from the sixties. I was a beach girl, we were into music however divided into camps. Everyone loved the Beach Boys. No arguement there. But we had to choose between the Beatles or the Stones. You couldn’t be a fan of both. Being that the guy I had a crush on was a beatles guy, so you know how that goes… Satisfaction is one of the great songs of the day, and who can forget Paint It Black? So when I put the Ick there, it was a clue for all those divided camps from the 60s and 70s only.

  15. Steve,

    I will grant that MMT has some good singles, but it doesn’t come across as an album in the sense that others do. Nevermind the top 100 thing, would you rank it as a top 5 Beatles album? While we’re at it, where do you put Yellow Submarine in such a list?

    I just don’t see putting MMT above Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, The White Album, Abbey Road, or Let It Be when making a list of albums, but perhaps you can convince me.

  16. aRJ, you’re right of course that it’s not the Beatles’ best by a long shot. But it’s still great stuff, and maybe in a list of albums it would work. But yes, it’s some of their weakest stuff.

  17. I would agree that you could probably amend my original statement to read “insert the post-1964 Beatles album of your choice (except Magical Mystery Tour) here.” But hardly anyone–including the Beatles themselves–ever seemed to take that seriously as an album anyway, it may not really be worth the bother.

  18. A little story about “pop”. I once lent a Ron Sexsmith CD to a friend of mine and I told her that it’s pop music – I didn’t explain why, I thought it was just a well-known fact that pop is all about hooky choruses, snappy beats and memorable, sing-along lyrics all in easily digestible 3 minute chunks. Ron Sexsmith has all of that in spades.

    She listened to it and was a bit confused as to why I had suggested that it is pop music. “I’ve never even heard it on the radio – how can it be pop?” was her answer, or something like that. I gave her a bit of a crusty.

    I threw out pop as a term suggesting mass-market acceptance and availability a long time ago which is why I answered her question with a crusty. In my world pop has always been about the hook and the snappy lyric regardless of whether or not the song/album hits big in some market. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe “pop” is just a too convenient way of categorizing music I think is tuneful – and since it’s convenient I’ve gotten away from the face value of “popular music”. Perhaps I should’ve just said, “well Ron Sexsmith is really catchy.” Or R.E.M is really jangly”. Maybe I should just come up with my own terms. Any suggestions?

    What a rambling, incoherent post.

  19. Rubber Soul, and Revolver, are the two best pop albums ever, pop music defined as recordings heard on the radio. Remember, also, that Elvis didn’t write songs, and didn’t arrange them, either. He was just a singer.

  20. Magical Mystery Tour was really a greatest hits package, thrown together with a video and a lame “tour.” It doesn’t really qualify as one of the Beatles’ real albums.

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