Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Masterpiece and its Spiritual Cousins: Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds and Aftermath

Is it possible that The Shirelles best embodied the idealistic spirit of JFK's New Frontier? Perhaps. Especially with one 1960 pop song, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" that delicately captured both the assurance of the decade and its secret fears. Written by Carole King, and her first husband, Gerry Goffin, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" had an awareness that within every hope lay the possibility of failure, defeat, and maybe betrayal. The singer accepts the devotion of her lover, the light she sees in his eyes, but she's also worried about the future, when that light may refuse to shine. In this enduringly complex tune, the stakes of love get raised so high that the fear of it all falling apart weighs pretty heavy. As Bob Dylan said in 1965, right at the cusp of his greatest glory, "when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." The Shirelles had, in a certain sense, laid the ground for the romantic dream The Beatles (who would cover their songs) were about to create. But The Beatles also inherited that possibility of failure that The Shirelles saw coming. When the hopes of the New Frontier were so cruelly dashed in Dallas in 1963, The Beatles had reached into that despair, two months later, to hold our hand. But it was coming up to two years since The Beatles rekindled those hopes, and the question of whether we'd still love them tomorrow was still up for grabs.

Their electrifying early records had sought us out, demanding that we share in the pleasures those songs offered. When John Lennon said in "Please Please Me" that he'd continue pleasing us, if only we'd agree to please him, were offered a definite stake in the relationship. Each song they wrote was designed to be a two-way street, the creation of a romantic bond, which required the participation of the listener in every way. The utopianism heard in "There's a Place" was only viable when we first believed that the place actually existed. But by 1965, The Beatles were starting to grow weary and suspicious of their audience. There's a place, alright, and maybe it's now far away from you. No longer trusting the screams of adoration or enjoying the enduring isolation of hotel rooms and ducking into limos, the group began retreating into the safety of the studio.Within those walls, the sounds they began to create outclassed the sounds from the stage. The songs they wrote and covered, in the beginning, had taken the world by force, by the affection expressed in them. Now their music was more elusive, the pleasures tucked beneath the dense melodies. At this point, though, their retreat did not diminish their work. Instead, detachment took it deeper, farther into the exigencies of love and loyalty.

Over 45 years ago, The Beatles released Rubber Soul which is arguably their best album. Rubber Soul showed that The Beatles, now seeking solace from the madness of Beatlemania, were creating a new music that sought to find the more discerning listener. The songs included reached out to find those who dared step outside the din of the screaming throng. With this record, they asked us to lean forward, listen carefully, and take the doubts along with the hopes and the desires along with the fears. Rubber Soul had all the yearnings and qualms of Goffin/King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" but it didn't stop with the question of the title. Rubber Soul went much further to ask: If you don't love me tomorrow, then what? While taking over 113 hours to record, compared to the one-day they took putting together their debut Please Please Me (1963), Rubber Soul was startlingly innovative taking the R&B genre beyond its purist roots. Unlike many other white pop artists, especially the ones who merely paid reverence to the style and attitude of black blues and R&B, or channelled the essence of the form (as did Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac), The Beatles sublimated rhythm and blues into their continually expanding musical fabric. And the record would irrevocably change the direction and sound of pop music. With a densely intelligent collection of love songs, Rubber Soul confronted a variety of issues: the cost of romantic desire (“I’m Looking Through You”), the power of love to heal (“The Word”), as well as to hurt (“Girl”); contemplation (“In My Life”); and the deep despair of estrangement (“Nowhere Man”). On the record, The Beatles broadened their musical identity, too, by introducing an original interpretation of classic R&B (specifically the Memphis Stax soul sound) while resisting being defined by black music (as many other British blues bands were). The Beatles instead defined their own interpretation of American black music.

What made the record such a radical departure from their previous work was that, earlier, The Beatles had reached out to listeners with a more supple enthusiasm, dramatically grabbing you in the process. But this music was sly, subtler, even crooking its finger to inch you nearer. “This music was seduction, not assault,” critic Greil Marcus once wrote about Rubber Soul. “[T]he force was all beneath the surface.” Seduction was something of a key part of their new musical direction in late 1965. Since they first got your attention with the dynamic power of “She Loves You,” they could now introduce you to love’s transgressions in the quiet wistfulness of “Girl.” Rubber Soul demonstrated fully that The Beatles were discovering shadows within the chimerical spirit of their music. Those shadows, too, would be cast over other contemporaries who were also inspired to do their most innovative work.

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was so astounded by Rubber Soul that he decided to change the entire musical direction of his own band. Before The Beatles created mayhem in America, The Beach Boys had already established themselves as a legendary pop group from Southern California. From their first song, “Surfin’,” in 1961, The Beach Boys had initiated their own artificial paradise that quickly defined their appeal. Early on, at the height of their popularity, they portrayed in their music an adolescent life filled with the hedonistic pleasure of beaches (“Catch a Wave”), an endless summer of chasing girls (“Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around”), and new unimagined freedoms offered by access to the automobile (“Little Deuce Coupe”). Unlike The Beatles, who provided a new world vision through their music, The Beach Boys simply heightened something of a world in which they – and their audience – were already a part. They caught the sunny part of the California pop enigma with its paradoxical pleasures; or what critic Jim Miller described as “a paradise of escape into private as often as shared pleasures.”

That element of escape was in large part a reflection of Brian Wilson’s unease with the world around him. While he adeptly discovered the delight held by the pop elements in the culture surrounding him, he didn’t truly live out any of it. He wasn’t a surfer (like his brother Dennis), nor did he exude the confident swagger of the characters in some of his songs. The Beach Boys were a daydream of an adolescent life Brian Wilson never had. (They were perhaps a daydream of an adolescent life Wilson wished he’d had.) His 1962 song “In My Room” gave hints of the troubled kid within the genius, but by 1964, you could sense that Wilson was trying to break through the mythical wall he’d erected around the band. His songs started to reflect aspects of Southern California youth culture that were less assured, where he could even detect hollowness in the rituals being acted out. The Beach Boys explored all this without once sacrificing the enjoyment offered under those California palm trees. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” for instance, was not a braggart’s dream, but a contemplation on everything Wilson once held to be true. He candidly asked himself – and his audience – if the things he dug as a teenager would sustain him in adulthood. In “Don’t Worry Baby,” The Beach Boys’ finest song, he takes the freewheeling driver from “I Get Around” and situates him into the mundane concerns of adulthood. In doing so, Wilson didn’t sacrifice the joys of teenage freedom, even though the singer now recognized that the innocence in those joys has ended. So when Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul, he knew exactly where he wanted The Beach Boys’ music to go.

Pet Sounds, like Rubber Soul, set out to alter The Beach Boys’ identity while changing the audience’s relationship to the group. On this record, Wilson wanted to find ways to take the characteristics of a Beach Boys song and infuse it with thematic ambiguity and a sonic lushness. The result was almost unbearably beautiful, quite poignant, even haunting. Pet Sounds began with the gorgeous yearning of “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” which took the young stud of “Fun, Fun, Fun” and brought him to face the possibility of romantic commitment. But, from there, Pet Sounds became a densely orchestrated catalog of Brian Wilson’s doubts and insecurities. In a forsaken voice dipped in sweetness, Wilson sought reassurance in “You Still Believe in Me.” “That’s Not Me” took stock of who had become by 1965 and questioned how he got there. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” almost as achingly pretty as “Don’t Worry Baby,” looked for the kind of comfort that went beyond what words could offer. “God Only Knows” was as sublime a love song as anything on Rubber Soul. For one thing, it was rare (not to mention daring), to begin a song about devotion that opens with the singer doubting if he’ll always love the woman he’s with. “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” was as exquisite a tune about alienation as any written. (For one thing, there’s not a snide note in it.) Pet Sounds was the spiritual cousin to Rubber Soul and it would have a lasting affect on Lennon and McCartney – so much so, that they answered it in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

If Pet Sounds was the convivial companion to Rubber Soul, The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, released in April 1966, was its evil twin. Having matched The Beatles – album-for-album, single-for-single – The Stones dug in here with a quietly menacing record, the first to feature all original Jagger/Richards compositions. It’s an epic set that, in its U.K. version, ran close to an hour in length. Aftermath took the romantic skepticism of Rubber Soul and unleashed a tale of underclass revolt. The songs told tales of bohemians roaming London and flashing their contempt for anything that reeked of bourgeois contentment. You didn’t have to look too far to find their scorn. It was heard in the course put-downs of “Stupid Girl,” the sadistic cat-and-mouse games of “Under My Thumb,” the patronizing contempt expressed in “Out of Time,” and the brooding self-explanatory “Doncha Bother Me.” The dark humour erupted right off the top when The Stones turned society’s condemnation of the youth drug culture back on its accusers in “Mother’s Little Helper.” The song parodied the daily anxieties of the middle-class housewife who grows dependent on pills to get her through the day.

Despite their disdain, however, The Stones’ arrangements, as softly intricate as Brian Wilson’s on Pet Sounds, share the seductive ambiance of Rubber Soul. The hushed marimba takes the edge right off of both “Under My Thumb” and “Out of Time.” The harpsichord on the baroque “Lady Jane” lends it a lovely quaintness, as it does also on the lamenting “I Am Waiting.” The Rolling Stones didn’t abandon their blues roots on Aftermath either. With the astonishing 11-minute reverie “Goin’ Home,” Mick Jagger considers getting back to his girl and then takes his sweet time arriving there.

Just as Rubber Soul had dramatically altered the pop landscape, by introducing the record album as a conceptual art statement, Pet Sounds and Aftermath did nothing less than change the very texture of popular music.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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