Friday, December 3, 2010

Get Quiet/Get Loud: The Day ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘My Generation’ Were Released

45 years ago today was a hell of a time to have five pounds in your trouser pocket. That’s about how much it would have cost a Brit to pick up two newly released records that would have immeasurable impacts on Rock & Roll for many, many years to come. The Beatles made the next leap forward in their seemingly endless evolution with Rubber Soul, the record often cited as ground zero for the pop album as art. At the same time The Who finally detonated their long-awaited debut, My Generation, an apparent celebration of Rock & Roll as destructive, demonic anti-art. Both of those reputations are accurate and both aren’t. Although no less of an artist than Brian Wilson was so moved by Rubber Soul that he imagined himself in direct competition with the Fabs and made the supremely artful Pet Sounds as his riposte to the Rubber Soul challenge, there’s no civilizing the fuzzed out funk of “Think for Yourself” or the venomousness of “Run for Your Life” or the down-home swing of “Drive My Car”. And though the deafening squall of My Generation was infinitely influential on The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The MC5, and an entire generation of garage, freak beat, and punk bands, stuff like “The Kids are Alright” and “La-La-La Lies”—songs Roger Daltrey dismissed as too “sweet”—are as harmonious and melodic as anything by The Beatles or The Beach Boys. Pete Townshend’s declaration that his band’s onstage instrument massacring was inspired by the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger was not exactly what one expected from a purported Shepherd’s Bush thug.

Yet when we think of Rubber Soul we think of its acoustic delicacy, and when we think of My Generation, we think of its electric anarchy, and rarely do we reverse the application of those terms when discussing The Beatles and The Who. But consider where The Beatles went next. In 1966, they released their loudest, hardest, wildest single to date with “Paperback Writer”/”Rain”. That year Paul McCartney declared that the band's two biggest influences were Dylan and The Who. And could Paul have whipped off those mad, improvisatory bass lines without the direct influence of John Entwistle’s work? And would Ringo have cut loose as he does on “Rain” and “She Said She Said” without having listened to his future best-buddy Keith Moon? Famously, Paul McCartney cooked up “Helter Skelter” after reading that The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” was the loudest, most devastating Rock record ever made and being disappointed that the results did not live up to how he’d imagined the record would sound.

Typically sullen Townshend was less complimentary when discussing the competition. During an appearance on the BBC’s “A Whole Scene Going” an audience member asked him about the “quality” of his music, to which he grumbled that Rock & Roll isn’t supposed to have quality. He was then asked whether or not he thought that applied to The Beatles. After a moment of contemplation he explained that he and Entwsitle were recently listening to a stereo Beatles record (most likely Rubber Soul, which had just been released a month earlier) in which the vocals come out of one speaker and the instruments come out of another, and when one listens to The Beatles without their vocals, “they’re flippin’ lousy!” Yet, Townshend doesn’t really seem convinced of his own words, and the influence The Beatles would continue to have on The Who bears this out. Those lousy Beatles are all over The Who’s next album, A Quick One, with its massed harmonies, jangly twelve-string guitars, cleaner pop sound, and adventurousness. Would Who manager Kit Lambert and Townshend have conceived of stringing together song fragments to create a “mini-opera” if The Beatles hadn’t opened the door to such experimentation with Rubber Soul? Would they have encouraged Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle to start writing songs if The Beatles hadn’t set the standard for such democracy (albeit, limited democracy)? And after The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” introduced avant garde sound collage to Rock’s bag of tricks, The Who were free to record “Armenia City in the Sky”, and when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band made room for ambitious pop concept albums, Townshend and his gang made their pop-art pirate radio tribute The Who Sell Out.

The relationship between The Beatles and The Who ran deeper and more personal than their influences on each other’s music. Keith Moon, who’d gently mocked his scouse peers on “I Need You” from A Quick One, became fast friends with Ringo Starr and a notorious drinking buddy of Lennon during the former Beatle’s legendary “Lost Weekend” of the mid-‘70s. Moon paid tribute to his friend with an atrocious cover of Rubber Soul’s “In My Life” on his sole solo album Two Sides of the Moon. Years earlier Lennon jammed on “A Quick One, While He’s Away” to lighten the mood when Harrison temporarily quit during the tension-fraught “Get Back” sessions. Decades after Keith Moon’s death, The Who employed Ringo Starr’s son Zach to perch on their drum throne.

Uncannily, The Beatles and The Who also developed Rock & Roll in parallel on Rubber Soul and My Generation. The Beatles’ “Think For Yourself” and The Who’s “My Generation” are the first Rock & Roll recordings in which the bass is used as the lead instrument. No earlier British Rock album could compete with either in terms of compositional quality, either. Amidst all the thunderous drumming and seething feedback, Townshend explores themes typical to pop music in completely sophisticated, atypical ways, whether dealing with relationships (the comic divorce song “A Legal Matter”), rebellion (the confrontational, revolutionary “My Generation”), identity (the wittily defiant “It’s Not True”), or community (“The Kids are Alright”). The Beatles explored similar themes with similar insight on stuff like “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, “Nowhere Man”, and “The Word”. Not even Jagger and Richards or Ray Davies had come up with an album’s worth of material that could yet match the sophisticated lyricism of Rubber Soul or My Generation. Only Dylan’s recent albums and The Beach Boys’ Today! were in the same league.

Ringo and Moony in The Kids are Alright

The following fifteen or so years of Rock & Roll can be viewed as two streams diverging from these two records: by begetting Pet Sounds, which begat Sgt. Pepper’s, Rubber Soul ultimately led to the self-conscious artsiness of Prog Rock; My Generation spawned the Punk Rock movement that in many ways was a reaction against the kind of music that Rubber Soul directly inspired. But in December of 1965, these two albums—so unlike in many ways, so similar in others—were of the same swinging London scene, two sides of the same shilling. Perhaps nowhere else has their influence convened more explicitly than on the next album recorded by Rock’s most creative sponges. The Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons is a gleeful playground of Rubber Soul inspired folk rock, evident in the pseudo “Michelle” chanson “Back Street Girl or the intricately rolling “Yesterday’s Papers”, and Who-esque freak-outs like “Please Go Home” and “All Sold Out”. The Stones sussed that the new territories laid out by The Beatles and The Who were equally accessible and equally important, tantalizing invitations to get quite and get loud.
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