Thursday, May 31, 2012

Psychobabble’s Twelve Greatest Pre-‘Pepper’ Albums of 1967

Argue if you must, but you’ll have a tough time convincing a lot of Rock fans that there was a greater year for music than 1967. A spell of healthy competition buzzed the atmosphere as the very best bands pop music would ever know allowed their imaginations to explode. It was also the year the single passed the baton to the L.P., and this moment can be honed down to a specific date: June 1st. That was the day The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Rock L.P. had been etching out its position as Rock’s chief artistic vehicle for over a year. The Beatles had stopped filling out their albums with covers once and for all when they released Rubber Soul in late 1965. That album directly inspired Brian Wilson to create an even more cohesive piece with Pet Sounds in 1966. The Beach Boys’ album would serve the same inspirational role when The Beatle’s got back in the studio at the end of that year to begin work on the album that would give the L.P. its ultimate foothold. From that point on, the album would be regarded as more than a souvenir for record buyers with money to burn. It would be Rock’s central mode of expression. Consequently, the albums released in the second half of 1967 were as different from the ones released in the first half as the albums of 1966 were from the ones of ’65. So, it makes a certain amount of sense to split the year in half when evaluating it, dividing the less-self conscious pre-Pepper albums from the grander statements of the post-Pepper works. Here are Psychobabble’s picks for the twelve greatest albums released during the five months before The Beatles changed the album forever.

(Release dates in parentheses were mostly pulled from Wikipedia, which means it may be wise to take them with a grain of salt.)

12. Emotions by The Pretty Things (4/18/67)

Even in the months before Sgt. Pepper’s landed on Earth, the old Rock quartet line-up was looking primitive thanks to pre-Pepper items like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Ruby Tuesday”, and “Good Vibrations”. For The Pretty Things, primitive was as much a way of life as it was for Alley Oop, so it’s no wonder why they were beside themselves when the Powers That Be at Fontana Records slathered their latest batch of songs with strings and brass without their input or even their knowledge. While such a move would have been an unequivocal disaster had it been perpetrated on their earlier blues and booze romps, the tracks on Emotions already found the Pretties in less surly territory. In fact, the brass blurts work quite well on the Kinky character sketch “Death of a Socialite” and the intense, psych vamp “My Time”. Brass adds extra punch to the already hard-driving “There Will Never Be Another Day”. “The Sun”, an elegant stroke of baroque pop, is almost unimaginable without its complimentary strings. At times the embellishments don’t work quite as well, although that may be as much the fault of middling material, such as “Children” and “Tripping”. Emotions is controversial and a bit uneven, but it reveals great growth in the songwriting partnership of Phil May and Dick Taylor, which would flourish fully the following year on an album they recorded a few doors down the Abbey Road halls from the Pepper sessions.

11. More of The Monkees by The Monkees (1/9/67)

On a schedule that would have even been extreme in 1964, the second Monkees album hit shops a ridiculous three months after their debut. From Colgems’ point of view, such rapid releasing must have seemed necessary since no one knew when the phenomenon was going to suddenly end. It was possible because an army of producers were constantly holding sessions in the desperate hope that they’d cut a track that would end up on an album guaranteed to sell zillions. So there was a mass of material at the ready to fill out More of the Monkees, and as was the case with The Monkees, most of it was more fabulous than anyone had any right to expect it to be. Or maybe it should have been expected since pros such as Goffin and King, Boyce and Hart, and Neil Diamond were contributing songs. Despite the hasty and totally inorganic way it was put together, More contains the best-known Monkees double-sided hit— “I’m a Believer” b/w “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”—and their best-known album tracks: Boyce and Hart’s “She”, Goffin and King’s “Sometime in the Morning”, Diamond’s “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)”, and Mike Nesmith’s “Mary Mary”. Each one of these tracks is a pop gem polished to perfection, and “Steppin’ Stone”, “She”, and “Mary Mary” are tough enough to give the impression of a real garage band at work even if this was not at all the case. Nesmith’s clattering and joyful “The Kind of Girl I Could Love” and the driving baroque popper “Hold on Girl” are pretty terrific too. The rest of the album is more of an acquired taste. Fans tend to love or hate Peter Tork’s fart sounds on the novelty track “Your Auntie Grizelda”. Most just seem to hate the lurching, goofy “Laugh” (I’m in the minority of fans who find it catchy fun), and a serious gag suppressant is required to make it through the soppy “The Day We Fall in Love”, easily the worst piece of trash ever to score a place on a Monkees LP. One could only imagine Nesmith’s disgust when he heard this particular track, and totally sympathize with his battle to get The Monkees to make their own records from then on. He won that unlikely war, and the best and truest Monkees albums would be the fruits of it, but no matter how it was made, More of The Monkees was still a pretty great album.  

10. Mellow Yellow by Donovan (3/67)

The pastoral strokes The Stones forged on “Ruby Tuesday” were a lot more complimentary to the ethereal Donovan than they were to the nitty-gritty Pretty Things. Don’s third album, Mellow Yellow, is bookended by its two raunchiest tracks: the bumping, grinding title tune, and the name-dropping, Swinging London tribute “Sunny South Kensington”. In between lies the songwriter’s most graceful selection of baroque folk and rainy jazz executed with stand-up bass, lightly brushed drums, piano, occasional woodwinds, and Donovan’s fluidly picked acoustic guitar. Mellow Yellow is also the most credible testament to Donovan’s insistence that he’s a poet above all else. “Writer in the Sun” is the empathetic faux-autobiography of an author whose best days are behind him. “Museum” is a cheeky, picturesque love letter. “An Observation” is Donovan at his most biting, transforming the frustration of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into outright spite. “Young Girl Blues” is him at his most unexpected; it’s a sensitive but unflinching portrait of a party girl with the kind of explicit sex and drug references that would soon make Lou Reed infamous. Mellow Yellow is Donovan’s most authentically artistic statement and a lovely, sometimes gritty, sepia snapshot of pop’s most mythic era.

9. Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane (2/67)

After cutting a strong debut album, Signe Anderson left Jefferson Airplane to raise a family with husband and Merry Prankster Jerry Anderson. The band quickly pilfered Grace Slick from the ramshackle Great Society, and Jefferson Airplane became a very different band. Though Slick was a near ringer for Anderson when belting, she could also descend to a near whisper that granted a creepy, icy undertone to the Airplane’s unconventional ballads. The group also began stretching out more on stage, fully exploring the jazzy yet metallic interplay between guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, drummer Spencer Dryden, and ace bassist Jack Casady. Of course, the pre-Pepper days of 1967 were not quite accepting of such exploration on vinyl, and producer Rick Jarrad saw to it that they cooked up some digestible potential hits for their second album, Surrealistic Pillow. The scheme worked, even if the album didn’t showcase the Airplane at their most exhilarating or imaginative. The first single, “My Best Friend”, was a piece of pop piffle that failed to further the band artistically or commercially. But the next two singles, which Slick brought with her from The Great Society, struck an alchemic balance between the band’s outré tendencies and the hit parade. The bloodletting “Somebody to Love” and the needling “White Rabbit” were two of the most memorable—and in the case of “Rabbit”, unlikely—top-ten smashes of ’67. Both songs have been a bit tarnished by overplay over the subsequent years. “White Rabbit” has been particularly abused by unimaginative filmmakers taking the easy road to setting background atmosphere for on-screen acid trips. Although Slick hooked the record, Surrealistic Pillow is hardly a one-woman show. Jorma Kaukonen thrills with the weird, winding “She Has Funny Cars” and his soaring solo acoustic guitar piece “Embryonic Journey”. Marty Balin, sometimes accused of being the band’s weak link, delivers the Airplane’s two most haunting ballads (“Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me”) while also delivering two good songs that would develop into monsters when played live (“3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”). The dynamic rhythm section of bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden may be muted by an overly polite production, and Paul Kantner doesn’t get much chance to shine, but both of those wrongs would be radically righted on the band’s next album.

8. …It’s Smoke Time by The Smoke (unknown, but likely before July 1967- Germany only)

The Smoke scored a minor hit in their native England with the acid-championing “My Friend Jack”. They never managed to get back on the charts after that stomping blast of mod psychedelia, so they never got the chance to make more than a single L.P. That doesn’t mean they only had one great song in them. Only released in Germany, It’s Smoke Time is a hand grenade of perfectly conceived pop executed with snarling attitude and buttery vocals curdled by rumbling undercurrents of guitar noise. The hit kicks things off, and nearly every song that follows is just as exceptional. The beautiful “Waterfall” glistens. “You Can’t Catch Me” is all slithery melody and searing feedback. “High in a Room” bounces like Herman’s Hermits, but the lacerating guitar slashes would have given Peter Noone the fear. The album continues to chug through great cut after great cut: the celebratory “Wake Up Cherylina”, the soulful “Don’t Lead Me On”, the jangly “We Can Take It”. Had they scored another hit after “My Friend Jack”, The Smoke may have given The Who and Small Faces a run for their money. Still, one great album is a lot more than most bands achieve.

7. Da Capo by Love (1/67)

Da Capo is mildly frustrating because it doesn’t follow through on its tremendous promise. Side A may be the best run of Love songs the band ever recorded. Side B is solely occupied by a jam misleading titled “Revelation” that is fun for about three minutes before riding out the rest of the record with sixteen minutes of time-wasting filler. Da Capo may have been the best pre-Pepper album of 1967, and possibly the best Love album, if Side B had some songs on it, but the incredible strength of Side A still sets it well above the majority of its contemporaries. Side A bridges Love’s garagey debut and the more refined Forever Changes. Since those albums are so diametrically unlike, Da Capo still manages to sound totally different from either of them. The songs are tough, tricky, inspired. Saxophone, twittering harpsichord, Alvin Lee’s wildly soulful shouting, and the dime-stopping rhythm section coalesce perfectly on “Stephanie Knows Who” and the spastic “The Castle”. “¡Que Vida!” is as breezy and reflective as anything on Forever Changes, while Bryan MacLean’s “Orange Skies” presages that albums mood if not its introspection. “Seven and Seven Is” is a galloping demon; Hendrix on amyl nitrate instead of acid. “She Comes in Colors” is a mysterious, lovely ballad that would soon influence The Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” as much as their “What a Shame” influenced Love’s “Can’t Explain”. Perhaps Love poured so much into Side A that there was nothing left for Side B. Who knows? Maybe Stephanie does.

6. Younger Than Yesterday by The Byrds (2/6//67)

The Byrds were on the edge of turmoil when they recorded Younger Than Yesterday in late 1966. David Crosby was a major source of this growing discord, and he’d be out the door before they released their next album. Such tumult is barely evident on Younger Than Yesterday, which song-for-song is The Byrd’s best L.P. Roger McGuinn had developed into an incredible songwriter by this point, and Chris Hillman’s first songwriting efforts revealed great latent talent. Crosby was far less disciplined than his two band mates, but his “Everybody’s Been Burned” is a haunting, moody love song with jazz overtones; a sort of psychedelic “Cry Me a River”. The tuneless, rhythm-less “Mind Gardens” was a major bone of contention among The Byrds, and it has not aged as well as the rest of the album. Still it’s a quaint artifact of the kind of experimentation that was going down in the wake of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the months just preceding Sgt. Pepper’s. Such trippy production frills are used liberally but tastefully throughout Younger Than Yesterday, and with the exception of “Mind Gardens”, they never overwhelm the excellent songs. The scathing, exhilarating “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” (featuring Hugh Masekela on trumpet), was one of The Byrds’ last hit singles. “C.T.A.-102” both looks back to the space travel obsessions of Fifth Dimension and forward to the country-steeped Sweetheart of the Rodeo. “Have You Seen Her Face”, “Time Between”, and “The Girl With No Name” are similarly delectable country-rock morsels. With such a stellar line-up of original material, it’s almost regrettable to admit that the album’s most extraordinary track is its sole cover. Of course, one of the things that made The Byrds so great was their brilliant interpretations of Dylan songs, so its fairly fitting that their version of “My Back Pages” is such a stand-out track on their stand-out album.

5. Headquarters by The Monkees (5/22/67)

So, The Monkees were pop’s first (but by no means last) prefabricated band; a cynical attempt to capitalize on the success of The Beatles, and more specifically, their films. When critics roasted them upon discovering they didn’t “play their own instruments,” the puppet masters behind the group didn’t express the slightest desire to change the formula. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, the most serious musicians in the group, were humiliated and angered by the chiding. Just a few months into their existence, at which point they were already the biggest selling act on the pop scene, Nesmith led a revolt. He convinced Micky Dolenz, and eventually, Davy Jones to take a concerted stand against “music supervisor” Don Kirshner. They demanded to be allowed to record their own music as a genuine band. Following some heated clashes, The Monkees got their way. Headquarters is the result of pop’s most unexpected and successful revolution. The Monkees had not only scored a triumph over the record industry that would be unthinkable today, they made one of the great pop records of the ‘60s. Headquarters doesn’t sound radically different from the first two Monkees records, but it displays the energy of a young band thrilled to be making music in an organic manner those other records lack. There is the occasional missed drum fill or piano flub, but this only adds to the record’s charm. The Monkees chose their own material this time and were smart enough to write and select songs that were superior to the ones Kirshner chose and close enough to the established-Monkees sound to not alienate their legions of fans. The country-pop sound with which Nesmith had already been experimenting dominates Headquarters. Naturally, this is most apparent on his three contributions: “You Just May Be the One”, with its memorably intricate bass riff, the pumping jangle-boogie “Sunny Girlfriend”, and “You Told Me”, which is more country-rock than country-pop. The sound is also apparent in the sweet “I’ll Spend My Life With You”, Peter Tork’s twangy hippie anthem “For Pete’s Sake”, and the pedal steel runs on the somber ballads "Mr. Webster" and “Shades of Gray”, on which Davy’s syrupy vocals are perfectly offset by Tork’s grave baritone. Davy also hold his own with “Forget That Girl” and the eerie “Early Morning Blues and Greens”, pop numbers with greater maturity than the ones he was forced to chirp on the previous albums (the same cannot be said of “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind”, the record’s one unlistenable bubblegum blunder). Micky Dolenz emerges as the record’s M.V.P., not only serving up a blister-raising vocal on the Little Richard-esque jam “No Time” but also penning the record’s most fabulously experimental song. “Randy Scouse Git” somehow combines music hall piano lines, jazz scatting, orchestral timpani swells, surreal reportage, and pre-punk pandemonium without sounding like anything less than perfect pop. Irritatingly, Headquarters did little to change critical opinion of The Monkees during their time, but those hip enough to dig them now know that it's one of the most historically significant and refreshingly tuneful records of the ‘60s.

4. Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (5/12/67)

Jimi Hendrix had the same effect on guitarists that Dylan had on lyricists and The Beatles had on four-piece combos when he invaded the pop scene in 1966. Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend fretted over their seeming sudden irrelevance. Everyone else simply marveled at his ability to draw unearthly sounds out of his Stratocaster. Employing Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell as his rhythm section allowed Hendrix a lot of room to maneuver on stage, and he gained fame by dazzling audiences with his unpredictability as much as his skill. Harnessing that kind of flamboyance on record can be tricky, but Are You Experienced? accomplished it incredibly by merging The Experience’s genius for improv with futuristic touches that could only happen in the studio. At this early point, Hendrix is a good songwriter capable of greatness. That greatness is best showcased on singles such as “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary”. These tracks, as well as his ’66 hit version of “Hey Joe”, were included on the U.S. edition of Are You Experienced? The U.K. version suffers a bit for their absence (as well as its less imaginative jacket). There’s still an abundance of stunning stuff: the panic-inducing metal riff of “Manic Depression”, the sleazy mania of “Fire”, the neurotic “I Don’t Live Today”, the looming “Love or Confusion”. “Remember” and “May This Be Love” show that Hendrix can do delicate just as well as heavy. The band, producer Chas Chandler, and engineer Eddie Kramer take the experimentation of “Tomorrow Never Knows” to the breaking point (the title track) and beyond (“Third Stone from the Sun”). Hendrix would sharpen up his songwriting considerably on his next record, but The Experience would never make a more explosive record than their debut.

3. Between the Buttons by The Rolling Stones (1/20/67)

The Rolling Stones are the great, dark mirror of Rock & Roll. As distinctive as their sound is, they were rarely innovators. Whether mimicking their favorite blues artists on their early records or aping disco on things like “Miss You” and (gag) “Hot Stuff”, The Stones never let a popular sound pass them by. Between the Buttons is an amalgam of the dominant pop styles of late 1966 when the record was recorded. Some have criticized the album for shamelessly drawing on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan (“She Smiled Sweetly”; “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?”), Rubber Soul-era Beatles (“Yesterday’s Papers”; “Back Street Girl”), The Kinks (“Cool, Calm, and Collected”; “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”), The Beach Boys (“Complicated”), The Yardbirds (“All Sold Out”), and The Who (“Please Go Home”). Yet these are terrific tracks infused with The Stones’ patented dark sensibility and increasingly complex lyrics that add character sketches, surrealism, and tales of legal woes to the usual misogynistic diatribes. Despite such reliance on the Stones’ contemporaries for inspiration, a couple of the tracks are without precedent; I certainly have never heard anything quite like the jaunty country/rock “Connection”, which pulses like a heart monitor, or the swirling, carnival psych “My Obsession”. Charlie Watts is given a chance to take center stage by supplying the main hooks of “My Obsession”, “Please Go Home”, and “Complicated”, while the rest of the group expands the essential Stones sound with vibes, accordion, recorder, kazoo, Dixieland horns, and for the first time, a harmonica that wheezes like Dylan instead of whining like Little Walter. Without a single regularly anthologized track on the album, Between the Buttons tends to slip between the cracks. As such it’s a treasure trove of obscure gems by one of Rock & Roll’s most familiar groups.

2. Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina by The Left Banke (2/67)

On their superb debut album, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, New York anglophiles The Left Banke one-up many of their British heroes by creating one of the most wonderful—and one of the most English—records of the ‘60s. Here The Left Banke invent the the kind of melodramatically mopey pop The Smiths would make twenty years later and Belle & Sebastian would make a decade after that. The obvious influence here is The Zombies, but The Left Banke take such fey, baroque pop and shut the lights off completely. Are there any songs from the ‘60s more emotionally wrenching or exquisite than “Walk Away Renee”, “Pretty Ballerina”, and “Shadows Breaking Over My Head”? Even when The Left Banke rocks on “She May Call You Up Tonight”, “I’ve Got Something on My Mind”, “Evening Gown”, and “I Haven’t Got the Nerve”, the tearful tones of singer Steve Martin crank up the pain. This is music way ahead of its time, even as it is most certainly of its time (the harpsichord was de rigeur in late ‘66/early ’67, and it’s all over this album). Production whiz kid, chief songwriter, and keyboardist Michael Brown deserves much of the credit for making Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina such an exceptional album, but it’s the plaintive voice of Martin that will haunt listeners long after the needle has lifted off vinyl.

1. The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet Underground (3/12/67)

Intense, exciting, terrifying, literary, mesmerizing, and often very beautiful. It’s kind of bizarre to think of The Velvet Underground and Nico as the greatest album of pre-Pepper '67 when it really sounds like it should be the best of the ‘80s or ‘90s. That’s not to say the album doesn’t bear any of the characteristics of 1966, the year in which it was recorded. There are the wiry guitar lines, touches of raga rock and psychedelia, the shambling garage band execution and the whiny Dylanesque vocals common to much of the era. The Velvet Underground and Nico as a whole sounds like it was cut a lot further into the future, because so many of its elements were alien in the mid-‘60s: references to explicit sex and hard drugs, squalls of noise that went far beyond anything in The Who’s vocabulary, Nico’s Tutonic droning, the unrelenting bleakness. This is the album that Jim Morrison would have made had he been half the visionary Lou Reed or John Cale (or even Morrison’s occasional girlfriend Nico) were. The Velvet Underground and Nico single-handedly birthed post-punk, new wave, and indie rock more than a decade ahead of schedule. If it didn’t exist, there would be no Modern Lovers, no Patti Smith, no Talking Heads, no Television, no Siouxsie and the Banshees, no Pere Ubu, no Cure, no R.E.M., no Jesus and Mary Chain, no Sonic Youth, no Pixies, no Nirvana, no My Bloody Valentine, no Yo La Tengo, no... well, you get the picture. While every Rock band of 1967 looked forward to the mid-year game changer The Beatles were reportedly toiling away on, that album arguably wouldn’t have as far-reaching an effect on pop music as one barely anyone heard during its time.

Five More Great Pre-Pepper Albums
Buffalo Springfield by Buffalo Springfield (3/6/67)
The Doors by The Doors (1/4/67)
The Electric Prunes by The Electric Prunes (4/67)
Happy Together by The Turtles (4/29/67)

See The Great Albums: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Psychobabble's Sixteen Greatest Post-‘Pepper’ Albums of 1967...
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