May 17, 1966 is the day the barn doors blew open in rock and roll.
Only a couple of months earlier, The Beatles had released RUBBER SOUL, an eclectic collection of personal songs by John, Paul, George, and Ringo that featured radically different instrumentation and subject matter from anything they had released previously. Fifty-five years on, it may be that RUBBER SOUL is the greatest of all Beatles records in that it crystallized a moment and influenced the direction of popular music for years to come.
At that time, Bob Dylan had already been anointed (against his will) “spokesman of a generation,” based on his groundbreaking work in the folk music movement of the early 1960s. But he wasn’t done; in fact, he was just getting started.
BLONDE ON BLONDE was rock’s first double LP, and it is a wild assortment of musical styles and genres thrown together with Dylan’s raucous, stream-of-consciousness poetry. Nearly every track explores a different facet of Dylan’s musical personality while he was in his, as Rolling Stone magazine later said, “frizzed-out jeremiad period”.
There’s quiet Baroque country on “4th Time Around” and “Just Like a Woman”; fuzzy blues rock on “Obviously 5 Believers” and “Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat”; achingly personal details on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Visions of Johanna”; even a touch of Dixieland jazz on “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”. Dylan, working with the cream of Nashville musicians, made an album that sounded like nothing else before or since. It can be said that Dylan’s expansion on BLONDE ON BLONDE is responsible for his continued career success.
Bob Dylan is backed by not only the Nashville session men, but a group formerly called the Hawks – later known to the world as The Band. There are so many good musicians playing on this record, it’s just a feast for the ears. Every time I put it on, I hear something new.
On that same day in May 1966(!), The Beach Boys re-emerged from a period of relative inactivity with PET SOUNDS, often ranked as the number-one most influential rock LP of all time. The creative genius behind the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, crafted a masterpiece of symphonic rock, built upon layers of vocal harmonies and instrumentation unlike any heard on a rock album.
The Beach Boys’ record label had pressured them for new material for months, but as the group took up residence at the studio where all of the Wrecking Crew played, a new kind of musical alchemy was taking shape.
PET SOUNDS is a solid set of songs, working against the sun-surf-cars-girls formula of past Beach Boys success. This album featured songs about uncertainty in relationships as well as the sadness that comes with the realities of growing up.
There are many sublime moments on this record, and many are classics: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B”. But the lethargic “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” point to the album’s final track, “Caroline No” – a song so personal and direct, it’s hard to believe that only a few months before, these same guys were singing about being true to their school.
The fact that both PET SOUNDS and BLONDE ON BLONDE were released on the same day should tell us all something about the time period that followed: a fertile period of unsurpassed creativity in the world of popular music that may never happen again.