Over the years there have been many arguments concerning which year produced the best rock album. While this is most probably arrived at via a subjective view point, there is a serious case to be made for the year 1966; a year which produced such classics as Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, The Beach Boys aka Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds, the Beatles' Revolver, Aftermath by the Rolling Stones and East-West by The Butterfield Blues Band. In a way, 1966 reflected the changing structure of rock & roll while also defining the future direction of rock music. The albums I just mentioned set the bar for taking a visceral approach when it came to creating albums that would mean something and endure the test of time. There was a palpable sense of change encased in the music of 1966. It was the year that rock & roll transformed itself into rock music.
"It was a time of enormous ambition and serious engagement. Music was no longer commenting on life but had become indivisible from life. It had become the focus not just of youth consumerism but a way of seeing the prism through which the world was interpreted. 1966 began in pop and ended with rock. Along with the increased ambition to be heard in the music, it was a year of rapid change and development in the various liberation movements - not just civil rights - the engine of dissent in the mid-sixties - but women's rights and the emerging homophile movement...Everyone thinks they know a out the sixties. It was a golden pop age; it was the moment when everything started going downhill. It was the start of an alternative society; it was only a couple of hundred people in London while real life - whatever that is - went on elsewhere...The premise throughout this time is that music did reflect the world during 1966; that it was connected to events outside the pop culture bubble and was understood to do so by many of its listeners; that there was something more than image and sales at stake. It was a year when audacious ideas and experiments were at a premium in the mass market and in youth culture, with a corresponding backlash from those for whom the rate of change was too quick. The resulting tension was terrific...1966 was a year of noise and tumult, of brightly colored patterns clashing with black and white politics, of furious forward motion and an outraged, awakening reaction. There was a sense that anything was possible to those who dared, a willingness to strive towards the seemingly unattainable. There remains an overwhelming urgency that marks the music and movies of that year, counter-balanced by traces of loss, disconnection and deep melancholy. But underneath all the sound an fury - and the moments of regret - lies a profound silence. This is not the silence of peace, of solitude, of sought withdrawl - or even of meditation...It's not a silence that exists within itself; it is a rupture, a prelude to something that if barely conceivable. This silence is an artificially created vacuum - a few instants of bone-shaking terror - that turns the world inside out....1966 was the sixties peak, the year when the decade exploded." (1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, Jon Savage, Faber & Faber 2015)
"Most appreciations of '66 zero in on a handful of Acknowledged Masterpieces by Dylan, the Beatles, Beach Boys and the Stones. Which makes sense. They'd all belong on any list of albums that shook the world. But it wasn't only that those few LP's were so towering. In 1966, the 8th or 9th best British or American band (Them, let's say, or the Standells), could find room near the top of any reasonable person's best-of list without fear of ridicule. It was a freakish, unprecedented barrage: if your year-end Top 10 scribbled on 12/31/66 included those Acknowledged Masterpieces plus albums by Otis Redding, The Kinks, The Lovin' Spoonful, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, the Mothers of Invention, and the Yardbirds, that means no space for the Byrds, Tim Hardin, the Animals, Donovan, the Blues Project, and the Young Rascals. That's just for starters, and just if you're sticking to the world of pop and rock. Kids (like me) went to their local record stores (ours was Spinning Disc on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx, NY) every single weekend to see if something new and cool-looking came in, and every single weekend, something had. There were at least 50 to 75 albums released that year that belong in any decent LP library...There may have better years for rock and pop (although I'd argue not), or jazz, country, R&B, but there's never been a better year to be a fan of music spanning all genres...is it any wonder that we kept a transistor radio on constantly (it was as much an appendage/accessory to us as the cellphone is to 15-year-olds now), t hat the hours spent in classrooms were a chunk of time we had to distractedly dawdle through, that we fell asleep still tuned into one of the Top 40 stations? Consider this: in 1966, 27 different singles made #1 on the Billboard chart, more than in any other year from the beginning of the rock and roll era (1955) to the end of the 1960's. You couldn't keep up with the comings and goings of songs scampering up and sliding down the charts, but that side of the pop sphere was always about the hit single. What was changing in '66 was the rise of the rock album; it was as though the previous year's Rubber Soul and Highway 61 Revisited gave everyone permission to creatively stretch out across two (or in the cases of Dylan and Zappa, four) album sides, sometimes at insane length (e.g., The Seeds' Up in Her Room), sometimes brilliantly (the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's East-West). You mean, it's not a requirement to slap together random, sub-par tracks to fill out an LP rush-released to capitalize on a hit 45? Pop albums can be thoughtfully assembled, intelligently programmed, musically adventurous? Who knew? 1966 was The Spot. The crossroads of AM and FM, mono and stereo, 45 and 33⅓, mod and hippie, the Beach Boys on the West Coast, the Four Seasons on the East Coast. It wasn't a great year because 'Pet Sounds' and 'Blonde on Blonde' came out, but because 'Pet Sounds' and 'Blonde on Blonde' were a part of something bigger. '66 was David Bailey shooting Jean Shrimpton for Vogue and the Stones for 'Aftermath'; Jerry Schatzberg's fuzzed-up fold-out on 'Blonde on Blonde'; Klaus Voormann's black-and-white collage on 'Revolver'; Jean-Marie Perier's shots of Francoise Hardy and his photo of Marianne Faithfull in the high grass on the cover of 'Faithfull Forever'; Guy Webster's sunlight-streaked shots of the Mamas and the Papas; the pop art on The Who's A Quick One (an import album a friend brought to a party in late '66, months before its U.S. release). There was a visual counterpart to the musical sense of experimentation: when you picked up 'Revolver', 'Aftermath' (especially the U.K. edition), or 'Blonde on Blonde', it was a preview of what was to come when it went on the turntable." (Music Aficionado, Mitchell Cohen, Why 1966 Was The Best Year for Music Ever)
In 1966, Bob Dylan released the very first double album in rock & roll that was called Blonde On Blonde. "it represented a tipping point in popular music, redefining the possibilities of rock and roll and more. It changed the way artists approached the genre, as well as the way fans listened to it. With his fusion of poetry and rock in its broadest sense, Dylan liberated other artists, giving them license to express their inner poet through their music. The record also accelerated the shift of focus in popular music from singles to albums, and in the process, elevated the long-playing record as an art form...Blonde on Blonde unquestionably had an impact on singer-songwriters and that album was one of the pinnacles of those times." (That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound, Daryl Sanders, Chicago Review Press)
In 1966, Bob Dylan undertook a world tour. During many of the show, members of the audience, refusing to accept Dylan's new electrified music, booed Dylan and his band.
"Widely considered a Brian Wilson solo project, this seems harsh on Tony Asher’s lyrics (elegantly distilling Wilson’s fractured state of mind), and the band members’ iridescent harmonies. An admirer of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Wilson also had a friendly rivalry with The Beatles. Just as Wilson loved Rubber Soul, John Lennon hailed Pet Sounds as the greatest album ever; McCartney said that, without it, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band couldn’t have happened. While Pet Sounds was feted in Britain, it barely scraped into the top 10 of the US Billboard 100...making Pet Sounds half a century ago, Wilson reinvented the album as the in-depth illumination of an artist’s soul, kicking open a creative fire-door, liberating the album to exist as a self-contained art form on a par with literature, theater, art, cinema, dance; anything the artist desired." (The Guardian, Was 1966 Pop's Greatest Year?)
"In the summer of 1966 there were some fans who were confused by The Beach Boys’ 11th studio album – where were the striped shirts and the surfboards? In the intervening five decades, however, Pet Sounds has been acknowledged as a masterpiece, a record that has topped countless polls of the greatest albums ever made, and is revered by musicians and fans alike as the pinnacle of Brian Wilson’s songwriting, production and all-round creative genius. Brian began seriously working on his masterpiece on Tuesday, 18 January 1966, at Western Recorders, and continued for 27 sessions spread over three months at four separate Los Angeles studios. This was an unprecedented amount of studio hours to be devoted to one album, but Brian was in pursuit of perfection. Just take a listen to any of the tracking sessions released on the various reissues of Pet Sounds: Brian was totally focused and demanded nothing less from everyone who worked on the project." (Udiscovermusic.com 2018)
"Pet Sounds, though, was a sustained act of complex creation, one part work of orchestral ambition, one part proto-concept album. A nervous breakdown on a flight between LA and Houston in December 1964 had prompted Brian Wilson to refocus his energies from touring and promotion to the more enjoyable pursuits of songwriting and the boundless potential of the recording studio. He had been further liberated by his introduction to marijuana and hallucinogenics the following year. Now, with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul ringing in his ears and his competitive streak risen, he set out to make what he promised his wife Marilyn would be 'the greatest rock album ever made'. To turn the pocket symphonies in his head into gorgeous reality, he made two crucial moves. Firstly, he entrusted the task of translating his ideas about the loss of innocence and the imponderability of existence to advertising copywriter-turned-lyricist Tony Asher. Secondly, he enlisted the help of ace session musicians The Wrecking Crew, including guitarist Glen Campbell and bassist Carol Kaye, veterans of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, with the 23-year-old Wilson orchestrating the sessions himself. The resultant songs – Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), I’m Waiting For The Day, God Only Knows, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Caroline, No – were perfect miniatures of hymnal wonder, which expressed with devotional clarity the anxieties and longings of an adolescent poised on the cusp of agonizing maturity...But Wilson wasn’t done. Pet Sounds may have stalled at No.10 in the US after its release in May 1966, but any disappointment at its commercial performance was allayed by the arrival of a new single, Good Vibrations, in October. With its modal shifts and multi-sectional mosaic of sound fragments pieced together by Wilson over eight months in multiple studios, it set new standards with regard to what rock music could sound like and do, and blazed a trail for others to follow. It was the epic, euphoric anthesis of Pet Sounds’s glorious melancholia. But how to describe it? The first psychedelic single? Acid bubblegum? Something else? In his own roundabout way, Brian Wilson answered the question himself when asked whether Good Vibrations was a pioneering example of progressive rock? 'Yes,' he replied simply, 'it was.'” (loudersound.com 2018)
"As they devoted more time to the studio, the Beatles' individual voices and confidence continued to grow, resulting in the sonic landmark Revolver. Like any band, the Beatles' recording career was often altered, even pushed forward, as much by external factors as their own creative impulses. The group's competitive drive had them, at times, working to match or best Bob Dylan or Brian Wilson; their drug use greatly colored the musical outlook of John Lennon and George Harrison in particular...The most important of these external shifts in the Beatles narrative, however, was a series of changes that allowed them to morph into a studio band. The chain of events that ushered in the band's changing approach to studio music began before Rubber Soul, but the results didn't come into full fruition until Revolver, a 35-minute LP that took 300 hours of studio time to create-- roughly three times the amount allotted to Rubber Soul, and an astronomical amount for a record in 1966...This new approach not only greatly altered their work environment, but drove the Beatles to value the flexibility of emerging technology. They also cashed in some of their commercial capital to abandon the mentally and physically sapping practice of touring-- and the glad-handing and public relations requirements that went with it. Exceptionalism became the watchword for the band, and it responded by using its freedom to push forward its art and, by extension, the whole of pop music. Musically, then, the Beatles began to craft dense, experimental works; lyrically, they matched that ambition, maturing pop from the stuff of teen dreams to a more serious pursuit that actively reflected and shaped the times in which its creators lived." (pitchfork.com, Scott Plagenhoef, The Beatles Revolver)
"...Producer George Martin, who by all accounts, was the closest thing there was to a fifth Beatle, helped guide the group’s innovative sound— from the double-string quartet on Eleanor Rigby to the French horn obligato on For No One...t was also thanks to 20-year-old engineer Geoff Emerick, who was promoted to replace veteran Norman Smith. Emerick is most notable for his work on the first track recording for Revolver, Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” By recording his voice through a Leslie speaker, it gave it the faraway sound the song is known for, which was something that had never been done before. It was ideas like this, along with the microphone placement for McCartney’s bass and Starr’s drums, that paved the way for the way studio recordings were done after Revolver...But it wasn’t just the studio effects and instruments that made Revolver stand out from the rest of the Beatles catalog. It was the songwriting...All four Beatles were arguably at their artistic peak in 1966. But during the Revolver sessions, the group also showed signs of crumbling as each member started pursuing their own creative paths...as 1966 neared its end, the group began work on Strawberry Fields Forever, a song written by Lennon that would guide the band’s musical direction in the coming year." (Cuepoint website, Charles J. Moss, How the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ Gave Brian Wilson a Nervous Breakdown)
"There's a moment in almost every legendary artist's career that marks the period in which they transcend the merely good and become truly great. Aftermath is the Rolling Stones' moment. By the time they put out Aftermath on April 15, 1966, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were writing all of the band's songs. The songs are bigger and bolder. They take more risks, wandering outside of the blues and R&B parameters that steadied the band during its first three years. And for the first time, a Rolling Stones album plays like one – an LP crafted to come together as a total listening experience. The album was made during a handful of sessions in Hollywood in early December 1965 and early March 1966. It was the group's first LP to be recorded entirely in the U.S., and the first in which Brian Jones played around with a variety of instruments not exactly known for their use in rock music: dulcimer, marimba, sitar and koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, among them. Like other notable albums from 1966 Aftermath was a pivotal moment in both the artist's career as well as an advancement for rock 'n' roll in general. The Stones' record arrived before all of them, signaling a turning point in the future direction of popular music." (Ultimate Classic Rock site, Michael Gallucci, How the Rolling Stones Too a Big Leap On Aftermath)
Another album that belongs in the pantheon of all the albums listed above is East-West by the Butterfield Blues Band. "That the first psychedelic album might have come from a blues band was one thing. That one of the most influential blues albums of all time might have come from the same group, well, that was another. That both things were wrapped up inside the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s East-West, however, is undeniable. Butterfield was joined on his sophomore record by guitarist Elvin Bishop, bassist Jerome Arnold, keyboardist Mark Naftalin, drummer Billy Davenport and lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who, like Butterfield, was at his peak. Each member brought his own interests into an increasingly collaborative structure. 'Pre-East-West, I was listening to a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Ravi Shankar and guys that played modal music,' Bloomfield said in a WBEZ interview, 'And the idea wasn’t to see how far you could go harmonically, but to see how far you could go melodically or modally. And that’s what I was doing in East-West, and I think that’s why a lot of guitar players liked it.' East-West arrived in August 1966 as a swift kick to the doors of convention, in particular with its Eastern influences and long-form jams. Both rock and blues were absorbed in the aftershocks for years. Its impact on Santana and the Grateful Dead, for starters, can't be overstated." (Ultimate Classic Rock website: Nick Deriso, 50 Years ago: Paul Butterfield Blues Band Re-Writes Rock's Rule Book with East-West)
Crawdaddy Magazine, started by the late great Paul Williams, was the first credible magazine dedicated to rock music. "A year and a half before Jann Wenner founded Rolling Stone, a teenager named Paul Williams started Crawdaddy! magazine. Launched in January 1966 by the precocious 17-year-old Swarthmore college student, Crawdaddy! was the first American music magazine to take "rock" music seriously. This was the era of Teen Beat and Tiger Beat,when pop stars were more likely to be asked about their favorite color rather than what inspired their creativity. Writer/editor Paul Williams, who died on Wednesday at the age of 64, changed all that by asking burgeoning legends like Brian Wilson and David Crosby what they were really thinking about. Amazingly, Williams (still totally unknown at that point) was able to invite himself into recording studios for impromptu and candid conversations with The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nashduring an era that predated the personal manager, the publicist and the bodyguard. Originally, Crawdaddy! was solely written, edited and published by Williams in his dorm room, but within 18 months it grew into a real venture with an office and staff in New York City which provided music journalists Peter Guralnick, Jon Landau and Richard Meltzer with their first writing outlet." (NPR, Remembering Paul Wiliams)
Along with the sense of change in the music of 1966, there were changes brewing in what kind of media the youth culture was listening to. It should be noted that 1966 was the last year that 45 rpm singles out sold albums. One of my all-time bands at this point in my life was The Who. I gravitated towards them due to their steady stream of singles. “In the mid-sixties, The Who were London's archetypal singles band — by choice, not happenstance. ‘Before we even approached the idea of making an album that was an expression of our own feelings . . . we believed only in singles… in the top ten records and pirate radio. We, I repeat, believed only in singles.’” (NPR, When Rock & Roll Became Rock)
1966 was a year in which music consumers were overwhelmed by the volume of new gizmos that flooded the marketplace.
The 8-track is designed by the Lear Jet Corporation to be used in new 1966 Ford automobiles, as it’s easier to listen to vinyl at home and cassettes on the go.
George Martin in the studio working on Beatles recordings. Every other month, new recording technologies would emerge and immediately be put to use.
The history of music is inseparable from the history of technology. From the first primitive percussion instruments, catgut strings, and animal horns, to Thomas Edison’s phonograph and the jukebox, how we listen and create has evolved with the tools of the times. By the 1960's, the technological conditions were ripe for the birth of popular music as it’s often idealized today, with AM and FM radio going mainstream, vinyl records supplanting the earlier shellac format, and multi-track recording developments clearing the way for late-’60;s studio experimentation.
One of the most significant events of 1966 was the fact that The Beatles played their last live show on Monday August 29th at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. The Park's capacity was 42,500, but only 25,000 tickets were sold, leaving large sections of unsold seats (this was most probably due to John Lennon's remark that "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus" which led to some folks burning all of their Beatles albums). Fans paid between $4.50 and $6.50 for tickets, and The Beatles' fee was around $90,000. This arrangement, coupled with low ticket sales and other unexpected expenses resulted in a financial loss for Tempo Productions.
"There was a sort of end of term spirit thing going on, and there was also this kind of feeling among all of us around The Beatles, that this might just be the last concert that they will ever do. " (Tony Barrow, Beatles Press Officer interview, The Beatles Off The Record, Keith Badham)
"The 1960's remain in the folk memory as a golden age of pop culture, with 1966 enshrined...as the year of swinging London. It was the year of the singles that are regularly collected on those TV advertised compilations: Sunny Afternoon; Reach Out I’ll Be There; Good Vibrations; Summer in the City – mass pop art so imperishable that it cannot be dimmed by cheap nostalgia and endless repetition...But 1966 was a year of turmoil. It began in pop and ended in rock...It was also the year that the torch passed from England to America, from London to Los Angeles, which became the central pop location, thanks to the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees – ersatz Beatles who bloomed just as the originals left the stage. California had its own youthtopias, reasonably autonomous zones where the young could congregate and try out new ways of living: the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, the Sunset Strip in Hollywood...op Modernism was beginning to fragment under the impact of marijuana, LSD, and sheer exhaustion. Pop’s Herculean acceleration resulted in many casualties: during 1966, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones all crashed out from the pace, but not before they had provocatively expressed their dissatisfaction – Dylan with his polarizing electric show segments, the Beatles with their notorious Butcher LP sleeve (pulped by their American record company, Capitol, at a cost of $200,000), the Rolling Stones with the drag video for Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?...By 1966, many strands of art, music, and entertainment were all coming to the same point by different means: the total focus on the instant that is the hallmark of many eastern religions; the happening; the drug experience; the ecstasy of dancing...Pop music was the new Olympus. Lou Reed recognized it as the arena for his generation: 'The music is the only live, living thing.' Writing in the same issue of Aspen magazine, Robert Shelton agreed: 'The age of the new mass arts is moving us upward, inward, outward and forward. In this era of exploration, there are many breeds of navigators, but few more daring than the poet-musicians who are leading our pop music in new directions … expressing an avant-garde, underground philosophy to a mass audience, deepening the thinking of masses of young people.' Many records by those poet-musicians”made the charts. The most obvious example is the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, recorded in sessions that spanned 60 hours over seven months; it was technological yet emotional, sensual and spiritual – designed as a moment of fusion that would reset pop culture’s polarity to positive. What was thrilling about 1966 was the way in which things were not business as usual, a feeling that can still be heard in the records of the year: music was connected to events outside the pop culture bubble and was understood to do so by many of its listeners. It was a year when audacious ideas and experiments were at a premium in the mass market and in youth culture, with a corresponding reaction from those for whom the rate of change was too quick. The 60's peaked in 1966...The songs from that time still enchant successive generations, but they were also a response to their place and time." (The Guardian, 1966: The Year The Youth Culture Expoloded)
The Doors Live 1966
In 1966, popular music saw a split in music preferences; the best example of this was that older teens preferred The Beatles while the younger brothers and sisters of those older teenagers idolized The Monkees. In a way, this split was able to let the younger kids maintain the precocious fandom as reflected in Beatlemania and the older kids would invest themselves in a more young adult-oriented sounds.
"By late 1966, young people were being asked to give their opinions on their position in the marketplace and on the meaning of life, love and death. It was all very unsettling and, as reports about a new Beatles record began to spread in late November, musicians, fans and writers alike began to wonder how this would shape the culture. Since September, there had only been sporadic sightings of the mustached, serious, short-haired Beatles. Everyone was agreed that, as Pete Townshend said...'the scene needs the Beatles to sort things out'. Surely they would have the word, surely they would show the way, surely they would bring everyone back together." (Jon Savage, The Year The Decade Exploded)
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a ritualistic multi-media show which was supported by Andy Warhol and featured The Velvet Underground and Nico. "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was not concerned with psychedelia, even though it took on some of its appurtenances; the idea of total immersion is a multi-media environment; the idea that the audience was part of the performance..." (Jon Savage, The Year The Decade Exploded).
Between the events staged by Warhol and his crew along with the burgeoning scene that was developing in San Francisco, the year ushered in a sense of communal identity wherein the distance between the performers and the audience began to change.
In 1967, rock music would change once again!