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Thursday, May 26, 2005

It Was 40 Years Ago Today...

...well, not exactly 40 years ago today. But it was 40 years ago, in 1965, that the world of pop music changed--you might say, turned a corner, or came into its own.

Sometime last week, I popped The Beatles' Rubber Soul into the CD player at the office. How many times have I listened to that record? Twenty, fifty, a hundred? Anyway, it was in the background: "Drive My Car," then "Norwegian Wood." And then "You Won't See Me"--just another Beatles love song, one that has never, to my knowledge, received much analysis or praise. Yet, somehow, it commanded my attention, right from the opening lines:

When I call, you up
Your line's engaged
I have had, enough
So act your age

And I thought: what a perfectly wonderful lyric. What a perfectly wonderful melody. What a perfectly wonderful little song. And that's really the whole story of pop music, isn't it? The catch, the hook, the chord change and turn of phrase, that somehow makes the whole thing a work of art--disposable art, perhaps, something profoundly synthetic, repeatable, contained. But art nonetheless.

I sometimes play around with friends about what "pop music" means. If it has any meaning besides that which record companies want to give it for marketing purposes (and maybe it doesn't), then that meaning probably resides in the idea that there are certain artistic conventions that are "popular"--not in the sense of necessarily appealing to the whole population (because what could ever do that?), but in the sense of being accessible to mass dissemination and consumption. Big, sprawling, demanding works of music and art, ones that depend upon innumerable circumstances and variables, can't ever be "popular" in this sense, though certainly some can have a lot more fans and attract a lot more attention that others. (Think opera, for example: there's no opera that can or ever could be described as "pop music," though clearly La Bohème is a lot more popular than, say, Elektra.) Real pop music only emerged when there was developed the sort of technology (both human and mechanical) for musicians and other artists to produce work that could be performed and reproduced in a reliable way. That doesn't mean pop music was a completely modern phenomenon; you could, perhaps, argue that a lot of chamber music was "pop music," particularly in the hands of a master like Mozart (think of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or other such pieces: Mozart, in writing such music, didn't really innovate, but simply wrote the same way everybody else was writing...only he did it, within those limited conventions, better than anybody else at the time could). But broadly speaking, it was only with the 20th century--after Gilbert and Sullivan, after the rise of Tin Pan Alley, with the radio revolution--that we really began to see "pop music" as a separate musical form. The four-minute song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus...), the back-up band, the singer and songwriter: all settled into a well-established groove, and its easy dominance shaped (to the fury of many musicologists and preservationists ever since) much of whatever country, bluegrass, blues and folk music managed to make it into the recording studio in the decades which followed. (Classical music went its own way, while jazz, for a while at least, managed to be an occasional exception.) The majority of the music made by both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley shared a similar "pop" architecture, however radically different their sounds.

And then...The Beatles. I like how Colby Cosh put it in this column a while back:

There are a lot of things people haven't quite absorbed about the Beatles. I remember being dumbstruck by a passage in Ian Macdonald's Revolution in the Head, which, incidentally, has no credible rival as the best book ever written about rock music. Macdonald paints us a scene of the Beatles' earliest days as celebrities, after they'd just migrated to London. We meet two promising young performers whose blues-influenced band has just been signed to a contract: a Mr. Mick Jagger and a Mr. Keith Richards. They've swung by the studio to exchange pleasantries and watch the northern quartet at work. They watch as McCartney and Lennon, equipped with a chorus and a verse they've worked on earlier, try to stitch things together with a middle eight, messing around on a piano. In maybe fifteen minutes of banter and tinkling, they've knitted a few chords into a future hit. This is all completely foreign to Mick and Keef, and as they watch, the penny drops. They realize that a person who can play an instrument can write a song. There's no magic to it--no massive leather-bound manual locked in a Brill Building safe that tells you how to do it. It hadn't occurred to them that there could be such an animal as a rock-and-roll group that wrote its own songs.

Of course, it's not as straightforward as all that. Lots of innovations were always rippling through the pop music ocean; there was always tension and critical standards and expectations being overturned. Even in terms of rock-and-roll, this story is incomplete; as Colby notes, MacDonald forgets that Buddy Holly was breaking all the rules that the Beatles broke back when they were still all individually listening to skiffle music. But still, there it is--sometime in the middle of the 1960s, the whole pop music world was re-oriented, pop music became the province of those who were themselves caught up in extant musical currents, rather than those who were standing somewhere to the side of it; pop music was released from its "industrialized vial," in Colby's words.

When was the big moment? Why not make it 1965? In 1965 the Beatles kicked off their U.S. tour playing Shea Stadium, the biggest (and loudest) rock concert ever up until that point, a concert that the Beatles later looked back on as a turning point: when it was all over, they retreated to the studio, never to tour again (though Paul wanted to). In 1965 they released Help!, the last Beatles album to feature a song they didn't write themselves, with a couple of sublime Lennon/McCartney gems hinting at what was to come: "Ticket to Ride," and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." And then of course in 1965 they released Rubber Soul, with--besides what I've already mentioned--"Nowhere Man," "Drive My Car," "Michelle," and "In My Life." After that year, perhaps, one could really say that the Beatles had changed the world. Certainly they'd changed almost everything about what was taken to be accepted about pop music--about the relation between singer and songwriter, about the role of the studio and recording technology, about what an "authentic" performance consists of, about what you can get away with on the radio--and changed it for good. They didn't write and record the most important or powerful pop music of the 1960s, but they did write and record just about all the best pop songs, and that's enough.

Once, after VH1 or somebody had come out with another one of their ridiculous "Top 100 albums of All Time" lists, I got into one of those predictable arguments with some friends, about what Beatles albums should go where. I ended up suggesting that every such top 100 list should simply leave about five of the top ten slots open, with the words "insert the post-1964 Beatles' album of your choice here." That would just about do it. They may not be your favorite, you may not care for any of their songs, but you've been influenced by them nonetheless. I doubt anyone who has listened to or made any pop music anywhere in Europe or America (or elsewhere!) anytime in the last 40 years can plausibly claim otherwise.


Anonymous said...

Your underestimating the power of the Beach Boys and Motown Russell. Shame, shame, shame. I guess you are just another pointy-headed professor who hates America. I knew it! I knew it! Er, maybe not the last part. But dude, Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder, Aretha, they had it goin' on. And Pet Sounds? Hell, Smile still sounds fresh which I cannot say about the Beatles who never understood the importance of production to pop music (evidence piece #1 the White Album) 

Posted by David Salmanson

Anonymous said...

The analogy of a bubble has always been in my head when I think about "pop" music. It is a pleasant distraction for a short time, can be small or blow up to be really big, but has little substance. It will blow up after a short time because it has no real staying power. It will eventually "pop". I know that is not the derivation of the term, but it is the image I have in my head. While I am not a huge fan of the Beatles, I would not put them in the category of music with no staying power or substance. I tend to think of the music from my childhood in the 80's as "pop". Madonna was a huge star, but her music does not stand the test of time. 

Posted by Brent T