226. The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations (1966)

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We’re nearly at the end of 1966 now, and it’s been great to hear the quality, innovation and strength of so many brilliant number 1 singles. Like 1965, at times it’s been classic after classic. I envy anyone who was young and into pop at the time, it must have been incredible. We may well already be at the peak year of the number 1 singles from 1952 to the present day. And there’s one more classic to cover. One of the best, in fact. There’s certainly an argument that Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys is the high watermark in pop invention. How did they get to this point?

Brian Wilson was born 20 June 1942 in California. Growing up in Hawthorne, by the time he was 16 he was sharing a bedroom with his brothers Dennis (13) and Carl (11). Their father Murry was a pianist, and his appreciation of music rubbed off on his sons, in particular Brian, who would teach his brothers how to sing harmonies.

The elder Wilson’s life changed forever that year when he received a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his birthday. Soon he was recording he, his mother Audree Neva and Carl singing, and overdubbing himself on piano, along with Carl and their neighbour David Marks on guitars. Brian began to write songs and through family gatherings got to know his cousin, Mike Love. While attending Hawthorne High School, the duo got to know Al Jardine, and before long the trio, along with Carl and Dennis (who was always the most reluctant to join in), had formed The Pendletones, with a tough taskmaster in Murry as their manager.

Dennis may not have been too fussed about The Pendletones, but it was he who suggested Brian write songs about surfing, as he was the only avid surfer in the group. Brian came up with Surfin’ and he and Love wrote Surfin’ Safari together. The former became their first single, on Candix Records in November 1961. The label wanted to call them the Surfers, but that name had been taken, so they dubbed them The Beach Boys. The release was so successful, Candix couldn’t cope and were made bankrupt, and that New Year’s Eve, The Beach Boys played their first gig.

Six months later they signed with Capitol Records and Surfin’ Safari was their new single and title track of their debut album, released in October. Jardine left the group to become a dentist, to be replaced by Marks.

1963 may have been the year of Beatlemania in the UK, but The Beach Boys were a US phenomenon once third single Surfin’ USA hit the top 10. The album of the same name swiftly followed and they were away. Brian started to begin showing an interest in the studio, choosing to double track their vocals to beef up the sound. The Beach Boys may have seemed like a one-trick pony at the time with their sun-kissed hymns to the surf, but they were certainly prolific, releasing two more albums that year – Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe, and Christmas single Little Saint Nick. Jardine returned, and Marks left a few months later.

1964 was a transitional year, and the British Invasion was a big reason for this. Suddenly surf music was out of fashion. The fact they were signed to the same label as The Beach Boys in the US won’t have helped either. Brian was rattled, and wasn’t as keen on the Fab Four back then, preferring the complex production skills of Phil Spector. Murry was sacked, and Brian hit back with I Get Around, which became their first US number 1. The album that followed, All Summer Long, was meant as a goodbye to the surf sound of old, and the instrumentation was becoming more exotic. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album rounded off the year, but Brian’s mental state was deteriorating.

1965 began with Wilson announcing his retirement from touring after an anxiety attack. He was replaced by Glenn Campbell, and instead he would concentrate on songwriting and production. This coincided with him developing an interest in drugs. Next album, The Beach Boys Today! in March, featured uptempo tracks on side one, and ballads on two. Brian’s lyrics were now focusing on his neuroses and insecurities. California Girls and Help Me Rhonda featured on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). At the end of the year, their live-in-the-studio album Beach Boys’ Party! featured their hit cover of Barbara Ann, and standalone single The Little Girl I Once Knew showcased where they were headed next – Pet Sounds.

Their most famous album, with words from jingle writer Tony Asher, raised the bar both sonically and lyrically, and contained some of their greatest songs – some of the most beautiful songs of all time in fact – namely Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and especially God Only Knows. A song so good, some friends and I named our club night after it, and some guy called Paul McCartney called it the greatest song of all time. Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, and Brian Wilson was now being hailed as a genius. What the public didn’t know was that he was already at work on a single like no other.

Good Vibrations was inspired by his mother. Andree would talk to Brian about vibrations when he was a child, and it would both fascinate and frighten him at the same time. He played what became the chorus to Asher on the piano to see if he could add some lyrics, but his ideas were discarded. He did however manage to steer Wilson away from calling it Good Vibes, wisely suggesting that ‘Vibrations’ wouldn’t date. Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the ill-fated SMiLE album, was also asked, but declined. Although the track was still in its formative stages, Brian knew he wanted an Electro-Theremin from its early stages. It’s not a true theremin as such – the instrument is controlled by a knob, rather than hovering your hand over it to produce that brilliant sound.

At the time, Good Vibrations was the most expensive song ever produced. Unusually, Brian Wilson crafted a single song as though he was working on a whole album, recording fragments of the track here and there, without an overall idea of how the song would even finsh up. Work began in February, with a full instrumental version finished in March. But it was very different to the finished version, and sounded like a funky R’n’B version. For instrumentation, The Beach Boys used members of the famed Wrecking Crew session musicians, who had already played on many number 1s, with more to come.

Work was paused for a spell while Wilson finished up producing Pet Sounds, and he returned to the single in April. At times, the nervous, sensitive Brian wondered what he was doing, and considered either letting Wilson Pickett record it or abandoning the song altogether, but was persuaded by his friend David Anderle to commit to it being the band’s next single. Understandably, some other Beach Boys members were reticent too, and worried that Brian’s ditching of accessibility would result in a resounding flop.

Normally I’d have put money on Mike Love being the most ardent critic, because, as we all know, Love has proven himself to be a dick on many occasions. However, Love was spot on in recognising that this ‘pocket symphony’, as their new press spokesman Derek Taylor (who also worked for The Beatles) called it, could have real appeal to the rising hippy movement. The lyrics he crafted were perfect.

Indeed, you can slate Love all you like, but that opening couplet, sung by Carl Wilson (Dennis was supposed to be main vocalist but fell ill with laryngitis so Carl stepped in), is spine-tingling. ‘I, I love the colourful clothes she wears/And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair’ sets the tone and, combined with the organ notes, you just know that you’re going to hear something really special. By playing with psychedelic imagery that matches the sound, yet grounding its theme in a love song, he makes the track appeal to everyone – no mean feat, as the track goes off on weird tangents like no hit single ever had. Also central to the tune’s brilliance is that wonderful, classic Beach Boys chorus. The Electro-Theremin still adds an electricity to the track, but those vocals, led by Love’s bass vocal, hark back to all their early surf songs.

At 1.41 you get the first tape splice. Some say it’s, by today’s standards, rather primitive, but not me. Suddenly, we’re in unchartered territory, and the tune loosens up and trips out as Love sings ‘I don’t know where but she sends me there’ over magical sounds made by cellos, organs, sleigh bells – so much is thrown into the mix it’s hard to really know.

Then, my favourite section. At 2.13, just when you think the track may revert to the chorus or a verse, everything comes to a halt, save for a maraca and low organ. We’re a long, long way from the orchestral ballads of the early 50s, from rock’n’roll, from Beatlemania, from everything. This could have caused the song to completely cave in, but Wilson times everything perfectly. Eventually the vocals kick in again, but it stays low key, with a harmonica joining in. And then, as we approach the three-minute mark, we get a blissful ‘aaaaah!’ and the chorus finally returns. Love the cello sound we hear soon afterwards – I’m a sucker for cellos.

Then, just as we think this symphony could go absolutely anywhere, the song fades out abruptly, and all too soon. That’s my only issue with Good Vibrations, that end fade. Well, that, and I love the extra, wordless vocal you get before the final chorus on some versions, and left in the new version Wilson included on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, released in 2004. That remake is an interesting listen, incidentally. I’m not sure if it’s due to the fall-out with Love, but Wilson opted for very different lyrics in the verses. They’re good, and the remake is very good in general, but they don’t beat Love’s.

You could argue that Brian Wilson paid the price with Good Vibrations and the aborted SMiLE, and was never the same again. But his loss was our gain, and how. All pathways were now open. The Beach Boys were on a creative par with the Beatles, and so began a psychedelic friendly war between the two groups that would result in Wilson losing his mind.

Written by: Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Producer: Brian Wilson

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 November)

222. The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine (1966)

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The Beatles spent the majority of the spring of 1966 on one task: the masterpiece that was Revolver. From George Harrison’s sarcastic counting at the start of Taxman to the dying seconds of Tomorrow Never Knows, it was a startling leap forwards in the sonic palette of the world’s biggest group.

The month after its completion, John, Paul, George and Ringo upset the first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos by declining an invitation to breakfast while touring there. The subsequent riots left the group in considerable danger, and they were relieved to make it out in one piece.

Soon after they encountered controversy again in the US, after Lennon’s comments about Christianity (see Paperback Writer) were blown out of all proportion when fan magazine Datebook reprinted the comments. He tried to defend himself at a press conference, but found himself saying sorry anyway.

It is likely that they had already decided their US tour would be their last, anyway, but this fuss over nothing will have only helped their belief that there was little point any longer. They could barely be heard over the screaming, and the songs from their new album were going to be difficult to replicate without studio trickery.

Before the tour, however, came the release of Revolver to a stunned world. Unusually, they chose to release a double-A-side from the album on the very same day. That they chose two of the least traditionally pop-sounding tracks suggests to me it was a state of intent more than anything else. And as usual, it paid off, making Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine the most unusual number 1 single yet.

In a 1966 interview, McCartney explained that Eleanor Rigby began life as he played around on the piano. He came up with the line ‘Miss Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church’. A day later he added ‘Father McCartney’ He has always insisted there was no conscious decision to name the song after the Eleanor Rigby on the gravestone later discovered in the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Liverpool. McCartney claims the forename came from Eleanor Bron, the female lead in Help! (1965), and the surname from a shop in Bristol.

As with many classic Beatles songs, there is some debate as to who did what. Paul played what he had to the other band members, as well as Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton, at Lennon’s home. They are said to have contributed ideas, but it’s likely to be mainly a McCartney song, despite Lennon claiming several times to have a fair stake in it creatively. George Harrison is alleged to have come up with the haunting ‘Ah look at all the lonely people’ refrain, and Ringo Starr contributed ‘Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’. Shotton has stated the ending, in which Father McKenzie conducts Rigby’s funeral, came from him.

What is not in doubt is who did what in the studio. Although Yesterday had featured McCartney only with a string quartet, he insisted he wanted the ensemble for Eleanor Rigby to be much darker, and apart from the backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison for the refrain, he’s the only Beatle featured. This is the first time this had happened on a UK single release from the Fab Four. Macca had been listening to Vivaldi thanks to his girlfriend Jane Asher, and it was his idea to feature a violin.

George Martin did indeed arrange a stark performance from the string players, with the stabbing sounds in the verses making it akin to something from a horror film. He and Emerick demanded the players perform much closer to the mics than they were used to, and throughout recording they tried to move away in case they audibly messed up, causing Martin to lose his natural cool. The producer came up with the masterstroke of layering the backing vocals over Paul singing ‘All the lonely people’.

So much has been said about the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby over the years. It has a depth hitherto unseen in the pop charts. Since Ticket to Ride, the Beatles were taking steps to move away from the happy-go-lucky, direct pop material. Here, they cast it aside completely, to sing about loneliness and death, in an uncharacteristically blunt manner. This must have sounded simply astounding, the first time around.

So much is said, and for good reason, about the bold new musical direction of The Beatles when they released Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever in 1967. Yet, surely, Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine would have seemed a more incredible release? Maybe it’s because, as formidable as Eleanor Rigby is, it’s a song to appreciate rather than enjoy. The emotional detachment from the narrator to the characters perhaps rubs off on the listener a little too much in the end. It should put paid to the cliche that Lennon was always the ‘arty’ one of the duo, though.

Eleanor Rigby began in the studio on 28 and 29 April, and was finished on 6 June. The best way to hear it is the original mono version, or the reworked stereo version on 1, which corrects the error in which McCartney’s vocal is accidentally double-tracked at the start of the first verse.

The flip side, Yellow Submarine, couldn’t be more different. Over the years, as with many Beatles songs, the waters have muddied when it comes to authorship claims. In a joint 1967 interview Lennon and McCartney both took credit, with John having done the verses and Paul the chorus. Since then, McCartney has claimed the song was his and he had it in mind for Ringo Starr from day one, so he deliberately ensured his limited vocal range could take it. Originally there were going to be multi-coloured submarines, but he settled on yellow. According to Lennon in 1980, singer-songwriter and friend of the band Donovan came up with ‘Sky of blue and sea of green’.

Recording commenced on 26 May, and most of the track was finished in five takes. George Martin was ill with food poisoning, which caused the band to treat the session rather like a day at school when the class is allowed to play with board games. After much messing about, the job was done. Before finishing up, Lennon decided to add some flavour to the final verse by repeating Ringo’s lines a funny voice as if he was speaking through a megaphone. Due to an accident, the original stereo version missed out the start of Lennon’s interjections.

They returned to add sound effects on 1 June. Martin was in his element, having spent his pre-Beatles production career making comedy records full of unusual noises for acts like the Goons, with whom the Fab Four shared a similar sense of humour. Most of the afternoon was spent recording a bizarre introduction, written by Lennon, in which Ringo said ‘And we will march to free the day to see them gathered there, from Land O’Groats to John O’Green, from Stepney to Utrecht, to see a yellow submarine, we love it!’. They did the right thing abandoning this idea – having heard it via a bootleg, it doesn’t really work.

A cupboard was then raided for sound effect items. Lennon blew bubbles into a glass, and even tried to replicate the sound of speaking underwater. Friends including roadie Mal Evans, who banged a big bass drum as everyone sang along to the final chorus in a conga line, and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who clinked glasses together. According to Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head (1994), the snippet of a brass band you hear is from the 1906 recording Le Reve Passé. Apparently, hidden among the sound effects is the cash register you hear at the start of Pink Floyd’s Money.

What to make of Yellow Submarine? Understandably, it divides opinion, probably more than any other Beatles song, and certainly any other single. Sometimes, if I’m honest, I can be listening to Revolver, it comes on, and I think ‘Oh nevermind, it’ll be over soon’. Like most novelty songs, it can be irritating. Why didn’t they just make it a B-side? Well, probably due to the drugs, and partly because they just could. This was 1966, the musical horizon was expanding rapidly, and the band’s imaginations were limitless at the time.

I can’t understand the fans who hate it, though. It’s a bit like those who use McCartney’s We All Stand Together as a stick to beat him with. Both tracks are bloody good children’s songs. I have a very early, hazy memory of being at school and learning about Yellow Submarine, which may have been my first exposure to The Beatles, so I can’t help but have a soft spot for this funny little song that was sung by the man who would narrate one of my favourite programmes growing up – Thomas the Tank Engine. And, all these years later, I would sing it to my eldest when it was her bath time as a baby.

Yellow Submarine was so iconic, a whole psychedelic animated feature film was released in 1968, named after it, and telling the tale of how The Beatles saved Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. It’s far from the best work linked to the Fab Four, and drags in places, but as always the songs are great, and there’s some astounding animation on display. I was blown away the first time I saw the film’s opening, featuring Eleanor Rigby.

Such was the group’s status at the time, this single, like all the others since From Me to You, hit number 1. However, it was the end of an era in some ways. On 29 August, the Beatles played their final gig, at San Franciso’s Candlestick Park. There would be no Christmas single in 1966, and famously, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever didn’t top the charts, ending an incredible run of 11 concurrent number 1s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 4 (18 August-14 September)

Births:

Garbage singer Shirley Manson – 26 August

217. The Beatles – Paperback Writer (1966)

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At this point, The Beatles had finally got off the treadmill of one film, two albums and a million tours, after a planned third movie was cancelled. This afforded the Fab Four the chance to finally give album production more care and attention than they were used to. And to say Beatles fans felt the benefit was an understatement.

The result was Revolver. John Lennon and George Harrison were now indulging in LSD, and the band entered their peak years of creativity. On April 3 they began the sessions with the album closer, the mind-blowing Tomorrow Never Knows. It had to be the last track, as nothing could follow it.

A week later they set to work on a new single. Paul McCartney’s Paperback Writer was an experiment in writing a pop song that didn’t concern love. There certainly hadn’t been a number 1 about writing a book before. McCartney has said in later years that he was inspired by reading an article in the Daily Mail (name-checked in the song) about an aspiring author. He’d also been considering writing a song based around one chord. He didn’t quite pull it off here, but he did come close. According to Lennon in 1972, he helped with some of the lyrics. He also described it as the ‘son of Day Tripper‘, and considering the similarity of the riff, he had a point.

There’s some dispute over who played what, but either McCartney or Harrison were behind the main riff. What is beyond dispute is Macca’s bass-playing. Lennon had complained about the lack of bass on their records, and wanted to know why they couldn’t make it as loud as it sounded on soul records. They’d even considered recording Revolver at Stax Records’ studio beforehand. According to the late Geoff Emerick, who had just joined the production crew, Paperback Writer became their loudest single to date.

They achieved this by using a loudspeaker as a microphone, directly in front of the bass speaker. A new piece of equipment featured in the mastering process too, known as Automatic Transient Overload Control. McCartney clearly decided to go all out, and provided his best bass line to date. It was also a sign of things to come as his bass-playing became busier over the next few years. I do think his bass skills are unsung.

While much more conventional than Tomorrow Never Knows, Paperback Writer is certainly their oddest single up to this point. It may not have the trippy sounds of Revolver‘s closer, or even the pioneering backwards vocals on the B-side, Rain, but few bands did harmonies as well as the Beatles, so to hear them pushed to the foreground so much, with echo laid on top, still sounds exciting. It’s an unusually messy recording by The Beatles’ standards, with Lennon and Harrison laughing their way through ‘Frere Jacques’ in the background. It bears no relation to the theme of the song, but somehow it fits. Apparently it was made up on the spot during recording.

I love this pre-Pepper, jangly era of songs like She Said She Said and And Your Bird Can Sing, and wish there was more of it. If you can, check out the mono version over the stereo, as the extreme separation on the latter spoils the effect, and it’s also missing some of the echo.

Due to The Beatles increasing studio experimentation, live promotion of their singles was becoming increasingly difficult to pull off. Another reason for them to be considering ending touring, no doubt. As with the last few singles, they recorded promotional videos for the A and B-sides. Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed all four, with the most famous being the colour films made around Chiswick House. The Fab Four did attempt a live performance on Top of the Pops that June, but the clip, like so many, has sadly been erased from history.

Also seemingly forgotten about is the fact that EMI used the infamous ‘butcher’ images to promote the single. Later in 1966, Capitol issued a compilation called Yesterday and Today. The original cover was a bizarre photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo in white coats, grinning away with slabs of meat and decapitated baby dolls (an outtake is featured above). It understandably didn’t go down too well, and was quickly replaced. But the image had also been used for Paperback Writer in the UK. What had they been thinking?

Well, they had hired Australian photographer Robert Whitaker for a surreal unfinished project called A Somnanbulant Adventure. McCartney stated on the Anthology television series that they had worked with him before and knew he shared their sense of humour… but he doesn’t know what Whitaker was hoping to achieve. Lennon claimed it was a protest at the Vietnam War, which seems a bold statement for the Fab Four to have made at that point. On Anthology, George Harrison typically got straight to the point and said he found it ‘gross, and stupid’. To be fair to Whitaker, he has since said he agreed with the image being banned in its unfinished state as it wasn’t getting to the point he was trying to make… that the Beatles were ‘flesh and blood’.

No, I’m still no wiser either.

Further controversy was to come for The Beatles. In March, John Lennon had been interviewed by Maureen Cleave for the Evening Standard newspaper. While discussing the decline of Christianity, he said ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now.’ Nothing was said at the time it was published, but it would come back to bite them.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 June-6 July)

Deaths:

Writer Margery Allingham – 30 June 

Meanwhile…

29 June: Barclays Bank introduced the Barclaycard, which became Britain’s first credit card in November 1967.

3 July: 31 arrests were made outside the US embassy when a protest against the Vietnam War turned violent.

215. The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black (1966)

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1965 had been a phenomenal year for The Rolling Stones, and saw them established as the biggest rivals to The Beatles for the pop crown, despite the nihilism of rock classics (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Get Off of My Cloud.

That December they began work on their fourth album Aftermath. Originally conceived as the soundtrack to an abandoned film, the Stones had much more time than usual to work on this album, and it showed.

For the first time they released an album featuring only songs written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they experimented with their sound. Featuring Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane, Under My Thumb and Out of Time, it’s easily their best album up to this point and perhaps their best to date.

Recorded during the same sessions in March 1966, and released as the opening track of the US version of Aftermath, Paint It, Black took The Rolling Stones into new territory, and remains a real stand-out track.

Initially it had been written with a standard rock-pop arrangement, and lyrically Jagger was continuing on the dark path of their previous two singles, but this time his disgust with the world had a reason. I only recently realised Paint It, Black specifically relates to a loved one’s sudden death, rather than general malaise and depression. Of course it was there, right in front of me, from the very start, if I’d taken proper notice of Jagger’s lyrics. The ‘line of cars and they are painted black’ refers to the funeral, and ‘I could not forsee this thing happening to you’ suggests how unexpected the death was. Something the band were to experience themselves soon…

Although Jagger has never said who the song refers to, many believe it concerns a soldier in Vietnam, which is backed up by Stanley Kubrick playing it over the credits of Full Metal Jacket in 1987.

Fooling around with the song in the studio, Bill Wyman played on the organ and Charlie Watts improvised a double-time drum beat that became the song’s distinctive, unusual gallop. The band decided this rhythm would make a nice counterpoint to the bleak lyrics.

The key ingredient that elevates Paint It, Black to a classic, however, came from Brian Jones. Frustrated with his decline in importance to the band, and with Jagger and Richards now in charge, he began experimenting with new instruments and sounds. To compliment the new Moroccan feel to the song, he laid sitar over the top. Inspired by George Harrison, he was taught by Harihar Rao, a disciple of Ravi Shankar. The Beatles get all the credit for popularising the sitar, but Paint It, Black was one of the first pop songs to do so too, and the best, for the time being. The whole band put in excellent performances, from Richards’ flamenco opening to the finale, in which Wyman goes crazy on the bass.

Released on 13 May, Paint It, Black quickly knocked the sunshine of Pretty Flamingo from the top of the pops, and cast a dark cloud over the optimism of the spring and summer of 1966. A world away from their early blues tracks, it proved The Rolling Stones could be just as effective at experimenting as The Beatles. It’s easily one of their greatest tracks, and one of the best number 1s of the 60s. However, The Rolling Stones began to hit a rocky patch after its release, and controversy and further experimentation led to their popularity sliding. Paint It, Black was their last number 1 until 1968.

And why did the title have that strange comma, adding emphasis on ‘Black’? A further sign of the darkness enveloping the group? No. It was just an error by Decca Records.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 1 (26 May-1 June)

Births:

Actress Helena Bonham Carter – 26 May

199. The Byrds – Mr Tambourine Man (1965)

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The Animals had kick-started folk rock when they covered The House of the Rising Sun, but this single took folk rock to a whole new level. Californian band The Byrds were also heavily influenced by The Beatles, who in turn would be influenced by them. Music was about to get a lot more colourful.

The origin of The Byrds began in 1964 when Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby first worked together. All three had previously been folk singers on the coffeehouse circuit in the early-1960s. McGuinn had also worked as a professional singwriter at Brill Building, and his tutor was Bobby Darin, a UK number 1 artist twice.

By the time 1964 began, McGuinn had introduced Beatles songs to his repertoire. Clark also loved the moptops, and approached McGuinn after watching him perform at LA’s Troubadour folk club. They decided to become a Peter and Gordon-style duo and also wrote their own material. David Crosby in turn approached them after a concert, and he began harmonising with them on stage. They named themselves The Jet Set due to McGuinn’s love of aeronautics, and began recording demos.

By mid-1964 they had hired a drummer. Michael Clarke certainly looked the part, coming across like Brian Jones, but he could barely play the congas and didn’t own a drumkit, so he played cardboard boxes and a tambourine to begin with. They hired session musicians to record a single, Please Let Me Love You, and briefly changed their name to The Beefeaters to cash in on the British Invasion, but it didn’t chart. That August their manager Jim Dickson had got hold of an acetate of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man.

Dylan had written the track earlier that year and first recorded it during the sessions for Another Side of Bob Dylan. His version was four verses of beautiful, surrealistic imagery, with lyrics completely different to anything that had topped the charts before. Dylan was fast becoming as hip and influential as The Beatles, and of course Zimmerman and the Fab Four soon crossed paths.

Despite this, The Jet Set weren’t really sure what to make of it at first. They changed the time signature and cut right back to one verse, but still had doubts. In an effort to persuade them, Dickson brought Dylan along to watch them play his song. According to Johnny Rogan in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (1998), an uncharacteristically enthusiastic Dylan said to the Jet Set ‘Wow, man! You can dance to that!’. His postivity rubbed off on them.

Also that summer, they watched A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and decided they needed to have the same gear as John, Paul, George and Ringo. The most important purchase to contribute to their developing sound was McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. In October, Dickson hired mandolin player Chris Hillman to be their bassist. Hillman brought country influences into the group for the first time. On November 10, thanks to their manager’s connections, and a recommendation from jazz legend Miles Davis, The Jet Set prepared for take-off by signing with Columbia. Over Thanksgiving dinner the four-piece changed their name to The Byrds, another tribute to their heroes.

On 20 January 1965 the Byrds went to record Mr Tambourine Man in Columbia Studios, Hollywood as their debut single, but producer Terry Melcher wasn’t convinced they could pull it off. He decided to be cautious and instead hired the famous session musicians The Wrecking Crew. Other than McGuinn, Clark and Crosby’s vocals, McGuinn’s guitar is the only sound on the single that belongs to the band.

Not that it really matters, as this beautiful recording is all about the vocals and guitar anyway. The Byrds may have gutted the song’s lyrics, but they fleshed out the sound, adding dreamlike, colourful shading to the words. Dare I say these colours were psychedelic? Despite wearing their influences brazenly on their sleeves, The Byrds truly were something new for the pop scene at that point. They may have still been getting their act together musically, but they were certainly moving in the right circles, meaning half the battle was already won. They looked incredibly hip, and the first signs of the US counterculture became keen followers.

The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride had broken the mold for hinting at where pop lyrics could go, but by taking Dylan and melding his abstract writing to their sound, The Byrds were, appropriately, reaching new heights. Ironically, it knocked The Hollies’ I’m Alive from the top spot, meaning David Crosby toppled his future band member Graham Nash in the UK. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Their debut single went to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and they convinced Melcher they were ready to record their debut album, which went by the same name. Listening to it this week, it sounds no different to The Wrecking Crew, so perhaps Melcher was worrying for nothing.  Having said that, their UK tour soon after was poorly-received. They certainly didn’t have the charisma of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

The Byrds were soon enveloping religious text, more Dylan songs, even Vera Lynn war anthems with their signature sound. Early the following year they released their groundbreaking single Eight Miles High, one of the first psychedelic classics. Ironically, prior to the release, Clark quit the band due to his fear of flying. He became a critically-acclaimed solo artist with songs including Dark of My Moon but was troubled and unable to eclipse The Byrds, dying in 1991 from heart failure.

Third album Fifth Dimension was released in the summer of 1966, and the band further explored jazz and raga influences. Just as psychedelia went overground, they began adding country to their sound in 1967, and So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star is believed to be a jibe at the Monkees. That same year saw Jim McGuinn find religion and change his name to Roger, and tensions erupt within the band. They sacked their management and during the sessions for what would become The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), Michael Clarke quit. McGuinn and Hillman were growing tired of Crosby’s out-there opinions that the press would gleefully report. They drove to his house, told him they were better off without him, and sacked him. Crosby went on to form one of rock’s first supergroups with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and later on Neil Young. Their first album in particular is a classic, and this lowly writer had the great pleasure of seeing Crosby, Stills & Nash perform at Glastonbury 2009.

Line-ups in The Byrds changed over and over from then on, most notably with the addition and departure of Gram Parsons, who helped the group embrace country to a greater extent and resulted in their acclaimed Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (1968). However, the hippies were annoyed at the lack of psychedelia, and the country establishment were just as annoyed at this hippy band trying their hand at country.

Around this time, the producer of Mr Tambourine Man, Terry Melcher, had a fall-out with a struggling wannabe musician called Charles Manson. The fact the producer refused to work with such an eccentric enraged Manson, and ultimately led to to the murder of Sharon Tate and others at Melcher’s former home.

1969 was a more successful year for The Byrds. Ballad of Easy Rider became the theme to the classic movie Easy Rider (1969) (albeit a solo McGuinn version) and the excellent Wasn’t Born to Follow also featured on the soundtrack. But the 70s saw the law of dimishing returns come into effect, and by 1972, McGuinn broke up the band for a lucrative reunion of the original five-piece. Predictably enough, this didn’t last long as egos had only grown over the years.

Several versions of The Byrds came and went until the original five reformed for the last time to tie-in with being entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reunion was timely, as Clark died soon after, and Clarke also died two years later of liver disease.

Despite Crosby and HIllman being publicly in favour of some kind of Byrds reunion, McGuinn always refuses. Earlier in 2018, however, he and Hillman celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo with a tour. For as long as these three are still alive, there will always be an audience for a Byrds reunion, though, and money talks, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

Written by: Bob Dylan

Producer: Terry Melcher

Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 July-4 August)

Births:

Author JK Rowling – 31 July
Director Sam Mendes – 1 August 

Deaths:

Boxer Freddie Mills – 25 July 

Meanwhile…

22 July: After failing to win the general election in 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home found himself on borrowed time as leader of the Conservatives, yet it was still a surprise when he announced his resignation. During his time as party leader he had set up the means in which the next leader would be voted in, and so five days later Edward Heath won a secret ballot, defeating Enoch Powell and Reginald Maudling to become the new Leader of the Opposition. Heath was something different for the Conservatives, as it was unusual for their leader to be from the lower-middle class. As new Prime Minister Harold Wilson had deliberately played down his posh roots, and it had helped his public image no end, this was probably a canny move by the Conservatives.

24 July: Former world light heavyweight boxing champion Freddie Mills was found in his car after being shot. Mills died the next day. He had gone into light entertainment following his retirement from boxing and the news shocked the country. It is still not known exactly what happened, but the police ruled his death was a suicide. Despite being a family man, Mills was rumoured to be homosexual, and that combined with the fact he owed money to a crime syndicate, meant all kinds of rumours have circulated, including him being a serial killer, being in a relationship with former number 1 artist Michael Halliday, or that he was sexually involved with Ronnie Kray.

29 July: The premiere of the Beatles new film, Help! (more on that next time).

193. The Beatles – Ticket to Ride (1965)

In February, The Beatles had begun filming, and recording the soundtrack album, for their second movie (their first in colour), provisionally called Eight Arms to Hold You. Just as weird as the title was the film itself. Once again directed by Richard Lester, this was a more surreal, loose, knockabout comedy than A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and with a bigger budget, too. Intended as a spoof of spy films, it essentially became an excuse for the Fab Four to travel to exotic locations.

The Beatles spent most of the time stoned out of their minds, and would often struggle to stop themselves laughing while filming. In some scenes, their eyes are bloodshot from all the smoking they indulged in. Lads.

Fortunately for everyone, The Beatles on marijuana didn’t result in self-indulgent dribble. It made for their best film. That’s nothing compared to the impact on their music, though.

Ticket to Ride was the first track worked on for their fifth album. In 1980, Lennon claimed in Playboy that the song was pretty much his own. He also proudly stated it invented heavy metal. The jury’s out on both, but it began one hell of a creative patch. None of their singles had sounded like this, musically or lyrically. He said Paul McCartney was only responsible for Ringo Starr’s drum sound, whereas McCartney later stated they wrote it together in three hours.

Even if Lennon was right, you can’t underestimate the drums on Ticket to Ride, so McCartney clearly made an important contribution. Making Starr play in such a stop-start fashion created an epic, proto-pyschedelic sound, which isn’t that far removed from the still-startling Tomorrow Never Knows, created a year later. George Harrison once said that the drums were also influenced by the equally important jagged guitar riff, which he claimed ownership of, having played it on his Rickenbacker. Whoever came up with what, this track was breaking new ground.

Although The Beatles were innovative with their songwriting from the start, those first few years were often full of basic lyrics about love. Not this time. The combination of an adoration of Bob Dylan and drugs made the words in Ticket to Ride more adult, oblique and interesting. A woman is leaving the narrator, that much we know. So far, so ‘blues’. But where to? Some suggest the woman has become a prostitute. McCartney once claimed she’s simply off to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I find the former more likely. The prefix of ‘I think’ adds so much to the song, without explaining itself. And although the narrator isn’t sure exactly whether he’s upset or not, he says his baby definitely isn’t. It was rare at the time to allow a woman in a break-up to have the upper hand in a pop song.

Ticket to Ride was also a first for The Beatles for the way in which it was recorded. They were taking an increased interest in the way their songs sounded, and from now on they would tape rehearsals and concentrate on backing tracks, before overdubbing more instruments and the vocals.

Although most of the rest of the album it came from was fairly straightforward, Ticket to Ride marked the start of the band’s psychedelic period, and that’s easily my favourite era of my favourite band. The slow pace of the drumming, combined with the drone of the guitars, gives it an Indian feel. It seems this was a coincidence rather than by design, as it was later, during the making of the film, that Harrison became interested in Indian music (it seems the decidedly un-PC comedy Indian characters in Help! had their uses after all). The middle-eight was your more standard Beatles fare, but I can still find the switch back to the main riff spine-tingling, even after all these years. The ‘My baby don’t care’ refrain in the coda is a thrilling climax, with great guitar licks from McCartney.

Ticket to Ride enjoyed a lengthy (by 1965 standards – most number 1s only lasted a week) three-week stint at the top. It was their longest track to date, running for over three minutes. Singles were getting longer, hair was getting longer, things were getting weirder. They promoted the song on Top of the Pops, and a brief clip of the performance was also shown on Doctor Who in May, as part of the story The Chase.

The most famous performance of the song was in their second movie. By the time of its release it was known as Help!, and Ticket to Ride featured in a sequence in which the band learned to ski in the Austrian Alps while also avoiding the assassins attempting to steal Ringo’s ring. A highly influential part of the film, some say it was a big influence on the idea of music videos and eventually MTV.

As I mentioned in my blog for I Feel Fine though, The Beatles were already making promo films to save them having to be everywhere at once. That November, they made promos for their next single, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, and also made one for Ticket to Ride to feature on a festive edition of Top of the Pops. The foursome mimed in front of a backdrop of large tickets, with John, Paul and George sat in director’s chairs.

She Loves You is perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, but I think Ticket to Ride may be my favourite song of the early years of The Beatles. Time will never dull its magnificence.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 April-12 May)

Births:

Actress Anna Chancellor – 27 April 
Television presenter Alice Beer – 1 May 
Wrestler Darren Matthews – 10 May

Deaths:

Welsh novelist Howard Spring – 3 May

Meanwhile…

23 April: The Pennine Way opened. The National Trail runs 267 miles from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District, up to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.

26 April: Manchester United won the Football League First Division title.

1 May: Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, defeating Leeds United 2-1 at Wembley Stadium.

7 May: The Rhodesian Front, led by Ian Smith, won a landslide victory in the general election in Rhodesia.