I Got a Head Full of Ideas
The Rolling Stones record their version of gospel and chamber pop on January 11-12. Dylan records Bringing It All Back Home on January 13-15, fusing psychedelic folk lyrics with rock and roll and turning the album into high art. The Byrds record "Mr. Tambourine Man" on January 20.
The Rolling Stones' twenty-one-year-old manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, saw how much money Lennon-McCartney were making through their songwriting royalties and pushed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to develop their own partnership. The two Stones had written pop songs for other artists, but for their own band's records they stuck mostly to Chess blues classics. With a handful of atmospheric exceptions such as "Tell Me" and "Good Times, Bad Times," their originals were dominated by puppy love clichés that made them unsuitable for the Stones' tough image. Richards said that gooey love ballads were much easier to write than good rock-and-roll songs.1 Even the best of the originals, "So Much in Love," covered by the Mighty Avengers, sounded only slightly more bitter than the Brit pop of Herman's Hermits.
Their breakthrough came when Jagger gave up the phony role of good guy and took for himself the persona of the rake, in "Heart of Stone." Set to country blues à la Otis Redding's "Pain in My Heart," the song warns little girls to stay away because the singer enjoys making them sad. The eerie backing vocals mirror the group's sullen album covers.
The song made it to No. 19, so the Stones went back into the studio on January 11 with two more Jagger/Richards compositions. At the suggestion of Phil Spector's arranger and conductor, Jack Nitzsche, whom they had met at the Teen Awards Music International (T.A.M.I.) Show the previous October, they recorded at RCA Studios in Hollywood.
In light of the Stones' nefarious image, it's ironic that their first quasi-self-penned U.K. No. 1 was derived from a gospel song. During one of the band's U.S. tours, Richards had picked up a Staple Singers album, and when he was home in the United Kingdom, he played along with the record to learn the chords. One of the tracks was the traditional spiritual "This May Be the Last Time," recorded in 1955 and distinguished by the spectral blues guitar of Pops Staples. (Though they performed under the name the Staple Singers, their surname was Staples.) James Brown had adapted the song for his B side to "Out of Sight" the previous July. Though bloggers have grumbled that Jagger/Richards should have credited Pops Staples for their version, Brown did not credit him, either. With traditional (that is, pre-copyright) songs, you didn't need to share the cash as you did with covers. Jagger/Richards sped up the song and changed the lyrics to make it a love song-or, rather, a "threat song": if his woman didn't shape up and try to please him, he was going to take off.
Their earlier A side "It's All Over Now" has a massive, echoing intro thanks to Chess Studio's engineer Ron Malo, but after nine seconds the lead guitar recedes to let Jagger sing. In "The Last Time," however, guitarist Brian Jones's riff keeps droning throughout the entire tune, a move unusual in pop at the time. Soon after the song's release on February 26, hypnotic riff-based hooks came to predominate in British rock, from the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" to the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul."
Richards played acoustic and then performed the solo. On many tunes, he'd play rhythm and sing harmony until the instrumental, at which point he would switch to the lead.
Perhaps the highlight of the song is the climax in which Jagger screams into the sonic vortex like a wild primate while the backing vocals and beat endlessly repeat-the epitome of Oldham's "wall of noise," his attempt to emulate his hero Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production technique. Spector himself was on hand to give the song a listen, and predicted it would reach No. 10. It went to No. 9 in the United States.
Jagger later commented, "I suppose we'd been writing for almost nine months to a year by then, just learning how to put songs together. And with 'The Last Time,' it became fun. After that, we were confident that we were on our way, that we'd just got started."2
For the B side, "Play with Fire," Jagger returned to the "Heart of Stone" theme, warning a girl not to get involved with him. But he fleshed in her character by making her a socialite with diamonds and a chauffeur, and added a decadent storyline.
Like the Beatles, the Stones had become sought-after party guests of the aristocracy. At a dance hosted by the British ambassador to the United States, Sir David Ormsby-Gore, Jagger even befriended Princess Margaret. (It was said Queen Elizabeth disapproved of their decades-long friendship, which is why she avoided the 2003 ceremony in which Jagger was knighted wearing Adidas sneakers.)3
Naturally there was some ambivalence toward social climbing in a group formed to emulate working-class black bluesmen. Jagger has it both ways. In "Play with Fire," the contempt in his voice says he doesn't need the socialite, but he's also bragging to us about the rarified circles that want him.
Jagger's warning to the young lady becomes gradually more unsettling because of the amount of personal information he knows about her mother, an heiress who owns a block in one of London's richest neighborhoods. Jagger knows that the father was never home so the mother went out for "kicks" in the exclusive London district of Knightsbridge-presumably with Jagger. In retaliation, the father took the mother's jewelry away and gave it to the daughter, and now the mother has to party on the poorer side of town, Stepney. Jagger warns the daughter that she had better not fool around with him if she wants to keep her jewelry, or the father will cut her off, too, and she'll have to go live with her mother.
It's a (more cynical) precursor to the mother-daughter rivalry in the Mike Nichols film The Graduate. In an interview decades later, Rolling Stone's editor Jann Wenner said, "At the time to write about stuff like that must have been somewhat daring."
Jagger replied, "I don't know if it was daring. It just hadn't been done. Obviously there had been lyric writers that had written stuff much more interesting and sophisticated-say, Noel Coward, who I didn't really know about. He was someone that your parents knew."4
Even if it wasn't daring, it was innovative considering that while the Stones were recording the song, the Beatles' lyrically basic "I Feel Fine" was on top of the charts. A few months after "Play with Fire" was released, in February 1965, Dylan would write his own epic about a rich girl's descent to the streets, "Like a Rolling Stone."
In painting a detailed story and naming specific parts of town, Jagger/Richards brought a lyrical specificity to rock that, to date, only Chuck Berry and his disciples the Beach Boys had explored, with the latter band's milieu confined to the innocent world of drive-ins and malt shops.
Initially the Stones attempted an up-tempo version called "Mess with Fire," which fizzled.5 But, as Nitzsche recalled, the band was flexible; when something didn't work, they didn't hesitate to try it in a different style. Still, by 7:00 a.m., drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones had fallen asleep on the studio couches while a janitor swept up. Jagger and Richards left them there as they went into the echo chamber. Phil Spector took over bass on a tuned-down electric guitar while Richards played what he called "Elizabethan blues" on his acoustic. In his playing, Richards had been influenced by Big Bill Broonzy, a guitarist who toured the college circuit in the 1950s, playing music from the era of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) alongside folk and blues songs.6 Nitzsche played harpsichord, creating an atmosphere almost akin to that of a horror film. Jagger's muted performance increased the menace by underselling it. His tambourine and Nitzsche's tam-tams rounded out the sound.
Half a mile away, at the Gold Star and Western Studios, Brian Wilson was simultaneously adding a cornucopia of instruments to The Beach Boys Today!. Spector had already been melding pop and classical, as had Burt Bacharach, but the era of baroque pop, a.k.a. chamber pop, in which bands fused elements of classical with rock, had now officially begun.
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The next day, January 13, in the Columbia recording studio in New York City, Dylan played solo on acoustic guitar or piano for the first day of sessions. On the 14th, however, producer Tom Wilson brought in a whole platoon of musicians: three guitarists (blues guitarist Bruce Langhorne, pop guitarist Kenny Rankin, and general session guitarist Al Gorgoni), two bassists (William E. Lee, father of filmmaker Spike Lee; and Joseph Macho Jr.), a pianist (Paul Griffin), and a drummer (Bobby Gregg).
In three hours, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., the eight of them recorded almost all of Bringing It All Back Home's first side: "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (captured in one take), "Outlaw Blues," "She Belongs to Me," and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." They didn't rehearse; Langhorne later described their chemistry as telepathic. That evening, Dylan did another session with future Lovin' Spoonful John Sebastian on bass and John Hammond Jr. on guitar, but no cuts from that session made the album.
The following day the original musicians returned for another 2:30-5:30 p.m. session, except pianist Paul Griffin, who couldn't make it. (Frank Owens covered for him.) The day went as smoothly as the one before. Dylan would demonstrate a track on piano, and then the ensemble would try it at a couple of different speeds. "Maggie's Farm" was captured in one take, and they also got the electric rocker "On the Road Again" in the can.
Dylan recorded the entire second side that same day. Langhorne played electric guitar for "Mr. Tambourine Man," and Lee joined Dylan on bass for "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Dylan recorded "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Gates of Eden" by himself on guitar. (Electric versions of the songs of side two were recorded but never released.)
The album's single "Subterranean Homesick Blues" synthesizes the Beat Generation, Chuck Berry, and Woody Guthrie. The title is a reference to Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans. The rhythm comes from Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." The opening lines come from "Taking It Easy," written by Guthrie and recorded by Pete Seeger's Weavers. The latter song features a father in the basement mixing up the hops while the brother watches out for the cops. In "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan's associate mixes up a different sort of (unnamed) medicine, but the cops are shaking them down nonetheless, and planting bugs in preparation for a bust. The protagonist realizes it's time to go straight: get sick (street slang for giving up heroin), get clean, join society, and try to be a success. Soon, however, he's homesick for the underground lifestyle and jumps back down the manhole. But even there, he's screwed-there's no water because vandals have stolen the pump handles. The song prophesizes the journey of the hippies, who would soon begin to drop out of mainstream society and into the drug culture, only to find that lifestyle to be equally stressful. Some credit the song with being one of the first proto-hip-hop tracks, more than twenty years ahead of white rappers such as the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Anthony Kiedis (whose group, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would cover the tune).
Dylan was regarded as the king of the topical song but had become disinterested in writing solemn political tracts. "Maggie's Farm" was a new kind of protest song, one he could write without being bored. He sings the darkly hilarious portrait of a plantation with such hipper-than-thou confidence that it's amazing to think the band had been working together for only a few hours. As the song's sharecropper refuses to go along with the program anymore, Bill Lee booms wryly along on bass; twenty-five years later, his son, Spike Lee, would grow up to embody black dissent.
Dylan's euphoria at finally living his rock-and-roll dream infuses side one, epitomized by the spontaneous laughter opening "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." The song itself is a near remake of his aborted rock single "Mixed Up Confusion," almost as if he were resuming where he left off two years before. Set to a piano that evokes Chaplin's silent comedies, the song is an endless cartoon about pirates let loose in an anarchic New York where bowling balls come rolling down the road to knock you off your feet and where feet pop out of telephones to kick you in the head. It's the moment when rock lyrics go psychedelic.
Most of the songs of side one are variations on the same basic blues-rock groove, but two are mellow tributes to Dylan's muses, Joan Baez and Sara Lownds. (Like the heroine of "She Belongs to Me," Baez wore an Egyptian ring.) Baez visited the studio during the sessions.7 She had been the much bigger star when she and Dylan first met, almost two years before, and took Dylan on tour with her, giving him a solo spot during her shows. They were now perceived by many to be the "first couple" of folk.
But within the last few months, Dylan had secretly begun seeing Sara Lownds, a former model and bunny from the New York Playboy Club who was friends with his manager's wife (Sally Grossman, the woman on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home).8 Lownds lived in an apartment at New York's Chelsea Hotel with her young daughter, whom she'd had with a fashion photographer, and Dylan rented a room there to be near her. She was the more likely inspiration for "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," as the song concerns a woman who has no ideals and speaks like silence-the opposite of Baez, who'd founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence and constantly pushed Dylan to use his fame for political good. In a year and a half, Dylan would retreat into silence with Lownds as his wife.
The remaining two tracks on the side ("Outlaw Blues" and "On the Road Again") are comparatively weak retreads of the other rock numbers. Their inclusion is baffling, considering the band had captured "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," a far superior song and already a regular part of Dylan's act; but perhaps he was sick of it or felt it was too straightforward. He set it aside, allowing Manfred Mann to take it all the way to No. 2 in the United Kingdom. He also demo'd "I'll Keep It with Mine" and "Farewell, Angelina," but they were ballads in the vein of his previous album, and Dylan was eager to show off his own blues band (which the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman noted in his memoir sounded much like theirs).9 After all, the title of the album, Bringing It All Back Home, essentially proclaims that Dylan is taking the rock-and-roll crown back from the Brits.
After six tries, Dylan and Langhorne finally got the perfect take of "Mr. Tambourine Man." It opens the acoustic side two, which completes Dylan's transformation from protest singer to full-time surrealist. For the transition, he had found another role model along with Rimbaud, and this one was alive.
Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg lived on the fault line between social hero and exhibitionist loony, as might be expected from his upbringing. His father was a poet-high school teacher, and his mother was a schizophrenic nudist Communist; Ginsberg authorized her lobotomy in 1947. He was expelled from Columbia University for writing dirty words on his window, and in his poems he boasted that he was everything that repressed postwar America hated: gay, druggie, a Communist when he was a kid. But he maintained that he wasn't a bad person: he deserved love as everyone deserved love. When Ginsberg went to trial for obscenity in 1957 but was not convicted, it gave courage to outsiders and helped loosen things up, paving the way for the counterculture to follow.
Dylan absorbed the stream-of-consciousness style that Ginsberg and his fellow Beat Jack Kerouac developed together, a musical hipster patois that transformed gritty reality into incandescent wordplay. They found beauty in the modern urban landscape and expressed it in a cadence influenced by their beloved bebop, informed by their quest for spiritual transcendence. Ginsberg cried the first time he heard Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" because he felt the torch had been passed to a new generation.10 The two artists quickly struck up a friendship.
Ginsberg saw himself in the prophetic tradition, confronting America with its soul-sucking dark side in order to heal it. In "Gates of Eden" on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan chants stridently as if he were a biblical prophet. What exactly he is prophesizing is unclear, though, as he deliberately replaces the easy interpretation of his earlier morality tracts with Zen koan-like images that veer into the bizarre. Perhaps Eden was the state of enlightenment, the only thing real in a hopelessly twisted world, or perhaps the song was designed to be impenetrable.
The main message of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" seems to be that society will exploit you if you don't get hip (a theme that especially resonated as the Vietnam draft kicked in that spring). But what blew people's minds more than any individual aphorism or cinematic image was Dylan's ability to endlessly play folk-blues riffs while reeling off stanza after spellbinding stanza in enigmatic emotionless delivery, leaving his live audiences stunned and unsure if he was a mystic oracle channeling divinations, a genius, a charlatan, or all the above.
The album's final track, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"-with the sky folding under you and orphans crying like a fire in the sun-showed that he had surpassed Rimbaud, just one of many spirits in his magpie synthesis of ancient folk bards, Ginsberg, Guthrie, Berry, Johnny Cash, and the Stones. With Bringing It All Back Home, he had created the first rock album that sucked the art of poetry into its bloodstream, the moment in which LPs became not just collections of pop songs but works to stand alongside masterpieces in any form, from Picasso's Guernica to James Joyce's Ulysses. But unlike those pièces de résistance, Dylan's would soon be heard by youth across the planet, listening, as Ginsberg put it, "to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox."
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The Byrds' first single had failed to chart after its release the October before, and their manager, Jim Dickson, knew they needed something special to break through. He'd heard Dylan sing "Mr. Tambourine Man" live, but the song hadn't been released yet, so Dickson got a copy of the acetate and pushed the Byrds to record it. None of them really liked it at first. Vocalist Gene Clark gave it a shot, but rhythm guitarist-vocalist David Crosby convinced him it wasn't worth pursuing.11
Lead guitarist Jim McGuinn resisted initially as well. Back when he was a folk singer in Greenwich Village, he knew Dylan, "but he was my enemy ... I felt competitive. He had like twenty little girl fans and I didn't so I was mad at him. I didn't particularly dig his imitation of Ramblin' Jack Elliot or Woody Guthrie. I thought, okay, anybody could get up there and do that. But he was sincere about it so he carried it. That's why he made it, because he was sincere about everything he tried. And he used to play these trust games with all his friends back then. Like he'd tell me confidentially that he was really down and out and hooked on heroin-you know, a complete lie-just to see if it would get back to him. He was pretty weird."12
But McGuinn gave "Mr. Tambourine Man" a shot. He cut down the lyrics, focusing on the line about boot heels wandering because it made him think of the Beatles' Cuban-heeled boots and Jack Kerouac wandering across America.13 They set it to the beat of Beatles and Phil Spector songs. The track needed some kind of intro, so McGuinn took eight notes from Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."
On January 20, five days after Dylan recorded his official version, the Byrds went into Columbia Records' Los Angeles studio to record "Mr. Tambourine Man." Their producer was Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day. Melcher decided that no one in the band except McGuinn was technically good enough to play their instruments on record yet, so he hired LA's top session musicians to accompany McGuinn on guitar and lead vocals: Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell on electric piano, and Larry Knechtel on bass. (Along with other musicians such as guitarist Glen Campbell and bassist Carol Kaye, these three formed the core of a loose-knit band of session musicians called the Wrecking Crew, which played on countless hits, including those by the Beach Boys and Phil Spector.) Clark and Crosby added their harmonies. Melcher tweaked the beat to imitate "Don't Worry Baby," the Beach Boys' take on the Spector drums.14
They wanted the guitar sound the Beatles had gotten on the Beatles for Sale cuts "What You're Doing" and "Words of Love." But Columbia's engineers had not worked with rock musicians before and were afraid McGuinn's twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar would blow out their expensive equipment. So engineer Ray Gerhardt ran the guitar through a compressor, a mixing tool that lowered the loud audio signals but left the quieter ones untouched. Then to be safe, he double-compressed it-which ended up making the guitar sound especially trebly and bright, and allowed each note to sustain a few extra seconds. At the mixing board, they tweaked McGuinn's vocals to sound like a cross between Lennon and Dylan.15
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Now it was just a matter of waiting for these three records' release dates: February 26 for the Stones, March 27 for Dylan, April 12 for the Byrds.
Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Grant Jackson