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Monday, May 16, 2016

May 16, 2016: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: The Beach Boys and Dylan

[May 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the releases of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde, two iconic 1960s rock albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy those artists and other 60s rock icons and songs. Please share your own rocking responses (or hazy memories) for a righteous crowd-sourced post!]
On two distinct but equally inspiring models of artistic innovation and growth.
By the time he released Blonde on Blonde (1966), his seventh studio album, Bob Dylan was well-established as America’s preeminent rock ‘n roll poet. He had been building elements of that reputation since his 1962 self-titled debut, but that album, like Dylan’s next few, sounded more like traditional folk music; it was in the two albums prior to Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and Highway 61 Revisited (1966), that Dylan had added electric guitars and a more thoroughly rock ‘n roll sound to the mix. While Dylan’s initial moment of plugging in produced a great deal of controversy and division among his fans, in hindsight it feels like a perfectly natural artistic progression, and Blonde like a culmination not only of that trilogy of rock albums but of all Dylan’s works to that point: a wedding of his lyrical intricacies and his poetic and philosophical voice to an evolving and compelling mastery of rock ‘n roll musicianship and power.
By the time they released Pet Sounds (1966), their eleventh studio album, The Beach Boys were well-established as America’s undisputed kings of summer fun rock ‘n roll. Their trio of surfing debut albums (1962’s Surfin’ Safari and 1963’s Surfin’ U.S.A. and Surfer Girl) had immediately defined the band in that way, and the trend had very much continued through their tenth album, Beach Boys’ Party! (1965). To say that Pet Sounds represented a serious shift from that long-term trend, both in tone and in sound, would be a understatement. Brian Wilson had stopped touring with the band in late 1964 in order to focus on his own songwriting (among other complex personal reasons), and although Pet Sounds was technically still a Beach Boys album (with one single, “Caroline, No,” credited solely to Wilson), it was dominated by Wilson’s writing and voice far more than any of the prior ten records had been (a fact reflected in Wilson’s current solo headlining of a 50th anniversary tour for the album). From its use of Wall of Sound production to its many unusual instruments (including, to name one striking and telling example, barking dogs), as well as in its more intimate and often downbeat subjects and perspectives, the album marked a significant deviation from the Boys’ works and career to that point.
So in many ways, these two critically acclaimed albums (both are consistently ranked among the top rock albums in history) reflect two widely divergent models of artistic growth: one in which new elements are added to prior ones, creating a combination of past and future; and one in which the new elements represent a departure from, if not indeed a contrast with, what had come before. (It’s not coincidental that Wilson became increasingly separate from the band, in both work and life, in the years after Pet Sounds.) Yet at the same time, I would argue that both albums embody great artists working to carry forward elements of their core identities and perspectives in the face of and engaged with new reailties. Rock and roll was evolving in the mid-1960s, and Bob Dylan allowed those evolutions to impact and shape his music, while maintaining his lyrical and philosophical goals. And American society was of course evolving even more fully, and Brian Wilson worked to link his band’s good times vibe to some of those more complex and dark shifts and issues. It’s precisely because they model such grounded evolutions, in distinct ways to be sure, that Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds remain two of the most significant 60s rock records.
Next RockStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other RockStudyings you’d share?

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