In 2006, the web magazine Pitchfork opened their excellent feature on the 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s with the following paragraph:
People always ask: “When is Pitchfork gonna run a list of the top albums of the 1960s?” The answer now? Probably never. Not that we didn’t consider it. It’s just that when we sat down to map it all out, we found it would be more rewarding to approach the decade through its songs instead. After all, it was by and large a single-oriented era– the long-player didn’t really take over as a creative medium until the 60s had nearly come to an end. And besides, Revolver‘s ego is out of hand as it is.
To anyone who is well versed in the history of popular music, this seemed like a reasonable decision. After all, the notion that an 33 1/3 rpm LP of pop music could function as a single, cohesive artistic statement didn’t really emerge until 1966, only coming into full fruition in the final years of the decade. Before that, the pop music market was dominated by the 45 rpm single record. LPs were a distant, secondary focus for record companies and recording artists.
Here’s a picture that illustrates how seriously record companies took pop LPs.
First some real quick background: Remember how you discovered music before the internet? You’d hear a song on the radio a few times, then you’d go to the local record store and buy a copy. Well, in Britain, radio stations were prohibited from playing commercially released music. Instead, bands would drop by the radio studio and play live in-studio versions of their newest songs, plus a few old favorites. If that version struck your fancy, you could pick up the official version in the shop. Point being, the only way to hear the newest hit single was if you or one of your mates beg, borrowed, or stole a copy. However, this emphasis on single sales caused British record companies to develop a certain principle: they thought it was wrong to ask their customers to buy the same material twice. As a result, songs that were released as a single usually weren’t on the follow-up album. The most famous instance of this was when George Martin decided against including “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” on Sgt. Pepper’s because they had already been released as singles.
Now, Americans record companies, being run by greedy capitalist pigs, were able to overcome the qualms their British peers clung to. Maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. The American teenager had a larger disposable income in the 60s than his or her British contemporary. But, as a general rule of thumb, American LPs were also shorter than their British counterparts. For instance, in the UK, Rubber Soul was a 14 song album that lasted 35 minutes. The US version was a 12 song album (including several songs from the UK version of Help!) lasting 28 minutes. The UK version of Aftermath is 14 song album, lasting 53 minutes. The US version cut 4 songs and included the previously released “Paint It, Black” totaling in a 11 song, 42 minute-long album.
Which brings us back the Beatles and dismembered baby dolls. That picture is from the photo session for 1966’s Yesterday and Today, the US follow-up to Rubber Soul. (In case you were wondering, when the Beatles released their albums on compact disc for the first time in 1987, they followed the UK albums worldwide for everything but Magical Mystery Tour. So if you were born in the 80s, you probably have only heard the UK versions.) The suits at Capital Records created a hodgepodge of an LP with some tracks from the UK versions of Help! and Rubber Soul, the previously released “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” single, and what’s worse several tracks from the soon-to-be-released Revolver.
Let that sink in. Revolver is widely regarded as one of the greatest pop albums ever made. It was such a profound and ambitious artistic statement that Brian Wilson drove himself insane in an ultimately doomed attempt to respond to it. Dylan probably faked a motorcycle crash and beat a hasty retreat from being a rock star, recording weird root music and pleasant country songs for the rest of the decade. But Capital Records, sensing an extra buck, reacted like Mitch Hedberg’s idea of the founders of Pringles: fuck it, cut ’em up.
One thing that’s hard to grasp about the Beatles and 60s music in general is how fast-moving it was. For instance, the earliest stuff on Yesterday and Today was recorded in the summer of 1965, a little over a year before it’s release. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more drastic stylistic shift in three albums than what the Beatles underwent from Help! to Rubber Soul to Revolver. Although the “old” stuff only predates the newly recorded stuff by a year, the band had undergone two pretty profound shifts. Point being, that material doesn’t fit together at all. “Yesterday” is a great song, but it might as well have been composed by a completely different band than the one responsible for “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Yet Capital was throwing it all in the pot without the band’s input, and marketing it as new Beatles music.
In 1963, the guys thought they’d enjoy their time being famous before fading out in a couple years and getting real jobs, just like pretty much everyone had before them. Ringo wanted to be a hairdresser. By 1966 the Beatles were at the heights of their powers. They were the most famous 20 year olds on the cusp of permanently altering the possibilities of pop music. The concept of Beatles music meant something to them. And now this label was haphazardly cutting up Beatles music to make a few extra bucks.
So they fucking dressed up in butcher’s jackets and and draped a bunch of babydoll limbs around them. They each managed to grin creepily in a unique way. They got it past the label by claiming that it was a comment on the Vietnam War, which was probably in poor taste. Retailers bitched, and the cover was replaced with this boring as shit picture that might as well be a Monkees album cover.
The US version of Revolver would be the last Beatles LP release that the band did not control. (Magical Mystery Tour was released as an EP in the UK, which was combined with a bunch of contemporary non-album singles to create the US Magical Mystery Tour LP.) Their next release, Sgt. Pepper’s, would not only have the most famous album cover of all time, but it would also set the standard for what fans expected in album packaging until the digital era.
In 2017, eleven years after declaring that publishing a list of the 100 greatest albums of the 60s wasn’t worth pursing, Pitchfork decided to publish a list of the 200 greatest albums of the 1960s. Maybe they decided that Revolver had ego issues, because they ranked it 8th.
More soon. Hopefully. Perhaps. I don’t know, this thing kind of got away from me.
Next: 1200 words on some jazz record that I heard last week for the first time that is definitely better than Sgt. Pepper’s. Look at how sophisticated I am.