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Album review: A new album explores the sonic expansion of music in 1966

A journey back in time to 1966, the year that ushered in a musical revolution.
George Harrison and John Lennon of The Beatles are given a sitar demonstration at a music shop in New Delhi in 1966. Mark and Colleen Hayward / Redferns
George Harrison and John Lennon of The Beatles are given a sitar demonstration at a music shop in New Delhi in 1966. Mark and Colleen Hayward / Redferns

In May 1966, British music weekly Melody Maker ran a feature article called “Soundmania”. The piece coincided with several important recent developments, including the arrival in the United Kingdom of Ravi Shankar, the master Indian musician, to play a concert. Shankar enjoyed a massive reputation in India for his command of the sitar – a complex instrument in which a melody would be accompanied by the drone of sympathetic vibrating strings. And his reputation was spreading further, thanks to his benign influence on another cultural force, The Beatles.

The John Lennon composition Norwegian Wood, released on the album Rubber Soul in 1965, featured George Harrison not on his customary lead guitar, but playing a lead line on the sitar. The “Soundmania” piece revelled in the profusion of ideas flying about in the wake of the song and other sonic revolutions like it. On the stage of London’s Marquee Club (once a stronghold of blues and R&B enthusiasts), the Birmingham band The Move were sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing a 10 minute “Brum Raga” by mixing sounds of their hometown and India. In America, folk-rockers The Byrds were listening to John Coltrane.

Even young and chirpy mod musicians like The Small Faces were realising the potential of the recording studio as a way to push their own creative boundaries. “Groups today are taking ‘sound’ itself as a form of music – not just the tune,” said their singer Steve Marriott. His colleague Ronnie Lane put it more simply: “Everybody is digging everything now.”

In 1966, the remit of the pop song was expanding rapidly. Whether it was The Who’s distorted use of the bass guitar as lead instrument in the break of Substitute, the manic vibrations of the 13th Floor Elevators or the frantic rush of misleading information in Love’s 7 and 7 Is, the hunger for sonic adventure is well-represented in this two-disc compilation, Jon Savage’s: 1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded.

The compilation is released to accompany a book of the same name by the British author Jon Savage that explores 1966 as a year of anti-war protests, city riots and freedom of expression that freaked out the establishment and also inspired a host of new sounds and bands. The album charts sonic journeys and subtle changes in pop, which repay closer attention. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City is a joyous guitar number, but has an undercurrent of social disquiet. A closer look at Sandie Shaw’s Nothing Comes Easy reveals it to be a creepy stalking narrative. The album also charts cultural currents of that year like American pop art (represented here by The Velvet Underground), underground garage rock (the 13th Floor Elevators and The Seeds), and soul (James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett).

Savage’s net is cast wide, the better to suggest not just a time of great music, but also of pop’s game moving on to express more social, musical and emotional complexity than just wanting to hold your hand. In the following year, this development would have progressed to the point of “Psychedelia” – the power of music to emulate narcotic stimulation, a feature of 1967’s “Summer Of Love”.

In 1966, though, that beatific state was still a work in progress as artists – through a mixture of brute force, conceptual thinking, hungry listening and inspiration – pushed at the notion of pop music as mere teenage entertainment.

Some records of 1966 are conspicuous by their absence. You won’t find a record of that year’s competition between the Beatles and Beach Boys, each encouraging the other to new heights of experimentation. The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black is also absent.

Other songs abundantly honour the transformation being made by their creators. All will generally kneel before the might of Led Zeppelin. A select few will acknowledge that the greater achievement might have been that of their parent band, the Yardbirds. In 1965, this Surrey band were in the vanguard of experimental pop: blues purists turned pop scientists. Their single For Your Love featured a harpsichord. For their next trick, they adapted a Gregorian chant for a number called Still I’m Sad, another hit.

By the time we meet them here, they have no relation to the original group, bar a shared name. Happenings Ten Years Time Ago contrives to jam the echoing chorale of Still I’m Sad to a demented rattle of guitar. The song’s features ask you to recalibrate your expectations. Rather than spinning on your turntable, just background music, it threatens to break the fourth wall. Jeff Beck’s guitar feedback seems to have set off an explosion. In the background you can hear the dissenting voices of the man in the street (“Why you all got to wear long ‘air?”), submerged into the mix – the song and its critical reception in one place.

As the compilation illustrates, stirring pop music of a more recognisable kind was still being made in 1966. The minor-key swing of Dusty Springfield’s Little By Little or Lee Dorsey’s Working In A Coalmine, with its insistent “wooh!” hook are (to pick just two examples from the 48 tracks) wonderful records, but would find it tough to bear too much analytical weight.

You hear The Supremes doing You Keep Me Hanging On in this context, though, and you hear how the chime of the guitars emulates the urgent electronic pulse of telecommunication. You hear anew the subtlety of the tables being turned in a manipulative boy-girl relationship. “Why don’t you be a man about it?”, taunts Diana Ross, urging an uncommitted lover to end things. Rather than the beatific love declarations of the following year, the music of 1966 pushes and pulls at perception, demands you pay attention.

Oddly, one of the most authentic experiences of the music of 1966 might be a fictional one. In one late episode of the American drama Mad Men, Don Draper returns home from work and fixes himself a drink. His younger wife, Megan, hands him the new Beatles album Revolver and suggests he begin by listening to a particular track. As she swishes out to acting class, Don reclines and listens to Tomorrow Never Knows.

What emerges from the speaker is confusing. Electronic noise moves in and out, as do the vocal line and what sounds like the sitar. It is confusing, and disorientating. It makes you think. Don switches it off. A younger generation, however, would find themselves turning it on, and on again.

John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.

Updated: December 10, 2015 04:00 AM

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