1966: Revolver at 50

1966 The Beatles' Revolver at 50

The third of Jokerside’s tributes to the mighty cornerstone of pop culture that was 1966 links back to the first. It’s August 1966 and the arrival of the second of two musical landmarks that heralded the start of something new. A few months after The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles were about to turn into something else entirely … Revolver, released 50 years ago today.

Yet you may see the meaning of within… It is being, it is being

IN THE MIDST OF A CULTURAL EXPLOSION, UNCHALLENGED SINCE, MUSIC, FILM, TELEVISION AND ALL MANNER OF MEDIA EXPLODED IN 1966. It collided with street level pop culture revolution, simultaneously responding to and dousing those same flames with its own intoxicating fuel. Sat prime in the cultural decade that reached from 1963 to 1974, it blended with the baby boomers’ coming of age, the counter-culture and social revolutions that set a template that’s still felt today.

It had been building for some time. And having played a huge part in the beginnings of the cultural revolution in 1963, four years and six albums into their career, The Beatles were perfectly placed to help this seminal time reach its apex. They were also in the right place. The first two long-reads in this 1966 series have necessarily dwelt in America, celebrating the immediate success of Batman the television series and the May release of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds. But few places could rival London as a hotbed for the ongoing revolution. And unlike The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and other bands who’d sprung from the capital, The Beatles had soon left the Merseybeat boom in the early sixties when they led the British invasion of America and by the mid-1960s were lodged in the British capital as observers as much as instigators. But unlike many other bands of the time, The Beatles’ output rarely responded or referenced the cultural shifts around them. Typically, the songs, films and long players that emerged from their prolific work-rate rose sat self-contained. Above that. But 1966 caught them on a cusp.

Spinning disks

“I was alone, I took a ride…”

Writing about Revolver always feels daunting task, as it teeters on the brink of full pelt worship. But subjective as The Beatles’ back catalogue is, it’s helped by its incredible quality. Picking a favourite tune from The Beatles’ output may wax and wane from day to day, season to season, but this writer’s favourite songs don’t sit on Revolver. Nor is the distinctive, monochromatic album cover their best. The difference comes on the turntable. While every Beatle album is an enjoyable album to spin, Revolver couldn’t have been better named. It slots together from that sleeve to the split of the sides, the balance of the tracks and the inspiration of its musicians make for a combination greater than the sum of its quality parts. It’s simply the greatest record playing experience in the Beatles’ oeuvre.

True, it followed close on the heels of albums like A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul each of which marked a new step in maturity, skills and depth for the band. But compared to the huge, influential leaps into the unknown that followed, Revolver is a clear tipping point. Balanced and varied, emotional deep and frivolously disrespectful, it’s an album of the future.

Because what Revolver does is something different altogether. It shows the Beatles at their full power: a live band, whose players were just about cohesive, before later albums found them drifting apart. That later divergence would take them on to higher plains, but the looser fit abandoned the energetic phenomenon that was the Fab Four, the unbreakable force that had defined Beatlemania.

Cohesion would remain in aspects of the albums that followed of course. But in many ways Revolver is the end of one Beatles story. The songs between it and its successor Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started a revolutionary new tale altogether.

At the end of the road, Abbey Road brought back the illusion of beautiful collaboration but from the work of many band members toiling in pairs or on their own, while most were working on solo projects. As a result, that album incorporates the worst excess of both McCartney and Lennon, left unchecked, where Revolver had demonstrated the power of the two working together just a few years before. The rivalry had stretched too far. Before Abbey Road, Let it Be featured a notably unified sound and blues sentiment under the brash production of Phil Spector, but that plastered over growing disdain for each other and multiple disagreements that had grown from mid-1960’s grumbling. Before that, Magical Mystery Tour was to find them rudderless without Brian Epstein, trying the experiment of McCartney leadership. Even Revolver’s follow-up Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a fraction too far into the band’s splintering. The arrival of facial hair and new costumes came with a studio-bound band that had left touring behind. Revolver was the lightning period, the tipping point. The Beatles’ recording era had arrived, where they had chosen studio over road. That, among other things… Read more…

1966: Pet Sounds at 50

1966 Pet Sounds at 50

God Only Knows what would have happened without this LP…

The first of Jokerside’s tributes to the mighty cornerstone of pop culture that was 1966. It’s May 1966 and the arrival of the first of two particular musical landmarks that heralded the start of something new. It didn’t have long to prove itself… The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, released 50 years ago today.

 “1966”. IT SOUNDS GREAT. IT’S ALSO SOAKED IN FIVE DECADES OF HAILING ITS ACHIEVEMENTS. Their importance is obvious, but almost impossible to calculate within the confines of a standard year. I mean, 1967 was good, 1965 rather enjoyable…. Of course, 1966 sits in history now, a year of change amid a decade of cultural expansion. But if you were to pick out one year from that decade that pipped the others, that pulled everything together and set a new direction from the morass of creativity it’s the one satisfyingly named ’66.

Coming of age

Culture was ready to explode..

I once wrote of 1963, the year that launched James Bond on America, Doctor Who on British TV and the Beatles on the world, that’s there’s no coincidence it fell 18 years after the end of the Second World War. Culture was ready to explode, and as the last of the war children came of age it was impossible to contain the cultural blast that forged that remain with us today. And by that same logic we’re now 50 years on from the year that marked the 21st birthday of the first of the baby boomers.

The 50th anniversary birthdays marked this year are almost too many to remember, from film to music and that’s ignoring other defining events in the UK alone, from England hosting and winning the World Cup to elections and the opening of Longleat Safari Park. It was truly a cultural explosion, with a lasting impression that can be heard at any time of the day in 2016, often catching us by surprise. So sometimes it’s good to be overwhelmed by just a small slice of it…

To name four long players that 1966 brought us, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and of course The Beatles’ Revolver and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Singles released that year included Paint it Black, California Dreamin’, Uptight (Everything’s Alright), Strangers in the Night, You Don’t have to Say You Love Me, Wild Thing, Summer in the City, Sunny, You Can’t Hurry Love, Last Train to Clarksville, Mellow Yellow, Sugar Town… Other songs recorded but not necessarily released included A Well Respected Man, Bang Bang, Born Free, Eight Miles High, Friday on my Mind, Hey Joe, I’m a Believer, I Can’t Let Go, It Takes Two, Mame, Mission:Impossible, No Milk Today, Rain, Shape of Things, Solitary Mind, Spoonful, This Old Heart of Mine and… The Batman TV theme. It was the year that the Jimi Hendrix Experience formed and, er, don’t tell DJ Johnnie Walker, the Bay City Rollers emerged.

There wasn’t a simple zeitgeist or trend, one stand-out song that defined a summer. It truly was a cultural explosion, unprecedented since the years of stark warfare or when the Renaissance or Enlightenment had a good day. And that small smattering, although too big for this blog, sums up the diverse forces at work. There have been culturally defining years since, in Britain it’s particularly easy to see what 2012 was lacking and see the range that 1997’s Cool Britannia couldn’t quite muster. But in 1966, the shackles didn’t so much loosen and drop so many years on from that generation-defining conflict, but were thrown to the moon as new conflicts arrived amid new methods of thinking. It was the well-earned age of cultural landmarks, and it threw up the most unexpected casualties without borders. Read more…

David Bowie: Enter the Duke – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

Having looked at the film that spawned him, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Jokerside sneaks a look at David Bowie’s last great character, the Thin White Duke who was anchored in the extraordinary 1976 album Station to Station.

IN 1975 THE THIN WHITE DUKE WALKED FROM NEW MEXICO INTO THE CHEROKEE RECORDING STUDIO IN LOS ANGELES, DRAGGING DAVID BOWIE WITH HIM. The Duke would prove to be Bowie’s last great ‘character’ creation, a personality immersed in a concept album, but one of such magnitude it was no doubt part of the reason the artist retreated from major persona changes ass the 1980s drew near.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the album carried by that dapper, fascistic, enigma Jokerside looked at The Man Who Fell to Earth. Not only Bowie’s first major film role, but the glint of hope that broke through the drug-addled malaise that had brought him to the door of the dark and arcane, giving him just enough strength to assemble one of his greatest records; a 38 minute biography of struggle and a call for change.

In 1975, Bowie had talked of personal cost of assuming the Ziggy persona, not his first alter-ego but the first that could sustain a globe-straddling phenomenon. Bowie had in part become Ziggy, a character defined by excess and in that assumed position Ziggy had entered the United States. As a pre-fabricated star on the scale of Elton John, it was a constant performance. Within months Ziggy had morphed into Aladdin Sane, he of the more familiar lightning bolt make-up, popularly thought of as Ziggy on Tour. The album that followed lacked the concept cohesion of The Rise and Fall but was breathtakingly expansive, already foreshadowing the disco glam of Diamond Dogs and the plastic soul that would follow in 1975’s Young Americans. 1975 was also the year, on the back of Diamond Dogs, before the release of Young Americans Bowie also declared rock n’ roll a “toothless old woman”. Well, he steered clear of rock for a good few months.

America

“In this age of grand illusion”

But what a difference a couple of years made. Aladdin Sane showed how quickly the America that Bowie couldn’t take to had almost instantly informed his writing, recorded in bursts between legs of Bowie’s first American tour. At the tail-end of ‘75, having been consumed by and a consumer of New York and Los Angeles, Station to Station would both compounded his American adventure and set him on a path back to Europe. The album that emerged in January 1976 wasn’t just a break but also a cathartic expression of Bowie’s persona and measured record of his transition from the soul infused and drug ravaged Young Americans period through to the Europe that would foster his ground-breaking Berlin trilogy. The worst, the best, the necessary change.

And to carry that change, a new persona developed from the wake of filming Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. One of the most involved, impenetrable and controversial of his career. So, just who was the Thin White Duke?

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

The Thin White Duke

“Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes…”

In context, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton outstayed his welcome following the wrap of The Man Who Fell to Earth in late summer 1975. Mostly tellingly, in Bowie’s fractured mind. It wasn’t just the “side effects of the cocaine” but part of a long slide that had seen Bowie vacate New York, sink deep into ancient philosophies in Los Angeles and subsist almost entirely on dairy products. Much of this period is difficult to tie down to fact, between Cameron Crowe’s infamous interviews and countless recollections from friends, Angie Bowie and the singer himself; an unreliable witness at the time, and particularly when he had an interviewer to play up to. Relocating to New Mexico to film The Man Who Fell to Earth was a form of “purification”. It was a glance back from the brink that consequently Bowie took to the recording studio for the first time in nine months to express as much the legacy of his recent interests as the alien that stayed within him. Despite the break and the subsequent work that would appear, Bowie’s last notable studio session (he had some failed dabbling with Iggy Pop in the interim) had been to record Across the Universe and Fame with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. And although Bowie would refer to the latter as “a nasty little song” it certainly laid some groundwork for Station to Station.

So a steep task and fractured mind confronted Bowie, and the character of the Thin White Duke developed in response. It wasn’t Newton totally, that passive outsider, unable to resist. The Duke was less passive, more snarling, more insightful and self-analysing. The Thin White Duke has been variously described as aristocratic, Aryan and zombie. Many sporadic TV appearances throughout 1975 show a frosty, cold, wry and occasionally disorientated Bowie. One highlight is the wonderfully terse satellite link interview with Russell Harty – glossing over, chiding and ribbing in equal measure. He’s mostly articulate when not pausing, a dead-eyed stare levelled to the middle distance. There were controversial comments made during the period, including those connected to fascism, but later strongly dismissed by Bowie.

And unlike many other of his other personas, a lot of confusion arises from Bowie’s considerable backtracking after the event. It’s certain that the Thin White Duke ran throughout 1976, anchored around the recording and quick release of Station to Station. And it’s certain that this is the persona Bowie remembered least about. A fascinating transitory character, often overshadowed by the recordings either side, there was a root of the Duke’s soul-searching in Young Americans and a significant hangover in the influential Low, a record that also still unmistakably carried the profile of Thomas Jerome Newton on its punning cover as the Duke faded from view. Read more…

David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

On the 40th anniversary of Station to Station, Jokerside prepares to stare into the abyss of Bowie’s difficult and ever-rewarding 1976 album with a dart-like glance at the Thin White Duke persona that spun from the cracked actor’s first major film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth

THIS WEEKEND MARKS THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF STATION TO STATION’S RELEASE, JUST UNDER TWO WEEKS SINCE DAVID BOWIE LEFT THE PLANET.  Left, that is, after an incredible career. The extent of Bowie’s output post-death, the legacy of a meticulously detailed artist, will take many years if not eternity to unravel. Bowie’s swansong album Blackstar appears to pose riddle and mystery unseen since his peak of persona swapping in the 1970s. Come the 1980s his interest in persona had abated although he retained the power to innovate and reinvent. Surely a good reason for that shift from a period that had produced in rapid succession Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dog’s Halloween Jack and others through the early 1970s fell at the feet of his last major character. The all-pervasive horror of the persona that dominated 1976. The Thin White Duke, who would become synonymous with what Bowie later called “the darkest days of my life”

Station to Station emerged barely a year after the Year of the Diamond Dog, a furious tour of his dystopian bridge between glam and disco soul between June 1974 and… Well, by the end of 1974 it had morphed into the Philly Dogs tour and then side-stepped into soul alongside his new LP Young Americans. That lurch to the unexpected and commercial laid out the immediate and ongoing importance of America Bowie’s his life. The Young Americans sessions were completed in two stints, one a drug fuelled and productive run that producer Tony Visconti was happy to pick up and return to the UK to mix. Bowie though would return to the studio in early 1975 for two last minute additions that not only broke Bowie and Visconti’s relationship for two albums but also diluted Young American’s soul and made it his most overtly Beatles album – or specifically Lennon, with one of Bowie’s better if melodramatic covers as he took on the cosmically simplistic Across the Universe before the simplistically catchy album closer Fame found him in duet with the former Beatle.

Escape to LA

“I lifted you up once”

He wouldn’t return to the studio to any meaningful degree for nine months – a length of time that was extraordinary during Bowie’s most prolific period. But things were afoot. In the mid-1970s three years of relentless touring and the sacking of his long-term manager Tony DeFries left a smacked out Bowie staring the need for relocation in the face while holed up in a hotel in Los Angeles. New York had closed in on him, although its dying throes had not only pushed him and Lennon onto tape but thrown up a meeting with director Nicolas Roeg who was narrowing the cast for his film of Walter Tevis’ short novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Well, it was a meeting that somehow materialised after Bowie arrived eight hours late then, assuming Roeg wouldn’t have waited, busied himself with other things until he returned home in the early hours to find the director sat at his kitchen table.

Cracked

“My life is not secret… But it is private”

“I’ve always been aware of how dubious a position it is to stay in [Los Angeles] for any length of time” said Bowie in the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary, a year before his first major film role opened the city up to him. Sporadic visits from his ever valuable assistant Coco Schwab and ever more estranged wife Angie found them both concerned for his health, although this dark portion of his life remains smattered with only sparing facts. Angie later recalled the frantic phone call from her husband, shouting that he had been kidnapped by wizards and witches and recalls him requesting an exorcism. None of that is proven, but it’s clear that during his slide into drug addled paranoia Bowie had drifted towards the dark arts in the heat of LA. ‘Paranoid delusion’ is a phrase that pops up again and again but there was certainly a great deal of peculiar behaviour in a pattern that no one could break. Except it seems, The Man who Fell to Earth. The “Spaced out space man”.

The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

“Leave my mind alone”

Spells, incantations and late nights spent drawing pentangles by candlelight, while moving between buildings that cast different slants on ancient philosophies from Egyptian mythology to Kabbalah – philosophies that Bowie later described as “misleading in life”. It takes something to get out of that. Fortunately, once Roeg and Bowie finally got to meet, their rapport was instant. Read more…

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