Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On? (1971)

I love this album, even if it’s perhaps partly out of jest with my wife who can’t stand anything Marvin Gaye (she associates him with kitschy ‘love-makin music’). While I’ll agree, the opening sax riff immediately draws the curtains and dims the lights; the mood this album creates is not a sexy one. This is an album born out of concern; this album is more of a conversation.

Marvin Gaye was a Motown super-star; Gaye tunes such as “Heard it through the Grapevine” had been essential in establishing Motown’s producing outfit as industry powerhouses in the early years of the label. Marvin Gaye’s image up to the release of What’s Going On was one synonymous with the image of Motown itself and its imposing founder Berry Gordy. Ben Edmonds describes Motown before What’s Going On as “still serenading teenagers in a maltshop America that no longer existed”.

What’s Going On didn’t resemble one of its routine “teenage serenades”; Gordy was afraid it was a protest song. Because of this Gordy hated the song; perhaps Motown, and its founder, were simply out of touch with the times. In 1969 ‘Obie’ Benson had penned the song after witnessing police brutality in San Francisco. Benson had been a member of the Four Tops, who also turned the song down because it resembled a protest song. Benson had replied, “No, man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on”. This heartfelt question must have resonated with Gaye, who agreed to take the song and made it his very own project. Part of the inspiration behind Marvin Gaye’s ambition as he began to craft an entire concept album around this concept comes from his brother, Francis: a Vietnam veteran that related his war stories to Marvin.

Even with all the emotion wrapped up in this track, Gordy was not convinced that What’s Going On was a safe release. He’s attributed to calling it “The worst thing I’ve ever heard” after hearing it the first time. Gordy refused to release the single. Marvin Gaye famously quit Motown for the Detroit Lions while he played the waiting game with Gordy over What’s Going On’s release. The single was finally released without Gordy’s approval in 1971. It sold like crazy.

What’s Going On
was a great success for Motown and for Gaye as an artist. It shows a maturation of what pop music could accomplish, much like the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album did in 1966. Like Pet Sounds, there is an orchestral quality to the instrumentation of the album—albeit a much funkier one. It was the product of legendary smoke-filled sessions in the Snake Pit (Motown’s primary studio). Marvin Gaye worked with arranger Van DePitte to create something that “wanted to stay away from anything resembling a standard Motown beat”: a parade of studio musicians was ushered into the Snake Pit to ensure this goal. You can hear Gaye really explore the music. The most defining features of the track were reportedly accidents: such as Gaye’s layered, harmonizing lead vocal that he would use for albums to come or the legendary saxophone riff that starts the album (a warm-up). The musical maturation matched the riskier subject matter beautifully. And Motown’s production muscle was on display like never before. Just the adventurous opening ‘soundscape’ of voices pulls you in immediately.

As a professional this album is a great benchmark of production values and techniques in the early 70s. It serves as my favorite example of Motown’s ‘music machine’: hundreds of producers and songwriters hammering out songs together with an old piano. It’s a good example of artists butting heads with Q&A departments, and a nice anecdote for when the artist turned out to be right. But most importantly, it’s an example of when music can legitimately turn attention towards the state of the world and make people think, What’s Going On?

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

The Velvet Underground is frequently cited as one of the most influential bands in American music. I must painfully admit that even with such clout I had never even heard them at any real length until earlier this year. A brief synopsis of the band sounds like some fantasy that should only exist in my dreams. Andy Warhol describes the VU as “a chance to combine music and art and film all together”, something that definitely delights my existential fancy. I’ve always loved art rock bands and here was the seminal version, so I thought. With my expectations set in the sky I listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico as well as Loaded and was initially thoroughly disappointed. I was expecting something monumental, like my first listen to In the court of the Crimson King, but what I heard initially struck me as watered-down Beatles. A few listens later, I started to get it.

The music of the Velvet Underground strikes me as an artistic experiment. And I think that is exactly the image they wanted to have. Produced by Andy Warhol in his famous New York studio, The Factory, this was a lofty undertaking by a group of artists to make something really unique. I think Andy Warhol had a great amount to do with the artistic framing of the band. The mandate to fuse pop music with pop art was a strong one, one that would help separate the VU from other musical acts of the era. Adding to Warhol’s vision, Lou Reed and John Cale’s idiosyncratic flourishes tied a nice bow on the cacophony of sound that was the Velvet Underground.

For me, the novelty and art in the Velvet Underground’s music comes more from the lyrical content than anything else. Lou Reed’s Dylan-esque ramblings through a laundry list of topics that I’m sure were not yet deemed kosher for musical consumption. Take for instance “Heroin” on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the impact doesn’t just lie within the subject matter but how it’s approached. In an interview for the South Bank Show in 1986, Lou Reed mentioned that a neutral moral stance was important in his music. I think that this sense of moral ambiguity is the biggest contributor to his lyrical success. It’s what makes these little vignettes thought provoking—requiring a little bit more than a surface listen to appreciate. The music plays a huge role interacting with the lyrics in many songs, swelling to manic mood swings and sputtering out with the ebb and flow of lyric. The desire to make each song actually mean something is one that I will always respect in artists. I believe it is this artful approach to lyrics that Lou Reed adopts in The Velvet Underground is worth their place in music history alone.

I find the musical content itself, separate from the lyrics, marks the birth of several trends that would evolve over the years into the infrastructure of punk rock. The music is loud, simple, and made to have a corporeal impact. I find music can usually be placed somewhere on the gradient between what Nietzsche would refer to as Apollonian and Dionysian (coincidentally my favorite Rush album, Hemispheres, is a tribute to this dichotomy). This division is one between Mind (Apollo) and Body (Dionysus) as the two forces that drive man’s productivity. To me, I can enjoy punk rock because it represents a complete swan dive into the Dionysian. For example, Black Flag is never going to be touted as having complex musical ideas; heck, I don’t know if they could even be touted as being able to completely tune their guitars. But, they will continue to be celebrated because they have an intense energy to burn and want to burn their audience up along with it.

Well, before punk rock was blasting audiences around the world the Velvet Underground struck a ‘proto-punk power chord’ with its sonic experimentations. No doubt that John Cale was a huge influence here. Between the constant distorted viola drones and atonal psychedelic freak-outs the Velvet Underground was never afraid of something new. Cale admired many avantgard composers of his day (even studying under La Monte Young). This influence surely effected their artistic direction as a whole. This was a band that wanted to turn things up and make a statement in doing so.

So what is the defining feature here that makes VU so influential as a band? I think it’s their disregard to cater towards any trend that isn’t their own. Even their studio production qualities (or lack there-of) illustrate a desire to be something different than the popular trends around them. This is also a good explanation of why the Velvet Underground never got to enjoy mainstream success as wide as their influence suggests. When you seek out art for nothing more than art’s sake you’re going to loose a large portion of your audience; I find this to be an unfortunate truth. But the people that actually get it, what you’re trying to accomplish, will only love you all the more: I’ll admire quality over quantity any day of the week.

The Beatles: Revolver (1966)

I owe a whole lot to the Beatles. One of my earliest memories of sitting around and doing nothing but listening to music was the ‘Beatles 1’ compilation: I would lay on the floor directly in front of the stereo and listen to the whole disc over and over again. Suffice it to say, the Beatles were my first genuine connection to music that had been made in the most recent century (it was all classical before that). Fast forward to present day and I know all the Beatles tunes by heart, I’ve bought all of the albums multiple times, and have arranged Beatles covers for classical guitar for fun. Yes, I owe a whole lot to the Beatles indeed.

Revolver is what many consider the ‘turning point’ in the Beatles’ sound (though, if you ask me that honor should be Rubber Soul’s). Without a doubt, the album is monumental. I consider The Beatles to essentially be the Plato & Aristotle of Rock and Roll. Like P&A’s extensive chronicling of topics that would frame the entire cannon of future philosophical topics: The Beatles’ experimentation and genre defying moments can still frame the entire cannon of rock that has since come. Listening to The Beatles discography chronologically is amazing, because right around Revolver you hear the most amazing things happen to their sound.

It’s a literal explosion of creativity that happens here in 1966. And frankly, the powder keg was stocked: full of studio technology and drug induced sonic imagery. It was just one of those perfect storm moments. Here the sound changes from commercial pop, to an artistic adventure. Paul Ingles and friends discuss in his radio feature Everything was right: The Beatles’ revolver how Revolver was an album made by Beatles disenchanted by ‘Beatlemania’, it was meant to be anything other than fuel for that fire.

Like in the similarly timed Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, the studio had become an instrument (Howard, 2004). Sounds that had never been in popular circulation like sitars, reverse guitars, trippy spliced effects, and phased-artificial vocal dubs were part of the aural onslaught (Ingles, 2006). Lyrical content likewise became progressively more abstract from this point on as psychedelia made its nest. This was an album in which accommodating John Lennon’s desire to sound like the Dalai Lama was just another day in the studio (Howard, 2004) this was not just pop music anymore. Sure, drugs might be another reason why the album sounds so different from what came before. The Beatles reported tripped out hot tub sessions with Peter Fonda, and readings of Timothy Leary as things that inspired them around the time (Ingles, 2006). The colors and content that it brought to the music was something completely novel.

So, being born in ’87 perhaps I don’t get to appreciate how ‘ahead of it’s time’ this album was. But as a listener I hear Revolver and I hear modern rock sounds that still in use. Songs like She Said She Said or And Your Bird can Sing are stuffed to the gills with riff based rock. Then being able to switch to a Motown vibe for Got to Get You Into my life, evoke swooning ballads in Here, There, and Everywhere, and of course there’s George Martin’s chamber piece in Eleanor Rigby. Of course the crowning achievement in the album is Tomorrow Never Knows, a psychedelic opus. This was psychedelia of an entirely level and construction; this wasn’t just heady like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators or Incredible String Band this was mind-melting in sonic palette.

When I was researching the album, I was shocked by the number of critics that consider this the apex of The Beatles. I wholeheartedly disagree, think this more like the starting gun after they had spent their previous albums warming up: I guess I’m a Sgt. Pepper’s guy. In any case, this album is music history. Its impression on studio production values, breadth and variety in arrangements, and what was considered commercial is still left. From 1966 on out it was a different and amazing world for the Beatles, and it starts with the revolution from Revolver.

Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)

There is just something magical about Beach Boys harmonies. It conjures images of youth, sunny days ripe for surfing, and bright muscle cars. These are all things that come to my mind when I think about the image that drove the Beach Boys to their early success. Certainly the image was a large portion of their appeal, but it was the Phil Spector-esque sounds and dense harmonies that truly cement the group as a landmark in the musical landscape of the 1960s (Carlin).

It’s almost impossible to talk about the Beach Boys without talking specifically about Brian Wilson. His story, written like a Greek comedy, showcases equal shades of eccentric genius and tortured artist. I sense a true creative captured in the story and music of Brian Wilson; the turmoil created by the juxtaposition of expression and expectation is often the hardest burden for such artists. And so in Pet Sounds we have an album that seems to represent a major crossroads in the Beach Boys’ sound. This was a commercial album, no doubt, but the first true glimpse of the creative burden that would later prove too weighty for Brian Wilson to shoulder.

The Beach Boys’ previous sound is in no way forsaken in this album: yet it is a far more ambitious undertaking than prior albums. Brian Wilson still draws upon old musical influences such as The Four Freshmen; often invoking the rich textured harmonies that inspired him in younger days (Carlin). Yet for numerous reasons, this album strikes a much more meaningful chord. The album features a much more adventurous sonic instrumentation: fueled by the wealth of set musicians Wilson ushered into the studio to replace instrumental roles previously filled by Beach Boys (Howard, 2004). This alone gives the album a more polished and symphonic tone and quality than previous Beach boys recordings, but the real maturation of Brian Wilson’s music isn’t one related to sound per say.

I think the real impact of Pet Sounds is in its place as the first Concept Album. A musical undertaking in which all the songs in an album focus on a singular theme; in this case, it is the growth from adolescence into adulthood. As a self-admitted Prog Rock addict, I love me some concept albums. I even wrote one back in the day that I still cherish as some of my favorite music I ever produced. When Pet Sounds picked a theme of maturation, it was a declarative statement. There are no shallow love songs or odes to automobiles on this album (Howard, 2004). On the contrary, sounds on this album are introspective and definitely personal to Brian Wilson. This sole quality alone is all that is needed to permanently cement Pet Sounds’ place in the hall of pop music’s achievements. And it’s rather unfortunate that this is probably the quality that also made Pet Sounds less of a commercial success than other Beach Boys outings (Howard, 2004). But this takes us back to that crossroads of success and artistic expression. Here, we get to hear Brian Wilson strike out unshackled by people like his tyrannical father who didn’t get music outside of what was commercially viable. It actually strikes a great balance between pop sensibility and artistic grandeur, and it’s unfortunate that this is probably the best balance of the two that Wilson would ever achieve.

As someone who is also in love with the art of studio production, the mono recordings of Pet Sounds will always be my reference to what people mean when they say ‘Analog Warmth’. Some of the recordings are so warm and fuzzy it’s almost like getting a headache (or diabetes) from consuming too much sugar. As a listener, I have a hard time separating the music from it’s decade: like watching a period piece. To me, Pet Sounds is like the starting line for what would become popular musics best 100 meter dash–starting in the sixties and lasting through the seventies. I have plenty of fond memories of this album, and it’s truly amazing that its influential power hasn’t diminished one bit since the day it was released.

I’m back!

Hey there everyone, sorry I was on hiatus for a couple months–things got really busy with school, remixing an old album, AND a couple short films I was working post production on at the same time so I dropped a few things, such as this blogfolio and shockingly video games, for a little while. Well now I’m back to all my old vices and figured I’d revive this little spot. The link up at the top is from a video game project that I’m composing for right now!

I’ve also started a whole new portfolio over here:
http://spannp.wix.com/spannsounds#!home/mainPage
From now on that’s going to be my official portfolio so I’m using this space more like a traditional blog. It has some new work from me and I welcome everyone to check it out!

Another reason for me to revive this spot is because I need to do some blogging for my university’s Music History 2 course so I’m going to host some thoughts about albums here (don’t mind the references tab either it’ll just be up for the class).

~Philip