And suddenly, there was a musical style that soon became known as psychedelia, A.K.A. acid rock.
The thing that’s difficult to remember these days is that the Beatles, known today for an epochal run of albums beginning with Rubber Soul and ending with Abbey Road, were actually the greatest singles band in history, with 34 Billboard top tens, 20 of them #1s, in an industry then dominated by 45s (arguably albums only became a Serious Thing in rock & roll because of the Beatles). All of that, mind you, in about six years. Incredible. From this distance the sheer speed with which it all happened is almost impossible to grasp, as is the exponential musical growth that the listener can trace, single by single, as they repeatedly reinvented themselves, and continually revolutionized their whole genre as they progressed. In 1964, nobody stateside had really heard anything quite like that first momentous release of I Want to Hold Your Hand, backed with I Saw Her Standing There; in 1967, nobody anywhere had ever heard anything at all quite like Penny Lane backed with Strawberry Fields Forever. Nor had anybody before them conditioned their audience to expect that which sprang from an evidently bottomless surplus of great songs, as exemplified by those two singles, and many others: the double A–side. Most other pop stars released their hits on records with throwaways on the flip side, usually substandard filler, or even nonsense. Not the Fab Four. With them, there quite often was no B-side. They just threw them out there and let the DJs figure out which was the hit. Would it be Day Tripper or We Can Work it Out ? Hey Jude or Revolution ? Much to John’s chagrin, from 1965 on it was usually McCartney’s offering the world preferred, and so it was with today’s selection, which appeared on a double A-side 45 with Paul’s Paperback Writer.
In England, these singles were compact and self-contained little statements in their own right, and kept separate from the LPs* for which they served as harbingers. Just as Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields was the signpost for Sgt. Pepper, Rain/Paperback Writer pointed the way to Revolver, and in both cases the singles and albums were recorded in the same sessions, just as in both cases, now that everything is oriented towards the album, it seems a pity they were excluded from the subsequent records (tragically so, when one considers what would have been added to Sgt. Pepper ), especially now that singles as such no longer exist. Stripped of their context and relegated to separate “best of” collections as if they were afterthoughts, we no longer get a sense of how momentous those two-song masterworks really were, or how important they were to the Beatles themselves. So many of them served as indicators of where popular music, which was evolving at a fantastic pace in the 1960s, was going to go next.
In 1966, spurred on by competition from the Rolling Stones and The Who, Paperback Writer and Rain confirmed that pop/rock was now heading in a decidedly more muscular direction, and would no longer restrict itself to romantic tropes. Neither song has anything to say about youthful infatuation or boy-meets-girl. The word “love” is nowhere to be heard. No, things henceforward were going to be more serious, a trend enhanced in the Beatles discography by Lennon’s keen appreciation of the grand and philosophical landmark albums then being released by Bob Dylan. The songs were also clearly going to sound weightier, less cheerful, and more hard-driving. Paperback Writer, an irrepressible exercise in riff-centric rock and roll, was about a struggling author desperate for a break, while Rain was a moodier and somewhat more sombre number concerned with general human folly. Both were brilliant, propelled along by newly powerful guitars, a much deeper, more resonant low end, and perhaps unexpectedly assertive and musically sophisticated drumming. That was the first thing that grabbed the discerning listener, the way the Beatles’ rhythm section was now standing out in a very big way (about which more below).
There was something else, too, when you listened to Rain, and it reeked of marijuana and other, more dangerous substances: things were getting a little, well, weird, experimental, and almost hallucinogenic. Lennon was reaching his creative peak, and plainly, we can now see in retrospect, taking an awful lot of mind-altering drugs. He was, in fact, drugging himself so thoroughly that it would soon rob him of his dominance within the group, while eroding his interest in things generally, and in continuing to be a Beatle in particular, but for now all was well, the songs were getting better, and the drugs were playing sounds in his head that he champed at the bit to reproduce on record. Sometimes not just in his head – John got the idea for the backwards singing at the end of Rain when he was up late one night, stoned out of his gourd, and threaded a tape onto his reel-to-reel the wrong way around. The bizarre sounds enthralled him. Given the misconceptions that have somehow grown over the years about the Lennon-McCartney creative partnership, and the relative heft of the contribution each made to the group’s astonishing brilliance, one might assume that McCartney would have balked at such craziness, but as it happened Paul was already headed in the same direction, having immersed himself in the music of the classical avant garde. There were experimental composers who’d been playing with backwards tape and weirdly spooky tape loops for years, producing little that one of history’s greatest melodists could have found especially listenable as music, but making what sounded to McCartney like some very interesting and potentially useful sorts of noise. If John wanted to forge off into unknown territory, he’d get no quibbles from Paul. That’s where he wanted to go too.
And that’s just what Lennon did. Rain can fairly be described as the first truly psychedelic rock and roll song**, in its way almost as drenched in weed and LSD as Revolver’ s subsequent closing cut, the revolutionary Tomorrow Never Knows, in which the McCartney-furnished repeating tape loops helped Lennon craft the auditory acid trip of his dreams (I want it to sound like a hundred Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top, John is reported to have said to an always resourceful but initially nonplussed George Martin). The electric guitars are cutting, layered, a little distorted, and almost meandering as set against the innovative and superbly emphatic drum fills supplied by Ringo (who considers this his best recorded performance). The vocal is different somehow, like it’s coming out of a distant loudspeaker, and sounds as if it’s being filtered through one’s own apparently altered consciousness, like something you’d hear in a dream. Angry, too; all of a sudden the Beatles sounded as if they were ticked off, and now desired to give you a piece of their collective mind. John, often curiously dismissive of his own work, described Rain as merely a song “about people moaning about the weather all the time”, as if the subtext wasn’t the subjectively exalted perception of life, the universe, and everything it all meant, which users often experienced when high on LSD. Rain, most assuredly, was not about the weather. It was about perception, and the mental prisons we build for ourselves. John was on a mission, and everybody needed to understand that there was a greater, vastly more important truth out there just waiting to be discovered, if people would simply extract their silly heads from their own ample backsides.
But no. All they seemed to do was react to whatever’s happening with rote, unenlightened predictability, like witless stimulus/response machines, doggedly refusing to see the big picture. When it rains, they run and hide their heads. When it’s sunny, they slip into the shade. Amoeba do as much. They might as well be dead, sings John, who concludes with an exhortation, and a bit of a bracing slap across the listener’s face:
Rain! I don’t mind
Shine! The weather’s fine
Can you hear me, that when it rains and shines
It’s just a state of mind?
Can you hear me, can you hear me?
And then you can’t understand a bit of what he’s saying. As the song fades out you can indeed still hear him, it’s John all right, but damned if you can understand him. It sounds like gibberish, something along the lines of sdaeh rieht edih dna nur yeht semoc niar eht fI, and there’s something awfully strange about the intonation. Why – what the hell? – it sounded like it was backwards. Maybe a secret message? Maybe something naughty?
Thus was laid the foundation for endless speculation and sleuthing down the road, as the fans slapped the discs on to their turntables and manually spun the records in reverse, ears pressed to the grooves, listening for secret messages that would substantiate their QAnon-like belief that actually, Paul was stone dead, and had been for ages.
Anyway, what was going on? I thought these cheery kids wanted to hold my hand, or talk about girls and such. Now they were telling me I didn’t know how to live my life, and might as well be six feet under? The loveable moptops were saying that? What gives? Man, the Beatles had changed.
They had. They really had. And they weren’t done with you yet.
One of the really exciting aspects of both Rain and its flip-side was a whole new sound, featuring a deep, resonant, and prominently articulate bass line. Both John and Paul grew up as artists listening intently to the records coming out of Motown, and Paul deeply admired the playing of the uncredited bassist, James Jamerson, often described as the best bass player then working in all of popular music. He surely was, but there was a kid in England who’d soon prove to be his peer (to this day, few seem to realize that Paul is one of the greatest bassists to ever pluck a string, and easily the most imaginative and melodic). McCartney badgered the recording engineers to make it sound like it did in the Motown discs, to give it more punch and clarity to the bottom end, to make it more prominent and intelligible in the mix, and in effect more dramatic. With Rain they were finally close to giving him what he wanted. The bass line is one of its primary delights, and has become legendary among players, any number of whom have posted videos on YouTube showing themselves playing along to the record, and demonstrating they have the chops to keep up. Most actually can’t, it turns out, but this fellow certainly can:
Marvellous! A number of others have posted items featuring Paul’s bass isolated from the original recording, the better to hear it in all its nuanced melodicism (see below). Paul’s relentless pressure to get the sound just right, just so, eventually goaded the engineers into coming up with what, to them anyway, was a novel recording method called direct injection, defined thusly in Wikipedia:
Direct Injection is an electronic device typically used in recording studios and in sound reinforcement systems to connect a high-output impedance, line level, unbalanced output signal to a low-impedance, microphone level, balanced input, usually via an XLR connector and XLR cable.
This means, when referring to an electric bass guitar, that the amplifier output isn’t fed to a speaker, but is instead plugged straight into the mixing board, which makes it sound a hell of a lot better on record, and whaddaya know – apparently unbeknownst to the boffins at Abbey Road, that’s just what James Jamerson had been doing all along. The Motown studio had been using direct injection from the get-go.
In the moment, Rain didn’t seem to raise much of a stir, or capture the popular imagination, despite its undoubted brilliance, and what ought to have been its compelling newness. Yet it laid the groundwork for a whole different style of pop music composition, and a whole different way of using the recording studio. The Beatles hadn’t given up on touring yet, but they soon would, enervated and depressed by the screaming and the general madness, and realizing that anyway, they’d much prefer to make music containing multiple elements that can’t easily be reproduced in a live setting. You can’t sing backwards on stage. It’s a simple trick in the studio though, once you’ve had the idea in the first place. What else was possible? More, so very much more, was soon to come.
*If I had any younger readers, by now they’d be asking themselves what’s a “45”? and what the hell is an “LP”?
**Some might quibble that the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, released at around the same time, should also qualify.