Automatic for the People turned 25 last year. The reissue box set sounds great, and reveals how timeless this work is. My children can’t help but react to each song—my daughter’s flailing during Monty Got a Raw Deal is actually a pretty good Stipe impression, and she’s never seen him do it. The famous 40 Watt show from November ‘92 is included, and even though I’ve heard it countless times, this is the first professional mix of it, and it matters. At the time this album came out, I had some ambivalence about it, even though R.E.M. remained my favorite band. With time, I’ve come to embrace those elements I initially couldn’t make sense of or judged as too weak or simple. Its themes of mortality and nostalgia only resonate stronger as life goes on. The year this album came out, Sgt. Pepper’s was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and here we are 25 years later. This fact almost serves as a bonus track. And is there any better two-song closer on any album ever? I’m not sure there is. “The river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow.”
Is Keith Richards the most over-rated rock guitarist of all time? Between all the stories of his nodding off during recording sessions, and that open G tuning that makes those riffs he plays, well, easy… the answer may be yes. But even moreso than those examples, I find the biggest example—for me, anyway, is the fact that my favorite era of the Stones may well be the era in which Keith had very little input. Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about late ‘70s through early ‘80s Stones. And yes, I know this is rock ‘n roll heresy.
Why do I say this? Well, let me take you on a little journey…
First, total transparency: that ancient Beatles vs. Stones question? I’m a Beatles person. I love the songcraft, I love the production, I love their voices, I love the eclecticism of their vision. Growing up, the “raw” and “swampy” Stones of the ‘60s and early ‘70s didn’t speak to me as much. In my mind, most of that stuff was poorly recorded and sounded a bit ramshackle and tossed-off. I know, right? Some of you are, like, *really* angry with me right now.
There are some exceptions: “Paint It Black” always gave me shivers, and I love Between the Buttons (not surprising, maybe, as this album was kind of like the Stones’ bid to become more Beatles-esque). But as I grew up and continued being a lifelong student of music, I would always ask myself: why didn’t I like the Stones more? And I’m the kind of person that really interrogates that question. If I don’t “get” what everyone is talking about, I really spend time with it—I picked up all the “classic” Stones albums and listened to them (a lot), read about them, etc. And I admit, I came to really respect their work, and enjoy it to some extent. But still… a fan? No, not really.
And then recently, something happened. I was reading the 33 1/3 volume on Some Girls, and like most of those books, it spurred me on to listen to the album. Holy moly, what a great album! And I realized: wow, this is actually the Stones I grew up with—Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You. I revisited each of these albums and realized I still really knew these songs pretty much by heart.
But I hadn’t listened to them in over 20 years—because when I tried to get into the Stones as an adult, I picked up all those albums I’m *supposed* to love—Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., etc. But god help me, I prefer those edgy, new-wave rockers they put out between ’78 and ’81. I love Mick’s falsetto vocals, I love the four-on-the-floor beats, I love the jagged guitars that conjure up The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. And yes, I love the better production! Those guitars sound BEAUTIFUL. And you know what? By all accounts, Keith spent most of those years barely knowing what was going on, lost in his hard drugs. Mick was really driving the ship through those years.
So, call me crazy, but I’m going against the grain here. I’m gonna go listen to “Miss You,” “Shattered,” “Beast of Burden,” “Emotional Rescue,” “She’s So Cold,” “Hang Fire,” and “Waiting on a Friend.” Seriously, make that playlist. It’s pretty awesome, right?
No? Maybe it’s just me.
Friday marked the 50th anniversary of The Beatles album Revolver, and I posted the fine Rolling Stone article from that day that posited Revolver as the Beatles’ first “on-purpose” masterpiece. It’s also arguably the point in The Beatles where Lennon’s influence and McCartney’s influence achieved the perfect balance. Before this point, Lennon had somewhat dominated as the creative force behind The Beatles, while from this point on, McCartney would largely drive the ship.
Is that why the album is so good? I think so. The Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, bolstered by George’s best material yet (Taxman! Love You To! I Want to Tell You!), results in a standout release with only one weak number (Yellow Submarine, probably–although perhaps that song is forever tainted by being a mandatory 6th grade chorus selection for most kids).
The band was also–largely due to McCartney at this point–beginning to experiment more and more in the studio, regarding it as yet another instrument. This forever changes how we view rock ‘n roll albums and alters our expectations moving forward. Tape loops, automatic double-tracking (ADT), backwards guitars, compression…
Songwriting. Production. A highly charged creative period. It all results in some fascinating moments:
- Paul’s guitar solo in Taxman, apparently inspired by seeing Hendrix live, but truly unlike any guitar solo ever.
- Eleanor Rigby’s string arrangement, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score.
- The dreamlike quality of Lennon’s ADT vocal and Harrison’s backward-masked guitar solo in I’m Only Sleeping.
- The Indian music-inspired Love You To.
- Here, There and Everywhere, McCartney’s answer to Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows.
- The sound effects and playful atmosphere of Yellow Submarine.
- The oblique lyrics of She Said, She Said.
- The vaudeville pop of Good Day Sunshine, with a dollop of Lovin’ Spoonful-inspired ebullience.
- That guitar line in And Your Bird Can Sing!
- The lyrical maturity of something like For No One.
- The Motown-inspired love song to marijuana that is Got to Get You into My Life.
- And the moment that blew my mind–and everyone’s–upon first listen: Tomorrow Never Knows. That drumbeat! That droning chord! Those dreamy ADT vocals! Those Tibetan Book of the Dead-inspired lyrics! Those tape loops and sounds that weave in and out of the track! Has anything in the history of recorded music trumped this track?
Like many kids in the U.S., I grew up with the U.S. version of the album–I still have my vinyl copy, which omitted classic tracks like I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing, and Doctor Robert. To this day, I’m a bit surprised when these songs play next in the sequence, such is the power of early memories.
But hey–don’t take my word for it. Go ahead and put on Revolver today. You DO own it, right?