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Tomorrow Never Knows: How 1966’s Trilogy Of Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde, And Revolver Changed Everything

The 1960s cast a long shadow. We live in nostalgia-addled times, an era when retro-culture and revivals are ever-present and intermingled in the vast and readily accessible digital landscape. Sure, the ’80s always seem to be impacting something or another, and in recent years the ’90s and early ’00s made a comeback, too. But the ’60s loom over it all, because they are the genesis point of one major form of our pop history. Rock ‘n’ roll begins in the ’50s; rock begins in the ’60s. There’s something quaint and distant about the way we often figure the ’50s in pop culture. There’s something dangerous, and glamorous, and tumultuous, and transformative about the way we figure the ’60s. Each decade’s mythology doesn’t exist without the other now. If the ’50s are the prologue to our concepts of how pop culture works, and how it works within American culture, then the ’60s are the first chapter. It’s a decade that feels reachable and tangible while also somehow ancient. They are an origin story for our version of America, the place where our contemporary, consumerist notion of the American Dream still bloomed while mingling with the counterculture that yielded so many of the twists and turns that bring us to 2016. They were prosperous times that also saw the assassination of several public figures. There were the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, with nuclear apocalypse around the corner. It’s a complicated and historically fascinating decade that birthed many of the artists who changed everything about what pop music could be. The artists that provided the metric against which we still judge everything that has come since.

Musically speaking, this year marks something of a turning point with regards to looking back on the ’60s. Up until now, there have been 50th anniversaries of some magnitude tracing back to the first half of the ’60s: the formation of the Beatles and the Stones, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” Dylan going electric, etc. Earlier this year, both the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde turned 50 on 5/16, and today the Beatles’ Revolver does the same. (Though it was released on 8/8 in the US.) From here on out, it’s going to be several years of massive, beyond-seminal, legendary albums turning half-a-century old. At this point, this could be our grandparents’ music; it could be the music not only they liked during their youth, but that our parents and aunts and uncles and mentors and cousins grew up on before we did. It’s music that has incalculable, broad, trans-generational scope beyond sales figures (which, of course, are also significant). There’s something particularly monumental about these three turning 50 in the same year: whenever you talk about The Best Album Ever, Blonde On Blonde, Pet Sounds, and Revolver are never far from the conversation, the latter two in particular often earning the distinction. While the decade as a whole still impacts our national consciousness, these are releases that stand as foundational texts for the ensuing five decades of music.

There were other important musical moments throughout 1966, too. The Rolling Stones released Aftermath, the album that — like Rubber Soul did for the Beatles the year prior — legitimized them as artists, not wannabe popstars. It was their first to feature a tracklist built only from Jagger/Richards compositions, and the one to further establish the wild and hard alternative they provided to the Beatles. Psychedelic music pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators released their debut. Buffalo Springfield and the Grass Roots and Iron Butterfly all formed. So did the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The first Cream album came out. Them, Van Morrison’s band before he was just Van Morrison, released Them Again, which featured their cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the one Beck sampled on “Jack-Ass” three decades later. Simon & Garfunkel released Sounds Of Silence. The Vogues released Five O’Clock World, an album named for their 1965 hit single, the song that provided those long opening credits for the second season of The Drew Carey Show three decades later. Nancy Sinatra’s debut Boots came out, featuring “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The song remains ubiquitous. Sam & Dave released their debut Hold On, I’m Comin’, featuring the single of the same name. The song remains ubiquitous.

For any given year in the latter half of the ’60s, you’ll find the same mix of notable moments — some more legendary than others, some of the most famous albums and some lesser so, yet anchored by immortal singles. (The above list isn’t even comprehensive, either.) And while the deluge of classic albums increases and crowds as you tumble forward in the chronology, there’s still something very specific to ’66. This is the turning point, when everything swirled together so that the ’60s truly became the ’60s as we stereotypically depict them: the drugs, the sex, the war, the protests, the marches, the assassinations, the style, the paisley, the moon landing. And just as the big trilogy of Blonde On Blonde, Revolver, and Pet Sounds remain major touchstones for music down the generations, they also remain symbols of that pivot point. They were albums by massively famous artists that either cemented new movements or blew apart everything, leaving behind only the freedom to wonder what else could be achieved in this future without rules.

Other artists, like Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, had worked on albums as a complete artwork, but up until the mid-’60s, albums in the pop and rock idioms were, primarily, collections of songs anchored by singles. One of the major shifts that happened with Pet Sounds and Revolver was the introduction of the album unified by cohesion and arc and concept as not an anomaly, but a driving force. Our classic notion of the album, in essence, comes from here, the moment where musicians who had been hugely popular, but the boy bands of their day, took the opportunity to craft something more complex and more eternal, something that elevated them to the place where people will talk about Brian Wilson and the Beatles in the same breath as classical composers. It was after these artists that people became more ambitious with what the rock album could be. These three albums turning 50 this year remain lofty masterpieces, examples of the highest achievements that could be reached with the form.

There were several ways in which each of these albums also marked new, previously unimaginable possibilities in the idiom. Blonde On Blonde was the first rock double album, a sprawling work that paved the way for so many other ambitious (or bloated) double albums in the decades to come. It was the capstone to a wildly prolific and fertile time in Dylan’s career, during which he abandoned his folk roots and delved into rock music, churning out Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde in the ludicrous span of just 14 months. Each is a classic record, and each influenced countless musicians in various traditions.

While Revolver and Pet Sounds are more singular in the careers of their respective creators, Blonde On Blonde is more of a culmination for Dylan: the end result of years spent growing toward his defining sound, of years spent shirking the practice of recording standards and old folk songs in favor of creating the singer-songwriter mold as the more hallowed pop tradition. After Dylan, you were supposed to write and sing your own songs. Only then could you be a “real artist.” (Obviously, today that scans as a fairly rockist notion and there are complications with it, yet it doesn’t diminish the revolutionary shift that occurred with him, and it doesn’t change how much that has shaped our perception of pop music in the time since.) And Blonde On Blonde remains, arguably, his greatest achievement: the gigantic, all-encompassing work he attributes as being the moment he got closest to the elusive sound in his head, a rambling and literary and distinctly American album that set one of the impossible standards any other pop musician could dare to chase. It’s the masterpiece in a career littered with masterpieces.

The Beach Boys don’t have the same kind of legacy. They’re a weird one in classic rock and pop history, responsible for major hits and beloved, iconic albums, but not put on the same pedestal as the Beatles, Dylan, Stones, etc. Mike Love tours with some propped-up version of something called “the Beach Boys” these days, playing hits, peddling pure nostalgia without the clout of Wilson’s presence. You could make the mistake of only knowing them for their effervescent early days, where fine pop craftsmanship was readily apparent, but in the same sense of early Beatles: This is before they were “artists.” At the same time, Pet Sounds is major, arguably even more of a totemic presence than Revolver. That’s partially due to the fact that the Beatles’ classic run provides several other masterpieces on equal footing, and people have argued ad nauseam for which is their crowning achievement. But that’s just when comparing the two groups.

Pet Sounds is a monumental work either way, one where Wilson infamously obsessed over every detail, possessed by a hunger to make the greatest rock record ever after hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and wanting to counter them. It revolutionized what people did with the studio, using all manner of weird instruments and non-instruments, burying it in intricate Spector-influenced lushness, crafting a loose concept album that still stands as one of the greatest album-as-artwork achievements ever, if not the absolute greatest. Sonically speaking, Wilson also became something of a godfather to a whole era of indie music earlier this century, artists who took cues from his melodic sensibility, his chamber-pop orchestrations, or his gorgeous and prettily seasick experimentation. It’s an immortal record for its beauty, and for its universality in discussing lost, youthful love. It’s an immortal record because, like the other two, it still stands as a definition of what’s possible in pop music, a blueprint signaling the era in which artists defied the strictures that had been placed upon them, but also a blueprint that suggests you can still chase something beyond what we all expect.

Like Pet Sounds and Blonde On Blonde, it’s hard to even start talking about Revolver, or anything surrounding the Beatles. The amount of words already spilled about these artists is, well, voluminous. When some publication or group of friends argues about the greatest album ever, it’s often Revolver at the top of the list if it isn’t another Beatles album or Pet Sounds. While Pet Sounds was a masterwork of troubled genius that would eventually contribute to a worsening in Wilson’s condition, Revolver was a turning point. Rather: It was a point of no return for the Beatles, which also makes it a point of no return for pop music. Spurred on by what they heard on Pet Sounds in ’66, the Beatles would really go full-force into studio experimentation the following year for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet Revolver, like Aftermath and Pet Sounds, was a ’66 album that already saw the injection of Eastern instrumentation and melodies into rock and pop forms, and the Beatles were already in the process of abandoning live performance in favor of recorded innovation.

As with almost any album, there are some songs on Revolver that don’t stand out quite as strongly amidst the rest. But it remains remarkable in how it may be the clearest distillation of what the Beatles, with their four voices and dispositions, were all about. There’s a surprising amount of diversity crammed into its short running time, and it all holds together in a specific arc; it’s an album that places the horn-assisted pop of “Got To Get You Into My Life” right next to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and somehow the two work together as a logical conclusion to the journey of the album before them. About “Tomorrow Never Knows”: That song remains one of their crowning achievements outside of their immortal pop songs, and one of the most shocking works of that decade. It’s a legendary song from a legendary band, built on tape loops, a tambura and sitar, that weirdly propulsive stuttering drumbeat, processed vocals, and reversed recordings. There was nothing else like it. If someone released “Tomorrow Never Knows” today, it would still register as stunning and bizarre and alien. And now it’s 50 goddamn years old.

Breathlessly discussing these albums like this, as established and unassailable classics, plays into something, however. In an era full of new but retro-oriented pop culture as well as revivals of this or that erstwhile trend, we are constantly in danger of over-romanticizing past decades. It’s that received nostalgia for times we didn’t live through that defines a part of youth experience in America today. Then there’s the added wrinkle that music history as it currently stands orients itself around the Baby Boomer generation, and the development of youth culture as we know it in post-war America. The Baby Boomers, as it turns out, have a gift for continuously reifying their self-mythology through endless retrospectives or Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductions or anniversary tours or books that claim to say something new about the Beatles or Stones. Even before the digital era’s ability to give us all times at once, the ’60s were a decade that we had grown up hearing about: the one where everything happened, the one where everything changed, the one with all the classic music, the one with all the iconic musicians hanging out together. It was a narrative that was true but also reviewed over and over so many times that it’s like, well, sure, but there were innovations and geniuses in the ensuing decades, too.

CREDIT: KMazur/Getty Images

While it’s easy to buck against the monocultural narrative that’s been established with the ’60s, and with albums like Pet Sounds or Blonde On Blonde or Revolver, there’s also a twist to it all. Because there is a traceable reason the ’60s still loom large, to the fact that these artists are still such titans in the musical landscape and still resonate with young people. They were the originals in our context; we go back to hear the beginning, and the music is still evocative. But narratively speaking, there is also something totally overwhelming in what these artists pulled off. Consider again that fact that Dylan released those three rock albums within 14 months. The mind reels thinking about the Beatles’ trajectory specifically: They had released “She Loves You” just three years before they put “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver. That’s the length of time artists take between albums now. That band only existed for 10 years, and they left behind one of the most impactful and storied catalogs that we’ll ever see.

There is a feeling that this could never happen again. Of course, there have been countless more revolutions in music since the ’60s, plenty more seismic shifts. We have seen the birth of hip hop, the rise of electronic music, and all manner of disruptions in the way people compose, consume, and own (or don’t own) music. (Some of our current disruptions may yet undo the concept of the album as it was established in the mid-’60s.) But there’s still the fact that all of that comes from the radical departures of the artists from the ’60s, in some form another — if not always stylistically or in terms of ambition, then from how the music industry developed. It’s a matter of degrees of separation. The Beatles touch almost everything, and could we really have another artist like that ever again? Could we ever have another Dylan, another Beach Boys, another Hendrix? They were the first to do it, so even when further innovations happen, it’s still defined by that lineage. And the times we live through now have so much art happening at once, at the same time that we have so much history to dig through, whether these established legends or gems lost in the master narrative. The rapidity and severity of what occurred in music in the ’60s doesn’t seem replicable today.

Even in a year as bountiful—over-crowded, even—with major releases and potentially visionary works as 2016, it’s tempting to follow that argument, and look at the titanic records that turned 50 this year, and surmise that “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Even before the shape and reach of pop music and the music industry irrevocably changed this century, there were classic albums that still didn’t touch these. Sure, there’s Nevermind and Rumours and Like A Prayer and Born In The U.S.A.. But none of those albums could’ve existed without the complete reconfiguration of what “pop music” or “pop musician” meant that occurred as a result of this ’66 trilogy and what followed. Those achievements were indebted to those past ones, and the great works from the ’60s seem to be forever destined to be ranked highest on the greatest albums list as a result. How can you beat the original? This is the shadow we still carry with us: that nothing we can do now can touch them, either.

Is there still space for mad works of genius that defy the denials of all those around one singular artist, that take a ton of money and balk at the fear of major labels, that come from the mind of someone who’s barely an adult and yet reorients what we thought was capable in the pop culture landscape? It feels like the weight of history is too much. And, sure, these artists’ place in history is secured. But that line of thinking might also be bullshit. Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West are visionaries. Madonna was a visionary. Prince was a visionary. Radiohead are visionaries. We have more artists pushing the envelope and showing us new and surprising directions now than perhaps ever. It just feels more incremental when you’re living through it with that knowledge of pop history, and when your current moment happens in such hyperspeed times that it seems to be historicized within a year of it happening.

The question, in my mind, is what 50 years from now looks like. These pop things used to be disposable. Then they became real artists. Then they were glorified over and over, until their place in history was secure. Then technology developed that allowed us to have the entire collection of that history in our pockets, at all times. In 50 years, will people still talk about Kanye West and Beyoncé the way we still talk about the Beatles and Dylan? In 50 more years, will these albums from 1966 still be the touchstones they remain today? Will they carry a whole century of pop history around with them? This is all unprecedented, on some level. Before the ’60s, or even during it, people didn’t think this stuff was supposed to last half a century. But it did. It still influences a young kid who wants to pick up a guitar and learn famous, old pop songs they’ve heard in the atmosphere. Today, this stuff might be forever woven in the atmosphere, especially now that we have a greater sense of cataloguing and rehashing pop history, lest we lose it. If the shadow is this strong at 50 years, imagine what it could be like at 100.