16th May 1966 saw the release of two albums who’s transcendental impact on popular music is unparalleled. One was Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde and the other The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Both brought revolutionary new ideas to music and showcased two of the 20th century’s best songwriters in their prime.
Blonde On Blonde was the culmination of Dylan’s mid-sixties electric trilogy – including the previous year’s Bringing It Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited – and the most ambitious. Listening to all of Dylan’s work that prior to Blonde On Blonde, it is easy to see the lead up to the screeching harmonica and evocative lyrical imagery. Indeed Dylan described it as: “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind”.
Ambitious is the most apt word to describe Blonde On Blonde, as in all ways it pushed up against the boundaries of what Dylan and music could do. It was the first double album to be released, marking a great step away from the music being produced at the time. The double album became the vehicle for some of the great albums of the 20th Century, no longer confining artists to 40 minutes of music and allowing them to experiment with longer compositions. It is impossible to see how Miles Davis pioneering jazz fusion 1970 album Bitches Brew, or The Clash’s London Calling, could have been realised on just two sides. The new format meant artists did not have to cut songs from their albums and allowed them to exhibit the totality of their creations.
Blonde On Blonde took the musicality and energy of the previous year’s Highway 61 Revisited and refined it. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat includes screeching lead guitar which one would assume was played by The Band’s renowned guitarist Robbie Robertson but is in fact Dylan, once again confounding expectations. The fourth side is entirely taken up by the eleven minute Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands which supposedly tells the story of Dylan’s first wife Sara. Although all eleven minutes follow the same structure, the gentle sound and Dylan’s haunting voice keep the listener enthralled throughout – there are parallels with Visions of Johanna, from earlier in the album, which has a similar dark mystery to it.
The Beach Boys’ 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights) announced their movement away from the world of teen, surf, rock to something more serious and musically sophisticated. 1966’s Pet Sounds continued in this vein becoming widely regarded as their, and in particular songwriter and producer Brian Wilson’s, best work. The music transcends genre, incorporating elements of jazz with their more familiar rock. It is easy to see the psychedelia present in the early Pink Floyd albums and the work of Cream being in part drawn from Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney said that without Pet Sounds there would not have been Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – indeed the influence of Wilson’s production techniques can be seen in much of The Beatles’ later albums.
These two albums together represent a milestone in the history of music, a pause before entering a new epoch. With Blonde On Blonde it is easy to see how this it is the perfect end to the chapter of Dylan’s artistry that is marked by the early sixties; there is the sharp poetic language of Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A Changin’ and the musical sophistication of Highway 61 Revisited. Pet Sounds feels more spontaneous and it seems to suggest Wilson wanting to rip his way out of the narrow hole that he and his band found themselves in.