(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)
MARK CHILLA: Welcome to Profiles on WFIU. I'm your host, Mark Chilla. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists and scholars to get to know them and the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Dr. Glenn Gass. Dr. Gass is the Provost Professor and Rudy Professor Emeritus of music in Music in General Studies at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He taught a series of courses that he developed on the history of rock 'n' roll. These courses were the first of their kind to be offered through a music school. He's the recipient of the Herman B. Wells Lifetime Achievement Award, Indiana University's Sylvia Bowman Distinguished Teaching Award, IU Student Alumni Association Student Choice Award, plus many other teaching awards and honors. When he and I sat down, virtually, of course, we mostly talked about our shared interest, The Beatles. This past year, 2020, was an interesting year in Beatle history. It marked 60 years since the band officially dubbed themselves The Beatles for the first time, 50 years since the band famously broke up, and 40 years since the death of John Lennon. 2020 was also the year that Dr. Gass, the instructor of probably the first Beatles college course in America, retired as a full-time professor. His course on the Fab Four was the first rock 'n' roll course that he developed at Indiana University back in 1982. The class is still offered at IU today, and it just so happens that the current instructor of it, at least for this semester, is, well, me. So this interview is part a reflection on the life and career of one of Indiana University's most distinguished professors, part a reflection of 50 years of one of the great bands of the 20th century, and part, well, one young instructor seeking some advice. Dr. Gass and I talked via Zoom.
MARK CHILLA: So you recently taught your final class at IU back in the spring of 2020. What was it like to teach that class in the middle of a pandemic?
GLENN GASS: (Laughter) Well, you see, that's right. If you ask what was it like to teach your last class at IU, that would be hard enough. In the middle of the pandemic, it was such an anticlimax. You know, we left - as I recall, we left for spring break with a hint that we might not be back, but we didn't really know. So all of a sudden, we were wrenched into this awful (laughter) virtual Zoom mode, or whatever. And it was sad to me. It was my Bob Dylan class was actually the last class. And well, that and the Z202, the rock history class. To me, my last real class was the last Beatle class, which I taught in December of '19. I don't know why. I guess because I've done the Beatle class so long - it was my first class - and there's a kind of sense of occasion to it and my grading assistant had balloons and all these, you know, kind of plots for how to mark the occasion. And my family came. Both my sons and my wife came. And I mean, it was very moving. So, you know, it's funny. It's a long answer to a short question. But when you asked, you know, your last class, in my mind, I think that last Beatle class will always be my last class at IU because that was the one that felt bittersweet, final and melancholy. And till we meet again, you know, that's - the other was just too interrupted and strange.
MARK CHILLA: What was the last song that you played?
GLENN GASS: In the Beatle class? You know, that's a good one. Marwa Blues, I always play at the end when we talk about George. But I turned - "When I'm Sixty-Four" in April (laughter) so that was on the horizon.
PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) When I get older, losing my hair many years from now.
GLENN GASS: My boys made a video off of superimposing my - our faces on that song and that ended up being my farewell, which was - I'll tell you something interesting, too. For a long time that song was like a punch line. "When I'm Sixty-Four" ah yes, sappy Paul. Here we go. You know, you got to sit around and wait for "A Day in The Life" now. I mean, it was universally hated for being so corny and you know. And then somewhere along the line when I wasn't aware of it, students started loving that song. And so I asked about it last fall. I said, you know, what do you make of this song? And they're like, oh, gosh, it's my favorite song. I was like, what?
PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) And if you say the word, I could stay with you.
GLENN GASS: And we talked longer about that song than any other. They said, you know, I just wish someday I could even dream that my life could be like that someday, that someday I'd have a peaceful retirement and a happy relationship and the world would be calm and everything would be OK. And I think that's the moment that really hit me, the world our kids are growing up in, you know, and how disorienting and scary and unsettled it is.
PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) When I'm 64.
GLENN GASS: You know, it used to be I hope I die before I get old. And now, wouldn't it be nice to get old and be happy (laughter) you know?
MARK CHILLA: Yeah, grandchildren on your knee.
GLENN GASS: Grandchildren - that's a remarkable change, I think.
MARK CHILLA: Yeah. So how is retired life treating you so far? Do you feel like Paul wrote in the song?
GLENN GASS: Well, I don't mend fuses or do weeds or any of the things he - you know, Paul wrote that song knowing it was going to be forever denied to him because he was a famous Beatle. And he, kind of like my students, I guessed, wished life could be that simple, wished he could look forward to the simple joys of that. As far as how I feel, I guess you're going to have to ask in another year. (Laughter) We'll do another show. I don't know yet. The pandemic, it's such a cliche and it's so gauche of me to complain about anything. I'm so lucky. But, you know, it's a weird way to retire because all the checklists I had for retirement are wait. Wait on that travel. You know, wait on that project. Wait on seeing that person. Wait on that family reunion. Wait on - and you know, it was dramatic for a while. But after year it's kind of getting old. So in a way, I don't know what it's like to be retired. But I less and less often wish I was walking into a classroom right now (laughter) and I wouldn't be anyway so...
MARK CHILLA: Yeah.
GLENN GASS: It's - I mean, you know, it's - you know, it's bittersweet. But all things considered, I probably timed it pretty well.
MARK CHILLA: Are you listening to a lot of music these days? I mean, how much does music play a role in your everyday life right now?
GLENN GASS: It varies a lot. I'm learning how much music I listen to because of class. Not in a studious kind of way, but just to get in the mood, you know, if we're going to talk about Buffalo Springfield. I don't want to, you know, listen to Buffalo Springfield and listen to Neil Young and Stephen Stills. And, of course, you know, the Dylan class and the Beatle class, Dylan is endless. So, you know, I was always listening to Dylan. And I still am. He put out that album, you know, right when I retire. And he puts out one of the most magnificent albums of his career. And I don't even get to go into class and talk about it. But that album still feels like a new album to me. It's still so astonishing. The Neil Young box, the Neil Young archives two-box gigantic ten-CD box just came out. You know, I'm not that particular about what I listen to at home, really. You know, John Lennon, I read many times since he said in the Dakota years he listened to the easy listening muzak channel because it just was a mat of sound. Music, when it is your career, it ups the stakes like, God, I got to really notice this or that. And it's a little different than, you know, driving on a country road in high school listening to it.
MARK CHILLA: And that kind of led to my next question, which is, and I've dealt with this having, you know, been - music was - has been part of my career for so long, and, you know, did it play much of a role in your everyday life while you were teaching? I mean, did you turn on a record as you were, you know, making coffee in the morning, or did it feel too much like work?
GLENN GASS: Oh, no. As when I was teaching, I was listening all the time, especially in the early years. You know, I was a composition student. My doctorate is in composition. A lifelong rock 'n' roll fan ever since 1964 and the Ed Sullivan Show, but, you know, I was into serious music. So, you know, I was trying to learn, you know, Stefan Wolpe and the whole (laughter), you know, Varese catalog while I'm still listening to - trying to learn doo wop because I was a little too old for the '50s. And then when the rock courses started, you know, taking off in earnest, I had a lot of ground to make up. I mean, I would have people who were like 10 years older than me drop some reference to some, you know, streetcorner group that I'd never heard of. And it was deeply embarrassing. So I worked - I shouldn't say worked. It was a joy. But I listened a lot back then because I just had so much to learn. And even the things I knew I had to rethink and make sense for younger people.
MARK CHILLA: Yeah. So much of your professional career was devoted to music history. But what role did like new music discovery play in your life, learning about new bands? You know, there's a certain point when we're young we devour so much. But then, you know, it's kind of hard to stay current after a while. So how did you manage that over the course of your career?
GLENN GASS: Oh, I never said I did. (LAUGHTER) Don't fence me in here. I'd like to be able to say I did. Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm down with - you know, I look at the pop charts now and I think, what is this? You know, I stayed current kind of as long as guys like me do - probably longer because I was teaching. And I had students constantly feeding me music they loved. I mean, they seem to think, rightly, you know, I get to spout off about music I like. They should give me their favorite music. So, you know, I kind of kept current through them. But I do think, you know, maybe I shouldn't say this. But I think there is sort of an expiration date after which it's harder to absorb new music. And really, you know, when the new Elvis Costello album came out, I got it. I loved it. I went - I called my friends. We all listened it with our head between the speakers and, you know, screaming. You know, it was joyous. And those, you know, as you get older, those - the songs quit relating to you. You know, all the heartache, breakup, I'll get you, you know, those kind of songs don't mean quite as much and the epic guitar solos mean a little less. And you've heard a lot of it before in different guises. And it just it - for me anyway, it just and I think for a lot of people it gets harder. To go back to Neil Young again, I read an interview with him recently. He said, you know, I'd rather hear some outtake that Bob Dylan did in 1965 than any new band. And I thought, I can understand that. You know, I love Oasis. I love Nirvana. I love Smashing Pumpkins. Of course, I love Wilco. I love Beck. I love all the obvious people that someone like I would - me would like. But I'm not very adventurous. And the change, the difference for me is I don't feel that guilty about it anymore. You know, it used to be if a student came up and said, have you heard so-and-so new band? I'd almost always lie. (LAUGHTER) I'd say, oh yeah. I need to hear more, you know. And now I just say no, sorry. Never heard of them. Are they good?
MARK CHILLA: (Laughter) So, you know, something I noticed, you know, rock music, it was the dominant form of pop music and pop culture for so long. But it's not really like the dominant central part of pop music anymore. I mean, I don't - this is just what I kind of think about. You know, I don't think young musicians today are kind of picking up guitars like the way they were certainly 50 years ago or even 30 years ago when I was a kid. You know, they pick up samplers. They experiment with like digital audio workstations. You know, what do you think, as someone who's so steeped in the history of rock music, of this kind of changing mode of popular music and popular music transmission and performance and everything?
GLENN GASS: Yeah. That's hard for me. You know, electronic dance music really doesn't do it for me. I'm - God, I might as well like be Irving Berlin or something. I just - you know, I want a good melody and a good tune. You know, so are the Beatles. They really want to be Goffin and King. They wanted to be Rodgers and Hart--John, Paul anyway. I think part of it is music is just not central to young people's lives the way it used to be. I mean, any kind of music. There are so many other things going on with social media and games and that, you know, my kids - I know my kids get a lot more excited about other things as much as they love music also. Yeah, people don't go into a record store - what record store? They don't go into guitar shops and what - guitar shops and stare at that beautiful S.G. on the wall and think someday I want to have that. You know, it's, you know, forming a band - it used to be like, you know, forming a cool gang with your best friends. You know, it's really - it was something to aspire to. You're right. I think those days and that kind of music are - I mean, they predicted the death of rock 'n' roll so many times. And I'm not going to sit here to say that's dead again. It wasn't in '63 too and in '77. It's definitely not the dominant form of music. We have this kind of ritual at my house which my sons hate, which is like every Super Bowl we watch the halftime show. And then I go, oh, I'm going to get mad. And Matthew goes, all right. Show us how great it was in the old days. And I'll put on, you know, Tom Petty or The Who or the Stones or somebody during the halftime show. And it's going to become a running joke. So, you know this - I don't know how much of this is authentic change and how much is just me getting old, you know, or a combination of both.
MARK CHILLA: Well, I mean, there was a certain kind of flash point of artists in the '60s. And this has probably been asked a million times, not just to you, but to, you know, every single rock critic. Are we ever going to see something like that again?
GLENN GASS: Right.
MARK CHILLA: Are we ever going to have another Beatles, another pop phenomenon like another Dylan? You know, who do you think in 50 years we might be talking about in the same way?
GLENN GASS: Well, that's a really good question. It's amazing we still have Dylan, isn't it? (Laughter).
MARK CHILLA: I know.
GLENN GASS: It's like he's 80 years old. I - when I have students come up and say, oh, these guys are just as good as the Beatles, you know, this guy is just as good as Dylan. Part of me wants to say just could we just meet in 50 years? If God would just do me that favor, give me one day to meet over in Sweeney Hall with my former students and say, OK, how did that work out for these people? You know, because it's hard to imagine. And it's not the band's fault. The industry is falling apart. I mean, it's just hard to imagine, you know, live music, especially, you know, people turning out like they did for the Rolling Stones at the Indy 500 track or something. I just can't imagine what band could possibly do that now or much less 50 years from now.
MARK CHILLA: Well, let's talk a little bit about your musical history. I mean, The Beatles were obviously central to it. You've said in interviews before that your musical life kind of began on February 9, 1964, the day The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan. So tell me about what that event was like for you.
GLENN GASS: Oh, gosh. I was already sort of a music fan. Well, I should say, look, back then there were very few places to see rock 'n' roll or any variant you might possibly call rock 'n' roll. One of them was American Bandstand and then The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Ricky Nelson would come on at the end of each show and do a song. So I was a big Ricky Nelson fan. I also loved the Four Seasons because, you know, Frankie Valli's voice was just so - you could hear it over anything. I watched The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. We heard this Ricky Nelson song, but we didn't get all the words. We of course couldn't afford to buy the record. So I heard it on the radio a couple of days later, and I wrote down the words as best I could. And I ran over to my neighbor, Matt Foxen and said, Matt, I got it. I got the words to that song, the Ricky Nelson song. And I'll never forget. This is a quote. He said, forget Ricky Nelson. There's a new band. Doug Ling has it. It's The Beatles. Let's go. And we ran across the street, literally. We're all neighbors. And I saw that pictured sleeve of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and then "I Saw Her Standing There" on the other side. You know, The Beatles, we forget how strange that name sounded. If they were called the cockroaches, that's - you know, it's just as gross. You know, The Beatles was a gross name. They had that weird hair which looked totally fake. The record sounded strange, like nothing you'd ever heard before. And by the time it was over, it was like, yeah, that's it. That's it. The world has changed. You know, it didn't take time to assimilate The Beatles. It wasn't something you looked back on and said that was an interesting shift. You know, it's like the next day at school on Monday it's like, well, what do you think? You know, a whole generation shaped - changed at the same moment by the same thing, which is awfully hard for my students to understand in this age of, you know, digital media and social media and cable and all that, that everybody watched the same show on live TV and everyone was changed. We were the baby boomers. We were The Beatle boomers. You know, they're the ones that made us an us to begin with. And then it just sort of grew from there with them as our unquestioned leaders who never let us down. And by God they didn't. You know, it was that what really was the beginning of my real musical life. And that's when music became the central, not just an entertainment, but that this is all I care about. And people joked all the time about how much I love The Beatles. At our 10-year high school reunion, I won the award for most appropriate job. LAUGHTER) So, you know, I'll take that.
MARK CHILLA: I mean, what was it about their sound that sounded so different to not just to you but to everyone at the time? What was so different about it?
GLENN GASS: I've been trying to put my finger on that for a long time. That's true. Like you hear "She Loves You." You'll see those clips of the screaming girls. And you just watch them, you can see them in motion creating this little...
JOHN LENNON AND PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) She says she loves you and you know that can't be bad. Yeah, she loves you and you know you should be glad.
GLENN GASS: I mean, you can see these early signs by the way they perform them. Like to see four guys like cogs in the wheel - that's not a good analogy - or great basketball team. No analogy really works. It's The Beatles. You know, they're all there in the service of the song. Everybody's doing their part. I mean, there's no Elvis up front or anything like that. And then you think, well, what am I hearing? She loves you? It didn't sound like - it sounded like a hundred things you'd heard before. You know, Little Richard, Phil Spector, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly. But it really didn't sound like anything you'd heard before. It was shockingly new. You could not compare it to anything. And yet, you know, the instant - like I say, the instant that you heard it, it sounded just right. It couldn't be any other way. So - but of course, they were fully formed, as you know, before they set foot in America. They've got, you know, six, seven years under their belt...
MARK CHILLA: Yeah.
GLENN GASS: ...Of playing together. So it's not like - again, it's not like today where you can go down to the basement and be a band tonight on Facebook. You know, they really paid their dues and did the 10,000 hours and all that. And yet John and Paul's ambition was to be pop song writers in the mold of and, again, the Brill Building writers or what - Lieber and Stoller, whatever. That's part of the key is that to me is that John and Paul were pop songwriters writing for a rock 'n' roll band and with, of course, everybody contributing and along with George Martin. How lucky can you get? And I just feel like it was this alchemy that you could not possibly concoct, you know, consciously. It just happened over time, over years. And they were lucky to have those years. And we're really lucky that those guys happened to live within a few miles of each other. To me, it's a fairy tale. I think they should - kids should be put to sleep with the tale of The Beatles. Maybe they will be someday. Not Sleeping Beauty but once there was a time when George Martin heard a tape that Brian Epstein brought him. And, you know, that's more magic than Sleeping Beauty. Geez.
PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Close your eyes and I'll kiss you. Tomorrow I'll miss you. Remember I'll always be true. And then while I'm away, I'll write home every day. And I'll send all my loving to you.
MARK CHILLA: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Mark Chilla. We're talking to Dr. Glenn Gass via Zoom, former IU professor of rock history.
JOHN LENNON AND PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Close your eyes and I'll kiss you. Tomorrow I'll miss you.
MARK CHILLA: So The Beatles obviously changed their style dramatically over the next few years. You know, in just two years' time, they're a lot more experimental. They're not performing the same kind of music in such a short amount of time. How did your opinion change of them as they began to change so drastically?
GLENN GASS: Well, that's partly what I kind of wanted to say at the beginning was the first time you heard them, it was like unlike anything you'd ever heard. So it's not like, OK, here's what they sound like. Oh, oh. Now they're changing. I mean, they were just so different to begin with. And it wasn't like, you know, all the early songs sounded the same. They didn't. That was one of the shocking things about them. They were an album band way before there were album bands because, you know, their albums, even the early ones were full of really good songs that were really different from each other. Even the Motown covers and things, they were great. And they were - and we got to say the sheer power of their popularity gave them a clout that, you know, no other band - I mean, Elvis had it. But he didn't write his own songs. No other band had that kind of clout that would take it - that would cause an audience to rethink and re-hear. It's like Elvis Costello said in that Ron Howard "Eight Days A Week" thing. He said, you know, the first time I heard "Rubber Soul," I thought they've lost their minds. This is crazy. You know, this is not a Beatle record at all. And within no time, you know, it was essential to my life. I couldn't live without it. It's like The Beatles kept leaping ahead, like little Beethovens or something (laughter) leaping ahead of their audience. And the audience, fortunately, was hip enough to sort of catch up. And by the time they caught up, The Beatles leapt ahead again. And if they haven't, the Beach Boys had. It was sort of a remarkable time. But I think that the change just from "She Loves You" to "The Hard Day's Night" album, which I dearly love, was astonishing. And then "Help" with "Help" and "Hide Your Love Away" and "Yesterday," I mean, you know, we're not talking five, 10 years. We're talking in increments of months. And then they go through startling changes. I mean, to go from "Rubber Soul" to "Sgt. Pepper," you know, in such a year and a half or something, is astonishing. And that's the other thing, too. It's like you would think sooner or later they'll put out the album that you - I just don't like that one. You know, every band does. Who doesn't (laughter) you know? I mean, I can't think of any other band that never fumbled. People have their favorite albums, you know. And I have my favorites and ones I like a little bit less. But they never let us down. You know, that's the thing. They never made that crummy album, as much as I wish they would have stayed together, you know, I'm kind of glad we never lived through their disco period or whatever might have happened. God knows. And now - and I'm not that hip. You know, I'm from Greencastle, Indiana. And, you know, I was 10 years old when Sgt. Pepper came out. So it's not like I was taking acid in Haight Ashbury going, yeah, this is perfect. I was listening to this strange music. And actually, you know, if the Grateful Dead had put out "Sgt. Pepper," I might not have listened to it. I might have been scared by it. But since The Beatles put it out, it's like, OK. When did The Beatles ever led me astray? Mom and dad say, come over here and The Beatles come over here. I'm going over here (laughter) you know? So there was that sense that, you know, you could trust them. Like your biggest - like your big brothers. You know, they're hip. They're edgy. They're always wearing the right things and saying the right things and doing the right things. And you can trust them. And they'll always be there for you. They're not going to abandon you. And that - it may sound stupid to younger ears now. I don't know to talk about a musical group that way. But they were important to our lives way beyond the music.
MARK CHILLA: Well then, let's jump ahead to 1970. I mean, The Beatles break up in 1970. And you're like - what? - about 15 years old? Something like that?
GLENN GASS: Yeah.
MARK CHILLA: What was that like for you? It's your big brothers disbanding. What was that like?
GLENN GASS: It was - it's not a good analogy. But it's a fair one. It's like you have, you know, your older brothers and they have a big fight and vow to never speak again. And then they don't. And they keep saying nasty things about each other. It was very - it was a hard period. For one thing, it was hard to imagine life without The Beatles. I mean, they're an automatic fact of life from 1964 in America, '63 in England, that there - how could there not be a Beatles? It's like someone just came in and said, well, Christmas is done. Santa is dead (laughter). It just seemed impossible to go on without The Beatles to look forward to because it was like uncharted waters like what do we do? Where do we go? And then after the gold rush came out, soon as Neil Young, as soon as I fell in love with Joni Mitchell and all the singer songwriters, it finally had a sense that, OK, life will go on. Music will go on. There may even be another Beatles. I mean, we all thought that.
NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Old man lying by the side of the road with the lorries rolling by. Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load and the buildings scrape the sky. Cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn...
GLENN GASS: The 50s said Elvis, 60s had the Beatles, 70s will have? And it just didn't happen. It was there was nobody and there never will be another Beatles. There couldn't be. But there was plenty of good music, at least for a while.
MARK CHILLA: Thousands of people have talked about how The Beatles have changed music history. They were disruptors in a way. They - so beyond just the superficial, beyond just the long hair and the psychedelic sounds, what were some of their lasting impacts on music history and the music industry?
GLENN GASS: Well, for one thing, I mean, rock wasn't dead in 1963, but it was down for the count. But it's - what it seemed like was that rock 'n' roll was essentially the music of one generation of young people, like the big bands had been. You know, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, that's great. That's great. And then something else will happen. But you certainly didn't imagine it would be rock 'n' roll reshuffled in the guise of, you know, four guys with guitars in their hands singing our songs and then their own and building on that. So they really kicked the music industry back into life. I mean, you know, you do need an Elvis or a Beatles or at least then you did. You needed someone so powerful that the music industry and the record companies couldn't put their foot down and say no to anything. I mean, once Elvis was Elvis, like, OK, do you want. And once The Beatles had basically owned EMI, you know, they could go into make "Sgt. Pepper" and spend six months doing it if they wanted to. I mean, the power they had was extraordinary, the creative power. And I think they just freed up everybody's mind so much. You know, and all the other groups, that's their starting point. My God. I mean, there's not a single group out from the Stone's down. Keith Richards always says we couldn't have done it without The Beatles. It wouldn't have occurred to us that a British band could do anything without The Beatles. So they were this thing that detonated right at the right time. And the reverberations just kept spreading out into the outer reaches of our imaginations through the '60s. Here's what I think. To have the best group on the planet also be the most popular, you know, how often does that happen? I mean, when does that ever happen? It's like a given that the best music is hidden away in the corner of the record store and someplace on the Internet. And you're proud of it that only 50 other people know about it or whatever. But this is like, you know, how good could a Big Mac be if everyone loves it? But The Beatles were sort of like that. They were like, everybody loves The Beatles. What's not to love? And you could - and they really were that good. You know, and thousands and thousands of listenings later, they - in fact, they were that good. So I think that was the real power, you know, that they were not only the most popular band but the best band. And you don't mess with The Beatles. You can you can like the Stones. You can love Dylan, of course. You can love The Byrds. But everyone agrees on The Beatles. To not like The Beatles, that's an affect.
MARK CHILLA: (Laughter).
GLENN GASS: You know, what's really what's not to like?
MARK CHILLA: That's what I always think. Is there such diversity in their sound? I mean, even if you're, you know, not a fan of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "When I'm Sixty-Four," there's going to be something on one of those albums that speaks to you in some way.
GLENN GASS: Oh, yes. There is no Beatles style, obviously, in a way that you can point to, I don't know, some bands or classical artists and say this is kind of their style. That's, you know, The Beatles are - you know, were so - and in seven years, too. (Laughter) This all happens in the space of seven years. They just tried everything as eagerly as they could. And because they had this built-in quality control of each other, John with Paul and then with George and Ringo and then with George Martin, somehow everything they did ended up sounding just great. So, yeah, I mean, the artistic growth is Mozartian. And it's just, my God, how could that possibly happen in an art form in which you don't expect that kind of - you didn't expect to use the term artistic growth in rock 'n' roll. It was stunning to watch them. Every new album, you knew every new album was going to be astonishing. And every new album was going to be completely different from the last one. And that's pretty much true. "Magical Mystery Tour" was sort of a lateral move. But, you know, until then, every album was like, whoa, where did that come from? "Revolver" is not at all like "Rubber Soul." Not at all! "Sergeant Pepper"? (Laughter) It is amazing how open their minds were and how their minds stayed and how curious they stayed about new sounds and never, ever coast on what they did before, ever. It goes so far beyond music. I mean, they were our heroes. They were our heroes. You know, you'd look to them and now it sounds corny, but, you know, from the time they first - you know, I remember, you know, all the guys trying to pull their hair and make it grow faster because, you know, every - you know, they - the way they looked, the way they dressed, the way they acted, the way they seemed to have this sort of polite disdain for adult society. You know, and the movies, of course, helped kind of introduce them as personalities to us. And, you know, then, of course, John Lennon's peace campaign. And as the decade gets - and the drugs, of course - as the decade gets more and more loaded, so do The Beatles. It was so exciting to have The Beatles, the mop tops, to be - still be our leaders in 1967. I mean, the same guys did "She Loves You" as did "Sgt. Pepper," you know, and they were on the bus. They're part of the counterculture, firmly, with the kids, with the activists, John Lennon doing "Revolution." "Give Peace A Chance." And it was - it just seemed they were our gift. My gosh. So it was, you know, so much more than the music, which is why when they broke up--and of course when John died--but when they broke up, it was like, wait, we don't - it's not that we're just not going to get any more albums, we're rudderless here. You know, we kind of - we look to you for guidance. And, you know, we had to learn to - it's kind of like leaving home. You know, we had to learn to live on our own and figure things out on our own. But, yeah. It was much more than just the breakup of a musical group. That's for sure.
MARK CHILLA: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Mark Chilla. We're talking to Dr. Glenn Gass via Zoom, former IU professor of rock history. So let's talk about your history with teaching The Beatles' course. So you first taught it in the early 1980s. You were a student here at Indiana University studying classical composition. So what made you decide to teach a class on The Beatles while you were working towards studying the music of George Crumb and other classical composers?
GLENN GASS: Oh, yeah, love Crumb. Elliott Carter was my big guy. I wanted to be a composer. That was my dream. But I never quit loving rock 'n' roll, although rock 'n' roll seemed to quit loving me. I mean, the '70s, again, talk about revisionist history. The '70s sort of sucked, you know. Punk was great, I guess, but it just was a good time to check out of pop music for me and get into classical music. And that's basically what I did. And for a lot of people, you know, hearing John Lennon's voice on the radio after five years away was like, whoa, you know? John Lennon. It wasn't great, the songs, but he could still sing. And what does this mean? Does this mean The Beatles might get back together? And, you know, your wheels start turning. And it was so cruel that within, you know, weeks he was gunned down, assassinated. And that was - I was just blown apart by that. I - short of a family member dying, I can't think of anything that would have affected me so much. I - then that night was horrible. I mean, people were calling and everybody was calling everybody and saying, are you OK? Are you OK? Because there was no Internet. There was no nothing. It was just reach out and just cry on the phone. I mean, I cried with so many friends that night because, you know, whatever else, that's one thing we all shared and that we all loved. And we knew we'd never be that close together or that - agree on anything like that again. And it was very sad. But the saddest thing for me really was I went into a composition workshop, graduate composition workshop. And I was wearing a black armband in honor of John. And I walked in and not all of them, but some of the students started laughing. They said, what are you wearing an armband for? I said, well, John Lennon, what do you think? Then they laughed harder. It's like, you're joking, right? I just I couldn't believe that people my age who grew up listening to the same music I did were proud that they didn't listen to The Beatles or pop music. They listened to - only to George Crumb, you know, and only to, you know, whatever classical music and serious music. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. Not all. Some of my friends were right there with me. But it was I was just living. I thought, what can I do? This…the Beatles are going to fade now. What's going to happen? And to me goes, short story as long as possible, I went to the Living Learning Center proposing a class there, and it was voted on by the students and they said, yes, Beatle class. Honestly, you know, I taught my first Beatle class as a tribute to John or a thank you to John. Just it was the only thing I could think to do. And it was also very soothing, consoling for me to hear him and think about him and have that kind of time. So that's - so anyway, that's how it started. And then the School of Music picked it up the next semester along with the rock history class.
MARK CHILLA: So right after that - so the school of music takes up the class. And then when did you to make the decision to say, OK, I'm going to devote my career now to this versus composition?
GLENN GASS: Well, two things. I've got to give a lot of credit to Henry Upper and Charles Webb, the Dean and Associate Dean, who said we're going to do this. Now, you know, rock history was not common back then. In fact, it was very uncommon. Rock history at the IU School of Music? Are you kidding? Now, I actually, you know, I mean, I would turn the corner. I remember one time I turned the corner and slammed right into Janos Starker and knocked him over. I thought, oh, God, I was just listening to his Bach cello suites two nights ago and I just knocked him over. I mean, the Giants. Gingold, you know, they were still roaming the halls. And I was in the Xerox room and talking about how I wish I had more time for my class. You know, I just don't have time to get everything. And I won't say anything but that. The head of the musicology department said, what do you teach? I said, I teach rock and roll history. And he goes, oh, how much time do you need for musical garbage? One minute is too much. And he wasn't trying to insult me either. I mean, to him, it was just self-evident that rock rock'n'roll roll was not real music. It was just garbage, you know, which is OK with me. If he said, oh, I love - especially on side two of Rubber Soul - that would have been disturbing to me. You know, part of loving rock and roll was that, you know, your parents hated it. And that sort of carried on into the school of music where I could be a rebel within academia. And that that worked out to be a nice balance. So, you know, if they want to hate it, that's great. That changed over time. Now, you can't go off there and find anybody that doesn't love rock and roll. They all grew up on rock and roll, of course. So times in that way have really changed. So back to your question. I just thought I would teach rock and roll for fun. Well, I did it to pay my way through grad school. And then when I got my doctorate they made me a faculty line which was astonishing, but the classes had also become pretty big, so they didn't want to lose them. And then I thought, I'll just do it until I don't get tenure and then I'll get a real job. You know, I just I never was convinced, really, that this was going to last until I did have to certainly have tenure and was secure in my courses. And they were staying full 360 in each one. And then I had that moment, dark night of the soul, but bright too where I realized, you know, I really enjoy teaching Beatles more than I enjoy composing. And my God, what a thing to say. I love composing. I'd love to be a great composer more than anything, but I never would be. I might be a good one someday. Never great, I thought. But I can sure teach Beatles or at least enjoy the Beatles. I'm a good - I'm virtuoso listener when it comes the Beatles and I'll never be the composer I want to be. And I enjoy this more. Why would I want to go and teach theory and composition somewhere in Montana? And I do school of music teaching rock and Beatles. Wake up you moron. And I kind of woke up and said, all right, this worked out pretty well in spite of myself. It worked out pretty well.
MARK CHILLA: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm your host, Mark Chilla. Our guest this week is Dr. Glenn Gass, former IU professor of rock history. He and I talked via Zoom about our shared favorite subject, The Beatles. So you taught the Beatles class the longest students over the years have had, you know, a different relationship to the Beatles when you first started teaching it. Those students were alive when the Beatles were still together. And then eventually you had a group of students who were born after 1970 after the Beatles broke up. And then eventually you had students born after 1980 after John Lennon passed away. You know, the music became what was had a different role in all of their lives. What did you notice about the change in your students’ relationship to the Beatles over the years?
GLENN GASS: I think when I started off, you know, we were all enjoying some of what we already enjoyed was a little older than them. But we shared this, you know? And we would talk about it, you know? Talk about John with me, talk about, you know? How do you feel about this song? And, you know, it was it was like all first-person, kind of. We were very close to it. And then there was a golden period around - gosh I don't know. Maybe the early 2000s when everybody in my class was a rabid Beatles fan because I guess all their parents were and they'd all been raised in the Beatles and they loved the Beatles as much as I did when I was their age. They would fight over, you know, Paul and John and all of this stuff. And it was amazing. It was so much fun. And they would sing. I'd have to shut them up. I'd be in class and they'd be singing. And now we're listening. But I loved it. You know, that's how much they love the Beatles. They just couldn't help but break into song with these big smiles on their faces. You know, I didn't notice that in the last decade. That's changed. They don't hate the Beatles, but they don't know that much. They have to be taught how and why to love the Beatles. You know, and a lot of the references that we used to assume just are lost on them. And then you have to think, is it really worth trying to explain it or just move on? Does it even matter, though? It's gone up and down. Up and down. I mean, one of the things that's changed is, all through the 80s and into the 90s, I had to defend Paul all the time because John was saying John. John was the heavyweight Beatle, John was, you know, the heroic Beatle, and Paul was the lightweight balladeer, you know, Perry Como, Engelbert Humperdinck. And that's totally flipped now. I mean, Paul is out there being wondrous and being Paul McCartney every night. And he is wondrous. And John's like the hippie got the beard and the weirdo Beatle. And, you know, Paul's songs are more accessible and there's more of them in that film Yesterday. And, you know, it's just - it's funny how it's changed. And that's sort of personal connection that you that you had that gets lost. I mean. I wish I was around in 1795 in Vienna. That must have been fantastic, you know, but, you know, 100 years later. Yeah, maybe that connection to Beethoven is really through the music. Not the people anymore. I guess that's the - that's what's changing fast. The connection to--the Beatles are so connected to their personalities, their music. And I think that's just naturally going to fade away to the point where, you know, people honestly don't know is this a George song. I honestly can't tell who seniors like. Oh, really? OK. Well…
MARK CHILLA: One thing I find really interesting is that because, you know, the Beatles catalog, the entirety of it is on Spotify these days are on iTunes, there's this weird kind of democratization of every single Beatles song. I mean, every single Beatles song is essentially a single right now.
GLENN GASS: Yes.
MARK CHILLA: I think about, you know, when I was growing up and I was buying all the Beatles records, the last Beatles record to buy--and it probably was the same in this in the 60s—was…you buy Yellow Submarine last because that has, like, two new songs on it and it's got about six George Martin instrumentals and it's got about five songs that were on previous records. But now so those two songs, you know, Hey, Bulldog and, you know, like those songs were almost unknown. Those are the most unknown Beatles songs. But now those songs are as easily accessible as, you know, Hey Jude, because they're just a click away. So there's, you know, I feel like there's this new kind of democratization of the Beatles songs and different ones are bubbling to the top. I mean, did you notice that in the last couple of years?
GLENN GASS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. In fact, Hey, Bulldog was one of my favorite undiscovered gems because for years it sort of was like you said...
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Sheepdog standing in the rain, bullfrog doing it again, some kind of happiness is measured out in miles. What makes you think you're something special when you smile?
GLENN GASS: Here comes the Sun I read was the most downloaded Beatles song of all. So, I mean, George comes up strong on the last album.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun. Do, do, do, do. Here comes the sun and I say it's all right.
GLENN GASS: That's one thing that we didn't mention that, you know, it always used to be John, Paul, John, Paul, who's your favorite? And it says a lot about who—you’d better answer carefully, by God. And all of a sudden I started getting these students saying, George. I'm like, George? What does that mean, I wonder. So George really came up, which I think is sweet. You know, he deserved it. Nice. In terms of the songs you know, Spotify--I don't know, I think there should be a law that if you download With a Little Help from My Friends, you download the Sgt. Pepper theme. In fact, you download the whole album. You know, you're not going to pick out - what? You're going to pick out Polythene Pam? And how's it going to start and end? I mean, it's - we've lived through the album age. You know, at least I have. I mean, I remember when it was all singles and albums seemed like, you know, this kind of extravagance. And then albums were it. Think of someone like Todd Rundgren without albums. That's his palette. You know, it's like taking an artist and saying, OK, instead of a ten-foot canvas, you've got now a postage stamp to write on. And, as you say, also, it takes everything out of chronology. It's like, OK, is this before or after Rubber Soul? And you're listening to I Want to Hold Your Hand. It's like or I remember a few years ago I gave a test and everybody bombed the listening part and they all bombed the album. I always ask, what's the name of the song? What album is it on? And they were like, well, the album? I don't listen to albums. Well, you're going from now on. Create a playlist. Call it Rubber Soul and put the songs in the order they are on the album and listen to them the way the Beatles wanted you to. I mean I didn't say it that meanly but, you know, it was it was a shock to me that, of course. You know, He Said She Said is on the end of side one of Revolver, that's just a fact of life. And for them it's just a stray song. It could be anywhere. So, and, you know, that's like - that is an issue for artists. I mean, not I mean, now they expect it. So they plan for it. But I mean, do you think Beethoven would feel they're taking, like, to put a third movement of his second symphony and sticking it onto the Eroica, and then the last movement from the Ninth suddenly appears? It's crazy. Crazy. No. No, no, no, no, no. Especially for a band like the Beatles after they invented the album and made the sequencing of the songs and the songs themselves, how they went together matter so much. You know, you wouldn't cut up Pet Sounds or Freak Out or, you know, I mean, I guess you do now. You would. But it's too bad. I'll say one thing. This is a real Beatles fan insider thing. But the American Rubber Soul, which is what I grew up on, the American mono Rubber Soul, the vinyl is - to my ears still the very best. For all the remastering and everything else they've done, the American mono is much better than the British mono. Clear. And, you know, it just sounds better, Just sounds so much better. And the sequencing that, you know, Rubber Soul, the American version opens, you know, with, I've Just Seen a Face, which is on the British Help.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) I've just seen a face. I can't forget the time or place where we just met. She’s just the girl for me and want all the world to see we’ve met.
GLENN GASS: And side two opens with It's Only Love. Not that awful What Goes On.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) What goes on in your heart? What goes on...
GLENN GASS: I mean, that was much more cohesive, a sort of a folk-rock album. But the American Rubber Soul, you know, what doesn't get pointed out in history books often enough, I think, is it's the American Rubber Soul that Brian Wilson, that Jim McGuinn heard, that Bob Dylan heard. And then they made Eight Miles High and Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds. It's not the British version, it's the American. So there's my plug for the American Rubber Soul. You can get those on CD. You know, Capital reissued the CDs and they sound great.
MARK CHILLA: Yeah, that was the one that I listened to because it was the one that my parents had on vinyl. So that's the one that I knew growing up.
GLENN GASS: Wasn't it a shock the first time you put on the British one and heard Drive My Car at the beginning and...
MARK CHILLA: Yeah, because it was their folk-rock album to me. It was always their folk-rock album. Yeah.
GLENN GASS: And What Goes On could disappear pretty easily as far as I'm concerned.
MARK CHILLA: Well that kind of leads to my next question. Is there a Beatles song…are there Beatles songs that you just, like, you can't stand listening to? Or on the flip side, are there songs that you may have had a low opinion of that you've completely changed your tune on after teaching the course for, you know, 30 plus years?
GLENN GASS: That's a good question. I don't love What Goes On. I don't hate it. How can we hate anything Ringo does? You know, I give Ringo a lot of slack, Don't Pass Me By is not a masterpiece. But again, well, we'll let it go by. You Know my Name, Look up the Number. That's another one of those, kind of, oddities that, you know, if you don't know it, you're not missing much.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) You know my name. Look up the number.
GLENN GASS: I think the more shocking thing is how few of those there are. Like, you go through most bands’ catalog and you get like, take this out, cut that one, cut that one, cut that one. You know, you don't need that. You can whittle it down to a best-of box pretty easily. Beatles, what would the best of the Beatles box be? You know, what would you cut out? It'd be hard to put out an album’s worth of material. Almost impossible, much less more than that. So, no, there are very few clunkers and even those early ones on the Please Please Me album that I didn't love immediately, I grew to love very much. I think those early songs, in fact, in general are the ones that grew on me most. I mean, like I say, I love the Hard Day's Night album. I don't know 10 - well, 20 years ago I would have said that was one of my top five.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) I should've known better with a girl like you, but I would love everything to do. And I do. Hey, hey, hey. And I do.
GLENN GASS: I certainly would now. It's an all Lennon/McCartney album. They wrote all the songs, which is incredible. No, George, no, covers, you know…and they've just conquered America and made a movie. They're really flying high now. Especially John's, just, fever pitch of confidence. So I love that record in those songs. I don't know the strands, like…I never loved Blue Jay Whale that much until one day in class, a student said it was his favorite song. And I thought, really? When I listened to it again through his ears or tried to, and realized, you know, this is...
GLENN GASS: (Singing) There's a fog upon the lake and my friends have lost their way. We'll be over soon they say.
GLENN GASS: People ask what my favorite Beatles song is, my answer usually is whatever I'm listening to at the time, because you know, how - it's such apples and oranges. How do you balance I'll Be Back with, you know, Eleanor Rigby, with You Never Give Me Your Money? Oh my gosh, you know, so many great songs.
MARK CHILLA: So was there a class that you wish you could've taught but you never quite got around to building it or putting it together?
GLENN GASS: You know, the class--I said for years, the next class I'm going to do is the Dylan class. And I did, I, 2009, I started teaching that. The next class is going to be either Neil Young or a singer songwriter class like Neil, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. And to be honest with you, Dylan sucked the air out of the room. I mean, he's a lot of work to really, really know, Dylan. I mean, he's made so many records and so many great songs and so many, kind of, hidden back corners in his songs and references to ponder. And I never got tired of preparing for the Dylan class. And it was endlessly fun. I missed that because I don't ever feel like I finished it. I never got to where I wanted to with that class. So there's was just such an abundance that the trick there is what do you prune back?
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) They sat together in the park as the evening sky grew dark. She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bone. It was then he felt alone. And wished that he'd gone straight. And watched out for a simple twist of fate.
GLENN GASS: The Beatles had the decency to break up after 13 albums. I mean they fit in a semester really well. But Dylan just sprawls and, at a certain point after, you know, Desire and Street Legal. I just say, OK, now we're just going to do excerpts from albums, you know, a few songs but not full albums anymore.
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) He felt the heat of the night. Hit him like a freight train rooted with a simple twist of fate.
MARK CHILLA: So I guess my next question is, you know - or my last question is what's next for you? Are you working on a book or are you just kind of enjoying your retired life a little bit? What's on the horizon?
GLENN GASS: Let's go back to an earlier question. Ask me about Rubber Soul again.
MARK CHILLA: I’ve got more Beatles questions to ask. We can keep talking about the Beatles.
GLENN GASS: Let's plan that every night. Can you call about this time and we just talk Beatles? Because I never get tired of talking about them. I admire Paul McCartney so much, you know, to be, you know, what is he, 78? And seemingly loving what he's doing. Ringo, too. Ringo, too, you know, I don't know, to go back to where we were a long time ago about this pandemic. I haven't had a chance to find out what it feels like to be retired yet because I wasn't dying to retire so I could write a book or compose a piece, things that you would do in solitude. My idea of retirement was to finally have time to go places with people and do things. I never, to be honest with you, this is going to sound terrible, but I never really enjoyed writing that much. You know, I should write a Beatle book, but God, who hasn't, you know? And they're so good. Yeah, there's so many good ones. Well, why would I go up against Mark Lewis and, you know, Walt Everett, or whatever? And so, I don't know, we'll see, we'll see. I'm trying not to make predictions because my whole life's been an accident. I mean, I didn't go to grad school to do what I did. So I am hoping magic will strike twice that way.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) There are places I remember….
MARK CHILLA: Well, Dr. Glass, thank you so much for being with me for chatting with me. Always a pleasure to talk to you and always a pleasure to talk to you about the Beatles. So thank you again.
GLENN GASS: Well, likewise, Mark, and always a pleasure to talk to you and I sure hope you love teaching the class and I'll be anxious to hear feedback anytime.
THE BEATLES: (singing) …with lovers and friends, I still can recall some are dead and some are living. In my life, I've loved them all. But of all these friends and lovers...
MARK CHILLA: That was Dr. Glenn Gass, former Indiana University professor of rock history, talking with me, Mark Chilla, via Zoom, on this edition of Profiles on WFIU.
THE BEATLES: (Singing) When I think of love as something new, though I know I'll never lose affection for people and things that went before. I know I'll often stop and think about them. In my life, I love you more. Though I know I'll never lose affection. The people and things that went before - I know I'll often stop and think about them. In my life, I love you more. In my life, I love you more.