Saturday, January 31, 2009

Notes on "Got My Mind Set On You"

Coming across the George Harrison classic several days ago brought to mind a smart observation that a friend of mine named Ryan made a while back. He said that when he first heard "I Got My Mind Set On You," it wasn't easy orienting his musical sensibilities to the fact that an ex-Beatle was actually at the helm of this slick and spotless song. The same artist behind "Taxman," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Something" also wrote* this utterly '80s tune? Curious. But, he continued, at a certain point, he was able to make the connection. At a certain point, it occurred to him that when you strip away all the sheen, all the echoing percussion and punchy horns, what remains is very much a Beatles song. Like a lot of the Fab Four's output, it's a tight, lively, and almost too-easy-to-enjoy pop-rock number. Think about the big, boisterous chorus and the breezy sentiment that's conveyed. Think also about its simple structure, i.e. how the song so fluidly oscillates between verse and chorus. Or the fact that it opens with the chorus, building brisk momentum from the start. Even George's use of the word "child" ("to do it right child") recalls The Beatles.

Once again, here's "I've Got My Mind Set On You," a song that can't help but satisfy:

(If the song is removed, go here).

*As the commenter "Anonymous" points out, I erred in attributing this song to George Harrison. The sentence should read "The same artist behind 'Taxman,' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps,' and 'Something' also recorded this utterly 80s tune?"

Friday, January 30, 2009

40 years ago today

The rooftop concert. The final go.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here, here, and here).

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The last of Paste's Beatles lists

Volumes five, six, and seven.

Brief editorial comment: kudos on "Two of Us," but "Tomorrow Never Knows?" That's not a song that has gone unnoticed.

The New Republic's takedown of "Outliers"

Courtesy of Isaac Chotiner.

Contra Malcolm Gladwell

This NME article, entitled "Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About The Beatles," offers a brief rebuttal to the author's theory from Outliers that "'genius' has more to do with hard work than any innate genetic destiny." Vis a vis The Beatles, Gladwell's thinking goes that the band's time in Hamburg, where they really sharpened their skills as musicians (but not necessarily songwriters), helps a lot in explaining their later creative triumphs.

In this debate, my own sympathies would lie with the contra-Gladwell side. I think it's folly to try to rationalize The Beatles' greatness largely as a component of sheer numbers (i.e. the "10,000-Hour Rule"). Hard work is certainly critical to the gestation of "genius," but for Gladwell's purposes, it's not the place to start and it's not the place on which to put this degree of emphasis. In reality, the task that Gladwell laid out for himself was almost inevitably going to yield inadequate findings. You can't satisfactorily nail down genius by gathering statistics, dates, etc. You can't satisfactorily nail it down at all. You can construct a learned context but the full picture will never emerge. Creative genius is elusive. Doubtless, Gladwell knows this. But short of attempting a bold insight (which in this case would almost certainly stem from grasping speculation and shoddy theorizing), his views would seem bound for the clinical and obvious.

The Beatles' success resulted from a confluence of factors: their coming of age as the rock 'n roll genre took shape, the concomitant rise of music as a commercial enterprise, the flowering of studio technology, the band's individual skills and how those skills meshed with each other's, their work ethic, etc. But, of course, they also possessed something or somethings that defy calculation and easy classification. A certain je ne sais quoi that you know exists simply because you know The Beatles. It's the reason why The Beatles are The Beatles and not the Stones or Zeppelin or the Who. And it's the reason why Gladwell's theory will, in all likelihood, always come up woefully short.

(P.S. I have not read Outliers and don't intend to. Based on this admission, feel free to discount the above arguments).

A third try at nuptials

Paul to wed?

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Beatles Anthology, disc 3

Random thoughts and bits of commentary:

- I admire how The Beatles were disappointed in Elvis because he had basically stopped making music by the mid '60s. At the time they met him, the King's interests were in film.

- "Taxman" is a rock 'n' roll masterpiece.

- Paul has a great line when discussing the band's experimentation with LSD and how, for a while, he held out: "I mean, talk about peer pressure. The Beatles!"

- Ringo's impression of the Philippines: "I hated the Philippines." As did the others.

- The scenes of mass record burnings that came in the wake of John's "more popular than Jesus" comment are saddening and shameful.

- George Martin's penchant for referring to The Beatles as "the boys" is really quite sweet.

- Finally, the audio of John's first go at "A Day in the Life" captures one of those moments when pop music overcomes its temporal trappings and achieves the transcendent.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Beatles' catalogue: worst to best

At JamesBio , an apparently indefatigable writer and Beatles fan going by the name "JBev" put together a list that ranks 185 of the Beatles songs from worst to best. He or she also included a write-up for each entry.

Here are some thoughts based on my not exhaustive look at the list:

- Even if "A Day in the Life" wouldn't automatically top my list, it's a hard selection to knock for the prime spot.

- "I Am the Walrus" is a wonderfully weird and hypnotic song, but it's far too high at number two.

- "She's Leaving Home" at three?

- I was glad to see at least a couple of pre-Rubber Soul songs in the top twenty ("Please Please Me," "If I Fell," etc.).

- "Two Of Us" stands tall, even at number thirty.

- "I'm So Tired" seems deserving of a better placement than between "Fixing A Hole" and "Let It Be" (in my book, another overpraised tune from Paul).

- It's a bit strange seeing "Don't Let Me Down" only one spot ahead of "P.S. I Love You."

- When making a list of this kind, I can imagine how difficult it would be to suppress the urge to elevate personal favorites over songs that you know are more artful, innovative, technically skilled, etc. This thought occurred to me when I came across "The Ballad of John and Yoko" at 101. It's a song that I cherish. And I prefer it to, say, "I'm Only Sleeping." But the latter is a conceptual masterpiece and would certainly merit a ranking above "Ballad." The potent feelings of fanhood that The Beatles inspire could easily complicate this process.

- I strongly disagree with "Run For Your Life's" unflattering placement at 138. And what crime did "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" commit to fall at 183, two spots from the very bottom?

I'm sure that any Beatles fan who made such a list would encounter a fair share of hostility and outrage for their selections. So it goes with opinions regarding the most successful and popular band in music history. Like many of the commenters on JamesBio , I found more to dislike than not about JBev's take on The Beatles' catalogue. But as an individual undertaking, it's quite impressive.

I don't stand with Stanley Goodspeed

After watching The Rock recently, I couldn't escape the view that Stanley Goodspeed does a disservice (however minor) to all Beatlemaniacs by identifying himself among their ranks. Now The Rock is certainly a robust piece of entertainment, but Nic Cage's character seems like the kind of guy who, as a Beatles fan, would too readily flaunt obscure Fab Four knowledge or play the contrarian and say that Rubber Soul is overrated or claim that, if you listen to sides three and four of "The White Album" before one and two, then the double LP makes a lot more sense. Weak. He should have been a Motown fanatic or maybe a Ramones devotee. Just not The Beatles.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy MLK Day

To commemorate this holiday, here's "Blackbird," which Paul apparently wrote in response to the escalating racial discord that followed MLK's assassination in the spring of 1968. I actually think it's one of The Beatles' most overrated songs. For me, it never fully comes to life or blooms with color. It's just flat and rather lukewarm. But it is among Paul's better loved songs, so I'll digress for the moment.

(If the song is removed, go here).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tuesday potpourri

Rolling Stone recently interviewed Macca.

Wired expresses high enthusiasm for the upcoming Beatles video game.

Finally, "Buddy Holly: The man who put the beat in Beatles" from the Liverpool Daily Post.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Inspirations behind "Secret," etc.

YouTube doesn't have a video for the Stereos' "I Really Love You." Apparently it did at one point, but due to a terms of use violation, the vid was removed. However, George recorded a zany and flavorful cover of the song for his 1982 album Gone Troppo. Enjoy:

For the sake of completeness, here's "I'm Wishing," the song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which John's mother Julia used to sing to him (which then partly inspired the lyric for "Secret"). And besides, it's Disney.

And, finally, here's a random cover of "Do You Want to Know a Secret." What an inspired gem.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

"Do You Want to Know a Secret"

I’ve now listened to “Do You Want to Know a Secret” many times, read of its origins, and taken ample notes. Even so, I don’t think I could put together a commentary that aspires to be original or insightful. Throughout, I found myself insistently qualifying both the positive and negative reactions I had toward the song. As in: “Secret” doesn’t amount to much but it easily delivers a warm and modest pop pleasure. It’s hard to dislike but closer to forgettable than not. It’s lightweight but knowingly so. Such ambivalence can frustrate one’s attempt at lucid criticism.

The song itself is simple and fairly straightforward. Musically, The Beatles drew inspiration from an early ‘60s doo-wop hit called “I Really Love You” by the Stereos. What results is a tight but fanciful bounce of a song that moves along with a procession of lilting guitar plucks and a crisp, contained rhythm. The only twist comes right at the outset when the combined effect of minimalist spaghetti strumming and George’s earnest vocal produces a heavier, more uncertain tone. This dissolves within seconds though, giving way to the wispy amble that marks the song.

Lyrically, John borrowed from a tune in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which includes the line “Wanna know a secret/ Promise not to tell." According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, the titular “secret” referred to how John “had just realized that he was really in love” with his first wife Cynthia. Strangely, he wrote this song a short time after his marriage to her, which would seem to undercut the sense of excitement and discovery that one might experience when harboring such emotion (and not wedding its target). But John couldn’t have felt too strongly about how “Secret” would convey these sentiments because the vast majority of the song is so breezy and also because he allowed George to take the lead vocal.

Perhaps this detail, that “Secret” seems like a bone which the band tossed to George, partly animates my mixed thoughts. It almost reinforces the song’s disposable feel or attaches a negating asterisk to any enjoyment you might derive. But this is likely just an instance of outside factors unduly influencing how a song is received. The effect is more contrived than anything. What isn’t contrived is the enjoyment, which, however qualified, doesn’t require a tedious explanation.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fading daylight for the digital Beatles

An update from Rolling Stone on the Norwegian Beatles podcasts.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Beatles Anthology, disc 2

Random thoughts and bits of commentary:

- How many bands do we encounter today who, like The Beatles did, smile so effusively throughout much of their act?

- A thrill shoots through me whenever I hear Paul let out the kind of scream that he does on "I Saw Her Standing There."

- The live performances of their early hits positively crackle.

- "If I Fell" is a song of such pristine beauty.

- It's weird and even mildly upsetting to watch Jimmy Nicol parade around as one of The Beatles in Ringo's absence.

- It's remarkable to consider how, on tour, The Beatles played shows which sometimes lasted as little as 30 minutes. Think of the hysterical anticipation on the part of the fans; think of how this defining event for them, this pinnacle of their existence, might only run the length of a sitcom. Though, in light of the iconic images of incapacitated Beatlemaniacs (almost invariably young girls), perhaps longer concerts would've been just dangerously overwhelming.

- Ringo's description of his maiden experience with weed is classic: "...and I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. It was fabulous."

- Finally, from what I can glean on these DVDs, Ringo seems to be the Beatle most openly appreciative of the vast perks and opportunities that attended The Beatles' historic success. The way he fondly talks about first coming to America or vacationing in a warm climate or even avoiding the riotous fans strikes a very likable chord.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Money quote

After recently buying a used copy of Let It Be... Naked, I trolled the web (via Metacritic) for some reviews and came across this poignant paragraph that concluded Dominique Leone's piece for Pitchfork:

Ultimately, Naked is not essential. Unlike scattered moments in the Anthology series, this music, though immaculately presented, doesn't really expand on either the music of Let It Be, or The Beatles' legacy. At this point, I'm not sure many people are prepared to accept a new take on the band anyway, but I might at least be happy knowing they didn't take me for a raving completist. And yet, I stood in line for this, just like millions of other like-minded fans will, merely for the chance to hear some small kernel leading me back to the reason I started listening in the first place. The albums will always be there, and the legend will forever be imprinted on the hearts of anyone believing in the affirming power of their music. In the end, regardless of what I write, this is The Beatles, and you already know what that means.

I love the bolded line.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

John's "One Laptop per Child" commercial

I've noticed a fair amount of annoyance, frustration, even outrage over the artless inclusion of John in that "One Laptop per Child" commercial. The main points of contention go as follows: a)it's of questionable propriety for the ad to have words come from John's mouth which he never uttered; b)on a related note, who knows if John would have consented to this; c)the impersonation verges on comically poor; and d)it's curious that Yoko would choose this cause over others that focus on more pressing concerns.

I would say it's not especially productive to speculate on how John might have felt about this particular campaign. Even Yoko couldn't know. And if it's in poor taste for the makers of this commercial to put words into John's mouth, then so it is for overzealous fans to proclaim what his opinions might have been (though I recognize the considerable disparity in scope and content between each side's agenda). Thus I find much of the disgust that's boiling on the web to be misplaced and overwrought. It just strikes me as a petty battle.

However, I do agree that it's beyond tacky for the commercial to insert a contrived voice track into the video footage of John and act as if it's actually him speaking. And yes, the impersonation is cringe-worthy. And yes, the rhetoric "John" employs seems a bit extravagant for the cause ("You can give a child a laptop. And, more than imagine, you can change the world").

In my view, a more sensible approach would have been to include an authentic audio clip of Lennon extolling progress, peace, change, etc. and then play that to images of children with their laptops. Obviously an explanation of the campaign would also have to run, but I can't imagine it would be difficult to skillfully incorporate that around John's part.

A commercial of this kind would still likely arouse resentment among the Lennon faithful. But at least it might avoid the charge of having appropriated John's visage for such phony and tactless results.

(If the embedding is disabled, go here).