Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Fabs and the King

Yesterday was the 46th anniversary of The Beatles' first and only encounter with Elvis Presley. On The Atlantic's website a few weeks back, there was an article about Jerry Schilling, a close friend of Presley's and a member of his inner circle, which was known as the "Memphis Mafia." Below is a long excerpt about the historic meeting between the Fabs and the King that took place on August 27, 1965.

August also saw the first and only meeting between Presley and the Beatles. The Fab Four showed up at the door of Elvis’ Bel Air home on August 27, 1965, to pay their respects. The Beatles were in Los Angeles to perform their music at the Hollywood Bowl; Presley was in town to begrudgingly fulfill his film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Schilling was among those present that night.

The visit between two of the most influential forces in rock ‘n’ roll history was at first a bit awkward, Schilling remembers. John, Paul, George and Ringo—then at the height of their fame—seemed dumbstruck in the presence of their idol. “We didn’t know who was going to say what,” says Schilling. “And then Elvis, having a great sense of British humor, said, ‘OK guys, if you’re just going to sit here and look at me all night, I’m going to bed.’ Everybody including Elvis died laughing, and that broke the ice.”

If Presley and the Beatles played music together that night, Schilling doesn’t remember it. Neither did Paul, George or Ringo, though John Lennon later claimed a jam session took place. George Harrison at one point said he remembered smoking a joint out by the swimming pool that night, so his recall may have been a bit hazy. Nevertheless, the one memory still so brilliant that no one present could forget it is of Presley entertaining his guests by playing his Fender bass along with a Charlie Rich single called “Mohair Sam” that was looping on his jukebox.

The next day, before the Beatles’ concert, Lennon confided something to Schilling that the Elvis fan was too nervous to say in the presence of Presley. “John pointed to his sideburns and said, ‘Do you see these? I almost got kicked out of high school because I wanted to look like Elvis. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.’ Later that day, I told Elvis what John Lennon said, and Elvis just smiled. That said everything to me. He didn’t make a comment, but what John said really meant something to him.”

For Schilling, looking back on that night at Presley’s house on Perugia Way is bittersweet. Presley, though not jealous of the success the Beatles were enjoying, saw up close the creative freedom they enjoyed—something he once had but somehow had let slip away.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Trailer for Scorsese doc about George

George Harrison: Living in the Material World:

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thursday Beatles cover

Below is a stellar performance of "Don't Let Me Down" by '90s alt-rockers Garbage. Nimbly moving from forceful to restrained and then back, Shirley Manson's voice suits the material quite well.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Revolution in the Head" - Part 1.1

A major factor in the appeal of Revolution in the Head is the way that Ian MacDonald structured it. As I mentioned in a previous post, MacDonald tells the story of The Beatles through their songs - every one of them. Not only does he analyze them in detail, but because he goes in the order they were recorded, he's also able to piece together a narrative of the band's history. Thus, in the section on "My Bonnie," you learn about both the song itself and The Beatles' formative years in Hamburg, including their time spent as the backing band for British rock 'n' roller Tony Sheridan. MacDonald rightly judged that the historical context for these songs was too important to ignore.

So far, I've only made my way through Please Please Me, which entails recordings from the summer of 1961 to early 1963. My thoughts on this part are below.

- People like to snicker at Decca's rejection of The Beatles in early 1962, perhaps thinking that what's obvious to us now should have been obvious to record labels then. Not so. MacDonald provides some context:

From pgs. 49-50: Forced by the Decca engineers to use the studio equipment rather than their own battered Vox amps, The Beatles were unable to reproduce the energy and dirty, overdriven sound which made their stage-act so exciting. Nor were they helped by a recording regime which budgeted for one take per song and no overdubs.

And from pg. 53: The first prerequisite for an early Sixties recording contract was presentability: potential 'artistes' had to be 'professional', i.e., musically competent, groomable, and acquiescent to the demands of their producers who, it was assumed, would select their songs for them from batches circulated by writing teams through the normal channels. Loud, long-haired, and seemingly incapable of desisting from laughter, The Beatles did not meet these requirements. Nor, at this stage, did they have much going for them as songwriters.

- MacDonald's description of an early Beatles backbencher, "How Do You Do It?," is dead on. I can't imagine a band sounding more pleasantly bored than The Beatles do on this song by Mitch Murray. MacDonald writes that it "revolves around a shamelessly bright, breezy, and childish G major tune" and that the Fabs' rendition "ingeniously combines obliging efficiency with affable indifference." Best of all, he notes its "faceless catchiness" (all from pg. 57). There's something both infectious and soporific about the song. It's that rare ear-worm that could put you to sleep.

- It's bizarre to think that, in 1962, "Love Me Do" was "extraordinarily raw by the standards of its time" (pg. 59). It now seems so sedate, so earthbound. MacDonald closes the recap of the song with this: "The first faint chime of a revolutionary bell, LOVE ME DO represented far more than the sum of its simple parts. A new spirit was abroad: artless yet unabashed - and awed by nothing" (pgs. 60-61).

- I was pleased to find that MacDonald had such high praise for "There's a Place," the song I consider the best original on Please Please Me. As usual, MacDonald was forceful with his opinions, venturing that "There's a Place" was "an assertion of self-sufficient defiance which, matched by music of pride and poignancy, marks a minor milestone in the emergence of the new youth culture" (pg. 65).

- I must part ways with MacDonald when he implies that Arthur Alexander's version of "Anna (Go to Him)" is superior to The Beatles'. Between the two, I'd say it's a wash when it comes to the verses and chorus (which are basically merged into one). But John's impassioned, yearning, and needy delivery on the "middle sixteen" (pg. 73) - "All of my life...."- decisively swings the contest in The Beatles' favor. He kills that part.

- Finally, MacDonald on the sublime creation that is The Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout": Yet the result is remarkable for its time: raw to a degree unmatched by other white artists - and far too wild to be acceptable to the older generation. As such, it became the symbolic fixture of the group's act during Beatlemania: the song where parents, however liberal, feared to tread (pg. 77).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Piers Morgan on Paul, Heather, and the phone-hacking scandal

Last night on Conan, Piers Morgan - the former editor of the Daily Mirror - responded to allegations that he was somehow complicit in phone-hacking Paul and/or Heather Mills years back when their marriage was turning sour. It's an enjoyable mini charm offensive. Watch below:

(If the video is removed, go here.)

More on the story here.

Beatlemania hits Havana

This interesting story from the New York Times tells of how the Cuban government has finally learned to stop worrying and love The Beatles, in the form of a new bar called the Yellow Submarine.

The hair and accents were wrong, but the audience cared about just one thing: the house band was singing the Beatles, here, in a new bar called the Yellow Submarine, in Cuba, where such an act might have led to arrests in the mid-1960s.

Better yet, perhaps because of that history, the band played like rebels. Fast and raw, they zipped up and down the bass lines of “Dear Prudence” as if the song were new. They raced through “Rocky Raccoon,” and when they reached the opening words of “Let It Be” — “When I find myself in times of trouble” — the entire crowd began singing along, swaying, staring at the band or belting out the chorus with their eyes closed in rapture.

“If there’s no Beatles, there’s no rock ’n’ roll,” said Guille Vilar, a co-creator of the bar. “This is music created with authenticity.”

Maybe so, but Cuba’s revolutionaries were not sure what to make of it when it first came out. Though today the bonds between counterculture rock and leftist politics are well established, back then, Cuban authorities — at least some of them — saw anything in English as American and practically treasonous. The Beatles, along with long hair, bell-bottom jeans and homosexuality, were all seen as cause for alarm or arrest at a time when green fatigues were a statement of great importance.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Today in Beatles history

This day in 1969 witnessed a brief photo-shoot that would turn out to produce one of the most legendary album covers in music history. In my opinion, it doesn't get any better than the Abbey Road zebra crossing.

Excerpt from the Gibson article:
The album’s iconic cover, with all four Beatles walking across a zebra crossing on Abbey Road outside of the EMI Studios, was based on sketch ideas from McCartney. At 11:30 a.m. on this day in 1969, photographer Iain Macmillan was given 10 minutes to get the shot he wanted while a policeman held up traffic. Macmillan climbed a stepladder in the middle of Abbey Road and photographed the band as they walked, single file, from left to right. With Lennon in front, followed by Ringo Starr, McCartney and George Harrison, all members except for Harrison were dressed in suits, while Harrison wore blue jeans and a blue denim shirt.

When rumors of McCartney’s death began to surface, the imagery from Abbey Road’s cover helped fuel the nonsense, with many seeing each band member’s attire symbolizing some role in a funeral sequence. Lennon, dressed in a white suit, was seen as a sort of evangelical preacher, while Ringo, dressed in black, was a mourner. Harrison, with his denim pants and shirt, represented a gravedigger, while Paul, dressed in a nice suit and barefoot, was the decedent (though many believed it wasn’t actually McCartney in the photo but a look-alike). The fact that Paul is out of step with the other three further fanned the flames of his untimely demise.

Paul in Cincinnati (8/4)


Julie Lyle was 10 years old in 1964 when she won tickets from WSAI-AM to see the Beatles at Cincinnati Gardens. Unfortunately her mother wasn’t about to let the pre-teen go to the show, so she had to give them to her sister, Nancy, who was 15.

“I had to wait 47 years,” said Lyle, who sat on her screened-in porch on Alta Vista Avenue in Cheviot with a transistor radio next to her ear listening to DJ Dusty Rhodes. “I have a memory. You better believe we’ve discussed it over the years.”

Apparently the wait was worth it.

"Oh my God, I teared up, then I calmed down, then he played ‘The Night Before,’ then ‘Maybe I'm Amazed’ and I lost it again,” said Lyle, who went with her daughter Liz. “He's wearing the old shoes he used to wear with the Beatles. I can't get over this.”

McCartney was indeed wearing Beatle boots, with a red sport coat (“Good evening, Cincinnati. Dig the jacket; home of the Reds.”).

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weekend reading #2

From Jewish Ideas Daily, here's a review of a newly released book, John Lennon and the Jews.

Side-note: It seems that the primary placement of John's name in the title strongly oversells his role in the book. But the phrase "John Lennon and the Jews" does have a compelling ring to it.

The book is an extended defense of passionate love for the Jewish people, written by an American immigrant long settled in Israel, a highly-respected professor of Arabic literature and Islamic history who also happens to be the 1983 International Frisbee Golf Champion (Junior Division) and a former member of the IDF's tank corps. Maghen's target audience is the population of tepid, English-speaking Jews whose love for their people has been displaced by the dictates of universalism and rationalism—a cohort whose instincts I know intimately.

John Lennon and the Jews opens with Maghen's chance meeting, real or imagined, at Los Angeles International Airport with Shira, Ofer, and Doron: "three Hebrew Hare Krishnas," dressed in regulation saffron robes. Maghen can't stomach that these young Israelis have abandoned Hebraism for Hinduism. Whipping out a Bible, he proclaims "This is your book!!!" But the three, dreaming of a world without nations, borders, or hierarchy—in short, the world evoked in Lennon's famous thought exercise "Imagine" ("Imagine there's no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for . . . ")—aren't impressed. Shira presents a universalist challenge to Jewish particularism; Ofer goes on the rationalist attack; and Doron basically tells Maghen to chill out.

Reflecting on this encounter at LAX, Maghen contends that Lennon's "beautiful ballad is in reality a death-march, a requiem mass for the human race." His book is an extended defense of this position, presented in three parts, each a response to the arguments laid out by Shira, Ofer, and Doron, respectively.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Today in Beatles history / Weekend reading

"10 Things You May Not Know About The Beatles' Revolver" (which was released in the UK on this day in 1966).

The 35-minute, 14-track Revolver took the Beatles 300 hours of studio time to complete. They only spent 150 hours on Rubber Soul.

More on Paul and the phone-hacking scandal

To no surprise, a new development in the UK's newspaper phone-hacking scandal directly involves Paul and Heather Mills:

Heather Mills, the ex-wife of former Beatle Paul McCartney, dramatically widened the phone-hacking row Wednesday night to include another newspaper group, telling the BBC that a journalist from The Mirror Group had hacked her phone messages in 2001.

Mills did not identify the reporter in question, but said it was not Piers Morgan, the CNN anchor and America’s Got Talent judge, who was then editor of The Daily Mirror. She said the reporter had quoted “verbatim” details of a phone message left by McCartney following a fight between the couple.

- Despite there being "no plans to quiz Piers Morgan," he is not out of the woods (from the article above):

But Newsnight pointed to a column Morgan wrote in The Mail on Sunday in 2006 about the couple’s breakdown, which appeared to show that that Morgan had listened to the illegally hacked message.

“At one stage I was played a tape of a message Paul had left Heather on her mobile phone,” he wrote in his column. “It was heartbreaking. He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate and even sang ‘We Can Work It Out’ into the answer phone.”

- Finally, in an interview about his experience on 9/11, Paul acknowledged the unfolding situation:

"When I go back after this tour, I'm going to tak (sic) to the police because I apparently have been hacked. ... I do think it's a horrendous violation of privacy and I think it's been going on for a long time, and more people than we've heard about knew about it."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thursday cover

Though the sound quality is a bit rough, it's still a pleasure listening to David Bowie cover "This Boy." He possesses just the voice for the song's more eruptive sections.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Revolution in the Head" - Introduction

As I mentioned in the introductory post for my Revolution in the Head reading-project, Ian MacDonald opens his book with an essay on the 1960s, examining the decade (the "Disappearing Decade") as a period of momentous change, a battleground for future ideological clashes, and The Beatles' moment. I just finished the piece, and I'm still trying to process all of the material that MacDonald covered.

In truth, it should be book-length. Condensing a cultural history of the '60s (and one, no less, that burrows into the past - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, early rock 'n' roll, and more - and touches on aspects of later decades - punk rock, Reagan and Thatcher, etc.) into just under 40 pages is going to have some drawbacks. For one, MacDonald often speaks in very sweeping terms. Two, he doesn't leave much room for statistical analysis that would support the many bold claims he makes. Admittedly, citing tedious facts wouldn't fit his method, and it would interrupt the narrative momentum he builds by stringing together one provocative and confidently asserted opinion after another. Indeed, anyone reading this book should try to avoid being lulled into submission by the elan and certainty of MacDonald's literary voice. His writing style is charmingly verbose and extravagant - he's so convincing - but you have to stay aware of how generalized many of his statements are and how they frequently lack scientific corroboration. Had he spread the essay out over an entire book, some of this might be different. As it is, it needs to be read with an especially alert and critical eye.

That said, I did find many of MacDonald's points to be persuasive. His central argument is this: the true revolution of the 1960s "was an inner one of feeling and assumption - a revolution in the head" (pg. 27), not centering on hippies or New Leftists or any other ephemeral movement but rather mainstream society as a whole. Brought on by an historic rise in affluence and the aggressive advance of science, this revolution empowered "ordinary people" to achieve their "desires" (both pg. 36) but also spearheaded the breakdown of Western society by promoting self-determination, materialism, secularism and instant gratification. MacDonald further argues that no product of the '60s better captured and reflected the era's changes and vitality than The Beatles, who were so unorthodox, so new. Thus, the subtitle of the book: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties.

I'll stop there with the summary. If you're intrigued and want to know more, just read the book.

But before I dig into MacDonald's take on all of The Beatles' songs (which constitutes the rest of the book), here are some quick hits and random observations:

- I wonder if MacDonald too often conflates American and British politics when discussing the 1980s, the age of Reagan and Thatcher. Because of the pair's overlapping ideological visions, MacDonald seems to make few distinctions between the partisan battles that were taking place in the US and the UK at the time, possibly in error.

- As brashly opinionated as MacDonald is, it seems he harbors competing views on the '60s as a whole, one side of him being a non-establishment type and the other something of a moralist. This can lead to surprising, though not incoherent, shifts in tone.

- MacDonald's contrast of John ("sedentary, ironic") and Paul ("a natural melodist") is riveting (both 12).

- Lastly, a few thoughts on his prose. Where some writers might give you two or even three sentences, MacDonald often finds a way to piece together just one. He also has a weakness for superfluous but colorful adjectives and a knack for lively word combinations, "Euro-Maoism" being among my favorites. He applies it in earnest, while I think it could be used for strong comedic effect.

Next: The Beatles' "buoyant, poignant, hopeful, love-advocating songs" (pg. 37).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Paul's rep: 2012 Olympics aren't a given

Read more here.

The Examiner reports that Olympic officials were in touch with the Liverpool Echo, and the officials told the paper it's too early to know for sure who would be participating. “We are still a year away from opening ceremony. Discussions are taking place with lots of high-profile people but it is too early to confirm anyone," said the official.

Best, Epstein recognized

Two important figures in Beatles history are being honored with landmarks in Liverpool. Pete Best, the Fabs' drummer prior to Ringo, now has a street named after him, and Brian Epstein, the band's longtime manager, now shares his name with the former Neptune Theatre.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Paul in Chicago (7/31)

From Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune:
The takeaway moment for this concertgoer was “Maybe I’m Amazed,” with McCartney at the grand piano, bringing the song to a simmer and then taking it higher and harder, with some improbable falsetto notes. The beat at times suggested the sunniness of reggae, with rhythm guitar chopping against the melody, before a flourish of drums and McCartney's fevered vocal nearly tore the song loose from its foundation.

Today in (post) Beatles history

Today is the 40th anniversary of George's star-studded and precedent-setting Concert for Bangladesh, which took place at Madison Square Garden in response to a humanitarian crisis in Asia. Read about the legacy of the event below.

- From The Guardian:
"It was uncharted territory, the scale of it," says Jonathan Clyde, of Apple (the Beatles' company, not the tech company), who oversees the Concert's legacy, alongside Harrison's widow, Olivia. "The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn't chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn't involved in the mounting of the concert, they'd take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I'm afraid even now the IRS still take their slice."

Many of these lessons have been learned by those seeking to replicate Harrison's pioneering work, but raising cash through making music remains oddly inefficient.

- From CBS News:
That day - almost 40 years ago - Harrison and his friends helped put Bangladesh on the map. What's more - they gave musicians a new way to give back.

"The template was set by Bangladesh," DeCurtis said. "It becomes sort of the emotional backdrop I think for, you know, Live Aid and all the other concerts that have come over these few decades."

- Finally, here's a short post I wrote about the concert (which, by the way, is still streaming on George's official website).