Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Magical Mystery Tour Revisited"

The Beatles' psychedelic nostalgia-trip pic of 1967 remains (indeed) a mystery to many people. Below is a documentary that sheds some light on the origins, production and legacy of what was almost certainly the band's oddest creative endeavor.

Watch Magical Mystery Tour Revisited on PBS. See more from Great Performances.

(If the video is removed or not working, go here.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

In few hands but John Lennon's could this sad, maybe even spooky Vietnam protest song have become a Christmas standard. Happy holidays!
"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Cut Me Some Slack"

In the same calendar year now, Paul has put out a dapper standards album called Kisses on the Bottom and contributed lead vocals to "Cut Me Some Slack," the stomping Nirvana-reunion jam that was debuted at the 12-12-12 Sandy benefit concert. That's impressive range, but it's not unheard of from Paul. Consider that on "The White Album" only two tracks separate "Helter Skelter" and "Honey Pie," a pair of McCartney creations that are as different as any in The Beatles' songbook and that almost seem to parallel the dichotomy above. In a sense, "Helter Skelter" makes it easier for "Cut Me Some Slack" to work. There's the foreknowledge that heavy, hard-charging confines aren't totally unfamiliar to Paul. In fact, he made a classic belting his way through them. Then when you get into the song, it's hard not to detect traces of "Helter Skelter" itself, especially in the brief, wiry chorus. And while Paul's voice is certainly not what it used to be, he brings just enough grit to the proceedings. 70 years old, and he's rocking out with Dave Grohl and company. Just awesome.
For more on the song, go here.
"Cut Me Some Slack"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hunter Davies on John and Paul

A money quote from The John Lennon Letters:
Their friendship, love for each other, collaboration always had inherent elements of rivalry, competition, jealousy. They were different characters, with different strengths, talents, and beliefs, so it was surprising they stayed so close, worked so well, for so long. John felt that Paul had a tendency to be too smooth, superficial, charming and glib. Paul felt John could at times be too brutal, cruel, unfair. In truth, each of them could be like the other.

Friday, December 14, 2012

R.I.P., Ravi Shankar

The master sitarist and dear friend of George passed away on Tuesday at the age of 92. Below is some of the coverage of his death.
- NYT: "Ravi Shankar, Sitarist Who Introduced Indian Music to the West, Dies at 92"
Excerpt: Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso and composer who died on Tuesday at 92, created a passion among Western audiences for the rhythmically vital, melodically flowing ragas of classical Indian music — a fascination that had expanded by the mid-1970s into a flourishing market for world music of all kinds.
In particular, his work with two young semi-apprentices in the 1960s — George Harrison of the Beatles and the composer Philip Glass, a founder of Minimalism — was profoundly influential on both popular and classical music.
- WSJ: "When Ravi Shankar Met George Harrison"
Excerpt: But when Mr. Harrison first approached Mr. Shankar for lessons in the mid-1960s, the idea of blending Indian classical music with pop music was puzzling to the sitar maestro.
“It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think,” said Mr. Shankar in Raga.
“But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene,” he added.
- The Guardian: "Ravi Shankar: the Beatles' muse who turned his back on rock"
Excerpt: Harrison learned about Shankar from the Byrds and, after adding sitar lines to Norwegian Wood, the Beatle sought him out and later went to India for lessons. Shankar was now treated like a rock star, playing at the Monterey pop festival in 1967, then Woodstock and the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, and enjoying co-billing on Harrison's Dark Horse tour in 1974. It was then he decided that his career had gone horribly wrong. Western rock audiences decided India meant drugs and free love, and Shankar was shocked at the way his music was misunderstood.
"The association with India was so wrong," he once told me. "The superficiality of everyone becoming 'spiritual', the cliches of yoga … the Kama Sutra, LSD and hash … It was all against our music and our approach to music because we consider it so sacred." As for Harrison, Shankar said "he himself was very sorry and sad to see the way it was twisted and taken so casually. He never dreamed it would turn out like this."
- The Telegraph: "How Ravi Shankar was charmed by George Harrison"
Finally, here's George and Ravi together in an interview:
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, December 8, 2012


It was 32 years ago today that John Lennon was taken from this world.
What a burning, thrillingly alive spirit he possessed. We all shine on.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

The most Beatles-esque Beach Boys song?

The title surely belongs to "Girl Don't Tell Me," a Brian-penned, Carl-sung track from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). It's been said that Brian actually wrote the song for The Beatles, but I'm not sure this has been verified. Either way, in the guitar breaks and the escalating vocal parts, it quickly calls to mind "Ticket to Ride." The lyric too is very Lennon-esque, with the male lead bemoaning the lies of his ex-crush and vowing to forget her. Underrated song.
For more posts on The Beatles and the Beach Boys, go here.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"None of life's strings can last"

Here's one for George, from George. He died 11 years ago today. RIP
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Paul on John's image

Paul's been chatty of late. Below is an excerpt from another interview that he recently did, this one with David Lister of The Independent:
McCartney says touchingly: “There is this period of John which is all pre-Beatles, pre-huge fame, pre-drugs – and it is another John completely – that was always there right until the end. He got much sweeter, too, once he settled in New York. Once he was reunited with Yoko, and they had Sean, he became this sweet personalty again then when he was more comfortable with himself. But the acerbic John is the one we know and love, you know, because he was clever with it, so it was very attractive. But, for me, I have more than a slight affection for the John that I knew then, when we were first writing songs, when we would try and do things the old songwriters had done. I slightly regret the way John's image has formed, and because he died so tragically it has become set in concrete. The acerbic side was there but it was only part of him. He was also such a sweet, lovely man – a really sweet guy.”
. . .
I think Paul is both off-target and asking too much here. If any image of John predominates in the popular mind, it's Imagine John, the bespectacled secular saint who promoted peace, universal brotherhood and, of course, bagism. John the Salty Wiseguy will always take a backseat to this more high-minded figure. Secondly, Paul may lament that John the Sweetheart doesn't get more coverage, but such is life/posthumous PR for someone who had so many different sides to him. Branching off a bit, I wonder what it means to talk about the "real" John Lennon. It strikes me as an elusive concept because John's personality consisted of many moving parts. Some combination of nature and nurture shaped him into a complex individual. And he was a dabbler too, which pushed him in a variety of directions and sometimes made his complexity seem more like incoherence. (I think of "Count me" from "Revolution.") The end result is that the assorted images we have of John are all true to a certain degree but somewhat overstated as well. I suppose this was part of Paul's point. Fascinating topic.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend reading

Hunter Davies: "Why I didn't tell the whole truth about the Beatles"
I have to admit, though, that I didn’t mention groupies in the book or make any references to what happened in dressing rooms and hotel bedrooms in the UK and around the world. Should I have done? No one asked me at the time to omit such things. It was my decision. Three of the Beatles were married, happily as far as I could see, while Paul was engaged to Jane Asher. It seemed unfair to embarrass them by going into what had happened while they were touring, which they had now given up. Most people over the age of 25 in the 1960s were aware of what happened between rock stars and groupies. I felt no need to go into it.
A few years later, John was owning up about the orgies, to Wenner and others, and about what beasts they’d all been – the Beatles and most pop stars of the time and DJs, too – despite their lovely, if cheeky, image.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The biggest Beatles non-story in a while

I'm late to this (non)news bit, but I want to comment anyway.
In an interview with David Frost that will air later today on Al Jazeera English, Paul made it clear that he doesn't hold Yoko responsible for The Beatles' split. Reiterating a fact that should be pretty obvious, Paul stated, "She certainly didn't break the group up. The group was breaking up." Translation: The Beatles broke up The Beatles. History agrees. Yes, John was the driving force; and yes, he was married to Yoko - an arrangement that by no means helped the band stay together - but ultimately the seed of The Beatles' demise came from within the group. Outside factors, like Brian Epstein's death, the Apple debacle, Yoko, Allen Klein, etc., simply fueled the inevitable.
Even if some of the finer details are lost on casual fans, the silliness of the Yoko myth should still be easy to grasp, which is partly why I called Paul's remark a "non-story." The other reason I did so is this: what else would you expect him to say? Consider the matter from Paul's perspective. He has an image to maintain and a legacy to protect. Paul is the cute and smiley Beatle. He's Mr. Silly Love Songs. He's the ne plus ultra of youthful and buoyant 70 year-old rock 'n' roll legends. His brand is all about love and good will and the joy of music. The point is, he knows he could harm his reputation by engaging in a public skirmish with Yoko. He would come off as a bitter and resentful old man, that cheery disposition just a facade concealing pent-up ill-will. There's also the small matter of business dealings related to The Beatles. It's an industry unto itself, and it requires the cooperation of the four estates. As the legal caretaker of John's legacy, Yoko is in a position to undermine any efforts on that front. If Paul believed that Yoko was the guilty party (which I don't think he does) or if he harbored some bad blood toward her (which, to one degree or another, seems likely), wouldn't it still be best for him to let sleeping dogs lie? Paul said what he said because it's the truth and because he doesn't have much of a choice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My fave ex-Beatle's song right now: "Ram On"

The third track off Ram is the dreamiest and warmest of ballads. (Listen below.) Still, I wonder if there isn't an undercurrent of weary melancholy flowing through it. The lyric consists of just one line that Paul sings several times: "Ram on/ Give your heart to somebody soon/ Right away/ Right away." It's an instruction that, from Paul's perspective, bears repeating. Why? Is it rooted in deep regret that he harbors? And why does he up the urgency from "soon" to "right away"? Paul seems to be painting love as a desperate, pressing matter. But you wouldn't know it from the lilting ukulele, the web of ethereal backing vocals, or any other sonic detail. Everywhere else, subdued whimsy holds sway. Terrific song.
"Ram On"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"A Hallmark card set to music"

Continuing in the uncharitable spirit of my last post, here's an entry from The A.V. Club’s “Hatesong” series that pits British folkie Frank Turner against one of the most hallowed totems of modern pop culture: “Imagine.”
It’s always grated on me as a song for a whole host of reasons: the production, the lyrics, the sappiness, its popularity, the knowledge that Lennon was so much better than this one song, and yet it’s the one most people know...
It’s a Hallmark card set to music. There’s a pretty high dose of hypocrisy in here as well. For a man who had a dedicated, refrigerated room in his New York penthouse apartment for storing his fur-coat collection to sing “Imagine no possessions” takes a fair amount of chutzpah. I mean, I have no problem with the man collecting fur coats. Whatever floats your boat. But there’s a certain strain of material disdain that can only result from being really fucking rich, which is intensely patronizing.
. . .
The sacrilege! Turner lands some solid blows against a song that I too have long thought was overvalued. Musically, “Imagine” is ponderous and earthbound. It sort of limps along, content to be muted rather than convey much conviction. Phil Spector didn’t help matters out with his muddy production job. A cleaner sound would’ve been better. Same for the melody and the vocal; there’s little blood flowing through either. Message-wise, I can understand why people want to connect with the song, but one person’s idealism is another person’s naivete. Throw in the bald hypocrisy and the preachy tone (“It’s easy if YOU try,” “I wonder if YOU can,” etc.), and it quickly becomes easy to start imagining much better songs. Indeed, “Jealous Guy” is far and away the true highlight of the Imagine album.
However, my biggest issue with “Imagine” is how it has helped to warp the real John Lennon into a sanitized figure of myth. Let me elaborate. As history shows, John was a complicated, flawed and volatile individual. Within this one man was a broad spectrum of conflicting natures that often operated at the extremes. He was loving and abusive, peaceful and violent, caring and selfish, self-deprecating and vain, funny and bitter. Perhaps you could say he was more human than most. But, in the popular imagination, John has become so closely tied to the soaring idealism of “Imagine” that we’ve gone and made a saint out of him. Let's call this the “Imagine Effect.” It filters out the bad and leaves us with false caricatures: John the Activist, John the Peace Lover, John the Humanist Messiah and so forth. These incomplete pictures might make us feel good, but they’re distortions of the truth. And (to paraphrase John), when assessing the legacy of historical figures - even our idols - all we should want is the truth.
"Jealous Guy"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bad songs by The Beatles

They do exist. The Beatles were but men, prone to missteps and lapses in judgment.
I recently came across this rundown of unFab creations that was compiled by Neil McCormick of The Telegraph. I'm painting with broad strokes, but it seems there are essentially four categories of bad Beatles songs you'll find in such lists: John's occasional misfire (vague, I know, but his duds aren't easily classifiable like the others'), Paul's music-hall confections, George's self-serious Eastern dirges and Ringo's ... songs. McCormick targets a cut or two from each group - John: "Revolution 9"; Paul: "Your Mother Should Know"; George: "The Inner Light" and "Long, Long, Long"; and Ringo: "Honey Don't" and "Octopus's Garden." I agree with some but not all of these. I happen to love "Your Mother Should Know," along with Paul's other dainty throwbacks like "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Honey Pie." Ringo's moments in the sun usually don't bother me, but I'm emphatically not a fan of George's Eastern/stoner outings, particularly "Within You Without You" and "It's All Too Much." Joyless and navel-gazing, in my opinion. As for John, I'm not keen on "Revolution 9," but I consider his body of work to be the strongest overall. I even like his misogynist tirade "Run for Your Life" quite a lot.
For my own (very short) list, I have a different approach in mind. I'm going to write about the two Beatles songs that annoy me the most. I'm limiting it to two because only this pair has consistently stuck out over the years. By objective standards, they may not represent the worst of the worst (perhaps far from it, even), but for various reasons they get under my skin. And that's worse than merely being bad.
- "I Need You" (Help!)
An otherwise unmemorable song that is made memorably irritating by the nasal, offbeat, dragging guitar effect that George conjured up with a volume pedal. It sounds like a car horn mixed with a duck call; it's grating every time. I can credit George for trying something different, but all he managed to do in the end was constantly interrupt his own song. George Martin should've said no. Whenever I listen to Help!, I always bypass this track. It's the lone bum note on Side One.
- "Blackbird" (The Beatles)
Paul's precious paean to the civil rights movement is beloved by many. If you browse user comments on YouTube, you'll find that, through "Blackbird," people locate inner peace, experience the numinous, and achieve cosmic unity with Paul. I've never come close to any of that. On the contrary, I think "Blackbird" is a crashing bore. I detect no color, no spark, no passion. The melody is dull and erratic; Paul's vocal is little more than serviceable; and - to top it off - the chirping bird sample is super contrived and obvious. An exceedingly amateur touch, if you ask me. It rankles hard. On Side Two of "The White Album," I'll take "Martha My Dear," "Rocky Raccoon," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" and "I Will" (to say nothing of John's contributions) over "Blackbird" every day of the week.
. . .
By speaking well of "Run for Your Life" and trashing "Blackbird" in the same post, I may get excommunicated from the Global Community of Beatles Fans. I'm prepared to accept the consequences.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"The Beatles" vs. "the Beatles"

This debate will make you yearn for the futile sparring between Team John and Team Paul. Never underestimate man's capacity for the trivial, and never tell a Beatles fan which form of "the" he or she should use.
For some eight years, editors at the online encyclopedia have been debating whether the article "the" should be uppercased when referring to the band. Is it "the" Beatles or "The" Beatles?
The lowercase faction says the Wikipedia manual of style and external style guides are on its side.
The uppercase faction says that trademarks should be capitalized and that the official Beatles website uses an uppercase definite article.
The dispute has become so contentious that some Wikipedia editors have been banned from participating. "Discussions on this page may escalate into heated debate," warns the internal "Talk" page where editors discuss changes to the Beatles entry.
For the record, I go with "The," but I won't consider you a savage if you prefer "the."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Happy birthday, John!

Today would've been John's 72nd birthday. Let's celebrate his memory by basking in possibly the most beautiful song he ever wrote.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Love Me Do" turns 50

Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' debut single, "Love Me Do." Because no Beatles-related anniversary goes by unobserved - especially when a weighty number like 50 is involved - the Internet erupted with commentaries and commemorations. A handful of them are below. Enjoy.
- "The day the 60s began"
- "The Beatles: a trigger for a musical revolution" (Here you'll find an article from June of 1963 that was published in The Guardian. Hip and highbrow London, meet sweaty and seedy Liverpool. The journalist describes Ringo as "a kind of talking Harpo Marx figure." Spot-on.)
- "How the Beatles' Love Me Do began the transformation of British music"
- "The Beatles at 50: From Fab Four to fabulously wealthy"
- "The Beatles: All you need is luck"
- "The Beatles in charts and infographics"

Friday, October 5, 2012

"The Greatest Rock Spectacle of the Decade"

When I last wrote about the Concert for Bangladesh, I had this to say:
One of the central pleasures of the concert (as shown on the 2005 DVD) is that, notwithstanding the handful of rock 'n' roll powerhouses and living legends that participated, it was the well-regarded but still second-fiddle keyboardist Billy Preston who completely stole the show. In my view, his soulful rendering of "That's the Way God Planned It" and the animated, loose-limbed boogieing that he punctuates the song with outshine the two ex-Beatles' handiwork, Eric Clapton's unrehearsed guitar-playing, and Bob Dylan's mini-set. Preston's stage presence is truly radiant and even has an unmissable spiritual flair. There's also a lot of simple charm in the spontaneous feel of his performance. In sum, it's the most memorable moment of a concert not lacking in talent-heavy highlights.
After watching the film again, I thought I should go into greater detail. It deserves better.
Because the Concert became a template for future pop charity events like Live Aid and Farm Aid, it can be easy to focus on the significance of its legacy and lose sight of how incredible it was simply as a rock 'n' roll concert(s)*. No single performance is as memorable as "That's the Way God Planned It," but there isn't a bad apple among the whole batch. Every song delivers.
George and his super-group opened the show with three songs from All Things Must Pass: "Wah-Wah," "My Sweet Lord" and "Awaiting on You All." That's three Walls of Sound played live at Madison Square Garden. A perfect fit, as it turned out. Freed from the confines of the studio, the songs don't suffer from that gauzy, boxed-in quality that Phil Spector lathered all over his productions. These are the IMAX versions, exploding with bold color and a sonic hugeness that works much better live than on record. "Wah-Wah" in particular is a revelation. Next was "That's the Way God Planned It," which was followed by Ringo's star turn, "It Don't Come Easy." Ringo being Ringo, it's a perky, crowd-pleasing performance. Then came two more cuts from George: "Beware of Darkness," which features Leon Russell as a guest vocalist, and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which teams George with Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Because of his crippling heroin addiction at the time, Clapton wasn't expected to show. Only with the aid of methadone did he find himself able to function (and not all that well). Apart from the Clapton drama, the performance is noteworthy because it was the first time that "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" had ever been done live (the same was true for "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," which came later). Next was Leon Russell's change-of-pace medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood"; then George's delicate, stripped down rendition of "Here Comes the Sun"; and then the surprise of the night: Bob Dylan. Dylan hadn't been onstage in several years, and George had serious doubts he would make it. Though a nervous wreck, he did show, and the crowd received him rapturously. As depicted on the film, Dylan played "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Just Like a Woman." In that brief moment, the spirit of Sixties idealism was revived. Finally, once Dylan wrapped up, George returned to the mic and closed the show with "Something" and "Bangla Desh," which was the first charity single in pop music history. It was a day of many firsts.
Again, what a collection of songs. And, just as much, what a collection of musicians: George, Ringo, Clapton, Dylan, Ravi Shankar**, Billy Preston, Klaus Voorman, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Badfinger, and more. That's an embarrassment of riches. George had cultivated many strong relationships over the years, and the Concert testified to how well-regarded he was. It was an event rooted in friendship.
Of course, a few of George's closest friends from the near past were conspicuously absent. In the early stages of planning, John expressed interest in playing, but he later backed out. George had stipulated that Yoko could not be involved, which apparently led to a dispute between her and John. After the Concert, the excuse John gave for his absence was that he had been on vacation in the Virgin Islands at the time. Paul, on the other hand, was a firm no from the start. He said that too much bad blood remained from the breakup. He couldn't stomach the thought of working alongside Allen Klein in any capacity.
In the end, it didn't matter. As with All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh was George's moment to shine. To this day, it's still a major part of his legacy. The Concert started out as a noble cause but became a landmark event thanks to those superlative musicians and those classic songs.
* - The Concert actually consisted of two installments, but the film combined them into one.
** - I apologize for ignoring Shankar and the Indian music set. It holds little interest for me. I appreciate the craft but don't care for the creation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Weekend reading

- "The best books on the Beatles"
Such is the remarkable pace of a story that has been told by scores of writers, a story about four young musicians but no end of other things: the cities of Liverpool, Hamburg and London; class, and the shaking of English hierarchies; pop's transmutation into a global culture; and the western world's passage from a world still defined by the second world war and its aftermath, to the accelerated modernity we know today. Everything in the tale pulses with significance and drama. It seems barely believable, and in the best Beatles books, it still burns.
. . .
- "Fab furore: Is it time to re-evaluate the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour?"
Moreover, its key element is an apparent drive to send up an England of decaying authority, bad food and anti-climactic entertainment: the country in which the Beatles had grown up, embodied by the hollering sergeant played by their actor friend Victor Spinetti; the dream sequence in which Lennon serves bucketfuls of vomit-like spaghetti; and the very idea of a mystery tour on a coach. Not for nothing, perhaps, did Harrison claim that the one group who later developed the Beatles' essential sensibility was Monty Python.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Prefab Four

While the Beatles-Monty Python connection is still fresh in our minds, I want to briefly draw attention to the Rutles. The brainchild of Neil Innes and Python member Eric Idle, the Rutles were a Beatles parody band that started out on the British comedy show Rutland Weekend Television in the mid '70s. Some of their songs: "I Must Be In Love," "Get Up and Go," and "Cheese and Onions." In 1978, the Rutles starred in a TV mockumentary called All You Need Is Cash, which chronicled their career along lines that closely resembled the history of the Fab Four. It brought the group some recognition, even among The Beatles themselves. That's what I want to focus on at the moment. Via Wikipedia, here's how each of the Four reacted:
George Harrison was involved in the project from the beginning. Producer Gary Weis said "We were sitting around in Eric's kitchen one day, planning a sequence that really ripped into the mythology and George looked up and said, 'We were the Beatles, you know!' Then he shook his head and said 'Aw, never mind.' I think he was the only one of the Beatles who really could see the irony of it all."
- Harrison said "the Rutles sort of liberated me from the Beatles in a way. It was the only thing I saw of those Beatles television shows they made. It was actually the best, funniest and most scathing. But at the same time, it was done with the most love." Harrison showed Innes and Idle the Beatles unreleased official documentary The Long and Winding Road, made by Neil Aspinall. (Aspinall's documentary would be resurrected as The Beatles Anthology.)
- Ringo Starr liked the happier scenes in the film, but felt the scenes that mimicked sadder times hit too close.
- John Lennon loved the film and refused to return the videotape and soundtrack he was given for approval. He told Innes, however, that ‘Get Up and Go’ was too close to The Beatles' "Get Back" and to be careful not to be sued by Paul McCartney. The song was omitted from the 1978 vinyl LP soundtrack. In an interview with 'BeatlesandBeyond' Radio Show presenter Pete Dicks, Innes remembered that Lennon said "you're going to have trouble with THAT one!" - "How right he was, the dear man."
- McCartney, who had just released his own album, London Town, always answered, “No comment.” According to Innes: “He had a dinner at some awards thing at the same table as Eric one night and Eric said it was a little frosty.” Idle claimed McCartney changed his mind because his wife Linda thought it was funny.
. . .
Their personalities to a tee, huh? At the very least, the responses capture how each of them viewed The Beatles after the breakup.
John: Cheeky and sardonic, he didn't "believe in Beatles."
Paul: Protective, even possessive of the band and, on some level, eternally wounded by its demise, he's the Beatle you'd expect to not find the humor in a parody.
George: Like John, the Salty Fab didn't regard The Beatles as a sacred cow.
Ringo: Lighthearted but sensitive, he enjoyed being a Beatle and rarely spoke ill of the band.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Not like old times: John and Paul in '74

After revisiting the oddball joys of Son of Schmilsson the other day (see "Take 54," which features Ringo on the drum kit), I browsed for articles about Harry Nilsson and The Beatles, and came across a reference to "A Toot and a Snore in '74." Per Wikipedia, it's the name that was given to "the only known recording session in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney played together after the break-up of The Beatles." The "reunion" took place on March 28, 1974 at L.A.'s Burbank Studios. John was there with Nilsson working on Pussy Cats when Paul and Linda made an unannounced visit. Here's what happened next:
The room froze when McCartney walked in, and remained perfectly silent until Lennon said, ‘Valiant Paul McCartney, I presume?’ McCartney responded: ‘Sir Jasper Lennon, I presume?’ (Valiant Paul and Sir Jasper were characters played by the two, in a televised Christmas play early in the Beatles's career). McCartney extended a hand, Lennon shook it, and the mood was pleasant but subdued, cordial but not especially warm, at least initially. *
Then, along with Nilsson, Stevie Wonder and others, they jammed. The result: a slaphappy, drug-fouled mess. At the time, John was in the midst of his "Lost Weekend"; cocaine was his go-to muse. On the recording, he's an obnoxious wreck, constantly babbling and halting play. Paul has said he was under the influence too. What a waste.
The 1970s = the Lost Decade.
If you must, here's the tape:
(If the video is removed, go here.)
(*I found this quote on the same Wikipedia page. It's from Christopher Sanford's biography of Paul.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"The film so funny it was banned in Norway"

The Beatles were part of, not one, but two Jesus controversies. The first and more infamous arose in 1966 after John boldly ventured that the Fab Four were more popular than the Son of God. The statement provoked a bitter backlash in the U.S. and dogged John for many years. The second "Jesus controversy" unfolded well after The Beatles had broken up, and it only involved George (and even then, somewhat indirectly). It took the form of a movie that, since its release in 1979, has often been hailed as one of the greatest comedies in cinematic history: Monty Python's Life of Brian.
In 1978, George came to the rescue of Life of Brian. Just days before director Terry Jones was to begin filming, EMI Films pulled funding due to unease about the movie's content, which consists partly of religious satire. (Plot: the titular Brian is born next to Jesus and gets mistaken for him.) George caught wind of this and - being rich, generous, and a friend and fan of the Python troupe - formed a production company called Handmade Films to finance the project. At one point, George said that he simply "wanted to see the movie." So much so, in fact, that he mortgaged his house to secure the funds. Not only did he get to see Life of Brian, he also made a cameo appearance in it. He played Mr. Papadopoulos, "owner of the Mount."
When the rest of the world saw Life of Brian, accusations of blasphemy rained down on the Pythons. From Norway and Sweden to the U.K. and the U.S., it was debated, picketed and even banned - a warmup act of sorts for The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. The Pythons had the final laugh, though. As often happens with such controversies, the extra attention drove up ticket sales, and today Life of Brian is widely considered a classic.
I mention all of this because a) I've been trying to write more about George lately; and b) I watched Life of Brian over the weekend. I had seen it before, but this time I was old enough to truly appreciate it. It's uproarious. From Brian's haggish mother to the hopping "ex-leper" to the People's Front of Judea to Pontius Pilate's rhotacism, the gags never misfire. Is the film offensive? From one perspective, of course. It's full of swearing and off-color humor. Is it blasphemous? I would say no. I think it nimbly tiptoes around such sins. The only scene that shows Christ is handled tastefully, and I can't recall actual Christian doctrine coming up even once. By explicitly referencing the Gospels but keeping the narrative askew of Christ, the Pythons tempt you into thinking that what's onscreen is blasphemous. Perhaps they even want you to take the bait, only to realize that it's just a comedy you're watching. In fact, the movie's most sustained and stinging line of satire is directed at protest movements. The subplot involving the People's Front of Judea (and the Judean People's Front, the Judean Popular People's Front and the Popular Front of Judea) is hilarious. As is the whole movie. Kudos to George for backing a winner.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Worst of George Harrison"

Last week I observed that George Harrison: Living in the Material World pays scant attention to George's career as a solo artist. Here's what Scorsese omits.
But there’s a 14-year gap that fans don’t like to discuss or even recall. In fact, the Quiet Beatle recorded six other studio albums during that epoch, each of which gives us insight into a rock ‘n’ roll legend literally at the bottom of his game. No question, there are some Harrison gems to be found here, but sadly, they’re often lost in the mire of this dreary epoch.
. . .
As for the reason behind Harrison’s erratic output of 1974-82, you can probably trace it to the usual suspects: an excess of money, drugs, partying, and well, excess. We also have to remember that George had already been a wealthy pop star for a decade and was now being asked, contractually, for a second act, thus his decreasing enthusiasm for the task. As your own ears will tell you, recording solo albums had become a chore for the former Beatle, as he’d conquered the summits of pop stardom long before. A new studio album meant continued cash flow, which was always beneficial, but clearly, Harrison’s heart was no longer in it, especially as the ’70s rolled to an end.
You also have to wonder why George didn’t have a manager who asked him for better product, or a good producer helping him pull these songs and albums together. Again, it alludes to the fact that he was rock-star royalty and didn’t need to answer to anyone, which is regrettable. In hindsight, most of George’s best solo albums were made with a strong producer in the room, notably Phil Spector and Jeff Lynne (and earlier, George Martin), but perhaps he didn’t like to cede control during this middle period. Yet imagine what a visionary producer—an Alan Parsons, Roy Thomas Baker or Todd Rundgren—might have done for Harrison’s recordings in that era. It speaks to a lost opportunity.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My favorite (ex)Beatles song right now

The opening guitar riff that sounds like it gave birth to a huge chunk of Seventies Rock + the chummy sweetness of a husband calling his wife "little lady" + the way Macca grinds out the last syllable of the phrase + the positively see-through double entendres + the dreamy vocal touches + the inescapable joy of a marriage in full bloom = the greatness of "Eat at Home."
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Quiet Beatle in full?

Almost a year after its release, I finally watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese's acclaimed documentary about the "Quiet Beatle." Based on the length of the film (208 minutes) and several reviews I had read, my main expectation going in was that Scorsese would provide a thorough, exhaustive treatment of George's life. I recall one reviewer opining that GH: LITMW would stand as the final word on the perpetual odd-man-out of The Beatles' powerhouse triumvirate.
It was strange, then, that upon finishing the doc, my first thoughts were all about how much it gave short shrift to or left out altogether. For instance, in Scorsese's hands, George's career as a solo musician is boiled down to All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh and the Traveling Wilburys. These are the highlights, yes, but focusing on them to the exclusion of his many other solo releases leads to a dramatically incomplete picture of George as a recording artist. In other spots, GH: LITMW approaches whitewash territory (even if it doesn't quite get to that level). Scorsese couldn't possibly sidestep the messy love triangle that developed between George, his then-wife Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton - and he doesn't - but he paints George as an almost passive player in the drama, which he wasn't. Elsewhere, George's widely panned 1974 U.S. tour comes up, as do the unkind reviews, but the section ends with someone swooping in to its defense. Though there are exceptions (like when Olivia Harrison broaches, with an obviously heavy heart, George's infidelity), the general tenor of the film seems to be: allude to the negatives when unavoidable and emphasize the positives as much as possible, because something close to the uncensored version might be too dicey.
If, on the other hand, there simply wasn't enough space to present George's story in more complicated detail (which is being charitable), Scorsese didn't help himself out by opting against a conventional structure for the film. His lightly impressionistic aesthetic, which eschews voice-over narration, the use of dates and strict chronology, is sloppy, tedious and inefficient. The narrative often feels like it's merely drifting along, sometimes covering the same ground twice and at other times not moving at all. A general vagueness prevails. I think the story would've benefited greatly from a more formal technique.
Though it has a fair amount to offer (i.e., various interviews, George's letters, rare footage, etc.), I have to count George Harrison: Living in the Material World as a missed opportunity. With so much at his disposal, Scorsese should've aimed higher.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Weekend reading

From The A.V. Club: "Bonfire Of The Vanity Projects Case File #16: Give My Regards To Broad Street and Magical Mystery Tour."
Read about the two films that Paul had the strongest hand in creating. The snide one-liner "Don't quit your day job" comes to mind.
Part of what makes Give My Regards To Broad Street such a punishingly somnolent endeavor is that nobody in it seems remotely excited to be in Paul McCartney’s presence. Everywhere he goes, McCartney is greeted with nothing but bored professionalism he returns in kind. McCartney’s life, as “dramatized” here, is a tedious checklist of obligations he performs dutifully and with little passion or enthusiasm. One of the most charismatic figures in rock history proves a charisma-free leading man.
. . .
Magical Mystery Tour follows a bus tour that unites The Beatles with a coterie of kooky characters, including a camera-toting little person and a man with a Hitler mustache, as well as Ringo Starr’s corpulent aunt (Jessie Robbins), a guilelessly enthusiastic tour guide (Derek Royle), a sexy hostess (Mandy Weet), and the tour’s creepy conductor (Ivor Cutler). The wiggy experiment is tied together less by a conventional plot than a freewheeling, anything-goes sensibility that delights in random silliness, crude mugging, and weirdness for its own sake. At best, Magical Mystery Tour is the loose, loopy, and bravely improvisatory cinematic equivalent of jazz, a giddy lark from charismatic young men literally making it all up as they went along. At worst, the film is an unwieldy fusion of transcendent music and amateurish shenanigans that are better suited to the McCartney home movies that inspired the project than in a proper Beatles film.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Roll up for the mystery tour"

Big news announced yesterday: Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles' long out-of-print film from 1967, has been restored and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray in early October. A little backstory... MMT came in the wake of both The Beatles' decision to stop touring and the tragedy of Brian Epstein's death. It was an unfocused period for the band. With Paul as the driving force, the Fabs themselves directed the film, a druggy, surrealist, madcap vision of a weekend bus trip around the English countryside. Production was sloppy and haphazard, as there was no script and the Four had little idea what they were doing. Upon release, MMT took a beating from the British press. It was a rare creative black-eye for The Beatles (though the soundtrack did deliver the goods). Since then, opinion has shifted a bit, and it seems the various Beatles estates have determined that the film is finally ready for another look. It's one missing piece of the puzzle that we won't have to complain about any longer. Now bring on the Let It Be doc!
Go here for the Magical Mystery Tour trailer.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't pass Ringo by

I write a lot about John and Paul, not enough about George, and woefully little about Ringo. Such is the natural order of things with The Beatles. To be sure, I make no apologies for the considerable space I devote to the Lennon-McCartney tandem, and I feel I'm on the path to correcting my neglect of George. As for Ringo, it's a different story. I admire him as a drummer; he added terrific style and color to The Beatles' music. And I have no time for those lazy, dried-out jokes about his "luck" in being a Fab; the others sought him out for a reason. But it shouldn't be lost on anyone that Ringo has never been a noteworthy songwriter. Far from it. His output, it seems, is judged more on the basis of charm and feel-goodness than artistry and technical skill. Modest expectations and upfront good-will often occasion reviews that are chock-full of awkward faint praise (one line from an write-up: Ringo "does not embarrass himself at all"). In other words, Ringo doesn't permit the most rewarding or honest conditions for evaluating an album. I've avoided his solo discography because the post-Fab careers of the other three interest me far more and I feel more comfortable being critical of their music. Well today marks the end of those days. This is a Beatles blog, and Ringo's voice deserves to be heard.
Ringo's first solo outing, 1970's Sentimental Journey, is an album of popular standards. At first blush, it may seem like a curious genre escapade for a rock 'n' roll drummer and country/western enthusiast, but - as Wikipedia explains - "the idea was to create an album of standards that would reflect his parents' favourite songs." Against the odds, Ringo was one-upping Paul, The Beatles' arch-sentimentalist, in the nostalgia department. To produce, he enlisted George Martin, who was likely tickled by the opportunity to work with a Beatle on his home turf: florid strings, booming brass, singsongy fluff. For the arrangements, Ringo brought in an array of big-name talents: Richard Perry, Maurice Gibb, Quincy Jones, and more. Recording began in late October 1969 and wrapped up the following March. The final product was released on March 27, a full three weeks before McCartney came out. (I like to imagine an alternate universe in which it was actually Ringo's debut solo album that hastened The Beatles' demise.) Though reviews were mixed, Sentimental Journey hit #7 on the UK charts.
As with Kisses on the Bottom, I'm not on strong footing writing about an album like Sentimental Journey. I'm pretty ignorant of music from the pre-rock 'n' roll era, and I don't have much of an ear for jazz, big band or show tunes. Plus, this is exactly the kind of album that leads to cliched talk of "charm" and the like. But I'm in too deep at this point. My layman's take on Sentimental Journey is that it's a mixed bag of easy listens - several gems and pleasant confections alongside a handful of so-so cuts that bleed together - and it may work to greater or lesser degrees depending on your comfort level with Ringo as a singer.
Ringo's voice isn't an ideal fit for this showy style; flat and earthbound, it can't fill out a big sonic canvas. If this objection looms large in your mind, it'll likely take you out of Sentimental Journey. The easygoing title track will just plod; the big jazz of "Night and Day" and "Blue, Turning Grey Over You" will feel too big for the guy at the mic; and the lushness of "Whispering Grass (Don't Tell the Trees)" will seem wasted without the right voice as an anchor. Indeed, some of these songs need a stronger presence in the middle. However, if you focus on the positive associations that Ringo and his familiar, folksy voice can recall, you may enjoy what you hear more.
Then again, each song is different. Ringo's vox may be pedestrian, but "Bye Bye Blackbird" is still a bright and bouncy jaunt that wouldn't be out of place on "The White Album." Better yet is "Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing," a shimmering, wide-screen take on the Oscar-winning classic. The huge vocal accompaniment that hovers behind Ringo delivers a dazzling effect. Finally, on more low-key numbers like "I'm a Fool to Care," "Dream" and "Let the Rest of the World Go By," Ringo sounds right at home.
To no surprise, I haven't avoided all of the Ringo review cliches I cited above. I'll add one more. Sentimental Journey is a hit-or-miss vehicle for Ringo's always-winning *personality*. It's hard not to root for an album that was essentially made for someone's mom. Richard Starkey = The Beatles' clown prince. Going forward, I hope to see more of him in these parts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The "brilliant lie" of "Let It Be"

Money quote:
Spector's final version of Let It Be was a brilliant lie - a happy face painted on a miserable experience, a live-and-natural record made palatable with extensive tinkering, a patchwork of witty quips ("I hope we passed the audition") and relaxed but spot-on performances sewn together to make it sound like the Beatles were just older, more soulful versions of the cutups the world had fallen for years ago in A Hard Day's Night. As an album, it was better art than a more truthful document could have been; it just wasn't wholly a Beatles record.
- Douglas Wolk, Rolling Stone's "The Beatles: The Ultimate Album-by-Album Guide"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A mini Beatles Bible

I finally got around to reading Rolling Stone's "The Beatles: The Ultimate Album-by-Album Guide." I strongly recommend it. As a source of facts and analysis, it's thorough, insightful, witty and entertaining (albeit slavishly laudatory). Every album from the band's official canon is profiled in detail, and every track (including non-album singles and b-sides) is given a blurb-length treatment. Just don't bother with the musician testimonials; most of them range from dull and forgettable to vapid and incomprehensible.
Below is a smattering of facts, quotes and historical tid-bits that I found worthy of note:
- Paul on the spoils of success: "A Liverpool boy with this tanned beauty in my MG going out to dinner. It should have been 'Can Buy Me Love,' actually."
- I wasn't aware of this gender-modified cover of "And I Love Her." It's smokier and more textured than the original.
- In the chapter on A Hard Day's Night, Douglas Wolk posits that the album only has 13 tracks (as opposed to the early standard of 14) because, before the last recording session, Ringo came down with tonsillitis and pharyngitis, resulting in a schedule change. The band left for a tour shortly afterward, with Jimmy Nicol filling in for Ringo.
- "The Beatles covered more songs by Carl Perkins than by any other songwriter."
- "Ticket to Ride" was the first Beatles song to hit the three-minute mark. It was also their first song "built track-by-track rather than recorded live."
- According to Paul, George Martin's initial assessment of "Tomorrow Never Knows" took this form: "Rather interesting, John. Jolly Interesting." Ever the decorous, unfazed gentleman.
- The "Kinfauns demos" = "possibly the greatest 'unplugged' session in pop-music history."
- "Back in the U.S.S.R" was recorded just days after the Soviets and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and thwarted the Prague Spring.
- "Our relationship was platonic, believe me" - Paul wryly commenting on his English sheepdog Martha, who apparently wasn't the eponymous lass in "Martha My Dear."
- "Julia" was John's "only solo vocal performance on a Beatles recording."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Early Takes: Volume 1"

Over the past week, I've been listening to Early Takes: Volume 1, the George Harrison compilation album that was released in tandem with Martin Scorsese's recent documentary about the Quiet Beatle. If, like me, you're not naturally drawn to George's solo catalog and, in particular, often feel overwhelmed by Phil Spector's lavish, echo-smothered, Big Pop production job on All Things Must Pass, the modest, stripped-down Early Takes may be in your wheelhouse. I mention George's first solo release because six of the comp's ten tracks are demos or early versions of songs from that album. With Spector out of the way, the difference in the texture and atmosphere of the two sets is like going from an opulent mega-church to an open-air country service. The songs here - most of them acoustic - are looser, folkier, more intimate. Unburdened of the Wall of Sound's padded lushness, notable cuts like "My Sweet Lord," "Awaiting on You All" and "All Things Must Pass" are able to stretch out and breathe freely, their spiritual themes losing no potency. The added space also benefits George's voice, which sounds more soulful, delicate and expressive than ever. (See the achingly beautiful cover of "Let It Be Me.") All told, I prefer this George Harrison to the one on All Things Must Pass. I suspect George himself did as well.
"Awaiting on You All"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Beatles @ the 2012 Olympics

Paul was one of the major attractions at Friday's Opening Ceremony, but - from a Beatles-oriented perspective - it shouldn't be overlooked that the Arctic Monkeys also performed. That's because the popular British rock 'n' roll quartet played a cover of "Come Together." The studio version is below; it's a straightforward rendition. I hold the perhaps incautious opinion that Alex Turner's voice is one of the heirs to John Lennon's.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Weekend reading

"Bias at Rolling Stone Magazine?" - a critical take on the mag's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Excerpt: The Rolling Stone 500 would be easily dismissed as a marketing stunt were it not for the sad fact that the superiority of boomer-era rock is viewed by some as truth. These folks would agree with what Rolling Stone says about its top album: "'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' is the most important rock & roll album ever made"; it is "rock's ultimate declaration of change." No, it is not. It had predecessors that made it possible and that are thus at least as important. And "Sgt. Pepper" brought no greater change to rock and pop music than did subsequent recordings like "Crosby Stills & Nash," "The Ramones," Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Nirvana's "Nevermind," Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" or Radiohead's "Kid A."
Sweep aside 45 years of almost-unchallenged praise, some of which has nothing to do with its 13 songs and 40 minutes of music, and really listen to "Sgt. Pepper." It is a great rock and pop album. But indisputably better than, say, "Kiko," a 1992 album by Los Lobos, or Björk's 2001 disc "Vespertine"—neither of which is among the Rolling Stone 500? Of course not. But the greatness of "Kiko" and "Vespertine" exist outside the confines of boomer-rock's narrow cultural context.
. . .
"White Elephants and Termites, Revisited" - a response.
Excerpt: The real question, then, isn’t whether the list is focused on commercial rock and pop. It’s whether the focus on the boomer golden age is justified within than context. Fusilli notes that “Of its 500 albums, 292 were released in the ’60s or ’70s, a highly improbable 59%.” But this is only “improbable” if you assume that achievements in a particular genre are randomly distributed across time. That’s absurd. Art forms have their periods of growth, maturity, and decadence. Fusilli doesn’t want to be believe that rock is in its decadence. He suggests, for example, that Los Lobos’ 1992 record Kiko and Björk’s 2001 Vespertine rival Sgt. Pepper. I have never especially liked the Beatles, and do love Los Lobos and Björk. But their work isn’t comparable in influence or technical innovation. Sgt. Pepper changed listeners’ understanding of what rock ‘n’ roll could be. Kiko and Vespertine, on the other hand, are just terrific records.
. . .
My two cents: When it comes to Rolling Stone, you should know what you're getting. For a long time it's been a thoroughly mainstream publication that, in terms of its music criticism, clings to past glories. The magazine's classicist biases - like awarding five stars to nearly every recent album by Bruce Springsteen - are well known and hardly worthy of a fuss. The pop culture mythology of the Boomer generation does make for an interesting topic, but no one should be surprised by Rolling Stone's dogmatic promotion of it. And besides, the vast majority of the albums on that list deserve the praise they received.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Momma don't go!"

John Lennon was a complicated and challenging individual. Any attempt to understand him must begin with his mother, Julia, who died on this day in 1958 after being hit by a car; she was 44. John would later say that it was the second time his mother had abandoned him, the first being when she placed him at a young age in the care of her sister Mimi. Absent this tumultuous upbringing, who knows how much different John would've been: as a personality, a songwriter, a collaborator (Paul also lost his mother when he was young; it was part of their bond), a husband, and a father. Without the trauma, John Lennon may not have become John Lennon.
"Julia" - it cuts deep.
(If the video is removed, go here.)
"Mother" - it cuts even deeper.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

"50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll"

This past Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones' first concert, which was at London's Marquee Jazz Club. Of the lineup that survived the '60s, only Mick and Keith were involved, but the date still offers a moment to reflect on the band's legacy. Here is a look-back by author and journalist David Browne. And below are some posts I wrote that deal with the Stones in one fashion or another:
- "My favorite song at the moment" - It was "Under My Thumb," which I confessed with a certain degree of unease.
- "More on 'Under My Thumb' and 'Run for Your Life'" - I compared these two wicked, addictive songs.
- "'Death came to the party'" - I assessed the documentary Gimme Shelter.
. . .
There's obviously a lot of history between The Beatles and the Stones, much of which revolves around the supposed rivalry they had. I won't go into any of that here. Instead, I'll draw attention to the most direct and friendly connection between the two bands: "I Wanna Be Your Man." John and Paul wrote it, but they gave it to the Stones for their second single.
"I Wanna Be Your Man":
(If the video is removed, go here.)
Here's The Beatles' version:
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Inspired by The Beatles

There are days - many days, in fact - when "I Am the Walrus" is my favorite Beatles song. It doesn't carry the emotional weight of, say, "Eleanor Rigby" or "Hey Jude," and it doesn't boast the collaborative genius of "A Day in the Life," but it does deliver an experience that sets it apart. Between the kooky lyric, the bustling swirl of layered orchestration, and the triumphant circus-procession flow, "I Am the Walrus" imparts a special kind of satisfaction: you know you're listening to a song that is so different from everything that came before it and couldn't possibly be matched by anything that came after it. Many artists have likely tried, but I'm certain - without even being able to cite examples - that they all failed. The better course of action is to borrow from it and make it obvious you're doing so, the end result being a respectful homage. That's close to my take on the song below: "Tropicana" by Ratatat. Cool track, cool band.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Paul vs John

After posting this piece about McCartney, I had a conversation on Twitter with Ray Connolly, a veteran British journalist who covered The Beatles and knew them well. We discussed the circumstances of the band's breakup and the roles played by Paul and John. Here's part of the exchange:
Me: I find it pretty amazing that, after all the band had been through, Paul wanted to keep it going.
RC: Like the rest of us he was a Beatle fan. He'd never known anything else since he left school.
Me: With apologies to Paul, I'm glad they ended when they did. I fear what the '70s might have done to them.
RC: Intuitively John probably realised that. By killing them at their peak he made the Beatles timeless.
I draw attention to these quotes because I appreciate how Mr. Connolly casts both Paul and John in a positive light even while acknowledging their conflicting aims. Paul was the buoyant romantic - though a practical one; John was the fiery cynic - though a humorous one. Paul was the "Beatle fan"; John didn't "believe in Beatles". Paul wanted to save the Fab Four; John effectively saved them from themselves. It's hard for me not to sympathize with both sides. Even as someone who doesn't rue The Beatles' breakup, I admire Paul for his dogged devotion to the band. He took such joy in being a Beatle, and that joy coursed through the songs he wrote. As the Fab "who cared the most," he essentially served as an ambassador to the band on behalf of fans. His interests aligned with theirs: keep The Beatles together and make music. John's role was the opposite. He found much less satisfaction as a Beatle, and he didn't buy into the band like Paul did. Keeping the fame and myth-making at arm's length, it seems that John wanted to always have an out in case something better came his way. For him, Yoko was that something better. Her presence motivated him to begin agitating for an exit. Plus, as Mr. Connolly observed, John probably recognized at some point that, if The Beatles stayed together amidst so much rancor, the quality of their art would diminish. By undermining the band, John accomplished the dual purpose of liberating himself from an unwanted part of his life and preserving The Beatles' historic greatness. Whether the second half was fully intentional doesn't matter. It's the result that counts.
From start to finish, in oversimplified terms: The Beatles were brought to life by John, sustained by Paul, and then, against the wishes of Paul, killed by John. Both deserve respect for the roles they played.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Weekend happenings

This past Saturday, I saw the Walkmen in concert at "the house that Prince built." Superb show. The Walkmen are among my favorite American bands, and they happen to have an interesting tie-in with The Beatles. In 2006, they put out a song-for-song re-creation of Harry Nilsson's 1974 album Pussy Cats, which was produced by John during his debaucherous but fertile "Lost Weekend." Ringo, a close friend of Nilsson's, contributed as well; he was one of the featured drummers. Furthermore, as stated on Wikipedia, "On the first night of recording, March 28 (1974), Paul McCartney popped into the studio unexpectedly. Bootleg recordings from this session were later released as the album A Toot and a Snore in ’74." All told, the original Pussy Cats is smeared with The Beatles' fingerprints. In fact, John co-wrote my favorite song on the album, "Mucho Mungo," which I described here as a "shimmering coral treat." If you go here, you'll find two versions of the song: one by Nilsson and one by John. Below is the Walkmen's faithful cover.
(If the video is removed, go here.)
. . .
Then on Sunday, I watched The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's renowned rock doc about The Band and their farewell concert, which took place on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Included in the large number of special guests who performed at the show was Ringo. He played drums on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" (see below) and took part in a jam session that, frankly, didn't suit his style at all. Ringo wasn't the improvisational, soloing type. He was more of a minimalist who thrived in the controlled environment of a studio.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


In preparation for the reissue of Ram (1971), I spent some time with the album that immediately preceded it in Paul's body of work, McCartney (1970), which was Macca's first solo record.
In contrast with Ram, McCartney is viewed today much like it was upon its release. At that time, critics gave it a mixed verdict. They swooned over "Maybe I'm Amazed" but counted the album's prevailing mode - loose, tossed-off, homespun - as an inescapable flaw. From what I can gather, that opinion hasn't changed a lot over the years. It's certainly close to my take. I find McCartney enjoyable but far from memorable. It boasts some inspired moments but not nearly enough. Too much of its charm fades as quickly as it sets in, due in large measure to how many of the songs feel like rushed, incomplete thoughts. Yes, Paul shows considerable range in his songwriting. And yes, there's a certain appeal to the DIY aesthetic. But McCartney was the first proper solo album to be released by any of The Beatles, and it's understandable that most people were expecting something more than a rumpled collection of demo-like jams, loopy instrumentals, and acoustic ditties broken up by a few gems. It disappointed then, and it still disappoints today.
What has changed between then and now is, 40-plus years after the fact, we're better positioned to speculate on the psychological component of McCartney. Even if the music doesn't fully satisfy, there's plenty of interest below the surface and behind the scenes. After all, against the wishes of John, George, and Ringo, Paul released McCartney before Let It Be, which quickly became a source of heated conflict and pushed The Beatles to their demise. A number of questions surface: What is the album's true place in the narrative of The Beatles' breakup? Was the release of McCartney a premeditated power play, the result of a churlish fit, or something else? What impression was Paul trying to create with it? And so forth. After background details and a breakdown of the songs, I'll touch on these questions.
Because The Beatles were, for all intents and purposes, on hiatus after Abbey Road, Paul found himself with ample time to freelance and make the music he wanted. He recorded McCartney between late 1969 and March of 1970. In a way, it was the fulfillment of his original vision for Let It Be, which emphasized a stripped-down, "back-to-basics" approach. Paul recorded most of the album at his home on a four-track. He played all of the instruments, and the only other person who made an appearance was his then-wife Linda, who contributed an occasional vocal. George Martin - and his trademark studio polish - was nowhere to be found, and neither were any of the other Beatles.
Operating on his own, Paul seized the opportunity to dabble in different sounds. Beyond the album's undercooked form, this is what stands out most about McCartney: it's a grab-bag of sonic styles. There are ad-libbed miniature love songs ("The Lovely Linda"); helpings of brawny blues-rock ("That Would Be Something," "Valentine Day," "Oo You"); mazy electro-instrumentals ("Hot as Sun/Glasses," "Momma Miss America," "Kreen-Akrore"); plaintive ballads ("Junk"); instrumental renditions of those plaintive ballads ("Singalong Junk"); sides of light country boogie ("Man We Was Lonely"); and acoustic dream-pop ("Teddy Boy"). Among these entries, the song quality doesn't move around as much as the genres do, but it doesn't get very high either. Paul seems to sleepwalk through most of the album, content to try this and try that but not try that hard. With too many jams and song sketches and too few fully realized cuts, McCartney emits a shaggy, come-and-go-as-you-please vibe. It's perfectly listenable but rarely does it compel you to stick around for long.
There are exceptions. Graced by those joy-kissed "woo-woo-woos," "Every Night" is the high point of Side One and a fine song in its own right. Of most significance is that Paul paints an evocative picture of pain and vulnerability with the lyric. As a Beatle, he didn't often explore introspective territory; he left that to John. Paul was the happy-go-lucky Fab, and most of the emotions he did exhibit came with a universal cast. On "Every Night," he plays against type and cracks the curtain a bit. The song's opening lines: "Every night I just want to go out/Get out of my head/Every day I don't want to get up/Get out of my bed." This is a window into Paul's life amidst The Beatles' breakup: he had been boozing heavily and was depressed. Separated from his band, he felt adrift. Luckily, he had Linda to lean on for support. The lyric continues: "But tonight I just want to stay in/And be with you." Cue the "woo-woo-woos." When they hit, it's like a sun piercing through gloomy clouds, slowly but unmistakably. Without Linda, Paul may have gone to pieces after The Beatles called it quits.
Of course, Linda was the inspiration for the best and most enduring cut on McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed." Like "Every Night," it shows Paul in a vulnerable state: "Maybe I'm afraid of the way I love you." Unlike "Every Night," "Maybe I'm Amazed" wraps Paul's confession of weakness in dramatic, even triumphant sonics. With a monster backbeat, lively piano fills, and that impassioned vocal, the song soars. When Paul exclaims, "Baby I'm a man/And maybe you're the only woman/Who could ever help me," it's the sound of him moving on with his life. Worthy of The Beatles' better output, "Maybe I'm Amazed" hasn't aged a day because Paul's emotions, delivered with such thrilling conviction, still ring true.
When Paul finished recording these 13 tracks, the expectation was that he wouldn't put them out until after Let It Be was released. (As you'll recall, The Beatles recorded Let It Be in early 1969 but shelved it due to dissatisfaction with the album's quality.) Paul had other ideas. Saddened by the slow-motion death of his band, isolated from almost everyone but Linda, and perhaps feeling empowered by his new-found freedom, he made the fateful decision to release McCartney in advance of the Fabs' last album. The other Beatles caught wind of this, and Ringo, who himself was delaying the release of a solo album, was sent to Paul's home in an effort to change his mind. Paul didn't react well to the gesture. He lost his cool and kicked Ringo out. On April 20 1970, McCartney was officially released. No singles accompanied it, and little promotional work was done on its behalf. However, included with advance copies of the album was a printed Q&A between Apple Records and Paul. Here's an excerpt:
Q: "Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?"
PAUL: "No."
Q: "Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?"
PAUL: "Time will tell. Being a solo album means it's 'the start of a solo career...' and not being done with the Beatles means it's just a rest. So it's both."
Q: "Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?"
PAUL: "Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don't really know."
Q: "Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?"
PAUL: "No."
Boom. Once in their possession, the British press ran wild with the Q&A. The Beatles had cheated death before, but there was no coming back after Paul's juicy provocation.
The question naturally arises: why did Paul do what he did? My theory goes as follows: It was obvious to most that, at the turn of the decade, The Beatles were a sinking ship. The media knew, Apple Records knew, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo knew. Up until that point, John had been the most vocal of the Four about wanting to dissolve the band. George was also disillusioned, but he lacked John's forceful will. In the middle was Ringo, who didn't evince strong feelings one way or another. Then there was Paul, who clearly cared more than the others about keeping the band together. (It's fitting that, from start to bitter finish, the principle dynamic of The Beatles was the contrast between John and Paul.) Because it was evident that the end was fast approaching, Paul likely calculated that, barring something unforeseen, history would recognize John as the one who broke up the band. The official narrative would cite his fierce and chaotic personality as the force that ultimately dictated the fate of the greatest act in pop music history. Such an interpretation would inevitably cast Paul as the loser of this final power struggle. Possessing an enormous ego (justifiably), Paul didn't like what he saw coming. He had to distance himself - and quickly - from his image as The Beatle Who Cared The Most About The Beatles. So in haste, he recorded McCartney and took part in the Q&A. Soon after, John, Paul, George and Ringo were no more, and - in the eyes of many - Macca had orchestrated it. Mission accomplished.
Not exactly. If what I've described mirrors Paul's actual plan, it can't be called a big-picture success. Many factors went into The Beatles' breakup, but if any one individual contributed the most it was John. Paul's desperate power play (if that's what it was) merely hastened the outcome that John had been pursuing for some time. The history books acknowledge this fact.
What they also acknowledge is that, whether or not it was part of a gambit by Paul, McCartney was and remains a slack, underwhelming record that has survived mainly because "Maybe I'm Amazed" gives life to everything it touches. Paul's full lengths would get better, but his singles from then on had a lofty standard to meet

Friday, June 22, 2012

Weekend reading

"Why are the Beatles so popular 50 years on?" by The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik
The Beatles were not provocateurs, though often mystics, and their great subject was childhood gone by, and what to make of the austere, rationed, but in many ways ordered and secure English world that they had grown up in, and that was now passing before their eyes, in part because of the doors they had opened.
Their most enduring work, the singles Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, tell on one side of the dream memory of a Liverpool garden where a lonely alienated boy could find solace, and on the other of a Liverpool street where a bright, sociable boy could see the world.
. . .
The Beatles' music endures above all because we sense in it the power of the collaboration of opposites. John had reach. He instinctively understood that what separates an artist from an entertainer is that an artist seeks to astonish, even shock, his audience. Paul had grasp, above all of the materials of music, and knew intuitively that astonishing art that fails to entertain is mere avant-gardism.
We see the difference when they were wrenched apart: Paul still had a hundred wonderful melodies and only sporadic artistic ambition, while John still had lots of artistic ambition but only a sporadic handful of melodies. But in those seven years when John's reach met Paul's grasp, we all climbed Everest. (Not an arbitrary choice by the way: Everest was to be the title of their last album, and the place they had meant to go before they ended up going outside to Abbey Road instead.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Quiet Beatle and the American Beatle

Last October, when I wrote about the superb documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, I ended the post by highlighting a cheeky anecdote from Nilsson's (after)life that involved George:
My favorite Beatles-related story actually comes from Nilsson's funeral in 1994. George Harrison was in attendance and apparently started talking about Nilsson's music at one point. He pegged "You're Breakin' My Heart" as his favorite song. According to someone else who was there, this inspired George and others to perform an a-capella rendition of the song - complete with its frank, ear-catching punch line - right next to Nilsson's grave. What a moment perfectly suited to its honoree: sad, salty and sweet.
As it turns out, George's opinion may not have been free of bias: listed in the liner notes of Son of Schmilsson as "George Harrysong," the Quiet Beatle in fact played slide guitar on "You're Breakin' My Heart." I recently discovered this tid-bit after buying a copy of Son. There's more. Both Ringo ("Richie Snare") and longtime Beatles associate Klaus Voorman are all over the album. Additionally, the famous cover shot of Nilsson playacting as a Dracula-type was taken at Friar Park, George's sprawling abode in Oxfordshire.
Let me add that the colorful and varied Son of Schmilsson is a first-rate album, displaying both polished, commercial songwriting and plenty of Nilsson's trademark wit and eccentricity. Despite what producer Richard Perry has said over the years, it's a worthy successor to Nilsson Schmilsson; it's just weirder. I actually find it to be the more purely enjoyable listening experience, thanks in part to "You're Breakin' My Heart," which you can listen to below. Shamelessly profane but also buoyantly so, "Heart" is like "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" updated for the brash, big-talkin' Seventies. Its love/hate sentiments are universal.
(If the video is removed, go here. For more Daily Beatle posts about Nilsson, go here.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Ram", reviewed

The remastered edition of Paul's second post-Beatles album, Ram, came out on Tuesday. Both The A.V. Club and Pitchfork greeted it with lavish, in-depth praise.
From The A.V. Club:
The result is a record distinguished by loopy humor, funky looseness, the homey chemistry between the two principals, and most of all, melodies stacked upon melodies in likeably eccentric packages. Ram discourages the sort of self-serious examination that greeted The Beatles at every turn. But just because it doesn’t announce its inventiveness à la Sgt. Pepper doesn’t keep Ram from benefitting from McCartney’s compositional restlessness or indestructible pop sense. It’s a “hang-out” record that—like McCartney’s demo-like self-titled 1970 debut—deliberately recalibrated how McCartney’s music was supposed to sound and how it should be perceived.
And from Pitchfork:
Ram, simply put, is the first Paul McCartney release completely devoid of John's musical influence. Of course, John wiggled his way into some of the album's lyrics-- in those fresh, post-breakup years, the two couldn't quite keep each other out of their music. But musically, Ram proposes an alternate universe where young Paul skipped church the morning of July 6, 1957, and the two never crossed paths. It's breezy, abstracted, completely hallucinogen-free, and utterly lacking grandiose ambitions. Its an album whistled to itself. It's purely Paul.