Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beatles marginalia

Because I haven't had much to write about of late, I decided to deposit a bunch of random musings inspired by Beatles songs into a post. The results are below.

- Contra Tom Petty, I'm not too keen on George's solo from "I Saw Her Standing There," and I don't quite understand the reverence many have for it. Maybe it's because I'm not a guitarist myself. All I hear is something ramshackle and tuneless. George was young at the time; I won't hold his amateur performance against him.

- "Misery" is best enjoyed as a parody of weepy laments.

- On certain days, "Baby It's You" is my favorite cover by The Beatles, besting even the immortal "Twist and Shout." It's no coincidence that both owe their greatness to John's voice; it was one of the band's most versatile weapons.

- The fleet, feather-light quality of "There's a Place" is one of several reasons why it's an early-period classic. The song almost seems to hover.

- "From Me to You" > "I Want to Hold Your Hand"

- "It Won't Be Long" boasts arguably the best, most thrilling opening section of any song by The Beatles. It just explodes out of the gate.

- "All I've Got to Do" is a masterpiece of moody tension.

- I admire Paul for how unapologetic he has been and still is about his schmaltzy balladeer tendencies. Does he not sound sublimely at home on "Till There Was You"?

- I dig the gusto John brings to the line, "Deliver the letter/The sooner the better" on "Please Mister Postman."

- Paul's vocal on "She's a Woman" is one of his finest.

- “If I Fell” is the most Beach Boys-esque song in The Beatles’ catalog. It’s easy to imagine Brian, Carl, and Mike delivering those harmonies.

- "And I Love Her" probably fits into that category as well. I can hear Brian doing Paul's vocal.

- "What You're Doing" is a darkhorse candidate for best song on Beatles for Sale. The honor likely goes to "No Reply," but the gap isn't huge.

- There are plenty of Beatles songs that I'm not wild about, but there are few that genuinely irritate me. One of those few is "I Need You." The arrhythmic, herky-jerky guitar effect that George creates with his volume pedal just grates on my ears.

- In hindsight, the powerfully emotive one-two punch of "I've Just Seen a Face" and "Yesterday" can be seen as a sign that Paul was nearing peak form. He truly arrived on Revolver.

- The idea that John burned down his would-be lover's house at the end of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" represents my favorite narrative detail in any Beatles song.

- "Nowhere Man" is possibly the band's most overrated song.

- "Michelle" goes down like a mojito on a warm summer afternoon.

- From "Eleanor Rigby," the line "No one was saved" is like the "Jesus wept" of Beatles lyrics.

- "Here, There and Everywhere" is the successor to "I've Just Seen a Face," while "For No One" is the successor to "Yesterday."

- Look to "She's Leaving Home" for some of the soundest evidence that The Beatles weren't in lockstep with the counterculture. You can detect sympathy for both the young, disillusioned runaway and her devastated parents. It makes the narrative all the more engaging.

- One of my favorite Beatles lyrics: "Living is easy with eyes closed." It can be interpreted in a variety of interesting ways.

- The image of a guitar weeping is perfect.

- No, "Blackbird" is The Beatles' most overrated song.

- "Christ you know it ain't easy."

- Remarkably, this can be said with a straight face: The man who gave us "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" may be the greatest songwriter in pop music history.

- The most egregious error committed by Phil Spector when he put together Let It Be was omitting "Don't Let Me Down."

- "Two of us wearing raincoats/ Standing so low/ In the sun."

Monday, January 30, 2012

The lost guitar solo from "Here Comes the Sun"

We didn't know that it was lost until it was recently found by George's son Dhani, Sir George Martin, and his son Giles at Abbey Road Studios. (More here.)

Though I think the solo - which sounds like it was lifted from "The End" - clashes somewhat with the soothing, warm-breeze feel of "Here Comes the Sun," it's still cool to hear.

Watch and listen:

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

"100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time"

The list was compiled by Rolling Stone. It's what you'd expect. Two entries are below.

#11 - George:
George Harrison and I were once in a car and the Beatles song "You Can't Do That" came on, with that great riff in the beginning on the 12-string. He goes, "I came up with that." And I said, "Really? How?" He said, "I was just standing there and thought, 'I've got to do something!' " That pretty much sums him up. He just had a way of getting right to the business, of finding the right thing to play. That was part of that Beatles magic – they all seemed to find the right thing to play.

George knew every obscure Elvis solo; his initial influences were rockabilly – Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore – but he always added something to it. Even going way back, I used to just swoon over that solo in "I Saw Her Standing There." You just can't imagine anything else there. He had that knack. And how many Rickenbacker 12-strings did that guy sell? That was a whole new sound too – Roger McGuinn got the idea from George, and then Roger took it to his own place with the Byrds.

When he moved over to the slide guitar later in the Beatles' career, it was a really beautiful thing to hear him play that. He once said to me, "I think modern guitar players are forgetting about pitch," and that was something he really cared about. He was very in tune when he played, the slide was very precise, and just a beautiful vibrato on it. It really sounded like a voice, like a very distinct, signature voice that came out of him. Just listen to those records. They're so immaculate, so inventive. He was a guy who could just add so much.
- Tom Petty

#55 - John:
When Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner asked John Lennon how he rated himself as a guitarist, Lennon replied, "I'm not technically good, but I can make it fucking howl and move. I was rhythm guitarist. It's an important job. I can make a band drive." It is, and he did: Lennon was the Beatles' spark plug and bloodletter, often adding rawness to pristine pop songs. Listen to the airborne strums that power "Help!," the circular riffage of "Day Tripper" or the deceptively sloppy "The Ballad of John and Yoko" – where, with George Harrison away on holiday, Lennon turned rudimentary lead and rhythm lines into sharptoothed magic. He was also capable of generating a truly ferocious tone: In the live promo clip for "Revolution," Lennon makes his hollow-body Epiphone Casino screech like a very angry lawn mower. Still, he didn't get his due as a guitarist in the Beatles' heyday. "They call George the invisible singer," Lennon said. "I am the invisible guitar player."

Friday, January 13, 2012

"We shall scrimp and save"

Small moments can make a song. Short of that, they can memorably elevate their surroundings. From The Beatles' body of work, I'm thinking of, say, on "Baby It's You" when Paul and George sharply - but with an obvious grin - chirp, "Cheat, cheat," as part of their backup vocal. Or how about on "No Reply" when John issues the accusation, "That's a lie": it's the most sinisterly calm expression of jealous anger you'll ever hear. A third example - one that I've highlighted before - arrives at roughly the 2:40 mark of "Hey Jude," when John and George perform a lovely spot-harmony on the line, "Don't make it bad."

I mention all of this because I recently discovered the power of another "small moment" from the Fabs' catalog. It's courtesy of Paul and his comic homage to old age and domesticity, "When I'm Sixty-Four." Often derided as typical Macca fluff, "Sixty-Four" nevertheless always finds me a willing and satisfied listener. I enjoy the music-hall melody, Paul's altered vocal, the fetching sentiments (especially what's captured with the line, "Doing the garden/ Digging the weeds/ Who could ask for more?"), and the "small moment" of Paul singing, "We shall scrimp and save." For me, this part adds an unexpected dimension to "Sixty-Four" and almost entirely changes the song. Notice its tone. In contrast to the rest of the song, which is all talk of sending valentines, mending fuses, and knitting sweaters, it's somber, and Paul's voice carries a measure of pain. Having to "scrimp and save" for something obviously suggests struggling to overcome a lack of means. A lack of means often translates into hardship.

By including this part and delivering it as he did, Paul let the quaint and pleasant tedium of his imagined future be interrupted - if only briefly - by the cold shadow of reality, giving the song deeper meaning. "We shall scrimp and save" pushes "When I'm Sixty-Four" to a place where happiness is hard-won and lives side-by-side with sadness.

Friday, January 6, 2012

"And all religion's true"!?!

The biggest Beatles-related news story of 2012 has easily been Cee Lo Green's New Year's Eve performance of "Imagine," during which the Gnarls Barkley singer-songwriter/rapper impiously jettisoned John's original line, "Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too," in favor of, "Nothing to kill or die for, and all religion’s true." To no surprise, many Lennonites responded to the edit with indignation and cried blasphemy. Defending himself on Twitter, Green pleaded, "Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were (sic) u could believe what u wanted that's all."

Though I find all of the outrage to be needless, I'll side with the "Imagine" fundamentalists in this rather indirect, even insulting way: the proposition that all religions are true and will deliver what they promise strikes me as one of the few notions more implausible than John's vision of mankind living in harmony once countries, religions, and possessions have been eradicated. Which is to say, they're both bunk, but one is just a tad more so.

Here are some other takes:
- "Imagine there's no simplistic religious imagery"
- "The Ballad of John and Cee Lo"
- "Let Lennon be Lennon and forget Cee Lo Green"

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"We'll bury 'em in the mix"

Last week's viewing of A Black and White Night prompted me to watch The True History of the Traveling Wilburys, a short documentary about the peerless and improbable super-group composed of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and - until his death in December of 1988 - Roy Orbison. I was introduced to the Wilburys' music as a preteen, and took to its charms immediately. A decade-plus later, I still find both of their albums, Vol. 1 and Vol. 3, to be irresistibly tuneful, witty, and feel-good. The warmth of the songs is bound up in the band's love of making music and their admiration for one another.

The idea alone of the Wilburys is impossibly cool: five (then later four) musicians of legendary stature coming together to make two albums of breezy, buoyant, acoustic-driven rock 'n' roll. They even acquired nutty pseudonyms. The driving force of this "magic" (as he put it) was Nelson Wilbury, otherwise known as George Harrison. He wanted to record a B-side for "This Is Love," the third single from his 1987 album Cloud Nine. He enlisted the help of Lynne and Orbison, and arranged to use Dylan's home studio in Malibu. Petty got involved because George's guitar was at his house. The five of them went on to record "Handle with Care," which turned out so well that they decided to make a full album - Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a triple-platinum success that was cut in just ten days and featured two stellar singles in the form of "Handle with Care" and "End of the Line." Vol. 3 followed in 1990.

In Petty's words, the Wilburys were "a bunch of friends that happened to be really good at making music." The documentary emphasizes what a joy it was for these friends - even Dylan - to be around one another, collaborate and hear each other perform. In essence, the project was a celebration of music and friendship, and an instance of the two working as one. George said he marveled at how spontaneously Dylan fashioned the lyric for "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," an ingenious mock-Springsteen narrative about Jersey lowlifes. Petty reserved especial excitement for Orbison, saying he would occasionally think to himself, "Wow, Roy Orbison's in the band." He even dubbed that famous voice the Wilburys' "ace in the hole" (Which is true. Whenever Orbison comes on, the songs seem to reach full bloom. It's also why Vol. 1 is better than Vol. 3). The spirit of the music - light, quirky, and content with itself - reflects the pleasure everyone took in the Wilburys. They were just happy to be there, and it probably would've still meant a lot to them if they hadn't recorded or released anything.

Beyond the songs I've already linked to, I'd recommend "Last Night," "Margarita," "Inside Out," and "New Blue Moon" if you want to experience the best of the Traveling Wilburys.

*The quote in the title, which has to do with "recording errors," comes from George. It's the source of the Wilburys' name.