Saturday, April 28, 2012

My favorite Beatles song right now

Or more accurately, my favorite solo Beatles song right now. It's "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five," the farewell track of Band on the Run. A weird, busy, dynamic and even futuristic rocker, "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" is hard to pin down. It boasts left turns aplenty and a tone that evades capture. At over 5 minutes long, it's sprawling and ambitious, but - true to Paul's winning pop instincts - it's still insistently listenable. It careens all over the place and then, at the end, returns to familiar confines. An outstanding song from an outstanding album. (If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Another "My Sweet Lord"

Before George had made an instant classic out of "My Sweet Lord," he gave the song to Billy Preston, who - according to Wikipedia - scored "a minor hit in Europe" with his rendition. It's too *Seventies* for my tastes, but boy could Preston sing. And boy could he cultivate an epic fro. (If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

A portrait of George as a young solo artist

From Ultimate Classic Rock:

‘Early Takes: Volume 1,’ a collection of raw, mostly acoustic demos from the start of George Harrison‘s solo career, will be released next month, with fans treated to early takes of some of Harrison’s most celebrated songs and many others.

The disc focuses on the time period in 1970 before the youngest Beatle dropped his first solo album, the smash ‘All Things Must Pass,’ with demos of ‘My Sweet Lord,’ ‘Awaiting On You All,’ ‘Behind That Locked Door,’ ‘Run Of The Mill’ and Harrison’s collaboration with Bob Dylan, ‘I’d Have You Anytime,’ included.

The article features a video for the acoustic demo of "My Sweet Lord," which you can find below. Give it a listen. With no slide guitar, backup vocals, or overall Spector-ian lushness, the beaming pop hymn that we're used to plays instead like folksy blues; warm reverence is replaced by shaggy soulfulness. Adding to the beauty, George's voice sounds as expressive as ever. All told, it's a more-than-worthy companion to the finished product.


(If the video is removed, go here.)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Genius is pain!"

Yesterday, I defended John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band from the charge of being akin to "the world's most privileged man having a tantrum." I hope I didn't give the impression that I think the album is above criticism or that John's abrasive, self-serious manner on it (or elsewhere, for that matter) doesn't present some challenges. In fact, I agree with the Pitchfork reviewer's implied view that JL/POB was worthy of a spoof and that National Lampoon's "Magical Misery Tour" utterly nailed it. Listen for yourself below. (Caution: It's NSFW.) The vocal is a serviceable Lennon impersonation, but the testy piano line fits the bill quite well, and the lyrics work expertly because they were in fact pilfered from John's famously frank 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, which put on full display his unwieldy, contradictory self. Yes, John could be a monstrous asshole.

Here's "Magical Misery Tour." See if you can detect, in the melody, echoes of "I'm Losing You," a song of John's that came out a decade later.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Re: "The dream is over"

While John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is still fresh in our minds, I want to comment on a criticism of the album that comes from this Pitchfork review of the John Lennon Signature Box.

Here's the line in question: "The Achilles' heel of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is that it's functionally very similar to the world's most privileged man having a tantrum."

Even if this was understood to be an overstatement, it's still too reductionist. I don't think it should matter what JL/POB resembles "functionally" when, on a substantive level, it's obvious that the album amounts to something much more significant than a tantrum. John didn't work himself into a frenzy over petty issues like media intrusion or greedy record executives. No, he was trying to exorcise some weighty demons and warn against what he saw as the false hope of religion and cultural totems (like The Beatles). Far from being the kind of trivialities that would add up to a tantrum, these were earnest, deeply personal matters - ones of pain, bitterness, and anger. Moreover, John was indeed "privileged" in terms of his talent, wealth and celebrity, but he was far less fortunate on more important counts. His well-known childhood abandonment issues left him pretty damaged. To allude to him as "privileged" obscures more than it illuminates. Finally, when discussing the severity of JL/POB, I think it's crucial to keep in mind the context of the album's release. It was John's first proper record after The Beatles' breakup. As a member of the Fab Four, he had often been forced to make creative compromises. This obviously didn't sit well with him; he was a needy, difficult and emotional individual with pent-up afflictions. Liberated from The Beatles, he was finally in a position to write songs on his own terms - songs that explored lifelong sources of fear and anger. Considering all of this, I think it best to give John the benefit of the doubt with respect to the album's excess of emotion. In fact, that excess was kind of the point.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The dream is over"

I didn’t bestow many flattering words on Double Fantasy when I wrote about it a while back. A discussion of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) will balance the scales. Not only is this raw, stripped-down album - John's first after The Breakup - considered one of the finest Beatles solo releases, it usually compares well with the top rock ‘n’ roll LPs of all time. While I don’t consider myself qualified to touch that topic, I can submit that JL/POB is my favorite album by an ex-Beatle, delivering a listening experience that's very much its own.

John once remarked that separating from The Beatles allowed him to write “first-person music.”* Partly inspired by his experience with primal scream therapy, JL/POB set the template for rock ‘n’ roll confessionals. It’s a vivid, angry and honest confrontation with reality.

Foremost, John addresses the trauma he endured after his mother Julia abandoned him, which in a way happened twice: once when she transferred care of him to her sister Mimi and again in his teenage years when she was fatally struck by a car. JL/POB is bookended by songs about this loss. The opener, “Mother,” leaves a deep mark with its heavy-handed funeral bells and desperate lyric, the last line of which John repeats with increasingly helpless, anguished tones: “Mother don’t go/ Daddy come home.” At the other end is “My Mummy’s Dead,” a macabre little nursery rhyme that makes your heart ache for young John Winston Lennon. Julia’s death was undoubtedly the formative event in John’s life. It supplied the anger that would fuel his art for many years.

More generally, JL/POB finds John crying out with indignation against forces that, in his view, manipulate us and thwart happiness. He rages against religion (“I Found Out”); class subjugation (“Working Class Hero," complete with two f-bombs); childhood myths (“Remember”); and false idols (“God”). On “God,” he famously recites a laundry list of religions, fads, and luminaries that he rejects, capping it off in emphatic fashion with, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” He saw his former band as a lie that needed to be exposed. Though he continues by saying, “I just believe in me/ Yoko and me,” he stresses elsewhere that the human condition is one of loneliness and isolation. He affirms that love can blunt the pain, but - as his life had demonstrated - it could also betray you. Facing such a cruel world and in a position to be fiercely honest, John is forced to lament, “The dream is over.”

Complementing these raw emotions is a minimalist rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic that essentially consists of John on vocals, guitar and piano, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Ringo on drums. There are no frills or flourishes that might distract from John’s jarring urgency; it’s just the basics. Against this uncluttered canvas, John's voice - so natural and immediate - brilliantly shines. It powers JL/POB. And despite the album’s overall severity, it does so by more than just expressing anger. “Love” and “God” contain some of John’s most delicate and beautiful singing. “Love” is a ballad for the ages, adorned with simple, vulnerable couplets that John hypnotically coos. (“Love is wanting/ To be loved.”) On the latter, John scorns The Beatles and then, with a pristine, almost ethereal delivery, reclaims his identity: “I was the dreamweaver/ But now I’m reborn/ I was the Walrus/ But now I’m John.” The vocals are potent across all eleven tracks, furnishing heavy-impact bludgeons and sublime grace notes alike. I would venture to say that JL/POB represents John’s finest album-length work as a singer.

Lastly, I can’t talk about JL/POB without highlighting two throwaway moments that very much speak to who John was. There’s the guttural growl of “cookie” during a break in “Hold On,” and there’s the explosion that tops off “Remember,” coming after John exclaims, “Remember/ Remember / The fifth of November.” Both provide touches of surreal humor - something that was characteristically John. Within him, oddball laughs and lightheartedness lived side-by-side with deep-seated anger and profound sorrow. He had a messy and chaotic personality that encompassed many qualities. On JL/POB, he abandoned the tactful balance of those qualities and the restraint that The Beatles had demanded of him, and let his anger and tears flow. Neither he nor any of the other ex-Fabs - not Paul with Band on the Run or George with All Things Must Pass - were ever better.

* - I encountered this quote in Classic Albums: John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band, a documentary about the album.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Today in Beatles history: the breakup

The legendary rock band the Beatles spent the better part of three years breaking up in the late 1960s, and even longer than that hashing out who did what and why. And by the spring of 1970, there was little more than a tangled set of business relationships keeping the group together. Each of the Beatles was pursuing his musical interests outside of the band, and there were no plans in place to record together as a group. But as far as the public knew, this was just a temporary state of affairs. That all changed on April 10, 1970, when an ambiguous Paul McCartney "self-interview" was seized upon by the international media as an official announcement of a Beatles breakup.

The occasion for the statements Paul released to the press that day was the upcoming release of his debut solo album, McCartney. In a Q&A format in which he was both the interviewer and the interviewee, Paul first asked and answered a number of straightforward questions involving the recording equipment he used on the album, which instruments he played and who designed the artwork for the cover. Then he got to the tough ones:

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."

. . .

A few years back, I blogged about this article, which contains some perceptive observations on why The Beatles' divorce was a net positive. Below are my thoughts on the matter, taken from the same post:

I belong to the camp that doesn't tend to lament The Beatles' breakup or long for what might have been had they reunited. Perhaps this is attributable to my young age: I wasn't around to enjoy The Beatles in their heyday or even shortly after it. That visceral connection to them as a living, breathing, life-changing entity was never formed. When I look back on The Beatles in their twilight, I see a band which had made an incomparably productive and creative run in a very short span, a band which had nothing more to prove or accomplish, and a band which was collapsing, and often in a most ugly, scarring fashion. They had to break up, and did.

And they did before their music could take a dramatic turn for the worse. That's the paramount concern in my eyes. The fact that The Beatles didn't tarnish their legacy with inferior late-period work is all I need to feel okay about when their dissolution occurred. (Yes, Let It Be isn't top-notch, but what a tonic they produced with Abbey Road.) They didn't tempt the vengeance of the gods with hubris or folly. No, they called it quits, leaving us with a body of albums that is untouchably classic and also somewhat charming on account of its easily consumable size (you don't get lost in The Beatles' discography as you do in Elvis' or Bob Dylan's). I suppose what I'm saying is, when it comes to the breakup of the greatest band ever, focus on the positives. There's more to be content with than your emotions might let you think.

. . .

I'll always be content - extraordinarily content - in the knowledge that we'll never know what the '70s might have done to The Beatles. Just think of them transitioning to a more recognizably classic-rock sound. Think of more albums in the vein of Let It Be, with "I've Got a Feeling" as the lead indicator of what was come. (This is the scenario I always imagine - the horror, the horror!) Think of all that could have gone wrong. None of it did because The Beatles were wise enough to realize that their historic partnership had run its course. They disbanded, and more than 40 years later they remain the biggest, the best, and the most influential group in pop music history. All things considered, it seems to me their breakup worked out perfectly.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Quote of the day

From Ray Connolly's recent piece in The Telegraph, "Help! It’s the Beatles’ boys," which casts a critical eye at James McCartney's idea of forming a band with other Beatles sons:

The Beatles weren’t just common or garden rock stars. Forged by the accidental cross-seeding of extraordinary talents in a post-war environment of social change, their grip on the world’s imagination cannot be replicated. All the elements that came together then and helped create them and their myth cannot recur.

Wisely, having been broken up by their founder, John Lennon, in 1969 at the very height of their fame, the Beatles were never tempted to reunite, despite tens of millions of dollars being offered. They knew it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be the same – that only disappointment for the fans lay down that particular road.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Basking in the warmth of "Kisses on the Bottom"

In his review of Paul's new album/passion project, Kisses on the Bottom, The New York Times' Stephen Holden dreamily analogized that it "floats over you like a light mist on a cool spring morning in an English garden as the sun glints through the haze. You want to inhale the fresh air, taste the fragrance of buds blooming, as the sky clears to a serene deep blue. Mr. McCartney exudes the unassuming charm of a country gentleman in a good mood, sitting on the grass and whistling to himself."

That's one opinion.

For me, Kisses on the Bottom evokes a luxuriant afternoon stroll in early summer that takes you passed a picturesque park - one complete with a dew-friendly community garden, a gazebo marked by an old-fashioned, distressed aesthetic, and a gleaming sun dial of intriguingly unknown origins - where funny bunnies hop along gaily, as if they knew no other way to live, paying little mind to nearby moon-faced youngsters who laugh and shout and run like they're first discovering how, and whose preoccupied nanny - a falsely modest looker who denies her beauty so that she might have it reaffirmed, whose lemon locks seem to flutter even on windless days - contemplates the following Sunday's can't-miss jazz brunch where she will, peradventure, encounter her crush of nigh eleven fortnights who has spurned her before and made her play the filly fool and currently has his keen, velvety eye on a fickle, flighty but sincere ginger dame who, much to her anxious parents' dismay, fantasizes far too often about a stress-free life of late-morning petite syrah sips, late-evening Charleston-ing and all-day butterfly kisses with a syrupy lounge singer who knows each and every standard from Kisses on the Bottom.

Just another opinion.

(P.S. Very little about my music consumption of the past and present would prepare me to write an informed review of Kisses on the Bottom, which consists mainly of Paul doing covers of pre-rock 'n' roll standards. It's not exactly in my wheelhouse; hence the mock assessment. If pressed, I would describe the album as a pleasant trifle, not unlike reigning Best Picture winner, The Artist. "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" is probably my favorite track.)