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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Death came to the party"

In this post from late March, I made a passing reference to the "Manson murders." A few weeks later, I touched on The Beatles' breakup. Then last week, I watched Gimme Shelter, the legendary documentary about the Rolling Stones' U.S. tour of 1969 - the tour that concluded infamously amidst chaos and death at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in northern California on December 6th. There's a common strand among these three events: the end of the 1960s as a period of youthful idealism and romanticized "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" liberation. Of the three, Altamont is most closely linked to the demise of that cultural moment, thanks in part to Gimme Shelter.
I hadn't seen the film prior to last week's viewing, but - like most students of rock 'n' roll history - I was familiar with the details. Presented as a series of quasi-flashbacks, Gimme Shelter follows the Rolling Stones as they traveled west across the U.S., starting with a performance at Madison Square Garden and from there always moving gradually, inescapably to the horror of Altamont. A sense of coming doom is the film's hallmark. It's there when the band plays in New York City; it's there when they review concert footage; it's there in the lazy, quotidian down time of the tour; and it's there, quite conspicuously, as harried negotiations take place to make "Woodstock West" a reality. (The concern voiced by various parties about logistics and safety can't help but seem prophetic.) From what I can gather, the motivation for Altamont was twofold: 1) the Stones had been criticized for high ticket prices and wanted to make amends; and 2) 1969 was the year of the free music festival: both Hyde Park and Woodstock had taken place that summer. In the film, Mick Jagger boasts that Altamont would fit the ethos of the festival movement, which was serving as "an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings." The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
When the day of the concert finally arrives, there's still more cruel build-up to endure. The Stones didn't go on until well past dusk, giving ample time for tensions to brew between roughly 300,000 excitable, drugged-out fans and the Hell's Angels, who were hired as stage security - fatefully. Armed with pool cues and allegedly paid in beer (though this is much disputed), the Angels weren't looking to play nice. Before the Stones even stepped foot onstage, the scene turned edgy and violent. The Angels mocked the crowd - "We're partying like you" - and tussles abounded. Most notably, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane got knocked unconscious by one of the Angels. This prompted the Grateful Dead to bail on their performance. The Stones, on the other hand, had no choice but to play: though a gathering nightmare, Altamont was their brainchild. We all know what happened next: Several songs into their set, which had featured the sinister tones of "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under My Thumb," an 18-year-old man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by an Angel after he brandished a gun and fired off a shot. Seeing that a fight had broken out, Mick tried to calm matters down, but he wasn't aware of the gravity of the situation. He wasn't aware that Altamont had just been visited by murder. The Stones kept playing, confused and frustrated but not yet shaken to their core.
That moment seems to come near the end of the film as Mick watches video of the crime. He, as well as the viewer, sees Meredith Hunter charge the stage after being pushed back, with his gun clearly visible against a woman's crocheted top. We then see a knife-wielding Angel spring into action; one of the subsequent shots is a freeze frame of the knife held high, primed for a plunge. Finally, we see the knife viciously reach its target, not once but twice. Throughout, the shots are slowed down, rewound, stilled, and then played again. Mick's response: "It was so horrible," followed by the blankest of stares. It's also how the viewer is meant to feel. To watch an actual murder take place even on film is a powerful and sobering experience. I'll admit that, upon reflection, I found it unseemly how riveted I was by those images. Though the murder occurred under fascinating circumstances, death was still the final, gruesome result.
There are many other sequences that I won't soon forget. One of the most striking is when the Angels ride into Altamont, parting the crowd, engines blaring. In the words of Stanley Booth, it was like the arrival of "an invading army" - they heralded discord. Another portentous moment comes early on the day of the concert when Mick is making his way to the band's trailer and gets smacked by a fan. It's an eerie premonition of violence, befitting the occasion far more than the peace signs flashed in the crowd, which take on the feel of empty, feckless gestures. After the deed is done, emotions inevitably run high. There's a stirring shot of a young woman in tears, crying out, "I don't want him to die." Meredith Hunter did die at Altamont that day, along with three other people: two were victims of a hit-and-run accident and one drowned in an irrigation canal. Wikipedia adds: "Scores were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage." The final sequence of the film shows a stream of people leaving this calamitous scene. They were leaving the '60s.
What are we to make of Altamont? Who deserves blame for the chaos? Gimme Shelter implicates a handful of people while never fully assigning guilt. But it's hard not to read a great deal into a shot that comes right before the concert-goers are shown in exit. Mick and one of the directors finish going over the footage of Hunter's murder. As Mick gets up from his seat and starts to walk out, the camera focuses on his face. The shot freezes. He's not wearing much of an expression, but - unlike his blank stare from just moments prior - he doesn't look weary and burdened. Instead, there's a distant intensity to his gaze. Maybe it's a sneer. Maybe there's even a touch of evil present. It's a spellbinding shot, but its function isn't readily apparent. Co-directors Howard and David Maysles didn't need to include it, unless their intent was to urge viewers to consider Mick's role - his moral culpability - in the disaster of Altamont. After all, it would have been simplistic and inaccurate if they’d simply pinned all of the blame on the Angels. There are too many qualifiers down that path. (i.e., Yes, the Angels were rough with the crowd; and yes, it was one of their men who took the life of another. But they were in a difficult spot dealing with kids who were tripping on acid and amphetamines; and when the murder was committed, it was in response to Hunter’s show of violence. Moreover, they didn’t just show up unannounced; they were asked to be there.) Rather, I think the Maysles brothers were hinting at broader, more abstract themes, like the notion of rock 'n' roll as violent artistic expression. Maybe they didn't view the youth counter-culture of the '60s as a movement that was ever innocent. It did in fact celebrate excess, and mischief was part of its DNA. Maybe the Maysles brothers held its luminaries in contempt for what they had created but couldn't hope to contain.
Mick was obviously a consequential figure of the time. His style as a songwriter and performer was rooted in bravado, arrogance, even egomania. He enjoyed taunting his fans, filling their minds with dark, potent imagery, and then whipping them into a frenzy. Onstage he was like a populist tyrant, indulging his own whims while also satisfying those of the crowd. But peace couldn't be maintained indefinitely, and it's likely that the Maysles brothers saw the scene at Altamont as a microcosm of rock 'n' roll culture: it was thrilling but combustible. The drugs, the booze, the sex, the wild emotion - a tipping point was inevitable. Once there, the priests and prophets of the movement - the Mick Jaggers, etc. - wouldn't be able to tame the madness. They wouldn't be able to defuse the hysteria they had helped foment.** At Altamont, Mick was indeed helpless. In the face of upheaval, his calls to order carried no weight; in the face of death, his stage act came off as pathetically frivolous. With a murder taking place right in front of him, all of his panache and swagger was exposed as meaningless. In that meaninglessness perhaps lay some guilt. It's not for nothing that there are shots of fans shaking their heads at Mick, a newly fallen leader.
In the end, many were at fault to one degree or another: the drugged-out hippies, the drunk and violent Angels, the people who hired them, the festival planners, and Mick, along with the rest of the Stones***. I'm sure the argument has been made that the Maysles brothers somehow retroactively share in the guilt as well. After all, they profited from Altamont, which isn't without moral complications. And yes, it could be said that the viewer doesn't fully escape blame either. Why do we watch Gimme Shelter? It's not for the music - it's for the murder.
* - The title quote comes from Stanley Booth.
** - Some form of this interpretation is likely endorsed by Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels who was present at Altamont. In his book Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, he writes of the Stones: "They had accomplished what they'd set out to do. The crowd was plenty pissed off and the craziness began."
*** - Long live the incomparable Keith Richards!

Monday, May 14, 2012

George Martin on Brian Wilson

The Beach Boys kick continues. I keep feeding it, and it keeps gratifying me.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Re: The Beatles and the Beach Boys

For the purposes of The Daily Beatle, my long-running Beach Boys kick will conclude with this post. Below is a rundown of basically every entry on the site that mentions the group once dubbed "America's Band."
- "There's a Place" vs. "In My Room";
- The BB's cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends";
- Another cover: "I Should Have Known Better";
- News about the original Smile being released;
- Today in music history: Pet Sounds;
- Yet another cover: "Tell Me Why";
- Marking Dennis Wilson's birthday;
- In praise of Pet Sounds;
- Brian Wilson, Rubber Soul and the '60s;
- Paul on Pet Sounds;
- Lastly, The Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Beatles and the Beach Boys

As evidenced by a number of posts (here, here and here), I've been on a major Beach Boys kick the past couple months. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's been an immense joy. Elevated by sublime vocal arrangements, brimming with warmth and innocence, and graced by a hypnotically escapist sense of place, their music is without parallel. Outside of The Beatles, the Beach Boys are probably my favorite band. If you share this inclination even somewhat, you'd be well advised to watch Endless Harmony: The Beach Boys Story. I've seen it three or four times, and - in my opinion - it's a model rock documentary: It's thorough, entertaining, insightful, unvarnished, and all about the music. Amazon reviewer Sam Sutherland writes, "For the Beach Boys fan, this will be an essential companion to their enduring music." True enough; but because this is a Beatles blog, I want to highlight where the Beach Boys and the Fabs intersect in the documentary.
- When The Beatles conquered America in 1964, it changed life for the Beach Boys. Mike Love compares the impact to a "tidal wave." Other reactions: "jealous," "humbling," "a challenge."
- Speaking about Rubber Soul, Brian Wilson uses his standard line that he was blown away by the unity and coherence of the songs. Pet Sounds followed in its wake.
- Recalling his 1968 trip to Rishikesh, India with The Beatles and others to study Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Mike Love describes how he helped Paul write "Back in the U.S.S.R." He suggested the bridge - "Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out..." - a Beach Boys-y touch that's obviously quite reminiscent of "California Girls." Returning the favor, The Beatles added some backing vocals that seem to pay tribute to Love and company.
- Included among the musicians and industry peers who share their thoughts on the Beach Boys is Sean Lennon, John's son with Yoko. His enthusiasm is noteworthy. He says that he listens to the Beach Boys' music everyday and couldn't possibly be down when doing so. He even refers to Smile as "the most amazing thing I've ever heard." Elsewhere, he recaps the familiar story of how Brian's experimentation on Pet Sounds inspired The Beatles to develop their sound.
Though not mentioned in the documentary, there's another famous moment when these two bands crossed paths (in a way), and it may have helped to alter the course of pop music history. Recounted here:
Pet Sounds spurred the Fabs to ever greater heights on Revolver. This arms race between the two titans of pop on either side of the Atlantic was not one that the Beach Boys leader was equipped to handle, however. He set to work on new material, but just as the pressure mounted to pull the project together in February 1967, he heard Strawberry Fields Forever on the radio. Wilson felt he couldn't compete, his mental state not helped by the marijuana that he had been smoking, and he abandoned the new record, provisionally titled Smile. The Beatles were in a new head space, and the carefree era of songs such as Surfin' USA was gone.
Wikipedia elaborates:
Another significant event, cited in the Beautiful Dreamer documentary, was Brian's first hearing of The Beatles' new single "Strawberry Fields Forever". He heard the song while driving his car, and was so struck by it that he had to pull over and listen; he then commented to Michael Vosse, his passenger, that The Beatles had "got there first". Although he apparently later laughed about that comment, the stunning new Beatles production had affected him deeply.
In other Beach Boys-related news, I finally spent some time with The Smile Sessions, which is Capitol Records' reconstruction of Brian's discarded opus. What a strange, fanciful, ambitious, wildly original, even kaleidoscopic set of songs. Co-written by Brian and Van Dyke Parks, Smile might best be described as psychedelic frontier folk-pop. It's a very American invention, steeped in stateside mythology stretching back to the colonial era and Manifest Destiny; bucolic imagery full of romantic innocence; and religious themes. It's pretty unorthodox and esoteric stuff - a significant departure from the Beach Boys' previous album Pet Sounds, which itself was a departure for the band. This explains why Capitol Records (and Mike Love, for that matter) gave Smile a cool reception in 1966. Though it's an untouchable record that contains a number of classics ("Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up," "Good Vibrations," etc.), it was never destined to be a chart-topper. But at least it has finally seen the light of day. Brian’s vision - his “teenage symphony to God” - is now reality, and I think it sounds beautiful.
UPDATE: Another overlap between The Beatles and the Beach Boys occurred in 1966 when former (and future) Fabs press officer Derek Taylor was hired by the Beach Boys to promote Pet Sounds. As part of the campaign, Taylor touted Brian as a “genius,” in hopes that music critics would start taking the Beach Boys frontman more seriously. With a minor assist from Pet Sounds, it seems to have worked. (I came across this tidbit in the excellent documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. I should note that both George Martin and Paul make appearances in it. Martin has a funny moment when he mock-complains about the broad scope of Brian’s talents, deeming it unfair.)