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.)