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.)