Saturday, September 29, 2012

Weekend reading

- "The best books on the Beatles"
Such is the remarkable pace of a story that has been told by scores of writers, a story about four young musicians but no end of other things: the cities of Liverpool, Hamburg and London; class, and the shaking of English hierarchies; pop's transmutation into a global culture; and the western world's passage from a world still defined by the second world war and its aftermath, to the accelerated modernity we know today. Everything in the tale pulses with significance and drama. It seems barely believable, and in the best Beatles books, it still burns.
. . .
- "Fab furore: Is it time to re-evaluate the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour?"
Moreover, its key element is an apparent drive to send up an England of decaying authority, bad food and anti-climactic entertainment: the country in which the Beatles had grown up, embodied by the hollering sergeant played by their actor friend Victor Spinetti; the dream sequence in which Lennon serves bucketfuls of vomit-like spaghetti; and the very idea of a mystery tour on a coach. Not for nothing, perhaps, did Harrison claim that the one group who later developed the Beatles' essential sensibility was Monty Python.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Prefab Four

While the Beatles-Monty Python connection is still fresh in our minds, I want to briefly draw attention to the Rutles. The brainchild of Neil Innes and Python member Eric Idle, the Rutles were a Beatles parody band that started out on the British comedy show Rutland Weekend Television in the mid '70s. Some of their songs: "I Must Be In Love," "Get Up and Go," and "Cheese and Onions." In 1978, the Rutles starred in a TV mockumentary called All You Need Is Cash, which chronicled their career along lines that closely resembled the history of the Fab Four. It brought the group some recognition, even among The Beatles themselves. That's what I want to focus on at the moment. Via Wikipedia, here's how each of the Four reacted:
George Harrison was involved in the project from the beginning. Producer Gary Weis said "We were sitting around in Eric's kitchen one day, planning a sequence that really ripped into the mythology and George looked up and said, 'We were the Beatles, you know!' Then he shook his head and said 'Aw, never mind.' I think he was the only one of the Beatles who really could see the irony of it all."
- Harrison said "the Rutles sort of liberated me from the Beatles in a way. It was the only thing I saw of those Beatles television shows they made. It was actually the best, funniest and most scathing. But at the same time, it was done with the most love." Harrison showed Innes and Idle the Beatles unreleased official documentary The Long and Winding Road, made by Neil Aspinall. (Aspinall's documentary would be resurrected as The Beatles Anthology.)
- Ringo Starr liked the happier scenes in the film, but felt the scenes that mimicked sadder times hit too close.
- John Lennon loved the film and refused to return the videotape and soundtrack he was given for approval. He told Innes, however, that ‘Get Up and Go’ was too close to The Beatles' "Get Back" and to be careful not to be sued by Paul McCartney. The song was omitted from the 1978 vinyl LP soundtrack. In an interview with 'BeatlesandBeyond' Radio Show presenter Pete Dicks, Innes remembered that Lennon said "you're going to have trouble with THAT one!" - "How right he was, the dear man."
- McCartney, who had just released his own album, London Town, always answered, “No comment.” According to Innes: “He had a dinner at some awards thing at the same table as Eric one night and Eric said it was a little frosty.” Idle claimed McCartney changed his mind because his wife Linda thought it was funny.
. . .
Their personalities to a tee, huh? At the very least, the responses capture how each of them viewed The Beatles after the breakup.
John: Cheeky and sardonic, he didn't "believe in Beatles."
Paul: Protective, even possessive of the band and, on some level, eternally wounded by its demise, he's the Beatle you'd expect to not find the humor in a parody.
George: Like John, the Salty Fab didn't regard The Beatles as a sacred cow.
Ringo: Lighthearted but sensitive, he enjoyed being a Beatle and rarely spoke ill of the band.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Not like old times: John and Paul in '74

After revisiting the oddball joys of Son of Schmilsson the other day (see "Take 54," which features Ringo on the drum kit), I browsed for articles about Harry Nilsson and The Beatles, and came across a reference to "A Toot and a Snore in '74." Per Wikipedia, it's the name that was given to "the only known recording session in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney played together after the break-up of The Beatles." The "reunion" took place on March 28, 1974 at L.A.'s Burbank Studios. John was there with Nilsson working on Pussy Cats when Paul and Linda made an unannounced visit. Here's what happened next:
The room froze when McCartney walked in, and remained perfectly silent until Lennon said, ‘Valiant Paul McCartney, I presume?’ McCartney responded: ‘Sir Jasper Lennon, I presume?’ (Valiant Paul and Sir Jasper were characters played by the two, in a televised Christmas play early in the Beatles's career). McCartney extended a hand, Lennon shook it, and the mood was pleasant but subdued, cordial but not especially warm, at least initially. *
Then, along with Nilsson, Stevie Wonder and others, they jammed. The result: a slaphappy, drug-fouled mess. At the time, John was in the midst of his "Lost Weekend"; cocaine was his go-to muse. On the recording, he's an obnoxious wreck, constantly babbling and halting play. Paul has said he was under the influence too. What a waste.
The 1970s = the Lost Decade.
If you must, here's the tape:
(If the video is removed, go here.)
(*I found this quote on the same Wikipedia page. It's from Christopher Sanford's biography of Paul.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"The film so funny it was banned in Norway"

The Beatles were part of, not one, but two Jesus controversies. The first and more infamous arose in 1966 after John boldly ventured that the Fab Four were more popular than the Son of God. The statement provoked a bitter backlash in the U.S. and dogged John for many years. The second "Jesus controversy" unfolded well after The Beatles had broken up, and it only involved George (and even then, somewhat indirectly). It took the form of a movie that, since its release in 1979, has often been hailed as one of the greatest comedies in cinematic history: Monty Python's Life of Brian.
In 1978, George came to the rescue of Life of Brian. Just days before director Terry Jones was to begin filming, EMI Films pulled funding due to unease about the movie's content, which consists partly of religious satire. (Plot: the titular Brian is born next to Jesus and gets mistaken for him.) George caught wind of this and - being rich, generous, and a friend and fan of the Python troupe - formed a production company called Handmade Films to finance the project. At one point, George said that he simply "wanted to see the movie." So much so, in fact, that he mortgaged his house to secure the funds. Not only did he get to see Life of Brian, he also made a cameo appearance in it. He played Mr. Papadopoulos, "owner of the Mount."
When the rest of the world saw Life of Brian, accusations of blasphemy rained down on the Pythons. From Norway and Sweden to the U.K. and the U.S., it was debated, picketed and even banned - a warmup act of sorts for The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. The Pythons had the final laugh, though. As often happens with such controversies, the extra attention drove up ticket sales, and today Life of Brian is widely considered a classic.
I mention all of this because a) I've been trying to write more about George lately; and b) I watched Life of Brian over the weekend. I had seen it before, but this time I was old enough to truly appreciate it. It's uproarious. From Brian's haggish mother to the hopping "ex-leper" to the People's Front of Judea to Pontius Pilate's rhotacism, the gags never misfire. Is the film offensive? From one perspective, of course. It's full of swearing and off-color humor. Is it blasphemous? I would say no. I think it nimbly tiptoes around such sins. The only scene that shows Christ is handled tastefully, and I can't recall actual Christian doctrine coming up even once. By explicitly referencing the Gospels but keeping the narrative askew of Christ, the Pythons tempt you into thinking that what's onscreen is blasphemous. Perhaps they even want you to take the bait, only to realize that it's just a comedy you're watching. In fact, the movie's most sustained and stinging line of satire is directed at protest movements. The subplot involving the People's Front of Judea (and the Judean People's Front, the Judean Popular People's Front and the Popular Front of Judea) is hilarious. As is the whole movie. Kudos to George for backing a winner.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Worst of George Harrison"

Last week I observed that George Harrison: Living in the Material World pays scant attention to George's career as a solo artist. Here's what Scorsese omits.
But there’s a 14-year gap that fans don’t like to discuss or even recall. In fact, the Quiet Beatle recorded six other studio albums during that epoch, each of which gives us insight into a rock ‘n’ roll legend literally at the bottom of his game. No question, there are some Harrison gems to be found here, but sadly, they’re often lost in the mire of this dreary epoch.
. . .
As for the reason behind Harrison’s erratic output of 1974-82, you can probably trace it to the usual suspects: an excess of money, drugs, partying, and well, excess. We also have to remember that George had already been a wealthy pop star for a decade and was now being asked, contractually, for a second act, thus his decreasing enthusiasm for the task. As your own ears will tell you, recording solo albums had become a chore for the former Beatle, as he’d conquered the summits of pop stardom long before. A new studio album meant continued cash flow, which was always beneficial, but clearly, Harrison’s heart was no longer in it, especially as the ’70s rolled to an end.
You also have to wonder why George didn’t have a manager who asked him for better product, or a good producer helping him pull these songs and albums together. Again, it alludes to the fact that he was rock-star royalty and didn’t need to answer to anyone, which is regrettable. In hindsight, most of George’s best solo albums were made with a strong producer in the room, notably Phil Spector and Jeff Lynne (and earlier, George Martin), but perhaps he didn’t like to cede control during this middle period. Yet imagine what a visionary producer—an Alan Parsons, Roy Thomas Baker or Todd Rundgren—might have done for Harrison’s recordings in that era. It speaks to a lost opportunity.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My favorite (ex)Beatles song right now

The opening guitar riff that sounds like it gave birth to a huge chunk of Seventies Rock + the chummy sweetness of a husband calling his wife "little lady" + the way Macca grinds out the last syllable of the phrase + the positively see-through double entendres + the dreamy vocal touches + the inescapable joy of a marriage in full bloom = the greatness of "Eat at Home."
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Quiet Beatle in full?

Almost a year after its release, I finally watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese's acclaimed documentary about the "Quiet Beatle." Based on the length of the film (208 minutes) and several reviews I had read, my main expectation going in was that Scorsese would provide a thorough, exhaustive treatment of George's life. I recall one reviewer opining that GH: LITMW would stand as the final word on the perpetual odd-man-out of The Beatles' powerhouse triumvirate.
It was strange, then, that upon finishing the doc, my first thoughts were all about how much it gave short shrift to or left out altogether. For instance, in Scorsese's hands, George's career as a solo musician is boiled down to All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh and the Traveling Wilburys. These are the highlights, yes, but focusing on them to the exclusion of his many other solo releases leads to a dramatically incomplete picture of George as a recording artist. In other spots, GH: LITMW approaches whitewash territory (even if it doesn't quite get to that level). Scorsese couldn't possibly sidestep the messy love triangle that developed between George, his then-wife Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton - and he doesn't - but he paints George as an almost passive player in the drama, which he wasn't. Elsewhere, George's widely panned 1974 U.S. tour comes up, as do the unkind reviews, but the section ends with someone swooping in to its defense. Though there are exceptions (like when Olivia Harrison broaches, with an obviously heavy heart, George's infidelity), the general tenor of the film seems to be: allude to the negatives when unavoidable and emphasize the positives as much as possible, because something close to the uncensored version might be too dicey.
If, on the other hand, there simply wasn't enough space to present George's story in more complicated detail (which is being charitable), Scorsese didn't help himself out by opting against a conventional structure for the film. His lightly impressionistic aesthetic, which eschews voice-over narration, the use of dates and strict chronology, is sloppy, tedious and inefficient. The narrative often feels like it's merely drifting along, sometimes covering the same ground twice and at other times not moving at all. A general vagueness prevails. I think the story would've benefited greatly from a more formal technique.
Though it has a fair amount to offer (i.e., various interviews, George's letters, rare footage, etc.), I have to count George Harrison: Living in the Material World as a missed opportunity. With so much at his disposal, Scorsese should've aimed higher.