Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My fave ex-Beatle's song right now: "Ram On"

The third track off Ram is the dreamiest and warmest of ballads. (Listen below.) Still, I wonder if there isn't an undercurrent of weary melancholy flowing through it. The lyric consists of just one line that Paul sings several times: "Ram on/ Give your heart to somebody soon/ Right away/ Right away." It's an instruction that, from Paul's perspective, bears repeating. Why? Is it rooted in deep regret that he harbors? And why does he up the urgency from "soon" to "right away"? Paul seems to be painting love as a desperate, pressing matter. But you wouldn't know it from the lilting ukulele, the web of ethereal backing vocals, or any other sonic detail. Everywhere else, subdued whimsy holds sway. Terrific song.
"Ram On"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"A Hallmark card set to music"

Continuing in the uncharitable spirit of my last post, here's an entry from The A.V. Club’s “Hatesong” series that pits British folkie Frank Turner against one of the most hallowed totems of modern pop culture: “Imagine.”
It’s always grated on me as a song for a whole host of reasons: the production, the lyrics, the sappiness, its popularity, the knowledge that Lennon was so much better than this one song, and yet it’s the one most people know...
It’s a Hallmark card set to music. There’s a pretty high dose of hypocrisy in here as well. For a man who had a dedicated, refrigerated room in his New York penthouse apartment for storing his fur-coat collection to sing “Imagine no possessions” takes a fair amount of chutzpah. I mean, I have no problem with the man collecting fur coats. Whatever floats your boat. But there’s a certain strain of material disdain that can only result from being really fucking rich, which is intensely patronizing.
. . .
The sacrilege! Turner lands some solid blows against a song that I too have long thought was overvalued. Musically, “Imagine” is ponderous and earthbound. It sort of limps along, content to be muted rather than convey much conviction. Phil Spector didn’t help matters out with his muddy production job. A cleaner sound would’ve been better. Same for the melody and the vocal; there’s little blood flowing through either. Message-wise, I can understand why people want to connect with the song, but one person’s idealism is another person’s naivete. Throw in the bald hypocrisy and the preachy tone (“It’s easy if YOU try,” “I wonder if YOU can,” etc.), and it quickly becomes easy to start imagining much better songs. Indeed, “Jealous Guy” is far and away the true highlight of the Imagine album.
However, my biggest issue with “Imagine” is how it has helped to warp the real John Lennon into a sanitized figure of myth. Let me elaborate. As history shows, John was a complicated, flawed and volatile individual. Within this one man was a broad spectrum of conflicting natures that often operated at the extremes. He was loving and abusive, peaceful and violent, caring and selfish, self-deprecating and vain, funny and bitter. Perhaps you could say he was more human than most. But, in the popular imagination, John has become so closely tied to the soaring idealism of “Imagine” that we’ve gone and made a saint out of him. Let's call this the “Imagine Effect.” It filters out the bad and leaves us with false caricatures: John the Activist, John the Peace Lover, John the Humanist Messiah and so forth. These incomplete pictures might make us feel good, but they’re distortions of the truth. And (to paraphrase John), when assessing the legacy of historical figures - even our idols - all we should want is the truth.
"Jealous Guy"
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bad songs by The Beatles

They do exist. The Beatles were but men, prone to missteps and lapses in judgment.
I recently came across this rundown of unFab creations that was compiled by Neil McCormick of The Telegraph. I'm painting with broad strokes, but it seems there are essentially four categories of bad Beatles songs you'll find in such lists: John's occasional misfire (vague, I know, but his duds aren't easily classifiable like the others'), Paul's music-hall confections, George's self-serious Eastern dirges and Ringo's ... songs. McCormick targets a cut or two from each group - John: "Revolution 9"; Paul: "Your Mother Should Know"; George: "The Inner Light" and "Long, Long, Long"; and Ringo: "Honey Don't" and "Octopus's Garden." I agree with some but not all of these. I happen to love "Your Mother Should Know," along with Paul's other dainty throwbacks like "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Honey Pie." Ringo's moments in the sun usually don't bother me, but I'm emphatically not a fan of George's Eastern/stoner outings, particularly "Within You Without You" and "It's All Too Much." Joyless and navel-gazing, in my opinion. As for John, I'm not keen on "Revolution 9," but I consider his body of work to be the strongest overall. I even like his misogynist tirade "Run for Your Life" quite a lot.
For my own (very short) list, I have a different approach in mind. I'm going to write about the two Beatles songs that annoy me the most. I'm limiting it to two because only this pair has consistently stuck out over the years. By objective standards, they may not represent the worst of the worst (perhaps far from it, even), but for various reasons they get under my skin. And that's worse than merely being bad.
- "I Need You" (Help!)
An otherwise unmemorable song that is made memorably irritating by the nasal, offbeat, dragging guitar effect that George conjured up with a volume pedal. It sounds like a car horn mixed with a duck call; it's grating every time. I can credit George for trying something different, but all he managed to do in the end was constantly interrupt his own song. George Martin should've said no. Whenever I listen to Help!, I always bypass this track. It's the lone bum note on Side One.
- "Blackbird" (The Beatles)
Paul's precious paean to the civil rights movement is beloved by many. If you browse user comments on YouTube, you'll find that, through "Blackbird," people locate inner peace, experience the numinous, and achieve cosmic unity with Paul. I've never come close to any of that. On the contrary, I think "Blackbird" is a crashing bore. I detect no color, no spark, no passion. The melody is dull and erratic; Paul's vocal is little more than serviceable; and - to top it off - the chirping bird sample is super contrived and obvious. An exceedingly amateur touch, if you ask me. It rankles hard. On Side Two of "The White Album," I'll take "Martha My Dear," "Rocky Raccoon," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" and "I Will" (to say nothing of John's contributions) over "Blackbird" every day of the week.
. . .
By speaking well of "Run for Your Life" and trashing "Blackbird" in the same post, I may get excommunicated from the Global Community of Beatles Fans. I'm prepared to accept the consequences.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"The Beatles" vs. "the Beatles"

This debate will make you yearn for the futile sparring between Team John and Team Paul. Never underestimate man's capacity for the trivial, and never tell a Beatles fan which form of "the" he or she should use.
For some eight years, editors at the online encyclopedia have been debating whether the article "the" should be uppercased when referring to the band. Is it "the" Beatles or "The" Beatles?
The lowercase faction says the Wikipedia manual of style and external style guides are on its side.
The uppercase faction says that trademarks should be capitalized and that the official Beatles website uses an uppercase definite article.
The dispute has become so contentious that some Wikipedia editors have been banned from participating. "Discussions on this page may escalate into heated debate," warns the internal "Talk" page where editors discuss changes to the Beatles entry.
For the record, I go with "The," but I won't consider you a savage if you prefer "the."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Happy birthday, John!

Today would've been John's 72nd birthday. Let's celebrate his memory by basking in possibly the most beautiful song he ever wrote.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Love Me Do" turns 50

Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' debut single, "Love Me Do." Because no Beatles-related anniversary goes by unobserved - especially when a weighty number like 50 is involved - the Internet erupted with commentaries and commemorations. A handful of them are below. Enjoy.
- "The day the 60s began"
- "The Beatles: a trigger for a musical revolution" (Here you'll find an article from June of 1963 that was published in The Guardian. Hip and highbrow London, meet sweaty and seedy Liverpool. The journalist describes Ringo as "a kind of talking Harpo Marx figure." Spot-on.)
- "How the Beatles' Love Me Do began the transformation of British music"
- "The Beatles at 50: From Fab Four to fabulously wealthy"
- "The Beatles: All you need is luck"
- "The Beatles in charts and infographics"

Friday, October 5, 2012

"The Greatest Rock Spectacle of the Decade"

When I last wrote about the Concert for Bangladesh, I had this to say:
One of the central pleasures of the concert (as shown on the 2005 DVD) is that, notwithstanding the handful of rock 'n' roll powerhouses and living legends that participated, it was the well-regarded but still second-fiddle keyboardist Billy Preston who completely stole the show. In my view, his soulful rendering of "That's the Way God Planned It" and the animated, loose-limbed boogieing that he punctuates the song with outshine the two ex-Beatles' handiwork, Eric Clapton's unrehearsed guitar-playing, and Bob Dylan's mini-set. Preston's stage presence is truly radiant and even has an unmissable spiritual flair. There's also a lot of simple charm in the spontaneous feel of his performance. In sum, it's the most memorable moment of a concert not lacking in talent-heavy highlights.
After watching the film again, I thought I should go into greater detail. It deserves better.
Because the Concert became a template for future pop charity events like Live Aid and Farm Aid, it can be easy to focus on the significance of its legacy and lose sight of how incredible it was simply as a rock 'n' roll concert(s)*. No single performance is as memorable as "That's the Way God Planned It," but there isn't a bad apple among the whole batch. Every song delivers.
George and his super-group opened the show with three songs from All Things Must Pass: "Wah-Wah," "My Sweet Lord" and "Awaiting on You All." That's three Walls of Sound played live at Madison Square Garden. A perfect fit, as it turned out. Freed from the confines of the studio, the songs don't suffer from that gauzy, boxed-in quality that Phil Spector lathered all over his productions. These are the IMAX versions, exploding with bold color and a sonic hugeness that works much better live than on record. "Wah-Wah" in particular is a revelation. Next was "That's the Way God Planned It," which was followed by Ringo's star turn, "It Don't Come Easy." Ringo being Ringo, it's a perky, crowd-pleasing performance. Then came two more cuts from George: "Beware of Darkness," which features Leon Russell as a guest vocalist, and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which teams George with Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Because of his crippling heroin addiction at the time, Clapton wasn't expected to show. Only with the aid of methadone did he find himself able to function (and not all that well). Apart from the Clapton drama, the performance is noteworthy because it was the first time that "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" had ever been done live (the same was true for "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," which came later). Next was Leon Russell's change-of-pace medley of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Young Blood"; then George's delicate, stripped down rendition of "Here Comes the Sun"; and then the surprise of the night: Bob Dylan. Dylan hadn't been onstage in several years, and George had serious doubts he would make it. Though a nervous wreck, he did show, and the crowd received him rapturously. As depicted on the film, Dylan played "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Just Like a Woman." In that brief moment, the spirit of Sixties idealism was revived. Finally, once Dylan wrapped up, George returned to the mic and closed the show with "Something" and "Bangla Desh," which was the first charity single in pop music history. It was a day of many firsts.
Again, what a collection of songs. And, just as much, what a collection of musicians: George, Ringo, Clapton, Dylan, Ravi Shankar**, Billy Preston, Klaus Voorman, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Badfinger, and more. That's an embarrassment of riches. George had cultivated many strong relationships over the years, and the Concert testified to how well-regarded he was. It was an event rooted in friendship.
Of course, a few of George's closest friends from the near past were conspicuously absent. In the early stages of planning, John expressed interest in playing, but he later backed out. George had stipulated that Yoko could not be involved, which apparently led to a dispute between her and John. After the Concert, the excuse John gave for his absence was that he had been on vacation in the Virgin Islands at the time. Paul, on the other hand, was a firm no from the start. He said that too much bad blood remained from the breakup. He couldn't stomach the thought of working alongside Allen Klein in any capacity.
In the end, it didn't matter. As with All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh was George's moment to shine. To this day, it's still a major part of his legacy. The Concert started out as a noble cause but became a landmark event thanks to those superlative musicians and those classic songs.
* - The Concert actually consisted of two installments, but the film combined them into one.
** - I apologize for ignoring Shankar and the Indian music set. It holds little interest for me. I appreciate the craft but don't care for the creation.