Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Today in Beatles history: "I hope we passed the audition"

It's among the most iconic moments in Beatles history: the rooftop concert. Around noon on January 30, 1969, The Beatles made their way - without advance public notice or police permission - to the top of the Apple building at 3 Savile Row and staged their final live performance. Bundled up due to the cold, blustery conditions, the band, along with keyboardist Billy Preston, debuted songs from the "Get Back"/"Let It Be" sessions, including "Get Back," "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling." With a film crew on hand, the performance was to serve as the climax of the Let It Be documentary, which - when completed - showed The Beatles in disarray and hurtling toward a nasty divorce. So part of what makes the rooftop concert such a pleasure is that, if only briefly, the band swapped bitterness for fun - boyish, mischievous fun rooted in the thrill of live rock 'n' roll performance. They ad-libbed during songs, they cracked jokes between songs and they practically begged the police, who eventually shut down the gig because of crowds that had gathered, to arrest them. (What a finale that would have been.) Even better, they visibly enjoyed each other's company. I'm thinking of a moment during "Don't Let Me Down." Midway through the song, after John blanks on a line and really hams it up, he looks to Paul for guidance. Facing one another, the two deliver the next line accurately and then exchange smiles that seem to reflect the many years of shared history between them. Even near the end, even amidst severe infighting, the Fabs could still bring out the best in each other. And I would add that, after the joyless process of recording Let It Be, they owed themselves the rooftop concert. A bright spot in stormy times.
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Part 2

Monday, January 28, 2013

My favorite (ex)Beatles song right now

When critics assail Paul for his lightweight material, it's songs like "Tomorrow" that they have in mind. I'm glad I don't belong to those circles, because I can't imagine not appreciating all of the melodic charm, rosewater whimsy and - believe it or not - disguised tension that "Tomorrow" has to offer. Notably more fetching than "Yesterday," this polished, piano-driven cut from 1971's Wild Life - the debut record by Wings - finds Paul beseeching his dear to stay strong and true as they map out a brighter future. Using an altered vocal that makes him sound younger and more tender and backed by airy "ohs" and "ahs," Paul projects hope - urgent, infectious hope - even as doubt and pain are plainly evident. "Don't you let me down tomorrow" doesn't exactly brim with confidence, and "Holding hands we both abandon sorrow" means there's sorrow to overcome. And as he sings in my favorite line, "Through the week we beg and steal and borrow/Oh for a chance to get away tomorrow." It's a tricky balancing act - cloudy skies and uncertainty mixed with idyllic visions of picnics and "country air." The glue seems to be those spacious, sustained "ohs" that Paul belts out again and again. They pack both anxiety and optimism. Far from merely twee, "Tomorrow" is fraught emotion made irresistible.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Friday, January 18, 2013

Money quote from John

I was never really a street kid or a tough guy. I used to dress like a teddy boy and identify with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, but I was just a suburban kid, imitating the rockers. I spent the whole of my childhood walking in complete fear, but with the toughest-looking face you've ever seen. It took a lot of wrestling to stop doing that, even though I still fall into it when I get insecure and nervous.
With John, it's not just the music that keeps us coming back - it's the real, raw humanity as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Beach Boys/Beatles party

I’ve been listening to Beach Boys’ Party! quite a bit of late. As I’ve written elsewhere, Beach Boys’ Party! is a studio record that’s meant to sound like a hootenanny, complete with audience involvement, giddy chatter and lyrical flubs. In August of 1965, Capitol Records told the Beach Boys they would need to release an album for the Christmas season. Because Brian Wilson’s next planned project – Pet Sounds – was too ambitious to fit that timeframe, the band sought a quick fix in the “live party” concept. (Side-note: From a party album to Pet Sounds? What a titanic shift.) They also sped up the process by mainly recording covers, including three songs by The Beatles. Herein lies the album’s relevance to this blog. Below is a rundown of those covers.
- "I Should Have Known Better"
A standout from the band’s early-period repertoire and a personal favorite, “I Should Have Known Better” is easily the best of the bunch. Everything works. Its tone is perfect for the album’s staged atmosphere of merriment; the lyric and the melody make for a natural sing-a-long; and the Beach Boys perform it well, even adding some signature “bow-wows.” If only they would’ve scrapped their abbreviated version in favor of the whole song.
(If the video is removed, hit the link above.)
. . .
- "Tell Me Why"
Another success, though a few notches below the first. Despite being a self-pitying lament, the song maintains a high energy level and boasts a roaring chorus – both of which likely appealed to the Beach Boys. I just wish they would’ve had more people join in for the climactic line, “'Cause I really can’t stand it/ I’m so in love with you.” It deserves more oomph.
. . .
- "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away"
A brutally mournful piece, the original is just not compatible with a revelrous environment. And while the Beach Boys limit the background noise on their rendition, there’s still enough included to ruin the performance. The boisterous pre-chorus “Hey” and the accompanying giggles strike precisely the wrong note. Heavy ballads need to be played straight.
. . .
The Beach Boys also recorded a cover of “Ticket to Ride” for the album but I couldn't find a proper version on YouTube.

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Roll up for the mystery tour"

I was lucky enough to catch a showing of Magical Mystery Tour on PBS the other day. It was my first time. Verdict? I'm confident in saying I enjoyed it more than the average viewer did in December of 1967 when the film premiered on BBC1. Unlike the British public, who was blindsided and then thrown into a state of bewilderment by The Beatles' unscripted gonzo surrealism, I knew what was coming. All told, I found the movie amusingly antic, funny (or maybe funny enough is more accurate) and, in terms of its use of The Beatles' music, delectable. Any project that incorporates ten-plus songs by the Fabs is off to a formidable start. The scenes with "I Am the Walrus" and "Your Mother Should Know" stand out in particular. Then throw in Ringo's always winning charm, an inscrutable character named Buster Bloodvessel, an unsettling dream sequence in which John, as a pencil-mustached waiter, shovels heaps of spaghetti onto a plate, and a general spirit of anything-is-possible, we're-having-a-blast anarchy, and what results is a very memorable film. Not a great film, not a work of art, just a memorable hour-long romp.
What's it about? The plot is both beside the point and important, as the movie is part-spectacle and part-sendup. It follows Ringo, his Aunt Jessie and a colorful collection of folks as they travel on a mystery tour bus to some curious destinations. For The Beatles, these trips, which were common in Britain at the time, symbolize their past - a past that was steeped in notions about proper behavior and tradition. This is what the film is lampooning. Thus, the operative line comes when Buster Bloodvessel says he hopes the tour participants will enjoy themselves "within the limits of British decency." Hardly. With its madcap comic aesthetic, Magical Mystery Tour represents a total subversion of "British decency." All the flights-of-fancy, non-sequiturs and tangents served notice that the old rules of the game didn't apply anymore. It was a different world. To be sure, The Beatles still had deep affection for their past, but their new identities were simply so far removed from it. They would have been strangers to their former selves. As one commentator noted on the Arena documentary about the film, the band's message seemed to be "That's who we were, and this is who we are."
Not long after critics and viewers delivered their harsh judgement of the film, Paul essentially apologized for it. In his words: "If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge, and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time." Since then, Paul has changed his tune, saying the film's style was ahead of its time. Its legacy has also benefited from the support of Hollywood heavyweights like Martin Scorsese. But I think it's more interesting to consider what The Beatles' pre-release mindset was. What were their expectations going in? How did they think the public would react to this very different kind of project? It's possible they were puffed up on hubris and just assumed that anything they put out, however avant-garde or uncommercial, would be well received. Or maybe they didn't care. Maybe they made the film for their own amusement. Whatever the case, Magical Mystery Tour was The Beatles' first critical black eye. With Brian Epstein dead, touring a thing of the past and uncertainty in the air, it set the stage for a bumpy final stretch.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Whole Lotta Helter Skelter'

The Beatles + Led Zeppelin = great mash-up and great video.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Born on this day

Two titans of popular music entered the world on this day. Happy Birthday, Elvis (b. 1935), and Happy Birthday, David Bowie (b. 1947)! It's beyond me how January 8th is able to contain the historic greatness of both. Every other day of the year should take notes. Assorted links, etc. below.
Re: Elvis...
- Read about the day that Elvis and The Beatles met.
- Watch The Beatles reflect on the encounter.
- Here's Elvis covering "Yesterday" and "Hey Jude."
- John on the King: "Before Elvis there was nothing."
Re: Bowie...
- Here's a past birthday post I wrote that features some song links, including Beatles covers.
- Concerning the Beatles reference in "Young Americans."
- Concerning the (possible) Beatles reference in "Life on Mars?."
- Finally, here's one from the obscure file: Bowie performing a live cover of "This Boy." Though the sound is muffled, you can tell he's right at home, especially when the vocal goes big and expressive.

Monday, January 7, 2013

"The John Lennon Letters"

I didn't read all of Hunter Davies' The John Lennon Letters, just skimmed it. Going through the many missives that John wrote to various family members and fans struck me as a tedious and repetitive process. I also didn't think I would miss out on much by paying little attention to the doodles, to-do lists and other ephemera that pad the book. In all, I probably read one-eighth of the letters, focusing on those of substance and historical significance, like ones dealing with The Beatles' breakup. It's the approach I'd recommend if you're curious about the book. Some thoughts below.
- Whether it be a love note to Cynthia, a brief fan-mail response or a heated dispatch to Paul (see "the John rant"), the letters convey an essential element of John's personality: he operated at the extremes. When he was affectionate, he didn't skimp on giddy, boyish yearning. When he was goofy, he was an exceptional nutjob. When he was defensive about Yoko, he let no criticism, whether real or imagined, go unmet. In this sense especially, John's letters were an honest reflection of who he was.
- It's tough to read John’s loving words for Julian (“He’s a real living part of me now”) and not think ahead to their sad estrangement. John even mentions how guilty he felt about not always being there for his young son. One wonders to what degree that guilt waxed and waned throughout the remainder of his life.
- Davies points out that John was closer to Ringo than were Paul and George. I wasn’t aware of this. It’s something he attributes to Ringo’s wit and his ordinary, salt-of-the-earth character, both of which John appreciated. In one letter to Ringo, John simply wrote: “Keep off the grass.”
- John to Linda Eastman: “I know The Beatles are ‘quite nice people’ – I’m one of them – they’re also just as big bastards as anyone else – so get off your high horse.” John was quite nasty to Linda in this instance.
- Reading his letter to Huey Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, I almost felt bad for John. From the way he addressed the letter (“Dear Comrade Huey”) to how he halfheartedly noted the political nature of some songs off Some Time in New York City, it's obvious that the radical pose John had adopted was forced and unnatural. Even if his heart was in the right place, he just wasn’t the activist type. Like other movements and practices that he dabbled in, John’s radical chic-ness eventually went by the wayside.
- I didn’t know that John and Yoko stayed in constant contact during his "Lost Weekend." Davies writes, “John and Yoko talked by phone every day, sometimes up to 20 calls.”
- Todd Rundgren on John: “John Lennon ain’t no revolutionary. He’s a fucking idiot.” Come on, Todd, how do you really feel about him?
- John on Mimi: “She still thinks I’m an idiot who got lucky.”
- In one section, Davies tells a fascinating personal story about writing obituaries for each of The Beatles after Brian Epstein died. What a job that must have been.
- Finally, near the end of the book, Davies shows a to-do list that John wrote that includes tasks like calling an HBO cable guy and something about Hertz Rent-a-Car. Seeing familiar brand names like those in connection to John’s daily life was oddly disconcerting. Even though I’ve listened to his music on countless occasions and read so much about him, John is still a distant, mythic figure to me. Knowing that HBO and Hertz occupied his thoughts on that occasion (and presumably others) lessens the gap between John's life and the life of someone like myself. It happens in two ways. First, I think of John as someone belonging to the Sixties and Seventies - decades prior to my birth. But, for me, the HBO tid-bit has the effect of bringing him more into the time-frame of my life and the specifics of my world. That perceived overlap has a weird feeling about it. Second, the items on his to-do list are such ordinary concerns. Even if we’re well aware that our heroes are merely flesh and blood, it can be comforting and rewarding to still hold them on high. When quotidian details like an interest in premium cable puncture that mystique, we feel closer to them, which again doesn't seem quite right.
. . .
For more on the book, go here and here.