Friday, March 22, 2013

Happy Friday from Paul!

(Source: SB Nation)
Why is Paul wearing a Texas Tech jersey? It's a reasonable question. The most likely explanation is that he sprung for one while visiting Lubbock, TX to honor Buddy Holly. Lubbock is both home to Texas Tech and Holly's place of birth. So, a red jersey, green pants, brown loafers and white socks... what a foxy ensemble. If it isn't the apex of early '90s dad-rock fashion, I haven't a clue what is.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Beatles' album covers, from worst to best

As I did with album names, I've now done with album covers. And like last time, my focus is only on the core catalog (British releases plus Magical Mystery Tour.) The "Butcher Cover" is nowhere to be found here.
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13) Yellow Submarine – Like the name of the album, it's dated psychedelia. The sundry colors and shapes are all too much. Minor kudos for the "NOTHING IS REAL" detail, which appears right below the title on the UK release.
12) Magical Mystery Tour – Silly psychedelia once again, though I admire its unabashed oddity. I'm also a sucker for "Paul is dead" clues (as ridiculous as they are), in this case Macca's costume. As John revealed on "Glass Onion," Paul was the walrus – an animal that apparently represented death in various ancient cultures.
11) The Beatles – Is it conceptual art hokum or inspired simplicity? Is it too clever by half or a sly way of implying that no visual representation could do justice to "The White Album," a kaleidoscopic, everything-under-the-sun grab-bag? I oscillate between both views, with neither holding a stronger claim than the other.
10) Let It Be – The cover's conventional design reflects the back-to-basics approach of the Let It Be project. Those head shots tell a story. The Beatles were all shy of 30, but their faces (well, except George's) indicate the toll of the previous decade. Another option was available: an updated version of the Please Please Me cover, which was originally designated for the aborted "Get Back" album and later used on the "Blue" greatest hits.
9) Help! - Conceived by photographer Robert Freeman, the cryptic style of the flag semaphore cover may hint at the Fabs' changing orientation to the world. On some level, they were starting to withdraw into their own. They were no doubt evolving musically.
8) Please Please Me - Taken at EMI's London headquarters in Manchester Square, Angus McBean's memorable shot shows The Beatles youthful and carefree - a disposition that wouldn't and couldn't last. So much was to come.
7) A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles' spirited goofiness shines through in this spread of photo booth-style head shots. Also conveyed is the bang-bang pace of their professional existence, which - at that time, anyway - seemed to feed their impish personalities.
6) Revolver - A combination of drawings and collage created by The Beatles' friend Klaus Voorman, the imaginatively weird cover illustration is, alas, too busy for its own good. Rubber Soul communicates the same message of redefined identity in a more pleasingly simplified form. Still, the surrealistic mess of heads is unique and eye-catching.
5) Beatles for Sale - The second of four covers done by Robert Freeman, this plainspoken shot taken at Hyde Park captures The Beatles in a glum, world-weary, exhausted place - the price of being the biggest band in the world. Not for nothing, their mop-tops are unkempt and overgrown.
4) Rubber Soul - Between the distinctive lettering, the absence of The Beatles' name and, of course, the famous "stretched" effect (which came about by accident), Freeman's final cover unmistakably signaled that the boyish Fabs were long gone. My favorite detail: John's supercilious, barely-there smirk.
3) With The Beatles - Once again, Robert Freeman. This heavily shadowed B&W image is a marvel of austere beauty. It stands in stark contrast to the inviting warmth of Please Please Me and serves as a pre-echo of Beatles for Sale sternness (despite the band's state of mind being far more upbeat at this earlier stage).
2) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Designed by Peter Blake, it remains to this day the most iconic album cover in pop music history. Colorful, crowded and cryptic, the festive funeral scene doubles as a bold act of self-mythologizing. Surrounded by a host of showbiz notables and literary luminaries, The Beatles were positioning themselves as the bridge between entertainment and art. Bonus: it was the wellspring of "Paul is dead" rumor-mongering.
1) Abbey Road – The most poignant and symbolic of the 13 covers, the zebra crossing shot shows the band's valedictory march. They were walking away from life as The Beatles. When they reached the other side, one can imagine them all heading in separate directions. It's a moving picture of the end. (I won't taint this entry with more trifling "Paul is dead" talk. There's already been too much.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

The "God" trilogy

"God," the penultimate track on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is a powerful pop sermon of unbelief and rejection. It's so powerful, in fact, that it inspired two sequels - one by U2 and the other by Larry Norman, a pioneer of the Christian rock genre. I first heard U2's "God Part II" a few weeks ago while listening to Rattle and Hum. Intrigued, I read up on the song and then came across this article, which explores the relationship between the three parts. Their conflicting theological perspectives make for a compelling interplay. I especially like Bono's lyric, which addresses the inner discord that holds sway in the life of a sinner.
U2's music often includes religious content, but it is a highly creative, restless and wondering relationship with religious mysteries. They look for the baby Jesus under the trash and would take bread and wine if there were a church they could receive in, but their articulation of sacred themes is often playful and always incomplete, as if they never quite find what they are looking for.
. . .
Larry Norman's "God Part III" does not include the same subtlety or affection for Lennon we find in Bono's lyrics. Norman begins his song not with a statement about religion, like Lennon and U2, but instead with the words "i don't believe in beatles, i don't believe in rock," taking the first phrase directly from Lennon's song. The liner notes to Norman's Stranded in Babylon describe "God Part III" as a "response to John's song," which suggests something far less affectionate than U2's note that their song is "for John Lennon." Unlike U2's generous affirmation of the rightness and truth of Lennon's emphasis on love, Norman's direct confrontation with Lennon, the Beatles and rock more generally suggests there is no truth to be found in music; "you can easily hit number one with a bullet," he says, "and totally miss the heart." Bono disagrees, finding truth in Lennon, even if he is misguided in certain particulars.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Re: BBC on John and Jesus

If you listened to this BBC Radio program about "more popular than Jesus" or are otherwise well acquainted with the details of the row, you know what John's defense was. He claimed that his words were taken out of context - long live the "context" defense! - and twisted into something that was far removed from what he had intended. John insisted that he wasn't denouncing Christianity or the person of Christ or God but merely observing that the church in England had reached a pitifully low ebb by 1966, to the point where, especially among the youth, The Beatles held a higher standing than Jesus himself. He added that he could have substituted "TV" or "cinema" for "The Beatles," and his remark would have remained true. The point wasn't that The Beatles were massively popular (which, of course, they were). It was that the church was massively unpopular.
In his explanation, John did sound very sincere. According to Tony Barrow, The Beatles' longtime press officer, John suffered a major breakdown during the band's U.S. tour that year, which was atypical of him. It clearly wasn't his aim to create a media firestorm or provoke fans. The backlash caught him completely unawares, and it stung.
However, what feeds my skepticism a bit about his defense is the snide and arrogant tone of his words to Maureen Cleave. It seems to belie his appeal that he was just making an observation and there was no value judgment involved. Here's the relevant part:
'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.'
I think I can be excused for not mistaking John for a social scientist here. What he's engaging in is not impartial analysis but triumphant gloating, however premature. "I'm right and I will be proved right." That's the sound of someone who's just fine with the withering away of Christianity. Of course, John's entitled to that view, but it certainly doesn't square with his defense. Furthermore, the chutzpah on display is a tad vexing. There's John – not an academic or an intellectual but an uneducated musician – making brazen armchair predictions about the future of Christianity, a belief system that was still in existence nearly two millennia after its founding. He was simply out of his depth. Maybe he had read a couple of books on the subject, but that hardly would've made him a qualified commentator. He probably should've held his tongue or, at the very least, softened his tone.
All told, I still sympathize with John over what he endured. The reaction in America was unhelpful and way overdone. Still, he didn't really do himself any favors in the matter.

Monday, March 11, 2013

BBC on John and Jesus

Returning to the "more popular than Jesus" remark, below is a documentary about the controversy, which BBC Radio 2 aired back in 2009. It was news to me that John once opined, again in the presence of Maureen Cleave, that "Show business is an extension of the Jewish religion." Oops. This much is clear: John Lennon as we know him wouldn't have been possible in this day and age. Our contemporary media culture, with its rigorously observed PC pieties, would never have allowed it.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"More popular than Jesus"

John's infamous claim about The Beatles' popularity relative to Jesus Christ's was first published 47 years ago on Monday. It was part of an article written by Maureen Cleave for the London Evening Standard entitled, "How does a Beatle live? John Lennon lives like this." Perhaps a better headline would have been, "John Lennon owns too much stuff." Cleave paints John as a somewhat befuddled megastar steeped in superfluous possessions and disconnected from reality. It's an interesting piece. You can tell that Cleave very much likes John on a personal level - she was a friend of The Beatles' - but the way she describes him at times is far from flattering. She's sympathetic but not uncritical, charmed but bemused.
Read the entire article here.
He is much the same as he was before. He still peers down his nose, arrogant as an eagle, although contact lenses have righted the short sight that originally caused the expression. He looks more like Henry VIII than ever now that his face has filled out - he is just as imperious, just as unpredictable, indolent, disorganised, childish, vague, charming and quick-witted. He is still easy-going, still tough as hell. 'You never asked after Fred Lennon,' he said, disappointed. (Fred is his father; he emerged after they got famous.) 'He was here a few weeks ago. It was only the second time in my life I'd seen him - I showed him the door.' He went on cheerfully: 'I wasn't having him in the house.'
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One feels that his possessions - to which he adds daily - have got the upper hand; all the tape recorders, the five television sets, the cars, the telephones of which he knows not a single number. The moment he approaches a switch it fuses; six of the winking boxes, guaranteed to last till next Christmas, have gone funny already. His cars - the Rolls, the Mini-Cooper (black wheels, black windows), the Ferrari (being painted black) - puzzle him. Then there's the swimming pool, the trees sloping away beneath it. 'Nothing like what I ordered,' he said resignedly. He wanted the bottom to be a mirror. 'It's an amazing household,' he said. 'None of my gadgets really work except the gorilla suit - that's the only suit that fits me.'