Monday, April 22, 2013

Review of "Beatles Stories"

Last night I watched Beatles Stories (2011), a warm and good-hearted but ultimately rather dull documentary by songwriter and author Seth Swirsky. In the film, Swirsky travels all over to interview people - often famous people - about their encounters with the Fab Four. The guest list is impressively high-profile, ranging from music legends like Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson to Hollywood celebrities like Jon Voight and Henry Winkler to notable figures from Beatles history like Klaus Voorman and Sir George Martin himself. Beatles Stories is certainly not lacking in star power, not to mention likable lesser-knowns. It's also true that many of the stories are charming and memorable. As a rabid fan of The Beatles, how could I not enjoy hearing about Ray Manzarek's stoned realization that the Fabs themselves were stoners, or the time when Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues kindly reminded George how to play "I'm Only Sleeping." It's all catnip for Beatles devotees.
Then why did I come away from Beatles Stories unfulfilled? I see two reasons. First, the organization of the film. The running time is under 90 minutes, but Swirksky still manages to squeeze in roughly 45 stories, which is overkill. One anecdote comes after another in rapid succession, making for a really uneven viewing experience. The start-stop-start-stop dynamic doesn't allow for the individual stories to build on one another or interact in any narrative sense. It's just a bunch of amusing snippets loosely held together, with no apparent rhyme or reason for the particular order they follow. I think Swirsky should've excised a sizable number of the stories and then added narration that pertained to Beatles history. This way, he may have been able to connect some of the strands and develop actual themes.
Second, the stories are for the most part enjoyable, but few of them are all that revealing. Few of them help us to arrive at a deeper understanding of The Beatles. There are some moments that pack insight and emotion - like when Art Garfunkel talks about meeting John in the '70s and discussing their respective ex-partnerships with guys named Paul, or when Denny Laine reflects on Paul's reaction to the news of John's death - but they're few and far between. The stories rarely amount to anything more than cute and amusing, like one guy eating beans-on-toast with Ringo or former Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams sharing a sweaty hug with Macca. Overall, the vibe is pleasantly trivial.
I feel like a jerk being critical of such a winningly-premised and enthusiastic film. I genuinely wanted to like Beatles Stories, but it just never clicked for me. Nevertheless, I still salute Seth Swirsky for his obvious love of The Beatles. Passion projects like this one often don't come to fruition. That Beatles Stories actually got made is alone a cause for good cheer.
Update: I should have mentioned this in the post. It caused something of a stir and left many Beatles fans nonplussed and rankled.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"The world is still spinning"

I'm going to play catch up with some important days in Beatles history that recently came and went. Last week Wednesday, April 10th, marked the 43rd anniversary of the day that Paul's notorious "break up" Q&A was published in the British press. Made available April 9th, the Q&A, which served as promotional material for Paul's forthcoming debut solo record, contained some testy, hard-to-miss lines. Though Paul said he didn't intend for his responses to signal The Beatles' split, the press had other ideas, and the Q&A immediately took on a life of its own.
Q: Did you miss the other Beatles and George Martin? Was there a moment when you thought, 'I wish Ringo were here for this break?'
A: No.
Q: Assuming this is a very big hit album, will you do another?
A: Even if it isn't, I will continue to do what I want, when I want to.
Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?
A: No.
Q: Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?
A: Time will tell. Being a solo album means it's "the start of a solo career..." and not being done with the Beatles means it's just a rest. So it's both.
Q: Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?
A: Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don't really know.
Q: Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?
A: No.
That same day, Apple submitted what turned out to be The Beatles' final press release. It was in response to all the noise created by Paul's statements.
It read:
April 10 1970
Spring is here and Leeds play Chelsea tomorrow and Ringo and John and George and Paul are alive and well and full of hope.
The world is still spinning and so are we and so are you.
When the spinning stops - that'll be the time to worry. Not before.
Until then, The Beatles are alive and well and the Beat goes on, the Beat goes on.
Then a week later, Paul released McCartney, punctuating a drama-filled stretch of The Beatles' career. (My review is here.) The end, mercifully and not at all prematurely, had come.
Excerpts from the review:
I find McCartney enjoyable but far from memorable. It boasts some inspired moments but not nearly enough. Too much of its charm fades as quickly as it sets in, due in large measure to how many of the songs feel like rushed, incomplete thoughts. Yes, Paul shows considerable range in his songwriting. And yes, there's a certain appeal to the DIY aesthetic. But McCartney was the first proper solo album to be released by any of The Beatles, and it's understandable that most people were expecting something more than a rumpled collection of demo-like jams, loopy instrumentals, and acoustic ditties broken up by a few gems. It disappointed then, and it still disappoints today.
. . .
Of course, Linda was the inspiration for the best and most enduring cut on McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed." Like "Every Night," it shows Paul in a vulnerable state: "Maybe I'm afraid of the way I love you." Unlike "Every Night," "Maybe I'm Amazed" wraps Paul's confession of weakness in dramatic, even triumphant sonics. With a monster backbeat, lively piano fills, and that impassioned vocal, the song soars. When Paul exclaims, "Baby I'm a man/And maybe you're the only woman/Who could ever help me," it's the sound of him moving on with his life. Worthy of The Beatles' better output, "Maybe I'm Amazed" hasn't aged a day because Paul's emotions, delivered with such thrilling conviction, still ring true.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Happy Friday from Phil!

The legendary producer and mad man wishes you a safe and sane weekend.
(I stole the image from Matt Blick's superb Beatles Songwriting Academy blog. Do check it out.)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Minor key "Hey Jude"

I'm not a fan. It's too much of a departure. The reworking takes a bittersweet but ultimately encouraging song and makes it sad. Going from major to minor neuters the sense of hope and uplift that builds throughout the original. In this way it violates the spirit behind Paul's purpose in writing the song: to comfort Julian Lennon. No thanks. A "Hey Jude" that doesn't aim to inspire is no "Hey Jude."
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Love songs or something else?

Around Valentine's Day, I started writing a post about The Beatles' greatest love songs, but I eventually scrapped it because of an uncertainty: I didn't know if my top picks – "In My Life" and "Two of Us" – actually qualified as love songs. Both contain affectionate sentiments that typify a conventional love song, but there are other themes at work too – themes that suggest multiple aims and multiple subject matters. Let me elaborate.
On "In My Life," John opens with a nostalgic rumination: "There are places I remember/All my life/Though some have changed." And so it goes for the rest of the first verse. John sings of places and people that have come and gone but remain meaningful to him. Nostalgia dominates the early going. It isn't until the second verse that he directly addresses someone: "But of all these friends and lovers/There is no one (who) compares with you." Here the lyric seems to be moving in a more concrete direction, but one question never gets answered: To whom is John speaking? Is it a friend or a lover? It's not clear. Even when he sings, "In my life/I love you more," the context doesn’t illuminate the precise nature of his love. John could simply be honoring a dear friend. He may love that person, but that doesn't make "In My Life" a "love song" in the familiar sense. Memory, the past, undefined but deep affection - these are the concerns of "In My Life." John himself said the song was rooted in reflections on his childhood.
"Two of Us" is perhaps a more interesting case. The lyric doesn't contain any straightforward expressions of romantic love. The word "love," in fact, is nowhere to be found. Rather, Paul paints tender and almost gauzy little scenes of togetherness - "riding nowhere," "sending postcards," "wearing raincoats" (in the sun, no less) - that seem to be drawn from real life, i.e., his relationship with Linda. And Paul has stated she was the song's primary inspiration. However, what to make of the line, "You and I have memories/Longer than/The road that stretches out ahead"? Or "You and me chasing paper/Getting nowhere"? Paul hadn't known Linda that long, and "chasing paper" calls to mind The Beatles' complicated business dealings. If not Linda, then who? John, of course. Thus, "Two of Us" operates on dual levels: it's a song of romantic love and brotherly love, paying tribute to both Linda and John. There are two sets of two. One would help to define Paul's future, while the other would soon belong to his past.
If these interpretations are accurate, I think they speak to the nimbleness and dexterity of John and Paul as songwriters. To fashion a workable and compelling lyric that expresses more than one kind of love is no easy task. "In My Life" and "Two of Us" probably aren't the only examples.

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Let It Be" vs. "Let It Be...Naked"

It was announced earlier in the week that Let It Be…Naked (2003), the remixed, Phil Spector-less version of The Beatles' final record, is at long last available on iTunes. The news inspired me to revisit the album and note what I like and don't like about the major differences. I didn't find many negatives.
- The best change by far was the addition of "Don't Let Me Down." What a song, what a vocal. It never should have been excluded from the 1970 release. That, combined with the removal of "Dig It" and "Maggie Mae" – two short and goofy superfluities best left as outtakes -, improved the flow of the songs and their overall quality.
- Generally speaking, the track order is much better. "Get Back" works more naturally as an opener than a closer, and "Let It Be" finishes the album on an appropriately elegiac note. I'm not a huge fan of "Let It Be," but I don't like that it was buried on Side 1 of the original. It deserved better.
- I stand with Paul on "The Long and Winding Road." He hated that Spector lavished the song with ornate instrumentation. He saw it as an insulting deviation from the "back-to-basics" sound that The Beatles had aimed for on the album. The gentler, more earth-bound version on Naked is an upgrade. The same goes for "Across the Universe," which sheds the gooey, underwater encasement that Spector had overdubbed onto an earlier recording of the song. In these instances anyway, less is more.
Don't like:
- Notwithstanding what I said about "Get Back" as a winning opener, I still prefer "Two of Us" in that spot. It's probably due to a combination of: 1) I treasure the song; 2) Hearing it at the outset, with its warm melancholy and autumnal ease, seems to improve everything that follows; and 3) I dig John's mock intro.
And that's basically it. Canon fealty be damned, I prefer the unified, precise polish of Naked to the incongruous clutter of the original.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Assorted Beatles links

- Paul: "… when she (Yoko) turned up at the studio and sat in the middle of us, doing nothing I still admit now that we were all cheesed off." Cheesed off! The quote comes from an interview Paul did with Q. The British mag's most recent issue celebrates The Beatles' 50th anniversary.
- Which bassist had the largest influence on Macca? Motown's James Jamerson.
- Ray Connolly on Paul and his mother, Mary.
- Paul will be featured on the score for Michel Gondry’s upcoming film, Mood Indigo. He contributed bass parts to several instrumental compositions.
- Paul has a new album of his own in the works, and three of the tracks were produced by Mark Ronson.
- Read about Paul’s original plan for “Yesterday.”
- Peter Brown, friend and assistant to Brian Epstein and a former Apple Corps executive, reflects on life with The Beatles.
- Via Slate, "photos from the early days of Beatlemania."
- Rolling Stone’s Jody Rosen on Please Please Me: “It captures the group at its scruffiest and most 'bar band' – it is a document, as Lennon once said, of the Beatles before they were "the 'clever' Beatles."
- And here are 10 facts about PPM.
- Lastly, a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s that was autographed by all four Beatles just sold for nearly $300,000. Madness!