Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"I don't want to cheat those people"

In a new wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Macca explained at length why he takes such a crowd-pleasing approach to his live shows. Turns out, Paul is the anti-Dylan because (in part, anyway*) he himself has been on the losing end of a concert that didn't deliver the goods as expected. To this I say: Paul, never change. There may not be a more exasperating breach of faith between musician and fan than a set list that's designed to satisfy the whims of the artist over the general desires of the crowd. Especially at big ticket shows, it's a reasonable expectation that the performing act will honor the outlay of money and commitment of time by his or her fans with a performance that, at the very least, isn't unprofessional or willfully challenging, and, even better, is geared toward broad appeal. That's not asking much. Now, within the "give the people what they want" prescription/policy, there's plenty of room for maneuvering and balance. It doesn't need to be pursued in draconian fashion (i.e., singles and hits always trumping lesser-known entries), but it should serve as a starting point, a guide. And for most performers, it does. But that doesn't undo how refreshing it is to hear Paul loudly proclaim the gospel of populism. Everybody, listen to the what the man said.
*There's also the obvious $$$ factor.
Here's part of the excerpt:
Well, I'm always reminded of when I was a kid and I used to go to shows. This was pre-pre-pre-Beatles. I was just a little kid in Liverpool with no money, and I'd be saving up forever. It'd be really good if the show satisfied me – and it really pissed me off if it didn't. So I have this thing, which is that these people have paid money. They're not necessarily all going be that flush, so let's give them a good night out. Let's have a party. Let's make it a fiesta kind of thing, so everyone goes home and thinks, "Yeah, I didn't mind spending that money." That's the philosophy behind a lot of what I do.
One of the first concerts I ever went to was a Bill Haley concert. I was so young, I was still in short trousers. I was about 13 or something. It was rock & roll coming to Liverpool, and I was so excited. I saved up, got this ticket, went to the Liverpool Odeon – and the whole first half wasn't Bill Haley! It was this other guy who, years later, I learned was a promoter who had his own band. Mind you, the second half, when Bill opened from behind the curtains with, "One, two, three o' clock, four o'clock rock," and did "Rock Around the Clock," which is almost the birth of rock & roll – okay, that was exciting. The curtains opened and they're all there in these crazy tartan jackets. That was worth it. But I was always pissed off about the opening act, thinking I got cheated. And I once bought a Little Richard record where he was only one track on the album. It was this other thing, the Buck Ram Orchestra.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Chillin with my homies"

To be a fly on the wall... This charmed young fella was something like that fly. I love the unadulterated glee on his face. Read more here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Early Days" (video)

I'm not a fan of Paul's latest single, the acoustic track "Early Days". I think it's one of the lesser cuts on New. The brittle vocal provides ample evidence of Paul's advancing years, and the lyric - whereby Macca reclaims ownership of The Beatles' origins from those outside parties who can only speculate and conjecture about what happened - is really vanilla and stiffly phrased. Paul may very well have strong feelings on the matter, but they don't translate with much effect. As large swaths of Paul's solo career demonstrate. you can't win 'em all.
Below is the video, in which those "early days" are transposed onto the American Deep South, with young aspiring blues musicians standing in for the Fabs. Johnny Depp makes the most minor of guest spots at the beginning.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Weekend reading

- Here's Joshua Wolf Shenk on John, Paul, and "The Power of Two". Always important to keep in mind with this subject: John and Paul's creative partnership was very fluid. It played out in a variety of forms over a relatively short period. Hence the difficulty of categorizing their MO in general terms.
- Very cool: "The Beatles' mono albums remastered at Abbey Road set for vinyl release"
- Ugh, more sanitized, one dimensional, plaster-saint John Lennon: Peace Activist tripe is in the offing, thanks to Yoko's agreement with a global branding company to promote John's legacy.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Weekend reading

- Stereogum ranked John's 10 best solo joints. I applaud the exclusion of "Imagine" but rue the absence of "Love". Solid list overall. Also, kudos to the writers for issuing a furious corrective to the deep-seated fiction about John Lennon: Secular Saint. Like the myth of JFK's Camelot, it's a childish, absurdly unsupportable lie that has survived in the popular consciousness for far too long.
- "13 Days as a Beatle: The Sad History of Jimmie Nicol"
- The reissue blitz continues: "The Beatles to Re-Release Japanese Albums"
- Via Rolling Stone: "6 Best Out-of-Print Beatles Releases" - In my book, it's the Let It Be documentary and then everything else.
- Finally: "Imagine all the artwork: Lennon trove auctioned" - Words always fail when it comes to the dollar amounts involved. See here as well.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Wilburys' most underrated jam?

As I was scrolling through my iTunes library earlier, I noticed one track preference that made me smile: my most listened to song by the Traveling Wilburys is "New Blue Moon". If you're unfamiliar, you can forgive yourself. "New Blue Moon" is a deep, deep cut off Vol. 3. Basically, an unheralded ditty from a so-so record that's always been trapped in the shadow of its predecessor. But I for one absolutely adore the song. It's a busy little mover that shakes and shimmies just right. And the airy, drawn-out vocal phrasing on the verses makes for a perfect touch, conveying notes of sweetness and woe in the same breath. Enjoy below.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Good Ol' Freda" review

I recently took the time to watch Good Ol' Freda, the charming indie documentary released last year about The Beatles' faithful and beloved secretary, Freda Kelly. Several things stood out.
First, this is Beatles history that we really haven't encountered before, or not in meaningful detail anyway. Yes, a chapter of the Fabs' story that hasn't already been painstakingly probed in books, dramatized in movies and plays, and otherwise combed through and commodified. It's strange. A small miracle even. As you learn in the film, the explanation is that Freda is someone who has long valued privacy and loyalty over the limelight and the almighty dollar. She probably would've felt she had betrayed The Beatles' trust by cashing in early and often on her unique vantage point. And all these years later, Freda only agreed to do this project at the urging of her young grandson. Who could find fault there?
At the same time, there is an unmistakable streak of melancholy to Good Ol' Freda, underscoring that integrity can come with material costs. Freda hasn't penned a smash memoir. She hasn't spent her life busily on the hunt for the next media op. Right after The Beatles split, she simply gave away most of the merchandise and memorabilia she had accumulated over the years. As a result, this would-be minor celebrity has had to provide for herself in that most familiar, blase manner: as a 9-5er. A 9-5 secretary no less. True, this was to a certain degree by design. It doesn't seem (seem) much out of step with the path that Freda claims she wanted for herself. But, watching Good Ol' Freda, it's hard to elude the "what could've been" angle. Might she have been able to reap some measure of financial security through her former life while still maintaing her sense of integrity? Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, the broader point is that the film almost forces you to consider the question.
Last, and most rewarding, it's a treat to watch and listen to Freda as she - fondly but with a notably casual tone - revisits her past. Memories like seeing The Beatles nearly 200 times at the Cavern Club (she was a fan first) or developing a deep bond with Ringo's mother or forcing John down onto one knee as part of an apology he owed her. It's wild. From basically the start of the Fabs' run to the end, she was right there in the thick of things - not just an up-close witness to history but an active participant. She was a "family member" to the boys, a confidante, an object of respect and adoration. Yet, to Freda - this impossibly down-to-earth woman - it was just part of her life. She has to be the luckiest Beatles fan who ever lived.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Watch below as Macca serenades and grooves with a robot named Newman in the just-released video for "Appreciate", the excellent fourth single off last year's New. Both the song, which boasts a heavily processed, cinematic sound, and the futuristic video, which comes with a "presented by Microsoft" tag, convey a message that Paul has long seemed keen to emphasize: this knighted legend is no wrinkly legacy act, proudly and permanently chained to the past. No, even at the ripe age of 71, Sir Paul remains fresh and vital. He just wants to party.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tuesday reading

- "Beatlemania in 1964: 'This has gotten entirely out of control'" - Here's a vividly detailed first-look at The Beatles' maiden visit to the U.S., published in The Saturday Evening Post in March of 1964. What stands out most is that, even at this early stage of band's mega-prominence, the press had already identified the role of each Beatle - roles that quickly became familiar and overstated to the point of cliche. John as the intellectual, Paul as the Cute One, etc, etc.
- "The Beatles’ first U.S. concert: An oral history of the day the Fab Four conquered D.C."
Macca: The press conferences were quite funny. It was always: “Hey, Beatles, is that hair real, or is it a wig?” Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? How dumb are you? But we didn’t mind it at all. We expected it. It was a completely different world. It’s not like now where you’ll find all these kids writing for the Internet. It was elderly, balding gentlemen who smoked a lot — grown-ups looking disapprovingly at the children having too much fun. We knew it wasn’t hard to beat that kind of cynicism. It was like a chess game. And the great thing was, being four of us, one of us could always come up with a smart-ass answer.
- "The 10 Most Technically Amazing Beatles Songs" - I was delighted to see what song occupies the top spot of this list. Hugely underrated, imo; the atmosphere is matchless.
- Lastly, "Listen Closer! 35 Songs You Didn’t Know Feature Famous Background Singers"

Monday, April 28, 2014

Great non-Beatles song...

... with a random Beatles reference.
Nilsson...I just can't quit the guy. And for someone who operates a blog about The Beatles, this is fortuitous, as there's no shortage of shared history between the two acts. The list encompasses press conference plugs, surprise late-night phone calls, transatlantic visits, cover songs, tribute mash-ups, collaborations (both sonic and cinematic), epic booze-and-coke benders, best-man wedding duties, and so forth. I've already blogged about much of this, but here's one Nilsson-Fab intersection that I've yet to highlight: Harry's shout-out to The Beatles in "Don't Leave Me."
Off 1968's Aerial Ballet - a delightful hodgepodge dotted with classics - "Don't Leave Me" is full of the tricks, surprises, and wonders that have always set Nilsson apart. Foremost, take notice of how the song begins and where it is by the end. It's a full-on transformation: from subdued and plaintive to effervescent and whacky. In part, this is thanks to the range and elasticity of Nilsson's legendary voice. As with Roy Orbison, his vocal acrobatics often lead you on little adventures. There's also the unconventional use of just a single chorus, the closing half-minute stuffed with Nilsson's signature "nonsensical melodic mortar" (in the words of Grantland's Sean Fennessey), and - getting to the point of this post - the appropriation of "beep beep beep beep yeah" from "Drive My Car" that comes out of nowhere right in the middle of the track. Why is it there? Hardly matters. All I need to know is that it's Harry and The Beatles.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekend reading

I've been meaning to post this for some time. It's an old book review (Helter Skelter) by The New Republic's William Crawford Woods that surveys the horror, mystery, and perverse fascination of the Manson Family murders. More specifically, Woods probes the link between the grisly killing spree and the '60s counterculture, exploring where at the outer limits of Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll there might have been room for a deranged, bloodthirsty cult. It's a fascinating topic. Perhaps too much so.
It is harder now than it would have been in the '60s to imagine children dumb or drugged enough to be entranced by such a story. But Manson had an old con's skill (he had spent most of his life in prison—had even begged to be kept inside before being released for his final killing spree) at picking the members of his band: the girls were young, homeless, fanciful, at war with their parents—the boys were kept in line by being given the girls. In the moonlit desert, in the ready-made romance of the decaying Spahn Movie Ranch, they would sit adoringly around Charlie and hear him make promises of a future that would give them the power they'd never had, heal wounds that burned fresh daily. There were drugs, sex in constant splashes every which way, and all the other sticks and carrots that kept the kids in line. But there was something else in Manson that could turn them from borderline psychotics into psychopathic killers of unparalleled cruelty. Bugliosi admits it, but he cannot quite say what it is.
Most likely no one will ever be able to. Unlike Bugliosi I doubt Manson himself is in possession of his "formula." The element of the demonic, introduced here to supply the book's only missing note, is not something any pragmatic intelligence feels comfortable with, but one glance at the famous Life cover photo of Manson is almost enough to make disbelievers switch sides. (It's included in the exhaustive photo section of this book.) I don't think there's any possible doubt that Manson was a demon—not possessed by one, was one. His hellish history makes any appeal to a supernatural principle superfluous; but having both motive and motive force behind it, we are still shy of understanding. To come closer to that we must close in on the ideational undertow of helter-skelter, the art where Manson's twisted art originates.
It is in music. Manson was convinced that the Beatles were sending him coded messages in support of helter-skelter, particularly in the double "white album" released in 1968; he took the term from one of its songs. As family members testified at the trial, he had worked out with scholarly precision correlations between his murderous doctrine and virtually every line of every lyric; more than that he had searched beyond his origins in the Beatles to their origins in the Book of Revelations, where in the ninth chapter he found the "four angels" with "faces as the faces of men" but "hair as the hair of women"; even mention of their electric guitars ("breastplates of fire") and much else besides. There was word of a fifth angel, and the family knew who that had to be. One translation of Revelations calls him Exterminans.
Revelations 9. Is it chance that the Beatles song Manson liked best is called "Revolution 9"? Or that the Bible chapter ends, "Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries..."? And the song ends on the grunting of pigs, and machine-gun fire?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Concert for Linda

Ultimate Classic Rock recently commented on the 15th anniversary of "A Concert for Linda":
On April 10, 1999, Paul McCartney made his first public appearance since his wife Linda passed nearly a year earlier – and just his second in the two years she’d battled breast cancer – during a touching farewell concert.
McCartney was backed by members of the Pretenders, along with Costello, for his appearance. He dedicated his set to Linda, whom he called “my beautiful baby — and our beautiful children, who are here tonight.” He then joked: “It’s past your bedtime” before launching into Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” (a favorite of the couple’s as youngsters) amidst a standing ovation.
As he played an energetic version of the Beatles‘ 1963 hit “All My Loving,” many of the evening’s stars began to congregate on stage, joining in for a rousing chorus.
Because Paul has maintained such a visible public presence in the last decade-plus, it's weird to think there was a time in the near past when he just dropped out of view. The reason he did so couldn't be more understandable, but still. Anything that doesn't perfectly comport with the now-ingrained image we have of him - youthful, irrepressible, jet-setting, eternally carefree - takes time to compute.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now"

Below are four excerpts from a new e-book by Michael Tomasky called Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now. Tomasky undertakes the important task of illuminating the cultural context in America at the time that The Beatles' invasion began. Lots to digest.
- "A Revolution, With Guitars: How The Beatles Changed Everything"
Excerpt: "The Beatles did two big things. First, they popularized—I’d even say they basically invented—the rock’n’roll two-electric guitar sound. That fundamental rock’n’roll line-up—guitars, bass, drums, emulated millions of times—comes from them. Second, they broke down the wall between teen music and adult music, a wall that had been insuperable until then. And not just with Sgt. Pepper—from the start."
- "Before the Earthquake Hit: When The Beatles Landed in America"
Excerpt: "There existed a sharp divide then: Teenagers bought 45-inch singles, and adults bought albums. The 12-inch, 33-rpm album was invented in 1948 by Columbia Records chiefly for the sake of classical music fans. Until then, if you wanted to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth (around 65 minutes) on the old 78’s, you need around ten discs, sometimes turning them over in the middle of movements! So the LP was a revelation in its day, as amazing as Pandora is to us. An entire symphony on one record, with virtually no hiss? And having to turn the record over only once? Incredible! But albums were expensive, too—in the late ’50s, around $2.98, sometimes more. That would be around $23 today, adjusted for inflation, and this in a society where most people had far less disposable income than they do now. This is a big part of why LPs were for adults, along with the fact that no pop idol could cobble together 12 songs of any quality."
- "‘You’ve Got to Be Kidding’: Why Adults Dismissed The Beatles in 1964"
Excerpt: "The idea that this was all potentially quite subversive wouldn’t really take root for another year or two. So the general posture of the adult world, in early 1964, was a kind of dismissive indulgence. In those days, The New York Times did not write about this sort of falderal; neither did The New Yorker or any other serious magazine. “Music” was classical music, jazz, and Broadway."
- "Was The Beatles’ Music Really That Unique? Yeah, It Totally Was."
Excerpt: "Theirs was the first music that took these influences and combined them into a new sound that was driven by the interplay between two guitars—two electric guitars, going along together, playing different parts, both playing at a high volume, driving the sound. Others may have come along and quickly taken matters to even higher volumes—the Stones and the Kinks and the Who. But combining blues, country, pop, music hall, and Broadway into a two-guitar sound called rock’n’roll was something The Beatles did first."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday reads

- On the cultural etymology of "gear".
- "10 musicians who saw the Beatles standing there."
Fantastic line from Billy Joel: "And when I saw four guys who didn't look like they'd come out of the Hollywood star mill, who played their own songs and instruments, and especially because you could see this look in John Lennon's face -- and he looked like he was always saying: 'F--- you!' -- I said: 'I know these guys, I can relate to these guys, I am these guys.' This is what I'm going to do -- play in a rock band'."
- USA Today ranks the top 12 Beatles songs. Quality effort overall. Rearrange the order a bit, swap out "The Fool on the Hill" and the Abbey Road medley for "In My Life" and "I Am the Walrus", and you're in the same ballpark as what my list would look like.
Also from USA Today: "The Great Album Debate: Is 'Pepper' The Beatles' best?" The sooner we reach the end of Pepper's reign (we're getting there, it seems), the better. Revolver belongs on top.
- Finally, here's an amusing rundown of The Beatles' "decidedly mixed" reception in America. In this case, "decidedly mixed" = hostile, scathing, impossibly condescending, savage, unsparing, and so forth.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Spotlight on Nilsson

Here's one more article about Nilsson, from Neil McCormick of The Telegraph ('Everything was sweeter with Harry'). For the piece, McCormick interviewed Van Dyke Parks and Jimmy Webb, two famous industry players who were tight with Nilsson. Their insights and remembrances really cut to the quick of Harry's bewitching charm (see below). I can say from personal experience that this charm rarely if ever ebbs. Once the Son of Schmilsson has you, he has you.
- “It beggars belief that Harry has been misplaced,” according to Parks. “He was prodigious, indefatigable, astonishing for his raw intelligence and musical ability. It has become too easy now to talk about his addictive personality, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but there was essentially a great talent. He was rock and roll but he was a romanticist, he had great elasticity, he could cop a feel, get a groove, put it in the pocket, get down with your bad self. He creates another world. Everything was sweeter with Harry.”
- “I don’t think there was anybody who could touch him as a singer,” according to his close friend, the great songwriter Jimmy Webb. “He had crazy, gymnastic effects that he could do, with a lot of vocal layering, little choirs of himself, everything so precisely lined up. He had this grace of moving from note to note, warbling and twirling, doing little imitations of birds, and then just screaming flat out so that it would tear your wig off. There was an unpredictability and effervescence and a tremendous range. He would get way down in his chest but nobody could sing higher. One of the problems is his performances were so great, they were like mountains. He didn’t just want to be remembered for singing a Badfinger song. But hey, he sang the shit out of it, man. He nailed it.”
- More from Webb: “He was very contagious, and people around him would all of a sudden find themselves having a great day. They might be jerked off to some improbable destination to something that they really hadn’t planned to do, but he was delightfully inventive when it came to, dare I say, wasting time.”
- Lastly, chew on this: "(Nilsson and John Lennon) shared an apartment with Ringo Starr and Keith Moon during Lennon’s notorious 'lost weekend.'" Good Lord. That's a madhouse. That's a den of sin. That's the Seventies in all of its dissolute, depraved, let's-not-do-that-again glory.

Monday, April 7, 2014

When Harry met John...

I can always go for more Harry Nilsson. His stirring, versatile, and oh-so natural voice. His oddball, sometimes sui generis style of songcraft. His storied antics. Etc. In my view, he's one of those rare artists whose lesser material still holds plenty of appeal simply because of the compelling personality behind the whole operation. It may not be a great song or a great album; but as long as it's a Harry Nilsson creation, that promises a different and often uniquely rewarding pop music experience. I just adore the guy, warts and all. Below I've collected a handful of recent articles that are about Harry or feature him in some way. All tie in with The Beatles to one degree or another.
- "Reports from Lennon's Lost Weekend: 'Don’t you know who I am?'"
I got a kick out of this line, which comes from a 1974 news story about John's "lost weekend": "Meanwhile that possible Beatle tour looks even more possible as reports filter about that all four of the Liverpool lads could use the ready cash flow such a tour would precipitate." Very possible indeed.
- "40 Years Ago: John Lennon, Harry Nilsson Tossed From Troubadour for Heckling"
Excerpt: "'I got drunk and shouted,' Lennon later remembered. 'It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders — that’s brandy and milk, folks. I was with Harry Nilsson, who didn’t get as much coverage as me, the bum. He encouraged me. I usually have someone there who says "Okay, Lennon. Shut up."'"
- "Unseen John Lennon letter complains about Keith Moon's rock'n'roll behaviour"
A short quote that basically tells it all: "Clearly John Lennon is blaming Keith (Moon) and Harry for urinating on the console...."
- "40 Years Ago: Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson Release ‘Son of Dracula'"
Excerpt: "'We had this script, Drac takes the cure, marries the girl and goes off into the sunlight — and it was the only movie we wanted to make,' Starr later told Q. 'I called Harry because he was a blonde bombshell and we had his teeth fixed, which his mother was always thankful for.'"
- Lastly, "Harry Nilsson’s 13 Works Of Genius On Film"

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Re: They got it covered

I should've included this in the post I wrote yesterday about recent Beatles/solo-Fab covers. It's the Flaming Lips' thoroughly spaced-out stab at "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." On the whole, Wayne Coyne and his merry band of psychedelic indie-rock pranksters stay true to the 1967 blueprint, but there is one notable deviation: when the chorus goes vertical, it's like a controlled explosion that slowly ascends rather than the original's sudden leap to the stars. It's a very Flaming Lips kind of touch for a very Flaming Lips kind of song.
While we're on the topic, here's the Lips' cover of "Revolution", and here's their interpretation of "I Am the Walrus."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

They got it covered

Need a fix of recent Beatles/solo-Fab covers?
- Here's Arctic Monkeys' take on "All My Loving." It's a slowed down, less anxious version. Only several steps removed from a Roy Orbison-style torch song (though not so hopeless, and with a fuzzy-squeal solo lodged in the middle). The Monkeys played this cover at MSG almost 50 years to the day after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time.
- Here's the War on Drugs, an indie rock act from Philadelphia, revealing something that perhaps should've been obvious long ago: John's "Mind Games" was always a jammy Southern-rock anthem waiting to happen.
- Finally, here's Broken Bells (that is, the duo of Danger Mouse and Shins leadman/professional Kevin Spacey-lookalike, James Mercer) with a starry electro-pop revamp of "And I Love Her." Kudos for the clever "guest spot" by Ringo and the expertly placed sample of "I Am the Walrus." In my view, this is a perfect Beatles cover: an homage that artfully tinkers with the original but retains the core intentions and core emotions.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Everybody loves Ringo!"

Here's a recent cover story from Variety about Richie. Much to enjoy, including some astute takes on the ex-Beatle's legacy and speculation as to why other high-profile drummers from the '60s earned more plaudits than Ringo did. I also couldn't agree more about how well he's aged. It's remarkable. Ringo has no business being 73 and looking as natural and non-plastic-y as he does. Long may he record, tour, and fulfill his self-assigned duties as rock 'n' roll's senior good-vibes emissary to the world.
Extended excerpt:
Blue Note label chief, producer and musician Don Was, who has worked with Ringo repeatedly, calls him the most underrated drummer in rock history. “He changed the way rock ’n’ roll drummers approach music,” Was says.
If Ringo was overshadowed by the brilliant songwriting of his Fab Four mates, especially Lennon and McCartney, who, says Walsh, “commanded your focus with whatever they were doing,” the spotlight on his percussive gifts was further diminished by a group that stopped touring in 1966, concentrating on studio recordings that became ever more conceptual and inventive with each outing. This occurred at a time when jam bands like the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin started airing it out in arenas, giving ample room for their flamboyant drummers to shine in front of a captive audience.
“Being an ensemble player in a band is the most important thing,” Was asserts. “The Beatles were a great band because they listened to each other and reacted off each other very much the way a jazz group does. It requires subverting the ego and being part of a whole. The Beatles are an amazing example of that.”
Santelli goes so far as to call Starr the most important drummer in the history of rock. “The reason I say that is prior to Ringo, certainly there were rock ’n’ roll bands, but hardly anybody knew who the drummer was. Ringo comes along and changes everything. (He has) a very interesting and compelling sense of humor and personality, and we get to know him on a first-name basis.”
Anybody who knows the Beatles’ music intimately knows the tympanic accents and fills as clearly today as when they were recorded: the famous drum roll that launches into “She Loves You”; the shimmering incandescence of his cymbal work on so many of those early hits; the impressionistic free-form of “Rain”; the loping cadence and crispy snare of “Sexy Sadie”; the haunting, almost cinematic drama and rich texture behind “Long, Long”; the building, tour-de-force crescendo that leads up to the “The End” on “Abbey Road.”
“Here’s what I discovered in the very first session that I did with him,” recalls Walsh. “He came in and I said, ‘You want to see a chart on the song?’ And he said, ‘No, give me the lyrics.’ He responds to the singer. A great example of that is when he plays on the Beatles’ ‘Something’ and he does that fill that’s such a musical response it’s almost like a guitar player; there’s notes to it.”
Ringo himself says he brought time and openness to the table as the Beatles drummer. He would do things like putting tea towels on the drums. “The towels would deaden the sound, and give you depth,” he explains. “Until I got the Maple kit, which has the depth of real skin. So if you listen to ‘(She Came in Through the) Bathroom Window’ and ‘Polythene Pam,’ it’s like a tom-tom solo all throughout.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Weekend reading

- "Oh hello girls, busy day?" Rolling Stone gives a brief history of The Beatles' most storied set of fans, the Apple Scruffs.
- Here's a helpful primer on the Fabs' famously confusing catalog of American releases. Sidenote: The whole idea of a band having parallel discographies is a bit strange. I can't imagine there are any comparable examples.
- The New York Times, February 8th, 1964. The hair! The suits! What weirdos!!
- Elijah Wald: How The Beatles consolidated and segregated the pop music scene of the 1960s.
- "It’s impossible to imagine now how distant, unachievable and magical America seemed to us." Peter Asher on Beatlemania and the British Invasion.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review of "The Beatles Solo: The Illustrated Chronicles of John, Paul, George, and Ringo after the Beatles"

(This review was originally published by PopMatters).
More than other works of non-fiction, Beatles books need to justify themselves. With such a preposterous glut available and new installments joining the ranks every few months, it’s not enough – or shouldn’t be, anyway – for authors and publishers to simply coast on the Fab Four brand (redoubtable though it may be). What results from the industry's cynical, because-we-can mentality is that, for every Tune In – a rigorous history tome that actually boasts original research – there are dozens and dozens of superfluous offerings like 100 Things Beatles Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die or The Beatles in 100 Objects. Curious about the band’s horizontal pursuits? Randy Scouse Gits: The Sex Lives of the Beatles will fit the bill. All four of these titles hit shelves last year. The point almost states itself: The Beatles are the greatest band in pop music history, but enough is enough. These days, "a must read for Beatles fans" loosely translates as "coming soon to a used bookstore near you."
The Beatles Solo is more of the same, even with the minor caveat that author and journalist Mat Snow recounts the less familiar post-Fab existences of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Yes, here are the messy, far-ranging, often fascinating solo years … treated to summaries that don't rise above the level of slight and perfunctory. Each exceptionally slim volume of this four-pack has the weight and feel of a glorified Wikipedia synopsis. Sure, they're longer, more polished, and heavier on opinion (sometimes gratingly so, as I’ll detail later), but surface-skimming is still the dominant mode. George’s historic Concert for Bangladesh walks away with three pages of actual text. Macca's fruitful and varied run since the turn of the century? Six. And, predictably, very few of the particulars will be new to Beatles enthusiasts.
But not everyone is a fanatic. What about less avid (but still interested) types who might have use for a primer that encompasses Imagine and Red Rose Speedway, the Traveling Wilburies and the All-Starr Band? This was probably Snow’s guiding concept for The Beatles Solo, and it’s appealing in theory. But there’s a small complication: the list price of $50. In addition to the hyper-abridged career bios, each book comes attractively decorated with an array of photographs: individual shots, album artwork, advertisements, concert footage, movie scenes, etc. Snow didn't skimp. And the whole package is housed in a nifty slipcase that features stylized caricatures of the Four on the front. In terms of production values, The Beatles Solo grades out as first-rate. But these enhancements also inflate the book's price tag to the point where it's completely at odds with the introductory spirit of Snow's mini histories. There’s a clash of visions at work. The generous eye candy notwithstanding, who would want to shell out top dollar for a mere token tour of post-Beatledom?
That tour unfolds along roughly these lines for each Beatle: auspicious success early on, followed by creative misfires, commercial washouts, and personal failings, followed by renewal and resurgence rooted in lifestyle changes and new outlets. Despite my criticism of Snow's reductive modus operandi, there is some truth to the general pattern.
For instance: John hit his solo artistic peak with John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, his first two proper LPs – and two of the finest issued by an ex-Beatle. He then bottomed out as a songwriter on 1972’s Some Time in New York City – an instantly fossilized overdose of radical chic – and as a responsible adult from ‘73-‘75 during his “lost weekend”, a dissolute 18-month separation from Yoko that found Lennon rampaging and recording in L.A. with Ringo, Harry Nilsson, and other notable rock ‘n’ roll debauchees. As Snow writes, John was “losing himself in vodka, Brandy Alexanders, and marching powder, yet clearly having no fun at all.” Realizing he’d gone astray, John eventually reconciled with Yoko before shunning the music business altogether and retreating into a 5-year period of Mr. Mom domesticity. (His second son, Sean, was born in late ’75.) John’s return to the spotlight, punctuated by 1980’s Double Fantasy, was of course tragically short-lived.
How about a less-chronicled example? Mr. Starkey’s career has veered from smash single "Photograph" and the rest of Ringo to a spate of flop records, even worse films, and alcohol abuse to sobriety, the touring bonhomie of the All-Starr Band, and reruns of Shining Time Station. A long and winding road, if you will. But not in Snow's handling.
(Side note: Of late, Ringo has been locked in a public contest with Yoko to see who can invoke peace and love more frequently. Hey, I hope they both win.)
It’s to Snow’s credit that, despite furnishing only bare-bones sketches of the solo years, he didn't go down the path of hagiography on top of that. The Beatles Solo is a warts-and-all retelling. But that’s not to suggest he’s evenhanded in his treatment of each Fab. The short version: Snow is emphatically *not* on Team Paul. And his repeated underlining of this fact grows stale in a hurry.
Comparing Paul’s “Too Many People” and John’s “How Do You Sleep?”, which both were aimed at the opposite party, Snow opines that at least the Imagine broadside “was written in blood and acid in contrast to the vanilla essence that flowed through Paul’s writing.” Indeed, kudos to John because he was by nature an asshole and thus a better one than Paul. Or how about the implication that when John reached #1 on the charts, it was born of his high-minded artistry; but when desperate-to-please Paul did so, he had only his shallow “craft and whimsy” to thank.
Lastly (though there are more illustrations), observe this line: “Though somewhat fragmentary and oblique, in keeping with the movie footage, George’s Wonderwall music (sic) held its own when compared with Paul’s 1966 soundtrack for The Family Way”. But why compare the two at all - they aren't remotely similar - unless the sole purpose was to take a needless and immature potshot at Paul? Snow couldn’t help himself, it seems. I mean, go ahead and stake a claim to your favorite or least favorite Beatle - confession: I've never really connected with the Quiet One - but please don’t be so cheap and frivolous when making your case.
In the most significant sense, Snow said too little with The Beatles Solo. And in a far more trifling but obnoxious way, he said too much. Beatles books are rarely win-win propositions. If you're a solo-years novice and a handsome but information-light and overpriced doorstop sounds satisfying, then The Beatles Solo will suit your tastes. If not, look elsewhere. You won't have to contend with a shortage of options.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A night at the Grammys

Before we get too far removed from Grammy night, I thought I'd post this pair of videos.
The first is of Macca and Ringo's much-ballyhooed joint performance of "Queenie Eye" (the second and perhaps final single off New). The verdict: Though Richie plays a secondary role to Paul's regular drummer, Abe Laboriel, Jr., it's still a pleasure to watch the two ex-Beatles in tandem onstage. And it's a superb song - frivolous, flighty fun but impeccably crafted, with a sense of forward momentum that's dynamic and ear-catching. Paul nails the vocal too, 71 years old and all.
The second clip shows Ringo, flanked by a well-stocked backing band, delivering his most famous solo hit, "Photograph". Big, booming, widescreen - thumbs up. Richard Perry, who produced the song back in 1973, clearly borrowed a page from the Phil Spector manual.
That same evening, Paul and Ringo were honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Cute Beatle also racked up four more Grammy wins, bringing his total haul to 18 (which includes those he won as a Fab). He shared Best Rock Song with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear - the surviving members of Nirvana - for their fantastic Sound City jam, "Cut Me Some Slack". Watch these most unlikely collaborators accept the award here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beck's "Love"

Pitchfork writes:
"On February 14, Starbucks will release a new compilation of covers for Valentine's Day, titled Sweetheart 14. The collection will feature recordings by Fiona Apple, Vampire Weekend, Phosphorescent, and Jim James, among others. Beck also contributes a cover of John Lennon's 'Love', which you can stream above now via Revolt /Consequence of Sound."
Follow those links or have a listen below. Beck certainly puts his stamp on John's moving, mournful, all-time classic ballad off JL/POB. This is "Love" by way of Sea Change, Beck's 2002 LP. No longer lower-case and unadorned but spacious and echoey, with reflective sheen galore. Beck doesn't quite pull it off - "Love" will always work best as an intimate, vapory whisper - but I still admire the effort.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Today in Beatles history

As I learned from The Beatles Bible (which is an indispensable resource for Fab fanatics), The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on this day in 1988. I highlight this not because their joint appearance (sans Paul, who no-showed) or acceptance speeches are really of any note. Ringo played the part of the too-cool, liquored-up buffoon with dismaying ease and perfection. George was sincere and dignified but not all that forthcoming. And I don't care enough to remark on Yoko. No, it's Mick Jagger's funny and engaging introductory speech that you should watch. I love his recollection of the early days, which includes some ace digs against provincial, backwater Liverpool. And I can't help but wonder what was actually going through his head as he heaped plaudits on his once-rivals. In the history of rock 'n' roll, few can match Mick for ego and pride.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Weekend reading

- A.V. Club: "With Band On The Run, Paul McCartney escaped The Beatles’ shadow"
Noah Cruickshank writes, "John did hold Paul back. But, contrary to what most critics argued, that was a bad thing. Lennon hindered McCartney’s formal experimentation, and the two-part structure of Abbey Road is the best proof of that: Lennon refused to let McCartney and George Martin turn the entire album into a suite of thematically related songs."
No. No, no, no. Band on the Run is the exception that proves the rule. How could you hold The Beatles' catalog and Paul's solo career side-by-side and then draw the conclusion that, "Man, if only John had let Paul run wild." It's absurd, absolutely absurd. To the left, a staggering run of classics; to the right, near-misses, mediocrity, and creative ebbs occasionally interrupted by greatness. The Abbey Road dimension of the argument is no more convincing. The Side Two song cycle works so gloriously well in part because it occupies just one side. Stretching that vision across the whole of Abbey Road would've resulted in a lesser album - something more frivolous and indulgent. Hmmm, that sounds like much of Paul's post-Beatles output, no? The larger point: a key element of the Lennon/McCartney dynamic was that they kept each other's excesses in check. Contra Cruickshank, this remains an unqualified good.
- "The Beatles' US Albums: How the classics were butchered"
- I'm reminded of Capitol Records' ham-fisted retooling of The Beatles' oeuvre every time I dip into Rubber Soul or Revolver on vinyl. From 14 tracks apiece to 12 and 11, respectively. Goodbye "Drive My Car", "Nowhere Man", "I'm Only Sleeping" (!!), "And Your Bird Can Sing", etc. The savagery! The philistinism! More than their early-period works, the Fabs consciously constructed these two LPs (and later ones, Pepper most notably) as unified collections of songs. It was this effect that blew away Brian Wilson when he first heard Rubber Soul. In other words, they were not meant to be altered.
- "The Beatles were the Mitt Romney of the 1960s, and other policy lessons from the Fab Four"
Excerpt: In 1968, when "The White Album" was released, revolutionary fervor was in the air. Vietnam protests were at a high ebb; there was violence in the streets, and there was a sense that the old order was fundamentally broken and needed to be brought down by any means necessary. The Beatles' song "Revolution" combines an almost bombastic revolutionary tone with a more subtle message. "We all want to change the world/But when you talk about destruction/Don't you know that you can count me out," John Lennon wrote. "You say you got a real solution/Well, you know/We'd all love to see the plan."
Lennon seems to have meant the song as a rebuke of would-be revolutionaries who, in their dislike of how things worked in the Western democracies, blinded themselves to the brutal realities of rule under Communist regimes ("You say you'll change the constitution/Well, you know/We all want to change your head" and "if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow"). But there are some themes in the song that apply more broadly to policy.
It's easy to look around the world and see all the things that are going wrong, and to want to tear up the system in its entirety. What's a lot harder is the messy work of identifying concrete, practical action that might make peoples' lives better, all the while respecting existing institutions and interests enough to actually make positive change happen through democratic means.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

More on Mark Lewisohn's "Tune In"

Before Tune In was released back in October, The Telegraph ran a series of excerpts from the book. You'll find a sample below.
- "The making of Lennon"
I didn't know about these circumstances of Julia's death: She likely wouldn't have been on foot if not for her then-husband being stripped of his driver's license. "Twitchy" (as John called him) had recently been cited for drunk driving. And the reason Julia was out and about at all that night was to ask her sister Mimi if John could move back in with his aunt. Hard times financially. An already very sad story becomes even sadder.
- "The birth of the band"
Excerpt: Through sheer force of personality, John Lennon changed others’ lives, and many went willingly on the journey. For Paul McCartney, who had a fundamental need to be noticed, stepping forward with John was a natural move – he was aligning himself with someone people couldn’t avoid, and who thrust two fingers up to things in a way he envied but would rarely do in full view. At the same time, Paul could apply gloss, where needed, to minimise John’s trail of damage. Their musical group was formed in John’s image and driven ever onward by his restlessness, but without Paul he would have upset too many people too many times to make the progress they both craved. Paul’s other strengths were his great talent, his burning ambition and his high self-regard, and when John felt them becoming overbearing he’d pull him down a peg or two, as only he could.
- "The Sixties Start Here"
Fun fact: "Murry Wilson agreed the Beach Boys’ contract with Capitol Records on 10 May, the day after George Martin, in London, offered Brian Epstein a Parlophone contract for the Beatles."

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mark Lewisohn's "Tune In" discoveries

While researching the initial installment of his sweeping, obsessively detailed three-part history of The Beatles, Mark Lewisohn unearthed the true story of how George Martin came to be the band's producer. Abridged version: It was a punishment of sorts. From a NYT interview with Lewisohn:
Q: One of the biggest surprises in the book concerns how and why George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, signed them to his label, Parlophone. The story was always that when everyone else turned them down, he saw a spark or originality. But it turns out to have been a far more byzantine transaction.
A: When I wrote the “Recording Sessions” book, I found very little paperwork about their first session, on June 6, 1962, and people who were involved remembered it differently. That was thought to have been an audition. But in 1991 I gained access to another archive within EMI, where I found the studio booking forms, and those showed that at the time of that session, they were already under contract. It was not an audition, or an artist test, or any test at all — it was a proper session, under a contract.
This created a mystery: it meant that George Martin had signed them without having heard them perform live. In 1992, I laid all these documents out in front of him, and I said: “George, can you explain this to me? You appear to have signed them before you saw them.” And he appeared genuinely befuddled by it. He said, “Why would I have done that?” We never resolved it, but I knew there had to be more to it.
Q: The key was someone else who had never been interviewed, Kim Bennett, who worked for EMI’s in-house publisher, Ardmore & Beechwood, which published the Beatles’ first songs. Ardmore & Beechwood pushed EMI to sign the Beatles because it wanted to publish their music, and EMI, after first resisting the idea, agreed because the company saw it as a way to punish George Martin for various indiscretions.
A: I had been looking for Kim Bennett to talk about the early publishing, but unbeknownst to me, he had been trying for years to get people to listen to his story about how the Beatles got signed, and nobody wanted to know. I interviewed him extensively over two days, and I grilled him — to the point where he lost his temper, a bit — because I wanted to be sure I understood this properly, and that it stood up. And the story was that for a combination of reasons, George Martin had his arm twisted to sign the Beatles.
. . .
Other noteworthy details from the book:
- MOJO: "The infamous tug-of-love scene in Blackpool, where five-year-old John Lennon is forced to choose between his mother and father, didn’t happen."
- The Weekly Standard: "Lewisohn tells us, for example, that manager Brian Epstein wanted the chief songwriter to get top billing in credits rather than use the Lennon-McCartney nomenclature; that Epstein was not to blame for the lame set list for their disastrous Decca audition; that the band was briefly known as “Japage 3” for John, Paul, and George; and that Paul McCartney was at the low end of the totem pole when the Beatles first played Hamburg (“Everyone hates him,” bassist Stuart Sutcliffe wrote back home)."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Weekend reading

This one has been sitting idle in my repository of Fab links for too long: Stereogum's list of The Beatles' albums from worst to best. As with most undertakings of this kind - and especially those that touch on The Beatles' inviolable discography - there's voluminous room for disagreement. Revolver at #3? "Two of Us" is nothing more than a "minor ditty"? Did I really see the words "I've Got a Feeling" and "slay" in the same sentence? You get the picture. But all told, the list makes for a quality, enjoyable read. It's obvious that Chris DeVille - easily one of my favorite music scribes going today - loves and gets The Beatles.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thursday links

- From The Atlantic: "'Rubbish,' 'Tiresome,' 'Whoa-Yuk!': The Beatles' Early Haters".
A perhaps crucial data set is missing from this article: the demographics of the BBC listening audience. If the fault line between approval and disapproval correlates with significant age discrepancies (i.e., young: thumbs up; old: thumbs down), then there really isn't anything too noteworthy about The Beatles' so-called mixed reception. On the pop culture front, those were youth-driven times.
- Appearing on Newsweek's website, here's a detail-rich excerpt from John McMillan's new book, Beatles vs. Stones, that carries the header, "You Never Give Me Your Money: How Allen Klein Played The Beatles and The Stones."
Klein in a nutshell:
On his desk, he kept a plaque that parodied Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for I am the biggest motherfucker in the valley.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shot of the day

I love this pic (found in the slideshow at the bottom of this article). There are John and George - sweaty, frenzied, in the grips of a feverish rock 'n' roll high... and sporting those finely pressed polite-society suits which Brian Epstein mandated that they wear. While in place, this contrast was an integral and fascinating element of The Beatles' image. They played by certain rules and subverted others. Sometimes they leaned Paul, and sometimes they leaned John.