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.