Friday, March 11, 2011

You Know the Name--The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 5: Semaphores and Chromatophores


A trio of certainties:

1. One successful film starring a wildly popular band of young men will beget another.
2. That film will not be up to the quality of the one preceding it..
3. The accompanying album, however, will be better.

Finally, an album that gives the discerning listener a chance to hear the individuals that comprise the whole. For John is not interchangeable with Paul who is in turn not at all synonymous with George. (Insofar as Ringo goes, he has whatever personality they decide to give him for any one song--which is all he gets.) All three were brilliant translators of their own distinguished muse, creative demons with halos that became increasingly incorrigible when faced with greater fame, riches, and expectation. To stave off immolation, the Beatles wielded the shield of introspection.

"Help!"--A plaintive cry from a man who one cliche-ridden night looked hard in the mirror and saw a swirling morass glowering back.

It's a brave soul who'll flick open the blade to carve open their fleshy bulwark, exposing the most vulnerable parts of themselves to an air that may cause it to wither. It's a strong tongue that is able to admit a weakness that no thick-headed will to power-speech can overcome.

The idea of a real man being a man who holds his emotions so close to the vest that they leave an imprint on the skin of his chest is ridiculous and immortal. It greases the gears that power the planet, yet stymies progress simultaneously. Contradiction and turmoil are real, more true-blue than any silly sub-standard of living passed on from fucked generation to fucked generation.

"Help!" is real. Which isn't to say songs about failed or flailing romances are fraudulent. But they're easier to write. Songs like "Help!" take some digging, conjure up unpleasant memories, produce vital fluid. Lennon felt that in all his time as a Beatle (which ultimately was not all that long) he wrote only two "genuine" songs, this and "Strawberry Fields Forever." Second-guessing this is pointless; he wrote the fucking songs. He knows what he's talking about.

The commercially-driven decision to quicken the tempo disappointed John, and indeed it sparks off images of mad-lad hijinks through the narrow streets of London rather than a desultory everyman turned demigod wrestling with pain and pleading for a remedy. Conversely, the contrast in lyric and tune juxtaposes neatly with the idea that contradiction as supreme impetus.

The stereo and mono mixes offer different lead vocal takes, on this and other songs, but nothing too drastic all told--John does sound a bit more assured in mono, and thus less in need of assistance, but trust that he's in dire straits all the same. His mates, being mates, are sympathetic, particularly George with his "broken chords" during the "Won't you please" sections.

"The Night Before"--All Paul. Wall to wall. Posted up like a mailbox.

More mates being stand-up here: over a punchy strut, Paul laments a fairweather love while John and George provide a mellifluous response from across the Salisbury Plains. It's fairly sublime stuff considering that it's just, again, a lamentation of a fickle bird. I quite dig Paul candy-coating the reason he's so friggin' distraught--ridiculously fantastic sex.

"Treat me like you did the night before."

What, when she taught you how to play chess? No. When she manipulated her limbs in a manner akin to an Olympic gymnast? More like. I see you and your filthy rock star ways, you filthy rock star.

"When I think of things we did/It makes me want to cry."

Like your very first checkmate? Never. Like the blowjob that made you see spiracles? Always.

"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"--Lennon as Dylan again, and this time blatantly so. Feel the prick of the patchy facial hair on a careworn face hidden by that insanely ugly hat will you for the love of Pete Seeger take that off yer friggin' head! Do genius and heat both exit the body via the same route? Hmmm.

The gentle acoustics and near-subliminal percussion are coasted alongside perfectly by John, who almost out-Bobs his new hero. (I still think the Traveling Wilburys existed solely for Jeff Lynne to remake this song over and over, much like he started ELO to plop out endless variations on "I Am the Walrus.") The flutes on this song represent the first instance of outside musicians on a Beatles track, and make fantastic sense to boot.

Considering this song I must consider a greater, graver question. Why must we women be so wicked? Well, we kinda have to. Men won't give us equal footing on political grounds or social grounds...the glass ceiling in the workplace has not been shattered into oblivion just yet...and physically, well, need it be said? Given the host of disadvantages, mind games are the only way we can feel like real players. I don't condone it.

I would hope that men and women worldwide can join together in decrying how much louder the vocals are on the stereo mix of this and most of the songs on Help! Honestly now.

"I Need You"--George's first original on a Beatles album since With the Beatles is a serenade to Patti Boyd. A relationship that would totally end well. Hey, at least there were no tattoos involved. I think.

Sloppy riffing, afterthought vox harmonics. Stereo just accentuates these flaws. When it comes to songs called "I Need You," well, it's just like chocolate--America does it better.

"Another Girl"--Macca for the very first time provides lead axe work, via that nasty solo near the end.

Keys open doors, unless the locks are changed. But what happens when the keys are changed? Beatles in a nutshell.

Country like a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits dripping with butter and jam. Clearly, our man has moved on from "The Night Before."

"You're Gonna Lose That Girl"--So is John threatening to steal his mate's bird just to make a point, or out of sincere concern for her well-being? The latter, I'd say, though I'm more than a bit swayed by the 50s style dude-group vibe this song exudes. Shiny suits, bow ties, pompadours, kill 'em with kindness. This song features a tempo shift that's really like a mood shift that is in actuality a pole shift.

Finally: Ringo plus bongos equals, what else? BINGO.

"Ticket to Ride"--So ends the "Help!" soundtrack portion of our program. There's a stormy heaviness bordering on menace here, in the caveman plod 'n' roll of Ringo's drums, in the shimmering-now-shuddering chord work (which guts the fish a bit more in stereo, to its credit).

Song meanings are important to many, not so much to others. Per Macca, the ticket in question is one that will earn you a ride on British Railways. But then Lennon said that it referred to cards carried by Hamburg hookers meant to indicate the waters were clean, so dive right in. I believe in both interpretations. A whore riding the train. Harlot on the rail! So poetic. Anyway, just crank this shit. But if you need me to implore you that, we both got problems.

"Act Naturally"--Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show wanted to get their pitcher on the cover of the Rolling Stone; Buck Owens wanted to make the Grand Ole Opry. Here's to dreams coming true, even if they are piss-poor.

Putting this song on this album is like featuring clams in a documentary about frogs.

Friggin' Ringo.

"It's Only Love"--John said this song featured a "terrible lyric," and frankly that's brutal. Yes the first words are "I get high," and there's never much promise inherent in such a salvo, but it only improves. Praise due. This is a nice song to sit on the porch and drink sweet tea to.

"You Like Me Too Much"--Snoopy could scouse shuffle to this in a French cafe while wearing a scarf, I don't doubt. George makes up for his earlier, plainer sin. Still, not a hair of a hint that this same would someday write and sing "Something."

"Tell Me What You See"--Gentle, watery, bright-eyed beseeching. The solace of a McCartney composition is always the ideal counterpoint/part to the jostle of a Lennon original. Their chalk and cheese relationship is still being misinterpreted by otherwise intelligent fans as we speak.

"I Just Saw A Face"--I love how, title-wise, this song answers the previous one. Paul on both, to boot.

Like "When Doves Cry," this song lacks a bass track. Unlike "When Doves Cry," this song doesn't make me think of a very skinny black man with a John Waters moustache emerging slo-mo from a bathtub. Manic in the way John Denver flew planes.

"Yesterday"--For my money, "Here There and Everywhere" is Macca's most exquisitely rendered love song. I'll obviously elaborate when I get to Revolver, but suffice it to say that particular song is still to my mind radically underrated. This is not to degrade "Yesterday." Three thousand cover versions can be wrong...but they're not.

I understand why "Yesterday" is so universally beloved. So do you. Listen to it. While Paul's chord changes defy the routine, they are decorated with saccharine strings (that are affecting and effective regardless, damn them) and simple words.

All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh I believe in yesterday


Why'd she have to go
I don't know, she wouldn't say
I said something wrong
Now I long for yesterday

So basic.

That's why we listen to music instead of reading it from paper.

Paul's phrasing on "Yesterday" is simply brilliant. Tunefully disconsolate in the verse, then halting and haunting in the chorus.

This one broke the Beatles beyond the teeny-bopper demographic, for which any fan of theirs should be grateful. Still, it remains too soft for many to swallow, and was famously dissed (along with "Michelle") by a likely-green Dylan for its dime-a-dozen stench. It was also not-famously degraded by a fat NYU student in line for a Sonic Youth concert at Central Park in 2002 for Paul's original lyrics: "Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs." He used this as his main argument that John was the superior songwriter. Unbelievable. And there I was just about to tell him how much I loved his performance in Se7en.

"Dizzy Miss Lizzy"--"Hippie Hippie Shake"? Oh no. It's better. Fathoms so. Mainly 'cause Tom Cruise never douched it up in a movie whilst this played in the background. A nice cap to a fine record, this cover was suggested by manager Brian Epstein to justify his salary. Well done! Beats piss out of "Mr. Moonlight." Tight and loose, neat and frayed, cut and cured. The fuckin' Beatles.

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