Friday, April 29, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 12--Don't Remember Me As I Am Now, Remember Me As I Can Be


Released just after Paul McCartney announced the Beatles had broken up, the bulk of Let It Be had been abandoned in early 1969, after recording sessions for the proposed Get Back album proved so acrimonious that George Martin gave up on his boys and the boys began to give up on themselves (cf. the Let It Be film). Regrouping with renewed purpose, the Beatles (and a reassured Mr. Martin) recorded Abbey Road, their apex album.

Capital vitality momentarily restored, a decision was reached to revisit Get Back, the band entrusted Glyn Johns with piecing together a proper album. (Two songs--"I Me Mine" and "Across the Universe"--required further studio time.) No one was happy with Johns' handiwork, however, so John Lennon and George Harrison went behind the backs of Paul McCartney and George Martin to enlist the services of one Phil Spector, the producer legendary for his "Wall of Sound" recording technique, which consisted of many guitarists playing identical parts in unison in an echo chamber, producing pure reverb reaction. But what's good for the "Be My Baby" might not be so good for "Let It Be," right? Some people thought so, but I'll save that for the end.

A fantastic addition to the shebang was key-tickler extraordinaire Billy Preston, who the fellas knew from the Hamburg salad days and who just happened to be in London doing sessions for Ray Charles when George Harrison plucked him up and brought him to the rest of the band like, "Do any of you freaks here ever remember Billy?" "Straight on!"

I can't imagine how depressing it must have been for Beatle-heads to get this album and just stare at that cover of broken blocks, and listen to the songs, realizing their beloved group was now splintered off. I wonder how many people thought reunion was imminent.

The film version is worth a look for its glance at a once-vigorous linchpin of the culture on junebug legs. The rooftop concert is momentous and melancholy. The Beatles nabbed an Oscar for the score, beating out A Boy Named Charlie Brown. At a pre-awards show gathering honoring all the nominees, Charlie Brown producer Lee Mendelsohn was approached by Paul McCartney and congratulated on a certain victory. When Mendelsohn expressed shock, Paul insisted, "No, no doubt about it, it's 'Charlie Brown.'"

Good grief.

"Two of Us"--Paul wrote this for Linda, sure, but John's in there too. In a way this is the ultimate anthem for the J & P Show, who were at critical junctures as individual men--both were with the women who would prove to be their great loves but both were severing from the other when it came to their shared great love, music. Where John heard irreversible sonic stasis, Paul saw ample opportunity in continuing on, with easily applicable solutions available to all troublesome situations.

Both guys were wrong, but that's all right. For the entirety of this duet, they shine like the hubcaps on a top-dropped Caddy, feet bumping a rhythm against the dashboard, smiling faces glancing at the expanse of forever on either side and giddily wondering how the soul can feel so alive when there's no sign of another one around.

"You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead."

Two old friends, driving on a road that will only seem one day to end.

"Dig A Pony"--John wrote this for Yoko, but she should've given it back. Ba-zing. Oh it's a laugh a line with the free association of Lennon! The intro is the pinnacle, an engrossing tangle of axes and hacksaws that settles into a loping drawl. References and recalls abound (Rolling Stones, Johnny and the Moondogs) over some nicely trashed guitar tones. Lennon explains his lyrics thusly--"I was just having fun with words." Dare I say there is no greater fun to be had.

"Across the Universe"--A melody so obstinate it drove Lennon out of his bed one night, this spiritual/mystical meditation suffers from poor mixing and lackluster vocals. The rushed and clipped nature of the lines can work, but the used vocal take is the definition of demo. It's further devalued by Paul's decision to recruit a couple Apple Scruffs from outside the studio to sing backup, although for Lizzie Bravo and Gaylen Pease, they had a couple hours that'll last forever, so who cares what I think.

The lyrics themselves are by and large wonderful, imagery that aims not to splatter the walls with its colors but rather to streak the sky. I wonder how many brains Lennon scrambled when he threw the Sanskrit in there. (Jai guru deva, om roughly translated as "I praise the god divine.")

"Nothing's gonna change my world." Is that such a good thing? Isn't that kind of closed minded? Or just the level of devotion you need to further the soul? It's a ponder. For all its flaws, innate and otherwise, I can't ignore that "Across the Universe" is one of the wisest songs the Beatles ever did.

"I Me Mine"--More spirit desire from God's Man Till the End himself. The Buddhist doctrine of "No Ego" seeks the death of the untrue self, as it is that self, forever craving and thus unfulfilled and eternal, that keeps the believer from attaining awareness. It is not a philosophy, but a profound religious practice that separates the worms from the corn very quickly.

This is a very good song, making it the bizarro "Within You and Without You." How it shifts from mournful weeping to chafing to back is jarring and a bit fun.

"Dig It"--It took all four of them to write this song? It's 51 seconds long. Dig It, A Pony. Fixing to Dig a Hole For a Pony. FBI, CIA, BBC, this one was DOA but they just wouldn't put the heart paddles away.

"Let It Be"--Paul's mother Mary passed when her son was fourteen years old, but for well or ill, our mothers are always with us. As the song says, she visited her son in a dream to provide reassurance, encouragement, and most of all love, which while not all we need, is so important that only our souls understand. His mother is my mother, is your mother, and so on.

It starts off just Paul, his plaintive words, and a piano rumbling desultorily. He is joined in turn by the rest of the band, as well as Billy Preston (whose brief break here is phenomenal), Linda on backing vocals and some unfortunate Spector hounds. None of them are as strong a presence as mother Mary. Her advice is simple, and just what her son needed to hear from the person he needed to hear it from. Moms make sense. Listen when they talk. They do not traffic in double-speak. They offer up wisdom and counsel common among those who know what it is to put someone else above themselves and keep them there forever.

It's easy, and popular, for folks so inclined to hear religious overtones in "Let It Be," and Paul has never said or done anything to disabuse anyone of that notion. This interpretive leg-room assures that the song remains timeless.

"Maggie Mae"--Sweet Christ on a cracker, did Paul get an Apple Scruff to sequence this album too? A traditional Liverpool folk number about a thieving whore. A mere skirmish on the outskirts, a meandering retread that despite its infinite disposability is still leagues better than Rod Stewart's projectile vomit spew bucket of the same name. "Wake up Maggie, I think I got somethin' to say to you/Why do hot women sleep with me even though I'm uglier than an alcoholic's liver?"

"I've Got a Feeling"--Ah, but are you hooked on it?

A combination of a Paul song (the titular offering) with a John one ("Everybody Had a Hard Year," especially the Mighty Quinn, eh John?) and that's a virtual certificate of authenticity with sharp corners, suitable for framing, but not every frame is suitable for it!

Well, this is a good 'un. Coulda used thicker bottom end, but (insert joke about white women's butts here). Singers always got the feeling and they got it deep inside, and they are unable to hide it. Why can't one fucking time they have the feeling at the surface and they are able to conceal it quite well. That's impressive. And a bit sociopathic.

"One After 909"--One of the very first songs John Lennon ever wrote, and it has that glorious road-dog stench all over it. Pure rock and roll, it had to hearten them all to some degree that despite the many years, experiments, disagreements and disillusionment, they could still replicate that early, gleeful vibe.

"The Long and Winding Road"--A heart-squeezer absolutely ruined by PHIL SPECTOR'S UNSTOPPABLE GENIUS. Motherfucker produced this song like Michael Bay directs movies. THAT ASTEROID IS GOING TO KILL US ALL. WHY END A LINE OF DIALOGUE WITH ONE EXCLAMATION POINT WHEN THERE'S THREE OR MORE TO BE HAD. Can you feel the emotion in Paul's words? Of course you can't, you poor simple! MORE VIOLA! Voila! Now you're affected! In saccharine we trust!

Paul notoriously despised Spector's treatment of "The Long and Winding Road." I'm right there with him, except for his complaint that "I would never have female voices on a Beatles record." Not because it's sexist, but because...

"Across the Universe" features two female vocalists, as invited by Paul.

It is important to remember that Paul McCartney has smoked a planet's worth of weed before passing judgment.

"For You Blue"--This is from George to wife Patti, but I always imagined it was about a dog. Sorry Patti. Please blame Nickelodeon. And really, I'd rather continue interpreting it as such. When's the last time you heard of a man divorcing his dog?

In keeping with the album's general lack of electricity, this is an acoustic rollicker with John's lap steel keeping pace alongside, Ringo waiting at the finish line with checkered flags and a shit-munching grin on his hirsute gob. The Elmore James adlib is one of two moments in a Beatles song that makes me laugh into the air whenever I hear it. (For the other, read my White Album review.)

"Get Back"--Immigration was a heated topic in England 'round this time, and a bootleg version of this song features Paul addressing the issue in a less-than accepting tone. Possibly more offensive than the content of the lyrics is the refusal to make anything rhyme.

In the version that made the album, gone is the prickish polemic, and in its place a tale of some confused, wayward souls that need a reboot. Always a smart idea, and I'm glad Paul took his own advice here.

"Get Back" is marvelously contained, the sum of all its low-key parts. John's solo work is tentative but perfect, and the same can be said for Preston's keyboard solo as well. That's some well-deserved claps at the end (taken from the rooftop gig), topped off with John's send-off: "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and myself and I hope we've passed the audition."

In 2003, Let It Be...Naked was released. At Paul's behest, the original session tapes were mixed from scratch by Paul Hicks, Guy Massey and Allan Rouse, with some buffing through ProTools. The aim was to release a version of the album closer to what the band intended: not some flowery, syrupy soundtrack fit to win a major award, but a stripped-down rock record. "Maggie Mae" and "Dig It" were excised, and replaced with "Don't Let Me Down," a song which had first appeared on "Past Masters Volume Two" (albeit a different take) and which I will cover when reviewing that particular record.

The differences are myriad and major. The album begins with "Get Back," shunting "Two of Us" to the middle of the pack and placing the title track at the end. This "Get Back" features no pause/fade-out or rooftop yak. Extraneous yak is also cut from "Dig A Pony," and the vocal take used sounds fuller. If you liked John's introductory blather in "Two of Us," that's gone too. "For You Blue" emphasizes the acoustic pricks and jabs in both channels, and suffers mildly for it.

The question of whether or not Let It Be should have had its nudie pictures leaked to the public is answered when you consider the flab-free versions of the title track, "Across the Universe," and "The Long and Winding Road." Each song sounds rescued and refreshed, now freed from suffocating pomp. "Let It Be" has a different guitar solo and drum work (which to me personally is inferior to Ringo's work on the original); "Across the Universe" reaches its potential, crisper and more confident, as John no longer sounds afraid to bare his soul.

"The Long and Winding Road," really, what can one say? It's like when a baby is born, and they got that crap all over 'em, and you're like EWW and then the nurses clean the baby up, and AWW! How refreshing to not be ambushed by Phil Spector and his Orchestral Maneuvers of Doom. Now we can hear Paul's song for what it is, a heart-crackling plea to his bandmates to somehow repair their disintegrating situation. If you leave me, we'll all regret it more than is possible to know at this moment.

In the end, it was Paul who walked away.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 11--Pen Ultimate


After enduring the irascible sessions for the aborted Get Back album, the Beatles--mainly Macca--were eager to actually enjoy recording an album. The result was Abbey Road, which would have made a fabulous swan song. Those abandoned songs just wouldn't be denied, though.

But that's next review. This? Is my favorite Beatles album. George Martin agrees. Let's go.

"Come Together"--There persist among us those fans who genuinely believe that the real James Paul McCartney--Paul to his friends, Macca to fangirl bloggers--perished in 1966, most likely via a car crash. To keep the Beatle train chugging, EMI replaced him with a "Faul" in the ultimate reeking piss-take. The people who accept even the possibility of such a scenario, much less the ones who swear by it, are the same sort convinced that their government is gradually poisoning them through dairy products.

I don't laugh at those people. Many of them have procreated, and the implications are too depressing to allow for even a rueful chuckle. On a lesser scale of analytical apeshittery, and thus on a higher scale of hardy-har-hars, is the belief that the "he" referred to in each verse of "Come Together" is in fact a different member of the Beatles.

The thing about free association writing is that the creative mind, no matter how deliberately altered it is, contains certain names, words and phrases unique to the individual writer. Break on through to the other side like some drugged-up Kool-Aid Man all you desire, you will be taking some of your old bags with you.

The best example in "Come Together" is the third verse, which certain listeners believe is Lennon describing himself. "He got walrus scumble/He got Ono sideboard." Referencing one of his most famous compositions and then his infamous girlfriend alongside randomly selected words is just the mating of the comfortable and familiar with the nonsensical. It gives the illusion of subtext, but that's all it is.

The "old flat top" of the first verse is George. "He's one holy roller," well wow, that's George to a tee! Next verse, "He got toe-jam football/He got monkey finger/He shoot Coca-Cola." This is, apparently, Paul. I have seen explanations that "monkey finger" represents his bass playing style. If I believed in this crap, I'd say the fourth verse, with its mention of a roller coaster and the guy who's "got to be good-lookin' 'cause he's so hard to see" was Paul. You know..."Helter Skelter"? Paul being "the cute one"? Yeah.

What's true is that "Come Together" was inspired by Timothy Leary's planned campaign against Ronald Reagan for governor of California. His slogan: "Come together, join the party."

What's also true, although one could be forgiven for sneering it off as urban legend, is that Lennon is saying "Shoot me" at the beginning of the song (and in between verses), with the last word muted by a bass note. (It can be heard at certain times with a good pair of headphones, though.) Unsettling in retrospect, Lennon's plea is for a fix, not a bullet.

Give ya more truth--what a boss way to begin a wreck-hard. The sound of the self, righteous. Clear as honey and sweet as vinegar.

"Something"--Punches are too puny. This is like a one-two flame toss.

A song that borrows its first line from the title of a James Taylor song shouldn't succeed. But if you look at that as a pre-emptive strike against Taylor's own shameless thievery (especially against Carole King), then what a divine decision.

The best song George ever wrote as a member of the Beatles and I mean damn did he get to hold his nuts for this one. He even made Macca back down his shit in the studio, insisting to Paul the never-pleased that a nice unobtrusive bass line would suffice: "I don't need you gallivanting string-wise all over my one unimpeachable masterpiece, James." A chastened McCartney could do little but fling hands skyward and mutter, "Hey man, I'm just trying to keep the band together, man."

All the instruments--guitar, bass, drums, organ courtesy of Billy Preston--are locked in an exquisite slow dance. Harrison's solo is sensual in the literal definition of the word. It's that rare piece of post-seventeenth century art that features the word "woo" and doesn't sound corny. "Something" is the sort of love song that can make a person feel terrible for not even believing in love, although the song's intent is nothing of the sort.

"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"--Ooh ooh, a generally despised Paul song, I wonder if Jenn likes, nay, loves it!

Hop on board The Whimsy Express, which many say is flimsy at best. The other three Beatles despised "Maxwell's," half due to the actual song, half due to the hours upon hours logged in the studio until the song met its creators exacting standards. Many fans find the track cloying, but that's down solely to the jaunty piano and actual goddamn anvil chorus. The lyrics detail demented days in the life of one Maxwell Edison, medicine major, and the people he disposes of via his shiny weapon. Lennon wrote a song like that, he woulda been praised for pushing the boundaries of pop. McCartney does it, folks nearly rip their tongues to shreds from all the razor-sharp vitriol. Another top-hatter for Penguin-mad grannies!

Big surprise, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a brilliant bit of waffle. Fluffy but yummy. Rhyming "oh oh oh" with "Jo-o-o-oan," just for starters, now you might think I'm being facetious, but that vocal cadence is indicative of a greater mind at work. It dares the listener to refuse/resist. I've never been able to.

There's a famous goof during the second verse, when McCartney was introduced to Lennon's Mr. Moonlight from across the studio. Paul can be heard to crack first during "waits behind," then can barely hold back a full-fledged rip-snort whilst delivering the word "writing" immediately after. It cannot be coincidence that Lennon dropped trou during the "waits behind" line.

"Oh Darling!"--Being in love is either shit or the shit, but that's life. It's all cornbread and apple butter till your massive insecurities take the reins and convince you that the veil is about to be lifted, the bottom is due to drop out any second, and your paradise will turn nightmarish. I always believed Paul when he sang about falling apart without that special someone. Christ, look how many pieces he shattered into when Linda passed away. (No whole man would marry Heather Mills, I don't think.)

The Eagles' "Please Come Home For Christmas" jacked this bar-ready blues something fierce. I also hear it in "Mashed Potatos" by Brak, but as with so much, it's probably only me.

"Octopus' Garden"--If Ringo ain't tryin', I ain't either.

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)"--And we're back! Welcome to eight minutes of promise delivery. John's caught in a barely-fathomable tangle of lust-struck guilt, dopesick depression, self-destructive behaviors, hostility, pessimism, feeble self-esteem, obsessive fantasies, and identity tremors.

The last three minutes are worth the prolonged wait, as the multi-tracked axes fell bone-white trees that the peckish plucks and waifish keys only carved initials into with shaky hands.

"Here Comes The Sun"--How clean are Harrison's songs on Abbey Road? Did you put your tunes in the Shine-O Song-O?

He's enjoying some well-deserved diamond times away from the drudgery of commodity. Ties never suited the freest Beatle anyway. "It's all right." Well, hell--can't get much better than that, right?

(John doesn't appear on this one, as he was recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash.)

"Because"--Equipped with a Moog of one's own, sky is the limit.

Although some people think that Yoko Ono is a talent-free art-groupie, few people know that she is a classically trained pianist. After playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" for John one evening, he was struck and asked her to play it backwards. A few sensible tweaks here and there, and he had "Because." Paul and George both called it their favorite song on the album, and while I don't agree, I get it. Those three-part harmonies soar past all the crap.

Ah, it's been a nice album so far. It's the most relaxing album, not light as a lullaby, nor heavy as a dirge, but the weight is enough to leave a phantom tingle on your skin long after it's been removed.

Then the medley.

Oh Abbey Road medley. Don't I love it madly. It's a clusterfuck of bell chimes and mustard guts. Snapshots of a majestic portrait. Best game of hopscotch ever played.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" kicks it off. Brian Jones, formerly of the Rolling Stones and planet Earth, may or may not have played sax here. He had a fuckload of illegitimate kids. That's the one thing I know about that guy. George plays xylophone, that's for sure. Frigging xylophone? Beatles, you the craziest. (By mainstream standards, anyway.) More Macca sing-sweet. What's better than chocolate covered cherries? Cherry-covered chocolates!

"Sun King" munches on those throughout the entirety of his day. Part English, Spanish, and Italian, it's a more exotic "Because," and even more ventricle-seizing besides. "Mean Mr. Mustard" is grittier but not much crunchier, and if we're being really real son, I always thought Mr. Mustard got a raw deal here. He's very filthy, isn't he? I mean he just sounds like a typical dirty old bastard who sleeps in the park and the occasional road-hole. Bind him to you with promises and give the fucker a bath, I bet he's okay. Or would have been. Dude's gotta be well dead by now.

Oh here we go. Well, we've been going, but now it's rocket number nine take off. "Polythene Pam" was originally intended for The White Album (so was "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," wouldn't that have been amazing) but it was clearly made for this medley. It suffuses the room with light and heat and some of my favorite rhymes in a Beatles song (second verse especially). John's got a sloppy, lurid tongue all over this seething snippet. When you want pretty, call Paul. Yeah yeah yeah.

"She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" is Paul coming when called, but this is not pretty. Pretty fan-damn-tastic, yes, but there aren't many human acts more indelicate than climbing into or out of somewhere through a window. (Your humble blogger speaks from experience. For the whole story, you'll have to wait for Spirit Desire, the sequel to No Setlist. And that'll be a bit of a wait. Please feel free to let your imagination run wild and free in the meantime.) Paul has always said that the inspiration came from the legendary "Apple Scruffs," the invariably female fans that would keep vigil outside Abbey Road Studios and the Apple Corps building to get a glimpse (or more) of their idols. Seems one of their gang made it into Macca's home one day via the method of the title, but no harm done.

Cool enough story, and believable to boot, but Moody Blues keyboardist Mike Pinder claims he provided the genesis when he regaled Paul with a tale about a groupie who scurried into the band's homestead through a window. Pinder also claims Paul was so inspired he improvised the first line of the song on the spot. Now, I don't want to doubt so brazenly the guy who introduced the Beatles to the mellotron, an instrument that blessed several of their best songs, but...I doubt the Moody Blues guy. So, so brazenly. But shit, this song is so cool I want in on the origin story too. I think I'll rewrite the Spirit Desire chapter so that it takes place in 1969 instead of 2009, I end up telling the story to someone in the airport who knows Paul McCartney, he/she tells Macca, Macca writes classic song, I go on the Internet to take some credit, and get doubted brazenly, not least because, it's 1969 and what the hell is an Internet?!

What is the truth? Who can say. It's like John said in that infamous Playboy interview: "Somebody came in the window."

"Golden Slumbers" is up next. Paul gets flogged left right and center for carrying that light weight longer than most. Here he borrows from a Thomas Dekker poem, which suffers in comparison to John pilfering the ferociously colorful imagery of Lewis Carroll. But can you hear Paul trying to tell you about how he's the walrus? Makes about as much sense as John offering to sing me a lullaby.

"Carry That Weight" is a buoyant sing-along (you can really hear Ringo's nasal power in the chorus, there) that cleverly refers back to the melody of "You Never Give Me Your Money" not once but twice. The momentum it gathers can only mean relative pandemonium ahead.

"The End" really is not, but oh it should have been.

"Oh yeah! All right! Are you gonna be in my dreams! Tonight..."

Rock and roll has to do with fucking. Fucking, on occasion, has to do with love. I fucking love this song, this medley, this album, this band.

Everyone has that moment...that moment when they feel like Homer Simpson in the car trying to describe the effect classic rock radio has on them. Just drive the car, Dad.

The begrudging drum solo is the most exquisite suspense, because no matter how well Ringo pulls it off, something even more wicked that-a way awaits. A pair of ill-intentioned hands slash the air in the name of love. Sounds about life. More solos, two-bar tradeoffs between the boys, spreading that love around. (For the curious: it goes Paul first, then George, than John. Lather, rinse, repeat.)

And in the end....

"Her Majesty"--The ultimate in anti-climax. A 23-second long not-ode to Liz dear that chases the puffy-tailed pup round a bit before petering out. It was intended to be part of the medley, between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam," but the band--or Paul, like the two weren't practically interchangeable at the time--decided it didn't work. Decide for yourself.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 10--Good Guys Always Eat Cake


The Beatles, better known as "The White Album," is not my favorite album of theirs. (More like fifth or sixth, depending on not only the day but the time of that day.) That said, it is the first Beatles album I would recommend to virgin ears wondering where to begin.

This is by far their hodgepodgiest, mishmashed, hooked and crooked goulash pot album. Personal relations between the four members had deteriorated to such a degree that The White Album can accurately be described as less a true group effort, more a double disc (or quad slab) compilation of two solo LPs, one solo EP, and a single where both sides are "B." The fact that its actual title is the bands name is certainly ironic, and possibly was an attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy.

An epic work of art that makes any attempt at serious analysis seem frivolous, The White Album features some of the greatest tracks in Beatles history--and thus, some of the greatest tracks in rock history. There is also some flagrant trash that would disintegrate any bag it was tossed into. For those reasons, it may very well be the most captivating album ever released by a major rock and roll band.

"Back In the USSR"--The plane sound serves a purpose much like the brass of "Magical Mystery Tour"; that is, to inform the listener that some serious merde this way comes. Honey disconnect your brain and rock, roll, then again.

They bring out the old salad bowls for their guests, washed down with a Berry-infused chugger and topped off with a parodic passage borrowed (whilst guffawing) from those perpetual bridesmaids the Beach Boys. Oh this song is adorable. "Georgia's always on my mind," ah, what you did there is a thing I see, Macca.

Paul also plays lead guitar and drums here. "Back in the USSR" was recorded during the two-week period when Ringo Starr, sick of having his kit skills second-guessed, temporarily quit the band. (He would also be replaced by Paul on "Dear Prudence," but the drum work elsewhere is his.)

"Dear Prudence"-- After some flirtation, the Beatles fucked off to India to join Maharishi Summer Camp, to meditate and discover, to relieve and believe, to pluck off the petals and reseed the land. Writing songs for the new album was really counterproductive, but they did it anyway, those fractious bastards.

They didn't have the great guru all to themselves, though. Among the gathered devotees were actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. Some issues arose, and it fell to John Lennon to convince Prudence that 23 hours of meditation was a bit much, finding God is after all not a race, and fresh air isn't always guaranteed our lungs, so step outside of the cottage and talk to the rest of us you insane woman.

Few exhortations to simply be alive can measure up to this beautiful beseechment. From the delicate guitar melody, to the terse slither of the bass, and the sweetly imploring lyrics, "Dear Prudence" was plucked from a poppy field. The Beatles know why the two adjacent colors sing, Pablo.

"The sun is up/The sky is blue/It's beautiful/And so are you." Wow. If I were Li'l Miss Meditation, I woulda bolted and challenged everyone to an intense game of hide and seek after hearing that. 2:51 is when even the mightiest fortress has to fall, though, that jaw-dropping sunburst that leaves no room for doubt. When the song ends close to how it began, Prudence is certainly smiling. She is not alone.

"Glass Onion"--No Beatles song is more meta: "Strawberry Fields Forever," "I Am the Walrus," "The Fool on the Hill," "Lady Madonna" and "Fixing a Hole" all get name-dropped here, layer after layer discarded brusquely. To top it with bacon most gleaming, John adds "And here's another clue for you all/The Walrus was Paul." While the nods to their history are sneering challenges to those portions of the fanbase who put the anal in analytic, the sudden Macca mention goes beyond all that. Instead of an acknowledgment of the "Paul Is Dead" hoax (for we all are aware that the walrus is a symbol of death in Scandinavian culture) or the definitive word on who wore the Walrus costume on the Magical Mystery Tour cover, an interview from 1970 conducted by Jann Wenner saw Lennon claiming that it was intended as an effort to say "something nice to Paul...He was trying to organize the group and that, and do the music, and be an individual artist....I thought, 'Well, you can have it, I've got Yoko, and thank you, you can have all the credit.'"

Greatest old married couple ever.

"Glass Onion" puts me in a love cloud. Oh yeah. Very few singers actually believe their "oh yeah"s. (Even fewer put any heart behind their "baby"s, but that's another discussion.) Well baby, within these two minutes find the most sincere "Oh yeah"s ever put to tape.

The abrupt strings are like the exit after a spectacular triumph.

"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"--An example of how Paul overworked a song in the studio until the other guys had little choice but to loathe it and him by the end. This one's for the grannies, yessir, but why is that automatically cause for condemnation? Or even an indicator of compromise most rotten? This semi-reggae boogie isn't for everyone, but neither is any other fucking song on this record. In fact, what art out there is for everyone? I mean good art. Not every creative piece has to be lathered in coat after coat of the most exquisite irony, or draped in layers of simile, metaphor, and satire. It's fucking rock music, not a T.S. Eliot trip to the toilet.

Yeah, I dig this tune. And not a shallow grave either, oh ha ha. John is weeded as a cat lady's lawn pounding on the keys, and I'll leave it up to you whether that's a powerful argument for or against drugs as gateway to greater creativity. Paul is the master of ringing earworms. Go for the mono if you go at all, as it lacks the superfluous handclaps at the start.

"Wild Honey Pie"--For many listeners, "Ob-La-Di" is the first bump in the road. Not me. That would be this song. Yep. It's not so much a bump as a hole the size of a crater.

Inspired by the spontaneous sing-alongs at Spirit Camp, this is 53 seconds of holy shit Paul why? People who like "Wild Honey Pie" are like panda bears playing Monopoly. I've never seen it, I can't imagine how it's possible, but if I ever come across it--whoa.

It's funny, the sessions for The White Album were famously made 99 times more tense by the presence of one Yoko Ono in the studio, but hers was not the only inimical influence from the fairer sex. "Wild Honey Pie" was all set not to make the final cut, but the insistence of Pattie Boyd convinced Paul to leave it on.

"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill"--Never forget how capable Lennon was of filling the song glass to the very brim with some rank and cloudy piss. So many people dog Macca and praise John. Be fair.

More India shenanigans, this time concerning a fellow believers compulsion to shoot some tigers after meditating on the oneness of man with nature. The chorus reminds me of the laziest chants concocted by crowds gathered in protest. Yoko and Maureen Starkey do not do anyone any favors here. This is sloppy, and misses the hole.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"--When greens mature to blues.

Usually when a songwriter claims a muse in the I Ching I cringe, but here, George Harrison stops being so self-importantly selfless. Eschewing the philosophy that life is a crapshoot, embracing the belief that the outer life is as vitally connected through as many pulsing ropes as our inner ones are, "Guitar" limps along bravely, a weary worker of the world dragging another millstone. George's vocals and Eric Clapton's guitar are each genuinely morose. This song positively shudders with grief. The last time George sings "I look at you all," and then for a few beats sings nothing else, just exposing the exhaustion...powerful.

There is speculation among geniuses that George is saying "Paul, Paul" over Clapton's solo, another hint at the bassist's untimely death. It's actually just more unfettered emotion coming out. And if he is saying "Paul, Paul" it was probably in reference to the Les Paul that Clapton was playing. Occam's Razor and shit.

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun"--Getting your pop-culture phenomenons second-hand--it happens. Yes, John saw an article in a gun magazine entitled "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," but those bang-happy editors got their inspiration from "Happiness Is a Warm Puppy," a catchphrase from a Peanuts comic strip printed in 1963 that grew into a merchandising cash cow for United Media and its creator Charles Schulz (and a best-selling book, to boot). Respect the architect.

If Schulz couldn't imagine his sweet sentiment later twisted to extol the virtues of a recently-fired sidearm, what about the most famous band in the world turning it into a song whose time signatures jump bars like a Scot on New Years? Sex and drugs, lusted after, agitated over, grace most sordid sought after, this track kinda has it all. Riveting from start to finish, but not a classic to me. While it has no low points to speak of, none of the peaks reach that height that makes me screw up my face in disgust at the brilliance.

Go for mono, with the clearer organ.

"Martha My Dear"--John beats Paul on The White Album. There it is. I said it. Macca fangirl concedes defeat. That said and aside, "Martha" is one of Paul's greater offerings here. Another true solo track, the titular female is Macca's old sheepdog. Some canines you just wanna snuggle up with, cosset beyond reason, babble absurdly at. That's what unconditional love makes us do, no? Martha must have been that kind of dog.

Perfect for languorous Sundays, lazing around in socks.

"I'm So Tired"--Perfect for hungover Sundays, when a shotgun blast to the heart can't kill you fast enough.

If Paul's tunes are gazelles, John's are lions. While the sludge of the soul is clearly John's here, Paul pops up to testify alongside his mate. (Again, go for mono to get the full impression of what it's like to float in a lull.) "I'd give you everything I got/For a little piece of mind." Yessir. That whole section is too good, like a march against insanity.

What's better than writers talking shit about other writers? It's words as weapons in the hands of certified marksmen, it can't be beat. "Curse Sir Walter Raleigh" makes me laugh every time.

"Blackbird"--Delicate as a doll's house. Paul tackles an incendiary subject--the American Civil Rights Movement--and crafts a ballad that's sweet without being saccharine. (If you'd like to hear how to do it all wrong--and see yet another reason why the Beatles are superior forever to the Stones, try that bands "Sweet Black Angel" on for size.)

So long as it remains Paul's voice, hands and feet, "Blackbird" is golden. The chirps are hokey. Bad decision to leave them in.

"Piggies"--Pigs are magnificent animals. Bacon, sausage, ham...all come from the body of the proud porcine.

"Pigs" are also cops. I don't say that, though. I have ham in my fam, so.

The pigs Mr. Harrison attacks here are those whose corpulence is surpassed only by their opulence. The hob-knobbers, the jet-setters, the gold-hoarders, the unscrupulous bastards. Condemning their esurience and avarice is one thing, but to do it over chamber music? Well fucking played, sir.

Possibly fun definite fact: "What they need's a damn good whacking" came from the brain of George's mother, Louise Harrison. Finally, some good female influence on The White Album!

(Here is the only time in not only this review but the whole of my blog where I will give any shine to Charles Manson. As a true crime buff, I see him for what he is: a lightweight petty criminal who fancied himself a revolutionary and got stupid, insecure kids to do almost all of his dirty work. Carl Panzram shit out turds that were tougher than Charles Manson. If he'd never credited The White Album for galvanizing his grand race war plan, no one would know his name.)

"Rocky Raccoon"--What the hell with the animals? But especially with this song? Macca...dude...what were you sminking? Oh well, that's Paul, he'll be quirky. Starts off a harmless campfire ditty, then a bear attacks everyone. Do English people think they're entitled to do the shittiest American accents whenever the opportunity arises just because of what Dick Van Dyke did in Mary Poppins? He drops the hokey drawl pretty quick, but the damage is done.

"Rocky Raccoon" is the incontestable winner of the Brown Ribbon. Imagine finding a dilapidated treasure chest, prying it open and finding not gold not silver not rubies nor diamonds, but rather a pound of rotten apples. I have a story about how a pound of apples ends up locked in a treasure chest, and it is far more interesting and entertaining than this crap.

"Don't Pass Me By"--Depending on the source, Ringo wrote this song in 1963 or in 1968 whilst at Spirit Camp with the boys. Mentions a car crash, the supposed cause of Paul's "death," which might explain why it went to number one in Scandinavia. "You lost your hair" means "to go nuts." Awesome.

If you must go, go stereo. There's some minor-league caliber organ perfect for large-nosed mascots to groove to. The mono is sped up, ala "She's Leaving Home," but with one huge difference--the faster "Don't Pass Me By" is lame. It sounds close to a joke. Knock knock. Who's there? Way to. Way to who? Way to mix, assholes.

"Why Don't We Do It in the Road"--Don't ever fuck in the road. Don't ever fuck in the snow. There's times when pain complements pleasure. Not so much with those situations.

Paul saw two monkeys go at it in the streets of Rishikesh, India and was struck at how humans overcomplicate fornication with emotion, meanwhile animals just be fuckin'. Paul really rallies behind this, but his uncharacteristically excoriating vocals overwhelm the lightweight half-groove underneath.

"I Will"--I will follow the sun. This is more Macca's mph. With Ringo's help, Paul follows up a nasty call to public sex with a gentle romantic ballad. The tone from his acoustic sounds like he was plucking golden straw instead of nylon strings. The stereo is my go-to here, as the mono omits the "mouthbass" from the first verse. It practically makes the whole damn thing!

"Julia"--John's dazzling and sweetly honest ode to his twin muses: mother Julia (who taught her son ukulele and banjo) and girlfriend Yoko Ono (Yoko means "ocean child" in Japanese).

"Half of what I say is meaningless" it begins, and sometimes I like to mishear the last word as "meaning less," likely because I enjoy witnessing a downward spiral more than the actual attained state of irreversible despair. The delicacy of feeling and thought in "Julia" is unmatched elsewhere on the album. I used to bristle at Lennon's key changes near the end on the "song of love" part, but now it strikes me as seamless.

"Birthday"--John Lennon called this "a piece of garbage." That's a bit of a lie, sir.

Cooked up after a viewing of The Girl Can't Help It, this is a Sloppy Joe mix with freshly chopped onions in the beef. Sounds awesome. Yeah, well, the bun's a little dry.


The instrumental passages are the highlights (read: the onions). You won't hear the Beatles sound like a cohesive unit much on this album, but here they disregard the tension and just have fun cracking holes in the roof. Who knows how much more time they gave themselves just by indulging in these dumb, therapeutic moments?

The last six seconds reminds me of the intro to "Space Junk" by Devo. I refuse to believe it is just me.

"Yer Blues"--Holy crap, Drama King, who used your crown for a punch bowl? "I'm lonely/Wanna die." The inevitable result of trying to reach a higher understanding but just can't reconcile the folly of such an ambition, so you see no other recourse but death.

The spelling "Yer" is a nice attempt to inject some levity, and the song itself trudges along admirably, but just like "Why Don't We Do It In the Road," the instrumentation badly outshines lackluster lyricism.

"The eagle picks my eye/The worm he licks my bone/I feel so suicidal/Just like Dylan's Mister Jones."

"Yer Blues" is a fully-stocked fridge that somehow contains nothing you actually want to eat.

"Mother Nature's Son"--All Paul, save the horny guys. Maybe you like John's songs better, but no way was he a superior musician. McCartney was and is just masterful.

He's taking it easy here. He can't help that he doesn't want to bash his head into a mirror after staring into it for five full minutes wondering how he can go on in this cruel world that crushes sensitive poets underfoot like a blue Godzilla.

"Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey"--Longest Beatles song title ever, and one of the most enjoyable tracks they ever made. George Harrison is playing a goddamn firebell, y'all. Oh Fabs. Thank you for lettin' yourselves be yourselves again. Nonsense verbals stabbed by sharp guit action (the post-chorus lick is kinda evil, kinda graceful. It just snapes.)

"Sexy Sadie"--Originally a bitter tirade against the Maharishi for alleged sexual improprieties. If you're going to pen a bitter tirade, make it worth our time. I have enough of my own self-righteous vitriol to spew.

"Helter Skelter"--Kurt Cobain's wife once told an interviewer about the debates she and her spouse would get into about the merits of Lennon vs. McCartney. Seems Cobain preferred John, while his missus swore by Paul. Paul wrote fluffy pop songs with no real heart, he claimed. "What about 'Helter Skelter'?" she shot back. After a moments pause, Cobain could only say, "Well, who played the guitar?" less as a question and more as a statement that Lennon was the one who gave the song its edge and power.

If the former Mrs. Cobain crushed her husband's final argument with the simple truth of the matter, she didn't say so in the interview. It seems not many people know that Paul actually played lead guitar on "Helter Skelter," and George the rhythm guitar. John? He handled bass duties. Yep.

Pardon me while the Macca fangirl in me giggles uncontrollably and downs more coffee.

What "Helter Skelter" lacks in emphatic precision it makes up for in proto power. Shit is just nasty bad-ass. Especially the mono. Is it the first heavy metal song? The first grunge song? I leave that to the bored historians. Does it rock? Yes. Does it bind and gag decorum to a chair with a nail poking out of the seat? Yes. Does it inspire me to punch the wall and see if there's some porkchops hiding there like in Castlevania? That one time.

The mono also wins for being shorter and not giving a shit about Ringo Starr's fingers.

"Long Long Long"--George's love song to God that doesn't rip off the Chiffons. It's folksy, waltzy, a lysergic lethargy. The sparse soundscape is fitting for the tale it tells. Rattling wine bottle as a fine imitation of the oscillation of transformation, who knew?

"Revolution 1"--No one else in the band could do sweet love songs quite like Paul, no one else could do spiritual tracks like George, and no one could touch John for politically charged songs. That's all true. But if the words were the thing, they'd all have been poets or novelists. When your lyrics require reinforcement to smash the listener with indelible impact, your backup better deliver.

Compare this version to the one that made the "Hey Jude" single. There is no real comparison. That take has the visceral gristle that John's passionate words of peace and patience fit into like a foot into boot.

"Honey Pie"--I don't even want to write about this.

Proving that not all dance hall days are happy ones, this Paul-penned abomination is less soft-shoe than soft-brain. It's like finding out a master chefs favorite meal is some number meal from McDonalds. Tainted Michelin forever.

"Savoy Truffle"--A song George Harrison wrote about a box of candy in Eric Clapton's house. Not to be confused with "Layla," a song Eric Clapton wrote about a box of candy in George Harrison's house.

Confectionary overload can make you sick, but I just get hungrier and hungrier. I like to listen and imagine myself walking up and down a train car, peeking into all the compartments and finding them stockpiled with all the treats George lists here. "Cool dessert...good news, kids. Coconut fudge? Ew. You don't even exist." Then I start singing, "Yeah yeah yeah, eat the savoy truffle." My mind is an awesome place to be.

George just couldn't resist a slam against Paul the perfectionist pest: "But what is sweet now turns so sour/We all know ob-la-di-bla-da/But can you show me who you are."

"Cry Baby Cry"--Some songs make me want to go canoeing. This song makes me want to watch someone with greater skill and patience go canoeing.

John's lyrics are so goddamn English. The verses speak on banal royalty, and it's all nice and good, but then chorus hits with the strut of a defiant death march and all the intrusive surgery in the world couldn't remove Lennon's words from my brain. This song should just be the chorus over and over for three minutes. And leave Paul's stitched-in lamentation in too. How the hell does that fit so perfectly with what Lennon did?

"Revolution 9"--First things first. "Revolution 8" destroys this.

Drowning in their own hubris, or once again vaulting ahead of their peers, or both. I vote both. This perennial non-favorite was clearly intended by masterminds John and Yoko to come across as a sonic conflagration, but, starved of oxygen, the fire snuffed itself harmlessly.

The greatest sin of "Revolution 9" is its length. Cut it from eight minutes to two-and-a-half, I can dig on it, 'cause I am a fan of avant-garde music done well. (It is not a genre of interchangeable artists making interchangeable art, despite what conventional wisdom purports.) It's possible to say that a piece of music sounds like it was conceived by agitated asylum escapees and mean it as a compliment. But with "Rev 9," all I can say is I bet if I ever got high and listened to it again, I'd feel the secret message. Or even if I listened to it in a concussed state. But all I can hear for the vast majority of time is this inexhaustible desire to be THE FUTURE OF MUSIC. What they hit on from 5:08 to 5:40, that mixing of voice and effected guitar looping, that is engaging and intriguing and makes me perk up to see where it's headed.

"Good Night"--Pomp and inconsequence. The image of Ringo singing this lush, made-for-the-classic-Hollywood closer with a top hat on saves it. I've never seen such, mind you, I just conjured that up one day and it's refused to leave.

Nice of them to give Ringo the honors of seeing us out. Thanks for coming? Ah, thank you for coming back.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 9--Cadet Pepper, Where Are Your Pants?


With Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles were still riding the psychedelic counterculture like a sweaty southwest Texas whore on a sweatier millionaires dick. Compelled once again to saturate multiple mediums, an hour-long movie of the same title was allowed out in public. A misalliance of ambition and acid, it was their first project to receive widespread critical derision. The album fared better under scrutiny.

"Magical Mystery Tour"--Did you know Paul is dead? Did you know the proof is in the songs and booklet art of this album, aka The Shittiest Tasting Pudding Ever? Oh yeah. People forty years on believe in this crap.

Out of the way with that, then.

Fluttering fanfare and a ton of promises. Who can resist a resplendent extravaganza masterminded by motherfuckers dressed up in animal costumes? Paul, better known to cuntjams as "The Walrus," is to praise/condemn for this concept. If Sgt. Peppers band slogs it out on stage night after night, Cadet Peppers racket-gang is working the side-hustle of England's own Merry Pranksters. Oh, the line between genius and charlatan is a fine one. It's fitting that Macca is the circus barker here, although truth be told, it's Ringo's beat--undeniable as death--that convinces the wary to hop on board.

"Roll up! Roll up for the mystery tour!"

That is suggestive.

It rolls along swimmingly , until 1:27, when everything slows down, like George Martin hit the organ grinder button. By the time it re-accelerates, the listener will either be immensely pleased with or feel gypped by the entire ride. Be forewarned and thus forearmed--sudden drops, dips, flips and flops may cause the ground to come alive with technicolor puke.

The film, while no great shakes, begins with the extended (and superior) version of this song, featuring a super Lennon mini-monologue.

"The Fool on the Hill"--Paul sings, tickles ivories and fingers the flute. For reasons that perished with each man, George and John both felt compelled to blow mouth harp on this 'un.

1967 was the year that the guys began their relationship with "spiritual advisor" Maharashi Mahesh Yogi. It ended as so many affairs do--unamicably, and after the discovery that one or the other party is a vile, slimy, seedy, two-faced scam artist. But maybe, if the expectorate of fortune splattered their faces, they got something lovely from it all. For a pair of people, that could be a child. For a band of people, a song.

I'll take "The Fool on the Hill" over a random child any day. Paul's misguided idolatry aside, the chorus is as expertly constructed a melody as can be found in his ridiculously prolific catalog of songs.

"Flying"--An instrumental, and the first song credited to all four band members. It also manages to be a fair approximation of the title. (Which is always a treat, when the name of a song and the actual song fit together like a newborn babe in its mothers arms. Some other fine examples are "Avalanche" by Leonard Cohen and "Vomit the Soul" by Cannibal Corpse.)

"Blue Jay Way"--George batting clean-up, but he always drew the intentional walks. Grumble grumble.

When not writing impenetrable lyrics intended to be sung through an infuriatingly preachy persona, George was quite good. "Blue Jay Way" takes inspiration from the mundane "waiting on a friend" scenario. Instead of line after stultifyingly dull line of hippie drivel, the title is sung twenty-nine times over the course of four minutes. Fair trade, I say.

I used to scorn this as George's worst Beatles song, but honestly, it's not even that terrible. "Within You Without You" is demonstrably shittier. "Blue Jay Way"'s worst sin is being importune, rather than being a poor tune. Would you believe I'm saying the stereo version is the superior one? True story facts. Mono lacks the spooky, tooth-chilling backwards vox effect that makes all the open space suddenly seem suffocating. Shades of Shades of Death Road.

"Your Mother Should Know"--Insofar as musical entreaties to narrow the generation gap and promote understanding and compassion between parents and children go, "Your Mother Should Know" smacks the snot out of John Mayer's pussy-baiting attempts at sensitive songwriting. This tune's so old-fashioned it comes out of the speakers in black and white with a derby on its head. By design it will either pull you into it or you will push it away with a yelp. Either way it will extend its gratitude for your time.

The nonsense faux verse works well as either the apex of the whole damn thing or an accidental parody (it's almost suspiciously spot-on for the latter purpose).

Finally...this is the second straight song where the mono recording gets its ass handed to it by its usually weak brother. In the case of "Mother," it's beyond arbitrary inclusion/exclusion; as the song progresses, the mix gets slushier. Stick a straw in it--it's done. Lennon pitched many a bitch over what he perceived as the "guinea pig" treatment of many of his songs in the studio, but where's Paul's outrage over this aural abortion? I dissuade anyone from even giving a few seconds to the Mono Mama. It's a waste of your time. Go straight for the stereo and don't ever look back.

"I Am the Walrus"--When I was a little girl, our family would get eggs delivered to our home by a man named Preston, who looked like Popeye in the devastating throes of middle age. My brother, eleven years older and wiser, called him "The Eggman" and always added "goo-goo gajoob" after it. I had no idea what the hell he was on about. "It's a song," he explained. (I don't doubt that a good deal of my intellectual curiosity comes from having six older siblings who just didn't want to answer my questions.)*

I very much feel for Paul McCartney at times, or at least as much as I can possibly feel for someone I will never be in the same room with. He gets harsh invective brayed at him from all directions, even those that defy compass readings. He deserves about 23% of it. Does the man not get an eternal "life pass" for insisting the producers of The Simpsons make Lisa's vegetarianism a permanent lifestyle choice? Do you really not ache a bit for the dude when you consider two of his lightest, albeit still fabulously written Beatles songs ever provide the bread to a sandwich wherein "I Am the Walrus" is the featured meat?

The marble score for this particular wagyu strip is a sweet 12. It starts with Lennon's lyrics, deliberate nonsense inspired by a classic scenario: the same schools that discouraged the young John's unorthodox thinking now, yonks on down the road, teaching Beatles lyrics in their classes. Feeling equal parts validated and disgusted, John took a playground rhyme from his boyhood ("Yellow belly custard, green snot pie/All mixed up with a dead dog's eye"), stole a snatch or several from Alice in Wonderland, and juxtaposed some other superbly silly-sounding syllable combos with each other. Not too dissimilar from the approach he took to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which, as we have already discussed, is a tad bit sort of shit soup. Where "Walrus" succeeds is in the evocation of sinister waves that crash around the song, rather than smack it dead in the face and send it flying willy-nilly. Those salient strings and ebullient exhortations in celebration of jabberwocky superfly, the persistent rhythm of that literal siren's song, struck suggestive young minds like an apple on Newton's noggin. (If absolutely nothing else, this song gave the world Electric Light Orchestra, whose mastermind Jeff Lynne made it his raison d'etre to recreate this song in a myriad of ways. Want "I Am the Walrus" as a disco love song? "Shine a Little Love." Wonder what it would have sounded like with even more orchestration? "10538 Overture.")

Of course there are flaws; every song's got one. The Mike Sommes Singers can go piss right off. That's "song over" for me right there. The snippets of King Lear from BBC Radio snaking in and round the orchestra approximate creeping death, which is great, and I can't bear to have that alongside "stick it up your jumper."

Oasis did a cover of this song. They also did a cover of the Revolver album known as their entire fuckin' career.
"Hello Goodbye"--Like pillow fighting that segues into an overly conscious snogging session. Hey, just because Macca's contradiction anthems aren't swimming in post-apocalyptic detritus doesn't mean they suck.
I challenge you to a duality. Ying and yang, ping and peng, stereo and lab. Ol' Boy coulda driven this conceit into the ground (black/white, day/night), and that he didn't can be looked upon as an act of humanitarian mercy. Myself, I have always regarded this song as a chicken salad sandwich. A fine lunch in a pinch, but if I can get a burger next time, I will.
"Strawberry Fields Forever"--The mad alchemist's potion. It's not too bad.
You know what's good? Banana pie. Also good, is peach pie. What if you put them both together to make one heavy metal mega-mecha pie?! That's a good time, kids. "Strawberry Fields Forever" is an equally tantalizing hodgepodge.
There were three distinct versions of the song recorded, the last two of which comprise the song heard here. On the first, John's vocals were recorded at a faster-than-normal speed, then played back at the standard speed, giving them the wobbly woobly effect of an approaching mirage. The second version, at Lennon's behest, featured cellos, zither and trumpets for that dreamier feel. He then asked George Martin and Geoff Emerick to work their studio magic and combine both sections to make a cohesive song. Armed with editing scissors, a pair of tape machines, and a vari-speed control, they spliced two distinct recordings (different tempos, different keys) into one masterpiece. The transition can be heard at one minute into the song, although given the limited technology available, it could have sounded far sloppier.
Cellos improve most songs. They're what I listen for and to most on this song.
The percussion ain't half bad, neither. Ringo's dismissers would do well to listen up. Look, I'm the second or third to stand up and mock Starkey's turns at the mic, but when he did what he was supposed to do, he did it with versatility and intelligence. Much like every other part of the song, there are moments when Ringo's playing comes perilously close to pretentious bluster. But the sense of restraint is always there. Well played. Literally.
Unlike Harrison, John is self-aware enough to blunt the edges of his spaciest sentiments. He's constantly second-guessing in this song, doubling back and it's "nothing to get hung about."
"Penny Lane"--Proof that no two kaleidoscopes present the same fractured design. Bright, perky, nonsensical ("blue skies" are "pouring rain," apparently) but not dumb. Smutty to boot (what with "finger pies" and a fast machine who keeps his "fire engine clean"), but oh God, that melody is as clean as a Brian Wilson piss-test ain't. This song not only features a piccolo trumpet, it features a piccolo trumpet solo.
"Baby You're a Rich Man"--Like "A Day in the Life," combines one-half Lennon (verse) with one-half McCartney (chorus) to create a pleasantly disjointed vibe. Wonderful intro. "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" is one of those killer lines that was destined to be overrated solely due to the face that it appeals to every denominator in existence.
The clavoline is the real star here. I will never type that sentence again. It's fantastic, though, it sounds like it was put in there just to jolt every turned-on person listening to it (approximately 99.4% of the audience).
It's not like I breathe jasmine or cry a unicorns tears, but I'm also not puerile enough to care what may or may not have been said by John Lennon near the end of this song.
"All You Need is Love"--Written hastily and recorded live for a television audience of millions because the Beatles just could not keep this secret to themselves anymore. "We need more love in the world," Paul said. "Love is allowing somebody to be themselves," Lennon remarked. Good golly Granddad, hide the scotch, 'cause some bullshit is about to wreck the door down.
That introduction...oh no. Not at all. They all deserved to be flayed and made to bob for razor blades in a vat of sour milk for that. "Looove looove love." Then again. Stop that. It's all so treacly I almost vomit from rolling my eyes so hard.
Oh but it's a baroque pop masterpiece! Screw that.
"Nothing you can do that can't be done."
Try sitting on the floor indian-style and willing yourself through the power of your mind to suddenly propel upward into the air. You cannot do this.
"Nothing you can sing that can't be sung."
More people in the world have no singing talent than do have singing talent. Less people need to try and sing. Maybe just hum.
"Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game."
What game? Monopoly? Connect Four? Scrabble? Did you know that "Za" as slang for "pizza" is now accepted in Scrabble games? Oh wait. I think he means the game of life, the one where you don't land on squares and boom you have a kid.
"It's easy."
No it is not. And that is a naive and disturbing outlook on life.
Now, I can hear the dissent. "Obviously the Beatles know it's not so cut-and-dried, but what they are trying to say in this song is so true and real and worth saying." Conscious simplification is still simplification! You need love. You need money. You need anger. You need hate. You need food. You need water. You need passion. You need respite. None of these things are all you need. It's amazing to me they did this song. Even with the pot haze and acid trails that followed them around non-stop during this time period, it's stunning to me that they sunk this low. What a shame to end a quality record so wretchedly.
Oh well. They could only go up. Right?

*Animals frontman Eric Burdon claimed to be the real life "Eggman," citing a sordid little story he shared with John Lennon about a Jamaican girlfriend who once cracked an egg on his stomach and then proceeded to suck his well-yolked dick. I...don't have any friends quite like that.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 8--Cycles, Uni and Otherwise


"This is a mono recording. A splendid time is guaranteed for all."

Certain artworks are praised beyond reason. Inevitably, they will go through a perpetual cycle of judgment. First, the piece--be it album, book, film, or even an artist themselves--will be on the receiving end of praise so effusive as to be suffocating. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band galvanized pop music; which doesn't make it any good, or any bad. For so long, it was held up to the light as the pop record, the alpha and omega, a sprawling baroque masterpiece, the first-ever concept album, a counterculture celebration, a reinvention from safe and hoaky to fresh and unsettling. Dissenting opinion was regarded as ignorance.

People can only be told for so long (and so vehemently) that something is beyond dispute. Rumbles began. Paul McCartney acknowledged the influence of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds (released a year prior) on the album, and suddenly certain circles began touting that as the revelatory pop-psych record of the age. I noticed this in 1996, when Pet Sounds was digitally remastered and refoisted onto the world. It was no longer blasphemy to accuse the Beatles of reaching beyond their grasp and producing an album so bloated you could hear each excruciatingly tinkered with instrumental passage gasping.

So yeah, Sgt Peppers broke the rules. So do most baseball players. So what, Sgt. Peppers defied convention. So does an ugly beagle.'s their masterpiece! Isn't it? And if not, then...what is?

Revolver has a lot of fans, especially as it's a clear creative leap that eschews ostentatious preening. The White Album has people who are unabashedly ready to kill for it.

If the Pet Sounds reissue opened up a lot of minds and ears previously sealed, the 1987 reissue of this album did the Beatles no favors. It's like The Wizard of Oz: tinny, no heart, and the record company had to be missing its collective Mother Brain to think it was a good product for any discerning listener. Pardon me for asking, but...where's the friggin' pageantry?

That's what box sets are for. Now, heard as it is meant to be heard, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is no longer overrated, no longer underrated, but perfectly rated.

And dated. Oh I imagine it was that after 1970 or so. But "dated" doesn't translate to "insipid," at least not automatically. For the last 25 years, metal bands the globe 'round have taken the stark raving madness of Slayer's Reign in Blood and exceeded its graphic lyrics and limb-pulverizing speed, but being the "most" of anything is not the same as "best." That's why Reign in Blood can be played in this day and age and still crack skulls like the Axeman of New Orleans.

The imagery of the album doesn't interest me. The boys in satin faux-military get-ups that glow in the night as well as the day, the collage of cardboard celebs surrounding them, flowers flowers everywhere but not a petal to be ravished upon--so Sixties. It makes my eyes cross. The music is the thing, and while the Beatles aimed high, they hit most of their targets (if not square between the eyes, then in other equally lethal spots). They did miss a few birdies: concept album but doesn't adhere to the concept, intended musical montage that loses the plot after song number two.

Writing about an album so deeply embedded in cultural consciousness seems like an exercise in futility. Well, I could always use the exercise.

"Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band"--"It was twenty years ago today/Sergeant Pepper told the band to play." Was it? What's that actually mean? I'll tell ya; it means every ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, a lazy-ass journalist has the first line of their Beatles anniversary story.

Funny how a band so dead-set on bending the steel rods that held up the music industry couldn't shake old traditions. Good lads, then. A brass band? Samples of pleasantly amused people?

Paul is to blame. Or credit. It was he who got hung up on re-inventing the Beatles: try a new name, a new persona, a new look, a new sound, a new message. "They've been going in and out of style/But they're guaranteed to raise a smile." Bell-bottoms, he means? Certainly, let's huzzah Macca for the lead guitar here.

Uh oh, they're about to introduce the singular Billy Shears! Billy Preston with scissors?

"With a Little Help From My Friends"--Oh, it's just Ringo. No scissors either. This song was originally called "Badfinger Boogie." Nice foreshadowing, there.

This is the best song Ringo has sung, ever. And he had some killing solo singles. But this? Yeah. He's not the main reason though, it's the Q and A with him and his bandmates that makes this track so timeless.

Faux controversy with the "I get high with a little help from my friends" (which basically just tells me Ringo never bought drugs in his life, ya leech) and my favorite, "What do you see when you turn out the lights/I can't tell you but I know it's mine." Hee hee snicker snort, he's referring to a bit of the old pocket pool. I always thought it was just a reference to nocturnal dreams and fantasies in general, ranging from lurid to longing to hopeful.

And could that intro lick be more George? Yeesh.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"--I used to like this one a lot more. It's hard to sit through anymore. I'd rather read Alice in Wonderland buzzed off caffeine. But then I'd have a panic attack. Then the Snoopys in my house would come to life. Two things that I can assure you are going to happen to me at some time before I shuffle off to where the buffalo roam, but I'd rather not expedite the processes, if it can be helped.

Too psychedelic for it's own good, a lysergic convergence that ends up turgid. I believe the story Lennon told--supported by Paul and their close pal Pete Shotton--that the title came from a painting by his son. I mean it's just that banal. What the hell is with John's vocals? It's like listening to butter being smeared on train tracks with a steak knife.

Ringo's transition into the chorus is the best thing here. Yessir.

"Getting Better"--Less a guitar, more the sound of those buttery tracks being removed. Some nice Paul optimism offset by John's old boy cynicism ("It's getting better/It couldn't get much worse"). The verses set the super mood, giving the listener room to breathe and stretch, something that you won't get much of elsewhere on here.

John also contributed the repentant woman-beater portion of the song, a welcome display of one maturing man's quest for absolution. It's a long way from "Run For Your Life."

"Fixing a Hole"--Alternately concerns obsessive, yet passive fans content to gaze and wonder at their idols and--wait for it--marijuana. Not heroin. The bass is remedy plenty. Straight up, no white dude has ever played the bass guitar better or wiser than J. P. McCartney.

There is a warmth to "Fixing a Hole" mono version that the stereo is missing. Makes the difference between a song I want to lay back and enjoy with headphones clamped to my ears and a song I can't remember listening to mere seconds after it's finished.

"She's Leaving Home"--The well-crafted heartbreak inspired by the true story of 17-year-old Melanie Coe of north London running away from a well-to-do home and her indulgent parents. Paul handles the verses like England's most riveting news reporter, while John voices the oblivious mum and dad during the chorus. (No George or Ringo needed.)

"The Great Fairy Fountain" from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has always reminded me of the intro here. Or at least since 1998.

Of all the mono/stereo discrepancies across both box sets, "She's Leaving Home" contains what is to me the most outstanding: the mono recording is sped up one half-step (allegedly to "tighten" the track and add some youth to Macca's vocals). The effect is enormous. In stere-ere-ereo, "She's Leaving Home" sounds like a brilliant idea, stunted. McCartney really does sound stuffy, and the strings are staid. This reflects on how I interpret the story in the song. With the slightly faster mix, I feel that while the young girl has made a huge decision, she is "free" now, and it's for the best. She'll be okay. But at its original speed, I just foresee disaster, doom, and yes, death for everyone. She'll not be okay. She'll be a prostitute destined to be found a few pounds lighter in a hotel room unfit for man, beast, or ghost.

"Being For the Benefit Of Mr. Kite"--When asked about this album by an interviewer clearly gagging for some controversy, Lou Reed spat, "'Mr. Kite? What the hell is that?" To which my knee-jerk reaction is, "Your output since New York? What the hell is that?"


This is one of my favorites on the entire album. John told Mr. Martin that he wanted a musical backdrop that evoked the sawdust and elephant pao paos of a genuine one of a kind big show under the big top, and slap a Scot stupid, that's exactly how it happened! You don't have to have the imagination of a novelist to listen and conjure up visions of high wires, stilts, and waltzing horses. A Wurlitzer organ and no less than four people playing harmonica goes a real long way.

Lennon jacked the lyrics straight off a poster from an antique shop. You do not need drugs when other people are perfectly willing and able to write your songs for you under the guise of advertising their not-quite freak show. His delivery may come off as underwhelming (I often wonder how it would have come across if he'd utilized Macca's "Magical Mystery Tour" bellow) but that can be charming. Like he's selling us on a zombie circus or something.

Rhythm section deserves top billing, honestly. The bass casts a pachydermic shadow and the percussion is truly distinctive. Bass drum to hi-hats for the verse, then a brief tittering in-between.

The stereo features a more prominent organ drone in the left channel, but it's not overkill. I actually prefer it.

"Within You Without You"--The Beatles didn't waste time. Songs longer than three minutes were rare birds indeed. On this album, however, they offer up not one but two songs that exceed 300 seconds in length. One is a masterpiece; the other one is "Within You Without You."

Like "Yesterday," this song features only one Beatle--in this case, George. But whereas "Yesterday" was a simply conceived and rendered ballad, "WYWY" is what happens when hippies get high and talk about their feelings on themselves and other people in maddening generalizations that stunt progress whilst professing to do otherwise.

The Indian track bores me like the most dispassionate sex, and Harrison's words veer from mediocre to wretched to one memorable line ("And life flows on within you and without you.") Stephen Stills had the words to this song carved on a stone monument which stood in his back yard. I guess, when your paramount lyrical achievement is "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

Now, I identify myself as a spiritualist. If pressed, I mean. Normally I just identify myself as Jennifer Benningfield, my friends call me Jenn. So the essence of what George is saying not only here but in many of his songs throughout his recording career--recognize your place as a small fish in the massive ocean, an electron/proton/neutron, one life that touches another life that touches yet another life--is something I get. I'm not rolling my eyes at what he's saying, but rather, he couldn't say it in a more interesting way? A way that would engage even the most jaded instead of encouraging their apathy? Give an example, tell a story. The ways that we as individuals impact the world is amazing. The most banal action can trigger a life or death scenario--and we would have no inkling. To consider that, shit, it makes my soul burn and freeze in equal measure. But this song? Tepid. No time for it.

"When I'm 64"--Written by Paul when he was sixteen. I guess it shows, heh. Goofy as mimes pretending clown wigs are cotton candy. This song makes me think of my folks.

My dad is the most singular human being I've ever been around. His beliefs were not progressive by any stretch. He was a staunch Republican, pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay rights...but remember the Clarence Thomas sexual harrassment trial? He believed Anita Hill. Add in the fact he played guitar, and that's two things him and Thurston Moore had in common.

My dad drank. A lot. He was violent. He was crude and often cruel. He terrorized his wife whilst under the influence. He would berate her, demean her, so that the only thing she feared more than life with him was life without him. My dad would tell you all of this, were he alive still and you asked him. Yes, he would say, I got drunk. Spilled more alcohol than most people ever put in their bodies. Yes, he'd tell you, I was a fighter. I was a nasty son-of-a-bitch. If you wanted details, he'd indulge you. Whatever his faults--and they were legion--my old man did not lie. Which is why when he claimed he never once cheated on my mother...I believed him. And still do. All the wrong things he did to the people who loved him the dearest, he copped to them. My guess would be my father never had many dark nights of the soul where he scrutinized his actions and wondered why. I believe he was sincerely contrite. And that was that.

That was...enough. When my father was 65 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He lived two ambulatory years until the treatment rendered him invalid. My mother was there for him every day of the five additional years he insisted on living. Insisted. No nurses. No hospice. The woman who put up with his crap...who raised seven kids...she fed him, bathed him, did all sorts of things for him that I don't think, in her position, many women would.

Why? She loved him. He loved her. If I wasn't there to see it, to feel it, I wouldn't get it.

Some winter day in the year after my father's condition turned our living room into an infirmary, I was at work and my mom was in the kitchen cooking a ham. For reasons known only to her, she sliced off a hearty enough chunk that it became lodged in her throat when she tried to swallow it down. She and my dad were the only ones in the house. Just my mom, struggling for air...and a man who could not stand up.

She ran to the living room, face looking like it had been splashed with a bucket of blood, gesturing frantically. She was able to help her husband into a sitting position on his pressure mattress so that he could perform the Heimlich and save her life. With arms covered with bruises, welts and scabs, he squeezed death out of his wife.

He died the day before I turned 30. Fuck, I wish he was still here.

That's why "When I'm 64" makes me tear up. A lot of people hate it. I get why. When Pete Townshend called Sgt Peppers "incredibly non-physical" he meant songs like this. It's why some people prefer the Stones. That's music that gets hips moving in the instinctive rhythm of life. Yeah, I get that too. But there's always room for one more emotion.

"Lovely Rita"--The love that dare not ticket you! Macca's such a boss here, the pop song novelist emphatically pursuing and fucking meter maids like a superman. When you listen to this, listen to it in mono only, and turn it up. There's a hundred things happening in this song, and you'll want to catch them all. The rhythm section, again...if these box sets did nothing but increase appreciation for Paul's bass playing and Ringo's drumming, they were worth the price of production. Also, that's how you end a song.

"Good Morning, Good Morning"--Inspired by a Kellogg's Corn Flakes ad, this song is crisp and full of fun. The incorrigible meter reflects its creators domestic restlessness. Paul and Ringo and those horns are fixin' to get me the holy ghost.

Mono throws all these delectable elements together in a pleasant potpourri. Stereo makes all sides retreat to their separate corners. NO NO NO. That's like serving a slice of cheesecake with a bowl of cherries on the side. Think about it.

"Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"--That drumbeat's stupid. Those distorto guits need to ride the shortest bus.

It was nice of the guys to come back to the initial concept eventually. They're seeing us out here, and that's quite polite as well. An intermission would have been cool. Oh well.

For years all I knew was the stereo version, where Paul's yelling at the end is omitted and the transition to the final song is less than smooth. Mono definitely makes you appreciate it more when

"A Day in the Life"--glides in.

The reputation of this album may well be on this one song. It's absolutely wonderful. John read some stories in the paper, one about a car crash, another about pot holes needing to be fixed (and doesn't that tie in nicely with an earlier song), all over a piano that grows increasingly foreboding until "I'd love to turn you on" and then things go a tad haywire. Plans be gettin' waylaid. The orchestra comes in, building up to a Stockhausen-inspired crescendo and then--Paul! Piano back, bouncy this time, it's Paul's day now, and he's not got time to read. The stories in his head are too fascinating.

The most magnificent part of the entire track: "Somebody spoke and I went into a dream" followed immediately by the orchestral swells and Lennon's soaring "Ahhhhh"s. There are words to accurately describe the majesty of this section of the song, but, alas, they are only known and used on other planets. So, sucks for us here on Earth. Well not really, we get to hear this song. Take that, inhabitants of the planet Zexian!

Then, back to the verse and plateau. A bit different this time, there's the feeling inherent in the maelstrom of notes that there will be no alarm clock rousing a cheerful lad to face a day of coffee, buses, and reveries. And of course there is not. What there is in its place is one of the most famous endings to a song, and one of the best. A single piano chord played by four men--John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans--over three pianos, with George Martin joining in on harpischord. The E is so major. It's the end that seems like it never actually will.