Tag Archives: Beatles

13th Favorite Beatles Album: Yellow Submarine.

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Yellow Submarine.
1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Yellow Submarine is an album that I find difficult to rate higher than any other Beatles’ albums simply because there are only 4 new Beatles songs on it! The band contributed four excellent new songs to the soundtrack, and a couple older favorites were added, and that’s the extent of the band’s contribution. Brilliant producer George Martin adds some orchestral background pieces from the movie, and that’s that.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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I’m 52 years old, so it’s no use lying, or even minimizing, what I’m going to say: I don’t mind kids’ music. I’m talking about music produced and aimed directly at kids, not music recorded by kids, although some of that’s pretty good, too. I liked kids’ music when I was a kid, and I liked it as a parent, and I’ll probably like it again when I’m a grandparent.

I think somewhere over the past several years on this blog I’ve discussed my love, as a child, for the LP Havin’ Fun with Ernie and Bert. It was released in 1972, the year I turned 5, and it’s the first album I recall that was all mine, that wasn’t a family record, or one of my sisters’. I used to go to the basement every day to play its songs and, as my mom has recalled, “march around the basement.”

The album had fun songs with lots of activities, and a gatefold opening that included a map (for helping Cookie Monster with “The Magic Cookie“) and pictures and tips on how to best enjoy it. (“Get some pots and pans from your pantry to bang on!“) The songs on the album were purely for kids – fun, silly, simple. The only (subtle) tip of the hat to the larger world of pop and rock into which it was released was the cover art that seemed to be a nod to Simon & Garfunkel.

The other kids’ albums I remember from my childhood are selections from Walt Disney movies. I think we may have had a “Disney Greatest Hits” type record, and perhaps a soundtrack from Mary Poppins, or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, although I may be conflating my memories of childhood jigsaw puzzles with childhood music. But the point is, these were orchestral, Broadway-style songs. Back then Kids’ Records were not interested in staying current with pop music tastes and sounds.

I moved on from Ernie and Bert pretty much directly to my sister’s Elton John albums and the 70s version of Weird Al Yankovic: albums of collected novelty songs sold on TV by companies like K-Tel and Ronco. But my childhood musical tastes – Ernie & Bert, Disney songs – have maintained through adulthood: the music I like continues to skew strongly toward good melodies. (This is probably a big reason why I love The Beatles.)

The Wiggles (and pals)

By the time I had kids of my own, in the late 90s and early 00s, an entertainment juggernaut had completely transformed kids’ music: The Wiggles. Many parents disliked The Wiggles when they first saw them, and I think a big part of it was that in the 90s it was unusual to see grown men performing for kids with no women. That may seem odd today, in 2019, but in 1999 it was really jarring to see. Myself, I immediately loved the band – mainly because my toddler son LOVED THE BAND. It was impossible for me to see him sing and dance along to the songs and NOT feel some love for the geniuses that gave that to him.

Dan Zanes & Friends

What I really liked about The Wiggles, however, was the fact that they took rock music sounds and styles and put them into kids’ songs. The Wiggles were a band, playing their own songs, on their own instruments, and they touched off a wave of “rock music” kids bands. The fabulous Dan Zanes & Friends, The Laurie Berkner Band, The Imagination Movers … There were just so many! Then there was Choo-Choo Soul, a show that made R&B-style kids’ songs. It was the Golden Age of Kids’ Music for Gen-X Adults.

The proof was when bands for grown-ups began getting into the act. The wonderful They Might Be Giants released several terrific kids albums, including Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. Def Leppard, Barenaked Ladies, even former freshmen, and one-hit wonders, The Verve Pipe, released kids’ albums. (Of course, Johnny Cash was ahead of everyone by 30 years.) Soon, parents were demanding rock music as kids music.

But leave it to the best band in the history of the universe to have presaged all of this kids rock music by a couple generations. The band, and Paul McCartney, in particular, had been writing Wiggles-style songs since the start of their run. They also produced flat-out, old-school kids-style songs (i.e. not Wiggles-style) throughout their career. Catchy, singalong melodies were right in their wheelhouse. And although they usually sang about love, which any child will tell you is “icky,” many of their songs are about less icky stuff, like colorful submarines and counting with friends, and, in fact, would sound really good as the soundtrack to a cartoon movie!

For details about how the movie Yellow Submarine and its soundtrack came together, you should consult any Beatles biography, particularly one by Mark Lewisohn. Or, to save time, check out the Wikipedia page. Basically, the band was contractually obliged to produce four new songs for the movie, which they did. These songs were slapped onto some other old Beatles’ songs used in the movie, a few orchestral selections from the film, written by producer George Martin, were tacked on, and Voila! Beatles album.

So, basically, even without trying, The Beatles could produce an excellent album – albeit one that mostly sounds like it’s made for kids. In particular, the title song (originally released on the band’s Revolver album) seems aimed squarely at the elementary-school, let’s-sing-a-song age group. This is a difficult song to write about because it seems like it’s become a children’s staple – like “Old MacDonald.” Nearly every kid in America, Europe, perhaps the world, has heard and sung along to it. I’d wager more people know the song than know that it’s by The Beatles.

It was written together by McCartney and John Lennon expressly for drummer Ringo Starr to sing, and its simple, contagious melody and magical lyrics suit him well. Perhaps the coolest thing about the song is all the sound effects created for it. The band and its friends blew bubbles in water, rattled chains, and talked in tin cans to create the undersea atmosphere. It’s a fun recording, and if you haven’t listened closely to the original in years, it’s worth a listen.

One of the best things about the album is that George Harrison contributes a higher percentage of new songs (two of the four) than on any other Beatles album. The first is the weird, wonderful “Only a Northern Song.”

The song’s (hilarious) lyrics show Harrison’s justifiable frustration (“It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/ What words I say …/ As it’s only a Northern Song.”) about the band’s publishing arrangement, in which his songs were owned by publisher Northern Songs, a company of which Lennon and McCartney each owned 15%, compared to Harrison’s 0.8%. This meant he made far less from the publishing rights to his own songs than John and Paul. It opens with a spooky organ, which suits Harrison’s laconic delivery. McCartney’s bass is terrific, and Starr’s drums fills are really great. About 1:10 a section of crazy dissonance appears, then recurs at 2:30 to finish the song. It’s a song that benefits from listening on headphones, and for a song that the band (and many listeners) has frequently dismissed, it’s pretty cool.

Next, the band goes all-in on kids’ music again with “All Together Now.”

It’s a cute little number that has some cool Beatle-y things in it. For one, it’s one of their songs where both Paul and John sing lead – Paul on the “1-2-3-4,” etc., and John on the “sail the ship,” etc. I love when they sing in harmony, because their voices blend perfectly. But I also love when they are co-lead singers because I like to think of them as best buddies, and they sound like it when they trade off lines. It’s got a fun build up, from acoustic guitars, then adding bass guitar and drums and harmonicas and voices and I think some sort of saxophone. Then it speeds up at 1:15 through to the end. It’s a fun, goofy, terrific song for kids.

Speaking of John and Paul singing harmony, and acting like best buddies, the next song up on Yellow Submarine is one of my all-time favorites from the band: “Hey Bulldog.”

There’s a cool story about recording this gem, and you can watch a video about it here. The song opens with Lennon playing a piano riff that is somehow both dark and upbeat at the same time. Harrison’s guitar joins in on it, with Ringo’s terrific tom-heavy drums, and finally McCartney adds his bass to the riff. Lennon’s voice is perfect on lyrics that are part nonsense (“sheepdog/ standing in the rain”), part koan (“some kind of innocence is measured out in years”), and part simple kindness (“if you’re lonely you can talk to me”). McCartney’s bass on this song is outstanding, constantly changing, holding down the low end while providing, basically, a second lead guitar. And while we’re talking lead guitar, check out Harrison throughout, but especially his solo at 1:13. Lennon and McCartney’s superlative harmony singing is on display, and I love how near the end they dissolve into silliness and banter and make each other laugh. I ESPECIALLY love near the end, when they completely break down then pull it together for one final, terrifically harmonic “Bulldog,” at 3:03. It’s these tiny things that bring me joy, and really underscore the fact that I’m rather obsessed by this band.

So obsessed, in fact, that Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” his second number on Yellow Submarine, is a song I often find going through my head, especially when I’m stressed out and thinking, well, “it’s all too much.”

It’s a noisy, droning, psychedelic song, with a tooting organ riff throughout. Harrison’s voice, beginning about 1:03 sings a great, rangy melody that seems to ignore the crazy sounds around it. And this really suits the lyrics, which are a positive reflection on all the joyful wonder of the world. Ringo’s drums, once again, are really cool. He plays off-kilter fills that accent the song perfectly. The guitar is cool, played by both Lennon and Harrison. A variety of horns are added, McCartney & Lennon add harmonies, and the whole thing begins to sound on the verge of breakdown beginning around 3:45. From there it becomes a kind of meditative drone, as Harrison wails about 4:40 and the three singers sing “too much,” well, perhaps too much, but that’s kind of the point of it. It’s one of the band’s most distinctive songs.

Next up is another all-time great Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.”

The song was released as a single a year before the movie, but since it appeared in the film it was included in the soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite Lennon compositions, including the lyrics, and one of my favorite performances by the band. Since it was recorded partially live, as part of “Our World,” a worldwide live TV broadcast, there’s a party atmosphere to it. As usual, McCartney plays lead bass and Harrison’s guitar solo is unforgettable. It’s a timeless classic, and actually has a bit of kids’ song cheer and simplicity to it.

The rest of the album, well, look. I’m not gonna try to bullshit you people: I can’t get through it. It’s a suite of 7 orchestral pieces by George Martin, the band’s longtime producer, that were written as the film’s score. There’s “Pepperland,” “Sea of Time,” “Sea of Holes,” “Sea of Monsters,” “March of the Meanies,” “Pepperland Laid Waste,” and “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland.” I’m sure they are brilliant pieces, and I have Beatle-y friends who swear they are some of the best works to appear on any Beatles’ albums. But I am not a classical music guy, nor a recorded orchestra guy, and I haven’t seen the film in 35 years, so it just doesn’t connect with me.

So there you have it. Yellow Submarine is my least-favorite Beatles record, but still probably my 13th-favorite all-time record. It make me happy, it makes me feel good, and that’s what we were all taught music was supposed to do back when we were kids. It’s what I learned from Ernie and Bert, and it’s a big part of why I love The Beatles!

TRACK LISTING:
“Yellow Submarine”
“Only a Northern Song”
“All Together Now”
“Hey Bulldog”
“It’s All Too Much”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Pepperland”
“Sea of Time”
“Sea of Holes”
“Sea of Monsters”
“March of the Meanies”
“Pepperland Laid Waste”
“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland”

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96th Favorite: De Nova, by The Redwalls

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De Nova. The Redwalls.
2005, Capitol Records. Producer: Rob Schnapf.
Purchased ca. 2006.

de nova

nut 96IN A NUTSHELL: As “Beatlesque” as Beatlesque can be, these four Americans know their way around melody, harmony, song structure and – best of all – lead guitar that supports the song throughout. The album presents a bit of a conundrum, as their Beatles sound is what I love, but it also probably limits my enjoyment. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had 3 fewer songs, and one or two of the remaining had been more “Redwallsesque.”

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Imitation has always been inextricably bound to rock and roll music. Nothing that has come down the pike (aside from a few unlistenable things) has been truly original – it has all been based on something that came before. (And even the unlistenable stuff is a mutation of previous, listenable music!) When I was a kid, they said that “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and his Comets, was “the first rock and roll song,” as if Haley had gone to bed one night as a classical guitarist, then sprung from bed the next morning and suddenly pooped out a backbeat, 12-bar blues and a simple, repetitive melody.

haley cometsAnd listeners were supposedly suddenly hypnotized by a sound the likes of which had never been heard before, as if Poseidon himself had risen from the sea and unleashed his magnificent ichthyological ensemble on terrestrial beings everywhere. under sea

Other smarter, better writers than me have discussed at length the dangers of simplifying historical narratives (and for a historical topic as insubstantial as popular music, danger is probably too strong a word), but nonetheless I’ll point out that describing a single song as “the first” of any genre will obviously leave out much of the story.

Bill Haley had heard all kinds of music in his life, I’m sure, and “Rock Around the Clock” probably sounded like much of his musical repertoire, and similar to what he had been hearing among his musical colleagues, particularly his black colleagues who couldn’t get their songs heard by the white populace – artists like The Four Blues. Much has been written about white American musicians co-opting black American music, (far less has been written about black American musicians co-opting white music, but it has been done) and while it’s true that societal racism was at work in popularizing white artists like Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis while many African American artists went unrecognized, something that’s not considered very often in the discussion is the fact that these artists – both white and black – were making music that sounded the way it sounded not because they were trying to cheat someone else out of recognition or money (at least not until Led Zeppelin, anyway) but because it was what they liked and what they heard around them. Musicians tend to play the music they like to hear, so it makes sense that “new” music will sound very similar to “old” music, and that white cats who dug the new sound (in the parlance of the times) would reproduce it in their own way. I doubt that anyone in the 70s really thought the “first rock and roll song” was by Bill Haley – I think it was more about hyping up the TV show Happy Days than anything else.

(Random thought – look at that Bill Haley and His Comets photo again. Can you imagine there was a time when a rock and roll band had use for an accordion player in the mix?? Although, when I l look closely, it appears to me that maybe he’s being phased out of the band)

Another reason musical artists copy others (although, as Picasso supposedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”) is because the listening public wants to hear what they know. Acts from Bill Haley in the 50s through Radio Disney artists of today have benefited financially from having a recognizable sound that becomes distinguished precisely because it is not distinguishable.

beatlemaniaIn the 60s, the wave of Beatlemania was followed closely by ripples of Beatle-somia. other bandsActs like The Dave Clark Five and The Knickerbockers capitalized on their Beatle sound, and Hollywood executives put together a mock-Beatles band, The Monkees (complete with animal name and misspelled long “E” sound) that was wildly successful (in large part because of the quality of songwriters they hired.) Even big-time artists with careers of their own took a shot at incorporating That Beatles Thing, such as The Rolling Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album Their Satanic Majesties Request.satanic maj

In the early 70s, the sensitive singer-songwriter James Taylor began pumping out his string of earnest, mellow hits and before you could say “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” sensitivethe airwaves were flooded with story-songs sung by a dude with an acoustic guitar sitting on a stool. They didn’t all sound like James Taylor, but this fact was actually part of the imitation: each artist’s singularity was what was being marketed at the height of “The Me Decade.

Whether musicians are consciously trying to sound like what’s come before, like Kingdom “wir klingen genau wie Led Zeppelin” Come or whether a band just had a sound that some record exec thought sounded like, say, Led Zeppelin, one of the best ways to get some traction as a musical act is to sound like another musical act.

(A quick aside: Musical imitation also remains a booming industry in the nightclub concert circuit. lez zeptragedySo-called “Tribute Acts,” whose members imitate other bands with varying degrees of accuracy and sincerity, are some of the highest-grossing unsigned acts performing today. I’ve seen both Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute act that is remarkable in both its power and its musical chops, and Tragedy, an as-good-as-it-sounds Heavy Metal Bee-Gees Tribute Band, which melds metal and disco and both acts put on some of the best shows I’ve seen. There’s a tremendously interesting book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band, by Steven Kurutz, which I highly recommend!)

(One more thing here: One of the first “Tribute Acts” I remember was Sha-na-na, sha na na
a group in the 70s, named for a distinguishing musical feature of 50s doo-wop music, who covered 20-year old rock and roll songs, and who [after warming up the crowd at Woodstock just before Jimi Hendrix (!)] parlayed that narrow ability into a successful TV variety show – one of the most successful syndicated TV shows of all time! zimacostnerTo put that in perspective, imagine a few pierced guys dressed in flannel and thrift shop clothes today calling themselves, say, “Distortion Pedal,” and having a hit TV show on which they perform old hits by Bush and Lit and Fuel in between telling corny jokes about Zima, “Virtual Reality” and Kevin Costner. It boggles the mind.) (And it sounds like a great skit idea for Portlandia! Someone call Fred and Carrie!)

As has been well-documented here in this blog, I am a Beatles fan. To summarize, I really like The Beatles. beatles fan Billions of people are, or have been, Beatles fans over the past 50 years or so. I won’t go into details, but if you want you can read this dude’s BA thesis, written a few years ago by a student at a Marasyk University in the Czech Republic.

Since I like The Beatles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the years I’ve enjoyed many acts that have been described in the press as “Beatle-esque.” Cheap Trick, XTC, and Matthew Sweet beatare a few acts whose albums are close to my heart (and possibly part of my Top 100??!!??) – acts that don’t exactly sound like The Beatles, but that clearly were strongly influenced by them. I know I like the sound, so I keep my ears open for acts described as “Beatlesque.”

At some point around 2005, probably on a message board about Stand-Up Comedy, I became aware of the existence of a young band from the Chicago area called The Redwalls that had a serious Beatles thing going on. band I think a friend’s band may have opened for them somewhere in the Boston area. I checked out the name on Youtube, and came across what has become one of my favorite songs ever: their first single from De Nova, “Thank You.”

What first captured my attention in this song was Andrew Langer’s guitar. It had become very rare, by 2005, to hear modern bands play the style of lead guitar heard on this song. I believe it was the influence of Grunge and 90s punk that caused the lead guitar to become so diminished in rock music. Bands like Nirvana and Green Day might throw a guitar solo into a song once in a while, but if they did, more often than not – as in the guitar solo in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the solos sounded ironic, lead guitarlike an outright mocking of the idea of a “Guitar Solo.” Even less popular than the Guitar Solo was the idea of a “Lead Guitar,” that is, a guitarist who plays something other than chords and rhythm throughout the song. Lead guitarists like Don Felder, from the Eagles, and Jeff “The Skunk” Baxter, from The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and George Harrison would fill up songs with all sorts of interesting fills and figures that added color and texture to a song. Part of the ethos of punk and grunge was to strip away all the frills and leave behind the power of a simple, loud song. I can appreciate this aesthetic, but I also really love a well placed, cool-sounding guitar. And “Thank You,” and the entire De Nova album, has this type of guitar work throughout.

The next thing that really drew me in to the song was the melodic, boop-de-dooping bass work of Justin Baren, one of the two brothers who lead the band. He plays a true Lead Bass, in the manner of classic rock bassists such as Paul McCartney and John Entwistle. Lines of melody that have their own path, but juxtapose perfectly with the guitar and the vocal melody. The vocals, on this song and throughout, may be what cause most listeners to immediately state “Beatlesque.” Logan Baren has a nasally, distinct voice, with a hint of a British accent (maybe he was hanging out with Madonna, another American with a British accent), that calls to mind at once John Lennon. lennon There have been other singers that sound a lot like Lennon, but Logan Baren may be the closest match who is not genetically linked. He sings in a deadpan style, but somehow he sounds sincere. The lyrics in “Thank You” are a nice reflection on a longtime love, and the entire piece works on all levels.

I immediately went out and bought the album. I was not disappointed by the rest of the songs.

The Redwalls have a bit of a political bent to some of their lyrics. The song “Falling Down”

is a screed against political censorship which humorously, and blatantly, uses several “words you can’t say on TV” to make the case for freedom of speech. This album was released around the time of that Great American Dark Nightmare of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Nipple,oops which, if you don’t remember, caused politicians across the political spectrum to take action to protect the nation’s youth from naughty words and glimpses of boobies while, shockingly, doing nothing to prevent lousy halftime shows at every Super Bowl since then. [Except Bruno Mars in 2014, which was actually pretty good.] “Falling Down” is a mid-tempo song with a bouncy drum beat, nice guitar work, and the Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmonies that are featured in most Redwalls songs. The voices of the brothers Baren, who trade off lead vocal duties, blend perfectly.

The songs “Glory of War” and “Front Page” also go political, offering a Redwalls take on war and violence and disarray in the modern world. Their political songs’ lyrics are not so overt, and don’t make you feel as if you are attending a political rally. The songs are good and catchy, and after a listen or two the lyrics start to come into better focus. The band definitely takes a “first, make catchy songs” approach to their work, and sound like they’d rather shoehorn an odd lyric into a good song than take the song in an odd direction. But their lyrics are never bad.

A close second for my favorite song on the album is “It’s Alright,”

which starts out as a straight-ahead rocker in the verse, lyrically referencing The Doors, but in the chorus (around the 50 second mark) throws in a tempo change, stellar harmonies, and drum break which sound – I’ve been trying to avoid the “B-esque” word, so I’ll say – Liverpudlian! liverpool In a great way. Again, the guitar work is nice throughout the song, continuing to be one of my favorite aspects of the band.

The Redwalls show their peace and love leanings in the excellent song “Build a Bridge.”

The song offers the cool hippy sentiment “Build a Bridge/and bring both sides together.” It starts out with a simple piano and builds to include horns and orchestration, and this makes the peace lovesong sound important, epic. The catchy sing-along chorus brings to mind the end of the night at a jam session with friends, in which anyone in the room is invited to join in. I think this band has a tremendous songwriting talent, for making the kind of song that makes the listener feel like part of the same club. Some bands can present music that makes me, as a listener, feel not cool enough to “get it,” but The Redwalls invite you in.

So? What are you smirking at? Because this band isn’t all that original? Okay – so what?!? The band obviously likes The Beatles, and so do I! I don’t mean to be defensive. It’s not the only thing I like about them – I like their songs, their harmonies, and especially their guitar. So what if they throw in backward guitar that could have been lifted off Revolver, in songs “Back Together” and “How the Story Goes“? What does it matter if a song like “Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling,” with its sleepy lead bass, oohs and ahs, and close harmonies, sounds like it might have been cut from the side two medley of Abby Road ? Is it so wrong to have an affinity towards the best band ever? Does it really matter that “Rock & Roll” sounds like it might have been played in The Cavern Club in 1963? I don’t mind at all. The Redwalls are Beatles-ish, but I think they have enough of their own thing going, too. And they don’t pick obvious Beatles songs to cover live, so I like that, too!

Besides, if you’re going to pick a band to copy, you might as well pick the best!
simpsons

TRACK LISTING
Robinson Crusoe
Falling Down
Thank You
Love Her
Build a Bridge
Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling
On My Way
It’s Alright
Front Page
How the Story Goes
Back Together
Glory of War
Rock & Roll

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“More, more, more! How do you like it? How do you like it?” – The Andrea True Connection

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good morning

The first thing I noticed was that the light was on. This seemed very strange to me, as I could see daylight through the window, and I could tell I was lying in a bed. Why would I be in bed with the light on during the day? It made even less sense, in those first few seconds of consciousness, that not only was I lying in that bed during the day with the light on, but I was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and sneakers. Also, my arm was bent behind my head at such a severe angle that my shoulder burned and my upper arm was numb.

Awareness flooded through my senses, and as strange as the light and the clothes seemed, the most shocking realization came a second or two later: I was in my own bed, just a few feet from Bob’s bed, inside our yellow cinder-block walled dorm room! This was all so confusing because just minutes before … no, SECONDS before, it had been nighttime, and I was awake, enjoying myself drinking beer at a party a few blocks away! It made no sense!

wake up

I sat up quickly. “Think! Think!! I was in that apartment, with team mates from baseball, I was with my friend, Dave (not Dr. Dave but a different Dave, who actually went to high school with Dr. Dave, but that’s another story), and I was … what was I doing? We were at that party, I remember that. I was talking to that guy … How did I end up back in my dorm? Wait … this is getting weird …”

A head appeared in the doorway, which opened into the kitchen of the 4-bedroom suite – the typical dormitory for freshmen at this college.

“You alright in here? Sounded like you might have overdone it last night.” It was a suitemate, “Heat” – so-nicknamed because to the seven immature 18-year old suitemates of his, the conflagration-hued hair atop his 22 year old head, coupled with his large-frame 80’s style spectacles, immediately brought to mind the character Heatmiser from the classic 70’s TV Christmas special The Year Without a Santa Claus.

heat 2

I attended Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science for two years after high school. It was a small school, about 1,200 – 1,500 students, located in the University City section of West Philadelphia, just a couple blocks from Penn and Drexel, the schools that gave the neighborhood its name. It is now known as The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. I had come to Philadelphia from a rather rural area, and I had led a rather subdued life. I didn’t go to parties in high school, I didn’t get together with friends and drink alcohol, I certainly didn’t take any drugs, apart from those prescribed to control my asthma … I was kind of a dork.

Wait! That’s inaccurate. I was TOTALLY a dork, and in fact, a famous movie was made about my transition to college.

When I got to Philadelphia, I decided to try to hide the fact that I was a dork. This was a futile effort, really, no matter how cool I tried to be, as any school with the words “Pharmacy” and “Science” in the name is sure to attract a significant number of dorks, geeks AND nerds and in a school full of them, the only title one is truly striving to be is “King of the Dipshits.”

farmer ted

(I think the fact that this didn’t occur to me is probably the best evidence of all of how dorky I was!)

But be that as it may, I wanted to try to be somewhat “cool” in my new environment and I decided to start saying “yes” to The Herd – a group that I had usually avoided (but whose approval I secretly sought) during the first 17 years of my life – even when I thought The Herd was making unwise decisions. I started going to bars, like The Track & Turf
and Off the Wagon, which apparently got shut down in 1992 – unsurprising, since it served alcohol to pretty much anyone, as long as they could provide ID (Identifiable Dollars). I went to frat parties, apartment parties and house parties. I found out that I liked to drink beer. I discovered a fondness for tequila. I liked the sensation of getting tipsy, the way it seemed to magically enable me to speak to people – even women! – and make them laugh. I began to notice that I’d show up at parties or bars with my friends, and I seemed to be someone people enjoyed talking to. Sometimes people would just come up to me and – get this – start talking to me! People I had never even met!! This was all very exciting and new.

I saw myself in a new light.

leo d

“You alright in here? Sounded like you might have overdone it last night,” Heat (under)stated.

heatmiser

Indeed. I had overdone it. I had overdone it in a way that I would continue to overdo for several years to follow. I had overdone it to a point where several hours of my existence had been deleted from my hard drive. I could query to my heart’s content, but all that would be returned was this:

error

It was frightening. A little booze had been fun, and exciting, but there seemed to be a point at which adding booze no longer increased the fun and excitement, but began to have a negative effect: it began to erase portions of my memory, hours at a time. I had overdone it, and whenever I overdid it, I saw myself in an even different light:

college photo

I bring this up about myself as evidence that I deeply understand the concept of “overdoing it.” Of doing something too much. I am extremely familiar with the concept of taking a good thing, and doing it more and more until it becomes … well, a bad thing. Making a good thing a bad thing. It can happen before you know it. For example – this paragraph you’re reading right now …

Overdoing it in music is very common, and it can happen in a few ways. I’ll go over some of them, with the help of YouTube. (And I’m not saying that overdoing it is necessarily bad – I like some overdone stuff, but I’ll get to that later.)

At the basic level, one can overdo the construction of a song. Too many verses, for example – when an artist feels that the listener needs to hear about those “haunted, frightened trees” and “circus sands” the seventh and eighth time through the melody instead of just leaving it be with two nice lines about “swirling ships” and a “dancing spell,” which clearly was all the song needed.

Artists can also run through a song’s riff too many times, or add extra sections to songs, or extend the fade-out for extra minutes. The Grand Funk Railroad song “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)” employs all these tactics AND throws in scary mutiny-at-sea lyrics sung in the first person which are themselves overdone. This song may be the best example ever of taking a pop song construction, and adding too many sections (all with hyper-repetitive lyrics) and doing each part too many times – and creating an overdone Frankenstein’s Monster of a song.

frank sings

If the song had just been cut down a bit, it would have been really cool, I think. But try to sit through the whole thing without thinking, at some point, “Wait … Is this still that same song?”

Pay particular attention to the section from 2:00 to 2:20. It sounds like they started playing that riff and forgot that they were actually recording a song. Like they were just grooving along, digging that riff, man, each with a couple bowls already in their lungs, a smoldering pipe resting on the amp, imagining themselves cruisin’ down a wide-open, redwood-lined Highway 101, on a custom Hog, the old lady ridin’ bitch, everyone’s hair a-flyin’, and no sign of The Fuzz anywhere in sight …

chopper2

… oh SHIT! We gotta get back to playing the song again, bro! Sorry, dudes!

At that point there are still about 7 and a half minutes left to go in the song – and the listener is already wondering if the needle is stuck in the groove (if this were 1970).

Overdoing song construction is only one way of overdoing it. Another way is to add extra instrumentation to the song, anything from a tambourine to full orchestration. A good example of this is the Beatles’ famous song “The Long and Winding Road.”

beatles

Brief Beatles Lesson: when the band broke up, it had the Let It Be album recorded, but it wasn’t mixed. Apple Records hired famous producer and as-yet-not-a-murderer Phil Spector to finish things off, and one of the techniques he employed was to add a whole lot of orchestra. The Beatles weren’t thrilled … so much so that in 2003 Paul remixed the album with all the orchestration (and a few other things) removed and released it as Let It Be … Naked. To demonstrate what Paul felt was “overdoing it,” let’s hear both versions of “The Long and Winding Road.”

Phil Version.

Paul Version.

Sometimes these additions work, and sometimes they don’t. And much of it – like all music appreciation – boils down to personal taste. Again, although the words “overdoing it” have a negative connotation, I’m not saying I think it’s always a bad thing.

For example: “Progressive Rock.”

prog

Prog Rock artists from the early 70s, like Yes and ELP and Rush, were HUGE proponents of overdoing it, and they overdid it in ALL WAYS POSSIBLE. Unnecessary verses, unnecessary instruments, unnecessary sections, even unnecessary sound effects!!

As a teenager, I was drawn to these artists who overdid it. Give me 10 minutes of “La Villa Strangiato,” with its 6 different time signatures and 4 different solo sections … or 19 minutes of “Close to the Edge,” with all the extra bullshit PLUS the sound of a babbling brook and birds, and I was in heaven! It was mind blowing, man!!!!

lsd

However, even the Prog Rock sounds eventually got to be too much for me. Tracing a path of Yes songs from “Roundabout,” in 1971 (8 minutes long, cool; overdone compared to most songs, but pretty tame by Yes standards) to “Close to the Edge,” in 1972 (19 minutes long; definitely overdone, but really in a sweet spot for my ears) to “The Gates of Delirium,” in 1974 (22 minutes: what the fuck!?!), one can tell just by the song titles that things are spinning out of control. Comparing these songs to my drinking in my young adulthood, “Roundabout” is that first beer where I’m saying hello to the young blond woman who smiles back; “Close to the Edge” is about the third beer, where she’s laughing at my jokes and finding me somewhat charming; and “The Gates of Delirium” is the 12th or 14th beer, where I’m speaking to her incoherently about how nothing matters on Earth except Barney Miller, and that if my eighth grade guidance counselor hadn’t screwed me over I’d have gone to fucking Yale and you’re the only girl I’ve ever met who, wait, where did she go, wait, dude, is no one else left at this party? cuz I got a buck or two if anyone wants to go on a beer run, but my ride left so is that anybody else’s beer there on the back of the toilet? cuz dude it’s like almost full so I’ll finish it and do you care if I just lie down, this is your house, right? or whatever, man, I don’t care if the dog had her puppies on it, it looks comfortable just for me to rest on for a while …

(Extending the Yes Music analogy – waking up the next morning on a stinky dog blanket with no recollection of most of the past evening, and no familiarity with the other people sleeping in the house, no apparent way to go home, and mounting nausea and paranoia and self-loathing would collectively encompass the entire 1978 album Tormato.)

tormato

I’ve heard A LOT of overdone music during the last 14 months of CD listening, and I’ve come to believe the most egregious form of overdoing it is in number of songs. This happens when an artist records, say, 20 songs – maybe 8 of which are incredible, two of which are pretty good, and 10 of which suck – but decides to just put all 20 songs on the album because, I guess, “each song is like one of my children …” And okay, I get it. But this is why the artist needs people around to tell them the truth. Let’s face it, you might not be able to fairly distinguish between the characteristics of your own brood of kids, but your friends and neighbors know EXACTLY which one’s got “C.E.O.” written all over him, and which one’s got “D.O.C.”

Here are some albums that could’ve been whittled down to VERY EXCELLENT works if their makers had just had an honest friend in the studio to say, in essence, “We’re comfortable with Jim or Jane babysitting our child, but face it: Teddy’s a psychopath.”

In Your Honor. Foo Fighters.

in your honor

A double album. Rare indeed is the double album that IS NOT overdone. I actually like this record a lot. One disc is full of rockin’ songs and the other disc is full of mellow. And while there are 20 very good songs included, they could have chosen the best 12 and made an INCREDIBLE record. Let’s face it, Foo Fighters’ bread and butter is raucous, loud rock, and while it’s nice to see an artist stretch a little here and there, most of the songs on the mellow disc could have been reserved for something else. Maybe a bonus disc? B-sides? (Do they make B-sides anymore?) Songs like “Still” and “Miracle” and “Friend of a Friend” weren’t necessary to put on here. “Virginia Moon” … well, as far as Dave Grohl duets go, this song with Norah Jones is somewhere below his version of “Leather and Lace” with Will Ferrell.

They shoulda kept “Another Round,” “Razor” and “What if I do” and put those three onto the first disc, while ditching “The Last Song” and “Free Me,” and we’d be talking about one of the great records ever. On a scale of overdoing it, this record is somewhere around having a third martini, or taking a second shot of Jeagermeister on a dare: not terrible, but probably not a good idea.

Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin.

phys graf

I love Zeppelin, and I love this album, again a double. It’s got a ton of classics: “Custard Pie,” “Houses of the Holy,” “Trampled Under Foot,” “Down by the Seaside,” “Ten Years Gone,” “Boogie With Stu,” “Bron-Yr-Aur,” “Black Country Woman” and, of course, “Kashmir” … They shoulda stopped right there. But they couldn’t. They had to put out a damned double album, and they threw in songs (“In My Time of Dying,” “In the Light,” “Sick Again,” “Night Flight,” “The Rover,” “The Wanton Song”) that weren’t horrible, but that just weren’t as good as the others, and really served no purpose other than to make me think, “Man, this record’s too long …” Maybe this is where Foo Fighters got the idea? On a scale of overdoing it, this is worse than In Your Honor, because this would’ve been an even greater album without the overdone-ness. This record is the equivalent of filling your empty, recently-guzzled “Mad Dog 20/20” bottle with Pabst Blue Ribbon from the keg.

mad dog

The Unforgettable Fire. U2.

unforget

I tend to think U2 are a better singles band than album band. I like a lot of their albums, and I own most of them, but I find I skip over many songs. It’s tough to call a single album of 10 songs overdone, but I place it here because the good songs are SO GOOD, and the bad songs are SO NOT GOOD! This coulda been the best EP ever!! I understand they put out Under a Blood Red Sky just before this and Wide Awake in America just after, so it’s unreasonable to think they would put out three EPs in a row, I guess, but why not leave “Promenade,” “4th of July,” “Indian Summer Sky,” “Elvis Presley & America,” and “MLK” off this record? Then it would just be “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Wire,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” and “Bad.” Perfect!! OR – why not keep “Indian Summer Sky,” which wasn’t too bad, and add “The Three Sunrises,” from Wide Awake in America? I guess that’s only 7 songs … This is a tough one, really, but it’s bothered me since I got the tape in 1984 that there was such unevenness. Maybe it’s not all that overdone after all. I don’t know – let’s call it the equivalent of three beers on an empty stomach after playing basketball for 2 hours: marginally overdone, but still regrettable.

Sandinista! The Clash.

sandin

Holy moley!!! When this came out in 1980, it was a TRIPLE ALBUM!!! That’s right, three big vinyl LPs in one product. Thirty-fricking-six songs!! Most bands don’t write 36 decent songs in an entire CAREER, let alone in one album. That’s a lot of songs to put out at once, and you gotta have a pretty big set of balls to do it. And Mick Jones and Joe Strummer certainly had ego to spare.

strummer jones

However, it’s not hard to see why they’d attempt such an effort. To this point in their career, they’d put out three LPs: The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling, for a total of 43 songs, plus 5 singles, and Goddammit if all 48 aren’t at least Very Good songs! It was an amazing string of songs, really, which was topped off by the 19-song extravaganza of London Calling, perhaps the greatest rock record ever produced! (Aside from all the Beatles records.) From 1977 to 1979 The Clash went (pretty much) 48 for 48 in songwriting (and cover songs). Sure, not every song was a home run, but all were solid base hits, at a minimum, certainly no whiffs.

clash

So, if you’re in that position, why not expect that you could just saunter into some New York studio, with no songs written, no ideas in place, and just pull an album’s worth of hits out of your collective asses? And you know what happened? THEY DID IT! They wrote (or covered) 10 or 12 excellent songs, once again! “The Magnificent Seven,” “Hitsville U.K.,” “Junco Partner,” “Somebody Got Murdered,” “One More Time,” “Lightning Strikes,” “The Sound of Sinners,” “Police on my Back,” “The Callup,” “Washington Bullets,” “Charlie Don’t Surf,” “The Street Parade” … That’s a great fucking album right there! But you know what else they did? They kept writing and recording and writing and recording. And pretty soon they had 36 songs, not 10 or 12. And hey, if 12 is good, 36 must be three times as good, right?! The same as drinking shots of mezcal!

mezcal

Anyway, here’s Joe Strummer’s opinion of my opinion:

strummer

But the truth remains, this album was way overdone. Way WAY overdone. Extremely. It’s hard to overstate the overdone-ness of this record, but then again our drinking scale would terminate at the high end at Death by Alcohol Poisoning, and certainly Sandinista! isn’t in the same category as total systemic organ failure. So, let’s say this record is the equivalent of waking up in the morning in your own bed, fully clothed, with a light on and no memory of how you got there, and having a cartoon character smirk at you and say, “Sounded like you might have overdone it last night …”
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(Other CDs with too many songs include Teenager of the Year, by Frank Black, and Nonsuch, by XTC.)
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Please comment with any music you think is overdone.
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NOTE: I’m up to album #350 in my listening project. I think I’m into the final 20 – 30.

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“In my life I love you more” -The Beatles

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In my attempt to create the definitive list of my 100 favorite CDs, I have been listening daily to almost all of the records in my collection for the past 11 months. I am currently listening to #281, In Your Honor, by Foo Fighters.

I continue to enjoy this project, but it hasn’t been accomplished without some stress.

See, the entire time I’ve worked on it I have been living with a sense of dread. There has been an inevitable, difficult truth awaiting me since the beginning – a fact more troubling than anything I’ve revealed so far in this blog, including my ignorance of celebrated desserts; my realization that I displayed anti-semitic actions and didn’t even remember it; and (perhaps most embarrassing) my love of Seals and Croft. I’ve put off facing this difficult problem for as long as I could. But the time has come for me to meet it head-on. It’s time for me to see if I can handle The Truth.
you cant handle the truth

Here’s how I’ve dealt with The Truth so far: I’ve avoided it. You may have noticed, on my List of Albums Under Consideration, that I have been listening to my CDs (generally) starting from the “Z” end of the alphabet, working back towards “A.” (I store them alphabetically.) In this way, I have listened to CDs for almost a year and I STILL have not listened to any albums by my problem: The Beatles.

For you see, I am a Beatles fan.

beatles fan

beatles 1

beatles 2

A big Beatles fan.

beatles 4

A big big Beatles fan.

beatles fan 2

Okay, maybe not that big, but big. And I am aware of this bias, and I recognize that my love of them will overshadow any objectivity I may try to bring to this project. And I really don’t want to bullshit both of my readers (sorry for swearing, mom and dad) by pretending I can be objective.

So I’ve been avoiding listening to them.

not listening

(Incidentally, this is the same reaction I have when most Bob Dylan songs come on the radio!)

I already know – and I knew when I started this project – that my top ten albums will be (in no particular order) Let It Be, Revolver, Rubber Soul, The Beatles (The White Album), Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles For Sale, Magical Mystery Tour, Help!, and A Hard Day’s Night. My top 30 would also include Please Please Me, and With The Beatles, I’m sure. (Yellow Submarine might make top 50, but wouldn’t be higher because I always skip the orchestral stuff.)

This prescience would render all my efforts pointless. Why listen to all my CDs to determine the Top 100 when I already know the top 10? To paraphrase Larry Bird, “Who’s coming in 11th?

I’ve viewed The Beatles as a problem ever since I started the project. I want to give all the CDs I hear a fair listen, but I know I won’t be fair when it comes to the Fab Four.

beatles 3

My Beatles fascination started pretty early. When I was a kid, whenever I was asked what my favorite song was, I’d reply “Strawberry Fields Forever.” My oldest sister had The Beatles’ “Blue Album,” a Greatest Hits collection from the years 1967 – 1970, and I used to love to hear her play it. For some reason, in 1977 – 78, while other kids were getting into Andy Gibb or Kiss or Anne Murray, I was getting into psychedelic pop from ten years earlier.

I also loved the song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” with the sounds of an audience behind the guitars and drums, and the added orchestral parts. I really thought that The Beatles a) played all those horns and strings and b) did so in front of a live audience; and at the parts where the audience is heard chuckling (40 – 50 seconds in) I always tried to imagine what it was they were doing onstage to make everyone laugh. Were they dancing silly? Doing a pantomime? I can still remember imaginings of long-haired Hippies (my general impression of who The Beatles were) leaping around a stage in Shakespearean dress (for some reason) while playing French horns and electric guitars, causing a staid, rather elderly, British audience in formal attire to laugh uproariously despite themselves.

ren faire audince

Through Middle School, and into High School, I still enjoyed hearing my sister’s Beatles album, and I became very familiar with all the songs, big hits like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Penny Lane,” (which over time came to rival “Strawberry Fields Forever” for top spot on my list.) But I also started to get more enthusiastic about current acts like Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Rush and U2.

Then things slowly started to change. In high school I was friends with Rick, who introduced me to a lot of music. (In fact, he and I – along with his younger brother Steve – formed the first band I was ever in, a short-lived (very short-lived) punk band whose rude (I’m sure) name I can’t remember, but with tuneless songs like “Drop Out, Kill Your Teacher,” and [I’m not proud of this one, but the point of the band was to piss people off …] “Fat Chicks Suck.” I played bass, Rick played guitar, and Steve drummed on the tape recorder with pencils and sang/screamed.) Rick’s favorite band was The Beatles, and since I respected him greatly, I decided I should listen to them more. I have a distinct memory of watching the old USA Network program “Night Flight” with Rick and Steve, and seeing both the Beatles documentary The Compleat Beatles

compleat beatles

magical mys

and the weird Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour at their house. I soon purchased Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on cassette.

In college, my Beatles fervor grew. I was now into a serious obsession with “Prog Rock,” – bands like Yes, ELP and early Genesis, but I had met a new friend who was slowly, surely, steering my musical ship toward the wondrous waters of Beatles.

Dave M. Dr. Dave. Phucken Dave. Dave Dude.

“Dr. Dave,” because he is now a Doctor of Pharmacy, one of the smartest people I know, rattling off pharmacological modes of action as easy as song titles from Revolver; “Phucken Dave,” because he is from PHiladelphia, and his language can – at times – be what my mom might describe as “salty” (but only at times – my mom would actually be surprised by this revelation, as I’m sure she’s never heard that “salt”); “Dave Dude” because he is not Taurus, The Black Giant.

When I met Dr. Dave he scared me. It was my first few days of college, I was a small town hick new to the city of Philadelphia, and this young man in the Joe Walsh t-shirt looked and sounded to me like some kind of big-city tough-guy. Before I got to know him, he reminded me of D’Annunzio from Caddyshack.

I was different from most of the folks he knew, as well. Here is a scene from the 80s movie that he thought I stepped out of:

But he turned out to be the friendliest, warmest person I met at college. Dave was/is an excellent guitar player, and he knew The Beatles deeply. He’d make offhanded remarks like, “It’s kinda like the solo George plays in “Honey, Don’t”” or “Ringo plays that ‘Ndah-Ndah!’ organ part on “I’m Looking Through You”” or “Matt Busby! Dig it!” and expected me to understand what he was talking about. I asked questions, the young student at the feet of the Beatle master.

grasshopper 2

And over time, my knowledge and understanding grew. I listened to the records relentlessly over the next few years. I can remember buying each album: Abbey Road the summer after my freshman year of college; The White Album, junior year (a gift, actually, from my sister); Let It Be later in my junior year; Revolver (UK version) in my senior year (at which time I played “Dr. Robert,” “She Said, She Said,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” over and over, annoying my roommates, but learning the bass lines for the cover band (JB and the So-Called Cells) that Dr. Dave, his brother and I had formed); Rubber Soul just after graduation; Beatles For Sale, Help!, A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour when I lived in that cottage in Mt. Gretna.

And all through this time I was conversing with Dr. Dave, questioning him, seeking guidance, knowledge, fulfillment. He was my guru, my Beatles-sattva. Also, JB and the So-Called Cells learned a ton of Beatles songs, and played them out. Hits like “Taxman” and “Get Back.” Obscure stuff, too. “Yer Blues.” “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.” “Oh! Darling.” “I’ve Got a Feeling.” “I Dig a Pony.” We played other artists, too, but there was something special about playing songs like “She Said, She Said,” and playing them right and doing it well.

Here’s a photo of JB & The So-Called Cells from January, 1991, onstage at Zachary’s, in Hershey, PA. I’m far right, next to Dr. Dave.

JB cells

(I don’t really have a mullet in this picture; it just looks that way due to how my hair is cut.)

Anyway, I guess the point to all this is that I spent a whole lot of time listening to, playing songs by, and reading and thinking about The Beatles. They’ve been a sort of hobby of mine. I react differently to them than I do to other bands, even those other bands that I adore. They mean more to me, for reasons I can’t explain.

What I like about them is that they were extremely creative and interesting, but they still always wrote killer melodies (well, almost always…)

Their songs were also deceptively simple. I remember hearing Harry Connick, Jr., (who – granted – has more musical knowledge in his pinkie toenail than I’ll ever have) say that the Beatles music was too simple, and therefore didn’t interest him. This led Dr. Dave to state, “Obviously he’s never tried to play lead guitar on “I’ve Got a Feeling”!” Almost every time I listen to a Beatles song, I hear something I didn’t notice before – a high-hat in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy);” Paul’s voice cracking in “If I Fell;” the fact that Ringo’s vocal for “What Goes On” is in the left speaker, and George’s strange guitar bursts are in the right speaker. A previously unheard breath here, an extra guitar track there, a nifty bass fill there. (Why, just three days ago, Dr. Dave texted me to ask if I ever noticed the three bass notes that begin “Penny Lane”!)

I think by now, summer 2013, peoples’ opinions of The Beatles are probably set. If you like them, you understand. If you don’t like them, I can’t change your mind. And I’m not going to try. I’m just trying to make a decent list of 100 albums without having to use up 10 – 13% of the spots on one artist due to my irrational emotional ties to it.

So I have decided to exclude Beatles albums from my top 100.

I will listen to them all, and I will rank them, but they will be in their own separate Beatles list. It just doesn’t seem fair to the other bands who’ve worked so hard to be pushed out of the top ten just because I have acute Beatlemania.

beatles fan e

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