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Favorite Beatles Album: Revolver

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Revolver
1966, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased Vinyl, 1988.

IN A NUTSHELL: Revolver has it all. Every song sounds new, and each has its own style. The band swerves from gentle love songs to caustic rockers; fun kids’ music to heart-wrenching grown-up songs; Byrds-ian folk-rock to experimental drone. And throughout the record, the amazing vocals – harmonies, backup, lead – guitars, drums and bass remain intact. The playground that was the modern 1966 recording studio is added to that genius, giving the record the sound of four expert musicians (and an unmatched producer) in full control of all their powers having the time of their life.

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

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And now: NUMBER 1!! But first – my favorite Beatles’ ALBUM COVERS, ranked, in order, from #1 to #13.

#1: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Rutles version here.) A great concept perfectly executed. You could stare at this album cover for hours. The image is now part of the world’s collective artistic consciousness. My favorite part is the doll’s shirt, which reads “Welcome The Rolling Stones.” The Stones returned the favor by embedding four little Beatle head images on the cover of their psychedelic album, “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request.”
#2: Abbey Road. Another iconic image that lingers in peoples’ minds everywhere. So many stories, so many theories. Proof that Paul is Dead! (28IF! Bare feet! Out of step!) It’s simple and classic. Often overlooked about the image: that curved line of parked cars beyond them receding into green trees and blue sky is really cool-looking.
#3: With the Beatles. (Rutles version here.) Stark black and white, half-lit faces, the hair just brushing their ears… It’s another indelible image. I find it interesting that John is so much more prominent than the others, the only one with his face fully visible.
#4: Yellow Submarine. Groovy cartoons, psychedelic colors, a world of hippy-dippy dynamism. Not too many album covers are more “of-their-era” than this one!
#5: The Beatles. The anti-album cover. And I love that “The Beatles” is not printed level. In the words of Bobbi Flekman, Polymer Records Artist Relations and hostess with the most-est, “A sexy album cover isn’t why an album sells! The White Album? What was that? There was NOTHING on that goddamn cover!”
#6: A Hard Day’s Night. Five-times the Beatle faces than your normal record! This album deftly says “soundtrack” by mimicking film footage. George wins the photos with the back of his head and a cool cigarette.
#7: Rubber Soul. The groovy 60s font and the elongated, hairy Beatle heads really give a strong hint that the boys’ songs are starting to change with this record.
#8: Help! (Rutles version here.) Spelled out in semaphore code, that’s N – U – J -V. Wait, what? Apparently the real semaphore HELP didn’t look as cool. But the point was made, right?
#9: Please Please Me. Ah, the cute boy-band days! A great shot on their first album that gives the impression that the band is moving up. Quite prescient. And I love that they reproduced the shot for their “Greatest Hits 1967-1970” album.
#10: Let it Be. (Rutles version here.) Like those pictures you saved, for some reason, of yourself with girlfriends or boyfriends past, depending on one’s mood this cover can seem wistfully pleasant, deeply embarrassing, or simply rage-inducing.
#11: Magical Mystery Tour (US LP). (Rutles version here.) I’m disinclined to appreciate any album cover that lists all the song titles on the front. It seems lazy. Even the star-studded “BEATLES” and goofy costumes don’t save this one.
#12: Beatles for Sale. The only good thing about this record is that the four Beatles are quite photogenic. Everything about this cover screams “Take the damn picture! We have a record to get on the shelves!!” (For an album called Beatles for Sale, maybe that was the point?? Was Parlophone savvier than I ever realized?)
#13: Revolver.

It pains me to say it, since I love love love the songs so much, but I just find this album cover … amateurish. To me it looks like a rough draft that was accidentally approved.

“Okay, Klaus,” someone at Parlophone said to Klaus Voorman, the cover illustrator, an artist and Beatle-friend, and future Lennon bassist. “We’ll go with this one!”

“Great, I’ll get started on the final version.”

“What? No – there’s no time. We’re just going to use this one – as it is.”

“But all I’ve really finalized are the intricate strands of hair on the four large faces. The photos are just slapped in, the drawings are just sketches, it’s incomplete … why, I only just gave Ringo and George the photograph eyeballs, and three of them don’t have the photograph lips …”

“Thanks, Klaus. Goodbye.”

One thing that always confused me about the cover was the smaller line drawing between the larger heads of John and Paul. There are four images, four Beatles, one would presume. The bottom two are clearly John and Paul. But the top two … are they supposed to be George and Ringo?

I always thought they looked more like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger:

Starting at the bottom, Paul is gazing up and John appears self-satisfied, and then the “Mick” figure looks distressed. It’s as if he’s hearing the amazing songs on Revolver and thinking, “our songs are shit, aren’t they?” And the dark-eyed head above “Mick” must be zombie-eyed, drug-hazed Keith, sulking against a balled-up fist, no? For years I thought this was a great knock by one talented songwriting pair on another talented pair. After all, the bands had a well-known (and completely manufactured) rivalry.

But I recently noticed something about “Mick,” something that makes it clear I’ve been wrong. It also indicates that others may have told Klaus that they dug his Glimmer Twins stunt. He made sure that the person’s namesake jewelry are clearly visible on both of “Mick’s” hands.

So I suppose it is The Fab Four after all, even though I’m not convinced the likenesses of Harrison and Starr are all that accurate. I’m especially unconvinced because I’ve seen several thousands of pictures of George and Ringo over the years, and I will bet everything I own that both men, in 1966, had, in fact, no more than two arms each. Yet, this doesn’t appear to be the case on the cover of Revolver.

Pictured, bottom to top, with hands annotated: Paul, John, “Ringo,” “George.”

And there’s one more question I have about the drawings: who the heck is popping out of Paul’s ear, apparently listening with displeasure?

When I tried googling, I came up with a phony April Fool’s column from 15 years ago, which claimed the figure is Paul. But it looks less like Paul than George and Ringo look like George and Ringo, so I don’t buy it. Others on a Beatle Fan site say the figure is artist Voorman. Perhaps? He clearly wasn’t great at drawing good likenesses of others, so one would expect a self-portrait would also be difficult. (Okay, that was a cheap shot. I can’t draw AT ALL – and he’s clearly an actual artist!) I would love to know who that is. If you know, please leave a comment!

But enough of the pictures … let’s get to the sound. Strap in for a long post, as I’ve gotta go pretty deep on Number One! And Number One on Number One is “Taxman.”

The Beatles have always known how to open an album. Please Please Me shot their canon out of a cannon with an urgent count-off. With the Beatles and Beatles For Sale opened with bare voices. A Hard Day’s Night featured the most famous chord ever, and Help! a shouted plea. Rubber Soul began with a classic guitar and bass riff. In 1966, Revolver opens with a cough, a creepy fake count-in and then the real McCoy. “Taxman” is the first Harrison song to open a Beatles album, and it is a song that is equal to the task. The bass riff by McCartney is a rock classic, and Ringo’s drumming (the fill at 0:21) and percussion (tambourine at 0:34, cowbell at 0:49) are excellent. Speaking of bass, check out what Paul does around 0:55 – he’s incredible. He also played the George-esque, raga-inflected guitar solo at 1:13. The harmonies are terrific throughout, as George complains about taxes that, at 95% for the extremely wealthy in 1965 UK, do sound rather high. At 1:33 a guitar riff mirrors the bass, and it sounds so good! As does the outro solo. What a way to open a record!

And they follow it up with a completely different song, and a completely new pop sound: the string quartet!

Actually, it’s a double string quartet, a string octet, I suppose, and it gives the song a melancholia that perfectly captures the loneliness described in the lyrics. Paul sings lead, and the harmonies of John and George (which have their own Wikipedia section) are brilliant, as is the contrapuntal “look at all the lonely people.” I like a variety of sounds and styles on my albums, which is a big part of why my #1 non-Beatles album is London Calling. After a guitar rocker and a string quartet, it’s hard to predict what might come next.

How about a drowsy ode to … well, sleep, I guess? … that features guitar recordings played backwards?

“I’m Only Sleeping” has a phenomenal sound. From the acoustic chord that opens the tune, a millisecond before John’s lethargic voice, to the splashing thunk of Ringo’s snare and Paul’s relaxed bass line, there’s a thick feeling of doziness about the track. When George’s backwards guitar lines are added throughout, the result is a song that truly sounds like its lyrical content. The precise “ooos” and harmony backing vocals (I love Paul’s “going by my window,” at 1:16) are wonderful, and provide a dreamy sensation. When Paul yawns at 2:00, one wonders if it’s real! But the song is not boring – that’s what’s amazing. It’s an exciting, interesting song about sleeping. Genius.

So after those three songs, is there any way the boys can mix things up some more? How about an Indian-inflected song about the fleeting nature of life and a philosophy of how to proceed through it?

Yes, yes, it’s certainly ironic that the man who just complained three songs ago about taxes would now be singing about the meaninglessness of money in the context of existence. Hey, people are complex, what can I say? As with “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s, “Love You To” is a song that has grown over the years into one of my favorites. George plays sitar on this song, including the 30 second opening of the song, and all the other instruments except the tabla and tanpura. The song has a lovely, droning sound, and it’s enhanced by George and Paul’s close harmony, as at 0:53. Revolver is a record of varying sounds, all of them interesting, and it’s hard to imagine – after all this – what could possibly come next.

How about a brilliant love song, destined to become a standard?

“Here, There and Everywhere” is a song I was fascinated by for years. I’ve always loved how clever the lyrics are. Verse one begins with the word “Here,” verse two with “There,” and the bridge prominently features “Everywhere.” That kind of thing tickles my nerd brain. Often overlooked in the song are Ringo’s subtle, orchestral drums. And how about the background harmony!! Holy moley!! George’s guitar chords are lovely, as is his line that mirrors the melody in the “but to love her is to need here” lyrics. At 1:57 listen for the finger snaps that start – the kind of hidden treasure I love discovering! I’m never as big a fan of Beatles’ love songs as I am of rockers, but “Here, There and Everywhere” is an exception. (Even though I’d prefer an oxford comma in the title.)

The band keeps everyone guessing at what’s coming next on Revolver, and I’d guess that in 1966 few expected the band to release a full-on children’s song.

“Yellow Submarine” is a fun one, perfect for Ringo’s singing style. He gamely describes his seafaring experiences on the ship, and the background noises and voices of the crew have made it an ever-popular song. Of course, the band eventually made a cartoon movie out of the song. I don’t have much to say about it. The band and their friends had a lot of fun recording the song, coming up with sound effects and funny voices.

Childhood whimsy is pushed aside for the brash sounds, drug-induced words and changing meter of one of my favorite songs ever (but not my favorite on Revolver!), “She Said She Said.”

Harrison’s guitar sound on the opening riff is distinctive, even disorienting, and then the bass, also by Harrison, plays a single note while Ringo throws in an incredible fill to open things up. Lennon’s lyrics are famously from an LSD-influenced conversation he had with actor Peter Fonda, and George provides some Paul-esque high harmonies. Check out Ringo’s drums – just in the first 30 seconds! Throughout the song he’s a monster. And what I really love are all the guitars! It sounds like there are a million. There’s some cool finger-picking (or maybe just pick-picking) during the verses, and of course Harrison’s metallic lead, and it’s all supported by a faint organ underneath. As for song structure, they deftly (Thanks, Ringo!!) shift from 4/4 to 3/4 during the “When I was a boy” bridge. This song ended an amazing Side 1 (back in the day), and one would be right to think it unlikely that Side 2 could be quite as good.

But Side 2 may even be better!! John may have lamented Paul’s “Granny” songs, but “Good Day Sunshine” is a classic number no matter how you describe it.

Lyrically, the song perfectly describes that feeling of being happily in love. The John and George harmonies are terrific, including John’s spoken “she feels good,” as is Paul’s piano. George Martin actually plays the piano solo. It’s just a happy little song, and the band does throw in the Beatley vocal outtro. Revolver just keeps getting better and better, more and more interesting.

And we’ve reached what is likely my favorite Beatles’ song of all time, “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

The dual guitar, played by George and Paul, is just amazing. Through the entire song, they create a riff that’s practically a song unto itself. It opens the song, then from 0:37 to 1:20 a descending version is played through the bridge, then the intro returns, and the bridge is played once again. And behind the entire thing, Paul’s bass is ranging far and wide, culminating in the final verse, where he plays a high triplet (1:25). This figure accents the close, three-part harmony in the third verse, the one where “your bird can swing.” The lyrics are apparently about Frank Sinatra, John’s take after reading a glowing article in Esquire on the by-then-out-of-fashion crooner. But we can never be sure because Lennon, the main songwriter, actually hated the song and barely spoke of it, except to say he disliked it. Well, John, I love it. I think you guys created a masterpiece. (If you want some laughs, listen to the Beatles Anthology 2 version, which sounds like a Byrds song, and features old pals John and Paul cracking up so bad they can’t even sing!)

This album would already be my favorite if it ended right there, but five great songs remain! And since we’ve already heard a Paul love ballad, how about we hear a Paul break-up ballad.

It’s a sad song about a relationship that’s ended, and it includes what is probably the best use of a French Horn in all of rock. Also of note is McCartney’s bass, which enters after two verses, at about 0:24. It’s lovely, ranging very low (I wonder if it was tuned low?) and includes slides and staccato, really showcasing his all-around ability on the instrument. Only he and Ringo appear on the piece, apart from Alan Civil, the horn player. The entire song is Classic Paul.

So, Revolver must fall off at some point, right? Well, certainly not now, not when we’re about to pay a visit to “Doctor Robert”!

Doctor Robert is clearly an over-prescriber, but that’s precisely why John is singing his praises. He sings the song with a bit of a lag, but a different energy forms when Paul joins in verse two (0:30). And the harmonies in the “he’s a man you must believe” chorus (0:49) are outstanding! There’s a subtle dueling guitar sound to George and John’s riffing and rhythm throughout the song. I particularly love George’s guitar at about 0:56, heading into the “well, well, well” bridge, a bridge with wonderful three-part vocals. George’s guitar is great, as is his maraca playing! I couldn’t mention “Doctor Robert” without also mentioning Dr. Dave, as this song is a favorite to play in our band, JB & the So-Called Cells. It was in learning to play and sing harmony on this song that I first noticed the times (1:39 & 2:04) when John and Paul sing “Doc Robert!”

George Harrison was known as “the quiet Beatle,” and compared to the always-on Paul, the sarcastic John, and the quippy Ringo, he could seem shy and retiring. That persona (which from all accounts is not true) is captured int the fantastic ode to lovable-losers, “I Want to Tell You.”

Look, I’m just saying, not necessarily from personal experience, that if you were a young college-age guy with not-great self-esteem and terminal timidness around women you found attractive, then this song may have connected with you. The song’s great from the beginning, featuring a fade-in and rolling guitar riff, combined with Ringo’s authoritative snare drum. John and Paul’s backing vocals, as usual, are spot on, as is Paul’s bass. George’s voice is affecting, as he draws out the “Tee-ee-lll you …” And the dissonant piano in the second half of the verses is perfect. And how about that fill Ringo plays at 1:11! At the end (2:18), the boys sing a “melisma,” a word I just learned two minutes ago.

I hate to keep typing it, but it just seems like this record can’t get any better, any more diverse, and then an R&B number appears! Paul’s “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which, oddly enough for a song recorded in 1966, was the last U.S. top ten song the band recorded together, hitting #7 in 1976.

I’d never say a cover version is better than a Beatle original … but Earth, Wind & Fire doing “Got to Get You Into My Life” is pretty darn good…

The first note I wrote about this song is “Ringo’s hi-hat!” I love that sound against the cool horn fanfare. This is a fun song, and Paul’s bass is terrific. It sounds like a magical, love-at-first sight number, but Paul has actually said the lyrics are an ode to pot! (Oh well – it can mean what you want it to mean!) There’s not much guitar, until George enters at 1:49 with typical George-genius! Paul sings the heck out of the song, really using his best shout-y voice, especially on that outro! By the way, I don’t love a lot of covers of Beatles’ songs, but Earth, Wind and Fire’s version of this song is pretty great (it has more guitar than the original!) and hit #9 in 1978 (and #1 on the Billboard’s Soul Chart).

Okay, okay, for a final song on Revolver, what could The Beatles do to possibly cap off all of that? If you were a music fan in ’66 and just heard all those songs, what would you expect to close the record? Could you even fathom something like “Tomorrow Never Knows”?

Ringo’s snare and tom pattern drives the song forward continuously, as does Paul’s monotone bass. Those seagull sounds are actually a tape loop of Paul laughing, distorted for the record. In fact, there are tape loops all over this song, providing an otherworldly sound that John was looking for. The lyrics are all about meditation and psychedelic drugs and way too much for me to go into here, but the title is never mentioned in the song. It’s a simple song, structurally, but so much occurs – the violin-like tapes at 0:40, the truck horn at 0:50, the squiggly solo at 0:59, George’s backwards solo at 1:09 … I mean, I can’t keep up. It’s a sonic treat, and shows the band was – (is?) – just light-years ahead of the curve. This song had to be the final song on the album – there’s nothing else they could have done!

I’ve heard people say that this is the last song The Beatles should’ve released, that Revolver was the apex and should’ve ended it all. Many critics and music fans have called it the best album of all time. (Or thereabouts.) I agree that the band never was better, but I sure don’t think that the remaining albums – Sgt. Pepper’s, White Album, Abbey Road, Let It Be – were extraneous! And aside from all the music I loved on them, it gave them more time to perfect their album covers!

Keep watching this space – I’ll be doing some more music writing soon! Just because The Beatles records are complete doesn’t mean I don’t have more to say!

TRACK LISTING:
“Taxman”
“Eleanor Rigby”
“I’m Only Sleeping”
“Love You To”
“Here, There and Everywhere”
“Yellow Submarine”
“She Said, She Said”
“Good Day Sunshine”
“And Your Bird Can Sing”
“For No One”
“Doctor Robert”
“I Want to Tell You”
“Got to Get You Into My Life”
“Tomorrow Never Knows”

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2nd Favorite Beatles Album: Abbey Road

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Abbey Road
1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased Cassette, 1986.

IN A NUTSHELL: Abbey Road fully encapsulates everything that is wonderful about The Beatles. It also recapitulates their entire career, from doo-wop (“Oh! Darling”) to psychedelia (“I Want You,” “Sun King”) to singer/songwriter balladry (“Here Comes the Sun”). As if to lay to rest any doubts about their talents, the album is chock full of amazing songwriting (from all four members!), incredible vocal harmonies, and even some knockout solos from the boys. It’s the most-perfect final album of any band ever.

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

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Star Wars opened in American theaters in May 1977, a week before my tenth birthday, making me a prime member of the film’s target audience. The film had spaceships, lasers, robots, bigfoots, a swashbuckling cowboy and a princess (with no kissing!), plus a teen-ager who learns to fight with a lightsaber. It came at a time when I was young enough that I still played with GI Joes. All those Star Wars action figures were aimed directly at me, and my dad’s wallet.

But my family were targets the marketers could rarely hit. We weren’t destitute by any means, but we were definitely lower-middle class, a family of five living on a machinist’s hourly wages. We were fed and clothed, and had a few “nice things,” like bikes and church outfits and a handheld calculator that cost more than all three bikes together, and that was hidden in my mom’s desk, requiring special permission for my sisters and I to access it. But non-necessary expenditures were rare, and anything that could be found as a “hand-me-down” was. Those GI Joes that I still played with had come from my older cousins.

Also, my parents weren’t movie-people. It cost money to go see a movie. Additionally, they required leaving the house, and possible mingling with people, an experience my dad, in particular, found difficult. My parents never went out on “dates.” They were content to watch movies on TV with annoying commercial interruptions, years after they’d been released in the theaters. Throughout the 70s I only recall them going to three movies in the theater: The Sting, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, and one other.

My sisters and I periodically went to a kids movie – Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Bambi, Snowball Express, – and once or twice we went as a family to the Drive-In theater. But as a whole, my family were not movie-goers. I’d never cared about that fact until I returned to school in the late summer of ’77.

That’s when Star Wars fever was boiling over.

Everyone in my fifth grade class had seen the film, and I mean everyone. John H. claimed to have seen it 30 times, probably an exaggeration, given his well-known penchant for stretching the truth, and, frankly, his family’s well-known limited financial means. However, he could, indeed, draw an astoundingly accurate version of R2-D2 in chalk on the blackboard. And this being decades before the internet, and years before DVDs and even household VHS machines, he’d had to have gone to the theater more than once to draw such a great picture.

I figured there was no way I’d get to see Star Wars until it appeared on TV. I even discussed with my buddy, Bruce F., my only ‘wealthy’ friend with HBO, whether I could come watch it at his house, without commercials, when it finally ran. I thought it was hopeless to ask my parents to take me to an actual movie theater to see it, but I decided to give it a shot.

My dad told me he’d take me. We went to see it one evening at a theater in downtown Lebanon, PA, and it was amazing. I will never forget the first time I saw Star Wars because 1) it meant so much that my near-hermit, movie-indifferent dad took me; and 2) it was such a cool movie!

I’ve thought a lot about it, and there’s only one other work that I so clearly recall experiencing for the first time, and that’s The Beatles’ Abbey Road. And I didn’t even have all the family baggage surrounding that experience!

It was a summer evening in 1986, and I stopped to shoot hoops in an elementary school playground with a guy named Jeff. He had a boombox in his nearby car and was blasting the tape. Some of the songs I knew, some of them I didn’t, but one trip through the entire album while we played HORSE and one-on-one, and it immediately became my favorite record. The sounds, the melodies, the guitar, the feeling, the ending … it made an impression. Of all the records I love, I can’t recall my first listen as clearly or as deeply as I recall that first Abbey Road.

Abbey Road turned out to be the final album the band ever recorded. After the studio experimentation of Sgt. Pepper’s, the fraught individuality of “The White Album,” the band’s indifference to Yellow Submarine, and the awkward discomfort of filming the recording of Let it Be, (which was recorded earlier, but released after Abbey Road), it was to be a return to the camaraderie, synergy and musical focus that marked their earlier albums. Named for the recording studio in which they worked, The Beatles’ Abbey Road is as good a final album as any band has ever recorded.

And John Lennon’s “Come Together” is as good an album opener as has ever been recorded.

The bass, the drums the whispered “Shoot me,” with the “me” obscured by echoing handclaps … it’s among the most identifiable 4 seconds in rock music history. The nonsense lyrics are fun to sing, and it’s actually John singing his own harmonies during the verses. The bass line throughout is one of the coolest ever. At 2:31 Paul plays a little curlicue at the end of a line, and you can hear a little bit of studio shouting, if you listen closely. Lennon plays the Billy Preston-like electric piano, and Harrison adds a terrific lead guitar. And the entire time Ringo proves he’s one of the most creative drummers in rock. At 3:13, a lengthy runout begins, and if you listen closely in the left side, you’ll hear Lennon’s great rhythm guitar. It’s a song that’s been played a million times that I never get tired of hearing.

“Come Together” is an obvious group effort, and teamwork is a feeling that permeates Abbey Road. Even on Harrison’s masterpiece “Something,” a certain Beatle-ness is evident that was missing on “The White Album.”

As with “Come Together,” the bass and drums are once again perfect and indelible. Paul’s widely ranging bass and Ringo’s slow tom rolls are perfection, and check out what Ringo does in the bridge (~1:14 on). Harrison’s guitar is also amazing, and his sound and slide work throughout, (on the solo, at 1:43, in particular) became a sort of template (perhaps unfortunately) for 70s lite-rock. As love songs go, the lyrics of “Something”, coupled with George’s voice, are among the best. And let’s not forget the wonderful harmonies throughout!

The collaboration among the band is even clear on songs on which part of the band is absent – for example “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which John considered “Granny music,” and so didn’t play along.

It is a silly song, with goofy lyrics about a serial killer, but I do like the tuba-ish bass, which is played by Harrison. And it’s got that wonderful guitar throughout the choruses, pure Harrison in sound and style.

Of course, even while the boys sound like they’re playing nice together, there were still some hurt Beatle feelings. For example, John really thought Paul should’ve asked him to sing “Oh! Darling.”

But maybe those hurt feelings are why he played such amazing guitar on the song! It’s Lennon alone playing all those attacking slides in the verses and arpeggiated chords in the choruses. And it was revealed last year that Harrison actually played bass on the song! Just as Paul easily copped the “Harrison sound” in past guitar solos in, for example, “Taxman” and “Ticket to Ride,” Harrison plays a wonderfully McCartney-esque bass line throughout, changing things up every time through. (I particularly love the syncopated ascending run he throws in, about 2:28.) Paul sings the hell out of this doo-wop tune about a gal who left him, and the subtle backing vocals are perfect. Lennon finishes off the song with great harmonics.

With Harrison doing so much on the album – bass, songwriting, guitar – I find him to be the unsung hero of Abbey Road. He even helped Ringo write his second Beatles songwriting credit, “Octopus’s Garden.”

And of course, he played that super lead guitar! Lennon actually plays all the nice fingerpicking rhythm guitar. The bass is A+, of course, and I really love all the backing vocals, particularly during the great guitar solo (1:38), when they sound as though they’re under water! It’s a perfect Ringo song, his voice is great, and though the song is often criticized as just a glorified kids’ song, Harrison actually found the lyrics to be quite spiritual.

Perhaps they are. And maybe there’s something spiritual, in a mantra-way, in the minimalist lyrics of Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

Much like the way I used to dislike “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s, but found myself growing to love it, this song is now officially one of my favorite Beatles’ songs. There’s so much happening, from an almost jazzy beginning through a slow-building musical fire that’s repeatedly tamped down, to a droning, repetitive, wild outro, it’s a song that simply requires repeated listens. “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston plays a terrific Hammond organ, and I noted so many times in this song where I went back and re-listened (Paul’s bass, 1:00; Preston, 2:00; harmonies, 2:05; Guitar solo with organ, 2:26; drums everywhere; Guitar 3:37, 4:05, 4:14, 4:19; studio shouting at 4:33) that, really, it would be ridiculous to list them all. Okay, so I just did, but basically I think you should go listen to this song a bunch of times in a row, on headphones. You’ll be happy you did. Listen for the extra hi-hat at 7:16, after which there are two more times through the pattern before the song abruptly cuts out.

More evidence of Harrison’s status as Album Hero on Abbey Road comes in the next song, one of the band’s most popular ever, “Here Comes the Sun.”

First off, that’s a cool video produced for the song last year. From the first notes of Harrison’s acoustic guitar, this song is perfection. Once again, McCartney’s rolling bass provides a great countermelody, and the backing instruments – a whooshing Moog synthesizer, a harmonium, electric guitar – give the song an uplifting sound. The lyrics celebrate, well, being alive, when it gets down right to it. The backing harmonies (by George and Paul – John doesn’t appear at all on the track) are brilliant. Ringo’s drumming is pretty straightforward, even through the 3/4 “it’s all right” sections. Then, from 1:30 to 2:12, during the “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” section,” he goes nuts with some of the coolest tom fills ever. It’s a tremendous song – upbeat, positive, fun to sing along to, interesting musically … I love it.

The rest of the album is unique and wonderful, and – for some people – almost as frustrating as “The White Album.” That album left some folks wondering “what if they’d truly collaborated and then pared the record down to the strongest 15 songs?” The second half of Abbey Road is made up of a medley of songs, and leaves some folks wondering “what if they’d completed all those snippets?” As for me – it’s interesting to think about, but I’m happy with the record as it is. The record builds, and packs an emotional wallop that may not have occurred with 9 more complete songs.

The beautiful “Because” is probably not part of the medley, but it melds so seamlessly with the rest of the songs, I usually think of it as the first bit.

Musicologist Walter Everett, in comparing the song to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” notes that both songs “arpeggiate triads and seventh chords in C♯minor in the baritone range of a keyboard instrument at a slow tempo, move through the submediant to ♭II and approach vii dim7/IV via a common tone.” I think you should just listen to the beauty of the song, the voices, the sparse, hippy-ish lyrics, and not worry about all that. Then listen to this mix of vocals-only from the song, George, John and Paul (low register to high), each recorded three times to create 9 voices. Amazing.

Then comes the medley. NOTE: The Beatles(R) are very diligent in removing unofficial content from YouTube, etc. They only allow what they want floating around out there, which means … the version of The Medley that was on the original album, and the 2009 remix, is no longer available on YouTube as a single piece. The only full medley available is the version below, from 2019, when the band (i.e. McCartney) reshuffled things and put “Her Majesty” in between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” where it had (apparently) originally been before a last-second change (made by McCartney!) before the album release. Also, the arrangements are different, with different vocal tracks, missing orchestral tracks, fewer guitar solos … SO – I’ll have a link to each song, below, but I like to hear the medley as a medley, so I’ll leave this here, too, even though it’s not the way I’ve always heard it. Ugh. Artists. Such prima donnas. (Love you, Paul!!)

Famous for being one of the first rock songs about being screwed by the music industry, “You Never Give Me Your Money” introduces a melody on piano that will return throughout the medley. The song’s various sections are held together by the genius of Ringo. The chiming guitars (1:34) in the “magic feeling” section give me chills every time. I think it’s might be Harrison playing it, and the chiming continues (1:50) when a great guitar solo enters, maybe played by John? Either way, the dueling guitar work is stellar, and when the pair doubles on the solo (along with Paul on bass near the end of the solo, 2:12 – 2:32), with Ringo’s fills, it’s some of the best Beatles stuff on record. Every time I listen, I hear something new. It’s actually a rather sad song, particularly for a Beatles fan, and considering it’s the last album. “Step on the gas and wipe that tear away …”

Next comes “Sun King,” a kind of repeat of “Because,” vocal-wise, with awesome harmonies, this time on nonsense, faux Spanish lyrics. The guitar work of Harrison and Lennon is, once again, really sweet. And Paul plays a slightly distorted bass that sounds cool. And check out Ringo’s bongos! The song transitions quite suddenly with a nice Ringo fill into …

Mean Mr. Mustard.” For all of Lennon’s complaints about Paul’s “granny music,” this composition of his is not too far from that description! Paul plays a fuzz bass and sings harmonies. This song, though short and somewhat insignificant (anyway, it’s my least-favorite part of the medley), really showcases how the voices of John and Paul blend together. It’s about a miser, with a sister named Pam, who turns out to be …

Polythene Pam.” Those three acoustic chords that open the song are so simple and so grand next to McCartney’s swooping bass. Great harmony vocals, as usual, on a song about a particular woman (who seems much different than her brother). It’s one of Ringo’s most creative, terrific drum tracks, and George’s solo (0:49) adds so much, leading to (“Oh, Look out!) …

She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” Actually, George’s guitar seems to continue right through into this song, with the same tone. He’s hero-George again, and his guitar work is my favorite part of this song. His guitar sound, coupled with the vocals is another place on the album where I always get chills. This is another awesome Ringo performance, too, with classic swingin’ Ringo hi-hat and Ringo-y fills, like 1:20 and 1:26. And don’t sleep on John’s 12-string acoustic, in the left channel! The song was written by Paul after an actual Beatle fan actually climbed into his house through his bathroom window.

The medley has about a 2 second break here, as the powerful “Golden Slumbers” is cued up. It’s one of Paul’s best vocal performances, fluctuating between sweet and powerful with ease on lyrics partially adapted from an old poem. It also has some fine orchestral work (WHICH IS REMOVED FROM THE MEDLEY VERSION, ABOVE!!), arranged by George Martin. His strings never seem overdone, like the ones Phil Spector added to Let It Be, and it’s nice to hear him go out with a bang on Abbey Road, as well.

Carry That Weight” is kind of the second half of “Golden Slumbers.” John was recuperating from a car crash, and doesn’t appear on either song (except vocals in the chorus), but hero George plays 6-string bass on both. It has a nice reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and some nice electric guitar from George. It transitions quite suddenly into …

The End,” is truly a bittersweet song – the final time the band played together, on the final song of the final album, and titled “The End.” And it really delivers a thrilling demonstration of the 4 lads’ musical abilities. It features (0:20) Ringo’s only recorded drum solo (unless you count those 8 bars in “Birthday,” which nobody does) and dueling guitar solos from the other three. The solos start about 0:54, and rotate, 2 bars each, in order – McCartney, Harrison and Lennon. They sound like they’re having so much fun!! I love listening to the distinctive styles of each, with Paul flashily ranging up and down the neck, George playing tricky bends and rockabilly-ish riffs, and Lennon mostly playing simple licks and dirty chords. When the solos end, about 1:30, and Paul’s piano remains, I once again feel the frisson, leading into the famous couplet from Paul: “And in the end the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.” (I get a little misty typing it.) Somewhat lost in there is the fact that Harrison and Lennon play cool riffs behind the lyrics, and Ringo’s drums are orchestral and brilliant to close things out.

Perfection. And it wouldn’t be perfection without a little mistake: “Her Majesty.” As discussed above, this song was originally excised from the medley, then was mistakenly added to the end of the master tape, so it made it onto the record. It’s Paul on an acoustic, singing to the queen. And it’s really a song for our time, 2020: at 23 seconds long, it’s the perfect song to sing so I’m sure I wash my hands a sufficient length of time!

So long, boys! Thanks for everything!!

This was a long post – if you made it to the end, bless you. Leave a comment so I can thank you directly. But I love Abbey Road so much, I could have typed three times as many words. Long, long ago, on a playground far, far away, I had no idea it would still resonate with me as a 53 year old.

TRACK LISTING:
“Come Together”
“Something”
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
“Oh! Darling”
“Octopus’s Garden”
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
“Here Comes the Sun”
“Because”
“You Never Give Me Your Money”
“Sun King”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“Polythene Pam”
“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”
“Golden Slumbers”
“Carry That Weight”
“The End”
“Her Majesty”

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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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