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4th Favorite Beatles Album: The Beatles

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The Beatles
1968, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Gifted Vinyl, 1988.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Beatles, aka “The White Album,” is, for the most part, a bunch of songs by the solo Beatles. It’s an Easter Basket of a record, with some favorite treats, some stuff you just kind of like, and even a (“WTF?”) stick of deodorant. I’ve come to appreciate the hit-or-miss nature of the songs, as they rise and fall in my estimation as I age and change. There seems to be no genre unexplored, and there was certainly nobody to tell them NOT to make such a weird record. And in the end they produced an album like no other.

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

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I usually start with a bit of a background story for these posts about these albums. In the spirit of “The White Album,” it feels appropriate to instead start off with a bunch of random, disconnected Beatle memories and thoughts.

When I was a kid, my dad used to tell a story that Ringo Starr had once stopped at our house in rural Pennsylvania, knocked on the door and asked how to get to Pushnik’s, a nearby hotel with a nightclub. (I don’t believe it was true.)

I worked on the third shift at Hershey’s Chocolate Factory in the summer of 1987, and I had a bit of a crush on a co-worker. One night during work she said she hated The Beatles. The crush immediately deflated.

John Lennon seemed very scary to me as a child, as if he had things to say that my parents might not want me to hear. When he was murdered, I was surprised by how many people were saddened, even people who I wouldn’t have expected, like my fat, old YMCA basketball coach. (Who I hadn’t thought about until just now, and I suddenly remembered that time he was alone with me, a 13-year old, and he asked me to take off my shirt and try on my basketball jersey, then he told me to lose some weight. That was pretty creepy, now that I think about it. Even back then if felt creepy.)

In high school, I watched the documentary The Compleat Beatles on the old TV show Night Flight with my buddy Rick, and he said the following two sentences, in order, with no break: “Paul McCartney is the worst, he had no business being in The Beatles. He’s a musical genius, I love him.”

J.B. and the So-Called Cells, my band with Dr. Dave, play many Beatles’ songs, and in my younger years I learned the entire bass line to “Oh! Darling.” This doesn’t sound too difficult at first, but then you realize that McCartney plays it differently every goddamn time through the song! (I no longer remember its many permutations.)

In the September 1976 issue of MAD Magazine, there was a “future Where-Are-They-Now?” piece, imagining celebrities 20 years in the future. It included photos touched up to make people look older, and I still sometimes picture The Beatles as those images. I envision George Harrison as a long-haired, bald Anglican priest quite regularly. (Boy, it would’ve been great for Lennon to reach 1996, right?)

I saw Paul McCartney perform at Fenway Park in 2009. He was 67 years old, played for about 3 hours and he and the band sounded incredible. They played lots of Beatles songs. It was a dream come true.

George Harrison may be the most underrated guitar player ever.

My friend Dave Finney, who is a musician with a a great EP called Recycle My Soul, recently recommended the book Dreaming the Beatles, by Rob Sheffield. It’s an excellent book, and very different from other excellent Beatle books, and I also highly recommend it!

I heard one time that back in the 70s and 80s, Ringo Starr was the third-most-recognizable person on the planet, after the Pope and Muhammed Ali. The Beatles famously met Ali (then Cassius Clay) in Miami on their first trip to America.

In Haifa, Israel, near the Bahai Gardens, there’s a mosaic mural that, oddly, features Ringo.

At a family wedding in the mid 2000s, my sister-in-law brought a guest who was a music documentary filmmaker and he had the phone number for Paul McCartney in his cell phone. He’d worked on The Beatles Anthology TV series in the 90s. I didn’t ask to see the number to confirm – it seemed rude to ask. And he wasn’t sure it was still a working number, as it had been years since he’d had to call it. But over drinks he told me Paul was friendly and business-like, and that George was very funny. Then he shared a bunch of funny stories about other famous classic rockers he’d worked with on the BBC Classic Albums series.

In the brilliant film Fletch, Fletch visits the hospital records room as Dr. Rosenrosen, when he gets asked to assist on an autopsy. After passing out, he is roused and informed that he’s in the records room. He immediately asks for “The Beatles’ White Album.” (And a glass of hot fat and the head of Alfredo Garcia.)

I got “The White Album” on vinyl as a 21st birthday gift from my sister. I excitedly played it, but was not immediately impressed. At the time, I was really only familiar with the songs that had been played on the radio often. Beatles “deep tracks” weren’t well-known to me, and I didn’t know what songs were on which albums. So upon pulling the discs out of the sleeve (it was a two-LP set) the only songs I really knew well were “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon,” and “Helter Skelter.” And, of course, “Birthday,” thanks to Farmer Ted. That left 24 songs I didn’t really know.

Those 24 songs, on first listen, didn’t really sound like Beatles songs. I mean, sure, yes, I could make out the distinctive voices of Paul and John and George and Ringo, and the nonpareil melodies and harmonies were evident. But there was a particular “Beatle-esque” quality that seemed to be lacking. And I noticed that it was lacking even in the songs that I did know – apart from maybe “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Helter Skelter.”

This blog is not a history of The Beatles – so many folks have done that so well that I’m not even going to try. But lots was happening among the band members in 1968, so suffice it to say that this album lacked that certain Beatle-y something because The Beatles is the album where John, Paul and George – and even Ringo – were basically testing out their solo stuff. Even the photos included in the album were four individual close-ups of the band members, plus a bunch of random solo photos, and NOT shots of jolly mates frolicking in matching suits. And though I was initially unimpressed, over the years this album has rocketed up my Beatle chart. The lack of a unifying spirit to the album has become its main draw to me now. I seem to find something new in the album with every listen. It’s almost like the record has changed with me over the years.

This painting by John Patrick Byrne was nearly used as the cover for the album, (according to Wikipedia).

The Beatles is like an Easter basket of candy. There are plenty of Reese’s eggs and Kit-Kats and lots of chocolate, plus a few jelly beans, and then, let’s face it, one or two stale marshmallow peeps. (There’s even an equivalent to finding a stick of deodorant in your basket.) The point is, there are THIRTY mother-effing songs on this record!! And just like candy, everyone has their favorites. I don’t think I can go into detail on each song. Some are going to just get a brief mention. I hope I hit your favorite song! I’ll do my best.

SIDE ONE

I figure the best way to tackle all these songs is to go through it the way I first heard it: as a double album, four sides. I’ll start right at the beginning: “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

What a great way to kick off an album, with the sound of a jet airplane, a cool guitar squawk, and a some old-fashioned rock-n-roll piano! It’s a Paul-song, with music and lyrics written as a sort of parody of/homage to The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. George and John provide perfect 60s surf harmonies, and George and Paul share lead guitar – George on the first solo (1:23) and Paul on the last verse (2:03). By the way, that’s John Lennon on bass, and Paul himself on drums, as Ringo had briefly quit the band due, in part, to Paul’s criticism of his drumming on the song.

Next up, blending into the diminishing sound of that BOAC jet, is a song that is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs ever, “Dear Prudence.”

This one’s a John song, a soft, acoustic, finger-picked ballad that builds beautifully into an inspirational, electric epic. It was written to encourage Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, to have a little more fun while they were all in India meditating. I love Paul’s repeated lone bass note (0:19) at the beginning, balancing on the perfect dueling guitars of George and John. Although it’s a John song, Paul nearly steals the show with his wonderful bass and – once again – DRUMS! (His fills and rolls, particularly beginning at 2:50, are so Ringo-like that some people still insist Ringo played them.) But forget Paul – put on your headphones and listen to John and George play guitar. They work together brilliantly, curling around each other, John holding down the rhythm, George playing lead … check out 1:25, 1:43, 2:14, 3:30… Just listen to the whole song, it’s amazing. And if flows into another excellent song, Lennon’s “Glass Onion.”

The lyrics cleverly recall many old Beatle songs, spoofing the mystical nonsense that was swirling around the band at this time. It’s a short song with really cool-sounding bass and guitar from Paul and George, and terrific vocals from John. (I love his “oh yeah!” at 1:13). Ringo’s back on drums, too, and while I myself could’ve used a little less of the string section, it’s still a great track.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a fun song I used to sing to my kids at bedtime. It was my favorite Beatles song in college, but now I find it very ‘eh.’ “Wild Honey Pie” is one of those stale peeps of a song. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is a sort-of singalong kids song with funny lyrics (and a Yoko Ono cameo vocal) about asshole cowards who go “trophy” hunting. Then we arrive at one of the all-time greats, the George Harrison classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

It’s a slow, bluesy number that opens with Paul’s piano, then George’s mellow vocal begins. It’s a song with a lyrical theme that Harrison would return to throughout his solo career, a wish for the power of love to triumph, and the potential for music to make it happen. (Or not. The interpretation is sort of a glass-half-full/half-empty kind of thing.) McCartney’s harmony vocals are great, and Ringo’s drums are subtly brilliant. But, of course, the star of the show is guest Eric Clapton, who plays lead guitar throughout and really does seem to make it weep.

Side one finishes off with my favorite song on the album – oh wait, I think I said that already about another song. A John Lennon masterpiece, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

It’s got three separate sections (“The Dirty Old Man,” “The Junkie,” and “The Gunman”) that each have different lyrics and different sounds, but that all fit together due to Beatle Magic. George’s guitar sound is phenomenal throughout, as is Paul’s bass and harmonies. And Ringo makes the sections flow together. I love the sound of the band in the “Mother Superior” section (1:14), and the 50s doo-wop vocals after 1:36. Also, Lennon is really a great vocalist – and his final “guu-uu-uun!” (2:22) is thrilling. I just love how weird and cool and different this song is. Well-done, boys.

SIDE TWO

Side two kicks off with one of those tremendously catchy, timeless songs that Paul seems to write in his sleep – “Martha My Dear.” It’s a Paul solo song, with hired musicians. And as much as I love it, it’s no “I’m So Tired.”

It’s a John song, and I heard this song for the first time in the Beatles documentary The Compleat Beatles. I wondered then, and I still wonder, why it wasn’t a radio staple. John’s voice is great, swooping between anguish and frustration as insomnia and paranoia get the best of him. Of course Paul’s bass is excellent, as is George’s guitar, particularly in the chorus (0:48, for example). It’s a great example of the band working together.

A great example of a Beatle working solo is everyone’s favorite song – “Blackbird.”

It’s just Paul with an acoustic guitar, tapping his foot, and singing a song about the US Civil Rights movement in the 60s. I don’t know how to play guitar, but I have heard that Paul doesn’t play traditional chord fingerings on the song, and that this makes it a popular song for guitarists moving out of the novice realm to learn and butcher (until they get it right!) It’s a beautiful song, and one that was rightfully left untouched by further studio production. A voice, a guitar and a tapping foot are the perfect arrangement for it.

Side Two continues with “Piggies,” George’s darkly funny lambaste of consumer culture (with harpsichord!). Then comes “Rocky Raccoon,” a humorous country ballad, and the last Beatles song to ever feature John Lennon on harmonica. “Don’t Pass Me By” is the first Ringo composition to appear on a Beatles album, which reportedly took him 7 years to write. “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” is a Paul solo song (with Ringo drumming), more akin to “Wild Honey Pie” than “Blackbird,” that clearly serves as evidence of the boredom that must accompany long hours in a recording studio.

Another Paul solo song, and one that would have fit nicely on even the earliest of Beatle LPs, is the lovely “I Will.”

Ringo and John help out on percussion, but otherwise it’s just Paul on acoustic guitars, harmony vocals and “vocal bass.” That’s right, he scats the bass part. The lyrics are rather simple, perhaps in the “silly love song” vein that he was pilloried for later (a criticism he mocked with a Number 1 hit.)

Paul wasn’t the only Beatle recording solo songs for The White Album. John contributed the beautiful song “Julia,” written about his mother who died after being hit by a car when John was 17.

It’s just John finger-picking an acoustic guitar and singing along. I’ve always loved this song, but since I met and married a woman named Julia nearly 30 years ago, I’ve grown fonder and fonder of it. And listen to that last chord John plays – it’s really wonderful.

SIDE THREE

Side three opens with what may be the only truly Lennon/McCartney-penned song on the entire album, “Birthday.” It’s a guitar heavy, blues-based, party romp that leads into a different style of blues, the Lennon-penned “Yer Blues.”

I love the dirty sound of the Harrison and Lennon guitars coupled with McCartney’s heavy bass. And Ringo plays great fills throughout (check out the fill at 3:00). The song is meant to be a spoof of the British blues boom happening around 1968 (Led Zeppelin, Cream, John Mayall, etc), but it sure doesn’t sound like Weird Al. Lennon totally sells his vocals, and the guitars in the faster section (2:30 – 3:17) are terrific.

Side three really has a tremendous run of songs. After those rockin’ numbers, another soft Paul solo song appears, “Mother Nature’s Son.”

It’s an acoustic song on par with “Blackbird,” in my estimation. Paul’s playing is charming, even the little goof at 0:39. It’s a celebration of nature, with some lyrics contributed by John. I think the song would have been even better if George Martin’s backing brass arrangement had been pared down, or deleted. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s still a great song.

As is “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide, Except Me and My Monkey,” a Lennon song that almost sounds punk rock!

Have I selected a favorite song on the record yet? If not, this is the one. I love Paul’s ascending-scale bass, I love the keening guitar sound of the riff, I love the busy guitar behind the lyrics. I even love the psychedelic lyrics that don’t fit into the space they’re given. There’s a weird bell that rings through the entire song, too, that I don’t love as much as I love Harrison’s lead guitar. It’s purely strange fun.

But you know what? My actual favorite song – and this time I mean it – is the next one. Lennon’s sharp take-down of phonies, specifically the guru the band sought out in India, “Sexy Sadie.”

There’s so much to write about this song. First off, Paul’s piano intro and Ringo’s drum entrance. Next, John’s voice, which truly captures the disillusionment he obviously felt after investing so much of himself in the teachings of someone by whom he later felt duped. The backing vocals of Harrison and McCartney, the “wah-wah’s” and “see-see’s,” and especially the “Sexy … Sadie” as the chorus begins, about 0:54. George unleashes some great guitar in the second chorus (1:56) to the end. The whole thing is just brilliant.

And this side of The White Album keeps delivering, with the frantic song – sometimes called the first heavy metal song ever – “Helter Skelter.”

This ride seems like a whole lot less fun than its namesake song.

It’s a raucous, furious song with lyrics about a British amusement park ride that seems far more tame than the song implies. (Hmm… maybe it’s not about a ride…) Paul screams his lungs out, while Lennon plays bass, driving things forward, and Harrison rips off a series of descending runs and a cool solo at 1:37. Ringo bashes his cymbals throughout (famously causing “blisters on his fingers”) and the band manages to sing cool backing vocals, too. There’s also two false endings, at 3:09 and 3:44. The song sounds like rather mischievous fun, like nothing else. Certainly it sounds nothing like Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long,” which closes Side Three.

Its lyrics could be about a woman, or could be about his spiritual devotion to a higher power. The song makes great use of dynamics, and Ringo’s drumming is perfect for it. The acoustic guitar is simple and lovely. The song’s the perfect way to close out a near-perfect side of music.

SIDE FOUR

It opens with a song that, when I saw its name on the label, I expected to jump around and shake my fist to it. But it turns out that “Revolution 1” is not the “Revolution” I knew and loved through my teenage years. That song was released only as a single. The White Album version is instead a slow doo-wop song with the same lyrics. Great Harrison guitar in both. Which isn’t the case in “Honey Pie,” which has a guitar solo by Lennon. It seems to want to recapture the charm of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” but it doesn’t.

Savoy Truffle” is another George song, and one that shows that despite his frequently dour appearance, he was really a funny guy. The song – on which he plays a ferocious guitar – is about pal Eric Clapton’s fondness for chocolate. John Lennon also displays a different side than his usual sarcasm on the charming children’s song “Cry Baby Cry.”

The first verse is simply John on acoustic guitar, but Ringo soon joins on drums, and by the second verse Paul is once again shining with an inventive bass line for a simple song. I used to sing this song to my kids at bedtime, and images of “the Dutchess of Kilcardey” and “the local Bird & Bee” were perfect for conjuring dreams. It’s a cool song with great harmonies, and an addendum from Paul (“can you take me back?”) that really wraps it all up.

So, now we get to the stick of deodorant. Just as no one would describe such a practical gift as “a bad piece of candy” even if it’s received in one’s Easter basket, I can’t really call “Revolution 9” a “bad song.”

True, it appears on an album by a band that is well known for recording songs, but is it a song? I suppose if John Lennon says it’s a song, then it’s a song. Wikipedia calls it a “sound collage,” and I think that’s a better term. Whatever you call it, I have never been able to listen to more than about 4 minutes of this longest-ever Beatles recording. I really tried for this post – but I couldn’t do it.

The album ends with a song that I don’t really love, but is perhaps the perfect way to end this wonderful monstrosity of an album: the Lennon-written, Ringo-sung “Good Night.” It’s a way-too-schmaltzy lullaby, and elicits the final “what the fuck?” from the listener. The band released a beautiful four-part harmony version a few years ago, which is probably a better version, but is not what was really needed after 28 disparate, crazy songs, plus one sound collage.

After all that, I can’t really say anything else besides “Go listen to this record!”

TRACK LISTING:
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”
“Dear Prudence”
“Glass Onion”
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
“Wild Honey Pie”
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
“Martha My Dear”
“I’m So Tired”
“Blackbird”
“Piggies”
“Rocky Raccoon”
“Don’t Pass Me By”
“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”
“I Will”
“Julia”
“Birthday”
“Yer Blues”
“Mother Nature’s Son”
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”
“Sexy Sadie”
“Helter Skelter”
“Long, Long, Long”
“Revolution 1”
“Honey Pie”
“Savoy Truffle”
“Cry Baby Cry”
“Revolution 9”
“Good Night”

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5th Favorite Beatles Album: Help!

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Help!
1965, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Help! is the album where The Beatles started to regularly go beyond the expectations for a pop band. Acoustic numbers, folk-rock, country … all shared space with the usual lovable pop gems. Also, lyrical content matured and introspective themes appeared. The band could’ve just knocked off a few watered-down retreads for this second soundtrack in a row – it certainly would have sold. But the band took the opportunity to elevate their art and make (another) masterpiece.

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

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1 Over the years I’ve really surprised myself with the things that I don’t know. I’m not talking about shit like how bosons and fermions behave, or the evolutionary pathway of Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or imperialism and nationalism in early modernity: the cosmopolitan and the provincial in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, for example. I’m talking about, like, what baked ziti is, which is something I didn’t know until well into college.

This image of a TV pathologist indicates I still may not know what chemistry is.

I’d earned a living as an analytical chemist in pharmaceutical laboratories for more than ten years when a potential employer for a job as a chemist called me for an initial discussion. As part of his screening process, he asked me to describe the difference between an acid and a base. (For you Non-Science-Types, this is about as elementary as one can get in chemistry.) All I could think to say was, “well, I know it has to do with how salts are formed.” (Again for NST’s – this is a ridiculous response.) The guy was stunned. I didn’t get the job. I didn’t even get an interview. The point is that even topics that I supposedly know a lot about can sometimes leave me in the dark.

2 When I was little – six and younger – I really enjoyed the TV show The Monkees. As you’re probably aware, the show featured a band, The Monkees, which was assembled by TV producers to capitalize on American Beatle-mania. Actor/musicians Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork auditioned for roles on the show and were assigned guitar, drums, cuteness and bass, respectively. (Only Mike and Pete really knew how to play their instruments at first. Davy and Mickey would quickly learn.)

I watched reruns, in the early evenings, with my older sisters. It felt like a “big kid” show. It was about a hip, young band, living together in a crazy house in a neighborhood with other bands, acting zany, charming the ladies, driving a cool Monkee-mobile … It was everything a five-year-old in 1972 thought was cool about musicians. And that’s the thing – I liked it for the musicians, not the music. The show had catchy songs, but for years I never really thought of The Monkees as a band with songs. I thought of The Monkees as a TV show with songs.

Sometime around 1986 MTV brought back reruns of The Monkees, and even got the band a new hit song (albeit with only half of the original band participating). This era also coincided with my nascent, deep, deep love for The Beatles. This is when I started to realize that The Monkees, the band, not the TV show, really had some amazing songs! The producers had hired professional songwriters – including Neil Diamond, Carol King, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart – to craft Beatlesque songs (I love Beatlesque songs) for Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz to sing. And Mike Nesmith wrote some pre-Byrds countrified rock songs to go alongside them. (By the way – the band was friendly with The Beatles, and they even used an obscure Beatle song 12 seconds into one of their shows.)

The Monkees didn’t just have hit songs, they had great hit songs. “I’m a Believer” is fun-pop perfection. “Last Train to Clarksville” is hip, and was one of the first songs to (indirectly) address The Viet Nam War. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” has a cool guitar, and speaks to the soulless boredom of suburban life. (I have no idea why Mickey’s hi-hat is where it is in that video.) “Steppin’ Stone” has a raw, garage-rock, Nuggets-y feel. “Valleri” has a cool touch of psychedelia. “Daydream Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” are bubblegum pop treats.

And their homage to the Fab Four (Mickey Dolenz called them “the four Kings of EMI” in a song) wasn’t lost on me. As with Ringo, The Monkees let vocally-challenged Peter sing a song sometimes. They featured really cool guitar parts on some of their album cuts, just like The Beatles did. And like their role-models, they delved into mind-expanding songs and more avant-garde stuff. So, call it an homage, call it a rip-off. Whatever you call it, The Monkees are a great, cool band.

3 I bought Help! sometime around the time I bought A Hard Day’s Night. Help! is another soundtrack to another Beatles film I only saw once. Just as I never considered The Monkees a band, I never considered The Beatles actors. I watched the films once just to see them, but never felt compelled to do so again. So I purchased Help! solely to dive into the songs, and as I made my way through the songs I was stunned to learn this fact: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is a Beatles song, NOT a Monkees song!

I was amazed to learn this fact – especially as it came a good decade into my Beatle super-fandom. I was sure I remembered The Monkees cavorting around on the TV screen, with wacky jump-cuts of the band in kooky outfits, or goofing off on the beach, interspersed with exciting footage of Mike playing countrified guitar while Mickey drums and sings, Davy shakes maracas and harmonizes and Peter plucks the bass. I knew I’d heard a DJ intone, “That’s The Monkees, with ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face.'” I went to a record store and looked up Monkees albums to track down their version. (This was in the early internet era.) I asked all my friends. Finally, it hit me: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” was always a Beatles song, only a Beatles song, never a Monkees song. Maybe I’d been thinking of “Papa Gene’s Blues,” which is a Mike Nesmith-penned, country-ish song with quickly-sung lyrics?

I guess my long-held misapprehension could be viewed as either a testament to The Monkees or an insult to The Beatles. But my well-documented confusion is not the point here. The point is that Help! is one more incredible record by an incredible band.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” is a good place to start when discussing the album Help! It’s a great example of just how different this record sounds from all of the band’s previous output.

It’s a finger-picking, country-tinged shuffle that would have sounded out of place on any of the earlier records. But on Help!, it fits just fine. There are no electric guitars on it, no bass guitar, and Ringo plays brushes and maracas. There is a harmony vocal – but it’s Paul singing harmony with himself. Paul’s love-at-first-sight lyrics include cascading, internal rhymes that are cleverly constructed. (“I have never known the like of this/ I’ve been alone/ And I have missed/ things and kept out of sight/ But other girls were never quite/ like this…”) I probably should’ve known all along this wasn’t The Monkees.

I don’t know if it helps my credibility to say that I’ve always known “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” another song that sounded nothing like previous Beatles’ efforts, was by the band!

This time it’s John who’s practically solo, playing a 12-string and singing a Bob Dylan-inspired song about the perils of love. It’s a lovely singalong song, with Ringo adding tambourine and maracas. Flutes show up, as well, some of the first non-rock instrumentation featured on a Beatles record. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the McCartney solo song “Yesterday,” which also features non-rock instruments. It’s hard to really say much about this song. It’s incredible, it’s everywhere, its simple lyrics are universally felt … it may be the most popular song ever written.

The Beatles were really stretching out for this record, a fact that makes a strong statement about the band. After the mega-success of the film and album A Hard Day’s Night, they could have easily just coasted and hacked up a few more sound-clone ditties. Instead, right off the top, they open with a pop song unlike any that had been heard before: “Help!”

For one thing, the lyrics are very raw and honest, even though most pop fans probably didn’t think much about their meaning. But most of all, the contrapuntal melody sung by Paul was a technique unheard of in a 3-minute teeny-bopper record. George plays a cool descending riff (first heard at 0:09). John’s acoustic strumming on the song is really great, and Ringo’s drumming drives it all. I love his use of toms, not to mention his tambourine in the chorus. The vocal harmonies are awesome, including the finale “ooo.”

Ringo’s drumming is great throughout, but let’s not forget his vocals! He gets a lead vocal on the Buck Owens classic “Act Naturally.” He does a great job on humorous lyrics about being a loser in love, and Paul’s harmonies enhance it all. George also gets a couple tracks of his own this time around, including the standout “I Need You.”

The best parts of this song are Paul’s bass and George’s electric guitar, its sound augmented by a volume pedal. Ringo breaks out his cowbell, and actually played acoustic guitar on the track – that is he played percussion on the back of an acoustic while John played a snare drum! Paul’s harmonies are terrific, and George nails his love song lyrics. It’s one of my favorite George songs. One of my least favorite is his other offering on Help!, “You Like Me Too Much,” a song about being a jerk. I think if it had appeared on Please Please Me or Beatles For Sale I may have more tolerance for it. But it’s rather simple, and the “I really do!” in the bridge is almost amateurish. But the chord changes are nice, and George is great, so I won’t say anything more.

Besides “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the title track, Lennon also gets introspective on the love song “It’s Only Love.”

Harrison plays a cool electric guitar part throughout – both rhythm and subtle leads – and the acoustic strumming (both George and John are credited on acoustic) is fantastic. Ringo breaks out his trusty tambourine again. Lennon is in fine voice (he even rolls an “r” in the word “bright” for some Lennon-y reason) and it’s a truly lovely song. I also like his “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” a warning to a friend that turns into a warning about himself! Excellent three-part harmony here, with George and Paul tearing it up, particularly in the bridge! Ringo breaks out bongoes, and I’m starting to realize that this entire album could be capably reproduced by a few folks around a fire with acoustic guitars and bongoes and tambourine. I’m sure it’s been done.

Although, it might be difficult to reproduce my favorite track on Help!, the riff-based classic “Ticket to Ride.”

I love Ringo’s drums throughout this song – the toms, the syncopation. I also really love the droning, buzzing guitar heard throughout. And Paul’s high harmonies throughout are brilliant, as he helps John on lyrics about a girl that’s going away. The guitar solo, and lead fills, are also played by Paul. It’s a great, electric song.

Another song that wouldn’t be terribly suited to acoustic strumming is the cover “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” It’s a fine song, I guess, but by Help! I’m rather over hearing John sing a cover song. I’d rather hear Lennon and McCartney team up, like on the lovely, mellow “Tell Me What You See.”

This may actually be my favorite song on the album. (It’s so hard to choose.) Their voices are so perfect together, Ringo’s on claves again, George strokes a guiro, and that electric piano break (1:04, 1:49, and at the very end) from Paul is awesome – as are Ringo’s drums coming out of it. Paul is trying to convince a girl that she should recognize he’s the one for her. Of course, another song on Help! points out that if she doesn’t, well, he has got “Another Girl.” McCartney plays the countrified lead electric guitar throughout, which is stellar! John sings a cool high harmony, and the three part harmony through the bridge is once again amazing.

Help! is really a new direction for The Beatles. But the didn’t totally abandon the driving, pop song gems that they originally rode to success. Check out “The Night Before.”

Ringo’s back on the full kit, slamming that ride cymbal, the vocal oohs and ahhs are primed to make the girls scream, and Paul begs them to treat him right, his memories of last night bringing tears to his eyes! George and Paul play an electric guitar duet, and it’s just like the good old days of 1963.

This album broke the mold for the band. But maybe it set the mold for the bands and artists in the rest of the 1960s. It showed the public that anything was possible in pop music. Why, even a bunch of actors thrown together for a silly TV show could create some amazing stuff; all they had to do was follow the originals. They might even end up fooling some people!

TRACK LISTING:
“Help!”
“The Night Before”
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
“I Need You”
“Another Girl”
“You’re Going to Lose That Girl”
“Ticket to Ride”
“Act Naturally”
“It’s Only Love”
“You Like Me Too Much”
“Tell Me What You See”
“I’ve Just Seen a Face”
“Yesterday”
“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”

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6th Favorite Beatles Album: A Hard Day’s Night

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A Hard Day’s Night
1964, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A Hard Day’s Night demonstrates everything about The Beatles that made them so brilliant in their early recording years. Before they ever added orchestras, psychedelia, and odd instruments, they were cranking out gem after gem. Their voices, songwriting and musicianship were beyond what was expected, especially for a teeny-bopper movie! This album leans heavily on John Lennon’s talents, but each of the four shines throughout, and the songs are excellent even if you haven’t seen the film.

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Since well before actors’ voices were heard, movies have included music to enhance the action shown by the flickering lights on the big screen. Before sound was added to films, movies would often be shown with a full orchestra accompaniment. Other times, a single piano would play music. In small towns where nobody knew how to play the piano, often a single guitarist might play along. The point is, music can make a movie. That’s always been the case.

I’ve loved movies since I was a little kid in the early ’70s, when, due to some fluke of community planning, my rural Pennsylvania township had cable TV well before the rest of America did. This meant I got to watch movies on TV channels from Philadelphia, which was 100 miles (or 50 years) away from us. This is before pay-channels, like HBO, so the movies were interrupted by commercials and had all the bad words bleeped out. But they had music! And I loved watching movies and hearing songs in them.

Actually, my love of film music was first sparked by perhaps – no, not perhaps, it’s definitely true – by THE FINEST performer that has ever graced a movie or television screen: Bugs Bunny. Bugs could sing, everything from opera to folk, he could play banjo, guitar, harp, fiddle, piano, even conduct an orchestra. Though he wasn’t familiar with them at first, he eventually even mastered the bagpipes. Watching hours of Bugs each week primed my brain for a lifetime of enjoying music in movies.

My mom also helped develop my love by playing her Broadway show 8-tracks all the time. From listening to them I expected music to help tell a story. But even though I’m a fan of musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to Grease to Purple Rain to LA LA Land, a movie doesn’t have to be a musical to have a great soundtrack.

Pulp Fiction has one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and I’m not alone. The record usually appears somewhere on all of the “Best Soundtracks” lists you see out there. There are songs from Kool and the Gang and The Statler Brothers and everyone in between. From the opening credits through all of the iconic scenes, and even in the background (which is where I discovered Maria McKee, and one of my favorite albums), this soundtrack has great, diverse songs that didn’t used to seem to fit together, but now sure will forever.

A lesser-known film from the 90s, yet equally terrific and also with a tremendous soundtrack, is the 1996 John Sayles film Lone Star. It’s set on the Texas/Mexico border, and the music sets the tone perfectly. From Texas blues to Tejano to sultry jazz, the songs always set the scene for the action. All of the songs were unfamiliar to me, yet I still left the theater wanting the soundtrack – an impressive feat for a film. In the early web days of the mid 90s, I learned the perils of online shopping due to this soundtrack. I tried to buy it online and instead ended up with some lame country band also called “Lonestar.” If you ever get a chance, check out the movie and music sometime!

Sometimes movie music isn’t even about the entire soundtrack. Sometimes it’s just a terrific song behind a great scene, like John Candy doin’ the mess-around in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Or the Caddyshack scenes in the pool, on the golf course, or inside the country club. There’s Paul Newman riding a bike in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And Napoleon Dynamite dancing. Or Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray doing karaoke in Lost in Translation. Music can make a scene unforgettable.

And then there are all the terrific movies about bands and musicians that have amazing music. For comedies there’s This is Spinal Tap. Fear of a Black Hat. And The Blues Brothers, although unlike the first two, the Blues Brothers band is a group of real musicians. (This is Spinal Tap is by far the funniest film of the three. Perhaps of all time.) And there are more band movies (real and fictional), like Yellow Submarine and Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz and Human Highway and Rock ‘n Roll High School and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and Stop Making Sense and 1991: The Year Punk Broke and That Thing You Do! and School of Rock and 8 Mile and Shut Up and Play the Hits and Straight Outta Compton and on and on and on. I haven’t seen all of them, but I will.

One of my favorite soundtracks is from a movie that I’ve only seen once, years ago. People find it hard to believe, but I actually bought the soundtrack several years before I ever watched the movie because – to be honest – I’m more interested in the music than the film. This isn’t typically the case with movie soundtracks. But with a band like The Beatles, the typical is atypical. And with an album as great as A Hard Day’s Night, I sometimes forget it’s a soundtrack.

Early in my Beatles-loving career, in high school and college, I dismissed any Beatles songs before about Revolver, in 1966, as moldy oldies, bubble-gummy “yeah yeah yeah” pop that to my (immature) ears sounded about as interesting as the doo-wop songs Sha-Na-Na covered. In the early 90s, I carpooled to work with a woman named Ximena, who’s now one of my oldest friends. She was the one who told me I should listen to A Hard Day’s Night. (We may have played it during our commute, but usually we listened to 80s stuff.) I trusted her musical opinion, so went out and bought it, and I immediately realized these songs were neither moldy nor oldie-sounding. The songs sounded as fresh as any guitar music on the radio, and the album still sounds great today.

From the opening chord on the opening title track, perhaps the most-studied and most-discussed two seconds of music ever recorded, A Hard Day’s Night delivers great sounds and songs throughout.

What a showcase for the singing of Lennon and McCartney! Both voices are double-tracked, John on the verses (which is where the title is sung, which is odd), McCartney on the choruses (which are the same each time, but don’t include the title, which is odd), and they sound terrific! I love Paul’s cool little bass noodle thing he plays to accompany Ringo’s toms after each verse. It’s hard to hear unless you listen with headphones, but it’s great. George has a nice, fast, 12-string guitar solo that producer George Martin doubles on piano. And Ringo’s insistent cowbell through the chorus is the first of many percussion implements he’ll use throughout the album.

A Hard Day’s Night is really very much a Lennon album. He wrote most of the songs (of course, all are credited to Lennon/McCartney) and sings most, too. “I Should Have Known Better” is one of the last Beatle songs to feature John playing harmonica, and also features a nifty chord change going into the chorus. (It’s another song that has the repeated title in the verse instead of the chorus.) George deftly changes chords and strumming patterns throughout the song. It’s not my favorite song, and neither is the Lennon/McCartney song that George gets to sing, “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” Although, Ringo is credited with playing an “African Drum,” whatever that may be, and it sounds really cool. George didn’t get any of his own songs on the record, but he sings this love song just fine.

While John’s often associated with the more rockin’ Lennon/McCartney pieces, he gets sentimental on the lovely “If I Fell.”

I’ve always loved this song about the desire for new love to last. John and Paul’s harmonies are perfect, although on the stereo version of the song, at the end of the second bridge, Paul’s voice cracks (1:45), a charming faux pas, in my opinion. George plays a simple solo, and Ringo does a great, subtle job holding it all down. Paul gets to show off his own love-songwriting chops on the ballad “And I Love Her.” Ringo picks up bongos and a pair of claves this time, and George adds a terrific classical guitar line throughout, and a nice solo.

After all that lovey-doviness, the boys need to pick things up, don’t you think? And they do it in fine fashion with a couple rockers. First comes the awesome three-part harmony of “Tell Me Why.” While John, Paul and George pull off those amazing vocals (about another girl who done John wrong), Ringo is playing cool fills and pushing the band toward the climactic falsetto of “is there anything I can do?” (1:32). Next the absolute classic “Can’t Buy Me Love” rocks even a little harder. Paul’s bass is bouncy, George plays one of his best early-Beatle guitar solos (at 1:18 you can hear a faint, second solo in the left speaker), and the lyrics are not about a prostitute.

For my money, A Hard Day’s Night really picks up on what used to be known as (in the days when records had two sides) “Side 2.”

Side 2 opens what a slam on Ringo’s snare drum, as “Any Time at All” begins, one of my favorite Beatle guitar songs. I love Harrison’s riffs throughout. And in addition to Ringo concluding each verse with a ‘thwack,’ he also breaks out his trusty cowbell once again. John sings lead again, but Paul adds the second, higher-pitched “Any Time at All.” It’s a fun song, and the next one, “I’ll Cry Instead,” is fun, too, despite its sad-sack lyrics. It’s one of those Country-Western style Beatle songs that Ringo usually sings. (Since Ringo didn’t get a song to sing on A Hard Day’s Night, I wonder why they didn’t give him this one?) George nails the rockabilly guitar, and Paul has a sort-of-not-really bass solo (1:05 & 1:35).

Next comes one of my all-time favorite songs, “Things We Said Today.”

I’ve written many times that lyrics are not usually what draws me to a song, but one of the reasons I love this one is the lyrics. The idea that what we’re saying today, especially as young lovers, will become tomorrow’s happy memories is such a sweet, romantic idea. Paul sings lead, and the harmonies George adds (i.e. “someday when I’m lonely”) are perfect. I really dig Lennon’s acoustic guitar strumming throughout, and how Ringo emphasizes things in the bridge (1:00). It’s a tremendous “Paul song,” one of my favorites.

But A Hard Day’s Night is really mostly John’s. “When I Get Home” is about a man waiting to get home to his girlfriend, and is the only song I know that uses all five syllables of the word “trivialities” in metered, rhyming verse. The intro is pure Ringo. It’s a decent song, but I’m a much bigger fan of John’s “You Can’t Do That.”

In the 90s, when I was carpooling with Ximena, who’d extolled the virtues of A Hard Day’s Night, we worked with an older guy named Paul who’d seen The Beatles live – TWICE! He saw them in San Francisco at The Cow Palace in 1965, and at their LAST CONCERT EVER, at Candlestick Park. Of course I spent hours talking Beatles with him when I should have been running lab experiments, and he even showed me his Candlestick Park Beatles ticket stub. Anyway, he told me “You Can’t Do That” was always he and his friends’ favorite Beatles song – because of the super-cool guitar riff that Harrison and Lennon play. I love the riff, too. And listen to Paul’s awesome, twirling bass line! (The guitars and bass really come alive on headphones.) I also really dig Ringo’s drums – and his trusty cowbell. The harmonies are sweet (“gree-eeen”) on John’s tough-guy lyrics. But what I really love is the ending, as the band slows things down and then gently slides up to that final note. It’s subtle things like this that set The Beatles apart: a throwaway album track that was cut from the film, yet they can’t help but add some artistry to it.

The album closes with a promise from the band: “I’ll Be Back.”

The harmonies, on rather-stalkerish-but-of-the-era lyrics, are fabulous, Harrison’s acoustic guitar riff is lovely, the syncopated strumming behind the verses is cool, and it’s got a shifting time signature, throwing in a 2/4 measure after the “oh, oh”s (0:40). Then it has a really weird, rather sudden fade out. Not to get too interpretive, but considering the song’s title, it’s almost like they’re saying, “don’t worry, we’ll be back … we wouldn’t leave you hanging like that!”

And return they did, the following year, with another movie, and another soundtrack. There was nothing this band couldn’t do. I don’t know why I didn’t get into this album earlier, since it sort of harkens back to the TV days of my youth. A Hard Day’s Night shows The Beatles were almost as talented as Bugs Bunny! (Almost.)

TRACK LISTING:
“A Hard Day’s Night”
“I Should Have Known Better”
“If I Fell”
“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”
“And I Love Her”
“Tell Me Why”
“Can’t Buy Me Love”
“Any Time at All”
“I’ll Cry Instead”
“Things We Said Today”
“When I Get Home”
“You Can’t Do That”
“I’ll Be Back”

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7th Favorite Beatles Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1967, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album that is inescapable in rock, a cultural touchstone truly unlike any other. Its importance as a work of art has probably overshadowed the actual songs on the record, which are diverse and strange and layered with studio effects and tricks. It can be hard to get past the sheer brilliance of the production, but if you can, I think you’ll find that the songs themselves are actually very good, too! Some call it the best ever – but for me it’s middle-of-the-pack Beatles.

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I will try to write this first section with a minimum of creepiness. I’m nearly 53 years old, so there’s a possibility this story sounds really gross. If it ends up sounding gross I’ll trash the whole thing. But assuming I can make it through, I want to immediately acknowledge three things I intend to discuss: 1) I was once a teenager attracted to teenaged girls; 2) my friends and I had ignorant, immature and inappropriate discussions about teenaged girls; and 3) I can recall both numbers 1 and 2.

But I intend to not be creepy. Let’s give it a try.

I entered high school in the fall of 1981, 14 years old and awkward and chubby and unsure of myself. Upon arrival, I was struck (as were my friends) by the fact that the senior girls around us were unlike any girls with whom we’d ever shared a school. I’m sure freshman girls noticed the same thing about the older boys. There were now students in our midst that looked more like attractive adults than any students we’d ever seen before.

As a younger student, I remember being enamored of some schoolmates. At Ebenezer Elementary School from kindergarten (Angie L.) through fifth grade (Juli Z.). At Cedar Crest Middle School from sixth through eighth grades (Jana C.). These crushes were very sweet, in retrospect, and never reciprocated. They were based mostly on the fact that these girls had cute faces and they laughed at my jokes. If there was any sort of physical attraction beyond a pretty face, I have no memory of it. Getting a laugh was the main thing.

However, at high school there were suddenly girls in the hallways walking to class who looked more like women – attractive women like I’d seen in movies or on TV – than girls. My friends and I had never been around so many people like this. Senior girls became a regular topic of conversation at my lunch table that freshman year. Sharon, Kathy, Pam, Lisa, Kelly … we discussed these popular seniors as if they were Hollywood celebrities. From our vantage as ninth grade nerds trying to get through the day unnoticed and unbeaten, they seemed just as remote.

My freshman year was also the first semester at school for a young, male art teacher. I don’t remember his name, but he had long (for a 1981 teacher) wavy hair and wore preppy clothes, like those woolen ties with a square bottom that I only saw on rich people and, once in a while, Detective Arthur Dietrich. It was also the only semester that art teacher was at the school, as a few months into the school year he was no longer employed there. Word soon got around the students that the reason he was gone was because he’d asked one of those popular senior girls, Kathy, out on a date. Even in 1981 this was frowned upon.

This situation, of course, was THE HOT TOPIC at our lunch table for several days, perhaps a week. We were all newly-arrived 14 year olds with varying levels of dating experience – ranging from “too scared to ever think of asking out a girl” to “have thought about it and rejected the idea as too scary,” plus one guy who claimed to have actually been intimate with several girls, but who everyone knew was a bullshitter. The question we aimed to resolve at these daily summits was this: “Was an opportunity to date Kathy worth giving up a job, and possibly a career, and perhaps even an arrest and criminal record?” In other words, did Mr. Wavy-hair Art Teacher make the right choice in asking Kathy on a date?

After considerable discussion, the consensus among the group of us five or six boys was this: he made the right choice. It was probably worth it.

Of course, now, as an adult with experience and an understanding of power dynamics and the patriarchal system that continues to cause inequities in our society, along with a clear understanding of professional boundaries and criminal law, I recognize that this was a ridiculous position for us to take. Still, in my memory (I’ve retold this story countless times), the Kathy character in this vignette is a goddess, an angel, a pure distillation of feminine beauty such that I, as a youth, believed men should risk everything just for an opportunity to share a slice of pizza with her at Special Pizza City.

My sister, Liz, was also a senior that year, and she was an average kid with lots of friends. She knew, and had classes with, the popular girls, Kathy and Sharon and Pam and all the others. But she and her friends were not part of that crowd. Recently I got to hang out with Liz, and talk turned, as it often does, to our high school years. We looked through her senior yearbook, and I recounted the above story. As we flipped through and looked at all the kids, I noticed something. Kathy didn’t really seem like the unbelievable beauty I’d always remembered. She was a cute kid, but there were lots of cute kids in the book.

Clearly my friends and I were swayed by the idea of Kathy as much as the actual appearance of Kathy. We’d been shaken by our entrance that fall into an arena unlike anything we’d ever experienced. We were overwhelmed by it, and it put us off balance. And all these names of senior girls became images in our heads that didn’t even have a basis in reality. Before I went back and looked at that yearbook, I couldn’t even conjure an image of any of them in my head. I knew that Sharon was tall and blonde and Kathy was shorter with brown hair. The others were only names. “Really?” I thought. “What was all the fuss about?”

I have similar feelings these days when I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since becoming a rock music fan – about six months before entering high school – I’ve heard Sgt. Pepper’s called the greatest album ever. It’s seemingly been on the top of every “Best Album” list. Story after story have been written and produced about its ground-breaking production, its cultural impact, its uniqueness and power and legacy. It is the most inescapable record in the history of rock.

And you know what?

It’s really good! There’s no denying that the songs are great. But the production – especially considering the technology available in 1967 – is truly astounding. The band’s instruments don’t take center stage (well, McCartney’s bass often does), but instead the recording studio does. That was a novel idea in 1967, and people were blown away by it. I was blown away by it when I first heard it – a feeling not unlike being a 14-year-old entering high school and seeing attractive young men and women roaming the halls. It’s a feeling that can skew one’s perceptions. Now that I’m older I can reflect on the situation, take a fresh listen, and conclude … “It’s a really good album.” I don’t think it’s the best album ever. It doesn’t even crack my Beatles Top Five. But it’s damned good.

I first heard the opening pair of Sgt. Pepper’s tracks on my oldest sister Anne’s 8-track of 1967-1970, often called “The Blue Album.” It was a 1973 greatest-hits compilation released with 1962-1966, or “The Red Album,” and both were quite popular. I was probably 10, and hearing the audience sounds, I thought the title track was recorded live. I tried to imagine what the band was doing on-stage during the horn interlude, beginning at 0:44 on “Sgt. Pepper’s,” that was making the audience laugh so heartily.

I’ll say up front that one of the reasons the album isn’t higher on my list is because there’s not enough guitar on it. However, the guitar on this song, particularly in the first 0:20, is actually pretty cool. It’s McCartney playing lead, with George adding cool rhythm chords underneath, and on headphones you can hear them dueling throughout the whole song. It’s a great intro to the concept album, with great vocals, and it leads into one of my favorite Beatles’ songs ever.

“With a Little Help From my Friends” is a perfect Lennon/McCartney song for Ringo to sing, and he sings it (as Billy Shears!) perfectly. Paul’s bass is front and center, with its swooping ranginess. The band’s harmonies, and call-and-response vocals, perfectly support Starr’s limited range, and really make the lyrics, about the precious value of friendship, come alive. Harrison gets a few opportunities to throw in some signature guitar riffs, but throughout the album, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for him. After this song, the album becomes very studio-focused.

For example, the wonderful and weird “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which is one of the band’s most well-known songs. With instrumentation including a tambura and electric guitars made to sound like other instruments, McCartney’s bass is the only rock instrument that stands out. In a great BBC documentary on the album, composer Howard Goodall explains why Paul’s bass is so great on the song – all technical music terms and such. But the point is it sounds cool. And all the instrumentation make John’s wild imagery sound particularly strange.

One song on which Harrison’s guitar gets to shine is the terrific “Getting Better.”

It shines in the way George’s playing always does – with subtlety, and warranting repeated listens to fully appreciate it. His ringing chords throughout the chorus make the song. It’s a Paul song, but John famously contributed the “couldn’t get no worse” lyrics. It’s a fun piece, and my favorite of the three McCartney tracks that have always run together a bit in my mind. “Fixing a Hole,” although a music-hall song instead of a rock song, also features Harrison’s guitar genius, for example, from 0:38 to 1:00 and his solo beginning at 1:16. The lyrics are definitely upbeat-Paul. Which is different from the next song, “She’s Leaving Home,” which features maudlin-Paul lyrics.

“She’s Leaving Home” is a lovely song, but it’s one that I’ve liked less and less over the years. I’ve grown tired of the song’s lush orchestration, which may have been the inspiration for Phil Spector’s overdone Let It Be production. When I first heard the album I was impressed by this style of song coming from a rock band. In the same way, I was very impressed by Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” a show-tune style of song about a Victorian acrobat, of sorts, with impressive studio tricks and sounds. I liked the song because it was unexpected and represented what I thought the album represented. It’s sort of how I was impressed by those senior girls when I was a freshman.

The song on Sgt. Pepper’s that is the equivalent of an overlooked student – someone with different hair and different clothes that, back in the day, my friends and I thought was just a weirdo – but who, in viewing a yearbook 40 years later might have caused me to ask “why didn’t I know this cute person?” is Harrison’s “Within You, Without You.”

For many years I’d skip over this song. Then, at some point in the past 20 years or so, I began to allow myself to be enveloped by its strange (to my ears) sounds and insightful lyrics and now it might be my favorite on the record. It’s actually got a great melody that sticks in my head, and the line “life goes on/ within you/ and without you” is a stroke of genius, and a timeless lesson that has helped me greatly in dealing with all the ups and downs of being a human. I no longer skip the song, I look forward to its strangeness.

Which isn’t to say I don’t also love the timelessness of a great Western pop song like McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a song which would have been a hit at any time since about 1840.

This is one of my earliest favorite Beatles’ songs. I grew up hearing (and enjoying) my mom’s show-tunes and my dad’s brass music, and this song sounds like an incorporation of both of those styles. It’s true that, as John Lennon described it, it is “Granny Music,” and the part of me that loves The New York Dolls and Sonic Youth HATES this song. But it’s so catchy, and has sweet lyrics that get better as I approach 64 years old. And with Paul’s melodic bass once again front-and-center, carrying the piece, it’s hard for me not to love it.

I love all the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and by pointing out some that I’m less-enthused about than others, I don’t mean to denigrate the entire album. Whenever the album is in the news, typically on -0 and -5 anniversaries of its release, there are many pieces written that go out of their way to say the album is garbage. I’m all for people expressing dislike for popular artists based on their own tastes (I’ve written before that I just don’t get the appeal of Bob Dylan) but sometimes people just want to stir shit up. I’m not saying I dislike songs like “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning Good Morning,” they’re just not strong favorites of mine.

Lovely Rita” has great bass (of course), cool harmony vocals throughout and a catchy piano solo, played by producer George Martin. It’s about a meter maid, a real one who gave Paul a parking ticket at Abbey Road Studios. My favorite part is the end, after 2:10, with all its weird sounds and voices. “Good Morning Good Morning” has an awesome guitar solo played by McCartney at 1:17, and strange time signature changes. A brass band backs Lennon on lyrics about a day in the life … It also features cool animal sounds at the end, each animal capable of frightening the preceding one.

Next Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comes back, with more electric guitar from George this time, to thank the audience for coming to the show, which leads into one of the all-time great Beatle songs: “A Day in the Life.”

It’s a true Lennon/McCartney collaboration, each of them bringing the best of their talents to the song and combining them into a masterpiece. John mostly wrote the beginning and end, and Paul mostly wrote the middle. I haven’t mentioned Ringo much yet, but he really shines on this song, heightening the tension in Lennon’s sections with his fills and rolls. He plays like an orchestral percussionist. The crazy orchestra crescendo after Lennon’s section (1:45) is thrilling, especially as it explodes into Paul’s jaunty wakeup section (2:16). The transition back to John, at 2:49, with its dreamlike sounds, is perfect, and once again Ringo is brilliant on John’s final verse. The crazy orchestral crescendo occurs again leading to that epic piano note – four Beatles on four pianos all playing the same chord. Astounding. And be sure to stick around for 5:11, where nonsense gibberish and a pitch only dogs can hear await!

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album unlike any other. It stands out in a line of popular musical development, a touchstone for Western civilization. But don’t let that fact overwhelm you. There are many other pretty faces in the crowd, and just because everyone tells you who the best are, you should decide for yourself which ones are the superstars.

TRACK LISTING:
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
“With a Little Help from My Friends”
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
“Getting Better”
“Fixing a Hole”
“She’s Leaving Home”
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
“Within You Without You”
“When I’m Sixty-Four”
“Lovely Rita”
“Good Morning Good Morning”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
“A Day in the Life”

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8th Favorite Beatles Album: Please Please Me

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Please Please Me
1963, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Please Please Me is an album as old as most grandparents, yet it still delivers songs that sound exciting and fresh. The vocals of Lennon and McCartney are particularly fine throughout the album. The terrific guitar and drums from Harrison and Starr are buried a bit, due to the recording technology of the time, but if you listen closely you’ll love what you hear.

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

~ ~ ~

In the 1970s, my sisters and I didn’t appreciate how cool this car really was!

I grew up in the 1970s in a family without much money. We weren’t super-poor, but raising three kids on a machinist’s wages, supplemented by my mom’s work as a lunch lady, meant my parents had to be conscious of every penny. We didn’t dress in the best clothing – we got the Hill’s Department Store versions. We didn’t drive a new car – we tooled around in a peacock blue 1962 Ford Fairlane, complete with tail fins. We didn’t own gadgets or the latest cool stuff – although my dad did get a Texas Instruments calculator around 1977, and it was probably the most expensive item my parents bought that year.

My family’s wringer-washer sat in our garage under an old, plastic picnic-tablecloth.

Because money was tight, the most important feature of anything we owned was that it was DURABLE. Sure, my dad could fix almost anything, and my mom repaired, and resized, hand-me-down clothing with ease. But to them there was nothing better than a decades-old product still working like the day it was produced. We owned a television from the 60s, an ice cream maker from the 50s, and a movie projector from the 40s. And our washing machine was like something out of a museum.

The washtubs served as useful cold-drink coolers at summer BBQs.

It was a wringer washer, and you had to fill it with water using a hose. Then it agitated for a while. When it was done washing you pushed the wet, soapy clothes through THE WRINGER, two rubber rolling-pins that squeezed out the suds and water. Well – some of the suds. You had to next dunk the clothes in tubs of water and push them through the wringer another couple times to get all the soap and water out of the clothes. Then they were ready to be hung to dry on the clothesline. It was a clothes-washing process that was probably easier than it had been in the 1920s, but by 1970s standards it was archaic.

All that filling of tubs and moving clothes by hand and shoving sopping wet fabrics through rubber rollers … it was time-consuming. Sometimes, particularly in the winter, when our unheated garage wasn’t conducive to grappling with soaking clothing, my mom would just take our dirty laundry to the nearby laundromat. Still, the idea of getting a new washing machine just made no sense. Why save a little time and energy when we had a perfectly good, 30-year-old model out in the garage? If something worked, it worked. If something was good, it was good – no matter how old it was.

The Beatles’ first LP, Please Please Me, is nearly 60 years old and it is still working, and still good, durable enough to satisfy my mom and dad. The idea that an album from 57 years ago is still listenable, let alone recognizable as an excellent rock record, is rather unbelievable. To put it in perspective, this would be the equivalent of the 1977 me, out in the garage helping mom push wet clothes through the wringer, listening to, say, Al Jolson’s 1920 smash “Swanee” and enjoying it just as much as the contemporary Emotions song “Best of My Love.” This scenario is extremely unlikely – and not only because I never helped with the laundry.

I’ve mentioned several times while writing about The Beatles that I’m not going to go into much detail about the band’s story – their history, their cultural impact, etc. Far better writers than me have done far more extensive research, and I recommend you read them. But it is worth noting here that the persistence of Please Please Me as a viable listening product is evidence of how much The Beatles helped change Western music. As I write this, the Number 1 song in America is “Circles,” by Post Malone, and it has noticeable guitar, a bass line, a strong back-beat and melody. It’s not too dissimilar from, say, “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Sure, it’s more modern and the production is different. But the two songs aren’t nearly as different from one another as “Swanee” and “Best of My Love.”

Clearly this rock/pop music throughline from 1963 to 2020 isn’t entirely and directly related to The Beatles. Still, they released Please Please Me nearly 60 years ago and, while it sounds a bit dated, it remains a collection of songs as listenable and enjoyable today as the day it was released. Perhaps no 57-year-old recording has ever sounded as good the album opener, “I Saw Her Standing There.”

The most astounding thing about this song, and the entire album, is that it was recorded live. Producer George Martin has said that it was basically a recording of their stage show, “a broadcast, more or less.” Paul’s bass line is front and center, and perfect. George’s guitar sounds best on headphones, where you can clearly hear all his work under the vocals, as at 1:00, and after his solo, at 1:36. Paul sings lyrics that, even though they are sung by an adult, aren’t as cringey as they might seem. The song is in past-tense, so he’s remembering himself as 17 with a girl who “was just 17.” John’s harmonies are terrific, and I love Ringo’s fills to lead the group into each chorus. It remains one of my favorite Beatle songs ever.

Misery” is a fun pop song, catchy and simple, about the downside of love. There’s a cool opening chord, and the band’s voices sound a bit watery and distant, which somehow adds to the sound, as does George Martin’s plunking on the piano. “Chains” is quite similar, with the same lyrical theme, and John’s harmonica taking the place of piano. The band was wild about 60’s girl-groups, and this song was originally done by The Cookies. Paul’s bass, once again, carries the song – although Harrison’s guitar work is subtly very cool.

Among the band’s many early cover songs, one of my favorites is “Anna,” an old song by Arthur Alexander.

It’s a song that really lends itself to headphones. Once again, the watery vocal sound (probably due to the recording technology of the era) adds to the power of John’s vocal performance about yet another girl who’s left him. This is a Harrison song – a song on which, as a listener, I just want to focus on his guitar. He plays a weird chord, just before the third beat of every other measure in the verse, and once again sounds cool without dominating. The band’s “Anna” vocals are spooky, and their “ahhh”s behind the chorus and bridge are thrilling. Ringo, also, has some cool fills entering and throughout the bridge.

Ringo really gets to shine on the stomper “Boys,” on which he also sings lead.

This is a wild early-60s song, with Ringo admirably shouting the vocals while he plays fills and keeps a beat. And his drumming behind Harrison’s guitar solo, beginning at 1:05, is outstanding. The Beatles really seem to be having fun singing and playing another girl-group hit, originally done by The Shirelles. And even though Ringo sings about “boys,” the band never worried about the implications. According to Paul, it was just a fun song to play, and a crowd favorite. Please Please Me includes another Shirelles hit, “Baby It’s You.” John’s vocal is warm and inviting on this love song, and really makes the song – along with Paul and George’s backing vocals.

As great as many of the covers sound (except for “A Taste of Honey,” probably my least-favorite Beatles’ track ever, and I’ll just leave it at that), it’s the Beatle originals that make the album such a favorite. The title track, for example, is just so much fun.

“Please Please Me” features great vocal harmonies, John and Paul pleading for a little more from love. The harmonica sound dates the song a bit, but one thing that’s not dated is Ringo’s drumming. His fills between verses and choruses, and during the “Come on, come on” build-up, and in the bridge are outstanding. Ringo didn’t play on all the songs – producer George Martin was unhappy with his playing on “Love Me Do,” so Andy White played on this simple ditty. This song is okay, but has a bit too much harmonica for my taste. The vocal harmonies are once again brilliant, however.

White also drummed on “P.S. I Love You,” a nice little cha-cha song, with lyrics in the form of a letter. Paul nails the vocals, as he always does. Both John and Paul nail the vocals on the tricky “There’s a Place,” another love song. It’s got many chord changes, and I love what Harrison does with them, sometimes playing staccato chords, sometimes single notes.

I particularly like Harrison’s guitar in the popular “Do You Want to Know a Secret.”

He plays a nice figure at 0:14 to introduce it, then a cool arpeggiated chord on the “I’m in love with you” in each chorus. The background “Do da do” vocals are catchy and the whole song is fun. John’s voice is great, as it is on the showtune-y “Ask Me Why,” a love song I used to always think was a cover. Ringo does a nice cha-cha, and Paul and George are great on the “woo-woo”s and “I-I”s throughout. It’s another fine original.

And as great as their originals are, it’s a cover song that became one of their most popular songs some 60 years after its release. “Twist and Shout” was a mid-tempo groove when it was made famous by The Isley Brothers. The Beatles revved it up, John blew out his voice, and now it’s one of the band’s most-streamed songs.

Ringo’s drums are great, Paul’s bass is great, George’s guitar is great … but Lennon’s screams are what make the song. There’s a massive energy to the song. When the band builds the song on the multi-voiced “Aah,” at 1:25 and the end, it still sounds exciting today, decades later. (This excitement got the song prominently placed in two 80s film classics: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to School.) It’s nominally a song about a dance, but who really cares about the lyrics? It’s a song that has truly stood the test of time.

Just like that old washing machine my mom had.

TRACK LISTING:
“I Saw Her Standing There”
“Misery”
“Anna (Go to Him)”
“Chains”
“Boys”
“Ask Me Why”
“Please Please Me”
“Love Me Do”
“P.S. I Love You”
“Baby It’s You”
“Do You Want to Know a Secret”
“A Taste of Honey”
“There’s a Place”
“Twist and Shout”

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9th Favorite Beatles Album: Let It Be

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Let It Be
1970, Apple Records. Producer: Phil Spector.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Let It Be is a collection of fantastic songs, many of them unfamiliar to the casual listener. The songs and performances by the band are wonderful, but the producer overlaid them with orchestras and choirs that very often muffle the music and at times completely obscure the band’s efforts. But there are a number of Lennon-McCartney songs that find the pair harmonizing like the old days, and the entire band performs brilliantly.

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

~ ~ ~

I’ve written many times about growing up in my little town in Pennsylvania, being raised in a culture that was rather closed and homogenous, where there was an aversion to anything new and different. But there’s an aspect of my 70s rural PA childhood that I don’t think I’ve touched on yet. And that is the expectation, deeply held there among the people, that everyone should just “deal with it.” Whatever “it” may be. The solution is to “deal.”

Did you get the wrong order at a restaurant? “Deal with it.” Did the kid who cheated get a better grade than you? “Deal with it.” Did you get mercilessly teased and beaten because you’re gay or chubby or not white or a woman or bad at sports or too poor for cool clothes or part of a different religion? “Deal with it.”

Of course, one way to deal with a wrong order is to send it back; a good way to deal with cheaters is to let someone know; a way to deal with abusive systemic power structures is to work to change them. But this is NOT what the term “Deal with it” meant. What “Deal with it” meant is “keep your mouth shut and don’t upset anyone.”

(Somehow, though, to many of these steely, set-jaw, denizens of my region, if the “problem” was changing demographics and an influx of Spanish-speaking people, then “deal with it” apparently meant to yell insults and threats, and to urge for English-speaking standards, despite the fact that in generations past in this community nobody spoke English, and everyone spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. But I digress …)

This “deal with it” attitude was a hindrance to my development as a happy human being, and it’s something I continue to work on (with great success, I believe) so as to NOT pass it onto my children. But it can be difficult for me to advocate for myself.

For example, let’s say I helped make an album with a band I was in, and none of us really liked the final product, and there were bad feelings around the recording experience and lots of tension among my bandmates and me, and so everyone just left the record sit on a shelf for months. And let’s say that after a few months some folks went, essentially, behind my back to hire a famous producer to make changes to the album, and that when it was released I thought it sounded horrible and stunk to high-heaven, especially the songs that I’d written, and that I was – frankly – embarrassed by the record, no matter how commercially successful it eventually became. Imagine me in that situation, and I’ll tell you I probably NEVER would have thought to remix the entire thing and re-release it. But that’s what Paul McCartney did with Let It Be.

In 2003, McCartney oversaw the remix and re-release of the 1970 Beatles album Let It Be, my 9th-favorite Beatles album. He called it Let It Be… Naked, a reflection of the stripped-down content of the songs.

Of course it was Dr. Dave who first introduced me to the original Let It Be. Our band, JB and The So-Called Cells, played lots of Beatles songs, and Let It Be has a bunch of songs that are fun to play – several of which are rather obscure to the casual music fan. Most people know “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Hey Jude,” but how many people really know where you can syndicate any boat you row? I dove into the album, and I loved it, and I never really considered how much extra stuff, like choirs and orchestras, had been added.

Now that I’m older, I still think it’s a great album, one of my favorites. But I like Let It Be… Naked so much more. It sounds like it’s a direct expression of the band, whereas the original seems like an interpretation. If I want to listen to the songs on Let It Be, I’ll listen to Let It Be… Naked. I’m rating the original release, because I’m following my rules, and it lands at #9. However, Let It Be… Naked would be higher.

But as I said: Let It Be is great!! It starts out with one of the coolest Lennon-McCartney pieces I know, the acoustic ode to friendship, “Two of Us.”

I like to imagine it’s about Lennon and McCartney’s friendship, but in fact Paul wrote the song and lyrics about his new (at the time) girlfriend, Linda. Paul plays a nifty, simple riff to start each line, then he and John strum acoustic guitars, while Harrison picks out a bass line on an electric guitar. The instrumentation gives the song a folksy, campfire feel that enhances the chummy lyrics, as does the whistling, by John, to end the song. The … Naked version of the song isn’t much different, although it leaves out the funny spoken intro by John.

Next up is a song that is SO MUCH FUN TO PLAY on guitar and bass that it’s hard for me to give an assessment of the sound. All I think about is how much I love to play it! It’s the nonsensical, John Lennon-penned “Dig a Pony,” and it’s a staple of any JB and The So-Called Cells performance.

After an aborted intro (Ringo didn’t have his drumsticks ready and stops things after one note) the entire band plays the waltzing main riff, which is an astounding four bars long, ranges nearly two octaves and sounds unlike any other riff in rock. Lennon’s lyrics are bizarre, but Paul’s harmonies are terrific, and Harrison’s guitar playing is among his best. And let’s not forget – it’s a difficult song to drum, but Ringo, as always, is up to the challenge. The … Naked version removes the false start (one of the few changes on the album that I dislike) and cleans up a couple mistakes. It’s a cool, weird song, and most non-Beatle fans are unfamiliar with it.

Across the Universe” is up next, and as much as I love John Lennon (he’s probably my favorite Beatle), this is a song that’s never done much for me. The lyrics have some nice stuff (“pools of sorrow/waves of joy”), but they’re mostly just self-affirmations. The orchestration is quite over the top, and the … Naked version strips all that away. The next song is full of too much orchestra, as well: Harrison’s “I Me Mine.”

Harrison’s guitar really makes this song, both the electric and the acoustic. I like dual lead guitar at the beginning, over Paul’s organ, and the little squawks he throws in. It’s another waltz, a beat Ringo excels at, until the “I Me Me Mine” chorus, where the band rocks out a bit, and Harrison gets to blaze away on electric. When the orchestra is removed on … Naked, you can really hear Ringo’s terrific drumming as the pre-chorus builds (1:12 – 1:20). The orchestra also obscures Harrison’s guitar work from 1:48 – 2:03. “I Me Mine” is a song I like on Let It Be, but that I LOVE on Let It Be… Naked.

The latter album also removes “Dig It,” one of 2 songs ever credited to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starkey, the other being “Flying,” from Magical Mystery Tour. It’s a 50-second goofball song with nonsense lyrics, the kind of song I find interesting because I love the Beatles, but about which I expect most people scratch their heads. However, it does lead into one of the greats, “Let It Be.”

There’s not much to be written about a song as well-known and popular as this song. I like Billy Preston’s organ throughout, and I really like Harrison’s solo, about 1:58, and all his subsequent electric guitar riffs he plays. Also not to be overlooked are Paul’s bass guitar, starting at 1:06, and Ringo’s drums, which were augmented on the original release by Spector, but are clearer on … Naked. The lyrics are inspirational to many, and it’s one of the band’s most popular songs. I think it’s a great song, certainly better than “Maggie Mae,” 40 seconds of an old Liverpudlian street song the band recorded in jest, that was left off … Naked. And certainly not nearly as good as one of my favorite all-time songs, “I’ve Got a Feeling.”

As with “Two of Us,” I love this song partly because it supports my idealized version of the Lennon-McCartney partnership, in which they’re lifelong pals and companions, a songwriting sum that is greater than its parts, driving each other to produce the best possible songs. This version of the pair was probably finished by 1966, but “I’ve Got a Feeling” rejuvenates the idea. It’s actually two different song parts contributed by both and they fit together perfectly, not unlike “A Day in the Life.” So much is happening that it takes multiple listens to truly appreciate. Paul starts off with the main melody, supported by Harrison’s mighty guitar. After his “Oh no,” at 0:29, when the band kicks in, the feeling and sound are heavenly. I love Harrison’s ascending guitar run throughout (example at 0:33), and Lennon’s harmonies on the second verse. Paul and Ringo are locked in, and at 1:15, when Paul really lets lose, the intensity is bumped up a notch, ending with Harrison’s terrific 2-bar wail, at 1:27, which lets the air out.

Next is Lennon’s half, and it’s the perfect complement to Paul’s. The song has a terrific ending. It’s a perfect Lennon/McCartney song, and even … Naked couldn’t improve it much. The band follows it up with another gem the pair wrote together, one of the first songs they’d ever written, but one that hadn’t been previously released. It’s the 50’s Rock and Roll of “One After 909.”

The band actually recorded it in 1963, but didn’t release it, and the Let It Be version is much better than the original. It’s a fun number with Lennon on lead vocals and McCartney on harmony singing about arriving at the wrong track to pick up a girlfriend. Billy Preston, the “fifth Beatle,” who George tried to bring into the band to ease tensions in 1969, plays a great electric piano, and Harrison does his amazing guitar work throughout. The song was, as heard on Let It Be, recorded live during the band’s famous “rooftop concert” in 1969 (as were “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Dig a Pony.”) The … Naked version is simply remixed from the original.

The songs recorded on the rooftop show what the band was capable as a live act, even after 3 years away from touring. “The Long and Winding Road” shows what too much orchestration and choral accompaniment can do to a decent song. The … Naked version shows it’s not a bad song, a little lyrically schmaltzy, perhaps, but breakups can elicit the schmaltz, so that’s okay. But nowadays I find the original Let It Be version almost unlistenable.

For You Blue” is a bluesy love song from George that the band jams on, with Lennon on lap steel guitar and Paul on the piano. The band is clearly having fun, trading solos, including a cool, simple, descending scale on piano, by Paul. The … Naked version isn’t much different. The album ends on the cool-rockin’, slow-burning groove of “Get Back,” a song that’s been played a lot but that never sounds old.

The band once again sounds like they’re having fun, with McCartney and Lennon harmonizing on lyrics about traveling. The lead guitar throughout really carries things, and it’s actually played by Lennon this time, relegating Harrison to rhythm guitar. His solo at 1:00 is pure fun. Billy Preston plays an electric piano solo next, at 1:33, then around 2:20 Lennon repeats his solo. It’s a fun song, which includes band banter throughout. The … Naked version leaves off the banter.

One other item about Let It Be … Naked: it includes “Don’t Let Me Down,” a song that should have been on the original album. The Beatles played it on the rooftop, and I think it’s one of their best songs ever. It was released as the B-side to the “Get Back” single. McCartney’s bass is great, Harrison’s guitar is great, Starr’s drums are great, Lennon’s vocals are great … I guess what I’m saying is “The Beatles are great!!” Their music stands out, even when it’s partially obscured by extraneous orchestral and choral arrangements. But I’m glad Paul showed an example of how to “deal with” a situation: he made a change!

TRACK LISTING:
“Two Of Us”
“Dig a Pony”
“Across the Universe”
“I Me Mine”
“Dig It”
“Let It Be”
“Maggie Mae”
“I’ve Got a Feeling”
“One After 909”
“The Long and Winding Road”
“For You Blue”
“Get Back”

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10th Favorite Beatles Album: Beatles For Sale

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Beatles For Sale.
1964, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Beatles For Sale is a record that has the band sounding a bit more tired, and a bit less sunny, than on their previous records. It’s full of covers, once again, but George Harrison’s guitar brings many of them up to Beatle greatness. The original Lennon/McCartney songs are generally darker than previous songs, but they retain that magic the partnership always delivered.

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

~ ~ ~

This isn’t my dad, but this looks like the kind of stuff he did in a career spanning the late 50s to early 00s.

I remember hearing about my dad’s reaction when he learned some details of the salaried position my older sister had recently taken at a local college. This was in the early 90s, and by then my dad had been working for hourly wages as a tool and die maker in machine shops for over thirty years. He worked with his hands, standing behind big machines all day. He didn’t sit much, and the closest he came to having a desk was either his workbench, where he kept his tools, or the drafting table he’d stand behind while designing his work.

He was blue-collar through and through, and he seemed to love his work. He rarely complained about it, or about what others were doing. He was a “shop guy,” and true, he’d sometimes make some comments about the office guys, folks in management who were often derisively called “pencil pushers” by some blue collar workers. But he wasn’t mean toward them, and didn’t seem to be waging battles against them. He simply seemed to be uncertain what it is a guy sitting in a chair could really do all day. My dad took big hunks of metal and through precision-measured cuts (usually without the help of computers, by the way – it was all analog micrometers and calipers until well into his career) he formed all sorts of moldings and dies and tools and parts, small enough that he could bring them home and show them to us kids. What did office guys take home to show their kids?

So flash forward a few years to my now-young-adult eldest sister, who had recently acquired a salaried position. I don’t remember the details, only the generalities, but during a conversation with my parents about planning some sort of a family event, she mentioned that she could leave work early. My dad, aghast, implored her NOT to take any time off! She should earn all the money she could! Then she explained that she’d get paid even if she left because she didn’t get paid by the hour. As I recall from her retelling, it took him a little while to comprehend that you could get paid for NOT working. Once he understood it, I’m not sure he ever got comfortable with the idea.

We all have a unique perspective on work and what it means. Everyone knows the intricacies of their own job, the details and operations hidden from others that make it challenging and interesting. Everyone else’s jobs seem kind of easy in comparison. If you have a desk job with a lot of responsibilities, driving a forklift seems like a comparative relief. If you’re planting trees in the hot sun all day, sitting in air-conditioning calling customers seems easy. And if you have any “normal” job, being a Beatle seems like perfection!!

But from everything I’ve read, it wasn’t easy being a Beatle. First of all, you had to be a world-class musician and/or songwriter. Then there were the years spent playing in Hamburg, Germany, where the band played twenty-eight shows a week for less than 3 pounds a day, while living next to toilets. Even after they started to succeed, their schedule was crazy and the demands on them intense. In 1964, they toured the UK, the US, and the world, recorded two albums, shot a movie, and appeared on TV around the world. It was exhausting. Sure, they weren’t standing behind a hot, oily machine 8 hours a day, but I’ll bet my dad wouldn’t have traded his job for theirs.

The album they released at the end of 1964, Beatles For Sale, sounds like it was made by a group of tired musicians. Don’t get me wrong – it sounds great! But between all the cover songs (similar to With the Beatles, this album is almost 50% non-Lennon/McCartney or Harrison songs) and some originals that aren’t up to the band’s usual caliber, one can almost hear the weariness of criss-crossing the globe. Even the album cover, the band’s four stoic faces evidencing the stress of the grind, sends the message that the carefree mop-tops have reached their limits of smiles and amiability.

But there is so much good stuff here, and it starts right off the top with one of their most familiar hits, “No Reply.” I love a song – and an album – that opens cold with vocals …

Ringo sets down a nice bossa nova beat during the verses, and transitions smoothly to a rock beat in the choruses. Lennon’s lyrics about a girl who’s no longer interested were praised by the band’s music publisher, Dick James, as being the first in the band’s career with a story, something Lennon was proud of. The band’s harmonies, particularly in the bridge (“If I were you/ I’d realize …”), are great, as usual. Even the Beatles’ songs I’ve heard a million times, like this one, still hold up. Side note: since the record contains many covers, I decided to feature other artists covering Beatles’ songs. But I couldn’t find any for “No Reply.”

Up next is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, “I’m a Loser.”

The vocal-harmony opening is terrific, and the Paul’s walking bass line, with Ringo’s shuffle beat and George’s twangy guitar fills, give the song – like “I Feel Fine,” which was released as a single around the time of this album – a country rock feel. John’s voice goes deep, and his lyrics are personal and moving. He also gets to throw in some harmonica, an instrument he and the band mostly abandoned around this time. (For a cover, here’s 60s folkie Marianne Faithfull’s version of “I’m a Loser.”)

Baby’s In Black” is a sort of sad waltz, which sounds a bit like a drinking song about a girl hung up on her old boyfriend. It opens with a cool George riff, then gets right to the harmony vocals, which are outstanding. At 1:06, George plays a weird solo that’s really great. I also like Ringo’s insistent kick-drum at 1:35. (The bluegrass outfit Trampled by Turtles has a nice bluegrass version of this song.)

Up next on Beatles For Sale is one of their best all-time covers, in my opinion, Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music.”

The song’s a rave-up, a salute to the heat and energy of rock and roll. John’s voice has been fantastic on the entire album so far – whether singing harmonies or taking the lead on a ballad – and he really nails this one. Interestingly, there aren’t any harmony vocals in the whole song. The band sounds like they’re having fun. It’s a song they’d performed for years by the time of the recording, and their love for the song shows. Producer George Martin plays piano, according to Mark Lewisohn, although the album’s original liner notes credited Martin, Lennon and McCartney on piano.

The boys often follow up a rocker with a softer song, and up next on Beatles For Sale is McCartney’s sweet “I’ll Follow the Sun.”

For a purportedly romantic song, the song’s lyrics are actually kind of harsh, as Paul says – basically – hey, look, things are great between us, so I’m leaving before they have a chance to sour. But it’s a lovely song, with (as usual) great harmonies and a nice, simple guitar solo from George. And Ringo plays his lap instead of his drum kit, which is pretty cool. (Chet Atkins did an amazing cover of this song.)

So, I’m not gonna bullshit you guys. The next couple songs I really don’t like. “Mr. Moonlight” and “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey.” “Mr. Moonlight” sounds like the kind of song they had to play at respectable clubs in the late 50s and early 60s, but by this point they’ve outgrown the schmaltzy stuff, and could have picked a better cover. “KCHHH” is okay, but really just a less satisfying version of Chuck Berry, which they already did. Paul’s vocal is fantastic, but between the two songs there’s not much I find appealing, besides the fact that they lead into the fabulous “Eight Days a Week.”

One of the band’s most famous tracks, starting off with a then-new-sounding fade-in played by George on his 12-string, it’s a catchy singalong song co-written by Lennon and McCartney that became the band’s 7th U.S. number one song in a year. After the personal lyrics of “I’m a Loser” and “I’ll Follow the Sun,” this song reverts to the happy-mop-top-in-love genre that kicked off Beatlemania in the first place. Paul’s bass is great, and the band’s harmonies are perfect. It’s classic Beatle stuff. (Here’s soul superstar and “5th Beatle” Billy Preston’s cover of the song.)

“Eight Days a Week” opens the second side of Beatles For Sale, although it’s been 30 years since anyone really cared much about album sides. And the second side has some of my favorite covers that the band ever did, all of which feature Harrison’s guitar work. First up is the charming Buddy Holly original “Words of Love.” George’s guitar is what really makes this song excellent! His intricate playing was double-tracked, and it really adds some beef to a song that is soft enough for Ringo to have played a box instead of drums. “Honey Don’t” is the first of two Carl Perkins tunes on the record, this one sung by Ringo. It’s a standard blues tune with an extra measure in the middle that keeps it interesting. George (“The King,” according to Dr. Dave) takes lead vocals on the second Perkins tune “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.”

All those covers have a rockabilly twang, a sound the group was into at the time. Though not on Beatles For Sale, the single “I Feel Fine” b/w “She’s a Woman” was also recorded around this time. One original in this vein that did make the record was “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.”

As with most of these style songs, George’s guitar takes center stage – there’s a nifty solo at 1:24. Also notable is John singing the lead with Paul taking a lower harmony – he’s typically on top. Paul takes the lead on the chorus, with George on harmony. It’s a fun, quick song with a return to the more personal lyrics, about running into an old flame. (Roseanne Cash did a nice country version of this song.) Not all of the songs on side two are country. “What You’re Doing” is a very British-Invasion-sounding song, with a cool guitar riff and a shout-out vocal. I didn’t find a cover of this song.

I would have closed Beatles For Sale with the terrific “Every Little Thing.”

It’s a wonderful love song from Paul, sung by John, that borders on schmaltzy but is saved from it by George’s guitar and Ringo’s crashing timpani. The lyrics are lovey-dovey, but the melody is rather sad, creating a nice counter-balance. And did I mention anywhere that the Beatles do great harmonies? Because they do. (Prog rockers Yes, who I love, did a version of this song, believe it or not.)

My dad worked really hard, and he ended up with a lot to show for it. A happy family, many friends and a terrific reputation. He made something good out of all that hard work. The Beatles did too, obviously. They were exhausted, but they put it into their music and made a great record in Beatles For Sale.

TRACK LISTING:
“No Reply”
“I’m a Loser”
“Baby’s In Black”
“Rock and Roll Music”
“I’ll Follow the Sun”
“Mr. Moonlight”
“Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey”
“Eight Days a Week”
“Words of Love”
“Honey Don’t”
“Every Little Thing”
“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”
“What You’re Doing”
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”

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11th Favorite Beatles Album: Magical Mystery Tour

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Magical Mystery Tour.
1967, Capitol. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Magical Mystery Tour is another soundtrack in The Beatles’ discography. But this time the record was embellished with a few singles on the American release. It’s a terrific blend of the band’s psychedelic and melodic-pop tendencies. It swings easily between the weird and the cute. Some of the band’s most enduring songs are here, as well as some of their most obscure. The band can do anything, and this record is a delight from end to end.

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

~ ~ ~

Rule-breaking evidence.

I’ve broken my own rules several times on this blog. No compilation albums? Well too bad! Sometimes a band’s history is so fraught and disarrayed that a compilation album is one of the few things you have. And sometimes there’s an album that a bonehead like me doesn’t realize is a compilation until after writing the blog post! Hell, even the whole idea of my list being definitive was undercut by the realization that I made some mistakes and omissions. I’m going to make mistakes. As XTC brilliantly put it, I’m merely a man.

And I’m acknowledging right here that this selection is both a rule-breaker AND a mistake. It’s NOT a UK release, which is what I said I’d review, AND, given the incredible songs on it … it should probably be much higher. And yet – here it is at Number 11. How did I – a presumably moral and honest man – fall so far? Where did I go wrong?

I was a natural rule-breaker as a child, but all children are natural rule-breakers. Parenting is, basically, one big push to get your kids to manage and contain their natural instincts to hit, kick, steal, manipulate, scream and generally act like little assholes. In fact, rules were probably first established by cavemen and cavewomen who were getting sick of their whiny little cavekids. They wanted that bullshit to stop.

My parents turned out to be very effective bullshit-stoppers. So effective, in fact, that I quickly became a kid who was TERRIFIED to break the rules. I became one of those pain-in-the-ass, wet-blanket kids who tell their friends they shouldn’t copy each others’ homework, and pay the movie theater admission even though all their friends just sneaked in for free. (I did learn quickly NOT to be a tattle-tale, an important rule among kids.)

But I’ve discussed all this before, in that Stone Roses link above, and I probably have some rule somewhere about not repeating myself, so I’m just going to skip ahead and say that somewhere along the line I grew to understand that life is like that book, 50 Shades of Grey: rich people torture you and try to convince you that you enjoy it. And also, there are so many gray areas in life that it becomes almost impossible to follow all but the most basic rules: don’t kill people, don’t hurt people, change the toilet paper roll when you use the last bit.

So the fact that Magical Mystery Tour was a double EP in the UK, and I’m reviewing the US-released full-length LP even though I stated I’d review the UK releases … well, the gray area is that I didn’t realize there was a difference until I started putting this list together, and I wasn’t gonna go out and buy the UK version just to comply with some dumb rule I gave myself, so I just decided to review the US version. Is that gray enough?

You can read all about how Magical Mystery Tour came to be a double EP in the UK and an album in the US, and all about the details of the movie, in any number of books about the band. I have neither the time, nor space (nor the knowledge) to dive in too deeply. But basically, The Beatles made a weird movie for British TV called Magical Mystery Tour, in which regular folks rode around the country in a bus with the band, and this album is the soundtrack for it. (Well, actually, the British double EP is the soundtrack. This US version is the soundtrack PLUS a few other Beatle singles tacked on.) The movie used to play on the cool, 80s US late-night TV show Night Flight, and I saw it back then. If you’re sadly thinking, “Aw, man, I never got to see it!” let me tell you this: it was BORING. The idea was “let’s travel by bus and see what happens!” – and nothing happened.

But the soundtrack is great! Magical Mystery Tour opens with a perfect opener, the title track, which starts with a trumpet fanfare and gets right to a driving beat, courtesy of Ringo.

Whenever I’ve written about any artist or song, I’ll always point out when I love the harmony vocals. I think this focus on harmony vocals comes from my love of The Beatles. The harmonies – classic three-part – on the “Roll up for the mystery tour” lyrics are terrific. The lyrics set the stage for all the wonder to come on the record. For the first thirty seconds the song really sounds and feels like one of the band’s early, fast-paced hits, like “I Saw Her Standing There,” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” But the band transitions to the slower chorus, “… hoping to take you away …” They go back and forth between the parts with ease because of Ringo’s smooth playing. It’s a fun little song, but what makes it for me is the weird ending, beginning at 2:23. Also, producer George Martin’s horn charts throughout are really great. This is one of those popular Beatle songs that I forget about, then hear and think, “Hey, I really like that!”

This is a much different situation than I find myself in when I hear the next song, “Fool On the Hill.” For many years, its melancholy lyrics and haunting flute seemed to speak to me, and I adored it. Nowadays, I sort of find it tiresome. It’s still a great song, a brilliant Paul track, and I do like how the song turns a bit upbeat during the flute solo. But it’s not a favorite of mine. The instrumental “Flying” is notable as one of only two Beatles’ songs on their original albums with composition credited to “Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey” (the other being “Dig It,” from Let It Be), but otherwise sounds rather like music you’d hear while on hold during a phone call with your insurance company.

The fourth song on Magical Mystery Tour is one I have ANOTHER changing attitude on. I used to dislike it, and now it’s one of my favorites on the record. It’s the trippy, somber story of George Harrison’s friends driving on a foggy night in Los Angeles, “Blue Jay Way.”

George’s early contributions to the band, like “Don’t Bother Me” and “You Like Me Too Much,” sounded like attempts to write like Lennon/McCartney. But with every album he seemed to move closer to his own ‘thing,’ and “Blue Jay Way” is an example. It begins quietly and builds, with a droning quality that is filled out with Ringo’s terrific drum fills. He’s the master of the mid-tempo fill. The sounds are warped and distorted, and Martin’s string orchestration fits perfectly.

Next up is “Your Mother Should Know,” the kind of bouncy, music-hall style song that McCartney can write in his sleep (although it sounds nothing like “Yesterday,” which he famously DID write in his sleep). It’s a song about a song that, well, your mother should know. I do like the bass, particularly how it starts the song, and it is catchy as heck. And I find it interesting that on The Beatles (the White Album) John’s song “Cry Baby Cry” features the lyric “Make your mother cry/she’s old enough to know better.” What was it about Beatle mums not knowing things?

The final track on the British EP, and the last song from the film, is the iconic Beatle psychedelia number “I Am the Walrus.”

The song somehow manages to be catchy, weird, nonsense and moving all at the same time. I’d recommend reading more about this song, even if it’s just wikipedia. There’s more to this song than I can fit in a paragraph. It’s a ballsy John song, and after the first five songs really stands out, as if John said, “Okay, boys, step aside and let me show you something.” The nonsense lyrics clash (in a good way) with a powerful chord progression that seems stately and important, a feeling enhanced – once again – by Martin’s orchestral score. There are sounds galore throughout, including a recording of a radio broadcast of King Lear. A written description of the song would read like a total mess, so I’ll just say – listen to it. It’s wicked cool.

Okay, here’s where my dilemma with rating this work starts. Magical Mystery Tour, to this point, has been pretty good. These are all the new songs the band recorded for the movie. As a double-EP, it’s decent by Beatles’ standards, but not particularly awesome. However, on the US version, Capitol records added some singles the band had been releasing, and these are some of my favorite Beatle songs ever. Given how much I love these songs, the record should be higher than #11. But since most of the songs I love weren’t really for an album, and I did say I’m rating UK releases, well, I don’t think I can rank this one any higher.

But who gives a shit, right? Let’s get to the next song – the international hit “Hello Goodbye.” It’s a song about the difficulty communicating in a relationship. Like “Fool on the Hill,” it’s a song I’ve grown tired of. George’s buzzing guitar is still cool, and Ringo’s drums, too. He plays the snare on the 1 &3 at the start of the song, but from then on sticks mainly to high-hat and toms, then from 1:17 to 1:35 and again 1:55 to 2:15 he plays classic Ringo fills. But that keening violin throughout the song just grates on me nowadays. I do like the coda – beginning at 2:45, but it’s a song I rarely play.

One song I do play a lot is a song that, since I was about 10 years old in fifth grade, I have responded with wherever someone asks, “What’s your favorite song?” There’s something about “Strawberry Fields Forever” that has always drawn me in.

I was a shy kid who always wished I could be more confident, and I think the lyrics in the verses such as “no one, I think, is in my tree,” and their fumbling nature (“I think I know, I mean, er, yes, but it’s all wrong …”) really spoke to me. And I loved how weird the song sounded while retaining a melody. The older I got, the more I found to love about the song. George’s ringing guitar throughout, and Paul’s guitar fills at 2:58 and 3:11. Ringo’s excellent drumming, his strange fills and chugging beat near the end. Martin’s orchestration again perfectly suits the song. It’s still my favorite song. And speaking of Paul, this is one of the very few Beatle songs (particularly non-acoustic songs) that does NOT have a distinctive bass line.

A song that does have a distinctive bass line, and that may be my second-favorite song ever, is the wonderful “Penny Lane.”

You probably know the story – John and Paul decided to write songs about the memories and places of their childhood, and John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and Paul wrote “Penny Lane.” Two very different songs that are both great for different reasons. I love the bass in this song, how high it starts and how far it ranges. The lyrics are perfect, painting a scene with precision and perspective that makes the listener believe they’ve actually visited it as a child. John’s high harmonies throughout are wonderful, as are Martin’s horn parts. The two songs were originally released together as a double A-side single

Next up is a song that was originally a B-side to the huge hit “All You Need is Love” (more on that in a bit), called “Baby You’re a Rich Man.”

Paul’s cool bass is paired with an oboe sound created by John using a “clavioline,” which creates an exotic, Indian feel. John’s vocals (on lyrics that may be a swipe at their manager, Brian Epstein, or may be a message about the power of spirituality in a material world) establish a sarcastic tone in the verse, as his sweet falsetto lines are undercut by his sneering follow-up comments. Ringo, as he’s done throughout Magical Mystery Tour, accents things with great fills, as at 0:49 and 1:45. The chorus is classic sing-along Beatles, with Paul’s bass driving the whole thing. And if you listen closely, you can hear George’s close picking on electric guitar across the whole song. It’s a simple, fun song.

The final track on the album is “All You Need Is Love,” a song that is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs, and also one I discussed when it appeared on Yellow Submarine. You can read about it there!

It always amazes me how The Beatles can seemingly throw together a record and still have it be outstanding. The four were clearly serious about the music they produced, and even if it was going to be part of a silly movie, they made sure the songs were strong. (Well, okay, maybe not “Flying.”) I’m happy I broke my UK rule for this record – the extra songs are outstanding.

TRACK LISTING:
“Magical Mystery Tour”
“The Fool On the Hill”
“Flying”
“Blue Jay Way”
“Your Mother Should Know”
“I Am the Walrus”
“Hello, Goodbye”
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
“Penny Lane”
“Baby You’re a Rich Man”
“All You Need is Love”

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12th Favorite Beatles Album: With The Beatles

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With The Beatles.
1963, EMI. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1996.

IN A NUTSHELL: With The Beatles is The Beatles’ second album, written and recorded in a hurry to capitalize on Beatlemania. It’s a testament to the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team that they could write so many excellent songs so quickly! And a testament to the entire band that they could execute so well these songs, and a slew of their favorite covers, and make a record that remains one of the best in the past 60 years.

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

~ ~ ~

Way back in 2006, I released my first stand-up comedy CD, It’s Weird, Man. You’ll notice I said “first comedy CD.”

This is because when I recorded my album, I was hoping there would be more. I’d been doing stand-up for about 12 years by 2006, doing it in earnest for about 7, and I thought it was time to get some of my jokes on record. Rick Jenkins, owner of the best comedy club in the world, The Comedy Studio, in Cambridge, MA, gave me two nights to record in front of terrific weekend crowds. The excellent comedian Tim McIntire recorded my sets, and helped select and sequence tracks.

Then I called some old friends. I got in touch with an old acquaintance from my days in The April Skies, Larry Geiger, and he did all the amazing CD design and packaging work. I called Jake Crawford, still doing great work (then, as now) in The April Skies, and worked it out so the CD could be on his WiaB Records label. Then, oblivious to the changes that were already afoot in the delivery and consumption of recorded material by 2006, I went about having CDs manufactured.

The CD company said I could manufacture 300 CDs, or 1000, or 5000 or even more. I was sure that 5000 was the number I’d need, given the hilarious nature of my jokes. However, that was expensive, so I settled on 300, knowing that I could use the proceeds from selling those first 300 to finance a second batch of pressings, which I was quite certain would be 5000. Or more.

As of November, 2019, I’m still the proud owner of 237 copies of my CD, all of which are stored lovingly in a few moldy old cardboard boxes in the basement. My album is on all the streaming services, and approximately once every 18 months, I’ll get a check, out of the blue, for $9 or so. But despite all that loot, I don’t think that it was digital streaming that cut into CD sales, preventing me from reaching that second pressing. I think that reality simply didn’t live up to my grandiose expectations.

But what if it had? What if reality had actually EXCEEDED my expectations? What if I’d sold those first 300 discs, then the next 5000, then had orders for thousands more? What if some entertainment conglomerate had signed me to a contract, and the world was eager, yearning, even demanding more product from me? What would I have done? I didn’t have enough jokes for another record!

The Beatles, 1960, Hamburg. (l to r) Lennon, Harrison, Pete Best, McCartney, Stu Sutcliffe.

One thing I definitely could not do would be to “cover” other peoples’ jokes. I couldn’t decide to fill out my next album by recording Jim Gaffigan’s classic “Hot Pockets” bit, and throw in a bunch of old Joan Rivers jokes. Comedy doesn’t work that way. (Rather, it’s not supposed to.) However, music does! And lucky for The Beatles! When the album Please Please Me shot them to the top of the charts in the UK in 1963, and they needed more music on the market, they had a backlog of hundreds of songs from other artists that they’d been performing for years. They recorded some of those songs first, while Lennon/McCartney wrote a few more new songs, then recorded the new ones, and next thing you know, With The Beatles hit the stores.

Of course, the band’s first album, Please Please Me, was also nearly half cover songs, so this arrangement wasn’t unusual. The Beatles were great musicians, and they had logged hundreds of hours of live performances, so their cover songs were particularly strong. But Please Please Me included originals that had (mostly) been around for years. And as With the Beatles shows, even the songs dashed off by Lennon/McCartney are better than most of the stuff by other bands. Take, for example, the phenomenal lead track, “It Won’t Be Long.”

What a great opening track! Lennon’s double-tracked voice opens the album with an urgent message to all those Beatlemaniacs: it won’t be long! It’s got all the hallmarks of a terrific Beatle song: great melody, George’s cool, descending guitar riff (first heard at 0:13), Ringo’s sloshy drumming, and the catchy backing vocals – shouting “yeah” back and forth with John, and the “you left me” countermelody in the bridge, at 0:42. I guess it’s the bridge – it’s played twice, which is unusual in a bridge. I’ll call it the bridge just to point out that the song has an unusual structure – chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus. Whatever you call it, I absolutely love when McCartney hits a higher note on the 5th “yeah” the second time through the bridge. It’s stuff like that that makes me love this band. The simple stuff.

Up next is a quiet piece, a slow dance after that frantic opening, Lennon’s “All I’ve Got to Do.” It’s got a bit of a Motown feel to it, and John’s lead vocal is really strong. McCartney plays chords on the bass through the verse, which sounds cool, but I mainly like this song because it leads into a classic: “All My Loving.”

It’s another song that opens with vocals, Paul’s this time. What stands out immediately is the triplet-strumming rhythm guitar by John Lennon. It’s really impressive, and Ringo makes it swing with his syncopated backbeat. The harmony “Oooo”s are classic Beatle, and I can’t forget to mention Paul’s walking bass line. Also – Paul harmonizes with himself on the third verse. This is one of the songs the band played on their first Ed Sullivan Show performance in the USA, in February 1964, and since Paul can’t harmonize with himself live, George sang the melody and Paul took the high harmony.

On With the Beatles, George gets his first composition on a Beatles album with “Don’t Bother Me,” sort of a dour song with an upbeat rhythm. It’s a decent song, and has really cool guitar throughout, and a nice surf/country guitar solo at 1:18, but I think it’s safe to say George will do much better on future records. Then again, not every Lennon/McCartney song was incredible – as “Little Child” shows. I mean, it has great vocals (particularly “I’m so sad and lonely”), and is a rocker, and Lennon shows off his harmonica chops … but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

The cover songs begin in earnest next, with the band covering my parents’ favorite song, “Till There Was You.” They were fans of the original from the Broadway musical The Music Man, which I prefer as well. George plays a nice solo, and McCartney can really sing, but … it sounds like filler. Even the next song, “Please Mr. Postman,” a Motown cover, sounds – to me – like filler. The harmonies are great, Ringo is terrific, but the 1961 original by the Marvelettes was so excellent that it makes me wonder why the band put this on With the Beatles.

This isn’t to say The Beatles cover songs couldn’t be excellent. Next up is a cover of the Chuck Berry classic “Roll Over Beethoven,” and it’s terrific.

I’m a Chuck Berry fan, and I love his stompin’ original version, but I like what the band does with it, as well. It’s less rockin’, but has a bit more swing, thanks to Ringo. He plays a heartbeat beat, and on my CD of With the Beatles (not so much on YouTube) I can clearly hear him accenting the “one,” really driving the song. Harrison’s guitar is really cool, and as usual Paul takes the opportunity to make the simple blues bass line more interesting than you’d expect.

The next song is one that both Paul and John later dismissed, rather coldly, and which many people – even Beatles fans – seem to dislike. But I really like it a lot: “Hold Me Tight.” Sure, Paul’s out of tune at certain points, but his voice matches the urgency of the handclaps, the insistent riff and Ringo’s drumming. And the three-part harmony, always a strength of the band, sounds great on the “You” choruses.

One of my favorite cover songs on With the Beatles is “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” an old Smoky Robinson & the Miracles song.

This is a case of the band, and producer George Martin (who plays piano on the recording), selecting a great song. It also shows off Harrison’s knack for singing those difficult close harmonies. On most Beatles’ songs sung by Lennon, McCartney usually sang the high harmonies, and Harrison was usually the third part – often close to the melody and much subtler. Here it works (as in the original) as the main harmony. Lennon’s lead vocal is strong and soulful, and Ringo plays nice, odd fills in the bridge.

Ringo gets to show off his pipes on the next number, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Ringo (and George, to a lesser extent) tends to be overlooked, or even scorned, by many folks – both for his drumming and his singing. His crime seems to be that he is not John Lennon or Paul McCartney – just like everyone else who’s ever lived since the dawn of humanity. He’s actually an excellent drummer, and a fun singer, and “I Wanna Be Your Man” shows off both. It starts with a little guitar, and features a nice George solo, later. John and Paul wrote the song but neither loved it very much so they gave it to Ringo to sing. They also gave it to the Rolling Stones, who had a UK hit with it by dirtying it up a bit.

Next the boys are back to their cover-song ways with an obscure song by a group called The Donays, “Devil In Her Heart.” It’s a fine song, and George really does a great job on the lead vocal. Ringo’s fills are nice, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Similarly, John’s composition “Not a Second Time” is a fine song, but isn’t one I turn to very often. The melody is strangely complicated and meandering for a Beatles’ song. McCartney’s bass is great, but I wonder why they chose a piano solo instead of a guitar?

But leave it to The Beatles to finish With the Beatles off with a bang, even if it is a cover song. It became one of their signature songs, even though it had already been a hit for R&B singer Barrett Strong.

I do love the original, but The Beatles do a great job here. Ringo’s eight-beat bass drum gives the song an urgency, and the boys’ harmonies are terrific. It’s a great number that they really made a classic. John’s screams are cool, Paul’s bass notes leading to the chorus are sweet, and it’s simply a classic.

I’m not saying cover songs are bad, or that they should be avoided. In fact, With the Beatles shows that the band can truly play any style – from Broadway to R&B to rock ‘n roll – and make it work. I prefer the band’s albums with more Lennon/McCartney and Harrison songs, but With The Beatles is wonderful, no matter who wrote the songs! And it certainly sold more than the 63 CDs I managed.

TRACK LISTING:
“It Won’t Be Long”
“All I’ve Got to Do”
“All My Loving”
“Don’t Bother Me”
“Little Child”
“Till There Was You”
“Please Mr. Postman”
“Roll Over Beethoven”
“Hold Me Tight”
“You Really Got a Hold On Me”
“I Wanna Be Your Man”
“Devil In Her Heart”
“Not a Second Time”
“Money (That’s What I Want)”

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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.

~~~~

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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