Saturday, July 25, 2009

HELP ME FIND A PLOT FOR THIS MOVIE!



HELP!

1965 was the year that rock music really matured, with stunningly innovative artists coming to prominence. Dylan recorded and released his two best albums, The Stones brought out "Satisfaction", The Who did "My Generation" and listeners got their first taste of The Byrds. This only represents a small portion of the exciting new sounds that were reshaping radio playlists in rock's golden age. The early part of this fabled year saw The Beatles make a fairly contrived second film through a haze of pot smoke (and contractual obligation) while creating music to accompany their latest adventures in celluloid.

Help! (the film) is excruciating.

Help! (the album) is pretty decent.

Rising to the challenge, Lennon and McCartney were well equipped to match or better the work of their contemporaries. Help! benefits from having just two cover tunes (both good ones) and some outstanding new material. Experimentation drives some pieces in startling new directions ("Ticket to Ride", "Yesterday") and even the weaker ones ("It's Only Love", "You Like Me Too Much") have enough charm to get by.

Each group member was now taking on much more of a distinct "personality" on their respective instrument. Early Beatle recordings were mixed down to two tracks, with voices way out in front of the three guitars and drums. This resulted in a situation where individual parts tended to be submerged in the end product. Technology gradually improved, allowing for greater fidelity and a meatier sonic presence for each player. The engineers at EMI prided themselves in their ability to get the best out of the equipment at their disposal, which was still well behind the eight track desks used in top US studios at that time.

McCartney had steadily been earning a reputation as one of the most dextrous bass players in rock, though he was a guitarist first and plays lead on several tracks here. A natural musical "all rounder", he was adept at most anything that he picked up. Lennon would later name him as one of the best bassists ever to grace four strings. Ringo kept a modest public persona, but had a unique style that was widely imitated. The trick was that the Beatles had two lefties in their midst (McCartney being the obvious one) and while Starr set his kit up for a right handed player, it was backwards for him. He could not naturally do rolls from left to right (snare to toms to cymbals), so he would often give the high hat a quick smack with his left hand and then do a triplet roll on the toms. He was not a technician like Buddy Rich but he had a very distinctive approach, especially with his tunings. Harrison was in usual brilliant form and returned to the composing game with two songs. Indispensable to the group sound, his thoughtful, decorative lines were pivotal in some of their greatest achievements. He was no slouch at arranging either, helping Lennon shape some of his most memorable contributions. John was a fine rhythm player, sometimes taking leads and stretched out on keyboards occasionally (as did Paul). He brought some of the most unorthodox musical passages to a workable conclusion and was a much better player than he was given credit for.

Together, they were a force.

Still with me?

Capitol records reached the height of greed with the US issue of Help! Only seven new songs appeared alongside selections composed by Ken Thorne (these amount to nothing more than James Bond-esque instrumental music from the actual movie soundtrack). They then raised the list price of the disc by a dollar, calling it a souvenir from the movie. Essentially, fans got screwed as the executives held back songs to create more fake LPs for the American market.

Never once have I heard anyone say, "Shit, we should listen to 'In the Tyrol" again, Jim."



Crass commercial interest notwithstanding, the UK version has fourteen songs, with the shimmering title track as an opener.



One very noticeable pattern that was emerging with Lennon's work was a shift toward self reference. Now this doesn't mean that he bragged about himself for two or three minutes straight (that would make him a hip hop artist) but rather that he began to reveal a bit more of himself within the framework of composition.

Disclaimer: Far to many writers/critics have over analyzed Mr. L's output and in doing so have come up with some of the most colorful bullshit that has ever been committed to print. Personally, I tend to go with what the man himself had to say about his songs.

With "Help!", he intended to write a slower paced, brooding piece along the lines of Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" with the lyric being a thinly veiled expression of just how much he had sacrificed to become "Beatle John" in a traveling flea circus. It was, in his words, his "Fat Elvis" period where he ate and drank like a pig, while struggling to come to terms with success. McCartney often spoke of the deep insecurities that plagued his partner, despite his talent. Lennon much later said that he resented how the record was cut at a faster tempo in an effort to chart another single and promote the movie. He estimated that "Help!" was one of his most honest Beatle songs and even attempted to recut it on piano in the early 70s. Paul helped arrange those "lead in" backing vocals and that descending, jangling arpeggio riff reportedly caused George major headaches while tracking. All worth it in the end as it's just a remarkable song.

Paul plays lead guitar (harmonized lead at that) on "The Night Before" while Lennon comps away on electric piano. Ringo's snare is cranked up fairly tightly, giving it a fairly sharp sound in the mix. Not quite tin can but it did cut through in a pronounced way on nearly every drum track. He had ordered a deeper, custom made snare from Ludwig and kept it very taut to achieve this.

"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was the first all acoustic Beatle recording, coincidentally cooked up at the same time Dylan was incorporating electric backing while doing Bringing it All Back Home. Influences were flying in both directions across the Atlantic. Lennon's creations remained consistent, scoring high marks for the vocal transitions of "You're Gonna Lose That Girl", with a cutting, trebly Harrison solo on his newly acquired Fender Strat. "Ticket To Ride' is the highlight of the pack. It is a drone, with a neatly chopped drum pattern and fine triplets courtesy of Starr. To me, The Kinks "See My Friends" would take a page from this book (the drone part) and the memorable riff is broken up only by the excellent bridge. McCartney plays the lead breaks and provides sterling high harmony throughout. The lyric would be the cause of speculation as to the meaning and got Lennon tagged as a misogynistic cynic. It is a very heavy record for its time, keeping them in step with the crop of serious virtuosos that began to leave their mark on the mid sixties scene.



Side two of Help! begins with a very shrewd cover of the 1963 Buck Owens hit, "Act Naturally". It was an inspired last minute replacement for the the dreadful "If You've Got Trouble", which collected dust in the EMI tape archive until 1995.

Working quickly, McCartney adds stellar Nashville harmony to Starr's vocal showcase, while George executes some very authentic, chicken-fried licks. These guys skipped effortlessly amongst genres, though I think they may be one of the most underrated practitioners of early country rock. This is definitely where their affinities had always lain (especially Starr) and where they often gravitated when jamming together.

There are few better examples than this.



Paul McCartney continued to develop his craft in the most surprising fashion. He was de facto band whip and generally had a much better grasp of what he wanted to hear in the finished product than the others did. His guiding hand would fashion the drum part for "Ticket to Ride", steer the band through the rough spots in pulling "Help!" (the song) together and produce thoughtful, rock solid bass lines for all that he touched. Just watch any video of the band playing live and you'll see him all over the count ins, often signaling Ringo by shaking the neck of his bass to indicate transitions and endings.

His definitive moment on Help! comes with "Yesterday". Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Beatle history knows this song and will either write it off completely or see it as a modern standard. So why do people gravitate toward this selection, despite having heard it so many times? Simply because it is a very unorthodox piece of writing, as the main melodic phrase is seven measures long. This plays havoc with most listeners expectations as most pop/rock music is divided into either the four or eight measure phrase unit. When he got his first taste of marijuana, McCartney was filled with the revelatory thoughts that generally occur to novice smokers. He insisted that Mal Evans take dictation as he at once had found the key answer to the meaning of life. When he looked at what was transcribed the next day, he saw one sentence that read:

"There are seven levels"

Bizarre indeed, though it is seven measures that make "Yesterday" so compelling. The strings (scored for a quartet by George Martin) add another dimension to the recording. At Paul's insistence, no vibrato was to be employed as the session players executed their parts. This was a masterstroke, keeping things from getting overly soppy. Again, this is the most covered song (next to Happy Fuckin' Birthday) in the history of pop and one that sealed McCartney's reputation as a composer of some depth and versatility. That it was buried on side two as merely an album track just seems incredible. It did get forty-fived in the US and went to number one.

Needless to say, it appealed to a wide age demographic.



He also hit paydirt with a fresh, almost bluegrass concoction called "I've Just Seen a Face" that he saw fit to drag into the mid 70s Wings set list. It is a great tune that does wonders to pick up the pace as the LP heads toward the finish line. "Another Girl" is the sleeper in the bunch as it has a catchy melody and goes to a surprising C major in the bridge. It also features Paul on lead guitar. Harrison gets two numbers in, "I Need You" being the best, although he had yet to come up to the standard set by Lennon/McCartney. He would soon begin to turn out very thoughtful work though he received little encouragement for his initial forays into writing.

John kept up his fascination with Larry Williams by shouting "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" to close out the disc.



I dislike posting anything from the '65 Shea Stadium show, as this may be one of their poorest live performances. They just could not hear anything. What you generally get is an audio reconstruction of their parts taken from overdubbing sessions done in January 1966. This is certainly not representative of what they actually played that night, as it would have been a real mess. I threw it in because Ringo completely turns the beat around to start and the others whip around as if to say "What the hell is going on??!!??" No fault of his as he can't hear them. They manage the trainwreck, though what you see and hear are two completely different deals.

In short, it's fake.

Enjoyable on many levels, Help! could be viewed as the project where they made peace with the past and began an incredible cycle where they would push back all previous boundaries. Never again would they wax other people's songs to fill out their LPs. Not even the most optimistic follower would be prepared for the landmark album that they would deliver next.

Three songs on Help! had the working titles of: Auntie Gin's Theme, That's A Nice Hat and Scrambled Eggs. What did each become?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TIRED YET FOR SALE



BEATLES FOR SALE

Just one look at the cover of their fourth offering and it's obvious to anyone that these guys all have the "100 mile stare" going. Even the title seems uninspired. Pressure in the form of making a deadline (the lucrative Christmas sales season) saw the powers that be squeezing an album out of the overworked quartet. You can audibly detect fatigue in some of the final product. Points come off for retreating into recording covers to fill out the disc, with only two out of those six having any real potency.

To their credit, they still managed to break some new ground with their own material.

George Martin: "They were rather war-weary during Beatles for Sale. One must remember that they'd been battered like mad throughout '64, and much of '63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring."

Fair enough.

Before getting into the particulars, it's worth mentioning that many of the songs found here represent my very first encounter with Beatle music. My parents copy of "Beatles '65" fell into my hands when I was five. I had no concept of who they were, though very fond memories were created by spinning this record endlessly on the little beige, monophonic suitcase record player that my sister and I shared/fought over. I loved every note and feel very lucky to have had this come into my life at such an early age. I was hooked.

My grandmother had told me that it was bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. Studying the album cover, I figured that these guys were screwed.



Only later on would I come to realize that this LP was merely the product of the very shrewd marketing group at Capitol Records. The other tunes that didn't make "Beatles '65" were pilfered to create another US release called "Beatles VI". Imagination was in short supply, though you can't fault their business sense.

Back in their home country, Beatles For Sale hit the shops in November 1964, preceded by the hit single, "I Feel Fine" (with "She's A Woman" on the flip side). Before anyone had thought to give it a name, these guys were playing an unmistakable brand of country-rock. Their Merseyside version of hillbilly inflected twang colored many of the tracks here, though their versatility kept them from complete immersion in this style. Makes perfect sense to me, as country and western music was quite prevalent in Liverpool prior to the earth shattering changes wrought by American rock and roll acts of the mid to late fifties. This was much closer to their tastes than the blues, which they never seemed to gravitate toward on record, save for later parodies of the form. ("Yer Blues, "For You Blue")

Based on the riff in Bobby Parker's "Watch Your Step", "I Feel Fine" kicked off with guitar feedback, excellent harmonies and sounded about three summers ahead of everything else on the radio at that time. Ringo's drum pattern is pretty sharp. Lively, inventive ride cymbal work, interspersed with rim shots is broken up with an offbeat on the toms. "She's A Woman" is a fantastic McCartney rock tune and he throws the lead vocal from the back of his throat, slightly off mic. These amazing leaps forward should have kicked two of the weaker covers off the LP. Revisionist viewpoint, granted, though it would have made the disc stronger.



One very different aspect that comes into play with these selections is the morose nature of the subject matter. Women don't call back ("No Reply"), stand you up on dates ("I Don't Want to Spoil the Party") pine away for dead lovers ("Baby' In Black") or generally piss you off ("What You're Doing").

Kind of makes you feel bad about yourself, doesn't it? ("I'm a Loser")

Pull yourself together and watch this.



Definitely one of the best covers they ever did. Along with "Rock and Roll Music", they nailed it in one take. Things were still coming easy in the studio and sessions were productive, sometimes seeing several songs completed in one marathon working day. With all due respect to Chuck Berry, Lennon's version is at least equal to the original, which is amazing considering that he sang it at the end of an 8-9 hour recording blitz. George Martin's piano is positively inspired.

Someone should have set fire to the master tape of "Mr. Moonlight". "Leave My Kitten Alone" would have been a vastly superior substitute.

Now the music that they wrote for inclusion here is fantastic and I would put the bridge of "No Reply" in the dictionary next to excitement. Dynamic vocals were always their specialty and the driving kick supplied by the handclaps boost the track. Still get goosebumps when that part comes up. Heavy tape echo gives the both the harmonies and piano a spacey feel, too. Apparently, the guitar intro to "Baby's In Black" moved George Martin to ask if they actually wanted to do it that way. He was wise enough to step back from imposing his will with certain ideas that were presented. This is an excellent line from George's Gretsch that frames a somewhat bizarre (but great), waltz time country number. It held a place in their live set through to Candlestick Park.

The lovely aroma of left handed cigarettes had by now made its way into their routine, courtesy of Bob Dylan. Lennon began to turn his hand toward a similar type of writing style, though he kept his impressions from becoming obscene. Only a slight trace of the Dylanesque vocal mannerism is found in the clean harmonies of "I'm A Loser", complete with more tasteful, rockabilly guitar lines from Harrison. Lyrically, it was interesting to hear a huge pop star take a self depreciating turn.



"Eight Days a Week" is another hit single that just happens to be thrown casually on side two. The innovative fade up to start really builds momentum and must have given first time listeners a surprise after carefully dropping the needle. Ringing guitars swell steadily in volume until the cymbal crash kicks off the verse in what would become another incredibly infectious number one song in the US. "I Don't Want To Spoil the Party" is pure country with an immaculate guitar solo. It was originally written for Ringo to sing and is a direct successor to "I'll Cry Instead". Another winner is the Lennon sung (but McCartney written) "Every Little Thing", which harks back to the structures built around 12 string found on Hard Day's Night and boasts one of the classiest, economic solos in the Beatles catalog.

Beatles For Sale contains some of their most ambitious and clumsy work. Carl Perkins' bank account was probably better off for the two tunes that landed in wax here ("Honey Don't", "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby") but their attempts are flat-footed, which was rare for the group."I'll Follow the Sun" comes up a bit short and it's not hard to tell that it dates back to McCartney's early attempts at song writing. Certainly not trying to be harsh, as I feel quite a strong connection to some of these songs, but this is the only set in their discography that I would radically alter in content.




Again, this is subjective and the fact that they managed to complete sixteen tunes for issue while maintaining an extremely hectic work schedule is pretty impressive. Keep in mind, this is four full length albums in two years, not counting singles.
1965 would usher in radical changes on many fronts.

"No Reply" was lyrically based on a 1957 hit for a US group. Name both song and artist.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

MAKING MOVIES



A HARD DAYS NIGHT

Wouldn't be a great stretch to say that the brightest star of A Hard Days Night (album) is Harrison's Rickenbacker 360/12. Playing a central role in the exciting new sounds that colored the Beatles output in 1964 (and beyond), the 12-string jangle not only inspired Roger McGuinn to electrify the acoustic folk he had been steeped in but also helped to form hundreds of bands in its wake.

When Walter Shenson was questioned about why he wanted to produce a movie with four non actors, his quick reply was, "for the soundtrack album percentages." Now that's candor. Sure enough, United Artists dutifully released the disc in the US with the seven tunes from the film plus "I'll Cry Instead" and four orchestrated instrumentals conducted and arranged by George Martin. They made a small fortune.



The proper version, released in the UK in July of 1964, contains thirteen tunes, all composed by Lennon/McCartney. None of their contemporaries, with the exception of Bob Dylan, had done such a thing. Better yet, their sonic progression continued at an astonishing rate.

Could there be any better evidence of this than that startling opening chord? Authoritative, though no one seems to agree on its exact label. G7add9sus4, G7sus4, G11sus4, Dm7sus4 and Fadd9 have all been suggested by those with time on their hands. The effect is remarkable, continuing their tradition of powerful album intros. Aside from auditory impact, the song also conjures up the image of the four running away from an hysterical crowd of girls in a sequence that has been parodied many times in the intervening years. Written by Lennon, he and McCartney trade off on lead vocals (McCartney takes the bridge) and utilize those iron clad harmonies in the chorus. George Martin doubles the solo on piano, while Ringo drives the song aided by forceful, on beat cowbell and other percussive madness. It is the musical equivalent of a lightning strike with a flawlessly picked 12 string outro to fade. On these strengths, the Beatles were the first group to simultaneously nail down the number one album and single slots on both sides of the Atlantic.



Romanticism would be the overall theme of the selections found on A Hard Days Night. They pull it off without getting trapped in overt sentimentality, perhaps because they lean on their talents as a dynamic rock band who happen to be indulging in a few mid tempo ballads. Speaking of which, they don't come any better than "If I Fell", which employs a mouthful of chords and has a tricky high harmony part that McCartney reportedly had some issues with before nailing it. George provides the decorative icing on the cake on what I would nominate as one of Lennon's most impressive early works.



Feeling the competitive urge to match (or surpass) his partner, McCartney effortlessly turns in "Can't Buy Me Love" with the massive hook placed directly in front that sent it sailing to the top of the charts. Slightly sloppy guitar solo from Mr. H, though it gave the album a great boost of energy. They were still cutting records pretty fast, which also added urgency to the track. Possessing one of rock's most versatile voices, he also came up with the stunning "And I Love Her" that contains a haunting melody, delicate playing from everyone and rich minor chords with a key modulation from that perfect nylon stringed guitar solo. His crowning achievement here is "Things We said Today", which strikes a perfect balance between arrangement and thoughtful lyrics. The absolute masterstroke is the sudden shift to major chords in the bridge, immediately lifting the song out of an introspective funk and putting it in a very mature class owing entirely to its fine structure. It was quickly added to their live set.

Strong on all counts, the only weak link of the pack is "When I Get Home". It really seems like a knock off and is not particularly interesting when juxtaposed with the gems that surround it.



Lennon definitely dominated the writing at this point. Stylistically, the country feel of "I'll Cry Instead" pointed toward the direction of Beatles For Sale, though it is the closer that is really worthy of praise. "I'll Be Back" has no discernible chorus, a subtle acoustic hook and spot on two part harmonies from John and Paul. Incredibly, it bears no resemblance to anything else on A Hard Days Night and gives the listener a glimpse of the artistic depths that were waiting to be explored within the restless mind of one John Lennon.

Deserving of every superlative voiced by those with the ability to appreciate their gifts, Lennon and McCartney were now regarded as being in a class of their own. Virtually without peer, the most covered and prolific song writing partnership of the sixties would embark on a journey that would astound even their most hardened critics.

The film was pretty good, too.





What was the working title given to the film before "A Hard Days Night" was chosen?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

THE FOLLOW UP



WITH THE BEATLES

What could feel better than having your first album hit # 1?

Having your second record replace it at the top of the charts and stay there for 21 weeks. Yes, it's number one, it's top of the pops, for 52 consecutive weeks.

With The Beatles is one of the crowning achievements of early sixties pop. Released just a scant eight months (to the day) after Please Please Me, it represents a massive step forward for the group in composition, arrangement and overall quality. EMI was pretty happy to see these guys stroll through the door by now. "From Me To You" and "She Loves You" were huge hit singles and the first LP was still selling by the truckload. Certainly, this outing benefitted from having more studio time allotted, though it was still completed very quickly by today's standards.

Those half shaded, non smiling faces on the jacket represented another step toward artistic merit in presentation. Robert Freeman took the iconic photo that the group members loved and management hated. It was thought that pop stars should radiate mindless good cheer, with no traces of seriousness to spoil the party. Equally bland and stupid were the "liner notes" found on releases of that era. (Very little substance and many exclamation marks cluttered the cardboard) Revolution in design format would be greatly influenced by such happy accidents as this cover shot.

Enthusiasm, coupled with ensemble handclaps, drives the shouted chorus of "It Won't be Long". Coming out swinging, those famous harmonized "yeahs" in response to the lead get even more intense with quick octave jumps. Tying the whole thing together is a typically Harrisonoid guitar figure that he would later recycle (and reshape) for his own "What Is Life". These subtle additions always raised the game and Lennon was wise to welcome the input. Notice how a dizzying array of styles are tightly packed into two exciting minutes, ending with nice minor sevenths.

"All I've Got to Do" owes a debt to the R & B/soul sides that were a main staple of their listening diet. Lennon was on a roll, this being no exception. Clumsy transitions to bridges that didn't quite fit (think "Ask me Why") were replaced by the smooth and effortless changes heard here. Paul turns in an instant standard with "All My Loving" and instead of being released as a blockbuster single, it merely takes a slot with the rest of the pack. Any other group would have been featuring a song like this on 45. Just another track for these guys. The performance here really shows their strengths as a live act. Harrison's solo is note perfect as are the harmonies.



There was now a third song writing member in the fold as Harrison contributed "Don't Bother Me". Beginner's luck notwithstanding, this was a solid effort with tricky changes, a startling solo and more than worthy of inclusion here. Crediting Paul with claves was a little much, though. They were mixed way too high. (At this point, the camera is pulled upward with the "crane shot" catching McCartney on his knees, screaming toward the heavens in the pouring rain. The claves roll slowly and silently away from him, into the gutter.)

Use percussion instruments responsibly!

Covers were present in the same ratio as the previous set with "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" and "Money" being the strongest. Ringo's drum fills in the former were exceptional as is Lennon's vocal, while they completely tear the original version of "Money" to pieces and make it their own. The live take from Sweedish radio in October 1963 is HEAVY. Seriously brilliant for its time. Paul's re-arrangement of "Til There Was You" is fine with Charlie Byrd's influence hanging over those impeccably played guitars. No wonder parents approved.



Weak spots are few: "Hold Me Tight" (uncharacteristically flat vocals) and "Devil in Her Heart" (boring cover). Now, this could have been fixed with some retakes and perhaps "This Boy" could have simply replaced one of these. The Brits had an issue with including singles on long players, so "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (backed with "This Boy") were made available in single format only. Hard to imagine that now, though the reasoning was that you were paying for music you already shelled out hard earned quid for.

Everything here just exudes energy, while musicianship and craft were razor sharp. They were still capable of magical, one take performances, though more time was allowed for post session fixes and multiple attempts. Four tracks were now available to fill, making it easier to develop instrumental personality. Better when you can hear what's going on with each part in the mix.

One of the four best albums that they ever made.



Their next step was to bring the party to US audiences. Prior to their historic Atlantic crossing in the winter of 1964, one Beatle had already visited the States. Who was it?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

THE DEBUT



PLEASE PLEASE ME

Did you ever try to take a picture of a large crowd of people with an outdated, cheap camera? Without access to an adjustable, wide angle lens, and no tripod to steady the shot, you would expect to lose quite a bit of detail in the final product. On the plus side, you have captured an important moment in time with the only equipment available. The result is oddly beautiful, despite technical shortcomings.

Please Please Me is the aural version of that snapshot.

Before they entered the domain of mass consciousness, The Beatles had spent countless hours honing their skills, playing in dives for next to nothing. Plenty of their contemporaries in Liverpool were doing the same, though they weren't writing their own material. When fate finally smiled on the quartet, a record deal was struck and two self penned singles ("Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me") emerged with "Please Please Me" hitting number one on the British charts.

EMI saw dollar signs and decided to squeeze an album out of the upstart group before the fickle record buying audience turned their attention to some other distraction. George Martin assembled the quartet with the intention to record ten more songs, live off the floor.

In one day!

These days, finding the right mic for the kick drum might take ten hours of a session. The Beatles walked away with their first LP in the can in the same time frame. One factor was budget (non-existent) and the other was recording process. Generally, everyone was in the same room, with some separation (baffling for the drums) and you had to have your act together. If you screwed up a take, you simply had to start again. Post session editing and overdubbing was possible, though not welcome when dealing with a 2 track recording console/mixing desk.

Anyone who subscribes to "the Beatles couldn't play" philosophy should really do some homework. Very few mistakes were made by the four during this very punishing session. McCartney was especially pro, playing bass notes in quavers and singing lead or harmony vocals simultaneously. Lennon and Harrison were suffering through colds. Can you imagine being sick and having to step up to do vocals all day? Out of these arduous circumstances, history was made.

Kicking in the door with an energetic count-in, "I Saw Her Standing There" grabs the listener immediately with an intensity that strikes from all angles. Heavy, driving beat, excellent guitar work (Harrison's solo in particular) and those iron clad, Everly Brothers influenced harmonies top an excellent performance. McCartney employs the exact bass line from Chuck Berry's "I'm Talkin' Bout You" in delivering this classic. It ranks with "Shakin' All Over" as a towering example of early British rock. Superb choice to open the album. "Misery" is a minor piece of work, though the enthusiasm in the vocal harmonies manages to make it seem more interesting than it actually is.

Strong on spontaneity, the songs are ragged in places though this only adds to the charm. Always masterful in their picks when covering material, they dutifully run through "Chains" and "Boys", which were originally performed by female singers ("Girl Groups", The Cookies and The Shirelles respectively). Quirky in their tastes, concentrated effort was made not to do things that were well known. Obscure B-sides by US acts often found a home amongst their set lists. The strongest interpretations, by far, are "Baby it's You" and the monstrous "Twist and Shout".

The idiosyncratic "Please Please Me" with its call and response harmony vocals, massive hook and impeccable playing had already scored as a single. "There's A Place" looks forward to the more introspective side that Lennon would eventually incorporate in his compositions. You can really hear the vocals chords beginning to wear on this one, yet the delivery is entirely committed. It's an excellent song.



Some misfires are present. Covering "A Taste of Honey" prefigures the schmaltzy side of McCartney and "Do You Want to Know a Secret" suffers from a weak lead vocal. This is all forgivable considering the deadlines imposed, though.

Just when it seemed that everyone's batteries were running low, they rallied to blast out an absolutely devastating version of the Isley Brothers "Twist and Shout". Ringo's bricklayer hands pound the drums mercilessly, while the violence of Lennon's vocal is supported by stellar harmonies from Paul and George, who holler encouragement and push the climactic three part buildups way over the top. It's a one take revelation that surpasses just about everything here and slams the record shut with an authoritative force.



Critics take note: When you listen to this, keep in mind that much of what you hear is live, without recourse to fakery. Ensemble playing gives everything an extra boost, though it's a shame that this wasn't captured on a four or eight track machine. Given the primitive technology, it still sounds damn good, with particular hats off to George Martin and his engineers/tape ops. The stereo mixes are pretty sharp, though it was widely distributed in a mono format. (The Ultra Rare Trax bootleg series gave collectors a huge shock when they hit the streets in the 80s. Pristine alternate takes of these songs in stereo sounded far better than the official releases)

Explosive for its era, nothing like this had come out of any studio in Britain up to this point. Please Please Me hit stores on March 22, 1963 and met with resounding commercial success in the UK. The first chapter in the history of this storied band took flight.

Music was about to change, with the Beatles in the vanguard of a movement that would see Pop morph into Rock.



Trivia: Name the two UK artists who covered songs from this album back in '63? (Name the tunes, too.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

09-09-09



Two months from today, EMI will be re-releasing the entire catalogue of a venerable 1960s group. Girls screamed for them, parents loved their harmonies and young men ironed their shirts twice in an attempt to copy their idols' manner of dress.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Kingston Trio! (cue insane amount of applause)



Why aren't you cheering? "Tic Tic Tic" is one of the greatest songs known to humankind.

The Beatles were pretty good, too.

The voices of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr are as familiar to me as those of family members. At age five, Beatles '65 was one of the first records I had and I listened to it endlessly until it was scratched beyond playability.

Ramping up to the momentous date of 09/09/09, it seems only right to feature all of their records from Please Please Me through to Let It Be. With two months of time allotted to complete this task, I'm looking forward to some great listening/blogging sessions.

For anyone that actually looks in on my ramblings, please feel free to name your top five favorite Beatle albums, their absolute worst song and what the original title was for the Abbey Road LP.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

FREE



FIRE AND WATER

Free had two albums under their belt by 1970, both of which were solid yet not commercial bonanzas for the group. Prodigiously talented, the individual members carved distinct, well defined parts for each of the seven tracks that comprised "Fire and Water". Paul Rogers and bassist Andy Fraser shared the bulk of the writing duties (Paul Kossoff contributed to two songs, Simon Kirke snagged a credit for "Mr. Big") While not as heavy as the previous releases, the third disc contained a secret weapon which would come to be their biggest hit, push them to fame and cause a quick implosion.

You have seen the Isle of Wight version a million times. Here's an early TV performance from 1969.



For those of you that have been living in a remote area without electricity for your entire life and have decided to shave your beard, come down the mountain and trade in your hunting knife for an ipod, that was "All Right Now" by the rock band, Free.

I'm here all week.

All at once, Free had a huge following, a monster hit and it completely wrecked them. Some cried "sell-out", while the majority expected them to do this type of song repeatedly. They didn't (nor should they have). In fact, they kind of went in the direction of The Band on their next LP (Highway).

Now it's really a shame that these guys were not given more serious attention for their efforts at that time. Rogers brought soaring, gritty soul to every note he sang, while Kossoff showed an improvisational brilliance on lead guitar with great taste and tone. More than a few notable musicians have cited Fraser as a very big influence on bass and Kirke is a legendary timekeeper. You have to love his solo on the outro of the title track, though it is faded out sharply on the record.

So influential, such a distinct sound. "Mr. Big" is a fine example of their collective strengths, with no one overplaying and each instrumentalist laying down very clean, effective lines. Listen to that bass! Though it's a model of simplicity, emphasizing the groove, he still makes it interesting with quick runs high on the fretboard.



Moodier fare like "Oh I Wept" and the piano driven "Heavy Load" add another dimension to the proceedings and help vary the pace. Kossoff brings that signature vibrato to his solos, decorating the arrangements with great fluidity and never wearing out his welcome.

Truly untouchable on stage, the quartet deserved to be one of the biggest acts of the seventies. Poised for bigger things, Kossoff suddenly became disenchanted with the musical direction taken and increasingly debilitated by drug intake, Rogers and Fraser simply fell out. Only one more studio project was completed with the original four members before the partnership disintegrated. Fraser left, Rogers and Kirke would go on to form Bad Company and Kossoff, sadly, died from his excesses in 1976.

Fire and Water still stands up as a powerful set, worthwhile on every level.