Saturday, August 29, 2009
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
When John, Paul, George and Ringo fastened their Santa beards and crept down the chimney pots of their British listeners in December of 1967, they deposited a large hunk of coal called "Magical Mystery Tour" into carefully hung stockings. This six song, seven inch EP, which featured a 24 page booklet, was ill-starred (except for the cover, where you'll find a shit load of them) half-baked (unlike the band members at this juncture) and quite a let down following Pepper.
Disclaimer: If you're a super fan and believe that every note that these guys recorded was brilliant, you may want to stop reading now.
Splendid! For the rest of you, our story begins on page 7 or 8.
Out of the featured soundtrack songs designed for the Mystery Tour, only two come up to the usual high standard set by the group. Worthy of only passing mention, the others fall well below the mark. Let's rip off that band-aid quickly, so that we may continue on a more positive note.
“Magical Mystery Tour” : Works well as an introduction to the movie, but is fairly pointless out of context. The outro bit in the fade should have been developed into something more substantial as it is light years more inspired than the "forced" fanfare that precedes it. Recorded at the tail end of the Sgt. Pepper sessions.
“Flying” : The unedited version, which runs for nearly ten minutes is worth at least one run through. It evolved out of Lennon's extended mellotron experiments. He would get stoned and come up with pleasing sounds. Inoffensive, it performs it’s function as accompaniment to that spectacular aerial footage in the film, though it has little value otherwise.
“Blue Jay Way" : Pleeeeeeeze don’t beeeeeee long.
“Your Mother Should Know” – Why stop with mom? Everyone should be warned, just to be safe.
Before we get to the obvious stand out tracks, it must be stated that there are underlying reasons for the paucity of solid material found here. One contributing factor to this uncharacteristic sloppiness was the fact that they were not getting together and playing as a group. Over indulgence in psychedelic drugs played a large role in the loss of critical decision making when it came to what was deemed fit for public consumption. Pot and acid slow the mind down and from this perspective, much of what is actually quite ordinary can seem fascinating. Lennon was dosing himself regularly, headed down a very dangerous path toward mental dissolution. He was very fortunate to be possessed of a strong mind and self-righting mechanism. Most people would have permanently blasted off to another dimension, giggling all the way.
Acid casualties were par for the course at this point, many becoming totally unhinged by the drug. Syd Barrett would flame out after completing one spectacular LP with Pink Floyd,. Skip Spence, the driving force behind Moby Grape, got behind some bad LSD and tried to kill one of his band mates with an axe. Following incarceration in a psychiatric ward, he never returned to any semblance of normalcy.
Suffice to say that the merry, communal feeling experienced by the group while under a lysergic spell led to haphazard decisions. Brian Epstein, the guiding hand that they had depended upon to make the trains run on time was in sorry shape. His personal decline and pharmaceutical habits culminated in his accidental death at the tender age of 32. His passing shook the group to the core and their return to business shortly after was bound to be clouded by grief and shock.
Consequently, the rush to occupy themselves by making an offbeat, do it yourself type film with a few musical interludes
would yield mixed results. Oddly enough, I actually like the movie quite a bit. When viewed in the right state of mind, parts of it are quite funny (sometimes unintentionally) and certain scenes prefigure the silliness that would fuel Monty Python's Flying Circus. The music works a bit better when married to the corresponding colorful segments, though it's still paper thin when compared to the rest of their sparkling output.
Two truly excellent songs were along for the ride on the "Mystery Tour". Paul wrote "Fool on the Hill" back in the spring of '67, and demoed it that September, prior to the proper recording, with some noticeable gaps in the lyrics. Transitioning between D 6th and D minor, the melody is engaging, augmented by flutes and a recorder. Instantly accessible, the delicate arrangement is as subtle as sunrise, breaking out only during the instrumental sections. Employing a literary device that has been the cornerstone of many classics, McCartney's "fool" is perpetually misunderstood and much wiser than the people who pass judgement upon him. Typical of his style, the universal theme is open ended enough to take on any number of interpretations.
What does it mean?
Intrepid souls began to more frequently ask this question with respect to rock music in the late sixties. Dylan's transition toward more oblique and surreal wordplay in 1965 sent many scrambling to rummage through his garbage, intent on cracking the "code" that he'd carefully constructed within his lyrics. Lennon and the others appreciated such jokes and soon began to write in a similar pseudo cryptic fashion.
Upon reading a letter from a boy at his old grammar school (Quarry Bank) who said that they were dissecting Beatle songs in English class, he felt a pang of hostility that arose from having the same head masters write him off as a talentless disrupter while he was a student there.
Inspired by hearing a police siren (the two note UK version) while poking around on piano, he began to form what would become of his most bizarre (but brilliant) compositions. "I Am the Walrus" was lyrically constructed by placing a sheet of paper in a typewriter and adding random lines whenever the mood struck. Childhood friend Pete Shotton was tripping with him one evening and they hit upon an old rhyme that they would recite as school boys. "Yellow matter custard, green slop pie/all mixed together witha dead dog's eye"
"Let the fuckers work that one out, Pete," snapped Lennon as he modified the line and quickly added it.
Be warned, though. If you have listened to these lyrics in the past and merely dismissed them as nonsense, you are in for a surprise. The range of inside jokes and references piled into the scattershot wordplay is pretty impressive. All apologies to those who don tin foil helmets, as there are no messages about dead band mates (Paul), the meaning of life or any memos directed to you personally.
I’m watching you, though.
Now that we’ve scared that crowd off, let’s find out what Mr. Lennon was really going on about.
The Walrus begins with a gentle restatement of the philosophy that all in nature is somehow interconnected.(I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together). Genuinely interested in Harrison ’s increasing immersion in East Indian music and culture, Lennon shared an affinity with his attempt to find alternative spiritual avenues. Similar empathic expression runs through the work of Roger Waters, the best example being found in the opening passages of “Echoes” (Strangers passing in the street /By chance two separate glances meet/And I am you and what I see is me). Psychedelics bring the sensation of interaction with every molecule to the enlightened mind, which is why most people are profoundly changed by their experiences with the drug.
Disclaimer: This is entirely dependent on what intellectual level the prospective user is on before introducing another chemical to their brain. Even then, there are no guarantees of a revelatory, thought provoking trip.
Despite the warm introduction, the author takes the opportunity to use this remarkable piece as a vehicle for an extremely vitriolic rant against all of the institutions that he had grown up within and had come to resent. Great Britain’s emphasis on class and social bearing has long been established and how you spoke, your occupation and family history either helped you or kept you in your place. Societal hierarchy is blasted, with shots fired at poet Allen Ginsberg, the Hare Krishna movement, Dylan, intellectual pretension, the educational system, art, culture, the law, religion...Shit, the list is endless.
"Fuck you, England" would have actually been a more apt title.
In addition to very liquid sounding strings, the Mike Sammes Singers add whooping, laughing and chanting throughout. ("Everybody's got one", "Stick it up your jumper"-these lines are teased to sound like "Everybody smoke pot" though these words are not actually sung) The final word comes from a live broadcast of King Lear on BBC's Third Programme. The death scene from the play can be heard crackling in the mix toward the end as it was patched straight into the board during an overdubbing session. If a kitchen sink could have been dropped onto the final master, I'm quite sure that they would have made room.
Lennon in 1980: "The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend... I'd seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words "Element'ry penguin" meant that it's näive to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.
"It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles' work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, 'I am the carpenter.' But that wouldn't have been the same, would it?"
I would rank this in the top five out of anything that he'd ever written.
Prior to launching the Mystery Tour on disc in the States, Capitol Records president, Alan Livingston, must have woken from a dream in which he was visited by three ghosts, because the US version actually added music. Featuring all of their 1967 singles, plus the six MMT tunes, it was marketed as a full length album.
So it’s Capitol Records to the rescue! Yay! Giving this time instead of taking, they still bombed the assignment by not using the stereo masters. Cheating, they employed a process termed as “electronically reprocessed stereo” in which certain frequencies are split across the channels (lows on one side, mids and highs on the other) to give the impression of full stereo. Bottom line? It doesn’t sound very good.
The German issue of MMT is in proper stereo.
Reminder: the US MMT album is more or less a compilation deal and was not specifically crafted by the group. The singles were quite good and really helped to prop up the project. "Baby You're a Rich Man" has a great groove, fantastic vocals, exceptional bass work and a positive feel. Recorded in just six hours at Olympic Studios, it hits the spot from a technical standpoint but falls apart as a cohesive song. The verse and chorus don't really work with one another.
An invitation to represent Britain and perform a new song, live, for a program called “Our World” momentarily snapped them to attention. This was to be broadcast worldwide in one of the first satellite transmissions of its kind. Having not played in front of an audience for almost a year, they knew that a great deal of preparation would be involved to avoid a monumental train wreck in front of millions of viewers. When a hard deadline for the “Our World” live satellite broadcast reared its head, they momentarily reverted to type, polishing and preparing a new Lennon tune called “All You Need Is Love”
On the surface, the smattering of music that the group produced in the summer/fall of ’67 seems to represent a bit of a holding operation in the Beatles camp. Having thrown every ounce of energy into the production of Sgt. Pepper, there wasn’t much left in the tank. Under some of the most pressure filled circumstances, the group produced top quality material in a very short period. Given a break from the grind, they were now frittering their time away with 22 minute drum tracks and writing throwaway garbage like “All Together Now”, “It’s All Too Much”, “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and the weak cuts that made it to the Magical Mystery Tour EP. The team that had once carefully sweated over every line and bar in their songs were now turning out the worst kind of lazy, stoned nursery rhymes and getting away with it.
Fortunately, this situation didn't stand.
Stumbling momentarily, the Mystery Tour is a bit of a blight on their wonderful catalog of music. Going into the new year, the main writers would revive their creativity by taking a different kind of trip.
Who was actually in that Walrus costume on the cover? Was the Mystery Tour film screened in the US in 1967?
Sunday, August 23, 2009
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
According to the Python troupe, when we die, we pass into a glorious technicolor paradise where eternity is spent celebrating "Christmas in Heaven". For the Beatles, metaphorical death occurred with the release of Revolver and the decision to stop touring.
Sgt. Pepper represents their rebirth.
Look at the cover. Wax models of the “old Beatles” stand amongst the assembled crowd of faces, almost as if they are ushers at a memorial service. They appear to be paying their respects, yet somehow are eerily attending their own funeral.
Alongside them, in the flesh, a brand new incarnation of the group takes center stage. Proudly holding brass instruments, dressed in loud, bright uniforms, they stand around a logo that identifies them as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the duration of this groundbreaking collection, they take on the guise of this colorful aggregation.
Surely, the meaning wasn’t lost on the quartet when they looked at the final proofs and saw the crowd, the flower arrangements and the word BEATLES carefully spelled out in what looks to be freshly turned, loose dirt. It’s not hard to imagine them staring at Peter Blake’s work through thick a cloud of smoke and smiling at the result.
Strip away all of the pretentious dissections of the LP and the “meaning” behind its conception and you’ll find that it all comes down to one key element:
Lennon: "We have been Beatles as best we ever will be-those four jolly lads. But we're not those people anymore."
Only if the LP had been released at Easter could things have played out any better.
Did they really plan all of this? Not from the larger perspective that some fanatics imagined. The initial goal was to write a collection of songs that touched on their childhood in Liverpool. Each selection would be designed so that it would be impossible to reproduce live. Once completed, the album would be the object that went on a tour of the world as an ambassador for the group, letting the music communicate their ideas to a waiting audience. The "Pepper" character was not yet on the radar.
Before delving into the specifics of the whole “Pepper episode”, as George Martin referred to it, let's revisit the events that led to the creation of one of the most influential discs in rock music.
Transitory periods involving established contemporary artists can sometimes run several years. Generally, a live album or greatest hits package is designed so that contracts may be fulfilled and fans have something to throw their hard earned money at while they wait for the release of new material. Free at last to develop their “masterpiece”, the hiatus begins with an expectation that the next project will surpass all previous efforts. This is true for only a handful of bands these days, though.
In the sixties, there were precious little time that could be wasted without having something in front of the record buying public. If you waited too long, listeners moved on to the “next big thing.”
Consider, for a moment, the staggering output that the Beatles provided to EMI in just four years: Seven albums, each containing 14 songs, 13 singles and countless EPs, one of which ("Long Tall Sally") contained material not found on LP or 45. All except one ("Love Me Do" in the UK) went to number one and sold in the millions.
Imagine the corporate reaction as this seemingly perpetual money and hit making machine decided to down tools and actually take the time to create at their own pace.
The fighting unit that had accomplished so much in such a short time was temporarily disbanded. John’s commitment to a bit part in Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War” was the main cause for the break, although the others took the opportunity to indulge in extra curricular pursuits as well. (Ringo accompanied John to Spain to “hang out” during the movie shoot) Paul and George Martin cooked up music for the soundtrack to a British film called “The Family Way”, while Harrison went to India to study sitar with virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
For the first and only time, they missed having anything on store shelves for the lucrative Christmas buying frenzy. In the UK, EMI released "A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!)", which amounted to a "best of" set. The only new song was "Bad Boy" another Larry Williams cover tune that had already been thrown on "Beatles VI" in the US. There was no "Beatles Greatest" equivalent in the States, as Brian Epstein put his foot down with Alan Livingston at Capitol, squashing that plan.
Returning to Abbey Road, the first sessions in November of 1966 were devoted to a Lennon song that would take up an unprecedented amount of studio time and several revisions before it was deemed as satisfactory by its author. (He later expressed a desire to redo it yet again)
John presented “Strawberry Fields Forever” to George Martin and the group by sitting and playing the song acoustically. Martin fell in love with it immediately and cursed himself for not taping that version. Setting to work, several takes were completed before they hit upon an acceptable arrangement. Earlier run throughs began with the verse (“Living is easy with eyes closed”) instead of the “let me take you down” intro that ended up on the final master. Originally envisioned as a “gentle dreaming song”, it is completely futile to even speculate on what the author meant when he was putting this together. Smoking a lot of Spanish dope and sitting on the beach with his guitar, memories of a favorite childhood haunt in Woolton provided the initial inspiration. (Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army Children's Home where he often played. They had even considered posing in Salvation Army uniforms for the LP cover.)
Once all of the ingredients were in place, Lennon listened to it a few times and asked Martin to score it for strings and brass. A drum heavy , orchestrated track was the result of this request. Indecision then dictated the next startling development, as Lennon liked elements of both finished products. He asked Martin to weld the two versions together, despite the fact that they were in completely different keys. When informed of the technical obstacles that made this nearly impossible, he simply replied, “You can fix it, George.”
Miraculously, by speeding up one half and slowing down the other, he was able to make it work. The engineers at Abbey Road prided themselves in the fact that they could edit tape within a quarter of a second with no detectable traces of manipulation present in the end product. Longtime fans know the exact point where Strawberry Fields changes. For those of you that don’t, the edit occurs at the 59 second mark. You'll catch it after the second "let me take you down" in the midst of the word "going". It sounds as if the speed of the recording increases, which it does as the orchestrated track takes over. (Don't blame me if you never hear this in the same way again)
Brilliant and unsettling, the remarkable technical and artistic leap forward continued.
To anyone who is interested, I would recommend checking out the many bootlegs of these sessions that are widely available. I have one that documents every take up to the final master, with an introductory comment by George Martin.
Similarly, "Penny Lane" taps all of the landmarks in a neighborhood well known to Liverpudlians for it's subject matter, albeit with a lysergic twist. Many surreal images go by, with a few inside jokes and sexual references. The hook in the chorus is one of the most uplifting in the entire recorded legacy of the group. McCartney's forte has always been his ability to channel his natural ebullience while marrying it to unforgettable melodies. "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes" not only scans well but sums up a number of emotions in one line. McCartney apparently hummed the high flying solo to Martin who then wrote out a chart, performed by David Mason of the LSO on a B-flat piccalo trumpet. The recording process was not as drawn out as that of "Strawberry Fields" as McCartney was much more effective in communicating his ideas. Another incredible work of art was now in the can for the upcoming album. Things were starting out rather well.
In January of 1967, reality closed in and Brian Epstein inquired about new material to provide to EMI. The removal of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" from inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper album was one of Geroge Martin's greatest regrets. When the 45 was released in February, it was the first Beatle single not to reach number one since "Love Me Do" ("Penny Lane" did hit the top of the charts in the US) Their baby pictures on the sleeve bore out the original concept of childhood memories inspiring the music.
Once again, moving too fast for their public, they made promotional videos to accompany the new sounds.
Fan reaction to the changes was mixed and in some cases quite negative.
Ignorance, as these songs represent two very talented men at their respective songwriting peaks.
Robbed of two key songs for the LP, the idea of revisiting childhood themes was scrapped. Forging ahead with the plan to create music with elaborate augmentation, Lennon presented Paul with a new fragment that he was working on and the two went back to the drawing board.
Paul: 'It was a song that John brought over to me at Cavendish Avenue. It was his original idea. He'd been reading the Daily Mail and brought the newspaper with him to my house. We went upstairs to the music room and started to work on it. He had the first verse, he had the war, and a little bit of the second verse.'
John: "I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories. I was writing 'A Day In The Life' with the Daily Mail propped in front of me on the piano. One was about the Guinness heir (Tara Browne) who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled."
One of their most ingenious collaborative efforts took some time to come together, though right from the earliest attempts, Lennon's vocal sounded incredible. Drenched in tape echo in an effort to achieve the same sound that Elvis had on "Heartbreak Hotel", the final product was light years ahead of the curve. Two twenty-four bar gaps were left in the finished version, with an eye toward filling each with an enormous rush of noise. The segue from this into Paul's "woke up, fell out of bed" middle section was inspired. Ringo turns in an incredible performance, providing great feel in every fill. It almost amounts to a duet with the vocal in the verses. When it came time to fill the spaces, dutifully counted off by road manager Mal Evans, they settled on hiring 45 pieces from the London Symphony Orchestra. The brief was written out for the players by George Martin, who explained that everyone would be simultaneously be playing from the lowest to the highest note of a charted scale, conducted by McCartney and himself. Two four track machines were slaved together in an attempt to capture this tremendous wave of sound and then overdub it to give the impression of two full orchestras creating a blast wave. Engineer Ron Richards had one hell of a hard time trying to get the machines to run in sync, but the result was one of the most daring experiments carried out in a British recording facility to date. The massive E chord that slams the song shut was played on three separate grand pianos by John, Paul, Ringo, Mal Evans and George Martin.
I'd love to turn you on. Accusing the group of fanning clouds of pot smoke in the direction of their fans, the BBC deemed this fantastic song as unsuitable for airplay.
Again, though it was one of the first things they did for the LP, this incredibly ambitious piece was slotted to close the disc. Really, what choice did they have? Months of tracking would come before any sequencing decisions were made. This is where all the theories about "A Day in the Life" fall apart. Many writers have fallen into the trap of attaching great significance to this song as a destroyer of the happy vibe that runs through Pepper and a modern musical rewrite of "The Waste Land". It was certainly none of the above.
Far and away it does take honors as the best track.
Ultimately, the Pepper motto really boils down to “Any way you like it.” This would work well for a short period, though it would eventually disintegrate into chaos as the drugs began to do them.
Though I sincerely do like the record, I don’t rank it at the top of their discography. First off, their approach to recording radically changed. Only rarely would everyone perform together, eye to eye, when the red light went on in the studio. This meant less spark and spontaneity and many more takes where individuals built instrumental parts in a piecemeal fashion. On the plus side, McCartney overdubbed many of his most inventive bass lines via this method. Conversely, ensemble playing skills eroded as no one had to be particularly switched on to achieve the desired result on the first passes.
Soon, the recording industry would be awash in a “we can fix it later” attitude that would produce many soulless, homogenized albums by artists who would find the perfect balance between tedium and pretension.
Feeding ideas into a communal pool and working with the best ones was pretty much a tacit agreement amongst the group and their inner circle. With pot, pills, cocaine and LSD permeating all decisions made around this time, it was certain that few would be considered too far out to pursue. Paul and Mal Evans first hit upon the name Sgt. Pepper on the plane ride back to the UK following a quick trip to the States. Spotting the S and P stamps on the salt and pepper packets, Mal asked about the initials triggering the whole conversation. McCartney was exposed to a growing number of bands who were adopting outrageous names and seized upon these developments as an ideal way to allow the Beatles to adapt the name of a fictitious group and disconnect themselves from their perceived public image.
For these very stoned young men in their mid-twenties, humor had a great bonding effect and now it was time to have a laugh on their audience. Pepper is riddled with many inside jokes, though the balance of power was shifting due to matters that didn't quite leave everyone laughing.
McCartney, being a very ambitious lieutenant, saw his partner literally knocking himself out while binging on LSD and created a sense of urgency to push forward with recording, so that their enterprise didn't coast off the rails. Lennon was willing to go along with any suggestion at this point, his usual argumentative disposition softened by constant tripping. George remained indifferent to the whole plan as his interest in being part of the gang was seriously waning. Ringo remained on call, ready to contribute, but his role had diminished. The band wasn’t playing together much at this point. After laying down a bed track, it could be weeks before the others finished piling on additional instruments, leaving him with little to do.
None of this was evident or spoken about publicly at the time. Once they got further into the work and each piece took shape, everyone knew that the finished product would be vastly different than anything they had previously tackled.
The show begins with expectant crowd noise and the sound of an orchestra getting in tune. This atmosphere is shattered by the opening blast of Ringo’s remarkably present kit (with a great, gated snare sound and toms that are quite 3-D for that period). Lead guitar barks as McCartney turns in what is arguably the most rock oriented vocal performance of the set. Decorative French horns glide into the mix with appreciative bursts of laughter and applause fading in and out. Nice three parts hammer home the chorus. Introductions made, the title character hands things over to Billy Shears to deafening screams (sampled from a Hollywood Bowl recording) and a clever transition.
Ringo’s vocal turn (“With a Little Help From My Friends”) is one of the catchiest Lennon-McCartney specials on the disc. Quite a bit of care went into the mix as the bass and drums are especially prominent, with a patented tom fill after the first chorus that is extremely resonant. Starr’s alter-ego (Shears) really digs deep to sing that last, long note. Under Lennon’s original title, “Bad Finger Boogie”, the tune was knocked around by himself and Paul during a casual song writing session, attended by author Hunter Davies, who wrote a detailed account of the pair at work for inclusion in his book. Had any singles been picked for release from Pepper, this would have been an obvious choice.
Great lengths were taken to experiment. Clunky high hats, reversed cymbal sounds, overdriven instruments creating signal distortion, strings, brass and a host of other auditory oddities make up the dense soundscape found here. Tape operator Jerry Boys would later say that they achieved sounds that are impossible to reproduce even with today’s technology. Working within the limitations of a four track environment actually led to further innovation, as creative solutions were required at every turn to meet the growing sonic demands of the three songwriters. It’s a wonder that the board didn’t catch fire at times as Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush coaxed increasingly bizarre sounds out of it.
More importantly, aside from intending to produce music of a very high quality, it was also programmed specifically to be easy on the central nervous systems of very stoned listeners. The harsh, biting sound of Revolver now gave way to dreamier textures. Compare the stabbing string arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby” to that of the lush “She’s Leaving Home” or the feel of “A Day in the Life” in juxtaposition to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Stylistically, it was all over the map. Can you think of a more jarring transition than what occurs as “Within You, Without You” closes (with a snippet of laughter) and the clarinet intro of “When I’m Sixty Four” kicks in? The jokes continue with the bizarre ending to “Good Morning, Good Morning” that involves an array of animal noises, set up so that each one you hear has the capability of overtaking and devouring its predecessor.
Until you get to the lone chicken clucking at the end.
Even that moment brims with inspiration as it is cleverly turned into the guitar notes that precede the Sgt. Pepper reprise, during which you hear Lennon say “Bye!” over the count in.
Following a fair amount of effort spent trying to shape George’s “Only a Northern Song”, the apathetic track was rejected for inclusion and following a period of sullen disillusionment, he hired a group of London-based, East Indian musicians and set to work on the beautiful “Within You, Without You”. Much unfair criticism has been lobbed at this one over time, though I think it’s the most successful of his forays into that genre. Listen to the complex timings in the middle instrumental break and you’ll begin to fathom how much thought went into it. You can even hear Harrison softly counting everyone back in when it stops for the shift back to the verse.
McCartney was spending more time behind the board with the production team during these sessions. His desire to hear things back exactly as he had conceived them drove him to perfectionist tactics, which didn’t always sit well with the others. Arguably, without his whip hand, there would have been much less band activity after Pepper. Self-directed, he logged a great deal of work and turned in several excellent songs in addition to those co-written with Lennon. He was by far the group’s most adept all rounder, overdubbing a number of other instruments with a natural ease.
"Getting Better", Fixing a Hole" and "Lovely Rita" all bear his composing stamp, the last being a great example of the "comedy song" theme he had half-jokingly mentioned pursuing in an interview the previous year. Receiving a ticket from a traffic warden named Meta, he was quite annoyed, though in the lyric, he embraced the spirit of the age and figured that it was better to love her. The comb and paper effects and the echoed, improvised vocal noises in the outro just add to the surreal nature of the whole project. There's almost another song in this cool piano driven fragment.
Lennon’s contributions were all born out of mundane situations. “Smoking pot and watching telly” inspired a few brainwaves ("Good Morning, Good Morning" was the main thrust for an advert featuring his favorite breakfast snack, Kelloggs Corn Flakes) though it was his son Julian's painting that gave birth to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds". Lewis Carroll and a host of studio tricks helped with the rest. I find that this one sounds like it was rushed and the transition from the verse to the chorus doesn't really work that well. Still a great tune (the bass lines make it), though the jump to 4/4 time spoils a good set up.
"Mr. Kite" had lyrics that were copied almost verbatim from a Victorian era circus poster that he had picked up while filming the spots for "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" in Kent. Tons of work went into creating the fairground atmosphere that Lennon asked to achieve from a sonic perspective. George Martin collected tapes of steam and pipe organs, chopped them up and had them pieced back together at random. The loops are extremely spacey when heard in headphones. Apparently, Martin collapsed on the studio floor in exhaustion after repeatedly hand pumping a harmonium through endless takes. Shifting to 5/4 time for Henry the Horse's waltz is an arranging masterstroke. John disavowed this one in the early 70s, though before his death he had one of his customary changes of heart, stating that it was, "pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor."
Subjectively, I would count “She’s Leaving Home”, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Within You, Without You” as being the most inventive tunes on the LP, with “A Day in the Life” (of course) towering over the rest. The material is quite good, though the real brilliance was in sequencing a clutch of disparate tracks that bear no resemblance to one another. Seamless work on the part of the entire production team had DJs actually playing the record in its entirety when it first came out, flipping it over as if it were a two minute single.
The cast of characters selected to appear on this iconic cover were suggested by John, Paul, George and designer Peter Blake. McCartney offhandedly told EMI president Sir Joe Lockwood that he would contact everyone (living) to get their OK for inclusion and indemnify the company against any lawsuits. He didn't trouble himself to do either and no one sued.
Let's put names to the faces.
Top Row: Sri Yukteswar Giri (guru) / Aleister Crowley (astrologist) / Mae West (actress) / Lenny Bruce (comedian) / Karlheinz Stockhausen (composer) / W.C. Fields (comedian) / Carl Gustav Jung (psychologist) / Edgar Allen Poe (writer) / Fred Astaire (actor) / Richard Merkin (artist) / The Varga Girl / Huntz Hall (actor) / Simon Rodia (creator of Watts Towers) / Bob Dylan (musician)
Row 2: Aubrey Beardsley (illustrator) / Sir Robert Peel / Aldous Huxley (writer) / Dylan Thomas (poet) / Terry Southern (writer) / Dion (singer) / Tony Curtis (actor) / Wallace Berman (artist) / Tommy Handley (comedian) / Marilyn Monroe (actress) / William Burroughs (writer) / Sri Mahavatara Babaji (guru) / Stan Laurel (comedian) / Richard Lindner (artist) / Oliver Hardy (comedian) / Karl Marx (philosopher, socialist) / H.G. Wells (writer) / Sri Paramahansa Yagananda (guru) / wax hairdresser's dummy
row 3: Stuart Sutcliff (former Beatle) / wax hairdresser's dummy / Max Miller (comedian) / "The Petty Girl" / Marlon Brando (actor) / Tom Mix (actor) / Oscar Wilde (writer) / Tyrone Power (actor) / Larry Bell (artist) / Dr. David Livingstone (missionary, explorer) / Johnny Weismuller (swimmer, actor) / Stephen Crane (writer) / Issy Bonn (comedian) / George Bernard Shaw (writer) / H.C. Westermann (sculptor) / Albert Stubbins (soccer player) / Sri Lahiri Mahasaya (guru) / Lewis Carroll (writer) / T.E. Lawrence A.K.A. "Lawrence of Arabia" (actor)
Front row: Sonny Liston (boxer) / "The Petty Girl" / wax dummy of George Harrison / wax dummy of John Lennon / Shirley Temple (actress) / wax dummy of Ringo Starr / wax dummy of Paul McCartney / Albert Einstein (physicist) / John Lennon / Ringo Starr / Paul McCartney / George Harrison / Bobby Breen (singer) / Marlene Dietrich (actress) / Diana Dors (actress) / Shirley Temple (actress)
Hitler, Jesus and Ghandi were slated to appear but did not for understandably diverse and controversial reasons. Bowery Boys actor Leo Gorcey wanted to get paid and was painted out.
Critics fell over themselves in praise of the record. Years later, most of the very same writers savagely panned it, one calling it a "day-glo tombstone for the hippy era". This wildly misses the point. On one hand, Pepper is as redolent of 1967 and the so-called "Summer of Love" as tie dye, painted faces and flowery, spaced out young people, happily spinning and dancing in their own world. However, if you simply listen to the disc it is not inexorably tied to the trappings of this colorful period. There is no mention of Vietnam, political figures of the time or any other sociological phenomenon that was then current. Imagination fuels every cut, not rhetoric.
Long dissertations have been devoted to the fact that Pepper wasn't truly a concept album. From a lyrical standpoint, there was no attempt made to devise a plot line where Sgt. Pepper loses three of his senses and becomes a pinball playing, messianic figure. Curiously, the name is used only to introduce the proceedings and briefly say goodbye toward the end, which was a suggestion made by road manager Neil Aspinall.
Instead, the concept focused squarely on the band themselves and their assumption of an entirely different look and sound.
Hindsight reveals quite a few “firsts” as the lyrics were printed out on the back cover, bands of silence between songs were eliminated and the presentation was certainly the most elaborate, colorful and expensive that the rock world had ever witnessed. Looking at my own copy, it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that if they could have had inserted a trigger that produced insane laughter when you opened the gatefold, it would have been attempted. EMI auditors had to move in and put the proverbial foot down as time wore on, with ideas growing more outrageous at every turn. Roughly six months and one hundred thousand English pounds (in 1967 terms) went into making Pepper a reality.
Longtime fans know all of the stories, to be sure, though what has gone down as gospel isn’t even agreed upon by the band members themselves. The passage of time, coupled with the frequent substance intake which virtually permeated that era is primarily responsible. Complicating matters further was the new fanaticism that developed among devotees. Many seekers pored over the densely packed cover (through a cloud of smoke) searching for deeper meanings that they were certain just had to be placed there by their heroes.
Letting their imaginations steal a car amd drive it at high speed off of a cliff, the drug addled and deluded dreamed up a host of outrageous ideas about Sgt. Pepper. Rumors that the moustache featured on the cardboard cut-out insert was impregnated with LSD flew along with many other ridiculous theories. Some even tried to play the centre label in a desperate attempt to find hidden messages. (The gibberish that was deliberately placed as a joke in the run-out groove probably added more fuel to that fire.)
The only real message relayed was that the group had moved far beyond the realm of four wax figures put on display for little girls to scream at.
We're not those people anymore
This is where the Beatles saga crossed over into mythical territory.
Who wrote the charts and arranged the string octet on "She's Leaving Home"? What does that stoned little snippet of chat in the run-out groove say when you play it backward? Who's tripping in the gatefold photo?
Monday, August 10, 2009
Revolver captured the Beatles with their feet straddled between two camps. One was trapped on a platform in the middle of a stadium filled with screaming idiots, unable to reach their audience. The other was planted firmly in the studio, free to experiment without restriction. Fittingly, the title was an ode to the black circle itself, though their own "revolving" door of the past few years (circling the globe with touring, recording, filming etc.) was about to come to a close. 1966 would be a year of summation for the quartet on a number of fronts. Curiously, another, much darker, theme hovered over their activities during this period.
Indeed, the skeletal hand of the Reaper reached out for the group on many occasions during their tumultuous summer tour.
Let's back up a bit.
Beatles '66 began quietly as the four most famous faces in the world took the first three months off. Shattered by the endless work schedule that had dragged them around the world several times over, they must have been glad for the reprieve. John Lennon would begin a journey into inner space, whiling away his time under the influence of psychedelics. Cracking open another door that would only lead to more questions, the experiences radically altered his writing. Eager to smash the phony image that he felt was inhibiting the band, he told Brian Epstein that he and the others would not be feeding bullshit lines to reporters in upcoming press conferences.
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.
Lennon's thoughts appeared as part of an extensive interview that he gave to Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard. The feature was called "How Does a Beatle Live?" and the quote garnered little notice in England. He had been reading Hugh Schonfield's book, "The Passover Plot", which re-examined the life of Christ and his teachings. What's important here is that the second half of his discourse focused on how Jesus's original message and purpose may have become transformed during the century after his death. So John merely provided his own extreme precis on this scholarly tome. Think of the unbelievable command that his group had over millions of kids. Couple that with the revelatory effects of acid and it's really not a big shock that he would equate the Beatles with any type of mass belief system, Christianity being but one example.
What's more, he was right.
These remarks would be reprinted in one of those glossy teen rags (Datebook) in the US several months later. Death rubbed his bony hands together and gleefully waited for the band to arrive in the States.
Insert conversational marker here, as we'll revisit this shortly.
Upon reconvening in the spring, one of the first things on the agenda was a photo shoot. This would provide the public with up to date pictures of the foursome. Robert Whitaker set everything up and photographed the band in a variety of bizarre poses and settings. You can read all about this in someone's book, if you care to. The most infamous shot involved the lads dressed in butcher smocks, with raw meat and decapitated baby dolls placed on them strategically. George stood behind the others, leering and holding up the head of a doll for the camera.
Capitol Records had requested an image that they could plaster on their next fake Beatles album, comprised of tunes left off the American versions of Help! and Rubber Soul. Against the wishes of Brian Epstein, this arty but gruesome picture was chosen.
Yesterday and Today would be the last patchwork release in the States. After this, there would be no further corruption of their work in the interest of crass commercialism. (OK, that was hard to write with a straight face) Let's just say that Capitol ceased their practice of fabricating new Beatle product. Closure, of sorts.
When the original LP was shipped to DJs and retail outlets, there was a collective gasp.
Long story short, public outcry forced the Beatles to furnish EMI America with a more acceptable picture. So in place of dead babies and meat they gave them this.
Look at their eyes! Everyone (especially Paul) looks extremely stoned. It was glaringly obvious that the "cute" Beatles were dead.
Just to put another myth to rest, the "butcher shot" was not intended as a message to the US division of EMI to stop chopping up their recordings and repackaging them. It was entirely the brainchild of photographer Robert Whitaker and was not even considered for use as cover art until well after the pictures were taken. The "Butcher Cover" saga could fill a short book of its own. Pop over here for further info.
When do we get to Revolver?
Patience is a virtue.
1966: Last Gasp of a Touring Band.
First time back in Hamburg since 1962. The Star Club is gone, boarded up along with many of their old haunts. You can't go home again. The live shows there and in Munich are perfunctory, devoid of any real fire or energy. McCartney forgets the words to "I'm Down" at the Munich show. He asks Lennon and is fed the wrong first line. Not scheduling rehearsals pre-tour was not the best idea.
Next stop was an absolute nightmare. Delayed by the military following their arrival in Manila, they are certain that they'll be busted for the drugs they are carrying. They aren't, but the promoters screwed them over on the gate for their concerts. First lady Imelda Marcos had invited them to a luncheon, though It was politely declined by their manager. Apparently, this was ignored and the perceived slight caused a small scale international incident. All amenities were immediately withdrawn and the group literally had to flee the country, with the locals/army trying to beat them to death at the airport. They narrowly escaped with their lives.
Tokyo: Militant groups stage demonstrations and utter death threats in response to the venue of choice for five planned Japanese concerts. The Budokhan was a stadium in the city's heart dedicated to the martial arts of kyudo, kendo, judo, karate and all disciplines associated with honor and the Shinto spirit. Sited between Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace, it was reportedly built on the site where soldiers pledged their lives to the Emperor before joining their wartime units. Not an ideal spot for a rock show, according to protesters. 35,000 police officers made sure that right wing nationalists would not turn the event into a blood bath. They still tried to.
When they arrived in the US, the "More popular than Jesus" furor was front and center. In Chicago, Lennon was asked repeatedly to apologize for what he had said. During the show there, someone threw a frozen steak at the stage, nearly taking off McCartney's head. (Could have been a soul brother showing solidarity for the butcher shot.) In the deep south, their records were burned by the truckload and in Memphis the Ku Klux Klan (cowards in bed sheets) promised some "surprises" for them when they arrived to play there. St. Louis was marred by rain and they were very nearly electrocuted playing under a canopy. Cleveland and Cincinnati saw massive riots, with the latter concert being canceled. Fans threw bottles, shoes, garbage, scissors, darts and various other projectiles at the them.
What happened to throwing jelly beans?
Definitely a far cry from the love that had been directed at them just two years before. Worse yet, the live set ups that they had to endure were criminally poor. They had commanded massive crowds, pioneered the stadium show but the technology of that era could not project the sound to their audiences. Adding to the impossible situation was the interminable screaming that made any hope of hearing anything null and void. Unable to to progress as a live act, still in matching suits and losing their edge they were beginning to look like yesterday's news. Decisions had to be made.
Candlestick Park in San Francisco would be the last proper Beatle concert of the sixties.
Arguments have been made that they could have at least tried to perform new songs, invest in better stage gear, etc. Why? The ugly truth was that many of these the so-called fans wanted nothing more than an outlet for ridiculous behavior. Would you throw dangerous objects at a band that you loved? This insanity, coupled with technical shortcomings, drove them offstage in their prime.
"That's it, I'm not a Beatle anymore."
The whole experience nearly killed the band, though they eluded the hand of death during what had to have been a very stressful summer. So why is all of this important? Simply put, had there been a poor critical/public response to Revolver, then their history would have likely ended here.
Jumping back to the April of '66, the group commenced sessions for what would become their seventh, brilliant release. The lyrics of many of the Revolver songs make mention of or deal directly with death. Prescience at work? Perhaps, as mortality seems to be an odd subject to occupy men so young.
Diving headlong into a radically different style, they took up a Lennon tune to work on first. Those that didn't quite "get" Rubber Soul, would have probably had a seizure if they were treated to the first take of "Tomorrow Never Knows". Futuristic and nightmarish, it was light years ahead of anything they had done to date.
"The Psychedelic Experience", which was devised by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert as a guide to steer people through the complexities of an LSD trip, and the drug itself were the two main inspirations for this unorthodox composition. Taking a page from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the lyrics deal with large concepts, though the author does not bother to break them down to a more granular form nor is there any attempt to detail any type of personal revelations. It is the music that conveys the startling heaviness of the journey taken by the soul when our earthly bodies die. That energy converging with the undying light of love is directed back to another host to start the trip all over again. ("play the game, existence to the end of the beginning")
Reincarnation. It's not just for breakfast anymore.
Scores of people who were already initiated, heard a familiar message and vibe upon first listen. Those that did not were perplexed. Achieving the otherworldly sounds was no easy task either. The drone of a tampura leads into the insistent drum track, played by Ringo with a sharp snare crack offset by broken hits on slack tuned toms. Backward guitar and a five separate tape loops (courtesy of McCartney's home experiments) were spooled and fed directly into the board as the basic recording played, with many pairs of hands guiding each strip of tape. No one knew what it would sound like. Add to this another trick, which involved breaking into the circuitry of a Leslie speaker that rotated inside the old Hammond organs to provide that swirling sound. Lennon's voice was put through the Leslie, resulting in that disembodied feel in the last verse. He had originally wanted to have a thousand monks chanting this part.
The end product was amazing for its time and had to be placed at the end of the album as it would have destroyed everything that followed.
Much of the innovation in sound came from their new engineer. Geoff Emerick was just twenty when he was promoted from the disc cutting department of EMI and brought on board to replace Norman Smith as George Martin's right hand man. His initial move was to actually close-mike the drums (moving the microphone within inches of the bass drum was against EMI policy) to give them a greater presence in the mix. Paul had just acquired a long-scale Rickenbacker 4001S bass. Good news for him as the pickups in the older model Hoffners were horrible, resulting in a muddy sound. His style changed dramatically as he explored the higher reaches of the fretboard. Emerick aided in this transformative process by rolling off the treble (those Ricks are noisy bastards), adding compression and putting a mic in front of his bass cabinet. Ringo and Paul were pretty tight as a rhythm section. Now you could actually appreciate that fact.
"Taxman" marks the first (and last) time that a Harrison tune would lead off a Beatles LP. Dynamic and sharp, the song is highlighted by an Indian-styled lead break by McCartney and a rant against the Labour government's recently introduced 95 percent tax grab on top earners. Harold Wilson and Edward Heath were both named for balance, being the prime minister and opposition leader of that period. Lennon contributed to the scathing lyric. Paul turns in some fine bass playing, especially in the bridge. The count-in was a far cry from the one that kicked off their first album, being robotic and edited in after the fact, though you do hear (faintly) McCartney shouting in the manner of that long ago intro to "I Saw Her Standing There". Another subtle goodbye to the past.
"And my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes"
Death and taxes.
Speaking of joining "the choir invisible", "Eleanor Rigby" told a desolate tale of the mundane existence and passing of a spinster who was but one of many that were simply labeled as "lonely people" in the chorus. Another solitary character takes the form of a minister (Father Mackenzie) who preaches to an indifferent (or absent) congregation and comes to bury this poor soul in the end. Not one Beatle needed to play a note as a string octet was scored and conducted by George Martin. Paul, John and George merely lend their voices to music set in the saddest of keys, woeful E minor.
Varying sources cite an array of different lyrics and title character names that were employed (Miss Daisy Hawkins, Eleanor Bygraves) before the final draft coalesced. Lennon claimed to have written half the lyrics, which was later disputed by McCartney. Donovan recalls McCartney singing "Ola na Tungee, blowing his mind in the night with a pipe full of clay" while searching for lines that would scan. Released as a single, it could scarcely be farther removed from "She Loves You" and demonstrated the mind blowing progress they had made within three short years.
Taking a nap is often referred to as being "dead to the world". The heavy lidded, slow creep of pot hangs over "I'm Only Sleeping" as would an opaque cloud of smoke. Varispeeded down to an e flat minor, Lennon's ode to staying in bed is one of the best songs of this collection. Painstaking hours of work were put into producing the backward guitar parts that add so much to the feel and pace. Depending on which mix you're listening to (mono, stereo or US stereo remix) those key parts land in different places. One of the joys of collecting their records is the sheer number of alternative versions of songs due to competing formats (mono vs. stereo).
George Harrison had the privilege of getting an unprecedented three songs on Revolver. "I Want to Tell You" rides a bouncy, two fingered piano with a really inventive guitar figure. Having become infatuated with Indian music, he ditched conventional western pop and assembled a small group of east Indian musicians to perform "Love You To". Just how much listeners must have been jolted by this remarkable piece is hard to imagine. He was barely conversant with the form when he brought this to the sessions, which is all the more impressive.
"Love me while you can, before I'm a dead old man..."
Note that at what is arguably an important crossroads moment in their career, the writing styles of Lennon and McCartney are separated by an incredible divide. Paul's material was heavily influenced by the classical music that he was now listening to more frequently, while Lennon's became somewhat tangental. Overall, while the selections are multi faceted, there is a very cutting and abrasive tone that buzzes from the guitars ("Taxman", "She Said She Said", "And Your Bird Can Sing", "Dr. Robert") horns ("Got to Get You Into My Life") sitars/tablas ("Love You To") strings ("Eleanor Rigby") and just about everything piled on "Tomorrow Never Knows". Curious that it is three McCartney tunes ("Here There and Everywhere", "For No One" and "Good Day Sunshine") that provide gentle breaks in a sea of sharp assaults on the senses.
Surprisingly, though he was turning out conventionally structured work, he was the one leading the charge with sound collage experiments. Paul certainly supported Lennon's fantastical ideas with equally "out there" home taping marathons.
The brilliance in sequencing keeps you from being lulled into any type of apathy while listening. Every cut is a jarring, rollercoaster-like drop straight down at high speed, then a rest, and another outrageous left turn. Two of McCartney's finest love songs are programmed well apart from one another. "Here There and Everywhere" is quite a brilliant mouthful of chords, with only the jagged rhythm guitar spoiling a good thing. Those backing harmonies are a highlight. "For No One" could be the best description of love gone cold in pop history. His economy with words, the chilly baroque atmosphere and Alan Civil's decorative French horn solo cap a very sad theme.
His original title for this was telling: "Why Did It Die?"
Graham Nash would later put this style to good use in constructing "Our House".
Paul's other contributions were more upbeat. Soulfully put together, "Got to Get You Into My Life" featured blaring horns (some of the guys from Georgie Fame's crew blowing their lungs out) that leap out of the speakers, solely due to Emerick putting mics down the bells of the brass section. It tends to overwhelm the other instruments, but succeeds in providing an electric thrill as the set races to the finish line. McCartney claims it was written in tribute to pot. Excellent it is, too.
"Yellow Submarine" was one of his most bizarre (but catchy) offerings. Ringo sings, while everyone else goes mad, yelling, bashing a large bass drum and creating one hell of a convincing party atmosphere. Paired with "Eleanor Rigby", it was a novelty smash in late summer, with many ingenious arts and crafts type sound effects.
Kids really took to it.
Everything else that John touches here features prominently distorted guitars. Not quite the "from outer space" tones of Hendrix, though still very effective. Ever wonder how many kids smashed their guitars trying to copy the twisting, multi-dubbed riff that drives "And Your Bird Can Sing"? I would suspect that Paul and George played a large part in shaping this one. The lyric is a cryptic take on the leg pulling that Dylan so often engaged in at the time. Strangely, Lennon later wrote this one off.
I don't agree. So what if it doesn't mean anything in particular? Certainly doesn't diminish it's worth. He has another private giggle in delivering "Dr. Robert". Drug dispensing physicians have always been around to scribble their signatures for the addicted. The guy he sings about here used to mix narcotics in with vitamin shots to keep his patients coming back for more. Harrison does a little blending of his own by playing a sitar-like licks within the bounds of a country-rock pattern. McCartney supports with a shit-kicking harmony.
Paul is nowhere to be found on "She Said She Said". He exited the studio after a heated argument, so George handles both bass and provided the eastern flavored guitar that makes the song. Harrison was also given a fair amount of room to contribute to the arrangement and does an admirable job in steering the ship. Ringo is quite busy on this track and remains solid throughout, though he keeps his fills tasteful, never overplaying.
Peter Fonda's recollection of the time he had accidentally shot himself as a kid was the main inspiration for the lyric. Trouble was that he picked a point where everyone was peaking on acid to share his anecdote. George was hitting a bad point on his trip and Fonda tried to intercede by telling him that he "had died but he came back and everything was alright." He "knew what it was like to be dead." Both John and George were sufficiently freaked out enough to have him tossed from the private, poolside event. Fonda was much more experienced than they with LSD and was probably trying to talk George out of the momentary trough that he had landed in.
Death is a real mood killer, though.
Out of strange circumstances a little greatness sometimes grows. Klaus Voormann's clever LP cover design would become another iconic portrait of a band that had now gone far beyond any lines previously drawn for rock artists. The Stones even made a cartoon appearance, tangled in their hair.
Revolver is the crown jewel in the Beatles' very impressive discography. It's not by chance that it has landed at or near the top of almost every list of the greatest rock albums ever made. Only the White Album comes close as a listening experience. Time was a factor in this, as sessions spread out over two months. Many ideas were completely reworked from first takes and much more care was exhibited with finding arrangements that worked to serve the song. Such luxuries would only benefit the final product.
Building the tracks methodically began to eclipse ensemble playing.
Widely lauded for its sonic impact, the disc remains as fresh now as it did when first unleashed on unsuspecting audiences.
It also spelled the end of the Beatles that the world had come to know. The music would be removed from the stage, the suits retired to the closet and the group would vanish for months before emerging as a completely different entity.
Death would be followed by spectacular rebirth.
Which Rolling Stones member appeared on "Yellow Submarine"? What other names were considered for the album?
Sunday, August 02, 2009
When the Beatles unveiled their Christmas present to listeners in December of '65, it was clear that the group had taken a giant stride beyond the material of the Beatles For Sale/Help! period. This transition toward more sophisticated songcraft resulted in extended nocturnal sessions, with an eye toward utilizing more exotic instruments and actually getting behind the board with the engineers to see how they could further manipulate sounds. Tearing down the wall between recording artists and tape operators was one of the largest contributing factors to their maturation. In addition, regular cannabis intake was inspiring larger concepts and three of them (Paul being the hold out) had taken LSD during the course of that incredible year. Now this is not to say that they were putting acid in their cereal every morning (not yet anyway) but it did have a profound effect on John and George. Consequently, the use of psychedelics would play a much larger part in their evolution. It would also contribute to their deterioration as ensemble players and would ultimately let some rather suspect ideas slip past quality control.
For the time being, things were getting interesting.
How about that album cover? Four unsmiling faces, elongated slightly with the title stretched out in a trippy, liquid fashion. No mention is made of the band name on the front of the jacket in what would be another groundbreaking piece of sleeve artwork. As with most of their innovations, many fans of that time were turned off or simply not receptive to the changes. Fanzines received letters from disgruntled kids who thought that their heroes "looked like corpses" or "old" and found Rubber Soul "boring".
Those who were on their wavelength quickly realized what was behind it, thus bringing in a slightly more erudite group of followers. Mindless screamers would continue their histrionics as they toured, some dropped the Beatles in favor of the latest teen bubblegum. Many more would come to view them as spokesmen for a movement that was sweeping away narrow minded convention in favor of unbridled experimentation. Youth would now come to dictate social trends from here on in.
Rubber Soul rightly holds a coveted position on many people's list of desert island discs, though, like every previous release, it was surgically altered for US consumers. Four tunes from the intended running order were yanked and two ("I've Just Seen a Face", "It's Only Love") from the UK issue of Help! were added. Substituting these acoustic based songs to market the album as "folk rock" was another misstep by the Capitol promotions team. Superimposing a trendy label on the biggest band on the planet was unnecessary , while chopping up their work of art was akin to scribbling a moustache on the Mona Lisa. They certainly needed no help when it came to selling records.
Some apologists for these actions claim that American version of Rubber Soul was improved by the changes and is more in line with the type of album the Beatles had intended to make.
Much of the inspiration for the songs came from the soul and R & B acts that were in their purview during this time. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs all had a far greater influence on the band than any of the "folk rock" confections that littered the charts in the summer of '65. The skin tight, dual bass/guitar riffs that fuel "Drive My Car" and "The Word" bear out how much the Stax sound held them in its sway. Paul even remarked that they were a bit embarrassed, thinking that listeners would be able to easily spot what/who they were emulating. As usual, they infused the material with their own stylistic touches so it really wasn't that obvious. Hence, the punning album title had two inside jokes to thank for its existence. The first being "Plastic Soul", which is the label that some African-American performers were using to describe the stage mannerisms of Mick Jagger. (You can hear McCartney muttering this following an early take of "I'm Down"), while the second was a direct reference to the way the Beatles were reshaping the soul records that they devoured in their leisure time.
It would take another year before the mad scientists at the Capitol Tower in LA stopped fucking around with the master tapes that were routinely flown in from London.
With a couple of exceptions, the writing and execution of their sixth LP was economically wrapped in just under one month. Unbelievable when you consider the quality packed into the grooves of this gem. All the more impressive considering that it was bookended by a US and UK tour, which they hustled out to do after completing tracking. "Drive My Car" provides the ear-grabbing intro, loaded with tortuous shifts, rock solid rhythm section and the all important hook. All that's missing is a horn section, though it really isn't necessary as John and Paul weave a tale that disguises the sexual innuendo (slightly) and does not waste a second of space. Those overlayed piano chords are the proverbial cherry on top of an excellent sundae. Particular emphasis is given to the bass, which was much more prominent in the mix.
Lennon's attempt to write about an affair and disguise the details is his own summation of what inspired "Norweigan Wood". McCartney takes credit for the bridge and the suggestion of burning the house down to end the song. People got quite caught up in trying to decipher the meaning of the lyrics, which eventually ended up in an anthology of British poetry. Later, the storyline revealed that Lennon had met his female match, only to be screwed and dropped as callously as any of the groupies he'd treated himself to over the course of touring. Another key ingredient came from Harrison. He couldn't even hold the instrument properly at this stage, though he doubled the guitar line on his newly acquired sitar, unwittingly setting off another trend that would inspire some very laudable and terrible records all at once.
Depending on which account you've read, George was turned on to the wonders of East Indian classical music by David Crosby or Jimmy Page. The curry restaurant sitars that filled in spaces on the Help! soundtrack were (likely) GH's first real taste of this effervescent, complex form of music. What is certain is that the engineers recoiled in horror as this exotic, 21 stringed beast sent VU meters deep into the red zone. When it was all worked out, something oddly beautiful happened and western music shook hands with the mystical east.
"You Won't See Me" had fairly complex modulations and another very sharp bass figure going for it. McCartney was venting lyrically about his girlfriend at that time (Jane Asher) and her refusal to conform to his ideal of subservience. The oooooh-la-la-la's get tiresome with repetition and you can hear the voices cracking in spots. More time would have omitted these flaws. Melody saves the day.
"Nowhere Man" holds the distinction of being the Beatles first recorded composition to lack a "love" theme, reportedly falling into place without concentrated effort by its author.
Lennon: "I remember I was just going through this paranoia trying to write something and nothing would come out so I just lay down and tried to not write and then this came out, the whole thing came out in one gulp.I thought of myself sitting there, doing nothing and getting nowhere."
The harmonies are handled beautifully, with that crisp guitar sound achieved by putting George's new Fender Strat straight through the board, with all bass rolled off.
Paul: "We were always forcing [the Abbey Road staff] into things they didn't want to do. Nowhere Man was one. I remember we wanted very treble-y guitars, which they are, they're among the most treble-y guitars I've ever heard on record. The engineer said, 'All right, I'll put full treble on it,' and we said, 'That's not enough', and he said, 'But that's all I've got, I've only got one pot and that's it!' And we replied, 'Well, put that through another lot of faders and put full treble up on that. And if that's not enough we'll go through another lot of faders'...Anyway you'd then find, 'Oh, it worked!' And they were secretly glad because they had been the engineer who'd put three times the allowed value of treble on a song. I think they were quietly proud of all those things."
The chorded solo is played in complete service to the song, right down to the harmonic that finishes it as a quiet punctuation mark.
Harrison brought two songs to the Rubber Soul table. "Think for Yourself" evolved from a political argument. Decent structure, fine three part harmony, but this is McCartney's show. Just listen to those fuzz bass patterns. He out-Motowns the James Jamerson prototype in a strutting performance that is the musical equivalent of a rolled up sock wedged into the crotch of spandex pants. Only John Entwhistle was going the extra mile in this fashion at that time. Paul was consistently brilliant in constructing his lines for most every track. More importantly, the bottom end can actually be heard clearly. Similarly, he and Ringo both shine on John's first crack at sending positive vibes into the minds/hearts of their listeners. "The Word" is fairly one dimensional lyrically, but the bass/drum combination is tight, with Ringo pulling off great backward rolls. Paul explores the higher areas of the fretboard successfully, with the guitar line doubling his part while a sustained, whiny note on harmonium hovers over everything in the fade out.
"Michelle" I can do without, though it is another McCartney standard, polished up from a joke song that he would sing in Hamburg to get the attention of the ladies. He would busk the tune, singing in broken French. Under pressure for more material, it was dusted off and given a proper arrangement with Lennon providing the "I love you" middle section. "What Goes On" was the product of Lennon's late 50's songbook, so it was rehaped and updated in country-rock form for Ringo to sing. He added the line about "waiting for the tides of time" and was duly issued a writing credit. The other selection that made the cut due to deadlines was "Wait", which was recorded during the "Help!" sessions. It's a good song, with more patented rolls from Mr. Starkey, though it is redolent of the boy/girl fare that they were currently moving away from. The volume tone pedal that was employed on "Yes It Is" and "I Need You" also shows up, further dating the track to earlier that year.
"If I Needed Someone" was transparently based on the riff found in the Byrds' "The Bells of Rhymney" and played on the off-beat as well. Pure George, as the author coolly assures the listener to leave their number and he might call. He even sent the demo version of this to McGuinn prior to official release. His best song up to that point. McCartney's "I'm Looking Through You" is another highlight of the second side. The stereo copies feature a false start on acoustic guitar. Take one was radically different from the finished product, being far more aggressive in tone. His melodic sense eventually took over, which resulted in the bridge section (missing from the early version) and the rethink on removing the stinging lead guitar bit that wanders quite a bit, adding nothing of value. Having other opinions on hand helped to edit away ideas that seemed decent on first go but needed work. Hence the great benefit of having time to revisit some of the songs after basic takes were completed. One standout that was revised lyrically in much the same manner was "In My Life". Just a cursory look at what Lennon originally had in mind is quite interesting but the verses are clumsy. Try and match them to the tune.
"Penny Lane is the one I'm missing/Up Church Road to the Clock Tower/In the circle of the Abbey/I have seen some happy hours/Past the Tramsheds with no trams/On the five bus into town/Past the Dutch and St Columbus/To the Dockers Umbrella that they pulled down."
Doesn't quite work smoothly, though you now know that John was the first to try and write a song about Penny Lane. Finished with Paul contributing a hefty portion of the music, this is a stellar example of why these two men possess shoulders upon which most every songwriter of worth that came after is currently standing on. Only Ray Davies poignant jottings rival (and sometimes eclipse) their accomplishments.
During the course of recording "What Goes On", a blues based jam entitled "12 Bar Instrumental" was laid down. This was allegedly positioned as a title track and given a couple of tries. Works well as a homage to Booker T's "Green Onions" but the rhythm that Lennon provides downshifts to country midway through. They weren't a threat to any blues bands of the period, though their striking original style made this a moot point. That genre was already mined more successfully by the Stones, Yardbirds and John Mayall's revolving crew of crack virtuosos.
Saving the best for last, I nominate "Girl" to be one of the absolute best things that John Lennon ever committed to tape. It is flawless in both conception and execution, with every word expertly placed. He would later talk about this as being his idea of the dream girl, who he had yet to meet. His descriptor seems to paint a rather challenging picture of this woman, who seems to alternately cause pleasure and pain. Lightening the heaviness of his subject matter are three well placed jokes. The first is a heavy drawing in of breath following the beautifully harmonized chorus line, which simulates dragging a huge hit of pot into the lungs. The second is the "tit tit tit" backing vocal in the bridge, no doubt the result of an idea you'd have after finishing a good joint. The last is the incorporation of bazouki styled guitars that come out of nowhere in the end, which come off like the music that Mikis Theodorakis created for Zorba the Greek. It is not hard to imagine everyone rolling on the floor, laughing themselves sick, trying to get through this one.
Impeccably rendered, it is beautiful from start to finish and really should have be sequenced to close this majestic set.
Instead, they picked "Run For Your Life", which Lennon later claimed that he "hated".
Rubber Soul heralded the end of "the cute mop-tops" and effectively washed away all traces of the group that walked nervously into EMI studios just three short years before. A brilliant double A sided single was issued along with this LP in the form of "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out. Both tore up the charts. Longtime engineer Norman Smith left the team, citing the material as being "not really his bag". He would go on to produce the first two Pink Floyd albums. The Beatles would lose fans over their change in direction, though they were simply moving too fast for these listeners. The modern rock era was about to step through the looking glass.
What was former EMI engineer Norman Smith called by the Beatles? What was his own 1973 hit and under what name did he release it?