Quick Review: Living in the Material World (film)

I recently watched the Martin Scorsese film about George Harrison’s life titled Living in the Material World. Here are a few observations and thoughts about the roughly 3 hour documentary:

1. I think this would interest a lot of Beatles fans. Indeed, 1/3rd of the film is about the Beatles and the rest of the film has a lot of references to the group and other band members. I was actually surprised by the big emphasis on the group as well as the music of Lennon and McCartney. Both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr gave recent interviews for the film.

2. The other 2/3rd of the film deals with Harrison’s career after the Beatles. The best sections include more rare concert and home movies footage to show George in his element. I wish the film used more of the home movies as they would help us get further insights beyond the rock star image.

2a. There is a lot in this section about Harrison’s spirituality. Beyond the music, I think this film wants us to know how important spirituality was to Harrison and how he tried to follow spiritual principles. This reminded me that both John Lennon and George Harrison were both openly spiritual seekers throughout their adult lives.  From what I’ve read and seen about both of them, I’m not sure either really found what they were looking for.

2b. Another big portion of the solo career section deals with the #1 album All Things Have To Pass Away. This makes some sense: this 1970 release showed that Harrison really was a songwriter and musician in his own right. While the Beatles were breaking apart in the late 1960s, Harrison was stockpiling songs. At the same time, the film downplays Harrison’s subsequent releases. They may not have been as good but Harrison made music for three more decades.

3. The music all sounds really good. While Harrison doesn’t have the big back catalog of music that other music legends have, many of his songs still sound fresh and relevant.

Overall, I’m not quite sure what to make of this film. One goal seems to be to try cement Harrison’s musical and spiritual legacy. However, the movie glosses over some rougher patches (such as Eric Clapton falling in love with Harrison’s then-wife) and doesn’t explicitly try to assess where Harrison fits within the field of rock music. Should we see Harrison more of a spiritual seeker than a true music legend? How much did Harrison really do on his own outside the Beatles? These questions aren’t fully answered but there is enough interesting footage here to keep fans interested.

(Of the 18 reviews counted by RottenTomatoes.com, 16 were positive. Another note: this site says the film is 1 hr, 34 minutes so I’m not quite sure what the critics saw.)

Our world: the Beatles can get $250k for the use of an original recording on a TV show

I’ve seen/heard several discussions of the use of the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows” to close the most recent episode of Mad Men. Here is some of the story behind how the show was able to get permission to use the song – for $250,000:

 “It was always my feeling that the show lacked a certain authenticity because we never could have an actual master recording of the Beatles performing,” Matthew Weiner, the creator and show runner of “Mad Men,” said in a telephone interview on Monday. “Not just someone singing their song or a version of their song, but them, doing a song in the show. It always felt to me like a flaw. Because they are the band, probably, of the 20th century.”…

Near the end of the “Mad Men” episode, titled “Lady Lazarus” and written by Mr. Weiner, the advertising executive Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) finds himself struggling to understand youth culture and is given a copy of the Beatles album “Revolver,” a new release in the summer of 1966.

But instead of starting his listening experience with the album’s acerbic lead-off track, “Taxman,” Draper instead skips to its final — and, shall we say, more experimental — song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” contemplating it for a few puzzled moments before he shuts it off. (That psychedelic song, with its signature percussion loops and distorted John Lennon vocals, also plays over the closing credits of the episode.)…

To win the company’s approval in this case, Mr. Weiner said, “I had to do a couple things that I don’t like doing, which is share my story line and share my pages.” He added that he received the approval from Apple Corps last fall, about a month before filming started on the episode.

Several thoughts:

1. Does this show that the Beatles still matter? On one hand, yes: the creator said he wanted to have an authentic Beatles song on his show. On the other hand, this is a show about the 1960s – it is a period piece, a “retro cool” show, not a show about the modern day that would show the current relevance of the Beatles. The creator suggests they are the band of the 20th century, inviting questions about who might be the artist of the 21st century.

2. Contra #1 above, the Beatles can still get $250k for the use of their song. Is this about the greatness of their work or because they have been so tight in who is able to license their music? Are the copyright holders of the Beatles music (some combo of Michael Jackson’s estate and Sony?) simply waiting for McCartney and Starr to die so they can reap a windfall from licensing?

3. The article doesn’t discuss this but the selection of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is particularly interesting. This song would never make it on a Beatles “greatest hits” album (it is not on the 1 album or the Red or Blue albums of the 1970s). It is buried at the end of the Revolver album. At the same time, many books and critics acknowledge that this song is a turning point in the group’s career. It was actually the first recorded song for Revolver, an album noted by many critics as the greatest album (or one of the top 3) of all time. It was a sharp departure from earlier Beatles music: in a few short years, the group had moved from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to Lennon singing about ideas from The Tibetan Book of the Dead with all sorts of studio effects like backward guitar around him. My guess is that the playing of song means that Don Draper’s is about to take an interesting turn (along with the rest of the 1960s).

4. A question about copyright: will the Beatles music ever become part of the public domain? It would be a shame if it does not.

5. How long until we live in a world when nobody knows about or cares about the Beatles? I’m particularly interested in the changes that will happen when the Baby Boomer generation fades away…

Anti-urban hymn? “God, who stretched the spangled heavens”

Yesterday’s service featured #580 in the 1982 Episcopal hymnal, “God, who stretched the spangled heavens.” Beyond being a mid-20th century hymn (and they have some interesting quirks themselves), the second verse was very interesting:

Proudly rise our modern cities,
stately buildings, row on row;
yet their windows, blank, unfeeling,
stare on canyoned streets below,
where the lonely drift unnoticed
in the city’s ebb and flow,
lost to purpose and to meaning,
scarcely caring where they go.

It almost seems like this should be immediately followed by “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

This hymn tries to balance two images in this verse (and supported elsewhere in the song): on one hand, we have “stately buildings,” impressive demonstrations of modern capacities and on the other hand, these great cities are full of people “lost to purpose and to meaning.” On the whole, this is not a favorable view of city life, even if it is trying to be descriptive and demonstrate the issues modernists face. Are there any hymns that talk about vibrant urban neighborhoods?

I resolve to be on the watch for anti-urban messages in other hymns. I wonder if there is a large gap in hymn content in this area between more mainline denominations who retained a little more presence in the big cities during the post-World War II suburban boom and also tend to hold to political views that suggest engagement with the city while religious conservatives have more individualized songs and desire escape from the dirty, evil cities.


The Beatles on immigration in “Get Back”

One discussion topic among The Beatles during the late 1960s would have some bearing on current discussions: immigration. Their hit single (#1 in both the US and Britain) “Get Back” was originally about immigration though lyric changes obscure the initial message.

Here is what the Wikipedia entry on the song “Get Back” has to say:

“Get Back” is unusual in the Beatles’ canon in that almost every moment of the song’s evolution has been extensively documented, from its beginning as an offhand riff to its final mixing in several versions. Much of this documentation is in the form of illegal (but widely available) bootleg recordings, and is recounted in the book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster by Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt…

Around the time he was developing the lyrics to “Get Back”, McCartney satirised the “Rivers of Blood speech” by former British Cabinet minister Enoch Powell in a brief jam that has become known as the “Commonwealth Song”. The lyrics included a line “You’d better get back to your Commonwealth homes”. The group improvised various temporary lyrics for “Get Back” leading to what has become known in Beatles’ folklore as the “No Pakistanis” version.This version is more racially charged, and addresses attitudes toward immigrants in America and Britain: “…don’t need no Puerto Ricans living in the USA”; and “don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”. In an interview in Playboy magazine in 1980, Lennon described it as “…a better version of ‘Lady Madonna’. You know, a potboiler rewrite.”

On 23 January, the group (now in Apple Studios)[ tried to record the song properly; bootleg recordings preserve a conversation between McCartney and Harrison between takes discussing the song, and McCartney explaining the original “protest song” concept. The recording captures the group deciding to drop the third verse largely because McCartney does not feel the verse is of high enough quality, although he likes the scanning of the word “Pakistani”. Here the song solidifies in its two-verse, three-solo format.

Watch and listen to the never-released song, “Commonwealth,” here:

Last weekend, when I wasn’t delivering meals to the homebound, I was “researching” Beatles bootlegs. And I discovered the so-called “Commonwealth Song.” It’s not so much a song as it is an extended improvisation during the interminable “Get Back” studio sessions in 1969 (in fact, some theorize that “The Commonwealth Song” is a prototype for “Get Back”). “Commonwealth” name-checks Enoch Powell (the Tom Tancredo of his day, or Thilo Sarazin, if you prefer a German reference), who had delivered his anti-immigrant “Rivers of Blood” speech the previous year. “Commonwealth” was Paul McCartney’s mocking response. All of which shows that the sun never sets on some issues. It’s also nice to know that as late as 1969, Lennon and McCartney could still crack each other up, especially when John interjects his high-pitched “Yes!”

But the Beatles were not in support of Enoch Powell or anti-immigration policies – they were trying to satirize the debate:

The most infamous of the unreleased Get Back versions is known as No Pakistanis, and contained the line “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”. While mostly unfinished, the song did include a mumbled rhyming couplet which paired the words ‘Puerto Rican’ with ‘mohican’.

Various demo versions of this early version were recorded, one of which contains the following lines:

Meanwhile back at home too many Pakistanis
Living in a council flat
Candidate Macmillan, tell us what your plan is
Won’t you tell us where you’re at?

Despite being satirical in nature, it didn’t prevent accusations of racism being levelled at McCartney for years to come, after the Get Back bootlegs became public.

When we were doing Let It Be, there were a couple of verses to Get Back which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of Get Back, which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about ‘too many Pakistanis living in a council flat’ – that’s the line. Which to me was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis… If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favourite people were always black. We were kind of the first people to open international eyes, in a way, to Motown.
Paul McCartney
Rolling Stone, 1986

Today, could a popular musical act speak openly about controversial issues or would they, like the Beatles, have to tone down some of their lyrics and ideas in order to not be misunderstood by the mass market? If the Beatles were opposed to immigration, would people have different opinions about them or does the quality of their music overshadow some of their political leanings? And how many Beatles fans had any idea of what “Get Back” was actually about?

What the Beatles on iTunes might mean for their popularity

Apple and iTunes have apparently reached an agreement with the Beatles to sell their songs in digital form. This puts an end to a long-running stand-off between the Beatles and Apple.

But what does this mean for the Beatles popularity? A few thoughts:

1. Does this mean the Beatles become more known for their singles or single songs rather than albums? Since buyers on iTunes can pick and choose, might they not just pick the Beatles songs they know versus some of the hidden gems (or the worse songs)?

2. This may mean that a whole new generation of young music fans will now have the opportunity to browse the Beatles catalog and find that they enjoy it. But in the long run, will these digital sales help boost the popularity of the Beatles or will their popularity just slowly die out as their generation of music fans slowly disappears?

3. How many fans will be angry that the Beatles have “sold out” to video games and digital music? Are more commercials next?

(UPDATE 10:04 PM 11/16/10: EW.com has a list of other big acts that have not released their music to iTunes. This list  includes AC/DC, Garth Brooks, the Smiths, and Kid Rock.)

The kind of music debates I like: the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones in the psychedelic era

This past Sunday’s Chicago Tribune featured a book excerpt where two music critics debated the merits of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the psychedelic, late 1960s, Sgt. Pepper vs. Their Satanic Majesties Request era. An interesting read if only for the suggestions that the Rolling Stones laughed their way through the psychedelic era while the Beatles, Paul McCartney in particular, couldn’t stop themselves from wanting to be accepted by the British establishment.

Quick Review: 15 years ago, the release of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory

I have lots of music that I enjoy. But few albums rank as high as this 1995 release from Oasis. I estimate that between its release on October 2, 1995 and today (to be fair, I didn’t purchase the album until sometime in 1996), I have heard Morning Glory hundreds of times. (My best estimate at this point would be around 1,200 times.) Some quick thoughts about this masterpiece:

1. This is Oasis at their musical peak. Coming off a very successful debut album, this finds the band both brash and melodic. Many of the lyrics may not make sense (just read the lyrics to “Some Might Say”) but it is an irresistible combination of music, swagger, and atmosphere.

1a. Some of these songs are spectacular, particularly “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” The three-song run from tracks 2 to 4 (“Roll With It” to “Wonderwall” to “Don’t Look Back in Anger”) is great.

2. The popularity of this album would cement their claims of being the biggest band in the world. Perhaps most importantly, it even became popular in the United States with “Wonderwall” becoming a hit, other songs (like “Champagne Supernova”) making some radio headway, and Oasis playing much of this album on MTV Unplugged (which is a very fun album to listen to).

3. There is an atmosphere surrounding this album that comes out in some of the music. This was during a period of music known as “Brit-Pop” though Oasis was on the more traditional, brash side of this movement (while bands like Blur where more on the artistic/experimental side). London was being reborn after years of drudgery, Tony Blair was on the horizon of British politics, and all seemed bright again in England. Part of the irony is that Oasis was leading this charge, a band of working-class members, led by occasionally vulgar brothers, and hailing from the dreary northern city of Manchester.

4. I have many good memories of hearing this album. I was discovering a number of bands at this point, most of them British. The link between the Beatles and Oasis seemed (and still does seem) pretty clear. While some have always been mad that they tried to ape the Beatles, I don’t hold it against them. At the time when I first found this album, it is a short step from listening to Revolver to then listening to Morning Glory.

5. Though they weren’t on the album, there are a number of very solid B-sides from this era. These songs were evidence that Noel Gallagher was swimming in good music at the time – all of the B-sides could have easily made an excellent album in their own right.

All in all, an excellent album. With Oasis being no more and all the albums after Be Here Now lacking their 1990s swagger, I will return to Morning Glory many more times to hear Oasis at its peak.

Reviving an old debate: who is the best Beatle?

Rolling Stone has released a special issue featuring the 100 Greatest Beatles Songs. Paul Grein of Yahoo! Music argues the list revives the question of who was the greatest Beatle:

Of the 100 songs, which were ranked by the editors of Rolling Stone, 40 were written by Lennon, 35 by McCartney, 17 by the two men working together and eight by George Harrison, who came into his own as a songwriter on the Beatles’ final albums.

So it’s fairly close, but Lennon was the key Beatle? Not so fast. In the high-rent district, McCartney leads. McCartney has three songs in the top 10 (“Yesterday” at #4, “Hey Jude” at #7 and “Let It Be” at #8), to just two for Lennon (“Strawberry Fields Forever” at #3 and “Come Together” at #9). Three songs in the top 10 are Lennon/McCartney collaborations: “A Day In The Life” at #1, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” at #2 and “In My Life” at #5. Harrison wrote the two remaining songs in the top 10 (“Something” at #6 and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at #10).

Grein concludes that Lennon was favored in the list:

Why do critics tend to favor Lennon? There are two main reasons. Lennon was edgier and more envelope-pushing, and rock critics tend to favor those qualities over McCartney’s more tradition-bound, pop-minded virtues. Also, Lennon died at 40, shot to death outside of his apartment.

I’ll add my own two cents: Lennon said the kinds of things, particularly politically and culturally, that people who write and read Rolling Stone like. But I’m not convinced he was so “edgy” – after reading several books about his life, particularly post-Beatles, he sounds like a man who was often lost. While he often sounded like a man who knew what he thought, his personal actions indicated something else.

As for who is the best Beatle: I can’t say I really have a favorite. What continually impresses me is the whole they made out of four different parts. The solo work of all four members is an indication that something special happened between the members to create such enduring music.

Quick Review: You Never Give Me Your Money

This book by Peter Doggett, which shares its name with a Beatles song from the Abbey Road album, is about the interactions between the Beatles from 1968 through today. While most of the information about 1968 to 1970 can be found elsewhere, the rest of the book was illuminating what happened between the four after the break-up.

Once the Beatles broke up (unofficially in 1969 and officially in 1970), the four members went their separate ways. In the forty years since then, the relationships have been primarily marked by two types of events:

1. Squabbles.

2. Brief moments of friendship.

The squabbles began in the late 1960s as Apple Corps started falling apart and the group couldn’t agree about who should handle the business end of their relationship. Reading about all this took some of the tarnish off what I knew about the Beatles. The author kept hinting at this as well; despite all the great music and idealism, the band couldn’t even be friends after breaking up.The Beatles, heroes to many, were reduced to sniping at each other over money and control.

The brief moments of friendship were pretty consistent. However, a lot of the talk about possible reunions (and they received a number of large offers) tended to push them apart rather than pull them together. It seems that they eventually realized that once they were Beatles, they couldn’t stop being Beatles. But they also chafed at being remembered together, as if they didn’t exist as competent individuals.

Ultimately, the events recorded here say much about human frailty – even some of the best musicians are just human. In fact, it is remarkable that the individual members were able to produce some of the fine solo work that they did while the business and personal fights were taking place in the background.

So while the Beatles will remain known for their music, innovation, and idealism, they can also be remembered for their faults.