Quick Review: Tune In: The Beatles, All These Years, Vol 1

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn has released the first in a Beatles trilogy titled Tune In. While plenty of books and authors have covered the Beatles (and I’ve read quite a few treatment), this book does a number of things well as it covers the band’s career through the end of 1962:

1. Lewisohn does a nice job discussing the more mundane aspects of their early life such as the home life of each band member. They came from a range of working to middle-class families with several from the Liverpool suburbs. Additionally, until 1962, several Beatles had to have regular jobs because the music business wasn’t yet working out. If I remember correctly, both Ringo and George worked as apprentices in certain trades while Paul worked in various delivery and clerk jobs. It is hard to imagine the Beatles in these roles but they had to balance a normal life path (as some of their family members reminded them) versus trying to succeed in music.

2. Like others, Lewisohn highlights the importance of the band’s early stints in Hamburg. However, he clearly drives home the point that this is where the true Beatles emerged. Not only did the band have a lot of time to play and hone their craft, they also took advantage of this: they knew they had to become serious about their music in order to get ahead. In other words, they went to Hamburg as just another band from Liverpool and came back and blew everyone away with their music, image (black leather), and confidence.

3. There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the larger music scene in England – which was fairly nonexistent regarding rock and roll. The Beatles were quite good at tracking down American music and they were heavily influenced by black artists like Little Richard, white artists who played black music like Elvis, and musicians who emphasized the band like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Beatles liked a broad range of music, which helped give them plenty of music for their long sessions on stage in Hamburg but also set them apart from other Liverpool bands who stuck to more tried and true songs. When the Beatles were in position to record auditions, the music labels weren’t really looking for full bands like them that sang in harmony, emphasized the group rather than the lead singer, and wrote some of their own songs. It is interesting that they ended up with a fruitful working relationship with George Martin at Parlophone as Martin had an eclectic career himself producing a wide range of albums and having difficulty getting a #1.

4. From the beginning, the Beatles wanted to be rich and famous. Perhaps it was simply the brashness of youth. Perhaps they wanted to escape humdrum Liverpool. It is not necessarily clear that the natural talent was there early on to back these ideas up: the Lennon-McCartney classics didn’t really start flowing until 1962 (plus bands didn’t a whole lot of this themselves at this point), John was creative but not always pleasant or focused, they weren’t the greatest musicians early on (especially with Paul learning the bass – though he became good quickly), couldn’t settle on a good drummer until Ringo was asked to join, and some of their early shows/auditions were marked by nervousness. But, it eventually came together in a product that was quite different from other music options and that propelled them ahead of other bands that were once their peers.

This book is full of details in its 800+ pages such that even as it covers similar ground as other biographies, it helps show how the mundane became extraordinary by the end of 1962. I’m looking forward to the next two books which should help reveal how the band that led to Beatlemania entered their most creative period of songwriting, transforming the music and recording industry, and maturing.

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.