Sunday, August 31, 2014

The President of Earth


When I was seven years old and in the second grade, my family moved to Hampton Beach, NH.  Dad was driving truck for Audley Construction on a highway project in the southern part of the state and was apparently making enough that we kept our house in Dorchester and rented an apartment near the beach.  I can remember going out the morning after a storm and finding seaweed on our car.

One of the great joys of that year was, due to our proximity to Southern NH and Massachusetts, we had all kinds of television.  This was in the days of antennas on the roof of the house.  We could actually get all three networks, AND a couple UHF stations, with just the rabbit ears on the back of the set.  Livin' large, y'all.

One of my favorite shows was a Japanese cartoon, early anime, called Astro Boy.  Astro Boy was a robot made to look like a little kid who could do all sorts of wonderful things like fly and fight big, mean bad guys.  I remember in particular one episode where he was commissioned to tackle a big problem by no less than . . . the President of Earth.

This is a widespread topic in the sci-fi world for a long time now.  H. G. Wells wrote about a unified world government, as has Isaac Asimov.  Star Trek, Babylon 5, Barbarella, Futurama, and story tellers high and low have used it in their predictions of Earth's future.  Some would argue that the League of Nations and the United Nations were intended to be steps in that direction.

The reason I bring this up is that a lot of people are trying to figure out Barack Obama's policies, and especially his foreign policy.  Many people feel he doesn't have one at all.  Even many of his staunchest supporters either can't figure it out, or they just aren't saying what they really think.  Others think he's a complete idiot who's simply way in over his head.  The administration seems to be telling us that it's a nuanced strategy that we'll understand better down the road, which could be beaurocrat-speak for . . . well, just about anything.

But as I watch the news and see events unfolding, I can't help wondering if there actually is a core strategy after all.  What if Barack Obama looks at illegal immigrants, ISIL, Putin, North Korea and China, not as threats, but as potential partners?

If you think about it, a unified world government could take one of two forms.  One way was the way the Romans, the British, the Nazis, the Communists and the Huns tried; conquest.  One ring to rule them all, blah blah blah.  One state dominating the rest.  Some, again, would say that the League of Nations and UN were the US's way of doing this.  It could also be said that American industry is trying to do that on an economic level.

The other form would be that of a democratic republic.  One in which every group of people were equally represented.  A government in which any group with a grievance could get a fair and equitable hearing.  One currency, a military that would act more as a police force, one executive branch, one legislature, one judiciary . . . and no borders.  One postal service!  One bureau to oversee agriculture, one educational system, one set of standards for transportation, to protect the environment, to oversee commerce, etc. etc. etc.  Even a bureau to adjudicate grievances between religious groups.

You could frame this any way you like.  Wells, Asimov, Roddenberry all saw it as a good thing.  Aldous Huxley parodied it.  Please don't imply a value judgement in what I'm saying, I'm just putting it out there as a possible idea.  I'm not trying to argue for or against it, I'm just saying . . . what if that's the goal?

It's entirely possible that seven-year-old Barack Obama was watching Astro Boy, or something similar, and thought to himself - as many undoubtedly have - why not?  And when?  And how?  So he goes into community organizing, and runs for Illinois State Senate, and then US Senate, gets a high-profile chance to be a keynote speaker at the Democratic National convention, and the next thing you know . . .

Now, I'm not suggesting that he's trying to make it happen during his presidency, or that he'd even expect it to be accomplished in his lifetime.  But IF it's a legitimate goal, then aren't current events, and the administration's response to them, leaning us strongly in that direction?  A day when there are no borders?  When Shi'ia and Sunni, Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Jew and Russian and Ukranian and Korean and Mexican and German and so forth and so on are living under one flag?  Voting with one ballot?  Spending one currency?

When I look at a politician, I listen carefully to what they say and watch carefully what they do.  What I'm thinking about it, who's their real boss?  Who are they helping?  Whose help do they want the most?  Who owns them?  What's their goal?

There's one thing I can say for damned sure about every politician on the planet; they sure ain't trying to please me.  They don't know me from a hole in the ground.  I represent one vote.  But there are people, and corporations, and organizations, that represent far, far more than one vote.  The Supreme Court says that a corporation is a person?  Like hell!  It's thousands of people.  And so is a union.  And so is Al Sharpton, and the AARP, and the National Organization of Women, and any organization or group or person representing a large voting bloc.

The pharmaceutical companies can flex their muscle and make thousands of votes appear out of thin air.  How?  I have no idea, but they spend their money and the things they want to hear get said, and the next thing you know mysterious endorsements come out of the woodwork and thousands of people go to the polls and do the bidding of the pharmaceutical companies.

Same with the oil companies, and every other major industry.  And, the same with any of dozens of special interest groups.  Spin is generated that keeps a high emotional tone and on election day we march like a bunch of dumb sheep to save the planet, or create jobs, or meet a threat or blah blah blah.  And the few who really benefit might, in a generous moment, thank us and then shovel on more fertilizer.

But what if somebody with actual ideals, goals and plans, decided to play that system for their own benefit?


Meet Skeletor.  He's the arch enemy of He-Man, a particular favorite of my two sons, Alex and Tyler, when they were at the age I was when I discovered Astro Boy.  He-Man was easily the most ridiculous super hero ever conceived.   He was a big, strong muscle-beach type who . . . was good.  That's it, just good.  Never figured out quite why, he was just good.

And he protected Eternia, I remember that.  From this other guy, Skeletor.  He was . . . well, he was bad.  That's all.  He wasn't a dad, or a Republican, or even an advocate for the rights of blue people.  He was just bad.  He laughed at other people's pain and tried his darndest to defeat He-Man.  Oddly enough, my sons adored Skeletor.  He was much cooler than He-Man.  I guess somebody like that just brings out the Skeletor in people.

This inane cartoon series sold a lot of action figures (NOT dolls!) for Mattel, who apparently had no political agenda.  They'd sell you a Skeletor doll - er, Action Figure - just as quickly as they'd sell you a He-Man.  They didn't even care if you made him kiss Barbie.  Or Ken!

If you get your news from certain sources, you might come to wonder if Barack Obama was actually Skeletor with a makeover.  Certain other sources would tell you no; that George W. Bush is Skeletor.  They're bad.  Just, simply, purely, bad.  Evil.  No reason, no ideas, no goals, just bad.  

Personally, I'm skeptical.  I don't think either of them are Skeletor.  I actually liked Bush, and I think I understand what motivates Barack Obama.  I even agree with him, to a certain extent.  I think his methodology is deeply and fatally flawed, but if he's trying to do what I think he's trying to do, there's at least an argument in his favor.

Y'see, I believe, from a few years of observation, that President Obama has two core goals that he's trying to advance; the protection of the environment, and the unification of the world.  These two goals are advanced more efficiently through the Democratic/liberal/progressive side of the political spectrum, so he's using that avenue.

I would agree that humanity needs to be better stewards of the world that God made for us to live in.  I believe that we can make a significant impact on the environment, in spite of what many conservative commentators say.  I know I've used this analogy before, but peeing in their swimming pools would certainly liven up the debate on the topic.  On the other hand, I think most environmental legislation is flawed, but that's a debate for another day.

As for the other, I think that's rooted in the belief that power is best used when it's controlled by a governing body instead of left to the private sector.  I personally believe that mankind is corrupt and fallen, and that power only adds to that corruption.  Again, I've written other essays on this blog about that.

But I do not believe that Barack Obama is Skeltor, or Satan, or Hitler.  I believe he is a well-meaning visionary who thinks he's doing what is best for everybody, now and in the long term future.  I believe he thinks that in twenty or a hundred years his goals will become more apparent, and we will thank him.

And, I believe he's wrong.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Fear of Impurity and Countertops


I recently dug out an old Talking Heads album and found myself really enjoying it.  It was very popular in its day, and if I'm not mistaken it was their best selling album at the time.  Surprisingly, there isn't much that sounds like it these days.  At my age, with as many albums as I've owned, I can trace a lot of what I hear coming out these days directly back to something I'm familiar with.  But nothing seems to lead to Fear of Music.

One of my favorite songwriters happens to be a good friend of mine, Jim Tyrrell.  Among his other activities, he participates in a thing called Songfight.  This is a website for songwriters.  They will assign their participants to write a song on a certain theme.  It may be a phrase, a topic, it could be anything.  You have, if I'm correct, a week to write, record, and post a song.  He does it because it helps him hone his craft; a worthy reason if ever there was one.

One of the songs Jim wrote for this was called "God Hates Penguins."  Songfight assigned their group / family / minions / devotees to each write a song to go along with that title.  When they're posted, they get voted on.  Obviously, the people with the busiest Facebook pages win.  Jim didn't win, but he wrote a very clever song that I like very much.

I have a problem with things like Songfight, but I'm not really sure why.  Maybe it's some outmoded, misguided psychological problem of mine relating to the 'purity' of songwriting.  Whatever my issue, I'm probably wrong, because I really like Jim's songs.  It's just that the whole idea seems so... I'm about to use a bad word here... commercial.

Most of what we regard as Classical Music was written in similar ways.  Back in the day people like  Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Handel worked for a nobleman or high church official.  They were an employee of the court or diocese.  There were events, parties, church services, ceremonies, whatever, that you would have to provide music for.  And don't be trotting out something by Vivaldi, we hired you because you can write!  J. S. Bach wrote over 300 cantatas for church services during his career, and they were never repeated.

So if Count Olaf and the little woman show up and the Duke gets out the good schnapps, you might find yourself getting the orchestra up and dressed at 3 am for karaoke time.  And if you ran out of ideas... well, you quietly sign out one of the back-up carriages and take a ride through the countryside.  Cruise by a couple of barn dances and if the local fiddle player's got a snappy tune, write it down, go home, and claim it as your own.  It's not like they're going to come to Vienna and sue you for plagiarism.

Another of my favorite songwriters is also a good friend, Mr. Sky King.  I think it's safe to say he fits in the mold of "pure folk musician."  As Pete Seeger famously said, folk music is the music that folks play.  For Sky, songwriting isn't unlike keeping a diary.  If he meets somebody interesting or anything at all moves him emotionally, he's likely to write a song about it.  Maybe nobody will ever hear it, maybe he'll pop it out at the next open mic.  He would look at "God Hates Penguins" and probably think; no, he doesn't.  Then, just maybe, he'd write a song about it.

In a way, modern rock stars are not unlike the Great Composers, in that they do it for a living.  A cranky Count wanting to hear something he can dance to in 1679 isn't that different from a record company executive in 1979 screaming, "I don't hear a single!"  They write their songs with... here comes that word again... commercial considerations, meaning that they try and write something that people are going to like.

Now, wait a minute... What's wrong with that?  Why would you, for instance, deliberately write a song that people didn't like?  I think this is where that 'purity' thing comes in.  Should you write a song because people will like it... or because something deserves to have a song written about it?

If we use Pete Seeger's measuring stick, everything on the radio, on MTV and VH1, on YouTube and Rhapsody and iTunes and Sirius/XM... is folk music.  It's part of the common consciousness.  It's the music of our lives.  Just like that fiddle tune at the barn dance in 1679.  And much more so than whatever great, important music is that's being written in some dark corner of academia where only a rare few will ever hear it.  Only now, it's the folk musicians stealing ideas from the Royals.

And most rockers, rappers, or whatever, generally begin as more 'pure' folk musicians.  They write their songs out of a need to express themselves, not necessarily with a desire to get rich and famous.  They picked up their guitar or ocarina or Korg Kaoss and expressed themselves.  And the ones who did it well and/or had good connections and/or good luck got rich doing it.  The commercial part comes when they're in the mindset of wanting the train to keep rolling.


Which brings us to the Talking Heads in 1979.  In a handful of years they've gone from geeky artsy students, to a band, to a band that a lot of people in the New York vicinity liked, to a signed act, to major stars touring the world.   Their income increased dramatically and quickly, and their calendars filled to overflowing.

And the same thing was happening to a lot of their friends.  New York was a vanguard location for the original Punk movement, along with London and Los Angeles.  Punk began as a grass roots reaction to disco and progressive rock and the (here it comes again) commercial state of rock in general.  Rock and roll was now complex and expensive and very, very difficult to get into.  A lot had changed since Buddy Holly was playing roller rinks.  The stars, and their music, was also increasingly detached from its audience.  A lot of young people found the Ramones and Television and Richard Hell easier to identify with than the Village People and Genesis.

The Talking Heads were from the side of punk that came to be known as New Wave.  It was more artsy, more intellectual.  Their original audience was a lot more likely to ask, "Why is there air?" than "Where's the beer?"  They discovered very quickly that the knobs on their amps had numbers between 0 and 10, and used them.

One thing about punk, then and now, is that it's generally made by people who can barely play.  To the more rough side of the genre, this becomes a problem; the more popular they become, the more they play.  And the more they play, the better they get.  This ruined a lot of punk bands.  But the New Wave side used these newly acquired skills to enhance their sound and come up with newer, better songs.

So here's the Talking Heads at the end of the '70's.  I can almost see it happening.  They've done two albums and toured the world.  Now, they're back in New York, hanging with their friends.  Some are other newly-famous New Wavers, some are just the people they always hung out with before they were rich and famous.  They're probably still in that happy space before "everybody else got weird about it."  They're getting pretty good at playing and writing songs, and while smoking a few doobies and sharing some lines with their friends, they get talking about the follow-up to "More Songs About Buildings And Food."

People start saying, "You oughta do a song about..."  Somebody gets out a pen and a piece of paper and starts taking suggestions.  And the list quickly grows; Cities.  Mind.  Paper.  Drugs.  Life During Wartime.  By the end of the party, the four members of the Talking Heads realize they've got a very good list of valid song topics.  They make a commitment to write these songs.

I don't know if that's how it really happened, and the wikipedia article on the album suggests otherwise, but listening to Fear Of Music it could easily have happened just that way.  It's a very good album, their best IMHO, and very well thought out.  The whole thing is downright danceable, and yet it will really make you think.  Too rare a combination, if you ask me.






I was going to write this piece several months ago.  What reminded me of it was seeing a band at Make Music Plymouth called Jake McKelvie and the Countertops.  Three young guys playing in front of the ski shop on Main street.  They sounded very original, very creative, and yet oddly not unlike early Talking Heads.  I really enjoyed them.

I don't know if they've got a CD out yet, but they seem to be an up and coming band, attracting a fair bit of attention.  I get the impression they were one of the better-known bands playing at MMP.  One day, I may be able to impress people by saying I saw them for free back in 2014 on Main street in Plymouth.  I wonder how their third album will sound?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Beatles (White Album)

For the last couple of days I've been listening to the White Album in the car.  The Beatles are one of those groups I regularly return to, and with a long drive to and from work and a good CD player in the car, it’s been fun going through some of my favorite albums.  I've been making a chronological journey through the Beatles’ later catalog, starting with Rubber Soul and working my way toward the end.

This particular album, in my humble opinion, is quite possibly the most significant in the history of the group.  I've seen at least two different polls in which it was named their best album.  It’s sold over 20 million copies since its initial release 45 years ago, making it one of the top selling albums in history.  But, again in my humble opinion, it just might be . . . their worst album.

One thing is without dispute; in the history of this, the biggest rock band ever, it was the beginning of the end.  From their first recordings up through Sgt. Pepper and even the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour movie, it was always The Beatles against the world.  The fame that threatened to consume and destroy them was always met with a united front.  Manager Brian Epstein handled the business end, producer George Martin steered the ship in the studio, and John, Paul, George and Ringo provided the wind for the sails.

The years 1966 and 67 were full of upheaval for the band.  In ’66 they decided to stop playing live.  Their concerts were so big that they couldn't even hear themselves play, and the technology of live sound hadn't yet caught up to the needs.  Plus, they were leading an extremely stressful life, going from the road to the studio and back again, over and over without a break, from late ’62 through most of ’66.

So 1967 was a year of relaxation and reflection, and their studio time was much more leisurely.  They, along with George Martin, took the time to produce one of the most important rock albums ever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Then, suddenly, Epstein died, leaving them somewhat rudderless.  Their response was to take several tunes that had already been recorded and make a script-less movie called Magical Mystery Tour.

The movie got scathing reviews after being shown on British television the day after Christmas, 1967.  But the album stands as one of their best and was a huge hit, with several of their most popular songs, from Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields Forever and even I Am The Walrus.

When the time came around to start the next set of recording sessions, tensions inside the group were beginning to build.  They used to stand united, circling the wagons as the adoring public, the press, their competition, and everybody else came at them.  Now, with nothing to do but create, their individuality began to take over.

It would not be altogether untrue to consider the White Album to be the first solo work by each of the Beatles.  Four very creative, very strong personalities were free to do whatever they pleased.  But then each of the four was required to fill the role of back-up musician to each of the other three.  And when the slots on the album began to fill up, the dominance of Lennon and McCartney caused yet more tension.  And there was no Brian Epstein to run interference, and no tour for a distraction.

One controversy of this album is that it’s their only double album.  Many people, including producer George Martin and drummer Ringo Starr, felt that the best songs should have been used for a single LP.  I think that is the tack I am going to take here and go through the album, track by track, and designate which should stay and which should go.  Feel free to chip in your own $0.02 on the subject.

SIDE ONE

BACK IN THE USSR

This song caused quite a stir back in the day.  A lot of people didn't like rock and roll to begin with, considering it The Devil’s Music and complaining that it was bad for the youth of the world.  Lennon’s comment in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” didn't help.  Many of their detractors viewed this song as a smoking gun.  Anyone this immoral obviously had to be communists too, right?

Frankly, I think it was simply what it appears to be, a tribute to (and maybe even parody of) Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA.  It was written and sung by Paul McCartney.  People had known for years that the whole Lennon/McCartney thing was fiction anyway.  Sometimes the other would contribute a line or a snatch of melody or something, but for the most part their songs were written by Lennon OR McCartney.

Evaluation – Keeper.

DEAR PRUDENCE

John Lennon was in a pretty weird space by mid-1968.  His marriage was on the rocks and he had publicly taken up with Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.  He was also taking a lot of drugs, of a lot of different varieties.  The previous year had ended with Brian Epstein’s death and the band’s famous trip to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which turned out to be very disappointing for John.

Without the distractions of the road, he had to deal with issues dating back to his childhood; absent father, raised by a strict aunt, and a free-spirited mother who never quite had it together enough to take care of him.  It has been speculated that Yoko took advantage of his Mommy issues, simultaneously controlling and liberating him.

The result was a body of work that was often unfocused but occasionally brilliant.  He was by far the most intelligent and creative member of the band, but also had the biggest issues.  Yoko arguably tied him to her and he spent the rest of his days in a rambling three-legged race to nowhere.  Even so, the postcards he sent back could have some wonderful scenery in them.  This was one of his better efforts in this collection.

Evaluation – Keeper

GLASS ONION

Another Lennon tune, and another pretty good one.  Not great, but not bad.  Letting a little of his anger out, and also playing with the Paul-is-dead idea, teasing the fans with a couple “clues.”

Evaluation – Keeper

OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA

Everybody loves this Paul McCartney composition.  It’s cute, it’s bouncy, it uses the word “bra” in a strange context.  Paul has a gift for taking some little piece of nonsense and making something out of it.  I’ll bet he made the best, and most elaborate, lanyards at summer camp.  Other moms would turn to their kids and say, “Why couldn't you make me one that nice?”

Yeah, but this song, well . . . it kinda sucks.  Paul went through a period of really being into depression-era English vaudeville and dance-hall music.  The kind his dad played.  So, he made the lanyard for his dad.  I’m impressed.

And yet, even with that . . . well, the damned thing is cute, it is bouncy . . . and frankly, again in my humble opinion, if bras aren't the greatest thing ever, they’re next to it.  ;>

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not

WILD HONEY PIE

What, are you kidding, Paul?

Evaluation – Throw it!

THE CONTINUING STORY OF BUNGALOW BILL

This is your brain on drugs.  For those of you smart enough never to experience being really wasted, this is what happens to you.  Listening to this song again, I can describe the exact process of how it was written; somebody said something and got it a little wrong.  Bungalow instead of buffalo.  A giggling fit ensues.  Hey, Bungalow Bill!  Then, John Lennon picked up his guitar and did this.  And because he’s John Lennon, nobody had the balls to tell him to stop.  Yeah, it’s cute.  Filler at best.

Evaluation – Throw it!

WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS

An absolutely amazing, beautiful song, and proof that George Harrison was closing the gap with Lennon and McCartney.  George’s friend Eric Clapton provided the uncredited guitar solo.  The live version on Concert For Bangladesh was great, and so is Jeff Healey’s rearrangement in the ‘90’s.  Btw, George played rhythm guitar on that recording, too.

Evaluation – Keeper

HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN

A strange, disturbing, rambling little John Lennon tune.  I certainly wouldn't release this as a single, but whether you like it or not, it drips genius.  And sometimes, genius is almost intolerable.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not

SIDE TWO

MARTHA MY DEAR

It is appropriate that these two songs, Happiness and Martha, should be placed consecutively on this album.  The former is John indulging his muse with great result but for no good reason.  Same for Paul with this song.  They were definitely headed in different directions at this time, but using the same road map.

Once again, Paul’s penchant for vaudeville comes through.  And like everything that Paul McCartney does, he worked on it really, really hard, crafting it carefully and buffing it to a high gloss.  Or, rather, making George Martin do it.

The difference is that this is a very worthy piece of music, regardless of where its inspiration came from.  You can draw a straight line from the little love songs he wrote in ’63 and ’64 to this.  The first few lines say “Tripe,” but then the song begins to blossom.  It’s really rather good.

Evaluation – Keeper

I’M SO TIRED

One thing with John Lennon, you don’t have to wonder what he’s driving at.  Damn, I’m tired.  I’m so-o-o tired . . . wait, not so tired I can’t grab my guitar and a piece of paper, and immortalize being bushed for posterity.  Then, the next time Bloody Damned George Martin is hounding me to do Just One More Take, I’ll sing him this.  That’ll fix ‘im!

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not

BLACKBIRD

One of the most revered songs that Paul McCartney ever wrote, and for good reason.  He spits these things out like the lowly oyster spits out pearls.

Evaluation – Keeper

PIGGIES

Do I need to bring up that Charles Manson used this song as an excuse to murder a bunch of people?  Nah, I won’t mention it.

This song puts me in an odd position.  I really like George, wish that he’d gotten more songs on the Beatles’ albums, and by the end of the group a case could be argued that he was actually the best of the three songwriters.  I also, in very general terms, agree with the theme of this song.  Rich people do tend to behave like a-holes.

Unfortunately, it’s not one of his best efforts.  My guess would be, he was just in a pissy mood and decided to get up on his Hare Hare soapbox and give a bunch of arrogant rich people what for.  Not a bad thing to do, in and of itself.  Just not a great piece of art.  Taxman from Revolver was much better.

Evaluation – Throw it

ROCKY RACCOON

You really need to hear the early version from Anthology to appreciate this to the fullest.  A bit of stoned rambling from Mr. McCartney.  It would be easy to laugh off and dismiss . . . but it’s so damned catchy!  I've been playing it live for 40 years, and people love it.

Evaluation – Keeper

DON’T PASS ME BY

This recording is a crime.  Not because of the quality of the song, but the way it was treated.  Yeah, Ringo wasn't a songwriter, but he spent an awful lot of time with three of the best of his era.  So he tried his hand at it.  And ya know what . . . it ain't bad!  Nice simple little song, all the boxes checked, no major flaws . . . not bad at all, Ring.

And then they do THIS.  Gaaakk!  Hey, dudes, it’s the one, single, solitary piece of songcraft the boy ever contributed.  The least they could have done is give it a fair shot.  Just play it straight, two guitars, bass, and his drums.

I always liked the way the rest of the band treated Ringo.  He was the worker bee, the guy who always came up with a good drum part, the guy who always followed along no matter what and gave his best.  Listen to the latter half of Anthology, and the one constant is Ringo, nailing it, every stinkin’ time.

In return they would always let him sing a song.  John and Paul would even sit down together and write him one, usually the only time they ever actually collaborated on anything.  Yellow Submarine.  A Little Help From My Friends.  Octopus’s’ Garden.  And now, our friend, the guy who holds it all together, ladies and gents give it up for . . . Ringo Starr!!

And then HE writes something, and it’s even good enough to include, and you do this.  Might as well have rolled a calliope down a staircase.  Shame, shame, shame.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not – if Keeper, purely out of spite.

WHY DON’T WE DO IT IN THE ROAD

Paul’s B-side for Wild Honey Pie.

Evaluation – Throw it!!

I WILL

Another little throw-away gem from Paul.  I’d like to hate it because it’s so sweet and cute . . . but it’s so sweet and cute!

Evaluation – Keeper

JULIA

This John Lennon tune defines the term “achingly beautiful.”  It is, quite possibly, the best song on the record.  This, or While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  It’s the song Blackbird and I Will wish they could be.  Paul never even came close until My Love, and then barely, and never again.  And it’s not even Lennon’s best work.

Evaluation – Keeper

SIDE THREE

BIRTHDAY

This should be one of the ones to throw away, but it’s so damned good!  Especially Ringo’s little solo, and the kicker back in.  Yeah, we’re goin’ to a party, party . . .

It may actually have been a collaboration, although I detect a lot of McCartney DNA.  But there’s some Lennon as well.  I've heard it speculated that there’s a Beatles song for absolutely every occasion.  It just might be so.

Evaluation – Keeper

YER BLUES

This should be yet another for the dustbin.  There was a blues revival in the UK about this time.  John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Clapton, the Yardbirds, everywhere you looked some Brit was copping some blues record that an English merchant sailor brought back from the Colonies.

The Beatles grew up on that stuff, Liverpool being a port and all, and when it started getting really popular I guess John couldn't resist.  The trouble is, to real blues people, there was some of this British blues that frankly sounded like a bad parody.  And when this kicks off, it seems to fit into that category.

It’s one thing to pay homage to a whole musical style, something else entirely to seem to be making fun of it.  The opening bars of Yer Blues really, really sounds like some white kid goofing on the whole thing, with no understanding whatsoever of where it comes from.  It certainly doesn't ring of the respect that people like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, or even Keith Richards gave it.

But the deeper into the song you get, the more apparent John Lennon’s passion is.  Not so much for the style he’s chosen, but for the subject.  Once again, you never have to guess at what he’s thinking.  When he says; “Lonely, wanna die,” you believe him.  And that, brothers and sisters, is the blues.

The Abbey Road album had two of these types of songs, one by Paul called Oh, Darling that comes off as even more of a parody than the first verse of this; and another John composition, I Want You, that’s another passion-and-angst song, but for my money not quite as good as this one.  You want to hear the Beatles try and do the blues?  This is it.

Evaluation – Keeper

MOTHER NATURE’S SON

Another perfect little jewel from Paul.  Not the depth of Julia, but certainly the skill, and flawless execution.  The Beatles started out as a hot little R&B band, but then Paul wrote Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby.  By the time they followed the Maharishi to India, they had become comfortable with the acoustic guitar.  Many of this album’s acoustic songs were written there.

Evaluation – Keeper

EVERYBODY’S GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE EXCEPT FOR ME AND MY MONKEY

This should be John’s version of Wild Honey Pie, an easy call to make.  But it’s not, dammit.  You got to give it to him, when he’s on, he can’t fall off.

Let’s face it, if he wasn't John Lennon, there’s a lot of songs nobody would have ever heard.  Things like Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, and Tomorrow Never Knows were fine buried deep within an album full of number-one singles.  They could be ignored until one got to really know an album, and then they would creep into your consciousness.  This is one of those songs.

Evaluation – Keeper

SEXY SADIE

This was where John chose to spit his venom regarding his disappointment with the Maharishi.  The Hindu holy man was caught making sexual advances toward actress Mia Farrow, who had made the pilgrimage along with the band.  At that point everything the man had said became suspect.  The incident should serve as a warning to anyone professing adherence to a moral standard; physician, heal thyself.

John’s sarcastic wit is at its sharpest here.  Unfortunately, his feel for the craft of songwriting is not.  The music is clever, but disjointed, and I’m afraid it fails as a song.

Evaluation – Throw it

HELTER SKELTER

This was the other song used as a teaching tool by His Holiness Charles Manson.  It’s really an homage to a popular carnival ride.  It’s also Paul’s attempt at capturing the burgeoning style known as heavy metal.  Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and the like were just beginning to make an impression.  It’s not really that bad a song, but it’s not really that good either.  U2 did a much better version, without even practicing it.  Find that on Rattle & Hum.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not

LONG, LONG, LONG

George Harrison actually did two solo albums while still with the Beatles, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, both quite experimental.  After the breakup of the band he did his first proper solo album, a three-record behemoth called All Things Must Pass.  Many of those songs were written while with the Beatles, some dating back to 1966.  Those songs had all been rejected by Lennon and McCartney.

Many people, including myself, think All Things Must Pass is the best album by any of the former Beatles.  This song sounds a lot like much of that album.  And frankly, it probably would have sounded better if he’d saved it for later, produced by Phil Spector and featuring the Mad Dogs And Englishmen band.  It’s a darned good song, and the Beatles did a pretty good job on it all the same.

Evaluation – Keeper

SIDE FOUR

REVOLUTION 1

Legend has it that this song was born of a luncheon meeting between John Lennon and Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies and a leader of the American revolutionary movement of the ‘60’s.  He was one of the Chicago 7.  Anyway, he was sharing his ideas on the socialist revolution that he, Abby Hoffman, and others were leading.  Then a young waiter came to his attention and the great revolutionary starting hassling him.  Lennon protested, saying that if the revolution was real, then it was for the benefit of people such as the young waiter.

What this song says is that Lennon agreed with the basic premise of the movement, but didn't appreciate Rubin’s hypocrisy any more than he did the Maharishi’s.  John objected to the way the rich and powerful ran the world, but saw that the revolution might just replace one set of arrogant despots with another.  Power to the people, right on.

John wanted to release this song as a single, but the others thought it was too slow.  So a faster version was recorded, one that never appeared on a proper Beatles album but that Capitol eventually put out on its Hey Jude/The Beatles Again album.  They also did a video for release to the Ed Sullivan show.  After they gave up playing live, Sullivan became their favorite outlet for these videos.

I have to say, I do like the faster version better, but this one is worth including.

Evaluation – Keeper

HONEY PIE

Paul McCartney’s jones for ‘30’s dance hall music found no greater expression than right here, with the possible exception of Your Mother Should Know from Magical Mystery Tour.  Hey, I’m as sentimental as the next guy, but c’mon already!

Evaluation – Throw it

SAVOY TRUFFLE

Another Harrison tune.  He had learned his craft well, but that didn't always translate to a good song.  This is an example.  We’re dealing totally in the realm of my opinion here, but George, bless his heart, had a number of songs that were well done, good melody, proper chord structure, but . . . well, they just didn't work.

Old Brown Shoe from Let It Be is a good example.  It seemed like, for every If I Needed Someone there would then be a Think For Yourself.  To me, this falls into the latter category.  Play it back to back with While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and you’ll see what I mean.

Evaluation – Throw it

CRY BABY CRY

A rather strange little Lennon tune that seems to have no beginning or end.  What we are left with is a pleasant little romp of a song that’s really a lot deeper than it initially seems.  It’s one of those songs you almost don’t notice, but keep coming back to later.  Still, if trimming this album down to a single LP becomes too difficult, this is one that wouldn't be too badly missed.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not

REVOLUTION 9

Musique Concrete is a genre that uses snippets of recorded sound, speech, and whatever to create its compositions.  Lennon had liked avant-garde art long before meeting Yoko Ono.  This piece was his way of introducing a wider audience to the style.

It’s difficult to know how to approach this, and most other of its ilk.  It doesn't use melody, harmony or rhythm the way “normal” music does.  You can just let it play in the background and allow it to invoke an emotional response, or you can listen carefully and attempt to analyze it and try to discern any meaning.

The latter approach makes it an interesting listen, although I've been doing it for 45 years and am no closer to figuring out what the hell he was trying to say.  With the former approach, it’s just unpleasant.  Still, it’s instructional.

There’s also the place it holds in the Paul-is-deal lore.  As the story goes, Paul McCartney allegedly died in a car accident in 1966.  The Beatles and their management, fearing the derailing of one of the greatest gravy trains ever, replaced him with a lookalike.  I’ll spare you the rest, which probably is laid out in a wikipedia article anyway.

But Revolution 9, especially if played backwards, supposedly contains many clues.  It escapes me why they would do such an elaborate cover-up, and then sprinkle all their albums with clues regarding the deception, but there are still people who actually believe it.  Somewhere I've a cassette with a recording of the piece played backward.  The clues as described in various sources can be identified, but for the most part it sounds a lot like it does when played forwards.

It’s important to note that all their albums before this one were done with a simple 4-track reel-to-reel deck at Abbey Road studios in London.  Sgt. Pepper was recorded on two machines that were then synced by hand, by George Martin, for the mastering process.  When the boys showed up to begin these sessions, they discovered a spanking new 8-track machine that hadn't even been taken out of the box.  The insisted it be set up, and it was used for everything else they ever did at Abbey Road.  That deck made Revolution 9 possible.  Thank goodness it wasn't all they did with it.

Evaluation – Throw it

GOOD NIGHT

A pretty little lullaby with way-too-lush orchestration by Sir George Martin and sung by Ringo.  If we’re trimming, it can go with no tears.

Evaluation – Throw it

And so we are left with the following keepers:

Back In The USSR
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Martha My Dear
Blackbird
Rocky Raccoon
I Will
Julia
Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except for Me And My Monkey
Long Long Long
Revolution 1

Hmm . . . that’s 15 songs.  But there’s 30 to start with.  George Harrison went on record as being one of the ones lobbying to make it a double album, because they had so large a backlog of songs.  It’s hard to believe they left so many of his songs off and chose to include things like Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.  Ah, well.

It’s tempting to simply trim it down to what would fit on a single CD.  This is impossible with the entire original White Album, because there’s 93 minutes of music.  If you wanted to go that route, you could probably include all the Maybes:

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me by
Helter Skelter
Cry Baby Cry

That would allow you to pull off the real drek, and I suppose you could even keep sentimental favorites like Bungalow Bill or Savoy Truffle.

But it should be remembered that in 1968 the album that George Martin was lobbying for would have had to fit on a vinyl record.  That means an absolute maximum of around 50 minutes, as opposed to the 80 of a single CD.

This raises a controversy that followed the band’s early career; the difference between the UK and US versions.  Up to and including Revolver, the UK and US versions of each album was different.  Invariably, the US album had fewer songs.  The songs left off were later put together as albums that didn't exist in the UK.  This is where the US got records like Something New, Beatles ’65, Yesterday . . . and Today, and others.

One reason was pure greed.  Everything with the name Beatles on it sold in huge numbers.  At one point, the Beatles occupied the top three spots on the album charts and the top five places on the singles charts.  So Capitol records would take the Parlophone album of 12-14 songs, pull off 2-4, re-order what was left, and presto.  Do that a couple of times, and the leftovers got released as yet another album.

But there were other reasons as well, and pretty valid ones considering.  One was that an album with fewer songs on it could be mixed to have more bass response.  Bass notes take up more space, because the grooves had to be wider.  This meant, fewer grooves would fit on a vinyl record.  And so, the US releases tended to sound just a little better than the UK ones.

Plus, Capitol never just chopped off the last couple songs on each side.  They were carefully chosen, and then the remainder were put in a different order.  In my opinion, the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver were just better albums than the UK versions.  And for those who absolutely had to have everything, the leftovers eventually got put out there anyway.

At any rate, the album that George Martin imagined would have fit on one vinyl disc, preferably coming in around 40 minutes or less, for release in both markets.  Still, the fifteen songs I've picked would come out to about 46 minutes, which is doable.  If you wanted to cut a few in order to improve the bass response, I’d recommend Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey, and Long Long Long.  And maybe Martha My Dear.  But you could just as easily leave all three.

Ringo’s idea was to release the whole thing, but as two separate albums; The White Album, and The Whiter Album, as he put it.  The smart play, of course, would be to mix Keepers with Tossers.  But if you make the first one with the list I've provided, that makes the second one;

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Happiness Is A Warm Gun
Piggies
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me By
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night

Now, think about it; on what planet would that be considered a proper Beatles record?  How does that lineup stack up against Revolver?  Or Abbey Road?  Or Rubber Soul?  Granted, in this setting, it sure makes Helter Skelter and Ob-La-Di look pretty good, but is this what we expect a Beatles album to be like?

What I’m saying, and what George Martin was trying to say, is that there was a lot of stuff on the White Album that isn't up to the Beatles’ usual standard.  This is all stuff that belonged maybe on Anthology, or Past Masters Volume 3.  These are the outtakes.

For that matter, look at the list compiled for the first one.  The keepers.  Now imagine going through Abbey Road, or Let It Be, or Magical Mystery Tour, or even Meet The Beatles.  Which songs off those acknowledged classics would you replace with anything on my keeper’s list?

Which finally brings me back to my original argument; that this could well be the Beatles’ WORST album.  In all their history, from their first recording session in 1962 up to the end of the sessions for Abbey Road, the White Album is the worst collection of songs they ever put together.  Even compared to their earliest stuff, which was a gaggle of their singles, from two really young guys still learning how to write songs, interspersed with covers and other filler.

And yet, even if it IS their worst, it just goes to show how truly great the Beatles were.  There’s a reason that, more than 50 years after Love Me Do, they are still the biggest band ever.  Even their worst album is pretty damned good.  And 45 years after its release, I’m digging it out for yet another play through, not even skipping Why Don’t We Do It In The Road or Wild Honey Pie.

As Paul McCartney famously said for the Anthology TV specials; It’s good, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album.  Shut up.

So this is me, shutting up.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Last Hippie Muses



Titles for instrumentals I don't remember writing:

Furby's Last Friend

Lisa Marie's Deep Brown Crown Victoria (for which she traded an old Mercury Montego before finding out it was really a used police car)

Tickling the Nickels

Buried Beneath Somebody Else’s Barn

Jerry Orbach’s Car (We’d have called it Jerry Orbach’s Eyebrows, but we don’t know anything about his eyebrows.)


The Last Hippie Muses

". . . and that's when the Illuminati had him assassinated," the Last Hippie said solemnly, punctuating his statement with a long pull on the fat doobie in his hand.  "Stupid bastards . . ."

We sat nervously, not sure whether to believe a word the scraggly old freak was saying.  It didn't matter.  He kept right on saying it.

"The Secret Army was never really behind him anyway," he said, blowing out the lungful of smoke.  "Half of them thought he was crazy, and all of 'em were just there for the free donuts.  But the Navy . . ."  Another drag.  ". . . They were the real deal.  They believed."

The Last Hippie shifted in his chair and examined the glowing end of his joint.  "Of course, the Colonel was a hundred percent behind it.  He even paid for the training.  I think what it was, people called him the King for so long, they got to believing it."

He sighed, the smoke now thick in the air.  "Anyway, after the funeral, the Army just disappeared.  You find one of them rats now, they'll deny everything.  The Navy hung in there as long as they could, but with nobody making the loan payments the banks eventually took the pontoon boats.  It didn't matter.  Elvis never told 'em where he buried the ammo anyway."

He got up and strode slowly to the window.  Then he laughed.  "Jimmy Carter still has no idea how close the bullet was that he dodged."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Songwriting, part N to the 14th power

Well, shucks, haven't written anything here in the longest damn time.  Dug out a cassette - you remember cassettes?  Got a car with a cassette player and it makes you take a trip through the past.  Good thing I don't have a car with an 8-track player!  Anyway, dug out a cassette I compiled many moons ago, called "Lesser Yes."

Now, those of you who know me at all know how much of a Yes freak I am.  So if your eyes are now glazing over and you're looking for something else to do, I'll understand.

ANYWAY!  I took a bunch of songs off the Yes albums that didn't sell so well, or weren't so highly regarded, but had what I consider to be some great tunes on them.  Big Generator, Close Your Eyes, ABWH, Tormato, the like.  Hearing these generally hidden classics reminded me of seeing Jon Anderson solo at the Flying Monkey a couple of years ago.  GREAT SHOW!!

The coolest thing was that I had no idea what to expect.  Was he going to have a band behind him, or what?  Was he going to play a bunch of odd instruments, or have taped backing tracks?  After all, of all the musicians who have gone in and out of the revolving door that is Yes over the years, he is the ONE that would NOT be considered a virtuoso musician.

So he came out with an acoustic guitar and held a symposium on how to write some of the most magnificent music of the twentieth century.  He also played a little keyboard and something I've heard called a "music stick," basically a dulcimer with a small, triangular body held like a guitar.  It served to remind that he co-wrote most of their music over the years.

We got to hear bare-bones versions of tunes like "Roundabout," "Starship Trooper," and "Owner of a Lonely Heart."  It made me come home and dig out my old Yes sheet music books and take another look at some of these songs.  "Yours is No Disgrace" has always been one of my favorite songs.  It was a little startling to realize that it's only two verses.  The live version on Yessongs lasts 15 minutes.

My problem is that I'm not actually able to play most of their music.  I just don't have the chops.  I've got sheet music for everything they did up until Drama in 1980.  Every now and again I'll break out the book and stumble through a couple of things.  I think once I figured out the opening lick to "Siberian Khatru."  I've since forgotten it again.

What we got to hear that night was the versions of the songs as Jon Anderson himself presented them to the rest of the band.  I know a lot of the "Classic" Yes material is credited to him and Steve Howe.  I would guess that Howe took the basic musical idea and bounced it back and forth with Jon, or just sat down and messed around with it himself, until it was closer to the form we find on the recordings.

An instructive example is their reworking of Paul Simon's "America."  You can see how the song changed from the Simon and Garfunkel version to Yes' version.  Sometimes songwriting is a process as original ideas get hammered into shape.

I know in my experience that a lot of songs come as sort of organically complete things, written as they wind up with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  After that, it's a matter of going back and cleaning up clunky lines, chord progressions that don't work, or whatever.

The process as described by a lot of Prog acts like Yes, Rush, Kansas, etc. is more like what I learned in classes at college.  Classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, etc. would take a melody and wring more out of it.  Rush starts out with a Neil Peart lyric, which he hands over to Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee.  Lee has to sing it, so he goes back with ideas and suggestions on changes.  He and Lifeson work off the rhythm of the lines and emotion of the imagery to build the music.

What it tells me as a songwriter is to not give up on a song just because it doesn't fall into place quickly.  I've got notebooks full of verses that never went anywhere, but that I like and keep coming back to.  Guess I'm going to go back to them again.