Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Down by the old mainstream 4: The Beatles and the beatless

My buddy Geoff from Philly said it, and I believe it: "The Beatles are the greatest rock band of all time. They might not be what I like, but still...the greatest rock band of all time."

I've never been a big Beatle fan. When they played on Sullivan, I figured they couldn't be that cool if everybody I knew who dug 'em was a seven-year-old girl. But then, I was a seven-year-old boy, so whatthefuck did I know about anything?

Looking through a pile of cassettes recently, I stumbled on John "The Mailman" Bargas' Beatle mixtape from ca. '95. Uncle Johnny has always made a good case for whatever music he was advocating for, whether it was the Beatles and Dylan or Minutemen/Replacements/Husker Du (his response when I came to him after sitting out the '80s Guarding Freedom's Frontier and asked, "What did I miss?" -- which is why I could give a toss about Black Flag now). He gave me 36 songs, in alphabetical order, that, along with my sister's old copy of Rubber Soul that she gave me the last time I was in New Jersey, still make a pretty good case today.

When I first started buying records, my first 45 was "Hey Jude"/"Revolution," and it took me a long time to decide which was my favorite side (and favorite Beatle). Eventually "Revolution," John, and artiness/alienation won out over "Hey Jude," Paul, and craft/congeniality. Later, my best friend in junior high school used to spin Let It Be along with RamAfter the Gold Rush, and Steppenwolf's Monster after he graduated from Roger Miller and Peter, Paul and Mary. As a result, it's probably my favorite Beatle album, even though it documents their dissolution, and has Phil Spector's syrupy strings all over it. I have actually sung "Two of Us" with my oldest, guitar-slinging daughter, and will again. And I like the strings on "The Long and Winding Road." So there.

Back then, my sister had Meet the Beatles and Abbey Road -- the Fab Four's alpha and omega (at least U.S. release-wise). The gulf between those two records was incomprehensible to me. I was perplexed by Paul shouting out what I heard as "One, two, three, FAHHHK!" (which inspired Dee Dee Ramone's signature count-ins just as Paul's early stage name inspired Duh Brudduhs') at the beginning of "I Saw Her Standing There," but the song's energy pulled me in, and my ear was seduced by Ringo's hi-hat on "All I've Got To Do," and the rapidly-strummed chords on "All My Loving" (novice guitar pickers are always suckers for velocity).

I didn't realize then that Please Please Me was actually their first LP, in which capacity it makes more sense: both sides of the first two singles -- a rarity for a UK album; there, where wartime rationing lasted almost until Elvis arrived, record companies were more about value for money than their U.S. counterparts, and usually didn't include previously released singles on LPs -- plus ten songs, mostly covers, that they'd recorded in just 12 hours, including Lennon's incandescent "There's A Place" and his demolition of the Isley Brothers on "Twist and Shout." (And am I reading in too much to think that the sexual dynamic implied by the line "Please please me, oh yeah, like I please you" is pretty advanced for 1963? Ah, nevermind.)

Abbey Road sounded almost too perfect, and in the fullness of time sounds like it could have been their crowning achievement, but if you read history, you realize that it was Paul's last-ditch attempt to salvage something after the debacle of the Get Back sessions. The medley on Side Two sounds like a masterpiece of arranger's art, even though it's really just a bunch of unfinished songs kloodged together. On the jam at the end, after the drum solo that Ringo's pal Keith Moon would ape on "Won't Get Fooled Again," there's a brief three-way guitar exchange between Paul (who, besides being the most economically inventive bassplayer in rock, was also a highly effective lead player in the blues-based Eric Clapton mold), George (who, pre-Ravi Shankar, was a throwback to the Chet Atkins-rockabilly chord melody style -- dig his little fills between the verses on "I'm Looking Through You" and "I Will" -- although he learned from Eric, too), and John (bull in a china shop on guitar and in life, until four bullets in the back stopped him cold).

If nothing else, you've got to admire the way Sir Paul survived '60s celebrity in the same way Dylan and the Stones did and so many others didn't, and has managed to continue as a performing entity for 40 years since the Beatles folded the tent. Sure, he retreated into his family in the immediate aftermath -- isn't that what 30something guys are supposed to do? -- but he kept his creative spark alive on records like the aforementioned Ram and Band On the Run, which was almost a Sgt. Pepper for the '70s in its form, if not its social impact. Like 'em or not, you can't buy a better produced record.

He must have been sick to death of Beatlemania, after being catapulted from Reeperbahn toilets to the stadiums full of screaming girls that the Beatles played with less gear than a band today would use for a club gig, and the post-Rubber Soul expectation that they'd continually surpass themselves (while across an ocean and a continent, poor acid-addled Brian Wilson sat in his sandbox trying to come up with a sound celestial enough to compete). They all must have been sick of it, as sick as Dylan was of every earnest folknik that cursed him for giving up protest for mad visionary poetics, and every consciousness-expanded Brit Lit undergrad who pestered him to find out Who He Really Was and What He Was Really Saying, sick enough (in Bob's case) to do the next best thing to faking his own death, disappearing into the wilds of Woodstock in preparation for innumerable rebirths.

Lennon, the archetypal angry, fucked-up kid, the clever bully who transcended and redeemed himself through his music and all the things he said after the press gave him a pulpit (as if anyone would give two shits what a guitar-picker from Liverpool thought about the state of the world at large), tried disappearing himself at the ass-end of the '70s, after making a spectacle of himself for most of the decade, one way (a plethora of political causes) or another (embarrassing L.A. midlife crisis). He checked out of the scene, became a family man, seemed to find happiness and peace before a mentally ill fan murdered him, aged 40. Someone said, "It's always the ones that give people hope that they have to kill."

I remember the day he died. The alarm went off just as I spilled a glass of water on my head, and I heard the announcement of his murder on NPR. My future ex-wife came to pick me up for work. On the way out of the parking lot, we noticed that someone had torched the apartment office overnight. At the record store where we worked, there was a line of weeping Beatle fans waiting to pay their respects to Double Fantasy, exactly like the line of weeping Elvis fans outside my store in New York four years earlier, waiting to pay their respects to Having Fun With Elvis Onstage.

I never thought the Beatles were a joke the way I thought Elvis was (at least until I spent a weekend, winter of '97, in bed with a bad cold, a bottle of NyQuil, and The Sun Sessions). In fact, in '76, I had 1967-1970 (aka the "Blue Album") and Revolver on cassette in my first car. As hyped as Sgt. Pepper was in its day, in the fullness of time, Revolver has become the conventional-wisdom "best Beatle album," and it holds up. I still love Lennon's depressive "She Said She Said," which has the same bruising rock sound as mid-period faves like "Rain" and "Paperback Writer," and "Tomorrow Never Knows," which I have fond memories of playing with Lee Allen at the Wreck Room (attempting to channel Phil Manzanera's 801 Live version). Then there's "And Your Bird Can Sing," which I swear I remember hearing on the cassette in my car, although it wasn't actually on a U.S.-released Revolver until the CD era, and has the "golden rain" (Greil Marcus' phrase) of Paul and George's harmonized leads cascading through it.

The "Blue Album" remains, IMO, the closest thing to "all the Beatle music you and your family will ever need" as your money can buy, and a reminder of what a great singles band the Big Album Era Beatles were. In the year when everybody but Richard Goldstein went apeshit over Sgt. Pepper, they released two killer double A-sided singles, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" and "I Am the Walrus"/"Hello, Goodbye," both of which contrasted the claustrophobic paranoia of John's songs (which Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne sought to emulate in ELO) with the sheer tunefulness of Paul's, which serve as proof positive that, as Nick Hornsby reminds us, the major difference between '60s Brit rockers and their 'Meercun counterparts was that the Brits liked their parents more. And I still remember schoolyard arguments over whether the gasping chorus on "Walrus" was singing "Everybody's fucked up" or "Everybody smoke pot."

Speaking of Pepper, the "Blue Album" and Bargas' tape both include its closing statement "A Day In the Life," which is the perfect balance not only of Lennon and McCartney's signature strengths, but also of their songcraft and George Martin's orchestral vision. When the "White Album" followed in '68, it was hailed as a "back-to-the-roots" move, that being the flavor of the particular moment, and while it seems like an absurd assertion when applied to an album that also contained "Revolution 9," it's true that on songs like "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" -- inspired by Fats Domino, Yoko, or John's heroin jones, depending on who you believe -- the Fab Four rocked harder than they had since abandoning the stage in '66.

These days, however, Rubber Soul -- inspired by Dylan and, um, weed (is it just me, or does John really sound like he's toking during the chorus of "Girl?") -- seems like their finest work: its pleasures more subtle and less beguiling than either Revolver or Pepper, less sprawling and more direct than the "White Album."

Hearing "I've Just Seen A Face" now is funny, having recently viewed Charlie Is My Darling, in which Keef takes the piss out of it, sitting and strumming in some Irish hotel room. (Also, I first heard the song sung by Andy Haskett, the Singing Australian Cowboy, when I used to play music with his future ex-wife in the late '70s.) "Norwegian Wood" was Everykid's introduction to the durable 6/8 strum, not to mention the sitar (although I preferred Jeff Beck's fuzzed-out simulacrum on the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul"). I remember hearing a band in my town playing "You Won't See Me," and having someone explain to me that the chorus was the same as "Frere Jacques." "Think For Yourself," with its monstro fuzz bass line and lilting harmonies, anticipates much that the Move and the Pretty Things (to name only two) would do over the next couple of years, while "The Word" is nice brittle Brit R&B like "Taxman," with Ringo thrashing and bashing like he was Keith Moon or something.

Over the years, "Michelle" has been as overplayed as "Eleanor Rigby," if not as much as "Yesterday," while "In My Life" has become high school prom music; among songs of similar ilk, I dig the Faces' "Love Lived Here" and John Sebastian's "The Room Nobody Lives In" more. "Wait" is the hidden gem of Rubber Soul's second side, while "Run For Your Life" lifted a line from "Baby Let's Play House" and displayed a harsher attitude than one might have expected from a cuddly mop top.

I think what I dig the most about Rubber Soul is the potential it overflows with. Like Bringing It All Back Home, which it followed, and Aftermath, which followed it, it's the sound of artists at the top of their game and on the cusp of something new. And if where they wound up was someplace so dramatically different than what preceded it as to blow people's minds, that was part of the fun of being a fan, wasn't it? Such surprise will not come our way again, I fear.


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