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Hearing the Beatles in everything

My mom watched the Grammy Awards the other night. I'm trying to picture her sitting through Kanye West and Amy Winehouse, but even my imagination has its limits. What she was actually waiting for was the Beatles segment, part of the Cirque Du Soleil's Love production, to hear some Beatles songs that she knew and loved.

After my big brother had clued me in to their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles were a big touchstone in our family, Dad excepted, who I don't think ever learned all four of their names. We would ride around in our Falcon convertible after school with the radio tuned to WTOB-1380, hoping for a new song or even an old one that we could sing along with. I bought Mom Sgt. Pepper's (insert included) for Christmas the year it came out, although I think I played it more than she did. She got me the White Album (numbered, poster, photos) another Christmas, and I know I played it more than she did. (Mom was into Dusty in Memphis and the soundtrack to Breakfast at Tiffany's, and she loved "Ode to Billie Joe".) Curtis was off at college, then in New York. Dad ignored the music--after all, he was the one who'd bought a 1960 Ford Falcon wagon that had the plate over where the radio should have been. But Mom and I loved the Beatles, and I think we still do.

So when the acrobats and the performers and the singers all came out, and the Volkswagen came flying apart, I think that it left Mom feeling unsatisfied. As much as I can understand all the hoopla about Love, I think that Mom, as a radio listener from another time, really didn't get what it had to do with the Beatles she knew and loved. I tried to explain Sir George and Giles Martin's involvement with the project, and I told her that the band and their estates had given their blessing to it, but it didn't seem to make a whit of difference to Mom. It wasn't her Beatles, even with Ringo nearby.

I guess I understand her polarization from what she knows and loves, but I also suppose I take that to the other extreme. I hear the Beatles in everything. A lot of it is simple song form that's been around since well before Palestrina, and there are thousands of great proponents who precede Lennon and McCartney. But for my generation (and my mother, apparently), their canon is understandably choked with the song form which caught our collective ear and configured our harmonic needs best when we needed it most. Their melodies and chords are the ones which informed our judgment of quality, be it Beach Boys, Beau Brummels or Left Banke contemporaneously and Big Star and beyond since then. It's why there's the Beatles, and then there's power pop as a separate entity.

But what about other stuff? It's why ABBA sounded great to us, and why the Bulgarian choir albums did too. And Mozart and Cage and the Velvet Underground. It made us susceptible to Buck Owens, Little Richard, Arthur Alexander, Carl Perkins and Meredith Willson. It taught us the value of chords passing exquisitely from one to another, a singable melody and just enough harmony (two notes do nicely, thank you), drums played on the beat with a sense of simple invention. It's a spinal column of internal musical directives we get from these guys, and for us, at least, they are timeless. (There may be some Sinatra and Elvis fans out there still who'll try to argue against it, but I think the votes have all been counted and the Beatles won.)

Hell, the other day I was driving to Winston-Salem and a cover version of the Shaggs' classic "My Pal Foot Foot" came on the radio (not the version by Deerhoof). After regaining control of the wheel, I started listening how lovingly recreated the paleorhythmic original it was. But even the crazed "Foot Foot" is likely written as Beatles-influenced pop rock. I've had a few girlfriends tell me I was nuts to listen to/endure/seem to enjoy Philosophy of the World, and I could clear a store at closing time with it, but I hear it as another stitch in the Beatle fabric, slightly pulled but attached.

I found that my eldest daughter loved her copy of 1, the Beatles hits compilation from several years ago. There, distilled for a new generation, were all the high points in a row from beginning to end. I've sung "Yellow Submarine" to all my kids and to the ones who used to come to my story time at Borders' in Metairie for all those years. The band's songs speak to so many different people in different ways, but they all seem to get through to someone. And it's why our ears perk up when we hear the songs in Target ads on television (right before we wince and shudder).

The Anthology albums' new Beatle constructions ("Real Love" and "Free As a Bird") were a little jarring. They sounded a lot like the Beatles, and the Beatles were all over the tracks; but so was Jeff Lynne, a tremendously talented musician/producer, who left his sonic footprint deep in the heart of the songs. It might have been different if it had been George Martin or Geoff Emerick at the helm, but maybe not. It was too reminiscent of the Natalie/Nat King Cole and Hank Jr./Hank Sr. duets that were plain old weird and served no purpose, save rampant commercial desires on the parts of the record companies.

Love itself is sort of difficult as well, with the mash-ups of your favorite Beatle songs. There is an obvious quality to the assemblages, but there's also a "because-we-can" aspect to it that's aggravating. We are so accustomed to where bridges and choruses fall in the originals that, when this sacrosanct layout is violated, we feel deceived and confused. And in much the same way that almost any cover of a song of theirs is bound to pale in comparison to the original, the new changes in old Beatle songs reformatted for Love do not add to the enjoyment for this listener. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

And, I would also guess, that may be some of what Mom doesn't love about Love.


On the same subject...

I received an email forwarded from Brian Kehew, the co-author of the authoritative Recording the Beatles. It was to inform the recipients of a grass-roots petition to Apple Records/EMI and the Beatles to recognize the contributions of the engineering staff that recorded all the Beatle albums and who have never received any gold or platinum record awards. To quote from Brian's email,

"In today's world - the manager, hair dresser, rehearsal space and video director all get gold records for 'the album'. (And of course, the engineers.) In those days, it was not the case, nor did people receive or expect 'points' ... However, such awards CAN be given later with permission of the artist and the label."

Only two awards have ever been given to Beatle engineers: one to Geoff Emerick for Sgt. Pepper and one to Glyn Johns for Let It Be. People like Alan Parsons and Norman "Hurricane" Smith (presently facing serious health issues) have gone unrecognized, and it's time to correct this.

Please copy this email address and send a note. If you're a musician, producer or engineer with credits of your own, please list them. Hopefully this can rectify a situation long in need of correction. Thank you.


Pat R. said…
Being a second generation Beatle-fan, how "mind-blowing" (for lack of a better term) was it to hear Pepper & The White Album when they first came out--especially since these albums were so different from each other and also since there was nothing else released at the time that was quite as ground-breaking? Also--what was your reaction when you saw the covers of each for the first time?

Jeff Hart said…
that is so sweet to read that your mom dug the beatles. i think my mom dug most of the good top 40 stuff in the mid 60's to the early '70s. my christmas '45s reflected it. i didn't even ask for singles, but i got several for years for christmas. mom seemed to dig the r&b of the time. i'd get stuff like the spinners. an uncle even game me "only you know and i know" by delaney and bonnie. looking back, it seems so unlike both of them. but i'm grateful i got 'em.

speaking of how beatles music informs our lives daily, at two separate rehearsals, we spontaneously came up with a couple of mash-ups (if you can do that live) with a couple of my originals. the coda of one of my songs seemed to be the perfect place for our guitarist to play the opening riff to lucy in the sky with diamonds. we were so pleased with ourselves ;) but another time when we ended a song on an A chord, no one was surprised when i sang the words "let me take you down, cuz i'm going to ... strawberry fields". we decided we liked the happy accidents so much that we learned both songs. there's a joy like no other, playing a beatles song, even if it's to no one.
Deaconlight said…
When The Beatles - Love CD came out a few years ago, I immediately bought it, having heard its wonderful Beatles-sanctioned praises. It got a few listens and is pretty much the only Beatles I have in digital format.

On my radio show I often get lazy and go for digital tunes instead of walking into my living room to get the vinyl version of a record. Yet when it comes to playing the Beatles, every time I scroll through the Love song list, I inevitably get up and go fetch the original.

Nothing against the Cirque de Soleil concept. In fact, I think the idea is cool way to keep the music of the Beatles alive. Although I didn’t tune in for the entire Grammy show, I did take my eyes off my laptop screen to watch Cirque de Soleil’s visual interpretation of A Day In The Life from The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with a sense of anticipation. Unfortunately for me, there was a disconnect. I’m watching this kid being handed a guitar and seeing lots of backflips and a chick flying around in the air.

Having listened to that song over and over, line by line, word by word, trying to figure out its meaning back in the 60s and still not having achieved this goal, I guess some part of me was hoping the visual presentation would get me closer. Instead it just added more WTF?

My sister Kim and I used to analyze "A Day In The Life" for hours: Ok this guy dies in a car wreck, so why does the singer laugh? What was in the photogra-haf? And what was this book referenced in the second verse?

Our young un-drug-tampered minds figured that in the next scene the narrator smokes some pot and starts hallucinating. Finally something that we could sort of understand.

Then came the real mindbending conundrum: How does one compute that a collection of four thousand holes – holes in what? - in a town in Lancashire equals the volume of the Albert Hall? Our only visual for this was trying to imaging what bullet holes would look like suspended in mid-air. This imagery popped into my mind the first time I passed by the Royal Albert Hall in London. Either the holes had to be bigger or there had to be more than 4,000 holes.

Keep in mind we were just kids listening to this song repeatedly and trying to make sense out of it from our limited life experience. There were likely events from which to reference these things but I have never bothered to look into it. And the Love performance not only shed no light on this for me, it just added to the confusion.

On another note, Avalon and I had been anxiously awaiting the release of the new Panic At The Disco album. The first actual song to be released, “Nine in the Afternoon,” was a disappointment. Not something amazingly dynamic like we had hoped for. I begrudgingly played the song a few times on Deaconlight. Then it suddenly hit me that had this song been played on WTOB back in the 1960s, I would have liked it just fine. Not that it sounds dated – but it has that sort of radio pop sound that was standard fare in the pop radio age. So I’ve decided to really try to keep my mind open about this.

The video for “Nine in the Afternoon” is now posted on the PATD (we pronounce this Paditta) MySpace page. You can’t help but notice the heavy Beatles imagery that borrows from Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour – obviously on purpose. And it works.

Which brings me to the point that it is good that we have Love and PATD to bring the Beatles to the surface now and again. Sometimes as a person who watched the Beatles perform live on the Ed Sullivan show on our black and white TVs, it’s hard to realize that there are several generations out there now who were born after the Beatles broke up. If some of this buzz gets a kid to go out and discover a Beatles record or two, then you can’t beat that.
Barry said…
My take on "A Day in the Life" -

Seating capacity for the Royal Albert Hall is given as 3901, near enough to 4000 to make me think the "holes" needed to fill the Albert Hall referred to "assholes." I don't think John was very enamored of the royalty at that point in his life.

My first copy of the White Album in 1968 was received in lieu of payment for having spent most of the summer working for my father (i was 12. He was delivering snack foods to grocery stores and supermarkets that year.) After getting home and ripping the cellophane off, i played it on his stereo. And when he heard "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" for the first time, it was 86'd from the house. I had to start saving up my money to buy my own stereo system if i wanted to listen to it.

I don't have a problem with Love, or any of the other repackaging of Beatles stuff. The originals are still there if you want to listen to them, and the previously unavailable version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is a worthwhile addition to the canon.

That said, the Cirque du Soleil production was all surface, and not very shiny surface at that, which adds nothing to the music, at least as shown on the Grammies.

More upsetting to me was the short shrift given to The Band, who also received a lifetime achievement award during the show, and only got about 10 seconds of Robbie Robertson face time. As though he were the only one who counted.

Deaconlight said…
RE: The Band - Yeah! I thought the same thing. There I was waiting for some sort of speeches or something then BOOM not even a real segue, just a jerk to the Beatles nod.

RE: A Day In The Life - I wrote my comment late Saturday trying to finish as my laptop battery threatened to die on me. I was able to hit the publish button just in time, then I went to bed with thoughts of "A Day In The Life." As I was on the verge of Thule, I had this sudden realization that perhaps "holes" might have been intended as a euphemism for "assholes." That does make more sense than just holes suspended in mid-air, which was all my 8-year-old mind could grasp. But it was too late to get back on my laptop and follow up. Now I'm curious so maybe I'll see if I can find more enlightenment about the song. Or maybe not. If my sister was still alive, it would be fun to revisit this. I'm not sure I want it to be anything else right now. Chances are I'll be too curious, however...
yrrab said…
"Thing about the Beatles is" I can remember my parents saying "They enunciate, you can understand what they're singing". Unlike I guess, that guy from the Kingsmen singing Louie, Louie or something. I played a Radiohead track for my my Mom because she'd heard about them from someone and was interested. After a few seconds of vocals, her face turned sour. "They all whine nowadays" She said.
Somehow, I think I think a lot more about ELO than the Beatles when I hear the reconstituted Beatles tracks on the Anthology CDs.
I am a huge Beatles fan. I am not a huge ELO fan.

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