The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

beatles71

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

beatles71

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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Love Is Old, Love Is New: Another Appreciation of ‘Abbey Road’ (Revisited, “New Shit” Edition)

ar

“New shit,” as the Dude said, “has come to light.”

I was unaware of this, but have now seen the light. Let it shine until tomorrow. Let it be.

I don’t even have a question, but here is the answer:

Whenever I listen to Abbey Road, I find myself feeling grateful that the collective world of musicians did not, upon hearing it for the first time, throw up their hands and get day jobs. Why bother? they did not ask, allowing us to remain thankful for everything that keeps filling our ears, all these years later. But what must it have sounded like, to mortals simply trying to occupy the same planet, when this one originally dropped?

Abbey Road is not Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper or even The White Album;it is merely The Beatles’ best album. Ironically, it’s not a perfect album (if such a thing could even be said to exist — a fun debate for another time, although the dicey proposition has been discussed in brief here); like I said, it’s not Revolver. It does what the rarest of artistic creations can do: it is more than that. How, for instance, could any album containing “Octopus’s Garden” possibly, under any circumstances be appraised as perfect? (Well, for starters, two words: “Yellow Submarine”, also, of course, sung by our beloved Ringo.) The point is, an album with such an overabundance of riches (Question: is such a thing possible? Answer: yes) does not only compensate for the sore spots, it overwhelms them with its sheer force of being. You could drop a teardrop in a river and nobody will taste the salt.

And, for the record, I not only unashamedly endorse the much-despised “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, I relish it (It’s a sing-along song about a serial killer for Christ’s sake; could anyone pull this off with such aplomb? And if Paul was a tad too sentimental and sappy at times, it helped cut the self-righteous solipsism that Lennon was more than a little guilty of, albeit often in the service of stunning art; consider some of the best and worst tracks from The White Album for examples of each). So suck on this, haters:

Of course, even this album is not without controversy. Even within the band, Lennon (who, let’s not kid ourselves, had a more than moderate envy of Macca’s prodigious and, circa 1969, unfathomable compositional facility) could scarcely stomach the second side (the extended “suite” which certain fans –like this one– consider a towering achievement in any music, ever). It’s hard to quibble with Lennon’s work on “Come Together” and the hopped-up anguish of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which bookend the first side(and it’s worth noting the latter features astounding bass lines throughout courtesy of The Walrus).

Just as Lennon possibly edges out his mate, song for song, on Revolver and The White Album, Mac is the prime mover on Abbey Road (as he was on Sgt. Pepper). One somewhat overlooked track that continues to intrigue me (aside from the obvious fact that it rules) is “Oh! Darling”. Lennon allegedly was salty that Mac opted to sing lead vocals on this one, since the style of the song was, ostensibly, more suited to Lennon’s skill-set. Well….Paul could scream with the best of them, and while I would love to hear a version of this song with Lennon taking a crack at lead vocals, I think this remains one of Mac’s enduring performances (the entire tune is a tour de force). And, not to mince words, I don’t think even Lennon could have pulled off the last line (I’ll never dooooooooo you no haaarm!!) as indelibly as his partner in crime did.

Oh, you want more?

So why, in the midst of discussing one of the great albums, am I falling into the trap of even entertaining the whole Lennon/McCartney thing?

Well…with the (unimaginable) prospect of Lennon’s death approaching its 30th anniversary (seriously, how is this possible?), get ready for some overly earnest, over-the-top and mostly well-intended attempts to elevate him even higher (is that possible?) into the artistic and human pantheon. I will mostly welcome such endeavors, but some of us will be obliged to inject some perspective on the whole JOHN WAS THE BEATLES! hysteria.

I had a bit to say about this last year, on the occasion of anniversary #29:

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9″ you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more seriousBeatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

This band is like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

More (too much more?) on The Beatles, here and here.

To be continued, I’m sure…

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For You Blue: The Beatles’ ‘Blue Album’, 41 Years Later

ba

It was forty-one years ago, today.

No, really. Check it out:

Let us not forget, it’s the “Blue Album”. Before it was the cassette, the eight-track, CD or digital download, it was a record, played on things called record players. And those records came inside of environmentally unfriendly covers that, for the most part, served the purpose later appropriated by magazines, music videos and online lyrics searches.

Talking about listening to music on antiquated machines probably sounds as old fashioned, today, as the idea of people watching silent movies with sub-titles did to kids like me, almost exactly 30 years ago. Of course, when I first put my impressionable paws on this artifact (a used copy procured from a classmate’s older brother who sold it to me for five bucks, a deal only slightly less spectacular, in my eyes, than the Louisiana Purchase), the Beatles had been broken up for less than ten years. Put another way, I got this album into my life at a time when many people still held out hope that the Fab Four might one day reunite. This quixotic fantasy got permanently put to rest when John Lennon was murdered in December of 1980.

Look at it. Even now, that cover shot is revelatory, poignant, perfect. That is the best band of all time at the very height of their superhuman powers (even if, unbeknownst to the outside world the group was already in the accelerated process of imploding). That image is a picture worth a thousand—or a million—words if ever there was one: a passage of time (artistically, creatively, personally) that covered epochs as opposed to years. Even a nine year old could see, clearly, how much had changed. The music bears this out, naturally, in ways that words and images can scarcely begin to convey.

Still, the fact that the mop-tops caused controversy in the early ‘60s (look at the back cover) indicates how much fashion, and the world, had changed by the late ‘60s (look at the front cover). At the beginning and toward the end, the Beatles did many things first and more often than not, they did them best. Even when things didn’t go according to plan, the stars always aligned in unbelievable ways for this band. Consider the cover: that picture was intended to be used for the work-in-progress called Get Back; by the time it was finally finished (and renamed Let It Be) another set of images were utilized. This had particular resonance for fans in the U.S., since the band’s first album Please Please Me was not released stateside until its reincarnation as a compact disc in 1987. Therefore, the cover image “borrowed” for the Red Album was always the proper choice, and it was oddly disappointing to discover the correct chronology. (In hindsight it would have been remarkable to have the same pose at the same location bookending the beginning and end of the Beatles’ career, but that’s what the Red and Blue albums were for!)

And, it should be pointed out that, strictly speaking, there is no Blue Album (or Red Album) just as there is no White Album: in fact, each of the releases is entitled The Beatles with the red one signifying the years 1962-1966 and the blue one 1967-1970. But these monikers had less to do with the album covers and more to do with the fact that the actual LPs were blue and red, respectively. And that, my friends, was about as cool as it got for burgeoning Beatles fanatics. Suffice it to say, we had a lot of time on our hands during those pre-MTV and Internet days.

bluea

Listen to it. The first thing you might notice is that it’s not a flawless selection of songs, all things considered. But therein lies the difficulty masterminding a compilation that dares to represent the Beatles. Everyone who hears this album will quickly point out songs inexplicably left off (“You Never Give Me Your Money”!) or ones improbably included (“Octopus’s Garden”?), but in the final analysis, the Blue Album (along with the Red Album) remains difficult to criticize. In terms of turning on casual fans to the myriad riches recorded at Abbey Road, these documents deliver the goods, and entice the intrigued to seek out the source material. Also, these albums first came out in 1973, so they were essentially the first official crack at a “greatest hits” type compilation. Covering the hits and the songs that were important and/or influential is the most reasonable way to go. Besides, part of being a fan is thinking up (and ceaselessly revising) your own selections of essential tracks.

1967-1970. That’s it. That’s all the time it took for the Beatles to not merely change music, but create art that remains, in many ways, incomparable. The ocean they crossed in between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” is difficult to describe; the universe they travelled from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to “Her Majesty” remains one of the creative miracles of the 20th Century. Taken as a single document presenting this evolution, the Blue Album is a holy grail of sorts.

The Beatles took a quantum leap with Rubber Soul (1965) and then doubled down with the sublime innovation of Revolver (1966). Quite simply, the biggest band in the world was recreating the world in its image and they were untouchable. And then Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys dropped Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney, steadily asserting himself as the group’s prime mover, was equal parts impressed and intimidated. Everyone knows what happened next. But before Sgt. Pepper helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, the Beatles released what is arguably the most transcendent single of all time.

Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

That these two songs commence the proceedings is appropriate and symbolic. From there it’s an obligatory round-up of Sgt. Pepper highlights and tracks found on Magical Mystery Tour. Then, the three singles released prior to The White Album: McCartney’s delightful Fats Domino-inspired “Lady Madonna”, and the band’s blistering take on Lennon’s “Revolution” (which, of course, would resurface in mellow and riotous incarnations on the next album). And then there is that little song called “Hey Jude”. Taken in context, as merely another masterpiece, it is easier (and perhaps more intimidating) to consider how incredible the Beatles were circa 1968. “I Am the Walrus”, “Hello Goodbye”, “Hey Jude”, “Revolution”… just another day at the office.

Going forward, even as John and Paul’s working relationship grew increasingly strained, the two were always able to improve one another’s work. After a few relatively “safe” (or accessible) songs from The White Album there is another block of transitional singles. “Don’t Let Me Down”, which never made it onto Let It Be (but did make the cut for 2003’s Let It Be… Naked release) and “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the group’s last number one single in the UK (two songs that were available only on the Blue Album or the Hey Jude singles collection until the 1987 release of the CD Past Masters Volume 2). Both of these songs are very personal compositions written entirely by Lennon, but they each feature significant contributions from McCartney. Mac’s harmonizing (and screeches toward the end) on “Don’t Let Me Down” manage to augment the urgency and elevate it to the level what amounts to a desperate celebration—or a celebratory desperation if you like. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is a song that would be witty, hilarious and moving (i.e., a typical Lennon song), but is kicked up several notches thanks to McCartney’s contributions. In addition to harmony vocals and his usual bass duties, Mac turns in a more than respectable performance on drums, and his ebullient piano flourishes practically turn the song into the equivalent of a smile. That the two estranged superstars, in a flash of inspiration recorded a hit single (about Yoko Ono!) as a duo on a random afternoon is just one excellent example of what truly sets this band above and beyond.

Even the so-called “quiet Beatle” gets his props courtesy of four songs on sides three and four. Needless to say, this representation of George Harrison’s work echoes his escalating confidence as a composer (and subsequent frustration regarding his unshakable secondary status—another important factor that helped hasten the band’s inevitable dissolution). The rest of the album features familiar tracks from the final two albums (and since Let It Be was released after Abbey Road there is a certain symmetry in putting those songs last—and hearing the then-unreleased single versions of “Let It Be” and “Get Back” helps one appreciate the unsterilized versions even more). Then, all of a sudden, it’s 1970.

The Blue Album then, was never intended to supplant or steal thunder from the band’s amazing catalog. It was—and remains?—an ideal introduction to the most productive four-year span in pop music history. It is remembered—and appreciated—as a sacred relic from a less complicated time. Its front and back signify the before and after shots of ancient history and an unimaginable future. It is a reminder that the mysterious, magical tour might not have lasted forever, but the music will.

(For those arriving late to the party, a LOT more on the Beatles HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

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For You Blue: The Beatles’ ‘Blue Album’, 40 Years Later

It was forty years ago, today.

No, really. Check it out:

Let us not forget, it’s the “Blue Album”. Before it was the cassette, the eight-track, CD or digital download, it was a record, played on things called record players. And those records came inside of environmentally unfriendly covers that, for the most part, served the purpose later appropriated by magazines, music videos and online lyrics searches.

Talking about listening to music on antiquated machines probably sounds as old fashioned, today, as the idea of people watching silent movies with sub-titles did to kids like me, almost exactly 30 years ago. Of course, when I first put my impressionable paws on this artifact (a used copy procured from a classmate’s older brother who sold it to me for five bucks, a deal only slightly less spectacular, in my eyes, than the Louisiana Purchase), the Beatles had been broken up for less than ten years. Put another way, I got this album into my life at a time when many people still held out hope that the Fab Four might one day reunite. This quixotic fantasy got permanently put to rest when John Lennon was murdered in December of 1980.

Look at it. Even now, that cover shot is revelatory, poignant, perfect. That is the best band of all time at the very height of their superhuman powers (even if, unbeknownst to the outside world the group was already in the accelerated process of imploding). That image is a picture worth a thousand—or a million—words if ever there was one: a passage of time (artistically, creatively, personally) that covered epochs as opposed to years. Even a nine year old could see, clearly, how much had changed. The music bears this out, naturally, in ways that words and images can scarcely begin to convey.

Still, the fact that the mop-tops caused controversy in the early ‘60s (look at the back cover) indicates how much fashion, and the world, had changed by the late ‘60s (look at the front cover). At the beginning and toward the end, the Beatles did many things first and more often than not, they did them best. Even when things didn’t go according to plan, the stars always aligned in unbelievable ways for this band. Consider the cover: that picture was intended to be used for the work-in-progress called Get Back; by the time it was finally finished (and renamed Let It Be) another set of images were utilized. This had particular resonance for fans in the U.S., since the band’s first album Please Please Me was not released stateside until its reincarnation as a compact disc in 1987. Therefore, the cover image “borrowed” for the Red Album was always the proper choice, and it was oddly disappointing to discover the correct chronology. (In hindsight it would have been remarkable to have the same pose at the same location bookending the beginning and end of the Beatles’ career, but that’s what the Red and Blue albums were for!)

And, it should be pointed out that, strictly speaking, there is no Blue Album (or Red Album) just as there is no White Album: in fact, each of the releases is entitled The Beatles with the red one signifying the years 1962-1966 and the blue one 1967-1970. But these monikers had less to do with the album covers and more to do with the fact that the actual LPs were blue and red, respectively. And that, my friends, was about as cool as it got for burgeoning Beatles fanatics. Suffice it to say, we had a lot of time on our hands during those pre-MTV and Internet days.

bluea

Listen to it. The first thing you might notice is that it’s not a flawless selection of songs, all things considered. But therein lies the difficulty masterminding a compilation that dares to represent the Beatles. Everyone who hears this album will quickly point out songs inexplicably left off (“You Never Give Me Your Money”!) or ones improbably included (“Octopus’s Garden”?), but in the final analysis, the Blue Album (along with the Red Album) remains difficult to criticize. In terms of turning on casual fans to the myriad riches recorded at Abbey Road, these documents deliver the goods, and entice the intrigued to seek out the source material. Also, these albums first came out in 1973, so they were essentially the first official crack at a “greatest hits” type compilation. Covering the hits and the songs that were important and/or influential is the most reasonable way to go. Besides, part of being a fan is thinking up (and ceaselessly revising) your own selections of essential tracks.

1967-1970. That’s it. That’s all the time it took for the Beatles to not merely change music, but create art that remains, in many ways, incomparable. The ocean they crossed in between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” is difficult to describe; the universe they travelled from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to “Her Majesty” remains one of the creative miracles of the 20th Century. Taken as a single document presenting this evolution, the Blue Album is a holy grail of sorts.

The Beatles took a quantum leap with Rubber Soul (1965) and then doubled down with the sublime innovation of Revolver (1966). Quite simply, the biggest band in the world was recreating the world in its image and they were untouchable. And then Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys dropped Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney, steadily asserting himself as the group’s prime mover, was equal parts impressed and intimidated. Everyone knows what happened next. But before Sgt. Pepper helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, the Beatles released what is arguably the most transcendent single of all time.

Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

That these two songs commence the proceedings is appropriate and symbolic. From there it’s an obligatory round-up of Sgt. Pepper highlights and tracks found on Magical Mystery Tour. Then, the three singles released prior to The White Album: McCartney’s delightful Fats Domino-inspired “Lady Madonna”, and the band’s blistering take on Lennon’s “Revolution” (which, of course, would resurface in mellow and riotous incarnations on the next album). And then there is that little song called “Hey Jude”. Taken in context, as merely another masterpiece, it is easier (and perhaps more intimidating) to consider how incredible the Beatles were circa 1968. “I Am the Walrus”, “Hello Goodbye”, “Hey Jude”, “Revolution”… just another day at the office.

Going forward, even as John and Paul’s working relationship grew increasingly strained, the two were always able to improve one another’s work. After a few relatively “safe” (or accessible) songs from The White Album there is another block of transitional singles. “Don’t Let Me Down”, which never made it onto Let It Be (but did make the cut for 2003’s Let It Be… Naked release) and “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the group’s last number one single in the UK (two songs that were available only on the Blue Album or the Hey Jude singles collection until the 1987 release of the CD Past Masters Volume 2). Both of these songs are very personal compositions written entirely by Lennon, but they each feature significant contributions from McCartney. Mac’s harmonizing (and screeches toward the end) on “Don’t Let Me Down” manage to augment the urgency and elevate it to the level what amounts to a desperate celebration—or a celebratory desperation if you like. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is a song that would be witty, hilarious and moving (i.e., a typical Lennon song), but is kicked up several notches thanks to McCartney’s contributions. In addition to harmony vocals and his usual bass duties, Mac turns in a more than respectable performance on drums, and his ebullient piano flourishes practically turn the song into the equivalent of a smile. That the two estranged superstars, in a flash of inspiration recorded a hit single (about Yoko Ono!) as a duo on a random afternoon is just one excellent example of what truly sets this band above and beyond.

Even the so-called “quiet Beatle” gets his props courtesy of four songs on sides three and four. Needless to say, this representation of George Harrison’s work echoes his escalating confidence as a composer (and subsequent frustration regarding his unshakable secondary status—another important factor that helped hasten the band’s inevitable dissolution). The rest of the album features familiar tracks from the final two albums (and since Let It Be was released after Abbey Road there is a certain symmetry in putting those songs last—and hearing the then-unreleased single versions of “Let It Be” and “Get Back” helps one appreciate the unsterilized versions even more). Then, all of a sudden, it’s 1970.

The Blue Album then, was never intended to supplant or steal thunder from the band’s amazing catalog. It was—and remains?—an ideal introduction to the most productive four-year span in pop music history. It is remembered—and appreciated—as a sacred relic from a less complicated time. Its front and back signify the before and after shots of ancient history and an unimaginable future. It is a reminder that the mysterious, magical tour might not have lasted forever, but the music will.

(For those arriving late to the party, a LOT more on the Beatles HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

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The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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The Tomorrow Show: John, Paul, Tom and Ringo (Revisited)

Before Conan O’Brien in the ‘90s and David Letterman in the ‘80s, there was another—even ‘whiter’—dude who regularly hosted many of the hippest artists and promoted some of the best new music week in and week out: Tom Snyder. That this overly earnest bundle of contradictions turned out to be the ideal advocate of cool seems increasingly less ironic in hindsight, considering the bleach-teethed, teleprompter reading robots who currently spoon feed the masses with what is supposed to be ‘entertaining’.

By turns ostensibly too eager or too serious, or else too anxious to ingratiate himself to his guests, it eventually becomes clear that once the viewer’s cynical defenses are charmed into submission, the impossible is the case: Snyder was, quite simply, a decent and genuinely nice person. He was goofy, gregarious, and utterly without guile; in other words, he was perfect. The Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder was not just big in the ‘70s, it was the ‘70s. And so, it was understandable, and more than a little appropriate for him to re-air an interview with John Lennon from 1975, the day after he was shot in 1980, to officially close the books on one decade and begin another.

The cleverly named John, Paul, Tom and Ringo is one in a series of DVDs commemorating some of Snyder’s more memorable moments, focusing on a particular theme (other DVDs include his “punk and new wave” musical guests as well as those associated with the ‘60s counterculture), this one being his interviews with all the members of The Beatles, sans George Harrison—hence the amusing title. Who is the audience for this DVD? Beatles fans, rock ‘n’ roll fans, and pop culture fans—anyone interested in some authentic recent cultural history, straight from the proverbial horses’ mouths.

With the abundance of unauthorized biographies, critical appraisals, and testimonials dedicated to this most influential of bands; it is astonishing to consider how little (relatively speaking, in our instant karma Internet age) actual footage exists of the Beatles talking about the Beatles. And so, for a couple of priceless hours, this DVD provides the still-living legends in a mostly unguarded environment, reminiscing about the world and their considerable place in it.

John, Paul, Tom and Ringo’s first disc is devoted to Lennon, and Snyder introduces his April 1975 discussion (Lennon’s last televised interview), reprised the day after the music died: 9 December 1980. The initial jolt for the viewer, particularly a viewer like me who remembers the day of Lennon’s assassination, is hearing Snyder downplay the importance of the interview, since it was “five years old”, considering that it is now 33-years-old. Snyder (who was so brilliantly and, I think lovingly, lampooned by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live) should be appreciated for being consistently up to the task of taking on big players like Lennon, because his M.O. was straightforward: he was genuinely curious, had done his homework, and was actively invested in the culture of his time; he was, after all, not only commenting on it—but he was a part of it, and he knew it.

Perhaps most importantly, his square-shooting credibility offered a refreshingly opposite vibe from the insufferably serious, or self-important, ever pretentious arena of journalists talking to rock stars, elevating themselves by elevating the relative import of the act. In this case, Snyder was speaking with one of the genuine heavyweights, and he understood (and respected) that Lennon actually did have something (some things, really) to say about the bigger picture, and engaged him accordingly. Lennon, through his lyrics and recalcitrant remarks, had always been easy to label as “subversive” (think of the controversy his “Beatles are bigger than Jesus” joke instigatated), but by the mid-70s, he found himself experiencing official interference with his attempt to become an American citizen—a topic he discussed in some detail later in the show.

Lennon was typically honest and amusing when asked some of the obligatory questions. What is the initial goal of every aspiring musician? To get laid. Why did The Beatles break up? Boredom. Why are you not bored now? Because I can play music with whomever I choose. When Snyder puts on his curmudgeonly old crank hat and pushes Lennon to comment on how the music may not change much with imitators always aping the best of the past, Lennon graciously suggestes that the influence of The Beatles (and others) will linger and resonate—just as the blues music the lads from Liverpool loved found its way into their tunes, first as paint-by-numbers covers, later as vividly reimagined original work—but musicians will be using new instruments to create new sounds: one thinks of the evolution of funk to hip hop to trip hop and beyond, and can appreciate the prescience of Lennon’s appraisal.

One thing is certain: they don’t make ‘em (rock stars or talk-show hosts) like they used to. In a moment that could only be real (otherwise the irony would suck the action right off the screen), Snyder pulls out another in an endless stream of cigarettes and, as he lights up, asks Lennon his views on drugs and whether he feels an obligation to speak out against them. Only in America.

The proceedings lose considerable steam when the topic turns to Lennon’s immigration woes. To be certain, this was a serious issue, and it was unfortunate that Lennon had to dance around the petty politics of officious reactionaries. Nevertheless, listening to his lawyer pontificate is rather less than compelling video. Later in the show, journalist Lisa Robinson reflects on her numerous interactions with John and Yoko, and producer Jack Douglas reminisces about his collaboration with Lennon on albums ranging from Imagine to Double Fantasy. While it is truly touching to hear Douglas (who had been with Lennon in the studio hours before his death) talk about how optimistic and excited his friend was about the future, it is inexorably an unwelcome—and still quite painful—reminder of how much life Lennon had left to live, and how much poorer all of us are for the loss.

Disc two is dedicated to Paul and Ringo, featuring interviews that originally aired in December ’79 and November ’81, respectively. Snyder interviews Paul and his wife Linda via satellite and seems as excited about this cutting-edge technology as he is about having the opportunity to speak with the man he introduces, correctly, as the most successful singer/songwriter on the planet (at the time in the middle of a successful run with his group Wings). The show commences with Snyder promoting a “videotape to go along as sort of a visual counterpart to their latest album”, a quaint way to describe the phenomenon that would launch its own TV show less than two years later. Time has not been kind to the song, “Spin it On”, and it’s hard to say which is worse: the tune or the video, but it remains a worthwhile artifact of a medium that would be perfected to great effect in short order, if not by McCartney, by many others.

As is often the case, McCartney comes across as grounded, amusing and self-deprecating. He talks about being happily married, and is an obviously dedicated father and family man. Watching him interact with Linda, and knowing he was with her until her death, only reinforces why Paul remains so universally revered and respected. This is not to imply that McCartney is uncomplicated; rather, his comfort level with the world carried over, always, to the music he made. Snyder asks at one point if he wishes he could do it all over again with The Beatles and he replies, without rancor or sarcasm, that he has no need, since they already did it. When discussing his involvement in the pre-Live Aid concert for Cambodian aid, Snyder inquires if he has every done anything political like that, and McCartney provides the inspiring and satisfactory response: “Well, I don’t think about it as political, I think about it as human.”

And last but not least, Ringo! Hooking up with Snyder in Los Angeles to discuss his new album and his starring role in the cinematic tour de force Caveman, Ringo is in fine form. Although his struggles with drink are well documented, Ringo—perhaps more than the other Beatles, and arguably because he was slightly less worshipped—always seemed a bit better equipped for a post-Beatles life. Doubtless this can be attributed to his wisdom in recognizing that, despite his own considerable talents, he was fortunate to associate with Lennon & McCartney, the twin towers of 20th Century pop music. Ringo discusses how he came by his famous nickname, invites his new wife Barbara Bach to join the conversation, and mostly invites any and all questions that Snyder will ask. The Beatles are, ultimately, inconceivable without Ringo, so it is appropriate that he gets his due on this DVD.

In what could (should?) be considered bonus material, the original show that aired with Ringo also included an interview with Angie Dickinson, who was then coming off the controversial and (mostly) critically acclaimed role in Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill. She talks about the insurance policy taken out on her famous legs (true story) and mostly charms the pants off a smitten Snyder: even though she was no longer the white-hot Hollywood vixen (she was almost 50-years-old by then), she is still gorgeous and gracious, and the inclusion of her interview can be regarded as the sexy icing on an already decadent cake.

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Love Is Old, Love Is New: Another Appreciation of ‘Abbey Road’

I don’t even have a question, but here is the answer:

 

Whenever I listen to Abbey Road, I find myself feeling grateful that the collective world of musicians did not, upon hearing it for the first time, throw up their hands and get day jobs. Why bother? they did not ask, allowing us to remain thankful for everything that keeps filling our ears, all these years later. But what must it have sounded like, to mortals simply trying to occupy the same planet, when this one originally dropped?

Abbey Road is not Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper or even The White Album; it is merely The Beatles’ best album. Ironically, it’s not a perfect album (if such a thing could even be said to exist — a fun debate for another time, although the dicey proposition has been discussed in brief here); like I said, it’s not Revolver. It does what the rarest of artistic creations can do: it is more than that. How, for instance, could any album containing “Octopus’s Garden” possibly, under any circumstances be appraised as perfect? (Well, for starters, two words: “Yellow Submarine”, also, of course, sung by our beloved Ringo.) The point is, an album with such an overabundance of riches (Question: is such a thing possible? Answer: yes) does not only compensate for the sore spots, it overwhelms them with its sheer force of being. You could drop a teardrop in a river and nobody will taste the salt.

And, for the record, I not only unashamedly endorse the much-despised “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, I relish it (It’s a sing-along song about a serial killer for Christ’s sake; could anyone pull this off with such aplomb? And if Paul was a tad too sentimental and sappy at times, it helped cut the self-righteous solipsism that Lennon was more than a little guilty of, albeit often in the service of stunning art; consider some of the best and worst tracks from The White Album for examples of each). So suck on this, haters:

Of course, even this album is not without controversy. Even within the band, Lennon (who, let’s not kid ourselves, had a more than moderate envy of Macca’s prodigious and, circa 1969, unfathomable compositional facility) could scarcely stomach the second side (the extended “suite” which certain fans –like this one– consider a towering achievement in any music, ever). It’s hard to quibble with Lennon’s work on “Come Together” and the hopped-up anguish of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which bookend the first side(and it’s worth noting the latter features astounding bass lines throughout courtesy of The Walrus).

Just as Lennon possibly edges out his mate, song for song, on Revolver and The White Album, Mac is the prime mover on Abbey Road (as he was on Sgt. Pepper). One somewhat overlooked track that continues to intrigue me (aside from the obvious fact that it rules) is “Oh! Darling”. Lennon allegedly was salty that Mac opted to sing lead vocals on this one, since the style of the song was, ostensibly, more suited to Lennon’s skill-set. Well….Paul could scream with the best of them, and while I would love to hear a version of this song with Lennon taking a crack at lead vocals, I think this remains one of Mac’s enduring performances (the entire tune is a tour de force). And, not to mince words, I don’t think even Lennon could have pulled off the last line (I’ll never dooooooooo you no haaarm!!) as indelibly as his partner in crime did.

So why, in the midst of discussing one of the great albums, am I falling into the trap of even entertaining the whole Lennon/McCartney thing?

Well…with the (unimaginable) prospect of Lennon’s death approaching its 30th anniversary (seriously, how is this possible?), get ready for some overly earnest, over-the-top and mostly well-intended attempts to elevate him even higher (is that possible?) into the artistic and human pantheon. I will mostly welcome such endeavors, but some of us will be obliged to inject some perspective on the whole JOHN WAS THE BEATLES! hysteria.

I had a bit to say about this last year, on the occasion of anniversary #29:

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9″ you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more serious Beatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

This band is like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

More (too much more?) on The Beatles, here and here.

To be continued, I’m sure…

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It Don’t Come Easy: Happy 70th, Ringo!

Happy birthday, Ringo.

Let’s hope you’re planning to stick around for a long time. We need you.

“What Goes On”:

 

“With A Little Help From My Friends”:

“Don’t Pass Me By”:

“It Don’t Come Easy”:

“Ringo’s Theme” (The Skatalites):

Peace. And love (is all you need).

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