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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Happy Birthday, Macca!

pmac

Revisiting a piece I wrote two years ago, for #70, entitled “When I’m 64 (Plus Six): My Favorite Macca”.

***

Paul McCartney who, no matter where you stand on rock music, The Beatles or list-making, is indisputably one of the best –and most important– popular musicians of the last century. Our artistic landscape would be inconceivably altered without his work, and the myriad minds he inspired.

I have written many (many) words about The Beatles, and before I’m done I will undoubtedly write many more: The Beatles are like the sea or the sky; they are there, life is impossible to imagine (or live) without them, so they must be recognized and celebrated. A little is never enough.

To commemorate Macca’s 70th birthday this week, rather than write (too many) more words, I figured an appropriate way to pay tribute was by selecting my favorite song of his from each proper Beatles album (note: not the ones I necessarily think are the best; just the ones I personally like the most, the ones that have given me ceaseless joy over the decades).

“I Saw Her Standing There” (from Please Please Me).

Talk about an opening statement. The countdown that kicks off the first album (one two three FAH!) is one of the most exhilarating few seconds in early-’60s rock. Plus, where Chuck Berry brilliantly danced around the obvious in his lascivious love letters, Paul –with a wink and a nod– minces neither words nor intentions: “Well she was just seventeen/And you know what I mean…” It is both fair and accurate to say that nothing was ever the same after this.

“All My Loving” (from With The Beatles)

The Beatles were still, arguably, too buttoned-up and safe by half on their second album, at least considering what was just around the corner. At this point they were systematically focused on one thing: writing perfect hit songs. That is what this: a pure, unfiltered distillation of their songwriting genius.

“Things We Said Today” (from A Hard Day’s Night)

It is still astonishing to consider how quickly The Beatles went from very good to great (after that, they went somewhere else we are still not capable of properly quantifying). This McCartney masterpiece, on an album fairly dominated by some of Lennon’s stronger early writing, is wise beyond its years, typically bittersweet (Lennon without Mac too often went bitter, Mac without Lennon too often got syrupy sweet but when both found the right balance nobody could touch them) and overflowing with confidence. It’s a short statement of purpose that cries: “I am genius, hear me roar” and it’s over before you know it.

“I’ll Follow The Sun” (from Beatles for Sale)

The fourth album is proof that the Beatles were human. It could not have been more obvious that they were burning out, exhausted and running low on ideas (almost half the album is covers). “I’ll Follow The Sun” is proof that even on half-a-tank, Macca’s engine could still kick into overdrive. Not terribly deep or profound, “I’ll Follow The Sun” is nothing more or less than a catchy, irresistible tune.

“The Night Before” (from Help!)

Now we’re talking. 1965 was the ultimate sweet-spot for the Lennon/McCartney collaboration: at no other time before or after did they write so prolifically and sing together so beautifully. So many tracks on both Help! and Rubber Soul feature them harmonizing in ways that should make even lukewarm fans acknowledge that these two men were placed on this earth to do exactly what they did and, for a time, do it together better than anyone else ever did.

“You Won’t See Me” (from Rubber Soul)

This was, possibly, the last album where Lennon clearly dominated in terms of quality and originality. It is very likely (if probable) that it was the sheer strengh of Lennon’s songwriting in ’65 that motivated Mac to push himself and, in the process, go to another level and become the de facto leader of the band. In hindsight, haters can say it was this exact turn of events that signalled the beginning of the end. Maybe. But looking at what McCartney achieved from ’66 to ’70, it’s difficult to deny that this was not both a necessary and wonderful thing.

“For No One” (from Revolver)

Still straining, albeit effortlessly (or making it sound as such, which is one handy definition of virtuosity) for increasingly mature material, Macca renders a topic that could be –and often is– reduced to soap opera melodrama into something at once ambivalent and devastating. “For No One” is the story of a relationship that ended because…well because relationships end. Is it her fault? His? Who knows. It’s ambiguous, painful and unforgettable, like love can be. This economic track evinces insight and empathy that McCartney would fully develop on the next album with “She’s Leaving Home”.

“Fixing A Hole” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)

For the hype and praise (all of it warranted, obviously) heaped on Sgt. Pepper in particular, and 1967 in general, this particular tune seems to slip under the radar. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop perfection (ho hum), it is an extremely laid back and convincing statement of individuality. To his credit, even though he wore the outfit (look at the album cover) he did not easily pay allegiance to any particular cause. He may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he did not need to. In one of the seminal years in rock and roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave.

“Penny Lane” (from Magical Mystery Tour)

Of course this is not from a “proper” album; winding up on Magical Mystery Tour, it was introduced to a not-quite-suspecting world as one half of the most brilliant/influential single of all time, on the flip side of Lennon’s four minute revolution, “Strawberry Fields Forever” (more on that here).

Debate has raged as to how much “better” Sgt. Pepper would be had the lads saved these two songs for it. No question the quality of the album would have improved but…well, it wouldn’t be the same. And there is something almost heroic about The Beatles, already the biggest band in the universe, putting out a single just to let the world know they were still in charge. Ever-unappreciated fifth Beatle George Martin’s presence is particularly felt on this one, courtesy of the trumpet flourishes (the idea of which came to McCartney in a burst of inspiration while listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.) There is no shortage of delightful irony that Mac, easily one of the most famous and beloved rock stars on the scene, sings wistfully about his childhood. Nostalgic without being sentimental, McCartney illustrates that he was king, culturally and creatively, circa 1967.

“Hey Jude” (no album; single from ’68).

Just because.

“Blackbird”, “Mother Nature’s Son” (two songs from the double-album The Beatles)

I went deep (and perhaps into the deep end) on the infamous, inimitable White Album on the occasion of its 4oth birthday, here.

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.

“Hey Bulldog” (from Yellow Submarine)

Yes, this is a Lennon song. Yes, it would not sound remotely the same without McCartney. Here is what I wrote about this song while making some personal observations on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death (here):

It is a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles (White Album) and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration –albeit a wonderful one– of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.

“You Never Give Me Your Money” (from Abbey Road)

I celebrated Abbey Road in some detail here. My .02: 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?

And what can I possibly say about this song that it doesn’t say quite nicely for itself? Personally, I would put this one at the very top of the heap if asked, “why do you insist Paul McCartney is a genius?”

“Let It Be” (from Let It Be)

And I would put “Let It Be” next to the top, if asked the same question.

There is only one thing to add, and it says everything that needs to be said: McCartney was not yet 30 years old when he wrote and recorded this song.

As we get older we gradually and however reluctantly acknowledge that we will, one day, cease to exist. For anyone not yet born when the Beatles broke up, we will most likely end up watching many of our musical gods expire on our watch. I don’t know how I’m going to react when Paul McCartney eventually goes, but here’s hoping it’s not for a very long time indeed. Happy 70th, Macca!

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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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When I’m 64 (Plus Six): My Favorite Macca

 

Paul McCartney who, no matter where you stand on rock music, The Beatles or list-making, is indisputably one of the best –and most important– popular musicians of the last century. Our artistic landscape would be inconceivably altered without his work, and the myriad minds he inspired.

I have written many (many) words about The Beatles, and before I’m done I will undoubtedly write many more: The Beatles are like the sea or the sky; they are there, life is impossible to imagine (or live) without them, so they must be recognized and celebrated. A little is never enough.

To commemorate Macca’s 70th birthday this week, rather than write (too many) more words, I figured an appropriate way to pay tribute was by selecting my favorite song of his from each proper Beatles album (note: not the ones I necessarily think are the best; just the ones I personally like the most, the ones that have given me ceaseless joy over the decades).

“I Saw Her Standing There” (from Please Please Me).

Talk about an opening statement. The countdown that kicks off the first album (one two three FAH!) is one of the most exhilarating few seconds in early-’60s rock. Plus, where Chuck Berry brilliantly danced around the obvious in his lascivious love letters, Paul –with a wink and a nod– minces neither words nor intentions: “Well she was just seventeen/And you know what I mean…” It is both fair and accurate to say that nothing was ever the same after this.

“All My Loving” (from With The Beatles)

The Beatles were still, arguably, too buttoned-up and safe by half on their second album, at least considering what was just around the corner. At this point they were systematically focused on one thing: writing perfect hit songs. That is what this: a pure, unfiltered distillation of their songwriting genius.

“Things We Said Today” (from A Hard Day’s Night)

It is still astonishing to consider how quickly The Beatles went from very good to great (after that, they went somewhere else we are still not capable of properly quantifying). This McCartney masterpiece, on an album fairly dominated by some of Lennon’s stronger early writing, is wise beyond its years, typically bittersweet (Lennon without Mac too often went bitter, Mac without Lennon too often got syrupy sweet but when both found the right balance nobody could touch them) and overflowing with confidence. It’s a short statement of purpose that cries: “I am genius, hear me roar” and it’s over before you know it.

“I’ll Follow The Sun” (from Beatles for Sale)

The fourth album is proof that the Beatles were human. It could not have been more obvious that they were burning out, exhausted and running low on ideas (almost half the album is covers). “I’ll Follow The Sun” is proof that even on half-a-tank, Macca’s engine could still kick into overdrive. Not terribly deep or profound, “I’ll Follow The Sun” is nothing more or less than a catchy, irresistible tune.

“The Night Before” (from Help!)

Now we’re talking. 1965 was the ultimate sweet-spot for the Lennon/McCartney collaboration: at no other time before or after did they write so prolifically and sing together so beautifully. So many tracks on both Help! and Rubber Soul feature them harmonizing in ways that should make even lukewarm fans acknowledge that these two men were placed on this earth to do exactly what they did and, for a time, do it together better than anyone else ever did.

“You Won’t See Me” (from Rubber Soul)

This was, possibly, the last album where Lennon clearly dominated in terms of quality and originality. It is very likely (if probable) that it was the sheer strengh of Lennon’s songwriting in ’65 that motivated Mac to push himself and, in the process, go to another level and become the de facto leader of the band. In hindsight, haters can say it was this exact turn of events that signalled the beginning of the end. Maybe. But looking at what McCartney achieved from ’66 to ’70, it’s difficult to deny that this was not both a necessary and wonderful thing.

“For No One” (from Revolver)

Still straining, albeit effortlessly (or making it sound as such, which is one handy definition of virtuosity) for increasingly mature material, Macca renders a topic that could be –and often is– reduced to soap opera melodrama into something at once ambivalent and devastating. “For No One” is the story of a relationship that ended because…well because relationships end. Is it her fault? His? Who knows. It’s ambiguous, painful and unforgettable, like love can be. This economic track evinces insight and empathy that McCartney would fully develop on the next album with “She’s Leaving Home”.

“Fixing A Hole” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)

For the hype and praise (all of it warranted, obviously) heaped on Sgt. Pepper in particular, and 1967 in general, this particular tune seems to slip under the radar. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop perfection (ho hum), it is an extremely laid back and convincing statement of individuality. To his credit, even though he wore the outfit (look at the album cover) he did not easily pay allegiance to any particular cause. He may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he did not need to. In one of the seminal years in rock and roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave.

“Penny Lane” (from Magical Mystery Tour)

Of course this is not from a “proper” album; winding up on Magical Mystery Tour, it was introduced to a not-quite-suspecting world as one half of the most brilliant/influential single of all time, on the flip side of Lennon’s four minute revolution, “Strawberry Fields Forever” (more on that here).

Debate has raged as to how much “better” Sgt. Pepper would be had the lads saved these two songs for it. No question the quality of the album would have improved but…well, it wouldn’t be the same. And there is something almost heroic about The Beatles, already the biggest band in the universe, putting out a single just to let the world know they were still in charge. Ever-unappreciated fifth Beatle George Martin’s presence is particularly felt on this one, courtesy of the trumpet flourishes (the idea of which came to McCartney in a burst of inspiration while listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.) There is no shortage of delightful irony that Mac, easily one of the most famous and beloved rock stars on the scene, sings wistfully about his childhood. Nostalgic without being sentimental, McCartney illustrates that he was king, culturally and creatively, circa 1967.

“Hey Jude” (no album; single from ’68).

Just because.

“Blackbird”, “Mother Nature’s Son” (two songs from the double-album The Beatles)

I went deep (and perhaps into the deep end) on the infamous, inimitable White Album on the occasion of its 4oth birthday, here.

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.

“Hey Bulldog” (from Yellow Submarine)

Yes, this is a Lennon song. Yes, it would not sound remotely the same without McCartney. Here is what I wrote about this song while making some personal observations on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death (here):

It is a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles (White Album) and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration –albeit a wonderful one– of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.

“You Never Give Me Your Money” (from Abbey Road)

I celebrated Abbey Road in some detail here. My .02: 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?

And what can I possibly say about this song that it doesn’t say quite nicely for itself? Personally, I would put this one at the very top of the heap if asked, “why do you insist Paul McCartney is a genius?”

“Let It Be” (from Let It Be)

And I would put “Let It Be” next to the top, if asked the same question.

There is only one thing to add, and it says everything that needs to be said: McCartney was not yet 30 years old when he wrote and recorded this song.

As we get older we gradually and however reluctantly acknowledge that we will, one day, cease to exist. For anyone not yet born when the Beatles broke up, we will most likely end up watching many of our musical gods expire on our watch. I don’t know how I’m going to react when Paul McCartney eventually goes, but here’s hoping it’s not for a very long time indeed. Happy 70th, Macca!

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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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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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The Whiteness of the Whale (or, It Was 40 Years Ago Today…)

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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