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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Best of the Beatles

Between the 50th anniversary of the Sgt. Pepper album and the advent of the Beatles channel on Sirius (it will never fully replace Sinatra) I am hearing the Beatles again with 63-year-old ears.

I am so glad that most of it holds up.

Not Sgt. Pepper. Poor thing has no soul.

While hailed (falsely) at the time as the first concept album (Sinatra and company did them in the 1950s and probably earlier) I am not really sure what the concept was. Stoned rockers play the music hall? Perhaps if I smoked pot I would understand.

Five years earlier, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles made all the social commentary music will ever need, to wit: hey, poor white people music is just as sad and miserable as poor black people music.

But hearing the whole catalog of Beatles music with old ears is a treat nevertheless.

First, their musicianship and vocal abilities are excellent, truly worthy of their acclaim. A child looked up at them as heroes. An old man looks at them with gratitude.

The guitarists learned well their craft putting in 12-hour days at those clubs in Hamburg, and Ringo Starr is maybe the best drummer of his time. Hated drum solos. Too showy. The only one I recall him recording was in "The End" on Abbey Road.

Second, the best post-Beatle music was done by George Harrison. He surrounded himself with the best musicians and really grew as a songwriter. I mean, Wings. Really? I'd rather have Eric Clapton, even if he did steal my wife.

Third, their covers reveal the eclectic tastes from musicians of great ears. Their first set on Ed Sullivan included Meredith Wilson's "Till There Was You" from The Music Man.

But I was blown away by Lennon's cover of "Anna," a 1962 tune by Arthur Alexander, on their first album. Hadn't heard it before this Sirius channel came out. It's such an obscure song, a diamond in the rough that Lennon polished. Six of the 14 tracks on that first album -- Please Please Me -- are covers.

The other eight songs are Lennon-McCartney tunes: "I Saw Her Standing There," "Misery," "Ask Me Why," "Please Please Me," "Love Me Do," "P.S. I Love You," "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" and "There's a Place."

The early album shows why Sir George Martin was excited to work with these young, talented musicians and songwriters. And as they would develop over the years, one can tell they wanted to work with and learn from him. It was a remarkable apprenticeship and partnership.

The albums piled up as they progressed musically. There were concerts and travel and two films. Lennon and McCartney were exceptional songwriters with the latter clearly outshining the former, who was the leader of the band. Bringing up the rear was Harrison.

In the summer of 1965, they began a year of recording three albums -- well two plus the American release Yesterday and Today -- that mark their peak as a band. From the opening song on the British version of Rubber Soul -- "Drive My Car" -- to the trippy final song on Revolver -- "Tomorrow Never Knows" -- the Beatles set a standard for rock bands no one has met since.

And while they may not have liked the songs Capitol slapped together as Yesterday and Today -- the album originally with the butcher cover -- that album may have been their best work as a band: "Drive My Car," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Nowhere Man," "Doctor Robert," "Yesterday," "Act Naturally," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "If I Needed Someone," "We Can Work It Out," "What Goes On?" and "Day Tripper."

Eleven songs. Nine hits (not "Doctor Robert"). One cover of "Act Naturally" (Ringo sings Buck Owens).

Add the "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane" single and the Abbey Road album, and you have enough Beatles for a lifetime.

The gap between Revolver and Abbey Road (followed by the release of the odd Let It Be album) had its peaks and valleys, but the band was never as tight musically as it was on those four albums and that single.

My goodness, no one was that good for three albums in a row like that, not even Led Zeppelin.

After the Beatles, Paul wandered off into silly love songs, and John tried to save the world.

While I understand that the two were often at loggerheads, each may have needed the other to rein him in. Someone needed to tell Paul his songs were getting mushy. And someone needed to tell John that "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" is a terrible, nasty, racist idea for a song let alone a title.

This is not to knock their work. Certainly they were far superior to most others. John's "Woman" is beautiful. Paul's "Live and Let Die" was one of the best Bond tunes. It's just they were better as Beatles. Over the years, Paul returned to singing those songs.

But George flourished after the Beatles finished.

From All Things Must Pass to the Concert for Bangladesh to Living in the Material World, George brought world-class musicians together and produced the best music of the 1970s. Not as faint praise as we think.

While John over the years tried to be spiritual, George was the one who wrote "My Sweet Lord" (OK, there was a plagiarism suit on the tune itself), "What Is Life?" and "All Things Must Pass" on his first album. Later came "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)."

His final single -- "Any Road" -- was perhaps a fitting choice for his bow from this life.

While John was politicking, George was raising money for the fledgling nation when East Pakistan became Bangladesh (what a bloody mess that was).

That sounds harsher toward John than I intend.

I am being too picky.

Music is to be heard and enjoyed. The four of them gave the world many hours and years of great recorded music. Some of it was just better. All of it was good. George Harrison said it best.

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  1. Well, Big D, you've just booked up my afternoon for me! Expect at least ten comments by sundown.

    The first album I owned (present from Uncle Gary) was The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles Hits. I was 6.

    My Christmas was ruined the year, in late fall, the Paul Is Dead conspiracy theory got traction.

    Once I finally learned what a woman's orgasm face looked like, it was clear to me there were more than a few of those going on during the concert scene in A Hard Day's Night.

    I gained instant street cred my first night at my first AF assignment by knowing and singing every word of the Red and Blue Albums at a kegger.

    Gotta get ready for church but must hear "The Word" first. Harmonies. Tight, incredible, original harmonies. We'll never hear em like that again. The Who came closest.

    "It's so fine, it's sunshine,..." Back in a while.

  2. A nice way to start off a Sunday, Don!

  3. Generally speaking they handled their success well. I think the endearing trait of the Beatles was they had a sort of throwback quality to the music hall era...a sort of ad-lib approach to their music... a silliness in good proportion to a serious side as well.

    There is no question that they set the bar in their day and one that influenced not only my (our) generation but future ones to a degree as well.

    Don I enjoyed your breakfast pic and tee shirt slogan. Wish I could have joined you for breakfast but coffee will have to do at this time!

    cheers Sam C

  4. As a life-long Beatle fan, I was thrilled when I stumbled across "The Beatles - Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962" on Youtube. They were at the top of their game. Tight, dynamic and fun. Most startling: just how damn good Ringo was live.

    Do yourself a big favor and listen to this gem. I came away with a whole new appreciation, 55 years on.

  5. " -- the album originally with the butcher cover "

    They might not get that one Don.

    It was doable if you were careful with the sponge and had good fingernails. Stretches of drying time in between to maintain the gloss n glue. Still, you had some tears, and it wasn't exactly worth it. The end product wasn't up to Kathy Griffin level, as we anticipated.

    My biggest decision back then was whether to buy the LP album or pay a buck more for "Stereo." In the 80's I finally bought an all stereo vinyl collection, and shortly after that got rid of the turntable with top line Shure cartridge.

    All in all, I'm bored with them now after years of adoration. The Byrds came along and a new culture (and better lead), Vietnam rock (with more venom), then there was Aerosmith mode that came along and took over sometime around 'Crazy'.

    You're right about George and the travelers--I'll head bob and acoustic air guitar to that stuff any day.

  6. White Album. Recommended at 2 AM.

  7. Don't forget, John saw the light before his life was so tragically ended. He told one of his friends that he thought Carter was a loser and was glad Reagan won. The footage from a Monday Night Football game in the late seventies where Reagan was seen explaining the game to Lennon is still priceless to me.

    1. I did not know that, Fred. Must check it out! Thanks.

  8. Dear Prudence

    I wrote the lyrics on a piece of paper while serving as a counselor at Wyoming Boys State in 1979, age 20. There was a girl who worked the food service line with hair lthe color of summer wheat and beautiful blue eyes. It took me three days to get up the nerve to hand it to her. She smiled at me the next meal. Oh my heart.

    "That was a very nice note. But I'm seeing someone."

    "OK. It's a Beatles song."

    It was the first time I actually didn't feel rejected. She was that fine.

    The song was written by John for Mia Farrow's sister, who apparently got so into the TM she kind of went comatose while they were at the Maharishi Mahesh Groper's temple.

    Ringo went off on a snit and left the studio for some days during recording of The White Album. That's Sir Paul on the drum kit with an amazing flurry at the end, which probably led to this exchange:

    Reporter: Do you think Ringo is the best drummer in the world?
    John: He's not even the best drummer in the band.

    Typical John: One part pure truth, one part asshole.

  9. Replies
    1. Hahaha...the war continues! An AF buddy was a Stones fanatic and lobbied hard to get me woke. Yeah, their best stuff is damn good. Side 1 of Exile rules. Classic Keef quote: When I was a junkie I still learned how to water ski and I made Exile on Main Street. Good ol' Charlie is a drummer for the ages. Whiskey in the morning with a Love In Vain chaser. BTDT.

  10. When I Knew Their Music Was Complex

    Pretty much NONE of the songs were within the grasp of a twelve year old with his first guitar. And I Love Her ends with a C. Everything before that is like barchords, diminished fifths, minor sevenths, and chords you could only perfect by using your nose on the top string. I had to stick to some Johnny Cash, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and (yes) Take Me Home, Country Roads.

  11. Their Best Album

    I wrote a monthly rock music column for our college magazine. (At the Air Force Academy. WAY too much fun.) One issue I tackled the 10 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time. Natch, the Fabs headed the list but I wussed out and listed three - 1A, 1B, 1C, that sorta thing. Pepper, The White, and Abbey Road. 37 years later:

    Pepper hasn't aged well. Big D is right. The three tracks I'll pick most these days are She's Leaving Home (in its own way, a strong anti-abortion song), Lovely Rita (she paid for dinner!?), and Getting Better (it can't get no worse, words I hung onto frequently - an optimistic song). In retrospect, Pet Sounds is a much better album, the true groundbreaker aurally.

    White, docked one YUGE star for Revolution No. 9. Turn me off, dead man.

    Abbey remains. The. Best. Ever. Side 2 is unmatchable. George's numbers completely shine. I still get a big ol' grin listening to Mean Mr. Mustard. And what song did I have cued up as we left Gaithersburg after 28 years to head for a new life in West Virginia?

    One sweet dream
    Pick up the bags, get in the limousine
    Soon we'll be away from here
    Step on the gas and wipe that tear away
    One sweet dream

  12. Love thee Beatles but for my money, Mitch Mitchell - the drummer for Jimi Hendrix is the best power drummer ever. With only lefty Hendrix playing a right handed guitar upside down, mitchell and bass player Noel Redding, they created a BIG sound.

    Other Monterey footage showing how hard Mitchell played is amazing. He must have burned 10000 calories an hour and who knows what drugs fueled him.

    1. Top 10, for sure. He knew when to quiet it down and when to bring the noise.

  13. A Pox on Capitol Records

    Only with the catalog release of the original UK albums (thank you Yoko and Bezos) was it clear how badly we got took to the cleaners by Capitol in the US. I've taken dumps that lasted longer than their earlier albums, and the two movie vinyls are an abomination. Instrumental filler garbage that we just skipped. More product, more albums, more money for the suits. Disgusting.

  14. How Freaked Out Was I?

    Paul was my favorite Beatle. A radio special show got aired on KUDI in Great Falls, MT that went through all of the "clues", both visual and aural, that he'd died in a car crash and had been replaced by a lookalike. I was sick to my stomach but forced myself to examine the evidence. When I heard the say "I buried Paul", I took a screwdriver to my 45 and hacked away until the song was unplayable. And when I got my first legit turntable, I got really good really fast at spinning it backwards by hand at approximately 33 rpm.

  15. Agreed about the UK-vs-US albums. Get the original Parlophone releases rather than the Capitol ones, because Capitol chopped them up badly. I created playlists of the Capitol releases from all the Parlophone albums plus the "Past Masters" album, and it's almost disturbing.

    George Harrison turned out to be the best of them. His guitar solo in "Til there Was You" was perfect, like James Burton's solo in "Hello Mary Lou." His post-Beatles work was superb, both his solo music and his work with The Traveling Wilburys. I'd've picked "When We Was Fab" for George saying it best, by the way.

    From what I've read, the idea of "Sgt Pepper" as a concept album existed mostly in Paul McCartney's imagination. Aside from Paul's contributions, it was just a Beatles album, and really not that good.

    If you find it, "Let It Be... NAKED" is a much better album than the one Phil Spector produced, with his "Wall O' Sound" and added strings. "The Long And Winding Road" is simply magnificent without the strings, and the original guitar solo in "Let It Be" is much better than the one on the Spector version.

    I'm surprised you don't remember "Anna" from the first album: it was on both the original and the Vee Jay version. Great song.

  16. Harmonies

    Baby's In Black
    I'll Be Back
    If I Fell
    Two of Us
    I Don't Want to Spoil the Party
    When I Get Home
    There's a Place

    Probably many more...these came to mind first.

  17. Sorry Big D a z. Sgt Peppers was brilliant. A Day in the Life. Awesome! I'll take Brian Wilson's opinion of it. He loved it and it inspired him. GOC

    1. I'll take Brian Wilson too. A genius.

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    1. What is your favorite Beatles song, Vai? Mine's Paperback Writer.

  19. I always liked the Beatles, so I was all for a SiriusXM Beatles channel. As I listen to it, though, it seems that most of the songs they play are by former Beatles in their solo careers. I'm somewhat disappointed. Le Sigh. - Elric

  20. What a great post and series of epic comments. Thanks to all, that was great fun!

    Z - I agree with you, as a guitar player, that Beatles songs are far from easy to play, at least the ones I've seen. Same with Paul's solo songs. As a piano player, he probably composed all his songs on piano first and then adapted for guitar? And lots of piano chords (like the ones you mention) are much easier to play on the keyboard than on a guitar.

    One Paul song that sounds great on guitar is Blackbird, which my 18 year old son can play pretty well, and I've been working on it, and my 15 year old is working on it too. Just a beautiful guitar part. For my money, Paul is a true genius (along with Stevie Wonder and maybe Pete Townshend and a few others we could argue about), and I don't throw labels around like that casually. Even though lots of his melodies were "simple" and the words sometimes a little sappy, well, look at the BODY OF WORK. Songwriters the world over would kill to write one song half as great as "Yesterday" that is recorded by, what, like 500 or 1000 artists? I wonder what Paul's annual royalties for just the one song have been since 1965 ...