Friday, July 24, 2009

Beatles For Sale (1964): To Cover Or Not To Cover? That Is the Musical Question

Earlier this week, crossword puzzle constructor extraordinaire Brendan Emmett Quigley sparked a very minor but amusing firestorm when he mildly dissed the Beatles For Sale album.

In the aftermath, my friend Karmasartre felt compelled to comment on Brendan's blog. Anyone who reads my blog knows I have nothing whatsoever against covers and have written in glowing terms about many of them. One of the reasons is that, done with the appropriate flair, they exposed us to musical genres and artists we'd not likely have known about otherwise, for reasons of marketing (read: profiling).

I thought Karma's perspective was well worth bringing out into the open, as his points are well taken and insightful. They follow, edited for standalone publication.

In a recent casual poll rating Beatles' albums, Beatles For Sale made a poor showing. The lack of appreciation was linked to the number of cover songs - six out of 14 - on the album. Hard to reconcile with the joy I remember hearing it.

When any of the Beatles albums came out, I slipped a twenty to a friend whose father was a pilot. He would pick up the "real" version (as opposed to the Capitol Records smush job) for me in London. So, I was able to hear the songs the way they were intended, plus enjoy the hyper-glossy finish of the EMI sleeve. In my dorm, Beatles For Sale got as much turntable time as the other early albums.

Until the Beatles came along, nearly all songs were composed by others. Neil Sedaka sang his own stuff, but many 45s were a combination of great writer/great performer. Purchasing an LP was a waste, as much of it would turn out to be crap. Think 11 B-sides and one A-side. There were exceptions: folk albums (and other genres, of course) where the entire album was good material ... and then along came Bob. But for rock and roll, covers meant the best music.

The Beatles, combining great songwriting and performing skills, were the first to make albums a great value. Part of the early allure, though, was not just their own compositions, but their ability to transpose r&b or soul songs into a more penetrable - for some - format. When their version of Twist and Shout first hit the airwaves, people were transfixed, overwhelmed, amazed. There was a bit of "Hey, if John can sing that, maybe I can" among a certain set of listeners ... those who couldn't conceive of matching Ron Isley's soaring notes.

The simple four-instrument lineup added to that fantasy. Could other magic music be similarly attainable? Hearing George transform some wild horn section's scream into a simple guitar line was a normalization of sound that reached the ears of listeners who wanted to replicate it in their parents' garage. It wasn't better, but it was approachable. And the Beatles had traditionally performed r&b songs as part of their repertoire. I wanted to hear them do Shout (and finally heard it on some VHS tape) and Desiree, some Sam Cooke numbers, and other beautiful, soulful sounds (e.g., Phil Specter, more Smokey, maybe an Impressions).

So when Beatles For Sale emerged, most of the covers were warmly welcomed. Rock and Roll Music was explosive and exciting; John's particular brand of gravel needed to see the light of every stylus. Mr. Moonlight was an unfortunate choice, to these ears (note from Estivator: I loved that thing). Always fun to tell people "If you were a Beatles song, you'd be Mr. Moonlight." The Kansas City medley (Estivator: see my 2007 review) was inspired and wild. Words of Love was a serviceable interpretation with excellent harmonies. While Honey Don't just seemed like a vehicle to give Ringo a microphone (Estivator: again, I loved this tune), Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby, showcasing George's obvious dedication to exploring Carl Perkins' guitar licks, was a delight. That these tunes were mixed with such a sweet selection of John/Paul numbers was gravy. The covers may not hold up as well, or appeal to new listeners, but at the time, they were gold.

How many of us have spent good time in the shower meditating on Eight Days A Week or What You're Doing, struggling to grasp how someone dreamt up those wondrous melodies? (Oh, not that many, sorry.) Those are just two of the gorgeous John/Paul songs on Beatles For Sale. This September, the remastered versions of the Beatles' catalog will finally be available. Having heard a few of their songs remastered, I know what a joy this is going to be. Can't wait to hear I'm A Loser (Estivator: along with No Reply, one of their best ever) and the rest in all their glory.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

RIP Gordon Waller (1945-2009)

He was my best friend at school almost half a century ago. He was not only my musical partner but played a key role in my conversion from only a snooty jazz fan to a true rock and roll believer as well. Without Gordon I would never have begun my career in the music business in the first place. ... The idea that I shall never get to sing those songs with him again ... is an unthinkable change in my life with which I have not even begun to come to terms. - excerpt from statement of Peter Asher, on the death of Gordon Waller

This is so peculiar and eerily prescient - only last week I was thinking about all the noteworthy Peter and Gordon songs that I might write about and had been listening to various of their many Top 40 songs from the mid-60s.

The duo with the mellifluous harmonies were the British equivalent of the Everly Brothers, some felt, and certainly both credited Don and Phil Everly with being direct influences on their style.

Oddly, Peter and Gordon were the first British Invasion musicians after the Beatles to have a #1 hit in the U.S. - something I neither remembered nor would have guessed to be true. (I'd have said maybe the Animals, with House of the Rising Sun, but actually it took another 3 months for them to be the third group of British artists to top the charts). How would their story have been different if Peter Asher's sister Jane hadn't been Paul McCartney's girlfriend in those early Beatlemaniacal days? Fortunately, they didn't have to find out, and shared their talents with the whole world.

Mates from boarding school, Peter and Gordon discovered each other's musical bents and began performing together early. At first, they had to scale the wall on school grounds to work their late-hours coffeehouse and pub dates. Later, they were noticed in a ritzy supper club by a man who repped for EMI, one of the UK's three major labels at the time. Still teenagers, they were signed and suddenly in need of songs to take to their first session. McCartney had previously played a version of World Without Love for them, they liked it (Paul and John, not so much, apparently) and he offered it up to them for their maiden voyage in the studio.

Although A World Without Love became the breakout #1 hit, I always thought the less Beatle-esque songs like I Go To Pieces (by Del Shannon) and To Know You Is To Love You (by Phil Spector) showcased their vocal talents most effectively. The latter is a good vehicle from which to appreciate Waller's booming baritone. Both are beautifully rendered.

Connected as they were to the Beatles, they toured the world with the Fab Four as well as other acts, and became internationally recognizable.

Waller pursued a solo career after the duo split but he never found the kind of success he had known with Peter and Gordon. In addition to writing and performing his own music, he became involved in musical theatre. Asher headed up A&R for Apple Records and for decades has been a fixture in the music industry, producing California acts such as Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Friends forever, in 2005 Peter and Gordon reunited for a performance to benefit the Dave Clark Five's Mike Smith, who had been seriously injured in a fall, and continued to perform intermittently as a duo for special occasions.

Friday, July 10, 2009

(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, Rolling Stones (1965)

Though it seems like Keith Richards is the sort of guy who should have passed over to the other side a long time ago given his various excesses, as fate would have it, he's still with us and for my money has always been one of the great guitar gods. Blues-rock guitar gods, anyway.

And so it's his famous grinding riff in Satisfaction - conceived, he has claimed, while asleep; why am I not surprised? - that defined one of the anthems of rock in the mid-60s, giving the Stones their first #1 on the charts 44 years ago yesterday and flipping the bird at the comparatively sweet Beatles. (I Feel Fine, Eight Days A Week and Ticket To Ride had already been #1 that year.)

The Stones had found their way into the top 10 with The Last Time and their cover of Time Is On My Side, both killer songs, but #1 had eluded them. Debates over which band was better were common as was, after Satisfaction, ongoing interest in who was #1 or close to it at any given time. (The Beatles would have more singles top the charts that year than the Stones.)

A Battle of These Particular Bands seems silly when you think about it now, but the menacing, edgy Stones were the anti-Beatles and the juxtaposition of the two was interesting to ponder back in the day. Newsweek didn't call the Beatles "leering." The Stones? Oh yeah they did.

Although being an inductee of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress (2006) would seem to fly in the face of that leering sensibility, nonetheless Satisfaction was, 44 years ago and today, one of the best examples of disaffectedness that the 60s had to offer.

The song was actually railing against America's empty values, but somehow I don't think that's what most kids took away from it. I know I didn't, anyway. It was one of those songs that simply made it OK to give voice to the idea that life is a disappointment on so many levels. (Kind of a musical version of the brain of Holden Caulfield.) And it's also one of those songs that if, say, you're having a bad day 44 years later, still taps into that belligerent streak that some of us (read: I) have always had, for better or worse.

What I didn't know is that the song wasn't initially viewed as anything special, at least not by Richards and Mick Jagger.

On their third U.S. tour, they stopped into various recording studios along their route to lay down tracks for whatever was percolating in their brains at the time. Following a Chicago concert in 1965, that studio was Chess, where some of their own heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, recorded - as did McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters, after whose Rollin' Stone, the first single Chess ever released, the Stones had named themselves.

Here the song's first take germinated but it was nothing like what was eventually released. The finishing touches didn't happen until they hit L.A. and RCA's studios. Keith had recently acquired a Gibson Maestro FuzzTone pedal, and suddenly the song morphed aggressive. However, the story goes that the guitar riff was merely a stand-in for the horns that he was actually envisioning. In any case, he didn't see it as A-side fare. For one thing, he thought it was too much a knockoff of Martha and the Vandellas' Dancing in the Street.

In reality, Satisfaction was probably the synthesis of many influences that could have been soaked up in those days. Nothing unusual about that. Here's Keith briefly demonstrating the song's bluesy roots, from what source I do not know.