Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part II, The Intimate Conversational Songs

John Lennon and Paul McCartney had an uncanny knack for writing songs that revealed themselves as actual speech - the lyrics and the phrasing of the lyrics were so 'in the language' that they forged an immediate, inclusive connection with the listener.

Remarkably free of the contrivances that yell out "this is a song, people!", it was like having a conversation with them or overhearing one - that's how much like spying on the singer's most intimate musings and vulnerabilities it seemed with these songs. It could be creepy on some level, but the feeling went away quickly because, even at such a young age, we could relate to the emotions. I've never quite understood why that should be, but certainly the older I got, the more these songs resonated because they pertained to experiences I'd actually had.

And of course it didn't hurt that these songs tended to be beauties of musical construction from start to finish.

Estivator's Picks for Best Intimate, Conversational Songs

Girl - "She's the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry, still you don't regret a single day."
I'll Be Back - "You could find better things to do than to break my heart again."
If I Fell - "If I give my heart to you, I must be sure from the very start that you will love me more than him."
No Reply - "I tried to telephone. They said you were not home. That's a lie."
You Can't Do That - "I've got something to say that might cause you pain; if I catch you talking to that boy again I'm gonna let you down and leave you flat. Because I told you before, oh you can't do that."
You're Gonna Lose That Girl - "I'll make a point of taking her away from you - watch what you do. The way you treat her, what else can I do?"

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part I, The Covers

During February baby boomers like to hark back to the three Sunday nights that month in 1964 that we first saw the Beatles live on American television, on the Ed Sullivan show. This often leads to further woolgathering on the span of their remarkable career. Perusing Rolling Stone's list of the top 100 Beatles songs recently I was reminded that my taste in their songs never quite matches up with these lists, which often include songs I found to be the dreariest and overlook scores of other delights. Furthermore, when I sat down and put together my top 100, I could only come up with 71.

I started thinking about the Beatles canon and into how many different categories their prodigious output could be divided. I decided to come up with my own breakdowns with representative examples. Note that any one song could potentially go into other categories; they will be listed purely for illustrative purposes. At the end of the series I will attempt to select my top 10 most beloved Beatles songs. I reserve the right to make that the top 25.  Let the fur flying begin.

Category I - The Covers 

Growing up as they did in post-war England, the Beatles lacked for a lot, including anything that passed for indigenous music. As with all of the British Invasion groups, John, Paul, George and Ringo devoured what they could hear on the radio, which consisted almost entirely of the music of American rock and roll, rockabilly and rhythm and blues artists. The first song they ever recorded (as the Quarrymen, minus Ringo) was Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day. They copied the music they heard, and further evolved it into a new form that changed the world forever.
Although Lennon and McCartney had written their own material as far back as when they were in school, they didn't show the signs of their genius right off the bat. Their producer George Martin has said he outright doubted their songwriting ability at first, but they were fortunate in their early days to be on the bill with people like Roy Orbison, whom McCartney names as an inspiration to them to become better writers.

In any case, Martin's policy of not putting the released singles on the LPs that meant the first three albums included a good half dozen covers by artists and composers who were their most seminal influences. As I was first hearing these, at the tender age of 11 and 12, I certainly had not been exposed to the original versions that they were interpreting. I just knew how infectious and life-affirming the rhythms and beats of these songs were and the exuberance with which the Lads presented them. Later comparing these to the originals, I concluded that the Beatles made these songs more accessible and appealing, introducing Americans to their own artists in many instances. To this day I remain fascinated by the process musicians go through to make someone else's song their own.  

Estivator's Picks for Best Covers:

Honey Don't (Carl Perkins)
Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey (Little Richard)
Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry)
You Really Got A Hold On Me (Miracles)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nottamun Town, Fairport Convention (1969)

"My route to school took me past a music shop and there were always guitars on display. I just liked the shape, I suppose; I wanted to possess one." - Simon Nichol, co-founder of Fairport Convention

I have long suspected that if it weren't for the seemingly primal affinity that boys have for guitars and their shapes, the world might have been deprived of much of the world's existing music catalog. When you read the stories of how bands came to be, how often does it hinge on schoolboys who had zero interest in formal education but a full complement of zeal for wringing sounds out of their curvaceous instruments?  Exactly! 

Certainly that was the case with Fairport Convention. I discovered Fairport's haunting repertoire of guitar licks and vocals just as I hit the gloomy prison of my college dorm room in 1970, the perfect time and place to immerse myself in their electrified traditional and folk music. 

Although their original creative influences as a group were often American singer-songwriters, both Nicol and one of the group's other co-founders, the in-a-class-by-himself Richard Thompson, have credited the British Fender Stratocaster wizard, Hank Marvin, of Cliff Richard's backup band The Shadows, with inspiring them to become proficient in the instrument as youths. Before the Beatles and the Stones invaded their own country, the Shadows were breaking ground with a home-grown rock and roll sound that took the world (except for the U.S.) by storm.  Here they are with (Ghost) Riders in the Sky, in a rendition that I have to assume was revolutionary at the time.

Fairport Convention worked the London pubs relentlessly, honing their craft interpreting the music of others, but eventually settled upon an eclectic, almost improvisational fusion of musical forms that was later dubbed the British folk-rock genre. No one in England was doing this, not well anyway, at the time. Thompson, on Elvis Costello's Spectacle show, noted that they drew on The Band's emergence as a successful traditional, roots-driven group in arriving at their newfound direction. 

Fairport's music in that early heyday was distinguished by a number of things, not least of which was what Nicol referred to as "the structured freedom and strength" of Thompson's playing. (Anyone who has never seen him live should put this on the list of Things To Do Before You Die.) Another thing that set them apart was the addition of a girl lead singer, Judy Dyble, who duetted with Ian (now Iain) Matthews.  They felt she wasn't the strongest vocalist, but they and their audiences liked the female touch, and a subsequent search for her replacement turned up ex-Strawb Sandy Denny. Denny is the much revered songbird whose voice you hear floating into the stratosphere in my song selection today, Fairport's glorious reworking of the traditional folk song Nottamun Town. (During her audition, Nicol said she "stood out like a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes.")

Fairport landed an American producer based in the UK, Joe Boyd, allegedly after he witnessed Thompson's half hour interpretation of Paul Butterfield Blues Band's East West. (He also produced The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and others in this genre, and had known Denny previously.) Fairport were sometimes compared to Jefferson Airplane, their sound being viewed in some circles as having a tinge of psychedelia. I didn't particularly see the resemblance, but whatever.

Though in its early days the group was as close knit as they could be, some of them living communally, the seminal lineup proved not to be enduring. Matthews left after the Holiday album, not much liking the turn toward traditional folk music; Thompson got restless to pursue his own solo career, and was gone by 1971. Denny left, came back, then left again, forming Fotheringay with her boyfriend Trevor Lucas. She died at the age of 31 from injuries sustained in a fall in 1978 (Thompson's stunning ode to her, That's All, Amen, Close the Door, is RT artistry at its very best). The group has had easily a dozen former members altogether over the years.

Simon Nichol came and went and returned, and today is the only original member of the group, which still tours. For 35 years, they've held the annual Cropredy Convention, an outdoor festival showcasing British folk-rock music that goes on for days (among other things, it boasts that it has "the cleanest toilets you'll find at any music festival"), closed by a lengthy performance by the band themselves.