Sunday, March 27, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part V, The 'We're Not in Hamburg Anymore' Songs

Today's New York Times travel magazine has a feature called Twist and Stout! which examines the contemporary scene in Hamburg, Germany, the city where the Beatles demonstrated the intestinal fortitude they would need to become world sensations.

In clubs like the Kaiserkeller, which still exists, they gave true meaning to the phrase "the hardest working m(e)n in show business," playing gritty rock and roll for hours on end in the most raucous circumstances imaginable. Today, Hamburg is to Europe what Austin and Seattle are to the U.S. - a veritable hotbed of around-the-clock indie rock. 

But that was then. Starting in 1965, the Beatles turned their attention to expanding what they were capable of producing both sonically and in subject matter, moving further and further away from their original roots. We fans marveled at the newfound complexity of what we were hearing on Rubber Soul and Revolver, and in singles like Eleanor Rigby, Paperback Writer and Rain.

But they left the concert world in August of 1966 (the last official concert, held at San Francisco's Candlestick Park) and became entirely a studio band, adopting a no-holds-barred approach to experimentation. The first single to arrive in the new world order was Strawberry Fields Forever, the first album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I would be lying if I said that I reacted to the shift positively - I did not. Although there were flashes of artistry to come that were stunning, I broke with loving them unconditionally about this time. Too much of their output was monotonous or ridiculous and the influence of drugs on their music saddened me. More to the point, it did not speak to me. I still remember the Life magazine interview (June 16, 1967 to be exact) in which Paul McCartney admitted to have used LSD, and spouted off about how we only use one-tenth of our brain. The Age of Innocence was officially over, and at 14, it terrified me.

Decades later, my attitude hasn't changed much. Most of what I love about the Beatles was in the can before they quit the road - fortunately there is so much of that! Reading Here, There and Everywhere, the memoir by their engineer Geoff Emerick, last year, it was easy to see what they were doing. They were amusing themselves; it was all pure whimsy. Once their egos began to clash and it was clear they were coming apart, I truly believe we were lucky to get anything good. But there were exceptions, where the music was original AND a pleasure to listen to. Leaving aside songs like Let It Be, which I think could have been written on either end of the timeline, the ones I will never forget follow. 

Estivator's Picks for Best 'We're Not In Hamburg Anymore' Songs

A Day in the Life
Side two of Abbey Road plus Oh! Darling and I Want You (She's So Heavy) on side one
While My Guitar Gently Weeps 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part IV, The Goofy Songs

You know, you know, you know my name. 
You know, you know, you KNOW you know my name.
You know my name. Look up the number.

Good Golly Miss Molly the Beatles were irrepressible goofballs, and upon occasion that spilled out into their songs in a most memorable way. Maybe they were under such pressure to churn stuff out that songs like these were inevitable, maybe it was just impossible to suppress their natural zaniness.

I didn't like all of them by a long shot. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey?  No thank you. Yellow Submarine?  Zero interest. And there were many others that seemed to me like a waste of perfectly good vinyl.

But the ones I did like I loved. It's tempting to think that these songs were spontaneous eruptions of the Lads' exuberance and/or creativity, but we know that isn't so. From the Beatles Anthology Vol.3, for example, we learned that Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, one of my favorites, once sounded this way, and that wasn't even the first take (it took 42 hours to get to the recorded version, and tempers boiled over during a lot of that time as the group was by then deep in the throes of coming undone, driving everyone around them barking mad.  

And some of what I'm labeling goofy songs were serious - Dig A Pony and Hey Bulldog were two notable examples that I love, and I Am The Walrus was probably the epitome of that. Lots of streams of consciousness, bizarro sound effects and kooky song titles earn these that distinction.

The truth of the matter is the Beatles were just sponges of the highest order - whatever they stumbled across in their sonic world eventually was incorporated into their lyrics, instrumentation and vocal embellishments. Where other artists might not have been able to get away with it, by the time that the Beatles were dominating the music world they could pretty much do what they wanted, with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick only having to keep up with them.   

Estivator's Picks for Best Goofy Songs

Dig A Pony
Hey Bulldog
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Rocky Raccoon
You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part III, The Raw Nerve Songs

My teenage years were a time when I felt an almost constant need for emotional catharsis. I could never have gotten away with all the screaming and trashing rooms in the house that could have provided that catharsis, so how great was it that rock and roll music provided that outlet for me? Let me tell you, great with a capital G.

Although not what they're best known for, I almost always immediately loved every Beatles song that pulled no punches, was emotionally raw and cut me to the quick. These weren't pretty songs; they weren't meant to be. (Not a fan of Helter Skelter no matter how hard I tried, though.)  In these songs they could wring torment out with their voices - so extreme and intense that it was almost painful to listen to. But not too painful - they truly did help sooth the savage beast that raged within me.

And not all of them were about agony. No one familiar with McCartney's cover of Long Tall Sally or Lennon's of Twist and Shout could doubt the purity of their screaming pedigree, the sheer rock energy of it. Playing hundreds of shows at the Cavern Club in Liverpool over several years before they broke through, putting crowds into total frenzy, this was their stock in trade.

When it finally paid off, we got a glimpse of it right away ... who doesn't remember what it felt like to bear witness to Paul's screaming break in I Saw Her Standing There? It never, ever gets old.

Estivator's Picks for Best Raw Nerve Songs 

I Want You (She's So Heavy)
I'm A Loser
I'm So Tired
Oh! Darling
Sexy Sadie