Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Estivator's Top 27 Dearly Beloved

The reports are everywhere of iTunes' upcoming release of the remastered Beatles number ones, which of course reminds me that I have never circled back from my deconstruction of their songs earlier this year to report on my favorites. The exercise was originally prompted by my observation that the typical "top 100" or "best of" lists are invariably miles apart from the songs I cherish all these years later.

I may always second guess myself, but now is as good a time as any to just come out with it, and since there were 27 number ones, I'll share the 27 that are the closest to my heart - or rather, songs I'd be heartbroken if I never heard again and play often. Other than avoiding the monotony that afflicted too many of their later songs, that's my only criterion. Here goes: 

A Day in the Life - The pinnacle of what the Lads could do as studio musicians with George Martin and Geoff Emerick presiding, minus the self-indulgence of so much of the later fare. Can still remember what it felt like to hear this for the first time; it was destabilizing, mind-blowing and awe-inspiring - no drugs required.
A Hard Day's Night - One of the best examples of Lennon & McCartney's early craft which, coupled with the movie, pretty much had me and millions of others losing their minds the summer of 1964. There was nothing out there like it, and it was much more sophisticated than it probably seemed at the time.
Abbey Road Medley - How all of the disparate elements of this medley work so well together is beyond me. I just know it will never get old, its alchemy interpreted to everyone's delighted shock by Steven Tyler at the Kennedy Center recognition of Paul McCartney last year.
And Your Bird Can Sing - It gave me the shivers then, it gives me the shivers now. Gorgeous to the nth power from the standpoint of vocals and guitars.
Eleanor Rigby - Probably my first indication that things weren't always going to stay the same with the Beatles and me. A show-stopper then and now.
For No One - McCartney at his absolute best. A brief but gut-wrenching look inside the devastation of dying love.
Girl - And on the subject of love, pop songs can be so generic. Beatles' songs were the opposite, this being one of the best examples of the power of getting specific, with the added benefit of the stunning musicality.  
Help! - As the other "movie song," I can't not include this. Everything about it is indelibly imprinted on me. You had to be there.
Hey Bulldog - A song that barely registered with me at the time that I have come to adore. Don't know what it's about, don't care. Never fails to increase my endorphin level. 
I Saw Her Standing There - Where it all began for me. If I could go back to the moment when I heard this - and McCartney's scream - for the first time, I would do it in a skinny minute.
I Should Have Known Better - For 2:45, starting with John's harmonica intro, I am awash in endorphins and singing at the top of my lungs.
I'll Be Back - Unrequited love tied up in an exquisitely somber bow.
It Won't Be Long - Simple. Exuberant. With many of the qualities of She Loves You, only better.
I've Just Seen A Face - Proof that McCartney didn't have to resort to sappiness to convey upbeat emotions. Also one of his best, the wizardry he was capable of was never more apparent. As an aside, my friend Harvey Gold has interpreted this movingly in an altogether different tempo, to me demonstrating that the song can be understood on many levels beyond the obvious.
Kansas City (Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey) - No way you could doubt McCartney's rock and roll roots with his raucous handling of this medley first imagined by Little Richard.
No Reply - Another non-generic song about the universal problem of betrayal. Nails it. 
Nowhere Man - They were at the top of their form as a cohesive singing group on this. What a sound, and the lyrics are as powerful today, perhaps even more so.
Oh! Darling - I love my love songs with that hard edge. This delivers on every level with McCartney again reminding us what he could do as a rocker when he put his mind to it.
Roll Over Beethoven - George Harrison paying unabashed homage to Chuck Berry sounds as joyous today as it did then.
There's A Place - Tom Petty once remarked that when John and Paul sang lead in unison, as they do on this, they almost created another voice. It could rearrange your molecules. 
This Boy - The power of John Lennon's solo in this rocks my world.
We Can Work It Out - As emotionally resonant and authentic as anything they ever did in this category.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Although I don't think of this as a Beatles song because it is so pervasively a George production, nonetheless it came out on their watch. Call me trite if you will, but this is a masterpiece by any measure. 
You Can't Do That - One of their "I'll kick your ass" songs that they excelled at but probably aren't generally associated with. Fabulous lyrics and overall construction. 
You Know My Name, Look Up the Number - I know it's ridiculous, but the sublime goofiness of this song quite simply makes me grin from ear to ear. Worth its weight in gold for all that.
You've Really Got A Hold On Me - Another favorite cover. I didn't know what I was listening to at the time, but this interpretation of the Smokey Robinson classic was life-altering, one of the many doors that opened to kick-start my lifelong love of the music of black artists.
You're Gonna Lose That Girl - The call and response construction of this, another ass-kicker, makes it one of my very favorites, along with its parting crescendo. Fabulous.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Boy from New York City, Ad Libs (1964)

Jailhouse Rock. Love Potion No. 9. Charlie Brown. Stand By Me. Is That All There Is?

One half of the team associated with that diverse song set, Jerry Leiber, died this week. The number of individual songs and artists with which he and his partner Mike Stoller are associated is long and, as I have discovered, more diverse than I thought (more about that later). As prolific as they were as songwriters, their producing chops as denizens of the Brill Building and beyond came in equal quantity.

They lived and breathed music together from the time they were 17 years old, Leiber the lyricist to Stoller's composer. But their shared love of boogie woogie stemmed from a much earlier time (watch this Tavis Smiley interview with them where Stoller describes going to an interracial camp in 1940 at age 8, and never being the same again). What was often referred to then as "race music" just knocked their socks off, and they set about to bring it to the masses by melding its allure with pop lyrics. As luck would have it, when they were still very young, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler anointed them from their perch at Atlantic Records, signing them to the record industry's first independent production deal. 

Sometimes I wish I'd been a few years older in 1964, so that the height of the Brill Building influence that Leiber & Stoller personified would have coincided with my high school dances. There's something about that seemingly innocent, all-dancing-all-the-time phase of our history when black music began its crossover into the mainstream that would have been a joy to experience. But I was only 12, and dancing in my room.    

Emblematic of that time is the swinging and swaying The Boy From New York City, a song unusual for its female lead singer backed by doo-wopping males instead of the other way around.  The line "He's cute in his mohair suit and he keeps his pockets full of spending loot" is one of those lyrics forever lodged in my brain (not penned by Leiber, in this case). It was brought to them as a demo out of a Bayonne, New Jersey, nightclub from a group calling themselves the Ad Libs. (Sadly, their career didn't skyrocket from there.)

It must have been fun to produce. I saw a statement this week from Kenneth Gamble (of the Philadelphia songwriting and producing powerhouse Gamble & Huff), who said, "Jerry Leiber was a great inspiration and was vital to the start of my songwriting career. I also had the fortunate opportunity to play piano on many Leiber & Stoller recording sessions as a musician in the early days. When I had dreams of being a producer, I met Leiber & Stoller in the Brill Building when they called me to play on 'The Boy from New York City.'  I was so nervous, but when I started grooving, that's when I really settled down, because Jerry and Mike cut some really groovy records. That was a great time for me as a studio musician."

The dynamic duo is well known for working with the likes of Elvis, the Coasters, the Drifters and scores of other acts, successful and not-so-successful.  But who knew that they produced an album for, of all people, my beloved Procol Harum? I admit that my ardor for the band screeched to a halt after Robin Trower departed following the release of Broken Barricades in 1971. So their subsequent output, which included the 1975 Procol's Ninth album and the apparently quite popular marimba-laden Pandora's Box, was unknown to me. It sure is catchy! 

Best as I can tell, the connection was made via a degree of separation from Stealers Wheel. You don't stay in the music business as long as they did without being somewhat relevant, and in the early 70s, Leiber & Stoller were in the UK producing Stuck in the Middle With You for Stealers Wheel, the group that spawned one of my fave singer-songwriters, Gerry Rafferty. The success of that debut album led to an overture by Procol's record label, Chrysalis (which they went to after the demise of my favorite label ever, Regal Zonophone).

In these trying times, maybe a Jerry Leiber lyric can give us a life raft when it all seems too much, to wit: "If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball. If that's all there is." RIP, sir!