Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: Ringo Starr's disappointing "What's My Name"


We know his name. But the question here isn't what, but "why?"

For example,  why the terrible opening track, "Gotta Get Up to Get Down," co-penned with Joe Walsh, who cringingly old man raps/rants about social media and makes Ringo sound like a guest on his own LP?

Or why the terrible (terrible!) "new wave" cover of "Money"?

And why, for the love that's all that's holy, why the Autotuned lead vocal and school recital-style string arrangement on the cover version of John Lennon's "Grow Old With Me"?

This last tune should be the album's centerpiece. It's a beautiful song. My wife and I had it played at our wedding. And Ringo, if you took off the Autotune, sounds wonderful singing it. It even has Paul McCartney playing a beautiful bassline. It should be a lovely tribute to John. But the processing on Ringo's voice, and the fact that you can barely hear Paul's backing vocals at all are a disappointment. And the string quartet arrangement is so basic and bad. I wish they'd instead used the sophisticated, sympathetic and lush orchestration George Martin created for John's recording of the song on the 1998 John Lennon Anthology. Ringo's cover of the song should've been a handwritten love letter, but sounds instead like a Hallmark card.

What's left? Not much, seeing as how Ringo doesn't release more than 10 tracks per album these days. (Is there a format that falls between EP and LP?)

There's "It's Not Love that You Want," which has a great melody and hearkens back to something off Time Takes Time (Ringo's last truly excellent album) or his association with Mark Hudson (which also produced some nice stuff). But the lyrics are dumb. The thesis is, "it's not love that you want, it's love that you need." Deep. But at least the phrase sounds like it's coming off a bumpersticker, not a t-shirt, like "Life is Good," later on the album. And, still later, there's "Send Love, Spread Peace." Another bumpersticker.

That last one also has a really nice melody. Ringo is great at 'em and I'm glad he enjoys writing tunes. But the lyrics. I love his devotion to his positive "peace and love" message. But if you took those words out of his songwriting vocabulary, there'd be nothing left. The lyrics to most of the songs here are completely interchangeable, and unoriginal. Ringo should dig deeper, find a new angle, or prod his songwriting collaborators to do so.

"Better Days," contributed by Sam Hollander might as well have lyrics from Ringo. It's the same formula: "We all face adversity, we can overcome it, peace and love is the answer."

The most "different" tune on the album is "Magic," which has a 70s AOR swagger to it and a throwback guitar solo, by co-writer Steve Lukather, to match. It sounds pretty good, but the melody stretches beyond Ringo's range at points and, again, the lyrics are half-baked.

"Thank God for Music" is another cliche put to music. The Beach Boys did the same sentiment much better several years back with "That's Why God Made the Radio."

And the album's title track, which comes last, is just sort of embarrassing, lacking all the charm of Ringo's self-referencing and self-deprecating "I'm the Greatest," provided to him by John all those years ago. With its chant of "What's My Name?" "Ringo!", this sounds like it's intended to be played live, but it likely won't be, or at least not much. Despite putting out new albums at a steady pace, Ringo rarely performs any of their contents in concert. Another reason to ponder: Why make new records, then?

The cover of "Grow Old With Me" has secured this LP with lots of media attention and many good reviews. But that's the nature of hype - it's generally empty and often used to promote things that aren't worthy. The truth is, this is a much weaker album that its predecessor, Give More Love from 2017, which was one of Ringo's best in years. That one has a nice title track (yes, more peace and love, but still), the countrified "So Wrong for So Long," and a couple of nice bonus tracks: An updated demo or "Back Off Boogaloo" and a very nice and different take on "Don't Pass Me By."

At nearly 80, Ringo needn't record any more albums at all, but I hope he does. His voice is still warm and lovable. When he has something decent to sing, he sounds fantastic. His drumming is still delightful and distinctive as hell. He's capable of something great, but it's going to take a deeper level of commitment to songcraft and a producer who's not afraid to push. The fact that this entry is disappointing is, in a way, a good thing. We expect more, and know he's capable of it.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Paul McCartney's "Egypt Station": Track-by-mostly underwhelming track


The hype engine pushing Paul McCartney's "Egypt Station" is running so furiously hard that you'd think it would've blown a gasket by now.

Over the past several weeks, Paul has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows and provided enlightening (by Paul standards) interviews that have been quoted by hundreds of news outlets around the world (the media sure jumped on that "Churchill" story, didn't they, even though Macca has recounted it before, as far back as 21 years ago in his memoir, "Many Years from Now.")

But does this mean "Egypt Station" is some sort of late period masterpiece or just that the media has jumped on all of these opportunities to spotlight an important, still popular, icon in our midst?

Let me put any confusion to rest: "Egypt Station" is no masterpiece. It's actually a bit of a mess. The album contains far fewer well-crafted and memorable songs than it's immediate predecessor, "New" and is no match at all for his last truly excellent album, 2005's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard."

Paul has called "Egypt Station" a return to crafting "album albums" - carefully sequenced LPs that work well as a start-to-finish listen - and he bookends it "Venus and Mars" and "Sgt. Pepper" style with a repeated theme. Here it's not an actual reprised song, but two bits of ambient sound titled "Opening Station" and "Station II."

The real tunes that fall between these fragments don't cohere at all but represent a typically inconsistent mish-mash of lost opportunities, dashed off ephemera and a couple of tunes that, maybe, will hold up as pleasant-to-hear deep tracks in coming years. But, sadly, there's not a genuinely great tune in the batch. This is no "Ram" or "Band on the Run" by any stretch of the imagination.

Let's take a look track-by-track.

"I Don't Know" is the first real tune on the album. I reviewed it back in June when it was streamed as a non-physical "double A-side" with this album's second real song, "Come On to Me."

As I said back then, the track has a beautiful, pensive melody reminiscent of John Lennon's unreleased "Now and Then." The production is also nice, which excellent piano work and trademark melodic bass both supplied by Paul. There are some nice lyrics in the verses, too - "Crows at my window/dogs at my door." I just wish there was more to the chorus than the song's title being repeated seemingly hundreds of times.

"Come On to Me" is also a great instrumental production, with touches of both the Beatles and Wings, and it's catchy as all get out. But the juvenile, barely-an-entendre title phrase ruins it for me. TMI, Grandpa. It's one of those frustrating Paul songs featuring a great melody that, with a little more work and imagination in the lyrics, could be a great song.

The next tune, "Happy With You," on the other hand, I think is a great track. The arrangement captures Paul in pastoral mode, playing a folkish melody on acoustic guitar joined by flutes.

The lyrics, as on "Early Days" and "On My Way to Work" from "New," seem genuinely autobiographical and, as a result, have a depth of feeling and authenticity missing from the rest of this album. Recounting days wasted, literally, drinking and getting stoned, Paul sings about the simple, yet complex joys of newfound love.

Paul's vocals, which sound quite good on most of the LP considering his advancing years, are naked here. You can hear the age in his voice and how sometimes hitting higher notes is a challenge, but one he succeeds in. There's a nice, and appropriate, vulnerability on display.

Some fans are uncomfortable with "Old Paul," hearing how a 76-year-old man sounds when all the instruments and overdubs are stripped away, but I'd actually like to hear more of him.

"Who Cares," next up, is a craftsmanlike bit of electro-boogie that takes aim at bullies and, I imagine, critics. It's a solid song but without much imagination to it - the sort of thing Paul can do in his sleep. The opening bit of guitar feedback sounds directly lifted from the Beatles' "It's All Too Much."

There are, in fact, lots of Beatley touches throughout the album: arpeggiated and backwards guitar parts, loping piano and drums, and baroque-style keyboards. Sometimes these references work, but often they just seem arbitrary.

There's a looseness in Paul's approach on the LP that's nice, though. He seems willing to give anything a try, such as - on several tracks - "singing" drum and bass parts. The bad thing is when this lacksadaisical approach carries over into his lyric writing.

Case in point, the already notorious "Fuh You," which is embarrassing not just for it's desperately "edgy" title but also for its dated, circa 2005 pop production. This is Paul trying his hand at sounding current but missing the mark entirely.

Maybe the song's gimmicky title will shift a few theoretical units, but it's a worthless piece of music that signals the arrival of the half-baked center of the album. There is a whole string of weak songs trailing in its wake.

"Confidante," for example, is a mainly acoustic tune that starts off intriguingly but never pays off.

"You used to be my confidant," Paul sings, but we never get a clue as to why this person no longer fills this role. It's the type of tune that reinforces my feeling that, too often, Paul latches onto a word or phrase, builds a nice melody around it, and calls it good.

Ditto "People Want Peace." Nice tune, nice sentiment and it all evaporates the moment the song fades out.

"Dominos," on the other hand, is Good Track Number Two on the album. It's a very melodic tune reminiscent of Paul's work on "Flower in the Dirt," opening with a high-sung vocal and acoustic guitar followed by Jeff Lynne-style drums, guitar and keyboards, and Beatley/ Rutley vocal refrains. While nothing special, the lyrics make sense and they work.

This song is followed by "Back in Brazil," truly the oddest track on the album. I suspect that Paul latched onto the vaguely south of the border electronic rhythm the runs throughout the track, was reminded of Brazil and tried building a Desmond and Molly-type story around it. There are some nice jazzy harmonies and chord progressions in the tune, but the lyrics are flimsy to the point of nothingness.

"Hand in Hand," next, sounds like a first draft of "I Don't Know." It's a piano-based ballad about wanting to join a loved one in life, but it's so minor key and sad sounding that you're left thinking this is a relationship best avoided. Again, Paul has a phrase in his head, but doesn't surround it with genuine ideas.

"Do It Now" is an imploring, somewhat annoying tune built on a psychedelic-era Beatles-style harpsichord pattern. The song's title is based on one of the aphorisms Paul's dad used in lecturing his sons. And, you have to admit, Paul is great about getting things done. I just wish Old Jim had expanded on his advice to say, "Do it now. Then sharpen and edit the hell out of it." If that were the case, then maybe Paul might've avoided subjecting us to "Caesar Rock,"a dumb piece of studio jammery that has nothing to offer instrumentally or, especially, lyrically.

Next is the LP's ambitious with a capital A track: "Despite Repeated Warnings." The song has been getting a lot of attention in the media for being about Donald Trump. The lyrics, which play off a metaphor of a ship being steered into disaster by a crazed sea captain, are good.

Paul has said he wrote the tune about his concerns over climate change, but it could pertain to any other failure to provide necessary leadership in times of crisis. "Those who shout the loudest/may not always be the smartest/but they have their proudest moments/right before they fall," Paul sings. Nice line, but the song as a whole is undermined by its arrangement.

"Despite Repeated Warnings" is a stab at producing a long-form tune ala "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" or "Band on the Run." But the different sections Paul stitches together here don't hold the same interest instrumentally or melodically. They actually sound pretty generic, with lots of boring, bluesy guitar fills and cheap-sounding synth licks scattered throughout. Worst of all are the vocal choruses that remind me of Queen, but without the amusing campiness.

Weirdly, there are bits of Queen in "Do it Now," too, which makes me wonder if Paul's been on a belated Freddie Mercury kick.

The final tune on the album is a mash-up of studio filler: "Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link." Nothing but jamming and gibberish. It probably amused Paul at the time of recording, but is a waste of space here.

But that's not all! Dutiful fan that I am, I bought the Target edition of "Egypt Station," which comes with two extra tracks. I was hesitant at first, because is more mediocre McCartney really a bonus? But fans also know that Paul has a history of relegating some of his better tunes to what we used to call B-sides. And that's the case here.

Neither "Get Started" or "Nothing for Free" are great tracks, but they're both enjoyable and better than many of the songs that made it onto the album per se.

"Get Started" has an effervescent, Traveling Wilburys feel to it, with more Jeff Lynne drums sounds and twanging guitar. There are lots of nice harmonies and hooks throughout. The lyrics ... are there.

"Nothing for Free," meanwhile, is another studio goof but with some interesting electronic sounds and dumb-but-fun words. I love the line "my brain stopped working today." The tune is akin to some of the experiments from Paul's Firemen releases or "McCartney II." Sometimes being playful pays off.

So, there you go. Apart from "Happy With You" nothing here will join my list of Paul's best work of the past 20 years, though I'll keep "Dominos" and the two bonus tracks on my digital playlist. As an album, though, I'd have to say "Egypt Station" isn't really a stop worth making.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review: "Deconstructing the Beatles"

The best thing about Scott Frieman's "Deconstructing the Beatles" lectures is watching the people in the audience. Their eyes light up with discovery and recognition. They smile. And they sing along to the Beatles' music.

It turns out that watching people watch a lecture isn't as boring as it might seem. This is because, duh, the Beatles are a great band. But also because Frieman is a gifted teacher. He helps reinforce people's connections to the Beatles' music by deepening their knowledge of it. 

Frieman does presentations nationwide, but if you don't get a chance to see him in person, you can stream or purchase videos of four of them, each focusing on a different Beatles album: Sgt. Pepper, "The White Album," Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Each of these are key entries in the Beatles' catalog make for good demonstrations of how they evolved musically, how they embraced new instruments and recording techniques, and how they pioneered popular music throughout their career. Each lecture recounts what was going on at the time, both in the Beatles' lives and in the wider culture, and then brings us into the recording studio with the band.

Frieman, a musicologist, doesn't get overly technical, but he makes sometimes complex topics easy to understand via graphics and musical examples. He knows his bootlegs, too, and frequently uses multi-track isolations, outtakes and rarities to chart the evolution of different songs. While many readers here have probably heard these rare tracks, it's fun to listen as they're shared with an audience in this way.

While his technique involves deconstructing the Beatles' tracks, Frieman doesn't just pull the songs apart, he puts them back together again, giving us a better sense of how they are constructed and providing us with new ways to hear them. 

That the Beatles' music can withstand such scrutiny is a testament to their songwriting and their work in the studio. Fifty years later, we're still listening and learning.

You can get more information about Frieman's lectures and purchase the videos here.

 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: Paul's "double A-side" rates a "C"


Back in 1965, while they were pioneering all sorts of other pop music conventions, the Beatles came up with the idea of a "double A-side" single.

"Day Tripper" and "We Can Work it Out," were released on the same 45 rpm vinyl disk with both tunes marked as the single's A-side. It was a signal to fans and radio that the band considered both tunes of equal merit. They refused to categorize either as the single's B-side, where, generally, lesser songs go to die.

The band also released "Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby" and, probably most famously, "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever," as double A-sides.

Neither tune on Paul McCartney's new double A-side single is as good as those Beatles songs. Also, his release is not a "double A-side." Not if, and until, it shows up on vinyl, anyway. Right now, the tunes can be streamed online or purchased - each song separately - via Amazon, iTunes and other retailers. This is not a two-for-one deal.

Calling this release (or, more accurately, these releases) a double A-side is mainly just a bit of hype and, perhaps, Paul letting us know he's proud of both tunes and wants to see them both succeed. Clearly, he'd love to have a song or two in the charts again - whatever charts are these days, when tunes needn't even be purchased to listen to.

In any event, the media attention Paul enjoyed by releasing the songs simultaneously after some social media teasing and, especially, following his recent appearance on James Corden's "Carpool Karaoke,"  the tunes are being heard by a lot of people. And that's great. It's just too bad the songs - or at least their lyrics - aren't better.

It's easy to criticize Paul for writing bad lyrics. He's written loads of them. It's his greatest downfall as a songwriter. He can come up with the most memorable, hummable tune in the world, put it to a wonderful, imaginative arrangement and then sabotage it with terrible words. And that's what he's done here.

"Come On To Me," which I view as the A-side despite what Paul says, is a jaunty rocker that starts with a crunchy guitar riff that's soon joined by pounding drums, organ, a fun rollicking piano part and, eventually, some harmonica, electric sitar and (what sounds to me like) synth brass. It's a great, instantly catchy tune. But the words! Oh man.

The tune's title, repeated again and again throughout, barely constitutes a double-entendre due to it's being so obvious and dumb. And the fact that its sung by a 76-year-old man just makes it creepy. It the tune had a video (apart from the lame "lyric video" available on YouTube), I imagine it featuring two pensioners putting the moves on one another in a bingo hall.

After the life he's led and the experiences he's had, surely Paul has something more interesting, and less predictable, to say. I want to like this tune, because it's great musically. But the lazy lyrics kill it for me.

Likewise, "I Don't Know" (what I call the B-side) features a nice, memorable melody. This one has a 1970s R&B feel with lovely piano and Paul's signature, melodic bass playing underneath. Many fans have remarked its similarity to John Lennon's "Now and Then," a officially unreleased tune that Paul, George and Ringo reportedly worked on but scrapped during their Beatles Anthology reunion sessions, and I hear that, too.

But, again, the words! And by this I mean the three in the title, which are repeated (it seems like) 5,000 times throughout the song. I'm sure someone out there will eventually provide a more accurate count - but it's a lot. The lyrics, what there are of them, seem to portray a crisis in confidence. It's hard to imagine Paul McCartney having any such thing and his vocal performance makes it even harder to believe. The song doesn't feel lived-in at all. Paul sounds as if he's singing newly penned words off a lyric sheet, not from the heart.

There's nothing new in Paul writing bad lyrics, but - as we all know - he can also write great ones.

His previous album, New, featured a number of from-the-heart songs, such as "On My Way to Work" and "Early Days." But it was also full of tunes with workaday, just-get-the-song-done lyrics. Most of Paul's songs, unfortunately, fall into this half-baked category. It's an old refrain, but if he would only take the time to work harder on his lyrics he'd continue to produce great music. When he doesn't, as is the case here, the results are both frustrating and disappointing.

Maybe Egypt Station, the upcoming LP that includes these two new tunes, will feature one or two more great McCartney songs. But these two certainly aren't among them.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Review: Sgt. Pepper by the book(s)

The 50th anniversary  of the Sgt. Pepper album is getting its due, not only with a new remix and lavish box set from the Beatles themselves, but also with a number of new books celebrating the album's impact.

Two of these, released just a few weeks apart, are nearly identical in presentation and scope.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, the Beatles, and the World in 1967" is by Brian Southall, a former EMI press officer and author of a book about Abbey Road Studios, while "Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, the Look, the Sound, the Legacy of the Beatles' Great Masterpiece" is a collaboration by three authors: Mike McInnerney, a graphic artist active in the 1960s British underground scene, and longtime music journalists Bill DeMain and Gillian G. Garr.

Both books tell the story of the LP, its recording and the wider world in 1967. There's a nice selection of pictures of the Beatles and contemporary images from the time.

Southall takes a broader, more generalist approach, providing a brief overview of the Beatles' entire career and also and a month-by-month look at political and cultural happenings worldwide from the year of Pepper's release. Most of the information is presented as "just the facts," with little analysis of the Beatles' impact on their times and vice versa. The book does include some nice interview material from Jann Haworth, who designed the Sgt. Pepper cover with her then-husband Peter Blake.

"Sgt. Pepper at 50," meanwhile, takes a somewhat deeper dive and is more British-centric. McInnerney provides a lot of first-hand details and reminiscences from his time amongst London's cutting edge artists and musicians, while Garr provides a fdetailed look at the album and all its songs, plus a section on the LP's last legacy.

There is, of course, a very nice hardcover book included in the Beatles' own Pepper box set, full of rare pictures, musical details and an underground scene chronicle from legendary record producer Joe Boyd. So, whether these additional books are also worth your investment is a question of appetite. How many Pepper books do you want/need? How much do you enjoy the pictures and information they include?

The nice thing is that we have choices like this to make. Even a half century after its release and a tendency to dismiss it as overrated or dated due to its psychedelic Summer of Love associations, Sgt. Pepper is clearly still worthy of celebration, assessment and re-assessment.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Beatles Bits: Weekly news roundup

A whole bunch of John Lennon videos have been added to his official YouTube page.




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Liverpool music promoter Sam Leach, who helped the Beatles land some early high-profile gigs, has died of cancer at age 81.
Johnny Hutchinson, a member of The Big Three who were Liverpool contemporaries of The Beatles, said: “It’s the end of an era.
“Sam kept us all going in those days. We used to get the same amount of money as The Beatles got. None of us would have made it without him, or without Brian Epstein.=
“There was nobody like him and he kept the memory of those early years of The Beatles alive.”
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Fans have launched a petition asking that a number of songs slated to appear as downloads only in the upcoming, expensive box set of Paul McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt album be placed on CD instead.

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Paul McCartney and his wife Nancy Shevell attended the movie premiere of "This Beautiful Fantastic," which is directed by Simon About, son of Paul's daughter Mary.

Paul and Mary
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Before the Beatles, there was the Great Guitar Drought of 1960-63.

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True: "The Greatest Beatles Cover Is Stevie Wonder’s 'We Can Work It Out'."

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A French Beatles fan is selling off his collection of 15,000 items, including signed books, posters and autographs.
The Guardian notes that Volcouve’s career as France’s foremost “Beatles historian” began in the early 1970s, after he kept calling a French radio station to point out errors in a BBC series about the Beatles that they were airing, and was invited into the studio.
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From the Guardian archives, 1970: Reviews of four Beatles solo albums.
Paul’s album, McCartney (Apple PCS 7102), which has been out some time, is the work of a man of air. It has no substance. Paul reveals himself in it as a man preoccupied with himself, and his own situation. The music is boastfully casual, scraps of his home studio. He seems to believe that anything that comes into his head is worth having. And he’s wrong.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" full of fun, missed opportunities


I don't recall ever coming out of a movie theater with my ears ringing, but it happened last night. There's a lot of high-pitched screaming in "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years." Imagine what it must've been like to be in the band?

That's essentially the experience the movie provides, putting us in the eye of the hurricane that was Beatlemania. It's loud, exciting, fun and scary. There are so many screams and so many faces: smiling, crying, laughing, contorted.

Better than any documentary I've seen, including "The Beatles Anthology," Ron Howard's documentary captures the liberating hysteria of Beatlemania and the band's hectic touring days.  There's scene after scene of screaming, stampeding fans and the Beatles traveling around the world, boarding and de-boarding airplanes.

There are hilarious fan interviews, as with the young girl who insistently tells a reporter that "George has sexy eyelashes," and stunning scenes, such as a gigantic  crowd of Anfield Football Club fans in Liverpool patriotically singing "She Loves You." In a talking head interview, actress Sigourney Weaver talks about going to go see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl and then, amazingly, we see her as a teen, smiling in the crowd.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr also provide new interviews and we hear a good amount via archive interviews from John Lennon and George Harrison. Howard captures the band's humor and camaraderie. Their appeal then, and now, is clear: These guys are funny, friendly, supremely confident and super-talented.

It's all exhilarating, to the point of being too much. The montages of screams and travel eventually get redundant and I started to long for more of what I came for -- extended live performance footage from the band.

When first announced, the intention of "Eight Days a Week" was to create the missing Beatles concert film, to collect performances -- both fan-shot and professional -- and present the band playing its music. But, somewhere along the line, the mission got muddied and we now have a mix of a Beatles biography and, still, a live-performance showcase.

Don't get me wrong. There's some jaw-dropping performance footage here, and several songs are played in full. I'm thankful for every one of them. Yet, I kept wishing for more and thinking about performances that weren't, and should've been, included.

For example, songs played before live TV audiences get short shrift. There's very little footage from the band's excellent "Drop In" appearance in Sweden in 1963 and none at all of Paul singing "Yesterday," even though excellent renditions exist from both "Blackpool Night Out" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

I wish Howard/Apple had dropped some of the biography and chronology and included more songs. Yet, I also want to have it both ways: I was very moved by the film's section on the band's refusal to play segregated concerts in the U.S. South and by historian Kitty Oliver's comments about how much it meant to her, as a teen in Jacksonville, to see the band play and stand among fans both black and white.

Certainly, a film focused on the Beatles and their cultural impact is worthy, but so is one focusing on their songs and performances. And so, for that matter, is one about their growth as artists in the recording studio. There are a few sections in "Eight Days a Week" that focus on this, contrasting the Beatles' ability to experiment and innovate in the confines of Abbey Road versus being creatively stifled by too much touring and too much screaming.

When we finally reach the end of the touring years -- after Jesus, Imelda Marcos and the Budokan -- the film is like a student trying to finish a term paper 10 minutes before class. Everything from Sgt. Pepper through Abbey Road becomes a blurred montage, with an on-screen caption telling us that, after they left the road, the band happened to record some of the best music of the 20th Century. Then we go out with a couple of songs -- in tantalizing quality -- from the "Let it Be" rooftop gig. It's all a case of trying to do too much in too little time.

Given that, it was a relief in the theater to sit through the credits and then watch the 1965 Shea Stadium film. Finally, after all those rapidly changing scenes, we could relax and see the band play several complete songs in a row. The picture and sound quality was excellent and the scenes of John losing a grip while playing organ on "I'm Down" never cease to make me crack up and laugh out loud. If only more of Howard's film could've been like this.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review: "The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label"


A slim book covering a slim chapter of Beatles history, Barry Miles' latest Sixties-focused book details the ill-fated Zapple label, an avant garde spin-off of the band's larger, self-run Apple Records imprint.

Miles, a friend to the Beatles, particularly to Paul McCartney, was in the late 1960s a book seller and, in his own words, "a purveyor of anything hip" the Beatles thought they should know about. He provided them with books about philosophy, art and politics and turned Paul onto electronic music and free jazz.

Also a fan and friend to members of America's Beat Generation such as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Miles operated the Indica Bookshop and Gallery in London with Peter Asher and John Dunbar. Paul helped paint the shop's interior and even designed its wrapping paper. And it was where John Lennon met Yoko Ono.

All of this made Miles the perfect candidate to manage Zapple, which in the Beatles' view would issue records outside the pop mainstream, such as John and Yoko's experimental sounds and music and George Harrison's album of Moog synthesizer recordings. Miles himself scheduled in a series of recorded "paperbacks" featuring readings and interviews with his literary friends: Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Charles Olson.

It was an ambitious and intriguing plan that connected to the Beatles to the Beats and Apple to the underground. In the end, however, Zapple issued only two recordings: John and Yoko's Life with the Lions and George's Electronic Sound. While Miles was in the United States recording his authors, Allen Klein had arrived in London and set about firing people. Zapple was dead and the Beatles wouldn't be around much longer, either.

Miles' book details the demise of Apple and the Beatles from his perspective as a friend and employee, balancing those details with descriptions of his meetings and recording sessions with the various Zapple authors. It's a quick read and engagingly written. How much you enjoy it depends on how far beyond the scope of just-the-Beatles you want to go. The band members aren't central characters in the story, but Miles does include quotes from John, Paul and George dating from interviews he recorded in the late 1960s. And he includes more recent interview material from Paul, from their collaboration on the excellent 1997 McCartney biography, "Many Years from Now."

All this is supplemented with a chronology, rare photos and a bibiography/discography of various writers recorded for Zapple. Many of the sessions Miles recorded were later issued on other labels, ensuring that the Beatles' idea for Zapple and his work wasn't completely lost.

Zapple usually only gets a sentence or two in most Beatles books, so it's nice to get the full story here.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: "The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl"


Beatles fans have waited many years for the group's 1977 compilation of Hollywood Bowl recordings to arrive on CD. And now, with the CD era over or nearly so, here it is. Better late than never.

The new version — also available via streaming and download and, soon, vinyl — has a new name, Live at the Hollywood rather than just At the Hollywood Bowl, along with new packaging.

The new cover, which many fans have been complaining about, ties into Ron Howard's documentary film "Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years," which debuts in select theaters and on Hulu later this week. Personally, I like the poster for "Eight Days a Week," which features a nice color shot of the Fabs circa 1965, but I think it's too type heavy and cluttered when shrunk down to CD size.

Also, linking the album to the film misleadingly gives the impression that this is a wide-ranging collection of Beatles live tracks, not just songs recorded in one venue during the band's 1964 and 1965 U.S. tours.

An appropriate soundtrack to the film would include live recordings from the group's pre-1964 years and from 1966, the Beatles' final year of touring. People, especially Americans, forget that the Beatles became national stars in Britain in 1963 and played dates in Sweden and France before ever visiting the United States. Yet producer Giles Martin (son of George), who oversaw the release of the new album and music restoration for Howard's film, has indicated no such collection is forthcoming.

On the plus side, however, this new collection does feature better sound than the 1977 version. It's reportedly sourced from higher-quality tapes, and Martin and his engineers have used new technology to turn down the still-present jet-engine screams of the fans while boosting the sound of the band.

For the most part, this has worked well. There's great clarity to the vocals and Ringo's drums. Yet, too my ears, the bass is now too loud, overpowering the sound of John and George's guitars and becoming a distraction. The lead guitar, from both the 1964 and 1965 recordings, is too low in the mix.

And generally, to my ears, there's a heavily processed feel to the album. Reverb has been added to the vocals and it sounds tinkered with overall. I enjoy being able to hear the Beatles better, but somehow the sound here doesn't seem quite "real."

Still, the performances are the for the most part great. There's a frenetic energy to the entire set. This isn't a modern-day concert, with extended stage patter and a range of tempos. Nearly every song here is played fast and almost all are rockers.

On some songs, such as "Help!" and "Things We Said Today," John and Paul sound out of breath. There's a sense that the band is trying to get through this as fast as possible, yet still providing a great performance. Knowing that they could be torn to shreds by overzealous fans in a heartbeat was no doubt a contributing factor. As much fun as the Beatles were having on stage, they were also likely nervous and scared for their own safety. It's remarkable that the group's lead vocals, harmonies and George's guitar solos (what you can hear of them) are so tuneful and polished in the face of all that screaming and hysteria.

However, I have to disagree with David Fricke, who raves about the group's performance of "Things We Said Today" in his liner notes as being a high point of the set. To me, it's the weakest track. The performance sounds tentative and sloppy and Paul's vocals on the verses are slurred and rushed. The choruses, however, I agree, are powerful and engaging.

After Paul's announcement before "Long Tall Sally" that the group is playing its last song, the album concludes with four tacked-on bonus cuts. I'm glad these are included, but their placement at the end spoils the illusion that this album is all one concert set. I wish Martin had slotted them in among the other songs instead. And concluding with "Baby's in Black," the slowest song on the entire album, makes no sense at all.

Still, despite numerous flaws, this is an important document and the only official live recording in the Beatles' catalog. No matter what its form, it's good to have the album readily available again.

Track list:
Twist and Shout (1965)
She's a Woman ((1965)
Dizzy Miss Lizzy (1965)
Ticket to Ride (1965)
Can't Buy Me Love (1965)
Things We Said Today (1964)
Roll Over Beethoven (1964)
Boys (1964)
A Hard Day's Night (1965)
Help! (1965)
All My Loving (1964)
She Love You (1964)
Long Tall Sally (1964)

Bonus tracks:
You Can't Do That (1964)
I Want to Hold Your Hand (1964)
Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby (1965)
Baby's in Black (1965)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Beatles Bits: Weekly news roundup

Matt Monro's You Keep Me Swinging: The George Martin Years is a new collection of recordings the British Sinatra-sound-alike made with Sir George before, during and after Martin's association with the Beatles.

The release includes Monro's covers of "Yesterday" and "Michelle," his James Bond theme, "From Russia with Love" and three songs Martin composed himself: “This Time,” “Can This Be Love,” “No One Will Ever Know.”

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A display of vintage posters created for the Beatles' early appearances around Merseyside and in the famed Cavern Club will go on an exhibit as part of International Beatles Week in Liverpool this month.

The exhibit features the work of Tony Booth, who hand-painted the posters for Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Booth also painted advertising posters for NEMS, the Epstein family's group of Liverpool furniture and record stores.


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Paul McCartney was named Britain's top-selling LP artist based on sales of his and the Beatles albums, Billboard reports. Combined, he's hit #1 a record 22 times during his time with the Beatles, Wings and as a solo artist.

John Lennon was ranked at 18, George Harrison at 17 and Ringo Starr at 15.
“Okay, you know how it really feels? It feels unbelievable, because when you write your songs you don't count how well they're doing,” McCartney said in a statement. “I remember when Please, Please Me went to No. 1, that was our first No. 1 record, and it’s a beautiful feeling to suddenly get this [award], I mean it's amazing.

“So thank you to the people for giving it to me, I love you. And thank you to everyone who made it possible by buying the records, we love you too!"
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Ringo Starr talks about streaming music and his own listening habits.
Q: How do you listen to music? Do you stream or listen to vinyl and CDs?

A: At home, I do it all. I love iTunes. Though the Beatles are streaming now and have had a billion streams, I haven’t actually done it myself. If I’m in the car, I usually listen to the radio, 88.5 Northridge [KCSN-FM]. I just love that channel.

...Q: What do you make of the disputes between artists and the streaming services, with artists claiming they aren’t getting paid enough?

A: I like to support the artists. I heard a guy had 12 million streams, and he got a check for $5, which is not fair. I’m not talking about us. The Beatles are doing fine, and we have the power where we can make a deal upfront.

For an artist starting off, there’s no clubs for them to play in. The venues have gone down. It’s very hard now. It’s easier to become a celebrity on a TV show as a band for four months than work solidly.
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Ringo was also the first Beatle to become a great-grandfather this week, Billboard reports.
His press representative confirmed Monday night reports that his granddaughter, Tatia Starkey, and her partner Adam Low welcomed a son, Stone Zakomo Low on Aug. 14.

Tatia Starkey is the daughter of Ringo's son, Zak, who is a drummer for the Who, and has also drummed in the past with his dad's All-Starr Band and Oasis. Tatia Starkey also has a musical career as a member of the band Belakiss.
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Remembering when a Texas radio station was struck by lightning the day after it organized a bonfire of Beatles records in response to John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment.
The station was one of several to host a “Beatles bonfire,” and on Aug. 13, 1966, it invited listeners to come by and burn “their records and other symbols of the group’s popularity” at a gathering.

According to the Beatles Bible, the Grand Dragon of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan was on hand for the event, where he reportedly made a wooden cross to which he nailed and burned one of the group’s LPs.
The incident brought in plenty of PR for the station, but they weren’t able to capitalize on their newfound notoriety for long. The following day, KLUE’s transmission tower was struck by lightning, hit by a bolt powerful enough to not only wreck their equipment, but actually knock out the news director.
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Paul McCartney discusses the ritual of his pre-show soundchecks.
The soundcheck is actually structured like a gig. You move to piano for some songs; there is an acoustic set; and you paid homage to your roots in "Midnight Special" and the Carl Perkins cover.

We also do [Jesse Fuller's] "San Francisco Bay Blues." Some of these things remind you of other songs in our repertoire, like "Mrs. Vandebilt" [on Wings' 1973 album, Band on the Run] or "Every Night" [on 1970's McCartney]. We don't do them in the show anymore, but [the soundcheck] keeps the songs in there. Depending on the mood, we'll see how experimental we want to get.

There's an old thing, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" – not the Gerry and the Pacemakers one, the Ray Charles one [on the 1959 album The Genius of Ray Charles]. I used to do that with the Beatles in Hamburg. That's a nice thing to pull back. It's an echo of the show. The roadies know, "OK, he's testing that. He's gonna do his pedal there." We run through everything that happens in the show.

But when it comes to the show, it's all in a different form. And we didn't get bored. So the show is interesting now – all that checking we did, but with loads of people instead of a few, with a different set of songs. It keeps it fresh. And it's interesting that it's grown up – a tribal ritual that I've constructed. We all know and trust this ritual.

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The Guardian looks back at its 1966 review of the Revolver LP.

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The Detroit Free Press shares some rare photos from the Beatles' 1966 appearance in that city.


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Three men recount their scheme, in 1966, to meet the Beatles by impersonating opening group, the Cyrkle.
The Beatles weren’t there, but their instrument guy was, and a couple of other people who I later saw pictures of in Beatles books. We went in with a great sense of confidence — Oh, we’re the group that was hired to impersonate the Cyrkle. And they went, “Oh, okay.” Like they didn’t know about it, but it made sense to them. And then, within about 30 seconds, the door opened and in walked the Beatles.

Ringo sort of noticed us and said hi. We introduced ourselves for real at that point and said how we’d gotten in. Ringo thought it was funny that we would do that. He called John over and said, “Listen to this story,” and John had some cheeky response like, “So you wanted to meet us, now you’ve met us.” But Paul was saying, “Hey, George, have a listen to this,” and he played a few bars of what I now realize was the beginning of “Lovely Rita.”

Friday, April 17, 2015

My review of "See Hear Yoko" up at Wink

Pleased that Wink has published my review of the new photo book "See Hear Yoko." Check it out here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: The Beatles and the Avant-Garde

How often are you tempted to put on "Revolution 9" and really listen for the nuances? That's what I thought. Even the most devoted Beatles fan is unlikely to name the song as a favorite. It may be the only Fabs song you leave off your iPod. If you still have an iPod.

But it's probably the first tune that springs to mind when you think of the weirdest, wildest, most experimental song the Beatles ever recorded. It's also the most obvious, and least subtle example of the band incorporating avant-garde influences into their work.

It's these influences Aaron Krerowicz traces in his short but valuable study, "The Beatles and the Avant-Garde."

We've all read in various Beatles biographies how the group was influenced by Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and other ear-bending composers of the mid-20th century. But Krerowicz does more than drop their names. He provides history and context, explains how the music sounded and how it was created. And then he shows us how, specifically, the Beatles used similar ideas - knowingly and not - in their own compositions.

He traces, for example, how the "sound mass" in "A Day in the Life" -- the huge orchestral crescendos heard in the song -- are similar to features of earlier classical works by Jean-Féry Rebel, Charles Ives, particularly, Iannis Xenakis.

Drawing on the memoirs of Beatles producer George Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick, Krerowicz digs into the technical side, too, discussing how the Beatles used tape speed manipulation and loops in ways similar to those used by classically trained experimentalists.

He even wanders into that no-mans' land where most Beatles fans and authors fear to tread: The solo recordings of John and Yoko. Maybe some of us own a copy of Two Virgins just to shock friends with the cover. But how many of us have even heard Life with the Lions or the Wedding Album? If these recordings even get mentioned in books, it's usually just an aside: "Then John and Yoko made a bunch of weird, unlistenable records that nobody liked."

Krerowicz listens with open ears - not making any claims for the music's lasting value, but not disparaging it, either.  Instead, he considers Lennon and Ono's intent, describes the music and connects it to music of a similar bent by more academic composers. He goes briefly into the history of the Fluxus movement, Yoko's performance art and John and Yoko's short films, as well.

Lennon, being the most experimental Beatle, gets the most space in the book, although Krerowicz explains how Paul McCartney was actually the first Beatle to get interested in experimental music. It's his tape loops playing on "Tomorrow Never Knows." He's also the one who considered having the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop provide the musical backdrop to "Yesterday." And he led the sessions for the still-unreleased freakout track, "Carnival of Light," which pre-dated the recording of "Revolution 9" by more than a year.

George Harrison, in contrast, gets little attention apart from his Moog experiments on the Electronic Music album. Ringo Starr, not being one of the composing Beatles, gets nearly none at all. But Krerowicz logically explains these omissions in defining the scope of his study.

The material may seem lofty and Krerowicz is an academic with a graduate degree in musical composition from Hartford University, but the book is very accessible and clearly written.

More insight into how the Beatles' experiments were received at the time and how they can be traced into the music of later pop- and rock-based performers would have been nice, yet the book still serves a valuable purpose in its examination of the band's experimental side.

The book is available in the contiguous U.S. from the author's website and elsewhere via Amazon and bn.com.

The Beatles and the Avant-Garde
By Aaron Krerowicz
$17.99 list (discounted via author's site)
138 pages, 2014

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: John Lennon - The Collected Artwork

Would we be interested in John Lennon's art if he hadn't been a Beatle? Probably not. Yet, Lennon's facility for expressing himself with sketches, cartoons and paintings was an important part of his character. Examining his artwork and gives us another window into understanding him as a personality and creative artist.

Lennon certainly had a knack for art. The pen-and-ink cartoons that accompanied the offbeat poems and stories of his 1960s books "In His Own Write" and "A Spaniard in the Works" are primitive, yet imaginative, funny and sometimes cruelly sarcastic.

Meanwhile, his works from the mid to late 1970s, before his death, are gentle and whimsical and still funny. You can see he's relaxed, mellowed and enjoying domestic life as a stay-at-home dad to his son Sean. Images of the sun and clouds and comical, smiling naked figures abound in a sort of minimal dreamscape. In one memorable image, Lennon's giant face floats over a group of hills with the caption: "At last he could see the mountains."

In these later works, Lennon uses the minimum number of lines necessary to create the images he wants to display, as if he's challenging himself not to put anything more on paper than necessary. It's a reflection of his approach to music and lyrics, too. Many of Lennon's best and most moving music is primitive and minimal - consider the simple, straight-forward lyrics and stripped-down arrangements of his Plastic Ono Band album.

Many of his later drawings and watercolors have a touch of Matisse to them in their curved, minimal lines, yet Lennon had a recognizable style of his own.

A few of his cartoons display a talent that wouldn't be out of place in pages of The New Yorker. Lennon claimed James Thurber as an influence, and that's clear in the cartoons from his 1960s books. There's a late-in-life cartoon, too, that has this element. Showing Lennon and little Sean passing another man on the sidewalk, it features a New Yorker-style caption at the bottom. The first man says, "I'm getting into jazz," while John replies, "I've been avoiding it all my life." It's funny stuff, and demonstrates how Lennon used images and words as a sort of journal or diary of his feelings and observations on life.

Lennon, Sean and Yoko Ono took summer trips to Japan between 1977 and 1979 and, while there, he studied traditional sumi painting, which matched and inspired his own minimal-line approach and resulted in some lovely works.

Since his death, Lennon's art has been grouped by period and style and reproduced in a number of slim volumes, but "John Lennon: The Collected Artwork" is the most lavish and complete to date.

Featuring an introduction by Ono and text by arts writer Scott Gutterman, it displays Lennon's work pretty much chronologically, from childhood crayon and ink drawings inspired by his readings about Ivanhoe and the Saxons, to the cruel/funny cartoons of his books, to the lighter, gentler works of his post-Beatles life.

The only thinh left out are the controversial erotic works of Lennon's "Bag One" portfolio, which he created as a wedding gift to Ono in 1970. The portfolio was infamously displayed for one day in London before Scotland Yard shut the exhibition down on grounds of indecency. The absence of the works isn't explained in this book, and the works aren't mentioned, which is mysterious.

The text in general is light on detail. There's not much analysis of Lennon's art or much context for it - just enough to navigate us through the works on display. The details provided on Lennon are somewhat distorted, too. The myth of his having been born during an air raid on Liverpool is repeated and much is made of Lennon having attended art school. It's not mentioned that he barely got in and soon dropped out.

Some exploration into why Lennon created visual art throughout his life, despite having given up on pursuing it as a formal career would've been interesting and might have provided more insight into the creator of these works.

The inclusion of excerpts of lyric manuscripts in Lennon's own hand scattered throughout the books also seems a little haphazard. For the most part, the lyrics included don't match up with the images they accompany. They are just there.

As a collection of Lennon's artwork, the book is fairly complete and lovely to look at, but you'll need to go elsewhere to learn more about the artist himself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book review: "She Loves You" by Jude Southerland Kessler

I was initially skeptical of Jude Southerland Kessler's books, which use techniques of fiction to tell the story of John Lennon and the Beatles.

"What am I getting into? Fan fiction?"

But the series, now up to three entries, is nothing of the sort.

Southerland Kessler uses the phrase "narrative history" to describe her work. Unlike historical fiction, in which writers take liberties with fact, her books are firmly grounded in the truth.

The difference from a more typical history or biography, is that most of the facts are relayed via dialogue, much of which comes verbatim from interviews, memoirs and biographical texts.

Like a novelist, Southerland Kessler, sets scenes and creates conversations so her "characters" -- Lennon, his wife Cynthia, the other Beatles, manager Brian Epstein, etc. -- can relay historical information. But most of the words coming out of their mouths were actually said. Only occasionally does the author rely on conjecture. But she bases that, too, on deep research.

It's an approach that takes some getting used to. I found some of the dialogue clunky because it's so expository. But, in the course of reading this latest entry -- "She Loves You" -- I came to admire Southerland Kessler's thorough research and dedication to the truth.

The book begins just before the Beatles' triumphant performance on the "Sunday Night at the Palladium," which made them a household name in Britain, and ends right after their appearances on another Sunday night variety program, "The Ed Sullivan Show," which did the same trick for them in America.

In between, Southerland Kessler ably navigates some of the most clouded and controversial events of the Lennon/Beatles story, including Lennon's trip with Epstein to Spain and his brutal physical attack on Cavern Club emcee Bob Wooler at Paul McCartney's 21st birthday party in Liverpool.

What occurred in both of these events is still debated among Beatles writers and historians more than fifty years later, and Southerland Kessler takes the time to examine everything we know about what happened.

Her narrative approach also helps make the events more immediate and dramatic, but without venturing into rampant speculation. And it helps humanize her subjects. She paints an especially sympathetic portrait of Cynthia Lennon and she treats John with respect and admiration without glossing over his weaknesses and unfavorable characteristics.

The story of this transitional and eventful period of Lennon's life unfolds over nearly 800 pages of narrative, which is supplemented by pictures, a forward by Merseybeat editor Bill Harry, a series of lithographs by artist Enoch Doyle Jeter, several pages of photographs and a couple of appendices, which include an interview Southerland Kessler did with Bob Wooler in 1993.

There are also detailed notes after many of the chapters, in which the author  discusses her approach to researching and writing different points of the narrative, along with more than 3,200 footnotes.

The narrative history approach won't be everyone's cup of tea. I'm not sure it's really mine. But I came away deeply impressed by Southerland Kessler's scholarship and commitment to telling Lennon's story in such truth and detail.

I'm curious to see how she approaches the next stage of the Beatles' history and, ultimately, Lennon's post-Beatles life.

The Lennon series is available via Amazon and the author's website.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review: "The Beatles - Tomorrow Never Knows: A Biography"

James L. Desper's "The Beatles - Tomorrow Never Knows" is billed as a biography, and does a dependable job charting the group's history from Liverpool basement to London rooftop and all stops in between.

But it's real strength, in my view, isn't in merely retelling the Beatles' story, but in acting as a sort of survey on what we know, and think we know, about the group.

A look at the bibliography shows that Desper has read deeply on the group. He makes use of this fact in the narrative, occasionally stopping to explore different accounts and theories in order to determine which are the most viable. In some cases, he provides his own theory or best guess, or acknowledges that, at this point, we're unlikely to ever learn the "truth" about various episodes.

Examples of this include the clouded circumstances concerning original bassist Stu Sutcliffe's death - did a beating by thugs after an early Beatles' gig play a role? Did a beating at the hands of John Lennon - as has also been sensationally suggested - contribute? Did the traumatic "tug of war" between John Lennon's parents over his fate actually occur? When, exactly, did John invite Paul McCartney to join the Quarry Men? How did the Beatles get signed to EMI? Did the Beatles smoke pot in Buckingham Palace before getting their MBEs? Etc.

It's refreshing to see an author sift through the varied accounts instead of authoritatively passing along conjecture as fact.

Desper also is very good on discussing the songwriting collaboration, and non-collaboration, of Lennon and McCartney and the impact of LSD on the Beatles' work and outlook during the late 1960s.

That said, Desper occasionally falls into the same trap. He says some harsh things about George Martin and Brian Epstein without objectively offering up countering points of view. He also makes much about Paul's reported use of cocaine during the 1960s, suggesting that Paul used the drug frequently throughout much of the Beatles' recording career, which contributed to his lofty self-image and bossiness toward the others. This may be true, but I don't know how you verify it as fact.

Also, like most Beatles biographies, the book keeps the band in sort of a vacuum, not incorporating much information about the times they lived in or the other prominent musicians and musical trends of the 1960s. And, rather than focus mainly on primary materials such as original press coverage and contemporary interviews, most of the quotes come from existing Beatles books.

Still, Desper's book is more factually on-target and more objective than many books tackling the same territory. While many authors don't want to let fact get in the way of a good narrative,  Desper is willing to stop things in their tracks and look for the truth. He knows his subject, and what's been reported on it, intimately.

For longtime fans and newcomers alike, he's an excellent guide through the Beatles' history, particularly the more contentious bits.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book review: The Making of John Lennon - The Untold Story of the Rise and Fall of the Beatles

I always enjoy reading Beatles books by Liverpool authors - particularly Spencer Leigh's. The character of of the city and its history is central to the Beatles' personalities and outlook and the way they faced the rest of the world. It takes a native, I think, to really explain this connection.

Francis Kenny, author of this new counter-biography of John Lennon, is a lifelong Liverpool resident and makes some great observations about where John fit in - socially, politically, economically - in Liverpool. And his answer is that John didn't really fit in at all. Of the Beatles, he was the least typically Liverpudlian of the group.

For starters, John grew up mostly in Woolton, a suburban village miles away physically, and worlds away psychologically, from Liverpool's docks and vibrant city center. But it wasn't so much distance that separated him from the rest of Liverpool life, Kenny argues, but Lennon's Aunt Mimi.

While most works about the Beatles portray Mimi, who raised John from age 5, as stern and disapproving of his interest in music, they do so with amusement. Yes, Mimi was stern, but also loving. But a few more recent books, Tim Riley's rambling biography of Lennon and those by John's half-sister, Julia Baird, dismiss the "loving" part. So does Kenny, who quotes Baird extensively in his narrative.

He portrays Mimi is conniving, cruel and psychologically abusive - laying the blame for all Lennon's neuroses and bad behavior at her feet. The "untold story" Kenny tells is one of Mimi essentially "stealing" John from his mother, shutting him up in her home (also "stolen") on Menlove Avenue and filling him up with her bile for the first 15 years of his life.

Mimi was a social climber who didn't allow John to slip into Liverpool's "scouse" accent and frowned on his friendships with working class boys Paul McCartney and George Harrison. All this isn't new. Yet, Kenny builds on it, suggesting that, being raised this way, John was shut away from Liverpool life and, when he finally escaped Mimi's home, didn't quite know how to act.

John's cruel humor, inappropriate remarks and violence, Kenny suggests, were part of a social awkwardness in his character due to living a sheltered life under Mimi's spell. John's behavior was him emulating how he thought a tough, working class Liverpudlian should act.

Some of what Kenny says is persuasive. He backs up some of his observations about Mimi with quotes from Cynthia Lennon's most-recent memoir, which describe Mimi's self-centeredness and cruel criticisms of John. Yet, there's no balance or objectivity to the portrait.

Kenny doesn't quote any of Paul McCartney's favorable observations about Mimi. Paul knew her, and observed her with John. After the release of the film "Nowhere Boy," which also portrayed a cold, cruel Aunt Mimi, Paul said: "Mimi was not cruel. She was mock strict. But she was a good heart who loved John madly."

Kenny, who writes very well, also goes too far out on a limb with speculation. He suggests that Mimi's husband, George, was gay, but doesn't have any sources to back it up, just collected observations. He also quotes extensively from books on psychology, abuse and depression, essentially diagnosing John's various problems second-hand.

The book certainly makes you think of Lennon in a different way - as a man who was tormented and didn't fit in through his entire life - but the portrait is highly speculative. If you think of John as a lifelong depressive, you can read quotes from him that seem to back this up. But what about the warm humor, the joy and triumph exhibited by Lennon in other interviews and on stage? What about the gentler, wiser John of later years, who confronted his youthful violence and misogyny and called it out as wrong?

Yes, Lennon was troubled, but he also showed the capacity to work through his problems. But that's not on display here.

Kenny's early chapters regarding Liverpool's class system and environment, on the other hand, have great value. I'd love to read more of his observations along these lines - how Liverpool made the Beatles what they are. But this book is too one-sided, too focused on the mission of telling us John Lennon was a psychological mess, to stand up as a full biography of the man.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book review: The Beatles - Here, There and Everywhere

Slipping in just under the wire for the 50 years-ago celebration of the Beatles invasion of the United States, this hefty volume authored by Nancy J. Hajeski is the most thorough, photo-festooned overview of the Fabs career published this year.

Nostalgic Baby Boomers will enjoy getting lost in the pictures, while newcomers can enjoy a visual history of the band along with useful information. While the main text charts the Beatles' progress, sidebar articles detail the group's discography, providing trivia, track listings and release dates of each album. There are also separate articles on the Beatles' wives and girlfriends, their homes and instruments, as well as a short piece about other Apple Records recording stars.

This is more of a browsing than reading book and it's nice to see lots of somewhat rare photos. It's not all the same pics you've seen a billion times before. Many photos are in color and the print quality of the entire book is very good.

The text is, for the most part, solid and well-researched. Hajeski doesn't attribute many of her statements, though there is a decent bibliography in the back. She focuses on the basic facts of the Beatles' developing career - there's not much in the way of insight or analysis, which is acceptable for a book of this nature. However, a few things did raise eyebrows.

Hajeski's portrayal of Brian Epstein is odd. She mentions him cheating the band and his "sticky fingers." Epstein was vital to the band's success and beloved by its members. Though John Lennon has some harsh things to say about Brian (and everybody and everything else) following the breakup of the band, the general line from the Beatles camp is that, yes, Brian made some naive and bad business decisions that hurt the group's fortunes, but this was due to ignorance, not malice. It's almost as if Hajeski has confused Epstein with Allen Klein.

The details about the Beatles booking on "The Ed Sullivan Show" are also a bit confused, implying that Walter Cronkite had a role in brokering he deal, which isn't true. CBS News did broadcast an early segment about the band, but Cronkite didn't act as the reporter on it and hadn't met the band as this book suggests.

These are small quibbles about an otherwise nicely produced book. Serious Beatles fans probably are at their threshold for this type of general interest nostalgia, but if you have friends or family interested in learning more about the band, or need a companion to their Beatles CDs, this one makes for a nice gift.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book review: "The Beatles Through Headphones - The Quirks, Peccadilloes, Nuances and Sonic Delights of the Greatest Popular Music Ever Recorded"

Several writers - Ian MacDonaldTim Riley and, of course, Mark Lewisohn - have taken memorable deep dives into the Beatles' recorded music, emerging with facts and insight that help us hear this exceedingly familiar music in new ways.

No matter how many times we've listened, it seems there's always something new to hear in the Beatles' songs. The prospect of somehow making this music new and fresh again is enticing to Beatlemaniacs, who are always hungry to recreate the pleasure of hearing the band again for the first time.

So, it's hard not to get at least a little excited when seeing the compelling title of Ted Montgomery's new book, "The Beatles Through Headphones - The Quirks, Peccadilloes, Nuances and Sonic Delights of the Greatest Popular Music Ever Recorded," which promises to guide us to all sorts of little details we've somehow missed in the past.

But, with a few notable exceptions, the title is an empty promise.

With the Beatles' music now easily available in stereo, mono and in the U.S. mixes, there's a book to be written along the lines of Montgomery's thesis. The trouble is, he's dropped the ball.

A guide that outlines the differences between these different versions of the Beatles' music would be useful to both Beatles scholars and new listeners alike. Along the way, it also provide an opportunity to highlight all sorts of nuances, anomalies, mistakes and hidden touches present in the various mixes.

Joe Brennan and the authors of the What Goes On - Beatles Anomalies List have taken steps to do this online, but there's still opportunity to do it more expansively and in book form. That's sort of what I was expecting from Montgomery, but he actually provides much less information than either of those two sites.

What do we get? For the most part, Montgomery analyzes the Beatles' stereo LPs and tells where in the stereo spectrum different elements - lead vocals, backing vocals, instrumental tracks, guitar solos, etc. - appear. We don't exactly need a book to tell us that, just our own ears.

When Montgomery ventures deeper, he focuses mainly on the questions of who played/sang what. This is interesting territory, as the Beatles' albums seldom carried credits. Over the years, of course, through interviews with band members, engineers and George Martin, we've learned much more about all of this. Yet, some questions remain and there's still some room for debate.

Listening carefully, Montgomery notices some interesting things and makes some controversial statements. For example, he says only Paul McCartney sings on "Eleanor Rigby," supplying his own harmonies via overdubbing.

I took a listen and Montgomery seems to be right that it's all Paul during the first section of harmonies and those at the end of the song. But there's a middle section featuring harmonies that sound very much like John Lennon to my ears.

Likewise, he claims the vocals on "Little Child" are all John. I agree this is mostly true, but that sure sounds like Paul singing "oh yeah" at 1.37 right near the end of the song.

Montgomery states that "I've Just Seen a Face" is all Paul and that there is no bass on the song. This seems correct and has been noted in other books, as well.

In some cases, however, Montgomery's ears seem flat out wrong. For example, he says Ringo provides all the vocals on "Act Naturally," when it's commonly accepted that Paul sings harmony . In fact, he does so in a voice that's remarkably like the countrified tones he uses on "I've Just Seen a Face."

Montgomery did alert me to one thing I hadn't noticed before, though, and I didn't believe him until I put on my own headphones to check for myself. He states that early on in "Lovely Rita" there's the sound of bubbles being blown in a bucket of water. I thought, "no way! You're talking about 'Yellow Submarine.'" Yet, put on your headphones and listen carefully 32 seconds into the stereo version of "Lovely Rita" and the bubbles are there. I have no idea why.

Maybe it was worth reading the book just for that, but it still doesn't make up for the mistakes and lack of research on display.

Montgomery says the "fuzz bass" on "Think For Yourself" is just normal bass played through a "blown speaker," when the sound was achieved with an early effects pedal.  Per George Harrison in the "Beatles Anthology" book: 
"Paul used a fuzz box on the bass on Think For Yourself. When Phil Spector was making Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, the engineer who's set up the track overloaded the microphone on the guitar player and it became very distorted. Phil Spector said, 'Leave it like that, it's great'. Some years later everyone started to try to copy that sound and so they invented the fuzz box. We had one and tried the bass through it and it sounded really good."
Montgomery states that John's backing vocal reply on "You Won't See Me" goes "Knew I wouldn't, knew I wouldn't," when the word is "no," not "knew."

He says the opening Spanish-style guitar riff on "Bungalow Bill" is "cribbed from stock recording" when it's actually a tape loop played via Mellotron.

Montgomery mentions the ukulele part at the end of "Free as a Bird" being played by John Lennon, when it was George Harrison playing the instrument behind a recording of John's voice. And he misses the chance to tell us this vocal snippet is John's voice played backward. It sounds like John is saying "I'm John Lennon," but when played forward, Lennon says "turned out nice again," a catchphrase of British singer/comedian and uke player George Formby. It's the sort of detail that could add a lot to book of this type - where we're supposed to notice and learn new things.

Montgomery neglects numerous other tidbits, too.

Though it's been told to death, the use of Leslie speaker on John's voice on "Tomorrow Never Knows" warrants a mention, considering this is a book about sonic nuances and oddities.

He doesn't mention George and John goofing on the background vocals of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," yelling "arm" and "leg" in response to Paul's "lend a hand."

And he mentions only "horse trots" at the end of "Good Morning, Good Morning," not elaborating on George Martin's masterful and imaginative tape editing on this sequence, which links the song to the "Sgt. Pepper" reprise.

And he mentions the "moaning sounds" at the end of "Long, Long, Long" but doesn't explain the sound is that of a wine bottle vibrating atop a Leslie speaker. Via White Album engineer/co-producer Chris White in Lewisohn's "Beatles Recording Sessions" book:
"There's a sound near the end of the song which is a bottle of Blue Nun wine rattling away on top of a Leslie speaker cabinet. It just happened. Paul hit a certain note and the bottle started vibrating. We thought it was so good that we set the mikes up and did it again. The Beatles always took advantage of accidents."
Perhaps most controversially, Montgomery suggests the Beatles used a "click track" - a metronome beat put on tape - to help them maintain a steady tempo once they started recording in the multi-track format.  Yet there's debate on whether the Beatles used click tracks and, if so, how regularly.

There's an ebb and flow to the tempo of many Beatles recordings that sounds too "human" to be locked into a mechanical beat. And Ringo Starr has explicitly stated he doesn't use "clicks" and has trouble playing with them. Per this Modern Drummer interview:
"Never do [use one]. Click tracks make me too tense. I’m useless with a click track. I’m just not from the click track school."
Montgomery also states he doesn't "discern" a bass on "Back in the U.S.S.R." when it's been stated by pretty much everyone involved in the recording that John Lennon played the the Fender VI six-string bass on the song. Because the six-string has a higher range than a four-string bass, it may be that Montgomery felt there wasn't as much bottom end on the song.

And, although both Paul and Ringo have both stated Ringo plays drums on "Why Don't We Do it in the Road," Montgomery insists the track is all Paul.

This is a slim book - under 180 pages - with a very slim bibliography. Outside a stray interview here and there, most of Montgomery's citations come from the "Beatles Anthology."

This fact and some of the misinformation and lack of detail in the narrative suggest that Montgomery simply didn't put in the research necessary to write a definitive book. It's a pity, because he had the opportunity to do so.