Monday, September 28, 2009

Beyond Beatlemania

There is something of a modern iteration of Beatlemania happening these days, at least on the commercial front, thanks to the long-awaited release of the newly remastered CDs of the band’s entire catalog and the much-hyped Beatles edition of the Rock Band video game.

So with Beatles on my mind, I recently watched Composing the Beatles Songbook, a documentary on the songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the 1966-1970 period. This film came out in 2008 to universal, if not high-profile, acclaim.

As a connoisseur of music documentaries, I’m fascinated by in-depth looks at some of the greatest music of our lifetime. Prior to watching this one, I thought I knew quite a bit about The Beatles, but I learned a great deal. It features some real revelations about the music the band produced during its most creative period – particularly on the landmark Revolver and Sgt. Pepper albums.

A half-dozen or so legitimate authorities (music critics, friends of the band and musical associates) offer expert analysis and thoughtful interpretations of The Beatles music. This is no hackneyed “unauthorized critical review” with C-grade sources – a genre that has proliferated in recent years. Nor is it exactly one of the highly reputable “The Making of … [Insert Classic Album Name Here]” films in which producers, engineers and artists revisit the master tapes of epic works and reminisce about how they were made. Both entertaining and credible, Composing the Beatles Songbook offers a nice balance between mainstream appeal and enough musical detail to sate musical obsessives like me. It covers the evolution of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership over a number of years, not just on one classic release. Of course, with The Beatles’ albums during this period, they’re all classic releases. But they’re also quite different from one another, which makes the story behind the songs all the more interesting.

This film puts each release in the context of the times, circumstance and sensibilities of the artists. In so doing, it does a wonderful job of giving McCartney his due. In most histories of The Beatles, John typically gets all the credit as the edgier, boundary-pushing “artiste,” while Paul is depicted as a talented, but schmaltzy, pop tunesmith. This film, however, portrays McCartney as the enthusiastic, driven, profusely creative and widely varied composer that he was, and casts Lennon as the witty and brilliant, but increasingly distracted/disinterested, artist that he was.

The film starts with a few brief references to 1965’s Rubber Soul, in many ways the last completely collaborative Beatles album, and then digs deeply into the subsequent albums, dissecting key songs from each. Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver are portrayed as evidence of Bob Dylan’s influence on The Beatles, particularly on Lennon’s lyrics. After hearing Dylan, John realized that artists could now write about anything.

By the time of Revolver, my favorite Beatles LP, the band had become rich and powerful enough to do whatever they wanted artistically and get away with it. So they did. Meanwhile, Lennon had begun taking LSD, and his altered sense of consciousness crept into his compositions. McCartney, on the other hand, had yet to dabble in the drug (he would get to that later), but he had become fully immersed in the bohemian life of Swinging London, especially avant-garde music.

In examining Revolver, the cast of experts explores the methods and messages behind Paul’s emotive storytelling on “For No One” and “Eleanor Rigby,” with its resonant strings and English literariness, as well as John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” and his genre-pushing “Tomorrow Never Knows,” on which Paul is the one actually responsible for the “trippy” tape loops and sound effects.

One of the most interesting segments in the film is the examination of the band’s 1967 double A side single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” – the bridge between the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper albums. We learn that the two songs represent different takes on the changing world and youth viewed in acid-vision (McCartney had now turned on, too) – with John’s “Strawberry Fields” haltingly “stumbling to some kind of truth” about self and Paul’s “Penny Lane” presenting a surrealistic view of the Liverpool of his youth in which “even ordinary things are glittering with possibility.” The music geek in me was fascinated by the explanation that the two different perspectives (current and reflective) in McCartney’s jaunty pop song are tied to the tune’s change in key from B to A. That Paul knew what he was doing!

The band’s next album, the much-analyzed Sgt. Pepper, is depicted as essentially McCartney’s album. While Sgt. Pepper does mark the beginning of Lennon’s retreat from the band, he certainly still had some major contributions to make. Even in his “throwaway” Sgt. Pepper songs – the “found lyricism” of “Good Morning, Good Morning” (inspired by a cereal box) and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (derived from an antique circus poster) – the assembled experts illuminate John’s “last creative genius.”

They also note that while LSD may have inspired Lennon to look inward, that was not the case with Paul. For example, on “When I’m Sixty-Four” (with its old music hall reference points), McCartney’s focus is on history amidst a world of change. The film even manages to offer new insights on the epic “A Day in the Life,” considered by many to be the band’s ultimate achievement and the two songwriters’ last true co-write. The experts discuss how this “great fusion” married Lennon’s newsy observations with Paul’s unique ability to fill the interstitial spaces in big concepts. The result: a greater, astonishing whole.

The documentary breezes through the Magical Mystery Tour album and the Yellow Submarine soundtrack to arrive at the 1968 recording sessions for The White Album, which were marred by mounting tensions within the band (they were growing up, out and away from the original band concept, according to John). The resulting album was more a collection of individually composed songs (some of which were still remarkable) than the band collaborations of yore. There’s interesting analyses of Paul’s “Hey Jude,” revealed to be more than just a song about John’s young son Julian, and “Helter Skelter” McCartney’s railing against his image as the light pop songsmith of the band (which I knew), as well as his reaction to The Who’s contemporary “I Can See for Miles” single (which I didn’t know).

Yet, despite their drifting apart, the musicians still put in the effort to work as a band on occasion, as evidenced by their slogging through 97 takes of John’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” And while Lennon’s “Revolution No. 9” was clearly the result of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde influence, it is pointed out that McCartney had composed a similar noise experiment two years earlier (remember the “Tomorrow Never Knows” period?).

In early 1969, Paul led the ill-fated “Get Back” sessions in an effort to reclaim the band’s roots as a live band (hence the famous London rooftop appearance), but by then it was obvious that John was no longer in team spirit. Then, finally, there’s Abbey Road, during which the other three Beatles essentially just tolerated Lennon’s distracted self-absorption. Nevertheless, John brought two strong songs [“Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”] to the effort, while Paul and producer George Martin crafted the famous suite that makes up the second side of the album.

Unfortunately, there is little reference throughout the film to George or Ringo beyond a brief nod to the influence of band members (versus hired sidemen) on the recording process. Harrison’s notable, if few, compositions fall outside the scope of the film, though there is recognition that by the time of Abbey Road he had assumed as much compositional weight as Lennon in the band, notably contributing “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” to The Beatles’ final studio effort (it was recorded after, though released before Let It Be).

What does appear to be more of an oversight is the utter absence of George Martin in the film, either as a subject of the discussion or as one of the experts. As the producer and widely recognized fifth Beatle, his role in the renowned compositions of this fertile period undoubtedly merit more mention, if not full examination. (After all, who do you think scored all those orchestral segments on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper?)

I’m not sure if you can get Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1966-1970 on NetFlix etc., I got mine from Amazon. But either way, if you are interested in The Beatles, or even just an examination of song writing, it’s worth checking out this inspired documentary.

Note: There is a companion DVD to this release that covers the band’s earlier years (1957-1965). I have not seen that. It seems less intriguing since, despite their phenomenal popularity, the band was not quite as trailblazing compositionally during those years. Nevertheless, the quality of the second volume suggests that the first one may be worth checking out, too.


This “American Vice” chart from the September 2009 issue of Wired is an entertaining geographical look at the seven deadly sins in practice in America today. I’m a bit surprised there isn’t more “devilish” activity overall in the Northeast, though the high Greed stat makes sense. Then again, the Pride count seems to represent an amalgamation of the other six, so we might not be excelling in one area, but instead hitting for high overall average.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

Publishing industry consultant and champion of the technology-driven evolution of the business Bob Sacks makes a good point about content – i.e., the words and the message – needing to remain front and center in the business proposition in his column, “A Reminder: We’re Still in the Word Business” in the current issue of Publishing Executive. A brief but worthwhile read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Flattening Those Vowels

Heard a blast from the past last night … went to see everybody’s favorite Scottish nationalists, The Proclaimers – they of the late 1980’s “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” fame/albatross. The twins and band played a good mix of old and new material (including the aforementioned, of course). Their vocal harmonies still surpass just about everybody except maybe Crosby, Stills & Nash in their heyday.

They didnae play this one, though.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mighty and Loud Guitar(ists)

Last night I took my teenage daughter to see the much anticipated and greatly hyped documentary film It Might Get Loud.

As even casual fans of music probably know, it’s the story of the guitar told through the voices and experiences of three rock icons: Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), The Edge (of U2) and Jack White (of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather … and, wait, has he come up with any other bands in the last 10 minutes?). Besides having distinctive styles and being marquee “guitar heroes” in their own right, these men are roughly 15 years apart in age – from the 65-year-old Page to the 30-something White. Thus, they represent three generations of rock music.

Like dad, like daughter … both of us are fans of all three musicians.

As director Davis Guggenheim says in the movie promos, it’s “wall to wall music” and “great stories” with these “rock stars actually telling you how they did their stuff.” While certainly appealing to guitar geeks, it never gets too technical or musically esoteric. If you like rock music at all, you’ll find it entertaining.

The film is built around a guitar “summit” at an L.A. soundstage, where the three guitarists are brought together (for the first time ever) to chat about their influences and techniques and do a little impromptu playing. They share some of their famous licks and do a bit of jamming. Each musician’s back story gets ample focus in interwoven individual segments that explore their musical evolutions and revisit some notable locales from their early years. The genuine enthusiasm each man exhibits when discussing his influences is contagious.

The juxtaposition of the three guitar slingers is a big part of what makes the film so interesting. While Page’s heyday was in the late ’60s and the ’70s, The Edge’s punk/new wave-inspired U2 of the late ’70s/early ’80s represented a reaction against the self-indulgent dinosaur rock of super groups like Zeppelin. Subsequently, the Edge carved out his niche based not on virtuoso playing, but on creative use of electronic effects. Then came Jack White in the late 1990s with his pronouncedly anti-technical approach to music, channeling Son House through raw electric instruments in the stripped down sound of the White Stripes. (One might recall that the first four Stripes albums were characteristically retro-sounding recordings made in all analog studios at a time when the rest of the music industry had gone full bore digital.)

Clearly, Page and White share more common ground in their mutual blues influences, leaving the Edge the odd man out at times. Despite his playing with B.B. King on “When Love Comes to Town” on U2’s 1988 Rattle and Hum album/movie, the Edge’s style really doesn’t have any blues roots. Nevertheless, this imbalance doesn’t undermine the shared respect and budding camaraderie evident among the musicians.

This is a richly detailed documentary. So even though I had seen many of the various promo clips floating around the internet before last night, I still found plenty of fresh footage to discover in the film itself. Without fear of completely spoiling it, here are a few of my favorite parts:

• Page playing air guitar (how ironic is that?!) while listening to Link Wray’s “The Rumble.”

• Snippets of two new pieces of music from Page.

• Much has been said in early reviews of the film about the moment when the Edge and White watch in awe as Page plays the iconic “Whole Lotta Love” riff. The delighted look on both of their faces is, indeed, priceless.

• The jam on Zep’s “In My Time of Dying” – with all three playing slide guitar (true to form – the individuality comes through again as each man wears the slide on a different finger).

• The Edge’s self-deprecating humor evidenced on several occasions during his individual segments.

• Page’s bemusement over the chord structure of “I Will Follow” as the Edge teaches it to the other two: “Are you sure about that?” he asks the composer.

• The three stars’ acoustic rendition of The Band’s “The Weight” during the film’s trail out sequence.

All these are things to look forward to – along with much more – if you haven’t seen it yet. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again when it’s released on DVD, probably sometime before Christmas.

I highly recommend this documentary if you [a] play guitar (it’s a must see), [b] like even one of these three musicians and his band, [c] are interested in how guitar-based music (i.e., most rock and roll) is constructed, or [d] you’re just a big fan of music in general.