Tuesday, November 29, 2011

10th anniversary tribute to george


I debated what to post on the 10th anniversary of George's death. I thought about discussing his legacy and why I think he's so underappreciated, but I think it's more appropriate to simply let his music and words speak for themselves. Somehow, I think that's what George would have preferred. So in that vein, I've collected here a sample of my favorite acoustic demos and words of wisdom from the songs. I hope you enjoy them and that, as a tribute to George, you take a moment today to stop what you're doing and smell some flowers. Maybe even plant a tree.



Let it Down
Hiding it all behind anything I see, should someone be looking at me.

Beware of Darkness
Beware of sadness. It can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore and what is more, that is not what you are here for.

Run of the Mill
Everyone has choice when to or not to raise their voices. It you that decides which way you will turn.

All Things Must Pass
Sunrise doesn't last all morning. Cloudburst doesn't last all day. Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning. It's not always gonna be this grey.

Blow Away
I'd almost forgot, all I got to do is to love you. All I got to be is happy.

Isn't it a Pity
Isn't it a pity, isn't a shame, how we break each other's hearts and cause each other pain.

While my Guitar Gently Weeps
I don't know why nobody told you how to unfold your love. I don't know how someone controlled you. They bought and sold you.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

why do the beatles continue to be so popular?


I know the question that forms the title of this post is one of the most cliched in all of pop/rock music analysis. However, since I haven't yet found a satisfying answer (and I'm not content with the typical fan response of "It's because their music is awesome, omgggg!!!111"), I'm going to take a crack at providing a--hopefully--more analytical answer.

First of all, I think it's important to point out that I wouldn't consider this question an interesting one if applied to any other band from the 60s or 70s. That's because the continued popularity of the Beatles--as measured according to any number of metrics, from album sales to number of tumblrs devoted to the group--is at a level no other group from that era has attained. It's not interesting--to me at least--why people continue to listen to and buy Rolling Stones or Dylan records. The music is great, so why not? But the devotion to the Beatles remains at a level that isn't at all inevitable 41 years after the band's breakup.

Second of all, it's important to point out that, at least for me, I don't think it comes down to nostalgia--at least not completely. After attending four McCartney concerts (three this summer, and one two years ago), I can attest to the fact that just about every age bracket was represented in the audience, and there were more than a few young people there without their baby boomer parents. For a perhaps more objective piece of evidence, take the fact that Urban Outfitters (a clothing company that explicitly caters to people 18-34 years old) has begun carrying Beatles t-shirts and Abbey Rd posters. The Beatles have suddenly become cool with hipsters.

So if it's not nostalgia, what is it? I believe it's the fact that the Beatles provide a comprehensive fan experience. That means that, while other artists provide great music and perhaps a few interesting interviews or even a film (The Last Waltz, anyone?), the Beatles provide the following:

1. A relatively large, but (most importantly) varied discography that is musically complex and innovative enough to remain interesting, even after hundreds of listens. Beyond the core 13 studio albums and 22 singles, fans can engage with the 6-disc Anthology series, the Live at the BBC collection, and a virtually endless supply of bootlegs.

2. 5 feature-length films, which vary in quality, but which nevertheless remain interesting, even after hundreds of viewings (this is particularly true with A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine).

3. Countless interviews, which are virtually all available on YouTube and which collectively provide hundreds of hours of footage. The wit the group possessed means that the interviews remain fresh and entertaining.

4. Thousands--dare I say even close to a million?--photos. This group was photographed more often than any other. Not only does that provide some measure of entertainment, but it provides artistically inclined fans with material for artwork. Indeed, the group has inspired a tremendous amount of beautiful artwork, from amateur drawings and photograph manipulations, to Cirque du Soleil.

5. A fascinating back story, which we have access to on a level unsurpassed by any other group. The story of the group's rise to fame, years in the spotlight, and famous breakup, is the stuff of Hollywood films. I can personally attest to how easy it is to get caught up in the romanticism of their early days in Hamburg, not to mention the twists and turns of their whirlwind 7 years at the top of the world.

These five elements provide, in a sense, a tremendous amount to do for a fan. The Beatles are to the fan experience like an advanced role playing game is for a video gamer. It's easy to spend hours playing one of those video games that involves exploring a world because there's just so much to do. You're much less likely to get bored than you would if you were playing Tetris.

But the final element that makes the Beatles so incredibly popular is, I believe, how unabashedly optimistic and life-affirming virtually everything they produced is. Of course there's a good deal of bitterness in their backstory, but when it comes down to the music, the interviews (for the most part), and the films, being a fan of this group means engaging with material that's bound to leave you happy.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, November 14, 2011

funny gifs

If nothing else, the internet has breathed new life into the hours upon hours of footage of the Beatles. One way it's done that is by allowing people to make gifs. Gifs are little video clips that play over and over again. Here are some of my favorites, with captions I feel are appropriate. :) I hope you enjoy them!


mine.




















no one realized quite how aggressive mr. harrison could be.

















some of us are just extra ... special.


















others of us are just ... disturbed.

all things must pass: maturity in post-beatles solo work (part 1)


Jurgen Vollmer, one of the Germans whom John, George, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best befriended in Hamburg during their stints playing nightclubs in 1960-62, once said that, due to his quiet demeanor, it was often easy to dismiss George Harrison. However, once you got to know him, it was quickly apparent that he possessed a certain maturity that the others lacked. Jurgen said that George looked you straight in the eye when speaking to you, and seemed genuinely interested in what you had to say.

What does examining John's and George's solo material through the lens of maturity tell us about them as artists?

I'm going to argue that George's solo material articulates its messages with more maturity and perspective than John's. However, in the interest of space, I'm only going to address John's output in this post. I'll save George's output for the next one.

Let me briefly address Paul's work, though, just to justify why I'm not including it in the overall analysis. I'd rather not compare Paul's work to George's and John's simply because I think the vast majority of Paul's work seeks a fundamentally different musical goal. Explaining that difference probably merits its own post, but for now I'll say that Paul's songs, with a few exceptions, simply aren't personal enough to evaluate according to the same criteria as George's or John's. The most explicitly personal McCartney song I can think of is "Here Today," his tribute to John. That's certainly a beautiful song, but one song isn't enough to go on. Much of the rest of his output involves stories or simple love songs. A lot of it is absolutely wonderful, but it's not particularly personal, at least not explicitly so.

Therefore, I think it's more appropriate to compare George's and John's catalogs. Both of them tended to write explicitly personal songs that arose from almost existential struggles. I'd characterize their songs almost as confessionals. However, there's a key difference in style between the two writers that, I think, suggests more maturity and nuance in George's work.

That difference comes down to the degree of subtlety. Take "Julia," for example. Anyone with any knowledge of John's past knows immediately that the song is about his mother, Julia. The lyrics are gorgeous and the song is haunting, but listening to it almost makes me uncomfortable because it's so explicitly about his struggles connecting with his dead mother.

For an even more uncomfortable experience, try "My Mummy's Dead." The track consists of John and an acoustic guitar, mixed so roughly that is sounds like a home demo. The lyrics are "my mummy's dead/I can't get it through my head/though it's been so many years/my mummy's dead/I can't explain/so much pain/I could never show it/my mummy's dead." As a listener, I almost feel as though I'm sitting in, uninvited, on John's therapy session with his psychologist.

Now why do I feel like this hyper-explicit, confessional music indicates some level of immaturity? It comes down to the function of an artist's output. An artist, I think, releases music because he/she wants to share something with his/her audience. Part of the reason that art is shared with the audience is, I think, to provide the audience with some product to which they can relate. However, by writing songs that are so explicitly personal, John sometimes made it difficult for his audience--at least in my case--to relate to his music. Even if I had a deceased parent, could I really relate to "Julia" or "My Mummy's Dead," when they don't seem to have been written at all for me? I think the expectation that we should purchase and enjoy songs clearly (I think) not written for us indicates some level of immaturity--or at least entitlement--on the part of the artist.

Now, none of this is to say that I don't enjoy John's solo material. I think much of it is absolutely gorgeous. However, I think the hyper-explicitly personal songs indicate some level of immaturity that George's music simply doesn't. I'll explain why I think George's solo material is more mature in the next post.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

what the beatles can teach us about how to revive the music industry




In the past decade or so (as far as I can tell), a lot of people have been fretting about the sorry state of the music industry. The internet spelled doom for record sales, and artists are now forced to tour almost constantly because it's virtually impossible to make a living off of record sales. But more than that, people have lamented the demise of high quality, but mainstream artists. Yes, there are countless incredibly talented artists out there right now (Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom, and Feist come to mind immediately), but none of those artists are on major record labels, so they enjoy relatively little exposure. Instead, the artists who top the Billboard 200 are, in large part, those who perform very safe, focus group-tested songs guaranteed to be chart toppers.

Now, one could say that this is because record labels have become so profit-driven that they're too risk averse to take a chance on an artist who might not be commercially palatable. I think there are two main problems with that theory: first, I don't believe that record labels are more profit-driven now than they were in the 60s or 70s when most of the best artists were on major record labels (Capitol's decision to reissue the Beatles' albums with different track listings was a clear ploy to make an extra buck or two) and second, the strategy they're employing now isn't guaranteed to make them more money than one in which they sign artists for their artistic merit alone.

Let's unpack that second criticism a little bit. Putting aside the argument that the best artists should get the most exposure, and so should be on major record labels, it just makes sense to me that record labels would sign artists based on their artistic merit, rather than on whether they can replicate a sound that has already been profitable. First of all, the output of the 60s and 70s showed nothing if not that most people appreciate objectively high quality music. The Beatles illustrate this more than perhaps any other group. Their music is some of the best ever written, and they remain popular among just about every demographic. How did they create that music? By taking artistic risks, which they were allowed to take by Parlophone and Capitol. Yes, they were unusually talented artists, but the fact of the matter is that the success of the Beatles suggests that if record labels simply signed artists based on their talent and allowed them to take artistic risks with their raw talent, chances are we'd see some of the most exciting music in decades.

You might now say that the most talented artists are on small, independent record labels, and there's nothing wrong with that. I love independent record labels as much as anyone else, but the reason I believe these artists would create even more exciting music if they were on major record labels is that a contract with a major record company would afford them the exposure to gain the popularity necessary to make enough money from tours to then put aside enough time to write and record their best material. Independent record labels simply don't have the resources to provide most of their artists with that kind of cost structure.

So my suggestion for the record industry is summed up as this: let artists be artists. Sign the best artists to major record labels, promote them so that they become popular at the beginning of their careers and can make enough money from a tour to then sit back and record in a careful way that allows them to make the best album possible. People know and appreciate good music when they hear it (the enduring popularity of not only the Beatles, but Motown in particular, is a testament to this fact), and those albums will sell. Record labels will be highly profitable and some of the best music being recorded will again be given the exposure it deserves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

he's a real nowhere man, but i'm a loser: pronoun use in lennon's songs


This post is inspired by a recent study that examined the use of pronouns in Beatles songs. Basically, the study concluded that the use of first person pronouns (I, me, etc.) dramatically declined as the band's career proceeded. The authors reasoned that this shift was due to a shift in substance from interpersonal relationships (boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, etc.) to more complicated narratives and political statements.

That seems reasonable enough to me, but I don't find it a particularly novel conclusion.

I'm more interested in how pronouns were used in unusual ways. It's easy enough to conclude from John's "I'm a Loser" that the loser is John himself. It's logical, and John has confirmed that it's true. But what about "Nowhere Man"? John has said that the song is about his insecurities during a rare unproductive writing session. If that's true, why would he write "he's a real nowhere man" and not "I'm a real nowhere man"? "I'm a Loser" shows us that John wasn't afraid to write highly personal songs in the first person, so why the shift to the third person?

As you've probably concluded if you've read my blog a bit, I like to answer such questions by categorizing relevant songs. What follows is a categorization of all of John's Beatles-era songs that we know are about him. I've categorized them based on the pronoun used to describe the song's protagonist.

It's important to note that I'm not including every song John wrote that has some sort of protagonist in it. Instead, I'm only including those songs that we know to be about John himself. For example, I'm including Help! because we know it describes John's struggles with low self-esteem in 1965, but not Misery because there's no indication he wrote it about himself, as opposed to a generic guy whose girl left him. As such, there's actually no song in here that was written before Beatles for Sale.

First Person

I'm a Loser (Beatles for Sale - 1964)
Help! (Help! - 1965)
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (Rubber Soul - 1965)
The Word (Rubber Soul - 1965)
In My Life (Rubber Soul - 1965)
I'm Only Sleeping (Revolver - 1966)
She Said She Said (Revolver - 1966)
Glass Onion (White Album - 1968)
I'm So Tired (White Album - 1968)
Julia (White Album - 1968)
Yer Blues (White Album - 1968)
Revolution 1 (White Album - 1968)
Across the Universe (Yellow Submarine - 1969)

Third Person

Nowhere Man (Rubber Soul - 1965)
Doctor Robert (Revolver - 1966)
Come Together (Abbey Road - 1969)

Second Person

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help! - 1965)

That list is actually surprisingly short. Please let me know in the comments section if I've missed any song.

The most interesting songs are obviously those that use second or third person pronouns, so those are the songs we'll tackle here. The songs in the first category are certainly interesting, though, and could merit their own post.

In any case, let's start with the only one that uses the second person in the most prominent position in the narrative.

You've Got to Hide Your Love Away

You've Got To Hide Your Love Away is usually thought to be about the affairs John was having at the time, so we could see the use of second person pronoun to be either a linguistic device meant to allow him to write about the affairs without making it obvious that he was having them, or it could serve as a warning to him to stop the affairs. I'm actually inclined to think it's the latter, because of the switch from first person to second person from the verse to the chorus:

Here I stand, head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she's gone, I can't go on
Feeling two foot small

Everywhere people stand
Each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say

Hey you've got to hide your love away

It seems to me that John is describing his shame at having the affair, and then using the crowd's judgment as a device for self-admonishment. If you want to get particularly metaphysical, you could also say that the crowd represents the materially/physically motivated part of his brain, which his conscious is warning against committing immoral acts. If you agree with this interpretation, then this song represents clear musical evidence that John regretted his infidelities.

In any case, let's move on to the three songs that use the third person most prominently.

Nowhere Man

Nowhere Man was supposedly borne from the rare unproductive writing session. John felt as though he couldn't write anything good, and ended up almost unconsciously writing Nowhere Man. As in You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, John uses the first (and second, in this case) person pronouns in a quite interesting way. Let's take a look:

He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans, for nobody

Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere man, please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere man, the world is at your command

He's as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere man, can you see me at all?

Nowhere man, don't worry
Take your time don't hurry
Leave it all, til somebody else lends you a hand

At that point, the lyrics begin to repeat themselves. As in You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, it seems to me that John uses the three classes of pronouns to separate himself from one part of his conscious, and then speak to that part. In this case, he's separating himself from the part of his consciousness that is intensely insecure about the prospect that he might not be productive after all (the first two verses strongly suggest that).

The third and fifth stanzas use the second person pronoun in order to speak to the nowhere man and reassure him that he is actually something special (the world is at your command) and that he shouldn't worry. Perhaps he should even relax and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to ask for help (leave it all, til somebody else lends you a hand).

That seems evident enough to me. But the most confounding line is, "Isn't he a bit like you and me." With that line, the "you" could switch from the nowhere man to the audience. However, if we keep this song's universe as John's own mind, perhaps we have the following:

John realizes he is intensely insecure. He separates himself from that insecurity in order to examine it (he's a real nowhere man). He realizes that it's part of him (isn't he a bit like you and me?), and then begins to comfort himself and give himself advice (nowhere man, don't worry). So this song becomes essentially a self-administered therapy session.

Doctor Robert and Come Together

In the interest of not rambling on too much, I'm going to give these two tracks slightly more superficial treatments. Doctor Robert is supposedly about how John used to be the one to carry around and distribute the speed during the early days. It seems to me that he wrote about that through the alter ego of Doctor Robert simply to protect himself from scrutiny.

Come Together really should be its own post (perhaps I'll do that soon). There's controversy over whether this track includes cryptic references to each band member, is simply a sardonic self-portrait, or whether its both. In any case, it appears to me to simply be a slightly druggy, riddle-filled portrait of John's life at that time. "He shoot coca-cola" refers to John's cocaine use; "he got Ono sideboard" is obviously a reference to Yoko. As in the above songs, John appears again to talk to himself ("one thing I can tell you is you got to be free"). Perhaps that's John's advice to himself to spend time with Yoko without regard for the judgment of others.

But what about that chorus ("come together, right now, over me")? Given how druggy this song is, it might not mean anything at all. It could also refer to all the different parts of him (the cocaine use, his mojo ... everything "he got") coming together to form a cohesive conscious/identity that exists in his head, almost over his own material body.

So what can we conclude from this? It appears that John used second and third person pronouns in conjunction with first person pronouns when he wanted to speak to himself, and almost split up different parts of his identity/conscious. I'm sure that I've missed songs that could be relevant here (please let me know if you can think of any), but I've hopefully made my point clear.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

sometimes tension is ok (anatomy of a lennon melody)


In my last post, I dissected a typical McCartney melody (the song "I Will"). This one will use "Julia" to look at what makes a Lennon melody intriguing.

Now, it's important to say upfront that John wrote some melodies that are appealing for the same reasons Paul's melodies were (i.e. because they build up and resolve tension). But I'm going to examine a melody that typifies the type of tension-filled, almost non-melodic melody John himself believed he more naturally wrote.

Most listeners of Western music prefer melodies that build up and resolve tension. Resolving tension basically means that the melody and chords work such that we feel like the melody goes somewhere (i.e. builds up tension) and then returns home (i.e. resolves the tension). Once the melody gets back home, we feel satisfied and that the melody is complete.

Usually, when a melody ends without resolving tension, we feel unsatisfied and as though we don't like the song very much. However, in "Julia," John doesn't always resolve the tension, and we still love the song. Why is that?

I think it has something to do with the fact that melodies (or at least the melody in "Julia") play a different role for John than Paul. As we saw in "I Will," a McCartney melody is front and center in the song. Everything else is built around the melody. In "Julia" and other Lennon songs (ex: I Am the Walrus, Come Together), the melody is somewhat secondary to the words, the instrumentation, or both. I think this is because John approached songs as efforts to construct a particular soundscape/atmosphere (at least once he started writing more personal songs in 1965/1966).

It might help to look more closely at "Julia" in order to understand how the melody works to support the soundscape John built. The beginning of the song has three elements: an acoustic guitar, vocals, and lyrics. In my opinion, John is attempting to convey both beauty (through the fingerpicked guitar part) and helplessness (through the lyrics and the melody). Beauty--or his mother/his love for his mother--and helplessness--his pain at losing her, and his inability to reach her--exist in opposition to each other. The melody thus acts as a way of enhancing the meaning of the lyrics and, consequently, the soundscape of conflict and opposition John has built.

How does the melody enhance the soundscape of conflict?

Let's take a look at this idea of unresolved tension. If you listen to the last line of the first verse ("but I say it just to reach you Julia"), you'll hopefully notice that he's about to resolve the tension (which is what Paul would've done at the end of a verse). But then we notice that the last note of the first verse is cut off by the first note of the second verse. In this way, John doesn't resolve the tension. Why would he do that? I think it's a way of conveying pain, which supports the themes of helplessness and pain we hear in the lyrics.

Another aspect of the melody that conveys pain is the lack of tonal variety. In other words, we hear the melody resting on just one or two notes. This is in marked contrast to the guitar part, which flows through many notes. Thus, we see again the contrast between the pain-filled melody/lyrics and the beauty-filled guitar part. The melody also involves half-step intervals and the introduction of sharps and flats that create a melancholy sound, which only builds up more contrast between the melody and the guitar part, which involves several major chords, which sound happier.

This essentially describes the soundscape of the entire song. However, at the end, John does something very interesting. As I've said, the guitar part throughout 99.9% of the song acts as the representation of beauty. However, the song ends with a chord that sounds quite minor. Maybe that represents his mother dying, along with his hopes of connecting with her. In any case, it's quite interesting, I think.

So there you have it. John's melodies might not have tended to be as classically constructed as Paul's but they remain appealing to us because they act as one part of a coherent soundscape. Of course, this doesn't apply to every single John song (In My Life is one exception), but I think it describes most of his songs.

Stay tuned for an analysis of a George melody soon. And as always, let me know what you think in the comments section!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

were the beatles feminists?

Let's get something out of the way right away: I don't mean to imply that the members of the Beatles acted as feminists in their romantic relationships - at least at first. It's well-known that all four guys cheated on their first wives, and that John cheated on Yoko. I'll discuss what I see as the connection between their music and the women they chose as their second wives' at the end of the post, but the bulk of the post will be devoted to a very interesting trend in the way they depicted women in their songs.

It's well known that in the 1960s, before the feminist movement really took off, women were generally supposed to occupy a submissive position in their relationships--both romantic and otherwise--with men. Having grown up in the environment they did, it's not surprising that the Beatles would want their wives to remain at home. It's also not surprising that they would be unfaithful. What is surprising, however, is the way they depicted women in their songs.

I've broken up the love songs on the studio albums into three categories: ones that describe a basically equal relationship, ones that describe the man driving the action, and ones that describe the woman driving the action. The surprising results are below:
 
Equal Relationship
I Saw Her Standing There
Ask Me Why
PS I Love You
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
There's a Place
All I've Got to Do
All My Loving
A Hard Day's Night
I'm Happy Just to Dance With You
And I Love Her
When I Get Home
Every Little Thing
It's Only Love
I've Just Seen a Face
Michelle
I'm Looking Through You
Wait
Here, There, and Everywhere
Good Day Sunshine
Something
For You Blue  

Man Drives the Action

Not a Second Time (though the man has been hurt by the woman and is now lashing out)
You Can't Do That
I'll Follow the Sun
Another Girl
You Like Me Too Much
Tell Me What You See
If I Needed Someone
Run For Your Life  

Woman Drives the Action

Misery
Please Please Me
Love Me Do
It Won't Be Long
Don't Bother Me
Hold Me Tight
I Wanna Be Your Man
I Should've Known Better
If I Fell
Tell Me Why
Can't Buy Me Love
Any Time At All
I'll Cry Instead
Things We Said Today
I'll Be Back
No Reply
I'm a Loser
I Don't Want to Spoil the Party
Baby's in Black Eight Days a Week
What You're Doing
The Night Before
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
Yesterday
I Need You
Ticket to Ride
Drive My Car
Norwegian Wood
You Won't See Me
What Goes On
Girl
For No One
When I'm 64
Lovely Rita Meter Maid
Honey Pie
I Will
Oh! Darling
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
One After 909

Ok, so it's pretty obvious from those lists that songs in which the woman drives the action dominate.

In fact, here's the percentage breakdown:
Equal Relationship: 21 songs (30.9%)
Man Drives the Action: 8 songs (11.7%)
Woman Drives the Action: 39 songs (57.4%)

Thematically, most of the songs in which the woman drives the action are about a man being totally smitten by a woman and wondering whether she feels the same way. She's got him wrapped around her finger. Others are about a woman leaving a man, and him chasing her (I Don't Want to Spoil the Party, Don't Bother Me). Some of them even admit crying (I'll Cry Instead). Girl--the song that apparently describes their ideal woman--depicts a highly independent woman ("when you say she's looking good, she acts as if it's understood, she's cool").

The few songs in which the man drives the action aren't even particularly aggressive. Not a Second Time and You Can't Do That are about a man reacting to a woman hurting him through infidelity. If I Needed Someone is arrogant, but mostly about a guy who just doesn't seem too interested, for whatever reason. The only truly aggressive song is Run For Your Life, which John has repeatedly said he hates and wishes he had never recorded.

This paints a pretty different situation than we expect to see in the world of rockers. It's certainly different than the Rolling Stones's depiction of women ("Trying to get some girl pregnant," for example).

It's not my place (nor am I able) to propose a reason as to why the Beatles described such strong, independent women in their songs. However, it makes their decision to eventually wed strong, independent women and stick with them (Yoko, Linda, Olivia, and Barbara all fit that description, I think) less surprising. It also suggests that the Beatles might have had ideas about gender equality in relationships that were a bit beyond their time. This doesn't serve as an excuse for their infidelities, but perhaps it introduces some nuance into the state of their romantic relationships, and their ideas about women in general. As always, let me know what you think in the comments!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

song analysis: i will (or, the anatomy of a mccartney melody)


For the second song analysis (the first one, which tackles Isn't it a Pity, is available here), I've decided to tackle a classic McCartney love song: I Will. This song not only stands in obvious contrast to the Lennon track, Julia, which it precedes on the White Album, but it also contains a typical McCartney melody. This means that we can use this track as an opportunity to explore what makes Paul's melodies so appealing.

In the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, Paul is typically considered the one who contributed most of the trademark melodies. Where John played with words (ex: Please Please Me, I am the Walrus) and creating sonic atmospheres (ex: Strawberry Fields Forever), Paul's strongest tracks tended to lean on melodies (other than I Will, examples include Yesterday, Here There and Everywhere, and Hey Jude).

I Will is a great example of this. Take the melody away, and you have a very simple track; add in the melody, and it becomes absolutely addictive, and instantly memorable. Why does the melody have so much power?

Without going into a lot of music theory, I believe it comes down to one of the most fundamental musical concepts: building up tension and then resolving that tension. Where John (and George) was comfortable letting tonal tension remain without resolution, Paul nearly always resolved tension.

Examining I Will might help make this clearer. It'll help to refer to the track (available here), unless you can recite the melody in your head.

Let's look at the first verse of the song:

Who knows how long I've loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to I will

Paul builds up tension during the first line. Basically, if he were to stop the song at that point, you'd feel uncomfortable. You'd want the melody to go somewhere. In more technical terms, you'd want the melody to resolve itself, making it feel complete. Paul doesn't resolve it at that point because he wants to continue the melody further. So he builds up more tension with the second line. The melody still doesn't feel complete. Finally, at the end of the third line, he's resolved the melody. The fourth line is a melodic repeat of the third line. The only difference is that Paul goes down one note before singing "will." This is a melodic move very typical in classical music.

The second verse is melodically identical to the first verse. Repeating a melodic expression to open a piece is also very typical for classical music.

In the bridge, we hear the song sound more minor (basically, for a listener, that translates into more melancholy), and the melody changes:

Love you forever, and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we're together
Love you when we're apart

In this verse, Paul creates tension in the first line that he then resolves in the second line. The third line is melodically identical to the first line, but then in the fourth line, he ends with tension. This allows him to continue the song further, since we're not happy with him ending it with "apart." Thus, he uses the melody (written in couplets, except for the ending of the fourth line) to mirror the lyrics, which you'll see are written in couplets.

Here's the last verse:

And if at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
Oh you know I will
I will

In this verse, Paul begins with the same melody he used in the first two verses. But then he has to justify continuing the verse beyond four lines, so he repeats the tension-filled melody of the third line in the fourth line. In the fifth line, he develops the tension-filled melody further before resolving it in the sixth line. However, tension is still in the air; the only difference is that the guitar now takes the reins. Paul finally resolves the melody using humming and the guitar in tandem.

Basically, all of this means that Paul's melodies are attractive to our ears because they use the technique of building up and resolving tension. This technique has been fundamental to Western music since at least the time of Bach. It's especially fundamental to classical music of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Mozart & Beethoven, for example).

Thus, despite listening to very little classical music (except for a little bit of Bach, which inspired Blackbird), Paul was the most similar to a classical composer of all three primary songwriters. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that he's written several classical pieces since the Beatles broke up.

Stay tuned for similar analyses of Lennon and Harrison melodies. As always, please let me know what you think of this post in the comments section (especially if you disagree!).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

how younger fans are keeping the beatles alive


I wrote a post a while back about the advantages of being a fan now. Beyond those advantages, though, I think it's important to acknowledge the contribution younger (well for the most part younger) fans have made to the artistic phenomenon that the Beatles have become. I have a vested interest in making sure younger fans are appreciated, since I'm 24 years old, but I think it's something everyone should care about.

George said that the Beatles would go on even after the members had died, and I think we're seeing that happen right now. With the help of the Internet and improvements in graphic design, people all over the world have expressed the style and music of the Beatles in highly creative, original ways.

I'm going to highlight just a few of my favorites here, but there are literally thousands of brilliant creations I could've included. I don't own any of this, so if you made any of these and want credit, please tell me.

Montage from the Lady Madonna/Hey Bulldog video

The artist calls this "Lost in Thought and Time." It was made by a 17-year-old from Brazil.

This one suggests quite creatively that, even in 1969, the 1964 Beatles were still there somewhere.

Some of them are really funny!

I especially love how an artist from deviantart.com colorized this picture of George.

And finally, I love this one. I don't know why it says "mcbeatles" on it, but regardless, it's beautiful.

So there you have it. This is just a tiny selection of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of art second and third generation fans have made, utilizing newer graphic design technology to breath new artistic life into the music and imagery we all love.

I got the above images from:
deviantart.com
fuckyeahbeatles.tumblr.com

Finally, the image next to this post is from the video game The Beatles: Rock Band. Dhani Harrison came up with the idea as a way to expose the Beatles' music to younger fans. It's been pretty popular, so hopefully it's achieved that purpose! There are rumors of a new version coming out soon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

a guide to george harrison


In celebration of the release of the trailer to Martin Scorsese's upcoming documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (which you can watch here), I've provided a little guide to George Harrison. It includes the ten tracks you might have either not heard, or forgotten about, a few choice George quotes, two great George videos, and my interpretation of his philosophy on God and life in general. I hope it inspires you to spend some time with his music and words of wisdom, which I promise will be extremely rewarding.

Ten Underappreciated George Tracks

All of these are available on officially released albums. I wanted to keep them accessible, so no bootlegs here. These aren't in any particular order.

1. Let it Down (acoustic demo)
2. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (acoustic version - Anthology 3)
3. Marwa Blues (Brainwashed)
4. Run So Far (Brainwashed)
5. Your Love is Forever (Somewhere in England)
6. Beautiful Girl (33 1/3)
7. The Lord Loves the One (Who Loves the Lord) (Living in the Material World)
8. Don't Let me Wait Too Long (Living in the Material World)
9. That's the Way it Goes (Gone Troppo)
10. Art of Dying (All Things Must Pass)

Two Great George Videos

The Pirate Song: This is a skit George did on Rutland Weekend Television. Monty Python-style comedy was a big part of George's life, so I had to include something that acknowledges that.

All Things Must Pass epk video. You can't really find this on Youtube anymore, thanks to EMI, but it's more than worth the $2 it costs on iTunes. It includes interviews with George, where he discusses why he redid My Sweet Lord, and shares more of his wonderful words of wisdom. It's a little bittersweet, since it was filmed in 2001, but it's very well done.

George's Philosophy of Life & God (my interpretation)

This is what I've concluded, based on watching many interviews (I think I've watched every George interview that's currently on Youtube) and listening to the vast majority of his solo catalogue. If you disagree with what I've written here, please let me know.

So, here's life, according to George:

The purpose of life is to figure out why we die and, failing that, to become conscious of God, who is really the manifestation of love. To become conscious of God, we need to connect with love by practicing compassion and loving one another. In order to become conscious of God, we also should reduce unnecessary suffering by being in the present moment, remaining aware of our surroundings-especially the natural world-and laughing as much as possible. If we succeed in becoming aware of God, we can avoid returning to the material world and instead reach Nirvana, or the spiritual realm.

Oh, and Monty Python, Formula One racing, and guitars are really pretty awesome.

A Few George Quotes

There are countless gems I could have picked, but here are just a few:

As long as you hate, there will be people to hate.

I think people who can truly live a life in music are telling the world, "You can have my love, you can have my smiles. Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because it’s the very best, and it’s the part I give."

Beware of sadness. It can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore, and what is more, that is not what you are here for.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

did george harrison really plagiarize "my sweet lord"?


As you might know, George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," has an unfortunate history (and an ironic one, given its message of universal love, acceptance, and enlightenment). George was accused of subconsciously lifting the chord progression and part of the melody from "He's So Fine," a 1963 hit by girlgroup The Chiffons. After literally decades of legal battles--including a failed attempt by George to simply give "My Sweet Lord" to the holder of the rights to "He's So Fine"--the suit finally ended with George paying $587,000 for Bright Tunes Corporation, the entity that had filed the suit.

The entire lawsuit was somewhat ridiculous, not least because the idea of being penalized for subconsciously lifting a portion of another song is undoubtedly a terrifying prospect--and possibly unavoidable situation--for any songwriter.

In any case, I've always been curious as to how much of the two songs are actually similar. In this post, I'll analyze both the chord progressions and the melodies to determine where the songs converge. I'm also going to analyze the gospel standard "Oh Happy Day," since George argued that if he had lifted from any song, it was probably that one.

For reference, here are links to all three songs:
He's So Fine
Oh Happy Day
My Sweet Lord (the original version)

Just listening to all three songs back-to-back, there are definitely similarities in the melodies, I think. But let's take a closer look. After all, there are countless songs that sound like one another (think early blues, early rock n roll). Is there really enough of a similarity here to merit a lawsuit?

Let's start with the basic chord progressions for all three songs:

My Sweet Lord

Intro: Em-A, D-Bm, D-F#dim-B7-Em

Chorus (My Sweet Lord, oh my lord, etc): A-Em

Verse (I really want to see you, I really want to be with you, etc): A-D, Bm-D, F#dim-B7-Em

In the second half of the song, George uses additional chords, but the above progression is the bulk of the song.

He's So Fine

So this song is basically two chords: G and A. They change it up a little in the second half of the song, but by that point it sounds nothing like "My Sweet Lord."

Oh Happy Day

Likewise, only about the first 90 seconds of this song sound (to me at least) similar to My Sweet Lord. There seem to be two chord progressions going on here:

Eb-Fm
Ab-Gm

Ok, so you don't need a PhD in Music to realize that the chord progressions are different among all three songs. Before we move on to melody, let's exhaust the only other reason I can think of as to why the bright folks at Bright Tunes might have decided that George subconsciously plagiarized the chords from He's So Fine: the interval between the main two chords used.

As you probably can tell, in all three songs, there are basically two chords being used in each musical phrase (in other words, there are two chords being used when the artists sing the lyrics "He's So Fine," "Oh Happy Day," and "My Sweet Lord"). The interval between the chords just means the number of notes between the root note (ex: Eb in an Eb chord, G in a G minor chord, etc) of one chord and the root note of the other. I'm not going to bore you with the details, but trust me: the intervals are not the same between He's So Fine and My Sweet Lord.

So what about the melodies? Let's just look at the most similar parts:

My Sweet Lord

The notes George is singing when he sings "My sweet lord, oh my lord, etc" are: B, Ab, F#

He's So Fine

D-G-E

Oh Happy Day

The melody in Oh Happy Day is obviously not similar to that of My Sweet Lord.

So what about the melodies of My Sweet Lord and He's So Fine? Yes, both are three notes long, but the intervals aren't the same, so they really aren't similar enough to merit a lawsuit.

My conclusion (although based on a non-professional analysis of these songs) is that the similarities are not significant enough to merit a lawsuit. So why did one occur? Besides greed on the part of Bright Tunes (The Chiffons even had the nerve to record a cover of My Sweet Lord shortly after the lawsuit was filed), I think it's because both songs are based largely on a two-chord progression and a three-note melody. Does that justify a 20+ year lawsuit and $587,000 (plus thousands more in legal fees)? I think not.

But at least we got this catchy tune and hilarious video from George out of it: This Song



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

would the beatles have existed if john's mother hadn't died?


In the emotional life of John Lennon, Julia (his mother) played perhaps the largest role. This is ironic, of course, considering that Julia died when John was 17 years old. The circumstances surrounding her handing over 5-year-old John to her sister Mimi are quite controversial and, though it's pretty much established that Julia was eccentric and perhaps irresponsible, we will likely never know for sure why Mimi reported Julia and her husband Alf to Liverpool's Social Services, prompting them to grant Mimi custody of John.

In this post, I'm not going to attempt to explain the circumstances of John's upbringing. Instead, I'm going to propose that, from the point of view of fate, Julia's abandoning of John and, in particular, her untimely death, were events, without which John Lennon would not have been nearly the brilliant artist he was.

Ian McDonald wrote in his biography of John that Julia was perhaps his greatest muse. Indeed, some of his most wrenchingly beautiful songs (Mother, Julia, etc.) are written explicitly about her. However, it's entirely possible that, had Julia not abandoned John, leaving him in the hands of the well-meaning, but strict Mimi, John would not have experienced the emotional trauma that sparked the rebellious spirit that found an outlet in the formation of a rock band.

But let's say John was caught up in the rock n roll craze of the 1950s anyway, so he started the Quarrymen while living with Julia. Had Julia not died when John was so young, he might not have formed quite the close bond he did with Paul, whose mother died from breast cancer when he was a teenager. Sure, the boys undoubtedly bonded over their songwriting talents and ambition to make it as a band, but the opportunity to actually show the pain they felt over losing their mothers (a pain male Scousers of that time could undoubtedly not show in public) was absolutely a significant means by which they became closer. Take a look at this line in the song Paul wrote to John after John was killed: "Remember the night we cried, when there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside." And this one from Lennon's "My Mummy's Dead": "I can't explain/so much pain/I could never show it/My mummy's dead."

There's obviously no doubt that John--and Paul, for that matter--were born with the creative potential to form the Beatles. However, had it not been for Julia's abandonment of John, and both boys' mothers' untimely deaths, there is a good chance that the Beatles would have been little more than a solid, local rock n roll group. Or they might not have existed at all.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

song analysis: isn't it a pity


I'm trying out a new feature for this post: song analysis. Realizing that not everyone has the musical theory background to understand chord analysis and all that, I'm going to try to keep it relatively non-technical and explain clearly the technical terms I do use. Hopefully everything is clear, and I get my point across!

Before I analyze "Isn't It A Pity," I want to say one more thing: when I make statements about this song--or any other--I'm not implying that I think the songwriter intended to one thing or another with a chord or a lyric. I'm only making an argument about how I interpret the song.

My main purpose in this analysis (which, by the way, is of the longer version of Isn't it a Pity) is to point out what I see as an interesting relationship between chords and lyrics. The chord progression George chose served, I think, to highlight the lyrics, lending the chords some role in emphasizing the message conveyed by the lyrics.

To lend support to my argument, let's look at the lyrics and chords together. We only need to look at one verse, since the chord progression is the same for all the verses, and the chords line up with similar lyrics in all the verses.

Here's the first verse. The chords change with the words they're next to. So you start on a G, and then change to the C#m7b5/G when you sing "pity."


(G)Isn't it a (C#m7b5/G)pity


(Cmaj7/G)Now, isn't it a (G)shame


How we break each others (Gdim7)hearts


And (C6/G)cause each other (G)pain


How we take each others (A7)love


(C)Without thinking anymore(G)


Forgetting to give (Gdim7)back


(C6/G)Isn't it a (G)pity

Examining the chord progression in this verse, you'll see that it's based on four progressions:

G-C#m7b5/G-Cmaj7/G-G

G-Gdim7C6/G-G

G-A7-C-G

G-Gdim7-C6/G-G

You don't need to understand what those symbols really mean to understand my argument about how they work with the lyrics. If you listen to the song while looking at the chords and lyrics I posted, you can hear (I hope) when the chords change.

As you're listening, hopefully you can hear how at the beginning (when he's on a G chord) there's something of an open, happy feeling. Then, when he switches to the C#m7b5/G on the word "pity," things take a turn for the melancholy. To me, the chord sounds not only sad, but closed, if that makes any sense. We then hear him switch to a Cmaj7/G on the word "now." I think of that chord as something of a transition back to the G, which he returns to on the word "pain."

In each of the four progressions in this verse, I think the chords play a similar role. So in the second progression, Gdim7 is the chord that takes us from happy to sad, and C6/G transitions us back home to G. In the third progression, A7 changes the mood and C transitions us back to G. The fourth progression is actually just a repeat of the second progression.

So what does this have to do with my argument about the lyrics? Well, look at the words he's singing when he hits those melancholy chords: pity, heart, love, and back. The song is obviously about how terrible it is that people lack compassion. So those words are some of the most important parts of his tragic message. Using melancholy chords that close us in from the happy world of the G chord helps accentuate his message, emphasizing the importance of the words pity, heart, love, and back.

Hopefully I got my point across! If you don't know chord theory, don't worry! Just listen to the song with the chords and lyrics in front of you, and hopefully you'll be able to hear how the chords change the atmosphere of the song.

As always, let me know what you think, especially if you disagree!

Friday, August 12, 2011

what performing in Hamburg nightclubs and Polythene Pam have in common


In the last post, I talked about how the creative arrangements in the tracks on the Live at the BBC album foreshadow the Beatles's brilliant songwriting, making the strength of their discography a little less surprising. In this post, I'll add further support to that argument by suggesting that the breadth and depth of their Hamburg set list foreshadows their affinity for novelty songs and genre-expanding musical ideas in general.

I'm using the set list from the band's December 1962 performances at the Star Club in Hamburg as the basis for this analysis, since no one knows for sure which songs the boys played throughout their residencies in Hamburg. We do know that the number of songs in their toolbox was quite high, though; they've been called a living, breathing jukebox.

Anyway, I want to highlight a few songs from their 1962 set list. I'm going to argue that the stylistic breadth of these tracks foreshadows the stylistic breadth of the group's original compositions. In addition, the inclusion of covers of obscure songs shows the band's courage in highlight songs they thought were high-quality, even if the tracks weren't popular. This independence of opinion and stylistic breadth foreshadow the group's eventual role in expanding the universe of pop music beyond the boundaries most people had placed on it.

Here are the tracks I'm using to support the above claims. As you'll see, the list includes both well-known rock n roll and rockabilly songs, and relatively obscure tracks that the boys decided were actually high quality:

Nothin Shakin (classic straight rock n roll; relatively minor hit in 1958 - #64, Eddie Fontaine)

Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby (obviously classic rockabilly, originally recorded by Carl Perkins)

Till There Was You (shows competence in arranging a ballad; a hit from a musical in the set list of a rock group was pretty unusual at the time ...)

Roll Over Beethoven (obviously classic rock n roll, recorded by Chuck Berry)

Hippy Hippy Shake (hit in England, but after the Beatles performed it … released in 1959 by Chad Romero, and a hit in Australia; so it was pretty much unknown in '62 in England)

Besame Mucho (hints of a novelty song, at least for a rock group; hit during WWII)

A Taste of Honey (ballad/novelty; released only in September 1962 … doesn’t seem to have been a big hit)

Your Feet’s Too Big (hints of a novelty song; 1935 jazz hit)

Mr. Moonlight (shows vocal competency and ballad arranging once again; B-side of a minor single “Dr. Feelgood”)

Red Sails in the Sunset (rock n roll reinterpretation of an old standard popularized by Bing Crosby)

When I’m 64 (clearly shows ballad writing competence; written by Paul)

Let's compare the above set list excerpt with the standard set list of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, the second most successful rock group from Liverpool. This is the complete set list the group typically used in 1963 and 1964:

* "Brand New Cadillac" typical 12-bar blues
* "Roll Over Beethoven" classic rock n roll
* "I'll Be Your Hero" Taylor & the Playboys; rockabilly/rock n roll
* "Beautiful Dreamer" standard, but covered by Roy Orbison in 1963
* "Since You Broke My Heart" The Everly Brothers
* "America" Leonard Bernstein (from West Side Story … interesting)
* "Danny" Marty Wilde; slow rock n roll; almost like a slow Elvis song
* "Green Onions" popular 12-bar blues
* "Down The Line" Jerry Lee Lewis; classic rock n roll/rockabilly
* "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" classic rock n roll

As you can see, with the exception of "America," Rory Storm and the Hurricanes stuck to what was safe: covers of straight blues, rock n roll, and rockabilly.

So there you have it! People talk all the time about how the Beatles transformed themselves, but hopefully I've helped convince you that their career really reflects the development of musical sensibilities and courage that was there from the start.

The last thing I want to say is this: people make a big deal out of the fact that the boys took drugs (mostly pot and then LSD). They try to argue that the shift from A Hard Day's Night to Revolver to Sgt Pepper's is wholly due to the influence of drugs. I hope that this post, and the one on Live at the BBC, convinces you that, while some of the substance of the post-Help! tracks was influenced by drugs, the very fact that the group expanded beyond A Hard Day's Night and Help! was simply because their musical sensibilities had matured beyond the straight pop music format, not because they discovered weed and LSD.

Finally, I want to thank James D. Jones for providing the musical experience that inspired this post.

As always, let me know what you think of this analysis in the comments section. :)






Monday, August 8, 2011

the best evidence of the Beatles's genius beyond the albums themselves


Looking back at the most recent posts, I realized that they're pretty heavy on the analysis. I don't want this blog to seem like an academic project, so this post is going to be much lighter.

I mostly want to highlight the Beatles's performances on the BBC, which you can find nicely collected on the Live at the BBC album. The album includes performances from 1963 - 1965 and are mostly live in studio, meaning there isn't any overdubbing or other fixing of mistakes and whatnot (not that there are really any mistakes to speak of).

Beyond featuring 56 songs and 13 tracks of dialogue, this album contains a nice preview of the brilliant songwriting to come (and some excellent examples of the brilliant songwriting the group already had under its belt). There are, of course, strong originals like the Everly Brothers-inspired "I'll Be On My Way" and even "Thank You Girl." However, more interestingly, there are creative interpretations of dozens of popular and not-so-popular singles of the time.

Among the more well-known tracks, we've got the boys's take on Chuck Berry's "Carol" and Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got a Hold On Me." Lesser-known gems include Arthur Alexander's "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" and Carl Perkins's "Sure to Fall (In Love With You)".

The high quality of the group's interpretation of these songs, and the fact that they spent the time to both find and creatively arrange them, shows their innate musical sensibilities and their determination to distinguish themselves among the dozens of rote cover bands with one or two passable originals.

So while it's true that the group went through a transformation between the era of A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale and the era of Sgt Pepper's and the White Album, we shouldn't be surprised. If we just examine the highly creative and intuitive covers that appear on this album, we quickly realize that the writing was on the wall.

So for some great songwriting and a rockin' good time, check out Live at the BBC. It's the best evidence we have of the Beatles's musical genius beyond the group's original compositions.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

how the beatles became the first rock band, and then disbanded in 1966



If you've been following this blog from the beginning, you know that one of my objectives is to place boundaries on the Beatles's influence, and thus more accurately assess their legacy.

This post won't diverge from that mission, but it will make some pretty lofty statements about the extent to which the way the band operated presented two wholly novel mechanisms for producing music in a group setting: first, the rock band (which encompasses 1957-1966); and second, the artistic cooperative (which encompasses 1966-1970).

The First Rock Band (1957-1966)

Recently, a documentary was released about the Cavern. In it, one woman who attended 150 Beatles shows at the Cavern noted that the Beatles were a novel act, not only because of their musical intensity, but because they had no obvious lead singer. She's right that, for that time, having no lead singer was quite unique. Most bands followed the formula of "X and the Ys": Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, etc.

The Beatles--for reasons that remain unclear--decided to share vocal responsibilities. Perhaps it was a necessity borne from their affinity for improving upon girl group singles, which involve a lot of 3 and 4 part harmonies, as opposed to just one lead vocalist. Whatever the reason, they became the first group to use that formula.

Additionally, by the time the group started recording in 1962--and increasingly more until they released their first album of all originals in 1964--, the group pushed their own compositions. Up until that time, most artists sang songs written by songwriters in the Hit Factory, or Tin Pan Alley. Certainly, Elvis did not write any of his own music. A producer found what he thought would be a hit appropriate for a given artist, and declared that the artist would record that. George Martin tried to do that for the Beatles with "How Do You Do It," but the group resisted, saying the song wasn't fast enough or rough enough for their tastes.

Indeed, the brand of rock music the Beatles played up until the whirlwind 64/65/66 tours (so in Hamburg and the Cavern) was rougher, dirtier, and grungier than anything else remotely well known at the time. Moreover, it was guitar-oriented, which wasn't a given for rock music at the time.

For these reasons, we can consider the Beatles the first rock band. Pretty insane, right?

The Artistic Cooperative (1966-1970)



Lennon once said, "We stopped being a band when we stopped going to record stores and improving upon our favorite singles."

John's right, I think, except I'd say they stopped being a band when they stopped touring. Not only did the end of touring mean the end of unified performances, but it also meant the end of an all-encompassing group mentality to recording. It's well known that the three main songwriters began to concentrate on their own songs, without regard to whether all four members could appear on the recording. This resulted in some songs that were no longer appropriate for the four-person rock group setup (Tomorrow Never Knows, I Will, Within You Without You, etc.).

Instead, the group concentrated on simply creating whatever musical statement its artistic sensibilities and instincts dictated. They collaborated with one another when it seemed natural and appropriate, but didn't consider collaboration a given. As a result, I think of their setup as more of an artistic cooperative than anything else. Think of a commune, where a group of artists live together and create art under the name of the commune, collaborating sporadically, but not 100% of the time.

I can't think of any other group that operated like that at that time. In fact, I'm having trouble thinking of groups that have operated like that since then. If you think of one, please let me know in the comments.

So there you have it. The Beatles's contribution to the musical world includes two wholly novel systems for producing music.

Monday, August 1, 2011

when a celebrity becomes real


I just returned from my fourth Paul McCartney show, and the third one I went to this summer. I was planning on writing a review of the shows after I had attended all three that I was planning on going to this summer. I am going to write about my experience, but not in the form of a traditional review, which you can read in any number of other places. Instead, I'm going to discuss what happens (at least, what happened to me) when, in the eyes of a fan, a larger-than-life celebrity becomes a real person.

Now, I want to make it clear that I try very hard to not engage in idol worship when it comes to the Beatles. Obviously, I am a pretty huge fan; but I don't play down their character flaws. George seemed wonderful in many, many ways, but he chronically cheated on Pattie. There's no excuse for that. Paul can be an incredibly sweet person, but he can also be arrogant and narcissistic. I could go on, but you get the point.

Regardless of my willingness to point out the boys' flaws, however, it's tough to not think of them as something other than real people. The Beatles phenomenon has been hyperbolized (yeah, I made up that word ... it seemed appropriate) to such a degree, that it's tough to not think of the members as almost demi-gods. Or if not demi-gods, at least part of some other subset of humanity. Just another Joe Schmoe couldn't have come up with A Day in the Life or Strawberry Fields Forever, right?

I guess I had unconsciously bought into the idea that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were/are somehow different from the rest of us. However, standing 20 rows of seats from Paul this evening--and, thus, seeing him very clearly--made me suddenly realize, on an emotional (as opposed to just intellectual) level that he is just another person.

Now for many people, this might mean that the "magic" is gone. But once I realized that he's just a 69-year-old guy who gets up on stage and plays his music for people, I looked behind me at the 35,000 people singing along and genuinely enjoying themselves. At that moment, I realized that the very fact that Paul--and the rest of the ex-Beatles, and every other successful artist, politician, etc--is just another human being, makes it all that much better.

Paul is no different from the rest of us; he simply has an unusual ability to translate the human experience into music. Indeed, if his experience on this earth were really that different from ours, his music wouldn't resonate with people the way that it does. Paul's humanity, with all its flaws and contradictions--and, indeed, all of the ex-Beatles's humanity--is what ultimately makes their music so appealing to generations of people.

So when we see Paul, who has lost Linda, John, and George in the past 32 years, get up on stage and continue to pour his heart and soul into singing songs with timeless, universal messages (Let it Be, Hey Jude, and Yesterday are cliched, but useful examples), we really see one of us. We might think we're seeing someone larger-than-life; we might react that way, too. But, in reality, the emotions we feel when we see an honest artist like Paul perform come from the fact that we see ourselves--or at least part of ourselves--reflected in him, through his music.

So why have so many generations of people been moved by his music, and the music of the other ex-Beatles? Because it drips with humanity's flaws and universal experiences, and expresses those flaws and experiences better than most every other musical attempt to do so. And that, my friends, is my answer to the perennial question of why the Beatles's music has lasted as long as it has.

The music of the Beatles, and that of the members' solo careers, thus represents what artists should be creating: honest expressions of their experiences, which likely resonate with others, who thus find the artists' expressions personally cathartic. The ancient Greeks spoke of how true art should result in catharsis, which means psychological relief through the expression of strong emotions. Thus, according to the ancient Greek definition of art, the Beatles as a group, and the individual members, were true artists.

Let me end with a story and a quote. I shared a cab with a woman who said she's had a crush on Paul since she was eight years old, in 1964. She said to me, "I'm still a fan, and I feel like I have an unspoken bond with Paul, because he and I lost our significant others around the same time. So when he sings 'Maybe I'm Amazed' for Linda, I think about my husband."

And, finally, a quote from John: "We were four guys. I said to Paul 'do you want to join me band?' you know? And then George joined, and then Ringo joined. We were just a band who made it very, very big, that's all." John might have said that to play down their impact, but for me, being "just a band" makes all the difference.

Lastly, I think this George picture is appropriate because he seems very vulnerable and real in it.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (the grand conclusion, part 2)




Welcome to part 2 of the hit anatomy project's conclusion! As I mentioned in part 1 of the conclusion, part 2 will involve an analysis of the post-Help! singles. Since there's no way of definitively knowing which album-only tracks are "hits" (i.e. are the most popular), we can only define "hits" as the tracks released as singles in the UK. We can, of course, include all the singles, since they all charted quite well.

Here are the songs we're working with. I've grouped them based on the way they were released. The first song in a pair is the A-side track (i.e. the one expected to be the radio hit); the second is the B-side (i.e. the one expected to be less of a hit). In a couple of instances, the group decided that both tracks were strong enough to be considered A-sides. These types of singles were called double A-sides. A star indicates that the track was also included on an album (of course, the album tracks include only those on the official British releases). The peak UK chart position follows each pair:

1965
We Can Work it Out/Day Tripper (#1)

1966
Paperback Writer/Rain (#1)
Yellow Submarine*/Eleanor Rigby* (#1)
Penny Lane*/Strawberry Fields Forever* (double A-side) (#2)

1967
All You Need is Love*/Baby You're a Rich Man* (#1)
Hello Goodbye/I Am the Walrus* (#1)

1968
Lady Madonna/The Inner Light (#1)
Hey Jude/Revolution (double A-side) (#1)
Get Back*/Don't Let Me Down (#1)

1969
The Ballad of John and Yoko/Old Brown Shoe (#1)
Something*/Come Together* (#4)

1970
Let it Be*/You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) (#2)

So how can we categorize these tracks, using the categories we came up with for the album tracks?

Ballads
Let it Be (A-side)
Something (A-side)
Hey Jude (A-side)
All You Need is Love (A-side)

Psychedelic Rock
Come Together (B-side)
I Am the Walrus (B-side)
Strawberry Fields Forever (A-side)

Straight Rock
The Ballad of John and Yoko (A-side)
Old Brown Shoe (B-side)
Get Back (A-side)
Don't Let me Down (B-side)
Revolution (A-side)
Lady Madonna (A-side)
Hello Goodbye (A-side)
Penny Lane (A-side)
Paperback Writer (A-side)
Rain (B-side)
We Can Work it Out (A-side)
Day Tripper (B-side)

Ragas
The Inner Light (B-side)

Rockabilly

Novelty/Parody Songs
You Know My Name (Look up the Number) (B-side)
Baby You're a Rich Man (B-side)
Yellow Submarine (A-side)
Eleanor Rigby (B-side)

So let's look now at the percentage breakdown. For each song category, the percentage of overall post-Help! tracks in that category is in parentheses.

Ballads: 16.67% (22.7)

Psychedelic Rock: 12.5% (10%)

Straight Rock: 50% (41.8%)

Novelty/Parody Songs: 16.67% (20%)

Ragas: 4.17% (1.8%)

Rockabilly: 0% (3.6%)

Looking at the difference between the singles percentage and overall tracks percentage shows us whether the characteristics of the singles is an accurate representation of the characteristics of the band's output during that period. Now, you'd expect straight rock, ballads, and some more palatable psych rock to be overrepresented in the singles, since those are the types of songs traditionally considered "radio-friendly."

In fact, ballads are slightly underrepresented, while ragas are overrepresented (though that only means that 1 of the 2 ragas the band produced in that period was released as a single). However, the most notable--and surprising--thing about these two distributions is how similar they are. This suggests that the band simply released as singles the songs it considered the strongest; not simply the ones that might be the most radio-friendly.

Finally, let's look at which songs the band decided to highlight as A-sides. These are the ones the group expected would be the biggest radio hits.

All the ballads are A-sides.

Only one psych rock is an A-side, and it's usually listed after Penny Lane.

8 out of the 12 straight rock tracks are A-sides.

Only one novelty song (the most radio-friendly one, Yellow Submarine) is an A-side.

The sole raga is a B-side.

This strongly suggests that, though the characteristics of singles is, overall, very similar to the characteristics of the group's overall output, the songs chosen as A-sides were the most traditionally radio-friendly tracks. In this respect, we see the group not taking as much of a risk as we might have expected it to. That doesn't diminish the quality of the A-side tracks, but it does mean that the group tended to choose its most conventionally radio-friendly material to highlight as potential chart-toppers.

In the final hit anatomy post, I'll closely analyze only the A-side singles to determine, at long last, the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (the grand conclusion, part 1)




So after weeks of preparation, I'm sure you've been losing sleep wondering what the anatomy of a post-Help! hit is. Well, here it is, folks! Before anything else, I have to acknowledge two things:

1. Since this is a blog, and not a book, my analysis will necessarily be somewhat superficial. This isn't meant to be exhaustive analysis, but rather just an effort to lend some critical analysis to the Beatles's music, while having fun.

2. (Almost) all of this is highly subjective, so please don't hesitate to disagree with what I write; that's what the comments section is for!

With the disclosures out of the way, let's get to the hit anatomy. First (in this post), I'll analyze the trends in song categorization.

In the next post, I'll analyze the commonalities among the songs released as singles (the "hits").

In the third and final hit anatomy post, I'll consider both the singles and the categorization (aka the hits, and the context in which they were presented in the albums, at least with regard to the singles that were also included on albums) in order to figure out the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Part 1: Song Categorization Trends

As the previous hit anatomy post (hopefully) made clear, the post-Help! albums differed greatly in terms of the diversity of categories represented by the tracks. However, there is--overall--less diversity than one might have expected, based on the group's reputation for diversity. Let's look at the percentage of total post-Help! album tracks represented by each category:

Straight Rock: 46 (41.8%)
Ballads: 25 (22.7%)
Novelty/Parody Songs (by far, the category with the most internal diversity): 22 (20%)
Psychedelic Rock: 11 (10%)
Rockabilly Rock: 4 (3.6%)
Ragas: 2 (1.8%)

So out of the 110 post-Help! album tracks, 68.1% of the tracks fell in traditional categories you'd expect a '60s rock group to inhabit: ballads, straight rock, and rockabilly rock. As much as the Beatles are credited for contributing to psychedelic rock, only 10% of their songs qualify (in my subjective evaluation) as psychedelic rock. Of course, it's important to look at when we see particular categories represented more and less. This takes us to album-by-album analysis.

Looking back at the graphs from the previous anatomy post, it's clear that, in Rubber Soul, we see a marked improvement in songwriting and the beginnings of innovation, but squarely within the traditional rock group universe. None of the tracks are anything but ballads, straight rock, or rockabilly.

In Revolver, we see the group break out; however, only one song qualifies psychedelic rock, novelty/parody, and raga. In total, these songs number fewer than the ballads and straight rock tracks.

Perhaps the most interesting trend comes when we look at Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour. Sgt. Pepper's is held up as a paragon of psychedelic rock; however, 7 out of 12 tracks are straight rock! I only found 1 psychedelic track (Mr. Kite) and one novelty track (Day in the Life). Magical Mystery Tour, on the other hand, is comprised of 45.5% straight rock, and 54.5% psychedelic rock.

Based on this breakdown, and the fact that MMT includes Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus--Lennon's psychedelic masterpieces--I'd like to argue that MMT shouldn't be considered the ugly duckling of Beatles studio albums (as I think it sometimes is considered). While Sgt. Pepper's is overall a stronger album, it doesn't have a monopoly on the group's contribution to psychedelic rock. If anything, MMT is the group's purest attempt at psychedelia, while Sgt. Pepper's is more an exercise in pushing the rock format to its limits, without delving too explicitly into psychedelia. (I'd like to note here that I'm working purely off of the music; the boys were obviously inspired by LSD and other psychedelic experiences during the writing of both Sgt. Pepper's and MMT).

With the White Album and Abbey Road (setting Let it Be to the side for a second) we see the group turn towards genre experimentation and, thus, a predominance of novelty/parody songs. Certainly they felt that the straight rock format had been exhausted of its creative potential for them; perhaps they also felt that they had moved past the psychedelic experience of 66/67; genre experimentation must have seemed like a logical next outlet for their creative energies.

As a result, the White Album includes 40% novelty songs, and only 2 psychedelic rock tracks. The remaining tracks are ballads, straight rock, and rockabilly.

In Abbey Road, we see a virtual equality in the presence of novelty tracks, ballads, and straight rock. The remaining track (Come Together) qualifies as psychedelic rock. There is no rockabilly to speak of on the album.

So if we look at Let it Be as an effort to go back to their roots (hence the presence of only ballads and straight rock, with the exception of one novelty track, Maggie Mae, that could also arguably be called straight rock), the trajectory of post-Help! work appears to be as follows:

Expansion of the rock format to the limits of its creativity (Rubber Soul, Revolver)

Melding of straight rock and psychedelic rock (Sgt Pepper's)

An attempt at a "purer" expression of psychedelic rock (Magical Mystery Tour)

A move past the constraints of psychedelic rock, straight rock, ballads, or rockabilly into the world of genre experimentation, where anything goes (White Album, Abbey Road)

As I noted before, Let it Be stands out as an explicit attempt to go back to their roots, so it shouldn't really be included in a trajectory of their musical progression.

Phew, that was a long one! Let me know everything you disagree with. :) George is so tired from that post that he has to just put a tambourine on his head.







Monday, July 25, 2011

Beatle Supporter Spotlight: Jane Asher




While I continue to ponder the anatomy of a post-Help! hit, I'm continuing the Beatle Support Spotlight feature in the mean time.

In this post, I really have one objective: to convince you that Jane Asher (Paul's girlfriend and fiancee, from 1963-68) was awesome. Let me elaborate: she was a strong, self confident, successful woman in a time when those qualities were, unfortunately, relatively unusual in women, especially in women romantically involved with successful musicians.

Jane was born to a well-to-do London family, and became a child actress. She had several roles in films and television, including a stint as a jury member on the popular British TV show Juke Box Jury, where jury members attempt to predict whether a song will be a hit or a miss.

Jane and Paul met when Jane interviewed the group in 1963. Jane was an attractive dating prospect for Paul not only because she was beautiful, but--more importantly--because her family's upper middle class lifestyle was essentially what Paul aspired to. He spent a significant amount of time in their home, enjoying their intellectually stimulating conversations, and learning French from Jane's mother, who provided the French phrases in Michelle.

Jane's awesomeness really comes, though, from the circumstances surrounding their break-up. The couple got engaged in 1967; however, Jane broke off the engagement in 1968, when she returned home to find Paul in bed with Francie Schwartz. Think about that for a minute. In 1968, millions of girls would have put up with much more than cheating in order to call themselves Paul McCartney's fiancee; moreover, the other Beatle wives never said a word about their husbands' infidelity (to this day, Pattie Boyd talks about how she wishes she had confronted George about his infidelity rather than go off with Eric). The fact that Jane broke off her engagement with Paul shows a tremendous amount about her character.

After her relationship with Paul ended, Jane stated that she would refrain from discussing their affairs publicly. Though they broke up 43 years ago, she has maintained that position, and remains the only major Beatles affiliate to not publish her recollections in any form. Apparently, her desire for privacy and respect for decorum trump any prospects of financial profit for Jane Asher.