Monday, June 27, 2011

Beatle Affiliate Spotlight: Alf Lennon

I decided to change the name of this feature from "Beatle Supporter Spotlight" to "Beatle Affiliate Spotlight" just this once, since I hesitate to call Alf Lennon, John's father, a Beatle supporter. John certainly wouldn't have considered him a supporter of anything with which he was affiliated. However, without purporting to know the inner workings of the Lennon-Stanley family drama, I'd like to make some effort to clear Alf's name.

The legend of John Lennon's childhood--as it's told in most books and in Anthology, which some consider more mythology than fact--is that Julia and Alf had John by accident and, Julia unable to care for him due to her own emotional and psychological issues and Alf out to sea and thus out of the picture, gave him up to his Aunt Mimi, who cared for him as though he were her own son.

It's true that John was an accident; there's no doubt about that. It's also true that he was raised by Aunt Mimi. However, in the story as it's usually told, Alf is cast as an irresponsible father who simply abandoned John and Julia. Part of the reason for that bias is that John described him as an unequivocally negative force in his life. This is in contrast to how he described Julia, whom he resented for abandoning him, but whom he obviously loved deeply.

While John was obviously present in the situation, it's dangerous to take his account of the situation as the gospel truth, since he is probably the most biased source for information. So let's look at the facts:

Alf worked as a sailor, which meant that he was inevitably gone a lot. Liverpool is a port city and sailors made good money, so it's not reasonable to vilify him for taking a well-paying job, even if it took him far from home.

Aunt Mimi took John in after Alf and Julia fought over him. However, all evidence points to Alf as the one who attempted several times to keep the family together. Julia, on the other hand, had at least two affairs, one of which resulted in another child. Alf appeared willing to turn the other cheek and reunite the family anyway, for John's sake. When Alf and Julia asked John to choose between them--an unequivocally cruel act on both of their parts--and John ran to Julia, only to turn to Alf and ask him to come too, Alf made one last plea to Julia to reconsider tearing the family apart. When that failed, Alf sat and watched as John and Julia left. Who knows why he didn't follow them; perhaps he was frustrated, or perhaps he felt it wouldn't make a difference anyway.

In any case, it appears that, complexity and lack of complete information notwithstanding, Alf has been given an unfairly bad reputation in Beatlelore. It's high time to separate John's emotions from the situation, and look at the facts when evaluating the players in his life.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Happens when George Harrison is left alone with a Moog Synthesizer?

So in an earlier post, I attempted to place a boundary on the Beatles's influence. In this one, I'm going to point out a musical genre the Beatles--or, rather, George Harrison--influenced that you might not know about: avant-garde, highly experimental music.

In 1967, at the famous Monterey Pop Festival, Dr. Robert Moog debuted his synthesizer, appropriately called the Moog synthesizer. At that time, the Moog was a huge, unwieldy sort-of keyboard contraption, but for better or worse, it helped pioneer avant-garde music. The Doors used it in Strange Days, and Simon & Garfunkel used it in Bookends.

But then, in 1969, a certain George Harrison discovered that Abbey Road had a Moog lying around. Without an instruction manual, but with a healthy dose of curiosity and persistence, George taught himself how to turn the thing on (not an easy feat) and create noise from it.

With the help of full-time avant-garde pioneer Bernie Krause and the so-called Siamese Twins, George created two tracks that would become Electronic Sound (1969). One track went on each side of this decidedly non-commercial album that only reached #191 on the US charts, and failed to chart at all in the UK. Although I can't say for sure, I'd be willing to bet that George didn't expect the album to chart, and didn't particularly care that it didn't do so.

Although some deride this album for being non-commercial (the tracks are essentially collections of groans and spurts from the synthesizer without any attempt at traditional structure), others praise it as one of the first serious attempts at avant-garde music.

So there you have it: yet more evidence that trying to put George in the "Quiet Beatle" box is terribly wrong. The guy had the chutzpah to release a completely non-commercial album, and influenced an entire genre, to boot.

And on top of it all, he did his own cover art (yes, that's supposed to be George ... he gets a 10 for his musical courage and a 3 for his ability to accurately depict himself).

Beatle Supporter Spotlight: Allan Williams

First it was Mona Best's turn to be in the spotlight; now it's Allan Williams's turn! When you think about the people who managed the Beatles, you probably think of Brian Epstein first and foremost. If you know a bit more about the group, Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and maybe even Derek Taylor come to mind. But let's not forget the kind Welsh bloke named Allan Williams who acted as the group's very first manager.

Allan owned a bar called the Jacaranda (or the Jac, as the cool kids called it) that was adjacent to both the Liverpool Institute (where George and Paul went to school) and the Art College (where John made trouble and Stu tried to become an artist). The boys asked Allan for the chance to play at the Jac, but he instead employed them as redecorators until they scored (pun intended) a gig backing a stripper there.

At that point, the group did not have a regular drummer (finding someone with a kit was tough in late-50s Liverpool!), but when they obtained a drummer in Pete Best in order to fulfill the German club owners' request for Allan to send a 5-piece band to Hamburg, Allan made the decision that would leave an indelible mark on the group's history. He sent them to Hamburg in the summer of 1960. As you might know, the 12-hour sets the group played in Hamburg are generally cited as the reason why they went from a fairly average band among many in Liverpool to a truly stand-out group of performers.

They brought the energy that they learned to generate in Hamburg back to the Cavern Club in Liverpool. It was that energy and raw youthfulness that led Brian Epstein to see potential in them. As they say, the rest is not only history, but an unprecedented musical output in the subsequent 8 years, not only in quantity, but in quality. And Allan Williams, a short, soft-spoken Welsh bloke who turned a watch-repair shop into a coffee bar, was responsible for starting it all.

You can still visit the Jac today, as it's still a working club! Here it is today:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Anatomy of a Hit

As the most commercially successful group in history, you'd expect there to be more written about exactly what made the Beatles's songs so appealing. Instead, it seems like the analysis is either blindly adoring ("It's the greatest thing since the Sirens sang to Oedipus") or overly academic ("This song is clearly successful because of the Aeolian cadence that Lennon obviously intended to write"). This is my attempt to provide something in the middle.

I've listened carefully to several tracks from what I'm calling the A-list of pre-Help! hits: those fast, infectious tracks that I think really catapulted the group to superstardom. Without inundating you with music theory, I've tried to identify the common elements, in order to provide you with the anatomy of a Beatles hit.

The songs under consideration are I Saw Her Standing There, Please Please Me, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and All My Loving.

Here's the anatomy:
- A driving bass line
- Rhythmic variation in the primary instrumental parts (especially the two guitar parts and the drums; the bass line tends to be rhythmically even in order to unite the other elements) make the songs slightly unpredictable, but very danceable
- Strong endings (no fade outs) that seem to be a climax leave the listener content, but energized
- Infectious, catchy melodies with strong hooks
- Heavy cymbal use and tight harmonies provide a certain intensity and depth that counterbalances the syncopated, sharp guitar riffs

And there you have it! Got anything to add? Leave it as a comment. Later on, I'll (try to) tackle the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Were the Beatles the Nerds of Rock? And what does it mean if they were?

As not only the most famous and successful band in history, but also a group with an almost chameleon-like ability to reinvent itself, it's tempting to cast the Beatles as whatever is convenient in a given situation. Talking about music videos? Point to the videos for Paperback Writer and Rain as evidence that the Beatles invented MTV. Talking about yoga and Eastern philosophy? Point to George's sitar work and Rishikesh as evidence that the Beatles (or George in particular) were responsible for making Eastern spirituality palatable to Westerners. However, among all of this adulation, few ask what the band was not - or rather, what they failed to influence.

So in an effort to place some boundaries on their influence, I'd like to argue that the Beatles were not rock stars, in the Ramones, Kurt Cobain, Pete Townshend--or even Elvis--sense of the word. In other words, they did not rebel--for the most part--in the ways rock stars are supposed to rebel. When the Queen offered them MBEs, they took them (when John returned his, it was a political statement, not an act of pure insubordination). When Brian Epstein told them to wear suits to be successful, they wore them. The Beatles did not smash their guitars (like Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix did) or even get overtly sexual on stage (Mick Jagger, anyone?).

Instead, when the Beatles rebelled, they did so in cerebral ways. They used their tremendous wit to catch reporters off guard (How did you find America? Turn left at Greenland). They used their musical talents to blow apart the rock formula with painstakingly crafted songs, rather than basing their act on stage antics or somewhat juvenile acts of rebellion. In fact, one could argue that when the group confined itself to the studio after mid-1966, it showed its confidence in its ability to develop as a fresh, rebellious act purely on the back of the members' collective mental abilities (aka songwriting talents). This meant that their creative output became limited only by the confines of their imaginations, since they had no persona that they had to uphold, lest they change the foundation of their appeal.

So where does this leave us? I'd say it leaves us to conclude that the Beatles were, in many ways, the nerds of rock (to be importantly contrasted with geeks). As such, they did not influence the personas of rock stars like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (in fact, many punk groups actively distanced themselves from the Beatles). The Beatles rebelled against the same things as virtually every other rocker (the establishment, in its various incarnations), but did so in a fundamentally nerdy, cerebral way. In the context of '60s rock, they were virtually unique in this respect. Thus, the Beatles distinguished themselves among rockers by not really being rockers at all.

To quote A Hard Day's Night: "Do you consider yourselves mods or rockers? Mockers."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Beatle Supporter Spotlight: Mona Best

I believe it's important to recognize the people who made the Beatles who and what they were. In that spirit, once in a while I'll feature someone whose role in shaping the group's career is under-appreciated. The first feature is Mona Best, the mother of Pete Best (the infamous drummer who was kicked out of the group after general misgivings about his abilities came to a head when George Martin refused to record with him).

Mona was born in India, but moved to Liverpool with her sons Pete, Rory, and Roag (allegedly the son of more-famous Beatle supporter, Neil Aspinall). A real firecracker--and all around cool mom--, she opened up the Casbah Coffee Club in her basement as a club for her sons and their friends to hang out in and listen to rock n roll. The Quarrymen (the Beatles before they were the Beatles, of course) regularly played there instead of the Cavern Club, which at that point had a jazz-only policy. The Casbah represents an unusual convergence of interests and collaboration between adults and teenagers in a world in which they were most often adversaries.

The boys who would become the Beatles (and their friends and then-bandmates) left a personal touch on the Casbah. They helped Mona finish painting the walls (you can still see a silhouette of John that Cynthia painted on one of the walls). The Quarrymen had a residency at the Casbah for a while in 1959, which paid them 3 pounds a night total. Though a quarrel ended their residency prematurely, the boys (at that point the Beatles) played the last show ever at the Casbah, in 1962. In the mean time, the membership list for the Club had reached to well over 1,000.

Years later, John borrowed a few of Mona's father's war medals for the cover of Sgt. Pepper's. This is just one example of how the boys stayed in touch with people who had helped him in their early years (Klaus Voorman is another example, but that's a story for another post).

Should the Beatles have become famous?

Everyone (well, nearly everyone) knows a couple of things about the Beatles: they made hormonal girls go crazy with cute, fun pop songs, and then they stopped touring and became the rock equivalent of Willy Wonka: delicious, unbelievable products, manufactured by quasi-hermits (at least in terms of public appearances), emerged from a factory normal people rarely entered (Abbey Road).

Most people also know that one of the reasons the group stopped touring was that touring had become not only incredibly tiring (the 1965 US tour involved 10 cities in 16 days), unrewarding (no one could hear them play, including the members themselves), and dangerous (everyone feared for their lives during the 1966 appearance in Manila), but of a quality unacceptable to the group. In short, their performances were musically terrible. Listen to Paperback Writer at just about any 1966 performance; the harmonies at the beginning (admittedly difficult for any group, much less four people who can't hear one another) are pretty off.

However, many fewer people know that the Beatles had something of a full career before ever signing a proper record deal in 1960. During two stints in Hamburg, the band became a high quality bar band, playing 12-hour sets at clubs on the Reeperbahn, the red-light district of the city. In this way, you could argue that the group went through three identities between the time they started in 1957 and their 1970 breakup: insanely good bar band (1958-1962), hearthrobs with great pop songs (1962-1966), and art rock craftsmen (1966-1970). You can get the full Hamburg story in any proper biography of the group (I'd suggest Bob Spitz's book), so here I want to make a few arguments that I think too few people acknowledge.

Yes, Hamburg was something of an apprenticeship for the group. Before leaving, they were little more than an average group - one of many in Liverpool. When they returned from the first trip--and certainly from the second--they were undoubtedly the strongest group in the city, and perhaps in all of England.

But here's something most people either don't recognize or refuse to recognize: the Beatles's time in Hamburg was the only time they were a band, in any normal sense of the word. Once they signed a record deal, their fame grew so exponentially quickly that their lives quickly became all about screaming girls, prying reporters, and mayor's daughters who just HAD to meet them. As George often said, that's when they started giving up their nervous systems for Beatlemania. Once they stopped touring and relegated themselves solely to the studio, they were obviously anything but a normal group.

So what does it mean that Hamburg was the only time they were a normal group? It means that, in some sense, it was the happiest time for the group. I'm not going to sit here and try to convince you that I have some insight into their psyches; obviously I don't. But George has repeatedly said that they probably would have had a lot more fun--and would have been better musicians--if they had remained a bar/club band. They would have been able to play long sets that forced themselves to constantly improve their musicianship (something they couldn't have done if they tried during their 20-minute shows in '64-'66). They would have had a great time playing all the music they loved (Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Motown covers). The group obviously felt that releasing albums like Sgt Pepper's meant a departure from their origins ... what is Let it Be (the album, not the song) but an attempt to get back to their roots? Finally, of course, as a relatively obscure bar/club band, they would have had the freedom to live normal lives, rather than suffer the psychological toll that comes from being global superstars.

Of course, if the Beatles never became famous, we wouldn't have had albums from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road. But what would we--and they--have gained?