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:

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:


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


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:





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.