Monday, 04 August 2008

The following review of WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE:
RECLAIMING THE BEATLES appeared in Rock 'n' Reel
magazine this month....




REPRODUCED WITH THE PERMISSION OF SEAN McGHEE (EDITOR)

Check out their website HERE

WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE is available through this site.
Just click on the red banner above




Monday, 04 August 2008 19:12:58 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [26]  | 
Saturday, 10 May 2008

 DYLAN, THE BEATLES AND A HARD DAY'S NIGHT Part Two

 

   The movie A Hard Day’s Night, despite being made in monochrome on a tiny budget, is decidedly cool, witty and fast moving. It has an ‘improvised’ atmosphere that recalls the contemporary methods of French Nouvelle Vague directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. As such it avoids many of the clichés of framing and narrative that characterise the ‘classical Hollywood’ style, which most British films tend to imitate. It features some use of handheld cameras and sudden ‘jump cuts’ and borrows some of the intimacy of its style from television. The sequences where the group has to escape from hysterical fans are convincingly staged and filmed, in a way that appears to resemble contemporary news footage. The director, American Dick Lester, who was approved by The Beatles mainly because, like George Martin, he had worked with John’s hero Spike Milligan, shot and cut the film to emphasise the zestful, irreverent wit of its stars. The script, by Liverpool playwright Alun Owen, is sharp, biting and subtly funny without ever attempting to raise a cheap laugh or cast The Beatles as ‘comedians’. A Hard Day’s Night is the first successful translation of the irreverent spirit of rock’n’roll roll into the cinematic idiom. Avoiding the pitfalls which had made the movies of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard so excruciatingly corny and conventional, it is constructed as a spoof cinema-verite documentary following the group’s journey to London for, and the preparations for and execution of, a live TV appearance. All the action in the film falls within one day. Along the way the group’s main preoccupation seems to be avoiding the attentions of massed hordes of screaming fans. Rather than attempting to create characters, the group appear as themselves, which creates a cleverly ‘knowing’ effect and allows the film to make sardonic comments on the hysteria of Beatlemania, which it simultaneously parodies and celebrates. The name ‘Beatles’ is never actually used, although it is naturally assumed that the audience knows full well who they are. The use of such smart, knowing, postmodern narrative devices in a ‘pop film’ was virtually unprecedented.

         Owen’s script cleverly catches the style of The Beatles’ own dry repartee, their irreverent attitude to the trappings of fame and their spontaneously witty exchanges with the press. In one rapidly cut sequence, the film features the members of the group responding to various press questions with characteristically Beatle-ish cheek. …How did you find America?… one reporter asks. John, not batting an eyelid, replies …Turn left at Greenland The movie becomes a clever and oblique (if not too serious) commentary on fame itself - a phenomenon which The Beatles, though still near the beginning of their public careers, were already sussed enough to see many of the contradictions of. John, Paul and George are a little stiff in front of camera at times, but the film’s self-mocking style turns this into a positive strength. Most of the time they maintain deadpan expressions, as if the madness that surrounds them doesn’t really impress them at all. They are perhaps most effective when playing ‘straight men’ to Wilfred Brambell (old man Steptoe in the monumental TV comedy Steptoe And Son), who plays Paul’s curmudgeonly Irish grandfather. But it is Ringo, with his natural goofy charm, permanently put-upon expression and slightly loping, almost Chaplinesque gait, who steals the film, particularly in a poignant wordless sequence (backed by an orchestrated version of This Boy) where, having escaped from the treadmill of the group’s rehearsals, he is seen kicking cans about on some waste ground by the Thames.

         The Beatles’ music, with its zestful confidence and joi de vivre, is an ideal counterpart for the fast-moving monochrome sequences that make up the film. This is perhaps best illustrated by a scene which features the group running madly around a field in a kind of manic silent-movie fashion, to no apparent purpose other than to celebrate a temporary freedom from the confines of their professional life. Partly shot from above, it is the most exhilarating and purely cinematic sequence of the movie, and the buoyant, optimistic Can’t Buy Me Love, with its dramatic and effervescent stop-start rhythms, is the perfect accompaniment. The encounter which follows this scene, in which John bumps into a young ‘intellectual’ woman who appears at first to recognise him, provides perhaps the film’s most telling moments. A laconic John denies being ‘him’ (i.e. himself), despite her examining him closely and saying …You look just like him… He claims his ‘eyes are lighter’ and finally the woman is convinced, retorting that …you don’t look like him at all… The scene, with its self-referential, almost Pinteresque dialogue, neatly parodies the pretentiousness of the intellectuals who were already beginning to lionise The Beatles, while slyly reflecting on the absurdities of fame.

            Released shortly after The Beatles made their first historic appearance in the USA, the film demonstrates quite clearly that the group are highly intelligent, self-aware individuals who are not content to be presented in the exploitative way that had previously been the norm for pop stars in the cinematic medium. Even though it appeared at the height of the frenzy of Beatlemania, its showings in cinemas frequently accompanied by the screams of fans, it succeeds in satirising the processes of ‘showbiz’. Although the songs in the film are still rather limited in terms of any lyrical ‘messages’, the film holds out the promise that The Beatles may soon be able to become more forcefully articulate and artistically expressive. This was a promise that, over the next year and a half, would reach fulfilment in ways that, in early 1964, even its stars could barely begin to imagine. The film perfectly freezes the historical moment of Beatlemania, and subtly points to what will succeed it.

      

         The Hard Day’s Night movie had arrived at exactly the right moment for The Beatles, presenting a definitive picture of them on the cusp of their phenomenal explosion of popularity. Their breakthrough in America had produced a staggering, unprecedented level of instant success which no musical artist or artists had ever achieved in such a short time. American promoters were soon rushing to Britain to book the top British ‘beat groups’ for US tours, heralding what became known as ‘The British invasion’. By the end of 1964 Beatlemania had become a worldwide phenomenon. For most of the year they were on tour, not only in ballparks and sports stadiums on a coast-to-coast US tour but also in Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Everywhere they went they were faced with civic receptions, TV cameras and press conferences and the inevitable screaming hordes of fans. Even their arrivals back in Britain from their foreign tours were met by huge crowds. At the Liverpool premiere of A Hard Day’s Night 200,000 people lined the streets to try to get a glimpse of them. But The Beatles were growing up fast. After the most intense and hard working year of their careers, they were already becoming jaded and disillusioned with being ‘pop idols’. Standing on a hotel balcony overlooking the thousands of fans at the Hard Days Night premiere (from which they were expected to dispense suitably condescending waves at their fawning admirers) John suddenly broke ranks and began giving Hitler salutes to the crowd - this in a city which, only two decades before, Hitler’s bombers had devastated in many bombing raids. Being John, the ‘cheekiest Beatle of all’, he somehow escaped any censure for this. The national press just seemed to think he had a weird sense of humour. But John was not stupid. He could see disturbing parallels between the ‘mob hysteria’ of Beatlemania and that of the Nuremberg rallies, and although his natural response to this was merely to ‘take the piss’, already the public were being shown aspects of his darkly cynical intelligence.

         At the same time, the group found themselves caught in a creative dilemma. With their series of ‘ecstatic’ singles they had perfected the ‘hit formula’ which had catapulted them to fame. But while the natural temptation of less creative souls would have been to stick with that formula, they were growing restless. From their first recordings, they had insisted on a high degree of creative freedom and control. And as their victorious tussle with George Martin over releasing only their own material on their singles had demonstrated, this insistence had been completely justified. It was one thing to be bigger than Elvis, but they certainly didn’t want to be Elvis. Their record company, EMI, were loathe to interfere with their work in the studio. After all, placing them with a non-mainstream producer like Martin, who was open to letting them have a great deal of creative freedom, certainly seemed to have worked on the commercial level. Indeed, record companies now began searching for groups who could write their own material. Through their own boldness, The Beatles had already changed the ground rules of the pop music industry. Now they were keen to explore the potential of the recording studio for creating newer sounds. This was not easy, as due to the constant pressure to keep touring they had little time to fit in recording sessions. But with the range of musical textures they had produced on the Hard Day’s Night album, they had already shown how rapidly they could progress in this area. At the same time, despite the perceived need to ‘feed’ their fans with songs they could fantasise over, the group were beginning to find the limitations of the boy-girl formula in lyric writing very constrictive. In mid-1964, John’s first book, In His Own Write - a collection of funny, often macabre little tales and vignettes accompanied by his own distinctive cartoons, which he had been working on since his schoolboy days - was published. It was acclaimed by many critics, who quite accurately identified the highly original way John played with language as being Joycean. John himself was rather bemused by this, as he had been by the attention some classical music critics had paid to his and Paul’s songs. He had never read Joyce, and his main ‘literary’ influences were Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan. But the disparity between John’s highly creative and imaginative use of language in his book and his formulaic lyric writing was fairly glaring. Meanwhile, The Beatles’ encounter with Dylan’s work (and with marijuana) had, as we have seen, pointed them in the direction of  more ‘meaningful’ self-expression. In the Hard Days Night album they had achieved a consistent, varied and constantly exuberant summation of their early style. Over the next year and a half, as they attempted to forge a new, more ‘adult’ approach, the quality of their work was to vary wildly, from the contrived to the inspired.

 

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Please send any comments to me at chris@chrisgregory.org




Saturday, 10 May 2008 16:50:33 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Saturday, 19 April 2008

DYLAN, THE BEATLES AND ‘A HARD DAY’S NIGHT’ PART ONE

 

INTRODUCTION

            The idea that Bob Dylan was a key influence on The Beatles is very well-known and accepted one. Dylan is often credited with opening The Beatles’ minds to wider horizons and encouraging them by example to write more personal, meaningful lyrics. Yet most writers have approached this subject in a rather superficial and generalised way. Of course one can hear the influence of Dylan on John Lennon’s style in songs like You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away or Norwegian Wood. But Dylan’s influence worked, I believe, in more profound and complex ways than this. One of the challenges I set myself when writing Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles was to look more analytically at how Dylan’s song writing methods affected The Beatles’ work. One of the more surprising results of this was the discovery that Dylan had an equal if not greater effect on Paul than he did on John. After all, Dylan came to fame as a ‘storyteller’ who invented characters in his songs. The precision and economy Dylan displayed in writing songs such as The Ballad of Hollis Brown or The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is reflected in McCartney’s narrative songs like Eleanor Rigby or For No One. In such songs the story is told in a detached way, allowing the listener to form their own conclusions.

            Although John Lennon was clearly besotted with Dylan for a while, the influence here was more on Lennon’s ‘sound’ than on his actual songwriting technique (although songs like Norwegian Wood tell stories too). From 1964 onwards the main drift of Lennon’s song writing tended towards personal revelation. This can be seen in early songs like I’m A Loser and I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party. By the time The Beatles were folding up, Lennon had reached the point of writing quite specifically about himself (in songs like The Ballad Of John and Yoko). This, of course, is something Dylan hardly ever did.  Even when Dylan wrote an apparently autobiographical song like 1976’s Sara he claimed the woman in the song was ‘the biblical Sara’, not his wife. Dylan never wrote a ‘Ballad of Bob and Sara’!

            The extract here follows on from my fictionalised account of Dylan’s famous meeting with The Beatles (READ HERE) in New York in 1964, and discusses some of the ways in which Dylan influenced The Beatles’ early music. A summary of Who Can Ask For More can be found HERE and the book is available online HERE or by clicking on the banner at the top of the page


FROM 'WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE' CHAPTER TWO

  When a young, earnest-looking Paul is interviewed on the British TV pop show Ready Steady Go in early 1964 he is asked what he thinks he will do when The Beatles have fallen from popularity. Quite straight-facedly he informs interviewer Keith Fordyce, a rather portly and distinctly square-looking dude in a dodgy check suit, that whatever happens he and John will carry on writing songs and that one day they …hope to write a musical, maybe… It’s clear that Paul (no mean purveyor of show tunes himself) is still looking at his career potential in terms of the old, ‘Tin Pan Alley’ type thinking. Despite his great love for and belief in rock and roll as a musical form, the assumption he’s clearly making is that while the life of a ‘pop sensation’ like The Beatles is bound to be short, professional songwriters can hope to have long and successful careers. And there’s no doubt that Paul and John already regarded themselves as adaptable musical craftsmen. As well as their own singles, they’d already written hit songs for Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas, The Fourmost, Cilla Black, Peter and Gordon, The Applejacks, even The Rolling Stones. During 1963-65 it was not uncommon for there to be three or four Lennon-McCartney songs in the top twenty. A song was something that they, as professionals, could turn out in a few minutes if need be. It was a matter of technique as much as talent. After all, pop songs didn’t have to be profound or complicated or anything. And as far as John and Paul were concerned, you didn’t even need to be able to read music to write them. All you had to do was knock about a bit on your guitars, maybe sling a few unusual chord changes in. And you certainly didn’t need to be Shakespeare to write lyrics. You just started off with some typical boy-girl situation. Or maybe some love-triangle type thing like in She Loves You, get a bit of a different slant on it. The kids didn’t want anything too complicated anyway. …The birds in the sky will be sad and lonely/When they know that I’ve lost my one and only… chirps Billy J. Kramer on the rather delightfully innocent Bad To Me, one of four top ten singles John and Paul wrote for their fellow Liverpudlian and Epstein protégée. …So let it rain/What do I care/Deep in your heart I’ll still be there… warbles Cavern coat-check girl Cilla Black in the melodramatic tearjerker Love Of The Loved. All John and Paul had to do, it seemed, was keep on knocking ‘em out.

         As it transpired, however, John and Paul were never to write that ‘musical’ (unless their bizarre ‘psychedelic home movie’ Magical Mystery Tour qualifies as such). When Paul was speaking, rock’n’roll itself was but a small branch of what was still popularly known as ‘showbiz’, an international entertainment industry centred in the US, and in New York and Hollywood in particular, and dedicated as much as possible to ‘wholesome’, bland, unthreatening fare. That was what, it seemed, kept the dollars safely rolling in. Adopting showbiz conventions allowed artists to keep what later became known as the ‘moral majority’ - the mass of religious, conservative middle class America - at bay. ‘Showbiz’ was the behemoth that had sucked The Beatles’ hero Elvis Presley dry of the angry, leather-clad smouldering youthful energy he had once oozed and had turned him into a dumb ‘B’ movie hero, a piece of soggy, undercooked Hollywood meat. The Beatles had already laid a number of concessions at the feet of the beast. The identical suits, the stage bows, the dutiful waving at fans, the appearance in front of the Queen Mum, their apparently happy participation in ‘variety’ stage and TV shows, their ‘cute’ boy-next door personas that those Yanks loved so much, were all signs that they were sailing safely towards a career as ‘all round entertainers’. The showbiz establishment drooled and slavered over them, anxious to incorporate them. Yet, by the epochal year of 1967, a remarkable change had taken place. Rather than cheerfully engaging themselves in fabricating pleasantries, rock musicians were now expected not only to write their own songs but to pour their souls out in poetic expressions of a personalised artistic consciousness or to ‘blow their listeners’ minds’ with new sounds that had surely only been heard before in interstellar space. Where guitars had once been tunefully swung in unison, they were now vibrating with feedback or being ritually incinerated. Rock music had suddenly, unexpectedly, become an art form which, like surrealism in the 1900s or Dadaism in the 1920s, was at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. It had sucked in the influences of modern art, the avant garde, the beat poets, Eastern mystics and gurus, and had rapidly spewed them out again at ear-shattering volume. In this, the decade where the world had almost ended in a conflagration of fire and deadly, invisible rays, rock music had adopted a language of suitably apocalyptic noise. And Tin Pan Alley was on the run.

         Two factors in particular had made this sudden revolution possible. One was the musical collision of the most influential popular songwriter/performers of the ‘60s (and by extension, of the late twentieth century), The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The other was the impact of the new kinds of drugs - all illegal or about to become illegal - that had rapidly spread in popularity during those years, and which were so radically to alter the perceptive mindsets of both the performers and their audiences. The most important of these were marijuana and LSD. Thus the story that when The Beatles first met Bob Dylan he turned them on to marijuana (‘proper’ marijuana, that is, rather than whatever inferior type of ‘shit’ John may have tried before) may appear to be apocryphal. However, although the above account is of course highly embellished, the story is - as the main participants have themselves testified - essentially true. On that day the ‘educated’, bohemian, middle class world of ‘folk’ (which Dylan himself had so dramatically connected to the American literary mainstream) and the commercial, working class world of teenage ‘pop’, which had seemed so far apart from each other, collided dramatically. The moment Dylan passed over that doobie, the cultural revolution of the sixties was kick-started into life. Marijuana’s effects were radically different to those of alcohol and speed, which had been The Beatles’ main indulgences thus far. First of all, it slowed the world down around you. It made everything seem interesting. Weird thoughts like you’d never dreamed of before kept occurring to you, about, say… the meaning of life, or the significance of the colour of your socks... It made you aware of what was going on in bits of your brain you’d never even known were there before, although now and again it might make you just a little paranoid. And it seemed to encourage a kind of ‘lateral thinking’ that in some way rewired your brain circuits and helped you make mental connections you’d never thought possible. Of course, if you were so disposed you could just smoke yourself into oblivion, scramble your brains, blot out everything... But if you used it creatively, it might, as jazz musicians had long known, help to stimulate spontaneous and rich creativity. The Beatles really went for it. For the next few years, they (along with millions of others) were stoned pretty much all of the time

         Within a year or so from this meeting, The Beatles had began exploring drug-influenced, Dylanesque wordplay in songs like You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Day Tripper and Norwegian Wood while Dylan had produced surreal, poetic rock’n’roll records like Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited and Like A Rolling Stone and had shocked the middle class ‘folkie’ audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by appearing backed by a noisy, raucous, rock and roll band. Meanwhile, The Byrds had taken their rock version of Dylan’s poetic ‘mind trip’ Mr. Tambourine Man to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks were all having hits with songs featuring sharp, streetwise social commentary. …Can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me… runs the satirical Stones classic Satisfaction. …Hope I die before I get old!…cries the teenage antihero of The Who’s My Generation. The Beatles and their contemporaries now wanted to be poets and philosophers rather than mere ‘craftsmen’, while Dylan now wanted to be a rock star rather than a folk singer. When he’d first heard I Want To Hold Your Hand Dylan immediately sensed that the energetic, rebellious spirit of the original ’50s rock’n’roll that had so inspired him as a teenager had been dramatically revived. In a way that surprised and shocked many of his bohemian intellectual contemporaries (who generally turned their noses up at ‘pop groups’ like The Beatles, regarding them as mindless teen fodder), he embraced the vitality of The Beatles’ music immediately, professing a great admiration for the chord changes in their songs, their vocal harmonies and the warmth and intimacy of their sound. 

         By the time they met Dylan, The Beatles were already pretty much in awe of him. When they heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), his second album and the one on which his talent as a songwriter really first emerged, they were totally (as they might have expressed it a year or so later) ‘blown away’. His voice was a shock at first. It was jarring, abrasive, harsh - decidedly not nice…you certainly couldn’t just have him playing in the background. You had to either turn him up or switch him off. Some people thought he was a genius, others screamed in horror at that screechy adenoidal racket that came out of his mouth. You took your choice. But it was hard to deny that Dylan wrote amazing poetry, in songs that might be up to ten minutes long. He wrote about racism and war and social injustice and what it was like to be young in a world gone fucking mad …You’ve thrown the worst fear… he sneered …that can ever be hurled/Fear to bring children into the world… How could you top that? What he was writing was light years away from I Want To Hold Your Hand or even Heartbreak Hotel but, as The Beatles stared out the window of that Paris hotel, replaying that LP over and over again, they realised that somehow he was expressing exactly how they felt. But Dylan, at this point, was nothing like them. First of all, he was a folk singer. He didn’t have a band, just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. He didn’t have anyone doing harmonies, or anything like that. His songs were mainly based on ancient folk ballads, and he often avoided choruses, middle-eights and other basic songwriting tools. Yet there was something about his attitude that they could immediately relate to, something very edgy and …rock’n’ roll… 

         A few weeks after their discovery of Dylan in Paris, The Beatles found themselves in Abbey Road studios, recording material for the soundtrack album for their first film. Already, Dylan’s influence can be heard. On the three albums they made between March 1964 and May 1965: A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale and Help!, The Beatles’ sound comes closer and closer to what they had heard on Freewheelin’. They had occasionally used acoustic guitars before on the earlier records but this had usually been on their non-rock’n’roll ‘cabaret turns’ like A Taste of Honey or Till There Was You. Now they begin to experiment with them more and more, using them to create softer sonic textures, so that the words they were singing could seem invested with more sensitivity. Rather than concentrating on finding ways to ‘thrill’ their listeners, as they had done so dramatically and successfully in their stage act and in their early ‘ecstatic’ songs, their songwriting begins to shift towards the expression of ‘authentic’ emotions. Increasingly, John in particular is frequently to be found playing acoustic rather than electric rhythm guitar. In fact, by the time of Help! the use of acoustic guitars has become the norm on most of John and Paul’s original songs. Two of Help!’s most memorable tracks, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Yesterday, dispense with the guitar-bass-drums format completely. On both these songs, The Beatles’ distinctive vocal harmonies, which more than anything else had defined their sound, are also abandoned. The emphasis is now on presenting a truthful and individual voice. They did not (as yet) try to emulate Dylan’s political and generational statements or imitate his complex use of imagery and metaphor in their lyric writing. But what Dylan (and their experience of marijuana) had shown them was that a songwriter should be dedicated to expressing his own inner truths, even if they weren’t really that pleasant or easy to deal with. Over the next few years Dylan’s example was to inspire a whole generation of ‘confessional’ singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Tim Buckley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Taylor, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, David Bowie, Laura Nyro, Melanie and many others; creating in effect an entire genre in which music and literature met. What makes these artists distinctive is not that they sound like Dylan - most of his musical imitators fell by the wayside - but that they sound like themselves. 

  It is worth mentioning here that the early Dylan wrote - in addition to his political and satirical material - what may be called ‘love songs’, although perhaps ‘songs dissecting relationships’ would be a more accurate description. Two examples from his second and third albums are Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and One Too Many Mornings, where he demonstrates eloquently that a ‘love song’ can be emotionally complex enough to go beyond the sense of sentimental or lustful longing that characterises the conventionalised approach to the form. In both cases the narrator is saying goodbye to the love-object in a tone of philosophical resignation. Rather than pleading with the girl, or wallowing self-indulgently in ‘misery’, the protagonists of the songs accept that what two people want out of a relationship may actually be very different. …I gave her my heart…he sings in Don’t Think Twice …but she wanted my soul…In One Too Many Mornings he concedes that …you’re right from your side/And I’m right from mine… The narrator of Don’t Think Twice even accepts that the affair was not really that important to him: …You coulda done better but I don’t mind… His fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in 1964 (in between A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale) was his farewell to political ‘protest’ singing and focused mainly on such ‘relationship’ songs, the most celebrated of which, It Ain’t Me, Babe, is a song of explicit rejection of a lover’s idealisation of him. The song’s refrain …No, No, No…has often been seen as a downbeat answer to The Beatles’ famous cry of  Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!…

         It would, however, take some time for The Beatles’ songwriting style to absorb such a radically different influence. Almost all of their original compositions on their three ‘transitional’ albums are still based on a lyrical formula in which the narrator directly addresses (or, less frequently, reports the details of an assignation with) a female love-object who is never named. However, this approach needs to be seen primarily as a framing device for their songs. Their music always had, from their first recordings, certain qualities which transcended the simplicity of their lyrics. But prior to their encounter with Dylan’s music, they had viewed words largely as functional parts of the musical structures they were creating. In their ‘ecstatic’ songs the ‘innocent’ nature of the lyrics acted, as we have seen in the previous chapter, as a kind of ‘disguise’ for the expressively sexual nature of the performances. Above all, their success was based on the way their songs radiated a sense of joy at being alive. Such an approach was clearly at odds with the kind of cool detachment, political sensibility and wry understanding of the dynamics of relationships that they heard in Dylan’s work. Yet hearing Dylan had shifted the earth’s axis for them. They desperately yearned to be that cool… Elements of Dylanesque objectivity are already hinted at on a number of the songs on A Hard Day’s Night. This is less true of the songs especially written for the film that make up side one of the album, but even these (with their prominent acoustic guitars) are influenced by his ‘sound’.

         I Should Have Known Better, I’m Happy Just To Dance With You and Tell Me Why are three charmingly ‘professional’ songs written for the soundtrack with the teenage audience in mind. All three actually feature as ‘live’ performances in the film. Musically they are all characterised by the great audacity and exuberance The Beatles specialised in, and they fit well with the film’s bright, cheerful tone. I Should Have Known Better carries a faint sense of regret, but chugs along merrily, showcasing a dextrous vocal performance by John, who features on breezy harmonica. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, written by John for George, fits well with George’s naive ‘kid brother’ persona and, like the earlier Do You Want To Know A Secret (from Please Please Me) conveys an appealing, humble innocence. Tell Me Why is supposedly about a lover who has told lies to the singer, but very little regret or remorse is conveyed by the song, to which George and Paul contribute enthusiastically breathless backing vocals. Along with the supposedly sad but actually pretty jovial-sounding I’ll Cry Instead (not featured in the film), these songs make light of the emotional troubles they supposedly recount. There is little of Dylan’s emotional realism here, although the presence of acoustic guitars successfully creates a far more introspective feeling than had been present on the raw With The Beatles album. These songs also work fairly hard at ‘telling a story’ and occasionally attempt some rather Dylanesque self-examination. …I got a chip on my shoulders bigger than my feet… John confesses rather chirpily in I’ll Cry Instead. Even such a simple, direct song as I Should Have Known Better is rather self-deprecatingly honest.

         These cheery rockers are balanced by two harmonically ambitious ballads, John’s If I Fell and Paul’s And I Love Her. Both feature clichéd lyrics, but somehow manage to seem sincere in the emotions they convey. If I Fell begins to hint at a ‘confessional’ style, with John and Paul’s harmonies on …I couldn’t stand the pain…being highly affecting. And I Love Her demonstrates Paul’s innate talent for composing very beautiful original melodies, even if the lyrics are rather jarringly twee. There is some attempt at natural imagery …Bright are the stars that shine/Dark is the sky… and the song has a certain unspoken regretful tone, even if Paul takes refuge in clichés about love that will ‘never die’. Similarly, John’s ‘revelation’ in If I Fell that he has discovered that love is about more than …just holding hands… while suggesting some emotional progression from the simplicities of I Want To Hold Your Hand, is hardly original or profound. Yet both songs represent attempts to take a more emotionally realistic stance, and both are led by acoustic guitars, with And I Love Her featuring a particularly attractive ‘Spanish’ flavoured acoustic melody. Even these ‘sad’ songs radiate a kind of sunny, youthful optimism, a bright, dizzy engagement with the world. The dynamic Any Time At All, which opens Side Two, is perhaps their most open and generous song, suggesting that The Beatles’ music is a kind of panacea, a way of cheering yourself up you can tune into any time you want. The two singles that open and close Side One, A Hard Day’s Night and Can’t Buy Me Love, frame this perspective eloquently; the first through its blunt sexuality and the second through its irrepressible exuberance.

         The A Hard Day’s Night album is far more than a mere soundtrack to the movie. Like the film, it presents the group at the height of their youthful self-confidence, at a moment when the pressures of fame have yet to become overbearing. It is the last Beatles album in which the zesty bravado that had fuelled their rise to fame remains a real motivating force. Never again would The Beatles sound so ‘up’. The album drives relentlessly through a number of moods, some more convincing than others, but it has an admirable unity of purpose. Already the coyness of much of With The Beatles and Please Please Me is gone, replaced by a remarkable degree of musical self-assurance. The group, now working smoothly and intuitively with their inspired producer George Martin, is already effectively manipulating recording studio technology to give considerable depth and variety to their material. The groundbreaking use of 12-string acoustic guitars, with their distinctive ‘chiming’ sound was soon to inspire and provide a musical template for The Byrds, the first influential ‘post-Beatles’ rock group to emerge on the US pop scene in late 1964. The Byrds’ style was an amalgam of Dylan-influenced folk music with three-part Beatles style harmonies and a rock beat. In itself it was a blueprint for the whole ‘West Coast sound’ typified by Jefferson Airplane, Love, Grateful Dead, Spirit and Quicksilver Messenger Service, which was to provide the essential soundtrack to the rise of the hippie subculture in California from 1965 onwards. In many ways the Hard Day’s Night album is the triumphant climax of the early Beatles’ style. It captures them in the full flower of their world-shaking optimism. While the lyrics of their songs may still say very little, the untamed spirit of their music is always inspiring.

          On the last four songs on Side Two, however, The Beatles are already showing signs of moving into darker, more emotionally complex territory. Paul’s Things We Said Today, which begins with, and is mainly focused on, a rather haunting acoustic guitar riff, is based, like All My Loving, around the idea of the narrator missing a lover who has to go away. But there is more of a sense of both physical and emotional distance here, with the romantic clichés now being reported at second hand …You say you’ll be mine girl/Till the end of time… The song is much ‘tougher’ than And I Love Her, rising as it does into rhythmic passages which seem to suggest a certain inner turmoil, tension and uncertainty. We get the sense that the singer is reassuring himself that ‘everything will be OK’ while continually looking back to a time of emotional honesty which has passed. Much of this is kept ambiguous, but the song’s shifting tone suggests a more ‘adult’ recognition of the way in which time and circumstances can pull lovers apart. Things We Said Today is the first Beatles song to focus on the passage of time as a theme, and it provides a strong hint of the greater maturity to come. I’ll Be Back, the closing number on the album, is another ‘confessional’ acoustic-led duet between John and Paul in which the narrator suggests that the emotional games he has been playing with his lover have backfired, leaving him rueful but powerless to change things. …This time… he tries to reassure her …I will try to show that I’m/not trying to pretend…but it’s hard to believe that she’ll fall for his protestations. John’s vocal has a regretful tone, but he sounds (like Dylan in Don’t Think Twice) philosophical, rather than truly sad. His pronunciation of …but I got a big surprise…is delivered with a sudden ‘uplift’ which suggests he understands that he has deserved his comeuppance. Paul’s harmony singing supplies a more consistently regretful tone, which gives the song a challenging emotional resonance.

         The two songs that precede I’ll Be Back are less ‘Dylanesque’, though both also attempt to provide a sense of ‘distance’ in their narrative. John adopts a particular type of rather arrogant narrative voice, attempting to apply the sense of moral ambiguity which characterised Money on the previous album to his own songs. Here The Beatles once again show their awareness of contemporary American rhythm and blues and soul music. Both When I Get Home and You Can’t Do That are heavily influenced by the tough contemporary soul sound then being developed by the Stax record label’s house ‘session band’ Booker T. and The MG’s. When I Get Home has a pronounced staccato rhythm which is very appropriate for the ‘macho’ tone of boastfulness that its narrator adopts. You Can’t Do That is a little slower and more lugubrious in its tone, but both songs feature fearsomely committed vocals by John. When I Get Home begins with a lustful cry of …Whoooho-hi!…and seems, at first, to have a similar theme to A Hard Day’s Night, with the singer beginning by boasting of what will happen when he gets home to his ‘baby’. Again we are clearly in adult territory here, as the lovers are obviously married or cohabiting. But after another lustful cry leads us into the second verse, it now seems that the singer is having an affair with another girl, who he is seeking to dismiss rather cruelly …I got no time for trivialities… John sings, pronouncing the last word rather dismissively, and with some considerable relish. Later he declares that  …I got no business being here with you/this way… In the somewhat bizarre middle-eight he declares that when he gets home to his ‘baby’ he will …love her till the cows come home…an odd if certainly striking use of a cliché which is anything but romantic. The narrator of the song is clearly pretty mixed up. Certainly not a guy you would trust… In You Can’t Do That the singer is even crueller, threatening to dump his girlfriend for merely talking to another guy. He goes onto to boast of how jealous his friends were when he ‘won her love’ but seems more concerned about being publicly embarrassed by her supposed transgression than any feelings he might have for her. His only excuse is that he ‘can’t help’ such feelings. Again, the narrator is profoundly unsympathetic… a horrible chauvinist dickhead, no less…

         In such songs John is actually pursuing a technique that owes little to Dylan, who was never one for self-parodic macho boastfulness, but is playing to his own strengths by presenting himself as emotionally invulnerable and intolerant. To some extent he is imitating contemporary black male American soul singers who, like the rap artists of today, conspicuously trade in ‘over the top’ boasting. As with Money John makes himself appears so unsympathetic that we begin to wonder what he is really getting at. In such songs John is satirising himself, a supposedly happily married man who, by his own admission in later years, had numerous sexual liaisons whilst on the group’s tours. Here he adopts the tone of what literary critics would call an ‘unreliable narrator’, providing us with a ‘story’ that we need to read through. It seems clear that he is now finding the brisk optimism of The Beatles’ ‘hit formula’ rather limiting.


  ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 As usual I welcome any comments on this, either to my email at chris@chrisgregory.org or
in the 'Comments' box below. Thanks to all those who've written in recently. Next up is Dylan Soundtrack Songs Part Two

A summary of Who Can Ask For More can be found HERE and the book is available online HERE or by clicking on the banner at the top of the page

THIS PAGE has all the Who Coud Ask For More summaries and extracts

Check out www.expectingrain.com for up to date news on Dylan (and related artists)

Also interesting Beatles websites THE WALRUS WAS CROW  HERE
and WALRUS GUMBOOT  HERE

Lots of Beatles news at WHAT GOES ON HERE
and Beatles Radio HERE




Saturday, 19 April 2008 12:24:54 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [10]  | 
Tuesday, 04 March 2008

WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE:

RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

An Overview And Guide To The Chapters

 
…When asked by a journalist whether the group intended writing any anti-war songs, John - without a moment’s hesitation - replied tartly that ALL their songs were anti-war songs. These songs articulated both the immense fear that lay just beneath the surface of the supposedly carefree times they were living through and the ecstatic conflagration of sexual hysteria and primal, pagan consciousness that characterised those times; nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the final resonating chord of Sgt. Pepper’s A Day In The Life which fuses orgasm, the annihilation of the ego in the    LSD experience and the ultimate, unspeakable cataclysm of the Bomb itself in one explosive moment…

Who Could Ask For More? is both an in-depth study of The Beatles’ songs and an often oblique commentary on their life and times. Identifying the constant fear of an imminent nuclear holocaust as the spark for the huge social changes of the decade, I have sought to ‘reclaim’ The Beatles from the tendency to position them within a fake ‘sixties nostalgia’ industry. He emphasises that their music represents …the quintessential expression of the sexual, social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s… and that it constitutes …a coherent act of resistance against the paranoid, repressed, ‘uptight’ culture they had grown up in…Combining analysis of their words and music with fictionalised sequences depicting key episodes in their career, the book provides a unique insight into an artistic and cultural phenomenon whose effects still resonate strongly many decades after the group broke up. The extraordinary evolution of their art is discussed in relation to the musical context of their day, with particular emphasis on the influence of 50s rock and roll and 60s soul music.

The book shows how The Beatles hit upon a world-conquering musical ‘formula’ which offered an ecstatic release for the dormant repressed sexuality of the early 60s, how their encounter with Bob Dylan was the catalyst for their swift metamorphosis from ‘teen idols’ to ‘countercultural icons’ and how they reinvented notions of what rock music could achieve in a series of classic albums from Rubber Soul (1965) to Abbey Road (1969). The significance of their encounters with drugs and religion is considered in detail, as is the way they handled both the media and their own huge, unprecedented level of celebrity. There are discussions of their most complex and brilliant songs such as Yesterday, Nowhere Man, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In The Life, I Am The Walrus, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and Hey Jude, demonstrating how they learned to express their newly awakened poetic sensibilties within an astonishingly wide range of musical styles, creating work which expressed with great potency the key social, political and psychological concerns of the day. Even a song as apparently ‘innocent’ as Paul’s When I’m Sixty Four is shown to have a subtle subversive meaning in the context of the commentary on the tragic defects of the ‘straight world’ which forms the main theme of the group’s masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As the author writes, The Beatles’ best music seduces listeners with its sensual qualities and ravishes them with its potent, inexhaustible energy, while challenging them to see the world with new, unblinkered eyes…

 

                       CHAPTER ONE: EVERYTHING THAT YOU WANT

This chapter outlines the influence of the major figures of ‘50s rock’n’roll on The Beatles, including Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. It also explains how The Beatles fused these influences with their love of the harmonic techniques of contemporary soul music to create the ‘ecstatic’ style of their early singles which made them world famous. I’ve also speculated as to exactly why this ‘ecstatic’ style appealed so much to teenage girls, and why The Beatles’ early style so potently symbolises the sexual revolution of the 1960s...

 
                CHAPTER TWO: NO TIME FOR TRIVIALITIES

Here I’ve dealt with The Beatles’ transitional phase in the HARD DAYS’ NIGHT, BEATLES FOR SALE and HELP albums, giving particular attention to how their encounter with Bob Dylan (and those funny cigarettes he passed them!) jumpstarted the group onto a bumpy but often inspirational journey from pop stardom to contemporary artistry. Other inspirations such as the soul music from the Stax label are also discussed. And we hear how YESTERDAY emerged into Paul's dream consciousness as 'Scrambled Eggs'...

                  

                               CHAPTER THREE: JUST A STATE OF MIND

This section includes an in depth look at the seminal RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER albums, discusses the influence of LSD on the group’s collective psyche and explains how George Martin dealt with John’s request to get hundreds of chanting Tibetan monks into the studio. I've examined how the group became increasingly concerned with becoming 'studio artists' concerned with tailoring each song's production and arrangement appropriately. Here we also see the effects of John’s infamous ‘Bigger Than Jesus’ speech, delivered ‘in his own words’…


 
                                     CHAPTER FOUR: NOTHING IS REAL

The focus here is on the group’s meisterwerk SGT. PEPPER and attendant and subsequent single releases like STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER, PENNY LANE and I AM THE WALRUS, which are examined in detail here. I’ve felt for some time that Sgt. Pepper has been critically misunderstood over the last few years. In my view it IS a concept album, focused on the  1960s generation gap. Beneath the bright surfaces of many of its songs lies a dark, scary conceit which stretches towards a kind of humble terror in the overwhelming finale of A DAY IN THE LIFE.Even the apparently harmless ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ harbours subversive undercurrents…

 

                 
                                 CHAPTER FIVE: THE MOVEMENT YOU NEED

From HEY JUDE to THE WHITE ALBUM: The Beatles reinvent themselves yet again as everyband … singing songs and stories of ‘the great comedown’ with amazing virtuosity, from soppy ballads to silly reggae singalongs to screaming death blues to avant-garde dreamscapes. The effects of the group's involvement with the Maharishi and transcendental meditation is also examined, especially with regard to its effect on songs like ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and SEXY SADIE. I've also looked at how many of their songs began to have increasingly autobiographical undercurrents, as tensions within the group began to rise.

 

             CHAPTER SIX: NOTHING YOU CAN DO THAT CAN’T BE DONE

1969…the final burn-out. The Beatles bow out in a storm of guitars, graceful melodies and half-finished recordings. The attempt to get ‘back to basics’ that became the LET IT BE album and the final defiant tour-de-force of ABBEY ROAD are put under the microscope. We end with a ghostly reappearance…

 

 

READ EXTRACTS FROM THE BOOK  HERE

FOLLOW THE LINK AND SCROLL DOWN TO READ:

DYLAN MEETS THE BEATLES

A fictionalised account of The Beatles' first meeting with Bob Dylan in late 1964

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER AND PENNY LANE (PART ONE)

John, Freddie and Julia: childhood torment

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER AND PENNY LANE (PART TWO)

Analysis of these 'autobiographical' songs

HEY JUDE

Was it about John? Or Paul? Or me or you?

 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

MORE EXTRACTS TO COME SOON!!!

PLEASE LEAVE ANY COMMENTS BELOW OR WRITE DIRECTLY TO ME

AT: chris@chrisgregory.org   

 














Tuesday, 04 March 2008 10:50:11 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [20]  | 
Saturday, 27 January 2007

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER/PENNY LANE (PART TWO)

  

Strawberry Fields Forever begins with what sounds like a distorted, distant flute (actually a mellotron) playing an evocative, yearning intro which sets up the melancholic tone of the song. There is a single bass note, and then we hear John’s voice, doctored to sound rather high, emotionally detached, ethereal. The backing is sparse, with George playing delicate slide guitar licks and Ringo providing some deceptively complex drum patterns …Let me take you down… John begins, immediately reassuming the shamanic, invocatory role he had taken on in Tomorrow Never Knows and Rain, inviting the listener into his psychic realm. He introduces us to a place where …nothing is real…. The first verse begins with a simple philosophical statement …Living is easy with eyes closed/Misunderstanding all you see… It sounds at first like he may be making a pronouncement, from the heights of some position of spiritual enlightenment. But John is no preacher. The strange couplet which follows undercuts such pretensions dramatically. …It’s getting hard to be someone…he tells us, the deep sadness and world-weariness in his voice suggesting a crisis of identity. But then he changes the mood again, dismissing any notion of a spiritual struggle as if it is inconsequential …But it all works out/it doesn’t matter much to me… As we have seen, John’s biggest strength as a singer lies is his ability to switch convincingly between different emotions within a few seconds - to convey both great confidence and great insecurity in the same line. Here, after luring us in to believing that this will be a ‘sad song’, he then flatly denies it.

            As soon as this complex, apparently contradictory, feeling is established, the music begins to build into a rich tapestry. As John launches into the second chorus, a wash of cellos comes in, giving his repeated invocation to the listener to join him  more colour and urgency. There is a peal of vibrant notes played by George on a svarmndal, an Indian sitar-like stringed instrument, a suitably strange-sounding intro to the first lines of the second verse, which intensify the narrator’s apparent confusion: …no one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low…. We may imagine that the narrator has climbed a tree in the garden of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and is sitting in it as he sings, in a kind of splendid isolation. He may be asserting that ‘his tree’, or his ‘state of mind’ is so ‘high or low’, so ‘out there’, so extreme in its feelings, that nobody can join him there. In that case the bizarre line that follows…that is you can’t/ you know/ tune in… actually seems to make some sense. John may have invited us on this journey but we he knows that there’s no way we can ‘tune in’ to his state of mind. ...Tune in, turn on, drop out… was Timothy Leary’s famous slogan of ‘psychedelic liberation’. But is John himself ‘tuned in’? It seems certain that no-one can reach him. His image is imprinted in this sacred garden, this landscape of the mind of a gifted but isolated child, who has never quite coped with the trauma of abandonment. But before he can indulge in any kind of despair, there are some more dismissive lines …But it’s all right/That is I think it’s not too bad… With another shrug of his shoulders John wipes his arm on his sleeve, refusing to show his emotions. But the music, rising in intensity into the third chorus, belies this. Now the cellos are joined by a single repeated note played on a trumpet and louder, more insistent drums, suggesting that the singer is on the edge of panic.

            Eventually John descends into confusion, the plethora of instruments building up around him suggesting he’s conducting some kind of weird orchestra in his head. The first line of the final verse….Always no sometimes think it’s me… again shows John prevaricating over what is going on, identifying himself with the lonely boy in the tree but then unsure about whether he ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ is that boy. He confides directly in the listener, sharing his uncertainty: … But you know I know when it’s a dream… There seems to be no solution to this uncertainty: …I think I know I mean a ‘Yes’ but it’s all wrong/that is I think I disagree…he concludes, contradicting himself several times in the same line. So John himself challenges the reality of the image he has created. It’s just a dream. Or is it? Whatever the answer, John cannot escape from the shadow his ‘tree’ has cast. As he mouths these contradictions we hear the discordant sound of snatches of tape run backwards in the background. Then the final ‘Nothing is real’ is accompanied by the full ‘orchestra’ of drums, horns, cellos, and guitars. The title line is repeated, and the cellos, svarmandal, drums and guitar lead us into a fade out, with the drums chugging like a train disappearing into the distance. But the song is not over. A distorted version of its melody suggests a reprise of the main theme, but now the music is being ‘played’ backwards. This coda suggests that the dream John evokes has not gone away, that it will repeat itself in a form which will keep recurring, or which will manifest itself in ‘inverted’ ways. Despite John’s offhanded and increasingly ambiguous reaction to the vision he is sharing with us, we are left with a feeling of distinct unease, an impression that ‘Strawberry Fields’ could easily be the location of a nightmare, a place of terror where we might drown in a maelstrom of our own conflicting thoughts. By inviting us into his dream John locates a ‘Strawberry Fields’ -  a place of spiritual isolation - inside the listener. But rather than ‘playing the guru’, inviting us for a smooth ride as he had done in Tomorrow Never Knows, John here admits to being confused and adrift. Yet the feeling he conveys throughout the song is primarily one of equivocation. Thus the song is ultimately highly ambiguous. It gives us a glimpse of a dark, shimmering and possibly dangerous world. But how we view that world is up to us.

            Ultimately Strawberry Fields Forever makes little specific reference to the Liverpool of John’s childhood. It is almost entirely philosophical song, yet one without certainties. It is a kind of journey without an end in sight. It is tempting; indeed very tempting; to fill in the ‘gaps’ in the song with the wealth of detail we know about John’s childhood. We know he was abandoned, in different ways, by both of his parents and that the Strawberry Field was a local Salvation Army hostel that the young John used to visit and play in the grounds of. To him, it may very well have been a magical place, but there is little suggestion here that the child - if it is a child - in the tree, is particularly happy or full of wonderment. Yet although overall the tone of the music suggests sadness, Strawberry Fields is not really a sad song either. The figure in the tree may well be an isolated and confused little boy, unable to express his deep trauma and personal confusion. But the present day narrator is questioning whether he himself is still that person. The courage and imagination he shows in this song, confronting his fears yet so lightly dismissing them, shows that he is trying to rise above these childhood traumas to remake himself. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is, like Dylan’s Desolation Row, a place beyond normal consciousness where ‘nothing is real’. But John lacks Dylan’s assured intellectual detachment and his grasp of imagery. In this song John invites us on a journey with him, asks us to feel his inner pain, then brushes it away. …I think…he yawns …it’s not too bad… If the song has an ultimate ‘message’ it is that although we may need to confront our ‘inner child’, he or she does not have to imprison us. In the end, Strawberry Fields Forever’s swirling musical textures and lyrical conundrums celebrate spiritual and creative freedom by shrugging off the past and locating the artist, or the individual, in an eternal present. It tells us that, whatever has happened to us in our childhoods, no matter how traumatic, we all have the power to remake ourselves.

 

            Penny Lane is, at least on the surface, a very different kind of creation. Whereas John’s song is abstract and internalised, Paul creates a world of concrete, visible images and rather loveable, eccentric characters. As with Eleanor Rigby or For No One, the images in the song are precise, clearly defined. And while Strawberry Fields consists of a muddy, sometimes confused, wash of sound, Penny Lane is at least as as bright and cheerful-sounding as Good Day Sunshine or All My Loving. Although it is another multi-layered musical construction, using many different instruments, its sound is very ‘clean’, with each instrument clearly delineated. The two songs have often being taken as models of the different musical approaches and viewpoints on life of John and Paul. It’s hard to imagine that this is really the same ‘band’ playing both numbers. Yet both songs come from a similar intent and though one appears clearly to be ‘Paul’s’ and the other to be ‘John’s’ it’s hard to know exactly how much each contributed to the other’s work. And Penny Lane, for all its whimsical cheerfulness, is in many ways as much an ‘inner journey’ as Strawberry Fields. Though it names actual existing features of a real district in Liverpool - there really was a ..shelter in the middle of a roundabout… and a barber’s shop in Penny Lane - Paul uses these elements for a similar exploration of memory. The group of characters he creates, and their setting, are like a brightly coloured cartoon. It is as if we are seeing Paul’s imagined world in garish Technicolor. He remembers his childhood with apparent fondness, but though it may appear to present a rather cosily nostalgic vision, Penny Lane is still a a mental construction in the mind of the narrator, a means of transcending the past and ‘being here now’. In Strawberry Fields ‘nothing is real’ whereas in Penny Lane everything is real. Perhaps a a little ‘too real’.. Ultimately the world he creates is just as much a fantasy as John’s darker vision.

            Like Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane is a kind of ‘mini-symphony’, using many varied musical elements. Paul’s bass is highly prominent while Paul, John and George Martin all feature on keyboards. There are snatches of harmonium, tambourine, bells and a range of percussive devices, all overdubbed by various Beatles to add a series of sound effects to support the song’s narrative. John and George’s backing vocals are used as textural elements in a similar way to Brian Wilson’s treatment of The Beach Boys’ voices on the monumental Pet Sounds (1966), an album which had greatly influenced Paul. A whole group of classical session players feature on flutes, piccolos and oboes. Perhaps the most prominent sound is a jaunty trumpet solo in the middle of the track played by session musician David Mason. All the musical effects are again subject to manipulation, with voices being double-tracked and various musical elements being slowed down or speeded up. Paul’s bright, insistent melody is instantly memorable and despite its rich musical ornamentation Penny Lane remains a song which could be performed in a simpler way and whose appeal is decidely cross-generational.

            The song begins by taking us into a specific location - the barber’s shop - where we focus on a series of ‘haircut’ photos, the phrase …of every head he’s had the pleasure to know…suggesting that the barber knows his customers personally. It seems that the shop is a kind of social centre. Immediately the song generates a nostalgic sense of community which is reinforced by the cheery lines: …and all the people that come and go/stop and say ‘Hello’… The cheerfully plodding bass line, snatches of piano and a little trumpet flourish all support the atmosphere of mild nostalgia. Next we meet the banker who …never wears a mac/in the pouring rain… a snapshot of the stiff-upper lip, repressed middle class professional whom the ‘little children’ laugh at behind his back. We can imagine Paul himself and his mates on the street, taking the mickey out of such a character. …Very strange!…Paul declares, before engaging in a seamless transition into the chorus, telling us that …Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes… The snatches of trumpets used here suggest a brass band, adding to the sepia  ‘Northern-ness’ of the feeling being generated. The image of the …blue suburban skies…underneath which the narrator, revisiting his childhood haunts, sits, further adds to the bright ‘sunniness’ of the scenes.

The sudden transition from chorus to verse, as Paul sings …meanwhile back/in Penny Lane… is like a cinematic ‘jump cut’, suggesting the narrator’s mind being suddenly jolted out of his moment of reverie. The next character we meet is another loveable eccentric, the fireman who keeps a portrait of the Queen in his pocket and appears to spoend his day polishing his ‘machine’ to make it as shiny as possible. We are told he has an ‘hourglass’, a rather bizarre touch giving an image of someone who is proud of being always on time as well as ‘spick and span’. Again the nostalgic, cartoonish world of Paul’s dreamscape is being gently mocked. …It’s a clean machine!…he cries, as a ‘fireman’s bell’ rings, followed by the trumpet solo and washes of harmony vocals. The next chorus provides a variation on the others, taking us from the world of childhood to that of adolescence. …A four of fish and finger pies/in summer…cleverly conflates a ‘fish and chip order’ with a (rather cheeky) suggestion of teenage sexual fumbling. Here is Paul again, as a teenager, down the alley by the chip shop, trying to make out, copping a feel if he is lucky. And if he is really lucky, maybe even a little bit of ‘finger pie’.

The last verse shows us a ‘pretty nurse’ selling ‘poppies from a tray’, another nostalgic image, though this is rather undermined by the lines …though she feels as if she’s in a play/she is anyway… Revisiting his childhood haunts, Paul now experiences his memories through a kind of hallucinatory screen. The characters in his dream are becoming self aware. Finally we are returned to the barber’s shop, where we again see the banker, who is sitting waiting for a haircut, and the fireman, who …rushes in from the pouring rain… The final repeated chorus features a triumphant trumpet flourish before Paul repeats …Penny Lane!… and the track ends with a fadeout of understated feedback. Again we are returned to the present day.

Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever make manifest the light/dark contrast which had been explored throughout Revolver. They also clearly demonstrate, perhaps more than any other two songs, the difference in approach and personality between John and Paul. Yet these songs are clearly companion pieces, deliberately made to complement each other. Written at a historical moment when immediacy was valued above all else, they both filter childhood memories through  an acid-influenced perspective, placing memory in a kind of eternal present. Both songs have a definite feeling of detachment from their subject matter. Both are ‘dreams’ in which present reality and memory mingle almost seamlessly. Behind their extremely different and highly elaborate sonic structures they both articulate the key insight that LSD had given them (and, of course, many others): that childhood wonder is not something that need be surrendered with the coming of adulthood. To those who are ‘turned on’, innocent delight is a feeling that can be perpetually rekindled. The inference is that as we ‘grow up’ we need not lose that magical spark we are all born with, despite whatever pressures the ‘straight world’ places on us. This deeply spiritual insight - making the generation of childlike delight a kind of ‘sacrament’ - will form the basis for the Beatles’ next major work, Sgt. Pepper. And it is at the very heart of the cultural and spiritual ‘revolution’ which defines the era that The Beatles bestrode.

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I'd be grateful for any comments at chris@chrisgregory.org




WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

is now available HERE


 

           

 

 

Saturday, 27 January 2007 01:31:13 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [15]  | 
Friday, 19 January 2007

Extract from WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER/PENNY LANE (PART ONE)

      

      If only Mummy and Daddy would stop SHOUTING…  John stifles the tears that are beginning to well up and counts how many sweeties he has left in his trouser pocket. One humbug, two sherbet lemons, the last bit of rock daddy had bought him yesterday. Everything had been so nice till mummy got here a little while ago and as soon as she got here she’d started SHOUTING… Daddy had taken him up to the top of the Tower in that big  lift and they’d been on the North Pier one day and the South Pier the next and they’d ridden on the trams and made sandcastles and looked at that funny lady with the beard on the Golden Mile and Daddy had taken him to the Pleasure Beach and they’d been on that BIG roundabout and it whirled around and around till John was very nearly sick. Blackpool is lovely but sometimes John still wishes he was at home at Auntie Mimi and Uncle George’s house by the big open fire. Mimi lets him throw sticks in now that he’s a big boy and very careful not to get burned. And Uncle George takes him for walks down by the dairy farm with Snuffles the dog who is a good dog except he sometimes wees on the furniture and Uncle George gets cross with him then but Snuffles will jump up and look sorry till Mimi comes and chases him out of the house and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Fridays Mummy comes round and sometimes she brings some sausages which she says she gets on special rations now that the war is all over and that nasty Mister Hitler got what was coming to him.  

            Daddy’s flat in Blackpool is quite small but if he stands on a chair John can see out of the window from his room and watch the waves coming in by the North Pier. They’d been going to play on the beach today but it had started raining so Daddy had said they had to stay in but later Daddy is going to take him out and buy him some fish and chips and then they’re going to play on the fruit machines. John loves fish and chips but he doesn’t get them very often at Mimi’s house but Daddy says the fish taste better at Blackpool because they catch them in the sea not far from here. John hasn’t seen Daddy in a long time because Daddy always has to go off to sea in one of those big boats like the ones you see down at the Albert Docks. Daddy wasn’t fighting in the war because he had a bad leg so he was in something called the Merchant Navy which was a bit like the real Navy but you didn’t have guns but he told John that one night his ship got bombed by a German aeroplane and they all had to jump out into little dinghies and row ashore. Daddy said it was a bit scary. But Daddy is very brave.  John wishes Daddy and Mummy would stop shouting at each other because he wants to go the pier. There’s this big machine where you roll ha’pennies down into this tray and sometimes if you’re really lucky one of the ha’pennies knocks the others down an you get lots and lots of money, sometimes as much as two shillings and sixpence but he’s almost starting to cry now because if Daddy and Mummy don’t stop shouting then it might be tea time already and too late to go out and have fun and it’s not fair… John doesn’t like it… why can’t they just  STOP IT?

            Even though they’re in the back room, John can hear everything that they’re saying. Of course he doesn’t understand it all but when  they keep raising their voices it makes him shiver gall over and sometimes he thinks he’s going to wee himself. But he doesn’t because he’s brave like Daddy.

            “…I should never have trusted you!” Mummy is shouting. “You turn up out of the blue when I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you for nigh on two years and tell me you want to take John to Blackpool for the day. That was four days ago, and you didn’t even call. We do have a telephone, you know! Mimi was right about you. You’re nothin’ but a bad ‘un. I should never have married you. I was too young and foolish. You with all that fancy talk-”

            “The lad’s better off with me!” Daddy shouts back. “You can’t even look after him yourself. You leave it all to that sour-faced cow of a sister. You’re too busy knocking off that Twitchy-”

            “HOW DARE YOU!” Mummy shouts. “He’s twice the man that you are.”  She sounds a bit out of breath now

            “BLOODY BITCH!” Daddy shouts back. “FUCKING WHORE!” And then there is a noise like fish being chucked onto a slab. Then nothing.

            John can’t hold back any longer. Mummy must be hurt. Mummy must be hurt. He tries to open the door but they’ve locked him in. He starts to bang on the door and he’s crying and crying and crying and a little dribble of  wee is running right down his leg.

            “I didn’t mean that, Julia, love… let me help you up.” Daddy’s voice is gentler now. “You know how much I’ve always loved you.”

            Mummy is sobbing. “Fine way you’ve got of showing it. That’s you all over, ain’t it? You always lash out first and say sorry afterwards. Well, it’s too bloody late for me. We haven’t spent more than two weeks together since we were wed. Now you turn up out of the blue and you think you’ve got the right to look after John.”

            “He’s my son. And you obviously can’t cope-”

            “He’s got a good home. He gets well looked after. Mimi and George, they treat him like their own-”

            “The boy needs to be with his dad. He’s happy with me.”

            “I know you, Fred. You’ll end up treating him like you treated me. I’m taking him home right now. And I never want to see you again. Now unlock that door and let him out.”

            “Tell you what we’ll do,” Daddy’s voice is all soft now, just like it usually is. “we’ll ask him who he wants to stay with.”

            Then John hears the key turning and Daddy’s at the door. “Come on Johnny boy. Don’t cry now.  Mummy and me want to talk to you.” He drops his voice to a whisper and leans right over John. “After that we’ll go to the arcades son, just like I promised.”

            Daddy takes John by the hand and leads him into the back room. Mummy’s sat on the big sofa. She looks a bit funny. Her eyes are all red and her hair’s all over the place. John can tell she’s been crying because the white stuff on her face is all smudged.

            “Now, John,” Daddy places a big hand on John’s shoulder. We just need to ask you something. See, son, we want to know who you want to stay with.”

            John is trying to stob the sobbing coming back. He rubs his fists over his eyes but they’re all wet. He’d been having such a nice time with Daddy and now he’s cross with Mummy for spoiling it all. Mummy doesn’t look nice. She isn’t even looking at him. She’s starting to cry now and he doesn’t like Mummy crying. He waits for her to say something but she doesn’t.

            “Come on then, lad,” Daddy’s hand is warm. “Make your mind up.”

            And John looks up into Daddy’s eyes. Daddy looks so kind. And he has promised so much more fun. It’s hard for John to speak but he says “I’ll…stay with you Daddy..”

            And then Mummy gets up and she comes over and gives him the tightest hug he’s ever had in his life, like she’s going to squash him and he just can’t help it now and soon he’s soaked the whole of the front of that funny coat she’s wearing with his tears. And then she puts him down. She still doesn’t say anything. And then she opens the door, and she’s running down the steps and Daddy is leaning over and saying “Everything will be alright, son… you’ll see…” and for a bit John just stands there shaking and shaking and crying and crying.

            Then he runs. He ducks under Daddy’s arms and he runs out of the door, down the steps onto the street where all the people are and he doesn’t look back. He never never looks back. He just keeps on running and running and there are mothers with babies and old men and trams and horses and cars and people smoking and pushing and the rain is coming down on his head and soaking him but then he sees her funny coat, just ahead of him and she’s about to cross the road, waiting for the lights to change and he screams with all his might at the top of his voice “MUMMY! DON’T GO! MUMMY! DON’T GO!” And then she turns to him and holds out her arms and she holds him and hugs him and tells him she’s never never never NEVER going to let him go.

             

           

            The Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single arrived in the family home in early 1967 dressed in one of those new-fangled ‘picture sleeves’. Those pictures on the front that mum and dad shook their heads at were proof positive to them that the group were definitely ‘going a bit weird’. The four former ‘moptops’ were almost unrecognisable. In fact, they didn’t even look like a pop group any more. Pop groups were supposed to smile for their fans, flashing their immaculate teeth, so the girls would swoon and the boys would want to be as smart and attractive as them. Yet here The Beatles appear to be staring rather vacantly into space. They are dressed in an odd assortment of fancy gear. With their newly-acquired, elaborately trimmed moustaches and sideburns, they look like Edwardian gentlemen who have stumbled into the modern world half dressed, emerging through a time machine in the form of a magical wardrobe where they had randomly put on whatever items of clothing they were missing. Who would want to look like that?

The specially made promo films they had made to publicise the single - which, like We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper and Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine, they insisted was a ‘double A side’ - were equally mystifying. The Strawberry Fields promo features the group in a park in an odd assortment of multicoloured clothes (which keep changing throughout) cavorting around a bizarre-looking keyboard instrument with extended strings connected to a tree. Various close-ups of the individual members of the group, in rather brooding poses, are superimposed over shots of them tinkering with, rather than actually playing, the instrument. Day and night time shots are cut together in an apparently random way. Towards the end, as the music itself becomes more and more dominated by strange backward-sounding noises, the images onscreen keep flashing into negative. Whereas in previous promos the group had still kept up a pretence of playing their instruments and singing, here the whole thing is a rather mad, playful parody of a Beatles ‘performance’. The Penny Lane promo is a little more straightforward, with the group meeting on the street then taking to horseback in a local park. The rest of the film cuts between shots of the Penny Lane area of Liverpool itself and the group, who suddenly arrive, Alice-In-Wonderland style, at a set table with china, candelabras and champagne, in the middle of the park. Full dress flunkies arrive and present them with guitars, after which they overturn the table. It was immediately obvious that The Beatles had changed their image in a big way. Fan loyalty - and the fact that the single actually consisted of two reasonably hummable tunes - took the single (almost) to the top of the charts. It was prevented from reaching Number One by the extended success of the ludicrously named, extravagantly-sideburned crooner Engelbert Humperdinck’s glutinous ballad Release Me; the first Beatles single since Love Me Do not to ‘hit the top spot’.

            The release of the single was an extraordinary piece of daring, demonstrating to the world quite unequivocally that The Beatles were no longer the cute young lads seen in the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! movies. But to much of the general public, what they were trying to project with this new record was extremely obscure, even unintelligible. Word of the ‘flower power’ explosion on the US’ West Coast had yet to hit Britain in a big way. The Beatles had yet to ‘go public’ about their drug use. To most people in Britain, ‘LSD’ was an acronym for ‘pounds, shillings and pence’. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘mums and dads’ regarded these new, hairier, scruffier, dandified Beatles as having gone just a little off their collective rockers. But even to the hippest listeners, the songs - especially Strawberry Fields - were mysterious, even impenetrable. You just had to play that record over and over again… and still you’d be hard pressed to explain what John was on about when he sang …That is you can’t you know tune in/But it’s all right… even if you could make out the exact words he was singing. But in the strange, exotic cultural climate of what was to be an extraordinary year, such wilful obscurity was very soon to be regarded by many as a positive asset.

         The new single made it clear that The Beatles had reinvented themselves. Freed from the constraints of touring, they could now concentrate on creating music which used the full range of possibilities the recording studio could offer. Because they were so overwhelmingly successful, their record company EMI allowed them to have virtually unlimited use of Abbey Road Studios. Each side of the single was the result of nine full days of studio time. With producer George Martin now playing an even more crucial role, they had developed an approach to recording in which tracks were intricately ‘layered’ with different levels of overdubs and ‘peppered’ with sound effects. The sound of the instruments and the singers’ voices was frequently modified and each track turned into a kind of sound collage. The two new songs, like those that were soon to follow, do not deal with the conventional emotions found in most pop music. There is no lust, no longing, no tears… They do not even really ‘tell a story’. They deal with memory, with childhood, yet they are both couched in the present tense. They take us down to a place where past, present and future merge; an uncertain, shifting world. The songs describe particular places and events, but all the real action is inside the narrators’ heads. To listen to these songs is to inhabit them. You feel as if you’re in a play. You are, anyway...

 

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Part Two of this extract can be found above


WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

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Friday, 19 January 2007 08:42:46 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [18]  | 
Wednesday, 22 November 2006

HEY JUDE

This is the second extract from my forthcoming book Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles. This extract features what may well be their finest hour, and explores how it focuses on the relationship between Paul and John

        In 1968 The Beatles, along with the youth culture that they spoke for and symbolised, stood at a crossroads. Though the excessses of the ‘summer of .love’ had faded, the liberationist politics of what became known as the ‘new left’ were now emerging. The ‘hippie movement’ was broadening and diversifying into the ‘counter culture’, a broad social grouping and set of perspectives from which the ecological, feminist, gay liberation and ‘new age’ movements were already beginning to materialize. All of this was a reaction to the apparent insanity of the ‘straight world’ with its militaristic, oppressive culture expressed most symbolically and potently in the ultimate obscenity of the nuclear arms race. Much of this new culture took the form, at this point, of a kind of messianic idealism. It was in this spirit that The Beatles, having lost their manager and ‘guide’ Brian Epstein, now decided to handle their own affairs by setting up their own company, Apple, on which their own records and those of their protegees would be released. The Beatles themselves, along with their closest confidants like their former road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, would be ‘co-directors’ of the company. For a few euphoric months Apple - attempting to become an alternative to the ‘straight’ record companies - opened its doors to every kind of  eccentric performer, and there were grandiose expansionist plans through which The Beatles (who had, sadly, no real grasp of  the ‘realities’ of the business world) thought they would be able to revolutionise the media industry. Eventually, the whole edifice came crashing down like a house of cards, bringing The Beatles with it, but in mid-1968, as their first Apple single Hey Jude was released, they stood on the brink of what appeared to be a brave new world. It was appropriate, then, that the first single on their own label was to climax in a kind of universal mantra, with which the whole world could sing along. Yet ironically Hey Jude, while it expressed with great eloquence a feeling which virtually anyone could identify with, is also a song which (if perhaps unconsciously) gives voice to the tensions which were soon to tear The Beatles, and with them many of the idealistic dreams of the counterculture, apart.

         In many ways Hey Jude is the supreme expression of The Beatles’ art, combining the communicative directness of their early music with the sophistication of their later years. Contained within the song is their entire history as a recording group, their key influences in the fields of soul and rock and roll, and a plethora of complex emotions. Hey Jude is, like their early defining moment She Loves You, an ‘advice song’ from one friend to another. It culminates in an expression of spiritual bliss and solidarity that is profoundly informed by the group’s journey through stardom, drugs and meditation. Like their early singles it is an ‘ecstatic’ song, building up to a great release of emotion that transcends mere words. With a sheer, aching soulfulness it articulates the emotional struggle involved in the process of artistic inspiration itself, while conveying the terrible strain of ‘carrying the world upon their shoulders’ that The Beatles had heroically taken on. Highly significant to its position as a song which ‘sums up’ everything The Beatles represented is the way it stands as both a celebration of, and in some ways a farewell to, the creative relationship which sustained the group, that between John and Paul. In later interviews John spoke rather eloquently and bitterly of his relationship with Paul as being like a ‘marriage’. He was unequivocal that his union with Yoko Ono was responsible for cutting his dependence on this relationship. Hey Jude, whether consciously or not, dramatises the ‘divorce’ between John and Paul, yet it does so without bitterness or remorse. Paul recognises that John was …made to go and get her…, that only through his relationship with Yoko can John’s terrible inner scars be healed. Paul shows himself willing to sacrifice the bond which has elevated his own life to such extraordinary heights. It’s quite a sacrifice. Yet Hey Jude never wallows in misery or self-pity. Although the emotions it presents us with hover on the edge of a great heartbreak, the singer refuses to give in to despair.

          The track begins with an intimate solo …Hey…before the first stabbing note on the piano. Throughout the first verse the piano merely plays this rhythmic accompaniment while Paul’s voice carries the melody. The first lines sum up the message of the song, with the simple internal rhymes bad/sad, heart/start counterposing the repetition of better instead of a rhyme at the end of lines two and four. The second line …take a sad song and make it better…could be said to summarise the entire song. The idea of creating uplifting ‘music’ is the song’s central metaphor, underlined by the later statement that ‘Jude’ is …waiting for someone to perform with… The song itself continually builds around this simple beginning, its strikingly impressive and portentious melody being woven over more and more instruments and voices. Acoustic guitars, strummed by John and George, come in, then sighing vocal …aahs…as Paul sings …the minute you let her under your skin/then you begin to make it better…Yet again the word ‘better’ is repeated, as if it is a kind of key to the song, a magical invocation to lift the spirits. Then the drums kick in, restrained at first, as the melody builds and the emotions being expressed begin to go beyond simple advice.  The lines …any time you feel the pain/Hey Jude/refrain…with their understated staccato pauses, create the impression that the singer is beginning to ‘feel the pain’ himself. The use of the musical term ‘refrain’ has a neat double meaning as the words ‘Hey Jude’ are the actual refrain of the song. The singer pleads with Jude not to …carry the world upon your shoulders… urging him not to …play it cool… and suppress his emotions towards the object of his love. At the end of this verse there is a small pause and the first few …na na na nas… Already the ‘melody of restraint’ that characterises the verses is set against the ecstatic melody that will supersede it.

         In the next verse, another countermelody is set up The singer pleads with Jude not to ‘let him down’, pleading with him to follow the object of his heart’s desire. As he finishes the line …you have found her/now go and get her… the line …let it out and let it in…is slightly superimposed over his words, before it re-emerges in its ‘official’ place before …Hey Jude, begin…at the start of the next verse. It is as if a whole group of melodies are struggling to get out. The line itself mimics the most crucial element of meditative practice, the control of the breath, which is itself the key to expressive singing. Now John and George begin to join in on the lines of the verses, their voices very slightly out of synch with Paul’s, providing another ‘layer of melody’. In the next verse their vocal …aahs… return. As Paul sings the staccato lines  …Don’t you know that it’s just you/Hey Jude/you’ll do… it’s as if something is catching in his throat, but he is determined to deliver the most distinctive line …the movement you need is on your shoulder… The final verse repeats the first one, but now with John and George joining in. Then, on the next …better…the song suddenly ascends into the stratosphere. Paul repeats the word four times. Each time the vocal inflexion is higher and more strangulated, as the …na na na na…melody comes in and takes over. It is as if the singer, having tried reasoned persuasion, has now gone beyond logic and can give vent to pure emotion. As the …na na na nas…build up, over the basic bass, drums and tambourine rhythm, an orchestral backing, with violins, violas, cellos, flutes, clarinets and trumpets, adds to the mix while Paul, his emotions fully unleashed, begins to ‘scat’ over the swaying mantra in the background. As the ever growing chorus wills Jude on to his destiny, Paul cries and squeals …Yeah, Yeah…you know you can make it… repeating lines from the song. Over the last minute the chorus begins slowly to fade, with the singers, the rhythm section, the orchestra and Paul’s frenetic contribution all competing against each other like layer upon layer of melody. Once the song is over it as if these melodies are hanging in the air, still being sung somewhere, as if the singers have merely moved away into the distance out of earshot. Ultimately Hey Jude is a song about the power of music itself, as a means of expression of pure passion and pure will.

   

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WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

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If you have any comments please email me at chris@chrisgregory.org . I'm always glad to hear what people have to say. You'll very probably even get a reply!

        

        

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 22 November 2006 02:12:07 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Monday, 06 November 2006

DYLAN MEETS THE BEATLES

EXTRACT FROM WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE?  RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

The following is an extract from my forthcoming book  Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles. The title is derived from my desire to 'rescue' The Beatles from the cultural institutionalism that at times seems to overwhelm the way we see them in a haze of nostalgia for a so-called 'innocent age'. The book presents a critical overview of The Beatles' music and lyrics and places their work in the cultural context of their times. It's quite surprising that, despite the huge number of publications devoted to the 'Fab Four', only a handful seem to take them in any way seriously. This is a great shame, giving their huge artistic achievement and the massive cultural weight of their influence on modern popular music. I have placed considerable emphasis on the notion of Beatles as 'revolutionaries' and have linked their work to the sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, as well as focusing on the development of their 'spiritual' perceptions. The book takes a unique approach to its subject matter by mixing critical writing with fictionalised sections in which I have taken 'real' or imagined incidents in The Beatles' lives and dramatised them. The following extract is from the beginning of Chaper Two, and is a fictionalised account (based on the testimony of The Beatles themselves in the Anthology TV series) of their first meeting with Bob Dylan. Much of the rest of the chapter goes on to analyse the way in which Dylan influenced The Beatles' songwriting in their 'transitional' phase.

 

             August 28th 1964. The Beatles, Brian Epstein and their road managers, Neil and Mal, sit in a darkened, wood-panelled room in the Hotel Delmonico, New York. The blinds are drawn, even though it’s a cracking hot day outside. A creaky old fan whirs half-heartedly in the corner. They’ve been to a few strange places on this tour, met some pretty weird people, been screamed at by what seems like millions of kids, even had groups of paraplegics wheeled in to see them backstage…  as  if they were supposed to have some kind of healing powers, like they were bloody Jesus and his three disciples or something. But this, George tells himself, has to cap it all. The guy who is ‘entertaining’ them actually looks quite a bit like Bob, with the same curly black hair and reflective shades, which he apparently never takes off. He even says his name is Bob. He doesn’t speak much though, just slouches on a black leather sofa reading a Marvel comic. Every so often he reassures them that Bob himself will see them ‘real soon’.

            “It’s a bit like waiting for an audience with the Pope,” John observes, staring up at the ornate if rather decrepit carvings of cherubs on the ceiling.

            “Didn’t we meet him already?” says Ringo dryly.

            “Wrong country,” George mutters. They’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour now, and they’re getting to feel a little itchy, to say the least. Bob’s not QUITE ready, the other Bob tells them, without looking up from The Incredible Hulk. He keeps offering packs of Marlboro and Camels and suchlike round. From time to time a big, burly guy the other Bob calls Vic comes in, mutters something unintelligible into the other Bob’s ear and wanders out again. Paul stares down absent-mindedly at his fingernails, whistling some knackered old show tune or other, being as annoyingly cheerful as ever. Ringo yawns and absent-mindedly drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. There’s no stopping him. Probably does it in his sleep… John continues to stare up at the ceiling, yawning. He’s unusually quiet and subdued today. Even Eppy, who is squinting at the New York Times, looks a bit nervous, glancing up every so often and then quickly burying his face back in the paper, as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t. George, however, feels quite relaxed. Oddly enough, after all the attention they’ve been getting, he’s actually really quite appreciating being ignored. The truth is, they’re all knackered and rather enjoying a bit of quiet. This tour has been like a mad bloody circus. The previous visit to the States, the first one, had consisted of one or two TV shows and a couple of big gigs in concert halls. This time they’ve been doing the full coast to coast thing, playing ballparks and stadiums, all of which have, by now, started to look pretty much the same. Every night they’ve been cranking out the usual stage act. It’s been impossible, as ever, for them to hear themselves play…

 In between all that various millionaires have been putting them up in their mansions. One goofy rich old couple in Florida had lent Ringo this bloody great big yacht and, having absolutely no idea how to pilot the thing, he’d crashed it into the dock, breaking half of it up. The bloody jerk. Of course, he nearly shat himself, thinking they’d try to sue him, and expecting he’d get hauled over the coals by Brian for being such a dick. But the old folks actually seemed quite pleased. After all, even if the boat was smashed up, they could impress their friends by saying “A Beatle did this”. It was like Ringo had done them a favour. If he’d offered to burn their house down they’d probably have passed him the matches. Bloody yanks, they’re are all a bit cracked… Meanwhile, they’d had to shake hands and make small talk with all these majors and mayoresses in god awful civic receptions across this country, who always declared how proud they were to have them in St. Louis, or Houston or New Orleans or wherever. Paul would witter on to them for ages. Ringo would make those weird jokes of his which they’d never understand. John would put on his patented ‘plastic smile’ , showing all his teeth and confusing them by going into this posh accent and pretending to be a friend of Princess Margaret. “Old Magsie,” he’d chortle, “damned fine old stick, you know. Decent chap.” Sometimes John would claim to be George, and George would say he was Ringo and so on, just to relieve the boredom. The thing that stuck in George’s mind about the mayors and mayoresses was that they all had really shiny teeth, like they’d just auditioned for some toothpaste commercial. He figured there must be plenty of work for dentists over here.

Then of course they’d had to sign their autographs on hundreds of bloody photos of themselves. Eppy would bring a big box of them in every day. “Just a few things for you to sign, boys,” he would announce cheerfully. “Oh, jolly dee,” John would say, taking the piss out of Eppy’s posh accent. Eppy’s so easy to wind up. Especially when John goes off on one. Soon their wrists would be aching and they’d persuade Neil and Mal to take over. Mal would do George and Paul, Neil John and Ringo. They never seemed to mind too much.  George yawns. When he thinks about the whole shebang, it all kind of merges into a blur. American cities all looked alike anyway, with their skyscraper skylines and all that. And one hotel room looked much like any other. Most of the time they just played cards, wrote the odd song, arsed about with guitars and took the piss out of each other. Every so often a party of girls got sent up. That was alright. You could have two, three, even four each if you wanted. You felt like you were doing them a favour somehow. But after a bit you even got bored with that…

This hotel room feels different to most of the places they’ve been, though. It’s kind of magnificent but somehow decrepit at the same time. A bit like Liverpool, really… Over by the door stands, a skinny young guy with long frizzy hair and quick, darting eyes who looks like a Beatnik version of the twitchy murderer in that Hitchcock film, the one with the old lady’s skeleton in the chair. He never says a word, and keeps taking nervous-looking glances into the corridor outside. Could be he’s the lookout, like in one of those old Westerns where some gang of outlaws is about to rob a bank. But maybe George has just watched too many bloody movies…

            Finally the skinny guy makes a thumbs-up sign to the other Bob, who mutters something to Vic, who goes out of the room and then comes back again almost immediately, jerking his head at the other Bob.

              “OK, guys…” the other Bob slurs, “Bob can see you now.”

              Vic opens the side door and they file through dutifully, like a line of schoolboys going for the cane. George tries to suppress the giggles. In the other room the windows are open and there is Bob himself, rocking backwards on a stool by an open window, shrouded in cigarette smoke, staring down at the typewriter on the desk in front of him. At first he doesn’t even raise his head. He’s wearing big thick black glasses, a pair of scruffy jeans and a tee shirt with a faded picture of some Indian chief printed in black and white on the front. George is surprised at how small he is. The bizarre thought enters his head that he should stride across the room, shake him by the hand and say “You’re Bob Dylan. You’re really quite small.”

There are a couple of sofas in the room so they all squeeze onto them. Vic remains standing by the door. Finally Bob moves his finger away from the typewriter, shakes his head  and looks over, as if he’s only just noticed them.

“Hey…”  he drawls, “You guys…ah… sit down…”

            “He sounds just like his records,” George thinks, but doesn’t say. One morning earlier this year, when they’d been playing in Paris, George had put on his favourite disguise - a false beard and glasses which he fancied made him look like Inspector Poirot -  and nipped out to a street market, where he’d picked up a few souvenirs - plastic Eiffel Towers for the folks back home and stuff - and this album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. When he played it, all the guys were completely gobsmacked. For about a month afterwards, they’d listened to nothing else. There were all these amazing songs about World War Three and A Woman Who Was A Child, I’m Told and Ten Thousand Drummers Whose Hands Were A-Bleedin’. They’d never heard anything like it.  John had said it was like hearing Elvis again for the first time. Only cooler, Paul had put in. Ringo had said he liked the songs but that voice was a bit hard to take. But that’s what’s so great about it, John had told him. Forget the words, I just love that sound.

         “Listen…ah…” Bob removes his glasses. He looks rather bleary-eyed, to say the least. “You guys wanna get high?”

Ringo looks at George with a puzzled expression. Mind you, Ringo could look bamboozled by almost anything…

            There’s a few moments of rather awkward silence. Paul breaks the ice. “Well, we are on the tenth floor…”

            “That’s bloody hilarious, Paul,” says John. “You’re so fucking quick on the uptake…”

            Bob doesn’t flinch. It’s as if he hasn’t heard any of this. He fumbles in his pocket and produces a packet of cigarette papers. He pulls one out and slowly starts to fold it, working with one hand only while the other hangs limply by his side.

            John speaks up. “I tried smoking pot a couple of times back in England, Bob. Never did a thing for me.”

            “Don’t suppose you’ve got any rum and coke, Bob?” Ringo enquires hopefully.

            Again, Bob appears not to have heard. He raises his head slowly, still shaping the cigarette paper carefully with his other hand.

“But guys, what about that record you made? The one where you sing ‘I get high… I get high’ ?”

Silence again. They all look puzzled. Then John appears to cotton on. “D’you mean ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand?’ ”

“Sure, man” Bob drawls. “That would be the VERY one.” As he speaks he lengthens his vowel sounds lugubriously. 

“Actually Bob, that goes ‘I can’t hide… I can’t hide…’”

"You're kidding, man..." Bob shakes his head, "I thought..."             

            “Sorry to disappoint you, Bob. We’re strictly rum and coke men.”

            Bob shrugs. “Fucking great record, man.  I dug it, man, really. Fucking outrageous chord changes. You gotta let me know how you pulled them off.”

            John looks surprised. “You liked it? I didn’t think it would be your cup of tea.”

         At this Bob’s face creases into a smile. He begins to giggle, in a surprisingly high-pitched voice. “Hey, not my cup of tea, man… that’s great… really funny…”

         John raises an eyebrow. “And I wasn’t even trying…”

         Bob waves his finger lazily at Vic. “Hey Vic, man, we got any of that Columbian bush left?”

         Vic nods silently. He reaches into one of his trouser pockets and tosses a small plastic bag across the room. Bob catches it lazily in one hand.

        “Listen guys… I don’t know what kinda shit they’re smoking over in England. But you just GOTTA try this stuff…”

         As he rolls the joint one handedly he’s still giggling to himself, tapping his feet, muttering ‘I can’t hide… I can’t hide…’

 

 

                        
          …So half an hour later Paul is nagging Mal for a piece of paper and a pencil, insisting he’s got the answer to the Riddle of The Universe and just HAS to write it down. Ringo has his head in his hands. Tears are streaming down his face. “I’ve got to stop laughing,” he’s telling them all. “It hurts too much…” Bob is rattling on to George and John about how he adores Little Richard and how he was in this high school band called The Golden Chords playing Little Richard numbers when he was fifteen and how he loves rock and roll and not only Leadbelly and Woody and stuff like that and how they really HAVE to read Bound For Glory and On The Road and how Dostoyevsky is really fucking cool man and no he didn’t name himself after that Welsh poet and how he’ll have to shut this window cos this fucking joint is blowing in the wind, man, ha ha ha, and George and John are just cracking up, shaking their heads in disbelief and then the other Bob comes in and tells them they have to keep the window open anyway cos there are cops in the hotel corridors and possession is heavy shit in this city at which Eppy, who hasn’t said a word since they came in the room, looks distinctly worried. But before they know it Paul is rolling on the floor declaring ‘There are seven levels!’ to anyone who might want to hear but nobody can because everyone is talking at once and John is doing his cripple impersonations and drawing his weird cartoons on the hotel walls and George and Bob have their arms round each other supporting each other to stop each other from falling over because John is so goddamned fucking funny and Bob says he really should have his own TV show or do cabaret like Lenny Bruce and Neil is still trying to help Mal find that bloody pencil and even Eppy is cracking up now and of course Ringo is just laughing and laughing and laughing…

 

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Monday, 06 November 2006 23:53:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [18]  | 

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