Tag Archives: The Beatles

The People’s Music – Ian MacDonald

Writing about Marcello Carlin’s new blog the other day got me thinking about music writing in general. Here’s a piece about a book I read when I was fresh out of university, 15 years ago.

Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music was published a couple of months before its author’s suicide in August 2003. It’s a collection of articles previously published in Mojo and Uncut in the late nighties and early noughties, after MacDonald’s rep had been re-established by the success of Revolution in the Head, his song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ recorded works.

I admire Revolution in the Head hugely, but trouble brews in certain entries, and especially in the postscript essay, in which MacDonald compares the work of the Beatles to that of contemporary artists, and finds all of it lacking by comparison. He argues that the soul went out of pop music some time in the late sixties, or certainly by the mid-seventies*, and is disparaging and dismissive of the eighties almost totally, and not just in terms of its music.

Awed by his erudition and the breadth of his knowledge, I absorbed his criticism of post-Beatles pop without challenging it as a 20-year-old. Now, I disagree strongly with much of what he says, and (if it’s not to impertinent to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of a man whose depression was all-encompassing to the point that he hanged himself) I feel like his comments probably said as much about his own psychological state as they did about the music he was writing about.

This undercurrent of horror at what he sees in the world around him is not as prevalent in The People’s Music as it is in Revolution in the Head. The industry’s reissue mania began in earnest in the late 1990s**, and MacDonald was an ideal figure to write articles about, or reviews of, these remastered and/or expanded editions of classic records by the Band, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and so on. He loved the records, but not uncritically. He was there at the time, and so was well placed to gauge their importance and influence. And above all he had the analytical chops equal to the task; MacDonald had been assistant editor at the NME in its seventies pomp – the era of figures such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. You couldn’t have gotten that gig in that period if you couldn’t bring it. Crucially, writing about artists from the sixties and seventies allowed MacDonald to write about music that made him happy, which is definitely when he was at his best, and the short word counts kept him concentrated on the music, and didn’t allow him to move sideways into the music’s place in the broader culture. The essays and reviews are consequently sharp and laser focused.

I owe my interest in half a dozen different artists to the reviews and articles in The People’s Music, particularly the pieces on David Bowie’s Station to Station, Laura Nyro’s New York trilogy, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Randy Newman’s debut album. I bought my first records by Laura Nyro and Steely Dan on the same day having devoured those articles, and fell hard for them both. They were every bit as wonderful as MacDonald had made them sound.

That’s the highest goal music writing can achieve, and so The People’s Music  furthered my musical education hugely. I seldom look at MacDonald’s books now (I know them too well, for one thing, but moreover I find the pessimism that hangs over them puts me off a little), but I can’t deny the influence they had.

If you’re not familiar with Ian MacDonald,  I’d recommend The People’s Music over Revolution in the Head (unless you are a big Beatles fan), which is ultimately a downbeat, elegiac book. MacDonald’s magisterial essay on Nick Drake from The People’s Music is at times as despondent about the world as his Beatles postscript, but at other times he’s combative (Minimalism and the Corporate Age), clear-headed about the faults of weak records (Not a Revolution: Jefferson Airplane From Play Power to Power Play) and vigorous in his praise of great music (almost everything else). It’s well worth seeking out.

 

*To give you an idea of the position MacDonald takes in this postscript essay, here’s its concluding paragraph in full:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) – but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s music, which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms – most obviously classical and jazz – confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

** At that time, the reissue of classic records on CD (often in expanded editions) did often serve a useful purpose for the fan and consumer.

The original CD releases of many artists’ catalogues were of very poor sound quality, and were often based on transfers from sources other than the original masters -the industry cutting corners to get product to market as quickly as possible. Consequently they were frequently very quiet and lacking in low end. A tasteful remaster job from the late 1990s or early noughties improves vastly on the 1st-generation CDs, a consequence of improved AD converters and digital mastering software.

That same technology, alas, made possible the loudeness war, and so the only sonic gains that could be made by releasing a remaster of a record from the last 15-20 years would come from backing down the levels to where they were in the first half of the 1990s.

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Howard Goodall’s Beatles programmes

Last week the BBC broadcast a programme about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Howard Goodall.

Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution is well worth watching while it’s still available on iPlayer and catch-up services. Goodall’s a genial screen presence and, a composer by trade, is really good at explaining music theory and recording techniques for a general audience while going deep enough in his analysis at a compositional and technical level to make things interesting for those who already know their modes, their calliopes and their ADT.

Above all else, Goodall’s a fan, and his enthusiasm for the subject is genuine. Television’s so full of fake enthusiasm and feigned excitement that the real thing stands out a mile. At one point, having explained how Strawberry Fields Forever is constructed from two takes of the song, recorded more than a week apart, at different tempos and in different keys, and then how George Martin and his team went about manipulating the two takes in order to be able to edit them together seamlessly, Goodall plays the end result and simply comments, “Awesome”. This is not routine hyperbole of television; you’ve no doubt he means it.

This isn’t the first time Goodall’s taken on The Beatles on TV. In 2004, he made a series for Channel 4 (I think) called 20th Century Greats – an hour each on Lennon & McCartney, Bernard Hermann, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. As in the Pepper programme, he went deep on a handful of songs (I Am the Walrus, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Jealous Guy/Child of Nature) rather than look at dozens only on a surface level. It’s equally good. The series seems to have received a limited release on DVD (I’ve seen it come up on eBay – possibly an American import or something), but it pops up on youtube pretty regularly.

Both programmes are essential viewing for Beatles fans. They don’t contain anything you couldn’t learn by reading Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive accounts of the band’s recording sessions or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, but Goodall’s love for the music is not poisoned, as MacDonald’s was, by the conviction that nothing could ever be this good again. For non-fans, or outright sceptics, Goodall might just get you to hear The Beatles the way he hears them.

 

 

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 4: Fixing a Hole by The Beatles

So Paul McCartney’s a good bassist, huh? Well, thank you, Captain Obvious.

OK, I know picking a McCartney performance isn’t controversial, but this series isn’t called Underrated Bass Players I Have Loved, otherwise you’d have had a series of posts from me about Fred Abong, Jason Moulster and Steve Boone.

The point is, McCartney’s genius in all its forms – singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist, arranger, producer – is taken for granted these days. It’s not just his accomplishments as a songwriter that are simply filed away as something everybody knows about. While a quick Google search for “Paul McCartney’s best bass lines” will pull up dozens of articles about the man, almost all of them concentrate on the most obvious stuff: his work on songs such as Something, Taxman, Hey Bulldog, Come Together and Tomorrow Never Knows. These articles don’t actually help all that much; they don’t encourage us to listen, and just reinforce old news and received opinions.

To get Macca as a bassist, the thing to do is to throw yourself into some Beatles albums, to hear the stylistic breadth his playing covers, and how his playing elevates even The Beatles’ least legendary records.

To illustrate this, I could have picked one of several dozen songs, but let’s look at Fixing a Hole, from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fixing a Hole has a sparse arrangement, in which the two key instruments are harpsichord (played, it would seem, by George Martin) and bass guitar: there is no rhythm guitar, as John Lennon plays maracas on the recording.

Around this time in The Beatles’ career, McCartney had taken to recording his bass guitar last, on its own track. This allowed him to size up the rest of the arrangement (which had begun to be arrived at via a more accretive process during recording, as the band only really existed as a recording entity after they retired from touring) and fill whatever spaces were still available. On Fixing a Hole, recorded at Regent Sound Studios, the band tracked live, so McCartney’s playing is a little more raw and spontaneous-sounding than on some of the other Pepper tracks (there are, not flubs exactly, but inconsistencies). Nonetheless, it’s beautifully constructed.

After the intro, once Ringo’s swung hi-hat figure reveals the opening harpsichord figure as a rhythmic fake-out, McCartney begins with the simplest-possible two-note bass line, which actually makes the dreamy verse’s chord sequence sound simpler than it is. After four measures of alternating Fs and Cs, McCartney begins playing a syncopated melody that leaves the downbeat open. It’s a gorgeous little detail; as he sings of letting his mind wander “where it will go”, his bass guitar goes wandering too.

In the choruses, he plays a busier, more insistent line that bounces along between F and C in the first half and C and G in the second. Throughout the song – even with it’s cool lead guitar from George Harrison and characterful harpsichord playing from George Martin, it’s McCartney’s bass that both pushes the song along and glues it all together.

The man is every kind of musical genius.

Carolina in My Mind – James Taylor

We’re back in the musical multiverse this week – that place where two or more recordings of well known songs exist, each throwing light upon the other. This time, we’re going to Carolina. In our minds, natch.

The Beatles had a record label, Apple, and probably every young artist in the world wanted to be on it in 1968. The first eager young musician who actually was signed by Apple was James Taylor. Taylor and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher) had a mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and he gave a tape of Taylor’s music to Asher, who was Apple’s head of A&R. Asher liked it, played it to McCartney and George Harrison, who also liked it, and Taylor was signed to Apple, with Asher overseeing the sessions for what would become his 1968 solo debut, James Taylor.

It’s a bit of a mess, a callow approximation of The Beatles’ psychedelic sound made just at the point that they’d started to move away from it. Among the songs on the record were two that became Taylor standards: Something in the Way She Moves and Carolina in My Mind, both quite different recordings to the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio.

Something in the Way She Moves is the more successful of the two. It has a rather pointless pseudo-Baroque harpsichord intro, but once that’s out the way, it’s a fairly straight rendition, with Taylor’s guitar panned left and his voice in the centre, mixed loud and dry. The rather airless mix does expose how limited a singer he was at this point, but it’s a much better record than the original Carolina in My Mind, which takes an excellent song, puts two Beatles on the recording (McCartney on bass, Harrison among the backing singers), and somehow makes a stinker. Taylor’s vocal performance can’t take the weight of the overstuffed arrangement, the chipmunk backing vocals are way too loud and irritatingly persistent in the mix, and even the tempo is off, the song taken too quickly to give Taylor any chance to do anything with the phrasing.

In 1976, Taylor re-recorded both songs for a retrospective compilation, Greatest Hits. It’s often said that this was due to rights problems with the originals, but given how much the new versions improved on the 1968 versions, highlighting Taylor’s improvement both as a singer and guitar player over the eight intervening years, it seems just as likely that Taylor was glad of the chance to take another stab at them.

Carolina in My Mind, particularly, was revealed as a masterpiece in its new incarnation. The best arrangemental idea from the original – McCartney’s bass part – was copied more or less exactly for the new version, but this time was played by Lee Sklar, who was joined by Russ Kunkel on drums, Byron Berline on fiddle, Andrew Gold on harmonium, Clarence McDonald on piano and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel – exactly the guys, in other words, you’d expect to do a great job on a song like this. All of the unnecessary fripperies of the first version, meanwhile, were excised. In the producer’s chair again was Peter Asher, and you wonder how much he felt relieved to be given a second chance to do right by the song.

The 1976 re-recording is, well, very 1976, and it contains little of the darkness and confusion and humanity that makes Fire & Rain the only other James Taylor song I really have much use for, but it’s impossible to pick an argument with a song with such a beautiful melody line, and an arrangement so perfectly realised.

James Taylor

 

 

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil

George Martin – in memoriam

There’s really only one thing to talk about today. George Martin died yesterday, aged 90.

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was in the story of The Beatles, and by extension the story of popular music as a whole.

In any label-funded scenario, the producer is ultimately responsible to the record label, not the artist or band. The producer’s job is to get from the artist a product that the label can sell; that’s why they’re called producers. Nevertheless, good producers nurture the artists they work with, teaching them what they know about writing, performing and arranging, or at least facilitating and supporting the artist as they pursue their own growth and development.

No producer ever did a better job than George Martin did with The Beatles. No one did it with more class or grace. He encouraged the band, supported them, gave their songs the benefit of his arranging skills, and assembled a team of incredible audio engineers for them, then allowed them to break every rule in EMI’s book in the quest for great sounds.

The man was a giant of his field, rightly held in awe within the industry, but recognised and respected for his work by the public who, however much they knew about Martin’s role in making those records, recognise that they couldn’t have done it without him.

smoking

 

Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

the-beatles-live.jpg

*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.