Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Phony Beatlemania Hasn’t Bitten the Dust

I remember that line from The Clash’s “London Calling.” At that time, Beatlemania, the stage show, was in full swing. Brother J saw it while at Penn State – and loved it. Many Beatles fan, even of age, never got to see The Beatles. They stopped touring in 1966 and broke up (officially) in 1970. And something tells me seeing them in America any time from 1964-66 wasn’t that great a musical experience. Sure, you had that sense of something enormous happening, but it was tens of thousands of hysterical girls, too, at these things, screaming for the entire 35-minute concert.

Beatlemania was a tribute show, generally stocked by guys who were good musicians (Marshall Crenshaw being one of them), who performed a detailed sampling of The Beatles recording career, at a time when fans had been constantly craving a reunion that was never going to happen. It seems pretty harmless now, but at the time, anyone who perceived himself as hip – or punk – laughed at Beatlemania. Until then, it had been mainly Elvis imitators. Imitating The Beatles kicked open the door to a different generation of tribute, and there have been scores of rock-based tribute bands since, most of whom do pretty well for themselves on the road.

I’ve been thinking about and listening to The Beatles a lot lately due to the announcement of their catalog finally getting the “remaster” overhaul and reissue this fall, no doubt at top dollar. The Beatles are infamous for doing this … well, because they can. People will pay too much for their repackaged product because it’s The Beatles. Holds just as true today as it did in the 70s, when I witnessed those hits collections come out and sell pretty well, presumably to a newer generation, but I wasn’t buying that shit (save for the Blue and Red albums) – I suspect it was the same old fans wanting to be completists, as these new CDs will be in September.

But it got me listening to The Beatles again, and all I can say is, everyone else, man, just go home. These guys were it. Obviously, I don’t mean go home – I’ll get over this Beatles jag. But they’ve clearly been the best band of my lifetime. Forget about genres, whether they were pop or rock, or what have you. The Stones were surely a better rock band. But until they stumbled onto that evil formula with “Jumping Jack Flash” and worked it through Exile on Main Street, they were chasing The Bealtes in vain. Everyone was. About the only album I can think of that gives me anywhere near the same sense of wonder is Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, which is a great album in its own more mature way, but has that same sense of musical reach.

One of the things The Beatles aren’t noted for as much was the habit of wiping the slate clean for each album, from about Rubber Soul on, and giving each album a set, identifiable personality. They all sound different – radically so when you go from Sgt. Pepper to Let It Be. And within each album, you have the band exploring different styles. That sort of musical talent and sense of adventure was something I came to expect from 70s bands – and the great ones pulled it off.

What separated The Beatles most at the time was their sound – I’d imagine because they had an experienced producer like George Martin running the show, he knew how to make their records sound good. I recall when getting the Blue and Red albums (must have been 1974-75 or so) how much more I was drawn to their latter-day material (still am) because it sounded as advanced as 70s pop rock in terms of production values. (The earlier stuff was too boy/girl poppy for me, but I came around on that stuff, too.) My appreciation for the Stones, Kinks and Who lagged behind simply because the production values on many of their classic 60s recordings was way behind George Martin and The Beatles. This is probably because the bands were run by hustlers (Andrew Loog Oldham, Kit Lambert, Shel Talmy) masquerading as producers, whereas Martin really was one. The Stones snapped out of that production lethargy the quickest, but it took other bands awhile to catch up.

Put that all in the context of a 70s kid listening to shit like “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and “The Night Chicago Died.” “Crocodile Rock” was my favorite song for a few years, probably from about the age of eight to 11 or so. I really don’t regret being a huge Elton John fan as a kid. He “got it” the same way The Bealtes did in terms of making each album a new and individual musical statement. And "Crocodile Rock" was probably knocked from its perch by "Bohemain Rhapsody," which kicked my ass the first time I heard it on the radio in my Mom's station wagon while she hit the bank in Gordon.

Childhood was all about those profound introductions to music. I recall once going to a neighbor’s house and him playing his older brother’s records, one of which was the “Hey Jude/Revolution” 45. “Hey Jude” was just one of those songs that made immediate sense, the kind of thing where you’d sit and watch the Apple spin on the vinyl because you didn’t know what else to do while the song played. Just floored by it. With “Revolution” I distinctly recall at a pool party about that time, kids taking turns getting a running start on a deck and jumping into the water, making sure to time their scream with John Lennon’s at the start of “Revolution” … while a designated kid had to pick up the portable record player’s tone arm and drop the needle at the start of the 45. I’m sure we took turns and had a blast. That scream had to be one of the coolest musical memories from my childhood. (Another great one was a bunch of kids in pajamas dancing at night in front of a blanket hung on a clothes line to Grand Funk Railroad’s cover of “The Loco-Motion” while other kids shook flashlights at them, causing a strobe effect.)

So, a bunch of decidedly non-hippie kids in rural Pennsylvania were using “Revolution” as back-drop for pool parties … what happened between 1968 and 1973? It’s always strange for me to recall that I came of musical age shortly after the Beatles demise – literally only two or three years after. But I can assure you, I “missed” The Beatles, as people 10 years older who were there often tell me, and I know that being of age and hearing that stuff for the first time as it came out had to be a glorious musical experience. Shit, it was glorious for me a few years after the fact. And in retrospect, taking full boyhood joy in Lennon’s scream seems a lot more innocent and useful than fucking Nike using it to sell sneakers about 10 years later.

So much time has passed between now and the 60s, yet it’s crucial to note that 70s kids missed out in some sense on that music, even if we discovered it less than a handful of years later, the same way I’ll discover a band now who had a good album out in 2003 or 2004 that I missed. But that same sort of impassable musical wall doesn’t seem to exist now. No one’s going to lecture me for not picking up on a band a few years too late – there’s been no recent cultural/musical revolution that I missed out on. That sense of cultural ownership seems non-existent now, only with hipsters, and the sort of bands they lord that sense of belonging over, man, most people have no idea who those bands are. (And that’s what being a hipsters is all about: exclusivity.)

Take that sort of artistic exclusivity that seems so esoteric now and apply it to an entire generation, with the realization that these people weren’t full of shit, the music really was that good, and that sense of cultural hipness was common currency as opposed to a secret handshake. I will always defer to Beatles fans who were teenagers in the mid-60s, because they “got” that music like no one else has since and understand it in that “musical DNA” manner so much of the 70s means to me.

Remember that none of The Beatles stopped making music in the 70s, so they were always hovering around in some sense. Ringo Starr may have been a bit of a put-on, but “Photograph” is probably the best solo Beatles single, and a song that makes me feel like it’s summer time, 1974. George Harrison got a rousing start with All Things Must Pass, and I recall his single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” in tandem with “Photograph” as a perfect summer song. But after that, phew, he put out some bland albums after the first two, and I wasn’t buying. Lennon, of course, started out like a genius, lost his mind for a short while, then got it back after a long break, albeit never quite on that same level. “Mind Games” is that one single I recall spinning over and over, but that whole album leaves a lot to be desired. Hell, even his cover of “Stand by Me” feels as real and classic as anything else he was doing around that time. I can’t tell you how I excited I was the first time I heard “Starting Over” on the radio in the fall of 1980. Just took my breath away to hear him get “it” again, I knew from the first few strummed chords that he meant business again, and what a horrible shock when he was snuffed out by a maniac months later.

Paul McCartney ruled the 70s in terms of post-Beatles solo output. Even his supposedly shitty stuff (McCartney, Ram, Wild Life, Red Rose Speedway) sounds pretty good to me now, if a little raw. Band on the Run sounds like the pop gem it was and is – I was just playing “Mrs. Vanderbilt” on my iPod yesterday and couldn’t believe that loping bass line he came up with for that song. The whole album is filled with those sort of nice touches – album tracks like “Mamunia” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” sound even better to me now. Sure, he got too big with Wings at the Speed of Sound. But I like that he got that big again – one of those guys had to, and he was the obvious candidate. (Besides which, another great childhood memory was trying in vain to win that fucking album at the spinning wheel stand on the Point Pleasant boardwalk one night while visiting our cousins down there. I must have spent $15 trying to win an album I could have bought for $7.) You want a cool “70s” experience, pick up the live album, Wings Over America, go home, crack open a beer or two, turn off the lights and play the first track, “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” at top volume. It still fuckin’ rules! (And I realize what an assclown the previous sentence makes me come off as ... such is life.)

Along with the music, there were so many interesting books about The Beatles that came out in the 70s. I had them all. My favorite, and one I hope to pick up again, was The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard DiLello, the “house hippie” at Apple Records describing his days at the record company. Apple to the Core by Peter McCabe and Robert D. Sconfeld was the hardest read as it dealt with the details of the Beatles breaking up in court as opposed to rock mythology, but I suspect I’d find it a lot more interesting now. You have to remember that at the time, there weren’t a lot of books about rock artists, and the ones that were tended to be cheap, picture-laden biographies aimed at fans as opposed to serious readers. To this day, I love a good “rock” read, but it seems like these books don’t get written nearly as much as they did 1980 to 2000 or so. (Believe me, I’m no prime candidate to write one. The amount of research and interviews that would go into a book like this on any band or artist would take years … of financial support. I still don’t understand how many of these books got written in the first place, unless it was by a critic or a professor with a paying day job and lots of down time to pursue this.)

The other day, I made the comment to a friend that listening to The Beatles now was like recalling a special blanket or stuffed toy one used to have as a kid. Those sort of connections are nothing to scoff at or discard. Sure, I think there’d be something sick about indulging in that feeling exclusively, to the exclusion of all others. But I can assure you, the adult Beatles kick is a passing phase, something that I’ll indulge intensely and appreciate while it goes on, but come back in a few weeks, and I’ll be on to something else. That’s how I find my musical tastes go now – these intense fixations that last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, generally followed by another week or two of floating around musically, with another fixation kicking in soon thereafter. Shit, last month I thought Supertramp was godhead. Still do, but I’m not listening to them right now. Something about The Beatles, though, really registers with the elemental strains of however I came to love music in the first place, going all the way back to the start.

I’m not sure how this registers with kids now, nor do I care. I wasn’t too crazy about the movie Superbad, but one cool scene, when the obnoxious chubby kid had to describe how good something was to his friend, he blurted out, “It’s like the first time you heard The Beatles!” So I’m assuming there are plenty of people still “getting” this stuff the same way I did second-hand in the 70s. No shame at all in listening to this stuff over and over again, in weird hard bursts as time goes on. If anything, that sort of recurring passion for great music is something that keeps me looking for more new stuff to keep that feeling somehow alive, as opposed to living inside some sort of cardboard box of memories behind the 7-11. I'm more of a wandering bum of musical memories.


Andy S. said...

"The Stones were surely a better rock band. But until they stumbled onto that evil formula with “Jumping Jack Flash” and worked it through Exile on Main Street, they were chasing The Bealtes in vain."

Actually, The Who were a better rock band than the Beatles OR the Stones, but not in the studio. There are really only two Who albums that can legitimately be called classics (The Who Sell Out and Who's Next, though the two rock operas have their moments), while the Beatles and Stones can count several apiece. But live? Forget about it. It's all Who.

"Ringo Starr may have been a bit of a put-on, but “Photograph” is probably the best solo Beatles single"

I always thought "It Don't Come Easy" was his best single, and certainly one of the best solo Beatles singles.

Like you, I fell in love with the later Beatles (the blue album) first, and only later went back and really appreciated the early Beatles (red album). Now I find I listen to the early stuff more. There's little better you can hear than John's vocal on "Anna," for example.

It's funny...between the Beatles and Stones there's no doubt that I spend much more time listening to the Stones. Maybe it's the fact that they lasted so much longer and thus were more prolific, but I doubt it. Yet whenever I listen to a Beatles album I'm always blown away by the sheer quality of the work, whether it's the writing, singing or production. They still sound fresh, and they still exert a powerful influence on pop music, even with the hip-hop revolution and everything else that's happened.

Anonymous said...

If you are still following comments on old posts...

The Beatles albums USUALLY have different "personalities", but not always. I've always felt that their last 3 LPs could be seen as having a sort of shared general style. Distinct enough to tell apart, but these 3 are fairly closely related by the standards of their post '64 albums, sound-wise. I guess this is probably because they were a return to relatively straightforward rock after their more psychedelic work. They were still doing high quality Beatles music and all-but the vibe had changed. Like you said, their latter-day output had a sort of proto-70s feel to it.

Pepper and MMT are also in a basically similar vein. Pepper always gets more praise, probably because the songs just seem to come together (no pun intended) better. The individual songs are almost on a par as Pepper-sometimes even better than they there on MMT. But Sgt. Pepper just has the "whole being better than the sum of its parts" vibe while MMT doesn't. I'd go as far as to say that, stylistically, these two are two most similar Beatles LPs.

Bowie had something similar to the above. Aladdin Sane is probably a better set of songs than Ziggy Stardust, but the latter has stronger total effect.

My personal favorite Beatles album is Revolver. Part of the reason is that I've always thought it the most unique sounding of their LPs. It doesn't sound much like its immediate predecessors or what came after.

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks for digging this out of the archive. Just wish there was a way on my front page of the site to have a Comments box so it would draw attention to when people post on long-past essays. Think I'll have to make that a mission this year.

Anonymous said...

Ah, geez, I messed up. I meant to say MMT is at times even better than Sgt. Pepper.

I stand by that, too. Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields are better individually than anything on Pepper, except maybe A Day in the Life.

(Yes, I know that Magical Mystery Tour was an EP w/o those tracks in the UK release.)

Anonymous said...

Hey, no problem.

Love your blog. I found it on google after reading some of your stuff on other sites. I'm originally from Western PA, and while it isn't exactly the same as your Central PA, a lot is similar. Yuengling and Citizen's Bank are touchstones for us, too! Of course, I really don't know if the latter is still around. The former,however, was partially responsible for prompting my initial comment.