Monday, February 19, 2018

Meet the Beatles

Of course, I never actually met them.  I was born when they broke big in America, a toddler for their entire existence, and a large McCartney/Wings fan through the 70s.

It seemed like getting into music as a kid in the 70s, the one hallmark all serious fans of that time held: going through the Beatles phase.  That initial blast where it became clear to the young listener: my God, this stuff is over a decade old and sounds as alive and interesting as anything going on now.

I’ve had that similar music experience many times over with other bands and kinds of music.  A real surprise as an adult has been hearing live blues and jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, knowing they were recorded in the most rudimentary ways possible, and the music sounds so immediate that you feel like you’re in the audience.  Compare and contrast with your average Rolling Stones live album that sounds like a fuzz machine echoing through a stadium.

I had brushes with The Beatles as a small child.  As noted in the book, “Hey Jude” became a childhood staple at neighbor Bubba’s house, plundering his older brother’s collection while he was fighting in Vietnam.  And the pool parties where some kid would lay the needle down on the portable record player at the start of that 45’s flipside, “Revolution,” and we’d time our jumps into the pool with Lennon’s opening scream.

The first real blast of Beatledom came with Brother J and me pining over the recently-released Blue and Red compilation albums in 1975.  They came out in 1973, but it wasn’t until then that both of us were thinking, “Man, we should own these things.”  We didn’t know where to start with The Beatles in terms of albums.  Their 70s revisionist era was just beginning, where their songs would be repackaged in all sorts of bizarre ways.  I recall their “rock and roll” songs being packaged as a collection. Their “love songs” as another.  The “Hollywood Bowl” recordings.  Almost immediately issued in the shitbins was “The Beatles at the Star Club” – a recording of their rowdy Hamburg shows pre-stardom.  (Brother J made the mistake of buying that in the late 70s … it was the worst pile of shit we’d ever heard.  I’ve since seen some revisionist history on this bootleg … they’re wrong.  It’s recorded and sounds like shit.)

The Blue and Red albums kept looking us in the face every tie we went into Woolworth’s.  Double albums.  I can’t recall the pricing, but it was reasonable, around $10.00 for each.  So, we kept mowing lawns, saved up, and eventually made those albums ours, probably in the spring of 1975.

I was immediately struck by how much more I liked the Blue album (1967 onward).  This sounded like the music I was listening to in real time.  Their influence was so strong that mainstream music would go on sounding like their varied takes on pop music for well over a decade, surely into the early 80s.  (And that’s just in terms of cultural dominance … there have always been melodic pop/rock bands since then, if not dominating the charts.)  “I Am the Walrus” and “A Day in the Life” were far more out there than most music I was hearing on 70s AOR radio.  Nearly every track had a timeless feel to it.

The Red album didn’t register nearly as well, probably because the recordings were more basic and raw, and only started to evolve production-wise leaning into 1966 (Rubber Soul leading into Revolver).  I’ve since come to realize those two albums are the apex for me and The Beatles, where they were all on the same page, still seeing themselves as one band, creatively intertwined, putting out pop music that would be influential decades later, without any hazy psychedelic shadings, a few leaps beyond the early boy/girl stuff.  In 1974 I was thinking, meh, whatever.  I didn’t realize that “In My Life” was Lennon’s direct take on Smokey Robinson and demonstrated his growth as a lyricist.  “Eleanor Rigby”?  Yeah, cool.  I didn’t realize that no one in the rock world was doing this, putting out a track with only vocals and classical backing.  Orchestras had crept into rock music in the late 50s, with The Drifters and Phil Spector working them into arrangements.  But not like this.  I’m shocked listening to “Eleanor Rigby” now – this was groundbreaking material at the time.

Of course, the early boy/girl material left me cold at the time, just sounded silly.  I still feel that way, although to a much lesser extent.  You could hear them breaking ground almost immediately – the fuzz guitar in “I Feel Fine,” Lennon’s lyrical genius in “Help” – but I don’t think they shifted into creative overdrive until after the Help album, later in 1965, where they really started learning their strengths and how to use the studio with George Martin.

This was the perfect musical schooling for an 11-year-old boy just getting into music.  Other kids were doing it, too, and I was always tuned into when that was happening.  Those kids were either musicians themselves, or smart kids who understood that Styx, Boston and REO Speedwagon weren’t created in a vacuum.  Old friend Tony was a budding guitarist, way into heavy metal, but he knew, The Beatles were a band he needed to hear.  And it wasn’t like we were in a Beatles-only musical world.  We were surrounded by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in their 70s prime, The Who, Kinks and Stones still putting out reasonably good material.  Dozens of bands putting out good-to-great material.  Bands like Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp were putting out top-shelf pop albums that many considered Top 40 fluff because it was such a normal occurrence back then.  While 70s AOR radio was becoming dull in terms of repetitively playing the same tracks over and over (it took me decades to appreciate Jethro Tull again), there was a time, up through the late 70s, where you could still hear an amazingly large variety of 60s/70s pop rock being played routinely.  It became a teenage/young adult culture unto itself that many of us still identify with strongly.

But in terms of The Beatles, for my first few years as a rock fan, those two albums were it.  If a song wasn’t on those two albums, chances are we weren’t hearing it on the radio.  As we didn’t have the full albums, there was a vast sea of Beatles material we knew little to nothing about.

I still remember hearing “We Can Work It Out” on the radio one day and thinking it was a new McCartney song, not realizing it was a decade old, and that was clearly Lennon on the harmony vocal.  Ditto, “If I Fell,” which wasn’t on the Red Album, but should have been.  A wonderful pop song that blew my mind the first time I heard it.  I knew it was The Beatles, but I didn’t know where it was coming from!

The first non-Blue/Red album bought was based solely on economics.  The Let It Be album was in the shit bins for much of the early/mid 70s, at least at Woolworth’s.  I’ve since seen conjecture that this was because bootleggers were pumping out thousands of fake copies to record distributors, more than stores could handle, so they’d dump the album into the bargain bins at the front of every record store or section.

I don’t know about that.  The copy Brother J bought for $0.99 at Woolworth’s looked like a legitimate Apple release.  What I do remember is that rock fans at that time looked down on the album because it sounded half-assed and unfinished compared to the last album they released in the fall of 1969, Abbey Road.  Let It Be came out in early 1970, although it had been recorded a year earlier and then shelved because no one quite knew how to salvage the project (their attempt to “get back” to a more basic sound … although you can surely hear the same desire on many songs on The White Album).  I suspect record stores dumped it into the cheap bin, bootleg or not, because of that reputation among the fans.

Imagine my surprise to drop the needle on “Two of Us” and hear what would become one of my favorite Beatles track.  I can’t say that for the entire album, although I’ve grown to love it.  What really grabbed me was George’s guitar solo on “Let It Be,” sounding so much more raw and alive than the thick/bouncy, Leslie-speaker version on the Blue album.

But that album let me know: if all I knew was the Red and Blue albums, there was a truckload of material with the Beatles that I didn’t have a clue on.

It wasn’t until 1980 or so, when Brother J came back home one weekend from his junior year at Penn State, that I finally heard Abbey Road.   I knew the hits that appeared on the Blue album.  (I even knew one-offs like “Old Brown Shoe” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”)  But I’d never heard “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Oh! Darling,” “Because” or any of the medley tracks.  This was the second time I was absolutely floored by a Beatles album.  My head split open, and doves flew out.  I couldn’t believe how good this album was.  I remember coming downstairs after listening to it for the first time on headphones and telling J, “That’s the best album I’m ever going to hear.”

And it could be, despite horseshit like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus Garden” appearing on it.  (Sidenote: I can see why George Harrison was glad to leave the band.  I can picture him offering “All Things Must Pass,” “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” to the band, and Paul responding, “I don’t know, mate, I think we should do about 300 takes of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and use that instead. We already spotted you ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – isn’t that enough?”)

I should mention J had already bought Sgt. Pepper’s by that point, which didn’t blow my mind nearly as much (although I recognized I was supposed to view it on a higher level at that time).  I’ve never thought much of tracks like “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” or “Lovely Rita.” Among others.  Half that album is filler.  Of course, the other half is mind-bending.  But, again, I was shitting my diapers in 1967 … I can recognize now, especially given the overall vibe of the summer of that year, that this album changed the world.  Ditto, Magical Mystery Tour.  (This would lead into J buying the Yellow Submarine album, and being mad as hell to realize side two was bullshit orchestrations from the terrible animated movie that put us to sleep.  Still, we came away with “Hey Bulldog,” which was worth it.)

I should note, after the Blue and Red albums, J was buying these albums with his own money.  He really picked up the flag with The Beatles, not to mention getting the ball rolling with Hot Rocks and Phased Cookies from The Rolling Stones.  The problems with all these compilations were they left out so much great material, legendary album tracks, that it would take us a few years to mine out for ourselves being born slightly too late to assimilate these albums in real time.

J did the same with The White Album shortly thereafter, and that was another mind-opening experience, despite the sprawl of that collection.  I hadn’t heard “Dear Prudence” until the late 70s … why weren’t they playing this on the radio?  I had no idea.  AOR radio would never play tracks like “Julia” or “I Will” – songs that now strike me as real gems.  About the only track I remember radio playing routinely was “Birthday” as background music to rock-star birthday announcements followed by four-song “super sets” or “rock blocks” as they were often called.

It seems strange to me now that I wasn’t immediately gobbling up these albums in the mid-70s after that Blue/Red introduction, but those were different times.  It took time to save up money for albums, and back then, we didn’t know what we were buying.  (We were also buying a ton of great albums in real time.)  If songs weren’t being played on the radio, or if a friend hadn’t bought the album on eight track or vinyl, we didn’t hear them.  Ever.  If the internet existed back then (especially as it existed in the downloading bonanza days of the early 00s)?  I would have downloaded the Beatles entire catalog in one afternoon and tried to absorb it all in a few weeks.

I can see now how insane a method of music appreciation this is, how crazy our world has become, an embarrassment of riches, so much wealth that we just don’t’ have the time, patience or right frames of mind to understand and slowly develop an appreciation for it.  It took me weeks to absorb one Beatles album, years to get a grasp of what the band meant.  That sort of slow, careful nurturing fans would develop with a band or recording artists seems like a thing of the past now.  It’s not an age thing either.  I find myself doing the same now with bands I stumble over, loving a track, sampling the album, buying the album, realizing the band has a five-album back catalog, and knocking those off in very short order.  It’s too hard not to do this when it’s there for the taking!

(Don’t get me started on streaming music in this context.  Yes, you can pull up a band’s entire catalog in seconds and listen to the whole thing in hours.  You love it?  Like nothing else you’ve ever heard?  Great.  You’re renting this music.  If for any reason that music is dropped form your streaming service, it’s gone from your life.  Never mind going further and finding bootlegs and live shows: not on there.  That’s one of the larger issues I have with the media format, and not the only one.  It surely fills the needs of casual fans, and that’s what I have to realize.  Most fans are casual, the real problem of the music industry: trying to develop lasting, passionate music fans when so much of their income is dependent on casual fans and then their waning senses of nostalgia.)

As it was, we pieced together the Beatles entire catalog, probably over the course of a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.  The last to fall, of course, were those early albums we shunned, and those tended to be cursory experiences, not the revelations of their post-1967 career.  There were moments with each.  Hearing “And Your Bird Can Sing” and loving George’s guitar work.  Lennon doing his thing for the first time on “I’m a Loser.”  The genuine energy from both Paul's and John's vocals on "Twist and Shout."

We were buying solo Beatles material every step of the way.  Especially McCartney.  After Band on the Run came out, he took over the 70s.  That album was as great in its own way as any Beatles album: the essence of McCartney perfectly captured in one album.  You can say the same for Plastic Ono Band – a stunning piece of work that would not have been possible as a Beatles album.  A lot of people are now saying All Things Must Pass is the best Beatles solo album.  But they’re wrong.  Still, it would have made an incredible single album.  (One of the great 70s blowoffs for J and me was to play that awful third record of All Things Must Pass with those interminable, senseless jams.  Say the words “I Remember Jeep” and both of us smile at the memory of this ludicrously bad material.)  I should also note here that the best post-Beatles single for me was “Photograph” by Ringo Starr, but written with George.  Every now and then, Ringo go it right, but clearly not on the same level as the others.

It’s strange to think that I had probably only known the song “Dear Prudence” for a year or two before Lennon was shot in December 1980.  That was probably the last album J and I went halfway on, Double Fantasy.  Of course, the Yoko material on that album left us cold.  And not all of Lennon’s songs blew us away.  But “Starting Over,” “I’m Losing You” and “Watching the Wheels” were prime Lennon for us, and enough to keep the album, especially when phony “fans” were offering to buy the album for $20 and up when it became impossible to buy the album in the weeks following his death.  (When Milk and Honey was issued a few years later, it burned us that he had shelved tracks like “Stepping Out,” “Nobody Told Me” and “Grow Old with Me” – he had enough material in 1980 to make one hell of a solo comeback album.  But that wasn’t what he wanted to do.)

After that, it was a matter of changing media types.  I eventually bought CD’s for all their studio albums through the early 90s, even found a cheap used copy of The Blue Album, and the Past Masters which actually were very good collections.  I was pretty happy with that but when the mono and stereo remasters were announced in 2012?  I didn’t rush out and buy them, but maybe should have.  As it was, I pulled a massive trade with an old friend who was a big music collector, too, but only for the MP3 files burned at 320 kbps.  I feel weird now that I listen to only the stereo tracks.  The Beatles albums up to Sgt. Pepper’s were released in mono.  (A lot of folks go on record as stating that and The White Album in mono are the way to go.)  Honestly?  I wasn’t around back then as a fan, and this stuff all sounds perfectly good to me in stereo.  I suspect mono and original Beatles fans would be outraged, but I’m fine with this.

Stuff like the 1 compilation album?  I have no need for it.  I made the mistake of buying a few of the more recent remasters.  They were really nothing new, although I did like the McCartney-approved version of Let It Be, with the more stripped-down/original production values maintained on his tracks.  The Anthology collections were a lot of fun for serious fans, but I'd still find myself tracking down bootleg studio material before and after they came out.  Frankly, I’m just glad there’s enough public interest from new and old fans to support these kind of projects.

Maybe I’m noting all this because I suspect whenever Paul and Ringo go (they’re both in their mid-to-late 70s now), there’s bound to be another reappraisal of what The Beatles meant, and the wheel will keep turning for their music.  In all honesty, I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, will go through certain periods where I’ll get a yen and run through their playlist on the iPod for a week, but it passes.  I was raised in the 70s and grew up with the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Queen, ELO, and all sort of punk and new wave pushing me through those years.  The Beatles were the first time I looked back and realized there was much to learn from the past.  That’s something that any true music fan realizes: understanding the past is just as important as grasping the future.