Sunday, September 27, 2009


Sorry for the lack of updates recently. My computer died last Monday, so I've been scrambling to get more important work done. I expect to have it back and to return writing by the end of the week. I can only hope you can somehow stand not to read totally unqualified opinions until that time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Beatles — Yellow Submarine

One has to wonder if Yellow Submarine, the Beatles' soundtrack album to a film they barely contributed to, an album that features only four new tracks penned by the Fab Four, can be truly considered an part of official canon. Happily, we don't have to fret, because Apple assures us that it is. Perhaps its inclusion in the official discography has its benefits, though: we as people love to tear down our heroes, and by placing Yellow Submarine in the hallowed company of unassailable masterpieces like Revolver and Rubber Soul it absorbs most of the blows, allowing those lone nuts who try to rail against Sgt. Pepper or The Beatles stand out even more prominently.

Apple certainly didn't include it because of its historical importance. Largely forgotten apart from its title song (which appeared on Revolver) and its connection to the film (which is remembered for its imagery and its use of classic Beatles tunes off of other album), the soundtrack thankfully is seen, not heard, in the line-up of the band's work.

It is interesting to note, however, that it points toward the "back-to-basics" approach the band would soon adopt for the Get Back project. The lyrics of "All Together Now" are so vague and simplistic that it's tempting to call them psychedelic ("Sail the ship/Boom, bam, boom/Chop the tree/Boom, bam, boom"), but it's propelled by a driving acoustic riff. Likewise, "Hey Bulldog" is pure hard rock, featuring bluesy riffs, thundering fills and a killer bassline. The lyrics don't mean a thing, but who cares when it sounds this good?

Nevertheless, it's the psychedelic songs that prove the most enjoyable. "Only a Northern Song" floats on its Mellotron as a demented trumpet slices through the air, undermining its gentler mood. George Harrison wrote the song back in '67 and submitted it for Sgt. Pepper, but the band went with "Within You Without You" instead. Despite its psychedelic tone, Harrison wrote the album as a bitter condemnation of the royalty percentages he received under the agreement laid down by their music publisher; basically, he received 8 percent of the profits from the songs he wrote, while Lennon and McCartney each got 15. For such a caustic number to fit so nicely in the nice, spaced tone of the film is a testament to Harrison's compositional skill, and probably the effects of drugs as well. Even better is his killer guitar trip "It's All Too Much," which mixes heavily distorted guitar with the Indian drone typical of Harrison's compositions.

To be honest, all four songs are pretty great; why, then, am I so hard on it? Well, as you can see, it's packaged as an album, sold for album prices, but it only has 4 Beatles songs you can't get elsewhere. And even that's not true anymore: Apple, perhaps as an incentive to those who would spend extra money to get the mono box set (despite it featuring less albums and no "special features" like the stereo set, and despite it containing the mixes the Beatles cite as the definitive versions), dumped all four of the album's exclusive, Beatles-penned tracks into the mono mix of Past Masters as perhaps a mea culpa. Perhaps if they'd issued the soundtrack as an EP with "Across the Universe" thrown in as the band originally planned, they'd have had a hit on their hands. As it stands, though, there's little to say about George Martin's instrumental score (not that it isn't good) or the "proper" stereo version of "All You Need Is Love." Yellow Submarine is a shallow, transparent cash-grab on the company's part and a contractual obligation on the band's. But it's hard to listen to the original tracks and not get swept away in their quality.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Yellow Submarine

In the interim between the disastrous reception of Magical Mystery Tour film and the upcoming tension that plagued the White Album sessions, the Beatles were hardly the happiest band in the world, and since they'd made MMT on their own, they found that they still owed United Artists a third film to fulfill their contractual obligation. The last thing any of them wanted to do was make another movie, and when they were approached with the idea of an animation film, they saw it as their way to deliver a film without putting forth any effort.

Indeed, the band recorded only four songs that appear exclusively within the film or its soundtrack album. They also neglected to provide their own voices, forcing the filmmakers to cast voice actors and, as was the case in Help!, script the dialogue around public perceptions of the group, albeit this time the filmmakers did so out of necessity. Ergo, it may not be proper to review the film as it features almost no involvement from the group itself.

However, the psychedelic animation and cheeky undertones of George Dunning's Yellow Submarine are some of the most identifiable images of the band. Where Help! made me shake my head, wondering how all the people who made A Hard Day's Night so clever and subversive could essentially parody themselves, Yellow Submarine proves almost as inventive and entertaining as the first picture to feature the band (or, in this case, their likenesses).

Mind you, it makes even less sense than the largely plotless A Hard Day's Night: opening in Pepperland, the residents -- among them, of course, the Lonely Hearts Club Band -- are attacked by the evil, music-hating Blue Meanies (a possible reference to cops). Only Old Fred escapes, and he pilots the Yellow Submarine to London to recruit the Beatles to fight the Meanies and free the denizens of Pepperland. That's about it, but the point of a musical has always been to structure images around the songs.

To their credit, Dunning and writer Al Brodax play up Beatles' stereotypes Ringo, naturally, is the put-upon dope; he first appears in a depression after "Eleanor Rigby" plays, and he darkly mutters, "Compared to my life, Eleanor's was a gay, mad world." Later, he makes the mistake on the submarine of pressing the button he is specifically told not to press, and is promptly injected into a sea of monsters. "Poor Ringo," the rest of the band says as they consider simply leaving him, before at last one says, "No, let's save the poor devil." There are also numerous references to songs within the dialogue, most notably as the band stands in a sea of holes ("How many would it take to fill the Albert Hall," John wonders as countless in-jokes are tossed out per second). When the band reaches Pepperland, the village elder breathlessly remarks their "uncanny resemblance" to the Lonely Hearts Club Band, a name which the Beatles mock for its silliness.

More impressive, though, is how the filmmakers inject the kind of wry double entendre and wordplay that was lacking in Help! John is presented as the cheeky intellectual, remarking as the band sails through a time warp, "We've become involved in Einstein's Time-Space Continuum Theory. Relatively speaking." When a Meanie confronts the band, he asks, "Are you Bluish? You don't look Bluish."

The animation, however, is what immortalizes the film. Though it features a number of obscure pop culture references, it's not what you could exactly call pop art. Dunning and Brodax created the Beatles TV cartoon, a decidedly less impressive production, so much so that it was part of the reason the band neglected to work on the film. But Dunning amassed a team of animators, most notably psychedelic art director Heinz Edelmann and animator/creative director Charlie Jenkins, who craft a unique style that's immediately recognizable from any still image. They use primarily limited animation; that is to say, much of what is drawn on screen doesn't move, creating that odd effect when fully animated, cartoony objects move through more "artistic" still images. But that's by far the least fantastical element of the drawing; Yellow Submarine overflows with loopy visions of warped beasts and bleeding, occasionally fluorescent color.

The Beatles' initial refusal to participate in the film had several notable side-effects. First, they ended up all loving the film, to the point that they got Brodax to write an epilogue in which they'd appear in live action. Had they looked into the project before it was near completion, perhaps they'd have hopped on-board and played even further with their image, or at least written some better original material to complement the hit singles and album tracks. The second, far more unfortunate, result is that United Artists, rightly sensing the band's lack of involvement, decided that the project was more an authorized tribute to the band and declared that the group still owed them a third film. That opened the door to the proposed Get Back sessions, which ultimately tore the band apart once and for all. It still would have happened, mind you, but it's hard not to look at this film and wish that things went as well behind the scenes as they did in the finished product.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Beatles — The Beatles

Many reams have been written on the cover art of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, its mesh of psychedelic vibes, outside-the-box thinking, pop culture frenzy and all around cleverness. But almost as many are dedicated to the artwork of their next British LP; in contrast to the lush, multi-colored splendor of Pepper, Richard Hamilton's solid-white cover is so striking, so bare, that it only makes sense that the band simply titled it eponymously. Of course, we all just call it "The White Album."

As I've moved through the Beatles' catalog from start to finish, I've found that I'd previously unwittingly fell into almost every clichéd perception of the group following their break-up: I didn't much care for the early, poppy days, and I saw only the drug usage in their later albums. Obviously, I've utterly reversed those opinions by actually, you know, paying attention to the music, but I was curious to see how I would reappraise the White Album. For where I summarily wrote off other albums in their canon as a brash young teen, I never figured out where I stood with its jumbled artistic mess, though I tended to lean toward keeping at arm's length for its disconnect.

Well, I can safely say that I finally fall firmly into the camp that maintains "it's a masterpiece because of its excess." Undoubtedly helping in my turn-around were my introduction in the interim to album's that are routinely summarized as "the White Album" of their respective artists. The Clash's Sandinista! Prince's Sign O the Times. The Stones' Exile on Main St. All are bloated, ill-fitting "emptying the vaults" packages, and all of them, save perhaps Sandinista!, are stronger for it.

For such a gamble to pay off, the artists must be at the top of their game, and the Beatles had certainly been enjoying a creative gold run unmatched by any group before or since. It also helps if they're utterly absorbed in themselves, and without Epstein to keep them in check, egos began to flare at alarming rates. That famous, nearly blank cover is the biggest clue to the shift in the band's dynamic -- not only was it the first time the group didn't appear on the cover together, but nothing was in the art; inside the LP sleeve were separate photographs of each member. No longer was the band bringing their own ideas into a group effort: instead, they completely fragmented, the three songwriters recording their material in different studios while Ringo tried valiantly to keep his usual "go-with-the-flow" mentality as the stress of standing between them took its toll.

And so, most songs haphazardly lead into the next number, if transitions exist at all. What you thought you knew about the strengths and weaknesses of each member can be largely thrown out the window, as well as your conceptions of the band's "sound" (as if anyone could ever pin down enough of a singular approach to even come with a term like "Beatlesque"). That way, it'll be easier for you to accept that Paul McCartney, that sweet, sentimental rascal, can pen the hard rock "Back in the U.S.S.R." or the terrifying, blistering "Helter Skelter," or indeed the racial commentary "Blackbird" Forget your image of John as the rebellious rocker in the face of his stark, haunting confessional "Julia" and the dejection and disillusion to be found in his reverberant "Dear Prudence" or his album mix of "Revolution 1," in which he adds an ambiguous "in" to the line "When you talk about destruction/don't you know that you can count me out." (Ironically, this version, which considers participation in violent protest,

These are all among the best in the band's catalog, but what makes the White Album such a point of contention is the overwhelming, heretofore unseen amount of filler. Now, the early albums had their share of throwaway tracks, but most were covers and what few original compositions failed to make the grade reflected more on their relative inexperience than a lack of judgment. Because let's be honest: by 1968, the band damn well knew better than to include some of these numbers. No sane (or sober) soul would think that "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" or the dauntingly titled "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey." These are not even bad songs -- they certainly have, to a much lesser extent than McCartney's reggae homage/parody "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," an unassailable goofy charm. For the band to devote two whole LPs to ensuring that everyone's personal projects got their moment in the spotlight is almost wholly incompatible with their legacy up until that point, and that's what makes the White Album so fascinating even if you hate it.

That madcap insertion of whatever captured each songwriter's fancy results in a running the gamut of a bewildering number of musical styles. You've got your pick of country ("Rocky Raccoon"), borderline Stones-like, lascivious blues rock ("Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"), music-hall ("Martha My Dear," "Honey Pie"), chamber music ("Piggies"), lullaby ("Good Night") and, of course, avant-garde experimentation ("Wild Honey Pie," "Revolution 9"). They rub up against more traditional pop/rock songs, such as the classic party-time anthem "Birthday," McCartney's folkie "Mother Nature's Son" or the spacey "Sexy Sadie." Each song stands utterly disconnected from what came before and what succeeds it, and when combined into a 93-minute freewheeling display of drug-induced isolation and egomania they become something more daring and challenging and rewarding than Lennon's much-debated John Cage-inspired "Revolution 9."

One also cannot deny the excellent input from George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Perhaps as a "reward" for weathering the band's fragmentation, he at last gets his moment to pen a tune, and the country-flecked "Don't Pass Me By" is a nice enough, if overly simplistic and lumbering, ditty. But Harrison comes alive, delivering on the quality of his breakthroughs "Taxman" and "Love You To" and expanding upon them. While his anti-government screed "Piggies" lacks the catchiness or the timelessness of "Taxman," one can't deny his remarkable leap with the scorching fretboard workout "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (featuring Eric Clapton) or "Savoy Truffle," which starts as an amusing ode to Clatpon's chocolate addiction and winds up a killer piece of canned soul. His best track, however, is the jazz-psych-folk dreamscape "Long, Long, Long." Sequenced right after the terrifying screech of "Helter Skelter," this quiet, wafting number not only provides a welcome breather but ends up one of the most wistful songs of the band's canon, alongside John and Paul's childhood numbers.

Much of the album's material was written during the Beatles' trip to India to learn transcendental meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, both inspired by their setting and clearly not heeding to the spiritual schedule all that much. Before completing the course, however, the band departed, disillusioned by reports of the Maharishi's sexual advances on the women of the group (since proven to be rumors fed to the band to break the Maharishi's influence over them). That disillusionment plays directly into the record, encouraging each member to throw in his stuff, context or flow be damned. So, The Beatles is, on its surface, literally a textbook example of artistic excess, used as shorthand in the years since to describe any album that empties the vaults and runs through as many contrasting, occasionally contradictory, as it possibly can.

But it is also a portrait of true genius, albeit clouded by drugs and ego. It's also a fascinating portrait of a band on the precipice of falling apart; Brian Epstein's death had rattled them, and the deception of their new management concerning their Indian trip proved that they'd opened the doors too wide in hippie naïveté and drug delirium to outside forces, be it "Magic" Alex Mardas, the Maharishi, or Yoko Ono. But the White Album shows the band tearing itself apart, aided perhaps by those outside influences but still wholly responsible for their downfall. Even at this personal nadir, however, the group could still somehow craft something more advanced than anyone else has ever released into the mainstream. Indeed, from an artistic standpoint, The Beatles stands as likely the band's finest achievement.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Beatles — Magical Mystery Tour

Up until this point in the Beatles' career, their distinct eras of evolution could be charted through what major stylistic changes they underwent over a few albums before moving on to a new sound. The final stage of the band, however, began not with an album but with an outside event. Brian Epstein, the band's manager (and really the only one among the group who actively kept track of the money) died of a drug overdose in August 1967, months after Sgt. Pepper proved an artistic watershed for the band.

In retrospect, Epstein took advantage of the working class boys' lack of attention to their paper trail, and while he didn't bleed them like their very own Colonel Parker, he certainly knew how to shift the numbers around to take far more than was his due. Nevertheless, he was so close to the group, and they were so loyal to him, that the band suddenly found themselves directionless without their "fifth Beatle." The primary evidence of this is the garish, mad television project Magical Mystery Tour. I opted out of reviewing that as a separate entity because A) at only 55 minutes, it doesn't really qualify as a film and B) it is not noteworthy even as a short film or as an experiment of unleashed true drug-induced hysteria on American television. Fans should see it, as should anyone who would get a kick out of watching it and just imagining fans and their conservative, puritanical parents looking on in utter bewilderment at what unfolded in their living rooms.

Would Epstein have buried such a self-centered, inexplicable vanity project? Almost certainly. At the very least, he might have gently swerved the group toward getting a hold of a script.In a 1970 interview, John Lennon himself marked Epstein's death as the beginning of the end; up to this point, the group had displayed a certain separation, yet they still combined their individual artistic efforts into unified wholes. Magical Mystery Tour was the first indication that the group was at last tearing itself apart, through ego, through drug use and simply through fatigue.

The soundtrack, however, shows the band at the same creative high they'd been enjoying for a few years. A fair hint toward gauging its quality without hearing it is to consider that, when Apple forever set down the "proper" Beatles canon with their original CD releases in 1987, Magical Mystery Tour was the only American LP among the British albums -- in the UK, the soundtrack was issued as a double EP. Normally, the practice of chucking in hit singles for an international release requires the omission of album tracks or at least the disruption of flow; as an EP, they could easily expand the running time without sacrificing any other songs, but the insertion of five singles comprising the whole of side two is initially upsetting.

Fret not, however; Magical Mystery Tour greatly benefits from the inclusion of the singles, and their seemingly sloppy insertion only adds to the overall impact of the album. Though Sgt. Pepper heralded the Summer of Love, this soundtrack far more fits into the psychedelic sound that often misrepresents Pepper. That should come as no surprise to anyone who even saw still photographs taken from the film, but what is surprising is how almost every track on the album bumps against the barrier that separates the excellent Beatles tracks from the true cream of the crop.

Take those singles. Combined, the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" match-up is one of the band's most rewarding moments. One simply cannot pin down the Beatles' sound, but we tend to gravitate to their more personal numbers: "Hey Jude," "In My Life," "Help!," they're all widely accepted as some of the band's finest moments. In this single, or the one-two punch late in the album, fans are treated to childhood reminiscences from both John and Paul. "Strawberry Fields Forever," Lennon's contribution, bears some resemblance to his "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," not only in structure but in open drug influence. The drugs seep into his fond remembrances, turning the location of his youth into a serene state of mind that mixes the escapism of both Memory Lane and hallucinogens. Paul's song treads similar ground, and not just because the street of his song was located not too far from the orphanage of John's song. Both set a blueprint for fairy tale psychedelia, but where Lennon's tune is a pure spaced-out trip, Paul sticks to his growing affinity for quasi-baroque, its swelling euphoria complementing "Strawberry Fields" perfectly.

Nothing can top this lethal combo, but a number of tracks come impressively close. "Hello Goodbye" calls to mind the radiant giddiness of "Good Day Sunshine," and "All You Need Is Love" fleshes out Lennon's hippie anthem "The Word." Both rely on simple set-ups -- the contrast in "Hello Goodbye," the arguable naïveté of "All You Need is Love" -- but both are among the band's most uplifting songs. McCartney scores with another sweet tune with "The Fool on the Hill," a typical lilting Paul ballad that lacks the musical complexity of some of the songs he'd been producing around the time even as it displays some of his best songwriting. Of the original soundtrack, it likely ranks as the finest number.

Also noteworthy are "Blue Jay Way," George Harrison's droning, unsettling tune, and "Flying," an instrumental that manages to be as tightly constructed as it is bold and adventurous. The thick-corded guitars of the first segment give way to gentle Mellotron and wordless harmonies, only to end with trippy, ethereal Mellotron and studio tricks. Both are sadly neglected entries in the Beatles' canon, strongly written and instrumentally impressive, but perhaps just a bit too weird for their own good.

The most notable track on the album is likely Lennon's "I Am the Walrus." John was of course no stranger to studio and musical innovation and, as evidenced in "A Day in the Life," flirtations with the avant-garde, but "I Am the Walrus" clearly points to his coming immersion into experimentation. Lennon combined three unfinished songs into the final product, yet for all its studio wizardry it ultimately emerges a perfectly catchy pop tune, unlike the dreaded "Revolution 9."

The other three songs don't stack up to the high quality of the other 8, with Lennon's "Baby You're a Rich Man" particularly grating on the nerves. Its oboe-like clavioline rings out in fits and spurts over lyrics haphazardly meshed together from a failed tune each from John and Paul. The last time Paul tried to unload a line or two he couldn't use anywhere else, we got the middle section of "A Day in the Life." Here, it contributes to the weakest song the Beatles had recorded since their pre-Rubber Soul days. Nevertheless, Magical Mystery Tour is the great unsung album of the Beatles' repertoire, featuring some of the group's strongest writing and, in the case of "Flying," instrumental prowess. It might have marked the beginning of the end, but even as they walked into the horizon the Beatles couldn't help but be great.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Beatles — Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Of all the Beatles' albums acknowledged as masterpieces (which is almost all of them), perhaps none have suffered more from revisionist evaluation than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hears Club Band. Many point to its half-assed concept, which only fully applies to three songs (one of which is a reprise of the first tune), as a detriment, or to its loopy eclecticism. The most common complaint I hear is that it simply "doesn't have good songs," which in fairness is a good reason for disliking an album.

I myself came to Sgt. Pepper relatively late precisely because of lack of, apart from the first two tracks, any readily accessible hits. My first exposure to the band came from carpooling as a kid with a friend whose dad was a massive Beatlemaniac (in one of life's little perfect moments, their surname was McCartney), but he tended to play singles and standout tracks, and I can't remember ever listening to anything off of this album past the first two songs and the odd spinning of "Getting Better" or "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Years later, I was standing, bored, in an antique shop when I stumbled across a collector's issue of Rolling Stone that contained their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Being 14 and clueless about music, I picked it up to help guiding me in filling my brand new iPod, and the very first entry in their list was Sgt. Pepper. Now, that issue, supposedly a collector's item, is tattered and bent, missing its cover -- come to think of it, it's a nice visual metaphor of the evolutionary arc of my opinion of Rolling Stone magazine -- and I too found myself on the side of, "Where's all the hits?" Looking back, however, if Sgt. Pepper is not the greatest album of all time, or even the band's zenith, it is as much an ambitious leap as anything that the band ever crafted.

Paul concocted the Sgt. Pepper conceit to essentially allow the band to tour without touring. They could play as this fictional group, expanding upon the film clips they sent in to The Ed Sullivan Show to continue promoting the group in America. At its core, the fictitious band was a sort of lounge act, 20 years past its prime, looking to get back on the horse even as McCartney was contemplating reversing the band's decision to cease touring. Paul dresses up Ringo as the leader, Billy Shears, to sing the contemplative and personal "With a Little Help From My Friends." Building upon the personal lyrics of his tracks on Revolver, the song poses conversational yet probing questions through its harmony vocals, answered with plain honesty by Ringo's lead.

That frankness, that questioning of life, ultimately emerges from the aborted theatrical concept into a more thematic album. Paul's "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a perfect example: dismissed for its music hall bounce, it encapsulates the underlying thrust of the album as well as any of the more lauded tunes. At a time when Pete Townshend was penning "I hope I die before I get old" and Mick Jagger couldn't see himself playing "Satisfaction" at 45, here was a pop group committing the ultimate sin and looking forward to old age. His goofy acceptance of mundane activities such as scrimping and saving to rent a cottage for the summer is counterbalanced the pointedly honest reminder "You'll be older too."

He matches that honesty with the bouncy "Getting Better," in which he directly addresses some of the group's previous lyrical occupations. Here, the rocker has moved past teenage rebellion, as well as the jealous relationships that defined Lennon's romantic lyrics, moving us along into wiser adulthood with that poppy line "It's getting better all the time." However, Lennon adds a cheeky, subversive element to this maturation with the rejoinder "It can't get no worse," crediting an increased serenity not simply in age but an escape from the pressures the band suffered. Paul's growth never ceases to amaze me as I go through these albums sequentially, and I initially credited the witty, wordplay-filled "Fixing a Hole" to the more cunning Lennon, only to discover that McCartney was being just as clever as John.

If the Beatles were the best-timed band in music history, then Sgt. Pepper must be the best single piece of evidence to prove it. Released on June 1, 1967, it marked the unofficial start of the Summer of Love, with its psychedelic tones and album cover to match. But I feel that the psychedelic aspect of the album has been somewhat overstated; yes, Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is pure acidic revelry -- can you believe they even tried to deny that the song was about LSD until Paul finally put it to rest in '04?" -- and "Within You Without You" only furthers Harrison's preoccupations with Indian classical -- the sound of the sitar has become a stereotypically necessity in any film involving a drug trip -- and shows him thoroughly delving into Hindu teaching, but what makes Sgt. Pepper truly remarkable is its off-the-wall, "anything goes" approach to composition.

The music hall sound of "When I'm Sixty-Four" looks tame compared to Lennon's out-there exercise "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" Where McCartney's number played like a good vaudevillian tune, Lennon's is a mad rock 'n' roll circus, a jumbled mess only just sorted out by George Martin into some inexplicably enjoyable whole. "Lovely Rita," the most straightforward song on the album, is nevertheless rendered odd through its lyrics, the story of crushing on a female traffic warden. Hey, inspiration comes from all places, which certainly explains how John could write "Good Morning Good Morning" inspired by a jingle for Corn Flakes, only to turn it into one of his usual reflective songs, complete with a brass and sax backup.

Once again, the album's innovation, originality and quality can be most evidently seen in a song each by Lennon and McCartney. "She's Leaving Home," once considered McCartney's biggest triumph on the album, has since slid in the public perception, to the point that I rarely find it mentioned in any list of the band's finest moments -- in their elongated entry for the album, Rolling Stone didn't even reference it in passing. Yet this is, quite possibly, Paul McCartney's greatest track. Almost completely a piece of chamber music, "She's Leaving Home" starts with the bright plucking of a harp as a young girl prepares to run away from her parents, leaving behind a note to inform them. Then, the string section comes in with a more haunting line, and McCartney does not follow the girl in a story of liberation but lingers on the home and the parents' reaction. Some may see it as melodramatic, but this song, more than "Yesterday," more than "Eleanor Rigby," displays his ability to capture profound beauty in less than five minutes. He considers the pain that rebellion and running away can have on the parents, but there is also the suggestion that the mother and father don't understand what they've done at all; often, they refer to giving her whatever she wanted, only once acknowledging that perhaps "Fun," or happiness, "is the one thing money can't buy." Too, by remaining with the family and keeping this haunting tone, Paul indirectly makes us wonder if the girl in question will find happiness in her emancipation. I don't think I'd ever even listened to this song before now, and I'm tempted to call it the second greatest Beatles song ever written.

I say second greatest, because Sgt. Pepper happens to contain their magnum opus, and one of the three best rock songs ever recorded, Lennon's "A Day in the Life." After an album filled with some haunting, but mostly positive, reflections on everyday life and mortality, Lennon closes the album with a disturbing, ponderous epic, complete with full orchestration and a massive musical break in the middle written by Paul. Its spacey, chilling lyrics take snippets from new stories Lennon read and joins them into some oblique rumination on life, only to dump into McCartney's boyish memory, in which an unfortunate commuter lapses into a reverie. I suppose that his thoughts, while drifting off in his perfunctory urban bustle, consist of Lennon's considerably darker bits. Three years earlier, the Beatles announced their true artistic arrival with the clanging opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night," and here they end the proceedings on that epic E-major chord, stretched and warped for nearly a minute through various knob-twiddling. Where that earlier chord signaled the growth of the band, the final note of "A Day in the Life" demonstrates that the band are now true artists, with nothing left to prove to their critics.

That, of course, is obvious throughout the rest of the album. Their ruminations on life, its mundanity and its pains, are not the marks of bubblegum chart toppers but of introspective, searching artists. The thematic shift to tackling life as a whole is borne out in that ambitious, much-beloved cover: Revolver displayed the group looking inward for inspiration (and finding it), but the sea of cut-out pop culture figures surrounding the band in the cover photo for Sgt. Pepper show the band immersing themselves in all they experience even as they comfortably place themselves into such a pantheon. In retrospect, the abandoned Sgt. Pepper conceit plays into the rest of the album not only because the aged fictional group too questioned their relevancy in a world that moved on without them but that they represented what fate had in store for people like the Beatles at the time. Beatlemania was on the wane, thanks to their lack of touring, (to a small extent) that dust-up over the "bigger than Jesus" remark, and just the simple shift of public tastes. Despite their remarkable evolution, many still looked to them as the "Fab Four" and not musicians, and they could easily end up like their doppelgangers, washed up and hoping to trade in on nostalgia factor decades after fading away. With this album, they ensured that they'd never be thought of as just as fad.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Beatles — Revolver

Well, here we are at last: the Citizen Kane of pop albums. Look at any list of the greatest album of all time and if Revolver isn't in the number-one slot, it will almost certainly be in the top five. Rubber Soul cut the tether holding the band to their old sound, allowing them to fully explore whatever new sounds caught their fancy. And they certainly put forth the effort: after releasing 2 albums a year for their first three years, pumping out singles and records at a frenzied pace, the band spent 300 hours' worth of studio time working on Revolver. That was a large amount for any group in the mid-'60s, but for the Beatles it was simply staggering.

Keeping up with the Joneses fueled much of the band's frantic output up to that point, from the desire to ape Dylan to the artistic symbiosis they formed with the rising Byrds and Beach Boys. Their musical absorption didn't by any means cease, but where Fab Four had a way of taking other music -- be it Motown or Indian classical -- and working it into their own sound, now they had the time to refine it, to not simply put it in a melting pot but to deconstruct it and piece everything back together in groundbreaking ways.

Harrison, whose growing interest in Indian music led him to make the acquaintance of Ravi Shankar, took both sitar and spiritual advice from the master, setting him off in the direction that would eventually lead to his embracing of Krishna. As such, when he continues the political bent of "Think For Yourself" on the opening number "Taxman," it comes less from a place of youthful rebellion than a disdain for worldly distractions. Whatever the true political leaning, however, "Taxman" is the ideal example of the band's full maturation: Harrison's lyrics are among the best to appear on any Beatles song, before or since, and McCartney makes impeccable contribution on both bass and guitar (that amazing solo is actually his).

(Nowadays, some conservatives, or just someone looking to be cheeky, like to play this song as a protest against the IRS. What they don't understand is that the line "If 5% should appear to small/Be thankful I don't take it all" is literal: the Beatles qualified for Britain's highest tax bracket (then 83%)as well as a few other fees that could be placed on the rich, bringing their level potentially to 95%. I'd like to see these morons marching on Washington to do Glenn Beck's bidding -- the staggering majority of whom actually paid less taxes this year -- try to wrap their dimwit heads around that figure and call President Obama a socialist.)

That's not the only excellent Harrison contribution, mind you. With only a few chances here and there on previous albums to prove his potential, the cat's finally out of the bag: including "Taxman," he gets three songwriting credits, and they're all amazing. "For You To" is his first serious incorporation of Indian music into the band's sound outside of vague influence or a sitar riff, and it remains his best use of the sitar in the Beatles' canon. Even his more traditional "I Want to Tell You" utilizes Indian structures in his description of the inability to communicate what you want to say to someone and the feeling of frustration it causes. For a guy who previously contributed a few good tunes, Harrison leaps light years ahead both in lyrical and compositional ability.

And if Harrison improved this much, just imagine how great Lennon and McCartney are. Lennon was no stranger to dark, even unsettling, lyrics, but "She Said She Said" is downright vicious; technically based on dialogue he had with Peter Fonda while both were tripping on acid, by changing the pronoun of the person speaking from "he" to "she" it becomes easily applicable to his bleak romanticism. No longer is he threatening some innocent woman with his pathological jealousy, now the two are on equal ground, trapped in a mutually destructive relationship that brings out the worst in the other. Also fueled by his drug use is "Doctor Robert," a possible ode to Lennon's dealer and probably the most accessible, conventional song on the album after "Taxman."

To his credit, McCartney also brought a deep sense of melancholy. "Here, There and Everywhere" is one of the band's most complex numbers, contrasting joyful verses with a moody bridge and multi-tracking Paul's vocals to great effect. McCartney claims that he was influenced by the Beach Boys, but this is pure Paul, right up there with "Yesterday" or "Michelle." He contributes another beautiful number in the moving "For No One," complete with a fantastic French horn solo. McCartney matured in writing and musical imagination (Martin tended to be the one to figure out how to pull off what the lads thought up but couldn't perform) more quickly than his mates, and the maturity he displays on the record is nothing short of breathtaking.

However, if the influence of drugs was beginning to seep in and inform some dark visions, it must also come with the euphoria of drug use. Lennon pulls himself out of his increased paranoia for two jubilant, utterly nonsensical little ditties. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is killer fun, but the one we all remember is "Yellow Submarine." By tossing this trippy children's song to Ringo, it forever cemented the drummer's image as the loopy goof of the group lyrically as well as visually, but damn it he really is a perfect fit for the tune. McCartney's swinging "Got to Get You Into My Life" is a finger-snapping joy, with its smooth saxophone back-up. Then there is the pure, unrestrained elation of "Good Day Sunshine." With only McCartney and Ringo playing instruments (though Martin contributes a solo piano), it's a masterpiece of bubbly harmonies and good vibes, aided immeasurably by Martin's lush, warm production. I'm not a happy person by nature, but I've never failed to smile while listening to this number.

The cornerstones of the album, though, are two incredibly moody numbers by McCartney and Lennon. "Eleanor Rigby," Paul's best track, took the out-there sophistication of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and managed to compress it into pure baroque pop without losing any musicianship or complexity, essentially jumpstarting the genre that would shape the music of Love and Scott Walker and (decades later) the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists. It is also deeply, profoundly haunting: a story of isolation and emptiness in the modern world, McCartney is backed only by a perfectly arranged string octet arranged to serve as basically a double quartet and played without vibrato. It's a landmark moment in the cross between art music and mainstream sound, and one of the most haunting songs ever recorded by a pop artist. In the UK, the label released it as a single with "Yellow Submarine" in a double A-side; I'd like to think that, somehow, the music industry for one fleeting moment really understood what this album was all about and built the single accordingly, instead of simply looking to ensure the thing hit #1 in the charts -- sure enough, in America, where the two were separating, the bouncy "Yellow Submarine" hit number 2 while "Rigby" only reached 11.

Even more important to the band's burgeoning exploration of art pop is Lennon's closing track, "Tomorrow Never Knows." The Beatles were never particularly strong with their closing numbers, devoting the slot on the early albums in the mad attempt to recapture the wild success of "Twist and Shout." But Lennon uses the final track of their most inventive album to date to push the boundaries past all previous identifiable marks. Featuring excerpts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lennon's lyrics are vague, abstract, haunting and existential, made all the more haunting by the experimentation Lennon and Martin try in the studio. Tape loops, drone, chanting and other effects add to the song's psychedelia, and if the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" or the Beatles' own Rubber Soul hadn't yet broken psychedelic rock, this sure did the trick.

Upon Revolver's release, the Beatles announced a retirement from touring, saying that the increased studio effects of the album, which pointed in their new direction, were too complicated for just the four of them to perform live -- besides "Tomorrow Never Knows," the band also injected some impressive techniques in songs like "I'm Only Sleeping," which features not only an altered rhythm guitar line but a solo recorded and played backwards. The more obvious reason, of course, was simple fatigue. A press conference from 1966, available on Youtube, shows the band at their wits' end with journalists; a press conference for a band these days typically comes with softball questions such as "Do you enjoy being in _____?" and "What was your favorite aspect of working with so-and-so?," but you can clearly sense a mutual and deep level of animosity between the band and the reporters, most of whom don't have a clue which member is which and don't care either way. I've heard people criticize the band for ceasing to tour, believing, as those raised during or after the '70s tend to do, that a group is to be solely judged on its live performances. Of course, certain bands do define themselves on the stage, from James Brown to Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam, but it's such a lazy criterion that simply equates to a band's greatness being measured by whether an audience feels it got its money worth at a show, not innovation and originality. Retreating to the studio, combined with Martin quitting EMI to strike out as an independent, gave the band their first sense of freedom since their club days, and they used it to push pop music firmly into the realm of true art.

For all its individual accomplishments, Revolver is even more than the sum of its parts. Ringo's always under-appreciated talents mature to handle the myriad of challenges placed upon him by the mounting musical complexity, while George Martin becomes truly inseparable from the band's artistic success. Now, the band could move in any direction they pleased, clearly favoring individual exploration instead of the usual collaborative effort -- the song listing displays the lead vocalist of each number beside the song title. Even the album cover announces a break from the uniformity of the group: Klaus Voorman's cover sketch warps the Fab Four's features slightly, and fills the gaps between each of the four with cut-out photographs of the band, signifying that the group wasn't just here for our amusement anymore. They were artists now, looking for answers. If the photos in between the spaces of the sketch are any indication, they were, for the moment, looking inside themselves.

The Beatles — Rubber Soul

Almost every album in the Beatles' discography displays experimentation, from testing new studio techniques to incorporating new musical influences as quickly as they were popping up in contemporary music. Their first album set down a new blueprint for pop music, mixing the high voltage intensity of rock with the pitch-perfect harmonies of doo-wop and R&B. As they progressed, the influence of Country & Western, Bob Dylan, even classical music were added in small doses to the band's winning formula, ever so subtly testing the boundaries that they themselves established.

If we are meant to judge that exploration and innovation as the proof of the Beatles' immortality and the reason that no other band will ever come close to having the same impact on the world, then Rubber Soul must be viewed as their most important album. The band drew a barely perceptible line of demarcation with the slight imitation of Dylan in A Hard Day's Night and began injecting eclecticism in earnest over their next two albums, but for the most part the band kept their exploration firmly under wraps of their standard pop sound in order not to frighten the label.

That all changed with Rubber Soul. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds attributed his trademark use of the 12-string Rickenbacker to seeing George Harrison use it in A Hard Day's Night. By the time the Beatles went back into the studio in late 1965 to bang out their sixth straight LP in 3 years, they'd heard not only the explosion of hard R&B British rock bands but the sound of the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Dylan himself putting out his greatest work, "Like a Rolling Stone." Now the Beatles had carte blanche to pursue their infatuation with Dylan, and the result is one of the biggest stylistic leaps in musical history.

The first number, "Drive My Car," gives unsuspecting listeners to prepare themselves. A fantastic and amusing pop number, it's one of the band's funnier songs as well as one of their catchiest. Then the album leads into "Norwegian Wood," another comic number. The differences between the two, however, are astounding: "Norwegian Wood" starts with a gentle acoustic lick, only for a sitar to pick up the line. A slight Indian influence -- though perhaps one only visible in retrospect -- informed the drone-like guitar part of "Ticket to Ride," but here Harrison, who'd been really turned onto Indian classical music by Byrds guitarist David Crosby, actually brings an Indian instrument into the mix. The comedy in Lennon's lyrics also has a much darker edge than the lighthearted "Drive My Car," detailing a man who sets a woman's house ablaze for leading him on.

That perversion of the typical love song that informed almost every single Beatles tune penned up to that point pops up all over the album, with both Lennon and, surprisingly, McCartney contributing bleaker lyrics. Lennon cautiously approaches a relationship in "Girl," because the girl in question isn't quite so bright and wonderful as all the ones in their previous love songs, and the joint Lennon/McCartney work "Wait" outlines the anxieties of being away from a loved one. His closer "Run For Your Life" recalls his equally unsettling "You Can't Do That," only now the male is actively threatening the woman. When John does speak about love in a positive manner, he does so in "The Word," which hints more at his future political leanings than syrupy pop. Here, he speaks of love in vague obscurities as a means of overcoming obstacles and strife, preaching, "Say the word and you'll be free."

It is McCartney, though, who offers up the most searing portraits of failing relationships. Stuck in one of his own with then-girlfriend Jane Asher, McCartney's lyrics at last cast himself in a position of vulnerability, regret and anger. Normally, the contrasting moods of a Beatles tune signified the differing input from the melodic, upbeat Paul and the depressive, rocking John, but McCartney steers this through the ironic harmonies and shifting musical moods of "You Won't See Me" all by himself (and on their longest track to date, no less, even if it only stretches to the 3:30 mark). "I'm Looking Through You" is positively scorching, with lines like "I’m looking through you, you’re not the same” and its jagged blasts of organ. One might find fault with his sudden distrust stemming from his own rocky relationship, allowing him to take out his frustrations on an unnamed, universal stand-in for women, but I find it incredibly interesting to see him open up beyond his boyish sense of romantic infallibility.

Even McCartney's more traditional, happier contribution is inventive; he sings some of the lyrics in "Michelle" in French, and the tune as a whole screams to be accepted as a pop standard alongside his previous masterpiece "Yesterday." On an album that shows the band growing in musical sophistication to an almost impossible degree, "Michelle" is further proof of McCartney's impressive musical maturation and his ability to twist far-ranging musical styles (the song boasts a Greek guitar line amidst its French feel) into something the band can pull of naturally.

Adding to their new-found complexity and (at least in Paul's case) confession are songs that completely divorce themselves from any romantic meaning. "Nowhere Man" takes all those feelings of alienation and paranoia that informed Lennon's darker romantic numbers and reconfigured them to address a universal sense of solitude. It's not outright political, but the man in question is clearly John, and he's still not sure where he fits in within the world. He also pens the loving ode to childhood "In My Life." Originally planned as an autobiographical poem of Lennon's own youth, he decided that the lyrics were too literal and crafted a more generalized, beautiful number, romantic not in sexual sentiment but in its original meaning of aesthetic empathy. (Lennon later went back to his own childhood to pen "Strawberry Fields Forever.") This deeply personal lyricism certainly owes to Dylan, but now Lennon feels confident enough not to ape Bob vocally or musically; he knows he's good enough to go it his own. Hell, even young Harrison jumps ahead with the album: "Think For Yourself," propelled by Paul's great fuzz bass guitar, is the band's first outright political number, while "If I Needed Someone" displays a clear influence from his mates the Byrds.

Rubber Soul remains the band's most crucial record for several reasons. First, it marked the start of the Beatles' third era, the slight psychedelia of "Norwegian Wood" and the proto-hippie anthem "The Word" (not to mention its slightly warped cover) pointing toward their future direction even as the overall folk-rock tone closed the chapter on that facet of the band's evolution. More importantly, it kicked off the Beatles' most rewarding period of musical synergy with the bands around them: the Bryds, who'd been inspired by the Beatles, inspired this album. In turn, Rubber Soul influenced Brian Wilson in the creation of Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds, then, informed Sgt. Pepper. If pop music is about timing, not talent, one almost has to believe that the Beatles were simply destined to be, for the gold run kicked off here for the group and their peers makes the fabled planet alignment seem unremarkable in comparison. There isn't a single weak track on the album despite what Lennon might have said later, and at last the group could mine the sort of personal, abstract lyrical field that Dylan opened up without trying to sound exactly like him. In each of these numbers is the birth of the '60s as we perceive it today; you say you want a revolution? Here it is.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Beatles — Help!

With Beatles For Sale, the Fab Four displayed their exhaustion both in the increased number of covers to give the Lennon/McCartney team a break as well as the evident bite in many of the lyrics. Label pressures and megastardom were taking their toll, and the album, uneven and occasionally weak though it was, was the group's most intense, edgy album to date. Now, however, the Beatles finally saw competition in the form of the other British Invasion bands, many of whom -- the Stones, the Kinks, the Who -- could more readily tap into a harder R&B sound than the delightfully poppy Beatles. Oh, there was edge and exploration in these early records, but I'll be honest: I'd take "Satisfaction" alone over just about any early Beatles track you can name. So, while these new, harder (at least in image) bands were cutting proto-hard rock tunes, the Beatles were being corralled around the world to shoot their baffling second film. They were also knighted in June of '65, the biggest sign yet of mainstream conservative acceptance. Remember, this is back when knighthood was reserved for military heroes and civic leaders; more than the film deal, more than getting on The Ed Sullivan Show, this was the ultimate threat to the image of the Beatles as hell-raisers at a time when their peers were demonstrating a much heavier and rocking sound.

Fortunately, the band did not seek to simply run to straight rock 'n' roll with Help!, as that would have been only too obvious. Instead, it displays the group's most pronounced musical exploration yet. The opening title track plays on that growing sense of vulnerability that Lennon was betraying, and "Help!" stands today as one of his most personal and pleading numbers. That's all the more impressive considering how, even compared to the bouncy quality of "I'm a Loser," "Help!" is one of the most upbeat depressing numbers ever crafted. But one can look at those airy falsettos backing up Lennon's light but sincere lines as sing-song mockeries of his cries for aid. It alone is worth the price of the album.

Elsewhere, the band displays a truly impressive desire to evolve. The Beatles flirted with C&W with Beatles For Sale, but they go for the whole hog with "I've Just Seen a Face," an outright country track played at such a fast tempo that all it needs is a banjo to be a fine bluegrass number. They also rope Ringo into a terrific cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally," a song for which he proves perfectly suited (though he was as old as Lennon, Ringo always had a more "adult" sounding voice with a hint of twang) and one that amusingly pokes fun at their unease with staying in the movie biz.

Apart from his title track, Lennon scores big with a handful of tunes. "Ticket to Ride" shows the band experimenting with Indian music for the first time, its droning 12-string guitar propelled by some of Ringo's finest drumming. The Indian influence is subtle, though, and Harrison's guitar work ended up chiefly inspiring the Byrds to effectively break folk-rock to the masses. Just as "Help!" attempted to cover up its seriousness with jaunty pop, so too does "Ticket to Ride" mask its deep emotional pain under ironic arrangement and complexity. He also offers up "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," yet another attempt to emulate his new hero Dylan. If that sounds a insult or a dismissal, consider that the tunes where Lennon displays a clear Dylan influence ("Yes It Is," "I'm a Loser," "I Should Have Known Better") are some of his and the group's finest tunes from the era. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" sounds more like Bob than any of those other tracks, down to the sing/shout hey's and the gruff vocals.

This time around, however, McCartney shares in the glory. Not as prominent a contributor to Beatles For Sale, he penned the aforementioned "I've Just Seen a Face," and he has a few other aces up his sleeve. "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" is the perfect counterpoint to Lennon's doubt and insecurity in "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." McCartney comes from a place of supreme confidence, where the vulnerability Lennon voices in his own work is replaced by some of the giddiest vocals he's ever sung. Yes, you're going to lose that girl, and John's gonna be there to sweep her off her feet. This is never remotely in question. It's also one of those handful of songs from the early days that should be put forth as evidence that nobody can hold a candle to the band when it comes to vocal harmonies: their call-response between lead and harmony exponentially increases the happiness audible in both.

McCartney also contributes the album's most important number in the ballad "Yesterday." The most-covered number in the Beatles' canon, it almost exclusively features McCartney, as opposed to the typical group number. Though the lyric is a bit on the mushy side, even for early Paul, McCartney sings it in an understated, melancholic manner, never losing himself to melodrama. George Martin, understanding that the nostalgic, reflective number simply wouldn't do within a rock setting, he arranged a string quartet to back up McCartney. A revolutionary idea, as the use of classical instrumentation in pop at the time typically signified it as a schmaltzy number desperately seeking to craft an illusion of class. "Yesterday," however, uses its strings to striking effect, highlighting the haunting, universal theme of the lyrics, and it's one of the most achingly beautiful songs to come from a man who built his legacy upon them.

After getting only one chance to prove his songwriting ability in the past, Harrison gets two moments at the plate, but though he doesn't strike out, neither "I Need You" nor "You Like Me Too Much" particularly resonates. Nevertheless, they do show a marked improvement in Harrison's writing, and both of his tunes sit effortlessly with Lennon and McCartney's filler tracks on the album. I must say, however, that the ending number, a cover of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," grates mightily. For one thing, its rollicking feel is too abrupt a transition from the beautiful ending of "Yesterday" and, once again, the desire to score another "Twist and Shout" is transparent. Now, I'm fine with them doing that for "Money"; it came nowhere close to the fire of their first big ending cover, but it was a damn fine tune nonetheless. Now it's just getting silly, and it's a big regression on an album of surprising exploration.

Despite the return to some level of consistency, I find myself slightly preferring Beatles For Sale, warts 'n' all, for its edge. Still, one cannot deny the impressive way in which the band can be so eclectic and pull it all together into a cohesive whole that to a casual listener might sound almost as unified as A Hard Day's Night. Help! marks a fantastic middle point in the second stage of the Beatles' stylistic evolution, mixing the harder edged For Sale with the pop sound of A Hard Day's Night, complete with their most impressive sonic leap yet. But their most spectacular leap was just on the horizon...


The massive commercial and critical success of A Hard Day's Night surprised naysayers and fans alike, and United Artists wasted no time moving ahead with the second of their three contracted projects with the Beatles. They kept director Richard Lester -- who wouldn't? -- gave him a much bigger budget, then set about locking the actual band out of any creative decisions. An exercise in the dangers of an overinflated budget, Help! is almost as strange as the films the band would later make while tripping on hallucinogenic substances.

The plot -- oh dear Lord -- is about as needlessly complex as they come: the movie starts not with the Beatles but some Eastern cult in England made up of white people who speak in vague approximations of Indian accents. They plan to sacrifice a young woman, but the ritual is halted when one onlooker discovers that the woman is missing the ring needed for the sacrifice, because if you're not going to accessorize properly and take it seriously, what is the point? But if this woman doesn't have the ring, who does?

If you guessed "some poor bastard who can't catch a break," you'd be right. Yes, it's on Ringo's finger. The intended victim sent it to Ringo because she's a big fan of the Beatles; ergo, she didn't realize the importance of the ring, or even at the height of the band's popularity people were taking it out on Ringo. So now, while trying to play and goof around with his mates, he must fend off numerous attempts from cultists to reclaim his new piece of jewelry, which I swear looks just like a Ring Pop.

Help! is one of those movies that was clearly written to give everyone involved a nice vacation around the world. A Hard Day's Night took place in the bombed-out, post-WWII streets that formed the group, but Help! zooms them all over the world, from the Austrian Alps to the Bahamas. Presumably, they're all trying to outrun what an absurd film this is. Explosions tend to go off in each of these locations, though why I'm not sure.

With astonishing speed, the film reveals itself to be some weird parody of a James Bond film. Walthers, lasers, even an ever so slightly altered version of the James Bond theme pop up here and there, as the group must fend off the crazy cult as well as a mad scientist who wants the ring for himself. At one point, the kind high priestess of the cult offers to shrink Ringo's finger so that he might remove the stuck ring, but she accidentally drops the magic needle into Paul's leg, shrinking him down to nothing in a segment titled "The Excting Adventures of Paul on the Floor."

OK, I admit it, Help! made me laugh a lot. That title alone is worth a great chuckle, and Lester clearly remembered that John was the closest the group had to a natural screen presence, so writer Charles Wood feeds him all of the good lines. There's a fun gag poking fun at the band's attempts to maintain their working class image when they each walk up to their own modest flats, only to step inside into some England apartment version of the Neverland Ranch. Maintaining their flippant, rebellious attitude even as they drink from their very own soda machines, I couldn't help but think of Jean-Luc Godard's quote that the kids who grew up in the '60s were "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" even if the lads are just cheeky and far from revolutionaries. There's also a funny bit of pseudo-prophecy when the band visits the cult's temple and the kind priestess shows Ringo where he'll be disemboweled lest he give the ring to someone else. "I don't wanna knock anyone's religion..." he starts, a foreshadowing to Lennon's future comments about the Beatles' popularity over Jesus (which of course isn't a jab at Christianity, but it's still funny in retrospect).

What goes wrong with the film is that, be it the comedy or the trips across the world that serve no purpose but to change scenery, the filmmakers are just trying too hard. Lester of course came to prominence directing Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, who were members of legendary British comedy troupe The Goons. The influence of the Goons is all over the place here, which also brings a slight hint of Python to come -- the members of Monty Python cite the Goons as a primary influence -- albeit without the literacy. There's also some good old fashioned Looney Tunes humor here, with Lennon very much play the smarmy role of the Bugs Bunny substitute. A number of scenes are charmingly silly, but the desire to wring every ounce of humor out of every situation turns even the funny moments into displays of pathetic desperation.

Too, because it lacks much, if any, input from the Beatles themselves, that interesting semi-realism of A Hard Day's Night is lost. Sure, the group simplified themselves and played to public perceptions, but we got a conceivable look into some of their interactions amidst the hi-jinx as well as their own subtle commentary on what people thought of them. Help! seems to believe that the simplified movie versions of these guys are their real selves, and we never truly get any insights into the Fab Four. And where their weariness and wariness concerning fame in their first film was evidenced through satire, here it is simply evident on their faces. The group wrote, recorded and released singles throughout the shoot even as they wrote the songs to be used in the film and subsequent soundtrack and, coupled with their limited acting ability, they cannot contain their resentment over the shoot.

Help! is often funny, yes, but despite being longer than A Hard Day's Night and containing more of a story, Lester has so much less to say with the movie. The musical numbers in A Hard Day's Night worked because, as they spent so much time in a TV studio, the band could strike up a number at any moment and make it look natural. Here, they stop in the middle of the field to bang out a song, or they just start playing right after some action-packed moment without any sense of transition. How could Lester, who pioneered and perfected the manner in which rock music can be filmed, be so clumsy in his staging a mere year later? Whatever; the movie is fun enough if you've got a case of the Beatlemania, but where A Hard Day's Night was an outright classic regardless of context, Help! tries so desperately for mass appeal that it often falls flat.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


The first thing that you can take away from Sugar, whether you like it or not, is that the face of baseball really has changed. America's "national pastime," the biggest names in the game now are Japanese, or Puerto Rican. Of these This of course has been the case for over a decade, but American cinema has finally gotten around to addressing this shift. Sugar is a wonderful combination of the sport film and the "Immigrant looking for the American Dream" genres, one that traces the biggest stars back to their hometowns, where baseball is more a way a life than any American city I've ever visited.

The film's titular character, né Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), is a pitcher trying out with dozens of other hopefuls at a camp where American scouts come to pinch the next major player. The competition is fierce, but the famial closeness of the community spawn friendly bonds. During breaks, the players all joke with one another and trade innocent insults. The camp also offers English lessons, in which the teachers hilariously teach them phrases that an American star would have to know to deal with sports reporters. "It must be my mechanic," they repeat when asked a hypothetical question criticizing their performance on the field.

The whole experience seems like an adult version of the baseball camp I went to as a kid, but there's a darker edge running underneath it. For Sugar and many of the other players, making the big leagues, or even the minors, is a pathway out of poverty. The effect of Sugar leaving that pristine, well-kept baseball academy -- one that looks indistinguishable from any American field -- and stepping into urban squalor is truly jarring. Miguel grew up in the shadow of the field, a place that might as well be magical, for it launches a lucky few into a fairy tale life of luxury and fame. He's clearly the best player there (and he has the ego to prove it), and soon a scout snatches him up and signs him up to play for the Swing in Iowa.

Sugar sets its protagonists on a slow journey to the top but, as with so many great genre films, the genre aspect of the film isn't half as interesting as what it's saying. Miguel must leave his family for the first time to go to America, hoping that success will allow him to bring them to the States with him. But the minor leagues offer not packed stadiums but sparsely populated fields; the games he plays in Iowa have more a high school game turnout than one for paid professionals. His difficulty with English is a constant setback, only furthering his sense of alienation from this strange new world. The elderly, baseball-loving family that takes him in is kind, but writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck stumble a bit by telling us that this couple have housed numerous up-and-comers from Spanish-speaking countries, yet they don't know a word. He grows attracted to a sweet, pretty young lady in town, but she ultimately rejects him.

That rejection, coupled with his feelings of isolation, are exacerbated when his friend Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), the only other Dominican on the team and his biggest source of help in interacting with Americans, is dropped from the roster after a devastating knee injury. An injury of Miguel's own sidelines his playing, and before he can recover an old peer, Salvador, rises up from the Dominican Republic as Miguel's game worsens. At last, he takes a bus to New York to seek out his friend, as well as to give the American Dream one last shot (because where else to fulfill it than New York?).

Boden and Fleck created the much-lauded Half Nelson, and their deft hand at characterization informs Sugar as well. But as directors they still have some growing to do. The film is based upon the slow evolution of Miguel's plight in America, which the writing paces perfectly, but too many scenes simply come to a halt before another one starts because the filmmakers didn't know how to transition between them. Bits like the foster family-like elders not bothering to learn any Spanish in the years that they've housed foreign players are clearly meant to establish the mood, yet it just smacks of lazy writing when those characters needn't have been set up in a way that betrayed such a glaring flaw.

Nevertheless, watching the film, I was reminded both of Herzog's Stroszek -- there are plenty of other immigrant movies this can conjure, but I tend to have Herzog on the brain anyway -- and Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams. Boden and Fleck subtly and wonderfully contrast the effect baseball has on the poverty-stricken Dominican community and the rural town in Iowa, gently bringing out the way these people truly need baseball in their lives. A sports film typically ends in triumph or in the cold rejection of fame's false promise. Amazingly, Sugar ends in an entirely different way: Boden and Fleck do not fall into the facile trap of the Hollywood ending, but they don't run in the other direction just to be edgy. No, there's a touching optimism in its ending that manages to consolidate the character's numerous setbacks into a faint glimmer of hope and happiness.

The Beatles — Beatles For Sale

If the Beatles' cover of Barret Strong's "Money" displayed a subtle hint of sarcastic frustration with manipulation at the hands of a label that capitalized on their hit-making abilities and the A Hard Day's Night project contained a readily apparent undercurrent of fame rejection wrapped up in its excited visuals and bubbly tunes, Beatles For Sale is where the band at last made completely clear their exasperation. The title itself clues you in, its frank, fatalistic description of their creativity. This was their fourth album recorded in less than two years, to say nothing of a number of non-album singles -- and that's not even taking into account the gutting of their work by EMI subsidiary Capitol in America, who'd gone from great packages like Meet the Beatles! to some thoroughly unoriginal stuff meant to stretch out the band's work into even more albums than were released in the UK (British LPs tended to come with 6-7 tracks on each side compared to America's five or six, allowing for more free material to spawn extra records).

A Hard Day's Night proved that the band was a bona fide worldwide phenomenon, but it translated into yet more pressure, as that album's marked improvement only increased expectations. For the band, the fun of it all was rapidly draining away, replaced by incessant talk of their sales figures and press junkets as grueling as the actual live performances. So, resentment set in, and the group's expanding songwriting skills allowed them to address their concerns in their own inimitable way.

Adding to the edge is the pronounced influence of Bob Dylan. The nods to Dylan in AHDN reflected how new he was to the band, and Lennon's attempts to ape him on "I Should Have Known Better" were more a friendly gesture of fandom than a concentrated effort to emulate the artist after poring over his records. But Beatles For Sale came out 5 months later, which is like 2 human years in Beatles time. Lennon's opening triptych -- "No Reply," "I'm a Loser" and "Baby's in Black" -- display the darker side of his wit, one openly influenced by the wry frankness of Dylan's records. Where the band's songs previously dealt almost exclusively with young love, Lennon expands upon the jealous paranoia of "You Can't Do That" with "No Reply," in which the woman, now perhaps genuinely unfaithful (though I'd bet that she simply moved on and got a new boyfriend), is being stalked by the obsessed man. He watches her through windows and hounds her telephone so much that her friends always answer to deflect him.

This dark anti-love ode leads directly into the thoroughly Dylan-esque "I'm a Loser." It starts off with Lennon's sad lover persona at last coming to self-realization, complete with borderline bass vocals from Lennon as the bouncing instrumentation is poppy, though that bubbly sheen that masked some of the group's early mature moments fades into transparency here and there, revealing not only the sadness of the dejected lover but also of the broader message of hypocritically putting on a happy face to show the world when you're dying inside ("Beneath this smile/I am wearing a frown"). "Baby's in Black" then juts into a new direction: the story of a man pining for a woman still grieving her lost love, it is simultaneously the most somber track the band recorded up until that point and their most darkly hysterical. Its waltz-like structure and emphasis on the wordplay-filled chorus give it a tongue-in-cheek feel that I'm not convinced was entirely intended, but it offers a great display of Lennon's wit.

"Baby's in Black" also signifies the band's growing musical complexity and studio experimentation, with Lennon and McCartney's harmony sung so close together that they're practically indistinguishable. The band spent a good seven hours across two sessions devoted entirely to "Eight Days a Week," each take yielding dramatically different arrangements. The album version is bouncy and spry, but with a sense of weariness and grit underneath that further demonstrates the eroding joy in the band's sound. In a subtle move of innovation, the song fades in, compared to the common usage of the fade-out in pop/rock tunes. "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" continues the bleaker feel of the opening salvo, and almost serve as a prologue to Lennon's earlier tunes. Here, he sits at a party, waiting for his date to show, only to realize at last that she's stood him up and that he should leave rather than spoil other people's fun. It even shares some of the creepier melody of the first two songs.

Despite these impressive steps forward, the band lapses back into covers after their first all-original album, a sign of fatigue more prominent even than the weariness and tension in Lennon's tunes. Six of the album's 14 tracks are covers, and the majority rank among the band's weakest numbers. Where they took tracks like "Money" and "Twist and Shout" and put a permanent stamp on them, they struggle here to even give the numbers a straight run-through. McCartney struggles with Little Richard's "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!" and Harrison sounds as tired as John on "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." Worst of all is John's cover of "Mr. Moonlight"; if "Devil in Her Heart" off of With the Beatles was, as Pitchfork Media described it, "an obscurity too far," then John went even further to dust off this awful little number, a jumbled mess that does no one in the band any favors.

Despite the uneasiness of the covers and the bite of the original lyrics, however, this is not a wholly dark experience. Their cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" jumps to life after the dark opening trio, and it eradicates the memory of the songbook reading of "Roll Over Beethoven." Maybe it's just because it really kicks the upbeat feeling into high gear after three consecutive dark tunes, but it's a blast. Likewise, Paul's gentle "Every Little Thing" might not be among his best even of the early days, but it's a charming little number that brighten up the place a bit.

Nevertheless, this is chiefly Lennon's baby, from his superb compositions to his somewhat unfortunate choices in covers. Dylan's influence adds a distinct Country & Western feel to the album (they never really go folk), but the gritty dissatisfaction with their predicament, and the ragged edge it created, make this the most rock 'n' roll album the Beatles ever made. It's also their most uneven, but in a sort of lovable way. It's the band pleading for a rest after so much work, a break they wouldn't get until they at last demanded it a few years later. For the moment, though, the ever-shifting sound of the band remains as fascinating as ever.

The Beatles — A Hard Day's Night

If the film A Hard Day's Night was a test of the crossover power of Beatlemania, its soundtrack album had even more riding on it. Americans got bastardized versions of the UK albums, albeit some mighty fine ones -- seriously, look up the track listing for Meet the Beatles! and make a playlist from Please Please Me, With the Beatles and the various singles, and you'll get a great record. But those American versions went for all the acknowledged gold at the expense of the flow and the sense of, I wouldn't call it musical exploration, but certainly a subtle bending of the rules. So, American critics were quick to dismiss this cute little pop group as a fad. After all, if the film deal smacked uneasily of Elvis, so too did the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis too rocked the world when he appeared on the program, but his appearances and Sullivan's respectful "acceptance" of the boy on his third stint effectively spelled the end of Elvis's days of being regarded as a rebel and he never matched the effect of that breakthrough until his '68 comeback. Of course, that was a good four years on the horizon at the time, and critics dismissed the Beatles as one-hit wonders -- a sentiment that doesn't even make sense because, upon the release of the first 2 American albums in early '64, the Beatles occupied the first five slots of the Billboard singles charts and the 1 and 2 positions of the album chart -- who'd go back where they came from just as soon as their film tanked and took the soundtrack down with it.

Well, we already know about the film, its masterful and innovative use of rapid-editing techniques in the framework of a mock-documentary. But the soundtrack was what really mattered in terms of the band's future. Sure, the film's financial success practically guaranteed it would sell well, but all those snotty critics had no idea how wrong they'd be. Both the UK and (vastly inferior) American editions practically camped out at the top of both album charts (21 weeks in the UK and 14 in the States), absolutely crushing the competition that year. The film might have been poking fun at Beatlemania, but it only further stoked the fire. These boys were here to stay.

Of course, these days, A Hard Day's Night is widely, correctly, seen as the moment where the band crystallized into creators of almost universally perfect albums. Much attention focuses on the album's distinction of being the first (and only) Beatles album to consist entirely of original material exclusively written by Lennon/McCartney. That's a simple reasoning for the album's importance, but its real greatness can be attributed to something even simpler: all those Lennon/McCartney songs are good.

Yes, A Hard Day's Night draws a line separating the early, R&B and skiffle-influenced Merseybeat sound from the second era of the group's sound. Having met Bob Dylan, the band, and particularly John Lennon, took a shine to Dylan's lyrical brilliance, and Dylan's influence would be the primary motivator of the band's music through Rubber Soul. A Hard Day's Night is the perfect bridge: the group's most straightforward album, you don't even realize how good McCartney and Lennon are getting until you finally stop dancing to it the third time in a row you listen to the thing.

And what better announcement of the tonal shift in the band's direction than George Harrison's distinctive, mysterious chord that opens the title track? The Beatles certainly had their share of fun, irresistible rockers from the start, but "A Hard Day's Night" is a masterpiece of jubilation. The stringed instruments chug at a modest pace, but Ringo plays like a man possessed, drowning out his bandmates in cascading waves of cymbals. Lennon and McCartney share the lead vocals, and where others would fall down with a duet in a song dedicated to a lover, their give-and-take only makes the song more overwhelming.

Dylan's impact can be most readily seen in the next track, "I Should Have Known Better," the last Beatles song to ever open with harmonica, as much a signifier of the shift from Merseybeat even as it perfectly fits into that early sound. It very much sounds like early Dylan even though he hadn't "gone electric" then, when Lennon bringing out the nasal aspect of his voice even more. Lyrically, however, it's McCartney who exhibits the most impressive growth on the album: "And I Love Her" perfectly demonstrates his soon-to-be-legendary ability to craft a ballad that sidesteps the saccharine melodrama that at least tinged some of his early songs and instead emits a haunting, gripping feel that keeps you rooted to your seat. The instrumentation, with its light bongos and Mediterranean guitar, sounds as something you'd hear coming from a villa, and George Martin ingeniously injects a wide space between that sound and the vocals, so much so that I almost attributed the echo to it and not studio effects. It's removed reading of lyrics that, on paper, seem schmaltzy ("A love like ours,/Could never die, /As long as I, /Have you near me") become slightly upsetting, as though the singer recognizes the lie of it.

Paul also scores big with the fast-tempo "Can't Buy Me Love," a track that nearly equals the opener in terms of sheer fun. Then there's his interesting take on nostalgia with "Things We Said Today." Set in the present (obviously), it projects how two lovers will look back on their currently blossoming relationship when they've grown old together. The way the music flows between sunniness and regret as McCartney balances his tale of young love as told by youngsters pondering growing old together, how their memories will keep them warm in time spent apart, is nothing short of brilliant, and it's far and away McCartney's most mature writing of any of the early material.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that Lennon doesn't get in some unassailable gems of his own. "If I Fell," as with "Things We Said Today" is gorgeous ballad with conflicting moods. As with his earlier ballad, "Do You Want to Know a Secret," Lennon displays an ability to pen the gushy stuff as well as his buddy Paul, albeit with a sense of fear and human vulnerability that Paul's more upbeat numbers typically lack. Extrapolating that fear leads to "You Can't Do That," a paranoid vision of a jealous lover who threatens to leave his girl if she continues speaking to other men. Suddenly, the bright depictions of young love of the group's first three albums give way to a moment of harsh reality, when blind love can occasionally be terrifying. Naturally, the group buries this under a pop rock beat (including prominent cowbell!). But Lennon also loses himself in pop at times, and his driving doo-wop "Tell Me Why" and "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," a tune that might as well be shipped directly to high schools to play at their proms.

If With the Beatles saw the band honing their craft, A Hard Day's Night reveals the full might of their unstoppable pop ability. Regardless of the content of the song, you can easily dance along to every cut, including the Country & Western-esque number "I'll Cry Instead," which not only changes styles but delivers some incredibly personal lyrics courtesy of Lennon detailing his discomfort with the avalanche of fame that overwhelmed him and the band. Their first albums showed Lennon and McCartney gently feeling their way through their influences, never flagging and often adding a unique touch that made covers and copied sounds wholly theirs, but with a certain amount of youthful doubt. Here, they emerge as confident rockers, assured that their successes must be the mark of people who know what they're doing, and even if the album is their most matter-of-fact, it's as much an avenue for growth as their previous records.