Thursday, December 31, 2009

Playlist: Just my totally favorite moments from this past year.

Just my personal faves, anyway. And by "favorites," I don't really mean favorite Beatles songs-- I really, no matter how hard I try, can't limit myself there. I more just mean songs that proved fun to write about even if I didn't think the songs would be that great, or songs that just struck as particularly amazing on that particular day in a nice bit of kismet, or songs that seemed to resonate with people, or something. So here they are. Maybe this is, like, the best of A Year in the Life. Anyway, enjoy! Hope everyone has a fun last night of the year... as usual, the Beatles are making it better for me.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Beatles spoils, et cetera.

After having slightly bullied my mom about it (as was very unbecoming for someone who's as old as I am, I'd be the first to admit), I was unsurprised to receive the remastered stereo box set for Christmas-- though still terribly excited. Yay!

I was, however, pleasantly surprised to also receive Beatles Trivial Pursuit from my parents. And then my husband up and gave me a wicked sexy Revolver messenger bag, no doubt purchased from the good people at The Fest. So it was a very merry Christmas for me, so much so that I just had to snuggle up with my Beatle gifts for a while on my parents' living room floor.

So far, I haven't had time in the bustle of this time of year to listen to the box set. And everyone I've suggested a game of Trivial Pursuit to has turned me down. Boo.

Anyway, if you celebrated, hope you had a good Christmas with all the gifts, Beatley and otherwise, you hoped for. Here's a Boxing Day gift for you. I have never known exactly when this aired or what it was for, but I imagine it was some sort of Christmas pantomime. It's the play-within-a-play from A Midsummer Night's Dream, so it's written badly on purpose, but funnier than ever in the Beatles' version.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1963

Here's a Christmas message you might be a little more familiar with than the others, at least if you've played Beatles Rock Band on story mode and unlocked some of the delightful prizes they've hidden for you. Because this is one of them.

1963 was the Beatles' first big year, and what a year it was-- as they indicate here, the year prior they'd been a band with the one minor hit "Love Me Do," and just a year later they'd released Please Please Me, played the Royal Variety Show, and become a gigantic phenomenon throughout Britain and Europe. This one's a cute message-- they sing several silly versions of "Good King Wenceslas," Ringo admits to still feeling like the new guy, George very sweetly remembers to thank the Fan Club secretaries, and John and Paul both thank the fans for sending all the gifts at their birthdays. Oh, and Paul, amusingly enough, tries to get the girls to stop throwing jelly babies at them: "We've gone right off jelly babies," he explains.

This was the first message, so this concludes the Beatley Christmasy countdown. They're exactly the kind of thing that make the Beatles more than just a band for me-- they're more like the coolest friends you could ever hope to have. Hope you liked it, and that you have a terrific day!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1964

The 1964 message was only the second Beatles Fan Club Christmas record, and it basically follows the model of the first one the year prior-- it's just a recorded prepared statement. These early ones are fairly hilarious without being insane, as the later ones became. Much as I like ALL these Christmas messages, the later ones sometimes come across as something that your friends made while high as kites, something that's never as funny to you as it was to them.

Anyway, the Beatles are reading off of a sheet of paper that seems to have been handwritten badly, because they keep reading words wrong. It's funny. George thanks everyone for going to see A Hard Day's Night and notes that in February they'll begin filming the next movie, which will be in color and should be another laugh. Ringo lists all the places they've gone during the year, and John and Paul reminisce about recording "Love Me Do" right there in studio 2 all those many years ago (two).

And no, I don't know who's breaking dishes in the background.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1965

You know what was a really big deal in 1965? Well, besides, the band's second movie, Shea Stadium, and Rubber Soul, that is? "Yesterday," of course. The 1965 Christmas message--the last message to be more of a true message rather than a pantomime, which is what the later messages sort of evolved into-- features the Beatles gleefully lampooning Paul's masterpiece several times, which is a large part of what makes it great.

Also funny: the band launching into the first bit of "Just the Same Old Song," until George realizes there's a copyright issue if they continue.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1966

This one is fun for its sketch about Podgy the Bear. That's still the way I remember things when I'm too lazy to find a piece of paper and make a shopping list. 1966 might have been a year in which the band released music so mind-blowing, so mature, that it changed pop music forever, but they're clearly still messing around like a bunch of kids.

Oh, plus there's the song called "Please Don't Bring Your Banjo Back."

Feeling Christmasy yet? I am, slightly, and it's not just the Beatles getting me there-- tonight I fly off to Norfolk (Virginia), where I guess I mostly grew up, to do the holidays with my folks. It's several hours before I leave, but according to the airline's website, my flight's already quite a bit delayed. Hurray! Looks like I'll be listening to a lot of Beatles on the iPod in the airport to keep myself reasonably cheerful. These Christmas messages are pretty good for cheer, though.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1967

The 1967 Christmas message is more cohesive than what was to come later, though it's still pleasantly anarchic. It's like a deranged sketch comedy special that devolves into a psychedelic nightmare-- up until the moment that John reads his sweet little nonsense poem that sends us off to bed. My favorite bit is the song "Plenty of Jam Jars" by a band called The Ravellers ("plenty of jam jars for yoooooooou!" is fun to sing around the house, especially on a day like today when we're basically snowed in and my husband can't escape). But perhaps you'll have a different favorite. It's a good one to close off the year that encompassed the excess of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, not to mention "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)."

You know, none of these messages have much to do with Christmas at all. Maybe that's why I like them so much. No treacle here, and nothing at all heartwarming. Thank God.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1968

The 1968 message was also recorded separately, as the Beatles were already kind of running out of patience for hanging out with each other. But we get some cool weirdness, including a Chipmunky sped-up version of "Helter Skelter," John reading his Jock & Yono poem, a bizarre interlude from Tiny Tim, and insane yet strangely festive soundscapes that remind me of "Revolution #9" outtakes dressed in musical tinsel.

This is one that should make any holiday just a little more demented. Enjoy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Beatles' Christmas Message: 1969

Don't you hate how when you go out anywhere this time of year the department stores are blasting the odious "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" or whatever that saccharine nightmare of a McCartney song is called? Or the only-slightly-less-odious-and-in-its-own-way-more-crass "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" by Johnandyoko and the Harlem Boys Choir? Blech. It's no wonder people loathe this time of year so much, with even artists of the caliber of our lads contributing to the dreck pile. (I like Christmas music just fine, but it's gotta be the choral stuff. Give me Vaughan Williams' Hodie, or the Bach Christmas Oratorio, or the Honneger Christmas Cantata, or even those little Rutter arrangements that are so pretty. Give me freaking Messiah, people. I mean, sheesh, why mess around with anything but the best?)

And yet before the Beatles stumbled through their disappointing solo Christmas crap, they did actually release seven Christmas fan club messages, sent as flexidiscs to club members each year from 1963 to 1969. I like the idea of this, just because it's so dated and adorable, and it's almost more adorable that they continued to do it even when the band was so totally falling apart and the whole idea must have seemed silly and weird. There's not really any music other than the incidental kind in these, and they frequently don't have much to do with Christmas-- in fact, they are largely a load of nonsense, but they're sort of essential nonsense for fans.

I'm going to post videos of the Christmas messages (assuming they're all findable on YouTube) each day until Christmas itself, and I'm going to count down from 1969, the last one, which is the most depressing simply because the Beatles couldn't be bothered to even be in the same room to record it. (And because Ringo uses most of his piece to shamelessly plug his then-new film The Magic Christian, which is notoriously the movie my husband detests more than any other in the world.) But listen for yourself. As we listen this next week, the Beatles will get younger and younger and more and more childlike and innocent, which seems to be in keeping with the Christmas spirit in some way.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All you need is love, and also these fine items.

Where does the time go in December, kids? Where oh where? I guess we've had a good week of silence in memory of John (many thanks to all commenters to that post, by the way), but Apple Corps must go on! Imagine no possessions, you say? Pshaw! We're in the middle of Hanukkah, so I'm coming to this pretty late (what else is new?), but if you're still finishing that shopping, or just beginning your Christmas shopping, or even if you're one of those smug jerks who finished all your holiday shopping last May-- here's a roundup of some of my favorites of the best and worst Beatles gifts of the season.

Yeah, I know. This is supposed to be a blog about the Beatles' music, not this kind of frivolous crap. So I'll start by saying that the most obvious and excellent gifts for the Beatles fans you know and love this holiday season are either the stereo or mono box set, or Beatles Rock Band, all of which are products with total musical integrity. But I think I've nattered on about those rather a lot already. If you've already acquired all those delicious music-based gifts, you've still only scratched the surface of the amazing merchandise available.

For people who like shiny objects: the Yellow Submarine Jeweled Box.

For anyone who's always felt that Beatles fandom would be way more fun if there were more bling involved, this Swarovski crystal - encrusted Yellow Submarine is the perfect gift. Only 700 were made, which I'm sure makes the nearly $100 suggested retail price completely understandable.

For heavy drinkers: Sgt. Pepper pint glasses.

When the lads were teenagers swigging pints back at the Grapes, they probably never dreamed that their own faces would adorn bright neon pint glasses in the year 2009, never mind that they'd be for sale on something called the "internet." Or, I don't know, maybe that's exactly what they dreamed of. Either way, life is weird. Drink up.

For people who want to get all snuggly with some adorable moptops: the With the Beatles throw blanket.
This is the only way I know of to wake up looking into the eyes of a 23-year-old John Lennon. Without doing something sketchy in Mme. Tussaud's, that is.

For your favorite trust fund hippie: the Love drum money clip.
Also a great gift for the fans of irony on your list.

For the very youngest fans: Beatles onesies.

On December 3, my sister-in-law gave birth to very small preemie twin boys, which has been exciting (they're doing well, but they're still very very small, of course). Once they're big enough, you can bet I am going to send them and their no-doubt-appreciative parents two adorable Magical Mystery Tour onesies. Because indoctrinating the youth is what Crazy Aunt Meg is all about! Besides, I prefer to only be seen with fashionably dressed babies.

For people who are fans of Shea Stadium in two senses: Yellow Submarine baseballs.

Now even jocks can show off their Beatle fandom with, um, baseballs. Chuck 'em at the heads of all the Blue Meanies you see, that's what I say.

For your favorite Beatles blogger: Beatles Trivial Pursuit.

Seriously. I want this. I need to, just once in my life, NOT have my ass kicked by my husband at Trivial Pursuit, and this edition represents my only chance of doing so. Pretty please?

For anyone whom you want to flaunt both your money and your stupidity to: the White Album fountain pen. The 2008 holiday season was rocked by a small kerfuffle on the Beatley internets when Apple Corps claimed that they would release the White Album in a digitally remastered 40th anniversary edition, but then released a colossally expensive 40th anniversary fountain pen instead. There is, you see, a big difference. Fans collectively gagged. If you want to spend $528.95 (yes, really) on a white pen, then go for it. And why don't you make your first act with that pen to write me a generous check, while you're at it? Because, I mean, it's clear that you have too much money.

For those who spend the holidays in warm climates: the Yellow Submarine ice tray.

See, cause it's a submarine, right? So you submerge it in liquid? Get it? Of course, eventually it melts, which is kind of grisly if you imagine little travelers in your frozen submarines. By the way, how you get these ice pieces to actually come out yellow is up to you. (I suggest trying to freeze some Mountain Dew.)

There are, of course, lots and lots and LOTS more Beatles gifts available. These are just what I, with complete wide-eyed sincerity, recommend. My personal favorite site for all Beatles shopping is the website of The Fest for Beatles Fans. It's not just a site for the Fest itself (which has New Jersey and Chicago locations each year)-- it's also probably the largest Beatles store on the web. The selection of Beatles books alone is worth a look. Plus, you can wrap it all with Beatles wrapping paper! (Which I actually do totally, totally love.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Another sad anniversary.

Gees, these crappy anniversaries just come running smack into each other at the end of the year, don't they? Anyway, it's now been 29 years to the day since John Lennon died. That's kind of weird, isn't it? I don't have much to add to the wave of online remembrances that I'm sure are lining up in my blogroll (over there on the right), because I was only about a year and a half old when it happened, and I don't have any memories. He's just always been dead for me. A little like the way, say, Abraham Lincoln has always been dead for me. Gad, that's depressing.

But I still get sad every year, even though I have nothing personal to really add to all the grieving. I like to think that if John had lived, the (if we're honest) fair-to-middling Double Fantasy album would have been kind of a blip in a long career of much, much better music. I don't have any reason to believe this, only a strong desire to believe this. I also kind of wonder what John would have thought of Beatles-bonanza years like 2009 has been. He tended to not go for that kind of intense nostalgic stuff, and we probably would have heard a lot of snarky quotes about how the Beatles were just a band and we should all get a life. But I think he would have okayed it all even so. Money talks. And besides, I can kind of see him enjoying Rock Band. He strikes me as the kind of guy who could dig a good video game. He'd probably also be about spending all day watching YouTube, as I've been doing these past few hours. He and I share a common lethargy. (We would have been so good for each other. Oh well.)

Herewith some videos of John that I like. This is one of the good songs from Double Fantasy, made into a very sweet video.

This is John reading a teleprompter at the 1975 Grammys, possibly while drunk.

John reading and dramatizing pieces from In His Own Write on the Not Only but Also show in 1964...

Please go elsewhere if you want to watch the "Imagine" video once again, is what I'm saying. I prefer to think of John this way.

And of course also with songs. John's generally best when singing, and this is some of my favorite singing ever. At least, you know, today.

13. I'll Be Back


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thoughts on Beatle books.

Because the Lennon vs. McCartney question is a debate (and a fallacy) that apparently will never die, I am delighted to see that the new McCartney biography by Peter Ames Carlin, Paul McCartney: A Life, apparently spends a lot of time once again defending Paul's legacy from those who would continue, blindly, to see him as the lameass of the band and to deify a conveniently deceased John. But I am even more delighted to see what else this largely positive A.V. Club review has to say, which is that the book seems not to go as far in the self-promotion direction as Paul himself has veered in recent years. In fact, the review makes the book sound quite balanced and well done overall. I think that I'm going to have to read it.

The best book I've read about Paul is probably Many Years from Now, which pubbed in the '90s. Though technically written by Barry Miles, most of the book is direct quotes from extensive interviews with Paul. This is both cool and lame. Cool, because you're basically reading Paul's own story direct from him. Lame, because Paul often comes off as ridiculously defensive about his career and his legacy, and ends up exaggerating his own accomplishments and exacerbating all those stories about his huge ego. I understand Paul's defensiveness to an extent, but it comes off as cranky much of the time. The book is still worth a read, but be warned about Paul's motives, is all. I'm just glad there's another good biography out there to round the picture out a bit more.

I'm thinking about all of this anew, as I've recently started rereading Ray Coleman's Lennon, which I think I first read in high school. I recently picked up a used mass market copy for a dollar, so why not? Lennon has been widely considered the best John biography out there for a long time, but reading it is annoying me, because it's so sycophantic that even a fangirl like me wants to throw up in her mouth a little. The basic storyline so far is that John gets drunk and beats people up and stuff, but deep down he's a big ol' sweetie! As if the author is afraid of readers hearing anything negative about the guy. (Secondarily, I'm also a bit turned off at Coleman's obvious disgust at rumors that John might have had a fling with Brian Epstein. I'm not saying the rumors are true-- I kind of doubt that they are-- but Coleman protests so much, and goes so out of his way to say what a HETEROSEXUAL guy John was, that it's rather too revealing of his own homophobia. Which is just gross, and is making me kind of hate the author.) But the worst offenses are toward Paul McCartney, who is only mentioned in order for Coleman to sneer at his so-called primness and downplay the intensity of the artistic partnership the two had. If you had only this book to go on, you'd assume that Paul was just some guy John played in some band with for a little while. You know, no big deal. So it's books like this that make Paul feel he HAS to defend himself.

Last year, Phil Norman-- the author of Shout!, a book that I still feel is the best Beatles biography I've read, even though a lot of people consider Norman hopelessly biased in John's direction (not without reason)-- published a new biography of John that's out in paperback this fall: John Lennon: The Life. (Note that Paul's new bio is just A Life. John's is THE Life. Hee.) I haven't read this one yet. In the mainstream press it seems to have been very well received, but among Beatle people there was a lot of vitriol about how this was yet another offering to Saint John the Lennon. I can't imagine Norman's book being worse in this way than Coleman's, though, so I've decided to read this one as well. (Maybe I'll read Norman's book and Carlin's book side by side to compare how they approach their subjects.) I've also heard that Norman's book picks up some of the recent allegations raised by Julia Baird, John's half-sister, about some hidden family secrets or something. Baird has a book out, too, whose title I forget, but which I've been hesitant to read just because, even if true, the whole thing sounds a little too sordid, a little too Maury Povich for my tastes. (Spoiler alert: Aunt Mimi doesn't come off well.)

But my larger point is: Isn't this John vs. Paul thing in the book business just nuts? It makes me glad not to be famous and not to have any legacy really worth protecting. Because the whole things would just exhaust me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Pop Matters' playlist versus my own.

My first playlist that I did on the blog back in, what, April or something, was a hidden treasures playlist. Listing the Beatles' hidden treasure tracks is a slightly ridiculous exercise, given the culture's massive Beatles overexposure in general. But that's why it interests me so much. Besides, for whatever reason, I have personally witnessed several people come to the Beatles (rather like one would come to Jesus) because they heard a kickass song no one had bothered to play for them before, so they ARE out there. My own playlist, though, was rendered even more ridiculous by the fact that I limited myself to songs I'd already written about, so that I could link to them in a shamelessly self-promoting kind of way. So I'll be the first to admit it's incomplete.

That won't stop me from having strong opinions about other people's lists, though. The other day (as usual I'm like a week late) Pop Matters posted a 20-song countdown of the best of Beatley buried treasures. And I have some remarks to make. Sure, all of these songs are terrifically awesome. But are they all really BURIED?

1. "Tomorrow Never Knows." Maybe. I would argue, though, that with the high profile of Revolver these days, "Tomorrow Never Knows" is getting more than its due. Also consider the song's prominence in what is probably the best known remixed track from Love, as well as the fact that George Martin brings it up in like every single interview he does, and I think this is less buried than one might think.

2. "Rain." Again, maybe just me, but I think the kids are pretty well aware of "Rain." It's another one George Martin likes to talk about, and Ringo brings it up quite a bit too. If my husband is any indicator, high school kids like to teach themselves the bass part. All that said, "Rain" should be listened to as often as possible, so if there's any internet surfer who still didn't know it, I guess it's good they'd find it here.

3. "Hey Bulldog." Okay, this one I'm with you on, Pop Matters. It was on my original list because I'm still shocked and appalled that people sometimes haven't heard or don't remember it.

4. "She's Leaving Home." Yeah, okay. This song has its passionate devotees, but I can maybe buy that it's not out in the mainstream as much. Still, though, considering its iconic status as one of the first albums you were supposed to listen to all the way through, can ANY song from Sgt. Pepper ever be described as truly buried? Discuss.

5. "No Reply." Yes. This song deserves more love than it gets. I think its structural oddities might still put it ahead of its time, maybe even more so than much later songs.

6. "You Never Give Me Your Money." I will give you this one only because I can agree that the glories of this song might get lost in the sweep of the Abbey Road medley, all components of which are inferior to this song.

7. "She Said She Said." No one appreciates this one as much as I do, I swear, so I'll come along with you on this, though also gently nudge you back to the first two songs on the list to point out that, due to this song's similarities, some of those same points apply.

8. "Here, There, and Everywhere." See, I don't know. I think this one is pretty firmly on people's radars. Perhaps it's because of the number of times it's been covered. Or because, despite its sophistication, it's still a McCartney ballad, so you can be sure that if you, say, play it at your wedding (which, YES, I did, SHUT UP) even your grandparents will probably nod knowingly at each other at that opening strum.

9. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." Probably. Sure. People love the White Album, but they're going to remember several songs off the tops of their heads before this. Plus, it's obviously one of the bigger weirdos in the catalog.

10. "Taxman." But, no. You guys, people freaking love "Taxman." Have you ever turned on a classic rock station on April 15th? The people are very familiar. Buried this one is not.

11. "Tell Me Why." This is a song that's hidden-- hidden because any fun rocking song would be inevitably hidden by all the masterworks on A Hard Day's Night. An underrated song, and an excellent pick.

12. "I'm So Tired." Hmm. Not sure. The heroin-influenced Lennon songs tend to get a lot of attention from biographers and bitter high schoolers, and, you know, not that the average listener has read the biographies, but I still say this one might have a higher profile.

13. "I'm a Loser." Mostly with you, Pop Matters, except that, again, this is one that no Lennon biographer overlooks-- what with the self-loathing and the Dylan influence and whatnot. But since I still think no one actually listens to this song as much as they should, I'll go ahead and nod along with you here.

14. "Old Brown Shoe." Oh my God, I know. Isn't it criminal how much people ignore "Old Brown Shoe"? This made my list, and for good reason.

15. "And Your Bird Can Sing." Again, RIGHT-O. This one made my list, too. I suspect that Beatles Rock Band might have the power to change this, though. Let's hope so.

16. "I'm Only Sleeping." I wavered here, but then I couldn't think of why. So, okay. Yes. Sure.

17. "It's All Too Much." Here I agree 100%. I'm told that it's kind of cool to like this song now, in the same way that it's cool to like "Hey Bulldog," so I'll take that as a good sign.

18. "Girl." Do you think so? Is this one underrated? Hmm. Maybe you're right. I think it might be more of a hidden Rubber Soul track than a hidden Beatles track, if you take the point, but I'll go with you here, though I feel like a lot of people seem to know and adore this song.

19. "You Won't See Me." Ah, yes, another hidden nugget of genius on Rubber Soul. I am totally in agreement that this is less beloved than it deserves.

20. "Yer Blues." I don't know-- if you're the kind of Beatles fan who likes this kind of song, you've probably already found it, and if you haven't found it yet, you don't want to find it. Does that make sense? I think it's notorious (if not actually famous) just for its polarizing qualities. Rather like "Helter Skelter."

This is obviously all just my opinion, but seriously, whither the early songs, Pop Matters? That's where there are really some juicy hidden songs, even if you arbitrarily decide to not count the covers. Whither "Any Time at All," "It Won't Be Long," "I'll Be Back," or "There's a Place"? I mean, it seems like no one even listens to Please Please Me anymore. (And what's with these kids on my lawn, anyhow?....)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two playlists for a sad anniversary.

Well, it's been eight years now since we lost George Harrison to cancer. On this day in 2001, I remember being in my still-fairly-new Boston apartment, pacing around the bedroom and trying to get some writing done (I was in a grad program for creative writing) and just being completely blocked, so I turned on the radio to procrastinate a little and suddenly it was all George all the time. There was not much hope of getting any writing done once I heard the news.

Remember George however you wish today. I'm offering two playlists to help you out. Here's a playlist of what I feel to be some of the happiest performances of a not-always-totally-happy guy: George at his youngest, cutest, and liveliest. Most alive, if you'd like.

But I thought I should also do a playlist of some of my favorite George guitar moments. If it hadn't been for George, all these Lennon-McCartney songs would have been vastly inferior to what they turned out to be. If these seem obvious, it's because they largely ARE-- but still, they're fun to listen to.

3. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) **(okay, not strictly a guitar moment. sue me.)

And finally, because I cannot help myself (and because I secretly have sometimes questionable taste), the video for the first song by George I ever remember liking. You could not stop my eight-year-old self from dancing around to this one. Yeah, it's a cover, but who even remembers the original anymore? George's version rules. Enjoy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rock Band is Getting even Better.

I see at WogBlog that Harmonix, which had long promised a complete Sgt. Pepper download for Beatle Rock Band in November, has announced solid dates: Xbox and Wii users can download the album on November 17th, while PX users have to wait until the 19th.

Harmonix has already put up Abbey Road for sale to the Rock Banders of the world, and wisely so-- how could anyone who had already laid out the cash for the game resist it? They're pricing the albums at about the same cost as a CD, which sounds pretty okay until you realize that you're only really buying, like, half the album's songs, since a bunch of the album's tracks already came with the game. But it's NOT a CD-- it's a new product, really, for which Harmonix designed lovely dreamscapes and scored all the instruments, so in the end I've decided it's a fine deal to just buy these things. Abbey Road was a good one to start with, too, because it turns out that playing the entire B-side medley as one complete track (which the game allows you to do) is THE MOST FUN THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Like, seriously. It rules so hard. It makes me want to cry.

Have you guys checked out Beatles Rock Band yet? It's kind of taken over my life. I'm doing productive things like reading books/cooking nourishing meals/blogging much less frequently than I'd like, because when I come home from work I just want to sit down and try to get 5 stars on "Dig a Pony," which is the ONE song in the Story Mode that I can't seem to master the guitar part on. (I don't even know why. I've managed "Back in the U.S.S.R.," which is much harder, but "Dig a Pony" keeps messing with my mind.) Or else I just want to kick ass on the guitar solo of "The End" one more time (which is the BEST guitar solo in the game, because you get to pretend you're three different Beatles at once).

If you haven't checked the game out yet, I need to urge you to do so. Whether or not you enjoy the previous Rock Band iterations (I do), the new game is such an affectionate homage to Beatles-geekdom that Beatles geeks everywhere owe themselves a look, no matter how much it sets them back. You might have already read about the crazy attention to detail in the sets-- well, it's ALL TRUE. If you're like me, you've seen a lot of photos taken when the Beatles played the Cavern, Shea Stadium, the Apple rooftop, and so on, and the designers of the game have literally captured even random people in the audience that you'll recognize. (My favorite is the guy with the glasses who checks his watch at the Cavern. Just like he does in that one photo. Awesome.) And in the "dreamscapes," which is the way they animate later songs that weren't performed live, they clearly reference pre-existing video interpretations of songs ("Yellow Submarine," "I Am the Walrus," and so on) while still doing new fun things with the visuals. The attention to detail is SO awesome that I tend to forgive the forays into revisionist, idealized Beatles history-- such as the fact that Eric Clapton does not play the guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Ringo drums on "Back in the U.S.S.R.," and Yoko is nowhere to be seen at the rooftop concert.

My little secret is that, since Harmonix is based near me in Cambridge, MA, I actually got to be a playtester on Beatles Rock Band. I played three separate times, and I got to sing AND drum my way through every single song in the game (except for the new albums they're putting out for sale this fall) months before it was out. I had to sign paperwork giving the MTV/Viacom people permission to, like, draw and quarter me if I told anyone anything about this at the time, so I had to hush up here on the blog. But the point is, I tried to offer this kind of constructive criticism to the playtest people ("Why not put Yoko and Maureen right there on the rooftop? What about how in "Dig a Pony," there's a guy holding up a legal pad to John so he can read his lyrics? You guys should put that in!!"), who politely pretended to take notes and then politely bade me adieu at the end of the night, no doubt shaking their heads at the crazy playtester girl.

Anyway, I've been thinking about Sgt. Pepper and how hard it might be adapt for Rock Band. How on earth would you play the orchestral crescendo on "A Day in the Life," which itself is only the very first potential difficulty that pops into my head? I'm looking forward to seeing how they manage it, though. Because I know where my ass will be on November 17th. My couch. As I play the entire Sgt. Pepper album. And that is way cooler than what the rest of the world will be doing on a random Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playlist: My One-Disc White Album.

Although I'm a fan of the One-Disc White Album game (the game wherein you pretend that George Martin gets his way and that the Beatles release a wicked solid single-disc album instead of the slightly all-over-the-place double-disc album that DID get released in November of 1968, and then decide which songs should be on it and which shouldn't be), I've never been able to satisfactorily come up with a One-Disc White Album myself.

There are a lot of issues, you know, in rewriting a Beatles album. It's not necessarily going to work if it's just your favorite songs. You have to achieve a John-Paul parity, or else you'd have been in trouble with at least one of them. And you need at least two cuts from George if you're going to be fair too. Ideally, Ringo will get a vocal. I'm basically holding myself to the standard Beatles 14-track album size, though I'm allowing myself to go as high as 15 if I end up including some of the really short tracks that pepper this album. This should work as a playlist, so I'm filing it away as one. Oh, and I'm going to futz with the order to better accomodate the new direction a one-disc White Album would have.


1. Back in the U.S.S.R.

2. Dear Prudence

3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

4. I Will

5. Sexy Sadie

6. Martha My Dear

7. Blackbird


1. Julia

2. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

3. Long, Long, Long

4. Don't Pass Me By

5. I'm So Tired

6. Helter Skelter

7. Happiness Is a Warm Gun

8. Why Don't We Do It in the Road?

Do you see how problematic this is?

What my version gets right is parity-- John and Paul get 6 songs each, George gets 2 songs, and we leave in Ringo's contribution out of kindness, which we can do because we've selected two songs that are only about a minute and a half long each. I think there's also a good variety of moods here, with John and Paul and George each getting a straight-up ballad-- well, Paul gets two, but that's Paul. But there's lots of rocking stuff here too.

In fact, the songs that I wanted to include but had to leave out were mostly left out to make room for the various moods I wanted this to include. I want "Savoy Truffle" to be in here somewhere, but "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" seems somehow indispensable, and then I want George's second song to be very different-- so it's "Long, Long, Long." (Besides, I love that song more than is probably healthy.) I have similar problems with "Yer Blues" and "Birthday." And then I find myself leaving out "Revolution 1" just because, you know, at least there's the "Revolution" single... And then, of course, I just want to put in some songs because I heart them, like "Bungalow Bill" and "Cry Baby Cry." You'll note that I also left out songs that might be considered big ones (ahem, "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da") but which I have always considered inferior. One can't help but bring one's own prejudices into this thing.

So maybe this whole game is flawed. But still, have I done anything right here? Is this what you guys think about while you're supposed to be working? Or am I just mildly mentally ill?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Remastered CDs not geeky enough for you?

Well, you're in luck, because the whole catalog is going to be released again, this time on vinyl.

MOJO had the story on its website yesterday. And, you know, I like records a lot. But even I might be too exhausted at this point to lay out more money. I swear, though, if they package Let It Be with a reprint of the original photobook, I might yet relent....

Monday, November 2, 2009

10 observations on the mono box set.

Perhaps you've been asking yourself, "Should I buy the recently released digital remastered Beatles box set in mono?" Well, I'm of the opinion that most people probably should, although you personally might not really need to. It kind of depends on how much of a geek you are. But, wait a minute, you're here reading a Beatles blog, aren't you? So, likely yes. But just in case, I've compiled a very unscientific list of some things I find interesting about the mono recordings-- if any of these features are important to you, by all means spend your money. And yes, I'm like two months late to the party. Sorry. It's given me a lot of time to listen, though.

If you're wondering why anyone's considering buying anything in mono at all, it's because the mono releases tended to be the Beatle-sanctioned releases. In the early '60s, stereo was expensive and nichey and more common among older audiophiles, whereas teenagers would just have been blasting their music from radios and cheapie turntables. Although I'm pretty sure all the Beatles albums had stereo counterparts, the stereo mixes were overseen by engineers and interns and stuff after the band members had knocked off to go, I don't know, bang groupies or whatever. When stereo became a bigger deal in the decades to follow, cobbled stereo versions of Beatles music ended up being the dominant versions available. Hearing the songs in original mono, the thinking goes, is to hear them as the Beatles heard them, as they conceived of them sounding. There is an element of greater purity to these tracks, we are told, since they have not been defiled by technologies that our lads simply didn't contemplate. It's kind of like when people get snooty about playing Bach on a harpsichord versus a piano, the former seemingly more pure than the latter. But the difference is more subtle in the Beatles' mono releases than is the difference in timbre between a harpsichord and a piano. That's why I'm not sure everyone really needs to buy them, no matter how tempting. In fact, some of the time I think it's the digital remastering of the tracks more than the mono thing that makes them sound so good, and so clean. And since I haven't listened to the new stereo releases yet (for financial reasons, I am getting them as a Christmas gift), I can't compare just now.

Anyway, that's a long introduction to my long list. Here we go. By the way, please share your own observations in the comments! Or disagree vehemently with mine.

1. The most agreed-upon bit of info that I've read elsewhere is that you're largely struck by how much clearer the bass and percussion are. This is true, pretty much across the board. In case you've somehow remained ignorant of Paul's and Ringo's awesomeness, prepare to be ignorant no more.

2. Rubber Soul is Ringo's masterpiece. You guys. Seriously. On the mono tracks, you can hear every ingenious fill, every instance of freaking epic tambourine-ing, every time the band threatens to lost itself a little bit and Ringo heroically pulls them back. I don't think he was ever better. (Corollary: "You Won't See Me" is now firmly in the running for my favorite song on Rubber Soul, thanks entirely to the wizard at the drums. My post on this one back in May acknowledged Ringo's awesomeness, but trust me that it's heightened hugely in mono.)

3. The Beatles' messy singing is sometimes messier than previously known. This is truer on the early tracks that were recorded in more of a hurry, the band needing run off on their next tour or wherever, but the remastering tends to expose the adorable lack of polish on John and Paul's shared vocals. They don't cut off together, and more frequently than you might have noticed, they're not always in tune with each other. We already knew this. But it's even cuter in mono. (Corollary: "If I Fell" is a major exception. That singing is as flawless as can be, such that even the remastering reveals no issues. In mono, that song is just as smooooooth as you can imagine. Sigh!)

4. There are some Beatles covers that are less beloved by others, but I think virtually all of them are improved in mono. I don't know why it's the covers more so, and I've been trying to put my finger on it without real success. Considering that some of my picks for Most Improved have vocals by George, though, maybe it has something to do with the way the vocal sounds more stagey in mono, more of-a-piece with the band (more on this a few items down)-- which makes George's sometimes-weaker vocal that much more energized. Anyway, I'm feeling more love for "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" and "Devil in Her Heart" than I have in ages, to say nothing of "Words of Love," which I had no idea was so fun to listen to.

5. Another song that's dramatically improved for me in mono is "She's Leaving Home," which for some reason was sped up about a semitone (I think?) on the mono version from what's on the old stereo version. Not only does this make the pace a tad brisker and save the song from the grossest levels of self-indulgence, it makes Paul's already-high vocal on this song that much higher-- which for some reason sounds kind of artificial to me. In a good way. Now when I hear it, I hear Paul singing alone, on a darkened stage, a single spotlight upon him as he relates his sad tale. It's THEATRE now, is what I mean, and although this is one of those songs I've never quite understood the intense love for, I think in mono I finally really get it.

6. Are you one of those fans who hates George's little Indian forays? I'm talking about the straight-up Indian stuff here: "Love You To," "Within You Without You," and "The Inner Light." Well, you might hate them less in mono. I never hated them in the first place, but they are somehow easier to listen to in the mono set: the drones buzz less and sound more like active musical participants in what's going (albeit while droning), and you find yourself appreciating the disciplined technique, the perfectly meandering melodic parts the other instruments play. Also, it sounds like George is chant-singing inside your brain, which is kind of neat.

7. Speaking of a Beatle singing inside your brain, this is a weird effect that is sometimes cool, and is sometimes less cool. When you listen to mono recordings with headphones, the music feels like it's coming from the center of your skull, which can be odd and somehow unintimate. (At least it's not an oompa band in your brain, though.) There are some songs that I have always loved because it feels like John is whispering very sweet, very dirty nothings into my ear, but in mono he's moved further away into the more unsexy venue of my brain. (I was just listening to "All I've Got to Do" today, which is a really striking example of this phenomenon.) Worse, his voice obviously isn't so separated as in stereo-- there's more of a wash-of-band feel to the sound, so sometimes it sounds like John is singing on stage to an audience of fans rather than just to me. Which makes me sad.

8. However, sometimes John singing inside your brain is the best effect you could possibly wish for. "I Am the Walrus" is one of the greatest mono tracks for me, at least partially because there's something about John's vocal that's much more terrifying here. Maybe it's because in mono his voice doesn't separate from the instrumental texture, so it seems that much more inhuman. Also great is that prominent percussion we talked about. There's more drive to this song than I've heard before, which somehow makes you hear how tightly held together the whole song is even as it sounds like it's devolving into anarchy. But no. John and the band have you completely in their depraved, depraved power. (Shiver.)

9. If I may make a gigantic generalization: the most impressive mono songs are the songs in which the most stuff is going on. I think this might be more a feature of the digital remastering than the mono, but still and all I'm finding it to be true. However, interestingly, the clarity of all that's going on leaves the songs a little more vulnerable to criticism of intent. That is my pretentious way of noting that, say, "It's All Too Much" proves to be a little too much indeed-- you can hear all the psychedelic instrumentation clearly, but somehow that makes you more unsure of what it's all for. (And that's a song I really like.) Whereas in "Strawberry Fields Forever," say, you're struck for perhaps the first time by the discipline of the arrangement, the structural integrity beneath that deep lazy futzed-with John vocal and all the rest. (Corollary: I had this revelation just tonight. That part in "Strawberry Fields"? In the third verse? Where the strings are playing triplets? I just realized that that is, like, the most important part of the whole song. More on this from me later, maybe. I might just have to mull it over.)

10. But here's an exception that proves the rule. It's possible-- possible, I tell you-- that A Hard Day's Night is actually the best album the Beatles ever released. I swear. There is more energy in that album that most bands ever muster in their entire careers. Listen to it in mono and then come back and talk to me about this, so we can stare starry-eyed at each other and know exactly what we're thinking.

What do you guys think?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A breather.

Well, there we are-- by my count (and it would be hugely embarrassing at this point if I've counted wrong) I've listened to every legally available Beatles song, one by one, since January 1. And hopefully you've listened along with me. If you've missed something, go back and give it a whirl! There's not a song here that's not worth your time. (Except for, arguably, well... you know.)

When I decided to start this project and also start this blog-- which I think I came up with on December 30, 2008, while drunk-- I had no idea it would turn out to be such a great year to be a Beatles fan. But so far in 2009 the various announcements have blown me over, one by one: Beatles Rock Band, Beatles stereo remasters, Beatles MONO remasters, Paul McCartney playing Boston (and, you know, everywhere else), Paul McCartney releasing what I swear is his best album in years, and so on and so forth. I feel like I've been able to share the excitement here with people who care as much as I do, though I obviously still haven't even touched on a lot of these gigantic events. (Look for long-winded posts on those sometime soon, as God is my witness.) But ultimately, the songs are what it's all about, and mostly I've just been listening.

And it's great that it's been a terrific Beatley year, because, honestly? It's been kind of a shitty year for me otherwise. Eh, it's not over yet, and it's looking up, what with me starting a brand new job bright and early tomorrow morning-- it's difficult to communicate exactly how excited I am about this. I hope you guys have all had a better year, though, and if you've been reading, then I hope the posts were fun for you.

Because they've been fun for me to write. The blog has, as I'd hoped, been a beautiful little thing I could keep up in dark times. Even when I halfassed it, the love was there. I feel like I've made friends with frequent commenters and struck up acquaintances with everyone who's reading and not commenting. (I know you're out there. Google tells me so.) Now that we've gone through all the songs, I'm going to continue to blog on Beatley topics and probably (inevitably) a little more on other stuff too-- there's a LOT to blog about, and I'm really thankful to everyone who's given me ideas for topics, many of which I'll be using. The blog is not over. No way. I'm addicted now.

But before we head in that direction, would anyone mind if I, like, took a few days off? I mean, seriously. I think I am more shocked than anyone (except perhaps my husband) that I actually kept up a daily blog for this long, and although it's been great, it's also been a bit draining. It's actually embarrassing how long it sometimes takes me to write even the lamest of posts, and I would like to put a little bit of that time back into my life for, I don't know, say, sleeping-- just for a few days. Anyone who's come to know me at all knows that I can't shut up for too long, and there's no doubt that, as the song says, I'll be back.

Thanks so much for reading so far and caring, for some unfathomable reason, about what one random Beatles fan among millions thinks about things. Keep watching for more. I'm definitely here, listening, over and over and over again-- dancing, sighing, singing along, and writing stuff.

A Day in the Life

The subtitle of this blog, which insinuates that there's a Beatles song for every day of the year, is kind of a lie, because this is it. "A Day in the Life" is the last Beatles song in the catalog for us to listen to. Because if there's an even better ending to this project than a song called "The End" it's an almost-minute-long E major chord. Right? Right. Please sit back for a few minutes and allow this song to blow your mind out one more time.

There's a lot-- a lot-- that's been written about "A Day in the Life," which is not only a complicated track with lots for a critic or critical wannabe to pontificate upon-- the lyrics, the arrangement, the production, the John-vs.-Paul analysis, the drugs, the counterculture, yada yada-- but also generally acknowledged to be the Beatles' best song anyway, making and topping all kinds of lists of such things. It's enough to make a fangirl wonder what she can possibly add. What I can start by adding is that I still remember how I felt the first time I heard this, playing my Sgt. Pepper cassette tape -- one of the few Beatles cassettes that retained the original song order, thank God-- can you imagine "A Day in the Life" being in the middle of the track listing, followed by, say, "Getting Better" or something? But, okay, so I remember how I felt when I first heard this, and I think it's best described as abject terror. I think I was 13 or something, sitting on my bedroom floor and hugging my knees as the famous E major chord receded into the distance, bug-eyed with something that I'd never quite felt before. This was not where I'd expected an album that began with such joyful showmanship to go. But even now I can still get that feeling, which I think is why "A Day in the Life" is one of my personal favorites (in addition to being one of the objectively greatest songs-- the two are different, after all). What can I say? I like being scared. Naysayers (of which there aren't too many) tend to see this song as kind of overblown and pretentious, but given that the song can move me in my gut just as primally as the likes of, I don't know, "Twist and Shout," it's working for me.

A quick recap of The Story of "A Day in the Life": John's song, which became the verses, was written based on a couple different newspaper stories. One was about a young millionaire (a Guinness heir, actually) and acquaintance of the Beatles who died in a car crash, and one was about bureaucrats counting potholes. If "A Day in the Life" is about disaffection and emotional alienation, it's a feeling that seems accidentally illustrated in the very fact that John wrote a song based on newspaper stories at all. His own lethargic habits around this time involved him lying around his gigantic suburban house surrounded by newspapers, which he'd read obsessively until he dozed off (he was apparently a champion sleeper), sleeping for hours only to wake up and get high again. Alienation was practically John's middle name. (See, every song that John writes is kind of about himself. It's like he can't help it.) Anyway, Paul's song, which became the bridge, is less of a song and more of a doodle, a jumpy little thing he wrote about taking the bus to school in the morning as a boy. It's slight on its own (maybe in an alternate universe Paul made it into an interesting whole song), but through the genius of the Lennon-McCartney partnership it was recognized as the perfect foil to the dreamy modernism in John's song.

(That reminds me of something: one of the many pretentious things I've read about "A Day in the Life" is that it's like The Wasteland in rock song form. I don't know whom to credit this assertion to, but I've read it here and there. What a pretentious and annoying thing to say, right? Especially because John's clearly a better writer than Eliot. Yeah, I said it. But I've never been able to get this idea out of my head, this sense that "A Day in the Life" is some kind of modernist touchstone in the same way that The Wasteland is, that they share a sleepwalking narrator and a dawning awareness of the inherent meaninglessness of all things. But if I continue down this path I'll be writing a book, and probably not a very good one. I just thought I'd bring that up, is all.)

Although there's been heaps written about the arrangement and orchestration, which I'll probably be honor-bound as a Beatles blogger to write about a little further down, I want to remind everyone that even with the amazing production effects led by George Martin, "A Day in the Life" is a really excellent song even reduced to its elements-- well-written and well-played by our boys. To say nothing of well-sung by John. Oh, John, how could I possibly make it through one of your songs without fawning over your singing? I love it when John gets all up into his high range-- it makes him sound like he's singing with a smile, though here it's a smile that's a little vacant. It carries notes of amusement and sarcasm, but it's mostly just hazy. Part of the scariness in the song is that John seems to be acting without very much feeling, or at least with feelings that as listeners we have a hard time understanding. The "I'd love to turn you on" refrain isn't so much a call to action or even a mournful statement about how unreachable humanity has become-- it's more of a shrug, something that John might get around to doing if he ever manages to get off the couch. "I'd love to turn you on. Eh, maybe after this cup of tea." It's a speaker as disaffected as everyone else is, only passingly aware that maybe something's a little off. And all of this is just expressed in his voice. For what it's worth, I don't think this is what John would say about this song, but it's what I hear-- more hopelessness that John might necessarily admit to.

But as fantastically as John sings this, most recently I've been almost unable to listen to anything other than Paul's bass. From the first verse on, he's doing one of those countermelodies that he does, in which the bass line is so charismatic that it seems to sing a duet with the vocal melody. The drums are really shining here, too, with Ringo playing fills that have this neat languorous complexity to them. And the fills only get more complicated as the song goes on, perhaps representing an increasing interior tension on the part of the speaker that John continues to not reveal in the vocal. (Or maybe I just so desperately want John's speaker to feel something that I'm making that up.) Too, though, check out the bass and drums in the middle section, the "woke up, fell out of bed" bit-- the repeating downward bass lines and tappa-tappa-tapping sound like something resembling slapstick. It's weird. It's like the instruments are laughing at something here, or at least highlighting the absurdity of this little morning routine, in light of, you know, the meaninglessness of all things. (One of the sadder things about "A Day in the Life," especially if one is going to call it the Best Beatles Song Ever, is that George is barely here. He's playing congas somewhere, I think, but that's it, there being no room for his rock guitar or sitar ramblings in this particular Lennon-McCartney vision.)

Now, as well as the Beatles themselves are playing here, it's what George Martin brought to this thing that have made it the unforgettable rock-and-roll poem that it is. It starts with just the production, so laden with echo-- particularly on John's vocal-- that we seem to be in a kind of unreal landscape. Echo effects are so key to what's going on here that even Mal Evans' guide vocal during what was to become the first orchestral crescendo was heavily echoed as he counted off. (Mal Evans, the Beatles' road manager, frequently did random things like this on their tracks. Since initially they weren't sure what music would bridge the gap between John's section and Paul's section, Mal just counted off twenty-four measures while John played a little piano-- it was later filled in with the orchestra, but since they never took out Mal, you can actually still hear him counting, and you can hear that he's echoing more and more if you listen really carefully. Nuts, right?)

The orchestral interludes, which I've variously read as either Paul's idea or George Martin's idea, involve a smallish orchestra (produced to sound larger) beginning at the bottom of their range as quietly as they can, then crescendoing gradually as they climb a chromatic scale, up and up and up to the very top of their range-- or at least to the topmost pitch in an E major chord, which is where we land. Martin specifically told the players not to listen to the people sitting around them, to ascend up to the scale at their own pace and, rather than worry too much about articulating new pitches, to just kind of slide as they make their way up. The effect of this is where a lot of the horror in the song comes in-- the high chaos and high drama of this climb from the lowest to the highest point contrasts so nakedly with the apathy of John's lyric and shallowness of Paul's that the orchestral interludes end up being the emotional crux of the song. Without them, there's a hollowness to the song that's almost too much to bear. (You can get a taste for this on Anthology 2.)

Although I could go on forever, as so many have done before me, I think I'll just stop there, because it really is a song I'd rather feel (and fear) than analyze too much more. Sure, something this complicated will always beg analysis, but still and all, "A Day in the Life" ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts that it can't help but catapult itself into the realm of what people call genius, and there's only so much that more analyis can tell us about it. I'll say this much more: for a song about alienation, "A Day in the Life" rings with the ultimate Beatley communal spirit. It is the harmonious marriage of the wildly different aesthetics and skill sets of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin. That kind of thing doesn't happen often, not even in the a band like the Beatles-- it's a pretty special day in a pretty amazing life when it can all come together. And you know what else? The very existence of art this fantastic being made, and being so widely embraced and beloved by the masses, might even disprove any dark theories the song propounds about human uselessness. Where art this tremendous can exist, there's always going to be hope for us all.

"A Day in the Life," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The End

Although it's not really, of course, not quite. Those paying attention will note that there's one more song to go after today-- and it ain't stupid "Her Majesty," either. But since we're near enough, and since Abbey Road has given me a taste for epilogues, today it's "The End."

So we get each Beatle in a solo moment here, which is very cool and very unique in the catalog. But this isn't the crazed improvisatory jamming that you hear in some of their contemporaries-- the solos unfold against a tight structure, such that it's clearly not just virtuosity for its own sake. You never have a doubt that this is all going somewhere purposeful. The solos are pieces of one larger musical statement. And as always with the Beatles, no one members stands out. It's the band playing together that blows your mind. (Which is why "Her Majesty," the little McCartney jerk-off that follows as an afterthought, basically diffuses everything.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The opening guitar stuff is practically a fanfare in guitar form, announcing that something profound is about to happen. When Paul comes in in his best Paul-McCartney-the-rock-star voice, it only amps everything up. And then there's Ringo, doing the drum solo that only he would offer up-- intensely and perfectly rhythmic, exciting yet unshowy, and tight as all hell. The story goes that Ringo didn't even want this solo (he still doesn't love to play solos to this day), and that there was a guitar playing alongside him originally, but to give him a solo along with everyone they mixed out the guitar and let Ringo shine alone. It's a tremendous solo, one that makes you hear how affecting drum music can be even when (especially when) the drums aren't being Keith-Mooned to death, but what's interesting is that Ringo has some even more kickass little moments throughout the rest of the song. Listen for the drums, and you'll be wowed by his ear for detail and his little flourishes of awesomeness. It just goes to show that Ringo's best with a band.

Then, the guitar solos begin with significantly less humility and more showiness than we heard from Ringo. Each of the guitar-playing Beatles takes two bars each and then hands off the line to the next guy-- so we get two bars of Paul, two of George, and two of John, in a pattern that they repeat three times. It's been acknowledged by lots of people, including John himself, that he is the weakest guitarist of the band, but based on this section alone I would argue that he's not so much weaker as he is different, less virtuosic-- a Ringo of the guitar, perhaps. Paul and George offer badass, melodic solo lines in the long tradition of guitar gods, just freaking all over the place and off-the-charts amazing-- especially George, who comes off as the best guitarist, as opposed to Paul, whose totally singable solo lines help him come off as, maybe, the best musician. Does that make sense? I think I hear that here, even though I might be imposing my own preconceptions on this. John, however, plays gritty, growly lines that end up grounding the whole thing, or something. And don't anyone tell me that John's syncopated drive that hurls us into the abrupt piano stuff isn't wicked awesome. But you can kind of hear that he's most adept as a rhythm guitarist, because his rhythmic sensibilities are just so terrific. Ultimately, the balance works totally well, and the Beatles end up carrying on a fascinating musical conversation-- one in which they really are saying goodbye to each other with affection that language couldn't have communicated, especially at this point in their career.

Doesn't mean Paul's not going to give the language a try, though. His piano chords interrupt John's guitar with percussive A minor chords that never let the rhythmic drive relax. And then Paul tries to put some of this stuff into a grandiose lyric, and I guess kind of succeeds. "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" is a good line, one of those that sounds simple but might belie a bit of sweat on Paul's part. No doubt he was putting the pressure on himself, trying to come up with, like, The Moral of the Story, or at least The Moral of the Beatles. Though I don't usually like morals, there are a couple musical events happening around the lyric that make me shed most of skepticism: for one thing, the entrance of strings on the second "love"-- particularly noticeable given our guitar/piano/drum context so far. And then, of course, the Beatles are singing together so warmly and so sweetly through this whole last section that a girl could almost die of awesome. And then there's the fact that at the same time the meter slows down into 3/4 on "equal to the love," we're being led with the utmost elegance (supported by Paul's descending bass line) from A minor into C major (its close relative), such that by the time the word "make" comes in on the C cadence it's like fireworks are going off. I don't know how else to describe it. 

If you're going to choose to go out with a gigantic gesture, there's no better one than "The End," is there? That C chord just resonates in the air for ever, the loudest and most resonant and most important cadence you've ever heard (or such is the illusion, anyway). It would be corny in a Broadway/Hollywood kind of way if it hadn't all been written so smartly, and if George's soaring guitar solo wasn't the final commentary we hear. You gotta give it to Paul, and to the rest of the band for following his lead, too. I'm not sure any other band has ended their career more awesomely. Oh, Beatles, if this thing has to end, I'm glad that "The End" is the end you chose.

"The End," released in the U.K. side B track 10 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two of Us

The official story on "Two of Us" is that Paul wrote it as an early love song to Linda Eastman. But if you're a fan, you absolutely can't help but hear it as a song about Paul and John together, as young friends and artists and collaborators, spending someone's hard earned pay. So let's all drink a toast to Lennon-McCartney, kids, and listen to "Two of Us," and hope that all of us have or will have a relationship quite as amazing as this one in our lives. You guys, I love this song, probably more than is reasonable. Excuse me while I swoon.

The album released as Let It Be was, of course, built from sessions of what was to be called the Get Back project, and maybe that's why the song sounds kind of retro. There's that slight Buddy Holly sound in the spare on-the-beat percussion, for instance, and more obviously, there's the Everly Brothers-esque singing-- it all sounds like a throwback to some of the first songs John and Paul played together. The singing in particular is more overtly Everly-esque than a lot of other two-part singing in the Beatles catalog. John and Paul sing in such unvarying thirds that the effect is the classic Everly effect, wherein it becomes hard to tell which line is supposed to be the melody-- you end up hearing the two pitches in each interval as one functional musical unit, each pitch becoming subsumed into the greater whole of that solid third. You might go so far as to say that the two voices become one, and that the whole idea of a unity made of two separate parts is maybe somehow kinda-sorta alluded to in the lyrics of "Two of Us" as well. Isn't that neat?

To further heighten the feeling of two parts uniting, John and Paul are both playing acoustic lead guitar here, eschewing any guitar-driven star quality. In fact, the most impressive guitar work here is done by George, who's playing a pleasantly elaborate bass line, though it doesn't sound very bassy as he's playing it on an electric guitar. He's actually, if I may say so, playing the bass in the manner of someone who's used to playing guitar solos-- it's downright soloistic. The effect in the verses is that Paul and John are strumming in a kind of friendly lockstep, while George on the bassline dances all around at their feet like an eager puppy or something. Does your head hurt yet with all the hammering of the metaphors I'm doing? Ringo, meanwhile, is playing in what might be the most unshowy way he ever has, except for the way that his simple fill holds our hand as we cross from the refrain into the bridge sections. Maybe he figures the rest of them have some stuff to work out.

But anyway, "Two of Us" is obviously not entirely a throwback kind of song-- in fact, there's a beautiful kind of non-symmetry to it that marks it as very Beatley. I'm talking mostly about the fact that the verses do some funky things with meter, and it's all the more delicious for being handled so smoothly that you practically don't even notice it. It's one of those situations in which the metrical shift makes the text sound a little more naturally spoken, so you hear the shift as very natural. In the first bits of the verses, the "two of us riding nowhere" parts are in 4/4, though even this is imperfect, with a little half-measure of two beats that sounds very natural thrown in the middle. But then the refrain slides seamlessly into 3/4, beginning on the word "home," and just as easily slides out of it during the instrumental breaks that come after. There's another big shift that's handled with equal grace when we go from the refrain into the bridge and suddenly go from G major into the parallel g minor. Although the effect is that the entire bridge sounds significantly darker than the verse, it feels totally right, just the way it feels right for the sun to sometimes go behind the clouds. It lends those more wistful lyrics-- "you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead"-- the musical heft they deserve. And of course Paul's singing on his own here. He's a little more inside his own brain. But he doesn't need to say anything more about what the memories are-- John already knows exactly what he's talking about. That's what's so beautiful about this.

I guess most people wouldn't necessarily call "Two of Us" the best Beatles song ever, and I guess come to that I wouldn't either, but I still find it unspeakably poignant. It's Paul writing it that way, of course, just squeezing my gut the way that he's capable of doing with these sweet little melodies the gods apparently whisper into his ear as he sleeps. But it's also the poignancy of the words he's written. I don't want to take them apart too much-- the "burning matches, lifting latches" stuff sounds like half truth-half wordplay anyway and doesn't want to be analyzed much-- but the delight here is all so simple. "It is so fun," says the song, "just to hang out with you. We have so much fun together!" It's a very easy, very youthful sentiment, and it always makes me smile. I defy you not to be cheered up by "Two of Us."

In Let It Be, they show and early rehearsal in which they're playing this one like a rock song, which ends up not working at all. They were wise to scale it back and folksify it, no doubt. But the rehearsal is still a fantastic clip. John and Paul are having so much fun that you feel like you're watching something that's almost intimate. It's gorgeous. It somehow nails the feeling that's at the heart of this band for me. It makes my gut hurt.

"Two of Us," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S. May 18, 1970.