Friday, April 27, 2012

Free As A Bird

Richard Furnstein: Here's a fun one. Yoko Ono hands over some scratchy John Lennon cassette demos to Paul, George, Ringo, and Jeff Lynne for a Beatles "reunion" track. George Martin wasn't involved in the recording (he must have been too busy making the horrific In My Life album with Jim Carrey, Goldie Hawn, and the Scottish teacher from the final season of Head Of The Class). Fair enough, George Martin would have been confused by the mid-1990s computer programs required to synchronize Lennon's ghostly crackly demos with Tom Petty backing tracks. It's like a Hiroshima of Dad Rock, and I for one am all for it! The time was right for The Beatles to do something like this: the Anthology series was about to give the world a new case of Beatles fever; Oasis made people believe in Beatles haircuts again; compact discs were a hot business so Apple was set to make a ton of money; and George was not dead. Gimme!

Robert Bunter: George Martin wasn’t involved because Harrison didn’t want him to be involved. Paul would have preferred Martin but George wasn’t willing to go along with the whole charade unless the deck was stacked heavily in his Traveling Wilburys favor by the presence of Jeff Lynne. Paul was leery about this (too much slide guitar, crappy drum sound, Jeff's legendary halitosis) but willing to do whatever it took to accommodate his grouchy former bandmate, since it was important to Paul to reunite the Beatles over John’s dead body and make a bunch of money. Ringo’s over here wearing two different color jackets, looking at the other two like “What?” And that’s just the beginning of all the mind games, ego trips, blatant profit grabs and crass exploitation that combined to ignite the “Hiroshima” that this hideous mockery represents. Get the hell out of here with this unlistenable %&@*!

Richard Furnstein: You are right, they did fly too close to the sun with "Free As A Bird." The song presented a glimpse into an alternate universe where John never died. I imagine The Beatles did a lame surprise reunion set at Live Aid and then a Fall tour across America and Europe. They probably put out a reunion LP in the late 1980s that was comprised of some choice cuts from Cloud Nine and Flowers In The Dirt as well as some progressive Lennon material. "Free As A Bird" would have been from the second LP, which boasted Jeff Lynne production and a return to the songwriting focus of Abbey Road. Maybe they'd make a couple more albums before George was taken by cancer. They'd briefly consider bringing in Eric Clapton as lead guitarist, but Ringo would call the whole thing off. You know what? I would have embraced this phase.

Robert Bunter: Haunting, ghostly voices … alternate universes … flying too close to the sun. The Threetles managed to confront the spectre of their past, the eternal presence of the present and the unknowable void of the future with uncanny grace. Back in the fragrant ’60s, the Beatles somehow managed to conquer show business, art and human culture. Who would have thought that in the barren, arid ‘90s, they would conquer death itself with this striking evocation of a togetherness so powerful that not even Mark Chapman’s foul, cursed bullets could tear it apart? In a way, this is the perfect Beatles track – John’s greatest gift was always the flash of immediate inspiration, never mind the tedious follow-through. He left behind some unfinished yet promising ideas, and his wonderful buddies managed to create an utterly inspired work of art that stands with the highest achievements of their golden years. It’s like John is singing from beyond the grave about the beautiful freedom that awaits beyond this vale of tears. Meanwhile, the ones left behind (it’s Paul, George and Ringo, but really it represents all of humanity, as the best Beatlemusic always has) cast a tear-filled eye back to their common past and wonder if they really can live without each other. It is George’s voice (right before the heartbreaking guitar solo with Because-style backup vocals) which delivers the devastating insight that the heavenly freedom within which John now abides consists entirely of the same universal love force that the Beatles managed to create every time they recorded a new song. It is easy to imagine Lennon sitting on a cloud, looking down with a tender smile at his aging comrades in the studio while they recorded this. “Keep the fire, boys. The world still needs its light and warmth. Keep the fire.”

Ringo’s over here wearing two different color jackets, looking at George and Paul like “What?”
Richard Furnstein: Do you think Cloud John winked and gave a hearty ghostman laugh when he heard Paul nick his bridges from "Remember (Walking In The Sand)" by The Shangri-La's? It's the perfect circle of musical love. Paul conjuring the soft cornered memories of sitting with his teenaged best friend, listening to girl group singles. It's a little infusion of the "old sound," mindful of the past yet looking to the future. "Put on some old records, Johnny! Wait, you don't have one of those little doo-hickeys to make the big 45 hole work with this non-jukebox player? Let's just put on the radio. It's all coming back to me now."

Tell me your thoughts on the "Strawberry" style fake on this one, Robert.

Robert Bunter: I’ll tell you my thoughts, Richard. The fake ending was a cheap gimmick. You can imagine the four of them (Paul, George, Ringo and Jeff) sitting around the studio, chortling, in their weird suits: “So, we’re doing a ‘Beatles’ track … we’ve got to put on one of those fake endings, eh? Ha ha ho. Let’s put in a backwards track with a secret message! It wouldn’t be the Fabs without some gooey harmonies and a striking introduction. John always liked effects on his voice, this cheap cassette has a thin tone that would have appealed to him.” The startling innovations of the ‘60s have become tired cliches, delivered with a smarmy, nostalgic wink from the droopy eyes of three very rich men trying to milk a few more dollars from the wrinkled, weary udders of the Beatle cow. I guess I’d have to say I’m of two minds on this track.

Richard Furnstein: Sure, The Beatles took us to the glorious milking barn with the Anthology blitz. I'm writing this mere feet away from my collection of compact discs, book, and DVD set. I'm even considering ordering the Apple logo denim jacket from the Anthology 1 compact disc liner notes ($125.00 in 1995 dollars, plus sales tax and parcel and postage). Do you think that offer is still valid? Still, give me endless repackaging, re-releases, lost tracks, and digital remasters. I don't want to think of a world without new Beatles merchandise. At least "Free As A Bird" and the (frequently excellent) Anthology releases shifted some focus away from Beatles beach towels and other pointless cash-ins towards actual music. We were clearly being manipulated with "Free As A Bird" (or FAAB, as I like to call it), it's simultaneously a really emotionally blank and charged song. I'll take it, though. Thanks for thinking of my needs, Threetles.

Robert Bunter: The Apple denim jacket will be a key part of your Neil Aspinall Halloween costume this year. Of course, I’ll be Mal Evans (with horn-rimmed glasses and overcoat). We’re going to Gina and Mark’s again this year, right?

Richard Furnstein: I'll pick you up at eight.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Baby You're A Rich Man

Richard Furnstein: "Baby You're A Rich Man" is a celebration of the nouveau rich hippies and the LSD-addled visionaries that dotted The Beatles' path in 1967. The Beatles are both dazzled and disgusted by their vacant companions, while realizing that they fit right in with these newly minted millionaires. It's a theme that Joni Mitchell would milk to great effect on her mid-1970s fretless bass driven albums ("Oh man, dig these crazy, drugged out degenerates at this rich Hollywood party! I pity/understand them.").

The verses come off as insincere party banter ("How does it feel to be..."), asked by someone who doesn't really care about the answer. It's just idle chatter at the party before the next party. The person begins to tell John and Paul how they feel but then the tablet kicks in. The ebullient chorus comes in just as Lord Ferret Shoulders start his cosmic response. "Oh sorry, I didn't hear your response, I was chanting about how you are a rich man in a zoo of cowards in my brain. Pardon me while I fall in the swimming pool." I can't tell you how many times I've been at this party in my mind.

Robert Bunter: This one falls into a certain category of Beatle music that I’m very fond of, despite its limited merits: the mid-to-late period throwaway. I’m talking about the lesser tracks from Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, b-sides like “The Inner Light,” outtakes like “What’s The New Mary Jane” and similar garbage (by the way, if you’re wondering why I didn’t mention “Old Brown Shoe” in that list, you clearly have no idea what an enormously important track that is and I would suggest you pay close attention to future “Let Me Tell You About The Beatles” entries for an exhaustive explanation). These songs don’t have the immortal importance of a “Hey Jude” or “Day In The Life,” but I’ll tell you what they do have: amazing Ringo drums, mellotrons, looseness, experimental attitudes, pointless overdubs, weird percussion shakers, tape loops, tambourines, groovy Paul McCartney basslines and so many other wonderful ingredients. The point is, even when the Beatles were self-indulgently coasting, they were providing us with interesting sounds and refreshing perspectives. OK, so maybe “Baby You’re A Rich Man” is the sound of John Lennon looking bemusedly down his nose at vapid paisley millionaires and doodling pointlessly on a Clavioline. I’ll have a second helping, please?

Richard Furnstein: Oh, certainly without a doubt. I'm always up for a little bit of fun with The Beatles. Just listen to Paul howl it up in the fadeout! Can I also mention how much I love the sound of this song? It's anchored by such a perfect foundation of psychedelic drums, slightly overdriven bass, and a thin saloon piano. It was the perfect soundtrack for the home movie footage of Beatles tropical adventures in the Anthology.

I didn't hear your response, I was chanting about how you are a rich man in a zoo of cowards in my brain. Pardon me while I fall in the swimming pool.
I can't tell you how many times I've drafted a tracklist for a post-Sgt. Pepper's fantasy psychedelic record comprised of these "throwaways." Think about the primal groove of "Rich Man" transitioning into the extended mix of "It's All Too Much." Think about "Hey Bulldog" as a central track to an album with garish artwork by The Fool. An album guided by Ringo's incredible huge drum sound and an increasingly unstable set of fantastic lyrics. I'll tell you one thing, the version of "Your Mother Should Know" on my fantasy album would go even deeper into the brain cathedral, all reverb chambers and milky light pouring holograms across a tiled floor. I wish The Beatles gave themselves a chance to linger in this space a little longer, they retreated to the Big Pink ("paint the entire room white") simplicity far too soon.

Robert Bunter: Well, we’re in agreement. The Beatles officially-issued catalog is nice, but it would be nicer if it was larger. Other fantasy albums: Lord Of The Rings soundtrack (there was, in fact, a brief discussion of the Beatles starring in a film adaptation, with John as Gandalf), The Album After Abbey Road (featuring “My Sweet Lord,” “Remember,” “Momma Miss America” and “April 1970”), Do It Yourself (1965 Lennon solo project). Now you go!

Richard Furnstein: I'm not playing this game with you if you insist on putting "April 1970" on the post-Abbey Road fantasy album. That song was Ringo's emotional response to the breakup of the band. Ringo: mindful of the past, looking to the future. Beautiful. It doesn't belong on an album of unity. I am intrigued by the idea of the Lord Of The Rings project, I wonder if it would have been much different from Bo Hansson's excellent 1972 imaginary Tolkien soundtrack.

Robert Bunter: “April 1970” on the post-breakup fantasy album was a joke, you nitwit. April Fool’s.

Richard Furnstein: Wait, is it April 20th already? You got me again, Bunter! I'll catch you next year!

Original artwork by Brian Langan.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Got To Get You Into My Life

Richard Furnstein: Welcome to the Revolver building. Why yes, this building does have a thirteenth floor. Great question, young man. Let's check it out. (Elevator door opens to beefy horn blasts.) Now, you may ask, is this really The Beatles? Sure, we love them for their hard charging rock like "It Won't Be Long" and loping jangle of "Ticket To Ride," but this sounds like alien soul music. The horn arrangement sounds like ambulances powering down a highway in the middle of the night. Ringo and Paul are united in this discrete (and surprisingly) gentle pulse, defined more by tambo slaps than the deep groove explorations like "Paperback Writer."

Robert Bunter: Huh? What’s that? You’ll have to excuse me, I was just picking my face up from the floor because it’s been blasted off by this high-powered Beatles track. Whoo-whee. SHAKE IT! Let’s talk about album sequencing – this would have made a fantastic opening track for Revolver, with its expectant mood and surging exuberance. Any other band would have done that, but, characteristically, the Beatles had a better idea. By placing “Got To Get You Into My Life” second-to-last on side two of what has already been an astonishingly brilliant album, they create the surprising impression that the record is actually gaining new momentum as it nears the finish line. Then, of course, they up the ante dramatically with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Game over. Revolver is a microcosm of the exponential development arc of the Beatles’ pre-White Album career. It starts out great, then it just gets better and better and better. Better than you ever could have dreamed. Then, all of a sudden, it gets 500 times better than that. Hyperbole? THAT’S AN UNDERSTATEMENT.

Richard Furnstein: You're not wrong! Listen, "Got To Get You Into My Life" is a top ten song. "But The Beatles have a ton of great songs, Richard. How can you say that?" Listen, man. I'm not talking top ten Beatles, I'm talking top ten all time. I couldn't tell you if it's about drugs or love or sunshine, but I can tell you that hearing this song is as close as we humans will come to actually levitating. I'm talking gliding down the sidewalks like in a classic Spike Lee trolley shot, the gladiolas blur past our faces stunned in bliss. Are we heading towards the sun? Of course we are. Good Lord, there may be two suns in the sky. Anything is possible right now.

Robert Bunter: Did you hear McCartney on Fresh Air the other week? Terry asks him if he felt concerned about notions of authenticity when they were young, white English kids attempting to play American rock and R & B. Paul says something like, “We weren’t sophisticated enough to worry about stuff like that, we just thought it was fun to have a go. We knew we couldn’t compete with the masters.” That’s exactly the point: American music styles (in this case, Motown/Stax) were just more dabs of paint on the palette. They could plunder and appropriate genres for their strengths, without feeling any need to prove their authenticity. British artists who didn’t learn from this wise example fell flat on their faces. Listen to Eric Burdon’s putrid bellowing or the flatulence of Alvin Lee “singing the blues” and try not to barf.

Richard Furnstein: The difference is that The Beatles would root their genre explorations in actual songs, rather than just hairy chested moon howls over a blues dirge or damp noodle bellows over flute escapades. With that in mind, "Got To Get You Into My Life" is actually a pretty light song for McCartney. The demo version from Anthology exposes the delicate underpinnings of the song, an organ drone and some rough background vocals. This early version highlights the strength of the horn section and George Martin's arrangement. The Revolver alternate takes are the highlight of the Anthology discs, and "Got To Get You Into My Life" is the best of the bunch. It's almost a completely different song in its naked state, revealing the incredible creativity at this phase. It's what I like to call "the departure point."
Revolver starts out great, then it just gets better and better and better. Better than you ever could have dreamed. Then, all of a sudden, it gets 500 times better than that.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, I just listened back to that version, too. One of the things that struck me was the Eastern-sounding harmonies of John and George’s backup vocal parts (first appearance at :43). There are some very similar moments of non-Western diatonic dislocation in the vocal tracks of “I Want To Tell You” (during the fade), “Love You To” (“You don’t get time / to hang a sign / on meeeeeeeeeeeee”), McCartney’s “Taxman” guitar solo and it’s backwards reappearance in “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I must say, in the case of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” I wish they’d left them in. It was a nice, freaky motif for the album. Leave it to the Beatles to take something as unappealing as moaning, dissonant backup vocals and turn it into a glorious asset. One point of disagreement: “Got To Get You Into My Life” is the best of the Anthology Revolver outtakes? How unfortunate that your defective copy does not include the happy giggle version of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which is universally acknowledged as such.

Richard Furnstein: The giggle take is fun, but life isn't a slumber party goof fest. You would certainly rejoice at the altar of EMI if they released the 27 minute version of "Helter Skelter" with Mal Evans making fart noises over top.

Robert Bunter: “You’re not wrong!”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Her Majesty

Robert Bunter: This is a case where context defines meaning. Placement at the end of the last recorded album of the Beatles career serves to deflate the transcendent glory of “The End,” which is a nice idea. Sure, they just brought tears to your eyes with primal guitar dueling, Ringo’s crucial drum solo and a haunting reflection on the Universal Love Equation (as I call it), but they’re at pains to avoid anything that might give the impression that they’re taking themselves too seriously. So they tacked on a funky little McCartney ditty to puncture the heavy mood. It sounds almost nothing like a McCartney song; it has the flavor of an old folk melody or bawdy pub singalong. The lyrics are pleasantly innocuous with just a touch of impudence. If they’d kept the track in its original spot (alternate Abbey Road side two mixes have it sandwiched in between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”), the implications would be totally different.

Richard Furnstein: The show is over, but Paul lifts the corner of the curtain to let a little light back on to the audience. "Her Majesty" is the pollen gently floating through the spring air, it doesn't matter if it lands on a lonely stigma. You are right, it breaks the heavy mood around the side two medley, where The Beatles threw everything at the listener to give him the strength to carry on in a post-Beatles world. But it's sketch-like nature and the crashing indecision of the song's introduction suggest that the ditties will survive. "The End" is a beautiful (ahem) ending, but seems a little forced for a band that was always thinking ahead to the next phase. "Her Majesty" is a relief. "Don't worry," they seem to be telling us, "McCartney's solo album is right around the corner and it is full of non songs like this!"

These false endings underscore the “nothing is real” message of the Beatles and give us hope in some cosmic sense that there always might be something more around the corner.
Robert Bunter: Both sides of Abbey Road end with surprises. The interminable frozen wasteland of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is clipped to an abrupt silence which provides a mighty jolt for the attention of the listener who’d been lulled into a stupor by the hypnotic repetition of the main riff. With side two, they give us another fake-out … we’re wiping the tears from our eyes at “The End,” which is followed by some silence. Well, that’s it for that! The album is done. Wait, what’s this? Fake endings are a staple of the Beatles catalog – you’ve got the eerie “Strawberry Fields Forever” coda, both sides of Sgt. Pepper’s (on side one, the “bye-bye” at the end of “She’s Leaving Home” seems like a natural finish but watch out because the terrifying Mr. Kite is leering around the corner; on side two, the reprise of the Pepper theme seems to bring down the curtain but the listener is abruptly shifted from the magical wonder-show to the melancholy dream that is “A Day In The Life”), “Hello Goodbye” and a moment at the ACTUAL end of the Beatles’ official recorded catalogue, “Free As A Bird,” when an incongruously showbizzy ukulele appears out of a swirl of backwards tapes and poorly-recorded Ringodrums. These false endings underscore the “nothing is real” message of the Beatles and give us hope in some cosmic sense that there always might be something more around the corner.

Richard Furnstein: I always wondered if George Martin supported the fake out ending to Abbey Road. Martin was very careful about sequencing closers for The Beatles. The early albums were based on the live set, so the shredders were given their natural position. That's all folks, there is blood on the mic. Later albums seem to blend the majestic ("Tomorrow Never Knows") and the pedestrian ("Run For Your Life") with consistently exciting results. The Abbey Road Medley was set to tear the faces off of the world (remember this is years before Genesis took us from the living room to Jerusalem in "Supper's Ready" from Foxtrot) and The Beatles decided to set off a roman candle after the bombastic fireworks display. Geoff Emerick later recounted the story of "Her Majesty" remaining on the master of Abbey Road in his soulless book Here, There and Everywhere. Abbey Road engineer John Kurlander kept the aborted snippet of the medley (following EMI rules) and Malcolm Davies missed the tape indication of the extra snippet in the final cutting. Sure, Davies should have been listening, but I think it all worked out in the end! (The album later went triple platinum.)