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.

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