Friday, May 11, 2012

I Want To Tell You

Robert Bunter: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is unquestionably the highlight of Revolver, which is unquestionably the highlight of the Beatles’ career. That makes George Harrison the best Beatle, thus the best human. Somebody call the people at the World Almanac and have that inserted into all future editions. There are many people who’ll put down George’s early contributions to the catalog, and I’m one of them. But he was shot out of a goddamn rocket on Revolver. “Taxman” was a bracing opener, but “I Want To Tell You” shows that he has managed to equal his older Beatle brothers – not just in infectious pop craftsmanship, but harmonic, lyrical and formal innovation. You’ve got the unusual fade in with a disorienting rhythmic stagger that makes it difficult to tell where the beat falls, the bold yet appropriate use of dissonance, the freaky Eastern harmonies on “I’ve got time” over the fade – I could go on. Simply, this is a knockout home run touchdown to win the championship. The opponents have all been defeated.  

Richard Furnstein: This is the part where I tell you that you are completely wrong, right? WRONG. You are actually right. I've always considered "I Want To Tell You" one of the purest and most beautiful Beatles songs. It suggests an age of discovery that is rooted in bubblegum while hinting at the weirdness and ambition that would catapult The Beatles past mere saccharine treats. I imagine super intelligent aliens would produce something similar to "I Want To Tell You" if you gave them a copy of a 1910 Fruitgum Company album and some gentle early-generation drugs. As you said, it was such an incredible accomplishment for George Harrison at that stage. It's only a year removed from such awkward fare as "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much," yet the quality of his Harrison's Revolver material suggests a complete reevaluation of his songwriting contributions to The Beatles. "I Want To Tell You" is the best of the bunch and never sounds like a gangly younger brother of John and Paul's muscle man songs. I honestly don't know if either of them could come up with a song that so perfectly balances innocence and tension.  

Robert Bunter: It’s just exciting, man. This song has an irresistible energy and drive. For once, George’s thick, phlegmy Liverpool accent is perfectly suited to the music. Major buddies John and Paul chime in on wonderful harmonies, of course. Can you imagine how good the guitar solo would have been, if there was one? The lyrics evoke the world of emotions that George was likely feeling during this heady time. Sure, there were countless meaningless groupie conquests and late-night snogs at the Bag O’ Nails club, but in the swirl there may have been a few young ladies who inspired real feelings in this sensitive young man. His fast-paced world didn’t allow their full expression, however. Picture it: Stockholm. 1965. George slowly awakens, looking slim and fit in his fashionable “Swinging London” undertrousers. Last night’s “bird” slumbers gracefully beside him. Gerte (or was it Fabiene?) had some surprisingly complex thoughts on Dylan’s latest LP, and her hair had that great smell that you only get to smell once in a while. Of course, she was stunningly beautiful. They laughed all night, and when she smiled it lit up the whole room. But now it’s 6:45 a.m. and the cold grey dawn is seeping into the windows of this luxury Stockholm hotel. “Eppy” (dapper Beatles manager Brian Epstein) is on the phone and it’ll soon be time to catch the limo to the airport. The horrible shrieking of thousands of kids outside is already audible. Jesus, I don’t even have time to brush my teeth. What was her name again? “I’ll probably never see her again,” George thinks to himself, and he was right. Later that afternoon on the private airplane, George stares out the window, lost in melancholy thought as the other Beatles laugh uproariously in the course of a card game. Mal Evans is wearing a cowboy hat and everybody’s listening to Herman and the Hermits 45’s at the wrong speed. Now that you’re inside George’s headspace, put “I Want To Tell You” on again and you’ll know exactly where he was coming from. That’s the true story of how it happened.
Later that afternoon on the private airplane, George stares out the window, lost in melancholy thought as the other Beatles laugh uproariously in the course of a card game.

Richard Furnstein: Thank you for that. I pictured it. I went online and went to and printed it at my local pharmacy. I'll probably frame it later if I stop by Ikea this weekend. I truly want to believe that the genius of "I Want To Tell You" came from pure inspiration--a hint of French perfume on his wrinkly collar--rather than a blind hit from George Harrison. It really does succeed in many areas where George's songs usually fall flat. You already mentioned the appeal of his phlegmy voice on this track--an anchor on many Harrison songs, especially in his 1970s solo output. The bridge is a particularly interesting case: it's a really unique progression. Typically, George's explorations in non-conventional chord structures sound a bit stilted and overly melancholy (put on the Living In The Material World album for evidence). Finally, George slips some of his Eastern-melodic influences on the songs outro ("I've got tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime"), giving the song a hint of Champa without completely falling into the Pagladiya River ("Within You Without You" and "The Inner Light"). To be fair, those perilous and perfect undulations sound like they are coming from Paul's golden throat (Paululations!). "I Want To Tell You" is truly George Harrison's perfect game. It's a beautiful thing and it's thrilling as can be, but you almost wonder how the heck he pulled it off!  

Robert Bunter: You’re correct. Let me just take this opportunity to say, was there ever a better drummer than Ringo? His lead-footed beat and primal fills are absolutely crucial to this track. Paul’s bass is wonderful, especially toward the end where the whole thing starts to unravel. John’s contributions are less clear – I’m sure the cleanly picked guitar arpeggios were George’s work, and Paul seems to be the main presence in the vocal harmony mix. I imagine John might have been sitting up there in the control room, with a slightly raised eyebrow as he listened to the initial takes, like “Oh ho? Wot have we here? Thick little George has written quite a good track here, hasn’t he? Perhaps I need to step up my game.” That’s just a little imaginative flight of fancy, I have no way of knowing whether that ever really happened. I’m sure John Lennon never thought or said the phrase “step up my game,” for one thing. But I know this: my earlier fantasy about George and the girl in Stockholm is completely true. It just has that ring of authenticity to it.  

Richard Furnstein: Huh, what? Sorry, I zoned out there for a minute. I was too busy imagining myself in that Stockholm lovers' nest. The morning damp with regret. Heart strings pulled by the stern hands of Grandfather Time. It's a sad and beautiful story and I wish I had the bed sheets for my special Beatles memento collection.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

Richard Furnstein: "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" is the end of the line, the final stop on The Beatles' Hamburg express. It was a road littered with backstage weisswursts and quaalude smoothies; four boys trying to match the raw buzz of their beloved rock and roll singles. The Help! album was the last hurrah of a floppy haired rock band--before the sound of sitars filled the room and love and money complicated lives instead of simply fulfilling teenage fantasies. "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" is the sound of young men who were still satisfied with the sound of drums bouncing off of unpainted walls, smoky guitar parts, and shredding your throat because it is the last song. The retreat to the studio and from their former selves really began with Rubber Soul and its sophisticated arrangements. Sgt. Pepper's would be the full realization of the artificial world of tape and echo. Sure, they'd try to revisit the primordial wail on Let It Be, but the love was gone. Why would they retreat to the limited palette of early rock and roll when they have climbed the highest mountain of Pepperland. So long, dear friends.

 Robert Bunter: Yeah, it’s pretty raw. A basic 12-bar blues with a repetitive guitar riff, ape-man cymbal assault, screeching vocal through a slapback delay. You’re right that the Beatles didn’t manage to recapture the youthful magic on the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, but it wasn’t all that much later that Lennon managed to re-invent this song in a much more successful way at the “Live Peace In Toronto 1969” concert event. Hairy-scary beardo junkie John in the pure white suit and bloodshot eyes, screeching “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” with Klaus Voorman and Clapton on guitar while Yoko writhed around in a bag. Whoo-whee! SHAKE IT! That was a spectacle intense enough to make those long-ago Hamburg weisswursts look like demure cocktail wieners. The point is, this song has always been terrifying. It sticks out like a sore, infected thumb on “Help!” among the gentle acousticism, McCartney pop, Harrison flops and George Martin piano riffs.

Richard Furnstein: Well, sure, the Toronto version is a horrorshow. Lennon was entering his thirties in half vampire/half Howard Hughes mode, trying to capture some of the vital life essence of his younger years. It's easy to interpret his smacked out Toronto performance of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" as more than a "Rock and Roll Revival," it was a desperate attempt to ground himself as his childhood friendships and the juvenile comforts of The Beatles years were rapidly dissolving. He would later calmy assert "I just believe in me/Yoko and me," but that performance of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" suggests that all he could count on was fear and isolation. Look at that man screaming into the void ahead of him. The stage fright filtered through a blitz of drugs and destroyed ego. Lennon's cagey behavior in the footage of that concert suggest a broken man who, while adored by the world, couldn't face a crowd of simple Canadians without being held up by his famous friends and his eccentric wife. It's Lennon doing "his new thing," but it's essentially his old thing (just sloppier). He would later package the set (along with a stirring version of "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)" as Live Peace, but the evidence suggests anything but peace. It's a portrait of a thirty year old man at war with himself. Give peace a chance, John.

That was a spectacle intense enough to make those long-ago Hamburg weisswursts look like demure cocktail wieners.

Robert Bunter: The Beatles sure did love Larry Williams. They covered three of his songs, perhaps more than any other artist: “Bad Boy,” “Slow Down” and “Lizzy.” Without the Beatles’ kudos and admiration (not to mention all the generous royalty cheques!), he would have perhaps died in penniless obscurity. As it stands, I’m not sure how he died, or anything else about his life, really. I keep getting him mixed up with Andre Williams, who recorded “Bacon Fat.” The important thing is that the Beatles loved him. They probably rushed to the record shop eagerly to greet each new release, pushing each other out of the way in the queue, waving fistfuls of cash at the hapless clerks. “’Ere then, give us the new Larry Williams, mate!” Then they would rush home to their dank flat and listen to them excitedly. Larry Williams may have died (I am unsure), but his memory will always live on, in vivid recollections like that one.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Helter Skelter

Richard Furnstein: Can you imagine the look on George Martin's face when he heard this giant bat of the sub-apocalypse fly through Abbey Road Studio? He was probably sitting in the control booth with perfectly rolled shirt sleeves, balancing his morning tea on his delicate left knee while munching on a carob muffin. Just another day at the office, right? Then these four British vikings swoop in with blood in their teeth and fire in their eyes. Ringo has birds of prey carrying his drums through the haunted skies. What do these evil men want? No matter, give them our prettiest daughters and the grain harvest. Just make them go away before they destroy everything. I'm sure George Martin wanted to head to church and make some confessions after hearing this leering, fully fanged treatise of sex and violence. It might be a heavy metal song, but it makes that music sound like wimpy, juvenile garbage. Is that a children's squeaky toy in the mix at the end of the song? What the hell is happening here?  Is that a pentagram on the wall?

Robert Bunter: Yeah, that’s some assault, pal! Sure, The Beatles invented heavy metal (along with music videos, long hair on men, colorful clothes, the counterculture, meta songwriting) on this track, which McCartney supposedly composed after reading a Pete Townshend interview where Pete described wanting to write the filthiest, heaviest Who song possible (he was likely talking about “I Can See For Miles,” but Paul didn’t know that.) Paul liked the idea and decided to take a whack at it. One suspects he was also pleased to do something to muddy up his top-hat-and-cane, choirboy balladeer image. “Hey, I know everybody thinks that I was the softie and John was Mr. Rockandroll, but what about ‘Helter Skelter?” Well, you’ve got a point there, Paul McCartney. This track is really, really awesome. Especially in mono.

Richard Furnstein: Paul takes us to the spiral slide on a balmy May evening; a cloudy flashback to a forgotten English childhood. The song provides the sensation and motion of spinning in an endless circle: the flashing lights begin to slowly pause into a bleeding trail and the trees along the ridge blur into a hulking monster of green and enveloping sadness. His friends (John, George, Ringo, Mal) are still there but their faces have blurred together as well. Summer is about to begin/summer is over. You aren't a child anymore, brother. This is the loss of innocence.

Paul shouts "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" on "Helter Skelter," but it isn't from a place of excitement like on "She Loves You." He seems to be providing affirmation of the unknown evil forces--the darkness--that surrounds this track.  Remember that the devil cannot enter you unless you invite him in. "Helter Skelter" is a gorgeous combination of claustrophobia and a blank void. It's driven by the fear and excitement of the unknown--the next move is huge, but you aren't sure how to take it. From the jungle gym to the jungle!
Four British vikings swoop in with blood in their teeth and fire in their eyes. Ringo has birds of prey carrying his drums through the haunted skies.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, the “childhood slide” angle on this lyric is really bizarre. He sings about a slide, then addresses some very adult lyrics to a grown woman. Meanwhile, the musical atmosphere suggests a terrifying bat cave. This is another example of the new, frightening emotional colors that the Beatles were beginning to add to their palette. We’re all used to shades of Joy, Wonder, Excitement, Melancholy, Trippy, Love and Arrogantly Bemused. The White Album (!) deploys Terror, Madness, Anger and Sardonic Contempt in much bigger amounts than we’d come to expect. No wonder Charles Manson heard this and decided to commit a bunch of crimes. Of course, that’s no excuse. Richard, tell me about the recording session. You know what I’m looking for here. Paint me a picture.

Richard Furnstein: Certainly you are referencing the loose and hypnotic initial takes of this song. Early versions clocked in at 27 minutes and 12 minutes (the latter was edited for use in the Anthology disc). It sure is titillating to imagine the good guys going off script. Light some candles and knock the dank out of this basement, we're going on a little journey. And what a journey it must have been, featuring Paul in full on blues trance mode, George repeating mantras in his head as his Gibson's sweet tones turn his legs to jelly, John nodding off, his forehead planted on a nearby wall, and Ringo famously told us about the blisters on his poor fingers (albeit only on the inferior stereo version). George Martin probably hit the talk back button after that half hour mega jam and told the boys to tidy up the arrangement. The boys would do that anyway, but I'm sure there was the initial jolt of excitement as Paul envisioned dropping a four disc version of their new album, complete with the extended explorations of "Helter Skelter," "Revolution 1," "What's The New Mary Jane," and "Revolution 9." It would have been the ultimate sign that The Beatles were unable to compromise or edit their increasingly disparate musical output. "Helter Skelter" would have taken an entire side and we all would have loved it. Hopefully that fictional version of the White Album also had sequential numbering.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, that must have been a hell of a session. I’m not sure where they got this information, but several Beatle book authors describe George running around with a flaming ashtray on his head while they recorded the 27-minute take. I don’t understand that at all. Was it one of those little diner ashtrays? What did he do, light some paper on fire and run around? How did the paper not fall out? Or what if it was one of those big burnished aluminum floor ashtrays on a stand? How do you put something like that on your head? Were they operating strobe lights during this session? Common sense says that would be impossible, but it seems so right. What drugs had they taken? What were they drinking? Cognac? What did John look like during this session? Was it before or after he shaved the Sgt. Pepper moustache? Granny glasses on or off? I’m picturing light beard stubble and a white linen cloak, but there will probably never be a way to find out for sure.

Richard Furnstein: Wow. Look, I've got goosepimples!