Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Here, There, And Everywhere

Robert Bunter: Paul McCartney’s ambition ranged beyond his generational peers; he longed to number himself among the great songsmiths of the 20th century. This was an admirable goal, but it occasionally led him to churn out subpar hat-and-cane soft shoe shufflers like “When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know” and “Honey Pie” (not to mention a whole festering pile of rooty-toot solo tracks). He got it right with “Here There And Everywhere,” though. This is a song that has a structural integrity and verbal cleverness that ranks right up there with the finer work of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, yet it never descends into preciousness or nostalgia. The emotional core is pure and direct, not at all diluted by such trickery as having each verse begin with a separate word from the title, the non-repeated introductory prelude, the unorthodox harmonic modulations and having the bridge lyrics segue seamlessly into the succeeding verse. In the hands of a less-deft songwriter these would come off as showy gimmicks, but McCartney manages to evoke the benevolent warmth that the best Beatle music always does.

Richard Furnstein: A shimmering beauty. It's certainly up there with (its point of inspiration) "God Only Knows" as The Greatest Love Song In World History. Both songs share a similar quality of being at once complex and simple, although Tony Asher's lyrics for "God Only Knows" aim for a much deeper sentiment than "Here, There, And Everywhere."

Anyway, we're lucky that Paul McCartney plucked this song from the heavenly clouds of eternal genius when he did because the Revolver-era Beatles were particularly well suited to record this track. A swell of harmonies raise a glowing banner over the opening lines, before Ringo's gentle cracking leads us into a comforting chord sequence. Paul casts some shadows with a well place F#m ("wave of her hand") before settling back into a comforting tin-pan alley stroll. The performance is a lovely demonstration of restraint. Just listen to the crackle of John's bad boy rhythm guitar and George's sugar glider guitar leads. And then, all of a sudden, the "perfectly lovely" tune accelerates on the milky mile and blasts through the galaxy (right at the moment of "I want her everywhere") as Paul expertly changes key and mood. John and Paul would regularly claim they were just uneducated brutes taking a stab at writing some tunes, as if it was all about stealing some girl group melodies and throwing in some joker chords. That chorus isn't the work of some dumb cavemen, it's pure wonder.

Robert Bunter: Paul's love songs often take the long view - where John tended to be galvanized or tortured by the intense emotions of the immediate present, Paul often seemed to look ahead to the years of gentle mornings, quiet afternoons and tranquil evenings which are the lifestuff of a loving married couple. With John, it was all or nothing - he was in your face, screaming "Help!" or "You better run for your life!" or "I want you so bad it's driving me mad." Paul played it slow and steady, longing for a mellow partner with which he could live on a farm and smoke reefers with. "Here There And Everywhere" fits this template, along with "And I Love Her," "I Will,"  "When I'm 64," "Every Night," "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" and many others. Later he found that wonderful mellow reefer woman and they spent many happy years together.  Meanwhile, John married a crazy artist and spent the '70s lurching from one ridiculous obsession to another (radical left-wing politics, conceptual art installations, drunken party animalism with Nilsson and Ringo) before finally settling on the "stay at home and quietly bake a loaf of bread" plan that Paul was advocating all along. Or so it seemed to the outside world. Unfortunately that's not really how it was. John spent those late '70s post-Walls and Bridges years in an opiated stupor, his body wasting away to nothing and his once-sharp mind reduced to the floppy texture of an over-boiled noodle. Meanwhile Yoko was consulting a series of astrologers and wasting huge amounts of money. I'm sorry, these are the facts. 

Richard Furnstein: Hey man, I wish it wasn't true. John was unfortunately constantly searching for a way to fill his empty heart with life. Lennon's wanderlust combined with his (underdeveloped) political concepts and yearbook-yearning poetic musings capture the imagines of the sensitive and troubled. John wanted love (or, more accurately, to a mother's love) while the world presented him endless opportunities to live out Freddie Lennon's most reckless seaman fantasies. Meanwhile, Paul was similarly pushing towards the light, but found greater comfort in melody, emotional directness, and (you are absolutely right) domestic tranquility. Paul's steady hand would later be exposed as his greatest weakness in the band (his propensity for "granny music" late in The Beatles and throughout much of Wings). I'm certainly not the first to point out the fundamental differences in the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team. Consider for a second that Paul tried to bring emotional security to the neglected Julian Lennon during his parents' divorce in "Hey Jude" while John delivered a rattled and politically confused "Revolution" as the b-side. "Here, There, And Everywhere" can be similarly viewed as a peace offering, a guide to adulthood that takes a different form than John's sloganeering or George's green mysticism.

The whole thing sounds as warm and lovely as a bright morning with the lovely Linda on the McCartney's ramshackle Scottish farm in 1971. A cup of tea and a cigarette; read the latest issue of the Melody Maker while Linda boils an egg.
Robert Bunter: The spare musical arrangement and minimalist studio production show admirable restraint. On an album where the boys were restlessly pushing the boundaries of recorded sound (Revolver perhaps their most boldly experimental LP), they had the maturity to recognize that this gorgeous melody and (deceptively) simple lyric needed no sitars, tape loops, variable speed gimmicks or backwards masking. The guitar tone is bare; the drums are almost comically restrained, and Paul keeps his penchant for busy, clever bass lines in check. The only production flourishes are quite mild - a subtle splash of cymbal leading into the bridge - it sounds like a wave gently breaking over golden sand as the tide comes in (0:55)  - and a hint of Eastern European gypsy exoticism in the second guitar counter-melody (1:02) that leads the bridge back to the verse. Of course, Paul could deliver an emotionally-charged and virtuosic lead vocal, but he opts for a straight delivery of a melody so graceful it needs no adornment. The most prominent sonic element is the gooey "Oooh" harmony trio of John, George and Paul, but even here The Beatles (as I call them) have resisted the temptation to gild the lily. Not too many exotic note choices or melismas, just the basic chord progression.

Richard Furnstein: The stripped down nature of the song provides all the glitter that this song needs. The swelling ocean implied in Ringo's rich cymbal hit is absolutely perfect. The guitars provide some lovely and unexpected textures, including the bright push of tiny amplifier tubes as well as the ambient creaking wood and fret noise that runs throughout the song. I particularly want to call out John's somnambulist  "love never dies" and "watching their eyes" at 1:55." It's all too much.

Robert Bunter: The whole thing sounds as warm and lovely as a bright morning with the lovely Linda on the McCartney's ramshackle Scottish farm in 1971. A cup of tea and a cigarette; read the latest issue of the Melody Maker while Linda boils an egg. Later: vigorous physical lovemaking and an hour or two at the piano searching for melodies. These are the days of our lives.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite

Robert Bunter: In a way, John’s terrifying “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” ranks among the most “peppery” of the Sgt. Pepper’s tracks, in terms of Paul’s concept of a Beatles record masquerading as an old-timey variety show. In subsequent years John would play down the “Pepper” concept as a fraud and a McCartney ego trip (and of course John’s album closer “A Day In The Life” manages to simultaneously deflate and shed light on the harsh reality behind Paul’s whimsical fancies), but at the time he was willing to play along. Characteristically, John’s vision of an old-timey variety show has a lot more fangs than Paul’s. Paul assumes the emcee role and opens the curtain with flourishes of showbiz razzle-dazzle. Then we are introduced to the hapless yet loveable Billy Shears and his ode to friendship. A few tracks later, “Mr. Kite” offers a much darker vision of early 20th century popular entertainment – John’s emcee is a bored-sounding carnival barker, his voice oozing over the grim, minor-key gypsy melody with the same jaded contempt that strippers and freak show performers feel for their drooling audience of rubes, marks and squares. Paul conjures visions of a pleasantly amused crowd reacting to a colorful and friendly band of performers; John invites us into a dank, stinky tent where elaborately-moustached gymnasts in eggshell tights tumble through flaming hoops and drugged horses dance creepily (this was really accomplished with painful, hidden clamps and spiked bridles which directed the poor beast which way to go). But don’t worry! All you have to do is turn the record over and you’ll be ready to enjoy George’s interminable curry sermon, punctuated by a turgid sitar solo in 7/4 time. Thanks for inviting us to your wonderful show, Beatles!

Richard Furnstein: Lennon took most of the lyrics to "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" from a Victorian carnival poster discovered in an antique shop (word is that John read from the fine print on the poster as he sat at the piano, pumping out the tune). However, the horrorshow ambiance of the recording is purely Lennon's drug fantasy. The sound of "Mr. Kite" fits in with the unsettling combination of nostalgia, fantasy, and drug experimentation of The Beatles' psychedelic recordings. The famous cover photo for Sgt. Pepper's is a window into this world, where The Beatles are outfitted as a droll marching band in a sea of black and white oddities (Aleister Crowley, a slightly hidden James Joyce) and technicolor splashes (the sheen of the marching band outfits, the funereal flowers). The heavily pixelated stark newsprint cutouts provides a shock of contrast next to the way-out implications of marmalade skies and a flaming hogshead. Lennon was in full control of this fantasy--guiding a generation of creepy long hairs into the light with his sinister word play and frozen Lysergic images. It didn't matter that the finely-wrought lyrics to "Mr. Kite" are almost verbatim from an antique poster. The language of "Mr. Kite" is a window into a world of danger and improbable illusions. Lennon was certainly sympathetic to the improbable world and fantastical events suggested in the poster's script.

Robert Bunter: Most of the time when Beatle books discuss this track, they focus on the swirling collage of organ and calliope music which George Martin conjured in response to John’s vague request to “do something fairground-y … I want to smell the sawdust.” They looked into renting an actual calliope but nothing would fit through the door. Instead, Martin collected a pile of tapes of organ and circus music, cut them into strips and threw them into the air, then glued them back together in whatever order they fell. This was supplanted with some actual real-time recorded organ and harmonium playing the melody. The final effect is wonderful, of course – exactly the terrifying, trippy carnival evocation that John had in mind. Even more wonderful, in my opinion, are the many circulating video clips of an older George Martin, seated in front of the recording console, re-telling the “we threw the tapes in the air” story for the umpteenth time with evident gleeful relish. The staid, conservatory-trained producer’s eyes sparkle as he remembers what a delightfully madcap afternoon that was. There’s something almost cute about it. Here are the Beatles, their minds sizzling on exotic drugs, changing the world with their bold satin military outfits and various attempts at facial hair (some more successful than others – George’s dirt-stache was rightfully panned during the 2006 “Beatle Facial Hair” panel discussion at Beatlefest, which I was honored to moderate). And then here’s dapper George Martin in a tasteful white sweater, sipping a cup of tea and feeling like a wild-eyed revolutionary for gently tossing a few strips of magnetic tape in the air. He probably was extra vigorous in the bedroom with Ms. Martin after he got home that evening; literally “feeling his oats.”

John invites us into a dank, stinky tent where elaborately-moustached gymnasts in eggshell tights tumble through flaming hoops and drugged horses dance creepily.
Richard Furnstein: "It's time for tea and meet the wife," indeed. Sure, George Martin felt schoolboy glee whenever he was able to lead Beatles recordings into new terrain. His heart would certainly race when they would scheme on ways to bend the strict rules of the Abbey Road headmaster. "George, we want this song to sound to like a calliope that we remember from our childhoods in 1947" or "I want to sound like the Dalai Lama, but underwater and backwards." All George Martin could do was sit back in his barrister executive chair (adjusted for minimum tilt, mind you) and stuff some Sir Pennington's Basingstoke Blend tobacco into a cherry-finished pipe. He'd take some pensive puffs on the pipe and look John and Paul in their spinning top eyes and say, "Gentlemen, this is what we'll do..." See, George Martin was there to find solutions for rich and curiously talented junkies. He was paid the big bucks to translate gobbledygook and gentle hallucinations into precise sound textures. He was unhampered by the auditory illusions and pesky dragon shadows that haunted his co-workers. George Martin was free to create and problem-solve while John and the boys were off debating the cosmic possibilities of the concept of "real fire." The Beatles wanted the impossible in short order, and the recording team was there to find a way to the golden princess. Speed up the tape. Flip over the tape. Cut up the tape. Are we there yet, sir?

Robert Bunter: Yes. That’s just how it was. I’d just like to add that the “LOVE” album mashup of this track with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” works brilliantly. Plus, everything on that disc sounds so much better than the original albums, even the new re-mastered versions. I don’t know what Giles Martin (George’s son, possibly conceived on organ tape-throwing night, who knows?) did, but I like it. There is a lot of clarity, space, punch and transparency in these 21st-centruy re-imaginings, and furthermore some of the merging and juxtapositions are simply exhilarating. When the “She’s So Heavy” riff comes in instead of the horse-waltz, my eyes fill with tears of excitement. I know this is an unpopular opinion in Beatle-land (see transcripts of Beatlefest 2010 “LOVE” panel discussion featuring the director of Cirque de Soleil, former Wings guitarist Denny Laine McCullough and Ringo Starr), but I think that album is an unambiguous triumph and a worthy addition to the canon.

Richard Furnstein: I couldn't agree more. How about the "Helter Skelter" ghost in that track or the punishing organ before the "I Want You" mash? The LOVE album is the most valuable addition to The Beatles catalog since Let It Be oozed out onto the sheets in May 1970 (the In Mono box is certainly close, but those releases already existed for the chosen Beatlemaniacs). It's exciting that mankind has Giles to carry the torch in the coming decades. It's better than having to rely on Geoff Emerick or his children. Giles clearly brought the innovations of Pro Tools to The Beatles, taking his dear old dad's haphazard cut and splice and innovations and translating them into the binary modern world. Mindful of the past, blazing into the future. Can you imagine the overactive/drug fueled imaginations of Lennon/McCartney in the modern age? The endless possibilities of the blank digital canvas would have been crippling to the wide eyed John and Paul. They had enough problems dealing with the unpredictable acid trips and the disembodied head of Pablo Fanque appearing in the rear view mirrors of their Bentley Continentals. What a scene!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Let It Be

Richard Furnstein: It's a Thursday morning in mid-October. The church is empty save for a bearded man in the second row of pews. His orange sweater is full of unruly pills and wear, but his shoes are clean. Three votive candles burn before a Virgin Mary statue, flickering shadows across her faded blue gown. There's a beautiful tune in the air, a simple progression that provides comfort and familiarity. That's the beauty that I hear in "Let It Be." It's the sound of a man facing into the great unknown with a calm, clear mind. Paul wrote the song after having his dead mother (actually named Mary) visit him in a dream. "Let It Be" is the feeling that lingers in the morning as Paul tries to unravel the mystery of his unusual dream. It's easy to look into the significance of the famous origins of this song as The Beatles were clearly facing the end of the line. However, "Let It Be" is not a eulogy or an embarrassing gospel pastiche, it's a very human moment from The Beatles. We don't even peek into their superpowers until George's perfect guitar solo.

Robert Bunter: It’s difficult to hear this song with fresh ears; it’s one of the Beatles songs that has been played to death. You hear it and think, “That’s a nice tune but it’s really not up there with their best,” or “They were about to break up, Paul seems to have been really troubled,” or – if you know about the story of the song’s origin – “Isn’t it sweet that Paul had a dream about his mother during a difficult time.” But it deserves more than that. The chords and melody are simple, but that’s appropriate to the sentiments. The rhythm track (John’s primitive bass fumbling and Ringo’s echoplexed cymbals) is surprisingly funky; Billy Preston’s organ (!) obviously pegs the funk-meter even further into the red. George’s solo provided a perfect template for all future power-ballad solos, but the lack of heavy reverb, delay and overdrive keep it from David Gilmour overkill. McCartney’s vocal performance is characteristically great and the lyrics make a lot of good sense.

Richard Furnstein: I'm nodding my head because I am completely with you. Here's the jillion dollar question: is "Let It Be" one of the all time greats? I have no idea what to do with this one. "Let It Be" carries the effortless calm and beauty of many McCartney moments from this era. It's almost an overfed version of the type of muted charms that would populate his first solo album (think of "Let It Be" as a template for the superior "Maybe I'm Amazed"). However, I can't shake the feeling that Paul is trying a little too hard to grace the common man with his wisdom and strength. We all want to rally against the looming sorrow and darkness, but the chorus fails to truly convince us that the answer is close at hand. Stand pat? A little wait-and-see? I'm sorry, Paul, but I'm taking action. Preston's mighty organ and Ringo's strident cymbal play can't help me through this foggy path of misery.

It's easy to see a bearded and well fed Paul calmly pedal a lovely grand piano and wonder where the good times have gone.

Robert Bunter: One of the all-time greats? No. Here are the all-time greats: “I’ll Cry Instead,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Penny Lane,” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “She Loves You,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Dear Prudence,” “What Goes On,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Sun King,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” “Savoy Truffle,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Hey Bulldog” and “I Want To Tell You.” Case closed. “Let It Be” is fine, just fine, but re-read that list I just rattled off. Same league? Not really. I’m glad you had a poignant spiritual moment, Paul. Now fetch your left-handed Epiphone acoustic and write me another “Mother Nature’s Son,” OK? The clock is ticking and the band will break up soon. There’s no time for your ponderous schmaltz.

Richard Furnstein: Let's just put it this way: there are a lot of songs that I want to hear when old Paul sits down at the piano, but "Let It Be" ain't high on the list. I'd rather hear him pound out "Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five," "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Hey Jude," or "Back Seat Of My Car" (I have no idea if that was written on piano but it should have been). The plaintive tone of "Let It Be" is magnified by its companion piece "The Long and Winding Road." These are songs that showcase the wise and calm godhead of Paul McCartney; a man that stood on a hill in Magical Mystery Tour and wrote a sad song to make young Julian feel better after his parents' divorce. While undeniably great, Paul's well meaning softer tendencies would increasingly become a sore point with John, many fans, and Paul himself (see Paul's numerous cool factor appeals that he was The Beatle that wanted to introduce the avant garde to rock n' roll).

"Let It Be" is perfect for what it is, but it can be interpreted as part of the problem. Just look at the footage of those torturous Let It Be album sessions. The band looks thirty years older than the teddy boys that threatened to hold our hands; it's easy to see a bearded and well fed Paul calmly pedal a lovely grand piano and wonder where the good times have gone.

Robert Bunter: Don’t even get me started on “The Long And Winding Road.” I don't remember what we said about this one in our write up, but I'm sure that my appraisal veered unpredictably from extravagant praise to scornful dismissal. That’s the way it is with the late-era Paul ballads. They’re great but look at what else was happening in 1969 – primitive early Funkadelic masterpieces; Ten Years After hitting their stride on the way to A Space In Time, the Bee Gees turned a lot of heads around with Odessa, and the Mothers of Invention dropped the double LP extravaganza Uncle Meat (original pressings contained a full-color booklet). The Beatles needed to seize the moment, consolidate their gains and push forward tirelessly. Instead, they recorded “Let It Be.” It was a missed opportunity.

Richard Furnstein: Missed opportunity? I think they achieved what I believe was the main objective of the Get Back sessions--to expose the cracks in the brotherhood and prepare the world for Beatles solo ventures. The White Album was an effective first shot, with its abundance of solo and augmented band recordings and individual band member photos. The isolation in The White Album tracks could be written off as a response to the flourishes of the psychedelic era. The Let It Be album was a grim portrayal of thirty year old men, together and apart. One only has to look at Ringo's face during this period to realize the extent of the damage. Footage from the Let It Be shows an exhausted and grim Ringo, his hound dog eyes lost in the cold expanse of Twickenham Film Studios.

"Let It Be" the song was surely a light in the darkness (the previously mentioned flickering votive candle), but the light only highlighted the sadness and sorrow in the cold and empty chamber of The Beatles. That this exhausted group of men would later record the medley on Abbey Road is nothing short of a miracle.

Robert Bunter: True. They’d endured years of scuffling through Liverpool and Hamburg, which gave way to screaming fans, bold experimentalism, social revolutions and new vistas of creation. Now it was time to be tired.