Monday, October 29, 2012

Roll Over Beethoven

Richard Furnstein: "Roll Over Beethoven" was a bold mission statement when Chuck Berry recorded the song in 1956. "Hey, Mr. DJ, stop playing that boring dead person music and put on this exciting blues-cum-redneck monstrosity that will surely impregnate your daughter." The dead composers in the lyrics were just symbols for the conservative European conception of music/art/lifestyle/existence. "Dig to these rhythm and blues" wasn't an invitation to enjoy this new brand of music, it was a request to dig your own grave because your world was over. "Time's up!" said Chuck, and the old white people clapped and went on with their boring racist lives. These same morons later made a movie about a clumsy dog named Beethoven tormenting Charles (Chuck?) Grodin. Get it? Dogs roll over.

Anyway, mild-mannered and gentle voiced George Harrison took this stomping declaration of cultural awakenings and turned it into a nostalgic stomp about rockings past. Beethoven and Tschaikowsky were completely dead at this point. America was advancing toward civil rights, but little George Harrison genuinely wanted to write a letter to his local disc jockey to hear his favorite rock n' roll record and that is that. I'm certainly not implying that George was misguided to sing "Roll Over Beethoven." I actually consider it a sweet reminder of the changes that took place in eight years.

Robert Bunter: That's right, jack. Roll over, Chuck Berry. The Beatles probably considered this song as a great, inspirational rocker that they were comfortable with from their live set so why not use it to pad out the album? They probably weren't aware that they were actually heralding the dawn of another revolutionary moment. Forget about the sexually-threatening duck-walker in the black-and-white TV footage. George and the boys are unwittingly sounding the alarm about a group of four colorful young lads who will preach the gospel of love, independent thought, honesty and optimism to a generation of blank-minded kids in coonskin caps and 3-D glasses. Those kids internalized the message and proceeded to recklessly abuse narcotics and cluster together in squalid "crash pads" with infested mattresses and bloodshot eyes. The 1950s squares who were upset about Chuck Berry didn't know how good they had it; in retrospect, they would be happy to have their daughters impregnated by this stylish hipster with his energetic take on T-Bone Walker's innovations from the '40s and songs about snappy automobiles and hamburgers. The moptops delivered something far more harmful.

Richard Furnstein: Now you got my attention! Chuck Berry was only hinting at one night's revolution: pitching a ball and driving fast cars. The Beatles helped introduce the world to cosmic seers, the thick hairy ropes inside high grade lysergic, and regressive psychotherapy. Greasers popping wheelies and speed in the malt shop parking lot don't sound so bad after that, eh?

George and the boys are unwittingly sounding the alarm about a group of four colorful young lads who will preach the gospel of love, independent thought, honesty and optimism to a generation of blank-minded kids in coonskin caps and 3-D glasses.
"Roll Over" also suggested that the return to Year Zero was upon us again. We were ready to turn the page on the roots of rock and roll, as we came to know and love this group of shape-shifting Brits that would continually renew our collective culture. Roll over, Ludwig and Elvis and Chuck and Herman's. You are all useless now. The Beatles would later prove that their earlier selves were useless as they burned through a series of drugs, shirt patterns, intellectual foundations, and mustaches. The Inferiors would try to stumble in their wake, buying Beatle boots and letting their sideburns tickle their ears. It would be a futile exercise as The Beatles kept advancing, ripping the calendar off the wall with every new release/promotional appearance/publicity stunt. What day is it today? It's the birth of a new age, Scrooge. Put your new flavored trousers on, stroll down to the group sex demonstration in Trafalgar and smoke angel dust with some Pakistani prophets.

Robert Bunter: OK, stop belaboring the point! Ha, just kidding. Let's take a listen to the music. The boys do a credible job on this one; none of the whitewashed antiseptic blandness that all too often was the result when black '50s rock legends were subjected to cover versions. George pays respectful homage to the master's licks, but the Beatles unashamedly put their own stamp on this one with the trademark Merseybeat sound: double-tracked vocals, Ringo's unrelenting drum hurricane, special studio effects (handclaps). At the beginning it sounds like George actually says "WE," as in, "We're gonna write a little letter / gonna mail it to my local DJ." He subsequently reverts to the first person, but the point had been made.

Richard Furnstein: He definitely says "we." I'm not sure how to take that. Most likely George was just wrapped up in the moment (that guitar lick sure is exciting), pushed by adrenalin and Ringo's dopecruncher beat. However, I like to imagine George is fantasizing writing a joint letter with the one and only Chuck Berry to their mutual local DJ. It's an impossible dream, but still exciting. George hunched over his father Harold's drafting table, while Chuck dictates the letter to him. Chuck is probably duck walking as he tries to finish his carefully crafted sentences. George made samosas for this crucial summit but Chuck declines. Politely.

Robert Bunter: Ah, I see. The two representatives of the new world order drafting a progressive charter that would forever change history. Mindful of the past, looking toward the future. Beautiful!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Octopus's Garden

Robert Bunter: On an album that deals extensively with adult themes of love, loss, conflict and peace (an album I like to call "Abbey Road"), Ringo shuffles out onto the stage and offers something for the children. Ringo, with his funny name and hangdog facial cast was already the most childlike of the Beatles. Kids could relate to his warm and welcoming image much better than terrifying John or grouchy George. Paul had a sort of childlike whimsy, but there was something disconcertingly adult about him, like a male "caller" performing magic tricks to distract the kiddies while he tries to seduce your mom because dad is away in Rhode Island. None of that with Ringo - just a guileless little tale of escape to an underwater paradise where smiling cephalopods invite you to their swaying-seaweed paradise. The little cherubs were undoubtedly delighted as this large-nosed dreamer spun his fanciful tale. One question - how did they breathe down there?

Richard Furnstein: They just did. Call it Ringo's final act of magick with The Beatles. Ringo's warm welcome to the underwater paradise ("I'd-ask-my-friends-to-come-and-see" in the classic Beatles staircase melody) sets the stage for a play date with the greatest human beings that were ever created. Come one, come all, ye children of The Beatles: the offspring from the endless incense and frotting in 1967, the junkies who come to life with George's progressive guitar break, the elusive jiggling feminists, the businessmen with healthy sideburns. You are all welcome here. Glide softly through the sparkling sea alive with sea mutations (probably just a recycled set from the "Yellow Submarine" fantasy) to find a giant open clam. Ringo is in the center of the clam, putting on a show. A little soft shoe for a school of goldfish. A shark is playing bass guitar (it's a Hofner). There's not a care in the world here. A shelter from the real world of diseased wheelchairs. Wow! Mal Evans in a diving suit!

Robert Bunter: Yup. That's the feeling. Of course, behind the escapist fantasy is the reality that Ringo's beloved band of Beatle brothers were breaking up. Legend has it that young Ritchie wrote this one after coming home from a depressing Apple Corps business meeting, so sad that he wished he was underwater instead. He decided to write a simple silly song that would guarantee enough future songwriting royalties (along with "Don't Pass Me By" and one-quarter of "Flying") to put his own children (their names were Zak, Ringo Jr., Bumbleton and Gloanbottom) through college. Remember, Brian Epstein threw away the product licensing royalties with shoddy deals, and the concert income was a long-forgotten memory by this point (Ringo having spent his share of the final Candlestick Park gig income on installation of a home-model carousel and multiple skids of canned Heinz beans). Luckily, the song isn't too bad. The other Beatles do a nice job of turd-polishing with lush harmonies, quicksilver guitar runs, chewy basslines and advanced aquatic production techniques on the bridge/solo.

Richard Furnstein: All thanks to George Harrison, obviously. It is touching that the second-class Beatles were there for each other as the Lennon/McCartney legal construct and brotherhood disintegrated into a mess of ram wrangling, petty letters to NME, and nasty-but-oblique insult songs on their solo albums. George and Ringo clung together during the bitter divorce; George would show Ringo how to make his songs more interesting (usually a Dsus4 chord was involved) and Ringo would teach George how to smile again after years of pious grousing and the emotional fallout of his free love lifestyle. Brothers to the end. Of course, they would later have the last laugh as the Ringo album was a surprising mega-hit and you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing a mass of George singing the virtues of Krishna. John and Paul would continue on their paths of genius ("Freda Peeple," all of Red Rose Speedway), but they were clearly trying to fill the emotional gap of lost friendship with sycophants, double albums, and boring political singles. Sure, it looked like Ringo was waving hello to us under the sea, but he was actually saying goodbye from the coral that lies beneath the waves. 

Robert Bunter: Of course, you're leading me right into a discussion of perhaps the most prized Beatle-related bootleg of them all, Ringo's "Welcome To My House" demo reel. Amazingly, the 11-track collection has still not made its way onto the mp3 blogspots or YouTube clips hastily removed due to copyright violations. Even in the hardcore world of boot wax and tape traders, it's not an easy score. Luckily you and I have our dolby-less cassette dubs purchased from Martin Lewis via a long-defunct xerox fanzine in the early '90s. Picture it: the strings that tied the Beatles together were rapidly fraying in February 1970. The dream was over, in every sense except officially. Ringo slowly trods into his sunlit front room and ineptly spools a reel onto his primitive three-track Brunnell tape recorder. He has a guitar (missing two strings), a perfectly-tuned piano (which somehow manages to sound discordant when Ringo plays it) and the classic Beatles home-instrument (ukelele). A replica Ludwig drum kit was there, too, but he didn't play it on any of the "Welcome To My House" tracks. Ringo adjusts the microphone, hits the red button and "play" at the same time. What happened next was not magical, but noteworthy.

A guileless little tale of escape to an underwater paradise where smiling cephalopods invite you to their swaying-seaweed paradise.

Richard Furnstein: It's a true lost gem. Richie Unterberger completely ignores this crucial item in his otherwise invaluable tome The Unreleased Beatles: Music & Film (Backbeat Books). The recording starts with the title track; you can hear Ringo clear his throat as his strums his faithful G chord and sings "Welcome to my house/A pretty good house/We are friends." The song doesn't really go anywhere (a C chord is introduced after the first verse is repeated) but it has all the sadness and childlike wonder of our wildest Ringo fantasies. Later songs on the record like "Let's Do Lunch" and "A Little Touch Of Paint"only further color the domestic solitude and misdirection of February 1970. "Welcome To My House" later falls apart with a series of imaginary radio plays and a sad interview that Ringo conducted with himself after he realized that he no longer had a band to quit. 

Robert Bunter: Of course you're deliberately excluding the one lost masterpiece, "Liverpool Gardens." Sure it's the same old C chord but something in the tape hiss suggests a gently descending melancholy motion not unlike "Day In The Life" or "Dear Prudence." Ringo's tuneless voice sounds oddly appropriate as he imagines the nicer times he had as a child. Not unlike the fabled infinite typewriter monkeys, primitive Ringo somehow managed to concoct a haunting and evocative portrait of sadly-departed yesteryears on this one. Why this song was not selected for release on any subsequent Ringo solo projects is obvious - it would have rendered all the other tracks unpalatably shabby by comparison. Every Beatle had at least one immortal song in them, and this was Ringo's. The fact that it has been relegated to the dustbin of history, known only to superfans who shelled out the early '90s equivalent of $30 for TDK C-90 cassette dubs, is a source of gloating pride to me. I hope it never leaks into the broader public, actually. This one is between me, my friend Richard, and my other friend Richard, if you get my drift.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Please Please Me

Richard Furnstein: "Please Please Me" is the superhero origins story. The lonely orphan teen who suffered a spider bite. The well meaning scientist who fell into a vat of nuclear goo. The Beatles were a methamphetamine enhanced bunch of bashers that were coming up small in the spotlight. Their first single offering--the ghastly "Love Me Do--traded in the leder-und-schwitzen antics of the Star Club for harmonica-drenched mid-tempo pap. In many ways, "Please Please Me" was clearly presented as the sequel to love me do: witness the return of Lennon's plaintive harmonica, the nursery rhyme teasing of Harrison's opening lead, and the pronoun driven lyrics. However, "Please Please Me" offers something more. Simply put, it's one for the crotches. John's is pleading for a bit of physical tit-for-tat in the lyrics while the pulsing "Come on/Come on/Come on" is the firestarter. Staid conservatory-trained producer George Martin proposed the hired song "How Do You Do?" as their second single, but dropped that hot bowl of garbage after John and Paul offered up the (at once) sexually frustrated and aggressive "Please Please Me."

Robert Bunter: You say that like sexual frustration and aggression are mutually exclusive. My friend, they are inextricably linked. That’s why I yelled at you that one time in high school! I think the reason this track works so nicely (you’re right, it’s the first piece of their recorded output that really strikes some sparks) is that it takes both of those intense emotions and amalgamates them into a pile of sweet harmonies and unorthodox-yet-undeniable chord changes. The singer is aggressive and sexually frustrated, but one gets the impression he won’t be for very long. “You don’t need me to show the way, love.” In other words, what do I have to do, paint a goddamn picture? But with a song this delightful, the object of his ardent entreaty is sure to capitulate. Interestingly, there is a bit of distance suggested – the opening line, “Last night I said these words to my girl” suggest a fourth-period locker-room bull session, maybe exaggerated for effect with the boys. It’s doubtful that the singer was actually yelling “Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on!” at the poor “bird” in the midst of their rendezvous.

Richard Furnstein: The "come on" build is clearly the key moment of this song. John (and his insistent buddies) are clearly trying to wear the poor girl down. They deliver their script with a mannish growl (I detect a Parisian odor to their pleas) and a hint of a smile. Then finally, the walls come down and the destination is in sight. The keening on "please pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease me, oh yeah!" tells you the rest of the story. Our heroes crave the ecstasy of release but it's never enough. They claim that they don't mean to complain about the situation during the bridge. There's always rain in his heart, the poor boy. How will he possibly heal his deep heart wounds? The answer is in the tides of pop music--you don't have to search long to find another chorus (release). The only thing missing here is the yelping passion of a rock and roll fade out, including some yelps and guttural noises from the young and doe-eyed Paul McCartney.

Robert Bunter: One of the key songwriting tricks in the Beatles’ grab bag (along with simple pronouns, harmonica solos and yelling “Yeah Yeah Yeah” or “OOOoooh!”) was the use of startling and innovative chord changes; this was a habit they never really lost, actually. “Please Please Me” was the debut appearance. The ascending chords after “Last night I said these words to my girl” were completely fresh and new; the only contemporary example I can think of that used that chord was the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” in 1957. The “Come on” section uses some bold transitions, as well. But the capper is that magnificent five chord resolution that ends the single. It’s utterly invigorating, each step like a slap in the face. After I heard that, I knew that this band was going to change the world.

Simply put, it's one for the crotches.
Richard Furnstein: The early Beatles were experts at the dramatic resolution, completely avoiding the mindless fade-out that has long been a hallmark of popular music. Think about the emotional tidal wave that concludes "She Loves You." Even sub-baby food songs like "From Me To You" tended to wrap up things nicely. It's easy to connect this approach to their well-honed live act. I would argue that there is more to it. The resolution of their early hair-shaking mega hits always managed to ratchet up the excitement level in their already exploding pop songs. You replay songs like "She Loves You" and "Please Please Me" because these splendid magicians implore you to return again to the golden cave of self realization. John, Paul, George, and Ringo have the secret recipe for the foodstuff of life--come back any time to feast on their delights. Yeah? Yeah.

Robert Bunter: Yeah!

Monday, October 1, 2012

I Am The Walrus: Part 2-Standing In The English Rain

Richard Furnstein: “I Am The Walrus” starts innocently enough. That is, if you consider acid-tinged marmalade leaking from a mildew covered carnival tent as innocent. The first few seconds are completely unsettling: keyboards blink on and off while Ringo shakes a leather satchel filled with rat bones. Suddenly, a flash of bats swoop down along with George Martin’s menacing string figure. Welcome to the nightmare. Lennon throws in some crippling shadow-play (“I am he”) and the listener is left trying to decipher the voices in his fractured mind. I’d argue that he didn’t need to introduce his ugly parade of pornographic priestesses and sun-deprived English gardens to let us know that things are slightly askew. The music—alternately playful and imbalanced—does the job for him

Robert Bunter: The sounds are weird. How did they do it? The bare-sounding demo versions that have escaped on bootlegs and Anthology 2 show that a lot of credit must be awarded to staid, conservatory-trained producer George Martin. His strings and horns perfectly complement the air of menacing dementia that John’s songwriting had already established. How many people did it take to create this song? The four Beatles, a handful of studio personnel, and perhaps a few dozen button-down session players and a choir … let’s say thirty. It feels like every single one of them (even gentle Ringo and the benign, sweater-clad cello players) is staring directly into the listener’s terrified eyes in an unthinkable psychic assault. Listen to those drum fills and try to imagine the pleasantly-downcast Ringo-figure from the “This Boy” segment of the Hard Day’s Night film. You can’t do it. That melancholy chap has seven eyes and a rainbow-colored cloak and his face smells like chrome STOP STARING AT ME RINGO STOP STARING AT ME EGGMAN AAAARrrrrrrggggggggggggggh???!?

Keyboards blink on and off while Ringo shakes a leather satchel filled with rat bones.

Richard Furnstein: You forgot the British actors drolly delivering Act IV, Scene VI of Shakespeare's King Lear and whatever other found sounds and music were plucked from the BBC acmon. Oh, and the trusty Mal Evans who probably delivered the tea, crisps, and purple windowpane segments to this cackling bunch. That's like a busload of people focused on giving the world this sinister and degenerate mess of art. The song's sound effects and string and horn lines simultaneously mock and hector the listener. At its core, "I Am The Walrus" is a children's comedy record, but one delivered with the shaking, sweating, and pulsing white eyes of a horrific nightmare.  Are you awake? Can you see that trembling mass in the corner? I swear, there was a  shadow man in the room. He told me that he is waiting for the van to the next dimension to come. Hold me.

Robert Bunter: The vocal track is slightly overdriven and ADT'd, which emphasizes the harshness of the alliterative consonants ("Pretty little P'Liceman," "Dripping from a Dead Dog's eye") and stretches the vowels into impossible dimensions ("I'm Cryyyyyyyying").  Speaking of which, "I'm crying" is a totally incongruous sentiment, delivered in John's characteristically breathtaking falsetto register. I mean, this demented walrus is haranguing the listener about incomprehensible mind-riddles, when he suddenly announces that he's crying (actually, he says "I'm crying / I'm crine / I'm crying / I'm cry") Is this a shift of perspective? Perhaps John is assuming the role of the terrified listener for a brief moment. More likely, he was just dredging around in the depths of his consciousness and stumbled onto the primal pain that was always there. It's possible that all this listener-terror is actually misplaced, that John was really singing to HIMSELF. But who is he? "I'm crying." "I am the walrus." Is the walrus crying? He is we as we are he. The shifting identities that underlay the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band concept and the acid-induced ego confusion of "Strawberry Fields Forever" reached a peak with "Walrus." I don't think John ever got this far out again; even the ominous "Revolution 9" sound collage had a certain experimental air of art-music detachment and opiated languor. "I Am The Walrus" is the unfiltered audio soundtrack to the nightmare that was John Lennon's fundamental brainspace.

Richard Furnstein: I think you nailed it. "I'm Crying" is the pain and suffering1 that underlies John's stream of riddles and horrorshow apparitions. The verses to "I Am The Walrus" find John stumbling around chilly and unfamiliar dreamscapes. Each ending with an altercation with dream reality. A deus ex machina, if you will. In this sense, one can look at "I'm Crying" as a mantra to return our troubled storyteller back to the start (troubled drag-addled adult->emotionally distant teenager->the collapse of childhood felt in his mother's death->Aunt Mimi's strict and steady hand->loss of his seaman father->the Strawberry Fields aether). "I'm Crying" is therefore the removal of the mask (why else would one have to declare that they are weeping?). It's the exposure of the emotion hiding under the distance hinted at in the lyrics. George Martin's primal rock n' strings swell under this raw demonstration to mimic the brain swell that accompanies these moments of clarity. You can't just declare "I love you" or "I'm mad" without the brain releasing five thousand mind warriors to chill your spine. The orchestration does an excellent job of covering the various emotions presented in "I Am The Walrus." Some highlights include the previously mentioned release of bats, the chugging and prideful cellos that underpin the suspension in the verses, and the playful interplay of the melody and orchestration on "singing Hare Krishna."

Robert Bunter: Ha! We sound like intellectuals, "reading too much into it," the kind of people John was mocking with "Walrus" (and later, "Glass Onion"). "A deus ex machina, if you will." Hoo boy. Let's briefly take a closer look at the musical side of this thing before we go off the rails. A few quick observations: the chord progression is unlike anything that came before or after, perfectly complementing the lyric's mood of unsettling fear. John's voice hits some nice blue notes (like the "together" in the line "We are all together"); even in the midst of his primal nightmare, he was a committed rock and roller. The bridge ("Sitting in an English garden") has no right to call itself a bridge; it's a totally baffling intrusion into a song structure that was already fractured. The creepy choir that sings "Oooooooh," "Ha ha ha / Hee hee hee," "Stick it up your jumper" was a nice touch. Anything else? I'm about ready to leave this one behind and get deep into something like "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" or some Please Please Me outtakes.

Richard Furnstein: The verse progression is completely baffling. It seemingly follows the same stabbing logic that Syd Barrett would employ on early The Pink Floyd singles. The bridge is, without a doubt, the scariest moment of the song. The chorus dissolves with a cleansing wash of clockwork and magic into a more menacing return on the bats. Lennon presents his most confounding riddle yet: "Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun/If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain." It's a highly improbably scenario and is presented like a forgotten meter of poetry (John's return to his early period monosyllabic focus in the second line). The English tan concept is the indicator that we are in a land where "nothing is real" while Martin's strings underscore the feeling that Lennon is indeed laughing at us. And, frankly, we deserve it.

I'm with you. I feel like I need to listen to "Chains" or "P.S. I Love You" to cleanse the pallet after thinking about this one for about two weeks. Grandma, take me home.

1Is the "yellow matter custard" actually the Lynchian construct garmonbozia?

Original Beatles fan art by Joshua Newman