Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Circles

Richard Furnstein: Oh, dear angels. Pray tell me this: what would have happened if The Beatles actually recorded George's White Album outtake "Circles"? The song is particularly ghastly in his demo version as the wheeze of the chord organ blends with George's heinous breathy voice. The resulting effect is like a flash of warm air leaving a tandoori oven on a cool morning. But what more could have been? Would John have played along? Would Paul bolster George's thin but dreamy chorus? Surely, Ringo would have propelled this dreary and (obviously) circular number with his primal drumming. "Circles" certainly had some promise, but it was the wrong time for George to deliver an ambiguous moaner to The Beatles. Clearly, he was on probation after plopping "Blue Jay Way" and "The Inner Light" into the toilet bowl of the world.

Robert Bunter: Yeah. Sometimes it seems like the guy had just two speeds: sizzling ("Taxman," "Savoy Truffle," "I Want To Tell You") and plodding ("Long Long Long," "Within You, Without You," the aforementioned "Blue Jay Way"). "I Me Mine" actually managed to shift from plod to sizzle in the space of one track. "Circles" funereal organ dirge takes George's tendency toward sour lethargy to a ridiculous new extreme. The lyric offers some ham-fisted moonbeams-and-patchouli philosophizing with none of the poetic evocativeness that Lennon could bring to similar material like "Because" or "Across The Universe," as well as recycling some lyrical ideas ripped off from Lao Tze ("He who knows does not speak / He who speaks does not know") which would re-appear on "The Inner Light" and the inartful use of the word "swine" on an album where he'd already offered a song about swine. That being said, it's not clear that this was ever really in the lineup as a serious contender for the White Album, unlike the superior "Not Guilty," which was extensively developed over many recording sessions, then dropped at the last minute along with John's harrowing "What's The New Mary Jane." It's not really fair to be so critical about what was probably a very stoned demo session to work out some rough ideas for future development. I can certainly tell you that it would be unfair if some future bloggers found my early '90s homemade cassettes and pointed out the immature charmlessness of "Tony's Raga" or "You Will Enjoy My Style." Unfortunately, all we have to judge the potential growth of this song is the rough 1968-era demo. If only George had managed to find the time to polish this particular turd during his solo career, with all the technological advances that were available during the early 1980s. Oh well, guess we'll never know what might have...

Richard Furnstein: Hold on! I have to stop you right there. I have with me a rare early 1982 pressing of a George Harrison album called (get this) Gone Troppo. I don't think anyone has ever really heard it, so it could be the ultimate Beatles rarity. Especially now that Paul McCartney has issued the AM radio promotional mono mix on 180 gm delicious vinyl. Check out the cover, it looks like one of those stupid 5 for $10 shirts that clog up depressing seaside towns like Oceanside, California or Wildwood Crest, New Jersey.

George finally got around to recording "Circles" for this ultimate collector's choice release. Gone Troppo also features some classic dreary numbers like the navel-gazing "Mystical One" and the inadequate tropical ooze of "Greece." Wait a second. That actually sounds pretty great, right? Wrong. It stinks.


"Circles" funereal organ dirge takes George's tendency toward sour lethargy to a ridiculous new extreme.
Robert Bunter: Okay, fun's over. We both know about Gone Troppo already. It could have been so wonderful. When rich rock stars go to tropical lands and get inspired, the results are often breathtaking. Tropical soft rock combines the breezy cheerfulness of island lifestyles with just a hint of salty ocean tears; the wistful melancholy which foreign people call "tristes tropiques" ("the sadness of tropical lifestyles" in English). The longing for a place that is both perfect and impossible; the disappointing reality that waits at sunrise when the last of the coladas has worn off. Forget about Jimmy Buffet; gaze deeply into the world of Michael Nesmith's "Rio," Kevin Ayers' "Caribbean Moon" or Bill Wyman's "Je Suis Un Rock Star." The possibility of George Harrison dipping his feet into these beautiful clear waters is intriguing, but unfortunately "Gone Troppo" falls flat. Any of the other Beatles might have been more suited to a coconut-rock cash-in record, I'd wager.

Richard Furnstein: John came close with the sweeping ocean breeze calm of "Beautiful Boy." Paul's explorations into the tropical mind during the Wings years usually yielded loose "reggae" with manic shouting and funny voices. I imagine Ringo tried for the frond and mango set at some point, but who wants to listen to those records?

As for the Gone Troppo version of "Circles," it's a pleasant enough exploration of the White Album sound. The obligatory solo George slide guitar seems particularly poignant and lonely in this mix. In fact, this recording could be George perfecting the melancholy bloat template that was established by his putrid second solo album Living In The Material World. Why exactly did George dig up this lonely Kinfauns sessions outtake to serve as the closer for his indifferent 1982 album? Creative bankruptcy: the same reason that he gave away "I Don't Want To Do It," an outtake from All Things Must Pass, to the Porky's Revenge! Original Soundtrack. Sadly, George often lived off the scraps of the fertile period between The White Album and All Things Must Pass. The next golden age never really came (despite some justifiable good will for Cloud Nine). I guess he was too busy racing cars or puttering around his gloomy gardens to actually write songs.

Robert Bunter: You're right. It's a sad deal. I'd just like to close with this great passage from Albert Goldman's slanderous "The Lives Of John Lennon,"1 about how Double Fantasy was originally conceived as "a reggae album with tango attitude":
  
"...Signaling Fred to fetch the recording gear, John sang and strummed, while Fred beat on a guitar case, until Lennon was satisfied he had gotten down what was in his head. Then, lighting up a joint, he kicked back contentedly and began to paint in rapt tones his vision of his great comeback album. It would be an album soaked from end to end with the soft, sensuous sounds of the Caribbean. Bermuda was in the Caribbean, wasn't it? It wasn't! Well, fuck it! What difference did that make? It was an ocean isle, tropical and sexy, full of the sounds and moves of rhythm and blues. In fact, if they really wanted to get the right sound, they should go to Jamaica! Go to the same studio that Bob Marley used! Get down with the Rasta men and smoke ganja in big spliffs or hash in chillums. Then they could get that deep-down, superfunky bass-box sound that comes straight from Trenchtown. You couldn't get that sound in New York. No way!" 

1  Goldman, Albert. 1988. The Lives of John Lennon. Chicago Review Press.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Money

Robert Bunter: The first two UK Beatles records (which I like to call “Please Please Me With Love Me Do And 12 Other Songs” and “With The Beatles”) were obviously derived from the brutal, punishing live sets they’d been perfecting for years in a series of foul, damp basements, crime-infested German beer parlors and smoky dance halls. Cover versions of American R&B rarities cribbed from scarce imported 45’s dominated the proceedings, with the balance gradually tipping toward John and Paul’s original compositions. They’d toss in a show tune or ballad for effect, but for the most part the setlists were designed to keep a bunch of sweaty black-and-white film footage teenagers in Elvis Costello glasses and bobby socks jumping up and down for hours at a time. The first two albums were crafted from the same template – start out with a lot of energy, whip up the pace with a few rest stops along the way, then sprint over the finish line with a barnburner. On the first record it was “Twist And Shout,” on the second album, “Money.” As great as these tracks are to listen to, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of “you had to be there.” Sure, there’s menacing piano riffs, pounding rhythms, throat-shredding vocals and a general sense of frenetic abandon, but what I hear more than anything else is the echo of a moment that had already come and gone by 1963 when this was released. The dank basement crowds hopping up and down for a stageful of leather-clad bruisers were already pretty much a thing of the past, replaced by packaged variety shows and established theatres within which collarless suit-clad teen idols bobbed their heads politely for crowds of pants-bedampened 12-year-olds.

Richard Furnstein: It saddens me to admit that you are right, sir. The magic was in the moment: a drunk George stumbling into his shaking Vox Amplifier; Ringo's sweat bouncing off of his pleading floor tom; Paul with both the angel and the devil on his shoulders, with his predator vision searching for this evening's beauty queen; and John's razor and bile voice projecting onto the loose stone walls, affixing to the crumbling structure like evil moss. George Martin tried his best to capture the magic. Indeed, his thick piano work is one of the greatest elements of the recorded version. However, it's easy to feel that something is missing in the final recording. Perhaps it is the result of the strict recording standards of Abbey Road. Maybe it was difficulty for The Beatles to become truly engorged in the sterile atmosphere of the studio--where George Martin's tea cozy was dampened, not the pants of innocent young adults. I posit that we perhaps are bringing unrealistic expectations to this recording. Sure, it's the final track on The Greatest Beatles Album (AKA, With The Beatles). As such, it has to both serve as a closing argument for an incredible set of primal rock songs and match the majesty of Please Please Me's final shredder "Twist And Shout." "Money" has everything, it's just that we have an odd feeling that we were here before.

Robert Bunter: The subsequent Beatles LP and single releases, from A Hard Day’s Night onward, were the event; the screaming stadium gigs were merely the shadow. The post-With The Beatles primal moments all happened on vinyl, over radio and television airwaves and in the ears/hearts/minds of a new generation. The global phenomenon was communal, shared across space and time. The callow, sweaty youth clutching his shoddy Capital stereo mix “Beatles VI” LP in the cashier line at Gloanburg’s Record Mart at the Springfield Mall in 1985; a wise old Japanese man chuckling softly at a re-run Beatles cartoon on satellite television in a dank Osaka noodle house; the pretty young office girl who was lucky enough to personally witness the Apple rooftop concert in 1969 from across the street; even the post-modern, decontextualized young lad with the Justin Beiber haircut, meaninglessly streaming rare bit torrent Get Back outtakes onto his web cloud mp3 accumulator and asking for a 180-gram vinyl copy of the Sgt. Pepper 2012 remaster for Christmas – they are all equal participants in a transcendent cultural experience. The primal, pre-Beatlemania dance hall rave-ups, unfortunately, were only for there and then. You blinked and you missed it. Listening to “Money” is no substitute. Frankly, other than the great Beatles shows, life was probably pretty lousy for those long-forgotten participants. Everything was in black and white, the air was briny with decomposing fish and all they ate was beans and “crisps.” Jitterbugging wildly to primitive beat groups was their only chance for emotional release; before long they grew up to be snaggle-toothed housewives or German gangsters, like their parents.


The dank basement crowds hopping up and down for a stageful of leather-clad bruisers were already pretty much a thing of the past, replaced by packaged variety shows and established theatres within which collarless suit-clad teen idols bobbed their heads politely for crowds of pants-bedampened 12-year-olds.
Richard Furnstein: Think about it: The Beatles represented the Allies, returning to Germany to check on a defeated nation. They found a generation of reckless degenerates, wallowing in their life mistakes and burning through stolen Jewish gold. The Beatles were swept up by this world of "no tomorrow" sleaze: living in a porn theater, swallowing dusty pharmaceuticals, and hobnobbing with beautiful hipsters named Klaus and Astrid. The best things in life were indeed free for these charming Brits: unprotected sex, mystery pills, misguided "happenings," and delicious weisswurst sandwiches from the club's canteen. They would later attempt to bring the excitement of Hamburg back to Liverpool (and then the world) but the vibe was shattered. Sure, the casual sex, drugs, and sandwiches would grow along with their fame, but The Beatles soon became a tedious job. Their version of "Money" came at the right time; they knew they had made their choice and were willing to accept everything that came along with it.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, it’s clear they were making a deeper point with this particular song choice, not unlike “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” on Beatles For Sale. The group’s relationship with money evolved over their career. From a group of showbiz phenoms on the make (Reporter at press conference: “Will you sing something for us?” Beatles, in unison: “We need money first.” Reporter: “What are you going to do with all the money?” Beatles, in unison: “What money?”), by Revolver they had matured to complaining about Her Majesty’s 95-percent tax rate for their income bracket. During their spiritual phase, they shunned the material world, asserting (incorrectly) that “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy” and spitting contempt at materialistic “Piggies.” By the time of Abbey Road’s elegiac “You Never Give Me Your Money,” the same economic windfall that had been the source of so much gleeful celebration in 1964 (“Let’s write ourselves another swimming pool!”) had soured the relationships at the heart of the band and dissolved the very Love which they’d evoked so convincingly in song. John’s harsh delivery of “Money” in 1963 reflects these budding ambiguities. One the one hand, the song is a sarcastic, ironic lampoon of crass materialism; yet one simultaneously gets the distinct impression that they meant it.

Richard Furnstein: They definitely meant it. "Money" represents the vikings at the start of their voyage: The Beatles are full of ambition and ready to feast on the world. Compare the verve of this recording to the resigned millionaire sign-off of the previously mentioned "You Never Give Me Your Money." Better yet, put on John Lennon's crass lurch through the song on the Live Peace In Toronto 1969 album. Lennon can barely stay awake in this bloated version. His white suit on his ghostly frame, expensive habit in his arms, and late period Howard Hughes beard make him seem like a terrifying hippie dream of the monopoly man. Eric Clapton adds some professional solo work. High dollar to be sure, but lacking the heart and craft of Harrison. Yoko is dancing in a bag. Does anything scream "money" more than performance art? And who's that on bass? The very embodiment of the artistic and intellectual freedoms of those German salad days: Klaus Voormann. 

Robert Bunter: Klaus. Hip German existentialist friend from the early days. Drew the cover of Revolver. Played bass on many solo records. A total key influence and behind-the-scenes buddy. Klaus. Never wrote a cash-in tell-all book; always playing it close to the chest in his cordial appearances in Beatles documentaries. Solid dude. Voormann. Call him up if you need a favor, or just to talk about the old days. A knowing nod, a whispered word, a hand on the shoulder. Don’t worry, it’s all been taken care of. It’s good to hear from you, Klaus. A friend. Klaus.

Klaus.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Inner Light

Ravi Shankar: April 7, 1920-December 11, 2012
Robert Bunter: After George went to India and became obsessed with Eastern music and spiritual thought, he found a few different ways to integrate these sounds and ideas into his work with the Beatles. Sometimes, as on “Norwegian Wood,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Getting Better,” he would incorporate a subtle whiff of curry-flavored instrumental sounds into stellar Lennon/McCartney tracks. This was the most successful approach, in this listener’s opinion. The zangy, tangy, boingy sounds of sitars and sarods colored the canvas with shades of freaky novelty, as well as the solemn dignity of cultural traditions that are thousands of millions (?) of years old, without overwhelming the freshness and accessibility of the material. On other songs, George would use regular rock instrumentation (or at least regular for the Beatles – mellotrons, tape loops and session players) on songs that had an Indian influence in their songwriting aesthetic. I’m thinking of “Blue Jay Way,” “Long Long Long” and “It’s All Too Much” with their lengthy running times, static chord drones and non-Western melodic intervals. Great stuff, love it, yes please … though few would rank them among the group’s best. Finally, there are “Love You To,” “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light,” where George dropped all the subtlety and went for full-tilt Indian ragatude. With the same clownish minstrel-show flatulence of Alvin Lee “singing the blues” or McCartney “getting into a bit of a reggae area” with “C-Moon,” George dons an imported peasant monk’s robe that probably cost a million pounds at Gloanburg’s Exotic Boutique on Carnaby Street, paints a dot on his head (not even correct, they actually do that in Indonesia, not India), and embarrasses himself and everyone else with a bunch of trite, fortune cookie platitudes and blatant cultural appropriation. The real guys study for thousands of years to write and play this music and this simple Liverpool bus-driver’s son thinks he can grasp the essence after a few sessions with Ravi in the Kinfauns drawing room? Get the hell out of here.

Richard Furnstein: "The Inner Light" is truly one of the most delightful and unexpected treasures in The Beatles catalog. Like finding a cardamom pod nestled in the pillowy saffron rice of your grandmother's kheer, George's solemn treatise provides some necessary mindthought to the light (Paul) and dark (John) forces of the world. Realizing his own limitations at the raga craft, George enlisted some of India's finest session musicians to lay down the track for "The Inner Light" along with much of the "world music" filler on the Wonderwall soundtrack. As a result, the familiar tones of John, Paul, George, and Ringo were replaced with the expert, rich flavors of new faces Aashish, Mahapurush, Hanuman, Hariprasad, and Rijram. Oh, how they probably laughed at George's novelty explorations of their music and culture. They probably plunked the elementary riff from "Norwegian Wood" every time he left the studio. Yet, they had a clear mission that day: to restore the Western man's spiritual balance and to illuminate the limitless possibilities of the human mind. The traditional Indian instruments (sarod, pakhavaj, shehani, bansuri, and harmonium) were merely a conduit to reach the inner peace suggested at George's optimistic prose.

Robert Bunter: Who would have thought that a Beatle could enter Nirvana? Let me tell you about Eastern thought. All the great texts, scriptures, sutras, koans, hymns and verses say the same thing, over and over again – the Ultimate Truth lies beyond mere words and rational thought, so you’re not going to find the answer in any text, scripture, sutra, koan, hymn or verse. I’ll tell you another place you’re not going to find it: on the flipside of “Lady Madonna” or, god help us, on the putrid monument to missed opportunity that is the 1980 Capitol “Rarities” compilation. This song exemplifies the phony, holier-than-thou ego-tripping that lay behind so much of the Me Generation’s pathetic spiritual dabbling. “Isn’t it great how I have transcended the Ego? If only you could be like ME and become enlightened. It’s so great to be egoless and serve the Lord. What a shame you have yet to reach MY level of mental development.” Lao Tze was the one who said, “He who knows does not say, and he who says does not know.” So why did he say it? If only there was a time machine and I could be present at that wonderful session. Surely Rijram and I would have shared a hearty chortle at the misguided floundering of “The Inner Light” because he would recognize that I, Robert Bunter, truly understand what the Indian mindspace is all about. Then we could have convinced them to scrap the whole session and put “What’s The New Mary Jane” on the “Lady Madonna” b-side. Let’s get OUT there and do something really experimental, Beatles. Outside the damn box. Yeah! Whooo-whee! SHAKE IT!


George dons an imported peasant monk’s robe that probably cost a million pounds at Gloanburg’s Exotic Boutique on Carnaby Street, paints a dot on his head, and embarrasses himself and everyone else with a bunch of trite, fortune cookie platitudes and blatant cultural appropriation.
Richard Furnstein: I'm confused. Are you using the time machine to stop by The White Album mixing sessions to grab the acetate for "What's The New Mary Jane" before you visit Rijram & Company at EMI Studios in Bombay? I hope you filled up the time machine with fuel, pal.

Surely you are right about the privileged escapism of George's initial hollow explorations into India's music, fashion, culture, and religion. George's attempts to fuse his love of Carl Perkins (the Brahma to a young George Harrison) with his new sensation were obviously clumsy (although I would argue that "Love You To" is a brilliant blend). I think he was successful in his overall goals. The "arrive without traveling" referenced in "The Inner Light" could have pointed to a progression to global concerns. This may be empty hope that The Beatles did more than just introduce nag champa, loose fitting white collarless shirts, and complicated sex positions to their gullible audience. George later proved himself to the doubting Rijrams of the world through the Bangladesh fundraiser, a lifelong friendship with his spirit guide Ravi Shankar, and his brilliant b-side for the Ronnie Spector/Phil Spector/George Harrison one off single "Try Some, Buy Some" b/w "Tandoori Chicken." I'm sure those jaded and flatulent session musicians later looked at George not as a cultural invader but as a bridge between their honored traditions and the gaudy and godless Western world. Indeed, the oft referenced Rijram Desad would later provide percussion and strings on George Harrison and Ravi Shankar's 1974 tour for the Dark Horse album. Can you imagine the wild times that this traveling circus had touring under-attended hockey stadiums throughout North America?

Robert Bunter: Yes, I can imagine it: backstage at Madison Square Garden, 1974. You can lightly hear the strains of Splinter’s debut album (produced by George and released on his then-new Dark Horse vanity label) over the PA system in the half-empty stadium; the confused fans are wondering why George’s new album doesn’t sound anywhere near this good. The dhorkti paste and naan crisps are starting to congeal on the hospitality tray as Rijram and the other Indian musicians attempt to meditate and practice their scales. They’re not having much luck, however, because here comes Billy Preston! He’s dressed outrageously in a sequined jumpsuit and his million-watt smile beams infectiously under his broad Afro-natural hairstyle. He’s dancing and clapping his hands in a merry dance but all of a sudden he slips on a plate of ghoon cubes and tumbles face-first into the lap of Ghovanda’s sari and the whole hospitality tray comes crashing down. George, who is pale, underweight and yellow with jaundice looks up from his diseased black Stratocaster and tries to lighten the mood with a pun (“I guess love means never having to save your sari”) but no one can hear him because his voice is utterly destroyed. No wonder the reviewers called this album and tour “Dark Hoarse.”

Richard Furnstein: Happier times, to be sure. Let's all send our love emotions out to the dear departed Ravi Shankar and his friends and family. He is now in a better place, visiting with all of his dear friends: George Harrison, John Lennon, Brian Epstein, Linda McCartney, Mal Evans, Klaus Vormann, Stuart Sutcliffe, Neil Aspinall, and, yes, even the exuberant Billy Preston. Remember this ancient mantra, friends:

If you believe in forever 
Then life is just a one-night stand 
If there's a rock and roll heaven 
Well you know they've got a hell of a band, band, band. 

Robert Bunter: What a beautiful vision. I'm sure they are all together in Heaven. Or else they all were reincarnated into snakes, common baboons, or other land beasts.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Maggie Mae

Robert Bunter: OK, a quick primer for the casual reader who may not be steeped in Beatles lore. After the White Album they were starting to fight. Paul dragged everybody into the studio with the idea to heal the cracks and get back to roots by rehearsing for a live concert of new material. The rehearsals would be recorded and filmed for a new album and documentary movie. The problem was, like telling Monkees jokes the day after Davy Jones passed on, it was “too soon.” The others still resented Paul’s bossiness, John was in a stupor from his first heroin habit and relationship with Yoko, and George, grouchy on the best of days, was certainly in no mood to be corralled into another Paul-dominated multi-media project after the ridiculous Magical Mystery Tour film. Even the clownish Ringo was in a sour mood, his droopy facial features and downcast eyes becoming even more sad-dog-looking than usual. To make matters worse, they were used to recording their wonderful music during hilarious late-night sessions at the comfortably warm Abbey Road studios (equipped with the infamous bottomless teapot and constantly re-stocked beans, “crisps” and digestive biscuits). For this project, however, in order to accommodate the film crew, they had to set up their stuff on a cold, gray soundstage at early hours of the morning. Do you want to take it from here, Rich?

Richard Furnstein: Hold on, I'm scanning your primary education summary on the Get Back project to see where we are. Control F "cold, gray soundstage"? Right, perfect. What started as a promising concept for the new Beatles project--intimate audio/visual explorations of The Beatles writing and rehearsing new material in preparation for a grand return to the stage--was quickly downgraded to a warty documentation of uninspired sessions. The grand finale would become an impromptu rooftop performance of the album's more palatable numbers. The "return to their roots" angle of the project is even less inspiring when you consider that the stark White Album pretty much achieved that goal. Throw in the worst batch of songs since the troubled Help! project along with an awful Phil Spector hack-job in the post production and you have a posthumous document of excuses from the decomposing Beatles.

Robert Bunter: Okay, are you with us, reader? So, part of the conceit was that the Beatles would be recorded and filmed performing not only their new original material but a batch of the old ‘50s rock and roll chestnuts with which they’d often warm up. What could be more inspiring? As they work together in harmony to craft their latest brilliant LP, the unobtrusive cameras manage to peel back the curtain of history and allow the raptly-attentive fans to glimpse their heroes playfully re-exploring the primal/crucial rock and roll that ignited the spark of their brilliant career in the first place. “Let’s record a great song, then, eh?,” says George. “Aye, Georgie,” says John in an exaggeratedly-deep fake voice which cracks up the assorted engineers and staff members. “Soonds good, but first why don’t we warm up with a Buddy Holly number, then?” replies Paul, and the next thing you know they are re-defining the electrifying changes of “Maybe Baby” so masterfully that grown men start to weep. Once that’s out of the way, they’re warmed up and ready to record their new stuff and it’s going to sound even better than it would have beforehand. They all smile warmly at each other and the sour mood of the White Album sessions and tense Apple Corps business meetings rises off the group like sock-steam from a dirty, sweaty sock that you leave outside in the morning next to your tent and the new day’s sunshine and warmth just lift the filth away, leaving behind a warm, dry, clean sock. The rejuvenated foursome is finally ready to continue into the dazzling future of their potential ‘70s career, and later we will all look back at Paul’s great idea to film a movie of the band rehearsing old ‘50s songs along with their new material as the turning point, a masterstroke. That’s how it was supposed to go.


Sad millionaires conjuring drunken spirits as a pathetic tribute to their forgotten hometown.
Richard Furnstein: How did it actually go? The aborted Get Back album was full of obscure chatter, underdeveloped songs like "Teddy Boy," "The Rocker," and a particularly putrid version of "Save The Last Dance For Me." The Let It Be album was a slicker compromise that didn't make anybody happy. It's easy to get excited about the endless pile of unreleased recordings from these tedious sessions. Beatlemaniacs always run into the Get Back sessions trap. Imagine being 17 years old and coming across Beatles bootlegs at the monthly Keystone Record Collectors show and finding a disc full of Bob Dylan covers by The Greatest Band On The Planet. Then imagine sitting in your sad bedroom listening to these awful versions played by rapidly aging and disinterested musicians. No refunds, the man said at the record fair. He's a smart businessman, and his business is breaking young men's hearts.

Robert Bunter: Man. That really hits home. So, we finally arrive at “Maggie Mae.” It’s not the Rod Stewart song about the relationship between a young rock star and an aging, fading beer queen (I’d like to add parenthetically that it drives me crazy in that song when he sings about how he might go back to school, or maybe “steal my daddy’s cue / and make a living out of playin’ pool.” He’s in the process of giving the boot to a poor woman who was kind enough to “take him in for the night” and this over-privileged fancy boy is just torturing her with the many wonderful life options that are still open to him. Please consult Lester Bangs’ first book for more on this subject). It’s a funky old ditty about a Liverpool prostitute, a drunken barroom sing-along. One gets the impression that the Beatles all knew this song from the old days, maybe a bit of an in-joke from the Reeperbahn or something. So, they break into an off-key little version and forget half the words and sing the harmonies wrong and then the whole thing putters off into nothing to end side one of Let It Be. Why did they even give it space on the tracklisting? It’s really more like the same sort of filler material as the “I Dig A Pygmy by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids” segment which opens the record.

Richard Furnstein: Throwaways like "Maggie Mae" and "Dig It" were clearly added to connect the Let It Be album with its original "work in progress" concept. They serve an ever greater purpose in the final track list, offering a safe place to hide from Phil Spector's tidal wave of strings and contempt on "Across The Universe" and "The Long And Winding Road." The fact is that The Beatles were never this rough, even in their rugged teddy boy days. It all just feels a bit phony: some sad millionaires conjuring drunken spirits as a pathetic tribute to their forgotten hometown. How can they connect to the common seamen and crooked toothed ladies of Liverpool now after years of eastern thought explorations, (alleged) sexual escapades with Joan Baez, bold new psychedelic drugs and fabrics, and gentle scrubbing and care from Mal Evans? They were no longer those simple men in 1969. John Lennon once promised an eternity of explorations in the rich Strawberry Fields, but now he couldn't be interested in leaving the comforts of heroin, white suits, and Yoko's control. Interestingly, Lennon would revisit "Maggie Mae" in the late 1970s (available on the crucial Anthology boxset). It's a much calmer take and represents a sincere attempt to connect to the folk traditions of North Liverpool.

Robert Bunter: That’s a good point. The Let It Be/Get Back experiment didn’t really work. They pulled themselves together to record one last brilliant album, but it was despite of the Get Back vibes, not because of them. The whole project ultimately belongs to the small but pungent category of Beatle missteps, along with the aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour film, the Maharishi retreat, Andy White’s drums on “Love Me Do” and side two of the original Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP.

Richard Furnstein: That being said, I would trade a decade of my life for a few more pungent missteps from these British superheroes. Perhaps we could have seen another twenty years of terrible recordings and poor production choices. "Maggie Mae" is indeed a special thing because it represents the promise of a terrible, thoughtless Beatles.

Robert Bunter: That’s a nice way of looking at it. Nice talking with you, Rich!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Til There Was You

Richard Furnstein: The emergence of doe-eyed Paul McCartney: the ladies' choice. Paul graced the world with his manboy presence, with a quiet sparkle in his doll-like face and a jutty rhythm that worked through his broad shoulders and confident knees. John was the leader and--at the time of With The Beatles--the primary songwriter of The Beatles. Paul was merely a nice accent piece; he'd provide gentle relief from John's frequent misogynistic breakdowns as well as a solid Little Richard impersonation. It always seemed unusual that Paul's "All My Loving" kicked off their Ed Sullivan appearance. I'm not saying was suffering in the George sub-basement, but he really wouldn't emerge as a true counterpart to Lennon until possibly "Yesterday" or Rubber Soul. "Til There Was You" was essentially a showcase of this limited concept of Paul's role in the band: a rough balladeer who sang as much with his large eyes as his honey throat. Is there any real difference between this and similar showcases for Ringo as the C&W goofball?

Robert Bunter: Of course there’s a “real difference,” Richard. Remember, this elegant show tune was part of the group’s repertoire since the rough-and-ready days of Hamburg 1962 at least, if not the mythical Liverpool Cavern itself. This wasn’t some light-in-the-loafers smoochery tacked on for sales appeal by “fancy” manager Brian Epstein or staid, conservatory-trained producer George Martin. This song is part of the underground root-ball from which the whole Beatle plant would eventually grow – the budding sprouts of emotional directness and harmonic sophistication that define the Paul-stalk of this magnificent plant are audible here. If the Beatles had consisted entirely of Lennon’s ferocious moods and angular artistic sensibility, their sublime balance of forces would have been disturbed. Paul warbles a bit of sweet poetry with disarming sincerity and the ladies swoon, but behind the sweet fragrant meadows and winging birds there is a terrifying emptiness. We’re not getting any of Paul’s real emotions, just a nicely crafted bit of Tin Pan Alley doggerel and a lovely melody. This may be the ultimate McCartney song, not despite but because of the fact that he didn’t write it.

Richard Furnstein: It certainly has the vital life-stuff of later sophisticants like "Things We Said Today" and "Yesterday." "Til There Was You" finds a man lightened by love embracing the bustling life and activity that surrounds him. Every step along the noise, warmth, and light of the waking world is a pure delight. While The Beatles would fully mine this territory in the psychedelic years (the cartoonish "tangerine trees and marmalade skies" representing heightened senses), Paul's childlike wonder truly sells this song. Does he pronounce the word "saw" as "sawr"? That's adorable.



"Til There Was You" is so exaggeratedly mawkish you could imagine The Beatles making goony faces and miming spastic convulsions at the kids when the mums, dads and Mr. Epstein were looking the other way.
Robert Bunter: This track also represents the first hints of self-conscious parody and pastiche in the group’s catalogue. “Til There Was You” seems to be delivered with a bit of an ironic wink; on the one hand, it seems to say “Look at us! A gang of drunken provincial teds with loud guitars, but we can play standards, too. A little something for everybody, ‘ey wot?” At the same time, the song is so exaggeratedly mawkish you could imagine them making goony faces and miming spastic convulsions at the kids when the mums, dads and Mr. Epstein were looking the other way, not unlike Eddie Haskell charming Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver with a little soft-shoe dancing but meanwhile he just dared Beaver and Whitey to climb up onto the billboard and fall into the ersatz soup bowl and the firemen have to come and get them down. This mischeivious, parodic approach would become a career staple, especially for McCartney: “When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Honey Pie” and “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance,” to name just four.

Richard Furnstein: "Til There Was You" should be nothing more than a sweet contrast on With The Beatles, their greatest (and most rocking) LP. However, the performance of the song at the Royal Variety Performance would elevate the song in the story of The Beatles. In this performance, Paul plays the sweet bard singing into the deep eyes and hallowed loins of the busty young Queen Elizabeth II. It was a huge moment as this group of rough lads with dead mothers from Liverpool were introduced to the ruling class that they would soon replace in terms of wealth, social culture, and national pride. Lennon later let tried to assert The Beatles (or rock and roll culture) had surpassed Jesus Christ and a host of associated angels. Bold, to be sure. I'd say the America-baiting "sacrilegious" comments and the burning of Beatles records by cross-eyed American rednecks had their origins in the ego trip that was the performance of this gentle number from The Music Man.

Robert Bunter: I would say that, too. And that’s why I would say you were wrong at the outset when you tried to tell me this crucial landmark was in the same ballpark as Ringo warbling his way through “Act Naturally” or “Honey Don’t.” When you look under the surface, you’ll find that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye, not unlike the episode of ALF where bumbling paterfamilias Willie Tanner reads an accidentally-discovered space diary and learns that the wisecracking, happy-go-lucky orange Muppet he calls “Alf” is in fact Gordon Shumway, a highly-advanced space traveler who spends sleepless nights in the garage brooding over the fate of his doomed romance with sweet Rhonda and the countless melancholy light years which preclude the redemptive return to his primal home on the planet Melmac.

Richard Furnstein: Ha!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Good Morning Good Morning

Richard Furnstein: The rooster crows and the loneliness of night falls away. We suddenly confront the sun (Ringo's drum introduction), a million hungry critters, and the sad truths of our life. Woke up, fell out of bed, realized I don't love my wife or my child, and I want to take weird colored drugs with Mal Evans in order to escape. Is there any other way out of this world? It's a depressing worldview. John clearly craved domestic stability (dead mother, absentee seaman father) but couldn't face the drudgery of a suburban home life. Nothing to say but what a day. Pull up a chair and eat your pork chop, dear. "How's your boy been?" finds John referencing his lonely escape into masturbation to pass the time. It's an unfortunate endgame to his dying relationship to the perpetually nervous Cynthia Lennon. It's also a concise way to reference the biological necessities that open and close our limited days on this smog-filled planet. Shower, shave, defecate, eat some good food, and then take three tablets of acid and look at the lights with Magic Alex. That's the game of life.

Robert Bunter: Yes, yes. The mundane human interactions of ordinary folks, which McCartney regards with bemused affection ("Penny Lane," "Another Day," "London Town," the middle section of "A Day In The Life," "Hello Goodbye" and so many others) are terrifying and repugnant to Lennon's childhood-traumatized, chemically-enhanced eyes. One of the fascinating things about the Sgt. Pepper album ("Pepper," as I call it) is the way the magical fantasy-world established on side one (mostly by Paul, though John the dreamweaver pitched in with "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite") starts to gradually unravel on side two as the harsh realities of life intrude via Lennon tracks like "Good Morning Good Morning." Finally "A Day In The Life" destroys the charade ... it's like you're watching a crazy variety show in a gaily-colored theater, but as you get toward the end of the second act, the curtain starts to fall down and reveals the half-dressed extras and bored technicians, creating a sense of palpable unease. Then, a nuclear explosion (the "Day In The Life" final piano chord) blows the whole theater apart. Then you wake up and realize the whole magic performance was a dream. You're about to get up and change the record (pristine original Parlophone mono, of course, dummy!) but all of a sudden the terrifying inner groove loop comes on and you're not sure about anything anymore. Anyway, that's how "Pepper" goes. "Good Morning Good Morning" is like the part I was talking about where the curtain starts to fall away. The same beefy brass section and heavy rock guitar tone that made the opening "Sgt. Pepper" theme so charming now seem harsh and discordant. The gentle audience laughter and applause sound effects have been replaced by bleating animals.

Richard Furnstein: This isn't even a "four legs good/two legs bad" fantasy. Lennon's message is that we are all animals. "Good morning, love, here's your sausage and toast." Don't want to see the sausage being made? Too bad, because you are the sausage.

You know what I would to have seen being made? This song. Imagine Paul laying down that searing guitar lead, headphones framing his angel face as he effortlessly gave birth to Joe Satriani. Imagine Ringo perched high on his drum seat, bringing order to John's fractured view of pop music timing. His cymbal hits like landmines of pink clouds popping across the sepia tinted mediocrity visions of the lyrics. Will the clouds raze this city or will they waft across the sleepy countryside like a psychedelic dragon, bringing color, life, and mythical transfigurations to the milky landscape? The escape is coming, and it's not just for the hippies and their bold new pharmaceuticals. The sad businessmen with their aluminum wrapped Scotch eggs can feel it. The sexually frustrated/curtain twitching housewives are begging for it.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, that's another angle. Despite the horrifying implications of the bared-fang lyrics, horn section, animals and icepick-to-the-forehead guitar tone (especially after "It's time for tea and meet the wife"), this song rocks harder than anything else on Sgt. Pepper, with the possible exception of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)," which follows it. There is a fine sense of excitement as the song picks up steam toward the end. The Everyman character who's been shuffling thorough his uninspired routine all day is heading home from work. It's five o'clock and already the sun is setting. Did they have daylight savings time in England in 1967? He decides to "take a walk by the old school," a bit of breezy nostalgia. Lennon's arch narrator seems to be making fun of the square, 9-to-5 main character (tellingly, referred to as "you") with his goofy slang ("Now you feel cool," "Now you're in gear"). The smiling You-figure begins to revel in the urban hustle-bustle as he strolls through town, flirting with any girl who happens to ask what time it is. At this point, John switches from second person to first person in order to facilitate a bit of verbal cleverness ("Somebody needs to know THE TIME / glad THAT I'M here") but immediately switches back ("Watching the skirts you start to flirt"). He is me and you are he and we are all together. The song is full of ambiguity, actually. For example, is it: "I've got nothing to say, but it's OK" or "I've got nothing to say but 'it's OK'"? Either interpretation would shift the meaning 180 degrees. Or what about "Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in?" Is this a doctor regarding a terminal patient on his deathbed with callous indifference, or simply a bored character who calls his wife because he can't find a thing to do "to save his life"?

Don't want to see the sausage being made? Too bad, because you are the sausage.

Richard Furnstein: I've always taken "called his wife in" as a loving tribute to the Bo√ęthian Wheel. That man actually dies. It's unexpected and crude but altogether real. The din of everyday mundane life highlighted in "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Penny Lane" (what a true shame that these songs were divorced from each other in final release form) includes both the light and the shade. The town is indeed getting dark (a man dies) but only an illogical skeptic would deny the inevitable of another day. A lesser songwriter would have shown us the promise of a new day through the miracle of a new baby's cry. Instead, he admits he has nothing to say and lets a gaggle of beasts (including the farm animals and jungle creatures) tell the end of the tale for him. The sun will indeed rise. The chickens need to be fed. Get to work.

Robert Bunter: That would be a great place to end this, but I'd just like to add that there is a logic to the order of the animal noises. The rooster crows for dawn, of course (could that long-dead rooster have known when it was recorded for EMI's sound effects library that he would be immortalized by the Beatles? He seems to crow with uncommon vigor). But at the end, each animal is chased by another larger creature. We hear a tweeting bird, then a cat, then a dog, then horses, sheep, woves and finally, humans (in the form of a fox hunt). In the stereo mix, they chase each other from the left speaker to the right. Then there is a chicken cluck that morphs into a guitar note.

Richard Furnstein: And what leads us out of this joyous cacophony? Only Paul McCartney (the supreme light himself) counting 1-2-3-4 into the Reprise. A primary education for a new day.

Robert Bunter: Beautiful!