Wednesday, March 20, 2013

All You Need Is Love

Robert Bunter: The year is nineteen something-or-other. Some guy invents satellite television technology, capable of using space machines to beam pictures and sounds across the entire globe! Then, in 1967, some TV producers decide to create a program for everybody. The climax of the show would involve the post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles, at the very height of their cultural influence and creative powers, performing and recording their newest single absolutely live, in real time, before an audience of millions. They had no reason to think that exponential leaps of genius and sophistication that marked the progression from "She Loves You" to "Yesterday" to "Tomorrow Never Knows" to "A Day In The Life" would not continue indefinitely; even the most curmudgeonly critics would have allowed that "if they keep on at this rate, their next record ought to be quite good!" Wonderful. Let's prepare the studio and order up some cameras and session musicians. "What are we going to do, lads?" asks staid, conservatory-trained producer George Martin. "I've got a little number that'll do nicely," said handsome Paul. And he sits down at the piano and plays a brisk minor key ostinato. "Let's all get up / and dance to a song / that was a hit before / your mother was born," he sings, and before he can even finish the next line, Ringo throws a large, heavy-bottom ashtray at his head. There were still cigarettes burning inside of it; Paul's brightly-colored satin blouse could have easily caught fire as he lay unconscious from the impact. But he deserved it. Can you believe that he actually offered up "Your Mother Should Know" for the Our World global satellite broadcast? No, I am not making this up. After Ringo threw the ashtray, John reached over and pulled on the back of Paul's hair as hard as he could, which really hurts when your hair is the length that Paul's was in summer 1967. Paul screamed (he sounded just like Little Richard, listen to the actual session outtakes on rare bootlegs!) and George took the opportunity to karate chop him in the lower ribs. There was no fracture but an ugly purple bruise about three inches below his nipples was there for weeks. Mal Evans poked him in the behind with a sharp cane. The playful locker room horseplay and brotherly tussles that had long characterized the Fab Four's studio sessions had taken a decidedly ugly turn. 

Richard Furnstein: Thanks, Robert. You set that up nicely. The Our World programme (program here in the States) was a talent show for the world. Each of the civilized nations with television technology provided entertainment (including comedy skits, Hungarian juggling, traditional dance, and songs) for the live broadcast. I'll tell you what, they should have just cut to the chase and shown "All You Need Is Love" twenty times. Can you imagine sitting through this endless program for three minutes of The Beatles? It must have been torture. They probably had teasers before each commercial break: "Coming soon: THE BEATLES live from England." That was that, you were stuck in your chair for hours, staring at some confusing samurai swordplay, hoping for the salvation from the greatest band on the planet. Suddenly, there they were! They looked just like the creepy aged faces on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (except John and Paul lost their progressive mustaches). While the Sgt Pepper's album cover's heaving forest of exploding flowers and garish frocks was drained of all its color in the broadcast, the array of beautiful people (plus Mal Evans), willing hippie women, and stuffy old English session players provided an even sharper view of the love revolution. Look, the Rolling Stones stopped by! The Pepper sleeve told us about that band. I should check them out at some point.

Robert Bunter: So, the group wisely decided against using Paul's less-than-stellar "Your Mother Should Know" in favor of John's anthemic mission statement "All You Need Is Love." It was a simple, catchy tune with a nice universal message that really rings true. Even Paul had to agree that it was the right choice for the TV program, after he regained consciousness with the bruises under his nipples and on his behind. And yet - "All You Need Is Love" ultimately represents a disappointment. Lennon was at his best when writing about his deep personal emotions and somehow managing to strike a chord of resonant universality with the larger outside world, on tracks like "In My Life" and "Nowhere Man." When he sat down to consciously address humanity ("The Word," "Give Peace A Chance," "Power To The People," all of Some Time In New York City), more often than not he was wont to trip over his own inflated ego and serve up a platter of stale broadsides. There were exceptions ("Revolution," "Imagine," "Isolation" and "Working Class Hero"), but I'm putting "All You Need Is Love" in the former category.

Richard Furnstein: Cut Lennon some slack. Do you think it was easy for him to relate to the common man? He couldn't sing of straight happiness or love; his emotional ideal was based on dependency and abandonment fear. His nightmares were full of horrific fanged visions. Yet, Lennon had an ongoing desire to make that connection. Hence, his worldwide plea for peace and love was anchored in familiar melodies ("Three Blind Mice," "The Song Of The Marseillaise," "She Loves You") and offset by a uniquely Lennon clipped verse melody. There you go, World: you've heard it before but you haven't heard it before. Do you love it? Of course, you do, it's got Keith Moon playing brushes on a snare while Mick Jagger wears a ridiculous Lennon face jacket. Forget Haight-Ashbury, "All You Need Is Love" resides at the corner of Fabulous and Lysergic. Time to clock in at the ol' drop out factory.

It’s no wonder the hippie dreams of the ‘60s faded into the clouds like so much happy smoke, leaving behind only the seedy crumbs and vague, burnt peanut butter stink of yesterday’s stash box.
Robert Bunter: OK, fair enough. Lennon was so advanced, he needed to simplify his message lyrically and musically so it could be understood by all humans, from the most urbane sophisticates to the most primitive children. As a longtime Beatle fan who falls somewhere in the middle, let me just admit that this song is on my list of skip-overs. I’ve been over-exposed to it my entire life. There it was on the 20 Greatest Hits cassette. Then I got it on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack LP. Then, there it was on the “Blue Album,” 1967-1970 and on Magical Mystery Tour. That’s not even counting its appearances on the latter-day greatest hits collection One and the trapeze mashup record Love. And the original 1967 single. And the Our World footage appearing in every single Beatles documentary, from the immortal Compleat Beatles to the Anthology. I’m sorry, but the song just isn’t that good. It was lazily written and poorly produced. It is lyrically oblique and musically uninspired. It’s no wonder the hippie dreams of the ‘60s faded into the clouds like so much happy smoke, leaving behind only the seedy crumbs and vague, burnt peanut butter stink of yesterday’s stash box. It was the Beatles’ job to write, perform and record a song that would unify the world and heal the lingering wounds under our nipples and on our behinds. Instead, John served up a platter of warmed-over fortune cookie riddles and Glenn Miller horn charts. The Beatles would record the necessary world-unifying track soon enough (it was “Hey Jude”), but they didn’t put it up on the satellite TV and therefore everything went down the pan until finally they broke up.

Richard Furnstein: Gosh, I'm surprised you didn't complain about Ringo's poor drumming performance in the broadcast video. Listen, I'm sorry if you can't appreciate Lennon's cool gum-chewing detachment in the dreary verses. It's too bad that you can't hear the beautiful swirl of the finale as a mantra (the fanatical George Harrison later claimed it was a "subtle bit of PR for god"). What about George's squeaky but emotional solo? If only you could delight in the cello driven string section, old friend. I think there's a lot to love here. It has always represented the excitement of the transitional points of The Beatles. While in many ways a retread of the sophisticated pop symphonies of Pepper, the weird combination of live and backing tracks alone make this a completely unique recording in the world of The Beatles. (Side note: have you ever imagined what the backing track sounds like on its own?) It's certainly not The Beatles' fault that this song was anthologized to death; it was merely a single with a worldwide premiere. A snapshot at the transition from the wide eyed lovers of life in Sgt Pepper to the garish confusion that marked the Magical Mystery Tour/Yellow Submarine era. The Robert Bunter I used to know would lament that we don't have a full album of these miracle sessions. Another branch in the mighty Beatles oak tree cut short by the changing seasons.

Robert Bunter: I’m not taking the bait. This track is weak and I think deep down everyone knows it. John certainly did; I would refer you to the following quotes: “[All You Need Is Love] wasn’t our best track” (Crawdaddy, 1971); “…a real low point, creatively speaking” (Rolling Stone, 1973); “Frankly, Dick, I was just phoning it in. Me heart wasn’t in it, we just figured we had to cut a track for the telly-vision program” (Dick Cavett interview segment, 1974); “Garbage? Yes.” (Creem, 1977). Now, I will grant you that artists themselves are seldom the best judge of their own work, but I think we ought to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. One little-known fact about these sessions is that the Beatles played oddball instruments on the backing track – John strummed a banjo, Paul thumped a double-bass and George scratched away on a violin. I will admit that I would love to hear those isolated tracks. They probably sounded like Flatt and Scruggs. VERY flat and Scruggs, that is! Look, the song is far from terrible. John’s assessments (“another steaming pile shoveled onto the dung-mound of our post-Pepper doldrums” –East Village Other, 1972) were overly harsh. I’m just saying this is ultimately a pedestrian effort that does not deserve to be numbered among the greatest hits. That’s all, Richard.

Richard Furnstein: Here's a quote I'm more interested in: "It was a fabulous time musically and spiritually"--Ringo Starr, poolside, Los Angeles, California, 1995. He's right, we're both wrong. Let's go get some Mexican food, old friend. I'm buying.

Friday, March 15, 2013

P.S. I Love You

Richard Furnstein: Paul McCartney was a dangerous young man. His loose balloon eyes would draw the helpless ladies of Liverpool into his warm cloak, where a dark cloud of aftershave and sweat would swarm around their wilting bodies. The women were easy prey: Paul would snatch them up like a giant ripping the roof off of a girls' school. He always seemed to be the secret man in a gaggle of boys. "P.S. I Love You" finds Young Paul reaching Aleister Crowleyian levels of control over sexual energy and power. The song--a breezy appropriation of Buddy Holly's white man samba--seems innocent enough. The P.S. of the title may even be a reference to Holly's figurehead of rock and roll innocence, "Peggy Sue." There's something sinister going on in this song. John Lennon serves as the dashing wing man on this recording, gently easing his friend into each line of the verse. Paul remains steady and confident during the pitch to Earth's women. He only breaks a sweat during the climax of his mating call ("YOU KNOW I WANT YOU TO remember that I'll always-YEAH-be in love with you"). You don't even really notice that the man is screaming until he comes down off that powerful run to join the measured tone of his buddies. It's powerful stuff.

Robert Bunter: Well, that’s just it. Paul’s greasy charm was irresistible, and the whole song is delivered with brisk professionalism. It’s difficult to listen to this one and not form a cartoonish mental image: a single blue spotlight illuminates the shabby wooden stage of a darkened nightclub. A quartet of unctuous smoothies sways gently back and forth as they effortlessly sketch a gentle tropical melody; the singer cradles an old fashioned microphone and leans into the foreground of the frame at an exaggerated, physically impossible angle. His eyebrows arch and tighten with hideous sincerity; his pursed lips glisten with shiny secretions. The audience members are the featureless black silhouettes in a George Peed album cover. The sincere intensity of Paul’s contrived insincerity begs all sorts of questions. Is it possible to tell a lie so well that it becomes your truth? The real Paul McCartney and his emotional feelings might be the real illusion; the cartoon nightclub crooner in our mind’s eye, the reality.

Richard Furnstein: The music suggests motion: a tender blend of the precision stride of a seasoned nag and the comforting creaks of a an tugboat. Where are we going? Paul suggests that he is "coming home again to you, love." It's a nice image, but Paul is reluctant to put a timeline on this return. It feels more like a tender kiss off from a man who realizes that his future his full of tender fragrant nubs, moist jazz cigarettes, and the simple elegance of teak. Paul's never coming home. His love is still true; in fact, he loves you so much that he can't break your heart. I'm sorry. It has to be this way. You'll understand years from now. See you around, sweet Penny Lane.

Paul's never coming home. I'm sorry. It has to be this way.

Robert Bunter: Penny Lane – the heartsick, immature Liverpool dalliance whom smarmy Paul is brushing off with a casual letter and postscript – is US. The fans, the record buyers, the listeners – from the damp screaming 12-year-old in the upper decks of Shea Stadium to the sad, fat old man with a shopping bag full of officially-licensed Apple Corps towels, jackets and Magical Mystery Tour DVD’s at Beatlefest 2009. The “letter” is actually the record album itself; “treasure these few words while we’re together / keep all my love forever,” he tells us. “Send a few extra bob to the fan club and you may even receive an autographed glossy photo and a lock of hair shipped via postal mail!” Paul seduced the world and then tossed us aside like so many nickels and dimes, scattered across the rumpled bedsheets of our lives from where they fell out his pants pocket during the tussle and roll of physical love. Thanks for the trinkets, Paul. I guess I’ll just hold onto them and treasure the memories. PS, I love you. But … who are you?

Richard Furnstein: That's the burden that James Paul McCartney must carry. He's just a man who was sent to this planet to keep our memories alive. George and John are dead. Ringo doesn't want to sign autographs for you anymore. It's all on Paul. You say it's your birthday? Let me play you this Paul McCartney song. Are you sad because you are lonely? Here is a magic spell called "No More Lonely Nights." Wait, you want him to live forever and play a thousand songs in a single concert? I'm sorry, he has to travel to Pittsburgh in the morning to heal their citizens. But aren't you glad that you heard "Mrs. Vanderbilt"?

How much are these memories worth to you? That depends. Are they truly longer than the road that stretches out ahead? I'm not sure if there is an answer. All I know is that I want more of it. Forever. Give me your collected letters of John Lennon. Give me "Press To Play" in multiple formats. Give me Ringo and Steve Miller jam sessions. Give me the overpriced remastered mono vinyl box set (rumored for an Xmas 2013 delivery). I want it all. I'm alive.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, I want it all, too (London Town illustrated songbook and “Take It Away” 12” single with the picture of him holding the teacup, please). I’m human. But you’d better go into this thing with your eyes open. The thing you really want is the one thing you can never have: Paul McCartney’s true heart. I’ll bet that even when you were in his actual presence, you found yourself staring at the pixilated eyeballs on the JumboTron and not the flesh and blood human at the other end of the sports arena. Paul’s voice is an electronic signal coming out of a speaker, his face is a 8"x10" glossy promo photo and his soul is a haunting melody that captured the heart of a world called Earth, I’ll bet not even Paul McCartney knows who the real Paul McCartney is at this point. He looks in the mirror and sees an album cover; his grandchildren visit for Boxing Day and he gives them autographs. He sits down at the piano and everything he plays is a Paul McCartney song. His burdens are as weighty as his gifts. The love you take is equal to the love you make, but at what cost?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sun King

Richard Furnstein: Let's welcome another creamy sunrise, brought to you by The Beatles. Their heliotropic tendences were previously on display in the energizing bounce of "Good Day Sunshine" and the welcoming of the first blast of spring in "Here Comes The Sun." The only relief from the overwhelming feeling of loss in "I'll Follow The Sun" was the image of the sun as this unattainable state of love and happiness. The rooster's crow in "Good Morning Good Morning" underpins the tension, hope, and tedium of the start of a new day. "Sun King" is a lovely ode to five in the morning. The crickets are slowing down, ready to surrender their rhythmic grip on the night. There is nothing but promise and hope at this time of day. The taxpayers are starting their early morning routine. The babies are gazing into their mother's eyes during the morning feeding. The Beatles always represented total renewal: each new Beatles album was a rejection of their previous take on pop music. These four supermen were there to gently guide mere mortals through life. "Here are the tools that you will require to pass through this world, children. It's so fine, it's sunshine. It's the word, love. Carry on with love."  

Robert Bunter: "Sun King" strikes a deft balance between parody and sincerity. On the one hand, the implied image of an exotic tropical people greeting their primitive deity and chanting gibberish could have been lifted from the pages of "A Spaniard In The Works" (one of Lennon's wordplay-and-doodles books). At the same time, the mood established is one of genuine joy and warmth. It operates as a bit of a companion piece to "Here Comes The Sun," which precedes it on side two of Abbey Road. But where George's sunsong finds him exulting in the joy and freedom that he can see in his solo life beyond the suffocating constrictions of the latter-day Beatles, John seems to be retreating into the beguiling yet illusory warmth of a languorous heroin nod. In his opiated mind, the smiling happy natives are greeting the life-giving sky orb and praying for a bountiful harvest. But in the real world? He's "asleep" with his head slumped down at an uncomfortable angle, barely supported by the atrophied muscles in his noodle-neck. The tendons are straining but he doesn't even feel it. Yoko is slumped next to him, in a similar state of numb dishevelment. They are in Ringo's small Montague Square flat which he's letting them use while construction is completed on their massive Tittenhurst estate. Above them on the wall is a condom filled with stale piss that Yoko tacked up as a conceptual art project. I'm sorry, but these are the facts.  

Richard Furnstein: I just checked Lewisohn. You're actually telling the truth. However, I'm willing to give John Lennon some credit for the wonder and optimism of "Sun King." Think about it: Lennon's songs on Abbey Road are pure vampiric misery, "Come Together," "Mean Mr. Mustard," and "Polythene Pam" are full of dripping, elderly perverts and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" presents a desperate vision of codependent love. I'm willing to blindly accept the optimism and romanticism of "Sun King." If nothing else, I don't want Lennon to continue to disintegrate into the lurching horror figure of the "Come Together" villain. I want a future of Imagines and Beautiful Boys. I want to believe that Lennon is welcoming the new day with songs like "Sun King" and "Because." Time to open these blinds, Yoko! Let's clear out these room service trays. Throw those resin-caked spoons in the dustbin, love. I hear they are serving waffles in the lobby until 11. C'mon, grouchypants. You love waffles. We'd better hurry!

In John's opiated mind, the smiling happy natives are greeting the life-giving sky orb and praying for a bountiful harvest. But in the real world?

Robert Bunter: That’s a beautiful image. I can imagine a white pajama-clad John gallantly operating the make-your-own waffle station as smiling Yoko wipes the dreams from her eyes. A few startled fans wander over. “Is it really him?” “Why, of course it is! Would you like them extra brown? How about a dab of huckleberry jam and powdered sugar? It’s natural!” Yeah right Richard, get into the real world. There was no waffle station at Ringo’s Montague Square flat. It was an apartment, not a Days Inn. Do they even have waffles in England? Let’s focus on the music. This song is cut from the same cloth as “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Hold On” from the Plastic Ono Band album. John seems to have discovered hard drugs and how to flip the tremolo switch on your amplifier and go from an E to an F sharp minor at approximately the same time. I’ll tell you what this track reminds me of: the Beach Boys’ “Smiley Smile.” It has the same prominent organ (!), lovely harmonies, goofy humor and heavy-lidded stoner haze.  

Richard Furnstein: I definitely hear the connection to the half-realized jokes and weirdness of "Smiley Smile." The other obvious connection is to Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross." The Beatles lift heavily from Peter Green's composition, referencing the song's reverb-drenched atmosphere and the storm-like undulations of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. The Beatles rise above the mentally unstable yet dreamy textures of classic Mac with a lush wall of harmonies. Then, in order to separate themselves even more from England's new sensation, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison toss out a series of playful Italianglish terms. It's as if they were returning once more to assert their dominion over Europe. Where The Beatles once recorded their popular hits in German (“Sie Liebt Dich” and “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”), they soon realized that Beatles was in fact the universal language. Kids in Arizona related to their dank London vibes. Beatles tapes and blue jeans were the foundation of the Russian black market. "The Inner Light" plays over a supermarket P.A. in Vishakhapatnam. Some guy in Zimbabwe picks up "I'll Get You" on a transistor radio. It's real.  

Robert Bunter: You’re right, that’s a really valid point that has a lot to do with the song “Sun King.”