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.