Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Deep Thoughts

In the year 2000, I decided to take my (mostly) American pressings of Fab vinyl albums, and re-created my own (perfectly legal) CDR version of The Beatles catalogue. I had been inspired by articles in Goldmine magazine about The Beatles original U.S. catalogue, and found myself longing for the albums I grew up with. In theory, I sided with The Fabs and their original "artistic vision" of how their albums should be sequenced. But, even though I wouldn't admit it to myself, many of the bastardized American configurations were more appealing than the ones officially sanctioned by the Fabs. The CDs released in the late 1980s were not only based on the original U.K. albums, but also had lackluster mixes, and shoddy packaging. Considering the Beatles' stature, the resulting releases were a disappointment.

Reading the Goldmine articles, which I assume were written by Bruce Spizer, brought back the excitement of buying Beatles records back in the day. While I was a bit too young to get all the albums when they were new, by the late 1960s I was all caught up. So eight years ago, I decided to take all of my records, and burn the whole lot onto CDRs, each disc chock full of music. Besides being able to enjoy the original Beatles albums, I was able to become reacquainted with the original sequences, and the original chronology of the releases.

The first step was to record all the albums onto cassette (to make sure they wouldn't skip). Then I needed to decide on the sequencing, and try to (ideally) fit two albums - with bonus material - onto each CD. The final product was twelve discs : Ten CDs of the regular albums, plus two extra discs: One featuring the Hollywood Bowl and the U.S. Rarities albums, the other had both the mono and stereo mixes of Magical Mystery Tour.

While listening to these CDs after I originally made them, I developed a new found respect for their early material. Previously, if I felt like putting on an official Beatles album, it was usually something from their "studio years". The original early Capitol albums had been so maligned (and often packaged with cheesy graphics) , that I would just focus from Sgt. Pepper onwards. Since The Fabs were constantly progressing as artists, I considered their later years as being "superior", even though hearing their earlier songs on the radio continued to bring me much joy. I was also more aware of the later releases when they were brand new, so I had more of an emotional connection to those albums. Plus the Capitol albums were so short, you had to get up to change sides every 15 minutes ! Once I made my own CDR collection, with each disc close to 80 minutes in length, I could listen to Beatles CDs uninterrupted, with over 20 (if not 30) songs on many of discs.

My eldest son has been getting into the Beatles after reading a book about them. He seems intrigued by the quirky differences in various Beatles songs (like the hi-hat intro on the German E.P. version of "All My Loving"). He has his own favorite songs - and parts of different songs. Currently, he's into the period from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper.

This inspired me to dig out my own home-made CD collection. I first wanted to revisit Rubber Soul. Once I got started, I couldn't stop. One CD led to another, and I pretty much listened to their entire session works from 1964 through 1967.

Of course I've must have heard these songs hundreds of times or more over the decades, yet they still sounded fresh It was interesting that while listening to all these familiar songs in my car, I still discovered (or re-discovered) many wonderful aspects in these recordings.

Since I was driving, I couldn't really take notes, but there were certain aspects that I remember jumping out at me. It was not a new observation that the lengths of many of their early songs, including classics like "Yesterday" and "Norwegian Wood", were in the two to two-and-a-half minute range. Indeed, some of the early Capitol albums were less than a half-hour in length. However I found it interesting that while listening to songs on albums like A Hard Days Night and Beatles VI, even within the tight 150 second barrier, the writing team of Lennon and McCartney would often repeat a verse or two within that framework. For example: The title song from the Fabs first movie was written to order virtually overnight, and features a very simple lyrical pattern: One verse repeated three times, another verse half repeated later in the song (after the solo) , and a middle eight repeated twice. This technique was quite prevelent in those days.

I was trying to think about what I found so appealing about their records when I was a kid. The fact that many songs were short and upbeat must have made it irresistible to someone so young. The repeated verses must have made them instantly memorable.

The arrangements also kept your ears on their toes. One thing that stood out in the earlier material was the percussion. Ringo kept changing his drumming patterns in innovative yet unobtrusive ways, which would subtly keep the listener tuned in. Energetic tambourine playing also kept the excitement going, and filled in the basic guitar-bass-drum sound. The interplay of George's guitar lines, Paul's bass playing, and the occasional addition of producer George Martin's piano playing all complimented and contrasted each other, with the instruments often "speaking" to each other in an almost call-and-response manner, playing sympathetically and effortlessly. The addition of Harrison's ringing twelve-string guitar added an additional, fuller, exotic element to the mix.

The most appealing aspect of these songs was probably the feeling of the "warmth" that comes through the speakers while listening to these tracks. One factor is the addition of acoustic guitars, as both primary and secondary instruments. But the most seductive aspect had to have been the dual lead harmony vocals of John and Paul.

Hearing Lennon's thinner, tougher, nasal vocals blended with McCartney's warmer, optimistic voice just fills the heart with joy. This is not just limited to their love songs. Even the ones about being hurt still sound optimistic.

A good example would be "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" (Beatles VI) . The constant chord changes and cascading guitar riffs in the introduction lure the listener in. John and Paul are soon sharing the lead vocals; Lennon seeming to be the one who actually was at the party, with McCartney beautifully echoing John's thoughts and emotions. The lyrics make it sound like John is depressed, yet the harmonies lift the spirits, as does the middle eight. There they sing about how even thought his girlfriend let him down, he was still in love, and was optimistic about finding her. It's interesting to revisit this song as an adult. Lennon and McCartney were in their early-to-mid 20s, having lots of fun on the road (and elsewhere), yet could still write convincing, adolescent, pseudo-naive love songs.

It was also interesting to listen to the configurations of the American albums in this context. Many people have already commented on the differences. I agree, for instance, that the U.S. "acoustic" version of Rubber Soul is a more pleasurable listening experience than the official 14-song U.K. album. But over the past few years I've been getting into the U.S. equivalent of the late 1964 release, Beatles For Sale album. When I was young. I asked for the Beatles '65 and Beatles VI as presents one year, not realizing they both made up the Beatles fourth British album, with eight "bonus" tracks. This period is seen as a side-step, or even a step down, after the effervescent early "Beatlemania" phase, epitomized by the only all Lennon-McCartney album, the U.K. version of A Hard Day's Night. But I come here today to sing the praises of this unfairly maligned phase in Beatles history.

Most people chalk it up to being exhausted after world tours, a film, TV and radio appearances, press conferences, a non-stop flow of recordings, and the introduction of marijuana. Even Sir George Martin has been quoted as feeling lukewarm about this period . On the cover of For Sale, the Fab Four seem tired, no longer like smiling, happy-go-lucky mop-tops.

The sequencing of the U.K. album was uninspired. Although it starts out strong, the only tracks featuring George and Ringo as vocalists, both written by Carl Perkins, were relegated to side two. Also the choice of "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby" as the closing number seems puzzling. Any of the three songs at the end of side one, as well as side two's "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party", would have been a better choice as a sonic send-off.

After an album of all-original material, the Fabs resorted to the previous formula of mixing covers with original songs. The new Lennon/McCartney originals, however, showed a new maturity, with an obvious Bob Dylan influence, especially in the opening Lennon-centric trilogy. The songs seemed darker, more mysterious. The Beatles were now stepping into some deeper, emotionally richer, territory. The tone and delivery of Lennon's vocal, particularly in "No Reply", made it all ring true, with a dramatic reading enhanced in the jarring realizations of the situation, echoed by the vocal enhancements. The unusual structure of the middle-eight also grabs the listener's attention. This tour de force gives the album a powerful beginning. It also sets the experimental tone for things to come.

Country music was also highlighted later in the album. Besides covering two of Carl Perkins' rockabilly classics (with Ringo replacing John as lead vocalist on "Honey Don't") , Lennon and McCartney come up with the country-tinged "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party." There were also a few minor treasures tucked away on side two of For Sale (and Beatles VI), like "What You're Doing" and "Every Little Thing". Even "Mr. Moonlight", which ended up on Beatles '65, (and often competes with "Revolution 9" as the worst Beatles track ever), has a certain charm.
The great out-take "Leave My Kitten Alone" is also from these sessions. All in all, a great selection of songs, a giant step forward in their evolution, and something that deserves to be revisited and re-evaluated.

Over the years, there has been a battle over which is the better Beatles album - or possibly the best album of all time: Revolver or Sgt. Pepper? I've long ago stopped categorizing music like that. It seems to get in the way of enjoying art for what it is. However, it is still an interesting debate. Pepper was more than an instant classic - it was a global event. Praise went through the roof (in most quarters). It threw out the rock and roll rules book. Yet over time there was a back lash, and Revolver (and Rubber Soul) were thought of as superior albums, and all of these album were challenged by the Beach Boys 1966 album, Pet Sounds.

Of course what is "better" is in the ears of the beholder. For me, Revolver will always be marred by the fact that I originally bought the U.S. version of this 1966 release, which had three of John's songs missing. These tracks had already been pulled for the "Yesterday" . .and Today album, complied and released earlier in the year. This left a lop-sided impression of the album for American fans. John was represented by only two songs, which was one less than George had! . The Lennon tracks included were the most bizarre and radical songs the band had done up to that time, and they made John seem like he had gone completely over the edge. Also, the "warmth" of just about all other Fab albums was sacrificed in order to explore more "serious" musical experimentation.

I often wonder if Capitol had decided to butcher Revolver just like they had done all other Beatles albums, would it have changed my opinion? For instance, if "I'm Down" replaced "Nowhere Man" on Y&T, and a couple of more songs were removed from Revolver, and we had a final lineup something like this:

1. Taxman
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. Rain
4. Here There and Everywhere
5. Yellow Submarine
6. She Said She Said

1. Paperback Writer
2 Nowhere Man
3. For No One
4. I Want To Tell You
5. Got To Get You Into My Life
6. Tomorrow Never Knows

Maybe then I could appreciate it more ? Not that I don't think it's a great album. I love everything the Beatles have done. Of course I like some things more than others. Most artists aren't even worthy of comparison (not that it's a contest). It's just I think that if the Capitol version had it's own "personality", it might give me a different perspective.

The growth of the Fabs' musical talents was getting more impressive with each album, especially in 1965 and 1966. After listening to my CDR that had Y&T and Revolver, it was time to listen to the "1967" disc. It started with the single of "Strawberry Fields"/"Penny Lane", then went into the entire Sgt. Pepper album, then the rest of their songs that eventually ended up on the Magical Mystery Tour album.

The first time I became aware of Sgt. Pepper was when I went to my music class while I was in elementary school. It was held in a special room adjacent to the cafeteria. The music teacher brought the album in, and I guess we listened to it, and learned about it. Soon afterwards I had my own copy. This must have been in the fall of 1967. It was a fantastic listening experience, even though it was a little over my head. The cover art was mesmerizing, and the elaborate costumes, exotic instruments, gate fold sleeve, moustaches, and psychedelic sounds were pretty mind-boggling for a second-grader. The fact that we learned about in school (of all places) made it that much more impressive.

After forty years of listening to this album, I wasn't expecting to be blow away. But on the heels on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper was once again a revelation. To say it was innovative is an understatement. They were more than nice little rock and roll combo. They were innovators. They were inspired. Their talents were overflowing. The texture of the music was breathtaking.

Those that criticize Sgt. Pepper tend to focus on things like inferior songwriting and that the concept doesn't go anywhere. These people miss the point. This is a listening experience. Billy Shears is leading you on a dream-like trip. There's no script for you to follow. The reason it works is that you (the listener) let your imagination take you from the circus to India and then back to the Big Band Era. It means whatever you want it to mean. The songs were less defined than previous efforts, but that's what made them work. The arrangements were miles ahead of what anyone else was doing at the time, including the Beach Boys, Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, or even the Revolver-era Beatles. All of those artists were achieving other individual artistic breakthroughs at the time. It was a great time for music. It's easy to be cynical and jaded when thinking about this era. But I invite you to listen to Sgt. Pepper again, with an open mind, and experience the album for what it is. Hopefully you'll be able to appreciate it anew, just as I did.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Derek Claptoe's Other Assorted Love Songs

I've recently been listening to a recording sent to me by a reader of this blog. It's from an outdoor, rain-drenched, two-hour concert by Eric Clapton and his band in Germany from this past summer. It's an amazing performance, with "Slowhand" recalling his glory days with Derek and The Dominos. The set list is filled with blues classics, sprinkled with assorted material from throughout his career. There were also quite a few connections with the Fabs, which I will discuss later.

Clapton's association with the Beatles is well known. If it wasn't for his own stellar career, he might also be considered a "Fifth Beatle." He's one of only a handful of musicians to share the stage with all four solo Beatles (Elton John and drummer Jim Keltner are the only others I can think of.) He maintained a close friendship with George even after Clapton married his ex-wife, Patti.

Before starting this blog, I dug out Marc Roberty's Clapton book, The Complete Recording Sessions, 1963-1995. It was interesting to look at Eric's career from a Beatle-eyed view.

According to a 1977 interview, George said he met Eric once in the mid-1960s while the Yardbirds were on the same bill. Their friendship, however, didn't really start until a few years later. The first recorded collaboration was when Clapton played on a Harrison-produced track for the soundtrack of Wonderwall, near the end of 1967/early 1968, then played with both George and Ringo in June, 1968, for an Apple album by Jackie Lomax. In September, Harrison invited Clapton to play on one his songs, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", which George felt was being ignored by the other Fabs. (On the White Album poster, Clapton was listed as "Eddie Clayton", which was also the name of Ringo's first skiffle outfit) . George returned the favor by co-writing and recording "Badge", with Clapton and Cream (with a bit of lyrical help from Ringo). Around the time of the White Album sessions, Eric bought George an electric Les Paul guitar, so that Harrison would once again focus on his guitar playing, after a period of getting obsessed with learning how to play the sitar.

The next few years had a flurry of Fab-related Clapton activities. John soon hijacked Eric for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. This was followed by live and studio work with John & Yoko, George, and Ringo. The debut Phil Spector-produced Derek & The Dominos single, featuring Harrison, was recorded during the 1970 All Things Must Pass sessions. During this period, Clapton also played with Harrison on the following projects, occasionally joined by Ringo: Apple recording artists Billy Preston and Doris Troy, Delaney and Bonnie (live), Rick Gretch, Ashton Gardner & Dyke, and Bobby Whitlock.

This Fab association continued, at a more leisurely pace, throughout the years.

Clapton played on Ringo's albums Rotogravure and Old Wave, and they appeared together at The Last Waltz finale.

Eric played on George Harrison and Cloud Nine, and toured Japan with George in 1991 (although a one-off gig by Harrison in London featured Eric's band without Mr. Slowhand himself ) They both appeared together again at 1992's "Bob-Fest", where they were two of the five lead vocalists on the Grammy-nominated "My Back Pages". Harrison's "Cheer Down" first appeared on the (mostly) Clapton soundtrack for Lethal Weapon 2.

Eric's Journeyman sessions featured George on two unreleased (at the time) Harrison songs: "Run So Far", as well as the outtake "That Kind Of Woman". The latter track was eventually released on the Nobody's Child benefit album. (A Ringo live track also appeared on the CD version). Eric and George played on a Jim Capaldi session as well.

George and Ringo appeared with Clapton on Carl Perkins' cable TV special A Rockabilly Session. Clapton and McCartney both played at Live Aid (but on different continents), and Knebworth 1990 (separately), but finally appeared together at The Prince's Trust benefit concert in 1986. Clapton joined George and Ringo at The Prince's Trust concert the following year. Clapton appeared with McCartney again at the Concert for Montserrat in 1997, and the finale of the post-9/11 Concert For New York City. Eric then brought things full circle by organizing The Concert For George, with guests Paul and Ringo, along with Harrison's widow and son. (Eric also appeared with Julian Lennon in the Chuck Berry documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll.)

Of course things have gotten even more "intimate" over the years. According to legend, as George was getting more and more involved with religion and meditation, Patti tried to get him jealous by flirting with Clapton. Eric, in turn, fell head over heals for her, and turned his unrequited love into his 1970 masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. (Surprisingly, the album was not a big success either critically nor commercially at the time. A disc jockey started playing the title track a couple of years later, and it finally became a hit. ) Clapton said he tried to ease his pain by taking heroin. Patti is also the subject of Eric's hit song "Wonderful Tonight", as well as George's most covered composition, "Something".

Eventually, Patti left George for Eric. Harrison said he was glad that she was with Eric rather than some jerk. In 1974, George covered The Everly's "Bye Bye Love", with rewritten lyrics about the union of his ex-wife and one of his best friends. (See Humorously Harrison listed Patti and Eric on the inner sleeve as being on the track. Against all odds, George and Eric remained friends throughout the years. George, Paul, and Ringo all attended Eric and Patti's wedding in 1979. Their marraige lasted ten years.

Last year Patti and Eric published their autobiographies. This year both paperback editions were released on the same day (What a coincidence !)

The last time I saw Clapton in concert a few years back, on his "farewell" tour, Billy Preston was on keyboards. On the current tour, Eric enlisted Willie Weeks on bass (from George's 1974 tour) and Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums (from Paul's current band).

Listening to the August 15 Clapton show, it was interesting to listen to the songs selected in light of both books.

Clapton played five tracks from the Layla album. The opening song was "Tell The Truth", which could be seen as a commentary on his and Patti's dueling autobiographies. Later on, Eric dug out "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad", and his cover of "Nobody Knows You" .

Clapton also sang Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity", which Eric originally played on in 1970. It features the following lines, "Isn't it a shame, how we break each other's hearts, and cause each other pain", which could be seen as his reflection on his years with Patti. (He was an alcoholic throughout their marriage)

Most of the show, however, featured Clapton blistering through old blues classics, which, of course, define Eric as much as his own songs. Both "Motherless Child" and "Motherless Children" were performed. Clapton has mother issues to rival John Lennon's. Clapton was brought up by his grandmother (which was a common practice in those days), as his mother was young and unmarried. He did not know his "older sister" was actually his mother, and ended up unintentionally developing a bit of a crush on the woman who gave birth to him.

The last four songs of the main set could be seen as a comment on his years with Patti. First up was a cover of Bo Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me" (which was already part of the setlist before Diddley's recent death). This song points out that the person criticizing him has plenty of faults as well. This was followed by his sentimental tribute to Patti, "Wonderful Tonight". The lyrics comment on how she has to drive him home, as he is in no shape to do it himself. This was immediately followed by the anguished cries of "Layla". The regular set ends with "Cocaine", which "Slowhand" now sees as an anti-drug song, but it was doubtful that he was thinking that way when he recorded it.

Even without the Fab references, the concert was great. Clapton sounds incredibly inspired, with plenty of blistering guitar solos, excellent singing, and a superb selection of material. Maybe he was rejuvenated by his recent reunions with Cream and Steve Winwood. It's wonderful that another of the old guard is still giving vital performances, and playing to his strengths. It's been frustrating being a fan of "Slowhand", since he often sacrificed great music for much more commercial efforts. Of course, it's difficult to blame him. He was allegedly disturbed when he heard that Van Morrison was dropped from Warner Brothers, and did not want to suffer the same fate. (Van claims he left). These other types of albums gave Eric a much broader audience, and lots more commercial success. He probably also brought his newer audience members back to the blues. Clapton is still in touch with his roots, and is playing with an obvious love of the music that originally inspired him.

And did I mention that he still plays a mean guitar ?

Here's hoping he releases a CD and/or DVD of this recent tour.