What’s In A Bad Review?

Creative people who put their creativity out before the public have to deal with one thing that the rest of us don’t:  reviews of their work.  Whether it’s an artist overhearing comments about their paintings at a gallery, or a novelist, playwright, movie director, or musician reading newspaper reviews of their efforts, creative people have to get used to the idea that some people, at least, won’t like what they are doing.  And if the creative people can’t get past that issue, they probably aren’t in the right line of work.

Part of developing an artistic thick skin about bad reviews is realizing that the opinions of a critic are just that — one person’s opinion — and that critics are often just wrong.  In fact, sometimes a critic is so wrong about a particular piece of work that their opinions, read years later, seem comically and historically misguided.

beatles-abbey-road-album-label-appleI thought about this when I read about the New York Times review of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, published right after it was released in 1969.  To his credit, the reviewer, Nik Cohn, found that the nine-song medley on side two was the most impressive music the Beatles had recorded since Rubber Soul — even though he thought the individual songs within the medley were “nothing special” and, for the most part, “pretty average stuff.”  In fact, he thought “some of the lyrics are quite painful,” and “most of the lines here are steals.”

Continuing his critique of the lyrics on side two, Cohn wrote:

“The great drawback is the words. There was a time when the Beatles’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On “Abbey Road,” you get only marshmallow.  * * *  On “Abbey Road” the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. ”

And remember that side two of Abbey Road is the side Cohn sort of liked.  The rest of the album, he wrote, was an “unmitigated disaster.”  Come Together, he concluded, “is intriguing only as a sign of just how low Lennon can sink these days.”  Cohn also got it wrong that John Lennon, and not Paul McCartney, sang Oh! Darling.  Cohn thought the two songs by George Harrison — those would be Something and Here Comes the Sun — were “mediocrity incarnate.”  Cohn opined that “[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.”

I doubt that the Beatles, firmly atop the rock god firmament at the time, paid much attention to Nik Cohn’s views, and of course his opinions have been disproved by the test of time.  Abbey Road is generally regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and songs like Something, Here Comes the Sun, and Come Together are viewed as all-time classics beloved by millions for more than 50 years.

I guess I would say that Nik Cohn got it wrong.  When creative people are putting themselves out there for critics to chew on, it’s something they should keep in mind.

Abbey Road

Tonight, as we ease into the weekend, I decided to listen, again, to the Beatles’ timeless Abbey Road.  It’s only, say, the 10,000th time I’ve listened to this album, which has been a staple on my music rotation since it was first released.  It’s one of the few pieces of music I’ve listened to consistently over those 40+ years, from the teenage years through college, to the D.C. era, the early family years and now to my mid-50s.

As I’ve listened to the music over the years, my perspective has changed.  At first, I just loved the music because it’s great music.  In college, I listened in fervent hope that the Beatles might reunite and create more fantastic music like this.  By the late ’80s, when CDs replaced albums, Abbey Road was one of the very first CDs I bought, because the album is an absolute foundation stone, an essential element of any collection of modern music.

Tonight I listen, marveling at the extraordinary musicianship of this group of four British lads and thinking hard about what it must have been like, in the late ’60s, to be in the studio when the music first came to life.  At that time, the Beatles were at the absolute pinnacle of popular culture, in a way no single person or act has been, perhaps, before or since.  Their every move was flash-bulbed, their every every lyric and note was scrutinized, and their every album was breathlessly anticipated by millions as yet another opportunity for the Beatles to break the mold, bend the arc of popular music and culture, and move the frontiers forward.  What must it have been like to write a song under those conditions?  What must it have been like to know that, by sleeping in an Amsterdam bed or being photographed with a new girlfriend or attending the show of a new act you could control the stories that appeared in tomorrow’s headlines?

And I think, as I listen to side two of Abbey Road, which has been my favorite piece of music during those 40+ years, period, I wonder:  what must it have been like to sit in that Abbey Road studio, at the very peak of the popular world, and think:  “Hey, let’s combine all of these great songs into one continuous song, blending seamlessly one into the other” — and know that you have the complete, unfettered freedom to do something like that because, for you, at that moment in time, there are no boundaries whatsoever?

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul

Today is Paul McCartney’s birthday.  Born on June 18, 1942, then going on to become part of one of the most successful songwriting duos in history, the heart of the Beatles and the head of Wings, and ultimately knighted for his many accomplishments, Sir Paul turns 70 today.

McCartney has packed a lot of achievement into his 70 years.  His output is astonishing.  Most musicians would be happy to write one song like Yesterday (which is generally regarded as the most “covered” song in history, having been recorded more than 3,000 times) but McCartney wrote dozens of classics, from I Saw Her Standing There, Hey Jude, and Let It Be with the Beatles, to Maybe I’m Amazed and Too Many People in his solo career, to Band on the Run and My Love with Wings — and this list barely begins to scratch the surface.

McCartney wasn’t just a songwriter, however.  He was a fabulous band mate who arguably was the greatest rock ‘n roll bass player ever — listen to his stunning bass line on the Beatles’ Come Together if you don’t believe me — and his back-up singing helped to make the Beatles songs unique.  George Harrison’s Something is a wonderful love song, but McCartney’s back-up singing helps to ensure that the Beatles’ recording of that song will never been matched.  McCartney’s inventiveness and musical adventurousness also are remarkable.  In an era when many bands found a successful formula and then stuck with it, over and over and over again, McCartney constantly probed new areas, new instruments, and new sounds.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the epic second side of Abbey Road would not exist but for Sir Paul McCartney.  And the same goes, of course, for the Wings’ Band on the Run album, which was on the turntable, playing constantly, during my senior year in high school.

A few years ago, Richard and I went to watch Paul McCartney perform live in Cleveland.  It was a birthday present for Richard, but it was a huge treat for me, too.  McCartney’s performance was terrific, including an awesome version of Back in the U.S.S.R. and a heartfelt tribute to George Harrison played on the ukelele.  It’s obvious that McCartney still has a lot of love for music and passion for performance.  I’d go see him again in a heartbeat.

Each of us who has enjoyed listening to the Beatles, and whose spirits have been lifted by listening to a song like You Never Give Me Your Money or Michelle, owes a debt of gratitude to Paul McCartney.  Happy birthday, Sir Paul!

The Value Of Lennon’s Suit

The white suit that John Lennon wore on the cover of Abbey Road recently sold at auction for $46,000.  The two-piece suit, which had been made for Lennon by a French designer, was purchased by an on-line bidder who wanted to remain anonymous.  It is not clear whether the suit will end up in a museum or in some private collector’s basement.

What is the value of this kind of memorabilia?  In this case, the value is precisely the $46,000 the anonymous bidder was willing to pony up.  More broadly, of course, the value of such items is that they evoke a time, a place, and a person.  Anyone who sees the suit and hears what it is will think of the iconic cover photo, where Lennon led Ringo Starr, a barefoot, smoking Paul McCartney, and George Harrison across the street on a striped crosswalk, with the white Volkswagen in the background.  And knowing that the suit has been worn by an important historical or cultural figure allows the viewer to establish a more intimate connection with that figure.  “Hey, John Lennon wore this very suit.  Gee, I thought he was taller.”

I am not a collector, and I can’t imagine paying thousands of dollars for an old suit.  But Lennon’s suit would be a nice thing to see in an appropriate museum — say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — so visitors could look at it and think of a blue sky day when four rock music giants who were coming to a brilliant end to their collaboration walked across a British street.

The Man Who Put The Beat In The Beatles

Today is Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday.  He is celebrating with a private event at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City, followed by a concert at Radio City Music Hall.

I always thought Ringo Starr was a vastly underrated rock drummer.  Because he was a character who became known for his “Ringoisms”  — like “a hard day’s night” — I think many people considered him to be less important musically than other members of the Beatles.  When Lorne Michaels offered some ludicrously small amount for the Beatles to reunite and play on Saturday Night Live, he specifically said that the other band members could give Ringo a lesser cut if they wanted to.  It was supposed to be funny, but it was a cruel joke.

Sure, Ringo didn’t write many songs or have many singing hits when he was with the Beatles.  (Ironically, for a few years after the Beatles split up, Ringo had the most post-Beatles hits of any ex-member of the band, with songs like It Don’t Come Easy and Photograph.)  Nevertheless, he was the man who put the beat in the Beatles.  He had rock ‘n roll in his soul and never let showmanship get in the way of keeping the beat.  Listen to the ferocious drumming on, say, Twist and Shout and you will know what I mean.  Anyone who likes to dance to the early Beatles tunes — songs like Dizzy Miss Lizzie or I Saw Her Standing There — should tip his cap to Ringo Starr because his excellent drumming made those songs easy to dance to.  Even on his one drum solo — at the end of side two of Abbey Road — Ringo seemed to focus mostly on the beat, and not on technical flourishes or showoff riffs that detracted from the rhythm.  Yet within that guiding framework, Ringo also was capable of inventiveness.  Rain and Come Together are two pretty good examples of that fact.

I think it is safe to say that the Beatles without Ringo would not have been the Beatles.  Happy Birthday, Ringo!  Let’s celebrate with this video of Rain:

Something Similar To . . . Alan Parsons Project (Cont.)

Russell was right.  I did get a big kick out of his unexpected, early morning post about I Robot, and not just because I like to see postings on the family blog.

I think I Robot is a classic album, and Russell’s tale of listening to that album at the close of an college all-nighter had some real resonance with me.  I’m pretty sure that, back in 1978 or 1979, I pulled another all-nighter to finish classwork and write a column that had been the subject of unseemly procrastination and listened to I Robot when 4 or 5 or 6 a.m. rolled around and I needed some inspiration.  In those days, of course, there were no Ipods or personal computers with CD players or, for that matter, decent headphones — so when the wee small hours came you needed to dial back the volume on the stereo and replace, say, Exile on Main Street with a more quiet, contemplative album like I Robot.  Reading Russell’s post was like being time-warped back to the grim, green-carpeted kitchen at 101 W. 8th Avenue in the spring of 1979.  More on that later, perhaps.

To answer Russell’s specific question — of course I Robot didn’t spring into life, Athena-like, from the fertile creative brain of Alan Parsons.  The ’70s were filled with “concept albums,” a genre that probably started in 1967 with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  “Synthesizer rock” became big in the ’70s, but it also traced its roots back to the ’60s, and to bands like Procol Harum and Whiter Shade of Pale.  And albums that combined some vocals with long, instrumental sections were a staple of the “alternative” stations of the ’60s, where long songs like Inna Gadda da Vida by Iron Butterfly were the norm.

So what is like I Robot — a ’70s album with a theme, some synthesizers, and some longer songs?  I can’t come up with an exhaustive list, but with the help of my friend JV, I’ve come up some suggestions, in no particular order:

1.  The Beatles, Abbey Road — Side one of the album is pretty damn good, side two — with its blended together songs and snippets, ranging from the simple acoustical purity of the intro to Here Comes the Sun to the fine harmonies of Sun King to the humor of You Never Give Me Your Money, and all of the other fabulous tunes — is just otherworldly.  It is, I think, the best album side ever recorded as well as the best “end of the all-nighter” music ever conceived.

2.  Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon — The classic album of my college days, with songs that ran seamlessly together, music that sounded like the soundtrack to a dream, and lyrics that caused any thoughtful college student to sink into a reverie — until the alarm clock abruptly rang.

3.  Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here — An even dreamier (and in my humble opinion, musically superior) Pink Floyd album about the mental breakdown of Syd Barrett, a former member of Pink Floyd, that includes one of the greatest, longest split-up songs ever recorded, Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

4.  Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado — Another dreamy concept album that supposedly had an internal theme, but one that was pretty elusive to mere mortals.  It featured a bunch of great songs, like Mister Kingdom and Nobody’s Child. Side two of the album was a killer.

5.  Yes, Yessongs — Yes was perhaps the quintessential synthesizer/keyboards band of the ’70s (sorry, Emerson Lake and Palmer), and I think Yessongs was their masterpiece.  A two-album set, the second disk consisted solely of terrific, extended, drawn-out songs, like I’ve Seen All Good People, Long Distance Runaround, and Starship Trooper.

6.  The Moody Blues, This Is The Moody Blues — I admit that this double album was a kind of greatest hits album, but it really captured the blurry, ethereal music and thoughtful lyrics of The Moody Blues (as well as their somewhat over-the-top pretensions).  This was another college early morning hours favorite that was packed with excellent sun-coming-up tunes.

I think any one of these would serve you in good stead at 5 a.m., Russell!

More On The Beatles

In my post from a few days ago I linked to a recent London Times article about the break-up of The Beatles and mentioned how their music seems to span generations.

Here’s confirmation of that fact:  “The Beatles: Rock Band” video games has come out to great reviews, and tomorrow the entire Beatles’ catalog, remastered, will be released.  You can buy the entire boxed set for $250, and if this review is any indication it will be a bargainThis review also makes the mono boxed set seem like a must-have.

The staying power of the Beatles is nothing short of astonishing.  The Beatles began recording their records in the early ’60s and came to the U.S. in early 1964, more than 45 years ago.  When the group first came to America’s attention, it was shortly after LBJ took office, when the Vietnam War was  still in its early, conceivably winnable stages.  The country has changed enormously since then, but the Beatles’ records nevertheless remain popular. In this sense, they are unlike the vast majority of musical acts known to American culture.  In the 45 years from 1900 to 1945, musical tastes went from ragtime to jazz to big band; in the 45 years from 1945 to 1990 popular music shifted from big band to rock ‘n’ roll to disco to ’80s rock to grunge.  For Beatles songs to stay popular for 45 years, during an era where popular culture has been volatile and ever-changing, is an extraordinary testament to the enduring quality of their music.

Will I spend the $250 for the boxed set?  I’m not sure, but it will be hard to resist the lure of hearing the second side of Abbey Road — which I consider to be the single most perfect side of music ever produced in a record album — in the way the Beatles intended, without technological limitations standing in the way.