Lennon’s 80th

This month marked the 80th birthday of John Lennon. The founder and one of the cornerstones of the Beatles, and the writer of so many great songs as part of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, was born on October 9, 1940. He’s been gone for 40 years, after being shot on the streets of New York City by a disturbed person, but for many of us the loss of this special man is still fresh, and stinging.

I’ve written about the death of John Lennon before, from the standpoint of a creative life interrupted, to question whether his killer should ever be paroled. I still have that question, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come for focus more on being grateful for the fact that Lennon lived at all, and made the contributions to my life that he did. So many of the tunes from the Beatles songbook and Lennon’s post-Beatles work are lodged in my head, and come naturally to mind at specific times. I feel especially tired, and the first few notes from the lone guitar that begins I’m So Tired from the White Album come unbidden from the memory banks, and I start singing the words. Who hasn’t thought of the song Rain on a rainy day? Who hasn’t thought of the song Help! during a difficult period? Who hasn’t been to a wedding reception that started slow — until the DJ played the Beatles’ definitive rendition of Shout, knowing that John Lennon’s screamed vocals and the chunky guitar chords and the ashcan drumming would be absolutely certain to get everyone with a pulse out on the dance floor and singing the words?

I’m sad that John Lennon was murdered, and am curious about what this witty, creative, interesting observer of life would be saying about our weird modern world had he had only had the chance to experience it. I wonder about what he would have done during his second 40 years — but am so glad that he had those first 40 years, for the musical and emotional contribution those 40 years have made, and continue to make, to my life. Happy 80th birthday, John Lennon, and thank you!

A Beatles Reunion — Of Sorts

Ringo Starr is coming out with his 20th solo album, called What’s My Name, next month.  The album will feature an intriguing track for the Beatles fans among us.

ringo-starr-paul-mccartney-perform-2014-billboard-1548Sir Ringo will be singing a song written by John Lennon shortly before his death. The song, called Grow Old With Me, was recorded by Lennon on demo tapes for Double Fantasy, Lennon’s last album.  When a record producer played the song for Ringo, who had never heard it before, he was touched by it and decided to record it — and he asked Paul McCartney to play bass and sing back-up.  Sir Paul agreed, so the two surviving Beatles perform together again, on a song written by a third Beatle that includes a string arrangement that quotes from Here Comes The Sun, written by the fourth Beatle, George Harrison.  Ringo’s new album also will feature a cover of the song Money, which the Beatles also recorded and performed.

I’ll be interested in hearing the song, which is as close as we’re going to get to a Beatles reunion these days.  I also think it is pretty cool that Ringo, who is 79, and Paul, who is 77, are still active in performing and recording — and are thinking from time to time about their days in the Beatles and their now-departed bandmates in the greatest musical group ever assembled.

78

6011_hamburg_07Today is John Lennon’s birthday.  One half of the greatest songwriting teams in the history of music would have turned 78 today, if he had not been felled by a lunatic’s bullet and had survived the ravages of early old age.

78 is an interesting number with a distinctive musical element to it, for those of us of a particular age.  When I was growing up, and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were standing, alone and unchallenged, at the absolute pinnacle of popular music, we had a phonograph that had four speeds — 16, 33 1/3, 45, and 78 — so you could change the revolutions per minute of the turntable depending on the kind of record you were playing.  My parents actually had some old swing era records that played at 78 rpm, but of course the Beatles singles were 45s, and the Beatles albums, where the band really broke through the barriers surrounding popular music and changed music forever, were played at 33 1/3.  We played those Beatles records over and over, and even though I’ve heard every song more than a thousand times — no exaggeration — they all still sound as fresh and great as they did when I first heard them on an AM radio.

I never understood why turntables had variable speeds and why different records were recorded to be played at different speeds — but still, even today, 16, 33 1/3, 45, and 78 remain almost mystical musical numbers for me.  I really would have liked for John Lennon to have made it to 78; unfortunately, he never had the chance to make it to 45.

What a waste.

Paul McCartney, Bassist

Recently I stumbled across this article about Paul McCartney, the bass player.  It’s based on an interview of McCartney that occurred in November 1994, conducted as part of the research for a publication called The Bass Book.  The interview — which focuses on how McCartney became a bass player, the instruments he used, including the famous violin-shaped Hofner, and other musicianship basics — wasn’t published until this year.

1214-32-601b_lgIt’s a fascinating read, and it highlights a point that often gets overlooked:  the incredible musical talent that was packed into the four people who made up the Beatles.  Sometimes the band’s legendary, overwhelming celebrity overshadows the fact that they were all brilliant musicians.  I’ve written before about Ringo Starr’s exceptional drumming, and the underappreciated contribution he made to the underpinnings of the Beatles’s greatest songs.  Paul McCartney’s bass playing was no less phenomenal.  Together, McCartney and Starr gave the Beatles the greatest rhythm section in rock music history.  (And don’t let anybody dismiss George Harrison’s lead guitar work, or John Lennon’s rhythm guitar efforts, either — they’re equally outstanding.)

McCartney’s bass role in the Beatles was foisted upon him — somebody had to slug along on the bass after Stu Sutcliffe left the band — but he took to it like a duck to water and showed amazing creativity in devising bass lines for the band’s songs.  Listen, for example, to songs like Come Together or Something from the Abbey Road album (a song that also shows McCartney’s extraordinary gift for background vocals) and focus in on the bass playing.  You’ll come away shaking your head at the creativity McCartney shows, and thinking about how his playing just blows away the work of most bass players.  McCartney somehow devised bass lines that faithfully anchored the rhythm of the songs, but also advanced them musically — which is not a common ability.  And his bass skills didn’t end when the Beatles broke up, either.  Mrs. Vandebilt from Wings’ Band on the Run album also showcases McCartney’s bass capabilities and drives a song that irresistibly forces you to move with the beat.

We’ve heard recently about who’s a genius, and who isn’t.  Paul McCartney’s bass playing shows genius.  When you combine it with his songwriting ability, his singing ability, his guitar work, and his piano playing . . . well, it demonstrates what real genius is.

Goodbye To Sir George

630305_01Sir George Martin died on Tuesday at age 90.  Though he had a long and accomplished career in music, he will forever be remembered as the Beatles’ producer — and therefore as a giant in the history of popular culture.

Martin’s first interactions with the Beatles are the stuff of music legend.  The Beatles, fresh from long stints in Hamburg clubs, had just experienced the departure of Stu Sutcliffe and had replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr; their first efforts to get a recording contract had ended in failure.  Martin, a classically trained musician who studied piano and oboe, was working as a producer for the struggling Parlophone label, which specialized in classical music.  When Martin first listened to the Beatles’ music, he was not impressed — but there was something there, and Parlophone was desperate to break into the rock music market, so the band was signed.

the-beatles-george-martin-the-beatles-33432395-400-400The rest, as they say, is history.  Martin struck up a good relationship with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, and he respected the wishes of McCartney and Lennon to become real songwriters, not just performers.  He listened to their songs, made crucial suggestions, and Martin and the Beatles quickly developed a relationship of collaborative creativity that produced some of the greatest popular music ever recorded.

Please Please Me, the first album the Beatles recorded with Martin, is a terrific rock and roll album that captured an almost live music feel and showed Martin’s technical recording skills.  Listen to the irresistible Twist and Shout, with the band’s tight, chunking rhythms, John Lennon’s hoarse vocals, McCartney’s soaring screams, and Ringo’s ashcan drumming at the end, and you’ll hear a masterful exercise in recording.  From there, it was a line of hits that steadily and inexorably stretched, and stretched, and stretched the boundaries of popular music, with Martin suggesting strings here and a sitar there, speeding up sections of songs, recording feedback and backward music, and eventually producing the ground-breaking Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  But while others might focus on the lushly produced songs, like Yesterday or Strawberry Fields Forever, we shouldn’t forget that Martin was brilliant at the basics and knew when avoiding a cloying, over-produced sound was just as important.  A Hard Day’s Night, from the taut opening guitar chord of that song to the end of the album, still remains one of the greatest rock albums ever released.

I’ve written often about music generally and the Beatles specifically.  They were extraordinary talents, but it was people like George Martin who helped them to produce magic and beauty, songs that touch you deeply and songs that make you want to dance in a sweaty crowd and songs that make even the vocally challenged among us want to sing out loud.  Sir George Martin was part of something tremendous that will live on for years.  He will be celebrated in his passing, and justifiably so.

An Ancient Perspective On War

Why do human beings make war on each other?  It’s a question that has intrigued philosophers and scientists, poets and peasants for centuries.

A more interesting question, though, might be not why, but when — because figuring out when the mass killings began might help us to isolate why the human species fights wars in the first place.

prehistoric-skull-discovered-nataruk-kenya-reuters-640x480A recent archaeological dig indicates that war is, unfortunately, much more ancient than we might have suspected.  The find at Nataruk, Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, reveals a horrific battle between two tribes of hunter-gatherers that happened 10,000 years ago.  One band captured the other, tied them up, and ruthlessly slaughtered every man, woman and child, including a woman whose pregnancy was far advanced.  The 12 victims of the attack were shot with arrows, beaten, and suffered crushed skulls and broken necks.  Their bodies were then shoved into a lagoon, where they sank into sediment and were preserved, to be found and studied by modern-day scientists.

Modern wars have been blamed on religion, nationalism, ideology, and quests for political power and glory by ruthless leaders.  One school of thought — reflected in John Lennon’s Imagine — postulates that if those causes of conflict were somehow removed, people would live in peace.  But the find in Kenya undercuts that simple premise, because 10,000 years ago was before the development of towns and villages, much less nation states, before the development of agriculture that caused humans to settle and begin to accumulate wealth, before the development of any known organized religion, and before any of the other attributes of modern culture that are typically cited as the causes of war.

The slaughter on the banks of the lagoon long ago occurred between two roaming bands of hunter-gatherers on what must have been a fertile and sparsely populated plain, with plenty of food for everyone.  So, why the slaughter of an entire tribe, rather than the decision to reach an accord, share the land, and live in peace?  It may be that humans, as a species, are just predisposed to war — which is a sobering thought, indeed.

Creative What-Ifs

The Atlantic recently carried a fascinating article on the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team.  It’s hard to imagine that anything new could be written about the Beatles, but the writer’s thesis is that it’s silly to try to figure out whether John Lennon or Paul McCartney wrote most or all of a particular song, because that ignores the impact of the partnership itself and the broader relationship between these two gigantic talents.  They wouldn’t have produced so much good music, the theory goes, if they hadn’t been pushing and challenging and trying to outdo one another.

Sometimes partnerships work, sometimes they can become poisonous.  Creativity comes in all forms:  solitary geniuses, brilliant but self-destructive alcoholics, a sudden burst of novelty that causes an entire artistic community to realize that old boundaries should fall and experimentation and new approaches should replace the calcified prior techniques.  I’m not sure that it’s possible to really draw broad conclusions from a songwriting partnership like Lennon and McCartney.

What most intrigued me about the article, however, was the last part of it, when the writer explains that, according to his producer, Lennon was actively planning on collaborating with McCartney after he finished Double Fantasy.  Of course, the murderous actions of Mark David Chapman prevented that from happening — but what if Chapman hadn’t killed John Lennon?  Could Lennon and McCartney have successfully teamed up again, or would the magic had been gone?

There are lots of similar artistic what-ifs that are tantalizing to consider.  What if Mozart hadn’t died at such an early age and had a composing career that was as long as Haydn’s?  What if Charlie Parker hadn’t become addicted to morphine and heroin and had carried the jazz torch rather than Miles Davis?  What if J.D. Salinger had been as prolific as, say, Stephen King?  What if Vincent Van Gogh hadn’t committed suicide?  We’ll never know.

Listening To The Beatles, Fresh After 50 Years

If you are a serious fan of The Beatles — and what lover of rock ‘n roll isn’t? — imagine hearing that there are recorded Beatles songs that you’ve never heard.

You bought every album and played them until the grooves were worn thin, and then you went and bought every CD.  You’ve been a sucker for each new “Beatles’ rarities” collection, laid out good money for Let It Be Naked, and listened to bootlegs and live recordings with crappy sound quality.  You’ve eagerly read Shout! and every other book and biography and thumbed through The Beatles Day by Day.  You thought you’ve heard everything the Fab Four ever recorded on every bit of tape and wax — but now it turns our you’re wrong.

The long lost Decca master audition tape has been located and is now for sale.  It’s a kind of the Holy Grail for Beatles fans.  It was recorded in January 1962 at the Decca studios in London.  It features Pete Best on drums and — even better — is said to feature stunning, top-notch studio quality sound.

The tape includes the Beatles covering seven songs — including Money (That’s What I Want), a song that the Beatles later memorably released, with stunning John Lennon vocals, on With the Beatles — and three Beatles original compositions. (It’s not clear whether the original songs are all Lennon-McCartney compositions, but I imagine Sir Paul McCartney could clear that up.)  The Decca executives famously decided not to sign the group to a contract, thinking they had no future.  (Remember that the next time some know-it-all confidently predicts your future.)

It’s not clear what will happen with the tape after it is auctioned, and whether the recordings will become available to the public.  I hope so, because I sure would like to hear them.  Imagine — listening to the world’s greatest group, at the dawn of their careers, playing and singing songs that haven’t been heard for 50 years!

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.

Should Mark David Chapman Be Paroled? (Update)

A New York parole board has decided to deny Mark David Chapman’s latest application for parole.  The board interviewed Chapman, who is now 55 years old, and decided  that his “release remains inappropriate at this time and incompatible with the welfare of the community.”

As I’ve noted, I agree with that decision.

Should Mark David Chapman Be Paroled?

Yesterday the press reported that Mark David Chapman’s upcoming parole hearing has been rescheduled for a date in September.  Chapman, who gunned down John Lennon in cold blood in front of the Dakota apartment building in New York City three decades ago, has served almost 30 years in prison.  He was sentenced in 1981 to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.  Since 2000 he has tried, unsuccessfully, to be paroled every two years. Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, opposes any parole because she believes that Chapman poses a threat to her family.

Should the fact that Chapman murdered a colossal musical and cultural figure like Lennon, as opposed to an average person, factor into the decision on whether Chapman should be paroled?  I think the answer is a resounding yes.  A thought-provoking book called 1,000 Years, 1,000 People:  Ranking the Men And Women Who Shaped A Millennium tried to come up with a formula to measure whether a person was influential.  One of the factors was the degree and extent of impact that a person had on the world.  Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, was rated number 1 because of the extraordinary, game-changing nature of his invention.

Lennon was no Gutenberg, but he clearly had an enormous, and continuing, impact on the world. Can anyone seriously dispute that Lennon was a hugely influential musical figure?  The Beatles forever changed the direction of popular music, thanks in large part to John Lennon.  His contribution continued in his solo career, with songs like Working Class Hero and Imagine.  Anyone who still treasures songs like Twist and Shout, A Hard Day’s Night, Sexy Sadie, or Come Together, among dozens of others, knows in his gut and in his heart of the impact of John Lennon.

Who knows whether John Lennon would have made any further contribution to popular music or modern culture?  The point is that he never got the chance to do so, and the rest of us were deprived as well when he lost that opportunity — thanks to Mark David Chapman.  Yoko Ono and Lennon’s children, family and friends have suffered the most due to Chapman’s crime, of course, and Ono’s wishes concerning Chapman’s request for parole should be respected.  The authorities also should consider, however, that the ripples from Chapman’s act fanned out to touch all of us.  For inflicting such a terrible, senseless loss, I think Chapman deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.

It Was 40 Years Ago Today . . . .

A London Times reporter who covered the Beatles at the end of their musical partnership has gone through some old tapes and written an interesting article about John Lennon and his views on the end of The Beatles. He says it was 40 years ago that the Beatles really broke up, when John Lennon said “I want a divorce.” The writer’s thesis is that Lennon had an unerring sense about the shifting sands of popular culture and ended the Beatles at just the right time, when they were at their peak and hadn’t disappointed anyone with a bad, or even mediocre, album. I think that may be giving Lennon too much credit; more likely he was just tired of being typecast as a Beatle and wanted to forge his own path. Still, it is true that the Beatles are one of the very few musical groups who managed to quit at the top, leaving the public still ravenous for more of their music.

The Beatles

The Beatles

This particular article is an enjoyable read because Lennon does not come across as bitter, as he does in so many post-Beatles interview pieces. He seems proud about the Beatles’ music and work and his contribution to it, and he says some kind words about Paul McCartney. I never liked (or, frankly, truly believed) some of the harsher things that Lennon apparently said about McCartney after the break-up. There is no way that two individuals could have worked so closely together for so many extraordinary years without having tremendous respect and affection for each other.

It is fascinating that the Beatles have had such extraordinary staying power. Even now, their albums continue to sell, books about their lives make the best seller lists, and their music is the main feature of a Las Vegas show. I enjoyed them when I was a kid, I listened to them constantly when I was in college in the late ’70s, and I still find so much to enjoy in their music. I took Richard to an excellent Paul McCartney concert for his 18th birthday, and he gave a his junior speech at Columbus Academy on the Beatles’ music. I’ve relished their music, and so has my son. Why not? So many of their finest songs are timeless.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake

Political Songs

Recently I’ve been listening to my “political songs” playlist on my Ipod. The only criterion for inclusion on the list is that the song has to have some kind of overt “political” message, as opposed to being about love, or cars, or some other song topic. I like the playlist because it has really good diversity of genres, artists, and even political viewpoints. The first 20 songs are as follows:

The Times They Are A-Changin’ — Bob Dylan
New Millenium Homes — Rage Against The Machine
What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye
Ohio — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Good People — Jack Johnson
Revolution — The Beatles
Capital G — Nine Inch Nails
Tom Dooley — Kingston Trio
Authority Song — John Mellencamp
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) — R.E.M.
Pride (In The Name Of Love) — U2
Working Class Hero — John Lennon
Born In The U.S.A. — Bruce Springsteen
Why Don’t You Get A Job — The Offspring
Redemption Day — Sheryl Crow
Uneasy Rider — The Charlie Daniels Band
Zombie — The Cranberries
American Anthem — Norah Jones
Things Goin’ On (Acoustic) — Lynyrd Skynyrd
For What It’s Worth — Buffalo Springfield

If you’ve never heard it, Uneasy Rider is an absolute classic: