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.

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.

UAHS Rock

There is a theory that every person, of every generation, ends up thinking the music they listened to in high school and college is the best music ever recorded.  And if, 40 years later, they hear the strains of a song that became a hit during the summer after their junior year it still brings a smile to their lips, injects little youthful exuberance into their soul, and makes them want to move their feet, just as it did during their acne-addled years.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, really.  For most of us, we’ve never listened to music as fully and intensely as we did during high school and college.  Records and bands were important in those days.  It was not uncommon to listen to records, or the radio, for hours, with or without friends, and then talk about new groups and music, or some great older pieces that you’d just discovered, when you encountered your friends at school.  (“Hey, have you listened to this new group called The Eagles?”)  I even subscribed to Rolling Stone, read its reviews of new albums, and sometimes made purchases on the basis of its recommendation alone if the review was a rave.

And, of course, when you listen to music so carefully you tend to associate it with specific memories from your callow youth — like the album that was playing when you and your buddies were playing pool in the basement (Deep Purple’s Machine Head, maybe?) or the song that your high school girlfriend said was her favorite one time when you were out on a date.  How many people who graduated from high school in my year of 1975 can still sing every song on Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run album because repeated listenings ingrained it forever onto their memory banks?

So, I’m guessing that everyone out there thinks that the music that they listened to during their high school and college years — whether those years occurred in the ’50s, ’60s, ’80s, ’90s, or in this new millennium — is unquestionably the greatest music ever.  Fortunately, in my case, involving the music that I listened to during the ’70s, that just happens to be accurate. I’ve made several playlists that capture those songs, and one of them, UAHS Rock, focuses on the harder stuff that I listened to back when I was walking the halls of Upper Arlington High School during the early ’70s, with an embarrassing haircut and ludicrous ’70s clothing.  The first 20 songs of the playlist still stand up pretty well:

I’m Eighteen  — Alice Cooper
Layla — Derek & The Dominos
Smoke On The Water — Deep Purple
Stairway To Heaven — Led Zeppelin
Walk This Way — Aerosmith
Sweet Home Alabama — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Hocus Pocus — Focus
Band On The Run — Paul McCartney & Wings
Superstition — Stevie Wonder
Come And Get Your Love — Redbone
All Right Now — Free
Rocky Mountain Way — Joe Walsh
Twist And Shout — The Beatles
Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress — The Hollies
Badge — Cream
Roll With The Changes — REO Speedwagon
Radar Love — Golden Earring
I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home — Grand Funk Railroad
Hold Your Head Up — Argent
Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux — Led Zeppelin

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.

Paul And Ringo, Together Again

On February 9, 1964, the British musical group The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The buzz about the four lads from Liverpool was tremendous, and a record TV audience — 73 million people — tuned in to watch. For many people, watching that show, and then going out to buy their first Beatles album the next day, is something they’ll never forget. Some people think “the ’60s” really began with that one broadcast.

On Sunday, February 9, CBS will air a show commemorating the 50th anniversary of that broadcast. The show will feature a bunch of performances of Beatles songs by other artists — including Stevie Wonder, a reunited Eurythmics, Joe Walsh, Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and George Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison, among others — followed by performances by the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The show closes with the two on stage together, performing A Little Help From My Friends from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and finally Hey Jude. I’ll be watching — in fact, I’d watch just to hear those two songs performed live by those two musicians.

When I read about the show, and noticed that the family members of John Lennon and George Harrison were in attendance, I found myself wondering what kinds of memories were reawakened in Starr and McCartney as they performed. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the past 50 years. What was it like to remember that show half a century ago, when you were one of the four young men from England who suddenly and amazingly took America by storm?

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!