Involuntary Singing

I’m in the midst of a two-day singing binge.  Yesterday I sang in the “Vorys Choir” at the firm — an ad hoc group that sings a few Christmas carols and parody songs at the Columbus office every year.  I’ve been doing it for years, and fortunately there is no requirement of any talent or singing ability.  The main criterion is that you are willing to don a Santa cap and sing out loud, as Buddy the Elf instructed — and that’s something that I can do.  It’s fun.

hqdefaultToday, we’ll be going to the all-day Beatles marathon at the Bluestone.  Starting at 12:30, the performers will run through every song in the considerable Beatles repertoire — with a few others thrown in.  The Sgt. Peppercorn performers are a lot more talented and professional than the “Vorys Choir,” but there’s no doubt that, at many points during the show, I’ll be joining in.

When I hear Christmas songs I just find myself singing along, and when I hear Beatles songs I do the same.  I can’t help myself, really.  I know all of those Christmas and Beatles songs by heart, and I’ve sung along to them since I was a kid.  When I hear them now, I just naturally join in.

For the record, I think it’s easier to sing along with the Beatles, because all you need to do is follow the lead singer in the Beatles’ recordings, in whatever key and tempo and vocal stylings they chose.  When I sing Ticket to Ride, I think I sound like John.  When I sing Hey Jude, I think I sound like Paul.  Christmas songs sung by the “Vorys Choir” are harder because of the key chosen by our musical accompanists — so you might start out in a comfortable vocal range on Silent Night, for example, and mid-song find yourself beyond the top end of your capabilities and needing to downshift into a lower register.  In any professional choir, that would be verboten.  Fortunately, with the racket created by the “Vorys Choir,” nobody notices and nobody cares.

I hope that every Webner House reader gets to sing a favorite song of their choosing, aloud, during this holiday season, and enjoy the chance to make a little noise.

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.

Get Back

Yesterday, filmmaker Peter Jackson — the guy who made those lavish, but incredibly long, Lord of the Rings movies — announced his next project, and it’s pretty intriguing.  Jackson has been given access to more than 50 hours of never before seen footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg during the Beatles’ recording sessions that ultimately were used to produce the album Let It Be.  Jackson will be using the footage to produce what is, in effect, a remake of the documentary that was released in 1970.

maxresdefaultBeatles fans know the prevailing story:  the band went into the studio to record a new album that was originally going to be called Get Back, because the idea was for the band to get back to its rock ‘n roll roots, with Billy Preston playing along on keyboards.  After some initial highlights — including an impromptu concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps that happened 50 years ago yesterday, and was the last time the Beatles performed live in public — the album effort supposedly ground down in a maze of acrimony and dissension that presaged a group on the edge of a final break-up.  The effort was shelved, and months Phil Spector was enlisted to produce something out of the recordings.  Let It Be then emerged in 1970 — a combination of some great, quasi-live recordings, classics like the song Let It Be, and awful, overproduced Spector versions of songs like The Long and Winding Road.  Let It Be would be the last original Beatles’ album to be released (with Abbey Road being the last album the Beatles recorded);

That’s the story we’ve heard, and it was largely framed by the 1970 film that emphasized the tension and dissension, but Jackson suggests that it’s not the true story.  He’s watched the unseen footage, and listened to more than a hundred hours of the audio tapes from the recording sessions, and he says:   “It’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching these four friends make great music together.”  He added:  “Sure, there are moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating – it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.”

It’s hard to imagine that there is much new to be learned about the Beatles — they are clearly among the most loved, photographed, analyzed, and psychoanalyzed musical and cultural figures in history — but this unreleased footage may help to alter the storyline.  I’ll be heading to the theater to watch the result.  These days, how often do you have the opportunity to watch musical legends at work, in their prime?

12 Hours Of The Beatles

We caught the Sgt. Peppercorn Beatles Marathon at the Bluestone today. They play the official Beatles songs based on the British releases, in chronological order, with a few songs from the post-Beatles solo careers thrown in for good measure. The show started at 12:30 p.m. with Please Please Me.

We made it up to Revolver, but the band was still going strong when we left. It’s an awesome show that is expected to continue until about 2 a.m. Be prepared to sing along — you just can’t help yourself!

12 Hours Of The Beatles

Some people celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, with particular emphasis on that annoying partridge in a pear tree.  On Saturday, we’ll be marking the holiday season by enjoying, instead, the 12 hours of the Beatles.

49d1ba3fc5499a96b74466cc757c7065It’s called Sgt. Peppercorn’s Beatles Marathon.  For the ninth year, musicians in “Sgt. Peppercorn’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” will perform all 215 officially released Beatles songs in one performance.  It’s supposed to be the only place you can go to see all of the Beatles songs performed in one sitting, and it’s happening here in Columbus.

The songs will be played in chronological order based on the release of the Beatles’ original British albums and singles, starting with Please Please Me — the album the Beatles recorded in one legendary day — beginning at 12:30 p.m. and ending with Abbey Road, about 12 hours later.  That means we’ll avoid the embarrassing mish-mash of the American records, where songs that were recorded years earlier could get released on later albums.

A 12-hour Beatles marathon poses certain logistical challenges.  We’ll have to have a hearty lunch before the performance starts, of course, and then carefully time eating and bathroom breaks to coincide with some of our less favorite tracks.  Basically, any song that you carefully positioned the tone arm on your turntable to pass over would be a good candidate.  I’m suggesting, for example, that we try to fit dinner in during side 4 of The Beatles (commonly known as the White Album), and I’ll no doubt hit the men’s room when it’s time for Within You Without You on Sergeant Pepper’s.

Who needs five golden rings when you can listen to gold records instead?

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.

Still Fab After 50

Amazingly, more than 50 years after the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released during the summer of 1967, the iconic photo of the Fab Four from the album towers over the Las Vegas strip. The Cirque du Soleil show Love, which features Beatles music, is one of the most popular shows in town.

The Beatles’ music may not prove to be literally timeless, but it has held up pretty well for more than a half century and obviously is still going strong.

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.

Companion Of The Airwaves

We drove back to Columbus from Maine yesterday.  It’s about a 15-hour drive, down through Maine — which, like Florida, seems to go on forever after you cross the border and get all excited about finally being there — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.  We hit some bad Thanksgiving weekend traffic in Massachusetts, and a little rain in western New York and northern Pennsylvania, but other than that it was clear sailing and a long day.

hermosa_3a1f3cda-8075-4d6b-b6be-9e716983c7eeOn the way, we listened to the radio on Sirius XM.  We listened to the Ohio State-Michigan game, as announced by the Michigan radio network announcers, who are pretty funny (and cliche-prone) if you’re an Ohio State fan, and when the Buckeyes pulled out a victory and the deflated announcers whispered the final few plays it helped to energize us for the rest of the drive.  We listened to some classical music.  We listened to the Beatles channel, which featured celebrities explaining and playing their “Fab Four” favorite Beatles tunes and got us talking about what would might pick as our “Fab Four” — a pretty impossible task, if you think about it.  We listened to some sports talk radio, and the Auburn-Alabama game, and some big band music on the Siriusly Sinatra channel.

I like long-distance driving and always have.  Part of the reason for that is I just like listening to the radio.  Imagine what long drives would be like if you were just driving in silence for hours!  But the radio is a good companion, a conversation-starter, and a reason to unlimber those vocal chords and sing “Here Comes The Sun” when some unfamiliar celebrity selects it as one of their Beatles favorites.

Radio is old technology by modern standards — popular radio is approaching its 100th birthday — and consequently we take radio for granted, but what would highway travel be without it?

Farewell To The Brown-Eyed Handsome Man

Chuck Berry died yesterday at age 90.  He was the man whose songs gave rock ‘n roll a sound and a shape and a theme and a direction, way back in the ’50s, and thereby helped to create a genre of popular music that has endured for more than 60 years.  His song Maybellene, his first big hit, was released in 1955, and its combination of irresistible guitar licks, a chugging back beat, and a story about teenage angst, girls, cars, and speed created a lasting framework for what was then a shocking and utterly new sound.  (Interestingly, just last year Chuck Berry was working on an album of new material to be released some time this year.  Let’s hope we get to hear it.)

chuck-berry-1957-billboard-1548The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world.  The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said:  “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”  The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing.  And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music.  Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?

I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try.  I can say this without fear of contradiction, however:  when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry.  That remains true today, 40 years later.  That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.

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.

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?

The Sounds Of A ’60s Summer

There was the ever-present throb of fans, because no one had air conditioning.  Square fan units that fit into the bottom of a window that you could yell into and have your voice emerge, chopped and distorted, on the other side.  Rotating fans that whirred from side to side, with streamers tied to their wire covers blowing in the breeze.  Standing fans in the corner that sent air circling around the room.  They didn’t make the air any cooler, but they helped the “circulation.”

Screen doors creaking open and slamming shut with a bang as kids came and went and exasperated Moms said:  “In or out?”  Baseball cards attached to bicycle frames with a clothes pin that were strummed by the spokes of the rear wheel and made a bike sound like a motorcycle.  The hum of riding lawnmowers, as the neighborhood Dads cut the grass on their acre-sized lots.  The fat from cheeseburgers sizzling on hot charcoal.

And, as the evening arrived and shadows grew long, boxy Zenith and RCA radio units were turned on.  The sounds of ’60s music floated out the open windows through the screens into the humid summer nights as the adults gathered on patios and kids ran around, waving sparklers or catching lightning bugs or playing flashlight tag.  Martha Reeve and the Vandellas and Dancing in the Street.  Frank Sinatra and Strangers in the Night.  The early Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons.  Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark.  And, most of all, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, whose music perfectly captured the ’60s summer mood.  Happy, bopping music, light and upbeat, infused with optimism, as the adults talked quietly and laughed about last night’s Tonight Show or reenacted one of the bits from the latest great Bill Cosby or Bob Newhart comedy album.

When bedtime came, the beat of fans was still there, accompanied by the chirping of crickets and the buzz insects in the sultry air.

Autographs And Album Covers

The BBC reports that someone paid $290,000 for a copy of the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover signed by every Beatle shortly after the album was released in 1967.  The sale price broke a record and brought almost 10 times the $30,000 that was expected when the item was put up for auction.

Sgt. Pepper’s is generally viewed as one of the most influential albums ever recorded, and its lavish, beautiful cover fit perfectly with the music inside and the beginning of the Summer of Love.  From the iconic front cover, with the Beatles surrounded by photos of famous people at a gravesite, to the lush and sparkling interior photo of the Beatles in the satin band uniforms (which is where the auctioned album is autographed), to the back cover of the song lyrics and a picture of the Beatles featuring Paul McCartney’s back, the Sgt. Pepper’s cover is a tantalizing treat for the senses.  But $290,000?

I’ve never understood the point of autographs.  It’s one thing if you collect the autographs yourself and had a personal story to tell about every famous person you encountered through that hobby.  Paying huge sums for autographed items collected by others, however, makes no sense to me.  The scribbled signature means nothing, in and of itself; I could no more distinguish a genuine John Lennon signature from a reasonable forgery.  The real value of the autographed item, apparently, is confirmation that, at one moment in time 45 years ago, this cardboard object briefly passed through the hands of the four Beatles.  But, so what?  Does the new owner experience a vicarious thrill at holding something once touched by his heroes, two of whom are now dead?  If so, isn’t that somewhat . . . odd?  Or is the buyer just a cold, calculated investor willing to gamble that, in 10 or 20 years, someone will pay even more for this piece of cardboard, which will be carefully stored in some climate-controlled safe?

Either way, $290,000 seems like an awful lot of money to pay for an album I once got for $7.99 at the neighborhood record store.