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.

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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.

Her Majesty (A Pretty Nice Girl)

I’m sorry to hear that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is in the hospital.  The queen, 86, was admitted with gastroenteritis, a condition that causes inflammation of the stomach lining and intestines and can be caused by eating contaminated food or contact with an infected person.

I don’t quite get how there can still be a hereditary monarchy, of sorts, in Great Britain, but the British people seem to like it and therefore it’s really none of my business.  I’m not one of those Americans who finds the British royalty endlessly fascinating, either.  I paid no attention to the Princess Diana controversies and don’t care about royal weddings or the other events that command media attention.  Still, I commend Queen Elizabeth.  She’s reigned since before I was born — which seems hard to believe — and during that time she has done her job, presided over the openings of Parliament, awarded medals, and performed the other tasks required of a modern-day monarch.  She’s done it all without scandal and, apparently, with an appreciation for her role and the need to comport herself with dignity and discretion.  And, of course, she’s been the subject of a Beatles song.  It’s a pretty good record for a queen.

Of course, by reigning for as long as she has, Queen Elizabeth has kept Prince Charles, who seems a bit batty even by British standards, off the throne and free to tilt at global warming, modern architecture, and other windmills that attract his attention.  That may turn out to be one of her greatest achievements.  I hope she feels better soon and continues her long reign.