Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Heartbreak A Stranger

Another much underestimated era in rock music history is the 1980s. Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and Madonna were dominating the charts with a slick studio-derived product that offered more surface gloss than true substance With the burgeoning influence of MTV moving from innovation in the early part of the decade to sterile consolidation by the end, rock/pop appeared to be as predetermined, processed and expertly packaged as the product of any prior equivalent period - the early 1960s, the mid 1970s.

Pretty much devoid of any real meaning though.

But, as is always the case, underneath the surface outstanding music was still being made.

One of these artists was the Minneapolis band, Hüsker Dü, led by Bob Mould and Grant Hart. Deriving their fericious sound from 1970s punk rock but mixing this with a finely tuned pop sensibility, Hüsker Dü were The Buzzcocks of their day.

As is so often the case, this hyper-talented band burned out and the individuals began solo careers. Bob Mould began his with one of the finest 'singer-songwriter' records ever made by someone who would not have dreamed of being classified among the 1970s variant of that style.

"Workbook" is simply a gem, from the opening instrumental "Sunspots" (which I have heard used as linking music on NPR!), through a series of bitter/reflective songs emotionally based around the dissolution of Hüsker Dü. My favorite, if not necessarily the best, is "Heartbreak A Stranger".

A complete gorgeous melody played softly on electric guitar and evocative lyrics. It never fails to move me and belongs to the very finest of all rock songs.

Again, another largely forgotten and ignored record - I always wonder how many more there are out there just waiting to be heard!

Here Comes The Nice vs. Waiting For The Man

1967 saw the release of two (among others) notable songs about drugs. One was The Small Faces' "Here Comes The Nice", the second The Velvet Underground's "Waiting For The Man". Both directly addressed the supplier - the pusher. But the tone taken by the two could not be more different.

"Here Comes The Nice" ("The Nice" being contemporary slang for a drug dealer) is as about as positive a song about the pleasures and benefits of illicit drug taking as you are likely to find. Listening to it today is a stunning experience, not least because of the extraordinary naivete so happily expounded by Steve Marriott:

"You know you should meet the man
The man gonna help you all he can
You don't need money to be wise

Here come the nice (It's understood)
Here come the nice (He makes me feel so good)
I'd be just like him (If only could)
You know you should"

Compare this to Lou Reed's altogether more realistic vantage point:

"I’m waiting for my man
Got 26 dollars in my hand
Up to lexington 125
Feeling sick and dirty
More dead than alive
I‚’m waiting for my man"

The Small Faces song is a jaunty Stax-soul influenced rocker with silky "Who" style harmony vocals. Catchy enough to be a hit single, lyrically oblique enough to bypass the BBC music censors. A completely charming record.

"I'm Waiting For The Man" is also a mid-tempo rocker, but that is about all it shares with "The Nice". Instead we have a driving piano driven song that would be a dirge were it any slower, with all the monotony implied by that description. In contrast to the Small Faces, money is very important to Lou Reed's protagonist. This is strictly a supply and demand deal - no illusions here about the wonderful world of consciousness altering. Reed's character needs his fix; without it he is going into a painful withdrawal. Not a song that got much airplay, and not a hit single in any way, but altogether a superior picture of the realities of drug taking.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Stroll On

One of the more celebrated scenes in Michelangelo Antonioni's deeply complex study of 'swinging London' in the 1960s, "Blow Up", shows The Yardbirds - the Jimmy Page/Jeff Beck Yardbirds - rocking up a storm in a London nightclub populated by an audience of jaded zombies. In barges the 'hero' (really antihero) played by David Hemmings (formerly a boy soprano featured in Britten's "Turn Of The Screw" no less!!) in an effort to find a woman who may - or may not - be involved in a murder. Only when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and throws the neck into the crowd do these coolly immobile punters let loose, and the always competitive Hemmings' character beats them all to seize the smashed piece. He then runs out of the club, and casually tosses the fretboard aside. Out of context, it has no value.

The music to this finely acted scene is a song called 'Stroll On'. This is nothing more than a version of "The Train Kept A Rollin'" originally recorded by the Johnny Burnette Rock 'n' Roll Trio. The most remarkable aspect of this recording, both in the original and faithfully duplicated by The Yardbirds, is the malevolent fuzz tone of the rhythm guitar. It has a bass heavy resonance that sets it apart from more familiar fuzz tone recording (e.g. The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"), and I was astonished when I finally heard the Johnny Burnette original to find that recording, made in the mid-late 1950s, has all - and more - of the sonic ambience of The Yardbirds' own version.

Apparently an accident to Johnny Burnette's guitarist's (Paul Burlinson) amplifier had loosened a valve in the unit, resulting in an astonishing distorted electronic tone. That the band & producer had both the imagination and will to record this wildly unconventional sound is a testament to the surging creativity of prime 1950s rock 'n' roll. Essential listening.

Spirit Of '76

It's often said, and seems to have become part of rock history lore, that the mid-1970s were a wasteland for rock music. The big artists of the 1960s had given us their best music already, and were offering pale imitation or retreads, most often overproduced and bloated with pretension.

But this really was not the case at all if you looked anywhere below the surface. Although glam rock had largely faded, it was well into its transformation into punk rock through the vehicles of artists such as Patti Smith and The New York Dolls. Bob Dylan released his most meaningful album since "John Wesley Harding" with "Blood On The Tracks". David Bowie was moving into the techno-disco musical world that would blossom through "Station To Station" into the stunning "Low". John Cale & Sparks released marvelous albums. Reggae music was at a high point with Bob Marley and Burning Spear. There was a lot going on, and all of it interesting.

Into this dropped Spirit's "Spirit Of '76", a sardonic look at the bicentennial through the prism of some of the most radical music of the 1960s. This double LP really struck me, not least because it was the first record I had heard since Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" that managed to recapture the loose adventure and something of the sound of that album. Finally, today I picked up a BGO CD reissue of this album. Very satisfyingly, it sounds just as fresh and exciting as when I first heard it.

The album is very much of its time, being a seemingly undisciplined mish-mash of science-fiction spirituality (thanks to the interjections of a certain "Jack Bond"), genial & reflective compositions by Randy California, and a series of cover versions. It's the cover versions that give the record its backbone, through both the choice of song and the interpretation. Thus we hear "America The Beautiful", "The Times They Are A-Changing", "Walking The Dog", "Like A Rolling Stone", "Happy", "Hey Joe" & "The Star Spangled Banner".

Two songs associated with The Rolling Stones, two with Bob Dylan, two with Jim Hendrix and, overlapping, two patriotic anthems. Given the affinity of Hendrix himself for Bob Dylan (think "All Along The Watchtower"), we start to see wheels within wheels of influence at work here. Randy California and Ed Cassidy - essentially the entire cast of Spirit at this point - confirm and then subvert our expectations. "Like A Rolling Stone" is given a full Hendrix-style workout, yet "America The Beautiful" and "The Star Spangled Banner" are given unaffected, straightforward interpretations miles removed from Hendrix's own transmutation of "The Star Spangled Banner". Although none of these covers surpass the originals, neither do the originals surpass these covers making this one of the most satisfactory albums ever made based on the covers alone. But the other material, strange and quirky though it be, perfectly complements these songs both in musical and lyrical substance. "Spirit Of '76" is not only the best Spirit album made after the breakup of the original 1960s band, it also rates very highly in comparison to those magnificent early records.

Thus it is a shame that it has fallen so far into the cracks of rock history that it is only available in the U.S. as an import on a label specializing in rare releases. At least it is available though - thank you BGO.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Popular music in the United States before the emergence of rock and roll in the mid 1950s is often characterized as being bland and sentimental, devoid of drive and real emotional content. Although that might well be a true description of much of the 'white' pop that dominated the airwaves and mainstream record stores, it certainly was not true of the rapidly diversifying independent radio stations, small record companies who in turn supplied many of the singles that filled regional jukeboxes. In other words, if you chose to turn your ears away from the beaten path, you would hear a very different animal.

One of those was black music. This is a far broader definition that the simple 'rhythm & blues' identifier that has become synonymous with pre-rock and roll black music. Music ranging from that with little differed from mainstream white pop (Nat King Cole being a prime exponenent) to the earthiest of electric blues (Muddy Waters & Howlin' Wolf) was part of this continuum. Sophisticated to primitive, it was all there. All that tied it together was that it was recorded by and marketed to African-Americans with little thought that it had any wider import.

One of the most interesting black artists of this time is Earl Bostic, not least because all of the above traits can be found in his recordings. An extremely accomplished jazz saxophonist who passed through Lionel Hampton's band among others, Bostic could be sweet or sour with equal effect. No song better represents this than what is his most famous cut, "Flamingo".

A mid-tempo jazz ballad with a steady swing rhythm, smooth vibraphone chordal accompaniment, and a beguiling melody - none of this would matter were it not for Bostic's completely captivating saxophone solo that combines an extraordinary degree of r&b roughness (as pioneered by Illinois Jacquet) into a beautifully paced solo on the alto saxophone. The sound is truly evocative, a window into an another world.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

4 Sea Interludes & Passacaglia

Listening to the 4 Sea Interludes & the Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes" from a Collins Classics disc containing the Symphonic Suite from "Gloriana", all conducted by last night's conductor, Steuart Bedford.

The first of these, "Dawn", was the first Britten I heard that actually meant something to me. "The Young Person's Guide" had left me cold, and I was startled to find that this elusive music, that I had heard many times before I knew what it was, was by the same composer. It remains a favorite to this day, even as I have come to appreciate the three other interludes and the passacaglia.

I heard them as orchestral pieces many times before I heard the opera itself, so much so that I regarded them exclusively in such terms. Thus it was a shock and surprise when I finally heard the complete "Peter Grimes" to find that they sounded better in the context of the opera than on their own. It's hard to hear them now without wishing for voices!


Had the great good fortune last night to attend a performance of Benjamin Britten's "Gloriana" at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A wholly gripping performance from start to finish, beautifully conducted by Steuart Bedford (for whom Britten is second nature). Queen Elizabeth I was wonderfully characterized by Christine Brewer, a performance that deservedly received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Just as fine was Brandon Jovanovich as Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex. His portrayal of what was essentially a barely competent hot-head who, through passion and good looks captivated his queen, was a well-considered contrast to that of the Queen, for whom statecraft and loyalty to her country was paramount. There were no weak links in the supporting cast either, and the chorus and dancers were superb.

Considering I had been looking forward to this opera for a year with high expectations, there was most definitely the danger that it would not match them. Happily, this did not come to pass.

I had played the Mackerras recording of "Gloriana" a couple of times shortly before seeing the opera, and I am very glad I did. The music of "Gloriana" is essentially a mid 20th century reworking of Elizabethan styles, and is much more 20th century than Elizabethan (the opera was written in the early 1950s, before the move to 'authentic' performance styles became popular). Consequently, there were thematic and harmonic components that owe much to post-Wagnerian opera, and it was fun following those through the performance. Britten's musical voice is determinedly his own, and it is one that I find highly attractive. Despite its conservative veneer, it never seems hackneyed nor sounds dated in any way. In many ways it sounds a lot more modern than much music of today that falls into the Neo-Romantic style.

Wonderful stuff.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Universal

It's funny how sometimes a song will creep into your mind and stay there, spinning its wheels. No conscious reason why it should be there, but there it is.

The Small Faces' "The Universal" popped into my mind this morning and it has not let go. I hadn't played it for months, probably years, but there it was.

So when I got to work, I found it and I played it.

It's a prime example of 1960s genre-blending, blending the sound of a stomping trad jazz band, a little country & western, and a strident acoustic guitar. Plus extraneous sound effects, such as barking dogs. Its main strength is the melody and the conversational way in which it is sung by Steve Marriott. The lyrics are a simple celebration of doing nothing, with a swipe at hip name droppers and poseurs.

It's a song of real charm and reflection, not striving to make any big point and in doing so coming across as more meaningful than many other more ambitious songs. A little gem.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


And how many wonderful folk songs can we attribute to mr. or ms. anonymous? More than I can recount for sure, but that's not really the reason why I titled this 'Anonymous'. With the enormous proliferation of blogs in the mere year since I started mine, it requires formidable self-promotion to get your own blog noticed nowadays.

Which is just fine by me, as anyone who happens upon this (and 'welcome' I might add) should know that this strictly a personal pastime. A bit like playing a nice piece of music with the windows open and wondering if anyone is stopping to listen, or indeed if anyone can hear it at all.

But back to anonymous. Right now, the eerie old folk song "Nottamun Town" has the crown for his or her finest achievement.


"Cicadas" is a piano piece for two pianos composed by South African (now Irish) composer Kevin Volans. I was not familiar with this composer, and bought "Cicadas" plus "Duets" on the Black Box label simply to try it out. I was very taken by the piece. It's a broadly minimalist work that never flags over it 25 minutes of duration and left me with a strong sense of peaceful contemplation. Much more so than other minimalist and ambient works that strive for similar effect; there was something both muscular and reflective at work here. The second work, "Duets" is a tape piano work for dance that is different in character, ranging from writing that is similar to that explored by Harold Budd & Brian Eno on "Ambient 2", to sections of great activity followed by periods of silence. (In this way, this piece resembles John Cage's "Four Walls" composed about 50 years earlier - another dance score).

Fascinating music - I shall to explore more this composer's work.

The All Music Guide

I first came across the All Music Guide when it was in its infancy during the early 1990s. I was buying a lot of CDs from one of the first online retailers (, and they posted the first early AMG guide ratings. I still use to this day. Thankfully they have resisted the 'style over substance' paradigm that keeps me away from all their successors, and their plain but completely functional website is a gateway to unparalled availablity and competitive pricing.

But back to the AMG. I paid relatively little attention to it for years. Then it launched itself with a nicely designed website (that they chose to change last year, to the website's detriment in my opinion), but more importantly than that, with a series of nicely written and well judged critical reviews. I now regard the AMG as the premier review site. Not only is it extremely comprehensive, but there are sharp minds at work - Steven Thomas Erlewine, Richie Unterberger, Dave Thompson, Cub Koda, Bruce Eder and many others - who provide a solidly knowledgable background to the subject. They tend to err on the tolerant side, perhaps being overly kind to bands that have been critically savaged by others, but on the whole this is a good thing. Many critically unpopular bands (e.g. Kiss, Chicago) have proven to be influential on musicians and styles that followed and deserve proper consideration.

In this way, the AMG closely resembles Szatmary's excellent book "Rockin' In Time", a comprehensive social history of rock and roll, which also gives a more historical vs. aesthetic account of rock music.

Although both sources make for reading that lacks the sheer joy of pithy and opinionated musical criticism, they do impel you to hear the music for yourself. There is no substitute for this.

Friday, June 10, 2005

More From A Beatles Course

This was my response to a question concerning the importance of The Beatles to the culture of their times.

Whenever I start to think about the 1960s, and in particular The Beatles and the culture of that time, I find my thoughts hijacked by a song. Hijacked so thoroughly that I am running the melody and the lyric through my mind as I write now. After attempting fruitlessly to wrestle it out and get to grips with this essay, it occurred to me that I should get it out here because it think it has a lot to contribute to certain aspects of the 1960s that Ian McDonald alludes in his opening essay in ‘Revolution In The Head’.

The song is “Surf’s Up” by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, and it was first composed and the recording begun in 1967, the year of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. From memory, I shall quote the final verse:

Surf’s Up

Aboard a tidal wave

Come about hard and join

The young and often spring you gave

I heard the word,

Wonderful thing,

A children’s song[1]

Whereupon, the song abruptly segues into another composition, “The Child Is Father To The Man” to provide a stunningly beautiful coda.

“Surf’s Up” was finally released on the The Beach Boys album of the same name in 1970, the year of the officially announced breakup of The Beatles. The song was not in form initially intended by its composer, Brian Wilson. It had been subject to revision and post-production by the band, and in particular Brian Wilson’s brother Carl who sang it. By 1970, Brian Wilson was a barely functioning recluse in the throes of what would become a lifelong struggle with mental illness. In this way, “Surf’s Up” eerily parallels the post-production work on “Let It Be”, but unlike Spector’s work on much of “Let It Be”, I believe Carl Wilson’s work entirely complements Brian Wilson’s original vision. What is certain is that if I were stranded on the proverbial desert island and offered the single song “Surf’s Up” vs. the entire recorded output of The Beatles, I would unhesitatingly select “Surf’s Up”.


For me “Surf’s Up” is the spirit of the 1960s. It represents musically a summation of everything Brian Wilson and The Beatles strove for at that time, with a perfection of performance, melody, rhythm and lyric. Aaron Copland was wrong. He should have said, “If you want to know about the sixties, play “Surf’s Up”.

But he did not, and we are here to examine The Beatles. This is not the time or place to look in further detail at “Surf’s Up”. But the song has given me the key to both McDonald’s particular insight, and indeed to exactly why The Beatles mirrored the zeitgeist of the 1960s.

“Surf’s Up”, more than any other song I know, is a song of feeling. Both musically and lyrically it unlocks raw emotion, and an extraordinary gamut of emotions too, ranging through joy, humor, sadness, nostalgia, beauty and almost all points in between. For me, the 1960s was the decade when emotion assumed paramount importance, and the pivotal sentence in McDonald’s opening chapter is “The Beatles felt their way through life, acting or expressing first, thinking, if at all, only later”.[2]

The context of this sentence, at the end of a paragraph criticizing The Beatles serious public pronouncements as “trite and tangled”, but praising the same motivating spirit of instantaneity as the key to the musical innovation of the band, reveals clearly the inherent conflict between emotion and reason that troubles McDonald so much elsewhere in his analysis of that time. McDonald is a Western intellectual, trained to reason, analyze and deduce. “Revolution In The Head” is a profoundly illuminating book on The Beatles, precisely because he applies those analytic techniques so well. But underlying the criticism is a sense of a nagging yearning to surrender himself to exactly the same type of spontaneity that produced The Beatles’ music. This struggle between what McDonald will allow himself to do and what he actually wants to do provides a rather tragic subtext to the book, and one that certainly provides an explanation for McDonalds’ rather puritanical tone in regard to much of the 1960s and most certainly to what came later.

Let us look more closely now the time itself. McDonald identifies two key principles, that the 1960s were conglomeration of many different social, political and cultural trends and that they were a reaction to the 1950s.[3] What were these trends? Editor Anne Charters, judging from a American literary point of view, identifies no less than nine:[4]

The Civil Rights movement

The anti-Vietnam War movement

The Free Speech movement

The Counter-Culture movement

The movement into Inner Space via drugs or other mind exploratory techniques,

The Beats and allied literary movements

The Black arts movement and the shaping of Black consciousness

The Women’s movement and the sexual revolution

The Environmental movement

To these, McDonald would add Euro-Maoism, Religious Secularization (again predominantly European), and Materialism.[5] But he would emphasize (and McDonald judges this to be the most significant trend of all) the movement towards a new way of feeling (the movement towards “inner space” and mind exploration listed above). Hence, the ‘Revolution In The Head’ of his book’s title.[6] This is what he considers to be supremely well expressed by the music of The Beatles.

Does this hold up? My internal struggle with “Surf’s Up” – not-Beatles though it be – suggests it does, and I will explain why below. But it also fully illustrates the problem of personalization here. I did not hear “Surf’s Up” until 1974. In reality, it is as closely tied to the 1970s as it is to the 1960s, and my view of the 1960s was colored by my experiences of the 1970s. McDonald was writing at the beginning of the 1990s, coming out a decade that he thought clearly represented an absolute decline in social, political, artistic, and cultural standards from those of the 1960s, even as he was willing to admit that many of the same trends he abhors, such a materialism and secularization, had first gathered pace in the sixties. A revolution in the head gone awry? Or the writings of a man feeling ever more out of his time?

But let us move on with the assumption that the primary trend of the 1960s is of feeling. I have referred repeatedly to “Surf’s Up” as my icon of 1960s musical feeling, but the truth is that without The Beatles it is hard to imagine that that song would have ever been composed. Brian Wilson was part of the intensely competitive circle of 1960s musicians, that, in addition to The Beatles, would include Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Who, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane and many others who fed off and in turn provided artistic inspiration for each other. An awareness of this large body of music brings The Beatles accomplishments further down to earth, but it does not detract from the fact that The Beatles were either first with many musical innovations, or if not first, refined them more successfully than anyone else.

In 1962, when The Beatles released “Please Please Me” thereby ‘hauling the music bodily out of the twelve-bar trap of rock-n-roll and rhythm-and-blues[7], most listeners were not consciously sitting down and analyzing the novel features of this song. Instead, they were being bowled over by an incredibly joyful, catchy, loud, sexy and fresh song. By the end of the following year, the ‘Please Please Me” and “With The Beatles” LPs, plus the singles “From Me To You” and “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, had served as the soundtrack for British version of what was dubbed “Beatlemania” by the press. Wildly emotional fans, sell-out concerts, chart-topping records, and television appearances. The musical landscape was turned upside down. The charts were dominated by beat groups, many from Liverpool, others from other provincial towns such as Manchester. London’s dominance of the British pop music scene was shattered.

What was happening in England beyond The Beatles, and were they the ultimate manifestation of ‘the spirit of the English times’?

The short answer is yes. England during the late 1950s/early 1960s was undergoing what historian Arthur Marwick describes as The British Cultural Revolution. Much of this was a reaction, as McDonald points out, to the 1950s. Marwick points to fundamental changes in British society and thinking over this period. Firstly, there was a new willingness to adopt ideas from abroad, in marked contrast to the stubbornly nationalist mindset of the 1950s. Philosophy, social theory, economic theory all benefited from new receptiveness to figures such as Claude Levi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky. Concurrently there was a revival of the intellectual left, energized by concerns such as nuclear disarmament. The Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1950s achieved a popularity and a cross-class level of support that served as a major dent in the rigidly maintained class lines. For now the working classes was pushing forward, driven by increased economic muscle, no longer content to see their world through the middle class prism. With the post-war baby boom population surge achieving adulthood, artistic focus was turning to younger practitioners. New consumer and electronic technologies were developing with advances such as the introduction of the transistor.[8]

Significantly Marwick sees that “popular music was the central feature of the cultural revolution. It contained the ambivalence, growth of youth culture concurrent with the growth of youth wealth. It sanctioned protest yet became immensely profitable within the existing capitalist system. It was both innovative and derivatively fed off itself. It embraced an unsophisticated participatory modus yet integrated and promoted considerable electronic technological advances.”[9]

The Beatles were the vanguard of the British Cultural Revolution. Provincial, working (or lower-middle) class, young and fun!

Reading Marwick is instructive not only because he is using a trained historian’s eye, but also he is refreshingly free of the ‘sky is falling’ mentality that sometimes mars McDonalds’ writing.

We’ll leave England temporarily now and go worldwide. In large measure, the opening up of countries to international influence, with the caveat that the Iron Curtain was now fully in place thanks to the complete self-imposed isolation of China and the closing of the border between East and West Germany in 1960, was a universal trend, prompted by political (such as the consolidation of the European Economic Union) and technological advances in communications and travel. The Beatles were becoming radio favorites in Europe and as far as Australia but America remained closed, their records, turned down by the American wing of EMI, Capitol, failing to sell for smaller labels such as Vee-Jay.[10] All of this was about to change.

John Lennon comments in Lennon Remembers that The Beatles were regarded in a far more serious light in the United States than in England.[11] Certainly, the reaction that the band generated in the U.S.A. far exceeded in scale and intensity that of England. The incorporation of The Beatles so thoroughly into the American zeitgeist is one of the most fascinating aspects of their entire story.

The nine threads (listed above) that Anne Charters uses to delineate the 1960s were not all active with equal intensity all the time. In 1964, the civil rights movement was at its height, but none of the others had reached maturation. There were activists working in all areas, but as yet they had not reached a level of widespread public acknowledgement.

What had been happening in America, above and beyond civil rights, was a series of extremely public and extremely frightening events.

It seems remarkably easy to forget today when American society is preoccupied with the undoubtedly serious concern of terrorism that, during the 1960s, America was threatened by the potentially far more catastrophic consequence of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The early 1960s saw, in addition to the dispiriting events in Europe with the closing of East/West border in Germany and the hugely symbolic construction of the Berlin Wall which gave Churchill’s description of the separation of capitalist and communist Europe, the Iron Curtain, a horrible and tangible quality, the consolidation of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. In October of 1962, Castro’s attempt to install Soviet made nuclear missiles not long after the Bay Of Pigs counter-revolutionary fiasco, led to an ‘eyeball-to-eyeball’ confrontation between American President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev, that, although resolved satisfactorily for America, generated an American (indeed, global) zeitgeist of mind-numbing fear.

Then, just over one year later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Houston.

If ever a nation had been handed a sucker-punch (short of going to actual war), this was it. Life did not stop, but the populace was emotionally shell-shocked and, knowingly or unknowingly, in need of a release from the omnipresent sense of fear and grief. Into this came “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.

And if ever there was a moment that the ‘dream’ that John Lennon declared as being over in 1970[12] began, this is it. What does any parent do to comfort an anxious child? He or she holds their hand! Now the lyrics do not actually say “America, you’ve had a terrible time, please let us make you feel better”, but the effect of the song, processed subconsciously, is exactly the same.

Thus The Beatles were uniquely placed to provide solace to a traumatized nation. Several qualities that the band possessed helped them immensely in so doing.

Firstly, and most importantly, the band possessed a coherence as a group that was, at least in public, unshakeable. Each member spoke for each group, individual egos were subsumed to the band. Not eradicated, though - each individual had a distinct personality, and the release of the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” during the summer of 1964, took pains to reinforce the stereotype. Thus John was sarcastic and witty, Harrison thoughtful and unpretentious, McCartney light-hearted and approachable, Starr down-to-earth and cuddly. Although the British Invasion carried over dozens of other groups, and groups galore would start to form in the United States, no other band ever established the blend of clearly defined individuals who uniquely complemented each other that the Beatles achieved. The Beatles had achieved a unique and irrepressible gestalt.

A second unique quality that enabled to the Beatles to engage and animate entire nations was the paradoxical combination of youth and experience that the band never failed to project. They were young, they goofed around at press conferences, they performed with all the excitement of a young person in the process of discovery (at least, at first). Yet they were also wise and experienced, and presented themselves with a poise that suggested almost complete control over their destiny. Obviously, the Hamburg years, and a full year of British Beatlemania had been instructive, but what is so striking about The Beatles in early 1964 is well they seem to ride over their fame, and the incredible hard work involved. Eventually it would become too much, and the reactive melancholy of much of “Beatles For Sale” released late in 1964, would relate to the pressure cooker environment of the prior two years. Energy and poise is a very attractive picture to project. Add youth and you have a recipe for a wonderful (literally full of wonder), exciting (but safe) regeneration that anyone can share in.

Thirdly, being Midlands British gave the band an exoticism (scarcely lessened in Great Britain where London artists and home counties accents ruled the roost) in other lands that was immediately attractive. Being able to speak more or less the same language as the natives in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, the band again achieved another paradox, being both foreign yet also comfortingly familiar.

In addition, the impact of the flood of Beatles-associated consumables should not be minimized. By proxy, through the records themselves, the pictures on the covers, the doll figures, the trays, the magazines, even sheets from the beds they slept in, a fan brought The Beatles right into his or her room. This was innovative marketing for a rock and roll band, and amplified their penetration into hearts and minds.

Furthermore, the massive interest shown by the media - newspaper, magazine, radio and television, the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” – served to keep the band constantly in the public eye. In effect, The Beatles seemed to be everywhere. There are two other points concerning the media that need to be made. The first is that the media blitz over The Beatles was unprecedented and in itself was a novelty. Thus the cynicism bred when the same ground is trodden on too many times is absent. Secondly, the media in essence conspired with itself to maintain an overwhelmingly positive image of The Beatles. It was an open secret that the band was engaging in a movable orgy with its fans, but none of this was reported. And why would anyone want to stop this bandwagon anyway – money was being made hand over fist.

So, when during the midst of this mainstream success, Bob Dylan, protest singer and incipient carrier of the Beat-poet and drug-related counter-culture, interjects himself and psychoactive drugs into The Beatles lives, it really was an epochal event. This incident is described in full detail in Nick Bromell’s “tomorrow never knows”[13].

For now the seed has been planted. The Beatles, self-contained and insulated, are going to follow a path into this alternative way of thinking and doing. Are the millions and millions of fans going to follow?

The short answer is than many did and many didn’t. The creation by pop-mogul Don Kirshner of The Monkees in 1966 was a move of such stunningly cynical prescience, that when this ersatz-Beatle group appeared they stepped right into The Beatles 1964-65 shoes precisely as The Beatles themselves left them behind forever. Consequently, Monkee-mania was born and took with it many former Beatles fans, who (like the Queen) thought the band was getting a bit too strange.

But many others did follow. The transformation of The Beatles from wildly popular pop group to almost as wildly popular counter-cultural heroes is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary aspects of their career. Two factors play into this success story.

The first is that the counter-culture itself was now butting heads with mainstream values, and these trends were set in motion well before The Beatles played any role.

Secondly, The Beatles embraced a relatively benign and unthreatening aspect of the counter culture – namely the movement into ‘Inner Space’. Conditioned as we are by decades of fierce anti-drug rhetoric to regard drug use as an evil not far removed from robbery or murder, it helps to realize that drugs in the 1960s, while certainly not embraced by mainstream society, were not held in such low regard as they are today. Most people simply didn’t know enough about them to have an opinion one way or another. Radically powerful psychoactive drugs such as LSD were so far below the radar screen that they were legal until the mid-60s. Ironically, the one drug that was actively repressed, marijuana, was the mildest of all[14]. Compared to the struggle for civil rights, Vietnam-war protests, or the Free Speech movement, The Beatles explorations were positively sedate. By the time that drugs had become a major issue, they had (officially) forsworn them and were deep into Transcendental Meditation, thereby side-stepping the issue altogether. The Beatles had an uncanny knack of staying out of hot water (“More popular than Jesus” remarks or Philippine riots notwithstanding[15]).

So what was this ‘Inner Space” seeking, drug using, counter-culture all about? I’ll let Jeff Nuttall[16] spell out his vision:

(In 1963) the Underground was anxious to bring about the following developments on a large scale:

a) The spread of an ego-dissolving delirium wherein a tribal telepathic understanding could grow among men.

b) To re-ignite an overwhelming sense of wonderment at the Universe, to cultivate aesthetic perception in the face of utilitarian perception, to re-instate the metalled road as silken ribbon and the hydraulic waterfall as a galaxy of light.

c) To expand the range of human consciousness outside the continuing and ultimately soul-destroying boundaries of the political/utilitarian frame of reference.

d) To institute an international tribe or class outside the destructive system of nations.

e) To outflank police, educationalists, moralists through whom the death machine was/is maintained.

f) To release forces into the prevailing culture that would dislocate society, untie its stabilizing knots of morality, punctuality, servility and property.

g) To institute a sense of festivity into public life whereby people could fuck freely and guiltlessly, dance wildly and wear fancy dress all the time.

h) To eradicate utterly and forever the Pauline lie implicit in Christian convention, that people neither shit, piss or fuck. To set up a common public idea of what a human being is that retains no hypocrisy or falsehood, and indeed, to reinstate a sense of health and beauty pertaining to the genitals and the arsehole.

What does this extraordinary poetic manifesto tell us? Firstly, it tells that there was a rationale and a philosophy behind experimentation with drugs. Some people, at least, were not just getting high for the hell of it. Furthermore, these Utopian, trans-National concepts aimed at nothing less than the complete transformation of the individual. The ego would become subsumed into the collective, and with it all the constraints and prohibitions of ‘straight’ living would dissolve into guilt-free, fun rejoicing, mind-expanding, free-loving mode of Eden-like existence. What is valued above all is unfettered – unfettered even by ego - feeling!

Note the first statement - an ego-dissolving delirium wherein a tribal telepathic understanding could grow among men. Sounds like a bit like The Beatles doesn’t it? This extraordinary group of four individuals who seem to possess an uncanny telepathic empathy with each other, an identity as a gestalt.

This is the key. This is exactly why The Beatles became counter-cultural heroes. They had already got there. Well before their drug use, well before the fancy dress, the pyschedelic lyrics, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Sgt. Pepper”, and the “Summer Of Love”.

Of course, as we now know, what we saw in The Beatles was a carefully built construction, an image glossed to perfection. But because that image seemed so natural, so real, and yet so fabulous (as in out of a fable), it was irresistible.

McDonald dismisses such concepts as listed above by Nuttall as “adolescent nonsense” yet acknowledges the widespread sense that statements such as these represented a sense of being on “the verge of a breakthrough to a different kind of society[17]”. Link The Beatles into this sense of renewal, and you further amplify their impact. Nuttall, writing in 1968, certainly acknowledges their importance:

The Beatles were and are the biggest single catalyst in this whole acceleration in the development of the sub-culture. They robbed the pop world of its violence, its ignorant self-consciousness, its inferiority complex. They robbed the protest world of its terrible self-righteous drabness, they robbed the art world of its cod-seriousness.[18]

Of course, after 1968 the art world struck back with a vengeance and scooped up The Beatles into its own world as first fully exemplified by Wilfred Mellers’ “Twilight Of The Gods”. Nor were any of the other changes more than transitory. The counter-culture was never realized in any real way – ‘culture’ struck back. However that sense McDonald describes of “being on the verge of a breakthrough” most certainly survived. In many ways, the allure of the 1960s is that of unfinished business.

I’ve described a number of different ways in which The Beatles intersected with “the spirit of the times” in the 1960s but I haven’t focused much on the music. I’ve already mentioned the early celebratory material. We can follow the band’s progression following that fateful introduction to pot, the increasing introspection in songs such as “Baby’s In Black”, “Help”, “Ticket To Ride”. We can the integration of counter-cultural concepts into their work as early as “Rubber Soul” with songs such as “Nowhere Man”, “Think” and “The Word”. “Revolver” is permeated with counter-cultural concepts, rejection of materialism “And You Bird Can Sing” (“Taxman” on the other hand, is most a likely a celebration of materialism!), consideration of Eastern spiritual philosophy “Love To You”. “Eleanor Rigby” starkly illustrates the trend towards secularization. “I Want To Tell You”, “Go To Get You Into My Life” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” all explore aspects of drug taking. “I’m Only Sleeping” celebrates a life outside of 9-to-5 deadlines, “Yellow Submarine” a fun-loving sense of community. Even a simple song of happiness like “Good Day Sunshine” suggests a return to the garden of Eden.

The garden of Eden – “Strawberry Fields”. “Penny Lane” is just an alternate view. The entire “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” album radiates a sense of festivity into public life whereby people could fuck freely and guiltlessly, dance wildly and wear fancy dress all the time.

But all good things come to an end, and 1967’s “Summer of Love”, far from being a new beginning, was in many the last grand hurrah of the great positive sentiments of the 1960s. By 1968, Nuttall has acknowledged

“…drugs, whilst accelerating our (counter-cultural) strategy, could create a vacuum as desolate as any H-bomb crater… It’s clearly necessary now to get a firm hold of the fact that the nature of vision is human not chemical.[19]

The Beatles, after chasing enlightenment with the Maharishi, were forced to confront the reality that their gestalt has collapsed, and, that far from having an internally generated telepathic understanding, the glue that really held them together was Brian Epstein. Thus we saw the members moving away from each other into their personal concerns, and Lennon’s rapid replacement of The Beatles’ unity with that of his bond to Yoko Ono. Only McCartney seemed truly committed to sustaining the group, and eventually even his patience and resolve are finally overwhelmed. The Utopian fancies of the mid-sixties were replaced by riots and a crushing reaction from the authorities. The counter-cultural dream collapsed into the death, dismemberment and madness of Haight-Ashbury, murder at Altamont, the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison.

Thus the swansong of The Beatles, “Abbey Road”, takes on an unreal quality. This is the only Beatles album that is out of its time because it is in essence at attempt to recapture what has already past. In being so, it is also prophetic – much of rock music since has also been obsessed with what has past. So we see all the retro-movements, some so retro that they seem to be retro-retro. The rock and roll revival of the 1970s, the Paisley-psychedelic revival of the 1980s, the Brit-pop revival of the 1990s etc. etc.

But, unlike McDonald, I do not see either an end to creative rock music or the unfinished business of the 1960s. One only has to look below the surface of today’s music making to see a bubbling ferment of activity, now spreading digitally and by-passing the existing machinery of commercial exploitation, and just waiting for the right moment to spring into full glorious life. Whether it will happen tomorrow or in a following decade is hard to predict, but it will happen. The next wave is coming – “Surf’s Up!”

I’ll stop here.

References not quoted in footnotes:

James J. Farrell, The Spirit Of The Sixties Routledge 1997

John Yinger, Countercultures The Free Press 1982

Wilfred Mellers Twilight Of The Gods Schirmer 1973

David P. Szatmary Rockin’ In Time Prentice Hall 2000

[1] The Beach Boys, Surf’s Up from the album, Surf’s Up, 1970 Capitol CD 72435-25692-2-9

[2] Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head, Pimlico 1995, p. 20

[3] Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head, Pimlico 1995, p. 5

[4] Anne Charters, ed., The Portable Sixties Reader, Penguin Books 2003 pp. vii-xii

[5] Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head, Pimlico 1995, p. 23, pp 27-29.

[6] McDonald, p. 25

[7] Ian McDonald, New Musical Express, March 1973 (quoted on the sleeve of “The Faust Tapes” Virgin Records VC 5o1

[8] Marwick, Arthur – British Society Since 1945, Penguin Books 1996 pp. 120-131.

[9] Marwick, p. 132

[10] Allen Kozinn, The Beatles Phaidon p. 74

[11] Jann Wenner, Lennon Remembers, Penguin Books 1972 pp. 12-14.

[12] John Lennon, God from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band Capitol CDP 7 46770

[13] Nick Bromell, tomorrow never knows University of Chicago Press 2000, pp. 60-61. Whether this was the most consequential moment in American popular culture, as Bromell asserts, is debatable. I would suggest that The Beatles touching down at Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964, was the stone that made the biggest and most ripples.

[14] See Lenny Bruce Pills and Shit: The Drug Scene reproduced in Anne Charters, ed., The Portable Sixties Reader, Penguin Books 2003 pp. 377-388 for a hilariously succinct summary of 60s attitudes to pot.

[15] See Philip Norman, Shout! Simon and Schuster 1981, pp 263-267 for a full account of these incidents.

[16] Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture Paladin Publishing, 1970 pp. 238-239. This manifesto is just one reason why anyone who wants to know anything about the 1960s should be compelled to read Bomb Culture.

[17] Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head, Pimlico 1995, p. 4

[18] Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture Paladin Publishing, 1970 p. 123

[19] Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture Paladin Publishing, 1970 p. 241

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Judee Sill

Rhino Handmade have recently reissued the two albums that Judee Sill made in the early 1970s - following a lead on the All Music Guide, I decided they looked interesting and ordered them (only just in time, these are limited editions!). The first, "Judee Sill", arrived today. It is a wonderful record. Subtle, understated (except for an obvious 'big finale' parody on the final song "Abracadabra") arrangements and captivating melodies frame songs rich in religious imagery. Not heavy handed "Christian" music though, Sill's songs are a blend of the sacred and the profane woven around themes of desire and longing. In these ways, they resemble those of contemporary performer Laura Nyro, but Sill's music is more folk-baroque and white gospel influenced as opposed to the black gospel and soul underpinnings of Laura Nyro's early songs. Both approaches work wonderfully in the hands of such talented artists. Judee Sill is one that got away from me at the time, I am glad I found her now. It is so sad that she died so young (35).

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Astonishingly, I avoided hearing anything - "Maybe I'm Amazed" included - from this album until this year. Considering I started getting into music around 1972 and rapidly accumulated all The Beatles albums as well as the contemporary solo records ("Imagine", "Living In The Material World", "Beaucoups Of Blues" and "Red Rose Speedway") of all The Beatles at the time, it's practically beyond belief. Neither did I get "All Things Must Pass", but that was understandable as it was expensive. But it didn't take me long to get "Plastic Ono Band" and "Live Peace In Toronto".

So why did "McCartney" languish unheard for so long? As usual, the answer lies in the contemporary critics who did not like this record, and convinced me I would be better spending my money elsewhere. Having finally heard it, I can now understand why. It really is relatively slight, especially compared to the weight of many of McCartney's contemporary compositions for The Beatles. Not irredeemably slight. It has a very attractive homemade lo-fi feel, and contains in "Maybe I'm Amazed" a stone classic song as fine as any McCartney composed for The Beatles. But nothing else measures up, although "Junk" has a very pretty melody and feel, "That Would Be Something" is catchy and "Teddy Boy" again has a gently warmhearted sentiment. And then there is the extraordinary "Momma Miss America", an instrumental that virtually a dub reggae cut.

If anything, this album contains much of the low-key charm that makes The Beach Boys' "Friends" such a delight, but on the whole "Friends" contains stronger songs.

No, more than anything else, "McCartney" is Paul McCartney's retreat from the impossible expectations put upon The Beatles, and, more personally, from the bitterness and rivalry that was tearing that group apart at the time. In this way, it is very similar to "Eric Clapton" where Clapton went to some length to downplay the guitar hero tag pinned to him since the days of John Mayall and Cream. Consequently, "McCartney" actually seems to be a better record than it really is, and you can't help but give the artist considerable leeway. This does not hold true for much of Paul McCartney's later output which is simply uninteresting. "McCartney", for all its flaws, is a worthwhile record.

Eric Clapton

A curious case. I'm listening to "Eric Clapton", his first solo album released in summer 1970 between Blind Faith and Derek & The Dominoes. It's a gentle pop record, complete with Delaney & Bonnie's gospel-style harmonies, and a harbinger of the sound of much of his post-Derek & The Dominoes career. It really is a record of its time, the post-Summer Of Love return to rock/pop basics as found in the music of almost everyone from Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones through The Band, The Byrds and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young. Anyone looking for the intensity of Cream or Blind Faith isn't going to find it here (despite a lovely guitar workout on "Let It Rain") and Clapton would return to that intensity with the "Layla" album later in 1970. But as an Eric Clapton pop record it stands very high. Much more enjoyable and accomplished than most of his post "461 Ocean Boulevard" output. Here at least he sounds neither too complacent nor too forced (such as his vocals on the "Out Of The Cradle" record). "461 Ocean Boulevard" might be a slightly better record overall, but not by much. In many ways this record comes across as a stronger "McCartney" with all of the charm but much less filler than you find on McCartney's contemporary solo record.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Sometimes I feel that my approach to life is lot like that of Ornette Coleman's approach to improvising when he first began the jazz movement that was become called 'free jazz'. At that time, the late 1950s, most modern jazz musicians were basing their soloing and improvisations on the notes contained in the chords that make up a popular song often with strikingly exciting results. But, fundamentally, the improviser was still tied to those chords. They gave the music structure, but acted as limiters. Ornette bypassed the entire process, soloing in a manner that did not rely on a chordal base. Consequently, his melodies hark back to older, less structured, way of music making. One can easily hear the field-holler in his work. Without a chordal base, the music is essential without key and wanders into atonal territoy. Without a chordal base, his accompanying musicians required an almost supernatural empathy to follow and support his improvisations. Fortunately, in musicians such as Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, Ornette found such support.

I seem to bypass the conventions of class and social expectation, following my own melody, supported, I am happy to say, by my own family. It's definitely the way to go.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

One of the more fascinating pastimes to pursue when hearing a new record, or especially a new record by a new band, is to track the influences. I'm doing so on my first hearing of "The Decline Of British Sea Power" by British Sea Power. Curiously, the one dominant influence is one I would have not expected - Midnight Oil. There is a lot of the grandeur of that band in British Sea Power's songs, particularly in the broad melodies and supportive arrangements. But there is a lot more - The Clash, Pere Ubu, Echo & The Bunnymen, Oasis, David Bowie. Impressively, even on this debut, British Sea Power have created a sustainable synthesis that is individual and fresh.

"The past, it is a foreign country" is a quote from "Lately", and in a curious synchronic moment earlier today I was investigating the book and movie "The Go-Between", from which that lyric is paraphrased. I relish these tie-ins.

This is a strong record and one I would recommend without hesitation. It gives me a thrill to hear it, and on first hearing that is the prime measure of artistic excellence.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

"L.A. Woman"

It's funny how certain records have such a strong impact that you can not only remember the music well, but you can also remember the actual circumstances when you bought the original. The Doors' "L.A. Woman" is one such. I have a such vivid memory of Guildford High Street at night, walking opposite Harveys with this record in my hand that I can actually see the colors of the street lamps reflected in the shop window glass as I looked into them. And this was 30 years ago.

The curious thing is that these memories are of a time before I actually heard the L.P.. I stopped at "The Seahorse" and had a couple of pints of Gales "H.S.B." before going home (enough to get me well pickled) and then played it. I had avoided buying for a long time because certain critics in the New Musical Express has dismissed it, particularly in comparison with the first two Doors albums ("The Doors" and "Strange Days"), and at the time I tended to believe the critics. "L.A. Woman" was the first record that told me that critics could be as wrongheaded as the rest of us. I was captivated by the sound, mood and drive of the record. I would not say it was my favorite Doors' album - the more praised "The Doors" and "Strange Days" deserve their accolades - but it is outstanding nonetheless. "Riders On The Storm" became a favorite song, and still is. "L.A. Woman" is not far behind. It meant more to me as a teenager than it does now, mostly because it keyed into emotional state that was more of those times than today, but it remains a key record in my own growth and appreciation of outstanding rock music. Today, The Doors seem to be in a critical slump, quite possibly because of no less than two periods of wild popularity in the 1960s and, oddly enough, also in the 1980s, but they will endure.

Hugh Hopper: 1984

Writing about Barton McLean led me right back in my thoughts to the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road (if I remember correctly), where in 1975 or so, I found, for £1 (or was it £2) a copy of Hugh Hopper's "1984" in the cut-out bin.

"1984" was the first experimental rock album I bought (if you exclude "Revolution 9" from "The Beatles") and it stood out immediately from the 'progressive rock' pack that was then in vogue with my schoolmates (Yes, ELP, Wishbone Ash, Jethro Tull etc. etc.). Firstly it was all instrumental. I think it was my very first all instrumental record. Secondly, it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. It was the first music I had ever heard that rooted itself around tape looping techniques (evidently learned from Terry Riley) as opposed to using them for color and texture (e.g. The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"). The very sound of the record too, with extensive bass guitar improvisation, percussion playing derived from free jazz, the coloristic use of the flugelhorn - I had never heard anything quite like it. 30 years later I have still barely heard anything quite like it, even though I am now familiar with a lot of free jazz, 60s experimental music and much of the music that influenced "1984". A strong testament to its originality. But beyond that, I still listen to it today with as much wonder and enjoyment as I ever did. It was the first record that introduced me the wild overblowing and squealing saxophone sound of 60s jazz (courtesy of Lol Coxhill and Gary Windo amongst others). I think it is fair to say that "1984" along with The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" was the record that smashed my preconceptions of what 'rock' music should be, and led me on many paths in many different directions.

Barton McLean

One of the great problems with music is that there is so much of it! One can spend a lifetime exploring the type known as 'rock', and still not plumb its depths. All the while, other genres plough onward, many heard by little more than a few niche enthusiasts, and yet generating riches beyond one's wildest dreams. This is why I cannot accept the sometimes postulated opinion that music - whatever 'music' may be - is somehow in decline at this time. It is not so.

One of these little-heard genres is the music of the so-called 'serious' composer of today, often associated with a university and deriving much of his or her income through a tenured (or not) teaching position. Some compose prolifically, some hardly at all. Some push hard for publication, performance and commercial recording, others less so. But even the most successful and lauded of these composers, such as Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, Charles Wuorinen, Donald Martino and others are scarcely household names and their music has been heard by few compared to those familiar with even a moderately successful rock band or a great composer of earlier times.

These thoughts all struck as I listen to a CD by Barton McLean on the CRI label called "Forgotten Shadows". The title refers to a tape piece composed using musique concrete, electronic sound generation and manipulation techniques that is the second track on this CD. It is a wholly remarkable work. In spirit in comes close to those works of Charles Ives such as the "Holidays' symphony or the 4th symphony where popular tunes are woven into a fiendishly complex orchestral polyphony. Here, though, the texture is less dense and the inclusion of sampled sounds gives the work a 'realism' that goes beyond Ives. In may ways it reminds me of the work of idiosyncratic pop composers such as Van Dyke Parks who weave complex collages of popular music styles (e.g. "Song Cycle"). But this is coming more from the 'serious' side of things, giving it a different feel.

But my real point here is that this work, which is easily as fine and fascinating as the best of the electronic compositions that come out of the world of rock from Pink Floyd through Radiohead and Aphex Twin, is going to be unheard by all but a miniscule fraction of the fans of those particular artists. This is a great shame.


Always interesting to come across a thoughtful article on music. Jon Pareles in today's New York Times takes Coldplay apart. I can't comment on it because I have ignored the band. Radiohead I love, U2 less so, and these were named as prime influences on Coldplay's sound and music, so you would think I would have at least taken the effort to hear this band. But I haven't. Perhaps I will now.

Which brings me to XTC

...and what is for me a perfect pop song. "King For A Day" from "Oranges And Lemons". It's a beautiful 60s-style neo-pyschedelic gem in both music and lyric (rejection of materialism). Structurally owing much to the great Beatles' songs and their endlessly catchy verses and middle-eights, nonetheless it is completely fresh and captivating from the first arpeggio guitar figures that overlie the chordal rhythm guitar all the way through to the gorgeous fadeout. From the supposedly dead days of the late 1980s, this is a masterpiece.

From a Beatles music course

I took an evening course in the "Music Of The Beatles" during spring of this year at Washington University and one of the questions from the take-home exam concerned the 'new' Beatles' songs "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love". As a critique of those songs, I wrote:

I was going to avoid this question for the very fundamental reason that I am prejudiced against both “Real Love” and “Free As A Bird” without having ever really heard them. There are a number of reasons for this. First, there is Jeff Lynne. I do not like Jeff Lynne’s work. Of course, this needs qualification. What I really do not like is Jeff Lynne’s work with the Electric Light Orchestra. My dislike of that body of work is amplified when I compare it to Jeff Lynne’s much earthier work with The Move! So anything that has an Electric Light Orchestral feel – and by that I mean an almost artificially warm ‘middle’ (as opposed to bass or treble), an ornate, fussy arrangement, and a conscious sense of wearing its 1960s pop influences on its sleeve – tends to get the thumbs down from me. Why I dislike the ELO so much yet adore a similarly 60s influenced pop band like XTC is puzzle I have not yet worked through (although the wiry punk antecedents of XTC’s early sound – paralleling the early Beatles sound - definitely play a role in my acceptance of that band).

Furthermore, I dislike tampering with an historical legacy, I dislike post-production work that does not or cannot take into account the wishes of the originating artist. I dislike using a ‘teaser’ song to sell a few more million copies of an expensive double CD with material of markedly variable interest, much of which differs little from the original studio versions that many of us possess on both LP and CD and doubtless will possess yet again on High Definition SACD or DVD when the Beatles’ recorded output is remastered once again.

With that out of the way, I shall give the songs a listen. What follows are my impressions upon listening to these songs with my full attention for the first time.

The first thing that hits you with “Free As A Bird” is the slightly sour slide guitar introduction (essentially an instrumental take of the first verse), prominent echo-heavy drums and Lennon’s lo-fi compressed vocal. It’s a strange sound. Lennon’s voice sounds like that recorded on Revolver in “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Ringo’s drums resemble those of “Don’t Pass Me By” on “The Beatles”, McCartney’s bass has a “Abbey Road” depth and Harrison’s guitar sounds more like that on “All Things Must Pass” than any Beatles album. Already we have a patchwork of disparate eras and rather than hanging together, it sounds forced and contrived. Lennon sings the first and second verses, then McCartney takes over for the middle-eight – a throwback to “A Day In The Life”, but completely lacking the dramatic contrast of that song. The song plods along without much energy, another Lennon verse (an edited copy of the first?), then a second McCartney (or is it Harrison – I think so, but his singing sounds more pinched and thinner than it used to be) middle-eight (a definite Beatles’ touch) that segues into a guitar solo backed by typical Beatles Abbey Road style-vocal harmonies (e.g. “Because”). One more verse from Lennon, a chorus of ‘free as a bird ‘ with more sour slide guitar accompaniment. A final chord from the band allowed die. Then an abrupt heavily phased drum break cross-fading into what sounds like a ukulele with Lennon muttering something semi-comprehensible into the final fade-out. A “Strawberry Fields Forever-Sgt. Pepper”-era trick. Something else for the “Paul Is Dead” obsessives to ruminate upon?

Now “Real Love”.

This begins with a closely layered series of keyboard (piano, harpsichord, organ – or synthesizer equivalents) and electric guitar (thankfully not slide) chords, then Lennon’s again heavily compressed vocal joins for the first verse with primarily acoustic guitar accompaniment. Ringo’s drums and Harrison’s guitar embellishing Lennon’s words join in for the second verse. The chorus features a slightly more prominent Lennon vocal, and characteristic Sgt Pepper-era Ringo drum-rolls. There is a short concise guitar solo, a repeat of the verse, then a repeat of the chorus leading into a fade out. No false endings or electronic trickery here.
Perhaps because less games were played here with the track, it actually sounds better than “Free As A Bird”, but like that song, it still has a throwaway feel. Neither song is particularly memorable, which is sad. At least the Beatles ‘music-by-numbers’ effect is less prominent.

And what are those music-by-numbers effects? The distinctive styles that the Beatles are clearly associated with the Beatles have been alluded to above, but I will go through each musician in turn. McCartney’s bass is typically free-flowing, offering counter-melodies and often short ostinato embellishments. We hear this on the middle-eight of “Free As A Bird”. His piano style is chordal and rhythmic on the whole. Harrison uses his guitar economically – in this sense his style belongs much more to the 1950s Carl Perkins-Scotty Moore-Buddy Holly school of short sharp solos and embellishments – that to the 1960s Eric Clapton-Jimi Hendrix-Jeff Beck school of extensive soloing. Ringo maintains a steady beat, with occasional tom-tom rolls. No drum solos (outside of Carry That Weight), nor the hyperactive cross rhythmic drumming of an African and jazz influenced drummer such as Ginger Baker. Lennon uses his guitar almost exclusively to play chords (as befits a rhythm guitarist), but can play blues style lead very nicely (i.e. For You Blue on “Let It Be”).

That is just The Beatles way of playing their instruments though (and a very skimpy view as well). Equally important in the Beatles use of the studio and the man most responsible for the studio sound they achieved was George Martin. The three surviving Beatles, plus Lennon’s cassette recorded voice, were missing the fifth member of the group. Jeff Lynne was no substitute – sadly there really is an ELO feel to these songs.

(At this point, I stopped. Then came the Wednesday evening class where we heard the songs again, the original Lennon demos and watched the videos that went the songs.)

Now I am returning to these with a lot more information. Firstly, I now know the original demos. Both, although poorly recorded and in an unfinished state (as is evident in the middle eight on “Free As A Bird), both are more enjoyable than The Beatles’ versions. Why? Because they are truer to Lennon, and particularly to Lennon’s style of recording post-Beatles.

Now the videos. The videos overwhelm the music. In truth, I can’t even remember really hearing the music while I was viewing them because I was responding to all the emotive images. In the “Free As A Love” video, the endlessly morphing visual representation of descriptive lyrics derived from 1960s Beatles’ songs is fascinating. The film even refers back to 1960s Beatles movies. I spotted references to the “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Help”, and “Yellow Submarine” (the jerky early 20th century film motion that works so well with “Eleanor Rigby” in “Yellow Submarine” is briefly reproduced). I spotted reference to “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “A Day In The Life”, “Piggies”, “Paperback Writer”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “The Fool On The Hill”. I know there were many others I missed. It was a visual equivalent of Nilsson’s version of “You Can’t Do That”!

The video for “Real Love” was similarly nostalgic, except the images of Liverpool etc. etc., were interspersed with shots the three surviving Beatles actually recording “Real Love”. Older pictures of Lennon in the studio were eerily edited into these sequences giving the impression that whole band was together. That was spooky.

Both videos were interesting than the music they were promoting. Furthermore, the prime interest was generated by the recollection of the younger and more interesting Beatles and their art in the 1960s. By inviting direct comparison, the surviving Beatles were clearly trying to insert “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” into their ‘classic’ 1960s canon. But it doesn’t work. The songs emerge as pastiches of old Beatles recordings, ironically continuing a trend that was just beginning to creep into the band’s work on “Abbey Road”. After repeated hearing, I’m finding the verse melody to “Free As A Bird” more memorable, but the middle eight doesn’t seem really to fit in the effortless way that it does with earlier songs (my personal favorite being “We Can Work It Out”). I spotted what sounds like a harmonium in the introduction to “Real Love” (again another reference back to “We Can Work It Out”). Neither song has been able to transcend the prejudices I am bringing to them.

Ultimately, though, both songs are doomed by extra-musical considerations. It is impossible to listen without being aware of Lennon’s violent death, the acrimony that accompanied the breakup of the band, even something as basic as the age of the three surviving Beatles. The Beatles and the 1960s are bound to each other. Lennon really was right when declared the dream was over in 1970. But that does not detract from the music and legacy of that dream.

And with that out of the way...

...I have spent all my life listening to music of some kind or another, and I have heard a lot. Not played it, just heard it. Curiously, the more I have heard, the less judgemental I have become. I spent much of early years vigorously defending this artist vs. denigrating that artist - decades later it all seems rather pointless. The simple fact is that even the most mediocre artist can produce a work of genius and a genius artist can produce a work of mediocrity. Even more, because appreciation of music is essentially subjective, you can find yourself radically revising your opinion of some piece of music over the course of your lifetime. Music, like any art, is subject to the time and place of hearing and psychology of the listener. Although I have read reams and reams of music criticism, both popular and serious, the only artist I have read who writes about music in a way that actually cuts to the core of the art is John Cage. "Silence" and his other writings are essential.

Why another blog?

Why indeed? Why add yet more to the ever expanding pantheon of people who think that they not only have something to say, but also that other people might even be interested in it? Answer: Vanity. That's all it is!