Sunday, June 05, 2005

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.


Jillian said...

I find it an irony that as I stumble onto your blog I am listening to the Beatles. I did find some very interesting points that you made.

Musickna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Musickna said...

Thank you - I was rather surprised to get a comment so quickly as I only set up this blog this afternoon! I took a peek at your profile and saw you like the band "Death Cab For Cutie". No doubt you know that band is named after a Bonzo Dog Band song, but what I found out to my great astonishment while taking this course was that the Bonzo Dog Band singing "Death Cab For Cutie" were featured in the little seen Beatles' movie "Magical Mystery Tour". I love these little tie-ins!

Jillian said...

actually I've never heard of that, but that's really cool. I love stuff like that..thanks! I will have to look up Bonzo Dog Band now..which is great because I love finding new music.

Musickna said...

Splendid. If you can find it, their first album "Gorilla" has "Death Cab For Cutie" on it plus a number of other good songs, my favorite being "Jollity Farm" -

"All the little pigs, they grunt and howl
The cats mee-yow
The dogs bow-wow
Everybody makes a row
Down on Jollity Farm"