Monday, August 24, 2009

Meeting The Beatles Again For The First Time

Inspecting an alien audio medium in "Men In Black," Tommy Lee Jones says, "I guess I'll have to buy the White Album again." He'll have his chance in a couple of weeks. As Brian Hiatt writes in the Sept. 3 "Rolling Stone," when the Beatles' catalog was issued on CD in 1987, critics said the sound was shrill and grating compared to vinyl. Expectations are high for the Sept. 9 release of newly remastered Beatles CDs, a development enabled by an agreement among Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon. From painstaking digital transfers made from the closely guarded original tapes followed by the latest remastering, all overseen by a team of Abbey Road engineers associated with Beatles producer George Martin, these little miracles will ensue, writes Hiatt:
"Love Me Do"...loses its dusty, distant haze of age, and "The Long and Winding Road" no longer has what [chief engineer Allen] Rouse described as a "muffled" quality to it. Otherwise, it's a matter of suddenly noticing details: McCartney's nimble bass line on "And Your Bird Can Sing," the vivid three-dimensionality of Starr's opening and closing high-hat on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the cinematic quality of the choirs and orchestra on "Good Night."
The RS cover story, by Mikal Gilmore, recounts the band's slow-motion breakup. It wasn't just that Lennon tried to force his mates to accept Yoko Ono as the fifth Beatle, as most seem to believe. It was also differences over money and management and Lennon's self-consciousness about McCartney's greater output (at that particular moment) as a songwriter. After Lennon announced the breakup at a 1969 meeting where McCartney was trying to persuade the Beatles to go on the road again, Ono told a journalist:
We went off in the car, and he turned to me and said, "That's it with the Beatles. From now on, it's just you -- OK?" I thought, "My God, those three guys were the ones entertaining him for so long. Now I have to be the one to take the load."
What do you expect from four young guys with all that money and fame? Of course I had to spend the weekend listening to their albums. First, "Beatles 1," with their 27 #1 hits. The first dozen, from "Love Me Do" through "Day Tripper" (who wrote that opening lick, the Beatles or Eric Clapton?) are miraculous, but then you hit some mediocre songs, beginning with "We Can Work It Out," in which freshness gives way to self-importance. For the bridge, Lennon wrote, "Life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting my friend," while McCartney wrote in the verse, "Try to see it my way...Why da ya see it your way?" We can work it out, as long as I win. The song doesn't synthesize competing melodic and thematic ideas and ends with a ponderous, awkward cadence. The Beatles wouldn't part for another four years, but the seeds were planted.

I can also do without "Paperback Writer" (ambitious pop stars making fun of ambitious writers), "Yellow Submarine," "Eleanor Rigby" (faux empathy), and "Lady Madonna" (as if the Beatles were conducting their home lives particularly admirably).

The Beatles' last #1, "The Long and Winding Road," has a sappy string accompaniment which was added on, I learned from the Gilmore article, by Phil Spector and recently removed by McCartney for a pared-down re-release of "Let It Be." At the time, Spector said of producer extraordinaire Martin, "I don't consider him in my league. He's an arranger, that's all." In retrospect, Martin comes out on top, and not just because the "wall of sound" is behind bars. After "Beatles 1," I listened to the Martin-produced "The Beatles" (aka the White Album) straight through for the first time in years. Maybe it's because I first heard it when I was an impressionable 14 (I got it for Christmas in 1968), but it's still astonishing in breadth and scope. It rocks, it soars, it shimmers, it tantalizes. As Gilmore writes, the Beatles had been listening to the Band, and you can tell from "Rocky Raccoon" and "Don't Pass Me By." It's got a song about candy, George Harrison's "Savoy Truffle," and social commentary that works, especially the "Piggies" out on the town eating their bacon (even as the Beatles were in the process of cooking the goose that laid their gold records).

Is "Back in the USSR" the greatest Beatles song? It's certainly their most confident straight-out rocker, plus an affectionate Chuck Berry and Beach Boys parody. And that's what's most amazing about "The Beatles" -- its tongue-in-cheek sophistication, as if the band is letting us in on something. They parody things that have been barely invented, such as heavy metal with "Helter Skelter." Songs fall apart at the end Wilco-style, like Lennon's "Dear Prudence." "Long, Long, Long" and especially "Good Night," with its soporific vocal and creepy strings (Spector should have done so well), sound pre-apocalyptic. In "Revolution," the Beatles refused to pander to the prevailing elite Zeitgeist. (Lennon probably wouldn't have liked that statue of Mao at the Nixon Library.) But something was going on. Something was about to happen. This amazing record captures it.


Steve Bruce said...

When this album was released its importance was highlighted by the length of the line standing outside of the record store on the 'hill' in Boulder CO. We bought the album at midnight, took note of our number (printed on the front), and brought it to our basement flat a block away, in the dead of night, candles burning.
Like waking up in a distant country, we are transported to songs about pigs and onions, blackbirds and dogs. Soundscapes and rocking teenage numbers. It was as if overnight we grew. There was a quality of enlightenment that I wouldn't recognize for years. The holy spirit was with these guys as they explored what was possible when you are spiritually (and economically)free (apologies to Mr Merton).

Fr. John said...

Beautifully said, Steve!