Category: art

Review of Fiende Fatale live at The Horn, St. Albans

By Daniel Margrain

In Steven Shea’s 2013 cult horror-adventure parody, Fiende Fatale, an assortment of DNA-cloned monsters and weirdos reconfigured from the carcasses of vampires, zombies, demons and others, find themselves confronting government and terrorist forces in a dystopian world devoid of meaning whose citizens are out of control.

As well as working at the level of a spoof, the short film mainly succeeds as a metaphor for a world spiraling ever-deeper, both spiritually and figuratively, into decay. With the enemy as much internalized as a result of the tactics of divide and rule, and brute force increasingly becoming the norm, the urban proletariat see violence as their only form of salvation against the tyranny of government – a kind of subterranean ‘fight club’ for lost souls.

The dark and claustrophobic venue, ‘The Horn’ in St. Albans fits neatly into this cinematic narrative. When headline band, Fiende Fatale, took to the venues small stage last Saturday evening, against a backdrop of the ever-present sight of ghouls, vampires and zombies in the run up to Halloween, the scene was set perfectly.

From two songs in, it was clear that the band are not easy to pigeon-hole. This is a testament to their creative and musical flair. Attending the same school, the north London ensemble have clearly imbued a multitude of influences – Lou Reed, Stooges, Sex Pistols, Roxy Music – among them.

The groups defining aesthetic is nevertheless one that is reminiscent of the art-rock and post-punk scenes of the early 1970s and early 1980s respectively. Indeed, the manner with which the group merge these influences seamlessly into their work is extremely impressive.

From the opening chords, the bands music, to this critics ears, doesn’t sound derivative, contrived or forced but rather discombobulating which is a mark of their distinctive musicality and artistic creative impulses.

Underneath the clever and often witty lyrics given free expressive reign by lead singer and guitarist, Matthew Magee – whose intensity is equal to Ian Curtis, and whose theatrics are reminiscent of Dave Vanian – is a band that musically, as a unit, are as tight as The Fall without Mark E Smith.

All the while, guitarist, Rolph Edwards regularly skews the formal structure of the groups sound to the point of cacophonous informality rooted in Captain Beefheart and the post-punk of say, the Gang of Four, while Alex Wright’s meaty bass and Dom Bowmans manic but disciplined drumming ensures that the spine of the sound remains intact.

Unfortunately my close friend and me had to leave during the bands rendition of the catchy ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ in order to catch the last train back to London so we missed all of the set. My one criticism is that the group do perhaps veer at times too much towards pop for my taste, but regardless they are talented musician’s who are keeping the spirit of rock and roll very much alive.

Fiende Fatale play The Fiddler’s Elbow, Camden, Thursday, 30th November.

 

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Hard Times On Benefit Mall

By Daniel Margrain

For many years the media have portrayed the lifestyles of what they have termed the undeserving rich who inhabit Britain’s Benefit Malls, as feckless wasters and a burden on the tax-paying public. There have been signs over recent months that their attacks on this largely invisible minority in society are beginning to take their toll.

So extreme have these attacks on some of Britain’s most privileged elite been, that many within the gold-vaulted communities of Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Kensington, often under the cloak of anonymity, have decided to fight back. One such individual is a young woman called Beatrice Ferguson, 28, who some have alleged is a princess.

Claiming that her lifestyle has been regularly vilified in the media, and following in the footsteps of her father, Beatrice has recently starred in the Channel Five reality show, ‘Benefit Mall’ where, among other things, she has been filmed getting drunk on gin and tonics in her local public house, the Duke of York, named after him.

Allegations

The allegations that Ms Ferguson has consistently abused the benefit system continue to be stringently denied by the alleged princess. One of the most serious accusations relates to the claim that Beatrice set herself up as a business matchmaker after having secured a high-profile client in the shape of would-be stock market debutant, Afiniti.

It was reported that a member of the Zia Chishti entourage, who is said to have accompanied Ferguson to meetings and parties at the World Economic Forum in Davos, including to a lunch for many of the most senior figures in British business, phoned the DWP in the UK anonymously.

Undercover

When challenged by undercover journalists, Beatrice was reported as having said that she informed her local Job Centre Plus in London’s Bayswater Road that she intended to take a week’s holiday abroad to which she claims she was entitled:

“I phoned the DWP three days in advance informing them that I would be taking a foreign holiday for a week which was agreed at the time by my work coach. This was not a working holiday”, she said.

But this version of events was contradicted by what has been claimed are her clients, the advisory board members of the company that is headquartered in Washington DC, comprising no fewer than 21 senior figures. An account relayed to investigators by one of these figures, BP chief executive Lord Browne, however, appears to support the benefit claimants version of events:

“The notion this young lady owns a company called Afiniti or that I am one of her clients is absurd. I recall that she was at a party I attended as a guest. The fact that Mr Chishti, who previously co-founded and brought to market a company that makes transparent braces for teeth straightening, is merely coincidental”, he said.

Spotted

Beatrice, who some in the media have dubbed Britain’s version of a Kardashian, has in previous years also been spotted taking to the water on Roman Abramovich’s £1 billion super yacht, Eclipse, which is docked off the Spanish coast near Ibiza. Asked by reporters how the alleged penniless royal could afford to rack up seventeen holidays in eight months on a weekly Job Seeker’s Allowance of £73.40 since giving up her 20k a year role at Sony, Beatrice claimed the trips were paid for using savings accumulated in her Barclays Instant Saver account.

Responding to accusations that her lifestyle is excessive, Beatrice snapped back at the media by saying that Channel Five’s Benefits Mall programme was a cheap attempt at smearing people like her on benefits which she claimed was indicative of a culture that “treated elites like me as though we are animals in a zoo.” The reality star added, “If I knew then, what I know now, I would never have agreed to do this show.”

Beatrice exclaimed that chalking up three skiing holidays on top of multiple hot weather breaks and repeated trips to New York, “is my human right”. She continued: “People are jealous that I have saved up some money that funds a lifestyle to which I’m entitled and that I regard as being normal. When I visited New York, it was to see my sister, Eugenie”, said the streetwise hustler from downtown Belgravia.

Last November, the DWP claimed she visited the United Arab Emirates for a “business engagement” with her father, the Duke of York, which she categorically denies. She also claims that people driven by jealously conspired against her by falsely claiming she subsequently attended a lavish party on board a Polynesian themed party yacht.

Private jet

Later that week, Beatrice admitted to investigators she flew on a private jet with her mother, Sarah Ferguson, to Beijing for a wedding, paid for by her father which she claims didn’t break DWP rules since she was able to sign-on the following week. Moreover, she claimed she was able to prove to her job coach that she had spent a sufficient amount of time actively seeking work. She put her late attendance that day down to heavy traffic along the Bayswater Road and that the 148 bus she was travelling on had broken down.

Serious questions, however, remain with regards to Beatrice’s whereabouts during Christmas 2016. Having failed to turn up to a 2pm appointment previously arranged with her work coach who had planned to run through her CV with her, Beatrice claimed she phoned Job Centre Plus saying that she was too sick to attend.

However, I was subsequently contacted by a member of Beatrice’s entourage who alleged that after enjoying Christmas lunch with the Queen at Sandringham, the Benefit Mall star jetted off to Verbier to stay at her parents £13m ski chalet. My source then alleges she flew off to the Caribbean where she saw in 2017 relaxing on a yacht belonging to billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.

Jimmy Carr

Having made a quick trip back to London to sign on, it is claimed she spent time on another yacht in the company of, among others, comedian Jimmy Carr. After a double holiday in the Caribbean, she then took a trip to New York.

With the authorities becoming suspicious of her increasingly erratic lifestyle depicted on Benefit Mall, the DWP finally made the decision to suspend the reality TV stars Job Seekers Allowance. The suspension of her housing and council tax benefits swiftly followed. After complaining vociferously to TV executives at Channel Five about the manner in which the programme-makers had characterized her, and by extension, their demonizing of her class in Benefit Mall, Beatrice flew back to her parents place in Verbier.

After spending a short time with them, she clearly felt that she needed another break from all the stress. So she decided to fly out to Florida for her twelfth holiday in five months. Beatrice was subsequently spotted in the Gulf State of Bahrain as a guest of it’s Prince whose father helped put down pro-democracy protests. Clearly, Ms Ferguson loves to hang out with nice people.

Great Guana Cay

In September, Beatrice flew to Florence before jetting off for her third Caribbean jaunt where she was photographed lounging on a beach in Great Guana Cay that’s home to just 150 people. It is also blessed with a five and a half mile stretch of sandy white beach, virgin forest and pristine coral reefs.

With Ms Ferguson having apparently set up home in Great Guana Cay, the authorities back in London are keen to interview the reality TV star regarding unanswered questions that reportedly involve her failure to report a change in her circumstances. Some other independent journalists are also seeking answers to similar questions.

Isn’t it about time the mainstream corporate media also began asking searching questions about the activities of royal benefit scroungers like Beatrice? They might begin by asking how her father, who has a modest naval pension, can afford a £13m property and pay for regular private jet flights?

“The Royal Family is still guarding secrets that we the people should know about”, says the Guardian. These secrets include how the royal benefit spongers manage to screw the British tax payers of their hard earned cash to the extent they do in order to fund their extravagant lifestyles without serious challenge in the media?

Answers on a post card to Daniel Margrain, c/o the Palm Fringe Savoy, Bahamas.

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The Penniless Philanthropist

By Daniel Margrain

Sculptor Drew Edwards (second right) unveiled his moving work Children of the Mediterranean on campus with the help of Syrian refugees now studying at MDX

Actor and sculptor, Andrew Edwards, has been dubbed the ‘penniless philanthropist’. The 51 year old’s life-affirming sculptures, mainly created from tonnes of granite, are a labour of love for Edwards who neither receives, nor asks, for a penny in return for his efforts.

I’ve witnessed the artist toil for hours on end in our communal garden sculpting his creations with a hand grinder. The man often suffers for his art – sometimes, in the physical sense, literally. Last summer he nearly lost a finger and more recently he suffered a deep wound to his leg – the hand tool almost severing a tendon.

The rewards for Edwards is the knowledge that he is making a difference – no matter how small – to help shift the public’s consciousness in terms of bringing to their attention the plight of the some of the most desperate souls on the planet – refugee children driven from their homes by the ravages of imperialist wars who are then exploited by criminal gangs.

Edward’s remarkable story culminated in the recent unveiling of his latest creation, a 91-piece installation entitled ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ – dedicated by the artist in memory of refugee children who were drowned or have been trafficked crossing the Mediterranean sea.

The 91 figures represent the percentage of children who have made the perilous journey unaccompanied. It is the first major piece of art to be erected on the Ritterman plinth in the centre of the new prestigious £18m Ritterman building at Middlesex University’s north London campus.

Edwards began his two year long ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ project after seeing the lifeless body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a beach. The image was captured by the corporate press and printed on many of their front pages, It was subsequently used by Western governments as justification for implementing their regime change agenda in the country.

The image of the dead child brought back disturbing childhood memories for Edwards. At the age of eight, the artist remembered watching the TV documentary series, ‘The World At War’. Edwards was haunted by the image of small children imprisoned in a concentration camp. The nightmare of this experience and the terror on the faces of the children and those who had survived the Mediterranean sea journey, are represented in the faceless stone figures that comprise his most recent creation.

“I didn’t want these children to be forgotten”, said Edwards in his statement to those who attended the recent unveiling of the piece. He added: “This is my way of ensuring this doesn’t happen. News coverage of these kinds of tragic events are often transient in the minds of the public. Hopefully, my work offers a sense of permanence. I think the piece is self-explanatory.”

The logistics involved in moving 7 tonnes of granite into a relatively small outdoor space in the university campus space where the plinth is located was a feat in itself. But having done so, with minimal support, is a testament to the artists commitment to his work.

All the effort was worth it. It’s a stunning piece. The clamor of various sizes of granite stone pieces are packed together in close proximity to one another – a community of lost souls bound together metaphorically and literally by their shared sense of resilience to survive against the odds.

Among them is a solitary figure of white marble, and hidden amid the bodies, is one of the sculptors trademark angels – perhaps symbolizing hope for the future. The entire piece is enmeshed in rusted encased chains that invoke in the viewer an emotional connection to the helplessness of human beings imprisoned by an endless ocean.

Invited by the event organiser to say a few more words during the unveiling, a self-effacing Edwards continued:

“I feel the piece will now have a life of its own. I can’t say for sure where it will be next or where, if ever, it will end up.”

Edwards has other pieces of his dotted around the capital city. Two months ago, the artist was so moved by the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, he donated a statue to the shrine in memory of the victims. It now stands among the flames and tributes at the entrance to Notting Hill Methodist church. Entitled, ‘Grieving Figure In Stone’, it was gratefully accepted by the minister of the church, Rev. Mark Long. and it is hoped it will become a centrepiece in a future garden of remembrance.

Edwards, who is dyslexic and suffers from Grave’s disease, turned to sculpting three years ago as a means of remaining creative between acting jobs. He left school at 15, and at the age of 24, paid to go through drama school and become an actor. Unfortunately, he also became an alcoholic and drug addict but has been clean and sober for the last 20 years.

The artist, whose last role was in the Meryl Streep film, Suffragette, began sculpting by creating angels. Largely inspired by the paintings of William Blake, Edward’s creations have a contemplative and ethereal quality to them. Much of his work seems to hint at themes of spiritual yearning and of the vulnerability of the human condition in a world that is seemingly spiraling out of control.

His first major work was a 20-foot high ‘Memorial Angel’ of recycled wind-blown oak and stainless steel that he donated to the Finchley Memorial Hospital. It stands outside the children’s cancer unit and attracts a great deal of attention from children and passers by.

He donated the sculpture as a thank you to the doctors and nursing staff at the hospital that saved his life when he developed septicemia 18 years ago. He has also donated another sculpture – ‘Mother and Child’ – to the Memorial hospital. It is carved from recycled granite and stands on the approach to the reception area. A third, almost finished piece, is in memory of a nurse at the hospital who worked in the cancer ward and sadly died of cancer herself.

Edwards has a further five granite angels ready to be donated or auctioned off for worthy causes and is presently working on a huge sculpture to be donated to the London Borough of Barnet – a 40-foot high piece entitled ‘Angel of North London’. The council have been extremely supportive of the sculptors work by allowing him the use of a work yard, and local builders have made it possible by supplying granite.

The artist wouldn’t have been able to create his work had it not been for those who assisted with transport and equipment. “They all knew I had very little money and it was the drivers bringing the granite who gave me the nickname of the penniless philanthropist”, he said. “I never thought of myself that way, but I do take it as a compliment.”

Edwards has previously said that he will consider at some point in the future to move ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ to a safe stretch of the Thames where, as the tidal water recedes, the ghostly stone figures will appear. “I would like the installation to remind commuters on their way across the Thames that children are the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society. With the ongoing conflict in Syria, and also beyond in a myriad of other places, it’s vital we don’t forget them”, he said.

Edwards concluded:

“The more we see clips of children drowning and fleeing conflict zones throughout the world, the more numb we become. It’s media fatigue. The unforgivable has become palatable. I hope it will make people ponder for a moment how privileged we are to live in one of the richest and safest democracies on earth, and perhaps consider how they can help more.”

‘Children of the Mediterranean’ will be on view at the Ritterman plinth, Middlesex University, for six months after which Edwards hopes it will be bought and the money donated to a children’s charity of the sculptors choice. If not, Edwards will probably relocate it to the banks of the Thames, although he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of it being moved abroad providing he receives the required funding.

Further information from Andrew Edwards:
E mail drewedwards@hotmail.co.uk
Tel: 07957234346

Tom Petty

By Daniel Margrain

It wasn’t cool to like Tom Petty in the late 1970s. British music critics couldn’t quite pigeonhole him and his band, the Heartbreakers. Among the others of his peers they couldn’t put into a box who emerged from the cultural wasteland of the mid -1970s and who made a name for themselves this side of the Atlantic, included The Patti Smith Group and The Pretenders.

As was the case with these artists, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers transcended the narrow confines of the punk and new wave movements from which the likes of The Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash belonged. Thus Petty and his band were to punk and the new wave what Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were to the Delta Blues. For a start, Petty was a far more accomplished musician than many of his more fashionable peers. His music struck the balance between harmony and melody that was simultaneously catchy, visceral and solemn. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were a class act.

The group provided the bridge between the formulaic hard rock radio friendly groups of the 1970s, the West Coast Hippy vibe of The Buffalo Springfield, the quintessential American roots music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the US pop-rock of the new wave. Many of the bands – The Cars, The Knack and The Runaways etc – that emerged out of the latter scene were invariably inferior musicians who produced weak songs.

By contrast, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers stood out among many of their contemporaries. Unlike the British punks, they were not sloppy but serious musicians who crafted their songs in such a way as to exude emotion and intensity whilst also managing to marry the spirit and attitude of somebody like a ‘Highway 61 Revisted- era Bob Dylan.

Tom Petty was at heart a folk-rock musician – a great songwriter – who produced a succession of brilliant melodies. But he was also an artist who wore his heart on his sleeve and he expressed his angst with a quirky sense of genuine raw emotion. Like Patti Smith and David Byrne, when Petty had something to say, you had better listen. A visceral punk aesthetic was nearly always below the surface of the folk-rock rhythm of the The Heartbreakers music.

The groups first three albums – the debut, ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ (1976), ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ (1978) and ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ (1979) – were masterpieces that have stood the test of time. With the former, Petty is respectful, not only of the music and traditions that influenced him, but seemed determined to want to educate a generation of young punks that a dehumanizing attitude on its own is essentially an exercise in futility if its devoid of authenticity.

Bruce Springsteen, another artist of the period who bridged many genres from different eras, also preached a similar message. Petty, Springsteen and Patti Smith were there to remind those who would care to listen that alienation is rooted in something more profound than merely the slogan. Neil Young understands this too, so does Bob Dylan and so did Lou Reed.

While in a song like ‘American Girl’, Petty deliberately played on crude US stereotypes with humour and pathos, on others like ‘Breakdown’, ‘Luna’ and ‘Fooled Again’, he paints an atmosphere much darker that’s a cross between the work of the band, Television and the ruminations of Neil Young at his most cerebral and psychedelic. The punks at the time didn’t get the message but they, not Petty, were the ones who were the losers.

Petty’s follow-up, ‘You’re Gonna Get It’, maintains the winning formula of the first and is perhaps even smarter than its predecessor. Although the electric jingle-jangle style of the Byrds and the visceral garage-blues of say, The Yardbirds,  is evident throughout the record, there is enough modern variation on established themes and originality in the terms of the delivery of the message for the group to avoid being labelled as mere imitators of their heroes.

At the time of the release of ‘Damn The Torpedoes’, Petty was riding a wave of popularity and artistic credibility that was comparable to Springsteen’s which further alienated the punks. Petty’s third masterpiece was an illustration of how he was able to transcend the claim by some that he was a one trick pony.

With songs that are a series of powerful melodramas, particularly ‘Refugee’, his work took on an aura of sophistication that was both classic-sounding and elegantly produced. Still grounded in the sixties, the songs are nevertheless modernist masterpieces – delicate, serene and dreamy. Petty was to produce a succession of other great albums – Southern Accents (1985) and Full Moon Fever (1989) among them, but they couldn’t quite match the supreme quality of his earlier works.

One of Petty’s most memorable and intimate live shows was when he and his band performed at the Bridge School in 1994. It was the last time the original lineup played together. ‘Freefallin’ from Full Moon River is arguably the greatest live version of the song ever performed. The group delivered a particularly delicate and emotional rendering of the song. The lyrics, “I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile” have of course, taken on an added poignancy since Petty’s death.

Petty wasn’t an innovator but an impeccable craftsman, who like Springsteen, Young and Dylan, chronicled the internal struggles of what it is to be human in a way that the punks could not. I never got to see Tom Petty live and was annoyed to have missed his concert at Hyde Park in the summer. Sadly, their won’t be another opportunity. I’m gutted at the news of his passing.

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Sam Shepard & the Holy Modal Rounders

By Daniel Margrain

On July 27, 2017, the world lost a prestigious talent. The US actor, playwright and musician. Sam Shepard, had written at least 55 plays, acted in more than 50 films and had more than a dozen roles on television. His play Buried Child, won him the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1979.

As a key figure in helping to rejuvenate American theatre in the 1960s, Shepard is perhaps best known for Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) where he received a best supporting actor nomination, and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).

What first drew my attention to Shepard was not so much his acting, as great as that was, but his writing, particularly the screenplay he had part-penned for the Wim Wender’s film Paris Texas (1984), a fascinating metaphysical study of self-discovery and disillusionment.

Ry Cooder’s haunting score and the superlative performances from a terrific ensemble cast, provided the space for Shepard’s hallucinatory words to breath. In my view the interplay between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski in the following scene is one of cinemas finest moments.

The above scene has Shepard’s underlying naturalistic and suspended sense of trauma, mystery and grief written all over it. These ghostly and introspective themes, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, haunt Shepard’s work.

Probably less well known was that Shepard collaborated with John Cale and Bob Dylan, notably his part-penning of “Brownsville Girl,” from the latter’s 1986 album “Knocked Out Loaded”. But arguably his most creatively fertile inroad into music was as a drummer with The Holy Modal Rounders, one of the most obscure and underrated groups of the 1960s.

The band also comprised Peter Stampfel on vocals and electric fiddle, Steve Weber on guitar and vocals and Lee Crabtree on piano and organ. Probably best known for their beautiful expression of freedom, “If you want to be a bird” that was included in the Easy Rider (1969) road movie soundtrack, the band were one of the most distinctive and original sounding artists of the time.

Their inventive deconstruction of US country-folk traditions and blithe send-up of musical Americana, was even more eccentric and anarchic in terms of its execution in their masterpiece, Indian War Whoop (1967).

While mining the Americana tradition, the group introduced wild and zany virtuoso turns on acoustic guitar, banjo and violin. “If you want to be a bird” was one of their later relatively conventional sounding records highlighting the vocal dexterity of Stampfel and Weber in addition to the haunting piano of Crabtree.

Dissonant and chaotic, with a cutting political edge that underscored a deliberate lack of respect for the vocal harmony tradition, the groups Fug’s style acid-folk had a devoted live following across the United States.

“Soldiers Joy” from Indian War Whoop is a masterpiece of irreverent and maniacal abandon. Stampfel’s electric fiddle is a political weapon in his hands. Country-folk traditions are fused with epileptic-sounding psychedelic marching band music with Shepard’s brilliant, frenetic drumming driving the madness along nicely.

Hardly any of the mainstream obituaries mentioned Shepard’s contribution to one of America’s greatest bands, and the few that did only mentioned it in passing.

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The twentieth anniversary of Radiohead’s ‘Ok Computer’. But is it any good?

By Daniel Margrain

Image result for pics of ok computer

I stopped reading the New Musical Express (NME) not long after writers of the caliber of Julie Burchill, Steven Wells, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray stopped writing for it. Anton Corbijn’s stunning and memorable monochrome photography added to the mix of art, politics and music that made the paper special. For many people my age, the post-punk and new wave era, corresponded to a golden age in rock music and rock music journalism.

The NME seemed to have more credibility than its main rivals, the Melody Maker and Sounds. It’s music journalism was acerbic, if at times irreverent and pretentious, but as teenager and twenty-something I couldn’t do without my weekly fix.

Indicative of a great deal of what continues to pass for rock music journalism in Britain, it’s flaws were that it was probably too colloquial in its outlook, disproportionately praising UK bands at the expense of those in the USA.

The emergence of the stupefying Brit-pop scene in the early 1990s marked a nadir for the paper. The genres iconography was as reactionary as the music was derivative and bombastic. The paper’s content began to reflect this superficiality. Among the ubiquitous genre of Britpop artists to emerge during this period were the British band, Radiohead, who unlike many of their contemporaries, the NME were largely indifferent to.

Proving to be more of a critical and commercial success outside Britain than in it during the early 1990s, it wasn’t until the release of their third album, OK Computer in 1997 that the group received widespread critical acclaim. The album initiated a stylistic shift toward a more atmospheric and melancholic sound of rock music whose abstract lyrics touched on themes of urban living, alienation, technology and modernity.

The music journalist at the NME whose words I paid close attention to more than any other during my youth, Nick Kent, wrote in Mojo about Ok Computer:

“Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I’m betting [the album] will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song structures from an earlier era.”

Twenty years since Kent wrote his piece, it’s perhaps worth considering whether his enthusiasm for the album is justified? I listened to it again for the first time for many years yesterday (July 19, 2017). My indifference to the work hasn’t changed.

The recording opens with Airbag, a kind of meticulously crafted and structured post-modern form of psychedelia updated for a generation unfamiliar with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Musically, the piece is rather dull, a theme that sets the tone for much of the album.

Paranoid Android is marked by the shift towards early Roxy-Music-esque prog-rock, hard rock and Gothic and blues elements that invoke a curious merging of Van der Graaf Generator and the Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet. Although its a slight departure from the opening track, it’s no less boring.

The self-confessed attempts by the group to emulate the disturbing atmosphere of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew in Subterranean Homesick Alien fails to capture the dense and chaotic magma of that piece, but instead is closer to the relatively conventional jazz of Herbie Hancock sprinkled with the transcendentalism of Pink Floyd.

The Romeo and Juliet-inspired Exit Music (For a Film) illustrates quite a clever use of vocal, acoustic guitar, mournful choir, electronics, renaissance-sounding mellotron and distorted trip-hop bass that is quite effective in its way, but hardly innovative. Nevertheless, this solemn requiem is one of the few successful and interesting moments on the album.

Let Down is basically a trance track featuring a subtle use of electronica that overlays some of the bands David Crosby-ian influences from their second album, The Bends. With a melodic chord progression reminiscent of the Beatles Sexy Sadie, the albums sixth track, Karma Police (inspired by Sgt Pepper), includes a pleasant Elton John-style romantic piano motif that eventually dissipates into a black hole of effects. Again, not a bad piece, but it’s not something I would necessarily have any desire to hear again either.

Fitter Happier is a short throwaway piece of sampled musique concrete, while Electioneering is heavy rock reminiscent of the groups debut, Pablo Honey. The next track, Climbing Up the Walls, is layered with a string section, ambient noise and repetitive, metallic percussion, while the renaissance-infused mournful hymn of the Beach Boys-inspired No Surprises, whose use of glockenspiel in the refrain reminiscent of a music box, is probably the best known cut on the album.

The penultimate apocalyptic, orchestral and choral, Lucky, is as languid and overblown a piece as the worst excesses of Pink Floyd. The album closes with The Tourist, a meandering waltz for the blues.

The album has its moments but there is simply a lack of quality in the structure of the songs and too much of it is filler. The melodramatic dirges and vocals are too hard to take after a while, especially during a single sitting. Ultimately, there is not enough interest to justify its length.

Production values can only sustain interest up to a point before the limitations of what lies underneath are exposed. This was true of Sgt Pepper and Dark Side as it is with Ok Computer.

Ultimately, Radiohead’s “art” in Ok Computer, like David Bowie’s, is the personification of artifice. As one independent critic, Piero Scaruffi, argued:

“[Ok Computer] embodies the quintessence of artificial art, raising futility to paradigm, focusing on the phenomenon rather than the content…of concentrating on ‘sound’ to the expense of “music”.

The leading creative force of the band, Thom Yorke, openly admitted in an interview in Mojo that the appropriation of other artists ideas – The Beatles, REM, Beach Boys, P J Harvey, Can and others – acted as the catalyst and provided the inspiration that culminated in the creation of the records “sound”.

There is nothing wrong in artists admitting  influences and sources. On the contrary, it is an admirable position to take. But as influential as the work of peers might be to an artist, it doesn’t necessarily follow that great art emerges from these influences. OK Computer, whose whole is not, in my view, greater than the sum of its parts, is a case in point.

That the album is regarded by many critics to be the best of the last 25 years; is included in many of the ‘best of’ lists including Rolling Stone and is even ranked by some to be the best rock album of all-time, is in my view, a gross overstatement of the albums artistic historical significance.

According to Tim Footman:

“Not since 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had so many major critics agreed immediately, not only on an album’s merits, but on its long-term significance, and its ability to encapsulate a particular point in history.”

This kind of a simplified critique arguably says more about how corporate music journalism operates and the limited parameters it sets, than it does about genuine creative and artistic worth of pieces of music.

The “artistic merits” of Ok Computer relate to the extent to which the public and critics alike buy into the illusion that its production excesses are art and that these excesses don’t detract from the mediocre quality of the content.

The concept of style over substance embodied in pop and rock music can be traced back to the Beatles Sgt Pepper album in 1967 where the role of producer, George Martin (the fifth Beatle), was widely regarded as being at least an equal, if not a more important figure, than the musicians.

It’s no coincidence that Thom Yorke (who outlined how important producer Nigel Godrich, characterised as Radiohead’s “sixth member”, was to Ok Computer), cited Sgt Pepper, particularly, A Day In the Life, as a major influence on him. It also explains why Tim Footman cited above, holds both Sgt Pepper and Ok Computer in equally high esteem. 

Radiohead upped the ante. But beneath the artifice there really isn’t much substance to their “art” and precious little for critics to write about the groups songs or the competency of the musicians who perform them.

The fact that twenty years on from the release of Ok Computer, not a single corporate critic has alluded to the fact that the album is a masterpiece of “faux avantegarde”, as Piero Scaruffi put it, or that the group who made it are one of the most hyped and overrated bands probably since U2, is a reflection of the lack of good quality independent music journalism in this country and abroad,

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My Review of the opening episode of the BBC3 Comedy, ‘Fleabag’

By Daniel Margrain

Photo: Amazon

There is likely to be nobody who detests the vast majority of what passes for BBC comedy output more than I do. From the unedifying spectacle of Mrs Brown’s Boys to the stupefying banality of Miranda, what the sheer dearth of quality output over the years highlights is the importance teams of writers are to the production of quality comedy. This explains why American comedy’s invariably hit the mark but on the whole, their British counterparts fail.

But once in a while, something extraordinary hits our television screens. I witnessed such a moment the other night thanks to a recommendation from Victor Lewis-Smith. As somebody who appreciates the quirky character-led observational and acerbic comedy canon, I knew I was going to be in for a treat from the opening sequence. One of the early scenes in which the boyfriend of Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge left her due to her habit of masturbating to Barack Obama speeches, was genius. This was one of the many inventive and inspired tragic-comic sequences that punctuated the shows 26 minute duration.

Firmly set within the confessional territory of Bridget Jones, Waller-Bridge’s first person monologues to camera, which hint at its Edinburgh fringe origins, were repeated throughout the episode. While these sequences were not original – having been seen in Woody Allen films (most notably Annie Hall) – they were nevertheless brilliantly executed.

What we quickly learn is that Fleabag is the epitome of a woman constantly on the verge of having a hyperventilating nervous breakdown in what is an increasingly dysfunctional world. As she navigates an urban terrain of awkward men while struggling to bond with her sister, it soon becomes obvious that her nihilism and inability to deal with personal relationships is an expression of a melancholy that’s rooted in personal tragedy, money problems or both.

We soon learn that somebody close to her had suffered an untimely death and that she lied to her financially successful sister about her financial situation as a front in order to get her approval. Her father (Bill Paterson) appears as a distant and peripheral figure in her life while her stepmother (Olivia Coleman) who tells her how awful she looks, has the potential to be as venomous a character as Julia Davis’ in Nighty Night whose magnetic on-screen presence Waller-Bridge manages to equal, if not surpass.

As with Julia Davis’ character, Waller-Bridge pulls off a woman, whose ferocious self-loathing is out of control and whose life is in a state of perpetual chaos, with great aplomb and technical skill. But unlike Davis’ character, Fleabag’s method of dealing with these frailties is to not take anything seriously.

In contrast to the derivative and telegraphed pratfall farce of a sit-com like Miranda, the sense of pathos and melancholy in Fleabag is never far from the surface. After having watched the opening episode, I get the feeling that a number of tragedies will unfold as the series progresses in which underlying themes of alienation, loneliness and loss look set to be developed.

All the performances were first class, but particular congratulations go to Waller-Bridge whose front and centre role stole the show. I was never quite sure what she was about to do or when she was going to do it – real edge of the seat stuff. I was mezmerized by her which is a testament to the brilliant writing, inventive set pieces, casting and strong characters.

Those responsible for taking the decision to commission this brave and fresh work of art are to be commended for their risk-taking in bringing Fleabag to the small screen. We need more of it.

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‘I, Daniel Blake’: A tale of Dickensian cruelty in Tory Britain

By Daniel Margrain

The mismanagement of the UK economy by both the New Labour and Tory governments’ that followed the global crash of 2008 led to the poorest and weakest in society disproportionately picking up the pieces by way of savage cuts and austerity resulting from this incompetency. This is the context in which British film director Ken Loach denounced what he described as the UK governments “conscious cruelty” towards the poor following the screening of his latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ at the Cannes Film Festival five months ago. Loach’s questioning of the narrative which suggests that the poor are to blame for an economic predicament beyond their control rather than the vagaries of the capitalist system, is a notion that is widely accepted within the hierarchy of government.

Loach’s film, whose red carpet London premier two days ago (October 18) was attended by Jeremy Corbyn, is story about a skilled working class man who, after having suffered a heart attack, is at the end of his tether as a result of his attempts to navigate an uncaring, remote and labyrinthine ‘work capability assessment’ process integral to the UK benefit system. The scenario is one in which many of us would have experienced directly or known of friends or family who have/are going through a similar nightmare.

Loach’s denunciation of the Tory governments approach to welfare, is predicated on its unnecessary commitment to a supply-side economic strategy centered on ideology rather than pragmatism. Indeed, given the governments awareness of the causal link between their anachronistic work capability assessment programme and suicide rates, the hatred they have towards the poor can be said to be pathological.

Cheque book euthanasia

The governments strategy of ‘cheque book euthanasia’  is, in principle, similar to the way Nazi Germany, over time, created – through a strategy of divide and rule – a climate in which the marginalization and the dehumanization of targeted minorities were blamed for the ills of society. In Germany it was the Jews who bore the brunt of this treatment as the Nazi state methodically marked them out for destruction, first by innuendo, next by legal sanction and finally by the direct action of rounding them up and exterminating them.

Other groups including gypsies, communists, homosexuals and those with permanent disabilities were labeled as being ‘undesirables’, a drain on society and likewise a target for elimination. The process by which the Final Solution was implemented was as gradual as it was deliberate. By cultivating the notion that the unemployed and disabled are somehow ‘undeserving’ is to implant within the wider public consciousness the notion that some human beings are less worthy than others, are not a legitimate part of society and are therefore ‘sub-human’.

I’m not suggesting a direct comparison between Nazi Germany and the contemporary British state under the Tories currently exists. I am, however, arguing that there are disturbing parallels and similar types of trends that blinded Germans to the potential of Adolf Hitler which can be found within our society today. What is certain, is that a universal social security system that has at its basis the proposals set out in the Beveridge Report (1942), has been in steady retreat from the mid 1970s with a greater emphasis on means-testing and exclusion. The Conservative government under David Cameron, and now Theresa May, seem to be taking this ethos several stages further with their Dickensian ‘back to the future’ policy not experienced since the Poor Law of the 19th century and before.

Poor Law

The Poor Law was first established in Elizabethan times as the means of providing relief from local funds for those unable to provide for themselves. In the 19th century it became a national system of state support under which those who could prove they were destitute would receive public assistance on the condition that this assistance included a direct incentive to seek alternative self-support. It was provided on a more punitive (‘less eligible’) basis than the conditions of those in the worst paid employment. This early form of social security often took the form of the harsh conditions of the state institution known as the workhouse. The intention was to make the conditions in the workhouse so harsh that the ‘able-bodied’ unemployed would do virtually anything rather than apply for relief.

The only objective difference between then and the present is there is currently no workhouse in existence. However, there is no logical reason to think that the political establishment will not consider the re-introduction of a variation of the workhouse in the foreseeable future. History has shown that large swaths of the middle classes have been only too willing to succumb to the divide and rule strategies of the ruling elites by pointing their fingers at those less fortunate than themselves as long as they are not deemed to be directly affected by such strategies.

The middle classes of the mid-19th century, for example, had been willing to tolerate the poor living in overcrowded squalor and dying of disease or hunger. But by the late 19th century they understood how diseases could spread from poor to rich neighbourhoods and so pushed for the building of sewage systems, the clearing of overcrowded city centres, the supply of clean water and the provision of gas to light streets and heat homes. Then, as now, the ruling class attitude towards the poor was, at best, indifferent.

Women and children provided the cheapest and most adaptable labour for the spinning mills, and they were crammed in with no thought for the effect on their health or on the care of younger children. If capital accumulation necessitated the destruction of the working class family, then so be it! By the 1850s, however, the more far-sighted capitalists began to fear that future reserves of labour power were being exhausted. In Britain in 1871, the Poor Law inspectors reported:

“It is well established that no town-bred boys of the poorer classes, especially those reared in London, ever attains…four feet ten and a half inches’ in height or a chest of 29 inches’ at the age of 15. A stunted growth is characteristic of the race.”

The Mansion House Committee of 1893 drew the conclusion that “the obvious remedy…is to improve the stamina, physical and moral, of the London working class.”

Robert Malthus

A succession of laws restricted the hours which children could work, and banned the employment of women in industries that might damage their chances of successful pregnancy. In terms of the unemployed, sick and disabled, the ruling and middle classes of the Victorian era argued that they were justified in treating these groups in the manner that they did because they perceived them as a ‘drain on society’ – an argument that was reinforced by the pseudo-scientific writings of the 18th century Anglican clergyman, Robert Malthus.

According to Malthus, population growth will inevitably lead to resource depletion because, he claimed, there is a tendency for the mass of the population to reproduce at a greater rate than the ability of existing populations to produce food under conditions where living standards exceed the bare level of subsistence. It is little wonder that Malthus’s theory of population was invoked by 19th century capitalists and their apologists in order to justify paying workers their bare subsistence and no more. This myth continues to shape the decision-making processes of numerous contemporary social policy-makers and, moreover, legitimized, in part, the thinking that underpinned Hitler’s extermination policy.

Malthus’s theory also provides some insight as to why many people misguidedly believe that the world is over-populated and therefore that the “conscious cruelty” outlined by Ken Loach that continues to result in the deaths of the poor and weak, is deemed to be a price worth paying. Malthus’s theory, in other words, proffers the kind of justification for the attacks by the Tories, their apologists and supporters against some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is the cruelty and pathological hatred of the disadvantaged by the Cameron and May governments depicted in I, Daniel Blake that won the film the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Low-lying fruit

It is this kind of cruelty and pathological hatred of the working class by the ruling class that has continued to resonate throughout the centuries and which Loach has managed to capture so movingly on film. During the press conference at Cannes, Loach related the themes in I, Daniel Blake to a quotation by Bertolt Brecht – ”and I always thought the simplest of words must suffice. When I say what things are like, it will break the hearts of all”.

Loach said that what he tried to do in the film “was to say what things are like, because it not only breaks your heart, but it should make you angry… He continued, “In the places where…[the governments ‘work capability’ assessments] take place, some people who work there have been given instructions on how to deal with potential suicides, so they know this is going on… It is deeply shocking that this is happening at the heart of our world… the heart of it is a shocking, shocking policy.”

Script writer, Paul Laverty said:

“The people who are disabled, have suffered six times more from the cuts than anyone else, and there was a remarkable phrase by one of the civil servants we heard who talked about the cuts, who said “low-lying fruit”, in other words the easy targets. So this story could have been much harsher, it could have been somebody with mental health difficulties… we could have told a story from someone who is much more vulnerable, much more heartbreaking.”

Laverty continued:

“I think it’s very important to remember too the systematic nature of it….talking to whistle blowers, people who worked inside the Department of Work and Pensions… there are several people we met, and they spoke to us anonymously…They said they were humiliated how they were forced to treat the public. So there is nothing accidental about it, and it is affecting a huge section of the population.”

The commercial and critical success of I, Daniel Blake is a testament to the growing awareness of the repugnant way in which the political establishment in Britain treat many of their citizens. Whether the film will be as influential in affecting positive social change as one of Loach’s earliest films, Cathy Come Home, remains to be seen. We can only hope it does.

 

The Beatles

By Daniel Margrain

the-beatles-4

As an antidote to the official UK cinema release of Ron Howard’s documentary Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years that focuses on the bands four years on the road, I thought it timely to reproduce Piero Scaruffi’s seminal award winning article which is arguably one of the most professional analysis of the career of pop group the Beatles ever written. The article, while highly critical of the artistic merits of the group, also provides a rare but welcome corrective to the many myths and falsehoods that have surrounded the ‘fab four’ for decades.

In my view, Scaruffi’s timeless appraisal remains possibly the most accurate retrospective of the group ever produced. The article is quite long but it’s worth persevering with. Be prepared, if you happen to be one of the many obsessive Beatles fans, it’s highly likely the article will upset you.

The Beatles most certainly belong to the history of the 60s, but their musical merits are at best dubious.

The Beatles came at the height of the reaction against rock and roll, when the innocuous “teen idols”, rigorously white, were replacing the wild black rockers who had shocked the radio stations and the conscience of half of America. Their arrival represented a lifesaver for a white middle class terrorized by the idea that within rock and roll lay a true revolution of customs. The Beatles tranquilized that vast section of the population and conquered the hearts of all those (first and foremost the females) who wanted to rebel, without violating the social status quo. The contorted and lascivious faces of the black rock and rollers were substituted by the innocent smiles of the Beatles; the unleashed rhythms of the first were substituted by the catchy tunes of the latter. Rock and roll could finally be included in the pop charts. The Beatles represented the quintessential reaction to a musical revolution in the making, and for a few years they managed to run its enthusiasm into the ground.

Furthermore, the Beatles represented the reaction against a social and political revolution. They arrived at the time of the student protests, of Bob Dylan, of the Hippies, and they replaced the image of angry kids, fists in the air, with their cordial faces and amiable declarations. They came to replace the accusatory words of militant musicians with overindulgent nursery rhymes. Thus the Beatles served as middle-class tranquilizers, as if to prove the new generation was not made up exclusively of rebels, misfits and sex maniacs.

For most of their career, the Beatles were four mediocre musicians who sang melodic three-minute tunes at a time when rock music was trying to push itself beyond that format, one originally confined by the technical limitations of the 78 rpm record. They were the quintessence of “mainstream” (assimilating the innovations proposed by rock music) within the format of the melodic song.

The Beatles belonged, like the Beach Boys (whom they emulated throughout most of their career), to the era of the vocal band. In such a band the technique of the instrument was not as important as that of the chorus. Undoubtedly skilled at composing choruses, they availed themselves of producer George Martin (head of Parlophone since 1956), to embellish those choruses with arrangements more and more eccentric.

Thanks to a careful marketing campaign, they became the most celebrated entertainers of the era, and are still the darlings of magazines and tabloids, much like Princess Grace of Monaco and Lady Di.

The convergence between Western polyphony (melody, several parts of vocal harmony and instrumental arrangements) and African percussion – the leitmotif of US music from its inception – was legitimized in Europe by the huge success of the Merseybeat, in particular by its best sellers, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beatles, both produced by George Martin and managed by Brian Epstein. To the bands of the Merseybeat goes the credit of having validated rock music for a vast, virtually endless, audience. They were able to interpret the spirit and technique of rock and roll, while separating it from its social circumstances, thus defusing potential explosions. In such a fashion, they rendered it accessible not only to the young rebels, but to all. Mediocre musicians, and even more mediocre intellectuals, bands like the Beatles had the intuition of the circus performer who knows how to amuse the peasants after a hard day’s work, an intuition applied to the era of mass distribution of consumer goods.

Every one of their songs and every one of their albums followed much more striking songs and albums by others, but instead of simply imitating them, the Beatles adapted them to a bourgeois, conformist and orthodox dimension. The same process was applied to the philosophy of the time, from the protests on college campuses to Dylan’s pacifism, psychedelic drugs, or Eastern religion. Their vehicle was melody, a universal code of sorts, that declared their music innocuous. Naturally others performed the same operation, and many (from the Kinks to the Hollies, from the Beach Boys to the Mamas and Papas) produced melodies even more memorable, yet the Beatles arrived at the right moment and theirs would remain the trademark of the melodic song of the second half of the twentieth century.

Their ascent was branded as “Beatlemania”, a phenomenon of mass hysteria launched in 1963 that marked the height of the “teen idol” of the late 1950s, an extension of the myths of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. From that moment on, no matter what they put together, the Beatles remained the center of the media’s attention.

Musically, for what it is worth, the Beatles were the product of an era that had been prepared by vocal groups such as the Everly Brothers and by rockers such as Buddy Holly; an era that also expressed itself through the girl-groups, the Tamla bands and surf music. What the Beatles have in common with them, aside from almost identical melodies, is a general concept of song based on an exuberant, optimistic and cadenced melody.

The Beatles were the quintessence of instrumental mediocrity. George Harrison was a pathetic guitarist, compared with the London guitarists of those days (Townshend of the Who, Richards of the Rolling Stones, Davies of the Kinks, Clapton, Beck and Page of the Yardbirds, and many others who were less famous but more original). The Beatles had completely missed the revolution of rock music (founded on a prominent use of the guitar) and were still trapped in the stereotypes of the easy-listening orchestras. Paul McCartney was a singer from the 1950s, who could not have possibly sounded more conventional. As a bassist, he was not worth the last of the rhythm and blues bassists (even though within the world of Merseybeat his style was indeed revolutionary). Ringo Starr played drums the way any kid of that time played it in his garage (even though he may ultimately be the only one of the four who had a bit of technical competence). Overall, the technique of the “Fab Four” was the same as that of many other easy-listening groups: sub-standard.

Theirs were records of traditional songs crafted as they had been crafted for centuries, yet they served an immense audience, far greater than the audience of those who wanted to change the world, the hippies, freaks and protesters. Their fans ignored or abhorred the many rockers of the time who were experimenting with the suite format, who were composing long free-form tracks, who were using dissonance, who were radically changing the concept of the musical piece. The Beatles’ fans thought, and some still think, that using trumpets in a rock song was a revolutionary event, that using background noises (although barely noticeable) was an even more revolutionary event, and that only great musical geniuses could vary so many styles in one album, precisely what many rock musicians were doing all over the world, employing much more sophisticated stylistic excursions.

While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avantgarde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three-minute songs built around a chorus. Beatlemania and its myth notwithstanding, Beatles fans went crazy for twenty seconds of trumpet, while the Velvet Underground were composing suites of chaos twenty minutes long. Actually, between noise and a trumpet, between twenty seconds and twenty minutes, there was an artistic difference of several degrees of magnitude. They were, musically, sociologically, politically, artistically, and ideologically, on different planets.

Beatlemania created a comical temporal distortion. Many Beatles fans were convinced that rock and roll was born around the early 1960s, that psychedelic rock and the hippies were a 1967 phenomenon, that student protests began in 1969, that peace marches erupted at the end of the 60s, and so on. Beatles fans believed that the Beatles were first in everything, while in reality they were last in almost everything. The case of the Beatles is a textbook example of how myths can distort history.

The Beatles had the historical function to delay the impact of the innovations of the 1960s . Between 1966 and 1969, while suites, jams, and long free form tracks (which the Beatles also tried but only toward the end of their career) became the fashion, while the world was full of guitarists, bassist, singers and drummers who played solos and experimented with counterpoint, the Beatles limited themselves to keeping the tempo and following the melody. Their historical function was also to prepare the more conservative audience for those innovations. Their strength was perhaps in being the epitome of mediocrity, never a flash of genius, never a revolutionary thought, never a step away from what was standard, accepting innovations only after they had been by the establishment. And maybe it was that chronic mediocrity that made their fortune: whereas other bands tried to surpass their audiences, to keep two steps ahead of the myopia of their fans, traveling the hard and rocky road, the Beatles took their fans by the hand and walked them along a straight path devoid of curves and slopes.

Beatles fans can change the meaning of the word “artistic” to suit themselves, but the truth is that the artistic value of the Beatles work is very low. The Beatles made only songs, often unpretentious songs, with melodies no more catchy than those of many other pop singers. The artistic value of those songs is the artistic value of one song: however well done (and one can argue over the number of songs well done vs. the number of overly publicized songs by the band of the moment), it remains a song, precisely as toothpaste remains toothpaste. It does not become a work of art just because it has been overly publicized.

The Beatles are justly judged for the beautiful melodies they have written. But those melodies were “beautiful” only when compared to the melodies of those who were not trying to write melodies; in other words to the musicians who were trying to rewrite the concept of popular music by implementing suites, jams and noise. Many contemporaries of Beethoven wrote better minuets than Beethoven ever wrote, but only because Beethoven was writing something else. In fact, he was trying to write music that went beyond the banality of minuets.

The melodies of the Beatles were perhaps inferior to many composers of pop music who still compete with the Beatles with regard to quality, those who were less famous and thus less played.

The songs of the Beatles were equipped with fairly vapid lyrics at a time when hordes of singer songwriters and bands were trying to say something intelligent. The Beatles’ lyrics were tied to the tradition of pop music, while rock music found space, rightly or wrongly, for psychological narration, anti-establishment satire, political denunciation, drugs, sex and death.

The most artistic and innovative aspect of the Beatles’ music, in the end, proved to be George Martin’s arrangements. Perhaps aware of the band’s limitations, Martin used the studio and studio musicians in a creative fashion, at times venturing beyond the demands of tradition to embellish the songs. Moreover, Martin undoubtedly had a taste for unusual sounds. At the beginning of his career he had produced Rolf Harris’ Tie Me Kangaroo with the didjeridoo. At the time nobody knew what it was. Between 1959 and 1962 Martin had produced several tracks of British humor with heavy experimentation, inspired by the Californian Stan Freiberg, the first to use the recording studio as an instrument.

As popular icons, as celebrities, the Beatles certainly influenced their times, although much less than their fans suppose. Even Richard Nixon, the US president of the Vietnam War and Watergate influenced his times and the generations that followed, but that does not make him a great musician.

Today Beatles songs are played mostly in supermarkets. But their myth, like that of Rudolph Valentino and Frank Sinatra before them, will live as long as the fans who believed in it will be alive. Through the years their fame has been artificially kept alive by marketing, a colossal advertising effort, a campaign without equal in the history of entertainment.

Their history begins at the end of the 1950s. Buddy Holly’s Crickets had invented the modern concept of the rock band. Indirectly they had also started the fashion of naming a band with a plural noun, like the doo-wop ensembles before them, but a noun that was funny instead of serious. Almost immediately bands like “the Crickets” began to pop up everywhere, most of them bearing plural nouns. Insects were fashionable. The Beatles were the most famous.

Assembled to bring to Europe the free spirit, the simple melodies, and the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys (the novelty of the moment) more than for any specific reason, the Beatles became, despite their limitations, the most successful recording artists of their time. While acknowledging that neither the Beatles nor the Beach Boys were music greats, it must be noted that both were influential in conferring commercial credibility to rock music, and both inspired thousands of youngsters around the world to form rock bands. The same had happened with Elvis Presley. Although far from being a great musician, he too had inspired thousands of white kids, among them both the Beatles and the Beach Boys, to become rockers.

The “swinging London” of the 1960s was a mix of renewal, mediocrity, conformity, non-commitment, cultural rebirth, tourist attraction and excitement, a locus of rebellion drowned in shining billboards, of young men with long hair and girls in mini-skirts, of wealth and hypocrisy about wealth, a city of indifference. La dolce vita, English style. The Beatles were the best selling product of that London, a city full of ambiguity and contradictions.

The Beatles’ birthplace was Liverpool. John Lennon was a rhythm guitar player with a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, founded in 1955, before forming the Beatles in 1960 with Paul McCartney. George Harrison, hired when he was still a minor, played lead guitar, with a formidable style inspired by the rockabilly of James Burton and Carl Perkins. They rose through the ranks playing rock and roll covers in Hamburg, Germany, then made their debut at The Cavern, in Liverpool, on February 21, 1961. Shortly after, Ringo Starr was called to replace the drummer Pete Best, and McCartney switched to the bass.

In 1962 two phenomena exploded in America: the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. Both truly sang, in vocal harmony derived from 1950s doo-wop, which they introduced to white audiences, with arrangements imitating the Crickets.

That was the year the Beatles began the transition from covers to original, melodic, vocal harmonies. One of the first recordings of the Beach Boys had been a revision of one of Chuck Berry’s songs, one of the first recordings of the Beatles had to be a revision of one of Chuck Berry’s songs. Brian Wilson played the bass for the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney would play bass for the Beatles.

Brian Epstein was the man who scouted them and secured their contract with EMI in November 1961, and also the man who created their image,their clothes, their hairdos (similar to television comedian Ish Kabibble’s). George Martin was the man who created their sound.

1962 was the year of Bob Dylan, of peace demonstrations, of songs of protest. Precisely in 1962, far removed, diametrically opposed really, to the events that dominated US society, the Beatles debuted with a 45, Love Me Do, recorded in September 1962, a jovial rhythm and blues led by the harmonica in the style of Delbert McClinton. By the end of the year the song had made the charts. In February 1963, the band reached #2 with Please Please Me. In the space of few months, a diligent marketing strategy, ingeniously managed by Brian Epstein, unleashed mass hysteria. Records sold out before the recording sessions actually began, mass-media detailed step by step chronicles of the four heroes, the world of fashion imposed a new hairdo. Epstein had created “Beatlemania”…

The overflow of fanaticism around them demanded refinement of their style. They began to utilize new instruments. The more they dissociated themselves from their rhythm and blues roots, the faster their style became more melodious. Through From Me To You, the rowdy She Loves You (accessorized with the first “yeah-yeah-yeahs”), and I Want To Hold Your Hand (a heavier rhythm enhanced by clapping), all “number ones” on the charts of 1963, they fused centuries of vocal styles – sacred hymn, Elizabethan song, music hall, folk ballad, gospel and voodoo – in a harmonious and crystal-clear format for a happy chorus. A variant of the same process had been adopted in the United States by the Shirelles. For the most part it was Buddy Holly’s jovial, childish, catchy style that was copied, speeding the tempo to accommodate the demands of the “twist”. The twist was the dance craze of the moment: fast beat, suggestive moves and catchy tunes. The Beatles sensed that it was the right formula.

In the USA nobody had caught on yet, and only mangled versions of Please Please Me (March 1963) and With The Beatles (November 1963) had been released. In January 1964 EMI decided to invest significantly and I Want To Hold Your Hand reached the top of the charts together with the Beatles’ first US album Meet The Beatles (Capitol, 1964). In the States, cleansed at last of the perverted and amoral rock and roll scum of the 1950s, the charming and polite Merseybeat of the Beatles delighted the media. After their first tour in February 1964, and their appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show”, their 45s were solidly on top of the US charts. In April 1964 they occupied the first five positions. After all, their sound was drenched in US music: their vocal style was either that of the hard rockers like Little Richard, or the gentler call-and-response of the Drifters (echoing one another, stretching a word for several beats, screaming coarse “yeah-yeah”, shrieking in falsetto), the choruses were Buddy Holly’s, the harmonies were the Beach Boys’ and the instrumental parts were remakes of twist combos.

The secret of the Beatles’ success, in the USA as in the UK, was the simplicity of their arrangements. Whereas the idols of the time were backed by complex, almost classical arrangements, at times even by studio effects, the Beatles employed the elementary technique of surf music, completely devoid of orchestral support and surreal effects. At a time when singers had become studio subordinates, the Beatles managed to reestablish the supremacy of the singer. The youths of the USA recognized themselves in a style that was much more direct than the manufactured one of their “teen idols”, and by default recognized themselves in the Beatles, precisely as they had recognized themselves in Elvis Presley after having become accustomed to the artificiality of pop music in the 1950s.

The Mersey sound was designed to tone down rock and roll. Under the direction of producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein, the sound of the Beatles also became softer. The captivating style of the Beatles had already been pioneered by Gerry & The Pacemakers (formed in 1959, also managed by Epstein). They reached the charts with their first three 45s (How Do You Do It, March 1963, I Like It, May 1963, You`ll Never Walk Alone, October 1963): very melodic versions of rock and roll with sugar-coated versions of rock’s rebel text. Practically speaking, the Pacemakers’ formula brought rock and roll into pop music. They replaced the rough and crude beat of the blues with the light and tidy rhythms of European pop songs; they exchanged the slanted melodies of the blues with the catchy tunes of the British operetta; they substituted the provocative lyrics of Chuck Berry with the romantic rhymes of the “teen idols.” Epstein and Martin simply continued that format with the Beatles. The only difference was in the authorship of practically their entire cache. All the Beatles songs were signed Lennon-McCartney. (This was only for contractual reasons. In reality they were not necessarily co-written.)

The first student protests took place in Berkeley, California in 1964. Young people were protesting against the establishment in general, and against the war in Vietnam in particular. The rebellion that had been seething through the 50s had finally found its intellectual vehicle. The Beatles knew nothing of this when they recorded Can’t Buy Me Love, a swinging rockabilly a la Bill Haley, the first to reach #1 simultaneously in the States and in Britain, A Hard Day’s Night and I Feel Fine, using the feedback that had been pioneered in the 1950s by guitarists such as Johnny Watson and used in Britain by the Yardbirds. All three are exuberant songs carrying ever so catchy refrains, reaching the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. With these songs and with their public behavior the Beatles showed a whimsical and provoking way to be young. The Beatles were still a brand new phenomenon when A Hard Day’s Night – the first surreal documentary about their daily lives was released, and their two first biographies were published. In the USA the marketing was intense: EMI was inundated by contracts to solicit the sales of Beatles wigs, Beatles attire, Beatles dolls, cartoons inspired by the Beatles. America was saturated with images of four smiling boys, the creation of a brand new myth that served to exorcise the demons of Vietnam, of the peace marches, of the civil disorders, of the student protests, of the racial disturbances, of the murder of JFK, of Bob Dylan, of rock and roll, of all the tragedies, real or presumed, that troubled the “American Dream”. In the end, it might have all been a form of shock therapy.

Sure enough, hidden behind those smiling faces were four mediocre musicians, and also four multimillionaire snobs in the proudest British tradition. Far from being symbols of rebellion, they were reactionism personified. The Beatles, optimistic and effervescent, represented an escape from reality. People, kids in particular, had a desperate need to believe in something that had nothing to do with bombs and upheaval. The Beatles put to music the enthusiasm of the masses and in return, in a cycle that bordered on perpetual motion, were enthusiastically acclaimed by the same masses.

The best of their cliches is summarized in a famous anecdote. Interviewed during their US tour, Lennon answered the question “How did you find America?” with “We turned left at Greenland!” Beneath this naive sense of humor, anarchic and surreal, lays the greatest merit of the band.

From 1965 the LP, in the preceding years not as important as the 45, became the new unit of measure of their work. The US releases had 12 cuts including the hits, the British versions had 14 cuts and generally none of the hits. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was the first release to contain material exclusively co-written by Lennon and McCartney. For Sale, released immediately after, contained six covers (but also Eight Days A Week, and the melancholic I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party). Help (August 1965), with The Night Before and Ticket To Ride, marked the transition from the Merseybeat sound to one oriented more toward folk and country, though some of the songs bring Buddy Holly to mind. The Beatles of these days showed a formidable talent for the melancholic ballad, such as You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and most of all Yesterday, the slow song par excellence written by Paul McCartney, to which Martin added a string quartet (a song vaguely reminiscent of 1933’s Yesterdays by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach). However, their best work is to be found in more aggressive songs, such as Help, a gospel full of life adapted to their surreal style.

Rubber Soul (December 1965) completed the transition from the 45 to the 33, and also from Merseybeat to folk-rock. Following their U.S. tour, the influence of the Byrds is very strong. The rock and roll beat in Drive My Car and Run For Your Life, the exotic mood of Norwegian Wood (a David Crosby-ian litany accompanied by sitar, an instrument already utilized by the Yardbirds, possibly based on what the Kinks had done a few months earlier with See My Friends) and the timid psychedelia of Nowhere Man cover a vast repertoire of harmonies for their standards. In spite of the fact that the Beatles sought success within rock and roll, it was evident that their best work was expressed through melodic songs. The tender ballads Girl and Michelle (a classic for acoustic guitar, melodic bass and chorus, in the style of 1950s vocal groups) are truly excellent songs in their genre, but because they lack both rhythm and volume, they were considered “minor” at the time.

In 1965 the Beatles recorded another melodic masterpiece, We Can Work It Out, ground out on barrel organ and accordion, inspired by French folk music. They pursued the mirage of the “rave-up” with the hard riff of Day Tripper (borrowed from Watch Your Step of bluesman Bobby Parker), a pathetic response to Satisfaction by the Stones and You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Both songs, hard rockers, had shocked the charts that same year.

The Beatles finally freed themselves from the obsession of emulating others in 1966, with Revolver, an album entirely dedicated to sophisticated songs. The album, extremely polished, seems the lighter version of Rubber Soul. The psychedelic Tomorrow Never Knows (sitar, backward guitar, organ drones), the vaguely oriental Love You To, the classic Eleanor Rigby, the Vaudevillian operetta Good Day Sunshine, the rhythm and blues of Got To Get You Into My Life and Dr. Robert, as well as Rain, recorded in the same sessions (with backward vocals, inspired by the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, that had charted just weeks before), are all mitigated by an ever more languid and romantic attitude. The few jolts of rhythm are kept at bay by a tender effusion in I’m Only Sleeping (with a timid solo of backward guitar), There And Everywhere and For No One. With this album the Beatles left behind rock and roll to get closer to pop music, the pop music of the Brill Building, that is, a genre of pop that sees Revolver as its masterpiece. (At the time melodic songs all over the world were inspired by the Brill Building). Of course Revolver was a thousand years late. That same year Dylan had released Blonde On Blonde, a double album with compositions fifteen minutes long, and Frank Zappa had released Freak Out, also a double album, in collage format. Rock music was experimenting with free form jams as in Virgin Forest by the Fugs, Up In Her Room by the Seeds, Going Home by the Rolling Stones. The songs of the Beatles truly belonged to another century.

The formal perfection of their melodies reached the sublime in 1967 with two 45s: the baroque/electronic Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, released in February, an absolute masterpiece that never reached the top of the charts, the hard rocking Paperback Writer, and the childish Yellow Submarine, a mosaic full of sound gags and barroom choruses. Penny Lane represents the apex of the Manneristic style: Vaudevillian rhythm, hypnotic melody, Renaissance trumpets, folkloristic flutes and triangles. Strawberry Fields Forever is a densely-arranged psychedelic experiment (backward vocals, mellotron, harp, timpani, bongos, trumpet, cello).

Perhaps, the experiments could have continued in a more serious direction, as the intriguing idea of the 14-minute Carnival of Light leads one to believe, a piece recorded at the beginning of 1967 and never completed nor released.

1967 was the year that FM radio began to play long instrumentals. In Great Britain, it was the year of psychedelia, of the Technicolor Dream, of the UFO Club. The psychedelic singles of Pink Floyd were generating an uproar. Inevitably, the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This quasi-concept album was released while the Monterey Festival was consecrating the sanctifiable, the big names of the times. Unlike most of the revolutionary records of those days, often recorded in haste and with a low budget, Sgt. Pepper cost a fortune and took four months to put together. The Beatles soar in the ethereal refrain of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, utilizing the sitar, distorted keyboard sounds and Indian inspired vocals; they indulge in Vaudevillian tunes such as Lovely Rita and When I’m Sixty Four (a vintage ragtime worthy of the Bonzo Band), and they showcase their odd melodic sense in With A Little Help From My Friends. They scatter studio effects here and there, pretending to be avantgarde musicians, in Fixing A Hole and Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, but in reality these are tunes inspired by the music halls, the circuses and small town bands. A Day In The Life is the culmination of the relationship between technique and philosophy. It represents the happy marriage between Martin’s sense of harmony, employing a 40-piece orchestra in which everybody plays every note, and Lennon’s hippie existentialism, that dissects the alienation of the bourgeoisie.

Everything was running smoothly in the name of quality music, now entrusted to high fidelity arrangements and adventurous variations of style, from folk ballads to sidewalk Vaudeville, from soul to marching bands, from the Orient to swing, from chamber music to psychedelia, from tap dance to little bands in the park. Everything had been fused into a steady flow of variety show skits.

Rather than an album of psychedelic music (compared to which it actually sounds retro), Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ answer to the sophistication of Pet Sounds, the masterpiece by their rivals, the Beach Boys, released a year and three months before. The Beatles had always been obsessed by the Beach Boys. They had copied their multi-part harmonies, their melodic style and their carefree attitude. Throughout their entire career, from 1963 to 1968, the Beatles actually followed the Beach Boys within a year or two, including the formation of Apple Records, which came almost exactly one year after the birth of Brother Records. Pet Sounds had caused an uproar because it delivered the simple melodies of surf music through the artistic sophistication of the studio. So, following the example of Pet Sounds, the Beatles recorded, from February to May 1967, Sgt. Pepper, disregarding two important factors: first that Pet Sounds had been arranged, mixed and produced by Brian Wilson and not by an external producer like George Martin, and second that, as always, they were late. They began assembling Sgt. Pepper a year after Pet Sounds had hit the charts, and after dozens of records had already been influenced by it.

Legend has it that it took 700 hours of studio recording to finish the album. One can only imagine what many other less fortunate bands could have accomplished in a recording studio with 700 hours at their disposal. Although Sgt. Pepper was assembled with the intent to create a revolutionary work of art, if one dares take away the hundreds of hours spent refining the product, not much remains that cannot be heard on Revolver: Oriental touches here and there, some psychedelic extravaganzas, a couple of arrangements in classical style. Were one to skim off a few layers of studio production, only pop melodies would remain, melodies not much different from those that had climbed the charts ten years before. Yet it was the first Beatles album to be released in long playing version all over the world. None of its songs were released as singles.

The truth is that although it was declared an “experimental” work, even Sgt. Pepper managed to remain a pop album. The Beatles of 1967 were still producing three-minute ditties, while Red Crayolas and Pink Floyd, to name two psychedelic bands of the era, were playing long free form suites – at times cacophonous, often strictly instrumental – that bordered on avantgarde. In 1967, the band that had never recorded a song that had not been built around a refrain began to feel outdated. They tried to keep up, but they never pushed themselves beyond the jingles, most likely because they could not, just as Marilyn Monroe could not have recited Shakespeare.

Sgt. Pepper is the album of a band that sensed change in the making, and was adapting its style to the taste of the hippies. It came in last (in June), after Velvet Underground & Nico (January), The Doors (also January), the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday (February), and the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (February) to signal the end of an era, after others had forever changed the history of rock music. (Several technical “innovations” on Sgt Pepper were copied from Younger Than Yesterday, whose tapes the Beatles had heard from David Crosby at the end of 1966). The uproar generated by Sgt. Pepper transferred those innovations from the US underground to the living rooms and the supermarkets of half the world.

With Sgt. Pepper, the sociology course in melodic rock and roll that Lennon and McCartney had introduced in 1963 came to an end. The music of the Beatles was an antidote to the uneasiness of those times, to the troubling events that scared and perplexed people. The course had the virtue of deflecting the impact of those events, the causes of political upheaval and moral revolution. The Beatles reassured the middle class at a time when almost nothing could reassure the middle class.

Every arrangement of that period – the harpsichords and the flutes, the prerecorded tracks and the electronic effects – was the result of George Martin’s careful production. Martin was a lay musician, a former member of a marching band that occasionally had played in St. James Park. He knew that avantgarde musicians made music by manipulating tracks, that instruments with unusual timbre existed, that rock bands were dissecting classical harmonies. His background, not to mention his intellectual ability, was of the circus, the carnival, the operetta, the marching band, London’s second-rate theaters. He took all he could from that folkloristic patrimony, every unorthodox technique. The results might not have been particularly impressive – after all he was neither Beethoven nor Von Karajan – but they were most certainly interesting. He was the true genius behind the music of the Beatles. Martin transformed their snobbish disposition, their childish insolence, their fleeting enthusiasm, into musical ideas. He converted their second hand melodies into monumental arrangements. He even played some of the instruments that helped those songs make history. From Rubber Soul on, Martin’s involvement got progressively more evident. Especially with Sgt. Pepper, Martin demonstrated his knowledge and his intuition. The idea to connect all the songs in a continuous flow, however, is McCartney’s. It is the operetta syndrome, the everlasting obsession of British musicians of the music halls. The Beatles filled newspapers and magazines with their declarations about drugs and Indian mysticism, and how they converted those elements into music, but it was Martin who was doing the conversion, who was transforming their fanciful artistic ambitions into music.

Around the time of Sgt. Pepper’s release, Brian Epstein died. (His death was attributed to drugs and alcohol.) He was the man who had given fame to the Beatles, the fundamental presence in their development, the man who had invented their myth. The Beatles were four immature kids who for years had played the involuntary leading roles in an immensely successful soap opera, a part that paid them with imprisonment. For years they did not dare step outside their hotel rooms or their limousines. As Epstein’s control began to lessen they began to look around, to take notice of the drugs, the social disorder, the ideals of peace, the student protests, the Oriental philosophies. It was a world completely unknown to them, full of issues they had never mentioned in their songs. The revelation was traumatic. Epstein’s absence generated chaos, exposing problems with revenue, representation and public relations that eventually caused the demise of the group, but it also gave them the chance to grow up.

Sgt Pepper represents a breaking point in their career on several levels. It is a very autobiographical conceptual take on self-awareness. It is a concept album about the discovery of being able to put together a concept album.

Two projects realized with unusual wit also belong to the same period, a period that bridged two eras: the television movie Magical Mystery Tour and the cartoon Yellow Submarine. In both works can be found some of the most ingenious ideas of the quartet. The grotesque schizoid nightmare I Am The Walrus and the kaleidoscopic trip It’s All Too Much are exercises of surrealism and psychedelia applied to the Merseybeat. Magical Mystery Tour also includes the bucolic ballad The Fool On The Hill, the psychedelic Blue Jay Way, and the mantra Baby You`re A Rich Man.

Meanwhile the shower of hits influenced by the experimental climate continued: Magical Mystery Tour, the movie soundtrack, with trumpets, jazz piano, changes in tempo, and a circus huckster-style presentation, Your Mother Should Know, another vaudeville classic, the anthem All You Need Is Love, Hello Goodbye, a catchy melody distorted by psychedelic effects, Lady Madonna, the boogie inspired by Fats Domino. But the Beatles still belonged to the era of pop music: unlike Cream they did not pull off solos, unlike Hendrix they strummed their guitars without real know-how, unlike Pink Floyd they did not dare dissect harmony. They were not just retro, they simply belonged elsewhere.

Hey Jude (august 1968), a long (for the Beatles) jam of psychedelic blues-rock, in reality another historic slow song by McCartney, came out after Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy and also after Cream’s lengthy live jams had reached peak popularity. Paradoxically, Hey Jude established a new sales record; it was #1 on the charts for nine weeks and sold six million copies.

Having established the melodic standard of the decade, the quartet implemented it in every harmonic recipe that arose from time to time. By applying the industrial law of constant revision, they Beatles managed to keep themselves on top. So much variety of arrangements resulted in mere mannerism, meticulous attention to detail and ornament. The albums of the third period fluctuate in fact between collages of miniatures and melodic fantasies, but always skillfully keeping a harmonic cohesion between one song and the other, in the step with – consciously or unconsciously – the structure of the operetta.

By the time of their next LP release they were leading separate lives, each indifferent to the ideas of the others, and their album reflected the situation. It was clear that this new batch of recorded songs was not the effort of a band, but the work of four artists profoundly different from one another.

The double album The Beatles (November 1968), very similar in spirit to the Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers (June 1968), is a disorganized heap of incongruous ideas. No other Beatles album had ever been so varied and eclectic. Their new “progressive” libido found an outlet in blues-rock (Rocky Raccoon, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road), and especially the giddy hyper-boogies (Birthday and Helter Skelter). As a consequence of this fragmented inspiration, the record includes a cornucopia of genres: classical (Piggies, a rare moment of genius from Harrison, a baroque sonata performed with the sarcastic humour of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, with a melody borrowed from Stephane Grappelli’s Eveline), acoustic folk (Blackbird), the campfire sing-a-long (Bungalow Bill), ballads (Cry Baby Cry – one of their best piano progressions), the usual vaudeville-style parade (Don’t Pass Me By, Martha My Dear, Obladi Oblada), and melodic rock (While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the jewel of their tunefulness). The album wraps up with a long jam, more or less avantgarde, (Revolution No. 9, co-written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono) two years after everybody else, and three years after the eleven minutes of Goin’ Home, by the Stones.

The so called White Album sampled the mood change of rock music toward a simpler and more traditional way to make music. It was released three months after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by the Byrds, which in turn had followed Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. It is also an album that reflects the passing of Brian Epstein.

In 1968 Great Britain became infected by the concept album/rock opera bug, mostly realized by Beatles contemporaries: Tommy by the Who, The Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces, Odyssey and Oracle by the Zombies, etc (albums that in turn owed something to the loosely-connected song cycles of pop albums such as Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours (1955), the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper). So, with the usual delay, a year later the Beatles gave it a try. Abbey Road (1969), is a vaudeville-style operetta that combines every genre in a steady stream of melodies and structurally perfect arrangements. It is the summa encyclopaedica of their career. It is a series of self-mocking vignettes, mimicking now the circus worker (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), now the crooner (Oh Darling, a parody a la Bonzo Band), now the baby-sitter (Octopus’s Garden, in the silly vein of Yellow Submarine), culminating in the overwhelming suite of side B. Starting with the primitive exuberance of You Never Give Me Your Money (a mini rock opera worthy of early Zappa) and Mean Mr Mustard, the suite comes in thick and fast with Polytheme Pam and She Came In Thru The Bathroom Window, and dies melancholically with yet another goliardic chorus, Carry That Weight (that reprises the motifs of Money and I Want You). It is the apotheosis of the belated music hall entertainer in Paul McCartney. And it is, above all, a masterpiece of production, of sound, of sonic puzzles.

As was the case with their contemporaries – Who, Kinks, Small Faces and Zombies – this late album/thesis runs the risks going down in history as the Beatles’ masterpiece. Obviously it does not even come close to the creative standards of the time (1969), but it scores well. The result is formally impeccable melodic songwriting, although it must be noted that the best songs, both written by George Harrison, are also the most modest. Abbey Road is their last studio album, again produced by George Martin.

All efforts at cohesion notwithstanding, their personalities truly became too divergent. The modest hippie George Harrison became attracted to Oriental spiritualism. (Something and Here Comes The Sun are his melancholy ballads). Paul McCartney, the smiling bourgeois, became progressively more involved with pop music (every nursery-rhyme, Get Back and Let It Be included, are his). John Lennon, the thoughtful intellectual became absorbed in self-examination and political involvement. His was a much harder and/or psychedelic sound (Revolution, Come Together, the dreamy and Indian-like Across The Universe). They were songs ever more meaningless and anonymous. After all, the break-up had begun with Revolver (Lennon wrote Tomorrow Never Knows, Harrison Love You To, McCartney Eleanor Rigby), and had been camouflaged in successive records by Martin’s painstakingly arrangements.

The Beatles adapted their music to suit the styles in fashion: doo-wop, garage-rock, psychedelia, country-rock. Very few bands changed style so drastically from year to year. Perhaps they began to feel obsolete listening to Cream. Cream concerts were the first musical phenomenon in Great Britain to rival Beatlemania. Cream did all they could to make the Merseybeat sound terribly old, precisely what the Beatles had done to the sound of Elvis Presley. In 1969, Led Zeppelin changed completely the importance of radio and charts. [Led Zeppelin is the first enormously successful band whose album did not get any air play on AM radio (only FM) and whose songs did not make the singles charts. The change they brought about was significant because it shifted the importance of the charts from singles to albums. -Translator’s Note] Since they used melody as a lever, the Beatles had a relatively easy time in following every shift in fashion (psychedelia included), until hard-rock – the antithesis of Beatlemania – came about. Suddenly the idol was no longer the singer but the instrument, the excitement was generated by the riff and not by the refrain, concerts were attended by multitudes of long-haired men on drugs who gathered on the street, not by hysterical teenage girls who assembled in theaters. Hard-rock negated their simple melodies. It is not by coincidence that the arrival of hard-rock marked the end of the Beatles.

With out a shadow of a doubt, the Beatles were great melodicists, but at a time when melody was considered a reductive factor. As a matter of fact their melodies marked a regression to the 50s, to the type of singer the recording industry was desperately trying to push on the audience and against whom rock sought to rebel.

The Beatles tried every fashion exported by the US: Chuck Berry’s rock and roll, the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys, the romantic melody of Tin Pan Alley, the baroque sound of Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), the rock opera Absolutely Free (Frank Zappa), the psychedelic arrangements of the Electric Prunes and the like, the hard riffs of the blues-rock jams (Cream), the synthesis of folk-rock (launched by Dylan and the Grateful Dead). Yet the audience credited these innovations – brought about by others – to the Beatles. All things considered, their success is one of the greatest paradoxes of the century. The Beatles understood virtually nothing of what was happening around them, but the success of anything they copied was guaranteed. By buying their records, one bought a shortcut to the music of those times.

The enormous influence of the Beatles was not musical. Music, especially in those days, was something else: experimental, instrumental, improvised, political. The Beatles played pop ditties until the end. The most creative rock musicians of the time played everything but pop ditties, because rock was conceived as an alternative to ditties. FM radio was created to play rock music, not pop ditties. Alternative music magazines were born to review rock music, not pop songs. Evidently, to the kids who listened to the Beatles (mostly girls attracted by their looks), rock music had nothing to say that they were willing to listen to.

They were influential, yes, but on the customs – in the strictest sense of the word. Their influence, for better or for worse, on the great phenomena of the 60s does not amount to much. Unlike Bob Dylan, they did not stir social revolts; unlike the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead they did not foster the hippie movement; unlike Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix they did not further the myth of LSD; unlike Jagger and Zappa they had no impact on the sexual revolution. Indeed the Beatles were icons of the customs that embodied the opposite: the desire to contain all that was happening. In their songs there is no Vietnam, there is no politics, there are no kids rioting in the streets, there is no sexual promiscuity, there are no drugs, there is no violence. In the world of the Beatles the social order of the 1940s and the 1950s still reigns. At best they were influential on the secret dreams of young girls, and on the haircuts of young nerdy boys.

The Beatles had the historical function to serve as champions of the reaction. Their smiles and their choruses hid the revolution: they concealed the restlessness of an underground movement ready to explode, for a bourgeoisie who wanted to hear nothing about it.

They had nothing to say and that is why they never said it.

 

 

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (5/5)

By Daniel Margrain

Dummy (1994) Portishead
Bristol’s Portishead skillfully create spectral soundscapes and desolate laments against a casual backdrop of electronic music that floats over a disorienting flow of syncopated beats – a style clearly inspired by “junk” culture, cocktail lounge and film noir. The atmosphere is disturbed by small dissonances, wailing electronics, turntable scratching and sampling.

 

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Head Over Heels (1983) Cocteau Twins
This ‘Dream Pop’ masterpiece magically blends celestial singalongs, middle-eastern psalms, majestic spirituals, tingling guitars and neoclassical keyboards. What is created is a sound that is both elegant and lush. The songs exhibit the levity and grace of madrigals but also the gloom and pomp of requiems. Liz Fraser’s emotionally powerful vocals act as an original instrument.

 

Fun House (1970) The Stooges
Iggy and The Stooges were the first to push rock and roll to the extremes and they are in a sense the ultimate antithesis of chic respectability. They are, in other words, the epitome of rock and roll in all of its grim degrading depravity and erotic delusions. Continuing on from where they left off with their seminal debut, Fun House takes their visceral rock dynamite to another level. With this album, the Stooges anticipate the wild voodoobilly ‘swamp’ rhythm as well as punk rock. This album flows at dizzying speeds of distortion without a moment’s pause.

 

The Three EPs (1998)  The Beta Band
While The Beta Band had clearly listened to a back-catalogue of artists like The United States Of America, Kevin Ayers, Can and Pink Floyd for inspiration, The Three EPs is nevertheless an inventive work in its own right. A clever combination of electronica, hip-hop, piano-led ballads, Gregorian chanting, folk and musique concrete, have resulted in a modern psychedelic work of outstanding originality. The collection is mainly built around a succession of infectious shuffling beats, experimental sound collages, gentle whimsically-inflected ballads and languid-style grooves. This album is one of the most mesmerizing psychedelic trips ever produced.

 

I Could Live In Hope (1994) Low
Low create hypnotic psalm-like minimalist music that is way ahead of its time. The languid guitar sound, soft harmonies and radiant melodies are modernist variations of the themes first coined by Nick Drake that also hints at the neurosis and tone of Cowboy Junkies, Neil Young and Galaxie 500.

 

Talking Heads: 77 (1977) Talking Heads
77 is the first of the Talking Heads opening trilogy of masterpieces. David Byrne’s eccentric songs and bizarre stories are underpinned by a brilliant rhythm section that is a hybrid of funk and rock and roll. Although the music on the album is ‘catchy’, it is only superficially so. Fundamentally, Byrne hints at an underlying anxiety that is offset by a cool detachment and alienation. 77 is arguably the most significant albums of the new wave and Talking Heads one of the most important bands of all-time.

 

Daydream Nation (1988) Sonic Youth
Arguably the signature for post-punk, Sonic Youth finely balanced an experimental approach with subtle harmonies to produce a unity of style and arrangement that is detached and cold yet beautiful and hypnotic. The noise is stretched to the limit as the obsessive repetition of chords and insistent percussion create an atmosphere of suspense similar to Neu. The bands best work is contained in this album and, with Eric’s Trip, they produced one of rock music’s all-time classic cuts.

 

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band’s most imaginative and accomplished record, Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, is a psychedelic-folk classic that integrates a wide variety of traditional music forms and instruments and was one of the key recordings that helped nurture the development of world music.

 

From Her To Eternity (1984) Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
Located at the intersection where art and life appear to coexist, Nick Cave’s psychotic neurosis expressed with this album is almost like an extension of his own funeral requiem. More to the point, Cave’s masterpiece is a highly original sounding expressionistic odyssey akin to a descent into the depths of hell. At the edge of dissonance, the albums pounding drums, sledgehammer noise and Cave’s grotesque fables are an awesome combination. The images of toiling labour, pirates aboard creaking ships and invocations of US ‘Deep South’ literary traditions, is illustrative of Cave at his visceral best. Sadly, though, many of his subsequent works lack the allegorical story-telling, dramatic brilliance and consistency of this album, and instead tended to slip into the realms of over-indulgence.

 

Yerself Is Steam (1991) Mercury Rev
Yerself Is Steam is a pyrotechnical and extravagant synthesis of anarchic freakouts in the tradition of Red Crayola which collide with contemplative new age music. What emerges is an imaginative modern psychedelic take on the 1960s acid-rock of West coast America. The vision of the album is one of chaos, decadence and neurosis.
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