Category: music

The Beatles

By Daniel Margrain

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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.

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (3/5)

By Daniel Margrain

Scott 4 (1969) Scott Walker
Scott 4, by far Scott Walker’s best album, maintained the Brel influence of his previous three, but now the themes of prostitutes, gangsters and misfits, as well as his operatic vocal style, was all his own. With arrangements that are closer to Morricone than Bacharach or Spector, Walker transcends the up-dated but essentially old fashioned easy-listening sound of the ballad, to something altogether deeper and philosophical.

 

Telepathic Surgery (1989) The Flaming Lips
The art of the Flaming Lips bridge the punk ethos and the hippie burlesque. Their exaggerated guitar surges and maniacal drumming patterns allied with stylistic collages, create an absolutely phenomenal soundscape. Abrasive crescendos crash amid roaring motorcycle engines, tingling piano motifs and thrashing cymbals. The tempo takes Neil Young’s guitar neurosis to a new level of unorthodox psychosis. This sound is taken to its extreme on Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory, probably rocks most extraordinary and monumental pieces of all-time.

 

Gallowsbird’s Bark (2003) The Fiery Furnaces
A cross between a deconstructed Rolling Stones, the ramshackle anarchy of The Holy Modal Rounders, The twisted delta blues of the Magic Band and the cabaret of Frank Zappa, The Fiery Furnaces create a multi-faceted style that has few precedents. The lead vocals of Eleonor Friedberger is from the Janis Joplin/Patti Smith shaman-preacher tradition. This album is bursting with chaotic creativity and fresh ideas.

 

Ys (2006) Joanna Newsom
This groundbreaking piece of work merges the stream of consciousness-style of Astral Weeks with the narrative melodrama of Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan. Arguably, the highlights of this extraordinary moving album are Emily, a 12 minute tour de force of brilliant free-form vocals set against a sparse orchestral soundscape, and the spellbinding finale Cosmia. This is an exceptional work of art and one of the key pieces of the new millennium.

 

May I Sing With Me (1992)  Yo La Tengo
This album is a triumph of folk-rock melody and garage-rock guitar noise which skillfully navigates a maniacal violence and a delicate contemplation. The bass that drives Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss is one of rock’s greatest moments. Yo La Tengo are one of the most important groups of the 1990s. May I Sing With Me is their best and most complete album.

 

Our Mother The Mountain (1969) Townes Van Zandt
Borrowing elements from folk, country, blues and tex-mex, Van Zandt’s music is emotionally intense. His gentle acoustic style has a unique desolate quality to it and his stories are simultaneously intimate, tender and universal. Alongside Dylan and Cohen, Townes Van Zandt is one of rocks greatest ever poets. Critical recognition of his work is long overdue. Our Mother The Mountain is a masterpiece.

 

After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967) Jefferson Airplane
Arguably one of the greatest artistic achievement of the psychedelic era, Bathing was one of the first albums to break free from the conventions of the song format and the pop arrangement. The harmonies are convoluted and the melodies complex – both of which are underscored by superb all-round musicianship. The highlights are the instrumental Spare Chaynge which takes you on an embryonic journey, and the ambitious ‘Ulysses’-inspired Rejoyce in which Grace Slick’s majestic vocals overlay a quite brilliant haunting musicality. This album is an example of a group of exceptional individual talents at the peak of their creative powers working in unison. Baxters is a music for the mind of the mind.

 

Suicide (1977) Suicide
This masterpiece conjures up a sonic intensity of stark minimalism that is breathtakingly original and highly influential. With this seminal album, Alan Vega and Martin Rev perfected a sinister rockabilly. The centrepiece of the album is Frankie Teardrop, the ultimate nightmare, a kind of hyper-sinister Sister Ray for the punk generation. This is arguably the most daring and maniacal ten minutes of sustained drama and tension ever translated to rock music. Vega’s final refrain, “We are all Frankie’s lying in hell” is genuinely disturbing.

 

Rickie Lee Jones (1979) Rickie Lee Jones
Arguably the greatest female singer-songwriter album of all-time, Rickie Lee Jones’ erudite depictions of moral decay and alienation within the US urban metropolis resonates with the work of Tom Waits. This is an album that fluctuates between the physical and spiritual as Jones intelligently and emotionally navigates a space which seems to bridge the visionary with the romantic in a way that has probably only ever been matched within the singer-songwriter genre by Joni Mitchell.

 

Paris, Texas (1985) Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder’s slide-guitar work that’s the foundation for the soundscape Paris, Texas is based on Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground). Cooder’s brilliantly arranged and composed theme that formed the soundtrack to the film of the same name, is a haunting and atmospheric piece that reconstitutes definitive eras and styles. The result is a work of profound metaphysical and existential beauty. In the words of one critic“Cooder has a unique talent to internalize the ethnic traditions of other peoples, to turn them into a universal voice discharged through sophisticated arrangements but, to synthesize nostalgic regret and scientific philology. The stamp is his job.”

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (2/5)

By Daniel Margrain

In The Court of The Crimson King (1969) King Crimson
King Crimson’s seminal debut heralded the progressive-rock movement. What set King Crimson apart from many of their contemporaries were the psychedelic overtones, the medieval visions, the Gothic atmosphere and the romantic pathos in their music, particularly in both the title-track and Epitaph. One of the best tracks, if slightly out of place, is 21st Century Schizoid Man’– a brilliant, neurosis-charged distorted jam.

 

Underwater Moonlight (1980) The Soft Boys
The sound of Underwater Moonlight is similar to the work of U.S New Wave band, Television and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. The band manage to merge the influences of the former and the psychedelic whimsy of the latter with the discordant fragmented blues of Captain Beefheart and the catchy power-pop of the Kinks and the Who. The end result is a distinctive and accomplished post-modern psychedelia that set in motion the psychedelic revival of the 1980s. Robyn Hitchcock is one of the most important British artists in rock history.

 

Exile On Main Street (1972) The Rolling Stones
Exile On Main Street is the Stones masterpiece – representing their coming of age, musically and artistically. The playing is absolutely top notch throughout – at times restrained and understated, whilst at others forceful and aggressive. This album represents the sound of the era’s greatest rock and roll band at the top of its game. Beggar’s Banquet is a close second, but Exile is the Stones at their brilliant all-round decadent best.

 

If Only I Could Remember My Name (1971) David Crosby
This beautifully crafted classic is a spiritual meditation that evokes a memory of a place lost in the mists of time. The atmosphere conveyed is one of sadness – a kind of dreamy lament which is overlayed by a philosophical resignation and existentialism. This is a work that is a tonal and harmonic baroque masterpiece that defines the post-hippie era of disenchantment in which it emerged.

 

The Band (1969) The Band
The Band is the groups masterpiece. It is a superbly arranged and exquisitely played piece of music – a mature and beautifully varied, dense and understated work that chugs to a syncopated rhythm. In many ways, Whispering Pines, the albums centrepiece, is a work of immense beauty.

 

Faust (1971) Faust
Faust is vaguely reminiscent of aspects of Zappa-style collage allied to the psychedelia of Red Crayola and prog-rock. Nevertheless, the album has a unique musical language and atmosphere. It is an audacious attempt at fusing expressionism, surrealism, theatre of the absurd, Brecht/Weill’s cabaret, Wagner melodrama and musique concrete to rock music. On the surface, the sound appears incoherent and ‘ugly’. It’s only upon repeated listens that the recording starts to make sense in its totality, akin to the solving of a cryptic puzzle. It’s not an easily accessible listen for the untrained ear. However, its appeal is one that tends to grow over time. Faust is a beautifully demented, fun and ultimately moving creation.

 

The United States of America (1968) The United States of America
United States Of America is one of the most audacious and inventive albums in the history of rock. It manages to successfully straddle the fine line between parody, cabaret, electronic and psychedelic experimentation. The musical montages are brilliant. The album sounds like it’s from the future while paradoxically remaining an atypical expression of both time and place.

 

 

Spirit To Eden (1988) Talk Talk
Spirit Of Eden is a stunning piece of advanced electronic and celestial free-jazz and rock in the tradition of Canterbury. This astounding achievement is the reference point for the far inferior and overrated ‘slo-core’ band, Radiohead.

 

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) Bob Dylan
For a contemporary audience approaching Dylan for the first time, it is perhaps easy to underestimate the dramatic impact this album made on the cultural landscape of the period. Although Dylan’s phrasing and vocal inflections are very much an acquired taste, the solemness he expresses and his bohemian cynical humour was the template that was adopted by a succession of future generations of musicians. In this regard, Dylan was arguably the first to bring a ‘punk’ persona and attitude to the fore. Moreover, with the epic Desolation Row, he was the first to use rich poetic imagery within the song format. And, with Like A Rolling Stone, he set the template for folk-rock.

 

Shooting At The Moon (1970) Kevin Ayers
Kevin Ayers produced two quirky and eccentric masterpieces  – Joy Of A Toy’ his debut, and the follow-up Shooting At The Moon. Although both albums were in the innocent and playful tradition of Syd Barrett, it was the latter that stamped his claim as one of the greatest and most original British artists of all-time. Themes of existential melancholy, humour and nostalgia that emphasize Parisian decadence and eastern exotica, overlay an enchanting and often unsettling psychedelic underbelly emphasized by Ayer’s use of accordian, clarinet, strings and percussion.

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (1/5)

By Daniel Margrain

TNT (1998)  Tortoise
Musically and technically as clinically executed as anything produced by the German masters, Can, Tortoise add a modern twist to the classical minimalist/jazz & prog-Canterbury genres. Despite the albums fusing of a multitude of influences – Miles Davis, Soft Machine, Steve Reich, Ennio Morricone – there is enough rhythmic experimentation by way of funk, dub and even Caribbean timbres that give the music on this record a wonderfully flowing and distinct richness.

 

We’re Only In It For The Money (1968) The Mother’s Of Invention
This visionary work (alongside Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground), virtually invented what was to become the punk aesthetic. Frank Zappa’s cynicism and cutting wit is evident throughout the album. This, the third masterpiece of his psychedelic trilogy, is similar in structure to his first two, but this is possibly his most accomplished. Here he uses the collage of parody with added brilliant technical expertise. The album is the musical equivalent of a Burroughs novel – each cut-and paste piece while seemingly fragmented, are in fact welded into a seamless narrative continuity.

 

Have A Marijuana (1969) David Peel
David Peel’s contribution to the counter-culture of the 1960s is a significant but under-recognized one. The punk aesthetics of the late 1970s can probably be traced back to the ramshackle street busking-style approach of Peel and his fellow travelling minstrels who utilize folk agit-prop and Fugs-style satire to comment on the social issues of their day. There is a wonderful organic sense of authenticity, albeit simplicity, in Peel’s art. His lyrics are deceptively clever, the spartan hillbilly hoedown nature of the music, story-telling and comedy skits fresh, and his the use of the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, an innovation. Politically and socially, the contemporary occupy movement can arguably be traced back to Peel’s street “happenings”.

 

Incunabula (1993) Autechre
With Incunabula, the Manchester duo Autechre created a distinctive form of postmodern electronic music that was a far more organically sophisticated and carefully calibrated version of the standard techno/chill-out music of the period. The duos rhythms are akin to an intricate and meticulous ‘design in sound’ that skilfully bridge a number of related genres. These include synth-pop, Indian classical music, minimalism, ambient music, the electronic pop sensibilities of Kraftwerk and the transcendental psychedelic explorations of Tangerine Dream.

 

Pink Moon (1972) Nick Drake
Unlike Drake’s previous two releases, the style of Pink Moon is stark, minimal and radical. The album appears to be the result of an increased existential anguish. Drake’s stories are desolate and anchored in refrains of solitude and obsession. The album – a sleight collection of deeply personal songs – consists of a chilling but deeply moving combination of surreal rhymes and apocalyptic ballads. Drake’s songwriting is highly influential and his supreme soft and melancholic style of delivery has a universal and timeless quality to it. Pink Moon is Drake’s masterpiece.

 

The Marble Index (1968)  Nico
This masterpiece was the album that introduced Nico’s unique art to the world. There is no precedent for the chanteuse’s icy gothic, medieval and neo-classical aesthetics – eerie and doom-laden but no less beautiful for that. This is a stunningly original, timeless and erudite work of art that surpasses commercial considerations. As John Cale put it in the liner notes to the record: “The Marble Index is an artefact, not a commodity.”

 

Bufo Alvarius, Amen (1995) Bardo Pond
One of the most musically accomplished bands of their time (and of any time), Bardo Pond produced this brilliant album that comprises a maelstrom of guitar distortions and manic drumming underscored by repetitively brutal, cosmic and supersonic drones. The overall soundscape is one that merges the experimental post-rock of say, Sonic Youth, the acid jam of Grateful Dead, the electrifying powerhouse blues of the Stooges and the serene shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine. This is one of the key albums of the 1990s – it’s reputation grows with the passage of time.

 

Mirror Man (1971) Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
Mirror Man showcases The Magic Band at it’s most deliberately shambolic and free. Long ‘live’ primordial rambling jams extend the notion of the Blues standard to its limits. Structurally, Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) and his band game-play in the Delta-Blues tradition adding satirical and infantile elements over a creative carpet of complex rhythms and free Blues arrangements. The result is an extraordinary work of pyrotechnical brilliance. With its combination of a bedlam of guitars and tribal percussion, Mirror Man was the first rock album to shape an aesthetic of ‘anti-music’. Beefheart’s revolutionary artistic vision transcends the superficiality of the acid trip by servicing it to the musical theatre of the absurd. As one critic put it:“This music is the most faithful expression of the Freak culture, of its marginalization more than its rebellion, of its inexhaustible creativity, of its academic disgust, of its infantile ferocity of its desecrating vision of the world”

 

Tonight’s The Night (1975) Neil Young
Tonight’s The Night is a solemn meditation on the pessimism of the 1970s that emerged from the idealism of the 1960s. This is a record of immense, but at the same time, subtle beauty borne out of loss and redemption. The warmth, humour and overriding sense of raw humanity and vulnerability depicted by Young’s rich lyricism, quirky vocals and the all-round brilliant but understated musicianship, touches the deep recesses of the psyche in a very profound way. This is arguably Neil Young’s most solidly consistent work from his most creatively fertile ‘Ditch trilogy’ period. This is a recording that will refuse to date because both the themes, raw poetic beauty of the lyrics and the quality of the musicianship are timeless.

 

Astral Weeks (1968) Van Morrison
Recorded over the space of 12 hours, Astral Weeks is a beautifully unifying and ultimately brave work of art that merges jazz-rock elements, poetry and Morrison’s unique stream of consciousness vocal delivery. This, more than any other, is the album that I have been most drawn to over the last 37 years, having first listened to it as a 15 year old in 1977 when most of my friends were obsessing over the contemporary bands of the new wave. The sheer beauty of the music, and the timeless vivid imagery conjured up by the lyrics, are unmatched in the history of rock music. This album, probably more than any other, has been the soundtrack to my life.

The Velvet Underground & Nico

By Daniel Margrain

The music and the synthesis of ideas that the Velvet Underground represented broke new ground in the 1960s. The group didn’t produce ‘songs’ that were indicative of popular music of the time but rather they were Freudian expressions of a lust for deviant but seductive behaviour; they were exotic, decadent and perverse fantasies.

This was allied to a form of hyper-urban realism that emerged from a combination of traditions – Pop artGerman ExpressionismFrench Existentialism and La Monte Young’s Minimilism. The group were about as far apart from their contemporaries as British Music Hall is to American Hardcore.

The groups debut, their supreme masterpiece, The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967)Velvet Underground and Nico.jpg, was recorded in two days in the spring of 1966 and released in January of the following year. Andy Warhol produced the album, managed the group and created the now iconic banana album cover artwork.

Lou Reed composed the melodies, wrote the lyrics and ‘drone strummed’ his rhythm guitar. John Cale arranged the sound and created the avant-garde atmospheres with his innovative use of a viola and keyboards interspersed with his bass playing. Maureen Tucker played the drums with an obsessive and frenzied, yet exotic, tribal repetitiveness and Stirling Morrison’s rhythm and blues or country-influenced guitar playing kept the sound grounded in the style of The Byrds.

All of this was embellished by the icy vocals of Nico who sang lead on three of the album’s tracks – the cold, spectral, autumnal odes of Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow’s Parties, I’ll Be Your Mirror – and back-up on Sunday Morning, all of them masterpieces.

But the songs Nico had no part in are equally, if not more mesmerizing – in particular, Black Angel’s Death Song, the percussive boogie of Waiting For My Man, the orgasmic chaos of Heroin, and the dissonant tribalism of European Son. If I had to pick a standout, it would be the Indian raga-imbued and decadent Venus In Furs which, in my view, is one of the masterpieces of all rock. Judge for yourselves:

But to single out one track for praise on an album where there is no weak link, is to do the album an injustice. The truth is, each individual piece on the album is a masterpiece in its own right culminating in a work that transcends the sum of its individual parts. All of the songs are immersed in an atmosphere that’s dark and oppressive but beguiling, epic and cool. It’s an album that fuses music and words in a manner that perfectly captures the tension of modernist metropolitan reality in all of its dark and decadent secrets. This manifests, as one critic puts it:

in sexual fetishes and cathartic sadism, in latent orgasms and unnerving noises;and in the living contrast between the urban ways of Reed and the patrician ways of Nico, between Berlin in the 30s and the 60s in New York, between the subculture of crisis and that of the apocalypse. The seduction of the album is derived not only from the quantity of ideas in it, but from the fusion of so many strong artistic personalities, all directed by Lou Reed, who functions as catalyst.”

The overriding feeling one gets after listening to this album is of a group who set out to produce a creative work of art as opposed to a commercial product. In these less enlightening times, that’s a legacy worth preserving. Arguably, punk aesthetics, alternative art rock and indie rock were born the moment the Velvet Underground walked into a recording studio. The influence of the Velvet’s debut can be heard in almost everything interesting that followed – from the new wave movement of the late 1970s through to the post-punk and shoegazing movements of the 1980s and 1990s.

Emerging from the UK indie scene generation of this latter period were the bands signed to the seminal Postcard record label, many of whom would not have started a band if it were not for this album. That’s an illustration of how significant The Velvet Underground And Nico was to my generation. But this is not only true of my generation but subsequent generations. It was Brian Eno who famously stated that while The Velvet Underground & Nico initially only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

 

Neil Young: Contrarian & genius

By Daniel Margrain
Photo (c) Joel Bernstein 1970.Rarely seen original uncropped photo of the front cover of Neil Young’s classic album, After The Gold Rush sent to PopSpots from Joel Bernstein – which includes Graham Nash.

Emerging from the idealism of the 1960s, Neil Young’s 1975 solemn and meditative masterpiece, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is a work of immense, but at the same time, subtle beauty borne out of a sense of loss and redemption. The warmth, humour and overriding sense of raw humanity and vulnerability depicted by Young’s rich lyricism, crackling vocals and the all-round brilliant but understated musicianship, touches the deep recesses of the psyche in a very profound way. This is arguably Neil Young’s most solidly consistent and most timeless work from his most creatively fertile period.

This is not to say that for every Tonight’s The Night or Rust Never Sleeps there are not an equal amount of duds among his prolific body of work. Nevertheless, the sheer quantity of brilliant songs that he has crafted over a fifty year period welded to his astounding musicianship and incredible insights and intuitions, means that Neil Young ranks among the greatest and most influential of singer-songwriters and artists in all of rock. Certainly, in my view, Neil can be added to an esteemed list that includes Bob Dylan, Lou Reed & the Velvet’s, The Doors, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Roxy Music, Kevin Ayers and Pink Floyd.

In my opinion, rarely do journalists and critics satisfactorily capture the essence of Neil Young’s art in all its contrarian complexity. 

Aliens land. They’ve traveled from some distant planet with a specific mission: to find out what this ‘rock and roll’ stuff is all about. Through some curious coincidence, they find you. “What is rock and roll?” they demand, rayguns drawn. You begin to sweat. Still, there is really only one question you need to ask yourself:

“Which Neil Young album do I play them first?”

This is no hyperbole; Neil Young is the personification of rock and roll in human form. From his humble beginnings as a surf rocker in the Squires to his tenure in Hall Of Fame acts Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to his most recent blitzkrieg Psychedelic Pill, Neil has spent a career as the embodiment of artistry despite fierce resistance. This iron-willed devotion to the Muse has not come without a price, however: While Neil’s successes have mostly flown in the face of prevailing music biz wisdom, his uncompromising nature has earned him almost as many failures, failures that should have sunk him several times over. His unpredictability and star-chamber business practices have often made him a pariah; his impulsive spirit and mood swings would frequently estrange his fellow musicians and most ardent supporters. Even more than Dylan, Neil Young has made a career of being consistently inconsistent.

As an architect of what we now consider ‘underground music’ there is no peer: For every Great Indie Moment of the past thirty years, there is a Neil Young song correlative. Wanna hear ground zero for Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs? See “Journey Through The Past.” The raw-nerve humanity in the songs of Jason Molina? Check out “On The Beach.” The primary influence on J Mascis’s wild, feedback-laden guitar playing, or his reedy, cracked vocal style? That’d be “Cortez The Killer” and “Mellow My Mind,” respectively. Alt country? “Harvest.” I could do this all day. Of course, it works both ways: Neil Young’s decision to release 1991’s Arc, a 35-minute collage of feedback and noise, seems directly inspired by his run-ins with Sonic Youth, while the Pearl Jam-assisted Mirror Ball would find the newly-sired Godfather Of Grunge an awestruck but reluctant don of the alternative rock revolution.

Neil Young has never lent his music to a commercial. He was the Canadian hippie that publicly supported Reagan (despite the fact that he was not eligible to vote), only to record an entire album arguing for the impeachment of George W. Bush. He vainly made movies that made Cocksucker Blues look like Double Indemnity. His autobiography depicts a man more interested in model trains, vintage cars, and cutting-edge technology than his legacy as a rock star, which seems to bore and trouble him.

This, at least, is consistent: As early as 1966, the reluctant star penned “Out Of My Mind” for Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, a song containing the lyrics “All I hear are screams/ from outside the limousines/ that are taking me out of my mind.” He introduced himself to the world with songs about epileptic seizures, tormented small-town girls, and the rent that always seems to be due. His peers may have been enjoying the nectar of flower power, but Neil’s acute perception allowed him to see the darkness just below the surface.

It is easy to view Neil as a cranky contrarian who takes his gifts and fortunes for granted, but this is an oversimplification. It is equally tempting to define him alongside similarly protean artists from Bowie to Gaga, but this, too, is specious. The genre experiments of other artists often indicate an identity crisis, or an attempt to recreate oneself in the hopes of appealing to increasingly fickle market forces. It could be argued that Neil’s shape-shifting is motivated by the exact opposite reasons: trends, expectations, and market forces be damned, he doesn’t feel like making another country-rock record right now. Whether his imagination leads him to Greendale or to Goldrush, it’s all the same to Neil Young. This is why even his most seemingly impersonal, comically overambitious leaps of faith contain, at their core, an honesty — a humanity.

His music may be frequently peevish and outwardly rebellious, but at heart, Neil’s a moralist. His fierce loyalty to talented-but-toxic characters like Bruce Palmer, Rusty Kershaw and Danny Whitten is an example of a probity that undermines a reputation for hardness. Other examples can be found within the songs themselves, full of lessons: Sooner or later it all gets real. Only love can break your heart. Don’t be denied. Don’t wait till the break of day. Time fades away. I feel I must disclose that Neil Young has created some of the most important music of my life. A tattoo on my right wrist reads ‘WWNYD,’ elevating Neil to the status of Jesus Christ, and a promotional poster of Neil at Massey Hall hangs over my writing desk. In some ways, this makes me both the best and worst person for the job of ranking Neil’s albums; I am, and shall always be, a Neil Young apologist. 

Piero Scaruffi wrote this insightful analysis about Neil:

Perhaps no other artist in the history of rock music has produced so many distinguished works in so many different styles and over so many years as Neil Young. The spectral landscape of Last Trip To Tulsa, off his debut album, Neil Young (1968) Introduced a minstrel lost in an unexplored moral universe. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) elaborated on that theme and achieved a formidable synthesis of “voices “in stately, extended, psychedelic, hard-folk ballads such as Cowgirl In The Sand and Down By The River.

The mellow and melodic folk-rock and country-rock of After The Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972) lent musical credibility to the apocalyptic angst of Tonight’s the Night (1975), recorded in 1973 and On The Beach (1974). The former, perhaps his masterpiece, was the ultimate testament of the post-hippy depression, an elegiac concept that sounded like a mass for the dead. The electrifying lyricism of Zuma (1975) and Like A Hurricane (1977), the anthemic hysteria of Rust Never Sleeps (1979), the company fresh collapsing values ​​of Freedom (1989) and the obscure meditation of Sleeps With Angels (1994) continued his life-long moral crusade.

Neil Young constitutes with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen the great triad of “moral” voices of American popular music. As is the case with the other two, Young’s art is, first and foremost, a fusion of music and words that identifies with his era’s zeitgeist. Unlike the others, though, Young is unique in targeting the inner chaos of the individual that followed the outer chaos of society [My emphasis]. While Dylan “transfers” his era’s events into a metaphysical universe, and Springsteen relates the epic sense of ordinary life, Young carries out through more complex psychological operations that, basically, bridges the idealism of the hippy communes and the neuroses of the urban population.

His voice, lyrics, melodies and his guitar style, compose a message of suffering and redemption that, at its best, transcends in hallucination, mystical vision, philosophical enlightenment, while still grounded in a context that is fundamentally a hell on earth [My emphasis]. The various aspects of Young’s career (the bucolic folk-singer, the liberal militant, the post-hippie moralist, the apocalyptic guru, the universal pessimist, the melancholy loner, the alienated rocker) are merely stages of a long calvary, which is both individual and collective. Young did to the lyrical song what Dylan did to the protest song. Just like Dylan wed the emphasis of Whitman’s poetry and the optimism of Kennedy’s era with the themes of public life, Young wed Emerson’s humanism and the pessimism of the post Kennedy era with the themes of private life.

On top of this, Young invented the distorted, cacophonous, nightmarish style of guitar playing that would influence the grunge generation. Young’s angst is unique in his schizophrenia, which runs at several levels. First and foremost, one has to deal with the live / studio dichotomy of his career.

Charged with the sonic equivalent of a nuclear reaction, the “live” Young albums seem to come from a different artist, a musical terrorist, a true punk. Within the studio albums, one has to deal with another dichotomy: the pretty, linear, smooth country-inspired ballad, and the ugly, noisy, acid-inspired jam. These two modes rarely coexist: they alternate, they compete for control of Young’s career (and mind?), Each studio album being dominated by either of the two.