Friday, May 21, 2010
There are two sources I use to find out all I need to know about rock and roll music: my soul and Allmusic.com. This is what the Allmusic.com biography for the Beatles says:
So much has been said and written about the Beatles — and their story is so mythic in its sweep — that it's difficult to summarize their career without restating clichés that have already been digested by tens of millions of rock fans. To start with the obvious, they were the greatest and most influential act of the rock era, and introduced more innovations into popular music than any other rock band of the 20th century. Moreover, they were among the few artists of any discipline that were simultaneously the best at what they did and the most popular at what they did.
This quote is absolutely on point regarding writing or speaking anything about the Beatles. Like John sang in “All You Need is Love,” when it comes to the Beatles there’s nothing you can do that can’t or hasn’t been done. However, like that statement also implies, the same fact holds true for life in general. That is why when I finally decided that I had to write about the Beatles in some way on this blog, I knew I had to just jump right in and write about them headlong. Obviously, you can write about any number of the Beatles’ albums. They each contain pleasures that are revealed upon each listen; they are each enjoyable; and they each require multiple listens. The one album that has always fascinated me for its elevated mystique and stature as a cultural icon within the Beatles catalogue has been Abbey Road. Now, I know that it is nearly impossible to raise one Beatles album or song above the others in mystique or in iconic nature, but I truly believe that there is some quality about Abbey Road that does just that. It stands alone in album history – there is no other that sounds like it. It sounded simultaneously of time and out of time with the world of 1969-1970 and opened the door for the overproduction of the 1970’s when the music was placed in lesser hands. It leaves one to wonder what the Beatles would have done had they stayed together.
But first we have to begin with the album itself and you have to start with the artwork. The image of the Beatles walking across the crosswalk outside of the Abbey Road Studios has been imprinted on t-shirts, blankets and banners all across the world. Moreso than the inner artwork for The White Album, it shows the Beatles as the individuals that they were becoming. The image was interpreted as an “Italian funeral procession” and mythologized in the Beatles canon for the perceived messages regarding the supposed death of Paul McCartney towards the end of the Beatles’ time as a band. It is a clean, balanced image with a sense of depth. It is an everyday image on which the mythological and the supernatural can be imposed: that is the quality that all great works of art achieve, namely (haha!) James Joyce’s Ulysses. When I was younger, and had my initial delusions of writing a novel, I came up with a concept for a novel that would revolve around a young boy who loved a band (a fictional version of the Beatles) so much that he sought them each out individually after they had broken up in an attempt to have them reunite. The album image I used as the focal point to describe the band in the initial pages of an ill-fated draft, was a rip-off of the Abbey Road cover. That is exactly what sets Abbey Road apart; it is that element of story that the album artwork emits. The album benefits from being the last recorded album in the band’s chronology so one can see it as an end, which allows the story itself to then become fully formed. Abbey Road shows four individuals growing from boys or young men, through the guise of friendship (a band) into adult individuals. The Beatles were a cocoon that allowed each member to emerge as their individual self, fully formed and tinted with their own color and personality. Abbey Road is the point when you realize that original form is truly and utterly gone. When I describe why I enjoy the Beatles to other people, I say it is because it is the closest real life has ever come to a fairy tale; the closest real life has ever come to fitting in place. Abbey Road for its cover art and the strange wistful feeling of the music that lies within its grooves and tracks captures that wistful notion of wanting to go back to the beginning of a story; of not wanting to say goodbye to the characters; it is the end of a novel, the end of the saga, and although our characters continue on, they do not exist in the same way that we knew them. Abbey Road is what completes that image of the Beatles as a band and in turn allows the image of the band as story – the band as fairy tale.
The Beatles began, like most bands of the 60’s did, as a band that focused on singles. That is exactly what Side 1 of the album accomplishes. Each song is a snapshot of what the band meant when they were all together as a unit, as an object that they were directly seen and consumed as. “Come Together” is a classic example of John’s self-deprecating wit and word games. However, here, unlike his solo career, the groove feels slinkier rather than sparse or slick, which were the two poles his solo career veered between. And in the remastered version, the song has an overall immediate groove to the rhythm section that the original recording sorely lacked. Paul’s harmonies on the verses give the song a sonic depth that much of John’s solo work only grasped at with either heavy-handed production or excess echo (which did work in certain instances). George’s slide guitar playing would also be missed on much of John’s solo work, or, if said instrument was present, was terribly overproduced. “Something” is soulful, spiritual and universal without being too preachy as George was often wont to do when he was out on his own. Although All Things Must Pass is arguably the best solo Beatles album, and on it, George often sings very direct lyrics, he was never more direct in his message and lyricism than on this track. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” although detested by the band has a McCartney playfulness that lacks the sap that would almost surely have been featured in the final product had he gone about recording the track himself. There is something in the brief guitar bite in the chorus and the devilishness of the over innocence of the backing vocals that Paul could only accomplish as a part of The Beatles. The same sentiment goes for “Oh, Darling!” Paul came close to duplicating the effect on both “Baby I’m Amazed” and “Monkberry Moon Delight,” however each track was either too schlocky (the former) or too repetitive and nonsensical, albeit rocking (the latter). “Octopus’ Garden” features Ringo’s inspired writing to see a concept through as well as the support of the entire Beatles cast, rather than just one or two as most of Ringo’s solo albums did, which leads to its success; that and George’s excellent guitar playing, especially the catchy little guitar line at the end of his solo. John could have only successfully pulled off “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in the Beatles. If he was solo, the guitar wouldn’t be as melodic and he would have lacked the almost “round” backing vocals that help the chorus build into a steady storm that eventually will become the track’s coda. Without George and Paul (and of course Ringo) this would have been a more one-dimensional rocker that many of John’s solo albums would feature. And with the brimming confidence of the moniker the Beatles, comes the ability to cut the tape at the very end of the side.
Unlike The White Album, we do not necessarily see the Beatles as complete separate entities on Abbey Road. It has been well documented that Abbey Road was acknowledged by the Beatles as being the last album that they would record together, so perhaps that plays a great part in their taking a posture as being “a band.” The acrimony between the members was well documented by the time they reconvened to record the album and each member had his own desires of being a grown adult individual, as we all surely do when we come to a certain age. And that is where “The Medley” comes in.
Side 2 is known more or less as “The Medley.” We all know how terrific a song “Here Comes the Sun Is” and in the remastered version, its sonic power is even more evident and unstoppable than originally heard. As for “Because,” well, Paul could finally say that he really beat Brian Wilson at his own game – although it was a John song. What we really come to Side 2 for is “The Medley.” Allow me to tell a story. Last weekend, I had to leave a friend’s barbeque in Westchester in order to make it to Park Slope for another barbeque. This friend was visiting from Texas and so a bunch of us went up to his family’s home to enjoy the afternoon and the charcoal smoke. I, like I often find myself doing, helped myself to a bevy of afternoon beers. When it was time to catch the 6:52 train, I found myself jogging away from my friend’s home at 6:42 towards the train station, which was just down the hill. I ran down the hill breathing in the cool air of the May evening. Young girls, presumably without driver’s licenses, passed me, talking on the street; talking probably of what boys they liked or what tests they had or even how to score a bag of pot. I jogged and crossed a creek, pausing midway when I saw a clearing just adjacent to the creek itself, where the sunlight filtered through the trees. There was warmth, there was light and there was coolness. The shape of the space made me want to run to it, but I needed to run to the train instead, which I did. I boarded the train and as it barreled back to New York City, I sat slouched in my seat looking out the window. I was daytime drunk and feeling pleased. The light filtered through trees as I passed them rapidly. I felt a certain freshness, a sense of being alive, of how big New York City was and of how much it encompassed. How this motion of riding a Metro North train down to Grand Central Station was inherent in New York. I rode while listening to “The Medley” and its vague sense of melancholy. One does not gain very much from listening to the Beatles’ lyrics. At best, they grope at an obtuse poetry that merely aims to please. However, the Beatles succeeded so well because they could mix melody and put a phrase to it to make it sound profound, which is what “The Medley” perfectly exemplifies. “Out of college money spent/See no future, pay no rent/All the money’s gone, nowhere to go/But, oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” That sequence from “You Never Give Me Your Money” seems to have nothing to do with the song as a whole. However, it fits nicely with the melancholy of the melody. There is a wistfulness to it all, that, when riding on a train or a bus in the dimming sunlight of a late spring evening, makes you think of leaving college behind, makes you think of those green idyllic lawns of your college education and of the route you now find yourself on. What would you do to go back there? What would you give to be able to continue to leave it behind?
Further, there is the refrain of “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight/Carry that weight a long time” from “Carry that Weight.” This line obviously has no direct correlation to the rest of the medley about Polythene Pam (my favorite Beatles song) or Mean Mr. Mustard or “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” Yet, it sounds profound, because, yes, we are all going to carry a weight through our lives. That weight is usually that nostalgia to get back to that time that came before – the beginning of the story. Now, perhaps Paul didn’t mean that when he wrote these lyrics. However, there is something that strikes you as true about “once there was a way to get back home.” For some reason, there seems to be no real way to get back home and that’s what all our greatest literature and music seem to echo. Abbey Road magnifies this because of its falling into place at the end of the Beatles catalogue and makes one think of the simpler times. The Beatles as young boys before all of the music business games they had to play and their identity as cultural and global icons. “The Medley” manages to pull this effect off through its melody, which changes hue from melancholy to triumphant with “The End.” There was no better way to end an album than with each band member (I know, I know, not Ringo) taking a turn at guitar solos. That just makes sense as a swan song. Paired with Paul’s lyrics, which have since become a modern day proverb, of “And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make” and you have what is perhaps the perfect coda to a career.
So, then, that weight is not just the want to go back, it is that greater sensation that we have to love others or to love a time and to feel that love again when the weather is warm and the sunlight falls in such a way that it reminds of something within ourselves, it reminds us as Joyce once said, “of that word known to all men.” What that word is, can be interpreted in many ways, but it is that feeling that makes us feel those overarching senses of longing and melancholy and love, which a train ride, while drunk during the day can certainly make you feel. Especially as you feel stuck in between the vastness of New York, its sense of history and the impossibility of your future and some image of an idyllic past that most likely belongs to a work of fiction. This is what well-placed phrases can do when mixed with a melancholy melody.
Before I conclude, I just want to mention the Extras Special, which was in fact the finale to Ricky Gervais’ show Extras. Extras explored the notion of fame and loyalty and the decision a person or artist has to make about whether they want to be creatively viable or famous. The Extras Special is perhaps the best television I have ever seen in my life and it fits nicely into the idea of the weight that we carry. At some point, we have to decide what we actually want out of life and our creative endeavors. I have had no level of notoriety at all for my creative work, but I know different people at different levels of creative achievement in different areas of the arts and I see these crossroads rapidly approaching in different directions. How does one remain creatively viable and successful? It is nearly an impossible feat to achieve and at some point, you have to remember that pride can only be carried in bulk for a certain amount of years before you have to make room for other priorities. I don’t know if this blog will catch on with anyone or if this writing will, but I want to avoid a fate of ignorance.
This post may not be very enlightening and, to be frank, there is very often nothing enlightening about the Beatles. They simply trusted in themselves and made the smartest creative decision in the moment. When they recorded “Long, Long, Long” on The White Album there was a wine bottle on top of one of the pianos in the studio. As the piano was played during the recording, the glass of the bottle made a groaning sound, which George imitated in the song. This gives the song a better sense of longing, which makes it more powerful. Trusting coincidence and leaving yourself open to creative opportunities will create success. Will there be another Beatles? Of course not, it was a fairy tale. A mixture of timing, coincidence, talent and friendship. Those four virtues are hard to come by. However, that is not enlightening. I love the Beatles. They made the most enjoyable music I can think of, they seemed to make every smart decision possible. The Beatles were able to balance creative viability with success and that is the weight you have to carry as you grow older. Abbey Road makes you think of what the Beatles could have accomplished had they remained together as band, however the truth is that they never would have remained together. But maybe one of the reasons that we keep coming back to the album is because we like to think that perhaps there was a chance they could have. We keep coming back to Abbey Road because there is the fairy tale; there we don’t have to grow up and leave our friends and have to make decisions between success and loyalty, creative viability or economic survival; there we don’t have to take that uncertain step into adulthood and the mature (hopefully) individualism that lies there. That is the weight that we must certainly carry as we try to find that balance in our lives, while we ride on trains in dimming sunlight back and forth between cities.