Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Re-Meet The Beatles, Part 2

If it is true, as my students and I were discussing at the end of last semester, that books hit you in different ways at different times in your life--that you understand Holden Caufield as the adult creation of a teenage mind more when you are an adult or that the frustrated, disenchanted Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises seems more tragic and less a novelty to snicker about--then the same is true for music, especially popular music that has been with us as long as The Beatles have.

It is worth noting, in a detail lost to time for many of us, that the Beatles we first met were not the same Beatles they met across the pond, or at least not in the same order.  For reasons I no longer remember, the American Beatle albums were senseless scramblings of their intended British counterparts, and so, we bought records like Meet The Beatles or The Beatles '65 which mishmashed the coherence of the records I listened to on Spotify.  Indeed, less than half of my Beatle listening years have been spent with the superior British albums.

All of which serves a windy introduction to my remaining comments after a complete dose of Beatles yesterday. Context matters. But so does sound.  And so do trained ears.

As a result of playing in a haphazard band the past few years, I hear the Beatles a bit differently than I once did, particularly a bit more of the instrumentation, voice, and even recording strategy than I once would have.  Some of that is also a benefit of the remastering.

One myth easily shattered is about Ringo.  For whatever reason, it was always important for Ringo to be the least-talented, lesser, newest Beatle, both back when they started getting popular and then again when pompous rock criticism of the 70's started weighing in.  It was always said that Ringo was a lousy drummer.  In fact, I'd argue that Ringo is quite a good drummer whose parts always fit the songs.  A virtuoso?  Maybe not.  A Clarence Clemons of the drums who was told what to play rather than to create?  Perhaps.  But Ringo delivers again and again and again, regardless of the type of songscape he is dropped into.  From the propulsive drumming of "Rain" to the theme-fitting patterns of "I'm Only Sleeping" or "I'm So Tired," Ringo is right on point, never stepping out but always serving the song.

I was also surprised, in listening more carefully and completely, how important the 12- string guitar is to the Beatle sound.  Though I enjoy playing it, I've always thought it was a kind of fringe instrument that would play a restricted role.  For the Beatles, it's here, there, and everywhere as both a lead and rhythm instrument.  And maybe I understand why the Byrds are 12-string driven.

 Other than the quality of an overwhelming number of songs, I am most impressed with the vocals.  Forget Simon and Garfunkel or the Everlys or the Indigos or Emmylou and anyone--John and Paul (and sometimes George) are the great harmonists of rock and roll.  Their voices together are rich, organic, complimentary, willing to take innovative and emotional risks with their voices in ways the aforementioned don't.  I used to get the same kind feeling from listening to the original Jayhawks--road warriors whose voices blended together almost naturally.

But beyond the harmonies, just the quality, range, and versatility of John and Paul's voices--from a whisper to a scream and serious, comic, sentimental, detached, cynical, nostalgic--they are able to convey whatever they need to.

I've often wondered why there weren't a lot of leftover Beatle tracks, songs that didn't make the cut or were only half-finished, toss offs and jams.  But I suppose they didn't work that way, given the demands of those 7-8 years in the spotlight when they released 14 albums (counting the White Album as two).  They had to be focused and efficient and make everything good enough to be released.  And you can hear that, too, when you listen to all of it at once.  "Mr. Moonlight" may not be my favorite track on The Beatles For Sale, but I can't call the performance of it lackluster.  They sound like they are giving it their all.

That may also explain why so many of the songs are so thematically similar--early George tends to write about how he doesn't have enough time for all of the girls who want him, John mines the various responses to being broken-hearted or in other emotional pain, Paul works that territory plus the joys and challenges of being in love.  What is interesting to me is how many of the songs speak not to the lover, found or lost, but to some third person, perhaps the listener whom they are acutely aware is hungry for the next song.  And then, in later years, perhaps, they discover that it doesn't really matter what that next song is.  Mix in drugs and that detachment may explain the silliness of some of the later songs.

1 comment:

troutking said...

It is absolutely amazing that one band could contain TWO such talented songwriters (and later 3) and TWO such great vocalists and TWO such virtuoso instrumentalists (Paul and George, though I agree Ringo is a good drummer in his own way). What an embarassment of riches!