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Posts Tagged ‘Sixties Music’

BOOK REVIEW — BEATLES BOOK: Can’t Buy Me Love

In celebrity, literature, music on August 1, 2009 at 12:54 am

Can’t Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould (Piatkus, 2007) is one of those religious books about the Beatles that starts from a standpoint of unquestioning admiration for the Liverpool pop group and ends in total devotion, as in devout worship of a single entity, monotheism. And they were a single entity, as proven by their desultory solo careers in the post-Beatle era, when none of them could foot it for creativity and cohesive output without Brian Epstein to push them along and producer/arranger George Martin to fill in the many gaps in their songs and make each one into a finished product.

In this 400-page love letter to an act, nay, an industry easy to endorse — Didn’t they sell the most records? — Gould doesn’t let tweaking of facts and half-truths stand in the way of a good myth that rates in commercial potency with Harrypottermania and Lord of the Rings, and matches them too in fictional blarney. My question is, Why even bother to write such a book when the Beatle legend has already been so insidiously planted and firmly cemented in people’s minds over the past forty years as the be-all-and-end-all of the Sixties?

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

Gould’s total lack of imagination or enterprise in even choosing a relevant title — after all, he doesn’t spend much time covering the Beatles’ Hamburg sojourn when the Beatles did buy themselves ‘love’ from the Reeperbahn prostitutes — reminds me of the pathetic titles chosen by Television New Zealand whenever it wanted to screen a retrospective on the Sixties in general: All You Need is Love, Hello — Goodbye … All done because everyone knows a Beatle title will sell more product.

Among the many fictitious assertions made by Gould in a superficial book are several I have selected in relation to the Beach Boys, the acknowledged Sixties mainstream rivals to the Beatles. I explore these since the American group is one I have studied in depth: see my book Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music.

Assertion 1) — “Brian Wilson accounted for nine tenths of the talent of the Beach Boys”–Gould contrasting them with the supposedly uniformly, mega-talented Beatles.

This is bizarre. Has Gould heard nothing of the immense composing, producing and blues-singing talent of Dennis Wilson? The singing, composing and producing of Carl Wilson? The culturally-relevant lyric-writing and universally-admired bass voice of Mike Love? Al Jardine had measurably more creative and performing talent than Ringo, whose ‘singing’ of lead vocals has been a politely overlooked though glaring debit in the Beatles column.

Assertion 2) — Brian Wilson’s voice wasn’t in the same class as Paul McCartney’s.

McCartney was adept at imitating a rock’n’roll screech — as taught to him by Little Richard. He had a sweet but bland voice on ballads. As for expressiveness and purity, and genuine versatility in turning his voice to any mood, Wilson takes the nod hands down.

Assertion 3) — Brian Wilson’s songs were characterised by “cloying sentimentality.”

Gould doesn’t know the difference between pure emotion expressed in music, in which Brian Wilson is surpassed by no one in mainstream music, and the Beatles’ cloyingly sentimental ‘luv’ cliches regurgitated from Music Hall. McCartney cites his father, a music hall musician, as his major formative influence.

and maybe the most ludicrous statement of all:

Assertion 4) — By 1966 the Beach Boys’ level of production, arrangements and group singing had almost caught up with “the innovations of the Beatles.”

This one sentence contains at least five blatant untruths that I can name and refute:

a) The Beach Boys produced their own recordings from early 1962 on — therefore were ahead of the Beatles in production from the start. This was readily apparent by the time of Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl and Be True to Your School/In My Room in 1963 and became bleedin’ obvious the following year with I Get Around/Don’t Worry Baby and Little Honda/Wendy. According to the people who recorded the Beatles, including George Martin and Norman Smith, the Beatles continually clamored for the recording technicians to get more of an American sound, i.e. similar to the Beach Boys, Motown, etc–not the other way round. b) The Beatles didn’t produce their records — George Martin did. According to Parlophone/EMI recording engineer Norman “Hurricane” Smith the Beatles barely listened to their own recordings — didn’t even wear earphones in the recording booth. c) The Beatles didn’t arrange their songs — George Martin did, and according to Martin they knew almost nothing about non-rock’n’roll instruments. d) This is laughable. When did the Beatles ever dare to expose their ‘group singing’ via a-cappella? — as the Beach Boys did on occasions from the start. e) What innovations did the Beatles themselves introduce, except watering down rock’n’roll, country music, Eurocafe ballads, etc, etc, and turning around the rock direction of Motown, Atlantic, Vee-Jay, Philles, the Beach Boys, to bring back songs from musicals like ‘Til There Was You’, ‘A Taste of Honey’.? By the end of 1966 their music was more and more electronic, deserted by George Martin to leave a novice electronics wiz in charge of their recording.

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ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: “WE LOVE YOU BEATLES, OH YES WE DO!”

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music on February 9, 2008 at 6:16 am

Excerpt #1 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books (April 26th 2008)


The Fab Four, mops flourishing by mid 1964

The Fab Four, mops flourishing by mid 1964

To be caught up in Beatlemania ’64 was something as exciting as it was indescribable. Imagine Irish music, Riverdance and leprechaun outfits taking over the world—held aloft for everyone else to aspire to: a crude but apt comparison. The Beatle phenomenon has been uncritically celebrated long past the point of drop-dead kicking-the-corpse boredom, so to this day no one has been able to say convincingly what their music had to do with it. But you had to be there—the pop culture ‘happening’ of the mid-Sixties. It was experienced so deeply by many youths it seemed all that was needed to fix the world was immersion in Beatledom so everything would turn “fab”. Harrypottermania is the only phenomenon to compare with it today.

Tony Barrow, rock journalist and Beatle publicist: “The whole thing changed. The balance of power fell from an average age of 40 to 25 overnight.”

Derek Taylor, Beatle and later Beach Boy publicist: “We saw them in that sense [of being saviors]. People saw them as being some sort of answer to the miseries of the world or in our own little lives. They were the four-headed Santa Claus.”

Astrid Kirchherr, designer of the Beatlehair: “My heart just opens up with pride and joy to know I was so lucky to get to know these wonderful people who deserved all this fame and fortune.”

Astrid Kirchherr: “You could tell Paul really hated [Stuart]” (Salewicz).

Murray Kaufman (Murray the ‘K’), star DJ and self-proclaimed Fifth Beatle: “To this day when you hear [other superstars] you know it. With every album The Beatles gave us a 180-degree change. A completely different change, a different sound, a different attitude. They kept changing with us. The Beatles inspired a lot of the political and social revolution that took place, because from a subliminal standpoint The Beatles represented change. We saw the Beatles change right in front of our eyes.”

This habit of the Beatles being diverted every six months sounds alarmingly like a description of one of the Sixties’ most charming and persuasive fakers, Andrew Loog Oldham, by his friend John Douglas: “… a dilettante: though he’d got natural ability, he didn’t stick long with things, because there was always something new to have a crack at.”

George Martin, who produced all the Beatle records: “In my book The Beatles were the greatest performers and writers ever… They were never satisfied with sticking to one style, one format, one sound… I think I was part of a five-piece group… My particular specialty in the beginning was introductions, endings and solos. The rest of the song was theirs. Later on it [was] the addition of things they hadn’t thought of—all the backward guitar stuff and that kind of thing.”—Excerpts from Pritchard & Lysaght’s The Beatles: an Oral History (1998).

Note that Martin’s “specialty” was composing beginnings, endings and middles of Beatle songs?! “The rest of the song was theirs”, he adds amusingly. For Martin it all came down to how well crafted the song and the variety of ways they were presented. For Murray the K, how mutable the sound and attitude. Changeability was the common theme. So they might rate above Gilbert & Sullivan in adventurousness but below genuine artists in not having a recognisable style. Picasso changing his Blue Period and succeeding phases every four to six months?—the interval between Beatle albums. Novelty, and reading constantly changing trends— Murray the K: “They kept changing with us””—was their real stock in trade.

These four Liverpool lads of Irish descent had no small touch of the blarney in their blood: the pixieish wit; the crude, crying-into-your-beer sentiment and, encouraged by Dylan, self-pitying bitterness in layers; and Celtic “animal magnetism”—as ascribed by Brian Wilson to the Britons in general. If the Irish kissed the Blarney Stone for luck the Beatles and their minders must have ravished it full-frontal. Ritualistic mystique was all there staged in the Beatles—the Parisian styled hair, the Gallic cut suits, the Beatle bow in unison from the waist. Even Paul’s intriguing German-made ‘violin’ bass guitar, like no other. Was he dead?—Only true initiates could read the signs. It all assumed titanic significance, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter overlapping into real life.

Clean-cut American Beach Boys as they looked on the arrival of the Beatles, February 1964: didn't stand a chance

Clean-cut American Beach Boys as they looked on the arrival of the Beatles, February 1964: didn't stand a chance

They had charm by the bucketful; presence—not the smarm or vacuous additood that passes for it today and is glibly called charisma. To immune observers they were interchangeable mop-tops, but fans knew better: John, the defiant leader with a loose chip on his shoulder, standing at the mike bowlegged gunslinger style; Paul, the smooth, fun-loving pretty boy and the most versatile musically, popping out melodies literally in his sleep—but called “the shrewdest and the toughest” by a teacher who knew them both; George, “the Dark Horse”—only fragments showing above surface, the most “vociferous” at the first meeting with George Martin and the most business minded, but passive-aggressive because dominated by his senior partners, overlooked until his death prompted a gushing media, when his palatial estate showed he had just as massive an ego; Ringo, contributing his personality on drums and off, the best actor in films—seemingly earthbound, living off a suitcase of baked beans on a spiritual exploration of India (the others ate theirs in the studio, scooped from silver service). Starting with no higher ambition than to open a hairdressing salon once the Beatles had struck modest success, ironically he was probably the most spiritual one through his childhood illnesses. But he was painted goofy. Girls liked to mother him for his melancholy. Later, with his head shorn, on his unshaven days he bore an unfortunate resemblance to Yasser Arafat.

At the start they were so… fluffy—and so saleable. While little girls wanted them as cuddly toys who walked, talked, peed and sang, mature females too fantasized about cuddling up to one or other of them. It wasn’t that the marketing strategy was inspired— just that everyone jumped on the bandwagon at once creating an unstoppable momentum, the more venal devotees grabbing fortunes hand over fist. The worldwide money-go-round was carved up continent by continent by seriously monied men, who made Elvis’s Colonel Tom Parker look like a nickel-and-dime grifter. There were Beatle suits and ties, Beatle shoes, Beatle wigs, even Beatle guitars and drum kits. On their first trip to the US, from their tiny cut of the money generated by their own image the group made more from Beatle bubblegum than from performances.

Despite their “Luv, Luv, Luv” mantra, nasty personal politics emerged in breakup as all burst into song unflattering to all—tit for tat attacks in unbounded superstar self-indulgence, abusing their exalted position to demean their art form. Yet because the group died violently in its prime (and resisted all pleas for a rebirth) the Princess Diana Effect mummifies a far-fetched pristine image. There is no question of speaking ill of their legacy, and an objective reappraisal of their value will wait till all media contemporaries in their thrall have retired from the airwaves.

While the Beatles weren’t responsible for every loopy gesture of fandom a finger points at them for hyping it: shaking their hair got their biggest audience reaction, not playing a favorite song—all of their songs were favored. The fans were screaming too loud to care how the music sounded, or if it sounded at all, so that the group at times stopped singing (or substituted bawdy rhymes) unnoticed. Their unbounded, unconditional success has a lot to answer for in foisting a travesty on the musical world, preventing a genuinely new course for modern popular music. They could be accused of corrupting rock in their own way as much as the tame Elvis-lookalikes they allegedly saved rock’n’roll from.

AS AMERICAN POPSTERS PROTESTED AT THE TIME, the Beatles—first called “the English Everly Bros” though Phil & Don weren't thrilled about it—were offering little that Stateside acts hadn't, musically; they had once even called themselves the Four Everlys. Their records were unsophisticated, producer George Martin having no experience in rock, coming from the show tradition of the Goons (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan & Harry Secombe), forerunners of Monty Python. Sound engineer “Hurricane” Smith had to work with primitive UK studio equipment. So it is no wonder to the ears of American industry professionals ‘Please Please Me’ sounded like the Country Pop of the real Everlys. In fact it is very much like ‘That's Old Fashioned’ (1962)—so, an attractive recording but obviously nothing new.

English record producer and former rock journo Charlie Gillett: “For a while in the mid-Sixties, to be an American producer in Britain was to be in a distinct category, as Americans were recognized to have more adventurous production styles [and] played an important part in educating our engineers in American production techniques.” Yanks in the UK included Jimmy Miller helming the Rolling Stones and Spencer Davis Group, Shel Talmy the Kinks and The Who, Bert Berns (a.k.a. Russell) of Don Kirshner/Brill Building pop producing recordings for Them and Lulu, Felix Pappalardi for Cream, and Phil Spector, eventually, for the Beatles themselves. Yet Gillett claims Beach Boy music, from the same mainsprings of rock, was outdated on the arrival of the Beatles— without offering any illustration of his point—and presumably came right on first hearing the Beatles in 1964 (?)! Maybe it is to fit this outlandish statement that Gillett post-dates the commencement of Brian Wilson productions three years to ’65.

While well-bred manager Brian Epstein put his twopenn’th in about what the Beatles should record, the group obviously knew better and were happy leaving to chance Capitol’s doctoring of the master tapes in America—recognising virtually any Americans (and Capitol ‘experts’ fell into that category for rock’n’roll) would improve on Parlophone’s work done with the Beatles’ own input. No surprise that many Beatle records, especially releases outside the US, have a quirky feel of Tin Pan Alley uncomfortably mixed with rockabilly, or an English attempt at it.

Yes, they were different, in their Old World charm that urban Americans had long forgotten. If their charm and humor was Irish via Liverpool, the down-to-earth opportunism—and an awe of all that was flashy in American culture—was pure working-class England. An American equivalent might be experientially deprived hillbilly Jethro Beaudine coming to the big city and aping all he saw—in his fashion. Their presentation, via influences from Bert Kaempfert, Klaus & Astrid & Jurgen, Brian Epstein, came from Continental Europe. Not only appearance: Close your eyes and listen to early Beatle music, and picture everyman’s Liverpool-via-Hamburg group putting out the same: an act that Rory Storm & the Hurricanes could call their equal. People who knew them and their music intimately at the time said it. It was on top of hundreds of years of European traditional music that they attempted to overlay rock’n’roll. Question: Was this rock’n’roll, an advance on rock’n’roll, or a diluted alternative more related to other Euro acts: Edith Piaf, Johnny Halliday, James Last, Kraftwerk?

Lennon & McCartney came up with a perfect combination of show tunes and ersatz rock’n’roll—not a blending of the two but a craft division as in two assembly streams in a song factory. Their rock’n’roll was as straight as they could make it, improving in the late Sixties with ‘Revolution’ and ‘Back in the USSR’; and their Music Hall songs, which by Sgt Peppers they learned to give a rock veneer, were pure sentiment. Everyone could take something from it, and this catchall ‘something for everyone’ approach— that Elvis had turned to in 1960—brought unparalleled success.

It was all over after the music critic of The Times anointed Lennon & McCartney “the greatest composers since Beethoven”— not even Gilbert & Sullivan. Their habit of descending a third from minor to major, then another third back to major (as in ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’—personal communication from Celia Wood-Calvert)—brought comparisons with Schubert but was the sort of thing untutored musicians not hidebound by academic orthodoxies were likely to stumble upon in the normal course of exploring possibilities. It was their good fortune to be hailed for it.

Alan Livingston, Capitol president and inventor of Bozo the Clown, presents the Beach Boys with what be their first RIAA Gold Discs in 1965: they were always albums, and awarded so late because audited belatedly.

Alan Livingston, Capitol president and inventor of Bozo the Clown, presents the Beach Boys with what must be their first RIAA Gold Discs in 1965: they were always albums, never singles, and awarded so late because audited belatedly.

A passage in Gerry Bloustein’s Musical Visions: Selected Conference Proceedings from 6th National Australian/New Zealand IASPM compares Lennon-McCartney songwriting with Brian Wilson’s. “The songwriters who most often utilised blues-based songforms were Brian Wilson and John Lennon-Paul McCartney. Wilson’s surf and hot rod songs… often involve original and creative adaptations of the standard blues form, and in this sense Wilson should be accorded more credit as the songwriter who was best able to create a logical development of 1950s rock, and surf groups should be considered to be updated rock and roll bands.

“Wilson’s use of the blues-based form is deserving of some detailed attention. He rarely used the form for a complete song… Most of Wilson’s songs are verse-chorus forms, while in some songs (such as ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, ‘Little Honda’) the blues form is employed in the verse but not the chorus. In others (like ‘Dance Dance Dance’, ‘Drag City’ and ‘Surf City’) the reverse applies. The other technique employed by Wilson was to vary the standard chord progression over the last four bars of the form, thereby creating a striking hook effect, usually in combination with prominent multi-part vocals and a strong lyric hook. This technique is evident on ‘Shut Down’, ‘Drag City’, ‘Surf City’ and ‘Three Window Coupe’.

“Lennon-McCartney also used (copied?) [Bloustein’s term] this latter technique, most notably in ‘Day Tripper’ and they too created some idiosyncratic adaptations of the form… Like Wilson, Lennon-McCartney rarely employed the form for a complete song. Their nor-mal procedure was to use the blues scheme for the A section of the typical AABA form and to create a strongly contrasting B section by using a progression totally unconnected with the blues idiom, as in songs such as ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘She’s a Woman’.”

Bloustein goes on to point out that during 1963-66 no other successful writers but the Motown ones make significant use of the blues-based form. But Beatle use of it was strongly tempered by their AABA scheme, which “had been commonly used by popular songwriters for ‘thousands of Tin Pan Alley tunes… a form totally predictable to mid-century listeners’.”

The AABA songform is four 8-bar sections. Many Beatle songs were dependent on a quirky, not to say cute ‘middle eight’ (B) section that caused traditionalists to prick up their ears in gladness.

The myth of Beatle omnipotence—almost a religious belief in which faith triumphs over facts—was reinforced by the likes of Gillett when he misinformed his readers (1975) that “the Beatles brought the idea of the organic songwriting, singing and instrument-playing unit to the American record business”—a myth perpetuated by Murray Kaufman as late as 1998. It was there in germ form in Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Three; even, mostly, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black & D J Fontana; and Buddy Holly & the Crickets. The Beach Boys took it to the ultimate before the Beatles, as such, were ever recorded.

ACCORDING TO THE ROCK HISTORIAN’S BOOK OF Genesis one summer 15-year-old Paul McCartney saw John Lennon, twenty months older, singing with his band for the local Woolton village fete in their home city of Liverpool, the chief north-of-England port that serviced Lancashire’s coal mines and had cargoed cotton from the Confederacy during the American Civil War in defiance of Abraham Lincoln. Equivalent to New York City’s East River dockland but without the prosperity—Great Britain had won the war but “lost the peace”—Liverpool working people were clannish and proud of their scrappy cum entrepreneurial Irish roots. For the Dead End Kids, in the Hollywood B-movies that had informed so many British Empire kids, read John, Paul, George & Ringo. Who can imagine latter-day serene guru George Harrison as the head-butting kid he was, as described by Paul, when he joined the Quarry Men? Lennon, better at lyrics, and McCartney took quirky Scouse humor and added clever wordplay for their songs. Once they started mixing with the fashionable-arty London crowd in 1963 literary pretentions crept in.

It was early 1958 that the three-man core of the Beatles consolidated. This was three years after Lonnie Donegan hit with skiffle, and Bill Haley & His Comets impacted rock’n’roll on Britain with deva-stating results via ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ and ‘Rock Around the Clock’, the theme from gang/rebellion movie Blackboard Jungle. English youths—egged on by violent Teddy Boy subculture—reacted accordingly when Haley & the Comets toured just a few months before, rioting and tearing up seats with flick knives. More than the Teddy Boy image and attire rubbed off on the Quarry Men. Reportedly, the lads themselves were not above a bit of opportunistic rough-housing to get what they wanted from the mean streets of Liverpool or Hamburg.

And it was two years after Elvis Presley. The younger and better looking Elvis had burst from the Tupelo, Mississippi backwoods into throbbing blues center Memphis, Tennessee to mix r&b and country music and take over Teen America. His scintillating, melodramatised performances of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Hound Dog’ were frenetic and frailly breathless, and held to be extraordinary, coming as they did from a white man’s vocal cords. His ‘Jailhouse Rock’ broke a year later at the time Lennon and McCartney were meeting, with Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue’, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ just as popular.

Though less authentic than Elvis’s earlier Sun recordings of ‘That’s Alright Mama’, ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, white rock’n’roll was, after a breach birth, coming out of incubation. Always just a heartbeat and last gasp away from crib death by misadventure, it would soon be rolled on in its slumber by hefty corporate America, rock’n’roll’s domineering stepmother.

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino had already scored their first hits on the (white) pop charts—‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Bo Diddley’/‘I’m a Man’, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’. All were remorseless rock’n’rollers, until Richard repented, and were black—so couldn’t be teen icons in the eyes of the music industry of the time. The substitutes who were allowed to make white girls go all gooey were pale-complected, fussily groomed Italo-American boys—Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, James Darren, Lou Christie. Ethnics like Tony Orlando, Teddy Randazzo and Steve Alaimo who didn’t ‘regularize’ their names had viable recording careers but were obviously less stellar. The teen idols were promoted by Bandstand and Pat Boone’s series from the 1957-58 tv season, Billboard magazine and its new Hot 100, and a host of other mass media outlets.

The absence of Elvis Presley in the army for two years cleared the way for these ballroom imitations to replace real rock’n’roll.

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