Posted by jeff on Dec 30, 2016 in Other
, Song Of the week
Edgar Winter, ‘Rise to Fall’
One of my favorite subjects to kvetch about is the burden of obsessiveness.
I’ll give you an example. I tripped over a rock/jazz group called Durutti Column, the vehicle of a British guitarist named Vini Reilly. He has a really tasteful, distinctive ambient sound and groove. I listened to a couple of his albums, liked what I heard, and got my hands on his discography. Twenty-nine albums. I can’t say they all sound exactly alike, because I’m only up to #19. But, like it or not, I will keep plowing through the last ten. Just in case.
Get what I mean?
I don’t believe in radio. Why should I listen to someone else’s playlist hidden among the commercials?
I don’t believe in Spotify. Why should I listen to an algorithm’s playlist?
It seems I’m stuck with Jeff.
My usual listening schedule when I’m working from my home office is:
- 8:00 to 10:00 – music to align my synapses and give me courage to face the day: Bill Evans or Johnny Bach
- 9:37 (approximately) – second cup of coffee
- 10:00 to 4:00 – methodical, obsessive plowing through music I think I should expose myself to: Wild Man Fisher’s Greatest Hits, Finnish surf music, Outer Mongolian throat singing…
- 4:00 to 4:30 – listening for enjoyment: Buddy Holly, Luciana Souza, Bon Iver.
But believe it or not, even I like to have just plain fun sometimes. So a while back, I started making myself mixes for the car.
I work myself into a semi-conscious, filter-free trance, and spend an hour meandering through my library mentally blindfolded. I grab attractive tracks I seldom listen to, because they don’t fit into my obsessive, programmatic scheme.
I call these Indefensible Collection I, Indefensible Collection II – I’ll let you extrapolate the rest. I’m up to #6. Why indefensible? Because they’re a sundry assortment. They have no rhyme or reason or common theme. They’re just a bunch of – this isn’t easy for me to write – songs I enjoy listening to.
I’d be embarrassed to listen to them in my office but about once a year I allow myself the guilty pleasure of reverting to my AM car radio (‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’) adolescence. They pop up, unprogrammed, the sound of surprise, one after another. Now, that’s fun.
My recent carfare has been IC #6, 50 of which (not all 213 tracks) I’d like to share with you today. Many of them will never achieve their own SoTWs, but I love ‘em all, each and every one. I’ve made a concerted effort to curb my penchant for verboseness. Go, Jeff.
|Alan Price, ‘Poor People’
||Animals organist, fine singer-songwriter. Love, love this song.
|Alison Kraus, ‘Baby, Now That I’ve Found You’
||Guilty pleasure. I remember the original.
|Amy Winehouse, ‘I Heard Love is Blind’
||I avoided listening to her for years. My loss.
|Aretha Franklin, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’
||Soul at its most soulful
|Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’
||Neglected polyphonic treasure
|Barbra Streisand, ‘I Don’t Care Much’
||Aged 21, con huevos.
|Becca Stevens, ‘Weightless’
||If you know of other music like this, please let me know.
|Bonnie Raitt, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’
||Nod to Justin Vernon
|Brian Wilson, ‘Love and Mercy’
||Brian at his best
|Buffalo Springfield, ‘Pretty Girl Why’
|Chicago, ‘If You Leave Me Now’
|Dusty Springfield, ‘I Close My Eyes’
||SoTW someday soon
|Edgar Winter, ‘Rise to Fall’
||The raison d’etre for this silly endeavor. A fine, fine cut by an artist I’d never listen to otherwise.
|Everly Brothers, ‘Problems’
|Fleet Foxes, ‘Montezuma’
||Earworm on a hook
|Glen Campbell, ‘Galveston’
||Jim Webb at his best
|Hank Williams, ‘Ramblin’ Man’
|Isley Brothers, ‘This Old Heart of Mine’
||If I could have only one Motown cut…
|Janis Ian, ‘At Seventeen’
||We’re all still 17
|Jim Capaldi, ‘Oh, How We Danced’
||Charlie Chaplin meets Traffic
|John Coltrane, ‘Giant Steps’
||Thrilling, every time
|John Martyn, ‘May You Never’
||The first Martyn song I ever heard
|Lake Street Drive, ‘You Go Down Smooth’
||A voice that deserves to be respected
|Laura Nyro, ‘Up on the Roof’ (bootleg)
||Better than The Drifters or Carole King
|Lee Konitz, ‘Subconscious-Lee’
||Tickle your brain
|Linda Ronstadt, ‘Prisoner in Disguise’
|Louis Armstrong, ‘Lonesome Blues’
||The Hot Five, 1926. Really that good.
|Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘It’s Not Time Now’
||What a B-side can be
|Luciana Souza, ‘Amulet’
||Written for her by Paul Simon
|Mamas and Papas, ‘Trip, Stumble and Fall’
||This is the Ms&Ps I remember
|Moby Grape, ‘8:05’
||Love it dearly
|Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’
||These young ‘uns
|Nilsson, ‘Sleep Late My Lady Friend’
||He just shines and shines
|Paul McCartney, ‘Junk’
||Barely post-Beatles, my favorite McCartney cut ever
|Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’
||So elusive, so precise
|Peter, Paul and Mary, ‘The Good Times We Had’
||So much better than what you’d expect
|Procol Harum, ‘Conquistador’
||1967 was a very good year
|Rascals, ‘A Girl Like You’
|Robert Johnson, ‘They’re Red Hot’
||Tamales. The only blues artist who never bores me.
|Rolling Stones, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows’
||One of my very favorite Stones cuts
|Roy Orbison, ‘Blue Bayou’
||Just a little perfect
|Sarah Vaughan, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’
|Stevie Wonder, ‘If You Really Love Me’
||This for me is Stevie
|Sufjan Stevens, ‘All Good Naysayers’
||Justifies the whole stupid generation of Millenials
|Susanne Sundfor, ‘Kamikaze’
||Knockout young Norwegian electronic
|Tadd Dameron, ‘On a Misty Night’
|The Impressions, ‘Woman’s Got Soul’
||Singer-songwriter Curtis at his best
|The Real Group, ‘Li’l Darlin’
||This is music I love
|The Staves, ‘I’m on Fire’
||Young ‘uns; how’d they get so good?
|Tina Dico, ‘Let’s Get Lost’
||Fine young Swedish singer-sonwriter
|Touche, ‘Shiny Stockings’
|Vocal Line, ‘Holocene’ (bootleg)
||A guy can dream
Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2016 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
Hi Everyone out in SongofTheWeekland. As I’m sure all of you remember, way back in SoTW 035, we made a promise to stroll through Miles Davis’ remarkable voyage through the 1950s.
In 035 we talked about the reactionary revolution of his “Tuba Band” of 1947, better known as “Birth of the Cool”. Then in 041 we visited his remarkable series of albums with his first quintet, focusing on melodic, sweet, laid-back treatments of standards. And in 055, we took a look at “Sketches in Spain”, one of three stunning large-canvas collaborations with Gil Evans (who was also an inspiring force behind “Birth of the Cool”). We even recently dug up the first bud of what was to come in SoTW 244, ‘Green Dolphin Street‘, Miles’ very first recording of note with his brand-new replacement for pianist Red Garland, a young Caucasian dude named Bill Evans, precursing by 10 months the album we’re discussing. (And just a bit of subtle foreshadowing, way back in SoTW 003 we wrote about Jerry Garcia & Dave Grisman’s version of ‘So What’.)
We’ve been getting piles of letters asking for some sort of closure to this cliffhanger, so this week we’re going to close the decade with the masterpiece of masterpieces, the coup de grace of the whole shmeer, “Kind of Blue”.
How good is this album? A few quotes:
Duane Allman: “I haven’t hardly listened to anything else for the last couple of years.”
Chick Corea: “It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music.”
Hip hop artist and rapper Q-Tip: “It’s like the Bible—you just have one in your house.”
US House of Representatives: “A national treasure.”
But my favorite appraisal is from critic Robert Palmer (liner notes from a remastered re-release):
[For music fans and critics] “no ‘great work’ is sacrosanct. Not all rock aficionados share a high opinion of Sgt. Pepper; to some, it’s uneven, self-indulgent, overproduced, underwritten—and dated.” But “Kind of Blue” is unique, he says. It has no detractors.
It’s universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece. By rockers, by rappers, by jazzists, by aficionados and snobs, by layfolk and casual listeners. By those of wooden ears. By elevator riders. It’s the prettiest background music you’ll ever not listen to. But if you do, it’s a monolith of lyric beauty and depth.
It is perfect.
It is so subtle, so nuanced, that you can listen to it several trillion times (as many have) with it sounding wholly fresh and vital every time. Ask Q-Tip.
Miles’ 1955 quintet was still playing in the throes of post bebop, complex, dense, chord-laden music, which Miles now labeled “thick”. His band was falling apart, due to a fatal mix of drugs and ego. Pianist Red Garland went his way. Drummer Philly Joe Jones was grooving in his own vein. John Coltrane was bounced from the band for abuse and unreliability. While Miles was in France, Coltrane served a tour of duty with Thelonious Monk and got himself clean. Miles returned, rehired all three in addition to new-on-the-scene alto sax Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, recording with them the experimental album “Milestones,” and then fired the drummer and pianist. So we’re left with Miles on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor, Cannonball on alto, and good old Paul Chambers on bass. Jimmy Cobb came in on drums.
L to R: Cobb, Adderley, Evans, Davis, Coltrane
Via Gil Evans, Miles had read and been deeply influenced by a book called “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization”, which posited an entirely new approach to what notes are played. It created Modal jazz. Jazz prior to this had been based on chord changes. Modal music talked about playing within a scale, free of the fetters of chords. The artist improvises melody, without the strictures of the over-evolved, ‘thick’ post-bebop music. Think of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. No chords, just a series of modulating scales. Miles:
“No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”
Okay, that may be a bit dry for a lot of normal people. But listen to this! “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” was written by George Russell, a 25-year old black drummer who was hospitalized in 1945 for 16 months with tuberculosis. To wile away the time, he wrote this theoretical work. Gil Evans turned all the cool young musicians onto it. So now, in 1958, Miles asked George Russell to recommend a pianist who could play this modal stuff. (Russell had just finished recording a jazz concept album/composition entitled “New York, N.Y.” Participating in the session were Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Hal McKusick, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, Jon Hendricks, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Max Roach, and Benny Golson, Oh, yeah, and a young honky pianist named Bill Evans.) Russell:
I recommended Bill.
“Is he white?” asked Miles.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Does he wear glasses?”
“I know that motherfucker. I heard him at Birdland—he can play his ass off. Bring him over to the Colony in Brooklyn on Thursday night.”
The club was in Bedford Stuyvesant, a neighborhood whites didn’t ordinarily enter. But George and Bill did, Bill sat in and got his white ass hired, and the classically-trained wimp became the pianist for the coolest jazz band in the world. Miles:
When Bill Evans—we sometimes called him Moe—first got with the band, he was so quiet, man. One day, just to see what he could do, I told him [and you have to know Miles’ raspy whisper to really appreciate this], “Bill, you know what you have to do, don’t you, to be in this band?”
He looked at me all puzzled and shit and shook his head and said, “No, Miles, what do I have to do?”
I said, “Bill, now you know we all brothers and shit and everybody’s in this thing together and so what I came up with for you is that you got to make it with everybody, you know what I mean? You got to fuck the band.” Now, I was kidding, but Bill was real serious, like Trane.
He thought about it for about fifteen minutes and then came back and told me, “Miles, I thought about what you said and I just can’t do it, I just can’t do that. I’d like to please everyone and make everyone happy here, but I just can’t do that.”
I looked at him and smiled and said, “My man!” And then he knew I was teasing.
Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first. Bill played underneath the rhythm and I liked that, the way he played scales with the band. Red’s playing had carried the rhythm but Bill underplayed it and for what I was doing now with the modal thing, I liked what Bill was doing better.
This Miles Davis sextet played standards and material from “Milestones” through most of 1958 without making any significant recordings. Miles:
Some of the things that caused Bill to leave the band hurt me, like that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band. Many blacks felt that since I had the top small group in jazz and was paying the most money that I should have a black piano player. Now, I don’t go for that kind of shit; I have always wanted just the best players in my group and I don’t care about whether they’re black, white, blue, red or yellow. As long as they can play what I want that’s it. But I know this stuff got up under Bill’s skin and made him feel bad. Bill was a very sensitive person it didn’t take much to set him off.”
Bill wanted desperately to please everybody and to fit in. So although he didn’t actually service the guys, what he did learn during that time was how to shoot heroin. After seven months, he’d had it with the road. He was replaced in the band by the very competent if uninspired blues-oriented pianist Wynton Kelly. In March, 1959, Miles brought Evans back for a couple of recording sessions. Wynton was the sitting pianist in the group—Miles liked to do that, to set one band member near another, to get them nervous. Fun guy, that Miles Davis.
Only hours before the session, Miles wrote down some sketches and taught them to the musicians during the sessions themselves. No rehearsals. Here’s the modal framework, go. Five songs for release in six takes.
The very eloquent Bill Evans, from the original liner notes of “Kind of Blue” (you’ll pardon me for the extensive quote, but I have read these words hundreds of times, and find them an unplumbable source of wisdom and inspiration):
“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”
I’m not going to wax poetic here trying to replicate in mere words the beauty that is “Kind of Blue.” If you want to read more about it, Ashley Kahn wrote an entire book called “The Making of ‘Kind of Blue’“. But if you don’t own the album, you really should. Remember what Q-Tip said? One phrase of the first song on the album, ‘So What’, is worth a thousand words. The entire song is worth a book. The album is worth a library. It’s an education in itself. And if, as one assumes, you do own the album, give it a spin. It will sound as fresh as it always does. And thanks be to He Who Created jazz musicians for instilling in these six guys the talent to create such magical beauty. Humans creating perfection. Not something you run into everyday.
Posted by jeff on Dec 10, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
John Lennon was murdered 36 years ago this week. Paul Simon wrote a song around that event.
Paul Simon (b. 1941) was a nice Jewish boy from Forest Hills. At 13 he started playing and singing with his pal Art Garfunkel, and at 16 they had a small Everly Brothers-styled hit (‘Hey, Schoolgirl’) under the name Tom & Jerry. Paul and Art both went to college, but continued playing together.
They were 22 when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and like all Americans, traumatized to the quick.
In 1964, when The Beatles conquered America and Bob Dylan released “Another Side Of”, they were 23 – a year younger than John, a year older than Paul, the same age as Bob. They were swept up by Beatlemania, sprouting from the same Everlies/Chuck Berry/Elvis/Buddy Holly roots. But they were even more impacted by Dylan and the folk movement, drinking from the same Woody Guthrie/Leadbelly well, not to mention doo-wop and early rhythm & blues. In short, they came from the same AM radio school.
Protest Music was all the rage, and Dylan’s Columbia label signed the two young Jews to a contract (Simon claimed that after much deliberation at Columbia, it was the first time that artists had used identifiably ethnic names). They recorded an acoustic album (“Wednesday Morning 3A.M.”) that had Dylan written all over it, even in the five unoriginal originals written by Paul. Protest, Protest, Protest. Paul, like everyone else, had a hard time grasping that the recent “Another Side of Bob Dylan” had turned the page. It would take everyone a couple of years to catch on and catch up.
But the album didn’t take off. Paul went to London to be bohemian, play the folk club circuit solo, and witness The British Invasion from behind their lines. It’s important to remember how profoundly the JFK assassination impacted the American psyche. From November 22, 1963 till February 7, 1964 (The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan), the US was in a deep depression. The Fab Four were the first thing to make the American people smile in months. This mood was reflected in folk music (‘He Was a Friend of Mine’, etc) as much as it was in Beatlemania.
It was the year of The Beatles, it was the year of The Stones, it was nineteen sixty-four
I was living in London with the girl from the summer before.
[Kathy (Kathleen Mary Chitty), the Kathy of ‘Kathy’s Song and ‘America’]
It was the year of The Beatles, it was the year of The Stones, a year after JFK.
We were staying up all night and giving the days away.
And the music was flowing amazing and blowing my way.
Meanwhile, back in NYC, Tom Wilson, who produced both Dylan and S&G, understood that an amalgam of rock and folk needed to be forged. He took a track called ‘The Sound of Silence’ from “Wednesday Morning”, added a bass and drums and electric guitars in the studio. The song became an anthem and together with The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ more or less invented folk-rock.
Simon & Garfunkel’s reputation is based on the mere four studio albums they went on to record. That they were early purveyors of Dylanism in a rock context is obvious. What time has obscured though is how much they were disciples of Beatle innovations. It went like this: ‘Hey, Jude’ was released in August, 1968. In addition to being a stunning song and a moving performance, it was an eye-opening, groundbreaking revolution in the evolution of what was possible in popular music. It was just about twice as long as any other #1 single, and included a 4-minute coda, a mantra that repeated and swelled and grew. It was Paul McCartney saying to the world, ‘Hi, here’s our new single, we’ve just invented this possibility.’ And The Stones and Simon and Garfunkel and everyone else would run out and try to work with what The Beatles had invented. Within a couple of months, The Stones had recorded ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, with a 2-minute fade repeating the same phrase over and over. And S&G had recorded ‘The Boxer’, also a 2-minute fade, even more in the hypnotic, swelling mode of ‘Jude’. Thus it was all those years ago, month after month, Beatles record after record. “Rubber Soul” followed by “Aftermath” and the “Sounds of Silence” LP, “Revolver” followed by “Between the Buttons” and “Parsley, Sage”, “Sgt Pepper” followed by “His Satanic Majesties’ Request” and “Bookends”.
Then The Beatles broke up, and S&G emulated even that. But while John lost his drive and direction musically, Paul Simon discovered his.
I don’t know much about the personal relationship between John Lennon and Paul Simon. I did hear one interview where Simon related a conversation he had with John: “He said to me, ‘How did you know to keep your publishing and not sign away everything’, and I said, ‘Well, we grew up in New York, but how did you know about combing your hair like that and wearing those clothes?’ He said he’d always thought he’d be a hairdresser.”
At the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 1975, they presented an award together. John more than anything, was an ex-Beatle. Paul and Art weren’t speaking. And host Andy Williams RIP had divorced his beautiful French wife Claudine Longet. Paul and John had clearly been being naughty boys backstage, and were visibly giddy in front of the cameras. They giggled through some inane text about breakups from partners, then opened the award envelope. Winner Olivia Newton-John (somehow beating out Elton John, Maria Muldaur and even Joni Mitchell’s ‘Help Me’!!!) was unable to make it from Down Under, but accepting in her stead, to the utter shock of all, is, um, Art Garfunkel. Ensuing is one of the intensest, embarrassingest and funniest things I’ve ever seen. The animosity between Paul and Art is palpable.
John: Which one of you is Ringo?
Paul (to Art, but not looking him in the face): I thought I told you to wait in the car.
John: Are you ever getting back together again?
Art: Still writing, Paul?
From 1972–83, Paul Simon recorded a string of five sterling solo albums, the real achievement on which his reputation deserves to be judged: “Paul Simon”, “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, “Still Crazy After All These Years”, the vastly-underrated “One Trick Pony”, and his masterpiece, “Hearts and Bones”. “Hearts and Bones” was a commercial flop. But then again, so was “Pet Sounds”. So was “Astral Weeks”. And in my not-so-humble opinion, “Hearts and Bones” can hold its own in that very heady company.
Even Simon’s subsequent “Graceland” (which I’m in a small critical minority of judging poorly) and “Rhythm of the Saints” outsold it. But I’ve never been one to care how well music does commercially. Really, it makes no impression on me whatsoever. And there are so many great songs on “Hearts and Bones”, and in Paul Simon’s string of his first five solo albums, that we’re not going to even deal with them here this week, they deserve their own day. Today we’re just going to address a single song from that album, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace.”
Johnny Ace (1929–1954)was a very successful rhythm & blues artist from Memphis, with a long string of hits in the early 1950s –’Pledging My Heart‘ (the first record Paul Simon ever bought), ‘Saving My Love for You,’ and ‘Never Let Me Go,’ (which was covered by such fine artists as John Martyn).
On Christmas Day, 1954, Johnny was fooling around between sets at a Houston show. Curtis Tillman, Big Mama Thornton’s bass player: “Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ – sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran outta that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed hisself!”
Paul Simon had been bar mitzvahed two months earlier.
I was reading a magazine, thinking of a rock and roll song
The year was nineteen fifty-six (sic) and I hadn’t been playing that long,
When a man came on the radio, and this is what he said,
He said “I hate to break it to his fans, but Johnny Ace is dead.”
Well, I really wasn’t such a Johnny Ace fan, but I felt bad all the same.
So I sent away for his photograph and I waited till it came.
It came all the way from Texas, with a sad and simple face
And they signed it on the bottom “From the Late Great Johnny Ace.”
On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered by a crazy fan.
On a cold December evening I was walking through the Christmas tide
When a stranger came up and asked me if I’d heard John Lennon had died.
And the two of us went to this bar, and we stayed to close the place,
And every song we played was for the late, great Johnny Ace.
In September, 1981, Simon and Garfunkel gave a free concert in Central Park, attended by half a million people. Simon presented a brand-new song, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace,’ performed for the very first time. Towards the end of the song, a crazed fan rushes him onstage, saying “I just want to talk to you.” It’s hard to believe, but the scene isn’t staged.
Even today, my mind gets teary when it lights on John Lennon’s death. He appears in Paul Simon’s song only obliquely. Because the song isn’t about John Lennon, and it’s not about Johnny Ace. It’s about Paul Simon, born of a monumental artist informing a great one. So, thanks Paul, for talking about yourself so eloquently. Thanks for telling me something about myself. And John – you should know, up there in the sky with diamonds, that you shaped a large part of who I am. Me, and all of us.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’
197: Paul Simon, ‘Hearts and Bones’
Posted by jeff on Dec 9, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ — demo (home recording approx. Nov. 15, 1966)
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ — Take 1 (Nov. 24, 1966)
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ — entire Take 7 (Nov. 29) followed by additions from Take 26 (Dec. 9)
Once upon a time, and for a good many crucial years, I knew everything an American could know about The Beatles. That’s because there was so little accessible information.
You didn’t have Rolling Stone. You didn’t have Crawdaddy. You didn’t even have the interweb. Let us remind ourselves—“Sgt Pepper” was the first album to include lyrics. You had the music and the album covers, and that’s it. I had listened to every note they recorded several gazillion times. So I knew everything there was to be known—precious little, if you’re a Generation Z infobit addict. Everything that matters, if you believe that what matters most is the music.
I’m not going to try to compete with all those myriads of young ‘uns who know more facts than I do about the Beatles. I’m also not going to analyze the content of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. My working assumption is that it’s a masterpiece. If you need convincing or affirmation of that, look elsewhere. What I am going to do is to try to provide some context for how this revolutionary recording came into being.
I’m taking the prerequisite key factor – John Lennon’s creative genius – as a given. But I do believe there are two additional crucial ingredients that are worth focusing on – the liberating impact of The Beatles’ massive success circa 1966, and the studio time afforded them.
(Up to) August 29, 1966
On that day, The Beatles played their last live concert, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The playlist included creaky Hamburg workhorses such as ‘Rock And Roll Music’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’, but not a single song from “Revolver”, which had been recorded from April through June, and was released just a few weeks before the concert.
Up till then, The Beatles had recorded 116 songs in 46 months – 30 per year, several hours per song in the studio time that could be jammed into their schedule between touring and filming and reigning as kings of the universe.
“Rubber Soul” and the singles of the period had included their first cautious steps into experimentation – the fuzz bass on ‘Think For Yourself’, the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’, the sped-up piano break on ‘In My Life’, the backwards outro on ‘Rain’. An indication of the schedule they worked under: ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Girl’ were both done in a single day. Almost all the songs were recorded in a single day, with some overdubbing added on later.
George Martin: “It became easier to do experiments because we’d had a few hits. The key was success. As we had more success, it became ‘Come on, lads’. We were more and more able to try out some far-out ideas.”
George Harrison: “You have success with what had seemed like a far-out idea, everybody says ‘Wow’, so you go back into the studio and George [Martin] was very keen, he’d say, ‘Well what other ideas do you have?’”
Pause and reflect on that for a moment. At the height of the era of The Suits, an artist being asked ‘What other ideas do you have?’ Had anyone asked that question of Sinatra? Of Elvis? Of the Four Tops? Of Brian Wilson? All he heard was Mike Love’s “Stick to the fucking formula!”
I worked as a creative artist for a decade. My next meal was never dependent on what I produced. But I assure you, every minute I spent trying to put my thoughts and words on the blank page, there were 10,000 Romans in the room demanding to be entertained, screaming for blood. I would recite to myself, “Jeff, you’re beholden to no one. You are your only audience. Ignore the world, do your best.” Very sound advice.
And then I would promptly turn and ignore it, looking over both shoulders as I typed, thinking “Aren’t I clever”, “Oh, this will tickle them—even if it’s just a little too obvious”, pandering my integrity word after word. That’s the difference between The Beatles and the rest of the world. They transcended The Need To Please. Their god-like status liberated them.
Then “Revolver” (recorded April–June, 1966) took much bolder steps, striking out in all sorts of directions, fueled by drug experimentation: ‘Taxman’, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, ‘Yellow Submarine’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, not to mention ‘She Said, She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Still, only about a day and a half were allocated for the recording of each song. They had to get back on the road, which meant planes, hotel rooms, and screaming girls.
The Beatles were so sick of touring that after the Candlestick show George said “That’s it, then. I’m not a Beatle anymore.” Brian Epstein was forced to promise them they’d stop touring. The lads got a three-month vacation. George went to India to study with Ravi Shankar. Ringo vacationed in Spain. Paul composed the soundtrack for “The Family Way”. Lennon filmed “How I Won the War” in Germany and Spain, during which time he turned 26.
November 24, 1966
On that evening (the first time they escaped the punishment of recording during the daytime), The Beatles reconvened in the studio after having been apart for three months. Rested, buoyed by the success of “Revolver” (entered the charts at #1 in the UK, where it stayed for seven weeks), inspired by the drugs (marijuana and LSD), and driven by the competition (most notably Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds”), the lads and George Martin were at the peak of their creative energies.
George Martin: “Everything changed when they stopped touring. We could spend as much time as we wanted in the studio. That’s when things really started to go crazy.”
Over the next five months they would spend approximately 55 days in the studio, yielding (in order) :
- ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘
- ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘
- ‘Penny Lane‘
- ‘A Day in the Life‘
- ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘
- ‘Good Morning, Good Morning‘
- ‘Only a Northern Song‘
- ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite‘
- ‘Lovely Rita‘
- ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds‘
- ‘Getting Better‘
- ‘Within You, Without You‘
- ‘She’s Leaving Home‘
- ‘With a Little Help from My Friends‘
- ‘Sgt Pepper (Reprise) ‘.
According to Geoff Emerick, their regular recording engineer, they showed up with a new colourful, mustachioed Carnaby Street look, and a new attitude:
Paul: “Now we can record anything we want, and it won’t matter [that we can’t perform them live]. We want to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever.”
Lennon (to Martin): “What we’re saying is, if we don’t have to tour, then we can record music that we won’t ever have to play live, and that means we can create something that’s never been heard before: a new kind of record with new kinds of sounds.”
Martin: “Right then, let’s get to work. What have you got for me?”
Paul started to say something, but before he could answer, John shouted out, “I’ve got a good one, for a starter!”
John played the song. When he finished, there was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul, who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, “That is absolutely brilliant.”
John on accordion, Paul on trombone, George on trumpet
“The Beatles weren’t ever especially fast at working out parts…Several hours were spent deciding who was going to play what instrument.” Paul was practicing on the Mellotron, George was experimenting with his new slide guitar, playing ‘long, Hawaiian-style swoops’. Ringo was busy arranging ‘tea towels’ on top of his kit, to give it that distinctive muffled tone. The single take recorded that day was later abandoned.
Emerick on the Mellotron—“Each key triggered a tape loop of a real instrument playing the equivalent note. There were three sets of tape loops installed, so you could have flutes, strings, or choir at the touch of a button.” It was the first time any of them had seen the instrument, and they all took turns playing around on it. “It was Paul, as usual, who discovered the musical potential instead of just the novelty value. Dialing up the flute sound, he began experimenting with the chords to John’s new song. Within a remarkably short time he’d worked out an arrangement that beautifully complemented Lennon’s haunting vocal line.
November 28, 1966 – April, 1967
But after the weekend, Lennon announced he wanted a different sound. He and Martin started over from scratch. Here’s a nice description of that stage from George Martin, including isolated tracks of the percussion, cello and trumpet orchestral recordings, and vocal tracks.
Three more long sessions were dedicated to recording the song, about 55 hours of studio time in total. Martin: “About 30 hours were spent recording the remake.” Emerick: “We were after perfection: it wasn’t a question of being 99 percent happy with something; we all had to be 100 percent happy with it.” John was unusually patient, perhaps due to the drugs he was taking. ‘Strawberry’ received more time and attention than even ‘Day in the Life’ and ‘I am the Walrus’.
“Lennon wanted to try recording it again with more orchestration. He and Martin decided on cello and trumpets. After Martin wrote a score for the instruments, the Beatles recorded the song again. Martin was pleased with this version, but Lennon liked the beginning of the first version and the end of the second and asked Martin to join them together. Martin pointed out that the two versions were in different tempos and different keys”, but the Beatles were accustomed to getting whatever they asked for. Remember, all they had to work with was “a pair of editing scissors, a couple of tape machines, and a varispeed control.” Emerick and Martin slowed down one of them and speeded up the other. The slower version was only a semi-tone flat compared with the faster. They combined the two versions together with a variable-control tape machine.” You can hear the splice at exactly 1:00 in the released version.
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ will be John’s song forever. Still, it couldn’t have happened without George Martin’s contribution. Or that of the rest of the band.
Paul’s introduction on the Mellotrom is credited by all as having a profound impact on the sound and feel of the entire recording process.
According to Emerick (who on his first day at work for EMI was taken to view a live recording session – ‘Love Me Do’!!!), whereas previous recordings had been more of a group effort, “Sgt Pepper” was much more of a Lennon and McCartney album.
Nonetheless, Harrison contributed to ‘Strawberry Fields’ the descending raga scale on the svarmandal, a harp-like Indian instrument. Every time I’m tempted to diss Mr Starkey (especially for all that damned hissing cymbal racket dirtying up so many tracks), I think of the revolutionary, muffled tom-tom sound he applied here. Levon Helm of The Band, describing their ‘Tears of Rage’— “It had the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time. You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear the sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way.”
“Sgt Pepper” marked the height of the “Paul Is Dead” craze. In case you’re still wondering, John isn’t saying “I buried Paul” at the beginning of the fade out, but rather “Cranberry sauce”.
In 1970, Lennon claimed that of all his compositions, only two qualified as honest songs: ‘Help!’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is a stunning song, one of his best, one of The Beatles’ best, a cultural landmark of our times. It was born of Lennon’s genius. But it was engendered by Beatlemania – the miraculous, unique, liberating status The Beatles enjoyed.