Sunday, May 29, 2011

Crazy Cool

May, 1961

The wonderful sound coming out of the Beatles amplifiers are only part of their magic.  As mentioned before, another big contribution is made by that almost undefinable something we call "charisma".  And the Beatles are getting and projecting pure doses of it every night in Hamburg.

What is happening was reinforced for me by the news this week of Gil Scott Heron, a troubled musician and poet who died this week after decades of drug and alcohol abuse.  I saw him him the mid-60s at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit.  I feel like what I saw there is in a direct line of descent from what the Beatles and their Hamburg friends were starting in 1961.  I remember being completely mesmerized by his reading of his most famous poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised".  It was not about an esthetically attractive work of art, but as if we were being shaken awake from a pleasant hypnotic dream.  As with the Beatles, his work was about much more than just providing window dressing to be gazed at and admired.  It was meant to be a wake-up call and consciousness raiser.  Of course, John Lennon and company were light years away from the political message of Gil Scott Heron, but there was undeniably an element of "Shock of the New" in the Beatles music, a shock that demanded full attention from  its audience.  That shock distinguishes all great art, whether Joyce's "Ulysses", Picasso's "Guernica" or the Beatle's "I Saw Her Standing There".

The Beatles performances, while I doubt they knew what they were doing at the time, is not about white shirts, narrow ties and choreographed moves on stage.  But about eating, smoking, joking, just having fun with the audience by whatever means necessary.  Another influential band sharing the Hamburg spotlight with the Beatles was the Remo Four.  Like the Beatles, their onstage antics can, also be said to be in equal parts musical performance and theatrical event.  Imagine their cover of this song that really says it all so well, "But I Was Cool". 

Incidentally, that line of cultural descent leads further on to Alice Cooper, glam rock, poetry slams and a million other aspects of modern musical expression.  Pretty cool!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Developing Their Own Style

May 1961

The Beatles are spending a lot of time on stage, in addition to playing their own sets, backing Tony Sheridan.  One of the major influences that Sheridan has on all of the groups is the technique of using the original songs only as a starting point.  It is a lesson for them about developing a recognizable style.  That is one of the earliest memories that I have of hearing the Beatles on radio.  You could tell after hearing a few notes of intro that you were about to hear a Beatle song, even if you had never heard it before.  With most of the other pop music of the time, you had to wait usually until the vocalist started singing, and even then it wasn't always possible to tell who it was.  Everyone was trying to conform to a certain standard of what was considered "good music". 

Ian Edwards (of Ian and the Zodiacs) shows a keen insight when he says, "We used to copy a record as best as we could.  And then we came across Tony Sheridan, who didn't give two hoots as to how somebody else had recorded it.  We realized that we shouldn't be carbon copies and got a lot more adventurous."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Standing On the Shoulder of a Giant

May 1961

Of all the artists whose songs the Beatles are covering, and there are many, there are none so important as the King, Elvis Presley.

As Paul McCartney has said, when they first saw Elvis their first thought was "That's him!  The messiah has arrived!" And John Lennon, "Before Elvis there was nothing.   Heartbreak Hotel was the turning point."

In their playlists from 1961, Elvis still has a commanding presence.  Here are the documented Elvis songs they were playing from this period.
Are You Lonesome Tonight
Baby I Don’t Care
Blue Moon of Kentucky
Blue Suede Shoes
Don't Be Cruel
Good Rockin' Tonight
Heartbreak Hotel
His Latest Flame
Hound Dog
I Feel So Bad
I Forgot to Remember to Forget
I Got a Woman
I'll Never Let You Go
I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry
It's Now or Never
Just Because
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Love Me Tender
Loving You
That's All Right (Mama)
That's When Your Heartaches Begin
Tonight is so Right for Love
Wild in the Country
Wooden Heart

Some very predictable choices there, but some rather unexpected ones, too.  "It's Now or Never" is a song with new lyrics put to a 19th Italian aria called "O Solo Mio" (the quintessential gondolier's song).  Hard to imagine the hardcore German audience sitting still for that one.  And "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is a wonderful early Bluegrass song that was covered first by the King, and then on the rebound by the Beatles. I can really hear the Beatles practicing their tight harmonies behind Stuart Sutcliffe in their version of Presley's "Loving You".

Elvis is a source of so many of the varied styles that were being adopted and adapted by the Beatles to form something completely new that would stun the world.  But not yet, they are still working it all out in the woodshed called Hamburg.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

An Incongrous Selection for a Rock Band

May 1961

Did you see the 2002 "Concert for George"?  It was a concert put on by all of George Harrison's friends one year after his passing to honor his memory.  If you did, you might remember at the close of the show a guy with a ukelele played and sang a sweet song called "I'll See You in My Dreams".  I thought it was a very effective way to close the concert.  The guy with the ukelele was an early influence on the Beatles named Joe Brown.  Joe Brown and the Bruvvers (that's cockney for Brothers) made three records that the Beatles are covering in 1961.

Joe Brown and the Bruvvers hearken back to the the English musical hall tradition that was also a strong influence on the young Beatles.  The ukelele was one of the most popular instruments for do-it-yourself musicians.  Here's a video that indicates that Paul and George were influenced by it, anyhow.  (I love how that mistaken lyric by Paul proves that they were just "tossing it off".)

One of the songs the Bruvvers recorded and the Beatles are covering is the incongrous "Darktown Strutters Ball".  I'm sure their version was much closer to this one, as done more recently by Joe and a friend.
Great how they put a little R&B spin on an old favorite and - voila! - a whole new thing!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wonderland by Night?

May 1961

Bert Kaempfert, back in the '60s, was a successful German orchestra leader, cut from the same cloth as Henri Mancini and Nelson Riddle, who happened to be from Hamburg.  His claim to fame at this time was his popular recording of an light orchestra piece called "Wonderland by Night", which the Beatles had certainly heard, even if it wasn't exactly their cup of tea.  Later, Kaempfert would gain even more fame by writing "Danke Schoen" which made the career of a young singer called Wayne Newton, and a song covered by Frank Sinatra.- "Strangers in the Night".  (This song is the original source of the iconic Sinatra scat line "do-be-do-be-do".  To hear it, jump ahead to 2:20.)  We are talking big leagues, here.  If you want to know just how big, listen to this song at about 33 seconds in.  (Obviously, I'm becoming a youtube fanatic.  There is just so much great stuff there!)

Anyhow, a talent scout employee of Kaempfert had heard tell of this new talent called Tony Sheridan and had dropped in to the Top Ten to hear this guy for himself.  He was equally impressed by Sheridan and with the sound made by his backing group, the Beatles, and invited them all around to the office to discuss a possible recording contract with the German branch of Polydor, a British label!  The boys excitedly agreed and plans were put in place for a recording session to take place next month, in June.

A bit of housekeeping.  I finally got the email subscription gadget to work on this blog, so if you want to be notified by email, use the "Follow by Email" link to the right.  And don't forget to tell your Beatle fan friends.  I have now had visits from all six inhabited continents.  Thank you, South Africa!  (I recon I might be waiting a while for Antarctica.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Good Hair Day

May 1961

Stuart Sutcliffe is spending less and less time playing overnights with the Beatles and more and more time in his circle of artist friends.  The young friends - called the "exis", short for existentialists - are deeply influenced by French art and culture.  They are children of the very regimented WWII generation and are searching for novel ways of expressing their individuality as far as possible from their parents' failed approach to living.  They love French cinema and fashion and they incorporate what they see as much as possible into their own lives.

                         Trailer for "The 400 Blows" by Francois Truffuat

This cultural movement is the real source of the "Beatle haircut".  It is a style picked up by fashion conscious German kids in imitation of au courant French styles.  They also pick up collarless jackets, corduroy pants, and lots of leather from the same source.  Stuart asks Astrid to style his hair in the casual brushed forward way, instead of piled high in the greasy rebel without a cause style.  The German kids called it "Pilsenkopf", that is "mushroom head" style. :-)

The Beatles are hysterical when they first see it.  Especially the acid tongued wit John Lennon, who immediately begins poking fun at it.  It is always the way.  New styles, by definition, are meant to shock and draw attention, and artist Stuart is comfortable being on the leading edge.  Could it be that the Beatles are learning an important lesson about being there, too?

I can't resist putting in this video which admittedly has a very peripheral relevance to this topic, just as a tribute to French culture and its creations.  Enjoy.  (No wonder John Lennon is obsessed with her!)