Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Tue 21 Feb 12 15:52
Back to Catalfo's comments about Rubber Soul: One of the key missions of LENNON targeted the work process and ethic Catalfo describes for "I'm Looking Through You," including several numbers which underwent revisions etc but didn't get released. I count "That Means a Lot" as a Spector-inspired masterpiece left OFF of Rubber Soul, and agree that even though "Run For Your Life" has a snarkish hilarity, fine track (machismo overkill pop!), it's not an album-closer. But it does fit the larger practice of closing albums with Lennon leads. My own thoughts on RUBBER SOUL blasted off when I began considering the UK sequence over the US. "Drive My Car" is an even better opening than "Taxman," and the segue between high formal guitar pop and subdued elegant loss in "Norwegian Wood" signals new realms of both storytelling and tonal mastery. My favorite under-rated track, "You Won't See Me," holds a sizzling tension between lyric and vocal harmonies, loss expressed as pure choral joy that escalates with each verse. Another clue that as they conquered new realms in songwriting they would also add arrangements and technical charm as a way of enhancing, not simply decorating, a song's meaning. This track exemplifies what Catalfo suggests as a kind of invisible breakthrough: mastery of material BEFORE and above recording technique -- you can imagine them performing this song live even if it hinted at more voices they could summon together without overdubs. Yes, Lennon's greatest gift was Paul, and I trace McCartney's influence on Lennon through many examples in this book as a way of countering the received wisdom of the reverse. My respect for McCartney's contributions only grew by studying Lennon, and I consider it a vast misfortune that McCartney has had to carry on without Lennon -- much longer than even their partnership -- while boxing with a mythical ghost that often contradicts his direct experience with the man. Pete Shotton's IN MY LIFE has great stories, vivid testimony of Lennon's alternating currents of cruelty and naiveté both early and late. Alongside Alfred Lennon's DADDY COME HOME, these memoirs form key touch-points in my narrative; biographers exclude them at high cost. Both are long out of print but worth hunting on ebay and elsewhere. I'm not so sure that RUBBER SOUL gets underrated as implied here, it certainly receives numerous plaudits from the wise, Greil Marcus singles it out for example. I focus on REVOLVER in TELL ME WHY precisely because even with three Harrison tracks it remains the only Beatle album with ZERO weak tracks (I realize that's a bit flippant). But in this biography I've tried to convey my expansive regard for PEPPER if only because it's ubiquity steals attention from its aesthetic depths. The more I listen to PEPPER, the more I hear, the more ironic its explosive pop masterpiece status seems, the more beautifully pitched a collaboration between Lennon and McCartney (especially "A DAy in the Life"). Again, not to detract from any of the others, but PEPPER has evolved as a concept I admire more and more. One of my measures of Beatle greatness continues to be how all segments of their career -- early, middle, and late -- can be regarded as "great," which happens with very few catalogs.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 21 Feb 12 17:42
Tim, have you ever taken LSD?
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Tue 21 Feb 12 23:08
Lots to think about there, Tim, thanks. Your comments on SGT. PEPPER are encouraging me to rethink my regard for it, and certainly to listen to it more often than I have in recent years. Besides RUBBER SOUL, I tend to go to other middle-period Beatles albums more often--that is, including HELP! and REVOLVER--because, I don't know, they're somehow more *fun* to hear and sing along with. When SGT. PEPPER came out (I clearly remember my first taste of it, heard on AM radio as I got ready for school in June 1967--the end of my junior year in high school), and for several years afterward, I was thoroughly enamored with it, and it was for a time my favorite Beatles album. But some years later it became more like a cherished book in my library, one I was proud to own and revered in its own right but seldom took down from the shelf to open. And certainly, when I pick up my guitar and play Beatles songs (alone or with others), I never play a song from that album. I play earlier stuff and later stuff, but never anything from SGT. PEPPER. Go figure. But I'll reconsider it now in light of your observations here and in your book. Jumping ahead a bit, how do you see Lennon's solo ouevre? I don't mean to ask simply whether you think it measures up to the Beatles canon, or how he fared without the partnership that made him and McCartney songwriting and music-making immortals. I mean: looking at his approach to writing, arranging, and recording his songs, how do you think his approach changed or evolved from the time the Beatles were at the height of their creative powers to the time(s) when he was doing his best solo work? Let me add that I perceive a difference that I'm not sure I can put my finger on, but I think it has to do with spareness. Much of the material he wrote after the Beatles broke up is, it seems to me, simpler (both lyrically and musically) than a lot of what he devised (with and without Paul) with the Beatles; I don't necessarily mean that pejoratively, just as an observation. And the recordings themselves (with some exceptions, like "#9 Dream") have a more spartan feel to them. That's how I think of it, anyway. Maybe others think I'm crazy, I dunno. In any case, I'm wondering how you see it.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 22 Feb 12 09:19
> when I pick up my guitar and play Beatles songs (alone or with others), I > never play a song from that album I think that's because most of the songs on PEPPER are more like elaborate shadow-box constructions than songs to rock out on. Although we include "Within You Without You" in a mashup with "Rain" and some other stuff in the Rubber Souldiers repertoire.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Wed 22 Feb 12 10:34
Dan Flanery (sunspot) Thu 23 Feb 12 22:16
Interesting info about the veracity of Shotton's book, Tim. I'd highly recommend it then to any fans of Lennon, maybe as an adjunct to yours. I'd agree that Revolver really has no weak tracks. I was thinking maybe Harrison's "Love You To" isn't all that great - I'm not a huge fan of raga rock - but the lyrics to this one are really sharp and there's something about the overall mood that's just striking in context (listening to it now off the 2009 stereo remasters - nice!). Revolver is also home to an incredible number of my favorite Beatles tracks. Like, over half the tracks on the record I'd consider essential. It even has semi-obscure tracks like "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "She Said, She Said" that are personal favorites of mine. What did Lennon think of these albums in the final years of his life? Did he express any preferences? Or was he just busy doing his own thing?
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Fri 24 Feb 12 00:23
I've always been struck by Lennon's comment, in one of his last (or perhaps his very last) interview, "There isn't a one [of the Beatles tracks] that I wouldn't do over" (or words to that effect). Really? You're not just shittin' me?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 24 Feb 12 06:27
Has this discussion gone AWOL?
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 24 Feb 12 14:11
Reading through it so far, I was struck by the discussion of St. Pepper, and I got curious about the wikipedia entry. There are many interesting tidbits there, and a complaint of "origianal research." This caught my eye: "Recording for the album began in late 1966 with a series of songs that were to form an album thematically linked to childhood and everyday life. The first fruits of this exercise, "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", were released as a double A-sided single in February 1967 after EMI and Epstein pressured Martin for a released single. Once the singles were released the childhood concept was abandoned in favour of Sgt. Pepper's, and in keeping with the group's usual practice, the single tracks were not included on the LP (a decision Martin states he now regrets)" I had never thought of it, but "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" are non-dance, trippy, curious songs that do go with Sgt. P, after all!
Scott Underwood (esau) Fri 24 Feb 12 16:58
(I like "St. Pepper" up there.) Coming in late, and I'm interested in the whole conversation so far. It's a bit personal, but David's question above about LSD (I think) implies that the drug enables a certain understanding of Sgt Pepper that may not be achieved another way, which is an intersting topic on its own. My general question about Lennon regards how his role in the band changed over time. My impression is in that the early period, John was the de facto leader. He wrote and sang more songs, and his onstage presence (mostly alone while PM and GH shared a mic) implied a leader status that lessened as time went on. I don't think his songwriting decreased in power even if it decreased in volume (and I may be wrong about that) but I wonder how the ascendence of Paul changed things.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 24 Feb 12 17:34
I'm another fan of the Shotton book, which I grabbed a billion years ago. It not only provides a lot of info on John, especially his early years, but is quite moving. One story from the book I was just thinking of yesterday. When he first got flush, John bought Pete a business - a small store, a betting shop, something of the sort. Pete promptly ran it into the ground - upon which John cheerfully bought him *another* business, and this time Pete got it right. I have another book written by a member of their childhood circle: "Magical Mystery Tour" by Tony Bramwell. He casts a much more analytical eye on the Liverpool scene of the late 50s and early 60s, and seems to sort of out the factoids pretty well later on. But once he gets into the music biz seriously (he was involved in Apple and later became a record promoter) it becomes another chest-thumping 1970s/80s music business autobiography. Worth reading, but unlike Shotton's book, not worth hunting for.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 24 Feb 12 18:00
> David's question above about LSD (I think) implies that the drug enables a > certain understanding of Sgt Pepper that may not be achieved another way, > which is an intersting topic on its own. That wasn't my reason for asking. I get the impression that Tim thinks of marijuana and LSD use as escapes from oneself in the same way heroin and alcohol are. If that is what he is saying, then I will beg to differ.
Scott Underwood (esau) Fri 24 Feb 12 18:23
Thanks for clarifying. (I'm not sure my comment is entirely wrong, though!)
David Gans (tnf) Fri 24 Feb 12 18:27
Nor am I!
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 25 Feb 12 05:23
Agree about LSD and Sgt. Pepper. I had my first visual trip listening to that album, without any drugs. They painted such a vivid picture I just sailed away.
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Sat 25 Feb 12 10:14
I have never tripped on acid, did not mean to make any philosophical point about intent to escape or otherwise. "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry..." and "When I'm Sixty-Four" were begun in December, 1966, and intended for the next recording project, and might have landed on Pepper had EMI not insisted on a single. I think of these as a piece of the larger Pepper-period work. As for Lennon's solo work, I think he made a huge writing shift once he began living with Yoko Ono in 1968. His roots impulse quickened ("Revolution," "Yer Blues"), and his experimental side leapt ahead and then immediately dropped off. After "Rev. 9," which I hear completing an arc begun with "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Strawberry Fields," "A Day In The Life" and "Walrus," he hewed close to the minimal mode, especially on PLASTIC ONO BAND. Most of his solo career sounds to me like he's searching for a new mode which he hasn't fully mastered yet, with mixed results. I like to think he might have kept going, and consider "Nobody Told Me" and "Beautiful Boy" breakthroughs. See my comments on Double Fantasy and very candid remarks by producer Jack Douglas...
Dan Flanery (sunspot) Sat 25 Feb 12 12:54
Plate 'o shrimp. "Nobody Told Me" started playing on the iPhone the other day, and I was struck by just how fresh the track still felt. As I recall it wasn't quite finished - I think many of the lyrics were still just placeholders - but it possessed a unique energy. I also loved "Watching The Wheels", "Woman" and "Beautiful Boy", and wish he'd had the chance to record a proper version of "Grow Old With Me". I'm surprised there aren't many covers of the latter.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Sat 25 Feb 12 17:14
"Beautiful Boy," to me, is one of the best things John ever did, in any context. Very simple song, a lullabye, really; but tremendously affecting, and a wonderfully lush track. I'll be back with more later. Tim, I want to ask you about the song "Imagine."
Evelyn Pine (evy) Sat 25 Feb 12 23:25
I love a lot of stuff on _Double Fantasy_ as well. But I love _Plastic Ono Band_ more. The only Beatles (meaning by a Beatle) record that had more of an electric effect on me when it came out was _Sgt Pepper's_. I played SP all night, took it to school the next day, then the next week read Richard Goldstein (is that the right guy or am I in my dottage confusing the critic with the environmental philanthropist) and was livid at his dismissal. Sgt Pepper just seemed to speak to me so directly -- which is so funny in retrospect because the whole frame is so theatrical. _Plastic Ono Band_, um, that just seemed so straight from the heart. So my question, Tim, after my musings is: do you think Lennon felt _Sgt Pepper_ was too produced, too phony AND do you think that "Working Man's Hero," etc., were more calculated and phony then they appear? No matter what you say, I will always love them both.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Sun 26 Feb 12 01:34
Ok, Tim, let's talk about "Imagine." (I don't want to distract you from <evy>'s question; I'm just queuing mine up after hers.) On page 26, in the course of discussing "Working Class Hero" (by way of pointing out that Lennon had a decidedly *middle* class, not working class, childhood), you refer to "the sugarcoated agnosticism of 'Imagine,' " and in the very next clause describe "Imagine" as "Lennon's most famously misinterpreted song." Much later (on pp. 530-531), you rephrase this observation, saying it "could be Lennon's most widely misunderstood song," refer to its "stridently antireligious lyric," describe it as "the most benign brand of secular pacifist humanism," and by the end of the paragraph echo your earlier comment by saying that "the song is sugarcoated agnosticism for the masses." So, two questions: 1) In what way(s) do you feel that "Imagine" has been so "famously misinterpreted" and "widely misunderstood"? Not to get argumentative (honestly; I just want to know what's behind those comments), but it seems to me that "Imagine" is one of Lennon's *least* misunderstood--or, at least, hardest to misunderstand--songs. I suppose any number of misinterpretations can be found abroad in the culture; hell, these days, we've got trainloads of people who believe the U.S. President was born in Africa and/or is a Muslim, so we know the human capacity for misunderstanding (not to call it willful ignorance) is boundless. But I've always had the impression that this song's enduring popularity owed as much to its simplicity and directness as to the apparent idealism of its message. 2) Leaving aside the "sugarcoated" part, in what way(s) do you find "Imagine" agnostic? My dictionary defines "agnostic" as "a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God." I suppose some might interpret "Imagine" as being agnostic (or have done so)--but to me, *that* would be a misinterpretation. I see the song as not arguing one way or the other about the existence of God, but rather saying something more basic: Let's quit being constrained, distracted, or misled by theological questions and doctrines, and start acting as if life right here, right now, mattered, as if each of us mattered, as if the shit that really matters mattered, instead of the shit that doesn't matter now and won't matter after we're gone. That's an admonition and a plea, but I don't find any agnosticism in it. Here too, I don't mean to be argumentative (even though I've just taken issue with what I understand you to be saying). I find your observations about this song (as about so much else in the book) fascinating, and I'd really like to hear more of your thoughts on this. I offer my opinions by way of showing my hand.
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Mon 27 Feb 12 07:39
Pepper suffers both from overpraise and under appreciation, fawning worship and blanket negativity. The "overproduced" critique lacks merit to my ears through the elegant restraint of Martin's wind arrangement for "When I'm Sixty-Four," and string arrangement rescue of "Within You, Without You." Both these tracks would have sounded terrific in the live setting, required no special leap forward technically, and don't come across forced or mannered. I would argue the same for "Getting Better," title track and reprise. To generalize about Pepper's technical effects undermines a key Beatle virtue: their obsessive restraint at the service of tone, meaning and overall expressivity. The fanciful moments ("Lucy," "Kite," "Good Morning") most often receive brilliant ensemble balance. To say the record shows off its engineering ignores this. Paradoxically, the Plastic Ono Band receives too few plaudits for its superior mix and balance; Lennon's vocal is not only the reigning emotional presence, it's usually a double-tracked tour-de-force (long after flanging had become standard). Any non-singers out there who appreciate the precision required in singing unison with one's self? "Working Class Hero" is calculated in the most ironic way: as a Dylan homage, it's both overt and still strikingly original. How many Dylan songs can you name that address class issues with such candor? The range you mention, Evelyn, remains a central part of great Lennon's muse. "Imagine" has fewer ironies than "Hero," but has a gooey aftertaste of dissent, in the lines of his "We're bigger than Christ" quote, and the refrain to "Ballad of John and Yoko." I hear the song as agnostic in the stricter sense that you haul out of your dictionary, Phil, my point being that agnosticism in 1971 was plenty subversive. Having said that, precision was rarely Lennon's metier. The way I hear it, he deliberately fudged the notion of whether God "exists" or not (this is like the reverse "God," if you will), and proposed a utopian ideal where people put religion second to higher principles like tolerance, peace, and goodwill. He wasn't crusading for the existence or non-existence of a higher spirit, he was critiquing the tendency to play "my God's bigger/better than yours." And he was aligning this with anti-consumerism (no possessions), anti-nationalism (no countries), etc. And this LACK of precision gives the song legs: makes perfect sense of Neil Young to perform it at the 9/11 memorial concert where it sounded completely contemporary and nostalgic all at once. It's become a "standard" in spite of itself, and not nearly as cutting and political as "Gimme Some Truth," "Luck of the Irish," or even that great controversial "Revolution." I'm convinced had he lived he would have cut his own death-punk rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Mon 27 Feb 12 15:24
!!! Well, interestingly, I think I agree with everything you just said about "Imagine," and I think (based on those remarks) that you agree with what I said in my raising the question! I guess I was just a little perplexed by your use of the term "agnosticism." Ok, shifting a bit: In re-reading the early chapters of your book, I recalled two films I found quite engaging and wonderful: "Backbeat" (1994) and the much more recent "Nowhere Boy." I haven't seen "Backbeat" since it was first in theatrical release, but I remember enjoying it a lot, and I've been hankering to see it again in recent years. (As you note in your book, it was based on one of two memoirs written by Stu Sutcliffe's sister Pauline.) I have often thought of the scene where Lennon (Ian Hart) is talking with Astrid Kirchherr (I think it was), and she says to him, "You're really ambitious, aren't you?" To which Lennon replies, "Nah. I'm fookin' desperate." Apocryphal or not, that brief exchange seemed to say so much about Lennon and his struggle to redeem his life from the early traumas we would later see in "Nowhere Boy" and which you detail so compellingly in your early chapters. Anyway, it made me wonder how you felt about those films, and others such as "The Hours and Times," in which Ian Hart (who is now appearing in the HBO series "Luck") also played Lennon. Do these films jive (within the reasonable limits of artistic liberties) with what your research turned up? And, details aside, do you think they are true to the essential arc of Lennon's (and McCartney's, and the Beatles') life and career? Do you recommend these or any other films to people (particularly those born too late for Beatlemania) as a way of getting a handle on who they were and what they meant to their time in cultural history? For that matter, I'm curious to know how you regard (others') Beatles books. Your awesome "Selected Bibliography" runs to nine full pages. Leaving aside epic references such as "Beatles Anthology," Marc Lewisohn's "The Beatles Recording Sessions," Andy Babiuk's "The Beatles Gear," and Kevin Ryan's and Brian Kehew's "Recording the Beatles," which books do you consider indispensable, illuminating, and/or particularly enjoyable? I'm especially interested in any comment you might have on books that focus on the subject of their music, but as we see with your latest work, well-done biographies are also invaluable, particularly when they combine copious research with a sensitive feel for the music, as your book does. I realize this might seem a somewhat unfair question, given that your "Tell Me Why" has long been considered among the essential Beatles books--but for me, that makes me all the more curious as to what you might have to say on this. In your Acknowledgments, you praise two very well-known books about the Beatles' music, Ian MacDonald's "Revolution in the Head" (a book that makes me rapturous every time I poke my nose in it, even though I not infrequently disagree with MacDonald's tastes) and Devin McKinney's "Magic Circles" (a book I've had for years but have never been able to penetrate). What can you tell us about how those books affected you, and what other insightful books would you steer us toward? Geez, and I thought this was going to be a *quick* post.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Mon 27 Feb 12 15:40
Plate o'shrimp: In the Beatles conference (g beat here on The WELL), someone has posted a link to a page announcing a series of events at Abbey Road next month, featuring the above-mentioned Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew, authors of the remarkable "Recording the Beatles"). They will be giving presentations about the studio, which is evidently celebrating its 80th anniversary. *Some* of the dates, if I understand correctly, include tours of the studio. Tickets are, not surprisingly, selling out in a hurry. Anyway, here's the link: http://www.seetickets.com/Tour/ABBEY-ROAD-STUDIOS
Tim Riley (lennonbio12) Fri 2 Mar 12 12:14
Well, some lively questions here, best kind. Promise to post more often now that classes go on spring break. To approach Phil's queries first about films, start with Hard Day's Night, which really went up on my list even though it started out pretty high... I realize it's not a historical piece about the band, but I'm still struck by how well it captured them at such an early stage, and an important place to start. Lennon later poo-poo-d it as sanitized, but I think if you just insert a few imaginary "fucks" into his dialogue it works fine. I like BACKBEAT since they did such a good job on the music (tough, hardy, libidinous), and conveyed the random violence of both Liverpool and Hamburg scenes very well. Also loved casting Sheryl Lee as Astrid Kirchherr (Lee played Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks). HOURS AND TIMES has a very authoritative flavor, and gets so many things right, that I have a hard time with people who don't give it the nod. I think Ian Hart's Lennon is both naive and supremely self-aware with Epstein, both in his affection and his need to humiliate his sexual preference. And I love the scene where he breaks out dancing with his date... just gets at how exuberant he was for the music, all the time. Let me list a few more that stand out in my mind: Rutles (obviously, especially for Harrison's cameo), NOWHERE BOY (where they do the music so well, even if they oversexualize Julia and underplay Mimi's stridency), I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND (Zemeckis, 1978), SUTCLIFFE: THE LOST BEATLE, I MET THE WALRUS, DOWN WITH: Across the Universe (2007), Lennon Naked (2010), Imagine (1988), The Linda McCartney Story, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bee Gees (1978)... BOOKS: Magic Circles (stick with it, Catalfo, it rewards close attention), Revolution in the Head (bejeweled), Michael Braun's vastly under-read Love Me Do, Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love, Peter Doggett's work always has fine insights (Art and Life of Lennon, You Never Give Me Your Money), Chris Salewisz's McCartney biography from way back, Lewisohn for detail, Richard Meltzer's Aesthetics of Rock, Greil Marcus's essay in Rolling Stone Illustrated History (first edition), Christgau's essay in Ballad of John and Yoko, Dave Marsh's The Beatles Second Album. I have a whole thing about reference books, I adore them, swoop down into them at random moments just for kicks, and consider it a lost art. Lewisohn, Kevin Ryan's and Brian Kehew, Andy Babiuk's Beatles Gear (and Babiuk has krypnotic street cred as one of Rochester's Chesterfield Kings), Geoff Emerick's Here There and Everywhere (with caveats), and everything by Spencer Leigh all top that list.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Fri 2 Mar 12 13:55
Ooh, ooh. I can see I need to make some room on my shelf! "The Rutles," boy. That one put me over the moon. Not sure why; I think it was the trousers.
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