With the significant maturity spike as shown in Rubber Soul, it is almost inconceivable that The Beatles were only on their way up when it came to making sophisticated music and recording it in a revolutionary way in time for their seventh album, Revolver. They had a number of factors that helped them do this beyond their own burgeoning interest in the album format during a time when their touring days were grinding to a halt.
First, by 1966 they had a number of peers doing similarly revolutionary and left of centre work from the Stones’ “Paint It Black”, to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, to the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”, along with so many other examples. Second, they had new fangled studio technology that helped them get what they wanted more easily, with automatic double tracking, tape varispeed, and improvements in amplification and microphone technology. Third and finally, they had producer George Martin, and a young engineer named Geoff Emerick to take their creative ideas and turn them into practical sonic realities to create what was their most sophisticated and varied album to date, a work that still has impact on recordings today fifty years after its creation. The amazing part is, as groundbreaking as Revolver was, The Beatles were only getting started as to where they would take the album format, not only for them but for their peers, too.
During this month’s episode of A Year With The Beatles podcast, my co-host Graeme Burk and I are joined by writer, musician, songwriter, and seasoned podcaster in his own right Alex Kennard. In addition to talking about the record and our favourite moments as taken from it, we also talk about Howard Goodall’s documentary on how The Beatles were exemplars of western composition by the 1960s. That decade was a time when a movement of modernist and post-modernist composers had largely given up on the conventions of classical composition in order to explore new territories, often leaving general audiences behind. The Beatles re-positioned those conventions in pop music to breathe new life into them. There is some argument as to the validity of this interpretation of history, and also some thoughts on what most surprises us on a compositional level when it comes to The Beatles.
To listen to this month’s episode, make with the clicking right here.
Listen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.
Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.
There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song. Read more
Listen to this track by jangly Wolverhampton post-punk guitar pop representatives The Mighty Lemon Drops. It’s “Inside Out”, a bona fide alternative pop hit as taken from their 1988 album World Without End. The song scored placements on UK and North American charts, mostly championed on this side of the Atlantic by college radio.
The words “Bunnymen” and “Echo and the” were commonly used to describe this band in any given write up about them, now including this one. There are many sonic similarities to help justify their use, maybe. But that’s not the whole story with this band as you listen, particularly with this song which share some of the same musical ties to sixties influences as matched with post-punk ones melodically speaking. Yet they seem to escape the dourness (and Doors references) that I personally associate with Ian McCullouch and his lagomorphic fellows.
These guys made an impact outside of that comparison anyway. After forming in Wolverhampton in 1985, The Mighty Lemon Drops managed to make their mark early on with their inclusion on the C86 compilation, an important document of the era for indie-pop in Britain by the mid-eighties. They had another advantage that carried them past all that, of course; a way with an empathetic anthem. Read more
Life is a mystery, as the poet once said.
This is true even in its most sublime moments, which is a big part of why it’s so precious. There are no guarantees and no promise that all the threads in a single life will be neatly tied up at the end of it, or indeed anywhere along its length. The history of songwriting has certainly plumbed the depths of this aspect of our existence, helping us to be aware of it and to come to a closer understanding of it in our own lives.
But in the lives of some songwriters, this concept of mystery goes one, and sometimes several, steps further. The murky, the undefined, the undisclosed, the unsolved may or may not be a part of their work in an overt way. But in their own lives, it’s a different story completely, with unexpected, discontinuous, and undetermined elements to their lives and careers that either have been mysteries to the listening public, or remain to be so today.
With that in mind, here are 10 songwriters who’s lives, myths, personas, are connected with the unpredictable and mysterious nature of life itself. Some are tragic. Some hold the quality of triumph, too. Some have since stepped from the shadows. Some remain lost in the void. Some you’ve heard about. Some you haven’t. Either way, these ten songwriters embody the various mysteries that are as compelling or even more so than the songs they left behind.
Listen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”, the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.
On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”. This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.
This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. Read more
Listen to this track by low-key new wave Specials splinter group Fun Boy Three. It’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”, a single as taken from their 1983 David Byrne-produced album Waiting, their second and (to date) last. The band consisted of singer Terry Hall, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Goulding, and percussionist and singer Neville Staple, all former members of The Specials who left the ska sound of that band behind in favour of a more spare and post-punk oriented approach.
This song is more recognized in North America by the version recorded by The Go-Go’s in 1981. On the US version of the Waiting album, this song was the lead track perhaps because it was such a recognizable song. But Fun Boy Three came by it pretty honestly, seeing as it’s the product of a writing collaboration between Terry Hall and Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin. In Britain, this version was a bigger hit than the Go-Go’s’ cut, scoring Fun Boy Three a top ten placement on the singles chart in 1983, in part thanks to an appearance on Top Of The Pops on which they performed the song.
“Our Lips Are Sealed” is more than just a writing collaboration between two musicians of course. It’s also a document of something far more personal, with decided contrasts between the two versions of the song that may reveal a thing or two about the points of view of its writers. Read more
Listen to this track by Boston-born disco queen and original dance-pop music diva Donna Summer. It’s “I Feel Love”, the breakthrough 1977 electro-dance hit as produced by Italian producer and musician Giorgio Moroder . It would appear on her fifth album, I Remember Yesterday and as a 12 inch extended single (an innovation of her label, Casablanca), which is what you’re hearing now. It would appear in multiple re-mixes over the years.
Legend has it that Brian Eno and David Bowie discovered the song while in the middle of making the Berlin Trilogy, convincing even them of what dance music would sound like in the ensuing decades. They were right on the money, of course. Along with being thoroughly innovative, this song was also a huge pop hit that immediately appealed to the masses. It scored top ten status all over the world and effectively solidified Donna Summer’s star status at just the right time, which was the height of the disco period.
Amazingly too, it paved the way for modern club music in general by freeing it from the world of American R&B, and introducing decidedly European influences instead. Its influence would have a lasting impact well beyond disco, particularly where music technology was concerned, but for many other reasons, too. Read more
Listen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.
Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.
But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more
The Beatles demonstrated a significant spike in maturity by the time they began to write songs for their sixth record, Rubber Soul. This revealed itself in the way they recorded the album, deliberately meant to be an artistic statement and not just as a memento of their live act. Their new maturity also revealed itself in the arrangements of the songs, incorporating new instruments and the influences of music from other cultures, too. It certainly comes out in the vocal arrangements that are gloriously layered in a way that, as great as the harmonies always were on Beatles records, reaches a sonic zenith here with the best singing of their career as a band to date.
Possibly the most striking sign that the Beatles had truly come into their maturity as a band, a recording entity, and as individuals is the songwriting. There are love songs on this record as expected. But, they aren’t just the paeans to puppy love as they were on “Thank You Girl” or “From Me To You” from two years previous. As Moe Berg from Canadian band The Pursuit of Happiness once said: “I don’t write songs about girls anymore. I have to write songs about women“. That’s where the Beatles were at by Rubber Soul; they were adults now. So, here on this set of songs love is far more complex, often provoking as much ire and insecurity as it does warm feelings of affection. At times, it gets pretty dark and overtly so, where in the past those feelings of anger and resentment were less obvious behind a pure pop sheen. Basically, Rubber Soul is the first of their records aimed at grown-ups, or soon to be grown ups, and not specifically at teenagers screaming from the stands.
To discuss some of these themes in this episode of the podcast, my good friend Graeme Burk and I am joined by NPR Books editor Petra Mayer to talk about these very themes, and other bits and pieces to do with The Beatles sixth UK record. Speaking of teenagers screaming from the stands, we also talk about an historic performance not just in Beatles history but in all history; The Beatles at Shea Stadium.
Listen to the podcast right here.
Listen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.
The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.
One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned. Read more