A Year With The Beatles Podcast: The Beatles (AKA “The White Album”)

thebeatles68lpJohn Lennon famously said that if you listen to The White Album, you can hear The Beatles breaking up. You can certainly hear that each member had a lot of things to say, and with many different ways to say it musically speaking, from traditional rock n’ roll, to wistful bucolic folk, to quasi-baroque black humour, to proto-prog excursions, to noise-rock, to the churning collage approach of avant garde, and beyond. The fact was, the band was going through a metamorphosis even as the political and cultural landscapes were changing all around them, drifting into darker territory from the multicoloured promise of the hippy dream just one year before.

They’d drifted pretty far from those shores themselves since their manager Brian Epstein died, the man who kept them together as a group with a common purpose. They’d come to find themselves on different paths from each other, too. Even in the band photos on the inner sleeve of this double disc magnum opus, there isn’t a group shot to be found. Rather we find John, Paul, George, and Ringo in separate quadrants looking a little worse for wear. Even in the middle of all of that, they made one of their most striking and influential works, even if on some tracks they performed as solo artists who used “The Beatles” as a banner under which to produce their individual material, rather than as a band. So what you can also hear on this record is them trying to find their voices as individuals, all the while using any voices they had to hand.

Among many other things which The Beatles represents, my friend Graeme and I are joined once again by musician, podcaster, and critic Alex Kennard who celebrates this album as his favourite of their catalogue. As usual, we discuss our favourite tracks, and we talk about how to approach this listening to this album given its magnitude. Unusually, maybe, we don’t talk about whether the record should have been a single disc. Because that would be dumb.

And Alex has a pop at Clapton, and praises “Revolution 9” to the skies.

You can decide if he’s right yourself by listening to the episode right here.

Enjoy!

Leon Redbone Sings “Lazy Bones”

leon-redbone-on-the-trackListen to this track by throwback ragtime guitarist and singular “character” Leon Redbone. It’s “Lazy Bones”, a cut off of his 1975 debut record On The Track. That album contained several renditions of pre-war tin pan alley,  jazz, and country blues tunes like this one that are so authentic sounding that you can practically hear the surface crackles on them.

For all of the retro-style textures from decades ago that artists today reference in their own music, Leon Redbone preceded them all. Like an artist today might reference a sound from the seventies, Redbone in turn reached back into the 1930s and even earlier to remind his audiences that the nature of pop music hadn’t really changed that much in terms of form in that they were still short little aural slabs of joy that are designed to get stuck in your head. The album even scored an #87 on the top 100 Billboard pop album chart by 1975.

Much like the dusty musical forms he traded in, Leon Redbone was an enigma. Like the blues itself, no one really knows where he came from, and not just in a showbiz sense.

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Pat Benatar Sings “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”

patbenatar-crimesofpassionListen to this track by rock n’ roll and pop powerhouse Pat Benatar. It’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, a gargantuan hit single as taken from her breakthrough 1980 record Crimes Of Passion, her second and biggest selling album to date.

The song was a top ten hit in on the US charts, and scored similar success around the world, being a hard rock song with a pop aftertaste while never sounding corporatized or manufactured a la the profusion of corporate rock at the time. The album was huge, scoring a number two placement on the charts, only bettered chartwise by John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. She even got a Grammy for best female rock vocal performance of the year in 1981 .

One thing that stands out to me past the lyrical surface of the song, and past the mainstream success the song had, there is an important subtext to be found here that goes well beyond the material as it was written. Read more

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings Perform “This Land Is Your Land”

sjdknaturallyListen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.

Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.

When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”. Read more

Genesis Plays “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”

genesis-nursery-crymeListen to this track by parodic prog rock paragons Genesis. It’s “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”, a tale of botanical horror as featured on the 1971 album Nursery Cryme, their third. The album kicked off a new era for Genesis; new members, new textures, and a new sense of scale.

The vital additions to the band by this time were drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and guitarist Steve Hackett. Both musicians added their considerable instrumental chops to the material on the record to raise the whole band’s game. As a result, they helped to assure the group’s place as top shelf participants in a growing movement of bands at the time who traded on complex musical structures and often very high-minded lyrical subject matter.

To me, what made Genesis unique in their early output is that they could take conventions of all kinds and bring out the absurdities in them, no matter how obscure or mundane. And here, they’re able to write a song about an invasion, while also rooting it (pardon the pun) in an area not generally drawn on by most songwriters; botany. But there’s also hint at another area of interest that can be traced in their work that delves deeper still. Read more

Richard Thompson Sings “Beeswing”

mirror-blue-richard-thompsonListen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.

But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.

Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the  obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us. Read more

New Year, New Tunes 2017

yorinda-and-yoringel-in-the-witchs-wood

It’s 2017, finally! We’ve kicked 2016 to the curb and good riddance.

Last year, we lost a Dame. We lost a Prince. We lost a Poet Laureate. We lost a myriad of others who we count as heroes. Somewhere in there, the world gained a Drumpf. Last year sucked, basically.

From here, we have quite a job to do to make sure that this year, 2017, doesn’t suck as much. It’s early yet. But I get the feeling it may be a tall order. This is particularly given our political climate as racist organizations re-brand themselves, slither into the mainstream, and drip poison into the ears of the public.  We have to fight them. For that, we’ll need fuel for the trip.

Among other sources of spiritual nutrients, music is pretty high up on my personal list. If you’re here, you probably share my point of view on that. With that in mind, here is a selection of new music to kick off your new year. As is the norm, I invite you to take a deep dive, and tell me about your favourite tracks, and maybe even some ways you’re going to make sure that 2017 rocks instead of sucks. So, what are you waiting for? Step into my office …

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A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Magical Mystery Tour

thebeatlesmagicalmysterytouralbumcoverThe Beatles had a heck of a 1967, with plenty of ups and downs to characterize the year. One big “up” was the success of Sgt. Pepper in June that helped to change the game for peers, fans, the music industry, and for The Beatles themselves. Another was the discovery of Transcendental Meditation, which initially helped them to gain perspective on their own fame and the demands of the material world. They would double-down on their involvement with it by joining their newfound guru, Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, in Rishikesh by the start of 1968. That’s another story.

But back to 1967.  A big “down” in this very same year was the loss of their manager, Brian Epstein, who died due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in August while the band were away in Wales on a TM course. This set the band adrift in terms of their commercial destinations, an area that Brian had always tended as their manager. In fact, Brian had been their ballast as a unified group all around. By the end of 1967, they were on their own. So they decided to keep working.

They made a film, Magical Mystery Tour, that was shown on British TV on Boxing Day. Around the same time, they put out a couple of EPs with some new songs they’d worked up and had featured in the film along with a few that hadn’t been. A few of those songs were about their childhoods back in Liverpool, a theme which the film also touches on. Given the loss of their friend, it probably seemed like a good idea to reset things with such an affectionate nod to their roots during what must have been a very confusing and upsetting time. In so doing, they managed to create the most childlike and optimistic releases in their catalogue. It’s certainly their most “scouse” record, which is to say it’s overtly rooted in Liverpudlian culture.

Eventually, Capitol records who distributed Beatles releases in North America put all of the songs on the EPs together into a bang-up full album called, well, Magical Mystery Tour. And for once they were dead right to do so, so much so that Parlophone and Apple included the album in the cannon of official Beatles releases (so, we did too!). It’s a record that John Lennon once called his favourite Beatles album “because it’s so weird”.

Joining us this time around for our magically mysterious tour of the Beatles discography is British TV expert, visual artist, and film history author Jim Sangster, who as it happens is also from Liverpool. He even recorded his part of the episode while being only a short hop and a skip from Woolton, the site of the first meeting between Dirk and Nasty themselves. This is appropriate in that this really is the most Liverpool of The Beatles’ albums by some distance. There’s lots of cultural references to unpack here, and Jim’s the man to help us do it even when it gets graphic (which it does). We also review the aforementioned film Magical Mystery Tour, famously pasted by critics at the time. Only this time, it’s our turn!

Listen to the episode right here.

And from here, Good People, I must leave you until the dawn of 2017 (or thereabouts) when, if the stars align as they should, I will return with a mix of new songs to kick off our New Year. The podcast will continue, too of course. Until then, happy holidays everyone. Thank you all for joining me in 2016 by reading, subscribing, leaving your comments, and sharing on your social feeds. Until we meet again, friends …

Enjoy!

Big Mama Thornton Sings “Ball And Chain” Live With Buddy Guy

ball-and-chain-big-mama-thorntonListen to this track by underappreciated blues and rock architect Big Mama Thornton. It’s “Ball and Chain”, a cut that Thornton wrote in the early 1960s, recorded by the end of that decade and can be heard on the Ball And Chain compilation album. The song provided the runway for her resurgence as a performer at that time, too.

This particular rendition was recorded for public television in 1970, including Buddy Guy and his band behind a very formidable Thornton. The two artists had worked together on live shows in Europe in the mid-sixties, the musical rapport they create here perhaps indicating how simpatico they are. During her intro, Thornton mentions Janis Joplin who also had massive success with this song, inspired as she was by the elder singer’s powerful and heart-wrenching original version. Joplin would later invite Thornton to open shows for her.

Yet, Thornton was the pioneer while Joplin trod her path. This being the music industry, and being our world in general, that path was fraught with perils for someone like Big Mama Thornton. The first casualty was her own fame, or lack thereof. Read more

The Monkees Play “Daydream Believer”

the_monkees_single_05_daydream_believerListen to this track by enduring multimedia phenomenon that featured ex-jockey and Artful Dodger Davy Jones as a lead singer, The Monkees. It’s “Daydream Believer”, one of their biggest hits and appearing on the 1968 album The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees.

As with many songs that The Monkees recorded, “Daydream Believer” was sourced from an outside writer. In this case, the writer is John Stewart who was a one-time member of folk group The Kingston Trio. That folk connection seems like kind of an odd fit on the surface of things where The Monkees were concerned, maybe. But producer Chip Douglas, who was a friend of Stewart’s, helped the band turn this into a smash pop single. This is in no small part thanks to Peter Tork, who came up with and plays the bright piano line that helps to define the song so sharply. Additionally, both Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz add their own parts (guitar and backing vocals respectively), making this a full-band effort.

But the one who really shines on this is Davy Jones himself, striking a balance between joy and melancholy that’s as good as any of the best pop songs of the decade. Beyond the era in which it was made, I think this song says a lot about it’s lead singer too, and continues to do so even beyond his time spent on earth singing it. Yet initially, Davy Jones just didn’t get this song. Read more