10 Reasons The Beatles Broke Up

Other than the magnificently transportive music they made that shaped the way pop music itself was conceived, made, and culturally codified thereafter, one of the key things that makes The Beatles such a compelling band is the strength of their myth. Now, I have personally bored many people senseless in conversation, and even in podcasts, on the nature of The Beatles as a story, not just as a musical act.

What kind of story are we talking about exactly? I’ve come to believe that their story is a quest myth, and a coming of age story all rolled into one. To the former, it really is a story full of colourful characters that seem to be so huge that recognizing the fact that they were and are living, breathing human beings is rational, but not quite complete. They were, and are, more than that. This is because they take up space in our imaginations as much as they did and do in real life time and space. But as to the latter, the coming of age part of the equation, that’s the aspect of The Beatles story that adds a splash of mournful blue to the psychedelic spectrum. For something to be so wonderful to those outside looking in, it couldn’t possibly have been made to last.

As with everything in life, the answer to Why Did The Beatles Break Up? is and always has been more complicated than one factor affecting the whole. As much as fans like me venerate the people involved, we are talking about human beings here, however talented. They were subject to conflicting forces and grey areas that we all are. What were those forces according to me at least? Here in (very!) rough chronological order are at least 10 for you to consider, Good People.

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10 Cover Songs By The Beatles That Helped Define Them

The Beatles established the idea for British beat groups that if you wanted to make your mark, you had to write your own songs.

But, before they were writers, they were music fans and record collectors – just like us! They had influences, like any other band. In their earliest days, The Beatles considered themselves primarily as a rock ‘n’ roll band. But, they pulled in a number of influences that allowed them to define their sound even early on; soul music, rockabilly, traditional pop, movie soundtrack music, Latin music, and more.

The Beatles 1964

A lot of the time, their choice in material was made so as to distinguish their sets from those of other bands working the same clubs as they did. And it also served them as a live act when they were a bar band in Hamburg, playing eight-hour shows. To play sets that long, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground, and make sure you’re ready to play anything for the sometimes volatile audiences. More material is better than less in those situations; better to know it and not have to play it, than having to play it, and not knowing it.

What this anything goes approach also helped them to do of course is to create a template for how wide their reach would be as songwriters on their own. So, which songs did they cover that helped them to do this best? Well, in the tradition of the Delete Bin, here are 10 to consider as great Beatle-starters, and as prime cuts of pure pop magic all on their own. Take a look! Read more

Happy Birthday, George Harrison: 10 Cover Versions

George Harrison had always been seen as the kid brother to his bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But, that would change.

Although it took him a while, George soon became as good a songwriter as his partners in The Beatles had become, and did so largely on his own steam. Yet, that was the kind of artist he’d always been, focusing his ear for melody early on in his solos, which were meticulously and very patiently wrought, as much as they were inventive, and later to be applied to some of the most celebrated songs in rock history.

Yet, by the mid-to-late 1960s, he’d pen some of the most enduring songs of that group’s catalog as a songwriter. This would be a skill he’d take with him into his solo career as well.

So, in celebration of that skill, and of the birth of George Harrison which is coming up this Saturday, February 25, 2012 (he would have been 69!), here are ten distinguished covers of Harrison’s songs that span his most fertile period. In that time, he mastered acoustic folk styled tunes, sumptuous psychedelia, Indian traditional music, and of course straight ahead guitar pop too. As such, the artists who covered his songs are varied across the stylistic spectrum as well, from pop crooners, to soul men, to blues players, to singer-songwriters.

Take a listen! Read more

George Harrison Sings “Rising Sun”

Dawn on the Ganges River
Rising Sun: Dawn on the Ganges River. The Ganges was where George Harrison's ashes were scattered. (photo: orange tuesday)

Here’s a clip of the squire of Friar Park, slide-guitarist, ukulele player, and singer-songwriter George Harrison. It’s “Rising Sun”, a track off of his last album, 2002’s Brainwashed. The record was released the year after Harrison succumbed to cancer, ten years (!) ago tomorrow, November 29, 2001.

The first sign of cancer in Harrison occurred in 1997, leading to a course in radiotherapy. The disease spread to his lung, and then to his brain. As he sought treatment, his efforts to complete his last record increased too.

One person instrumental  to that effort, in every sense of the word, was his son Dhani Harrison. Another was his old compatriot Jeff Lynne, he of Beatles-influenced ELO, Cloud Nine producer, and fellow bandmate in The Traveling Wilburys. Lynne would put the finishing touches on the record after George died.

It could be argued that there wasn’t a rock star on earth who was more prepared for the Great Beyond than George Harrison. Since his twenties, he’d been interested in Eastern mysticism of all kinds, and in the belief that the material world and all it offered was temporary by its very definition. This is the guy who wrote “All Things Must Pass”, after all.

But, even if George had dealt with the theme of death and the passing of the physical through out his career, this album is unique. But, how so?
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The Beatles Play “I’m Down” at Shea Stadium 46 Years Ago Today

Here’s a clip, and one of my favourite clips of all time, of the Fab Four – the Beatles, that is – at Shea Stadium 0n August 15th, 1965 – 46 years ago today. It’s “I’m Down”, the B-side to the single “Help”, and the closing number of the first large-scale concert in the age before your standard stadium show was standard. In fact, it was this very concert that convinced “the money”, for good or ill, that maybe this rock’n’ roll thing had legs where making tons of cash was concerned.*

*[March 2012 – as if to prove my point, EMI have blocked the clip because they own the rights to it. Sorry, kids.]

*[July 2014 – but here’s that clip again, thanks to Dailymotion. Suck it, The Man!]

But that aside, this was a key show for the band, just on the verge of transforming from a quartet of performing “moptops” to a serious studio entity, going well beyond the touring, radio, and TV appearance showbiz treadmill, to become what they’d always been – true artists. This in turn dovetailed with their growing disatisfaction with live performances, when their own chops as musicians were being lost in the screams of Beatlemania.

The specially-designed 100-Watt Vox amplifiers didn’t even make a dent. Read more

Happy Birthday, George Harrison: Songs Chosen By The Fans

He was the Quiet One; Beatle George; The Dark Horse. He was a lead guitarist with a talent for instrumental melodic innovation, and economy. He was the one who brought in Indian music and instruments to the Beatles, and introduced them to Transcendental Meditation while he was at it. George invited both Billy Preston, and Eric Clapton, to play on Beatles sessions to the betterment of the group’s material.

And of course, he was a superlative songwriter, cutting his own path through the pop music jungle the same as his partners John Lennon and Paul McCartney did, showing an equal mastery of power pop, world music, psychedelia, and folk-rock. His guitar playing first paid tribute to heroes Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, soon evolving into his signature mournful, and impossibly clean slide playing.

The slow trickle of his talent as a songwriter led to a great torrent of creativity that finally had him produce his first A-side with the band in “Something”, and later in co-writing a song, “If Not For You”,  with one of the group’s most admired peers – Bob Dylan. It was his 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass that set him up as the first solo Beatle with a number one album, with songs on display that  showcased his true stature as a writer on his own. He would be the last Beatle (to date) to score a number one single in “I Got My Mind Set On You”.

There are shining gems to be found through out Harrison’s career, from his days in the Beatles to his final album Brainwashed in 2002, the year after he succumbed to cancer. So, on the day he would have celebrated his 68th birthday, here are the George Harrison songs that have meant the most to you, the fans (many of them friends of mine represented here) and some of the musicians you’ve seen featured on this blog too. Here’s the list.

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Nina Simone Sings George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’

ninasimoneherecomesthesunListen to this song by the High Priestess of Soul herself.  It’s a cover version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” by the incomparable Nina Simone as taken from her LP of the same name, 1971’s  Here Comes the Sun.  Today is Harrison’s birthday. He would have been 67 had he not succumbed to lung cancer in 2001  But, he left behind this song, certainly one of my favourites of all time.

Toward the end of the 60s, there was a lot of pressure on jazz vocalists to become more contemporary, to catch up with the times. Some were less successful with the critics than others on this score.  For instance, Ella Fitzgerald’s take on Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ was jarring to both rock critics and, certainly, jazz critics too.  Rock and pop music as approached by jazz musicians at the time were often odd bedfellows.

 

But listen to Simone’s lightness of touch here. The great thing about her take on this is that she barely touches the ground vocally. It’s a pop record, but Simone’s jazz influences make this really special, and not only because of her crystalline and intricate piano lines.  It’s her voice, a sandpapery whisper, effortless, and using the words to the song like an angel uses a skyful of clouds, leaping from one to another, light as air.   Also, the arrangement is lush, with backing vocalists and strings drifting in and out. But where this might have been overblown in the hands of another artist, somehow this song is spacious as well as being lush. Magic.

And getting back to the stylistic chasm between the immediacy of rock music and the improvisational landscapes presented by jazz, I think what a jazz approach brings to pop songs originally written in a rock vein like this one is the power of subtlety, of interpretation.  If immediacy is the province of the rock songwriter, than the intricacies to be found in between, the aural treasures that are waiting to be found, are what artists of Simone’s calibre bring outside of the rock idiom.

That touch of sadness, the blueish tones to be found in the golden warmth and sunshiny glow of Harrison’s original is what really makes this special for me. Where Harrison’s tune is about a sudden feeling of freedom (and playing hooky from Apple Corp, while hanging out in friend Eric Clapton’s garden), Simone’s version is the sound of someone emerging from a real trial, a sorely dark time, with the first rays of hope finally being seen.

And no matter what motivated Simone’s interpretation, whether deliberate or entirely visceral, she delivers a facet of this song that brings out just how great a songwriter Harrison was while she’s doing it. And that is the mark of a first tier artist in any stylistic field.

For more information about  Nina Simone, check out the Nina Simone Official Website.

Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, George Harrison: 10 Musical Moments

It would have been George Harrison’s 66th birthday today, had he beaten the cancer that claimed him in 2001.  And since he’s one of my heroes, I thought I’d pay my respects by compiling a ’10 musical moments’ in the career of the quiet Beatle.

The thing about George Harrison is that a lot of his greatest moments are really subtle – the opening chime of ‘A Hard Day’s Night” as well as the cascading outro to that song is a great example of his creativity as an instrumentalist.  How about the ferocious slide guitar in Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”,  the subtle texture of the sitar on  “Norwegian Wood”,  or the gently weeping guitar solo in his own “Something”.  Yet, there are so many others

And without further ado, here  are my favourite 10 in order of date, certainly not of importance.  As you know, I don’t believe in ‘top ten’ lists.  Just plain ’10’ will do.

Roll Over Beethoven (1963) – the Beatles

The Fabs worshiped Chuck Berry, his material being a rich storehouse of inspiration for all of the Beatles.  Yet, George bashes this one to the wall with a note perfect take on Berry’s classical-masters evoking tale of the power of rock ‘n’roll as the next big thing.  As meat-and-potatoes as the Berry sound is assumed to be, it is certainly more complex, being a boogie-woogie piano line as played on the guitar Harrison makes it sound effortless.

I’m Happy Just To Dance With You  (1964) – The Beatles

In the first half of the Beatles career, Harrison was thought of as a guitarist and vocalist, yet not a writer. It would take him a while, in the eyes of the others and in the eyes of Beatles producer George Martin, to get the swing of it.  So, Lennon and McCartney wrote this one for George as featured on A Hard Day’s Night. I think he takes it and makes it into a storming pop performance, perfectly suited to his voice which at the time was more vulnerable and less sure than that of McCartney or Lennon.  As such, it’s one of Harrison’s best performances as a vocalist in that early Beatles period, before he would go on to write his own material which equaled that of his bandmates.

If I Needed Someone – The Beatles (1965)

Harrison had written songs before this one.  Yet, “If I Needed Someone” is one of the earliest ones which showed his skills as a craftsmen to the same level as anyone writing pop songs at the time, including Lennon and McCartney.  Listen to the jangle of the guitars which seem to ring out forever.  And listen to the interplay of major chords with minor.  Harrison was learning his craft, perhaps. But this one proves that he made several evolutionary leaps as a songwriter, and that he was just getting started.

Taxman – The Beatles (1966)

If one thought that the only acidic wit in the Beatles was Lennon (who in fairness purportedly contributed the line about declaring the pennies on the eyes of those who’ve died…), than this song proves that Harrison too had something in his lyrical arsenal to contribute. This song has been labeled with the term ‘conservative rock’ by some, seeing as it’s a tune about not getting enough return as sung by a millionaire rock star.

But, I think it’s more about a feeling of having lost control over one’s life, which is certainly an arguement to be made in the case of the Beatles.  This lack of control was especially pertinent in 1966, when the band were playing a dreary world tour, expected to show up at fancy parties hosted by people who knew nothing about their music, and who were being asked to play for crowds who couldn’t hear them play music that they themselves couldn’t hear.  The petulance of this song, in my mind, is more a reflection of that than it is about materialism.  And George was soon to be famously outspoken about the dangers of clinging to ‘the material world’.

Within You, Without You – the Beatles (1967)

The Sgt. Pepper album is noted for being ground-breaking for many reasons.  And one of the more unsung reasons is centred around this song – “Within You, Without You” – which marries western instruments with tablas and sitars, which were the province of Indian classical music. George had stayed in India in 1966, taking sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar who was and is one of the most prominent Indian classical musicians in the world.

In being asked about the influence Indian music had on his own compositional approach, George simply said that when he first heard Indian music, it sounded familiar to him, as if he’d always known it.  As far as this song goes, it’s as melodic as anything the band ever did, along with being very haunting, and lushly arranged.  It proved that redefining rock music was not simply about making it more expansive, but also about showing that it goes well beyond R&B and country roots in the West.

All Things Must Pass – The Beatles (1968)

This song was recorded solo 41 years ago today, on Harrison’s 24th birthday.  It would of course be reborn two years later in a full-band form on George’s magnum opus three-record set baring this song as a title track.  But, this is my favourite version of the song as taken from the Beatle’s Anthology Volume Three set, released in 1994.  I can’t believe a 24-year old man wrote this song, wise beyond his years, and maybe past trying to figure out the fickle nature of fame as a Beatle.

Just gorgeous.  And somehow not included on ‘The White Album’.

It’s All Too Much – The Beatles (1968)

George Harrison was the first Beatle to take acid at a dinner party in 1966, and the first to stop taking it upon a disillusioned trip to Haight-Ashbury in 1967 .  But, it was Harrison who really nailed the psychedelic sound better than any of the others. This was recorded for the arguably acid-driven images of the Yellow Submarine film, and one of the most striking additions to it as it dovetails so perfectly with those images.

Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles (1969)

If someone pressed a gun to my head and demanded I choose my favourite Beatles song, I’d say this one. Actually, no one would really need to threaten me.  I believe this is the answer to that question.  Written in Eric Clapton’s garden while playing hooky from the business of running Apple Corps and being in the Beatles, which was turning sour for George by then, this is a song of release, of optimism, of ultimate liberation.  It’s the sound of someone finally getting to where they want to go.

The song contrasts the organic acoustic guitar with the multi-voiced Moog synthesizer, the latter of which was extremely difficult to program by all accounts.  But the lushness of this track never fails to inspire me, so the effort where I stand was well worth it.

What Is Life – George Harrison (1970)

This song is almost like George is returning to his roots as a beat combo guitar player again, after a career of establishing himself as a psychedelic and world music figure in the Beatles. And it’s true that Harrison had produced Badfinger, an early power pop band known to harken back to the early Beatles pop phase.  Their “No Matter What” is a clear homage to their producer’s former band.  Yet, Harrison’s power pop doesn’t sound like anyone other than himself, with a plaintive vocal that sounds like the real thing.  Listen to the tough guitar on this track, too.  Even Phil Spectre’s layered horn section can’t take away from the heart of this tune – a real gem of a pop song written by one of the masters at the top of his game and out from under the weight of his past.

Blow Away – George Harrison (1979)

I’m kind of cheating here, maybe.  I’ve written about this song “Blow Away” before.  It’s my favourite of his solo songs, full of optimism like “Here Comes the Sun”, and also infused with a bit of melancholy too.

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George wrote a number of great tracks after this, of course. And there are many I’ve not been able to include here.  By the early 80s, he was a sparse recording star, with a number of other pursuits that took him away from music, which he’d decided he’d only do part time.  There were more active years than others, including his comeback album Cloud 9, and the precursor to that album in The Traveling Wilburys, a ‘super-group’ he’d formed with some famous friends.  And of course, there was his final album Brainwashed, recorded over several years, even when faced with a case of terminal cancer which would claim his life in 2001.

What Harrison leaves behind is a legacy that goes beyond his contributions as a musician.  He was a film producer too, ensuring that Monty Python’s The Life of Brian would get made, when backers blanched at the potential controversy of the film’s subject matter.  He was a record label owner, a gardener, a racing enthusiast, a husband, a dad, and a respected professional among his peers.

Happy birthday, George.

Enjoy!

The Beatles Play ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ On the Rooftop: 40 Years Ago!

Here’s a clip of the latter-day Fab Four, forty years ago today, playing their massively underrated track “I’ve Got A Feeling” from the rooftops of the Apple Corps offices, Saville Row London.  It was a key scene in the Beatles’ Let it Be film, which was meant to be a document of their comeback as a live band, and became something completely opposite instead.

Some original ideas for this concert, their first since San Francisco’s  Candlestick Park in August 1966, was to film it as a grand finale appearance at the Parthenon, or Pompeii, or on a luxury cruise ship.  In the end, the Beatles settled for the lunchtime London bowler-hat-and-brolly set, an audience several storeys below them.  It was the middle-class business man’s lunch rush, interspersed with their secretaries, messengers, and tea boys filling the streets on their breaks, or on errands.  It would have been impossible for any of them to guess that the Beatles would never play in public again after this.  They would never know in that moment how lucky they were to have been so surprised to hear the Beatles during their lunch breaks.

This lack of historical foresight  is best evidenced first by the complaints in the street as captured by Let it Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and later by the borough council who sent a few bobbies up to the roof to shut the whole thing down.  It was hoped that the police would drag the Beatles away in a dramatic fashion.  But, being British, the police politely asked them to stop.  And the Beatles and their friends, being British (except for keyboardist Billy Preston of course), complied.  And that was it.

But, it was never about defying the police.  That was just an idea for an ending of the film. It was about them, as a band, playing together, and making an album.  Or, it was supposed to be.  By this time of course, they all had their own interests. Ringo was acting in movies.  George spent had time in upstate New York, visiting with the Band and envying what they had made of themselves as a supple musical unit without much fanfare or glamour.  John Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono had him wondering why he needed to be in a group at all.  And Paul was becoming increasingly autocratic by all accounts, trying to hold everything together.  The whole thing was doomed, and each Beatle knew it.  And as a result the movie becomes  a study in artistic dissolution, rather than one of a band working as a unit to mount a comeback.

But, despite the state of the Beatles union, they still had their songs.  This one, “I’ve Got A Feeling” is an amalgam of two songs.  The main body is Paul’s, and the middle eight “Everybody had a hard year” was a fragment that John had been tinkering with.  In effect, this is more a Lennon & McCartney effort than most, from a writing point of view anyway.

But more importantly, it showcases the Beatles as a solid rock ‘n’ roll band, with Paul’s growling rock voice, John’s jagged guitar, George’s effortless rhythm, and Ringo’s thudding rock stomp.  Billy Preston’s laid back Fender Rhodes is an emollient to the brashness of Lennon’s guitar, which creates a really interesting contrast.  But mostly, this represents the Beatles as a rock group.  This tune has balls.  And you can tell that when they’re playing, all of the other stuff doesn’t matter.

The group would come together again later in the year to make their final album, Abbey Road.  And the soundtrack to the Let it Be film would be released the following year.  But,  by April 1970, the Beatles were over as a working partnership.  But as many have said, whatever happened they could count on a legacy which remains unsullied.  Everything else aside, they really were a great little rock ‘n’ roll group.

Enjoy!

The Beatles Perform ‘Revolution 1’ From the White Album

Here’s a clip of a recently released from Maharishi summer camp fab four with the original version of their single “Revolution”, billed as it was on the The Beatles (The White Album), released 40 years ago in November 1968, as “Revolution 1”.

The clip is a bit of a dodge in that the footage is taken from the promo of the single which was re-recorded and released in August of 1968.  That version, as you may know, is a bit louder, faster, and shoutier to suit the times.  The clip slows everything down to match the more languid pace of the original.

The White Album version is like a stoned acoustic doo-wop, with Lennon’s voice a little on the sleepy side.  Yet, there’s a real groove there, with a somnambulant veneer, a dreamy vibe which draws your ear into the lyrics a bit more than the single version does.   And of course there’s the “count me out…in” lyric that still has critics wondering what Lennon was getting at.  It was argued that the track was too slow to be a single.  So it was re-recorded as a double-A side with “Hey Jude”.

“Revolution” the single remains to be one of the hardest dirtiest statements the Beatles ever released.  When the group performed the song on David Frost’s show, featured in the clips, they performed it semi-live, with the record backing their live vocals.  Paul and George put the “a-womp, shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals back in, even if the single had taken them out.

Nineteen Sixty-Eight was a turbulent year historically, and for the Beatles it was certainly one for contrast.  It was a year of both self-contemplation and politicization too by the time the year was over.   In many ways, this year was the beginning of a new state of affairs for the Beatles, who since 1963 had lived in the insular world of recording studios, stages, radio stations, movie sets, and hotel rooms.  Times were changing, even for the fab four.

They had met with the Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, the previous year in Britain, and had attended a number of his seminars.  This included a weekend in Bangor, Wales, a kind of spiritual retreat.  This served as a means of introducing the group, their wives, and some of their friends, to the world of TM.

While away in Bangor, their manager Brian Epstein died of an accidental drugs overdose.  Even in this, they knew that things had shifted from one era to another.  Epstein had been the band’s manager in nearly every sense, from logistics, to finances, to publicity (with the help of press officer Derek Taylor).  Above all, Epstein had held them together as an entity, as a package.  When he was gone, part of the work cut out for them was to redefine who they were as a band, as people within that band, and ultimately what the relationship was between each.

Maybe this is why the group’s interest in TM would inspire them to take some time off and go to Rishikesh in India to take an expanded course in TM under Maharishi’s tutelage.  Along with their wives, they were also joined by celebrity friends, and other TM enthusiasts in a sort of spiritual summer camp, even if the span of months stretched from February to April of 1968.  And while there, each Beatle wrote songs – lots of them.

George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Donovan, and Patti Boyd.  Wheres Ringo?  He left early.  He was allergic to Maharishis cooking.
The Beatles in Rishikesh India. From Left: George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Donovan, and Patti Boyd. Where’s Ringo? He left early. He was allergic to Maharishi’s cooking.

But even if the Beatles wrote about various subjects in their India-written songs, they certainly began to write about their times in a more direct way.  Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is a direct reference to civil rights.  George Harrison’s “Piggies” discusses the narrow-mindedness of the middle-classes.  And of course, it’s Lennon who later pens “Revolution”, in the wake of the Paris student riots after his return from Rishikesh.  It seems that the look inward actually produced an opposite effect.  And with no Brian Epstein to rein in their political impulses in the songwriting, it was the first overtly political statement from the Beatles.

It was a tough year, particularly for the counterculture.  Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, the war in Vietnam raged on, and Richard Nixon came to power as President of the United States for the first time.  In many ways, the Beatles eponymous next album being something of a darker beast than the colourful Sgt. Pepper the year before was understandable.  And “Revolution” captured something of the zeitgeist, a feat which had always been something of a Beatles trait. Yet, it could be argued that this was the beginning of the end of the Beatles, as each member of the band began to realize that there was life outside of the bubble that had been made for them to live in up until then.

Enjoy!

[UPDATE, Aug 2, 2012: Check out these rare photos of the Beatles in India.]