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June 13, 2017

Top 2 Beatles songs

About a week ago, out of the blue I blurted out to my family what the two best Beatles songs are. I pronounced this with a seriousness befitting the topic, and with a confidence born of the fact that it’s a ridiculous question and it doesn’t matter anyway.

Vulture just published a complete ranking of all Beatles songs.

Nailed it.

Their #1 selection is an obvious contender. #2 is controversial and probably intentionally so. But, obviously, I think it’s a good choice.

If you want to see what they chose, click here: #1. Day in the Life #2 Strawberry Fields

By the way, the Vulture write-ups of each of the songs are good. At least the ones I read were. If you’re into this, the best book I’ve read is Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, which has an essay on each recording with comments about the social and personal context of the song and a learned explanation of the music. Astounding book.

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July 2, 2015

Beatles’ Revolver 49 years later: A Review

In the 1980s, I stopped listening to music for no particular reason. It was only in the early 1990s as I was commuting every week to my mother’s death bed (don’t smoke, kids!) that I started again. Thank you Mssrs. Bach, Gould, and Goldberg.

I have not listened to a Beatles album since before my 1980s quiet period. Let’s say about 35 years. I listen to other groups from that period, some of whom hold up amazingly well. But not the Beatles.

Why? They mean so much to me that there are no occasions that deserve them.

I know that’s nuts. I listen to Bach in utter awe and don’t think to myself, “Well, sure, but too bad George Martin wasn’t around then to help him out.” I do understand than my feelings about the Beatles are inextricably mixed with the growing distance from my youth.

So, it’s embarrassingly symbolic—the sort of thing that would make you stop reading a novel—that I listened to the Beatles on a run this morning while my wife and I are awaiting word that, God willing, we’ve become grandparents. (I don’t have words to talk about that now.)

So, here’s a review of Revolver (the UK version).

Overall: A+. Solid gold. 49 years young.

Track by track:

Taxman. This was not a favorite of mine, catchy though it is. I remember it as being too derivative, too genre-based. And an awkward protest song for the rich. On re-hearing it: It is a genre song with typical Beatles’ inventiveness. Great guitar work. Witty call-back to the Batman theme. Totally enjoyable.

Eleanor Rigby. It’s really hard to write fiction. For me this song doesn’t capture how Eleanor Rigby seems to herself. Yeah, lots people are lonely. But I’d like this song better if it ended with “All the lonely people, where do we all belong?” Not that I’m saying I could have done a better job of it. I’m just saying it’s a little immature and a tad condescending. On the other hand, a song like this is not what you’d expect from a rock band in the ’60s, unless they were the Beatles. It’s the Beatles stretching themselves. The melody is obviously great. The backing vocals are amazing. As always.

I’m Only Sleeping. Q: What sort of song is this? A: A Beatles song. Everything about it is unpredictable: the topic, the minor-major shifts, the harmonies, the bridge, the instrumentation and arrangement. Catchy, too. Try to get John out of bed and you get a tuneful, brilliantly original song. How about leaving a little talent for the rest of us, John, ok?

Love You To. It opens with a sitar. We don’t know where it’s going. We’re not even sure what scale it’s going to be using. And then it turns out that it’s a riff-driven song not unlike Taxman. The melody mixes the West and the East and is pretty minimal. But clearly this is George’s, reflecting his eclecticism and intended to educate us toward Indian music. The Beatles stretching themselves again.

Here, There and Everywhere. An impossibly pretty genre song. A little cupcake of perfection. The little almost-discordant harmony on “Love never dies” kills me every time.

Yellow Submarine. Tell you what, let’s have Ringo throw in a classic kiddy song with enough complexity in the harmonies and arrangements that it’ll be great when you’re high. Anyone see where the Oreos got to?

She Said, She Said. Power rock beginning. Angry high notes. Fuzz guitar echo. Break the tempo on the last line of the verse. Killer harmonies. A bridge that comes out of nowhere (“When I was a boy…”). The whole thing threatening to come apart once you’re out of the safety of the verse, with Ringo doing some wonderful lord knows what. I love the Beatles.

Got to Get You into My Life. Weird tempo. Horns. Who arranged this, Herb Alpert? What sort of song is this? Oh yeah, a Beatles song. This is essentially a solo by Paul, with the horns doing the harmonies. George’s guitar enters late with its usual egolessness—a new melody that serves the song rather than wowing us with George’s originality.

For No One. A melody that just rolls on, taking turns you don’t foresee until afterwards. Rhythmic shifts from waltz to 4/4. A goddamn French horn. An unresolved ending that works melodically and thematically.

Good Day Sunshine. In the first measures you think it’s going to be somber. Instead it turns into something cheery although the genre is confounding. Broadway? Damn those harmonies! Then the stride piano. WTF. Who else could have done this? I’m not sure what it is, but everything about it is great.

And Your Bird Can Sing. Damn. Another one. Incredible guitar work by George. What’s the bird? I don’t care. I’m not saying this is a great song. But whatever you think the Beatles are like, listen to this and remember that the Beatles weren’t like anything.

Doctor Robert. Another riff-driven song, like Taxman. George’s guitar could not be better. Again. The harmonies are amazing. The bridge (“Well, well, well you’re feeling fine”) switches to a chorale that’s as rhythm-free as any bureaucracy. A rollicking good time.

I want to tell you. Everything about this song is weird and unexpected: the chord changes, the instrumentation, the harmonies, the genre shifts. “It’s alright” has a weird dissonant piano behind it. There’s some straight rock guitar work thrown in by George. Where did this song come from?

Tomorrow Never Knows.. The amazing book Revolution in the Head argues pretty fiercely that LSD did not help the Beatles be better at what they do, especially for John. This is a pretty good evidence of that. Even so.

I tell you, these young Beatles are going to be big! Big, I tell you!

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October 28, 2014

Paul McCartney’s end of the end

I’ve transferred my Google Play Music from one account to another (because of something I’ll explain in a post coming soon) and have found in it some albums I don’t own, have never heard of, and sometimes from singers I never heard of. No, no extra U2. Plus, some of the names of singers whose albums I do own have been mangled: Amanda Palma is sonorous, although I personally prefer Amander Palmer.

Anyway, one lagniappe I appreciated was a Paul McCartney album I’d missed. I still find it hard to listen to The Beatles without being overwhelmed: awe at their genius, longing for my youth, depression at how badly I and my generation failed you, regret for who I was then and what I am now. You know, the whole lifelong shitteroo. (Christ, get me some chocolates!) But Paul’s solo albums I can listen to without being overwhelmed. If I like half the songs, it’s a good album.

So, this morning I listened for the first time to McCartney’s Memory Almost Full (2007), which had unexpectedly materialized in my Google Play collection. As the title implies, it’s mainly about looking down as you near the peak of Mt. Old. The excellent Wikipedia article tells me that it was a Top Five album, went gold, and was Grammy-nominated. Apparently I have not been paying sufficient attention.

His song “End of the End” has some lovely lyrics, although I prefer the verses to the chorus. Here’s one of each:

On the day that I die I’d like bells to be rung
And songs that were sung to be hung out like blankets
That lovers have played on
And laid on while listening to songs that were sung

At the end of the end
It’s the start of a journey
To a much better place
And a much better place
Would have to be special
No reason to cry
No need to be sad
At the end of the end

The line “like blankets that lovers have played on and laid on while listening to songs that were sung” makes me glad that Paul knows what his music has meant to some of us. And I like the wrapping of the metaphor — “songs that were sung … while listening to songs that were sung.”

The slightly sappy chorus nevertheless makes me glad Paul appreciates the sweetness of his life, even though I’m not much convinced that any of us are going anywhere at the end of the end.

But when someone says about their impending death “Don’t be sad. I had a full life,” or whatever, they’re acting as if their death only happens to them. We may not be sad for you, but how about for us? It’s not all about you, you know! Though I do have to acknowledge that in this case most of it is.

Furthermore, the idea that we’ll “always have them in our hearts,” is not consolation. It’s what we need consolation for.

Where are those chocolates already?

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April 20, 2014

Minor Beatles

This video was over at the NY Times Crossword blog (where I discovered that I’d missed the really clever part of the theme):

I know I’m old, children, but keep in mind that that’s a minor Beatles song. And yet there is so much right about it. More or less perfect. And not nearly the best of what they gave us.

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August 25, 2012