Tag Archives: Beatles

Rolling Stone Picks The Top 100 Beatles Songs

Rolling Stone magazine is at it again.  Last time, it was the Top 500 Rock and Roll Songs of all time; now it’s the Top 100 Beatles songs.   As a fan of All Things Fab, it’s a given that I’ll be picking this issue up and griping about whether a particular song should be higher or lower, or complaining about what’s included and what’s not. Oddly, while RS‘s Top 500 list contained 23 Beatles songs, the highest-rated Beatles tune on the All-Time list — “Hey Jude” — comes in only at number seven on the All-Beatles list.  (I mean, really, if it’s number eight on the all time list, shouldn’t it be number one here?) Meanwhile, “Yesterday,” which  ranked below “Hey Jude” at 13 on the All-Time list, is four spots about “Jude” on the Beatles list at number four.  So much for internal consistencies.

In general, I agree with the overall content of the top ten, though I might slide some of them around a bit (my personal favorite for the Number One spot vacillates between “Hey Jude” and “Something”).   Here, then are Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Beatles songs, with a bit of side commentary:

(10) While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The words and music are George Harrison’s, but the famously weeping guitar solo is all Eric Clapton.  This cut from 1968’s The Beatles (the so-called “White Album”) was originally demoed by George on just an acoustic guitar, with slightly different — and, in the case of one verse, much more depressing — lyrics.  Here’s that demo — and it’s actually a  more haunting performance than the wailing version on the final album:

(9) Come Together

Originally written by John Lennon wrote as the anthem for Timothy Leary’s failed bid for governor of California, “Come Together” features some of Lennon’s most cryptic lyrics (a delight in wordplay in the vein of Edward Lear), a snaky bass line, and some of the best drumming of Ringo Starr’s Beatle career.  (Also of note:  the creepy opening, which sounds like Lennon is stage-whispering “shhhhhook!” It’s actually Lennon saying “shoot me!” as he claps his hands — with the clap reverbed and echoed under the bass line.)

Here’s Lennon performing the song in 1972 at Madison Square Garden (you can get it on his posthumous Live in New York City album):

(8) Let It Be

Rehearsed and recorded during the tumultuous “winter of discontent” that eventually produced their final album, the Beatles shelved the song — and all the tapes from the sessions — until 1970, when they were handed over to master producer Phil Spector to cobble something together. McCartney was never happy with the version Spector put together for the Let It Be album, with its heavy scoring and choir, and preferred something closer to this version, seen in the Let It Be film (look for Billy Preston wailing away on the keyboard):

(7) Hey Jude

As I said above, this one usually gets my vote for number one. It starts simply and, with each chorus, builds in a deceptively dramatic manner. The words are terrific, the sentiment genuine, never cloying, and Lennon and McCartney have never harmonized better.

(6) Something

To me, this is the sleeper on the list — and vies with “Hey Jude” as my pick for number one. It’s about as perfect a song as George Harrison ever composed, but McCartney’s wandering bass line is the icing on the cake. Without it, it would be a very different song indeed.

(5) In My Life

One of John Lennon’s most introspective songs, this is one that usually ends up on the lists that the more hard core Beatles fans put together, while those less familiar with the Beatles usually go, “Huh?” That’s probably because “In My Life” was never released as a single, appearing in the middle of the second side of Rubber Soul (thats track 11 for those of you who don’t remember vinyl. And get offa my lawn.) That makes it a bit of inside baseball, but its appearance in the top ten is well-earned.

(4) Yesterday

While it’s one of the most-recorded songs in history, McCartney — its primary composer — and the Beatles were somewhat nervous about this one, fearing it would ruin their rock and roll cred. For that reason, they refused to release it as a single in the United Kingdom (Capitol, their US record label, had no such qualms, and wisely released it in autumn 1965, where it sprinted to number one.)

Here are the Beatles — mostly McCartney, solo — following a cheeky intro from George Harrison:

(3) Strawberry Fields Forever

In late 1966, the Beatles were considering putting together an album of songs about their respective childhoods, to include a song McCartney had written about a street in Liverpool called “Penny Lane” and Lennon’s surreal nod to a Salvation Army garden near his childhood home. Ultimately — and in a move Beatles producer George Martin regrets to this day — “Penny Lane” and “Strawberrry Fields Forever” were packaged as a single (“Penny Lane” gets the Side 1 bragging rights) and the childhood album was scrapped in favor of the Sgt. Pepper motif.

The best-known story of the song involves George Martin splicing together two different versions of the song — which were also in two different keys — by slightly altering their speeds to put them in the same key. Hence, the rather druggy sounding lyrics. You can hear the splice at the 1:00 mark in the video below:

(2) I Want To Hold Your Hand

While I might argue that “She Loves You” is the better composition, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was the song that kicked off Beatlemania in the United States in 1964, so it backs into the Top Ten for historical significance. Here are the Boys, performing on Thank Your Lucky Stars in England in 1963. And look! They’re not plugged in!

(1) A Day In The Life

While I like “Hey Jude” better, I can’t argue with this one as the top pick. The final cut on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not only a fantastic song, nearly operatic in scope, but it also embodies the working styles and relationship of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Inspired by a number of newspaper stories, Lennon wrote the opening and closing verses, but lacked a “middle eight.” McCartney, meanwhile, had a snippet of a song — about a man waking up, getting out of bed, and catching a bus to work — that he thought might fit into Lennon’s overall structure. They decided to use a symphonic crescendo between the two pieces and . . . well . . .

It worked. And it still does.

Rolling Stone Picks The 500 Greatest Rock Songs

The newly-released issue of Rolling Stone names what its editors believe to be the top 500 rock and roll songs of all time — an ambitious task that’s certain to provoke debate and fistfights.  Lord knows I disagree with their choice for the greatest song ever — “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan — but disagreements are part of what makes these kinds of lists so much fun to begin with. (Here’s the top five.)

While I might quibble with their pick for number one, I’m thrilled that the group with the most songs on the list — a total of 23 — is the Beatles.  Their highest-rated song is “Hey Jude” at number eight, with “Yesterday” clocking in at lucky number 13.  In fact, “Yesterday” still holds the record as the most recorded song in pop history.

Let’s take a peek at one of those versions right now, shall we?  Here’s “Yesterday” as it was meant to be done: by the VentriloChoir, a sea of ventriloquists and their dummies:

Have a good weekend!

Reviews in Brief: The Lennon Prophecy (Joseph Niezgoda)

lennonprophecyOne of the more fun and fascinating bits of Beatles lore has always been the whole “Paul Is Dead” hoax.  The story spun by that particular hoax is that Paul McCartney allegedly died in an automobile accident in 1966 – a “stupid bloody Tuesday” – and the heartbroken Beatles decided to soldier on without him, replacing McCartney with a lookalike, but planting clues of Paul’s demise in Beatles songs and on album covers. Books could be written about the hoax – and, in fact, a few have – but now comes Joseph Niezgoda, in The Lennon Prophecy: A New Examination of the Death Clues of The Beatles to tell us that everyone’s got it wrong.  The clues aren’t there to detail Paul’s demise, Niezgoda says, but rather to foreshadow John Lennon’s violent death in 1980, payment to the Devil for a 20-year pact Lennon made with Satan in 1960.

Yes, really.

According to Niezgoda, at some point in December 1960 — likely between the Beatles’ anticlimactic return from Germany on December 10, when the group seemed on the verge of breaking up, and their triumphant appearance at the Litherland Town Hall concert on December 27, the night it is generally accepted that Beatlemania was born – John Lennon traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for rock and roll fame and fortune. Twenty years later, in December 1980, the Devil called in the debt, using a demonically-possessed Mark David Chapman as his instrument of death.

On that wacky premise, Niezgoda devotes 186 pages to analyzing John Lennon’s behavior, scrutinizing album covers, scrubbing lyrics for hidden meanings, and generally working way too hard to come up with spooky numeric coincidences to support his theory.  Like the Paul is Dead theory, I don’t buy one word of it; unlike the Paul is Dead theory, however, this one is neither fascinating nor even all that convincing.  Niezgoda’s theories and his interpretations of events, lyrics, and images, are almost always eye-rollingly dopey, and ultimately require enormous leaps in logic or imagination to make lyrics, album covers, or anything else fit his theory.

Part of the problem is that Niezgoda is completely humorless.  Sarcasm, satire, puns and plays on words are completely lost on him.  Lennon’s wit—one of his most enduring traits—baffles Niezgoda, as does Lennon’s use of metaphor and delight in wordplay.  And Niezgoda—who calls himself a “life-long Beatles fan, collector, and scholar”—doesn’t seem to be able to put Lennon or his quotes in context.  He can’t tell when Lennon is joking, bragging, or being dismissive.  He’s absolutely tone deaf.

Anyway, to spare you from ever having to read this thing, I’m going to give you a rundown of some of Niezgoda’s claims to give you an idea of just how loopy, and how spurious, Niezgoda and his claims can be.

Early on, in a chapter titled “Bewitchery of the Masses,” Niezgoda asks how to explain the enormous effect the Beatles had on their fans.  How does one account for the swooning, the fainting, the screaming?  Could it perhaps be their undeniable charisma or talent?  Ridiculous, Niezgoda says; those are exactly the kinds of “intangible” and “indescribable” qualities that manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin ascribed to the band—and they’re indescribable, Niezgoda says, because they were a gift from the Devil. So, Niezgoda’s first “evidence” of demonic influence is Beatlemania itself, in all its inexplicable, unexplainable wonder.

It’s not enough to sell one’s sell to the Devil, though—as Niezgoda explains earnestly, one must also do all he can to actively deride God and religion. Therefore, any time Lennon mentions God, religion, Christ, or his soul, Niezgoda pounces. While he naturally makes hay of the “bigger than Jesus” statement—though not as much as one might expect, giving it only eight pages—any other reference to God is dissected looking for hidden meaning. For example, when John Lennon, following the massive Shea Stadium concert in 1965, remarked that it was “louder than God,” Niezgoda arches an eyebrow curtly. “Why did he chose that analogy?” Niezgoda demands. And when an exhausted Lennon tells childhood friend Pete Shotton at the height of Beatlemania that he often feels he’s sold his soul, the nonplussed Niezgoda can only take the most literate Beatle literally.

Niezgoda is at his most bizarre, though, when analyzing music, lyrics and album covers.  The intricate, interwoven images on the cover of Revolver don’t trouble him all that much—but he’s convinced that the album’s name has to be a foreshadowing of the kind of gun that would be used to kill Lennon fourteen years later. Certainly, the name Revolver has nothing to do with the fact that vinyl records were played by placing them on a turntable that revolved at a certain speed—thus making any record, in a sense, a “revolver,” right? Again, that sort of word play is lost on Niezgoda.

He’s more fascinated by the infamous “butcher cover” for the Yesterday … And Today album—with the Beatles in butcher smocks covered with dismembered dolls and raw meat—which Niezgoda is all but certain is Lennon’s nod to “the most reviling sacrifice to Satan . . . the killing of young innocent children—infanticide.” Niezgoda quotes Lennon’s enthusiasm for the project (“I would say I was a lot of the force behind it going out,” Lennon once said) as the final word on the impetus behind the photo—but either doesn’t seem to realize or completely ignores the fact that both Paul McCartney and photographer Robert Whitaker have claimed credit for the idea, too. Whitaker’s version, in fact, holds up to the most scrutiny, as the photo was actually part of a series of artsy photos Whitaker staged, including one in which George Harrison appears to be driving nails into Lennon’s head. Lord knows how Niezgoda would have interpreted that photo.

Acollectionofbeatlesoldiescover

A harbinger of death?

The real stretch, however, comes in his scouring of the cover of A Collection of Beatles Oldies—a relatively obscure album released in the UK and Australia in late 1966.  While the Paul is Dead crowd point to the drawing of the car getting ready to crash into the lounging figure’s head as a “death clue” for Paul’s alleged death by automobile, Niezgoda’s got something much more clever in mind:  “[The figure’s] right crossed leg, with only slight imagination, can be seen as the letter ‘J,’ and it rests aside the word ‘OLDIES’ . . . [t]ogether, they spell ‘JOLDIES'”—or, as Niezgoda explains, “JOL (John Ono Lennon) DIES.” Cue the thunderclap and opening notes of Toccata and Fugue. And don’t try to tell Niezgoda that Lennon was 16 months away from changing his middle name from Winston to Ono when the album was released—he’s already ahead of you: it’s a “craftily constructed prophecy,” don’t you know?

Sgt. Pepper also falls under a similar scrutiny—although, unlike the Paul Is Dead gang, Niezgoda isn’t as much interested in the front cover as he is the back, where the Beatles, with the album’s lyrics superimposed over them, appear against a blood red background (nothing is ever red in Niezgoda’s book; it’s always blood red!).  McCartney famously stands with his back to the camera—“turning his back on John and what he knew of the fatal pact,” Niezgoda says solemnly—but the real clue lies in the layout of the lyrics from George’s “Within You, Without You”:  the words “lose their soul” are perfectly centered on John’s waistline.  Pretty sinister, huh?

The Devil is a sore winner.

The Devil is a sore winner.

Even sillier is Niezgoda’s discussion of the drumhead on the cover of Pepper, an image already overanalyzed by the Paul Is Dead aficionados. Niezgoda relies on the same parlor trick as the Paul Is Dead gang, using a mirror to bisect the words LONELY HEARTS (which, he points out sinisterly, are in a different font from the rest of the drum!) to reveal a messy I ONE IX HE DIE.  For the Paul Is Dead people, this convoluted hidden message means that Paul died on November 9th (with “I ONE” meaning eleven, and IX meaning 9, for 11/9).  Not for Niezgoda.  Instead, he reads this as a taunt from Satan to John Lennon:  “I won! Nine, he die!”  Nine, Niezgoda explains, is the day Lennon died—because it was already December 9th in Liverpool, you see, when John died in New York on December 8th.

That kind of convoluted numerology, in fact, is where Niezgoda becomes wearying. Lennon himself made much of the number 9 in his life—he was born on the ninth and included the number in the title of several songs—but Niezgoda comes up with some truly inane readings and sleights-of-hand to arrive at his nines.  For example, he points out that if you dial the name JOHNONOLENNON on a push button phone, you get 564666536666 – and wow, look at all those sixes, which are really just nines standing on their heads. And only Niezgoda could read “One After 909” as an omen—it’s waaay too confusing to explain how it predicts Lennon’s death down to the day—all the way down to a reference to Yoko as a his “bag.”

The punch my ticket moment, though—the moment I knew Niezgoda was in way over his head—arrives on page 122, as Niezgoda does some headscratching over the band’s name:

“’The Beatles’ was a curious choice of name for a band, especially because it’s spelled wrong. In 1961, John wistfully explained to Mersey Beat where he got the idea: ‘It came in a vision—a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on, you are Beatles with an A’”

With an absolutely straight face, Niezgoda explains that Lennon had to spell “beetles” incorrectly so he could use the letters to make an anagram of “seal bet,” hiding in plain sight his pact with the Devil. As for the man on a flaming pie, Niezgoda points out, his gears churning, that “man on a flaming pie” scrambles as “pagan flame minion.”

Apparently, the pun on “beat” in the word “Beatles” seems to never have occurred to the humorless Niezgoda—he’s too busy making scary sounds and tut-tut noises.  (As for the “pagan flame minion,” you can also anagram “man on a flaming pie” to make “film an ape moaning,” but that hardly means Lennon had hidden aspirations of being a voyeuristic zookeeper).  I can’t tell if Niezgoda is being intentionally ridiculous here, or if he’s really that clueless.

Niezgoda’s last chapter contains two incredibly odd bits of contrived thinking and backwards logic. The first is a way-out reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – a book published a year before Lennon’s birth, but which Niezgoda is nonetheless convinced contains prophecies of Lennon’s life and death. And that’s mostly because, at certain points over its 600 pages, Joyce uses words like “beetle,” “pepper” and “funeral.”

The second is a wacky bit of mathematics in which Niezgoda chooses three songs he believes “place the final moments of John Lennon’s life to music”: “I Am The Walrus,” “Revolution 9,” and “#9 Dream.”  Niezgoda informs us that the total elapsed time from the moment Lennon was shot to the moment he died was 17 minutes—and I think we’re supposed to get chills when he informs us that the total time playing time for those three songs is 17 minutes, 42 seconds. Niezgoda provides us with absolutely no reason why there should or should not be a correlation between the playing time of these songs and Lennon’s last moments. It’s a completely nonsensical premise and farcical train of thought, and we’re supposed to somehow be spooked by it.

But that sort of spurious thinking is the norm for Niezgoda. His premise is a bizarre one to begin with, but The Lennon Prophecy is full of so many thin, lame, and eye-rollingly ridiculous theories that it’s impossible to take seriously.  Yet, Niezgoda does. And “no one,” he writes in his wistful introduction, “is sorrier than I about what is written here.”  Except maybe those of us who’ve read it.

Reviews in Brief: The Beatles: First U.S. Visit (DVD)

beatlesfirstvisitIn February 1964, documentarians Albert and Donald Maysles were given an unprecedented amount of access to film and record a phenomenon that had much of America at first scratching its head in curiosity, and then screaming along with the rest of the world — a cheeky British rock group called The Beatles, who were making their first, short sprint across the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Content to let the camera act as impartial observer and generally stay out of the Fabs’ way, what the Maysles’ capture is nothing short of fascinating — a snapshot of one of the most important moments in rock history:  Tens of thousands of screaming girls. Dopey hangers-on. Baffled reporters. And four extremely talented musicians who seem rather unfazed by it all.

While you may likely have seen some of this footage in Anthology or The Compleat Beatles, seeing it for the first time in its complete, raw context is an eye-opener for even the most world-weary Beatles fan.   It’s not quite the Beatles “with their trousers off” (as John Lennon once described Let It Be), but it’s definitely the Beatles with their guards down — and we’re all the better for it.

The Maysles’ footage was eventually shelved by United Artists in favor of the faux documentary A Hard Day’s Night, but comparisons with that film are unavoidable.  As a documentary, it’s the less-idealized version of what ended up in Richard Lester’s jaunty film — but the Beatles in real life aren’t quite the iconic stereotypes that Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen created for the Boys’ on-screen personas (as John Lennon once said derisively of Hard Day’s Night:  “Paul, cute; me, witty…”).  In fact, when you’ve got them in Maysles’ lens, unedited and unscripted, you’ll see that McCartney already looks to be the most business-minded and PR-savvy of the Beatles, while Lennon . . . well, Lennon looks both bored and terrified at the same time, a far cry from the bold, tart-tongued Fab of A Hard Day’s Night.

Just as interesting is seeing the supposedly impartial and skeptical members of the press fall all over themselves, suddenly captivated by the charisma of the four young men they’ve been assigned to tailgate.  The Beatles all but work their wills on the press during the train rides to and from Washington, D.C., while New York deejay Murray the K makes a cringe-worthy spectacle of himself, gushing dopily over the boys even as he tries to paint himself a hipster who truly “gets” the Beatles.

The film cries out for narration at some points (watching it with commentary makes it a completely different and even more entertaining film) but the footage is always clear, and the sound is surprisingly crisp (and Maysles will tell you how he did it in the commentary).  Through it all, what shines through the most is the charm, talent — and, at times, a warm patience — of four young men who were rapidly becoming the most famous band in the world.  Great stuff.

For a taste of what you can expect, here are the opening moments of the Maysles’ film — with the familiar first press conference, some unguarded moments in the car, phone calls to Murray the K to request songs on the radio, and late night hotel chatter:

Number Nine…Number Nine…Number Nine

beatles2On September 9, 2009, The Beatles: Rock Band hits the shelves. 

You really have to ask?  Heck yes, I’ll be getting it.  Considering Rock Band was one of the driving factors behind our decision to invest in a game system in the first place, adding the Beatles to the mix makes it pretty much the ultimate win.  And no, I am not one of those fans who is wailing that it ruins the Beatles’ legacy to make them part of a video game.  Stop spoiling my fun and get offa my lawn.

According the the official press release from Apple:

The Beatles: Rock Band will allow fans to pick up the guitar, bass, mic or drums and experience The Beatles’ extraordinary catalogue of music through gameplay that takes players on a journey through the legacy and evolution of the band’s legendary career.

As if that weren’t cool enough, however, there’s also this, from the OMG ARE YOU SERIOUS? category:

In addition, The Beatles: Rock Band will offer a limited number of new hardware offerings modeled after instruments used by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr throughout their career.

Because I have the coolest wife on the planet (this is the one who got me Absolute Watchmen for Valentine’s Day, remember), I’ve already been assured that we will, indeed, be purchasing the limited edition, with all the instruments.  Awesome.

The best part is that I’ve got a 12-year-old — soon to be 13! — who loves both Rock Band and the Beatles, so convincing her to take a crack at a Perfect Solo! in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” shouldn’t be too hard. 

Now I’ve got to learn to play bass left-handed, as there’s something fairly sacriligious about playing a Hofner Beatle bass right handed.  Unless, of course, my lefty daughter decides she doesn’t want to play Lennon’s black and white Rickenbacker, and hands rhythm guitar duties over to me so I can strum away madly on “Help!” while she rocks out the bass line on “Day Tripper.”

Have a great weekend.

Reviews in Brief: The Beatles Off The Record (Keith Badman)

beatlesotrKeith Badman’s book is a terrific primary source — but it’s definitely not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles and their story. This isn’t a biography per se; it’s transcriptions of interviews with the boys and those around them, snippets of news releases and news stories, and transcribed appearances on television or radio shows, all presented in roughly chronological order. Badman provides (rightly) only a minimal guiding track, stepping in only to gloss a name or straighten out a disparity in dates. What he won’t do is try to straighten out or explain events or stories, because — with the advantage of hindsight — watching the key players try to explain everything themselves is part of what makes this so fascinating.

Even if you’re a hardcore Beatles fan, you’ll probably still find something in Badman’s book that’s new to you. For one thing, you’ll get a better feel for the kind of mind-numbing, eye-glazing interviews the Boys had to sit through, especially early in their career. We’ve all seen the interviews compressed to their soundbites for documentaries, but Badham lets us see what gets edited out in the interest of time — mainly one stupid question after another (“Do you get dandruff with all that hair?”) which the Beatles, for the most part, answer gamely until around 1966, when John Lennon finally unloads on a reporter for asking “What do you want to do when you grow up?” (“Why are you being so horrid?” one reporter sulkily asks Lennon afterwards.)

But it’s not just the media that bumbles through interviews; sometimes the Beatles do, too. I was surprised by how non-responsive or rambling their answers could sometimes be — particularly from Paul McCartney, who could obviously make his charm go a long way, but when you read his remarks on the page without the corresponding images, they don’t always make a lot of sense. You can also see the Boys reverting to “talking points” for many questions, answering questions the same way, even when cornered individually.

Badman also reproduces several documents I’d never seen before: the original lyrics for “Yesterday” (as “Scrambled Eggs”), filed when Paul was simply trying to get the song down on paper with placeholder words; the various press releases from Apple as the wheels were coming off (and when is someone going to write a history of Apple?); a snippet from a 1969 newspaper floating John Lennon as the lead role in the upcoming Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Finally, reading interviews and press releases from That Moment In Time — when they had no way of knowing what was coming — the end of the Beatles really isn’t all that obvious. All four of them continue to speak relatively well of each other in interviews (except for George when speaking of Paul) and indicate that they are still interested in working together if the right project comes along. It’s no wonder fans were so shocked when McCartney finally announced he was leaving the group (months after Lennon had already privately left) — there was little indication of disarray or disagreement in the press, not even from the Beatles themselves.

There are places in the book where some interviews or television appearances have obviously been misheard or transcribed incorrectly (at one point, someone describes a crowd of people at an airport as looking like “a sea of hands” from above, when it was probably “sea of ants”) but such errors are easy to overlook in this goldmine of a Beatles book. Highly recommended — but, again, not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles story going into it.

Lennon and Laptops

Coming, perhaps appropriately, on the heels of yesterday’s review of John Lennon: The Life, a number of readers have e-mailed to ask my opinion of the recent “One Laptop Per Child” commercial that uses Lennon’s likeness and a digitized “voice.” If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s right here:

My reaction? Meh.

While many of the commenters on YouTube are offended that the highly-selective Yoko Ono would sanction the use of John’s image for a charity that hands out laptops — and there’s a lot of chatter on whether that’s a charity Lennon himself would have embraced — it’s not really the kind of thing that bothers me. Yoko is famously careful and tight-fisted when it comes to John’s name and reputation — even going so far as to stiff-arm Paul McCartney when he recently suggested that “Yesterday” be credited to McCartney-Lennon, rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney — so I wouldn’t presume to second-guess her assent for this particular organization.

For my part, I’m just not that impressed with the ad. Given that Yoko so rarely allows for John’s name and image to be used, I expected something a little more spectacular or moving. The brief and grainy glimpse we get of John in the final few seconds — with the Forrest Gump digitizing of the mouth — doesn’t really work. And the voiceover, while it very well may have been put together using actual Lennon clips, sounds to me like the cartoon version of Lennon from Yellow Submarine — or, better yet, like Paul Rudd doing his deadpan Lennon in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (NSFW, due to naughty language and drug humor…):

The heart is probably in the right place, but the ad just doesn’t do much for me.

Reviews in Brief: John Lennon: The Life (Philip Norman)

“In September 2003, I suggested to John’s widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer,” writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, “Yoko Ono was upset by the book,” Norman tells us, “and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been ‘mean to John.'”

I actually don’t think Yoko’s got anything to worry about; Norman’s book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon’s all-too-brief life and career. While there’s much in here that’s familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories — most of which are familiar to Beatle fans — and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn’t they? question that has surrounded Lennon’s vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn’t), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John’s darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.

There’s also quite a bit that’s new in here, too — or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what “business” Yoko was doing during Lennon’s househusband years — she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John’s profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon’s writings in the 1960s — a hidden gem in the literate Beatle’s career — exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.

For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon’s story finally come into their own. John’s Aunt Mimi — who can often come off as a bit of a shrew — gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You’ll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John’s seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons — excuses — for his actions, but for the first time, you’ll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.

If there’s a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman’s narrative voice. Norman’s prose isn’t ever stilted — he’s too good a journalist for that — but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to “Twist and Shout,” for example, “dippy”). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon’s fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.

For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can’t help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. “Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony,” he writes. “Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building” where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, “John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota — an omen if ever there was one . . . ” It took me a moment to figure out why this was “an omen” — until I realized it was the use of the word “Dakota” in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.

Perhaps even more annoying — especially to the biographer in me — there’s no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman’s book when I found myself saying “Where’d you get that?” and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn’t enough room left. But I’m sure I’m not the only one missing it.

Bigger Than Jesus

I know, I know . . . I vowed to stay away for a week. And I really am on my way out the door to go interview a source, but I just couldn’t let this go past.

Over the weekend, the Vatican announced that it had “forgiven” John Lennon for his 1966 comments in which he remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. According to the article on the BBC website (which you can see here):

The semi-official Vatican newspaper marked the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ “White Album” with an article praising Lennon and the Fab Four from Liverpool.

The paper dismissed Lennon’s much-criticised remark that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ as a youthful joke.

The paper described the remark as “showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success”.

Um. No.

Give Lennon a bit more credit than that. While Lennon was certainly indulging in a bit of “showing off,” he and his views were a lot more complicated than the Vatican is giving him credit for. For the record, here are Lennon’s remarks, in their entirety, and in context with Maureen Cleave’s interview and article in the March 4, 1966 London Evening Standard:

Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first-rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ He is reading extensively about religion.

Once can certainly parse Lennon as much as one wants — and back in 1966, Lennon’s remarks were widely interpreted as enormously sacrilegious, with Lennon daring to displace Jesus with the Beatles at God’s right hand.

But what Lennon was actually trying to do was make a point about Christianity — which, in 1960s England, Lennon viewed as being subverted by the Church of England to the point where its message had been lost. Consequently, English teenagers were choosing the Beatles — or television, or pop culture, or just about anything else — over religion. That, to Lennon, was why Christianity would fade — not because of the Beatles, but because the Church had failed to advance its message. And that — again, to Lennon — was the real problem.

Here’s Lennon trying to explain just that view in a 1966 interview in Los Angeles — and not really making things much better:

Finally, after countless protests in which Beatle records were burned in bonfires (“Hey, they had to buy them to burn them!” Ringo later joked) and the KKK began making gauzy threats, manager Brian Epstein had had enough. After a formal statement of apology failed to cool tempers, the Fabs were finally persuaded to sit before the cameras in Chicago for a hastily-called press conference at which Lennon offered a half-hearted, though Officially Formal Apology:

Once again, however, the press don’t seem to get it, and Lennon — normally quick-witted and articulate to a fault — still couldn’t make his point clear. And obviously, even 40 years later, there was still some confusion from the Vatican as to what Lennon was really saying.

Still, even if it missed the point, I give the Vatican credit for taking notice of the Beatles for their “unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words.” Which rather sounds like the way one would describe a blind date.

All right, I’m outta here. Really.

Carnival of Light

Over the weekend, Paul McCartney announced his intention to release a 40-year-old “lost” Beatles track, a 14-minute avant garde piece assembled by McCartney — with an assist from John Lennon — called “Carnival of Light.” As reported by the London Guardian, the track was never released — not even for the deep-drilling Anthology collection — “because three of the Fab Four thought it too adventurous.”

As a Beatles completist, you can be sure I’ll buy anything Sir Paul wants to release. But will the track be worth listening to? Here’s what I know about it:

In 1967, Paul McCartney was asked by his friend, the artist and journalist Barry Miles, to assemble a soundtrack for an electronic musical festival to be held that winter at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. McCartney — whose taste for the avant garde had been spawned and whetted largely through his relationship with the actress Jane Asher and a number of her artistic acquaintances — eagerly agreed to submit a piece. On January 5, 1967 — as the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on “Penny Lane” — McCartney persuaded his bandmates to dedicate a few moments to laying down an avant garde soundtrack.

“We were set up in the studio and would just go in every day and record,” McCartney told the BBC. “I said to the guys, this is a bit indulgent but would you mind giving me 10 minutes? I’ve been asked to do this thing. All I want you to do is just wander round all of the stuff and bang it, shout, play it. It doesn’t need to make any sense. Hit a drum, wander to the piano, hit a few notes … and then we put a bit of echo on it.”

The banging away in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 lasted for 13 minutes and 48 seconds — at that time, the longest uninterrupted track the Beatles had ever recorded. Here’s what Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn says about the recording session:

“…it was a combination of a basic track and numerous overdubs. Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.

“But of all the frigthening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like ‘Are you all right?’ and ‘Barcelona!’

“Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up the control room: ‘Can we hear it back now?'”

According to Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ go-to recording engineer, neither he nor producer George Martin was all that impressed with what they heard. “When they had finished,” recalled Emerick, “George Martin said to me, ‘This is ridiculous, we’ve got to get our teeth into something a little more constructive.'”

When asked about the track twenty years later, Martin claimed not to remember the recording session (“..and it sounds like I don’t want to, either!” he joked). But when asked about the track again recently, his response was more diplomatic. “It was a kind of uncomposed, free-for-all melange of sound that went on,” said Martin. “It was not considered worthy of issuing as a normal piece of Beatles music at the time and was put away.”

McCartney apparently lobbied for its inclusion on Anthology, but was vetoed by the other Beatles. Their attitude, McCartney said, was “‘this is rubbish.'”

McCartney’s announcement has caused a bit of a dither in the Beatles fanbase — some are excited by the idea of a new track, while others accuse Sir Paul of going to the Beatles vault once too often, milking the Beatle legacy for another quick buck. I’ll willingly admit to falling more into the former camp — I’m always interested in hearing what was left on the cutting room floor or given up for dead, as this track apparently was — and I’ll eagerly pick up anything they want to release. If it’s unlistenable, I’ll simply treat it as I do pieces like “Revolution 9” and “Flying”: when they pop up on the iPod, I’ll just push the Forward button.

I’m a Beatles Completist, McCartney Enabler, and, apparently, part of the problem. But I’ll gladly take “Carnival of Light.”

The Guardian article can be found here. And, closer to home, you can see The Washington Post‘s take on the story right here.