Happy birthday, John Lennon (1940-1980)

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One day in October of 1980, I happened to turn on the radio in the middle of a song that was being broadcast. After about 30 seconds, I shrieked with delight: “He’s back! He’s back!”

I immediately called the radio station and had my happiest wish confirmed — John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE (retd.), had a new single out, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” a teaser from his then-forthcoming “comeback” album.

Double Fantasy was touted as a “conversation” between Lennon and his much-maligned wife, Yoko Ono. The album’s pattern was that John would sing a song, and then Yoko would “answer” it with a song of her own.

(Post-era critique of the album: All of John’s songs are wonderful. Most of Yoko’s songs are tolerable, which is pretty good for her. And there are two Yoko songs which brook no middle ground: “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss,” in which the climax of the song is quite truly, er, the climax of the song; and “I’m Your Angel,” a guilty-pleasure piece of superb schmaltz that I rank as the best song Paul McCartney never wrote.)

At the time of its release, Double Fantasy was mostly sniffed at by critics who resented former rebel John’s newfound cloak of bourgeois respectability. Personally, I wasn’t interested in this “class struggle.” The Voice was back, and he sounded great. When John announced that he might actually do a tour to promote the album, even the thought of Yoko performing with him wasn’t enough to keep me from wanting to buy a ticket to the erstwhile concert.

I neither want nor need to recount the pointless tragedy that occurred two months later and snuffed out John’s voice and life.

At this blog, I have already recounted, ad nauseum, my lifelong love for The Beatles. But I gained a new respect for John long after he left the group.

As a teenager in the mid-1970’s, I decided to collect every solo Beatle album to date, just so that I could compare the good, the bad, and the ugly for myself. When I was 15, I purchased John’s first post-Beatle solo album, starkly titled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

I swear to you, that album saved my life.

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I was quite the disenfranchised teenager at that point — gangly and quite socially inept. Listening to the Plastic Ono Band album was like having an intimate conversation with one of the popular kids who had suddenly let down his guard. Hearing John sing about his late mother and his painful growing-up years instantly stripped him of his Beatle veneer. (And having lost my own mother at age 4, it wasn’t difficult to identify with those harsh emotions.)

For me, the true kicker on the album was “Working Class Hero,” where he sang:

They hurt you at home,

And they hit you at school.

They hate you if you’re clever,

And they despise a fool,

‘Til you’re so f***in’ crazy

You can’t follow their rules.

My teenage years in a nutshell.

Indulging in all of the post-Beatles albums, I quickly discovered — as did most Fabs fans of the time — that the separated Beatles weren’t nearly as flawless as they were as a group, John included. (Try listening to John and Yoko’s Some Time in New York City, a tackily bourgeois take on the politics of the day.) But there was still enough of Excellent John to hold out hope, in 1975, that he’d return to recording, if not recording with The Beatles.)

Now that decades have passed, it’s easy to scoff at Rich Man John’s takes on socialism. Just today, a Facebook friend of mine posted a photo of John and Yoko from 1969, waiting for the maid to change their bed linens so that they could continue their “radical” Bed-In protest.

But at least John had the right spirit. I’d be amazed if any current politician dared to espouse his philosophy of non-violence and help for everyone on the planet. And he sure sang it in the right key.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Beatles – The gift that keeps on giving

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The following is my entry in The Favorite Foursome Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from July 6-8, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read about bloggers’ favorite foursomes from all venues of pop culture!

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My earliest memory of The Beatles — probably one of my earliest memories ever — is when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in front of my dinky little record player, listening to The Beatles’ Second Album. Why would a 4-year-old be listening to a Beatles LP? Well, it’s practically part of your DNA when your older sister is a red-blooded, full-throated Beatlemaniac.

My sister Sue, who is 10 years older than me, was one of millions of American females who would scream every time The Beatles came on TV. I have no memory of her watching The Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 (though I’m sure that’s how she got into Beatlemania). But I have clear recollections of her screaming heartily when the film of The Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert was broadcast, and even when ABC premiered their weekly Beatles cartoon series on Sept. 25, 1965. So it seems that I became a Beatlemaniac by proxy.

I have some strange childhood memories of The Beatles. One is that I wanted to listen to my sister’s copies of their albums, and despite her reluctance to let me do so, my father insisted upon it. One time, I left her copy of Rubber Soul too close to our front room’s open radiator. Forever after, when we played the album, the phonograph needle would have to ride over a rotating hill in the grooves.

My dad had the funniest memory of our family’s “encounters” with The Beatles. We lived in Chicago, and The Beatles played two shows there at White Sox Park on Aug. 20, 1965. Against my dad’s better wishes, he bought two tickets to the second show, for himself and Sue. My dad had two overriding memories of the concert. One was that, when he was driving himself and Sue to the concert, they got about halfway there when Sue realized she had left the concert tickets back at home, and he angrily had to drive back home to get them.

His other memory was that he was practically deafened by the screams of the 37,000 other fans who had attended the concert that night. Also, The Beatles performed on a 360-degree rotating stage. Right behind my dad and sister were a mother-and-daughter couple who had brought along a huge banner reading, “WE LOVE YOU, RINGO.” Every time they thought that the band was rotating in their direction, the mother and daughter would jump up, scream at Ringo, and waved their banner at him. 

I don’t remember the first time I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I definitely had a reaction to the album that was radically different from my sister’s. I was always fascinated by the album’s lavish artwork and era-defining music. But for my sister, that album was the beginning of the end of her fascination with The Beatles, as they had become too far-out and psychedelic for her. (She didn’t even bother buying the double-disc White Album, which would have been too expensive for her meager allowance anyway. As a result, I didn’t even know there was a White Album until I checked it out from a local library in 1972.) So from then on, I ended up carrying the Beatle torch for my family.

After 50-some years (!), their music continues to amaze me. They did so many different kinds of music — rock, ballad, country, experimental — and did them all so well, I’ve always regarded The Beatles as a genre unto themselves. And every phase of their career yields something great to listen to — from their early music with its escapist pop lyrics, to their studio-only years when they experimented with any type of sound they could imagine, to their valedictory era with its solid musicianship.

They weren’t perfect, heaven knows. Producer George Martin was probably right in his opinion that The White Album could have been cut down to a really solid single album instead of its somewhat uneven double set (but who would want to be the one to axe any of the album’s songs?). And Let It Be, while it has its moments, makes it clear that everyone (except perhaps Paul) was ready to move on to other things. (I prefer the stripped-down Naked version of the album that was issued at Paul McCartney’s behest in 2003.)

Yet the best of their music — which is surely the majority of their work — continues to reward new generations of listeners. My 22-year-old son has a friend who is as into The Beatles as I ever was. And as the 50th-anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper — remastered by George Martin’s son Giles — proves, we continue to find layers and layers of wonderful sounds in what seemed very familiar songs. I can never get enough of them.

The Beatles in LET IT BE (1970) – And in the end…

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The following is my entry in The 4th Annual British Invaders Blogathon, being hosted by Terence at his blog A Shroud of Thoughts from Aug. 4-6, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read blogs about a wide variety of British-based and -themed movies!

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I’m really glad that most of our songs were about love, peace and understanding.” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology, 1995

“This is what we are like with our trousers off, would you please end the game now?” – John Lennon’s take on Let It Be, 1970

There are several good reasons that Let It Be has not been released on DVD or other recent home viewing formats.

One is that it’s a just-plain-sloppy documentary. You have to be at least an intermediate Beatles buff to understand or have any perspective on the movie. Initially, it was to have been made as a TV documentary that would accompany a live concert. When the Beatles then nixed the concert idea, the movie’s format was changed to theatrical so as to become the final film required under the group’s contract with movie studio United Artists.

The movie shows the band rehearsing songs at both Twickenham Film Studios and their Apple Records studio, and the film ends with their performing the once-requisite live concert during a London lunch hour on the rooftop of Apple. But again, you have to be a Beatles buff to know any of this.

The film does nothing to identify any of the surroundings, or even The Beatles or others within the movie. Songwriter/performer Billy Preston performs with the group throughout the movie, and the soundtrack album took the unprecedented step of crediting him along with the group — but the movie does not. We also see Yoko Ono (then a fairly fresh presence in John’s life), Paul’s adopted daughter Heather, and the group’s music producer George Martin, all unidentified. It’s as though they were merely movie extras flitting around the Beatles’ orbit.

The movie’s biggest debit, though, is that it fairly justifies John and George’s later complaints that, after their manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, the other group members spent much of their time serving as “sidemen” for Paul. The movie’s first third shows the group rambling through early rave-ups of songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Abbey Road, as well as some rock-and-roll chestnuts. And they perform so lackadaisically that, if you didn’t know that these were the famous Beatles, you might wonder why they were even the subject of a documentary.

The group finally manages some solid performances, but mostly of songs by Paul. Other than a duet with John on “Two of Us,” the middle section is Paul’s show all the way, with him lovingly performing “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” to the camera as the other members drudgingly provide backup.

John finally gets some wind in his sails (literally — it looks awfully cold on that rooftop) during the final concert, as he rips through “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” (both with Paul) and a soulful “Don’t Let Me Down.” But even that concert feels strange. Considering, in the late 1970’s, how hopefully anticipated a Beatles reunion concert had been, here most of the public onlookers seem to regard these guys as freaks who are simply being rude to interrupt local business.

As always with The Beatles, their music is enough to carry the show, half-baked as some of it is. (The movie won the group a “posthumous” Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.) But if A Hard Day’s Night depicts The Beatles at their sunniest and most vibrant, Let It Be makes everyone but Paul look as though they’re ready to be somewhere else.

SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND 50th-Anniversary Edition (2017) – The Beatles with subtext

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I was six years old when The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was first released. My sister, who is 10 years older than me, was the ultimate Beatlemaniac up to that point, snapping up all of their records and screaming every time The Fab Four showed up on TV.

I listened to all of my sister’s Beatles albums and so became a Beatlemaniac by proxy. That’s quite ironic in that (a) I have no recollection of the first time I listened to Sgt. Pepper, and (b) that album was the beginning of the end of my sister’s Beatlemania. The Fabs had just gotten too psychedelic and far-out for her.

Having since bought and re-bought all of The Beatles’ albums — either because my original copies wore out, or they were issued on newer formats such as compact disc — I resisted buying the 50th-anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper for as long as I could, finally succumbing to the rave reviews this updated version has received. Still, I figured there was no way that an album I’d been listening to for 50 years (!) could ever surprise me again.

But having earwormed the album into my head for the past two days, I think I feel the same way that awed Beatles fans did when they first heard the album in the summer of 1967. It sounds fresher and more relevant than ever.

Surely, part of this is due to the breathtaking re-mixing done to the album by Giles Martin, son of Sir George Martin, the original producer of Pepper and nearly all of The Beatles’ other group albums. Like an aural archeologist, Martin fils has dug around in each of the album’s compositions and found sounds that you either never heard before or that sounded muddily buried in the background. More than ever, the album sounds like the ersatz bandstand concert that The Fabs always intended it to resemble.

But the real revelation is in the special edition’s bonus disc, “The Sgt. Pepper Sessions.” First, it includes beautifully rendered stereo versions of the Beatles hits “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It’s now Beatles legend that these two magnificent songs were intended to be placed on the original album, but EMI was so anxious for a long-awaited 45 RPM single that John and Paul made the sacrifice with these two masterworks.

But best of all is the second disc’s alternate takes on all of the album’s songs, most of which could easily stand on their own. In particular, the instrumentals on “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Penny Lane,” and “A Day in the Life” are lush and joyous. If the original album is solid as ever, these alternate versions are like beautiful flowers wriggling up through cracks in the concrete. (Proof of The Beatles’ inventiveness? Their outtakes alone sound better than a lot of rock groups’ final products.)

(Also of note is the second disc’s unveiling of “A Day in the Life’s” original ending. The song was to have ended with the Fabs endlessly humming the same note. On the original album, the hum was replaced by the now-famous, apocalyptic piano-note slam, but the hum has been resurrected here. The Beatles obviously made the right choice, but in retrospect, the hum doesn’t sound so bad either.)

Having listened to Sgt. Pepper for decades (and yet long after its heyday), I found myself just as judgmental about the original album as anyone. It didn’t seem as perfect as, say, Revolver, and it had at least a couple of tracks that were just too flower-powery for me. (Sorry, George and “Within You Without You.”)

Now, having heard the album in every ounce of its intended glory, I feel as love-stoned as any hippie from ‘67. If I don’t end out this week wearing tie-dyed shirts and flowers in my hair, it’ll be a miracle.

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