Friday, June 29, 2007

“This Is Us” /
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris

I heard this song on the radio a few months ago and was so wowed by it – coming at me unexpected, out of the vast ether – that I had to get my hands on this album.

Mind you, I have mixed feelings about both Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. I loved the early Dire Straits albums (it’s a toss-up whether “Sultans of Swing” or “Walk of Life” is my favorite song), but Knopfler’s political activism irritates me; I don’t doubt he’s sincere, but I hate it when celebrities cash in their fame to pose as great humanitarians. (Hear that, Bono?) As for Emmylou – well, I’m jealous of that fatuous look certain male music fans get when just saying her name. I should love the fact that this gray-haired woman has the guys swooning, right? But I find her personality strangely cold; beyond being a pretty face with a fantastic voice, she’s a cipher to me. Give me a gutsy broad like Bonnie Raitt or even Chrissie Hynde any day. (Granted, I’m not a guy -- what do I know?)

But I’ll put all those prejudices aside -- All the Roadrunning is just a superb mid-life album. Knopfler’s slightly gruff, ordinary-guy voice blends surprisingly well with Emmylou’s shimmering soprano, and his Telstar-ish guitar licks, distinctive as ever, break through the country-rock surface of these songs, a nervy counterpoint to the fiddles and pedal steel guitars.

This particular track has a simple premise -- a series of images, candid snapshots of a life lived together. “This is us down at the Mardi Gras,” it starts out, flipping next to “This is us in your daddy’s car.” I can just see the overexposed film, faces a little blurry – “Had a little too much to drink / Too long in the sun / Having too much fun.” I love the way their voices trade back and forth, like a long-married couple who finish each other’s sentences. There are shots of their wedding (“You in that amazing dress / I was stoned on love I guess”), their honeymoon, and, eventually, of their growing family and anniversaries. There’s trivial events too -- “You at the Sunday game / Standing next to what’s his name” – all the ephemera of days gone by. The tempo hustles briskly along – just like life, which can’t be slowed down, only grabbed on the run in fleeting Polaroids.

A few years ago, my parents transferred their home movies to videotape for their kids, and while the movies were being transferred, they viewed along, commenting to each other (“Look at how long her braids were,” “That red convertible was my favorite car” etc.) When we watched the tape with them, they made exactly the same comments live, a split second before their voices on the tape did. It was spooky, but also weirdly comforting -- those random remarks somehow distilled the shared values of our family life. My braids would always be that long, that convertible would always be officially The Favorite Car. You could count on it.

This song has the same comforting quality. These iconic snapshots have become the memories, and they’re cherished all the more for being faded and out of focus. I think of the Kinks’ song “Picture Book,” and its cynical line, “Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they loved each other, a long time ago.” “This Is Us” doesn’t agree. These people seem so happy looking back at this scrapbook – I envy them. “You and me, making history / This is us,” the two voices agree at the end of one verse. True, it’s not “history” to anybody else but them – but that’s precisely why it’s so precious.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

“She’s Going” / The English Beat

Though the Specials were the first late-70s ska band that stole my heart, I had to love the English Beat as well – not to mention General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, the two excellent bands they split into after three brilliant, inventive albums (when you’ve got that much talent in one group, why not spread it around a bit?). Their sound was funky, urban, hectic, and ineffably finger-popping cool. I dug it.

This 1982 song’s a perfect example of that sweet amalgam of reggae, r&b, soul, jazz, and punk that made this ska renaissance so delightful. The beat, of course, has its roots in reggae, though it skitters along much faster; that emotive lead vocal is soulful indeed, and the way the voices trade back and forth is classic r&b call-and-response. And then there’s the plaintive sax and the tooting horns dancing in and out -- jazz pure and simple.

The song’s a lot darker than you’d think at first from its bouncy upbeat energy, though – that’s where the punk kinship shows up. It’s a Tortured Relationship Song with so many twists and shadows I can’t really tell what’s going on. The first time around I thought it was just a break-up, but the more I listened, the more ominous lines came to light. The best I can make out is that it’s a murder-suicide – “So next time she meet him / They'll both be in heaven”; “she'd rather die than live to behave so badly”; “just watch the spirit slipping out of her hand.” No wonder they say halfway through the song, “I guess you thought it was an ordinary row. / Well you were wrong. / Just take a look at her now.” Yikes.

All of which gives the chorus an especially grim irony: “She's leaving, / Too late to take her home./ She's going, / Too late to tell her you love her. / She's freezing, / Rather be dead than alone. / She's going, / I think you're too late she's gone.” Phrases we throw around so lightly – “I’d rather die that do that” – take on a ghastly double meaning.

Thanks to that snappy ska beat, every line is stuffed to bursting with words, firing at you so rat-a-tat fast, it’s hard to sort it all out. It’s never clear who loves whom, who wants to leave whom, who would miss whom, only that there’s a shipload of misery swirling around. Actually, most of the English Beat’s songs sound similarly disoriented, I’ve noticed – maybe it says something about the working-class Birmingham milieu they came from. When you’re in the middle of certain edgy social scenes, you really can’t tell up from down, wrong from right, black from white, love from hate. You have to be a cool cat indeed to land on your feet.

But that beat, that beat – it’s way too intoxicating to resist. The voices pop in and out like horns themselves, tripping along on the rhythm, and I feel almost guilty, enjoying this song as much as I do. Ah, well, it’s a bleak world, all right – might as well dance, brother.

She's Going sample

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

“Perfect Crime #2” / The Decemberists

Any group that names themselves after a group of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries gets my vote. I’ve only heard the Decemberists’ most recent album, The Crane Wife, but it was clear from the first listen that it was gonna grow on me. True, I detect a smidgeon of art-student pretension to this Portland, Oregon, band, but so long as the music holds up, that’s okay by me. They seem to have a droll sense of humor that saves them from getting too caught up in their own literary construct.

The Crane Wife definitely tells a story, though I haven’t yet pieced it together in detail – songwriter Colin Meloy says it was inspired by a Japanese folk tale, but several of the songs (including this one) are tangential to that narrative. Still, you instantly pick up its haunting folk ballad quality, full of battlefields and ghosts and dire omens and tragically parted lovers, and they pull it off with real conviction.

“The Perfect Crime” is prime Decemberist material: dark minor-key melody married to a driving pop beat; cryptic, poetic lyrics in the verse, returning to a chorus with a mesmerizing hook. In this case, the refrain is simply “It was a perfect, a perfect, a perfect, a perfect crime,” with “perfect” hopping around to different intervals as the chords shift darkly around it. (The last time around, “perfect” is teasingly repeated 32 times before they finally end the sentence.) If this song were a silent movie – and it practically is already – it’d be in sepia and white, with lots of close-ups and very few title cards.

If you’re an English major geek like me, you’ll get the classical reference in the first line, an echo of Homer’s Odyssey – “Sing muse of the passion of the pistol / Sing muse of the warning by the whistle / On a night so dark in the waning / A dawn obscured by slate sky raining, oh oh.” I’m already looking warily over my shoulder. Now we get suspenseful quick-cut shots of danger: “Five and twenty burglars by the reservoir / A teenage lookout on the signal tower / The mogul’s daughter in hog ties . . . The bagman's quaking at the fingers / The hand-off glance a little lingers / A well-dressed man in the crosshairs / A shot rings out from somewhere upstairs.” Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this.

No matter how perfect this crime is, you just know they’ll get caught in the end, thanks to that minor key, the reverberating echoes of the vocals, the downward spiral of the melody, and the relentless rhythm. Sure, there’s a guitar solo between verses that breaks free like a getaway car – but let’s face it, getting caught in the end is required film noir tradition, isn’t it?

So it’s not about teenage love, or the war in Iraq, or how the lead singer gets depressed on Sunday mornings. I believe we have plenty of other songs about those things. The only other number that even remotely reminds me of this delicious track is Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” and you know how much I love that song. Bravo, Decemberists!

Perfect Crime #2 sample

Monday, June 25, 2007

“You Only Live Once” / The Strokes

On principle I should resent these guys – New York City prep-school boys with all sorts of built-in show biz/media connections who rocketed nearly instantly to fame in 2000. Whatever happened to the idea that a band should spend a few years slogging around in dingy clubs and hammering on record producers’ doors?

And yet I can’t hate the Strokes – their music actually is good, tight, hook-laden indie rock, remarkably uncluttered with post-modern posturing. The first time I ever heard a song by the Strokes, in fact, I thought they must be 80s New Wavers I’d somehow missed; their music has that same stripped-down clarity and energy I loved about Blondie and the early Talking Heads. The disaffected drawl of lead singer Julian Casablancas is just ironic enough to appeal to me (think Morrissey or Lou Reed), especially given the slightly off-kilter lyrics. I rarely notice drummers, yet I marvel at the one-man sonic propulsion machine that is Fabrizio Moretti.

The Strokes song I keep repeating is “You Only Live Once,” the upbeat first track from their 2006 album First Impressions of Earth. (Replacing my previous favorite Strokes song, "Under Control" from their second album, Room On Fire.) As I recall, this is what it feels like in your twenties when everybody you meet claims to have things all figured out: “Twenty-nine different attributes / Only seven that you like / Twenty ways to see the world (oh-ho) / Twenty ways to start a fight (oh-ho).” What’s a boy to do? In later verses, he mentions “a thousand ways to please your man” and “countless odd religions,” contrasting these to “One stubborn way to turn your back (oh-ho) / This I’ve tried and now refuse (oh-ho).”

By the time the chorus rolls around, I imagine his girlfriend getting weary of his theorizing babble and threatening to leave – and that pulls him right back down to earth: “Oh don’t don’t don’t get up / I can’t see the sunshine / I’ll be waiting for you baby / Cause I‘m through / Sit me down / Shut me up / I'll calm down / And I'll get along with you.” When all’s said and done, why waste time trying to solve life when you just ought to be living it?

With that oh-so-danceable drumbeat, that bouncy offbeat guitar riff, you can’t help but love this dope. This song’s not about the lyrics anyway; it’s about those cheerful little “oh-ho’s” that punctuate the verses, and the blithe insistence of that repeated guitar note. Even when he’s pleading “shut me up” over and over, I see him doing it with a grin. So what if he has no deep ideas to offer? It has a beat and you can dance to it – and in this world, that’s often all you need.

Friday, June 22, 2007

“Oklahoma USA” & “Come Dancing” / The Kinks


Here’s another pair of songs I always link together, two more servings of Ray Davies nostalgia. The Davies brothers had six older sisters (!), and Ray was clearly thinking of them when he wrote both songs – and thinking of them with such fondness, the songs couldn’t help but come out lovely.

1971’s Muswell Hillbillies is full of references to the Davies family – the granny in “Have a Cuppa Tea”, the uncle in “Uncle Son” -- but the most tender track on the LP is “Oklahoma USA,” about a girl who, like Ray’s sisters, finds escape from drab postwar England in American movies. “She lives in a house that's near decay, / Built for the industrial revolution, / But in her dreams she is far away, / In Oklahoma U.S.A. / With Shirley Jones and Gordon McRea.” It’s a delicate, winding bluegrass-style melody (Muswell Hillbillies frequently drifts into country idioms), which Ray sings over a rambling piano, with an occasional touch of acoustic guitar and a quaint wheezy harmonium.

This song knocks me out, because in a weird reversal it is my life – except that the dream that kept me going was all about drab postwar London. But it doesn’t really matter which direction that cultural exchange flowed for you -- her fragile dreaminess, her longing for escape, speak vividly, and it’s classic Ray Davies. The refrain of this song – its moral, really – is one of the most poignant things he’s ever written: “All life we work but work is a bore / If life's for livin', then what's livin' for?” I ask myself that question EVERY DAY.

Twelve years later, on State of Confusion, Ray returned to these memories with “Come Dancing.” He’s in Village Green mode again, lamenting the loss of old England -- “They put a parking lot on a piece of land / When the supermarket used to stand / Before that they put up a bowling alley / On the site that used to be the local palais.” Like an archaeologist, he reconstructs an entire era from that one artifact: “That's where the big bands used to come and play./ My sister went there on a Saturday / Come dancing, / All her boyfriends used to come and call. / Why not come dancing, it's only natural?” It’s perky but deliberately retro, with a swing beat and synthesizers faking big-band horns; you’re caught up in the giddy joy of those long-ago dance nights.

The second verse sketches an elaborate courtship ritual, with her dates waiting in the hallway (can’t you just imagine little Ray at the top of the stairs, watching?). The scene’s loaded with desire and repression: “He'd end up blowing all his wages for the week / All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek.” In the bridge, Ray becomes an outright voyeur: “Out of my window I can see them in the moonlight, two silhouettes saying goodnight by the garden gate.” I can almost hear the heavy breathing.

Flash forward to the present: “My sister's married and she lives on an estate. / Her daughters go out, now it's her turn to wait. / She knows they get away with things she never could, / But if I asked her I wonder if she would, / Come dancing, / Come on sister, have yourself a ball.” We can still see the ghost of the girl that once was inside that suburban matron. (Which makes it a natural bridge to its companion piece on this album, “Don’t Forget To Dance.”)

The sister in “Oklahoma USA” is a lost dreamer; the “Come Dancing” sister is more of a party girl – but both of them find themselves in music. As Ray did – and as we do too, thanks to the Kinks.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

“Where Are They Now?” / The Kinks


The first Kinks song that really got me was “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” – that tongue-in-cheek ironical satire, delivered in a camped-up effete British accent -- how could I fail to love it? Like the roguish Scarlet Pimpernel, “They seek him here / They seek him there / In Regent Street / And Leicester Square.” Besotted as I was with Swinging London, I felt very much in on the joke; I could laugh along with Ray Davies at this Mod fashion victim, “eagerly pursuing all the latest fads and trends.” And then in the chorus, when Ray's brother Dave snidely chimes in on back-up vocals – “Oh yes he is / [Oh yes he is] / Oh yes he is / [Oh yes he is]”. . . . I wonder if the vain poseur who inspired this song ever realized Ray meant him. Probably not.

That’s how things looked to Ray Davies in 1966; what a change by 1973, when “Where Are They Now?” came out on Preservation Act I, the first installment in Ray Davies’ two-part rock opera. (Plenty of Kinks fans are baffled by the Preservation albums, but those LPs are what made a Kinks fan of me forever.) This song is such an important part of the soundtrack of my life, I still forget that isn’t considered a major track in the Kinks canon. It's sung by a character called simply the Tramp, an outsider who gently muses from afar about the play’s action (I’m sorry Ray didn’t use him in Act 2). And whereas in The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Ray declared himself the champion of “the old ways” – china cups and virginity and all those quaint concepts – here he’s written an elegy to a much more recent Lost England: that one brief shining moment after the British Invasion when London was the Fab Capital of the World.

“I'll sing a song about some people you might know / They made front pages in the news not long ago / But now they're just part of a crowd / And I wonder where they all are now,” he begins softly, tentatively, just Ray and a piano. From then on, as the guitars and drums and organ kick in grandly, it’s a catalog of glossy celebrity names -- Ossie Clark, Mary Quant, Christine Keeler, John Stephen, Alvaro. He throws in for good measure the hip writers who defined that era, Stan Barstow, John Osborne, Keith Waterhouse, and Alan Sillitoe (plus their fictional heroes Arthur Seaton, Charlie Bubbles, Jimmy Porter, Joe Lampton – matching writers to characters was like a mini-course in Eng. Lit. for me). He mourns the Teddy Boys (D.A. hairdos, drainpipe pants) and the beatniks (coffee bars, pullover sweaters), finally leading up to the verse that says it all to me: “I wonder what became of all the Rockers and the Mods / I hope they are making it and they've all got steady jobs, / Oh but rock and roll still lives on, / Yeah, rock and roll still lives on.”

As a girl who had long lived for the Rockers and the Mods, this pulled hard on my heartstrings. The melody is unbearably yearning and sad, matched only by the equally wistful “Sitting In My Hotel,” my favorite track from Everybody’s In Show Biz. I hadn’t yet been to London in 1973; “Where Are They Now?” was like a checklist of all the icons I longed to see – and now I never could. I’d missed the boat forever. And yet . . . I hadn’t, because Ray Davies was summing it all up for me, in this one exquisite song.

I bless the light that shines on you, Ray. Happy birthday.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

“I’m On An Island,” “Apeman,” “Drift Away” / The Kinks


It’s a theme Ray Davies keeps coming back to – finding a safe haven from life’s overwhelming stresses. (What else can such a sensitive soul do?) I’ve already written about Complicated Life and State of Confusion, Ray’s complaints on the verge of a nervous breakdown; now here are three wistful songs about escape.

“I’m On An Island” has always been a sentimental favorite of mine. With its acoustic arrangement and calypso beat, it makes me picture a tropical hideway, although I’ve heard that Ray wrote it about Iceland. On the surface it echoes John Donne’s “No Man Is An Island,” but the ghost of a failed love affair haunts every line. “But there is nowhere else on Earth I'd rather be / Than if my long, lost little girl was here with me,” he sighs in the bridge. “I'm on an island / And I've got nowhere to run / Because I'm the only one / Who's on the island.” Yes, loneliness is hard, and heartbreak isolates him from the rest of humanity – but something in that sashaying beat, in his floaty singing, tells me that this island is an irresistible escape.

“Apeman” is more broadly satirical, like the album it comes from, 1970’s Lola V. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round. Ray’s escape here is a cartoon King Kong fantasy, a matter of sitting in coconut trees and eating bananas. (Mick Avory’s drumming sounds deliciously primitive.) Don’t you just love that bridge where Ray goes into vintage rock ‘n‘ roll mode to sing, “Come and love me,/ Be my apeman girl / And we will be so happy / In my apeman world”? Otherwise, it sticks with the calypso beat, adding a steel-drum sound on the keyboards, as he ticks off a list of society’s shams: “I think I'm so educated and I'm so civilized / 'Cos I'm a strict vegetarian / But with the over-population and inflation and starvation / And the crazy politicians….” In the middle eight, he sounds like a pompous documentary voice-over: “In man's evolution he has created the cities and the motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance and I'd be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle.” That bit’s satire, but I feel his panic in the wailed refrain, “I don't feel safe in this world no more / I don't want to die in a nuclear war / I want to sail away to a distant shore / And make like an apeman.” There he is, looking for that island again.

Now let’s jump forward in time, to the Kinks’ most recent studio album (I refuse to call it their last), 1993’s Phobia. Right now this track’s my favorite from this uneven LP. Musically it splits in two – Ray’s opening cry “Sometimes I wish I could just drift away” is sung in a yearning folkie voice, but his vision of what the world’s come to is hammered out in savage punk-rock style: “They say there's gonna be a river of blood / It's apocalypse now / So we're waiting for the flood / The ice is gonna melt, the water gonna rise / And we'll all go to hell / So they're keeping us advised.” It builds and builds, until Ray just has to break in with that wistful longing again: “I think I'll just drift away / To that island of my dreams / Live in total fantasy / Close my eyes and drift away.” Eventually his satiric focus narrows to a specific target: “Newsmen winding up the nation / A little bad news helps circulation / Pass on the panic to the population” – Ray Davies never did like the press. But as he seeks his tropical fantasy, I imagine him sticking his fingers in his ears and singing la-la-la; that repeated "Drift away" gets increasingly desperate, and raw, and FURIOUS.

Ah, this island of Ray Davies’ – I can just imagine it. We all need to go there sometimes, don't we?

I'm On an Island -- sample not available
Apeman sample
Drift Away sample

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

“Autumn Almanac” & “Shangri-la” / The Kinks


Long before Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne started writing their odes to suburban life, there was Ray Davies, peering out the windows of his East Finchley villa to chronicle the lives of his neighbors.

Take the narrator of his 1967 single “Autumn Almanac.”

It opens with such nostalgic pastoral charm: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar / When the dawn begins to crack / It’s all part of my autumn almanac / Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow / So I sweep them in my sack.” You can’t tell me that’s not lovely, despite the twinges in our hero’s rheumatic back. I’m warmed by the comforting image of his friends gathering for “tea and toasted buttered currant buns.” The sound is a music hall softshoe, with corny horns, plinky piano, and sugary backing ooh’s; good times, good times.

But once Ray has hooked us, he begins to layer on mundane details that spell out the guy’s complacency: “I like my football on a Saturday, / Roast beef on Sundays, all right. / I go to Blackpool for my holidays, / Sit in the open sunlight” (sung in a plumping rhythm in a wavery old-timey Victorola voice -- this is where the satire starts to really dig in). In the last verse -- if you can call them verses; the melody never repeats itself, just rambles in a senile wool-gathering way -- Ray lets his narrator hang himself: “This is my street / And I’m never gonna leave it,” he stoutly declares, “And I’m always gonna stay here / If I live to be 99 / ‘Cos all the people I meet / Seem to come from my street”). Well, yeah, if you never go anywhere else, that’s who you’re bound to meet, innit?

Just two years later, Ray Davies revisits this territory with “Shangri-La,” a single off their LP Arthur (the soundtrack for a never-completed teleplay that would have been the first rock opera – but that’s another story).

Ray isn’t playing a character this time, he’s addressing a man who’s finally “made it” to that detached villa. All the flip satire is gone; Ray sings with earnest poignance, “Now that you’ve found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la.” The rueful melody drifts down the scale, ending every line on a gruff low note. Even before Ray tells you about the hollowness of this dream fulfilled, the melody’s made you feel it.

Yes, “Gone are the lavatories in the back yard” (a vivid and totally English detail, baffling to us Americans) – but Ray counters that with the reminder that “You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher.” How depressing is that? Then the satire turns even more biting: “The little man who gets the train / Got a mortgage hanging over his head / But he's too scared to complain.” I don’t know, I think Ray sounds terrified by this prospect -- terrified because he’s tempted by it too. And here’s the capping image: “And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same.” That English penchant for cutesy house names – “Rose Cottage” or “Storm’s End” – we don’t do that in America, but we’re just as guilty of building cookie-cutter housing developments. Little boxes on a hillside – there’s a nightmare for you.

Ray actually seems fond of his “Autumn Almanac” geezer and his cozy neighbours, but the guy in “Shangri-la”? He’s a gloomy wreck, surrounded by vicious gossips and weighed down by debt payments. Comedy and tragedy – just two sides of the same coin, courtesy of Mr. Ray Davies.

Autumn Almanac and Shangri-la samples

Monday, June 18, 2007

“Dead End Street” & “Sunny Afternoon” / The Kinks


This coming Thursday will be Ray Davies’ 63rd birthday -- a full week o’ Kinks is definitely called for. And where better to start than with these two 1966 singles, both classic Ray Davies portraits of modern English life?

They’ve got a lot in common, these two tracks. Their intros, to start with -- “Sunny Afternoon” has that insistent minor-key bass line, two beats per note, marching down a chromatic scale; in “Dead End Street” it’s the same rhythm but hung up on one note, backed by a Salvation-Army-style French horn. If “Sunny Afternoon” is a perfect summer song (“Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon / In the summertime,” says the refrain), then “Dead End Street” is its matching winter song – “On a cold and frosty morning / Wipe my eyes and stop me yawning / And my feet are nearly frozen / Boil the tea and put some toast on.”

But the characters who sing these two songs are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. The bloke in “Dead End Street” is a down-on-his-luck working man -- “What are we living’ for / Two-room apartment on the second floor / No chance to emigrate / I’m deep in debt and it’s much too late.” Like the novelist-in-song he is, Ray deals out scene-setting details: “There’s a crack up in the ceiling / And the kitchen sink is leaking / Out of work and got no money / Sunday joint of bread and honey.” True, the oppressed working man is a typical character for a rock ’n’ roll song, but this one’s attitude is hardly standard-issue rocker rebellion -- “We are strictly second–class / And we don’t understand . . . We both want to work so hard / And we can’t get the chance”). Where’s the revolution in that?

“Sunny Afternoon”’s hero, though, is a totally unlikely rock protagonist: “The taxman’s taken all my dough / And left me in my stately home . . . And I can’t sail my yacht / He’s taken everything I’ve got.” Taken in by the catchy honky-tonk of the chorus (“Save me save me save me from this squeeze / I got a big fat mama tryin’ to break me / And I love to live so pleasantly / Live this life of luxury”) it took me a while to realize that this song stars an overtaxed millionaire. After all, Ray sings both tracks in the same plaintive voice. Ray Davies, champion of the common man – taking the side of a rich tax exile? What gives?

Well, on one level, Ray did probably empathize with the “Sunny Afternoon” guy – at that time he himself was embroiled in a lawsuit to recover royalties owed him. Whatever the background, Ray sounds worked up over the situation, what with the guy’s girlfriend ditching him, taking his car, and slandering him (“Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty,” Ray sings with extra self-pity – as his character obliviously downs an ice-cold beer).

Basically, the government’s screwing folks at both ends of the social ladder, and each of our heroes is baffled by the injustice of it. The music-hall strain running through both songs (dig the boozy trombone and sloppy piano at the end of “Dead End Street”) signals that there’s comedy afoot – that old ironical Ray Davies pose – but no matter how many times I listen, I STILL FEEL SORRY for these blokes. And yet . . . these droll, deadpan rock shuffles never fail to life my spirits. That's what a good tune'll do for you.

Sunny Afternoon and Dead End Street samples

Friday, June 15, 2007

“For the Girl” / The Fratellis

I see it as a horse race – the Arctic Monkeys have the lead going into the turn, and the Kaiser Chiefs are coming up hard on the inside . . . but still, I wouldn’t count out this lovable Glaswegian trio. Something’s working right in the UK music scene if they’ve got three young bands turning out stuff this fine.

Like the Ramones, the Fratellis pretend to be brothers by adopting the same last name – Fratelli even sounds like Italian for “brothers.” It’s not clear why they named their debut 2006 album Costello Music – I’d like to believe it’s because they’re fans of Elvis Costello (which they are, but who isn’t?) – but they also claim it refers to a character in the severely underrated film Still Crazy. (If you love rock ‘n’ roll GO RENT THIS MOVIE NOW.) It almost doesn’t matter where the name came from; the point is that these guys are having a blast, dishing up rock ‘n’ roll with all the irreverence it deserves.

I know music isn’t all about catchy tunes, but the catchiness of a tune DOES matter, and the Fratellis’ songs imprinted on my memory immediately -- I felt like I was meeting old friends on the second listen. I hear strains of 60s pop, sea chanties, punk anthems, folk ballads, probably a little Gilbert and Sullivan as well. The sheer melodic invention on this album is amazing.

“For the Girl” sounds deceptively perky, starting off with an upbeat, dancing guitar riff that’s then repeated by a bouncy chorus of “La la la’s.” But as the song’s story unfolds, it’s not perky at all – it’s a portrait of a murky relationship with a pretty nasty female. In some dark, loud, confusing club, our so-called heroine first appears: “No one could hear a word, or tell what the girl was singing / She just must’ve been 16 or 18, or just past caring.” The singer’s sucked into her sphere, almost against his will. “She was into the Stones when I was into the Roses,” he remarks, in vague astonishment (note the wordplay on the Stone Roses, a band I never listened to but were probably HUGE for British kids of this generation).

Our singer and his, er, love interest are tangled up in a neo-punk vibe full of violence (“She was breaking my bones when I was busting her noses” and “Kickings for my sweetheart / Bruises that I just don’t miss”) with drugs involved, and way-too-casual sex (“She was getting me pills when I was into her best friend”). He knows she’s not going to deliver what he needs – as the chorus ominously reminds him, “And she said "I can't love you any more than this!" He knows what kind of a bitch she is; that doesn’t make it any easier to extricate himself.

He knows he’s in over his head, and falling apart – “I was dead by Sunday, half-dead skint just trying to please her” – but that hopped-up tempo and the mocking chirpiness of the “la-la-la’s” give me the idea that he’s on a funhouse ride he can’t escape. He sums it all up in the line, “Young love pleases you easy / Makes you sick in a bad way.” Well, at least he’s got perspective.

The whole album’s full of energetic pop tracks like this, all with a dark underside that sneaks up on you. Give them a listen. Simply put, the Fratellis rock.

For The Girl sample

Thursday, June 14, 2007

“Sierra” / Boz Scaggs

I instinctively disliked Boz Scaggs from the get-go. In 1976 every kid I knew with middlebrow music tastes owned the same three albums: Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, the Eagle’s Hotel California, and Scaggs’s Silk Degrees. Scaggs’s two big hits, “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” got played ENDLESSLY on AOR radio. To me they both sounded so West Coast, so slick and overproduced, I couldn’t acknowledge the considerable soul groove within them. I hated Scaggs’ voice – it sounded high and forced and half-strangled to me, with extra vibrato laid on for effect. Gack.

So why on earth would I EVER listen to another Boz Scaggs album? Well, thank Alan Price – he covered a Scaggs song named “Some Change” on his 1995 album A Gigster’s Life For Me, and astonished as I was, I had to investigate. (Alan also covered Jackson Browne’s “Say It Isn’t So” on that album, so I had to reconsider my ban against Jackson Browne too -- go figure.) Why did it never occur to me that these artists would be capable of growing and changing the same as me – that they too might have rejected 1970s fashions by now?

Scaggs came out of semi-retirement with his 1994 album Some Change, which I guess is why he'd fallen off my radar. After that long hiatus, Scaggs no longer seemed to be chasing anybody else’s sound; the album is packed solid with mellow R&B, with a tinge of jazz. And guess what – they have a lot more emotional heft than the stuff he did 20 years earlier.

Despite its neatly loping tempo, “Sierra” is a heart-wrenching song. The central metaphor is simple: a spurned lover retreating to the mountains to nurse his broken heart. But he’s not the same guy anymore, and all the imagery of icy air and big sky and watchful hawks sends home a truth: Once scarred by love, we humans tend to shut down our feelings. Scaggs’s tight, wary voice has a melancholy edge that just kills me. The rhythms are fluid as a mountain stream, and the melody circles like a hawk, dipping and swooping within a few notes, while chords morph like wind currents around it.

It begins with a brief impassioned protest – “What about the one who said he loved you / What about the one who said he cared” – but then the lyrics pivot into toughness: “Don't bother trying to find him / Way up in the icy air.” Do we buy this? I don’t; the guy still hurts, but he’s working on it. In the bridge, he loftily declares, “The angels lay their clouds across his sky / They line up for him every night / Some have wings and others sing / The rest do lazy ballets in the air.” That’s a classic I-don’t-need-you-anymore line, isn’t it? Its poetry fools us for a minute – sure, I don’t need you, I’ve got ANGELS to talk to! – but it sounds suspiciously to me like the ravings of a delusional recluse.

“There he's got a bird to give him warning,” Boz declares next, “And he's got a lookout too / The beauty of the High Sierra / And she's looking out for you.” That’s a load of defense – you can’t convince me he no longer cares about this woman. No, this is a deft, dense killer of a post-break-up song, and Scaggs’s light-as-a-feather vocal touch wisely lets the song sell itself.

So I broke down and finally bought a Boz Scaggs album. Like the title song of that album says, "Some change, some don't." Boz changed, and I'm glad he did.

Sierra sample

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

“Roadrunner” /
Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers

I understand that Jonathan Richman may be an acquired taste. That tuneless, off-key voice isn’t for everyone; not everybody gets his peculiar sense of humor. But for sheer pop goofiness, it’s hard to outdo this classic road-trip song. Recorded in 1973 (but not released until 1976), it isn’t angry enough to be punk, or arty enough to be new wave -- but I can testify that you could not hear this band perform it without NEEDING to sing along and dance.

In criticspeak, we’d call the Modern Lovers’s vibe something like “affected artlessness” – it goes well beyond garage-band simplicity. Those lyrics sound like what a 15-year-old would sing to himself in the shower -- no rhymes, no plot, no deeper meaning. He even loses track during the traditional opening countdown – “one two three four five six …”

This song is as American as it can be – he’s just a kid with a driver’s license, that quintessential ticket to freedom in Metrosprawl USA. He’s driving past the Stop and Shop, going on Route 128, past factories and auto signs – anybody who knows Boston knows these places. He half-sings, half-speaks in jerky rhythms, floundering through repeated monotone melodic phrases: “I’m in love with Massachusetts / And the neon when it’s cold outside / And the highway when it’s late at night / Got the radio on.” I can picture the kid slapping his steering wheel as he tools around the Bosstown ‘burbs, just grooving on the fun of driving and listening to rock radio.

Richman does slip in a little poignance eventually: “I'm in love with the radio on / It helps me from being alone late at night / It helps me from being lonely late at night / I don't feel so bad now in the car / Don't feel so alone, got the radio on.” Being a teenager is hard, and Richman – singing in a voice sounds like any ordinary high-school dweeb – captures it perfectly. If all else fails, “The highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick / Suburban trees, suburban speed / And it smells like heaven.” Just don’t stop moving and everything will be all right.

Underneath it runs that unflagging instrumental, rock-steady drums and chugging guitars, pumping away with its own internal combustion engine. The sweet organ solo in the break is worth waiting for – I believe that’s Jerry Harrison, who’d soon after become a Talking Head. Sure, their sound was stripped-down, uncluttered, but they were tight, with a propulsive energy you couldn’t resist.

The backing vocalists sound just as hapless as Richman – I love the part where he calls them out, “O.K., now you sing, Modern Lovers!” Modern Lovers – what sort of a name is that for these callow geeks? But they’re gamely singing in the backseat, trading off their yelps of “Radio on!” with Richman’s rambling phrases “Got the car, got the AM…Got the rockin’ modern neon sound…I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts…” Whatever pops into his head.

I’m sure Richman was also alluding to the cartoon character Roadrunner. We all grew up watching those cartoons, with Roadrunner zipping mindlessly around the desert, defying the well-laid plots of Wile E. Coyote. But I love the fact that he doesn’t make a big literary deal out of it. He says “Roadrunner,” we picture Roadrunner, and then we’re back with our buddies in the cold late Massachusetts night, whizzing down Route 128, with the AM station blasting on the car radio. AM, you notice – no mellow-voiced djs and album-oriented rock, but Top Forty radio! All the hits all the time! Yeeessssssss!

Roadrunner (Once) sample

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

“A Day In The Life” / The Beatles
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m scared to write about this song. Not scared the way I used to be, pulling the covers over my head when I’d listen late at night. No, scared because it’s too big a song to tackle in 500 words or less. I don’t know where to begin.

Yet the song starts out so softly, unassumingly, with an acoustic guitar and a piano, a gentle encore after the hard-rocking reprise of Sgt. Pepper’s band has rung down the curtain. We picture John Lennon, a detached observer (I see him sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun), reading the paper: “I read the news today oh boy.” But that melody’s so wistful, so yearning, so impregnated with sorrow, we just know the news won’t be good.

And it isn’t. A man dies in a car crash and the onlookers only care whether he’s a celebrity; the same fickle crowd gives a thumb’s down review to a war movie (remember John Lennon's absurdist flop How I Won the War?); and then of course there’s that baffling feature in verse three: “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” – I picture land-mine craters, a scene of grim devastation, though the real news item Lennon saw was about potholes (and he would have known Blackburn, not that far north of Liverpool). But why take the holes to fill the Albert Hall down in London? It makes no sense whatsoever, and therefore it’s the verse EVERYBODY remembers most from this song.

John sits apart, like a Fool on the Hill, musing on these events (the double-tracked vocals add that sense of distance). But in the bridge, Paul tap-dances in with a blithe ditty about waking up (hear the alarm clock?) and going to work. It’s territory the album’s already covered in “Good Morning Good Morning,” but here Paul seems like an eager go-getter -- maybe because he knows that at the office he have that nice little smoke, that’ll send him into his nice little dream…

Which is the dream and which is the reality? That’s just the sort of mirror-within-mirror question this song raises that you could debate for hours. (We haven’t even begun to get into the Paul Is Dead references.) Why is the man in the car crash “lucky”? How did he blow his mind out? Was he in the House of Lords? What’s this book John read? Who are the “they” who have to count the holes?

The arrangement telegraphs to us that this is An Important Statement Song. Behind Lennon’s plaintive vocal, the insistent piano chords and big-build-up drums announce something apocalyptic. The swelling orchestral interlude before and after the bridge, and again at the end – it’s like all hell breaking loose. You can’t just shrug off this song -- and so you work at solving the riddles. Which you can’t.
In the end, we’re driven to that seductive refrain, sung in such a beckoning quaver – “I’d love to turn you on.” There just isn’t any other explanation for that line: It’s an Unabashed Drug Reference. John Lennon believed in the mind-expanding power of drugs, and he’d like us to try it out too. And given the grandeur of this closing track, the powerful finale to this great album – well, it seemed an imperative at the time.

In that respect, it’s a cheap ending. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t just an advertisement for illicit drugs; it’s about looking for truth, and pushing the boundaries of music, and uniting a generation on one common wavelength.

But just so we don’t think it’s the final word, there’s that last strange babble of aural snippets afterward – which you only heard on the vinyl LP if you didn’t have an automatic tone-arm return. (It wasn’t until college that I heard this bonus bit.) Maybe they’re just thumbing their noses at us; maybe it really does make sense if you play it backward. Who knows?

Maybe the riddle IS the answer.

Monday, June 11, 2007

“Good Morning Good Morning” / The Beatles

Sgt. Pepper’s short on John songs, but here’s one – and a real doozy. Listen to this song and you’ll understand why John didn’t contribute much else to this album.

It begins with a crowing rooster (whether or not John pictured the rooster on a box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes, I always do – “the best to you each morning”). For a morning song, though, this is weighed down with restless chord shifts, harsh chugging guitar, braying horns, and a dark outlook – “Nothing to do to save his life / Call his wife in / Nothing to say but what a day / How’s your boy been.” I think of John Lennon trapped in his deteriorating marriage to Cynthia, with little Julian at the doorway; I hear his pain. “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK,” he mutters glumly, and those obnoxious backup singers nag, “Good morning good morning good morning-gah.” Nails in the coffin.

“Going to work, don’t want to go / Feeling low down,” he continues. Yeah, most of us feel this way, heading for our boring office jobs – but he was John Lennon, heading to work at Abbey Road studios, to make a rock ‘n’ roll album. When that sort of dream job just feels like work, it’s sad indeed. And when he’s put in his nine-to-five, he can’t bring himself to return to the old trouble-and-strife – “Heading for home you start to roam / Then you’re in town.” In his depression everything seems deserted, everyone looks half asleep.

Still, being on his own gives some sort of release. “After a while you start to smile / Now you feel cool.” Well, that’s good. It doesn’t change anything – taking a walk past his old school (echoing “I used to get mad at my school” from “Getting Better”) – but at least he’s coping. Time for an instrumental break, with George ripping into a fierce guitar solo -- code, I assume, for whatever substance our narrator imbibes in the interim, because it's followed by a much bouncier bridge. Downtown is now populated and bright and busy; “Everyone you see is full of life / It’s time for tea and meet the wife.” The guitar climbs to a screech on that thought -- a real buzz killer.

So he doesn’t go home. As a special keeper of the truth (“somebody needs to know the time / glad that I’m here”), in the last verse he stays where the action is. “Watching the skirts you start to flirt / Now you’re in gear” -- this is the story of every philandering husband, hoisting up the flag one more time to prove that he’s still alive. But the melody hasn’t changed; the intervals are still minor-key, the rhythms stiff and jerky. Casual sexual encounters (remember “Lovely Rita”?) and reality-blocking drugs (“Lucy in the Sky” and “Fixing A Hole”?) offer temporary release, but they can’t really solve what ails him. This guy wants an answer that won’t ring hollow, a new truth that will work for him. But the ending degenerates into a brutish cacophony of barking dogs, snuffling pigs, rattling chains, thunder, a train whistle. Chaos.

If you felt like this, would you want to write bouncy pop songs and pretend to be a member of an old-timey brass band? Paul could write fictional songs about runaway girls and old couples in a cottage and blokes chatting up traffic wardens – John wrote about his own inner state, and his inner state was hell. There was absolutely no “good” in John’s “good morning” right then. This song breaks my heart.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

“Lovely Rita” / The Beatles
After the sweet devotion of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” time for a little bawdiness, with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. “Lovely Rita” is a happy-go-lucky song about a guy trying to pick up a cute traffic officer – just another McCartney novel-in-song. But as usual, plenty of unsettling things lie under that deceptively simple surface.

The intro has a psychedelic texture, like “Fixing A Hole” – that dreamy sliding “ah-ahhh-aahh” (listen for it again on “A Day In the Life”) followed by woozy double-tracked backing vocals chanting “Lovely Rita meter maid.” But when Paul’s lead vocal bursts in, it’s a good-time rock shuffle, pure and simple. Or is it? Listen to all the odd sounds tucked in – the sarcastic zing after “Nothing can come between us” (George did that on slide guitar), the snide scrap of military march after “Made her look a little like a military man” (a little comb-and-paper orchestra John set up), the honky-tonk piano in the break. And at the end, the pounding piano is overlaid with heavy breathing, as if moving towards orgasm; the chords keep modulating uncertainly – they nearly make it – then John snaps “I’m leaving” and a door slams. In a way, this song is Paul’s version of “Norwegian Wood” – an affair with a surreal anticlimax.

In 1967 it was startling to see a woman in a traditional man’s job – and no way is Rita feminine, not with that military-style shoulder bag. She’s a brash New Woman. He asks her to tea and she promptly makes it dinner instead, then she pays the bill. (That didn’t happen often in 1967.) He requests a second date; she cuts to the chase and takes him straight home. Good deal for him, right?

But then things take a weird turn – when he gets to her place, anticipating some boisterous sex, he finds himself “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two.” (I love all those staccato words crammed into this line). At first I thought her family was intruding, but soon I guessed she was a feminist with equally liberated roommates – women’s lib was a big topic in 1967, as much so as the generation gap of “She’s Leaving Home.” And from there I began to assume she was a lesbian or even a transvestite (that mannish uniform, the braying laugh at dinner) – or have I been listening too much to the Kinks’ “Lola”? Believe me, I wanted every song Paul McCartney ever sang to be about me, but I never identified with this Rita chick.

I may be over-analyzing, but all these details baffled me when I was a kid. There’s something so compelling about this little scenario, you want to get inside and figure out what’s going on. And for all his declarations – “nothing can come between us,” “where would I be without you,” and the sublimely silly “when it gets dark I tow your heart away” – I don’t hear this as a sincere Paul love song. I hear normal healthy lust, and a guy getting in over his head, in a world where nothing is as it seems. Which makes it a perfect fit for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

“When I’m Sixty-Four” / The Beatles
With the other-worldly “Within You Without You” still echoing in our ears, it comes like a splash of ice water -- a natty trio of clarinets burbling a music-hall tune, right back on Sgt. Pepper’s home turf. That bass line oom-pahs like a tuba; corny chimes ting-a-ling in the bridge. I always imagine this song pouring out of an old thirties-era radio. It’s WAY out of the rock vernacular. So what?

You can pretty much divide Beatle fans in two groups: those who love “When I’m Sixty-Four” and those who are embarrassed by it. This was one of the few Beatles songs my parents “got”; that should have made me hate it -- but how could I? I refuse to be a rock snob about it. McCartney’s enormous musicality lets him write credibly in any genre, and if you've ever doubted his skills as a lyricist, look at how these phrases have lodged permanently in our brains. Where is their cottage? You know it’s on the Isle of Wight. What are their grandchildren’s names? Vera, Chuck, and Dave. How should she sign her postcard? "Yours sincerely, wasting away." Specific details, married to that toe-tapping rhythm, that can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melody -- after all is said and done, those are the hallmarks of a great pop song.

One thing we often forget: this song’s not sung by a pair of old fogeys. The narrator could be 22; he’s just projecting into his old age. In fact, McCartney wrote this tune as a teenager, though the words came much later (Lennon encouraged him to dredge it up for Sgt. Pepper, knowing it had the feel they wanted.). Thousands of pop songs have declared “I’ll spend my life with you” or some variation thereof; but trust Paul McCartney to flesh it out so vividly – and to sound so ready for it. He could have camped it up, but he didn’t; no cheap ironic distance here. The track was actually sped up to make his voice sound younger and more sincere.

The tone is completely self-effacing -- “When I get older losing my hair” (Paul still hasn’t lost his, I’ve noticed) – and down-to-earth, juxtaposing the romantic Valentine with the prosaic reality of staggering home drunk at three a.m. There may not be much money (love those lush harmonies on “we shall scrimp and sa-a-a-a-a-a-ave”) but they’ll eke out special treats, like that summer cottage. “Send me a postcard, drop me a line / Stating point of view” he requests, with old-fashioned courtliness. I get the idea this guy is ready for all the give-and-take of marriage. Images of domesticity flit past – “I could be handy, mending a fuse, / When your lights have gone / You could knit a sweater by the fireside / Sunday morning go for a ride / Doing the garden, digging the weeds / Who could ask for more?” We generally do ask for more – eternal passion and intense drama, the usual stuff of pop songs. Not here.

And of course, there’s that famous refrain – “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” – a cheap rhyme? I don’t think so. “Need” is an overused pop-song verb, but “feed”? That’s the reality of a relationship; you can’t have one without the other. I picture years’ worth of evening meals, the patient woman cooking them – and a grateful husband who knows that domestic contentment is what he married her for. I don’t know about you, but I’d accept this proposal in a heartbeat.

Friday, June 08, 2007

“Within You Without You” / The Beatles

So you turn over the album and set down the needle on Side 2 – and you get hit straight away with the most far-out sound of all. It’s hard for us now to fully recapture how fresh this song sounded in 1967, before rock ragas were done to death. (George Harrison himself would overwork the vein as much as anybody.) We’d heard the sound already on Revolver, in “Love You To”-- the sitar, the tabla, the alien harmonic intervals. But this mesmerizing track was even lusher and denser, its earnest lyrics even more indebted to Hindu mysticism – “the space between us all,” “the wall of illusion,” “to see you’re really only very small,” “when you’ve seen beyond yourself” . . . it was mind-blowing, man.

This was where George Harrison’s heart was in 1967. He sure wasn’t interested in being a Beatle anymore. Now that they had sworn off live touring, Harrison seemed content just to execute a few guitar licks and exit the studio. Over the past year, he’d been on a spiritual quest, one that began when he first heard Indian music on the set of Help! He’d gone to India to study sitar with Ravi Shankar; he’d plunged into yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophy. Sgt. Pepper just got in the way. Still, it was expected that there’d be at least one Harrison composition on every album. If he had to do one, at least he’d do it his way.

In the tapestry of varied musical styles that was Sgt Pepper’s, nothing was further from standard rock ‘n’ roll than this number, with its exotic keening and thrumming instruments. None of the other Beatles even played on this track, but an uncredited crew of Indian musicians, fleshed out with a George Martin-arranged string section. This music sounded new and strange – and yet somehow ageless, hinting at ancient mysteries and an entirely different concept of time. (At over five minutes playing time, it’s the album’s second-longest track, after “A Day In the Life” – I have to admit, sometimes it feels longer to me.)

Amidst the theatricalities of the album, “Within You Without You” stands apart as completely sincere. There’s no characters, no incidents, no scene-setting beyond the vague “we were talking.” It doesn’t rhyme; Western song structure goes out the window; lines meander along with as many syllables as they need. It doesn’t have a bit of irony or sarcasm or double-entendre, those old Beatles staples. What is it doing here?

Yet, almost by accident, Harrison’s personal search for Truth fits perfectly into the album’s collection of lost souls yearning for answers. Besides, something numb and narcotized about its hypnotic rhythms and spacey tonal qualities made us certain that this song, too, had to do with drugs. Somehow it melts into the album and BELONGS.

This has never been my favorite Sgt. Pepper track; as rock ragas go, I prefer “Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour. But it’s an essential track, the apogee of the album's musical orbit, which will begin to swing homewards from here on out. More than once, I’ve heard this late at night and gotten lost in its mesmeric pulsations, thinking to myself, “Yes, yes -- with our love we could save the world! Life does flow on within you and without you!” For a moment I seem to grasp the secret of all things. It’s a fleeting insight, but . . . well, such is life.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” / The Beatles
I didn’t know what to make of this song in 1967; it weirded me out a whole lot more than the psychedelic images of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” or even the apocalyptic sorrow of “A Day In the Life.” I’m not sure I know what to make of it even now . . . but lately it’s become my favorite song on this album.

I have read that John Lennon transcribed this song almost word for word from an old circus poster, with just a few tweaks to make things rhyme. That info makes this song at least a bit more comprehensible to me. The bios I’ve read also say that John was in hell during the making of Sgt. Pepper – trapped in a constraining marriage, obsessed with LSD, estranged even from his soul-brother Paul – he simply didn’t have the creative juices necessary to contribute substantially. (Whereas Paul was ready to pick up all the slack, and make this practically a McCartney solo album.) But when Lennon does deliver, he delivers in spades.

Veering in and out of minor keys, with those sinister sound effects, Lennon weaves a nightmare experience. The strange phrases filched from the poster only add to the creepy carnival atmosphere – the hogshead of real fire, Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, Mr. Henderson demonstrating ten somersaults on solid ground, it’s all surreal and discombobulated. Whatever the lyrics tell you, the music is telling you that this is dangerous territory – something akin to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, about an evil traveling show blowing into a small town. Mr. Kite could very well be Satan (Mr. K will challenge the world! Mr. K performs his tricks without a sound! And tonight Mr K is topping the bill!). No wonder it freaked me out when I was 13.

But the less sense it made, the more evocative it seemed. That Pablo Fanques Fair where the Hendersons used to perform sounds so exotic. And the great feat that Mr. K will attempt at Bishopsgate – I don’t know the venue, but I dimly feel I should. I’m disoriented, scrambling, faking it just to keep up.

Behind the curtain of sound effects, the instrumentation is mostly just relentless lockstep drums and a stealthy creeping bass line – except when that whirligig organ sets in between verses. Did George Harrison even have to show up for this one? I don’t suppose it matters; the Beatles were well beyond the point where they ever expected to perform this stuff live.

I assume that this tacky showbiz outfit has some parallel to the Beatles themselves, thrust into the spotlight and expected to perform like capering monkeys. Maybe John Lennon wasn't specifically thinking of the insane circus that surrounded the Beatles – but something in this freakish daredevil act obviously spoke to him. Musically it connects to the Sgt. Pepper conceit a lot better than other songs on the album, but thematically, its surreal setting relates to nothing else except “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” It’s just John Lennon tapping into his subconscious – and turning up some very scary images there.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

“She’s Leaving Home” / The Beatles

When Sgt Pepper’s first came out, I knew what “She’s Leaving Home” was all about -- an oppressed young woman’s courageous bid for freedom. Now I’ve got teenage kids of my own, and I’m not so sure that’s the whole story.

Really, it’s amazing that the Beatles – icons of youthful rebellion – saw the parents’ side of the story at all. The Who certainly didn’t back in 1965 with “My Generation”; in 1966, the Kinks’ “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” took the perspective of the deserted family, but that song’s more about class confusion. “She’s Leaving Home” is the classic expression of the generation gap, a term coined only in 1966. Parents and children have always fought, but it WAS worse in the 60s, with youth culture gaining in power. (Today we have nothing but youth culture.) It was a hot topic; no wonder the Beatles were drawn to it.

For a change, Paul takes a third-person, novelistic approach. “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins,” he begins, singing tremulously over a string quartet that I should find schmaltzy, but can’t. It unfolds like a film: the nameless girl laying down an ominous letter, shutting her bedroom door, creeping stealthily down the stairs, sneaking out the back door. (Love the anxious detail of her “clutching her handkerchief”). I picture a long narrow walled suburban garden, dew-soaked and shadowy, and hear the latch click as she slips out the back gate. The melody is legato and delicate, furtive and suspenseful – perfect.

Then, in the chorus, counterpoint sets in – the soaring sustained notes of “She’s leaving home” juxtaposed with Lennon’s depressed voice intoning the parents’ protests (“We gave her most of our lives” blah blah blah). Cliches they may be, but they ring home. As the two melodies dovetail, it pours into the final irony: “She’s leaving home / After living alone / For so many years.” Sound familiar? Of course: Paul's borrowing the melody and arrangement from his own “Eleanor Rigby” (“all the lonely people”). But there’s something self-conciously literary about “Eleanor Rigby” that’s more authentic here. If “Rigby” was inspired by Dickens, this one’s straight out of Alan Sillitoe. This was a real scenario, played out night after night all over the world. After so many songs proclaiming progress and revolution, the poignance of this song about breaking free stops us in our tracks.

Sure, as we focus on the old folks in verse two, we see that they are self-centered hypocrites (”Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly / How could she do this to me?”). But simply by giving them the most plaintive, downward swooping part of the song, McCartney betrays his secret sympathy. Paul McCartney has always been a family man at heart -- remember, Paul and John first bonded over losing their mothers. How could they sing about an abandoned mother without at least a little grief leaking out?

Verse three moves forward in time -- “Friday morning at nine o’clock she is far away” – though we only get one cryptic detail about the girl’s new life: “Waiting to keep the appointment she made / Meeting a man from the motor trade.” A second-hand car spiv, eh? Doesn’t sound too savoury -- although I’ve also heard that this was code for a back-alley abortionist. Either way, it’s hardly a joyful new beginning. Even though Paul wraps it up with the comment that “she is having fun / [Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy],” I don’t feel like she’s having fun, do you?

This song haunted me when I was a kid. It wasn’t a simple call to rebellion, it saw the heartbreak lying under the rebellion. It kept a lot of us from leaving home, whether we knew it or not.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

“Fixing A Hole” / The Beatles

If "Getting Better” shares the same good-time bounce as “A Little Help From My Friends,” our next track, “Fixing a Hole,” is close cousin to “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” (which in fact they’d recorded just a couple days earlier). It has the same sort of spooky carnival sound, full of minor chords and double-tracked echoes and wheezy organ, though with a jazzier tempo that makes it less sinister. Not as trippy as “Lucy In The Sky,” it still sounds half-stoned – hear how the rhythm lazes behind the beat, how Harrison’s guitar oozes and slides around, how vague the language is. Paul McCartney is perfectly capable of precise images – we know that from "Penny Lane" and "When I’m Sixty-Four" -- but this is definitely not the place for neat poetry.  

“Fixing A Hole” sounds, on the face of it, like an episode of Home Improvement. I can just read the TV Guide synopsis: “Industrious homeowner Paul McCartney tackles a number of D.I.Y. projects – fixing a hole in his roof, spackling some cracks in his door, painting his room.” Scintillating.

But wait -- he’s got a special agenda. Absolutely every one of these repairs is intended to help his mind to go “wandering / Where it will go.” And the way his voice floats off into space on “where it will go,” it’s not too hard to get the psychedelic subtext. He’s not just painting, he’s “painting my room in the colourful way.” Coming out of the austere gray 1950s, I remember the Sixties as a sudden burst of Technicolor – A Hard Day’s Night evolving into Help! The satin uniforms of Sgt. Pepper’s were just the latest flowering of the Mod fashion revolution, and Swinging London was saturated with colour; already the gaudiness was spreading west, to run riot in San Francisco for the Summer of Love. Even more specifically, of course, color was code for the altered reality of mind-expanding drugs.

Paul’s now in a world where logic doesn’t rule. Why would he want to fix that hole? Don't you want that hole in your roof, to let your mind out and go free? Of course, "fixing" has a double meaning -- it can also mean "setting in place," rather than "repairing" -- but he's not about to solve the ambiguity.

In that punchy chorus, Paul defiantly declares: “And it really doesn’t matter / If I’m wrong, I’m right / Where I belong I’m right / Where I belong.” (A little pig-headed, maybe, though McCartney the compulsive charmer softens it with his flippant vocals.) Notice how the line breaks make the words seem like Zen koans, scrambling his prosaic declaration "And it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong / I'm right where I belong / I'm right where I belong." Then he draws his line in the sand: “See the people standing there / Who disagree / And never win / And wonder why they don’t get in my door.” Erm . . . excuse me? I don’t know about you, but I want to get in Paul McCartney’s door. (And didn’t he say, back on the album’s title track, that he’d love to take me home with him? I remember that distinctly.) So the last thing I’m going to do is to disagree. I want to join the Beatles’ club, whether it a lonely-hearts society or whatever.

“I’m taking the time for a number of things / That weren’t important yesterday,” Paul announces in the last verse. In 1967, we knew what these new priorities were – drugs, and sex, and peace and love and a whole lot of other non-Tory ideals. Dogs and cats living together, that sort of thing. Clearly the Beatles had signed on to the social revolution – now it was up to us to follow.

Monday, June 04, 2007

“Getting Better” / The Beatles
In the shifting search for Truth that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Getting Better” is a ray of hope. The narrator (Paul’s singing) buoyantly declares he’s happy now, since “you’ve been mine.” I naturally assume he’s talking about a girlfriend – didn’t Ringo just tell us we all need someone to love? But if it is a girl, Paul never bothers to tell us a thing about her. (It’s possible the “you” that changed his life could be drugs, or maybe wealth and success – both sure transformed the Beatles’ lives.) It doesn’t really matter, because the song is really all about him. It’s complete navel-gazing – either that or charming self-expression, take your pick.

Each verse is a snapshot of him at some disagreeable stage of his life. “I used to get mad at my school,” “Me used to be angry young man,” and, most disturbing of all, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her / And kept her apart from the things that she loved.” (Flashback to an earlier song, this one by John Lennon: “You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man, that’s the end-a, little girl.”) There’s plenty of self-knowledge here, but he’s not going to beat himself up; he’s on the right path, and that’s good enough for now. “It’s getting better / A little better all the time,” he says gamely; “I’m doing the best that I can.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, man.

Set to a different tune, with a different arrangement, these lyrics might have been repellent – but instead, McCartney’s pulled off a positive, bright-hearted track I can’t help but love. I think it’s because of that jazzy rhythm, that skip in his step that is second-nature for a bassist like Paul (think “Got To Get You Into My Life”). Even though the melody in the verse keeps slip-sliding down to murkier chords, that chorus perks right back up.

This is not a track built on guitar virtuosity; every instrument feeds into the percussive bounce. Those clanging repeated guitar chords, later picked up by an electric piano, pulse and vibrate like a radio signal; cymbals and handclaps fill in for drums most of the time. There’s no horn section, but the back-up vocals play just like a pack of horns -- listen to their opening fanfare: “It’s getting better all the ti-i-ime.” The backing vocals are one of my favorite things about this song. “I used to get mad at my school / [Now I can’t complain] / The teachers who taught me weren’t cool / [Now I can’t complain] / You’re holding me down [ah-ah] / Turning me round [oh] / Filling me up with your rules [ooh].” Best of all: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better [better] / A little better all the time [It can’t get no worse]”. It’s a clever way to keep up the brass-band motif while still rocking out.

I know some people hate McCartney’s toe-tapping cheeriness -- but why wouldn’t Paul McCartney have an optimistic view of life? Anytime he ever wanted anything, all he had to do was bat those eyelashes and he’d get his way. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a nasty side as well; this song is full of it. But the ultimate message? Love sees all, knows all, and changes everything. Dig it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" / The Beatles

The happy last harmonies of “With A Little Help From My Friends” have barely faded away before we’re plucked out of our boozy contentment, borne away on a series of shivery synthesized arpeggios – “Picture yourself in a boat on a river…”

Yes, we have now entered the world of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Hearing it for the first time in 1967 was extremely disturbing . . . and exciting. There had been touches of psychedelia on other rock songs before this, but this was a full-fledged assault on our senses. It works on every level – the dense production values, the hypnotic looping melody, the dreamy waltz tempo, the lush surreal imagery of the lyrics. If John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren’t tripping when they wrote this, they were certainly recalling what a trip felt like -- and passing it on to us.

The unstoppered flow of language boggles the mind. It begins with a palette of colors worthy of Peter Max: tangerine trees, marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green, and of course the “girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” (All those three-syllable words, perfectly matched to the waltz tempo.) In verse two the ex-art student in John Lennon really begins to romp: “rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies” and “newspaper taxis appear on the shore.” It’s as if we’re in a Dadaist film, as our magical boat glides in slow motion past bridge and fountain and giant flowers to that far-off (far-out?) shore. By verse three, even the everyday setting of a train station looks distorted, with its “plasticine porters with looking-glass ties”). Hmmm … could it be our minds that are altered, and not the landscape at all?

The melody, too, seems in a state of suspended animation – I love how it drifts along on one repeated note, veering only a couple tones in either direction from time to time. The key shifts, but only to find a new note to hang upon. Lennon heaves with enervated langour from note to note, slurring the intervals into chromatic scales. I hear very little guitar here, though the bass does a ghostly stilt-walk through the second half of each verse. A guitar would sound too earthy, I guess -- it would break the spell.

On the verses, John’s double-tracked vocals are sung with ethereal delicacy, and held back in the mix to sound frail and distant; in contrast, the hearty group harmonies of the chorus sound near at hand. All it takes is the repeated cue -- “gone” -- for a robust drumbeat to kick in. The singers punch out the words “Lu-cy in the sky” all on one note, then fall behind the beat and slide downscale for “with di-i-amonds” (skittering into triplets on “diamonds”, as if refracting light). Winding up on an ever-so-slightly dissonant “Aaahhhhhhhh,” they modulate but never resolve that tantalizing chord.

As for the initials – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – John Lennon always denied that it stood for LSD, insisting that it came from a drawing his son Julian brought home depicting his school friend Lucy. Pish-tosh. This song was about drugs, that much was clear to EVERYBODY from day one. Yet as the narrator floats downstream, it’s unsettling – searching for Truth, all he finds is an alternate reality. Mutant flowers, pie-devouring rocking-horses, a cloud-filled taxi, robot train porters – it’s practically a Twilight Zone episode. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” scared me away from drugs.

Anyway, who needs real drugs when you can just listen to this song and get high for free?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

“With A Little Help From My Friends” / The Beatles
On Sgt. Pepper’s opening track, Paul gives us fair warning: “the singer’s going to sing a song / And he’d like you all to sing along.” But even after all these years, I still feel surprised that Billy Shears turns out to be…Ringo.

Far from the star vocalist we’ve been promised, it’s Ringo’s artless singing voice -- nasal, limited in range, slightly off-pitch – that launches into “With A Little Help From My Friends,” a cheery pub singalong that slots right into the album’s nostalgia gimmick (better than most of the other tracks in that respect). All those lyrics about not singing out of key, and Ringo’s just barely hitting his notes. It’s one of the most disarming tracks ever.

I always love the Ringo songs. I suspect that whenever John and Paul sat down to write for their drummer, they tapped into huge reservoirs of affection for him. No wonder this song is all about your friends supporting you – at this stage in the Beatles’ career, Ringo was probably the only Beatle who was still truly friends with all of his bandmates.

Not that they’re going to make Ringo do all the heavy lifting – no, indeed. After the first verse, it’s all traded-off questions and answers: “What do I do when my love is away?” Ringo wonders, baffled, and his friends respond sympathetically, “Does it worry you to be alone?” In the third verse, they’re asking him the questions: “Would you believe in a love at first sight?” and he declares, with dogged faith, “Yes I’m certain that it happens all the time.” How perfect to have good-hearted Ringo singing this – can you imagine this lyric coming out of John Lennon’s lips?

Ringo is the go-to guy for a song this unpretentious, that’s for sure. He’s looking for love, like anybody else, but he’s not picky. He’s not a yearning romantic, like Paul; he’s not tripped up by mistrust and jealousy and hostility like John. “Could it be anybody?” his friends ask, in lovely high harmonies. I can almost see Ringo shrug as he answers, “I want somebody to love.” It IS that simple. When all’s said and done, isn’t that what we all want?

The drug subtext is there too, of course (you can never go wrong assuming a coded drug message on Sgt. Pepper). The first chorus sets it up, “I get by / With a little help from my friends / I get high / With a little help from my friends / Going to try / With a little help from my friends.” He doesn’t repeat this again in the song, but nevertheless, it’s the line most people remember. Sure, the male voices chiming in are his friends – but that single “I get high” line also suggests that the “friends” are pills or joints, or maybe the pusher who provides them. Wink, wink.

The best line in this song, though, has to be: “What do you see when you turn out the light? / I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.” We could all let our dirty minds run wild on that line. (See Ray Davies, “When I Turn Off the Living Room Light”). But when you’re done snickering, remember: whatever Ringo’s handling there in the dark, it BELONGS to him. Who needs fancy explanations when you're that connected?

There’s just something so damn grounded about Ringo. On this album full of dreamers and searchers, he may be the only character who’s got life figured out.

Friday, June 01, 2007

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" / The Beatles

The British Invasion began with the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance in February 1964; it ended in June 1967 when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not twenty years ago today, but twice that – forty years ago today. After that, there was no dividing music into British vs American – there was just the Beatles on one hand and everyone else on the other.

By now endless amounts have been written about this iconic album, but here the deal is one song at a time.  And as it happens, that may be the best way to look at it. Sgt. Pepper is more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty damn fine on their own.

Actually, I’m starting with two songs: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and its reprise, nearly at the end of Side 2. (That “nearly” will become important.) The first one kicks off the contrived conceit of this album – that it’s not by the Beatles, but by a mustachioed military brass band in braided satin uniforms. (Did anybody believe that?) So we start with the audience’s pre-concert mutterings, instruments tuning up, abruptly cut off by a thumping drumbeat and some crunchy guitars. I always think of this as an oom-pah song – that tuba in the bridge is so memorable -- but in fact this intro is straight on rock music. We don’t get the brass going until the middle eight, along with some obviously canned crowd laughter.

What we do get is Paul, in his R&B testifying mode, delivering a pack of statements that clearly could NOT apply to the Beatles – that the band was founded “twenty years ago today”, that “they’ve been going in and out of style,” that the singer’s name is Billy Shears. With the Beatles at the peak of their unprecedented fame, self-effacing remarks like “they’re guaranteed to raise a smile” and “we hope you will enjoy the show” come with a very broad wink – and, considering how the Beatles had to constantly try to escape their fans, you gotta smile at the ingenuous “You’re such a lovely audience / We’d like to take you home with us.” But that invitation -- the offer to be part of the Beatles’ inner circle -- is a constant motif throughout the album, winding up on the last track with John’s offer “I’d love to turn you on”.

Skip now to the reprise, where the drumbeat is much more frenetic, all high-hat and cymbals, the guitars ripping off fuzzy licks unheard-of in the first go-round. The reprise only lasts a minute or so – it’s just there to close the bracket, to complete this framing device. I’ve always been struck, though, by how often they repeat the line “Sergeant Pepper’s lonely,” powering it through a key shift and rise in volume. In the first version, that same line was just a stutter leading into the complete band name; here I picture Sergeant Pepper anxiously scanning the crowd for someone to warm his bed. By now we’ve had ten other tracks about people struggling to connect with others – that loneliness of Sergeant Pepper brings the humanity of the band (and the Beatles) into sharp relief.

As all good concert-goers know, there’s always an encore -- in this case, “A Day In The Life,” perhaps the album’s most disturbing and beautiful number. I’ll get to that in a few days, but it’s worth wondering now -- WHO is supposed to be singing this song? Billy Shears? Lonely Sergeant Pepper? Or is it the Beatles themselves, back in their street clothes, having shooed away the fake band? Something to ponder…the Beatles always gave us something to ponder.