abbey road 50

I drew the Beatles in honor of Abbey Road’s 50th anniversary. Each has a lyric they wrote, or in the case of Ringo, the drum solo in The End.


the white album

As longtime readers know, I’m a pretty big Beatles fan. One of my first forays into realistic art was a shaded graphite portrait of the Beatles based on their White Album pictures. This time around, I went a little less real. It was fun to revisit these photos as a way to try a new technique. These were drawn on an iPad and on the computer using Photoshop.

Blog reviews

paul mccartney: a life, a review

bookjpg-3180c65c678bb253_smallPart life story, part medical treatise on the long-term mental effects of pot smoking, Peter Ames Carlin’s new biography, Paul McCartney: A Life, chronicles the once and future Beatle from his parent’s meeting all the way through his latest album, Electric Arguments.

Carlin’s book doesn’t deal in those oft-repeated “truths” about The Beatles and Paul McCartney, and it never succumbs to nitpicking. It is written by a fan who loves Paul but is not blinded by that love. Carlin has written an engaging, well-researched biography of the Cute Beatle.

While Paul was for years dismissed as a lightweight next to John Lennon, people have finally started to come around. His contribution to the greatest rock band of all time was nothing short of foundational. Without Paul’s sense of melody and artistic experimentation, John songs like A Day in the Life or Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds would never have achieved their full potential. The Beatles were always a band, and Carlin shows that you can’t discount any member of that group. (Even Ringo.)

In spite of Carlin’s not being able to speak with Paul directly, he has 50+ years worth of interviews, news articles, books, and of course music to draw from. It really isn’t a drawback that the biographer doesn’t have direct access to his subject. Paul usually interviews only when he’s trying to sell something, and he also tends to be just a bit spacey. Not necessarily bad things in themselves, but it isn’t a mixture conducive to introspection.

It also doesn’t help that Paul rarely critiques his past work. I would love to sit him down and ask, as an intrepid Playboy interviewer did with John Lennon many years ago, what Paul thinks about every song on every single one of his albums. My friend Andy, a Beatle scholar of utmost integrity, theorizes that Paul doesn’t think about his past work. He sure doesn’t play the majority of his catalog on tour. If you just saw him live, you’d think he only made about a dozen songs from 1970 to the present. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, whips out a vast assortment of songs on his Neverending Tour, from hits to obscurities.

Paul’s desire to be liked, to keep earning his fame, is probably his greatest motivation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, but it does force him to “forget” a large part of what he’s done over the years. As Carlin is quick to point out, sometimes a failure can be just as interesting as a success. Much of his commentary in the book is reserved for Paul’s lesser-known works.

Carlin’s portrait of Paul is of an inventive, egotistical, creative, musical, artistic, autocratic, blissful, angry, oblivious, hardworking, chipper guy. Because of all his contradictions, Paul comes off as truly human. That is the great success of Carlin’s biography. Breezy without being glib, deep without seeming pretentious, A Life presents a Living Legend in all senses of that phrase.

Although I’ve read more than my share of Beatles commentary, Carlin’s biography does shed some new light on that oft-written period of time. While Paul always wants to come off as a nice guy in public, he is a huge star and is used to having his way all the time. That tension is the crux of the Beatles chapters. Paul clearly wanted to become the leader of The Beatles after Brian Epstein died, an ill-advised move that probably led as much to the breakup as Yoko’s incessant howling. But it was also his vision that created Beatles out of a group of Liverpool teenagers. So you could say that balances things out.

The part of Paul’s life I was most interested in hearing more about, however, came post-Beatles. How can a man who thought up and executed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band produce utter garbage a few years later? Easy! Carlin tells us how:

Paul’s problem with putting out consistently good albums seems to be:
1. Big ego, plus
2. an unsureness of his own talent, compounded when
3. his big ego gets doesn’t allow him to listen when someone has a bad thing to say about his new songs.

Paul, like all us artists, needs an editor. His best editor, John, was never interested in working with him after the Beatles, and Paul never found another person he could trust as much as John. Paul’s reliance on how easy it all came to him was actually a hindrance, allowing him to put out albums regularly without any of the sweat needed to hone a group of songs to perfection. Then, if the album did well (which it usually did in the 1970’s, because this is a new Paul McCartney album after all), he’d just assume all was well and continue on his merry way.

I was particularly interested in Paul’s brief partnership with Elvis Costello. I really wish he had released the songs they recorded together as-is. Instead, second guessing himself, Paul re-recorded all of them. When they came out (in Flowers in the Dirt and the misbegotten Off the Ground) they had lost their energy.

Sometimes the production got in the way of perfectly good songs, but many times Paul just didn’t have anything to say. He was a blogger before his time. At worst, listening through Paul’s post-Beatle albums is a fascinating way to chart the moods of one of the most famous people on the planet. Feeling it was his duty to keep making albums, Paul sometimes lost the thread.

But that isn’t always the case. Every once in a while he’ll release Band on the Run, or Flaming Pie, or the recent Memory Almost Full. (Although for my money, McCartney is still his greatest solo effort.) Albums that, if they were made by a total unknown, would propel him to stardom.

Carlin compiles the story Paul never seems willing to tell. It is the story I’ve long wanted to hear. What Paul doesn’t know is, it is his failings that make him great. It’s the fact that he can release (and champion!) Give My Regards to Broad Street as if it were the next A Hard Day’s Night. I find it comforting that even a musical genius can have an off day.

I also find it comforting that a book such as this exists. Now I think I’ll put my headphones back on and listen.

Blog reviews

listening to the beatles remasters

I bought the world’s biggest, most inefficient ipod.josh-beatles2
Just kidding!

The Beatles remasters are out on CD, and this blogger has been listening intently for the past week.

Everybody knows the band: Liam Gallagher on vocals and rhythm guitar, Noel Gallagher on vocals and bass, Liam Gallagher on lead guitar, and Noel Gallagher on the drums. Everybody also (should) know the songs. But what this blogger, and millions of people my age and younger, don’t know is how the Beatles themselves wanted the music to sound.

You see, I’m 29. 22 years ago, the Beatles released their albums on CD. Before that, they were on records and cassette tapes. In order to listen to an album, I had the choice of hearing my parents’ records, a cassette, or the tinny, terribly mastered CDs. Records sounded good but they had been played for the past 30 years or so and sounded a bit worn. Also, you couldn’t play them in the car. Cassettes played just fine in my Dodge Aries but they never sounded good, even in the best of circumstances. And the CDs, like I said, were rushed to market and sounded like it. But no worries, right? Every band was re-releasing their albums in the 90’s. Except, of course, the only band that really matters.

So for my entire life, I’ve never heard the sound the Beatles intended. I heard either worn records (not too bad, but also not portable), cassettes, or the hastily-produced CDs. Mainly it was the CDs.

And so it was with much anticipation that I put on the newly remastered White Album to hear While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Just for comparison, I first put on the version with which I was familiar. Then I popped in the new CD and was amazed, amazed I say, at the clarity of this 40-year-old recording.

I suddenly heard the Beatles themselves. I heard musicians playing the instruments. I could feel the presence of Ringo at the drums, rather than just a drum-sound. I heard the sound of Paul catching his breath in Paperback Writer. I heard John (at least I think that’s John) coughing in a quiet section of Norwegian Wood. Sometimes I can hear them putting down their instruments at the end of a song. The Beatles are closer now, the songs I’ve heard thousands of times more exuberant, more human, and more dear.

The sound quality really makes a difference. Dear Prudence really sounds like the band playing in a room together. It made me wish they could have performed it live. When they sing harmonies I can actually make out the separate voices. The bass is more present, as are the drums, but not overwhelmingly so. The comparative levels of the songs haven’t changed, it’s all more clear. The Beatles no longer play in a room full of gauze. There’s air there.

My earlier trepidation has been removed. The Beatles CDs finally sound as good as the music recorded onto them. Now I’ll get back to my Beatles ipod.josh-beatles

Blog reviews

today you can hear john lennon sneeze

Beatles remasters came out today.paul-john
I’m not sure who picked the date (9.9.09) to release these, but I do know John really liked the number 9. Songs he wrote: One After 909, Revolution #9, #9 Dream. Was this release date a coincidence or exceptionally good marketing? Only the Sun King knows.

There are lots of reviews floating around the internet, but probably my favorite is the one done by Bob Boilen at All Songs Considered. He and his show producer listen and comment on the remastered Sgt. Pepper.

For the record, I’m more of a White Album guy. It’s sprawling and sure, I rarely listen to Revolution #9, but there’s a lot to be discovered on that double album. I’ve been wondering for weeks which song or album I should listen to first. I might take Bob’s advice and listen to Sgt. Pepper.

Blog reviews

beatles reissues

on+a+streetWhy is it we don’t have decent sounding CDs of the greatest band of all time? The Beatles, whose music is unarguably better than Wolfgang Mozart’s on his best day, have been heard for the last 30 years on tinny, crappy CDs rushed to market in the late 1980’s.

I’ll spare you the whole story, which has been recounted at length on other parts of the internet. Suffice to say The Beatles CDs sound way worse than those of their contemporaries. It galls me that The Monkees, began as a cheap cash-in on The Beatles’ early style, have remixed, remastered CDs that sound as good as the day a boatload of studio musicians piled into some recording booth in the 1960’s.

There are a few recent releases that offer fans a taste of what The Beatles actually sounded like: the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, comprised of songs from the film Yellow Submarine (itself no longer in print), the horribly titled Let it Be…Naked, and Love, the soundtrack to a Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show. These three releases sound really good: full, loud. Listening to Love made me realize how much “Revolution” rocks. On “I Am the Walrus,” I heard the band playing together, something that gets lost on the murky-sounding Magical Mystery Tour CD. I would never trade the Love album in for any reason, but at the same time I’m angry that I had to wait for Cirque du Soleil to put on a show to hear The Beatles remastered.

The Apple website shows us how companies still don’t get the internet. The 40th anniversary of the White Album came and went with no remaster, but we can buy a $500 White Album pen. Imagine that! A white pen! People should be getting fired over this. I imagine the Apple corporate headquarters is a rundown farm, with a sickly horse wheezing in the stable, two cows too old to give milk, chickens wandering listlessly in the driveway, and a constantly quarreling farmer and his wife.

In whose interest is it to not release commodities for sale? When you eliminate the logical reasons, all you’re left with is laziness, incompetence, or insanity. All three must be at work in Apple.

I can’t imagine either Paul or Ringo cares very much at this point. They’re pretty well set financially, and if they ever want to hear the recordings they can just pop into Abbey Road studio to hear the original tapes. But it is in their interests to push for better sounding CDs – this is, after all, their legacy. As long as we are stuck with facsimiles of facsimiles, thin carbon copies of the real recording, the world’s impression of The Beatles is less awe and more “eh.”

Blog reviews

Sgt. Pepper’s Endlessly Touring Band

paul-tug-of-war-liner-notesDid Paul McCartney record a follow-up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? He didn’t ever say so, at least to my knowledge, but his 1973 album Band on the Run could be seen as a continuation of the Sgt. Pepper story.

McCartney was the one who came up with the original idea to have the Beatles record an album as another band. Sgt. Pepper is credited as the first concept album: an album that is not simply a collection of songs but a thematic whole. In this case, The Beatles became Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. The songs they played were not Beatles’ songs, they were Sgt. Pepper songs. I’m not sure how much differently the songs would have turned out had they simply recorded “another Beatles album.” With the exception of the first two tracks and the closing Sgt. Pepper’s (Reprise), there isn’t much inherently different from songs the band was playing already. What the heck, it was the first concept album, they were allowed a little leeway.

McCartney was the driving force behind the idea of playing as Sgt. Pepper, so it would be natural for him, of all the former Beatles, to do a sequel of sorts.

Band on the Run begins with the title track about an unnamed band. They first become bored within “these four walls.” Could this be the studio in which the Beatles trapped themselves for the second half of their career? Then, the unnamed band apparently gets tangled up with the local law and have to make a run for it. Sgt. Pepper’s band is no doubt an unruly group of miscreants, so it wouldn’t be hard to imagine them being pursued right after a gig (kind of like a psychedelic Blues Brothers).
There are more echoes from Sgt. Pepper’s to Band on the Run. Mrs. Vandebilt is a character sketch in a similar vein to Lovely Rita. Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me) uses a cut-and-paste technique that reminds me of Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! Bluebird…well, okay, that one sounds like Blackbird, from the White Album. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five is an exercise in forward-thinking, a funky (and, admittedly, not very successful) version of A Day in the Life. While Day in the Life was (and still is) a singular, masterful song, 1985 sounds like the disco that was becoming more and more popular through the 70’s. Sgt. Pepper lost a few of his key bandmates between the two albums, and while they’re still trying, the sound just isn’t quite the same. One thing to note about 1985, though, is that, at very end of the song in the fadeout, it cuts back to Band on the Run, giving the album a circular feel. Also, and important to my theory, it closes the album in the same way that Sgt. Pepper’s (Reprise) did for its album. It’s like a band closing a live show with an encore of their big hit.
In my mind, Sgt. Pepper fronts a jokey road show band. They travels from town to town, endlessly touring, losing and gaining members as they roll down the road. It makes me happy to think Sgt. Pepper and his friends are still playing somewhere, maybe getting enough money together to record another album from time to time. That’s why, flaws aside, Band on the Run is special to me. Sgt. Pepper resurfaced, however briefly, in 1973.

10 years

I’ve often thought that Linda McCartney had a good impact on Paul. They were a team; it is an image I have of what marriage ought to be. I read an interview of the two of them from the early 80’s. At one point Paul leaves the room. Linda then talks about Paul’s relationship with John in much more detail than I’ve heard Paul himself say. It wasn’t anything revelatory, but it felt so real.
lynda mccartney1
Linda died in Tucson, the same year I was a senior in high school. I remember seeing on TV the news trucks parked outside the McCartney home for days. That was the news: the news trucks sitting there on the side of the road. I wished they would have left the family alone.

Today Paul writes about Linda on the tenth anniversary of her death. She was a great lady. She is missed.linda mccartney