"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Time has been kind to Beatles' "Abbey Road"

How iconic they were
The power of the three-minute song was incredible in the 1960s and '70s. Perhaps this music was like an opiate helping us get through our day. This was done listening to the radio.
As kids we listened to KDWB Radio out of the Twin Cities. "Tac" Hammer was a favorite deejay. Remember their jingle? "KDWB, Channel 63." Certain hit songs just got seared into our consciousness, like the Association's "Windy." Or, the Association's "Cherish."
I continue to be fascinated trying to understand what separates hit songs from non-hit songs. I am fascinated that science cannot explain this. This in an age when science purports to be able to explain everything. Maybe the creationists and climate change deniers are right after all. Just kidding.
The Beatles were the masters of all that developed in pop music in the 1960s. These four guys mesmerized us. My generation suggests that the Beatles' "run" was too short. The breakup of the Beatles is presented as some sort of earthshaking tragedy. Actually the Fab 4 put out a tremendous amount of music. After the breakup, they gave us plenty of music even though much of it seemed watered down.
At their best, all four - OK, all three - were capable of mesmerizing us, even post-breakup.
"Abbey Road" was the Fab 4's eleventh album. It was released in the fall of 1969 in the U.S. These sessions were the last where all four members participated together. It's confusing because the "Let It Be" album (initially titled "Get Back") came out later. Most of the "Let It Be" material was recorded before "Abbey Road."
The Beatles were at their zenith when in October of 1969, the double-A sided singled with "Something" and "Come Together" came out. This was when Billy Martin was getting fired as manager of the Minnesota Twins baseball team. The Twins had won the Western Division title in the first year of the divisional system. We did it with dominance, but we just didn't have a prayer against the Baltimore Orioles, in 1969 or in '70. We ought to remember those seasons better than we do. Being a division winner is special. It sure would be today.
In '69 Jerry Koosman climbed to the heights of glory with the New York Mets. He's a West Central School of Agriculture graduate, from here in Morris! So, maybe my baseball references give you a little frame of reference for understanding the Beatles' twilight time.
The Fab 4 went out in a blaze of glory. They left my generation wanting more. 
"Abbey Road" gave us a mixture of blues, pop and progressive rock. We got lots of Moog synthesizer. It would be easier to appreciate a lot of the Beatles' music today without a lot of the studio gimmicks. Eventually the "unplugged" wave came forward in music, as a way of saying "enough!" regarding the amplifiers, gimmicks etc. Just give us good music! Amen.
I have recently played some of the Beatles' CDs of the 1960s. I now realize, lest there was ever any doubt, this was John's group. John Lennon seemed truly the foundation. His energy and consistency were a backbone for the sound.
Paul McCartney was arguably brilliant. His best songs rank with the best, obviously. But he could be kind of a pain. What was truly accomplished by "Maxwell's Silver Hammer?" This was one of four tracks on "Abbey Road" where Lennon didn't perform. John privately left the band before the album was released. McCartney quit publicly the following year. All us boomers were left disconsolate, I guess.
Time has been kind to "Abbey Road." Initially the critical reviews were mixed. Today there is more of a unison approval of the work.
One of the greatest albums ever? Just think if I as an amateur songwriter wrote "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and submitted the demo to a publisher. I would have the door slammed on me so hard, my nose would be broken. Same with "Strawberry Fields Forever" and numerous others. But, once you've been allowed past the "velvet rope" and are considered a success, you can perform idiosyncratic material (or stupid material) and get by with it.
George Harrison was an enigma. Long ago I formed the theory that some of Harrison's best stuff may have been written in concert with Lennon, or actually "slid under the table" from Lennon to Harrison. How do we know the truth behind how all these songs get written? Why would Lennon do this? He was such a prolific creator of great music, he had some to spare, probably, and by helping out Harrison some, he'd be helping the Beatles' image as a group with multiple talents.
Yes, my thinking comes across as conspiratorial! But hey, my recent research shows I'm not exactly out in left field. Regarding the classic song "Something," which is attributed to Harrison, I read: "John Lennon gave George Harrison songwriting advice during the composition."
Songwriting advice! Maybe a few actual phrases, right? I have to wonder because once Harrison got out on his own, especially after his first solo album, he struggled so much trying to produce consistently appealing material. A fan of his wrote that he put out "treadmill albums" - in other words, going through the motions with pretty pedestrian stuff.
Lennon played piano for "Something" but most of that got removed. Traces remain in the song's "middle 8."
Frank Sinatra said of "Something" that it's the greatest long song ever. How much of this song is Lennon's? We'll never know. You don't just give "advice" without making concrete contributions.
"Oh! Darling" is kind of nice, in my view, because it resonates with a doo-wop quality, a music genre I have always felt was under-appreciated.
What if I wrote "Octopus' Garden" and submitted it to a publisher? Another broken nose scenario. But we all loved Ringo Starr.
"Because" was inspired by a piano rendition of "Moonlight Sonata." Ah, then we come to the famous "medley" on side 2. "Jethro Tull" milked the medley approach to the maximum extent. "Thick as a Brick" was a Tull classic with this "concept" approach, while "Passion Play" was quite forgettable.
Ringo has his only drum solo ever in the side 2 medley of "Abbey Road." It's heard in "the End."
"And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." Genius? I don't know, but it came from the Beatles so we assume it's profound. I might suggest it's just a phrase that could be written on a napkin in an idle moment. Really.
Lennon had an IP (intellectual property) issue come up in his career, but it's not well-remembered today, if it ever was. This is in connection to "Come Together." I never really cared for that song. We learn it's an expansion of "Let's Get It Together," a song Lennon wrote for Timothy Leary's California gubernatorial campaign vs. Ronald Reagan. Morris Levy sued, based on the opening line "Here Come Old Flat-top." It's lifted from a line in Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me."
A settlement was reached in 1973 with Lennon promising to record three songs from Levy's catalog. I have heard that many songwriters are discouraged from the profession today by a fear of inadvertently repeating something previously written. This problem is easy to understand.
Belly Preston played Hammond organ for "I Want You (She's so Heavy)." Recording went into hiatus for Ringo's commitment to the movie "The Magic Christian."
August 20, 1969, was the last time all four Beatles were in the studio together. Yoko Ono was a chafing presence of course. Lennon seemed sullen as the project got released. He described the medley as "junk, just bits of songs thrown together."
Lennon was known to not exactly fawn over much of the group's work. Due to being a perfectionist? Or, just having a sullen streak? What kind of person would he be today? It's so fascinating to speculate. We have no clue.
I will state one thing very firmly: It was totally unethical and mean for the three surviving Beatles to re-work and release "Free as a Bird." This song had never been released before, which means Lennon never intended it for release. For a reason. Not only that, his voice was recorded in a crude way which was embarrassing for him. He would be indescribably angry if he were still around.
Another "new" song was released at that time: "Real Love." My friend Del Sarlette of Sarlettes Music said he thought "Real Love" was better than "Free as a Bird." A critic, trying to be generous, said "Free as a Bird" was like an ELO song. No musician wants his work to be praised simply on the basis of being like someone else's.
Truth be told, both of these "new" releases were a waste of time and embarrassing, although they may have helped some cash registers ring. It's sad because my generation was so starved and desperate to hear some new Beatles music, as if the guys were still together.
Let's all slap ourselves over this. "Abbey Road" was the Beatles' final recording effort, and history books aren't going to be changed on this. "You can't go home again," Thomas Wolfe wrote. And, you can't go back in time. You can't replay the 1969 American League divisional playoffs!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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