So, this happened 50 years ago today…
We’re also starting to get a good idea of what to expect with regard to the 50th anniversary of the Let it Be documentary. I actually find this to be exciting news, as it will shed a different light on the project. I don’t think it will be a revisionist light, as there’s no reversing the fact that the group was slowly dissolving while being filmed, but it will apparently illustrate that the Get Back sessions in January of 1969 as shown in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s original film weren’t dreary and depressing all the time. There were 55 hours of unused film taken that month! I don’t care if Yoko’s in 99% of it – she was there a lot, after all. I just hope Billy Preston gets his due. And, fear not, we’ll also get the original film, restored in all its bleak glory.
The Beatles – Yellow Submarine (soundtrack)
To anyone who may scoff at the notion that what the Beatles pulled off during their relatively short existence was anything less than miraculous, and that they were under constant pressure to produce more, more, and more, I offer the example of the sometimes unfairly disregarded soundtrack to the animated film, Yellow Submarine, released this day 50 years ago (January 17 in the UK).
The soundtrack contained four “new” songs, two previously released tracks (the title track had been around for almost three years), plus George Martin’s orchestral score on side two. Its release was delayed so that it wouldn’t interfere with their double album release in November of ’68. The film and album were considered a contract obligation, hence the Beatles didn’t give it the full studio treatment after spending many contentious hours in the studio over the previous two years. Negative to ambivalent critical assessments of the album are a reflection of the group’s attitude toward the project. But is it really an album to be dismissed? Personally, I feel the four previously unreleased songs alone make it worthwhile.
George Harrison’s much-maligned Only a Northern Song had been rejected for inclusion on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This turned out to be a good decision, as its replacement was the slightly less-disparaged Harrison track, Within You Without You (as fun as it can be to play the Beatles revisionist “what-if” game, I would never remove Within You Without You from Pepper!). As will surprise nobody who knows my music tastes, I love both of those songs. Yes, Only a Northern Song is cranky George complaining about his place on the group’s songwriting ladder, but it’s a trippy number with a cool organ and sound effects. It fit in well at the time it was recorded, but was already somewhat outdated (by late 60’s standards) by the time the soundtrack was released. McCartney’s All Together Now, written with old dance hall calls for a singalong in mind, may not have been his most creative songwriting effort, but again, look at the standard he had set for himself. Paul considered it a throwaway, but if ever one needs a peppy tune to get a jump-start out of a malaise, this is it.
George’s It’s All Too Much was inspired by the Summer of Love vibe, and is one of my favorite Beatles songs of all time. To me, it’s a perfect combination of grungy guitar, flower power, and a typically positive Beatles message. In my mind, the song’s psychedelic musical soul mate is the Byrds’ Eight Miles High. I only wish they were both ten-plus minutes long.* George’s song was originally eight minutes long but trimmed to a still lengthy for the era 6:25. Only a Northern Song, All Together Now, and It’s All Too Much were all recorded in early 1967. Only John’s Hey Bulldog, which he liked but said was about nothing, was recorded in 1968. Anyone want to remove this song from the Beatles canon? Not I.
It’s hard to get too worked up over contemporary critics’ dismissive attitudes toward this record since the Beatles themselves mostly mailed it in, though they were reportedly more enthusiastic about it after previewing the film. John was vocally opposed to the inclusion of George Martin’s orchestral score, but judging by Lennon’s lackluster participation on the Get Back sessions concurrently taking place at the time of this soundtrack’s release, I don’t know that he had much to offer that would’ve been an improvement in his mind. An EP was considered which would’ve included Across the Universe, but was ditched. With 1999’s reissue of the film came the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, which includes all the Beatles songs used in the film and excludes Martin’s score. I never bothered to pick it up, I guess confirming I’m not the completist I once considered myself to be. Occasionally I let the soundtrack CD play out and find myself enjoying the orchestral tracks. Perhaps I should paint big black holes on my walls for a fuller effect.
*In later incarnations, the Byrds would stretch Eight Miles High into a nearly twenty minute jam session on stage, but Roger McGuinn would only sing the first verse for some reason. I digress.
- Yellow Submarine
- Only a Northern Song
- All Together Now
- Hey Bulldog
- It’s All Too Much
- All You Need is Love
- Sea of Time
- Sea of Holes
- Sea of Monsters
- March of the Meanies
- Pepperland Laid Waste
- Yellow Submarine in Pepperland
The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)
We’ve finally arrived at the Big Anniversary of the Beatles’ sprawling, self-titled 1968 double album. It’s the first Beatles album to be covered in this unabashed fanboy’s blog which I started at the beginning of the year. Many of us have already greedily consumed the 50th anniversary release of the album, complete with the Esher Demos, session goodies, the famous individual portraits and lyrics poster, and a hardcover book. Some have already published nice reviews in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Somehow today feels a bit anticlimactic, though I’ll probably give it a spin before stuffing my face with turkey later in the day.
It’s not that the anniversary hasn’t re-sparked my enthusiasm for the White Album, released this day in 1968. It has. It isn’t that I’m not thrilled with everything to do with the deluxe edition which I’ve been poring over these past couple of weeks. I am. But if you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole, when I think about it, this entire year has been about the White Album as pertains to my perception of the Beatles, the music scene in general, and to some extent the year 1968 itself.
Looking back over the first eleven months of my blog, this record looms throughout. The seed is probably found as far back as August of 1967 with the death of Brian Epstein. The Magical Mystery Tour project in the immediate aftermath of his passing may have been their first attempt to carry on managing themselves, but with the White Album we see the fissures within the group and their individual future directions in full light. Many of these songs were written in February during the Rishikesh retreat, and most of the band’s activities the rest of the year from that trip-onward led to this album or were an offshoot of it.
We had the single, Lady Madonna/The Inner Light, released in March. In May, the establishment of Apple Corps, Ltd. was announced. This was to be the band’s business and musical apparatus, as well as a vehicle for them as individual artists – and isn’t that really what the White Album is, some group work but a lot of individual effort? May was also the month sessions for the album began in earnest. With the release of the stunning Hey Jude/Revolution single in August, they showed the world that the Beatles were still the Beatles despite the turmoil they always seemed to find themselves in. Although those tracks were not included on the album, they are White Album session tracks.
Group and individual burnout is evident on this album. Even Ringo walked out during his well-documented “I thought it was YOU three?” moment. John’s behavior became predictably unpredictable, and the sad state of affairs (no pun intended, but yeah) surrounding his marriage to Cynthia finally came to an end as he officially transitioned to Yoko. They immediately created their first vinyl baby, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, under the Apple umbrella, and she would be a permanent fixture within the group dynamic from that point on.
George finally found his own creative outlet with Wonderwall Music (the inaugural release on the Apple label), the score to the Wonderwall movie which included Indian musicians who also performed on the Inner Light, as well as his buddy Eric Clapton, who participated on both the movie score and the White Album. All of these factors – from India to Apple, from recording the demos at George’s house in Esher to the singles releases, from the “Mad Day Out” photo session in July to the individual side projects and contentious group studio sessions – all of them are woven into the double album we’re celebrating today, and all were played out over the course of the year leading up to its release.
Some random personal thoughts about the record:
- In 2018, if there’s any one member of the band I associate with the album more than the others, it’s George. I freely admit this is due in large part to Hari gradually becoming my “favorite” Beatle over the years. The White Album was perhaps his final chance to exert serious influence on the direction the Beatles would take, both musically and spiritually. His creative input could no longer be ignored by John and Paul if he was going to remain in the group long-term. It may not have gone as he had hoped, but his spirit is everywhere in these songs, including the ones which didn’t make the final cut. As he mentioned in interviews, he tried to enter the studio the following January for the Get Back sessions with a positive mindset, but it was too late. The Beatles were, for all intents and purposes, done, despite there being two albums yet to record. Amazingly to me, George was only 25 when the White Album was released.
- As a child, even though I always loved most of its tracks, the White Album kind of creeped me out. First, the “Paul is dead ‘clues'” in the grooves and album artwork were both fascinating and, to 9 or 10-year-old me, frightening. My brother Paul would spin the vinyl backwards for me to hear voices supposedly saying “Paul is a dead man. Miss him, miss him,” and “Turn me on, dead man.” In that dimly lit basement I was glad not to be alone when listening. To this day, Revolution 9 still gives me the heebie jeebies, and Good Night which follows sounds more funereal than lullaby because of it. Then there was the unfortunate, unintended connection to the Manson murders. Even that shoddy collage of photos which makes up the poster insert was at best confusing to me. But it’s So White Album, no?
- Their individual appearances fascinated me, as they did many others. Overnight they transformed from the psychedelic, flower power Sgt. Pepper look to their disheveled appearances of ’68. John looked tired and bitter, and it wasn’t until my teen years that I understood why that was.
- Yoko. Yoko, Yoko, Yoko. Yoko Ono… Because I was born the year after the Beatles broke up, as a younger person I always accepted everything I saw, heard, and read as just part of the narrative of the group. But wow, what an unforeseen shock her emergence in all their lives must have been! Whether he’s simply taking the high road or being sincere, Paul made peace with Yoko in recent years as well as declared his perhaps overdue respect for John for making his stand with her. I believe Paul is sincere. It’s past time to remove those “I still blame Yoko” bumper stickers, folks. There were plenty of other factors contributing to the split.
- And lastly, as for the great debate about whether or not it should’ve been condensed down to a single LP, my answer is a resounding HELL NO! It’s great just the way it is, but if anything could’ve improved it, it wouldn’t have been making it a single album or two separate releases (the White and Whiter Album as Ringo quipped in the Anthology). In my mind, this could easily have been a triple album. I think it’s a crime that George’s Sour Milk Sea wasn’t properly recorded and included (nothing against Jackie Lomax’s version). The same goes for Not Guilty. Sprinkle those tracks, plus Hey Jude, Revolution, and Circles throughout Sides 1-5, and make Side 6 all about John and Yoko’s madness with What’s the New Mary Jane and Revolution 9, and presto!, The Grand and Mega-Blindingly White Album! It was all free-form craziness anyway, and we’d be celebrating it the same as we are today. That still would’ve left Lady Madonna/The Inner Light as the non-album single between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album.
But I’ll defer to Sir Paul for the final word on the matter:
- Back in the U.S.S.R.
- Dear Prudence
- Glass Onion
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
- Wild Honey Pie
- The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- Happiness is a Warm Gun
- Martha My Dear
- I’m So Tired
- Rocky Raccoon
- Don’t Pass Me By
- Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
- I Will
- Yer Blues
- Mother Nature’s Son
- Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)
- Sexie Sadie
- Helter Skelter
- Long, Long, Long
- Revolution 1
- Honey Pie
- Savoy Truffle
- Cry Baby Cry
- Revolution 9
- Good Night
George Harrison – Wonderwall Music
In the world of film scores, some rather clearly need to be heard while watching the film in order to appreciate them. Some are enjoyable regardless of the context in which they’re being listened to. One such example for me is the Eurythmics soundtrack to the film 1984. I also find the soundtracks to Wes Anderson’s films to be eclectic and enjoyable. But a case where I can see how it could go either way for the listener is George Harrison’s score to the Joe Massot movie Wonderwall, titled Wonderwall Music, released this day 50 years ago. It was the first solo album by a member of the Beatles, and the first recording released on their Apple label.
Harrison viewed Massot’s work, a movie full of psychedelic pop art (with sets created by the Fool) and dream sequences starring Jane Birkin and Jack MacGowran, at Twickenham Studios. He took notes on the timing of its scenes, and then composed the music to fit accordingly. That music would include Hindustani classical, psychedelic rock, cowboy western movie theme music, and even Ragtime. The film itself is a metaphor for the generation gap as experienced in Swinging London, and Harrison saw it as an opportunity to examine through his compositions the gap between the West and the East, between materialism and spirituality. As described by AllMusic’s Richard S. Ginell, the album was “a minor eruption of the pent-up energies of George Harrison.”
Harrison, who along with the other three Beatles was experiencing newfound creative independence after the death of manager Brian Epstein in late August of 1967, was given full artistic control by Massot. He composed the music on piano and organ, and played guitar on much of the album, though on the original release he was only credited as producer, writer, and arranger. He also collaborated with top Indian musicians as well as classical pianist and arranger, John Barham, a fellow classical Indian music enthusiast.
Harrison wanted to expand upon the Indian instrumentation that he’d utilized with the Beatles already. In addition to the sitar and tabla, he now employed the oboe-like shehnai, the sarod, and the hammered dulcimer-like santoor, among others. The Western tracks utilized tape loops, backward guitar sound, and wah-wah effects in addition to the more straight forward instrumentation.
Some of both the Western and Indian portions were recorded in London at EMI and De Lane Lea Studios from November ’67 to January ’68. These sessions included Liverpool band the Remo Four, as well as Ringo and Eric Clapton (credited under the pseudonym “Eddie Clayton”). Peter Tork played banjo on a track which was not included on the soundtrack.
The rest of the Indian sections were recorded in Bombay at HMV Studios from January 9-13, 1968. It was in Bombay that the instrumental track to George’s future B-side The Inner Light was recorded. The majority of the Western music was recorded upon Harrison’s return to London in January. Final mixing with Ken Scott began on January 31, and two weeks later George returned to India with the Beatles, their wives and significant others for their retreat with the Maharishi in Rishikesh.
The album would mark the end of Harrison’s immersion in Indian music as a composer and musician. After spending time with Ravi Shankar in L.A. a few months later, he decided to concentrate on the guitar and Western music. This period did inspire him later in his work with Ravi Shankar on the latter’s Music Festival from India and the East/West fusion of Harrison’s 1974 North American Tour, where he worked again with some of the musicians from the January ’68 sessions.
Contemporary reviews of the score were favorable. There are sequences in the film with little to no dialogue, and it’s been noted that the music effectively takes the place of speaking parts. Retrospective reviews also find much merit in Harrison’s efforts on the album. It’s been described as a stew of music that’s altogether “spacey,” “esoteric,” “rollicking,” and “a beguiling tapestry of sound.” Of course, there are different strokes for different folks. Rolling Stone lazily included it in its “20 Terrible Debut Albums by Great Artists” issue. RS writer Keith Harris: “The best thing you can say about Wonderwall Music is that it’s probably more historically significant than the LP of experimental twaddle John Lennon released a month later – after all, Oasis never wrote a hit song called ‘Two Virgins.'” The reality is, there are just many westerners who don’t care for Indian music. And that’s o.k., because there are many of us who do. And for many if not most of us, it’s due to George Harrison introducing us to it.
Short and sweet, but great: Ski-ing, featuring Eddie Clayton, a.k.a., Eric Clapton –
On the Bed: probably my favorite track from the album –
Left off the original release, but fortunately added later: In the First Place, featuring the Remo Four –
An alternate take of the instrumental track to The Inner Light, which George produced while in Bombay in January of 1968 –
- Red Lady Too
- Tabla and Pakavaj
- In the Park
- Drilling a Home
- Guru Vandana
- Greasy Legs
- Gat Kirwani
- Dream Scene
- Party Seacombe
- Love Scene
- Cowboy Music
- Fantasy Sequins
- On the Bed
- Glass Box
- Wonderwall to Be Here
- Singing Om
1968 saw four album releases from attendees of that well-known spiritual retreat which took place in Rishikesh, India at the beginning of the year. The Beach Boys released their album Friends in June, and in October Donovan released his classic ode to time spent with the Maharishi. Perhaps lesser known (even though it sold a million copies) but still very significant is the work of jazz flautist Paul Horn, who recorded his album in April while still in India, although the exact release date other than the year 1968 seems to have been lost. Today I’m celebrating these second two releases.
Donovan – The Hurdy Gurdy Man
Donovan Leitch is a bit of a mysterious figure to me in the world of music. He isn’t nearly the self-promoter that many of his peers are/were, and it’s never really occurred to me to learn much about him (his autobiography is now on my reading list). Without looking it up, I have no idea when the last time was he toured the US or what he’s done in recent years.
Is he considered an influential “heavy,” as evidenced by his participation alongside the Beatles at the famed retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in 1968 where he shared guitar techniques with the Fabs, or is he a “lightweight” Dylan wannabe hanging onto Bob’s coattails as depicted in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back? Fifty-plus years on it doesn’t really matter, if it ever did. As with any artist, you either like their work or you don’t, and I like Donovan’s music, especially The Hurdy Gurdy Man, released 50 years ago this month.
Donovan’s record, an interesting mix of folk, pop, eastern influences, and jazz, gave us two singles in Hurdy Gurdy Man and Jennifer Juniper. The album’s tone is set by Donovan’s tremolo voice in the title track, and by use of the tambura which was given to Donovan by George Harrison while in India. Harrison also contributed a line which was unfortunately removed to shorten the song for the radio. It went:
When the truth gets buried deep
Beneath the thousand years asleep
Time demands a turnaround
And once again the truth is found
The Hurdy Gurdy Man is an enlightened teacher – in this case the Maharishi – who helps seekers awaken from their thousand years sleep to find the truth. The song is a testament to the freewheelin’ and, uh, foggy nature of how recording sessions unfolded back then, as there were session musicians used who went on to become quite famous, though other than John Paul Jones as the arranger and bass player it’s not entirely clear who. According to Donovan, Jimmy Page and Allan Holdsworth played electric guitar and John Bonham and Clem Cattini played drums. Page and engineer Eddie Kramer claim Page played, though Kramer says Bonham did not. Anyhoo…
Other than the two singles, favorites for me include the tambura drone-drenched Peregrine and Tangier, the dreamy and brief The Entertaining of a Shy Girl, and the jazz influenced Get Thy Bearings. The Hurdy Gurdy Man is a rather tidy collection of songs which hold up well to my ears.
- Hurdy Gurdy Man
- The Entertaining of a Shy Girl
- As I Recall It
- Get Thy Bearings
- Hi It’s Been a Long Time
- West Indian Lady
- Jennifer Juniper
- The River Song
- A Sunny Day
- The Sun is a Very Magic Fellow
Paul Horn – Inside the Taj Mahal
Jazz flautist Paul Horn was a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation who joined the Beatles, Donovan, Mike Love, Mia Farrow and others at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh in February 1968. He had previously worked with Chico Hamilton, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Cal Tjader when he recorded Paul Horn in India and Paul Horn in Kashmir in 1967 (now both available on one disc). Then, upon leaving Maharishi’s ashram after the retreat, he snuck a tape recorder into the Taj Mahal on April 25, 1968 and began playing his flute. The guerrilla recording which resulted from it is titled Inside the Taj Mahal, or simply Inside.
The album has been described as Horn playing not only his flute, but the building itself with its long sound delay creating a type of ethereal echo which couldn’t be created in studios at that time. A security guard was about to ask him to cease playing, but was so moved by what he was hearing that he allowed Horn to continue. The haunting vocal on the album was improvised by a complete stranger who happened to be under the massive marble dome at the same time. Unfortunately, he was not credited.
Inside the Taj Mahal is considered a pioneering album in the realm of “world” or “new age” music. It’s a good choice for drifting into or out of meditation, or for the spiritually disinclined, for sinking back into a comfortable chair late at night with a snifter of brandy. In my case, it’s both. Paul Horn was nominated for a Grammy five times during his career. He passed away at the age of 84 in 2014.
- Mantra I/Meditation
- Mumtaz Mahal
- Shah Jahan
- Mantra II/Duality
- Ustad Isa/Mantra III
I’ll wrap up my solo Beatles album rankings by putting it together in a tidy and very scientific Top 25 list. My thoughts on each album can be found in my individual posts for George, Paul, John, and Ringo. Other than my choice for #1, this is a rather absurd exercise to undertake, but what the hey. It’s got me thinking of some mighty good albums I haven’t listened to in a while. Just a reminder: the only reason choices such as #’s 25 and 22 aren’t rated higher is because John and George, respectively, are featured on only half the album or less.
25. Double Fantasy
23. Wonderwall Music
22. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1
20. Dark Horse
19. Tug of War
18. Flaming Pie
17. Shaved Fish
16. Wings Over America
15. Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard
14. Thirty-Three and 1/3
12. Red Rose Speedway
11. Band on the Run
10. George Harrison
9. Cloud Nine
8. Mind Games
7. Back to the Egg
5. Plastic Ono Band
4. Living in the Material World
3. Walls and Bridges
1. All Things Must Pass
Alright, now you can let me have it!