All the best for 2013

Another year gone already! All the best to everyone for 2013 and beyond. May your music astonish you with its colour, your films stagger and surprise you, and your books enrich your grey matter.

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The Films I Have Watched Most

Weird Science

There’s the films you watch and admire – Chinatown, say, or The Godfather or Raging Bull or Scum. Then there’s the films you can put on and you know all the dialogue but they’re like faithful companions. I mean, I know all the bits in Revolver but that’s never going to stop me giving it another spin (if FLAC files spin). These films are your duvet-day entertainment, what you stick on when you come home drunk before falling asleep on the couch, the ones you swap lines with friends unto infinity. For people of a certain age, you might still raise a chuckle at “Shut your fucking face, uncle-fucker!”, or it might be “We have both kinds, country and western,” or “I know that penis – it had a mole on it!” or “The one with Bad Motherfucker on it” or even “Yes, it’s true – this man has no dick”.

I’ve quite a collection of these. I like, as Mr Keating said in Dead Poets Society, to “suck the marrow” out of the things I really get into, to really understand them- but also just because they become part of me.

Rocky II

You remember how people used to have video cabinets filled with VHS tapes? As in the blank ones they’d tape films onto. When I was a nipper we had about a dozen, all numbered with a small notepad I used to keep track of what was there. (Even then I was anal retentive about organising my entertainment…). We also had a smaller collection of bought VHS tapes, with the cover and all. These included Queen’s Greatest Flix, The Best of Hot Chocolate (my mum really likes Errol Brown), The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (my sister was the Jacko fan), and Rocky II. On Saturday mornings me and my siblings would get up and watch the Stallone tale of Balbao’s descent into poverty, his half-assed training, Adrian’s coma, his redemptive (and quite brilliant) training montage, and his rematch with Apollo Creed. It’s all character-based and pretty slow moving until the montage and fight – so with the patience of kids (i.e. none) we’d most often just skip the boring bits to the exciting ending. Still, I really do think this is a very good film (for what it is) – very much better than Rocky, which better works as a concept rather than enjoyable film, and is of course far superior to the subsequent films in the series, where Rocky becomes an absurd superhero. And goddamn that montage – the music is so stirring, slow-building on the brass and climaxing on the strings. Fucking outrageously manipulative but so well done!

Ghostbusters

I was literally just watching this today for, I don’t know, the hundredth time. It is just so well done. The plotting is extraordinarily efficient for one thing: at the beginning, they flee the ghost in the library back to Columbia only to find the Dean evicting them. Dana Barret watches the Ghostbusters ad on TV right before her fridge has a nervous breakdown (I was tempted to say “meltdown”). The newscasts letting us know (without having to have any further big-budget special effects) that the ‘busters have been busting lots of ghosts. Compare with the absurd lengthiness of post-2000 blockbusters – this is lean and sharp, just how a film like this should be. The characterisation is wonderful: I just love Egon and his semi-autistic geekiness, while sweet lovable Ray is just right for Dan Akroyd, and Bill Murray… this is probably his most quintessential role, no? At least in his earlier wise-cracking incarnation before he became the prototypical alienated, mildly depressed, existential-doubt type in Lost In Translation (though see also Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). The ghosts and other supernatural hokum is played for fun but with intelligence rather than mickey-taking. (Dan Akroyd is a fully paid-up Spiritualist). Ghostbusters is a film that’s just great fun and filled with endless quips (“Listen – do you smell something?”).

The Empire Strikes Back

I’m not really a Star Wars geek. No, really. I am not in general big on sci-fi, which I find humourless and not character-driven, which are two things I find essential in films (not necessarily in conjunction). But goddamn this is a fucking brilliant film, so rich in drama, stuffed full of major motifs like OEDIPAL CONFLICT and BETRAYAL and REDEMPTION. The characters are complex and recognisable (I am sure we have all met Leia’s and Luke’s, though perhaps not Boba Fett or Yoda); the special effects are stunning (oh god, the blu-ray version is magnificently detailed) but organic, with no artificial CGI sucking the life out of it; and the set piece action scenes are terrific: the lighting in the picture below is so well done.

Empire Strikes Back is just a film I can watch again and again and again. (Can’t really say the same about the other Star Wars films!)

Weird Science

I first saw Weird Science about the time that I got Appetite For Destruction, and the two have long felt to some extent complementary in my mind. I used to watch it repeatedly watch it with a friend with whom I’d bonded over GN’R, and we’d drool over how great the parties were and how hot the chicks were, man, and how awesome it must be to be 18 and be able to drink and have sex and drive and have tattoos and shit. We were essentially pretty much like Gary and Wyatt, in reality, but that went unsaid. For young boys (we must have been about nine years old), the film just seemed to hit everything we ever dreamed about. Aaah, such naive stupidity. Great film though: Bill Paxton in scene-stealing form as the vicious older brother Chat, Kelly LeBrock as the hottest woman ever, with those Brigitte Bardot lips, the mutant bikers from hell, Gary’s terrible parents, Wyatt’s even worse parents, the great soundtrack, the sense of teenage kicks… damn, I watched the fuck out of this film.

Harmonies

I was listening to “She Bangs The Drums” yesterday, and as always was captivated by the  divine vocal harmonies of the Stone Roses. You can easily argue that Ian Brown isn’t a good singer – you might find the “GEEEEE-GEEEEE-GIVE- OVER!”  in “Begging You” like nails up a blackboard, and his famous evisceration of the Roses’ legend in their final (pre-reformation) performance was excruciating – yet the fact remains that the harmonies in much of the first album are superb. (No doubt much of the credit goes to John Leckie). “Waterfall”, “Sally Cinnamon”, “This Is The One” and “Elephant Stone” all just have glorious harmonies, but the best really is “She Bangs The Drums” – oh, that chorus!

Have you seen her, have you heard?
The way she plays there are no words
To describe the way I feel

How could it ever come to pass?
She’ll be the first, she’ll be the last
To describe the way I feel
The way I feel


Glorious, just dripping with vitality and life and joy. With the guitar understated, the vocals take centre stage, though they too are not overemphasised. Compare with the kack-handed remastering on The Complete Stone Roses to see what I mean – the vocals are pushed higher and the sound is considerably compressed, making it tighter and more energetic, yes, but killing the song’s ability to breathe. In the original version they have room to reverberate:

As I’ve said previously, I haven’t really had any new major music obsessions since about 2004, preferring (or condemned) to explore the nooks and crannies of music’s past. One of the great things about the internet is its ability to facilitate precisely this tangential investigative meandering. An uncle gave me a copy of every UK #1 single from 1956 to 2004, and it’s nice to get a feel for past times through their pop and musical culture. Also, to check on the influences of one’s own heroes! For example, The Beatles (or more precisely John and Paul) learned harmony through covering the Everly Brother’s “Cathy’s Clown”. The Fabs obviously were awesome harmonizers (see: “Two Of Us”, “She Loves You”, and “Because”) so let’s tip the hat to their  forbears. This song is a pretty cutesy, countryish tune enlivened by the terrific (if somewhat sugary) vocals – hardly a hook anywhere! It just shows in comparison how the Beatles used every tool they could to cram in as much listening pleasure as possible. The video below is a nice life performance showing how the brothers could cut it in real time.

Another pair of brothers  – the Finn brothers from Crowded House. Not a band I have listened to much at all, but the harmonies here can’t be denied!

Quite apart from the majesty – there’s no other word for it – of the music, the Gilmour/Wright harmonies on the verses in “Echoes” are sublime. Rick Wright later got brutalised by Roger Waters, but his contributions to early Floyd are greater than David Gilmour’s, until Meddle at least. (Mind you, the second LP/CD of Umma Gumma is complete gash, APART from Roger Waters’ “If” and Gilmour’s “The Narrow Way III”, which has a mournful weeping quality). Here’s the lads at Pompeii.

One of the good things about David Bowie has been his keenness to help acts that he likes. (Apart from Tin Machine, of course). His (and Mick Ronson’s) work on Lou Reed’s second and maybe best solo album Transformer is fantastic. Reed being essentially a rhythm guitar player and lyricist, he’s not so hot on things like solos and harmonies. (Even melodies, sometimes – his work is mostly riff-driven, when not based on a lyric). See New York or The Blue Mask to see what I mean – solid albums, lots of good guitar work and brilliant lyrics, but how they cry out for a bit of orchestration and colour! Bowie’s vocal harmonies at the coda of “Satellite of Love” (see 2.43 onwards) and the “Aaaaah!” during the verse of “Andy’s Chest” (from 1.00) really light up the songs.

Dave Grohl I don’t really rate as a songwriter, but the guy sure can sing, and his harmonies in conjunction with Kurt Cobain are always terrific. They are most noticeable of course, on the bare-bones Unplugged In New York, with songs like “Come As You Are”, “Polly”, “All Apologies”, “Dumb”, “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” and “Oh Me” (so, yeah, like the whole fucking album), but also on Nevermind‘s “On A Plain” and “In Bloom”. Here’s probably the best example of the two combining – the chorus is wonderful. (If, you know, a bit bleak).

Best Of, 2012

writing

This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀

3. BANGIN’

I like this post for the opening sentence:

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?

Overrated Albums

Knobheads

I can’t be bothered reading the music press any more. Partly this is an age thing: the new music magazines tend to cleave either to the kids, who are looking for something to call their own, or hipsters who seek out the obscure, while the “classicists”, like Q and Mojo etc, endlessly venerate the middle of the rock, the tried and true. This is all very well when it comes to the Classic Rock Canon. The trouble is when they prattle on about tepid shite like David Grey or Springsteen or Coldplay or the endless would-be Joni Mitchells: derivative nothingness that ekes out a living in the slipstream of really creative musicians. How I utterly loathe and detest lack of imagination in music! And how common it is. So easy to follow whatever trend, whatever genre, whatever production formulas and fads.

Both types of writing, more specifically, endlessly irritate with their attempts to hitch whatever releases to the zeitgeist. It must be every music journalists’ dream to the next Geoff Barton, he of Sounds who popularised the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (aka the NWOBHM, which so inspired Metallica). This leads to absurd drivel trying to read more into music than is there. I remember some ridiculous twat saying how Bloc Party were “scarily prescient” with an album or single called Tsunami, just before the 2004 disaster. I mean, that is low. Or how The Strokes apparently inaugurated a CBGBs/lower-East Side revival, when they really were nothing like punk forebears like Television or The Ramones or Blondie etc, and were actually embarrassed by such comparisons.

This is the trouble: at times, media and fashion trends will dictate the “need” for a certain type of band, and if there isn’t one to hand, well, they’ll try to shoehorn one in. Thus, Suede “inaugurated” Britpop, despite Brett Anderson’s contempt for its parochiality and jingoism. The Almighty, older metalheads may remember, were to be the Great British Metal Hope of the early 1990s, were it not for the fact that they sucked ass, and were really a punk band in it for the money. Iron Maiden, going even further back, originally had a distinctly punky edge and had to turn down record label request to cut their hair to fit in with the by-then goonish punk style. (Their first album, with its street-level aggression, budding ambition (see “Phantom of The Opera” – check this video of Paul Dianno-era Maiden live at the Rainbow – thought its telling that the best part is the instrumental section) raw charm, and lack of filler (always a Maiden problem) remains my favourite). This kind of fashion-led music journalism is a joke, never conveying the merits of an album nor contextualising what the artist(s) are doing musically. It leads to albums which might be flavour of the month but which is actually vastly overpraised. Here’s some I think never lived up to the hype.

Blur – Parklife

It is a clever album, sure. At a time when British music was looking westwards to grunge, dance or hip-hop, this was a bold proclamation of British cultural tropes and memes. The trouble was, it was so fucking arch, so sneeringly ironic, that a good half of the album comes over as callow posturing. Case in point: “Parklife”, a song I have always detested. Song for song, it starts very well – “Girls And Boys”, “Tracy Jacks” and “End Of Century” are a fine 1-2-3 (though not as good as “Tender”, “Bugman” and “Coffee and TV” from 13), but gor blimely guvnor, if the second half ain’t filled with oh-so-satirical portraits of working class life and Londonisms and all that guff.

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express

OK, this will be controversial. Trans Europe Express is a mighty fucking fine album, and songs like “Europe Endless”, “Metal On Metal” and the title track are indisputable classics. Trouble is… “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Show Room Dummies” both leave me cold. When you compare that to their other great albums, that’s an unusually high dud ratio (The Man Machine: no duds; Computer World: no duds; Radio Activity: no duds). I just find it a bit weird that TEE is always cited as the Kraftwerk album to listen to, the one that makes all the Best Of polls. I’d put The Man Machine first as their best, most consistent, most Kraftwerkian – and then Computer World.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

I don’t quite get why this one is so critically lauded. It seems to me like a bunch of samples of good songs thrown together. Might have been a relatively new idea at the time, but hey, if you sample a lot of good songs, you can’t really go wrong. The range is nice, but… unless you’re really doing something new and imaginative with them, not just rapping over them, it’s not much of a stretch. I FAR prefer the subsequent Check Your Head, which is an even denser stew of samples and excellent rootsy live instrumentation. I love that warm fuzzy bass sound they have, and the richness and range of the styles of music. In comparison Paul’s Boutique is a series of clever backdrops to the Beasties’ rhyming – alright, but not, I’d say, what they do best. (The Check Your Head follow-up and partner-piece Ill Communication is perhaps even better, if less original).

Daft Punk – Discovery

As much as I loved Homework, I loathed Discovery. “One More Time” – what an appalling song! When I briefly worked in Edinburgh, it was on high-rotation on Radio 1 – must have been something like once an hour. No wonder songs no longer rise on the charts when they get flogged to death like that. This is not to say I dislike house-style electronica – I like the stuff the DP duo did in between Homework and Discovery, especially “Music Sounds Better With You” (lovely video) but also (even!) “Gym Tonic“. It’s just that the housey/R&B stylee of Discovery discards everything I’d liked about Daft Punk – the abrasive rhythms, the abandon, the intensity – in exchange for pretty mediocre pop/disco tunes. Meh.

Others:

Definitely Maybe is infinitely superior to What’s The Story Morning Glory?, even considering Wonderwall.

Music For the Jilted Generation is faaaar better than The Fat Of The Land.

Animals is better than both Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of The Moon.

Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All are ALL greatly superior to the Black Album.

Miles Smiles, In A Silent Way and Jack Johnson are all better than Bitches Brew.

Songs Which Mean Something (To Me)

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There are just some songs which stick in your head and in your heart. Sometimes it is simple nostalgia (as I’ve said about my youthful infatuation with hair metal), but sometimes – who knows why? – a song just clicks with something going on your life. This is something utterly magical, and something I don’t really think happens, or certainly not to such a strong extent, with other art forms. I’ve never looked at Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist: No 1, 1950 and thought, “Holy shit, that reminds me of when I was doing an IT postgrad.” Or rather, it does – but entirely without the piquancy and vividity of a musical association. I still remember the song playing during my first youth club disco kiss (“Eternal Flame” by The Bangles – not too bad), the one going through my head when my daughter was born, and so on. But then there are songs which just feel richly symbolic to me, which seem to mean or allude to something…

So then here are some songs which just MEAN something to me, for whatever reason.

1. The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

I had this particular adolescent period I find unusually memorable but find to hard to convey why. Maybe it happens to everyone, but there was a time when everything was keenly felt and rich with poetry. Yeah, I was in love. It hit me like a megaton bomb, radically affecting every part of my life. It was at this time that my writing took off – I had done some furtive scribbling previously, but during this love-lorn year it exploded, and I wrote ceaselessly. Fortunately by this time I had massively broadened my musical taste via The Beatles and the nascent Britpop scene, so the sense of new music suited my feeling of delicate tender exposure. This song is by no means The Smiths’ best, but there’s just something about it – the drama and urgency of the introduction, the restrained (by Morrissey’s standards) vocal but that breathlessness passion, the tight structure, the simple but effective solo (Marr is remarkably lacking in ego for being such an amazingly talented guitar player, more into serving the song than wanky pyrotechnics). In my occasional synaesthetic moments, I get strong vibes of purple and grey off this song – a pinkish purple, not a blueberry/Ribena shade. It constantly brings me back to those mooncalf days of insomnia in warm summer nights, discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster, long walks through nearby countryside (I used to leave about 9pm and get back about 3 or 4am), and the constant tantalising sense of possible rapture. Aaaah, being fifteen.

2. Sex Pistols, “Submission”

There was something about the Sex Pistols that just resonated with me. It wasn’t just Rotten’s outraged nasal sneer, or Jones’ powerful riffing, or the gleeful pissing on so many national monuments. The Sex Pistols just sounded like the late 1970s to me. I have no idea why this association should exist, given that I was born in 1979, and I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the (now many) documentaries which use punk as an aural signifier of UK political/economic decline, when I first got into the Pistols. The association was so strong that I used to wander round parts of town which seemed similarly “seventies” – there was a closed factory near the centre which strongly gave off that vibe, for me at least. It’s weird because I was only about 13 at the time and so didn’t really know about the Winter of Discontent or the IMF bailout etc. But somehow this vibe communicated itself to me…

This song was written at the instigation of Malcolm McLaren who wanted the band to write a song about “submission” and bondage. Rotten both took the piss and showed his wit saying “How about a submarine mission?” The song is really more about the submission (in the dissolution of the self sense, rather than naff S/M wank fantasies)  to the mother-ocean-goddess figure of male archetype.  This, funnily enough, didn’t strike me at the time: the song then suggested to me something about someone not wanting to work offshore (which in those days meant fishing, not oil – I come from a long line of mariners) but giving in and winding up in that backbreaking industry. Kind of like Kes and the kid ending up working down t’pit. (Those were the days when industry meant the destruction of potential and talent, rather than being venerated for economic generation). Though that impression has declined as I veer to the other reading of the song, it’s one of those examples where a song creates all these emotions, atmospheres and impressions on me.

3.  XTC, “Ball and Chain”

One of the happiest times in my life was in the latter half of my first year in China. Teaching was fun (and easy), the students were lovely, I had some good friends, no bills to worry about, and my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) was going great. Ah, happy days!  And this was when I got into XTC, through their several mentions in the inestimable Bad Wisdom, the greatest novel ever written. My god, but listening to that song brings back such vivid memories! Just chilling out in my teacher apartment, drinking a not-really-earned G&T with the Bombay Sapphire I bought in Nanjing. (The local supermarket only sold Gordons). Spending 10 hours playing pool on my days off (I got REALLY good that year). Visiting Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi for the first time. Inviting all my chums round for a big dinner and introducing them to the shower scene from Porkies. The huge party I threw for my girlfriend on her birthday (the kind of party where language no longer mattered, all that existed was hilarity and goodwill and epic drunkenness). Starting to discover the Chinese internet and blogging scene. My sweet, kind, optimistic, industrious, students. Good times.

This song is typically upbeat XTC (they surely are the most Beatley band of the 80s) with a typically XTC under-cutting-the-happiness lyrics, though actually on the subject of urban “regeneration” rather than bemoaning marriage or relationships. The album English Settlement was much played by me at that period – though, again typically for XTC, it is uneven, in this instance having a classic side 1 and “meh” side 2. (I think only their masterpiece Skylarking is consistently strong – though I realise this is a bit of a circular argument). Still, with songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Jason And The Argonauts”, who’s complaining?

4.  Sade, “Smooth Operator”

Though an eighties child, being born in 1979 means that while I was exposed to the pop culture of the day, I missed out on the meaning or context of most of it. (My sister was the true eighties child, the one who was a Duran Duran, Wham!, Michael Jackson, Five Star fan). There are some songs though which just connect me to that decade, and this is one. Although I obviously never went to a wine bar then (the idea of even going to a bar and ordering wine was miles off my radar until I was over 30), this song just makes me think of 1980s wine bars and the pseudo-sophistication, the kind of thing absolutely slaughtered in American Psycho, the tasteful jazz, the absurd way that the upper-middle classes disguise getting pished with notions of taste and discrimination etc! Not that I think this is a bad song: on the contrary, I am a big fan of Diamond Life. It’s just so evocative of a particular time and place, one that is now rather despised for its gaucheness. The same dynamic occurs in cultural as in one’s own life: so easy to despise what you once were, even though it made you what you are now.

5. Bjork, “Venus As A Boy”

What was it Garth from Wayne’s World said about “Dream Woman”? “She makes me feel funny, like when we had to climb the rope in gym class.” The first time I saw Bjork was on – The Late Show? Later With Jools Holland? Something Friday night BBC2 anyway. I just remember feeling… enthralled yet mystified. This is when she had those cute ringlets (as in the video here) and whooo, I just felt something I’d never felt for a woman I’d seen on TV before. This was when “sexy” women were presented as dolly birds, the time of Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies and ludicrous nonsense like that. The idea that women could be creative and cool and sexy and funny and smart was new to me. Stupid of me, but it’s true. Anybody who tells you about how feminists want everything and it’s not fair and poor men boo-hoo-hoo – slap them.

Bjork’s delicious melismatic singing, the sheer joy in her face, the understated sensuality of the music…whoa. Really takes me back. You remember how Friday nights used to be absolutely fucking awesome for TV? (Sorry, this is for Brits). Both BBC2 and Channel 4 had terrific shows, from Red Dwarf to The Word to Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Naked City to Later to Passengers to Crapston Villas to Jam.

6. Happy Mondays, “Step On”

This one isn’t such a personal connection, but a cultural/national one. I was in Sanlitun one night with my good lady wife, and in whatever bar we were in, “Step On” came on. I really like the song and started semi-drunkenly grooving along with it (that’s the only kind of grooving I do, I’m afraid). This piqued her interest, and I wanted to explain the whats and whys and wherefores of the song. But, really, how can you hope to do that to someone Chinese? How can you explain “rave” culture, the late 80s ecstasy explosion, the remaking of Ibiza into some kind of sun-kissed drug haven (though long since, of course, degenerated into a tourist ripoff attended by the UK’s Darrens and Sharons), the conversion of the football casual hardcases into beaming euphoric whistle-blowing goons, and the “Summer of Love II”? (Most Western musical revolutions, it seems to me, are drug-led and the rave thing seems to be about the last organic bottom-up pop culture boom – just as hippy was led by acid, mods and punk  by speed and folkrock, to some extent, by grass). You can’t, of course. So I probably just mumbled something about it being a cool song.

Tim Riley’s Lennon Biography – A Critique

In preparation for writing about John Lennon, I have been reading the latest biography, by one Tim Riley. Our Tim previously wrote Tell Me Why, which takes the reader through every Beatles song – like Revolution In The Head but more emphasis on simply describing the songs. I thought then that he had a tin ear and not much understanding of The Beatles’ music. (Ian MacDonald and Alan Pollack  are masterly writers about the tunes). But reading his biog of Lennon, it has exasperated me so often that I literally wanted to PUNCH THE FECKING BOOK. It is littered with so many misunderstandings, so much inane waffling, so many misreadings of the Beatles that it makes me wonder how it ever got published.

To be fair, it is well researched, and (highly unusually for a rock biog) actually references its sources. (I have literally never seen this before). However, this is a lesser achievement when you realise that Riley is often referencing secondary sources. To take one example: he tells the story of Lennon and Yoko briefly staying in a flat of McCartney’s after Lennon broke up with his first wife, Cynthia, and says that Lennon found a note in Macca’s handwriting saying “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot shit”. Riley cites a biography of McCartney as the source. In fact, the actual source is Francie Schwartz, briefly a girlfriend of McCartney’s in 1968 (between Jane Asher and Linda Eastman). But the worst things are the combination of misreadings and knuckle-chewingly bad writing. To take the basic errors – “Gaitskellite” and “Bevanite” were sects in the 1950s Labour party, not Scottish dialects (!!), England not Britain won the World Cup in 1966, and grammar schools were not the equivalent of American prep schools. But these pale into comparison in Riley’s discussion of the music, where the writing falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

The book hails itself as “the definitive biography” and it is a solid 800 pages. Lennon’s life deserves no less. The unfortunate thing is that there are so many absurd discussions of the music, with such self-regarding criticism, that Riley seems to have forgotten that the role of the critic is to elucidate, not try to dazzle the reader with his verbosity. Rarely does he simply describe or evoke the songs. To take an example, “Twist And Shout” is of course the magnificent climactic closer of Please Please Me, a song of such energy and intensity and sexual charge that it took perhaps until “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to make something as powerful AND catchy. Riley’s discussion of the roots of “The Twist” and “Shout” is in-depth (though almost comically so – do we need to know that Chubby Checker married a Miss World in 1962?) and trowels on facts without much insight (a sure symptom of a weak biographer, mistaking fact-excavation for elucidation). It’s when he starts trying to describe The Beatles’ version that the prose becomes laughable. Here are some lowlights:

The Beatles attack alone carried symbolic force: as a garage band, they filtered the Isley’s high-tone horns and handclaps down into guitars and vocals alone, which turned the entire project into an ideal of self-sufficiency, a sound that said, “This thing that will cut water if we trim its sails.”

In both songs, the racial politics in the music didn’t disappear so much as turn metaphorical – the Brits pouncing on this style escaped cynicism and landed on the far side of beatific.

Only a Brit could have pulled the thread from this song’s distracting racial knots…

After goading the others steadily for the song’s first half, Lennon rode this bronco of a band while lashing it from above for one last victory-lap verse…

It’s the same but even worse for Sgt. Pepper. Here’s a paragraph which is utterly laughable in getting so much wrong:

While ominous, Beatles politics served the music, making Sgt. Pepper at once a glow-in-the-dark bauble and a message about the messengers. For a lark, the Beatles decisively* renounced their teen image once and for all adapting fictive characters to announce a new phase. The splashy Victorian band costumes, the epitome of “square”†, only sharpened their hip new looks the way suits and ties had once put quotes‡ around their Hamburg leather expressions. The album’s tour through celebrity, its trick mirrors and death curves, became an all-consuming¶ metaphor for life itself:ß as hippies and psychedelic hard rock entered the scene, the Beatles had a grip on it all before the Summer of Love party even begun. And the music transcends its era well enough to serve as a defining statement. Sgt. Pepper recreates its era while commenting on our own. Addressing their audience from the mists of their own fame, the Beatles put quotes around the very idea of their previous “act” as moptops, of all rock acts posing for their fans, of all show-biz  acts of all time and all audiences hungry for myth. Like fame, its strategy is seduction, but the punch line is abrupt§. Without “A Day In The Life”, the whole fantastical world might just float away¤.

*A lark? Decisively? Which is it? Surely not a lark to dispense with their teen heartthrob image.
† Square? Not when there was a revival of Victoriana, by shops like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, and by bands like The Bonzo Dog Do-Dah band. Their outfits are sa dazzling starburst of colour.
‡ This is a clever-clever reading of it. The suits were simply to broaden their appeal.
¶ It’s hardly all-consuming – especially if you’re about the first person to point it out.
ß Is there a connection between the two halves of the sentence either side of the colon?
§ If “A Day In The Life” is what he means by this, I’ve never seen it described as funny.
¤ It might do, if you forget songs like “Good Morning Good Morning” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

It’s just vague, half-spun, unthought-out verbosity. This is not to say that there’s no room for a broader discussion of The Beatles. There is undoubtedly a place for critical analysis and a more academic approach to Beatle music – in fact, there’s a great need for it, if we are acknowledging that the Fabs are the Beethoven or Shakespeare of pop and rock. Alan Pollack’s song-by-song musicological analysis is a magnificent achievement: not being a trained musician myself, much of it goes over my head, but he undoubtedly knows what he’s talking about, and he writes with clarity and rigour. See by counterpoint his reading of “She Said She Said“:

  • Although the most conspicuous feature of “She Said She Said” is the metrical high jinks of the bridge, this song also provides us with object lessons about two other general compositional topics: how to experiment without things falling apart, and the special characteristics of modal harmony.
  • Experimentation! Among other things, this song teaches us yet another of the composer’s trade secrets: whenever you are pushing one parameter of your musical grammar to the max, hold at least some if not all of the other parameters steady lest your meaning become obscured by sensory overload, or your composition come apart as though from centrifugal force. This principle potentially operates on many different levels to the extent that the “parameters” involved may include as diverse elements as form, rhythm, texture, harmony, even lyrics…

Bridge

  • If the gory details are too daunting at first sight, here’s a high-level view of this bridge:
  • The f-minor chord is introduced for the first time in the song at what is possibly the moment of climax, and is used to help make a pivot modulation to E-flat, the key of the IV.
  • The meter may be erratic but it’s not without its own pattern. This little chart indicates the succession of measures and the number of beats in each:
  • She said "you don't understand what I said".  I said    [ 4 + 4 ]
    "No, no, no, you're wrong. When I was a boy,        [ 3 + 3 + 3 ]
    Everything was right.                                   [ 6 + 3 ]
    Everything was right."                                  [ 6 + 3 ]

That is in-depth, detailed and analytical (I really have no idea what an IV chord is), but it’s comprehensible and sheds new light on the song. It’s worth reading just for the “Some Final Thoughts” section, which doesn’t contain (much) musicological jargon and summarises his thought on the tune. Riley, on the other hand, waffles on in a ridiculous fashion, making ridiculous statements (Ringo’s drumming in “Ticket to Ride” he calls “white hot” – yes, the pausing, hesitant, doubtful drumming). The book has a few good things about it, but to call it “The Definitive Life” is an absurd , unsustainable hype. It is simply badly written and shows a chronic lack of insight in Lennon, the Beatles and their music.