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.

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Guilty Pleasures

I’ve previously mentioned some unfashionable music I like. But now let me wade through the darkest recesses of my music collection and give a taste of the tunes there are not only unfashionable, but which would get me laughed out of town. Something strange seemed to happen to my music taste around 2005: somehow, what I had previously disdained as cheesy naff pop/rock seemed to make sense. Its exuberance and upbeat feel connected in a way that it never had before. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was something of a Serious Young Man prior to that: everything I listened to was “seminal”, from the Velvet Underground to Miles Davis to Joy Division to Kraftwerk to early Metallica to Radiohead to Sonic Youth. It’s the kind of thing you listen to when you’ve only got art to cling to, it seems to me now. When you’ve got your hands full with life, sometimes you need baser pleasures. There is no qualitative difference in effective music – it either articulates an emotion or atmosphere, or it doesn’t. (There’s also the question of whether you empathise with the feeling conveyed – this is why I despise Coldplay, Keane and Travis, who have the emotional range of the mollycoddled suburban middle-classes). There’s also the simple fact that my mood in 2004/5 rose up from the miserable post-adolescent depression I’d endured for the past 5 years, so upbeat songs would naturally resonate with me more.

I feel that getting rid of my former snobberies is an entirely positive thing. Now I can unashamedly appreciate dumb fun, whether it be Top Gun or Betty Boo. Kenneth Williams once noted in his Diaries Noel Coward saying, “Strange how potent cheap music is”. This was to disdain “cheap” music, but to me it validates it. To be powerful and memorable, music does not have to be clever or complex. That’s what is so fucking great about it!

1. Betty Boo, “Where Are You Baby?”

Toy piano, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus- verse-chorus-outro structure, the upbeat, plaintive desire that’s the hallmark of so much great pop, sassily sung by the Boo – it’s just great pop.

2. John Farnham, “The Voice Of Understanding”

Now we’re getting into murky waters… I mean this song has cod-synth bagpipes! There’s a red alert of naffness right there. But the epic intent, the soaring “Aaaah-oooh-oooh-oooh-woo-whoa!” hook, the delicious chorus, the rising-and-rising verses which are simply and obviously there to get to the chorus as quickly as possible – yeah, they’re all cheap tricks, but they work, dammit! (Not too sure about the synth bagpipe solo, though).

3. Wilson Philips, “Impulsive”

My sister is five years older and so I was subjected to her choices when her seniority let her rule the living room music options. She has a mainstream pop taste, particularly Michael Jackson, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and the “Leather and Lace” soft rock like Heart, Meatloaf, REO Speedwagon and such. Nothing rock – not even, say, Bon Jovi – but close enough that there was some that I didn’t mind too much. But funnily enough that only one whose album I like in its entirety is the girliest – Wilson Philips by the eponymous girlgroup. Formed by the daughters of Brian Wilson and John and Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas, the group not surprisingly had access to some of the best writers and session musician in 1990-era Los Angeles. Glen Ballard, who had written some tracks for Michael Jackson’s Bad and later went on to write the tunes for Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, has a substantial hand in the album, co-writing six of the ten tracks. (It would go quintuple platinum). The usually insightful Allmusic.com dismisses the album as “lightweight and sophomoric” and “homogenized, mundane fluff” – which might be fair if all you listen to is Black Sabbath. To anyone with an open pair of ears, though, the album is a quality confection of professional hooks, high-values production, gentle but sweet harmonies, and fine songwriting. This song, “Impulsive”, is I think the best, with an insistent chorus and all the virtues I mentioned above, though the album is remarkably consistent.

4. Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”

This song reminds me of youth club discos and late summer nights when I was eleven, between primary school and high school. Somehow I remember it as one of those golden summers, old enough to be free to roam about, young enough to think this meant anything. We used to go “camping” in the back garden, then “sneak” (I assume now my mum knew exactly what was happening) out the tent and roam the streets all night. We’d sit in the town square and watch people spill out of the pubs, and gawp in frank admiration at the people milling round cars with boots open for the sound systems to blare out old-skool rave. It was when I first “smoked” cigarettes (like Clinton, not inhaling) and discovered the joys of “porn in the bushes“. This song from the former Go-Go’s singer is pure 1980s power-pop heaven, the sort that will be on VH1 unto infinity. Just love the way the chorus resounds to those massive multi-tracked vocals. The soundtrack to one of those (“oh”) summer nights – you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have one yourself!

5.  Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”

You know Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London? His story of life on no money in both cities never gets old, I’d imagine because although few people have had to experience that level of poverty, many have glimpsed it. I went through that kind of scene when living in Edinburgh just after graduating. I had a job and a roof over my head, but that was about as far as my connection with the contented middle-classes went – I had barely enough money for food, lived in a manky bedsitter, and so on. Funnily enough, one of the fellow bedsitter inhabitants played this song incessantly, and it firmly stuck in my head. I hadn’t heard the song before, didn’t know about Limahl’s hairstyle or the band’s ridiculous name, so it just came to me with a clean cultural slate. (I also really like A Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing (If I Had A Photograph)“, which cover vaguely similar new romantic ground and has ever worse hairdos). It’s not really an electro/New Romantic song, of course, being more of a white soul/cod funk exercise, but hey, whatever you have to do to get noticed, lads)

6. Ratt, “Round And Round”

Ah, hair metal. The story of Ratt is actually pretty grim – the usual fable of excess and ego, burning glory and death. For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, they were up there with Motley Crue as kings of the LA rock firmament. They played the Donington Monster of Rock festival in 1985, ahead of Bon Jovi and Metallica (but behind Marillion and ZZ Top), while John Hughes, that avatar of 80s culture, used “Wanted Man” in Weird Science, the same year. That was about as good as it got for Ratt – they lost momentum, had a Desmond Child co-written album Detonator try to pick up the pieces, but then Nirvana came along, and the LA rock party was well and over. Addictions and AIDS then took their toll, as the hangover kicked in with a vengeance. This song is probably the hookiest of their brief period of glory – a good thing given that they are not a riff-driven band and the guitar sound is surprisingly bland – with nice build up of tension at the end of the verse and a fine chorus.

Live! Tonight! Sold Out!

(To borrow a phrase from Nirvana)

I’m not, to be honest, much of a gig-goer. I’ve worked in bars and nightclubs which had live performances, and seen the whole gamut of quality. The nightclub was an underground/alternative kinda place, and often had excellent DJs (Grandmaster Flash, one of the guys from Orbital, brilliant jungle and drum and bass nights), and bands from Napalm Death to local pop-punk that was lapped up by the kids (band sets were open to those 14 and over; staff called it “the paedo shift”). The bar was a bog standard chain lager-burgers-sports venue, and had bands every Friday: even now, eight years later, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Brown Eyed Girl”, I get violent. Also, I like to listen to music whilst reading or writing: when you’re at a gig, you’re compelled to seem like your enjoying yourself, rather than being able to discuss what you find interesting or striking about the performance. Yeah, I’m a real chattering classes type (how I hate that derisory phrase, so typical of Britain). The main exception to this is jazz: maybe it’s because the first time I encountered jazz was at a gig when  I just utterly got it immediately: one of those brilliant “Eureka!” moments. But then jazz, even when recorded, is about the performance and enactment of creativity, so there’s less of a dichotomy between records and gigs as there is in rock, say.

While the live video is nowadays mostly filler (compare with the 70s, when bands often made their big breakthroughs on live albums – such as Kiss Alive! or Frampton Comes Alive!), there’s still plenty good ones out there, especially with DVDs capturing the sound better than ever.

1. Guns N’ Roses, New York Ritz, 1988

I struggle to comprehend that this was 24 years ago. I’d only recently bought Appetite For Destruction, and by coincidence BBC2 was having a “Heavy Metal Heaven” season, as presented by Elvira. I dimly remember watching stuff like Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, and (by the same director) the shockingly raw and disturbing film Suburbia. But they were also kind enough to show this: Guns N’ Roses when they were lean, ferociously hungry and incredibly good. They looked amazing, they were tight as fuck (I always say that Izzy was the best guitarist – Slash is great at soloing, but the riffs are all Izzy’s), and the performance rocked. I must have watched this every day for about a year, and seen it hundreds of times. GNR’s later televised gigs – one in Paris, and the double Live in Japan set – are utterly dreadful. They never really mastered stadium shows, being catapulted from clubs to arenas within one year. This gig is when they were setting the world on fire, and it’s a glorious reminder of how absolutely fucking awesome they were for that brief period.

2. U2, Zoo TV, Sydney 1994

Yeah, yeah, Bono is a wanker. We know… I’m not massive on U2 either: I find their albums pretty hit and miss, with lots of empty emotional posturing, like on “In God’s Country”, or simple banality (pretty much everything after Pop). The albums I do really like are their mid-period postmodernist pieces, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, which are colourful, imaginative, and superbly produced by Brian Eno. Their Zoo TV tour is probably the most jaw-dropping stadium spectacle this side of The Wall: both are ironic meditations of their particular form of performance, too. Zoo TV’s media overload hyper-babble was very prescient, considering it was pre-internet, but the main thing is the spectacle, with video screens, lights, and stage design combining to create a terrific sensory overload.The “unplugged” set practically in the middle of the audience is a terrific counterpoint.

3. Nirvana Unplugged, 1994

On the other hand, simple stark performances are equally effective. With  lilies and candles giving a funereal, sepulchral atmosphere, and the awkward intra-band chat revealing the huge tensions between them, Nirvana somehow manage to give the performance of a lifetime. They’d until then been known for the enormous energy and charisma of their stage shows. This Unplugged took away all that and let the performance speak for itself: rescuing “About A Girl” as the great pop song it is, letting the great Cobain-Grohl harmonies in “All Apologies” and “On A Plain” come to the fore. The six covers are brilliantly chosen, from the unwinding, enigmatic “Plateau” to the bone-chilling primal blues of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?“. It’s heart-rending stuff.

4. Beatles Rooftop Gig, 1969

Nowadays easily downloadable, this is absurdly hard to get a hold of legally. Of course, Let It Be hardly shows the Fabs at their best, but the Rooftop gig is still bloody great. Part of it is the band interaction: with Lennon centre and Macca to his right, they often turn to face each other when harmonising, creating a fascinating mirror image (Macca being a southpaw, of course). George, left of Lennon, doesn’t get much of a look-in, steadfastly keeping an eye on them as he hops from foot to foot to keep rhythm. Lennon’s spindly guitarists’ fingers are noticeable, while Ringo looks happy just to be there. But then of course the music is glorious: “Don’t Let Me Down” has better, more vibrant, harmonies than in the recorded version; “One After 909” is better as a live throwaway than on record; “I’ve Got A Feeling” just pulses with emotion; and “Get Back” shows how well they synch with each other, so long after that Candlestick Park gig.

5. Queen, Live Aid, 1985

Guess I really have to have this here. Freddy Mercury grabs 80,000 people by the scruff of the neck and completely owns them. A performance that is utterly Olympian. Music’s none too shabby either.

6. Michael Jackson doing “Billy Jean”, Motown 25, 1983

With Thriller not long out, this is the moment when Jackson seizes the mantle of the World’s Best Pop Star. Having first performed a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, Jacko goes on to show why he is indeed the King of Pop. With dance moves beamed in from some futuristic parallel dimension, he does things with his ankles that defy the laws of physiognomy, before clinching it with the unveiling of the moonwalk. I love the way that he was such an aggressive, angry dancer.

An Introduction to John Lennon

(N.B. I have often wanted to write a biography of John Lennon during his Beatles years, but living in China don’t have all the necessary books to hand. Nonetheless, I’ve written the introduction and first chapter of it, and thought I’d share the intro.)

The writer who ventures onto the trail of John Lennon, especially on his time as a Beatle, may be somewhat foolhardy. Lennon, as a Beatle and afterwards, has already been well covered, with numerous biographies, as well as memoirs by his first wife Cynthia, his second wife Yoko, his half-sister Julia, his PR man and even his driver. He has been analysed intensively – musicologically and psychologically, from the perspectives of feminism, Maoism, and “primally”. He is one of the most well known people of the twentieth century, with accolades varying from “Man of the Decade” [the 1960s, of course] according to the anthropologist Desmond Morris, being voted eighth in a BBC “100 Greatest Britons” poll, to the naming of the airport in Liverpool after him, in 2002. A “John Lennon” Google search brings up almost 112 million pages. Beatles memorabilia remains highly sought after: a very rare copy of The Beatles (more commonly known, of course, as the White Album) sold for £20,000 on e-Bay in 2008, while the drum skin which featured on the cover of Sgt Pepper sold for $1.1m and the hand-written lyrics to “Give Peace A Chance” for over $800,000. And of course there is always the music, with reputedly more than one billion albums and singles sold worldwide. (Take a moment to digest that: over a billion records, from only seven years worth of recordings. Elvis Presley took over twenty years to be the nearest numerical rival, and Frank Sinatra over forty. Lennon of course had ten more years as a solo artist in addition to that). As part of pop culture, Lennon has never left us; his life and work have been pored over, analysed and examined, exalted and decried for almost fifty years now.

So what is there still to say?

First, since 1994, a great deal of Beatles material previously heard only on bootlegs or live has been officially released . Starting with Live At The BBC, a double CD of live performances from 1962 to 1965, Apple Corps then released three Anthology double CD albums of out-takes, demos and alternate versions, the seven DVD Anthology TV series, the 1 album of No. 1 singles, Let It Be… Naked, a version of the last-released studio album without the overdubs added by Phil Spector, and even a mash-up of sorts called Love, as produced by long-time producer George Martin and his son Giles. They are now available on iTunes and in the Rock Band computer game. All of these have sold well, showing that The Beatles remain as “toppermost of the poppermost” as ever. If art always exists in the present tense (which is to say, in the mind of the person experiencing it), then John Lennon and The Beatles are as relevant, as now, as they ever were.

Second, with the advent of the internet and particularly peer-to-peer file-sharing, the ordinary fan has access to far more Beatles music and film than ever before. While Beatles bootlegs have always circulated for those interested, few people might have seen the canned Let It Be film, or the famous rooftop gig which ends it, or seen more than a snippet of the Beatles performing at the Royal Variety Performance of 1964, at Shea Stadium in 1965, or the Budokan in 1966. Considering that there is no official live album or film in the official catalogue and that they were great performers in that area (at least to begin with), this is a considerable gap. The Beatles were after all a band built on their live performances – first in the searing boiler room of Hamburg in 1961-1962 and later in Liverpool and then across the UK in 1962-1963. So to actually see and hear The Beatles perform live is a fascinating exercise. (And few who saw them after 1963 actually heard them). Lennon in particular is enthralling in Beatlemania-era footage: his raw charisma almost, but not quite, smothered by his suit, his feet spread apart and his knees bending to keep time, his crotch rising and falling in a vivid suggestion of sex. Finally, you can really feel the mania in the air as the four young men from Liverpool stride through a earth-shattering din to a small stage in a baseball field in New York, or observe how they interacted on stage – the end-of-show bows like something from another era, which to all intents and purposes they were – or with what sharp wit and pointed humour they conducted themselves in press conferences. Finally you can see them performing on the Apple rooftop in that cold blustery January of 1969, rusty, nostalgic and sentimental, like a couple near the end of their relationship having one last physical fling, aware that it makes no difference and that the end is not averted.

Third, several previous Lennon biographies have tended to portray him at either end of the human spectrum, with Albert Goldman seeing him as a weak, manipulated fool dominated by Yoko Ono and hopelessly addicted to drugs, and Ray Coleman’s near-hagiography seeing Lennon as a “poet and philosopher”. Both seem to focus on the extremes of Lennon’s personality – of which there is admittedly ample evidence – and miss out the middle ground. To take the first example: it’s difficult to believe that Lennon could be so subjugated by Yoko Ono, when he had an immensely forceful personality himself and a short-leash temper. (He might, of course, want to be to some extent dominated by a strong woman, and Coleman rightly observes that while Ono was Lennon’s intellectual superior, he was the superior artist). Similarly, while many of Lennon’s songs have philosophical implications, by no stretch could he be called a philosopher. He was a voracious but unsystematic reader, and his thoughts and ideas were similarly moment-to-moment; he was always capable of changing his truths to suit his current artistic endeavours. His 1970 Rolling Stone interviews are justly famous, but the reader must always be aware that Lennon was speaking with the acrid bitterness of the Beatles’ recent breakup still smoking, and his disillusion with the 1960s from this perspective must be tempered with an awareness of what he said and did at the  time, rather than retrospective rationales.

For me, I see Lennon as an artist, above and beyond everything else. His activism, his experimentation with drugs, even his relationships were all secondary to or even motivated by his constant need to express himself in some new way. Few musical artists can have striven so continuously to find new means of expression as Lennon whilst a Beatle. What’s astonishing is that for all the success The Beatles achieved, it never satisfied them just for its own sake: their pace of their musical development was incredible, unprecedented and never since equalled. Starting with the inspirations of early rock and roll, Lennon moved on through Dylan, cannabis, LSD and the Chelsea/bohemian set, transcendental meditation, conceptual art, Yoko, the Fluxus art group, and radical 60s figures like Tim Leary and Abbie Hoffman amongst others, all of which percolated their way in some shape or form into his music. It’s in this sense that Lennon was, as he later remarked to May Pang (his partner during his 1974-5 estrangement from Ono), “a chameleon”. A recurring characteristic of Lennon was that he would discover some new thing, become obsessed by it, have it colour or shape his art and his life, discover its limitations, and then move on to something fresh. This more than anything explains the multiplicity and heterogeneousness of the portraits of Lennon. Few people can have changed their appearance so consistently in such a short period of time, every change signifying his ongoing musical, artistic and personal development. Rocker John, in leathers and a quiff, was replaced by the suited, Epstein-influenced, professional Lennon. 1965 saw Lennon in his self-indulgent “Fat Elvis” period, hair and chin growing rapidly. Psychedelia brought great changes, face greatly thinned, a walrus moustache, the famous Lennon granny glasses, and colourful archaic clothing. India begat a beard, long hair (and a messiah complex). The beginning of his solo career, when he consciously turned his back on the dreams of the 1960s, was intimated by a no-nonsense crew-cut and proletarian dungarees.

Lennon was, as critic Mark Kermode noted in his introduction to a documentary on the making of Imagine, a “man of infinite contradictions”. Time and further revelations only bring these contradictions into sharper relief. He always professed to have disliked his school days , and his school record gives no reason to doubt this, for he was no success and left with no qualifications at all. Yet he named his first band after his secondary school and even corresponded with a pupil during the peak of Beatlemania, when his time must have been at its most circumscribed. This suggests a certain nostalgia, if nothing else. He was capable of the most extreme misogyny (as seen on 1965’s “Run For Your Life”, filled with murderous jealousy), and the most devastating introspection (the solo “Jealous Guy” being Lennon’s archetypal song in this vein, though it was written in India in 1968 with a lyric of even greater self-negation titled “Child Of Nature”). He was terse and did not suffer fools gladly, yet he was occasionally suckered through his generosity of spirit and finances. A wealthy man who in his early twenties voted Conservative “because they look after your money better”, he had “no desire to join the fucking aristocracy”. A kind and loving father who rarely saw his first son, he was also a man’s man who always needed a strong woman in his life.

His contradictions ran as deep within his music as in his personal life. He was a remarkable vocalist who hated the sound of his own singing, insisting that George Martin “do something with my voice”. He was a traditionalist, insisting that no song ever bettered “Whole Lotta Shakin”, who, with the other Beatles, instigated more developments in studio techniques than any other artist before or since. He knew and could play scores upon scores of songs, as a result of playing endless sets in Hamburg, yet he couldn’t tell apart on-beats and off-beats. He produced some of the most colourful pop music ever created, yet his chord choices were extremely frugal. He stopped composing on guitar when he had become too proficient upon it. His imagination and invention were astonishing, even though he later professed to always prefer first-person songs, “cos I know me”. The emotional range of his songs runs from exhilarating and joyous to painful melancholia to desperate, agonising need to sinister shadowiness to caustic mockery to gentle lullaby. He wrote a magnificently articulate song about being the difficulties in communication and a starkly affecting song about concealing emotion.

For all these paradoxes and incongruities, however, Lennon was not one of rock’s madmen. He was not like Keith Moon, destroying hotel rooms and adopting poses and acts so often and convincingly that it was hard to tell who the ‘real’ Keith was, or if there was one. He was not like Syd Barret, fragmenting under a tide of psychedelic drugs (although he came perilously close to it in 1967). He was not like Axl Rose or Michael Jackson, megalomaniacal egos paranoically alienating fans, friends and musicians. Nor was he like Kurt Cobain or Radiohead, responding to massive success with deliberate obscurity and sour contempt. Lennon, of all the Beatles, always gave the impression of being both thoroughly unimpressed by the tawdry trappings of fame and determined to prove his talent to the most important judge of all – himself. A bedrock of cool, dispassionate scepticism about Lennon prevented him from letting fame go to his head under Beatlemania (though having the rest of The Beatles there would have helped greatly), or from floating away in a psychedelic bubble later on. But when possessed by an idea, he would go all the way with it. Timidity, artistic or personal, was never one of his problems.

Modern writers about Lennon face the charge of never having met him. To this I would say that having met someone does not necessarily make for a good book about them – there are too many bad memoirs and biographies to suggest otherwise – though their information and insights may be valuable, or not. Similarly, given Lennon’s extreme fame, almost everyone connected with him has written, or had something written, on their time with him, which gives the biographer particularly rich sources. The Beatles recording sessions have been magnificently dissected by Mark Lewisohn, their music analysed in hundreds of different ways, their lives documented to the day and often to the hour. But what Lennon oddly lacks, to my mind, is a synthesis of all these sources, a biography of his time as a Beatle which encompasses his daily activities as well as his musical accomplishments within the context of the 1960s and broader western culture. This is what this book aims to do.

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Rock music is often a mythic activity, where tales grow with every re-telling and the main actors are encouraged to live “larger than life”, perhaps to please those who would live vicariously , perhaps to embody characteristic which others fear to or cannot. “Legendary” acts such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are often only mythic in this shallower sense. The Beatles however are truly mythic in the sense that their lives and work form enormous archetypes which are part of the “myth-pool”, as Carl Jung would say, of popular culture. The LP as a coherent symphonic statement, the recording studio as instrument, the beard as symbol of maturity , the secret song at the end of the LP, the “outside projects” as harbinger of splitting up, problems with wives, the desire to “get back”, the sprawling double LP , the spiritual impulse (usually meaning India or Buddhism) – all originated from The Beatles, in one shape or another. A program as contemporary as The Simpsons could do a Beatles spoof without mentioning the band and have everyone understand who they were talking about. They made the transition from disposable teen idols, the likes of which the world had seen before, to founding blocks of western culture alongside Mark Twain and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kraftwerk, with remarkable aplomb. Timothy Leary, that avatar of the 1960s, called them “[p]rototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” Which might seem silly now, but it is easy to forget that the 1960s were a time when popular culture pointed the way to a brilliant new world, and that The Beatles were at the forefront of this.

But of course they lived in the here-and-now and the day-to-day like everyone else. There are signs that they occasionally forgot this, especially during the high psychedelic summer of 1967, but such moments are surprisingly few for a band long surrounded by chronic hysteria and pandemonium. (Lennon often oscillated between acknowledging that The Beatles were the greatest and dismissively insisting that anyone could do what they did, if they put in the hours). Lennon in particular was an abrasive, often caustic, observer of what was going on around him. He was to later comment bitterly on what indignities The Beatles suffered in their quest to get to the top, and what absurdities and lunacies the Beatlemania period had engendered (though at the time he acquiesced in them willingly; their collective drive to get to the top and consequent work ethic were astonishing). He was also to fulminate at the failures of the 1960s generation in 1970, though he was and still is one of those most identified with the decade. Throughout his life Lennon was a fascinating interviewee, provided he was treated with respect and offered questions which valued and provoked his intelligence. (But woe betide the interviewer who asked a stupid question. When asked if he wrote “those kicky words” in In His Own Write “like an author?”, he sneeringly replied, “Just like an author”.) Lennon’s acerbic and compulsive truth-telling was another remarkable trait for a man who was a young pop-star. (And of course stands in desperate opposition to the docile sterility of today’s pop starlets). Rather than be content with his lot, with achieving his ambition of being “rich and famous”, there was always something greater, something further (not merely more, as with Queen: he was never one for excess for its own sake – in both his art and his personal life he could be somewhat ascetic). Lennon was the epitome of the restless soul.

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Lennon formed The Quarrymen as a skiffle band with school friends in March 1957, inspired by Lonnie Donegan and his “Rock Island Line”. He was joined by Paul McCartney in July and (against Lennon’s resistance) a fourteen year-old George Harrison the following February. Performing at odd occasions and later mostly at the Casbah Coffee Club owned by Mona Best, mother of future drummer Pete, the Quarrymen cut their performing teeth slowly and painfully during the remainder of the 1950s. Come 1960, their name changing from the Beatals to the Silver Beetles to the Silver Beatles to The Beatles, the group would acquire the charismatic, artistically talented but incapable bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, though no regular drummer. In this guise Lennon led the group through the first incarnation of The Beatles, and it is to this we turn now.

Vocal Performances

Though I’ve said several times previously that mere technical virtuosity means nothing to me in music, I thought good singers were worth looking at – a “good” singer being to me one who conveys emotion. I don’t care how many octaves they can reach, how fast they can rap, how inhumanely they can bellow (for death metal fans out there) or how poetic their lyrics: the feeling is the essential thing. Far better to listen to Johnny Rotten (or John Lydon: his early stuff with Public Image is still astonishing) than the competent mediocrities who plague talent shows like a tidal wave of blancmange.

Obviously.

There’s probably no point in trying to define a good vocal performance any further, because emotion and artistic aims are as varied as people. I’m just going to give a series of good examples.

Everyone knows Axl Rose is a bit of an arsehole. Keeping people waiting nearly twenty years between studio albums; walking off gigs and turning up late; breaking up the band of brothers that was the original Guns N’ Roses lineup. But all the same, he’s a bloody good singer and usually a good songwriter, able to dramatise his emotions and ideas into broader statements (see for example “Coma”, “Estranged”, “Locomotion” and “Right Next Door To Hell”). His singing in “One A Million” is absolutely blistering: the ferocious rage in the final verse (starting from “Just tryin’ to make ends meet” at 4.29) can strip the paint off walls and turn hippies into savage punks. (Savour, too, the guitar interplay: worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers). The way the tension rises up to this climax, then ebbs as the song fades to an end, is magnificent.

Mike Patton of Faith No More is often held up as one of the best vocalists in rock. No arguments here. Savour his singing in “Falling To Pieces”, from their breakthrough 1989 album, The Real Thing.

The video’s not quite as good as “Epic” but Patton’s delivery is just delicious.

Nick Drake’s voice is sensuous, smoky, subtle. (A review of Five Leaves Left pointed out the title is a pun: it’s not just an autumnal thing but a reference to cigarette papers running out). While “Cello Song” has many, many things to admire (Drake’s incredible guitar-playing, and the cello, which makes me think of a yew tree swaying in a dusk-lit meadow in October), the voice conveys this wonderful dusky emotion.

Michael Jackson didn’t have much of an ear for good songs (every album except Thriller contains substantial amounts of filler: “Speed Demon”, “Liberian Girl” and “Just Good Friends” in Bad, and most of Side 2 in Off The Wall – and those are his other good albums!). But, my god, the man could sing! I really enjoy the delicious delivery of “The Way You Make Me Feel” – the exuberance and delight of falling in love.

Normally, melisma (changing notes while on the same syllable) bugs the crap out of me. It’s been done to death by Rn’B types like Whitney Houston etc. Viz had a splendid piss-take where Whitney answered questions about car maintenance – “Ensure your craaa-eeee-aaank shift is properly aliii-eeee-iiii-eeee-iiii-gned and puuuuuu-oooo-uuuuuu-oooooo-uuuuuut fresh oil in”, etc. However, Bjork handles them beautifully, without it ever seeming forced or (worse) a transparent device. In “Like Someone In Love”, they seem like the spontaneous bursts of pure emotion. Really dazzling.

While I abhor rap and hip-hop that glorify the ghetto mentality of drugs, prostitution and violence, Public Enemy never seem to get old. Chuck D’s voice, its strength, power and certainty, perfectly suit a group with radical political intentions.

What do you think – any nominations?

Favourite Albums

The Guardian has been doing a nice series on writers’ favourite albums – see here. With some nice left-field choices (it was pleasantly surprising to see Alex Petridis choose “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” as his favourite – it’s not often you see disco treated in the music press without sniggering), it’s been a fun new feature. There are albums which are the greatest – and these the classic rock mags endlessly pontificate on, with endless lists – but your favourite is something more personal, more meaningful, more autobiographical. The grandma with a taste for T. Rex and Alice Cooper, the aging fish factory worker with a passion for Charlie Parker, the oil engineer whose liking for The Blues Brothers led him to Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson, the prog-rocker turned onto The Orb… I have known all these people, and it’s sometimes wonderful how unexpectedly musical passion will hit.

But for me it was all quite simple. The first album I ever bought remains my favourite unto this day, after some 23 years and unending musical exploration. Let me give some context: at the time I was nine years old and was really just getting into music, via my mum’s copy of Queen’s Greatest Flix, their videos from “Killer Queen” to “Flash” (a-ah). From the off, I liked the heavier, guitary parts – the heavy section of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the faster version of “We Will Rock You”, the killer riff to “Tie Your Mother Down”. But I didn’t encounter much rock music in those days – as a family we used to watch Top Of The Pops every week (how we laughed over the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” video, and how baffled we were at Black Box’s “Ride On High”!) and my dad and uncles were massively into Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, etc, but I almost never heard any real hard rock. My mum preferred Simply Red and Bob Marley, and my older sister liked Radio 1 stuff, especially Michael Jackson.

So then one day a music shop opened up in my one-horse home town – or should I say, another one opened up, for there was already one, which sold musical instruments, a wide variety of music, music stands, amplifiers, guitar strings and plectrums, violin cases and the like. The new shop had one killer feature, though: they had a TV in the shop, and on this they would play MTV. I had never even seen MTV before but knew what it was thanks to Dire Straits, and like all British kids’ idea of America, it summoned images of unimaginable delight and pleasure, of unguessed-at consumer possibilities and a heightened glamour of life. Here was the world of youth, of freedom, of desire. So I used to hang about the shop and browse through their cassettes while listening/watching the videos. This being early in 1988, Guns N’ Roses were then riding high, with “Paradise City”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome To The Jungle” on pretty heavy rotation. These songs excited me beyond words. Their power and visceral hunger were enthralling, and their look was equally as appealing – the intoxicating sense of bad boys, living fast and living hard, in the big city lights. For a small town boy like me, who could resist?

My brother and I went halfs on the album, Appetite For Destruction, a reasonable 6.75 as I recall, and played it to death. Song after song was just fantastic. The overture of “Welcome To The Jungle”, half an incantation and half a shriek from hell, set the tone right away: here was something gritty, almost overwhelming and above all alive. “It’s So Easy” postured and preened with astonishing yet believable arrogance, the ultimate expression of young-man narcissism, with Axl singing at the bottom of his range and the riff exploding out at you like a Molotov Cocktail of belligerent intent. “Nighttrain”. an ode to cheap tonic wine and seat-of-your-pants living (“I never learn”) was mighty fine, almost fun, while the duelling guitars at the start of “Out Ta Get Me” were magnificent. “Mr Brownstone” had this bad-ass funk and a subtext I would only later pick up (hey, I was only 9). The major statement, though, was “Paradise City”: oh dude, that amazing cavernous drum sound at the beginning, as confident as America in the Reaganite 80s, and that amazing boogie-stomp of the crushing riff, and the urban nightmare lyrics of the verses (“Captain America’s torn apart / Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart/ He said turn me around / And take me back to the start / I must be losing my mind / “Are you blind?!” / I’ve seen it all a million times”) with the open yearning and desire of the chorus (I’ll assume everyone knows it by now). And that was just side 1!

This led me down the track of late-80s hard rock and heavy metal, with bands like Poison, Motley Crue, WASP, and the like, while I also much admired Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Faith No More’s The Real Thing. I grew my hair into a ridiculous mullet, I got an electric guitar I never could get the hang of, I made friends (well, a friend) who was into much the same stuff, I read Kerrang! and RAW magazines, I stayed up until 4.30am on Saturday mornings to watch Raw Power, the only place to watch heavy metal videos on British TV (we still didn’t have MTV), and generally was quite the greaser. I lived and breathed the album, reading the lyrics and credits obsessively, watching the tape I had of GN’R at the New York Ritz on countless occasions, and counting the days for a full successor. Guns N’ Roses subsequent career, of course, was something of a joke – has there ever been a band with such a bad trajectory? But the fact that I stayed on this path for something like five years is testament to the endless thrilling power of Appetite For Destruction, its sheer quality and unforgettable hunger and desire. I have never bored of it, and it remains my favourite album ever.

How about you? What’s your favourite? And what do you think of Appetite For Destruction?