Kraftwerk: An Appreciation

What The Beatles are to pop/rock and the Velvet Underground are to alternative, Kraftwerk are to electronic music. They are the mainspring, the well of inspiration, the goddamn motherlode. Their run of classic albums is astonishing, up there for consistent creativity and delight with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side-The Wall sequence, or, say, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet-Exile On Main Street series of triumphs. Starting with Autobahn (1974), each album defines and refines their inspiration: from the long form elementary synthesized excursion of Autobahn‘s epic title track (cos ambitious bands had to have side-long epic tracks back then) to Radio Activity (1975) with its shorter thematically-linked pieces to the electro-funk of Trans Europe Express (1977) to the multiple digitized rhythms of the magnificent The Man Machine (1978) and then the warmth, sass and wit of Computer World (1981). (Earlier albums like Kraftwerk I (1971) and Kraftwerk II (1972) are embryonic to say the least, stuck in the Krautrock milieu whence they sprang, while later efforts Electric Cafe (1986) and Tour De France (2003) lack the unbridled inspiration and gleaming intelligence of the classics).

Let’s take a look at each of the classics and praise it. For all albums, I recommend the German language versions as being more… Kraftwerkian, if you will; but I will refer to the English track names for ease of comprehension.

Autobahn

I’ve included this album as one of the greats purely on the basis of “Autobahn”, which remains a classic and a fan favourite (it’s on the 2005 live album Minimum Maximum). The great thing is how one hears the freedom, autonomy and modernity of driving, something so elementary and yet so popular. (Also note that the lyric is not “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” but “Fahren, fahren, fahren“, the word being German for “drive”). Musically the song is constructed on elementary Moog synths and (I think) guitar arpeggios, with ancillary flutes and keyboards; compared to later albums, it sounds a bit clunky, but the rhythm keeps it moving, and there’s a freshness and enthusiasm that’s enticing. And of course, as Kraftwerk would repeatedly do, it sounds like what they signing about, with horns and passing cars and all being evoked.

The rest of the album rather pales in comparison, not being thematically linked (the next two tracks being “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Kometenmelodie 2”, which suggests their place as mood pieces rather than extensions of the theme – though the latter does suggest later glories) or having the same daring celebration of the joys of present. “Mitternacht”, in its ambient down-tempo moodiness, was presumably what David Bowie was ripping off when he made the latter half of Low, three years later; while “Morgenspaziergang” is a bit like the worst songs of the studio disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma. Rather like, say, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, Autobahn is embryonic, enormously influential, and overshadowed by later glories.

Radio Activity

This is where the real Kraftwerk comes together. The album is linked via two interconnected themes: radio communications (or transmissions) and radioactive energy. This is made most clear in “The Voice Of Energy”, a track of a single deep distorted electro vocal, “Radio Stars”, a pulsing radiowave transmission over which a voice tonelessly verbalises, and “Transistor”, which similarly pulsates but does so over a pleasant keyboard tune. None have either beat or rhythm (beyond the simple pulse of the radio waves in “Radio Waves” and “Transmission”, like an alpha or sine wave), and yet thematically and conceptually they are perfect. In the more tuneful tracks, “Radioactivity” is an overture to the entire thematic and music scope of the album, and “Airwaves” is a joyful excursion after the static frieze of the preceding “Radioland”. But these tunes, while they link the album, are significantly in the majority; most of the album is short thematic ideas-driven pieces, like “News” (a bunch of newsreaders), the opening “Geiger Counter” (blipblipblip.. blipblipblipblipblipblipblipblipblipblip), “Transistor”, the sound of a repeating, echoing simple melody, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, which I think the Chemical Brothers samples for the opening track to their first album Exit Planet Dust. With this album, Kraftwerk truly discover their genius. It remains a wonderful piece of imagination, craft and flair.

Trans Europe Express

It irritates me that this album is the one always mentioned in the “Best Albums Ever”. I guess this is because of two things: the sheer bloody goddamn awesomeness of the title track, and the fact that it was heavily sampled by Afrika Bambaataa in “Planet Rock“, thus inventing hiphop or something. But while the album opener “Europe Endless” is magnificent, the following two tracks “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are to my ears the two weakest tracks in Kraftwerk’s great album sequence. The former sounds like something from a Commodore 64 tape (check this as a C64 version of Tubular Bells – if you grew up in the 80s or had a Commy, you might well enjoy it), while the latter is a dry self-parody but little more. All the same, “Trans Europe Express” has that amazing locomotive rhythm and is endlessly enjoyable, “Metal On Metal” continues the rhythm (it’s really just part two of a side-long suite), and “Europe Endless” a stunning evocation of the glories of the continent, at a time when Europe and cutting-edge modernity were practically synonymous (German cars, Concorde, etc). But with two tracks to which I’m highly indifferent, Trans Europe Express just isn’t all that.

The Man Machine

To my mind the best Kraftwerk album, and contender for best album of the 1970s (which, given the competition, is really saying something). Here, the pulsing rhythms of Trans Europe Express develop to an exciting polyrhythmic approach which, given how white Kraftwerk sound, is almost African in origin and would inspire a lot of electro music in the future, from hiphop to techno. Also, the digitisation of Kraftwerk’s sound takes a great leap here; while substantial parts of Radio Activity is live and unprocessed, and while the synthesizer beats of Trans Europe Express chug along nicely, almost every part of The Man Machine is digitised, processed. (Only the vocals to “Neon Lights” and “The Model” are unaltered, I think). And while the early albums were obviously Moog-synthy, analogue machines creating digital sounds, the entire feel and texture of The Man Machine is modern and synthetic. Take the opening to opening track (Kraftwerk always paid attention to album flow, with opening and closing tracks of significance in the whole piece), “The Robots”: four plosive beats sound before some percussive electronic noises (in time, of course), which is repeated, upon which the marvellous juga-juga-juga-juga riff kicks in, and then a glossily shimmering keyboard ascends before the heavily-processed Vocoder-sung lyrics come in:

We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy

We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots

(Damn, it’s so much harder to convey the minutiae of electronica compared to rock music!) The whole thing is so robotik, so alien, so unhumanly funky… fucking magnificent. I am also a great fan of the next track, “Spacelab”. It often reminds me of my firs semester at uni, when I had really just discovered Kraftwerk thanks to one of my uncles, and listening to this tune as I smoked my first joints. That defamiliarisation and sense of disconnect suited my initial loneliness and homesickness. But this is mere anecdote: what I really like about “Spacelab” is that sense of highflown indifference, as emphasised by the track not coming to any resolution but merely fading out. The best track of all, in my opinion (which is all you get around here) is “Neon Lights”, which is a glorious pulsating ode to the possibilities and progress of urban life. Which is a nice change from the posturing rural sympathies of so much rock music. (I’ll exclude Nick Drake from this, as his music does convey so much countryside scenes, from the swaying yew trees in “Cello Song” to the mysteries of “River Man”). What astonishes me about this album is that even today is sounds fresh: considering how fast electronic music progresses, that is truly incredible.

Computer World

Building on the polyrhythms of The Man Machine, Computer World is funkier, less distant and far wittier. On occasions it’s actually very funny. It is odd that so few artists celebrate modernity, or what I suppose we should call postmodernity. Most times the past is viewed nostalgically, the present with regret (of love lost, possibilities missed etc etc etc) and the future with trepidation. This, I guess, is what happens when the vast proportion of rock music is made by men in their 20s. But then the same is true of so many writers: the pose of the sophisticated poet despairing of the cheap tawdry urban crowd perhaps began with TS Eliot and continues today, with gimps who don’t have a solitary percentage of Eliot’s learning affecting a disdainful superiority to the masses. As you can guess, I loathe this fuck-knuckle smart-ass disdain. Far better, I reckon, to have the relish and abandon of the Beats, that celebratory joyful vision of Ginsberg and Kerouac.  With this 1981 album, Kraftwerk celebrate the wonders of the computer and even foresee the interconnections of the internet age. There is, of course, an occasional wryness – perhaps Kraftwerk’s most characteristic emotional note – but there’s little of the distance of The Man Machine. “Pocket Calculator” must take the prize for Kraftwerk’s most fun song (with Radio Activity‘s “Air Waves” in second), with its kinetic rhythms, cheerily cheesy sound effects (maybe a Fisher Price calculator?) and the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of the lyric:

I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator

 

By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody

Glorious. Meanwhile, “Numbers” is more breakbeaty than usual for Kraftwerk, even as it counts in the numbers (mostly in German, though there are different languages and vocal effects for each), “Computer World” is perhaps most akin to a Man Machine track, in its anxiety and simplicity, counting off the knowledge bases of the modern world (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank… FBI and Scotland Yard…”). Throughout, as always, Kraftwerk not only sing about the world of computers, they evoke it musically, with the pulsing “Home Computer” suggesting the data flows of the digital networks, the eponymous pocket calculator jingling away merrily, and the wry sense of urban disconnect in a world of fragmented isolated individuals keenly suggested in the sparse echoing melodies of “Computer World”, like tunes played in empty shopping malls. Yet, considering the 1981 release date, it does not sound dated: of its time, yes, but with Kraftwerk’s keen intelligence, and humane empathy, their disquisitions on modernity, computers and disconnect are timeless.

 *

As I’ve mentioned before, I rate Kraftwerk very highly: basically as one of the best bands of all time, and as the originators of so much of modern music. We are all vastly in their debt. But this does not make them dated, as perhaps Louis Armstrong (well, maybe Jelly Roll Morton) is when compared to Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Kraftwerk remain as fresh and compelling as on their release, and whose, imagination, creativity, intelligence and melodic flair remain undimmed these thirty-odd years.

Awesome Intros

There’s nothing like a good intro which grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gets your heart-a-tingling with the its awesomeness. Vast vistas can be summoned, entire moods established; the whole song summarised in essence. Here’s a fandabydozy selection.

Gimme Shelter

Oh god, that tremolo, that unsettling “Oooooh”… and the way Charlie Watts kicks in with the drums as the harmonica wails. Spine-tingling.

Out Ta Get Me

Guns at their best, with two fucking incredible guitarists. It’s interesting how though Izzy and Slash have pretty similar guitar sounds (not sure what guitars they used to record the album), they don’t really get in each other’s way, there’s a degree of space between them that lets the sound breathe. And goddamn, the tension they raise, over the straight beats by Steven Adler… fuck yeah!

She Loves You

I described this elsewhere:

The tom-tom roll sets it careening, but the first two declarations of “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” are jerked back, heightening to an impossible tension (right from the very start!!), while the third iteration releases it into the first verse with superb momentum. The verses, sung jointly by Lennon and McCartney, just sizzles with their harmonised vocals, and in the chorus, the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” absolutely soars.

Incident after incident after incident, all getting you to prick up your ears right from the off. The Fabs knew every trick in the damn book.

Eton Rifles

Another intro rich with drama and anticipation – you just have to listen on. It’s just so dramatic, the guitar drenching electricity over the bass’s rhythmic figure. Superb. (The verses don’t maintain this level, but the chorus is outstanding).

Firestarter

Nothing, but NOTHING, has a more dramatic, danger-filled intro.

Face The Slayer

I love the way that the tension rises and rise, the feeling of rising tide of evil just ready to burst loose. Slayer were the masters at that (see also: “Evil Has no Boundaries”, “Angel Of Death” and “South of Heaven”). The twin guitars are straight out of Iron Maiden/Judas Priest, but Slayer make them their own.

Higher Ground

What the fuck is that insanely funky thing at the very start? Whatever it is, its inflexions just get your hips grooving. (“Permit me to demonstrate”).

Wish Fulfilment

If you want some out-there distortion or weirdness, you need a steady figure to play off of, and to centre the listener. Thurston Moore’s overcharged distorted geetar, an almost melodic otherworldly yowling, plays over a simple figure by Lee Ronaldo, then… BAM!

The Guitar

I’ve recently made an iTunes playlist called “The Guitar” which, funnily enough, features songs which have great guitar. Here it is, with some comments. I restricted myself to one song per artist.

“The Act We Act”, Sugar Copper Blue
Bob Mould has surely got one of the best guitar sounds in rock. Played loud front and centre, the guitar here is so deep and loud, yet melodic – it’s rock for sure, but nothing like metal. I imagine he (as former Husker Du frontman) was pissed off that Nevermind was so successful, and wanted to really show off his chops. Great job, Bob.

“Columbia”, Oasis Definitely Maybe
This is an amazing song, easily my favourite by Oasis. (There’s not really much competition). The snarling guitar sound is terrific, and the pulsing riff and circular guitar lead could just go on forever.

“Only Shallow”, My Bloody Valentine Loveless
An utterly explosive opener to MBV’s magnum opus. The contrast between the overdriven guitar and the trancey, dreamy verses is delicious.

“One”, Metallica …And Justice For All 
That machine gun bit is still fucking incredible.

“Bron-Yr-Aur”, Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti
Jimmy Page didn’t just do crushing riffs (see: “Immigrant Song”, “Heartbreaker”, “The Rover”), he is an amazing strummer. This accoustic worlout is from my favourite Zep album, Physical Graffiti, though Disc 2 (odds and ends) rather than Disc 1 (classics like “Custard Pie”, “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying”).

“Keep It In The Family”,  Anthrax Persistence of Time
Seven minutes of pure, focused, channelled aggression. The tightness of the riffing is amazing.

“Protest And Survive”, Discharge Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing 
I deliberately put this after Anthrax because I first heard of Discharge through Anthrax’s b-sides compilation Attack Of The Killer B’s, where they covered this song. I found this album at a record sale (just check the back cover!) and was blown away. The guitar sound is incredibly powerful, hugely overcharged without distorting.

“Wah-Wah”, George Harrison All Things Must Pass
In which George gets out his anger at The Beatles.

“Three Days”, Jane’s Addiction Ritual de lo Habitual 
I love multi-section epic type songs, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Paranoid Android”. This is a killer example, with outstanding guitar from Dave Navarro in numerous points – the guitar solo which brings in the instrumental section (from 4.43), the static riff generating enormous electric power and tension (from 7.08), the sitting-on-the-brink-of-nirvana chords (9.24)… One of the best rock songs ever.

“Friction”, Television Marquee Moon
Like all songs on Marquee Moon, this features exceptional interplay on the guitar.

“I Heard Her Call My Name”, The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat
Though Lou Reed invented lots of different aspects of punk/alternative guitar (static riffing, feedback, massive distortion), this is an example of his lead work. Overblown to the max!

“Satellite”, Sex Pistols Kiss This
Steve Jones is one fine rhythm guitarist. This was only a b-side (to “Holidays In The Sun”), but with its massive overdubbed guitars and Johnny Rotten throwing himself into the eye of the hurricane, it is a fan favourite.

“One In A Million”, Guns N’ Roses G N’ R Lies
GN’R at the Stones-iest. The fuzzy lead (by Izzy Stradlin) over accoustics is very reminiscent of Sticky Fingers-era Stones. Fucking brilliant. Ah, what could have been…

“I Found That Essence Rare”, Gang Of Four Entertainment!
Punk you don’t associate with rhythm, but Gang Of Four manage to be funky and punky. I don’t see that much of them in Franz Ferdinand, but they’re supposed to be a major influence. Gang Of Four stomp on them.

“Bed Crumbs”, Fudge Tunnel Hate Songs in E Minor
A forgotten gem of British metal, Hate Songs in E Minor has some massive, distorted, echoing guitars. “Bed Crumbs” has this, and a crushing riff… wow.

“Hangar 18”, Megadeth Rust in Peace
Dave Mustaine took great pride in being named the best metal guitarist in some book – it can appear odd to people outside the magic circle just how sensitive to critical attention artists can be. He found particular pride/glee in being named ahead of Kirk Hammet: I guess the scars remain. Anyway, the technical level on Megadeth’s best album Rust In Peace is astonishing. The best song “Hangar 18” showcases this: the shifts in time, the fury, the solos, the slashing riffs, the mounting climax… yup, Mustaine could play.

“Porch”, Pearl Jam Ten
Pearl Jam were a bit earnest and right-on in comparison to Nirvana’s headlong dive into the chaos of punk. They were the affirmative Clash to Nirvana’s nihilistic Sex Pistols. This song is one of the punkier in their debut, Ten (which is reverb-rich and soft-edged), and has this wonderful sense of mounting excitement

“Black Math”, White Stripes Elephant
See, I do like some music after 2000…! Jack White is obviously a great guitar player, with a primal, bluesy sound. I love the careening, free-wheeling vibe to this song.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks”, The Who Live At Leeds 
Goddamn. Just… goddamn.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
Is it just me or were the Stones only really good when Mick Taylor was in the band? Well, that and Beggars Banquet. This song has a ferocious fuzz guitar intro (by Keith Richards) and an outstanding solo by Taylor.

“Painkiller”, Judas Priest Painkiller
I can see the evolutionary importance of Judas Priest, in their twin-lead guitars and stripping-out of any blues influences (whereas Black Sabbath used to, you know, be a blues band). But apart from Stained Class, I don’t think their albums really that much cop. Painkiller was a roaring return to form after a pretty indifferent decade in the 1980s, featuring magnificently over-driven guitars and a solo that threatens to burst out through the musical score.

“Symptom Of The Universe”,  Black Sabbath Sabotage
In which Tony Iommi invents thrash metal, eight years before Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All.

“Atrocity Exhibition”, Joy Division Closer
Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), like other guitarists in bands with stand-out bass players, often used his for texture and commentary rather than melody. Here, he make teeth-grindlingly abrasive shards and yowls, over a lop-sided rhythm and bass played as lead. It’s a fascinating step-change from previous album Unknown Pleasures.

“Theresa’s Sound World”, Sonic Youth Dirty
I love how this modulates from arpeggios to a beautifully controlled rising-tension section, ebbing and flowing several times, before building to an ambiguous climax. Compared to the simple telelogical pleasures of rock music, with its massive resounding resolutions, this is pleasingly open-ended and enigmatic.

“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, The Smiths Strangeways, Here We Come
What I’ve previously called “the beautiful gossamer shimmer” of Johnny Marr’s guitar. Magnificent.

More Beatles Bests: Albums

So I looked at my fave top best all-time Beatles tunes a while ago. But what about the albums, asked no-one? Well, let it never be said I left an unasked question unanswered. The Beatles were one of the first pop/rock bands to embrace the album and then develop it into a coherent statement, though interestingly enough, jazzers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane had been doing much the same thing about five years earlier. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1964) I see as the first non-classical concept album. (I really hate the phrase “concept album” – I just mean a longer piece of work that has a sustained meaning or atmosphere – the sort of thing you find in most classical symphonies, in other words). But when you compare the Beatles’ 12″ output to that of their forbears like Elvis and Chuck Berry, or even against rivals like the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, you can see how they grabbed the medium and made it their own. So here are the Beatles studio albums ranked in reverse order.

Yellow Submarine

This is only half a Beatle album anyway, with the latter half consisting of George Martin’s film orchestration. The Beatle tunes vary from almost “hidden gem”, such as “It’s All Too Much” and “Hey Bulldog” to the trite “All Together Now” to the dismal “Only A Northern Song”. Previous releases “Yellow Submarine” (understandably) and “All You Need Is Love” (a horribly sickly-sweet cloying song) are there too.

A Hard Day’s Night

I suspect people will disagree with me here, but I really don’t think this album much cop. Okay, there are a sprinkling of utter classics (the indelible title track, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Things We Said Today”, and “And I Love Her”, but the rest are distinctly fillerish. I have a special disdain for “I Should’ve Known Better”, while “Tell Me Why” and “Any Time At All” coast by on the strength of Lennon’s outstanding vocals. This is the sole album comprising only Lennon/McCartney originals, with songs written in the frantic period following their first conquering of America. A little more time to up the invention would have helped, but in 1964 the Fabs made two albums, two singles (not on the albums) and a film, toured a great deal, while Lennon also released In His Own Write. Surely the most incredible calendar year of activity from any band ever.

Beatles For Sale

The Fabs’ Xmas ’64 album gets the odd slating – the reversion to covers indicated a lack of inspiration, or more likely time, this being released just five months after A Hard Day’s Night (!)but to me it has more characterful touches than the earlier album. The covers are a mixed bunch, to be sure, but revealing – “Mr Moonlight” shows their penchant for piss-taking, “Word Of Love” is a debt of honour to Buddy Holly, and “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey!” has Macca equalling Lennon’s “Twist And Shout” (both done in one take, too!). On the originals, “No Reply” is a bitter slice of Lennon which shows their increasing mastery of the studio, “Eight Days A Week” magnificent, “Every Little Thing” exceptional and underrated, and “I’m A Loser” perhaps the first to feature distinctly Lennonian wordplay. “Honey Don’t” and “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” are both pretty meh, though.

Please Please Me

The first album usually gets plaudits for being recorded in a 12 hour session, but that’s all you got for albums in those days. Even Miles Davis’ complex orchestral recordings like Sketches Of Spain (1960) and Porgy And Bess (1958) got a few takes at best. I remember reading an interview with Tony Iommi saying that Black Sabbath’s early albums were done in half a day too, and that was in 1970. But regardless of this eulogising, Please Please Me remains a dizzingly fresh and varied album, from the soaring title track to the emotional “Anna (Go To Him)” to the dancehall favourite “I Saw Her Standing There” to the harmony workout “Baby It’s You”, to the furious riproaring lust of “Twist And Shout”. It’s an awesome declaration of intent.

Help!

Like Beatles For Sale, Help! is not usually very highly regarded, but its unerring sense of songcraft and the increasingly superb arrangements make it one of perhaps more subtle pleasures, and definitely point the way to the subsequent inspiration in Rubber Soul. While no-one is really going to rhapsodise over “The Night Before”, “Another Girl” or “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, all three feature virtuoso backing vocals, breaking away from simple harmonising to increasingly complex and memorable patterns. Macca continues to broaden his range at an incredible rate, with the wonderfully breathless “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (with tremendous guitar) and “Yesterday”, about which nothing more need be said. Lennon meanwhile produces a string of classics, from the aching yet rocking “Help!” to “Ticket To Ride” (where The Beatles start to fully expand their music from what has gone on before) and the alpine accoustics of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. Weak points include “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much”, both from George; at least Ringo’s song, “Act Naturally”, is better than “Honey Don’t”.

Let It Be

The breakup clearly suffers from lost interest and inspiration. George’s “For You Blue” is a slide-guitar exercise and that’s about it, “Dig It” is nothing much, “Maggie May” is best forgotten as a joke, and “One After 909” is charming juvenalia. However, there are some monumentally good songs on it. “Two Of Us” is some of the best bass playing I’ve ever heard in any song ever (though it’s not actually played on a bass), and some totally winsome vocal melodies (Lennon and McCartney singing in unison throughout the verses). “I’ve Got A Feeling” is majestic, so rich with Beatle empathy and humanity; the music’s just as terrific. “Get Back” (not the single version) is fine and deft and enjoyably daft; the sense of rhythm is remarkable. Dig Ringo’s drumming in the keyboard solo (from 1.33), and how they subtly alter the rhythm, giving it more emphasis than on the guitar solo (from 0.59). “Across The Universe” sits awkwardly in its kaftan sounding all late-’67, and demonstrating how rapidly the Beatles developed (I mean this is less than 18 months later!), while I have never really enjoyed “Let It Be”, perhaps through too many school music lessons.

Magical Mystery Tour

This is really a double EP, but as a collection of the Beatles late 67 work, it works very well. It’s an amazing dazzleburst of hallucinogenic colour, from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the wonderful instrumental “Flying” to the murky “Blue Jay Way” to the exotic “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. Macca delivers two nostalgic tunes with “Your Mother Should Know” and “The Fool On The Hill” (recorders, forsooth), but Lennon’s “I Am The Walrus” is one of the most tricksy, cunning, put-on songs ever – and that’s only to consider the music! As a double EP, MMT lacks the coherence and skilful sequencing of other albums, but it does contain some of the finest songs ever recorded by The Beatles and others mined from the same vein of inspiration.

With The Beatles

This album essentially refines the formula of Please Please Me, with its mix of R&B, girl pop, and rock and roll. The originals are sassier and better crafted  – “It Won’t Be Long” shamelessly milks the “Yeah!” of “She Loves You”, “All My Loving” is sheer fun, “Hold Me Tight” (a holdover from Please Please Me because they ran out of time) is a fine layering of sounds (though Macca’s vocal is unusually weak), Lennon’s “All I’ve Got To Do” is a soulful confessional, and George’s “Don’t Bother Me” is a nice, tart, piece of disdain. The covers are really exceptional, though: “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” is wonderful, “Money” almost repeats the hysteria of “Twist And Shout”, and “Roll Over Beethoven” shows how George could rock and roll with the best of them. “Please Mister Postman” with its double-tracked vocal however is a bit overcooked. This is the best demonstration of The Beatles’ early influences and inspiration.

Rubber Soul

This was as usual rushed for the Xmas market (in 1965), but you’d never know it. Incredible considering that their workload in 1965 was as heavy as it was in 1964. This is where The Beatles start to make music in their own image, instead of improving on what had gone before. Creativity and articulation bursts out of (nearly) every song. “Drive My Car” sets out their stall, with its brilliant drum n’ bass rhythm, satirical lyric, exceptional singing (brilliant belting verses from Macca, and Lennon’s vinegary cynicism souring the mix). “Norwegian Wood” follows, with the tart twang of the sitar, the rich accoustic strumming and Lennon’s masterful, allusive lyric. The level is almost sustained throughout: “Nowhere Man” has a wonderful rich tapestry of sound (with exceptional bass from Macca), “If I Needed Someone” is a classic piece of jangle-pop, “Girl” is where John’s songs start to become ever more dense and allusive, even if on the surface it’s just a German two-step, “The Word” inaugurates the hippy vibe, and “In My Life” is magnificent, a sighing poignant reminder of times gone (from a man of twenty five!). The last song “Run For Your Life” is a baffling closer, with its vicious caveman misogyny a jarring contrast to a wry, knowing, (self)mocking album.

Sgt. Pepper

Where does Sgt Pepper fit in the Beatles canon? To some it’s the greatest album ever, to others it’s ludicrously overpraised. It is certainly the zenith of their pop-as-artifice period, with subsequent albums seeing resurgent interest in the perceived truthfulness of the blues and folk. Sgt. Pepper’s formal innovations similarly are the kind of thing which get critics all excited, unlike your average fan who remembers the tunes: the meta-awareness of the overture and outro, and the notion of playing at being another band would echo throughout the years (see: The Wall, Ziggy Stardust, 3 Feet High And Rising, etc). But what about the songs, eh? “Getting Better”, “With A Little Help”, “Lovely Rita”, and “Good Morning Good Morning” are all strong album tracks; “She’s Leaving Home” and “Fixing A Hole” are both florid pieces of McCartney which many love (I can live without them); “Within You Within You” is the ultimate expression of George’s mysticism (which, unlike many, I adore); and “Lucky In The Sky With Diamond” and “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” are dazzling examples both of the Lennon imagination and the Beatle/Martin studiocraft in creating soundworlds. “A Day In The Life” is stunning, with good claim to being the single finest Beatle moment. But to my ears, Sgt. Pepper is often too reliant on studiocraft rather than songcraft: the soundworlds it creates are astonishing, but I wonder if they would be anywhere near as memorable without such dressage. Also, Sgt. Pepper is perhaps the only album where Lennon is subdued, with only 3.5 songs out of 13: Macca’s art school leanings need some abrasive Lennon truth-telling amd cynicism to avoid getting florid or unreal, and occasionally Pepper does get that way. But as an expression of imagination and humanity, it’s hard to beat.

Abbey Road

The final three are really hard to separate. All are miracles of creativity and expression. I particularly find it nearly impossible to separate Abbey Road and the White Album. Though I think the side 2 (that’s the second half, kids) of Abbey Road the finest side of any album ever, I’m going to have to let it settle for third. Why? Though the album is a tremendous swansong, the first half is uneven: though several individual songs are magnificent (“Something”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Come Together”, “Here Comes The Sun”), several are weak (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden”), and worse, they don’t relate well to each other. This is not like the White Album, where though there’s an insane range of styles, the parodies and pastiches, and the frequency of the accoustic guitar, give it an overriding sensibility. On the Abbey Road opening side, Lennon’s songs are bluesy, almost elemental; Macca’s are dreadfully hokey; while George’s, now he’s finally getting his day in the sun, are marvellous. The arrangement of the tunes (Lennon – George – Macca – Macca – George – Lennon) speak more of Beatle politics than musical considerations.

The second half though is truly and utterly magnificent. Its symphonic linking of movements, and its variety of mood and atmosphere, are astonishing, while the warmth, humour and wit – while typical of The Beatles – remind you why they are the best-loved rock group ever. It starts with “Because”, where John, Paul and George sing in icy triple-tracked harmony like disembodied spirits above the clouds. “You Never Give Me Your Money”, a suite depicting Macca’s fracturing with the Beatles, follows; the key section is the lovely, poignant, “But, oh that magic feeling… nowhere to go”. But this melancholy is naturally undercut by the languid, sunlit warmth of “Sun King”, Macca’s bass so supple and fluid, the lyrics in joky cod-Italian (“Cake and eat it, parasol”). This is then followed by three quick-fire fragments, “Mean Mr Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, which evoke the simple pleasures of a rock band, and hark back to their apprenticeship in Hamburg and Liverpool dive bars and grotty clubs, showing how this basic rock and roll will always be part of them.

But, artfully, this is succeeded by McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers”. It sounds like Macca’s farewell to The Beatles, and the emotion is high, as he strains his vocal chords, the orchestration so august and beautiful. But again, the progression is ideal, for we are lead straight into the rousing, cathartic rocker of “Carry That Weight”, with its group chorus – “Boy! You got to carry that weight! Carry that weight, a long time!” A plangent horn sounds, reintroducing the motif from “You Never Give Me Your Money”, suggesting a further sadness – but no, as we’re thrown together for one last whirl: “Boy, you’ve got to carry that weight! Carry that weight, a long time!” “The End” naturally follows, being a showcase of the main Beatles as guitar players, i.e as themselves, after a unique Ringo drum-solo. They rotate guitar solos three times, as they well evoke their respective personalities – Macca is mid-range and twangy, George higher and priapic, whilst John is a distorted shard of sound. A fluttering heart-beat of piano leads in the famous dictum that “The love you make is equal to the love you take”, ending on a glorious, august final orchestral chord. (Or so it would seem, until “Her Majesty” dashes in, laughingly curtsies and dashes out again).

I’ve laboured the point perhaps, but as I say, the “Long Medley” is incredible. But with the awkward first side, Abbey Road maybe isn’t as good as it could be.

White Album

With most of its songs written on retreat in Rishikesh, the Beatles seem to have been in a playful, send-up mood. Many of their songs were inspired this way (“I Am The Walrus” is linguistic pisstaking, “Paperback Writer” mocks the provincial creatives intent on making it big in London (i.e. people just like them), “Misery” is send-up of adolescent whining, “I’m Down” takes the mick out of Lennon’s self-pity tunes like “I’m A Loser”), but this period was a particularly rich seam. With Rubber Soul-Revolver-Sgt Pepper utilising ever more complex orchestration and arrangements, the Fabs had been creating ever more enveloping sound worlds – but clearly the time had come to cleanse the palette a bit, so the perceived forward momentum stopped. Instead, the Beatles offered song-based pastiches and parodies of both contemporaries (the blues boom (“Yer Blues”), the Beach Boys (“Back In The USSR”), heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), and ska (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”)), and from their past (30s sing-a-long (“Bungalow Bill”), 20s schmaltz (“Honey Pie”, “Good Night”), chamber music (“Piggies”), classic pop (“Martha My Dear”), and B&W Westerns (“Rocky Raccoon”). Meanwhile their “original” songs, you might say, also strain the boundaries: “Mother Nature’s Son” is pastoral, “Don’t Pass Me By” is country hoedown, “I Will” is fluffy but musically exacting, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is ponderous rock, with outstanding guitar from Eric Clapton, and “Revolution #9” is… different.

The other thing that’s noticeable is the lack of backing vocals from other Beatles; this is pretty much solo territory. Though the others loved “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, there’s no harmonies from Macca (the doo-wop vocals sound like Lennon multi-tracking himself), or on “Glass Onion” (though there is on the final lines of “I’m So Tired”). Not a peep from Lennon on “Helter Skelter” or “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. This does not really detract from the album: the music though varied had solid anchors in rock (“I’m So Tired”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide”), folk (“Julia”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Dear Prudence”, “Blackbird”) and even country (“Don’t Pass Me By”). This allows wacko outliers like “Revolution #9” and “Wild Honey Pie” into the broad church.

Because it’s all so varied, the other thing everyone points out is the variable quality. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Martha My Dear” are two of the best songs the Fabs ever did, but… well, personally I can’t really stand “Birthday”, while there are obvious fillers like “Savoy Truffle”, and “Helter Skelter” is certainly an acquired taste (I love the sinister outro, but the song itself doesn’t do that much for me). But somehow, the rich and varied cornucopia of the White Album hangs together, in a dense, allusive, jokey kind of way. Who else could put out an album with the bestial “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” followed by the doe-eyed “I Will”? The album sounds not so much a Beatle studio album where they sweated for perfection as an opening of their desk drawers, their home movies and private jokes. This is what the Beatles play for themselves. “Half of what I say is meaningless,” John sings in “Julia”, “but I say it just to reach you.” The Beatle delight in contrasts of theme, mood, tempo and atmosphere make the White Album an endlessly riveting listening experience: I just love the way the hysterical rock n’ roll of “Back In The USSR”, with the screeching jets, subsides into “Dear Prudence”; how the despairing need of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is succeeded by the effortless delight of “Martha My Dear”; how the sinister violence of “Helter Skelter” is followed by the weary surrender to God in “Long Long Long”.

I even love “Revolution #9”. You might think it a piece of stitched-together chaos, but in its fragmentary arbitrariness, there is in fact a great deal of craft. It seems like a direct connection with the subconscious if you took off the helmet of your ego and let the world inject itself into your awareness, direct and undiluted. The sort of total awareness and marginal understanding a baby has.

There’s a lot to say about the White Album, but it is the sort of album that rewards repeated listening, as meanings and allusions unfold themselves in your mind. Cryptic puzzle or glass onion?

Revolver

This is simply the strongest single release by The Beatles. Creativity, imagination, wit, empathy, pathos, grief, cosmic mysticism, nostalgia, frivolity, insouciance, irony, cynicism, joy… they’re all there. It’s not just the emotional range: every track is an entire new soundworld in itself, but married with the strongest songcraft the Beatles ever brought to the table: no song is longer than 3.00 (oddly, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are all 3.00 exactly, or so iTunes tells me), and they cram so much into each track. There’s none of the “I’ll just throw this one out here” mood of the White Album, nor the “Let’s see what happens” vibe of Sgt. Pepper. Revolver is the Fabs at their most precise, their most concentrated. When combined with a stunning leap in imagination, that makes for the best album they would ever make.

“Taxman” kicks it off: the distorted intro, the bluesy guitar riff, the brilliant bass playing from Macca, that scorching guitar solo (apparently also by McCartney rather than Harrison), and that daring condemnation of both political party leaders. It is typically sour, but it teems with invention, down to the way Ringo’s cowbell suggests falling pennies.

“Eleanor Rigby” follows, with an equally saturnine view of the world, of the lonely spinsters in a fragmented community where religion cannot salve nor save. Stark, with a string octet and staccato chords, it is a sharp clear view of isolation in the modern world. The lyric, with lines as good as “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” is exceptional, especially considering that it was put together at a social gathering.

“I’m Only Sleeping”, with Lennon’s vocal sped up to give a nasal, old-man’s voice (it reminds me of Steptoe Senior – they would be familiar with Wilfred Brambell from the Hard Day’s Night film), the sibilant halo of the slowed cymbals and the deep-pile cushion of the bass, is dreamy and otherworldly. The reversed guitar solo by George is amazing.

“Love You Too” is (alongside the lovely “The Inner Light”) the best of George’s Indian excursions, with its energy, caustic vocal and fast moving melody making it quite the contrast to “Within You Without You”.

“Here, There And Everywhere” is probably the lushest of all Macca’s love songs, with superb block harmony from John and George, and a smart lyric from Macca – the first verse they’re here, the second they’re there, etc. Paul apparently rates this as his favourite of his own songs, which seems a bit odd to me (not “Hey Jude”?).

“Yellow Submarine” is delightful children’s play, with Lennon giving a great, funny antiphon response in the final verse, and so many terrific atmospheric sound effects. It’s amazing how many Beatle songs are standards: they are in the bones of Western culture, just like how many of Shakespeare’s phrases pop up in everyday conversation.

“She Said She Said” is I think the essential John song of this period: on the surface it’s a terrific jangling pop song, but the metre is so contorted and convoluted, and it hits at so many emotional areas (nostalgia, madness, death, yearning, confusion, seeking), and the playing so terrific (Ringo’s drumming is amazing – check how easily he handles all the changes in time), that it towers far above anything The Byrds could ever do.

The contrasting “Good Day Sunshine”, with its effortless ease and sheer delight, is essential McCartney, with terrific piano (the way it leaps about is superb – filled with constant surprises), and excellent backing (Ringo is just right on the rhythm). The contrast with “She Said She Said” is of course intentional, and anticipates another Lennon/McCartney pairing in the White Album: “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Martha My Dear”.

“And Your Bird Can Sing” is Lennon at his hipper-than-thou – “You don’t get me” – with terrific parallel guitar playing and excellent work on the top-hat from Ringo. (Seriously, the man was an amazing drummer).

“For No One” is what Macca has called “a 4/4 waltz”, and as a formal experiment it is masterful: the pauses and shifts in the piano suggesting the doubts and hesitations in the relationship, the sad little French horn suggestive of decaying middle-class adult relationships, rather than the teeny love of “She Loves You”, and his emotionless vocal suggesting the end of love as a drying rather than a disaster. Poignant and affecting, musically superb, it shows Macca at his best.

“Doctor Robert” is the one relatively weak point – I find the chorus off-putting, with its children’s choir effect in the multitracked “Well well well, you’re feeling fine…” line. Its jangling guitars make it quite similar to “She Said She Said”, and the lyric (an ode to the dentist who first spiked Lennon with LSD) a bit juvenile.

“I Want To Tell You” is an unprecedented third George song on a Beatle album, and the first regarding his spiritual concerns. Rather than preaching, he wisely sticks to discussing the moment when you realise you can’t articulate what you feel, when words become a barrier rather than delivering. This is dramatised through the repeated use of the sudden discordant shift – “My head is filled with things to say“, “The games begin to drag me down“, “I feel hung up but I don’t know why“. Here is where the Beatles first begin to explore beyond Western ideas into Eastern concepts, acknowledging the limits of knowledge and articulation.

“Got To Get You Into My Life” is Macca’s ode to pot (he really digs the reefer), but with its tension and full bodied brass, it feels rich with sexual desire, only relieved in the final chorus. The choruses before that he only allows one line of the title, and then Ringo resumes the beat, keeping the tension rising deliciously. If “I Want To Tell You” was the opening to alternative approaches, perhaps “Got To Get You Into My Life” is the full delighted embrace of (ahem) alternative methods.

“Tomorrow Never Knows”… wow. Just fucking wow. Immense. Majestic. Stunning. Revelatory.

With precise attention to detail, soaring imagination, endless craft, humane empathy and awakening spiritual consciousness, Revolver is to me the best Beatle album.

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Sorry this is such a long piece! but what a body of work the Beatles produced in seven years. The funny thing is, much though I have rhapsodised over the albums, this isn’t even their best work – most of that was reserved for the singles! “She Loves You”, “I Feel Fine”, “Strawberry Field Forever”, “Hey Jude”… oh my.

Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

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To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?