Saturday, September 22, 2012

How I Re-Discovered the Beatles

A lot of Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials like to scorn us Boomers for never getting past the music of our youth. "Why do you keep listening to all that old 'classic rock' crap, anyway," they say. So let me go back and explain how I got back into the Beatles--not just because I listened to them when I was young, though I did, but because I re-encountered them.

Back in 1990 or 1991 I was visiting a classical guitarist friend of mine in Toronto and was alone in the apartment one morning with nothing much to do. I noticed a copy of the White Album on the CD shelf. I quite literally had not listened to it for many, many years. At least a decade, probably more like two. So I put in on and listened to all four sides. Of course, there was nostalgia from hearing those familiar songs once again, but much more powerful than that was I discovered that I was listening closely and hearing much more than I had ever heard before. As time goes on and you acquire more and more experience in music, your listening becomes more focused, more capable. Now I was hearing aspects and relationships I had never noticed before. Let's hear just a couple of those songs. Here are the first (by Paul) and last (by John) songs on side one, which also has George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that I just put up the other day. First, "Back in the USSR", Paul's demonstration of how to do surf music, but set in Soviet Russia. I love how the airplane flies through your head at the beginning, from the right to the left channel. Since we were just talking about Ringo the other day, let me point out that he is not drumming on this song. There were a lot of intra-group tensions during the taping of this album and Ringo just took the day off. So Paul is playing the skins:

Now John's "Happiness is a Warm Gun", which has, apart from the pun of the title, some of the twistiest music Lennon every wrote. Walter Everett in his two-volume analysis of the Beatles points out that "there are  six different meter changes in the first twenty-one bars." At one point Ringo maintains a 4/4 meter for four and a half bars while the rest of the band is doing three bars of 12/8 (the eighths are equal). The song is in discrete sections set off with significant changes of tempo. All this is unified by using a small set of melodic motifs. Let's hear it:

I doubt there are many other groups that could even perform that song, let along write it. Let's listen to one of George's songs that isn't "While My Guitar". The last song on side three is "Long, Long, Long":

It's a melancholy waltz about lost love, but there are lots of songs like that. What makes this unique? Listen to the arrangement, especially the drumming! There are two drum tracks here: one that very quietly just lays out the 3/4 time and that you hardly notice. Then, on top of that, there are big drum fills--solos--that comment on the song and come in between the sung lines. The first comes at the 27 second mark, but they occur throughout the song and every one is different! Another interesting thing is the way the song ends: it just stops, then there are some distorted organ sounds, followed by a conclusive ka-ching from the rhythm guitar and finally, a drum cadence. It is the details they add to songs, how they begin, how they end, that often distinguishes songs by The Beatles.

After I got to the end of the fourth side in that listening session in Toronto that morning I found tears in my eyes. I don't think that was nostalgia; I think it is because this is powerful music. Here is the Wikipedia article on the album and here is a post I put up on it a while back. This could be the most radical album design ever as well. The album doesn't really have a name. Officially it is "The Beatles", but that is just embossed, not printed, on the plain white cover. So, no cover art. Everyone calls it "The White Album".

No comments: