Tag Archive: Beatles


American Stones

In the ‘60s, rock and roll that was completely American was… kinda lame. After the Day the Music Died and the Chuck Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis pedophilia scandals (thanks, you two for RUINING everything…) America dropped the rock and roll ball. Luckily, the U.K. was ready to swoop in after not too long with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. Those bands were all so huge that America spent the next 5 years making carbon copies of British originals. The Beach Boys and other surf rock bands were the only originality the States had to offer. That should tell you something…

the corner of Haight & Ashbury

the corner of Haight & Ashbury

Then came the explosion of the Haight-Ashbury culture, which saw bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane coming to the front, and the dark drug culture of the Doors, opposite of the happy pot-smokers in San Francisco. Creedence Clearwater Revival offered a little southern-fried jangle and drawl, but they were too short-lived. And then there was Jimi Hendrix, an American trying to convince all of Europe he was one of them. His backup band was British, and he behaved like a Brit, so who was to say (other than his parents) that he was really American?

It’s ironic but true – rock and roll may have been started by black American blues musicians, but by the ‘60s, it was the domain of British white guys.

In the early ‘70s, things started to heat back up in America, but only slightly. The first few years saw a glut of bands like Kansas, Foreigner, Journey and Styx. But little did the world know that they would soon see the unleashing of a Boston juggernaut: Aerosmith.

Aerosmith

Aerosmith

When Aerosmith slithered on the scene, their eponymous first album was released at the same time and on the same label as another savior of American rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen. Because of that, they didn’t get their proper acknowledgement until a few years later. It also meant they had time to actually earn it. By their third album, Toys In the Attic, they were not only the tightest band making music, but they were ready to be hoisted up as America’s answer to all those great British groups.

It wasn’t an accident that Aerosmith reminded the public of the Rolling Stones. Steven Tyler had a swagger, style and physical profile very similar to those of Mick Jagger, just like Joe Perry was akin to Keith Richards in both appearance and guitar style. Steven and Joe even had a similar dynamic to Mick and Keith; one was the flamboyant and crowd-pleasing frontman, while the other was quieter and more unobtrusive, providing mystique.

I’m not saying there was anything insidious or contrived going on here. Record execs didn’t generate the idea of emulating the Stones in the hope of making more money. Rather, this was a simple matter of Steven and Joe admiring the Stones so damn much. Aerosmith probably made a conscious decision to look like Mick and Keith (long dark hair, skinny, colorful dress), but the similar stage relationship between the two had to be instinctual. To Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones were just “how it was done.” Why wouldn’t they be similar?

Next: the Big Three of rock stardom – can you guess what they are?

The Quarrymen (later The Beatles), with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best

Pink Floyd didn’t start with The Dark Side of the Moon. Their beginnings actually date back to the early 60s, right around when the Beatles hit the scene. After the Fab Four, every punk kid with a guitar and a chip on his shoulder thought he could have a band. One of the biggest effects the Beatles had on the music scene was opening up the floodgates of possibility; if these four hoodrats from Liverpool could make it big in the music biz, anyone could.

The band that would become Pink Floyd started as just another group of teenagers with dreams of stardom. The group initially orbited around the nucleus of Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. Other people circulated through, but they found their direction when Syd Barrett randomly introduced himself to Mason.

The newly gelled four-piece band went through a great many name changes (some of them pretty ridiculous – my favorites are the Meggadeaths and the Screaming Abdabs) before finally settling on the Tea Set. In 1965 at one of their gigs, there was another band named the Tea Set on the bill, so Syd made up another name on the spot. It was derived from two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. And like that, Pink Floyd was born.

Syd Barrett

In 1967 Pink Floyd’s debut album came out, whimsically titled The Piper At the Gates of Dawn. Syd had taken the role of band leader, a natural position being the lead singer and guitarist, as well as a very out-going personality. But soon thereafter, Syd started to unravel. There are many theories about what was actually wrong with him; some say schizophrenia (a rather easy answer), others say bipolar disorder, and still others Asperger’s. Psychology has developed to 3,000% what it was in the late 60s, though, so they didn’t have language like that back then. But perhaps the biggest contributor to Syd’s insanity was LSD. The drug was extremely poorly understood back then, as were its long-term effects.

Various biographies have been written about both Syd and Pink Floyd, and the stories about Syd’s behavior seem like they can’t be real. “Antics” seems like too mild a word to describe some of the crap he did. Nevertheless, his “antics” proved too much for the band. Roger Waters relates one story of Syd coming into a practice session with a song he had just written called “Have You Got It Yet?” They tried playing it, but in the middle of the first run-thru, Syd made changes to the arrangement. That pattern repeated for long time, each time the band singing the lyric “have you got it yet?” The band eventually realized that they never would “get it,” and that they were instead the victims of a very strange joke Syd was playing.

David Gilmour

Enter David Gilmour. He was a childhood friend of Syd’s, and in 1967 the other three brought him in as a second guitarist. His real purpose was to provide reliable guitar. During shows, Syd often stood there doing absolutely nothing, or he wandered around the stage aimlessly while the rest of the band played. Occasionally, he would join in the song, but there was no way for them to predict what Syd would do. They needed Gilmour to add some surety.

On their way to one gig, the four completely sane members said to each other, “Shall we pick Syd up?” The response was, “Let’s not bother.” It was just easier as a four-piece than a five, or rather a four+crazy.

Syd’s genius, disintegration and departure from the band had a lasting impact on the rest of Pink Floyd’s career. Roger Waters, who became the Floyd’s primary songwriter after Syd’s ousting, spent over a decade contemplating the nature of madness, writing music that had it as its centerpiece. Not only is The Dark Side of the Moon solely about things that drive people to madness, but Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall is a rock opera about one man’s descent into the depths of insanity, brought on by rock and roll stardom.

“Brian Damage” from Dark Side is like the whole of Pink Floyd’s career in miniature. It could be said that all the entire Dark Side album could be summed with this one song. In it, Roger Waters is talking specifically about Syd Barrett, but the application to more general terms of madness is clearer than on any other song. When Roger sings, “the lunatic is on the grass,” he’s singing about Syd. But it’s more than just simple symbolic representation; Roger shares some of the idiosyncratic methods of Syd’s logic, or lack thereof. It’s clear from “Brain Damage” and other songs (as well as the very existence of The Wall) that Roger and Syd shared a sort of kinship – not just musically, but mentally.

Roger Waters

Roger spotted something that’s kinda been gnawing at me, too. Maybe Syd wasn’t really crazy – maybe the rest of us are. The sign says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, but why? What possible consequence could come from stepping on the grass? Isn’t grass meant to be stepped on? Isn’t that its purpose? Yet any logical and “sane” person would obey the sign and keep off the grass. But, according to Roger Waters, “the lunatic” wouldn’t. “The lunatic is ON the grass.” And if Syd were still alive, he’d be one of those “lunatics.” That’s the spirit of punk rock – the spirit of defiance.

I’ve already stated that in order for defiance against something to be good, the something needs to be bad. Grass doesn’t really qualify. But for other things, rock and roll has the right idea. In some cases, defiance is the holiest and most righteous thing you can do.

Next: Dark Side, The Wizard of Oz, and synchronicity.

Ziggy Played Guitar

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie – 6/6/1972

By now we know that David Bowie was one weird cat. If songs about space travel, superhumans, and sex with the devil weren’t enough to tip you off, there’s the outlandish dress and wild makeup. My God, the cover of Hunky Dory is a photo of him inspired by a WWII-era German actress. And if by 1972 you’re still not convinced, he takes on a full-blown persona and presents a combination of music, theater and pageantry, complete with a storyline about an alien come to save a dying planet Earth. Just try to ignore him now.

Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first real “character,” a fully realized other person he could be in his stage show. All his public appearances were in the guise of Ziggy, and he had a complete profile of how Ziggy would act, talk and behave. Never before had an artist appeared to lose himself so completely. It was like a Broadway show every day with Bowie; it looked like he didn’t just want to play this character, but be this character.

His band got into it too, actually giving themselves a name for the first time, the Spiders From Mars. They dressed up in costume just like Bowie, and had alter-egos. The band and Ziggy himself could still be recognized as Bowie and company; that was the beauty of it. It wasn’t an identity crisis or a case of DID; it was all a show, like an actor playing a part in a movie. Indeed, Bowie began referring to himself as an actor instead of a musician.

As a lot of things in the musical sphere do, this whole Ziggy Stardust thing traces right back to Sgt. Pepper. The concept of that album, plain and simple, was a fictional band that the Beatles playacted. David Bowie is simply doing the same thing. I say “simply,” though it isn’t simple at all. The biggest difference is that the Beatles just wanted to escape the confines of the world’s expectations of them. Bowie’s interest is different; it’s a combination of transcending his humanity (or pretending to) and putting on a good show. And what better way to be a non-human that to be an alien?

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (its full name) is a concept album, not the first and certainly not the last. The storyline in the album itself is loose and rather hard to trace, though Bowie had a pretty specific progression in mind when he recorded it. But Ziggy Stardust the album is just one piece of how he was going to tell this tale. The concerts performed during the last half of 1972 were another piece, but still not the whole picture. What can be defined as “the whole picture” never really came to fruition. If it had, I’m guessing, it would have ended with the assassination of David Bowie at one of his concerts. His murder might have been staged, but it might not have been.

Though even with a plotline in mind, most of the songs on Ziggy Stardust can also be interpreted to be about real things. Ziggy himself, while a fictional character created by Bowie, is a criticism of the then-current music industry. And like a good novel, the fictitious Ziggy world bears out and reveals things about the real world.

Bowie & guitarist Mick Ronson – yes, that’s what it looks like

The story doesn’t even matter (I can’t believe I just said that; my mother would be so ashamed). It’s kinda hackneyed and doesn’t really have a point. The show and spectacle isn’t even the most compelling thing, at least not for me. It’s the music. I don’t really care if Bowie never wore a scrap if makeup, if he was a bespectacled accountant from Surrey with a passion for collecting Beanie Babies. With this album, he created some of the best music ever. Whatever else he did – and he did a lot – it shrinks in comparison. Ziggy Stardust isn’t great because of the grand showmanship it displays or the overarching scope it represents; it’s great because of the music.

Next: cheer up – the world’s gonna end in five years, anyway.

Not Rock

Led Zeppelin have been known for a long time as the fathers of heavy metal. They make modern metal warlords tremble like scared-crapless foot soldiers with height, width and hardness of their rock and roll. Yet, much of what they recorded wasn’t hard at all; quite the opposite actually.

Put down the pitchforks and torches for a second and listen. Hardness does not necessarily equal goodness. Sometimes it does; don’t get me wrong. But a measure of how hard, fast, or METAAAAL!!! something is doesn’t always reflect how good it is. In fact, sometimes hardness and intensity are used to cover up unfathomable ineptitude.

Anal Cunt – yeah, it’s gross; that’s the point

Case in point: the band Anal Cunt. This is probably the loudest, screamiest, growliest, most intense band in existence. Their ferocity and 1,000-magnum force is probably only seconded by that of Dethklok, who don’t even really exist. BUT, Anal Cunt is a terrible, terrible band. Just terrible. Their lyrics are overwhelmingly negative, are overflowing with profanity, insult and offend every people group on earth (including themselves), and lampoon every lifestyle choice in the most vicious and hate-filled way imaginable. Their music, while hard beyond belief, is quite literally an assault on the sense of hearing. Dissonant, unmelodic and lacking in any of the beauty and grace of music (and often lacking rhythm and chord changes), an A.C. record is not pleasant to listen to at all. They were allowed to continue go on making music for one reason. Everything they did, from the bad music to the offensive lyrics, was satirical. They did it all on purpose to be funny and hold up a mirror to society, like a good comedian. In a way that 99% of everyone who heard their music completely missed, they pointed a finger at the music industry and said, “see what you’ve become?”

So, Anal Cunt = hard, and Anal Cunt = bad. In contrast, there is the song “Stairway to Heaven.” This song is practically rock and roll holy writ. If you speak ill of it, you not only run the risk of drawing the ire of millions of rock believers, but you also need to watch the skies: you might find yourself dodging lightning bolts. Some folks take this song more seriously that Muslims take the Koran. “Stairway to Heaven” is the quintessential rock song, and for good reason. But here’s the juice: it’s not a rock song.

Sorry for the delay; I was watching for lightning bolts.

The song is 8 minutes long, and in the first 6 or so, there’s almost no hardness at all. It’s more like an old English folk ballad, if you ask me. Now, in those last 2 minutes, it reaches heights of rock stardom not previously dreamed of. The whole thing coalesces to crescendo the first 6 minutes was preparing you for. And the shift in the volume knob is not strange or startling. All 8 minutes of it are a million times better than the best A.C. song ever. Hardness and the lack thereof don’t matter anymore.

The Sandbox, by Edward Albee

In college, I took a drama course called “Directing” that taught us the elements of what goes into directing a play. The final project was a performance of a 10 to 15 minute scene of our choosing for which we would have complete creative control. We would determine the cutting of the script, recruit the actors, and set the rehearsal schedule. I did the entirety of The Sandbox, a short play by Edward Albee. It’s supposed to be a comment on the way we treat our elders, especially as they transition through the end-of-life stage. I took it in a slightly different direction, and emphasized what it said about death and dying. I had a live solo guitar performer in it (my friend and rock blood brother Mike) playing a kind of soundtrack to the scene. He ended with “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever. After the performance, the instructor came up to me with a knowing smirk on her face. “Really, Neal? ‘Stairway to Heaven?’ Couldn’t resist, huh?” I just shrugged and smiled. She laughed.

Led Zeppelin hit resoundingly something music in general couldn’t fully be called before it: EPIC. The Beatles touched on it a few years back with “A Day In the Life,” as did Bowie with “The Width of a Circle” and Pink Floyd with “Atom Heart Mother.” But here with “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin reveals the master formula, adding a spice all those other songs were missing. Here, they perfect the art.

It gets even better. “Stairway to Heaven” is right in the middle of a veritable avalanche of epicness. Starting with “Black Dog” right up until “When the Levee Breaks” (with a slight pause near the end on “Going to California,” an inward breath amidst a loud shout), we are taught the definition of rock and roll. Elvis and Buddy Holly made us know it in our heads, and the Rolling Stones taught it to our crotches, but not until Led Zeppelin and IV did we truly know it in our hearts.

Eros

Barenaked Ladies

If you’re my age (which is 31 – I can no longer be trusted), you probably remember the Barenaked Ladies. They didn’t fit any profile of rock stars, and you weren’t really sure if they were a gimmick band, a serious band, or somewhere in between. They had a gargantuan smash hit with “One Week” in 1998, which I bopped along to the first 100 times I heard it, and was completely sick of the 101st (which was in the same week as the 1st). Seriously, this song was everywhere. Besides being on my CD player (I’m one of the 4 million who bought Stunt), it was all over the radio, in movies and commercials, and blaring in the convertible next to me and my sister at a stop light. We were blaring it too, by the way…

Despite no one having heard of them one week before “One Week” came out, they had actually been around for 6 years, debuting in their native Canada in 1992 with Gordon. It had only three standout tracks: “Brian Wilson,” “If I Had $1,000,000,” and “Be My Yoko Ono.” The third is about a guy who wants his girlfriend to follow him around everywhere he goes, and would even break up his band and give up rock and roll stardom just to be with her. The lyrics include a pun on Ono (”oh no!”) and Ed Robertson doing an amusingly accurate imitation of Yoko’s trill voice effect.

To delusional Beatles fanatics who just can’t admit the truth or let things go, Yoko Ono is responsible for breaking up the Beatles. She’s a demonic witch who cast a spell on John Lennon, making him quit the band, keeping his spirit and his penis in a box for her own purposes and crushing his soul, meanwhile crushing everyone else’s souls by depriving them of the greatest rock and roll band that ever lived. Yadda yadda yadda…

Here’s the juice. John found something with Yoko that was bigger than the Beatles: eros. That’s one of the Greek words for love – the passionate, sexual and romantic love humans feel for other humans. I don’t just mean a roll in the hay, to use a rather innocent term. While sex is definitely involved, that’s only part of it. What John and Yoko had, and what literally billions of other couples have, is a deep, abiding and eternal connection that surpasses words. That connection is physical, emotional and spiritual all at the same time, and it is the most important and momentous thing a person can have with another person. Eros, despite what those Yoko-hating fanatics will tell you, is bigger than the Beatles.

“Oh My Love” captures a large part of the essence of eros. It’s a very simple and sweet song, disarming in the way it floats down slowly on the listener. The song is pretty short, so it’s easy to miss its soft and uncomplicated loveliness. John says his “eyes can see” and his “mind can feel.” It talks about trees and sky and clouds and wind (Yoko has been trying forever as an artist to film the wind), and how John never really experienced any of them before he met Yoko. The simplicity of the beauty here takes my breath away.

Eros, when misused, can turn to zilia, or “jealousy” to us American folk. John experienced that, too, and talks about it in “Jealous Guy.” Though it’s probably addressed specifically to Yoko, it’s really an apology from anyone who’s hurt anyone else in the past. This is probably John’s most naked and honest song, more so than anything on Plastic Ono Band. The first verse lays completely bare in the simplest of terms the progression that ends with John’s destructive behavior. John was always given to jealousy, and it sometimes manifested in the most violent ways. But when he met Yoko, something changed in him; not just his behavior, but his mindset, which gives rise to behavior.

But the ultimate statement of love between the two comes in the form of the song “Oh Yoko!” The arrangement is stupidly simple. The song has five verses, yet only one word is changed from verse to verse, and the chorus is merely one phrase repeated. But by God, if this isn’t one of the prettiest, most touching and gosh-darned lovely songs in the entire world. John reveals here that he just a huge, lovesick puppy dog. If this doesn’t melt your heart into a gooey and flower-smelling puddle, you may as well move to Tibet and become a monk.

days after John’s death, Rolling Stone ran this cover without comment

In all honesty, John’s had a lot of bumps in the road. His volatile personality with the press, his statements about Jesus, his egocentric habits, and his lack of respect for the Queen of England are unfortunate, but those things all fade. The things that last are his enduring spirit of harmony, his dogged quest for mutuality and peace, and of course his eros.

Next: What’s the most epic record of all time?

Pictures of Rusty

There’s a rather famous photo of John Lennon taken after he moved to Manhattan. It’s a torso-up shot of him with crossed arms, standing on a rooftop, wearing sunglasses and a sleeveless white t-shirt that simply says “New York City.” It’s become an icon of not just John but also the city he adopted. Bohemians, musicians, buskers and freedom writers all over the city have it hanging on their walls, courtesy of the street vendors at just about every corner selling NYC memorabilia of every stripe, classy to chintzy.

Seemingly off-topic for just one second: there’s a guy at my church named Rusty, and he is the epitome of cool. First off, his name’s Rusty; how cool is that? Furthermore, for about 15 years, he managed a shop that sold musical instruments, mainly electric guitars. The pièce de résistance: he looks exactly like John Lennon. Put some mirror shades on him and you’re done. Like I said, new levels of cool.

One Saturday my wife and I were walking home from the Central Park Zoo, like we had many times before. It was springtime in the city, and droves of people were out and about. In New York City, where there are droves of people there are hawkers of various goods. Around Central Park, a particularly popular item to sell is a photo print of a famous New York site or person, including that one of John Lennon in the t-shirt. We passed one such vendor on 5th Ave. when Ruthanne got a quizzical look on her face.

“That guy’s selling a picture of Rusty.”

Befuddled, I turned to look at what she was pointing to. When I did, I gave a disappointed sigh. “No, that’s a picture of John Lennon.”

Blank stare from my wife. “Who?”

“He was a Beatle. He’s very famous.”

“Oh, okay, I’ve heard of the Beatles.” I had a sneaking suspicion that was only because we got Rock Band: The Beatles for the Wii the previous Christmas, but I said nothing. “Wow, John Lennon looks just like Rusty.”

I groaned, utterly defeated by my wife’s complete lack of knowledge about pop culture. “No! Rusty looks just like John Lennon!”

Considering my musical pop culture hyper-awareness. it may seem strange that I married a woman who hears the name George Clinton and thinks, “wait, isn’t it Bill Clinton?” Scratch that – it is strange. What connects us and makes us love each other is bigger than that, though. I can’t put it into words, so I won’t dishonor it by trying.

Let’s just say Ruthanne pays no attention to what’s cool, hip or trendy, and thus has no idea what used to be cool, hip or trendy. She knows what she likes, though, and she’s very nonchalantly impassive about what she likes; no one can convince her to not like it. We spend so much time trying to be cool, and the essence of cool is originality and not caring what other people think. If that’s true, than Ruthanne is probably the coolest person to of ever lived. Cooler than Rusty, and yes, even cooler than John Lennon.

Mother Mary

My own novelization of Let It Be might center on Paul, John and Yoko and the triangle of love/hate there, but that certainly wasn’t the only thing going on. Over the course of Beatles history, what commonly happened was John and Paul getting all the attention, both because of their individual brilliance and their feud. Because of that, George and Ringo get pushed to the side. Ringo seemed fine with that, but it had to be a disappointing thing for George.

He did actually have contributions to make, and he made them. Sgt. Pepper would have been very different (and not even close to as great) had “Within You Without You” not been there; it’s the peaceful eye that the storm of the album revolves around. Likewise, Let It Be would be incomplete without a word (or two) from George.

The first is “I Me Mine.” The popular theory is that George wrote it about Paul’s increasing control over the Beatles, and his troubling obsession with himself. The second is “For You Blue,” a bluesy ditty that’s both simple and beautiful. The whole thing follows the I-IV-V pattern, commonly called a twelve bar blues. George wrote it for his wife Patty Boyd.

Patty Boyd w/ George

If you wanna talk about love triangles, there’s one that’s even better than the Paul/John/Yoko one, and that’s George/Patty/Eric.  George Harrison and Eric Clapton were best friends; Eric played lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in ’68, and George played rhythm guitar on Cream’s “Badge” in ’69, co-writing the song with Eric. Patty, in the course of time, was married to both of them. At the time that “For You Blue” was released, George and Patty had been married for 4 years, and Eric was desperately, pathetically and devastatingly in love with Patty. This produced the album Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs from Derek & the Dominos later in the year. I’ll talk more about the Patty Chronicle when I cover Layla.

Right smack in the middle of the album, there what I think would have been a very fitting closing song to both the album and the Beatles’ career in general. The song “Let It Be” is gentle and melancholy. The lyrics speak of letting things go and moving on with a smile, and learning what you can from experiences. On Let It Be… Naked, Paul resequenced the album, and put the title song last.

My mom hates “Let It Be.” The mention of “Mother Mary” and the fact that she “comes” to the listener (as if in a dream), is something she finds laughable and ridiculous. Personally, I tend to agree with her about Mary. I don’t want to speak ill of Catholic traditions, since Catholicism is something I respect deeply, but I’ve never understood the deification and worship of Mary. The Bible warns up down and sideways against idol worship – it didn’t work out too well for the Israelites in Exodus, for instance. As far as I understand it (and any Catholic can feel free to correct me), the logic is that since Jesus is sinless, his mother must also be sinless, thus Mary is of equal standing to Jesus, and is worshipped. The problem I see with that is that Mary’s mother must also be sinless, and her mother, and HER mother, and so on. How many sinless people can there BE, for crying out loud??

Anyway, if “Mother Mary” actually referred to the mother of Jesus, I would agree with my mom; but it doesn’t.  Paul wrote “Mother Mary” to mean his mother, whose name was actually Mary. He must have thought the double meaning was pretty cool, but John didn’t. He thought the Christian overtones and the obviousness of them to be beneath the Beatles. He did two things about it. First, he recorded a snippet of him saying in a mocking voice “and now we’d like to do ‘Hark, the Angles Come!’” just before the recording of “Let It Be,” and made sure it got on the album. Second, he also made sure “Maggie Mae” got on the album, too, and immediately followed “Let It Be.” “Maggie Mae” is a traditional piece, the unofficial anthem of the Beatles’ hometown, Liverpool. The central character in the song is a prostitute who steals from her johns.

For the Beatles, the end really came earlier, and was signaled by the song “The End,” the penultimate track on Abbey Road. It may have come out 7 months before what was arguably their “last” album,” but the material on Abbey Road was recorded after all the stuff on Let It Be. So in reality, Abbey Road is their “last” album; Let It Be is merely a look back. However, that look back is quite the look.

Farewell, Beatles; you served us well.

The Story of the Beatles and Let It Be is one I can really get into. It’s drama that’s perfectly crafted, like a good play or movie. It has several strong characters, a man vs. man conflict, a very compelling MacGuffin (or series of MacGuffins, being the albums Get Back, Abbey Road, and Let It Be), and a kind of resolution. It even has a fake ending. Peter Jackson would be proud.

Like it or not, that story revolves around the tension between John and Paul. For a long time, that tension served them well – one acted as a foil for the other. Their pessimism/optimism thing worked in a paradigm quite nicely, most notably in the song “Getting Better.” But the problem was that as people change, paradigms change as well. At a certain point, that tension between them turned from a simple paradigm to an actual conflict. They never wrote songs together anymore, and that element of give-and-take was gone from both their songwriting and their personal relationship.

Quite poignantly, we have a chronicle of the disintegration of the John and Paul bond (and thus the disintegration of the Beatles) in Let It Be. Abbey Road was their swan song, but Let It Be revealed why that swan song had to come about in the first place.

It starts off with audio footage from the rooftop concert; John saying some nonsense to introduce a song (“Two of Us” on the record, but something else in the actual concert). You can try to figure out who “Charles Hawtrey” is, how this is “phase one,” or what it means for “Doris [to] get[s] her oats.” Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it. In the end, that doesn’t get you any more results that just smiling and saying, “oh, John, you so crazy…”

“Two of Us,” was written by Paul McCartney, supposedly about his near-future wife Linda. Beatles fans the world over interpret it as being about John and Paul, though. That’s helped along by the fact that, except for one line in the bridge, the whole thing is a duet between John and Paul. What seals the deal for me is the line, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” It’s a rather melancholy testament of a friendship that has a lot of mileage on it. It’s been stretched and warped, smashed and battered, but despite everything, it’s still holding on.

Next up is a beautiful and tender moment from John, a simple guitar piece with little adornment called “Across the Universe.” As with most pieces of great art, John acknowledges that he can’t lay complete claim to its ownership. Here’s what he said on the matter.

Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife

“I was lying next to my first wife in bed and I was thinking. It started off as a negative song and she must have been going on and on about something. She’d gone to sleep and I kept hearing, ‘Words are flowing out like endless streams…’ I was a bit irritated and I went downstairs and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than, ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’… The words are purely inspirational and were given to me – except for maybe one or two where I had to resolve a line or something like that. I don’t own it; it came through like that.”

The song’s lyrics are the most poetic John has ever written. They represent a moment where the entire cosmos clicked into perfect order for John, and for a second, he understood everything. Then, the moment was gone, and all he had was the memory, which he made into a song. Good thing he did, too, because now we as listeners can have the same experience of the entire universe making absolute sense when we listen to it.

The phrase “Jai guru deva om” from the lyrics is a Sanskrit saying. It is most commonly paraphrased in English as “victory to God divine,” and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi commonly invoked this phrase meaning “all glory to Guru Dev,” referring to his spiritual teacher. But I find the literal and dry translation to English to be the most beautiful: “glory to the shining remover of darkness.” This is a marvelous statement about the God I know as an illuminator, a gracious giver of knowledge and understanding.

I’ll also mention Fiona Apple’s marvelous cover version. It’s pretty different from the original; it employs some mechanized techno beats and electronic motifs. Fiona’s vocal delivery is slow and spacey, emphasizing the childlike wonder to be found in the lyrics; that combined with the trip-hop music create something new and exciting. I think John would like Fiona’s cover very much.

Also beautiful (if a little cloying) is “The Long and Winding Road.” Paul’s tendency to tip over into the sentimental is in play here, but it’s completely forgivable in this setting. After all, the Beatles were dead, and their fans all dressed in 7 shades of black. Where’s the harm in a little bittersweet nostalgia? The “long and winding road” the song speaks of most easily matches up to the road the Beatles’ took, the crazy journey they went on since John and Paul first got together with their guitars as teenagers. The song is important, if for no other reason, because it moved every mourning Beatles fan from the Depression stage of grief to the Acceptance stage. They go from thinking, “there’s no point in carrying on” to, “farewell, Beatles; you served us well.”

Producer Phil Spector, genius though he was, added unnecessary window-dressings to “The Long a Winding Road” and “Across the Universe.” Orchestral swells and dramatic embellishments work on some songs, but they only interfere with the beauty and grace inherent here. Pure and simple versions can be heard on Let It Be… Naked, Paul McCartney’s 2003 version of Let It Be that preserves the original spirit of the Get Back sessions. By subtracting what Spector added, they lend more grace and wonder to what was already great.

More on Let It Be on Friday!

The Beatles started out that rooftop concert with “Get Back,” followed immediately by another run-thru of the same song. It’s a driving and catchy ditty with great guitar moments. Like a lot of Beatles songs, the lyrical interpretation is pretty loose. I don’t think Paul wrote with specific persons or situations in mind, but things could have been going on subconsciously that came out in the lyrics. Fans talk out of their asses all the time saying “Jojo is really John Lennon” or “Loretta is really Yoko Ono” or “Paul was looking at Yoko every time he sang ‘get back to where you once belonged.’” While that’s a case of fans creating things that probably weren’t there, I do think there was probably something  churning under the surface, as is fitting the Paul pattern.

After two versions of “Get Back” comes “Don’t Let Me Down.” Even though it wasn’t included on Let It Be, it deserves a quick mention here. It’s yet another chronicle of John’s sexual preoccupation with Yoko, but less adolescent than “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”  It’s sweeter, too, and reveals that John’s a colossal romantic sap. While John and Yoko’s relationship wasn’t particularly healthy, they enjoyed an extremely intimate connection and had a passion that a lot of couples could learn from.

After that comes “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a rapturous, soul-filled number. Paul sings like a southern Baptist preacher filled with the Holy Spirit, jittering in a seizure-like spasm. George’s guitar matches him, his notes seeming to quiver with passion. John even contributes, interjecting his own lyrics over Paul’s chords right in the middle. As the song fades out, John and Paul are singing their own individual lyrics to make a pretty gorgeous soup. It reminds me of the “Hard Day’s Night” years, when their collaboration was a wondrous thing to behold. The lyrics are pretty unspecific, but I think “I’ve Got a Feeling” is one of the most spiritual songs the Beatles ever did. It taps into something wild and free, something unknowable.

Next comes a blast of glorious blues, noisy and reckless, filled with smiling abandon. “One After 909” is a song written by John and Paul when that wondrous collaboration was first beginning, when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen. It had been kicking around since then, and was even recorded back in the Please Please Me days, being scrapped shortly after. Finally, it saw the light of day on Let It Be. I don’t think the Beatles were really intending for it to be one of the new Get Back songs, but were enjoying playing live again and the spontaneity it yields.

“Dig a Pony” is next, a song with meaningless lyrics that, as John put it, “sound good together.” I remember one moment from a documentary that’s stuck with me. It’s from the film Imagine: John Lennon that came out in 1988, chronicling the making of John Lennon’s second solo album, Imagine. Like the album that gives it its name, the film is an incredibly honest glimpse into John’s inner workings, personality, and work habits.

The moment: John recorded the album secluded in a mansion off in the forest, and a Lennon fanatic made his way to that very house. He was dirty, unshaven, shabbily dressed, and a little crazy. John and Yoko met him in the driveway, and there they had a discussion/argument with him in which it really came to bear that John was not all the things his fans expected him to be. This was something John had struggled with ever since he became famous, his public persona being something that he couldn’t quite control. This fan quoted some lyrics from “Dig a Pony,” citing them as inspirational and life-changing. John shook his head in dismay and said, “It’s just words! Words that sound good together!” Clearly, the fan was incredibly disappointed in the man who, until a few seconds ago, had been his idol. The scene ends with John inviting him inside for a bite to eat.

Next comes a snippet of “God Save the Queen,” yet another example of the Beatles being energized and a little giddy at the anything-goes live setting they were in. Then just comes more versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back.” The police then promptly shut them down.

Thursday: “glory to the shining remover of darkness.”

The Beatles – Let It Be – 5/8/1970

January 30th, 1969. It was chilly and damp; not rainy, but there was a dreary moistness to the air like there always is in January in London. It was noon, lunch time, when the four Beatles emerged from the hatch in the roof of 3 Savile Row, the Apple Corps headquarters. With them was a cadre of crew, both sound and film, as well as producers and engineers. Yoko was looking down to the street, and John was plugging in. He was visibly cold, so Yoko lent him her fur coat. Amused by this, Ringo also donned his wife Maureen’s red mac. They tuned up and did a few sound checks, then went right into “Get Back.”

It was about noon, coinciding with lunch hour for the lawyers and accountants populating the buildings surrounding Apple headquarters. This idea for a live, unannounced concert to premiere their new material – and simultaneously record their new album – had been around for awhile. Some grand locations were thrown around, like a peak in the Himalayas and even the moon. But in the end, they didn’t feel like hauling all their stuff around, so they just went upstairs instead. After only 42 minutes (not enough time to perform all the new stuff), the police intervened and shut the concert down.

The sessions and rehearsal for the Get Back album in the closing months of 1968 were fraught with disaster. Personal and professional problems reared their ugly heads around nearly every corner. The egos of all four Beatles had grown to mythic proportions. The capstone was when John insisted that Yoko, whom he had married only a few months before, was to be physically with him at all times. His rationale was that Yoko was a part of him now, in every sense of the phrase.

After the experience of The White Album in which each of the band members had functioned almost independently, nobody was willing to work for the greater good. There was no compromise, no give-and-take, and no understanding. In truth, they weren’t really a band anymore; the Beatles were over.

After that rooftop concert, Get Back was scrapped. The concert idea hadn’t really panned out seeing as they hadn’t gotten enough good material on tape to construct a full album. That lark on the Apple rooftop would prove to be the final public performance that all four Beatles would give together – they broke up just a few months later, but not before recording a one-last-hurrah album of new new material, called Abbey Road.

It quite often seems impossible and unthinkable to me, but the entirety of the Beatles’ meteoric rise to the absolute pinnacle of pop stardom and then their implosion and sad demise… took 8 years. While they were together, they released 11 albums of new material, a bevy of singles, and were without a doubt bigger than sliced bread and the wheel combined (though not Jesus). No band today could accomplish all that in less than 20 years; the Beatles did it in 8. Hell, some bands don’t release 3 albums in 8 years!

I’m not done. Adding amazement to amazement, the Beatles even released an album of original material after they had broken up. And it wasn’t “unreleased studio material” or “archival studio footage,” leftovers and snippets never meant to see the light of day assembled piecemeal by some studio hotshot in an effort to squeeze the last tiny drop of milk from that dried-up, crusty teat. What became Let It Be was the pieces of an almost-album that didn’t quite make it to release. All it took was impresario producer Phil Spector to swoop in and finish what the Fab Four had started; it turned out to be one of their best, most enduring releases. Even the wasted ashes of the former Beatles are beautiful; they just need the right lighting.