Category Archives: Music — 1970s-80s

The Holy Bee Recommends, #17: The Rolling Stones’ Post-Exile Trilogy

There is a blindly-accepted mythology that began as soon as the 70s ended. The myth goes like this: The Rolling Stones were a scrappy London R&B band that rode the first wave of the British Invasion, had some monster singles, did a classic mid-60s album (Aftermath), stumbled briefly with a psychedelic Beatles knock-off (Their Satanic Majesties Request), then righted themselves, found an excellent producer in Jimmy Miller, and made the Holy Quadrilogy — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street — each an irrefutable cornerstone of their massive legacy and four of the greatest rock albums ever made.

And after that — Some Girls aside — it all went to shit.

The “Ultimate Classic Rock” website, the internet’s click-bait custodian of lazy rock factoids, perpetuates the well-trodden path, describing the first post-Exile album, Goats Head Soup as “the end of the Stones’ classic era, with two more increasingly careless albums following until the band got back on track five years later with Some Girls.” This sentiment has been robotically repeated ad nauseam for almost forty years now.

The Stones themselves even bought into the narrative, self-deprecatingly naming a compilation of their post-Exile material Sucking In The Seventies.

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Supposedly, the three albums between the mighty Exile and the fluke disco/New Wave-era smash of Some Girls represented a trough of mediocrity, but I’m here to tell you that those three albums — the aforementioned Goats Head Soup, along with It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue  — are totally underrated. Classics? Maybe I’d stop just shy of that. But they have an adventurous spirit and willingness to mess with the Stones’ formula a little, and an air of breezily coked-up, rock-god Dionysian decadence impossible to replicate in any other era. Every track, even the weak ones, has something at least interesting about it, which is more than I can say for some of their 80s albums (the true trough of mediocrity, in my opinion –buy me a drink and raise the topic of Dirty Work.

And for two of these three albums, the Stones still had the services of “second” guitarist Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque blues virtuoso, whose jazz-tinged soloing lifted many of these songs to a new level. For the first time since the Brian Jones era, Keith Richards’ slashing, open-tuned riffage wasn’t the dominant sound. Although Keith always claimed his 70s heroin habit did not slow him down much, the instrumental line-ups on these songs frequently tell a different tale. He’s just not there on about a sixth of them, and on several more he’s just croaking out backing vocals, or strumming a single sloppy rhythm guitar buried in the mix, or plunking on the bass (the Stones’ actual bassist, Bill Wyman, was somewhat minimalized on these albums, his role frequently usurped by Richards or Taylor).

NPG P851; Mick Jagger by Laurie LewisFor better and worse (see below), this era was Jagger’s version of the Rolling Stones. His lyrics were some of the best he ever concocted, and the empty space left by Keith was filled by his own guitar work, which grew more confident with every album. Sadly, these albums are tainted in a lot of people’s mind by Jagger’s increasing buffoonery. The whirling dervish of the ‘69 concert stage was now a glam-rock self-parody (this reached its nadir with the “Dancing In The Streets” video of ‘85 before he finally dialed it back for the Stones’ more recent tours.) So…try to hear these albums without picturing Jagger’s eye-shadow and spangly onesies with the necklines that plunged to the pubes, or the band as a whole’s incredibly dated visual aspect during this period (despite the images I’ve gone ahead and inexplicably included.)

Goats Head Soup is often described as the “hangover” after the wild party of Exile On Main Street, and according to the myth, the drop-off between the two is steep. But at the time, Exile was considered something of a sprawling disappointment, and the hazy, bleary sounds of Goats felt much more of a piece with its predecessor. Jimmy Miller was still producing (for the last time), and some of the songs pre-date the Exile sessions.

Britain’s tax laws forced the band to spend a large part of the year outside the country, and the Exile sessions (in the French Riviera and L.A.) began the tradition of recording on foreign shores as much as possible. In November 1972, the Rolling Stones and pianist Nicky Hopkins set up camp at Dynamic Sound Studios in Jamaica. Their chief road manager, “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, also served as occasional pianist, and he was there too, of course, but he only played on songs he liked. He did not dig most of the Goats Head material. With a major narcotics case against Richards still pending, Jamaica was the only suitably cool country that would give them an extended work visa. 

Although they were all reggae fans (especially Keith), they admitted they were not ready to pull off any real reggae tracks in the same studio where so many of the genre’s classics were made, including the Harder They Come soundtrack and the early Bob Marley records. (Some would say, based on the mixed reception their later reggae-based tracks received, that they never achieved that state of readiness.) Nicky Hopkins departed at the beginning of December, and Billy Preston was flown in to spice things up with his gospel organ and clavinet.

The sessions continued in May and June 1973 at Olympic Studios and Island Studios in London, where they added elements such as brass, strings, the congas and shakers of noted Ghanaian percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, and additional percussion by mysterious and eccentric electronic music pioneer Nik Pascal.

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Goats Head Soup, 1973

The album, released in late August 1973, opens with “Dancing With Mr. D,” invariably described by naysayers as a tepid, silly sequel to “Sympathy For The Devil.” But apart from name-checking the Horned One himself, the two songs aren’t really similar. The frenzied samba of “Sympathy” is in no way referenced by the grinding party funk of “Mr. D,” and while Jagger doesn’t come close to his “Sympathy” lyrics, lines like “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clingy and thick” have a certain eerie flow and Halloween-y charm.

This is followed by what may be my favorite song on all three albums — “100 Years Ago.” “Went out walking through the wood the other day/And the world was a carpet laid before me/The buds were bursting and the air smelled sweet and strange/It seemed about one hundred years ago…don’t you think it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…” A mid-tempo quasi-ballad about the power of memory that breaks down almost to a full stop (“Call me lazybones…”) then upshifts into a furious instrumental outro, with Mick Taylor leading the charge. This is right up there with “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” for me.

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Nicky Hopkins

“Coming Down Again,” a slow-burner sung by Keith at a snail’s pace over a watery bed of phased guitar and Nicky Hopkins’ moody piano, perfectly captures the feeling of waking up with the dry heaves, alone, confused, and regretful. The mood is quickly shattered by the unfortunately-titled “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with its urgent traffic-jam horn section and spine-chilling urban jungle lyrics about “accidental” police shootings and poverty-stricken children OD’ing in the gutter. “Angie” was the big radio hit from the album, and despite the inclusion of lots of down-tempo stuff, this is the only song that could be classified as a traditional ballad. Nicky Hopkins once again shows why he was the most in-demand session pianist of the era, providing tasteful accents to the gently dueling acoustic guitars of Richards and Taylor.

“Angie” closes side one, and side two kicks off with “Silver Train,” the one song on the album that sounds the most like a typical Rolling Stones riff-rocker. It was originally recorded two years before the other songs, and was handed off to Johnny Winter, who recorded a blistering version that spurred the Stones to re-record theirs at the end of the sessions in London and put it on the album. “Hide Your Love” dates from the same late-stage London sessions. The simple, hypnotic number is based around Jagger’s echo-heavy piano vamping, and is built up into a primal Delta blues pastiche, Robert Johnson-style. “Winter” is another one of those tracks that critics of this period in the Stones career have to admit is a beauty. Similar in tone to Sticky Fingers’ “Moonlight Mile,” you can almost feel the chill and see your breath as the song glides along on a stream of orchestral strings.

As much as I like them, each of these albums has a total misfire buried in its track listing. “Can You Hear The Music” is a plodding, discordant mess that uses some world-music/psychedelic flourishes to cover up its lack of direction. The album closes with “Star Star,” a Chuck Berry-inspired, old-fashioned bit of rock & roll that sounds like something the ‘64 Stones would have played (except for the lyrics.) Ian Stewart finally lets loose on the ivories in his trademark boogie-woogie style.

One web reviewer calls the Goats Head Soup “the album that set the Stones on a course of mediocrity from which they have yet to return…” Then goes on to say: “It’s not that Goats Head Soup is bad, in itself…” Well, then, what the hell? “[It] set no musical agenda…did nothing new.” Which is totally incorrect. The Stones were never AM radio balladeers before. “Angie” changed that, whatever you think of the song itself. (I love it.) They were beginning to explore the funk genre, aided by sideman Billy Preston’s churning clavinet and Taylor’s wah-wah guitar (“Dancing With Mr. D,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo”). And they crossed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be stated in a rock lyric with the gleefully sleazy (and brutally explicit) “Star Star” (original title: “Starfucker.”)
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I’m Using “1989” In A Blog, Where Do I Send The Check? (Part 2)

track-500x339“I Wish You Would” (this particular song has pretty much nothing to do with what follows, but it’s the only track off 1989 that I couldn’t stretch to fit my narrative.)

As should be clear by now, I was a movie fan, which meant I would check out whatever was new that week at the multiplex, with no real discernment. If one movie was sold out, I just went to the next one down the list. (I became a pickier, snobbier “cinephile” a few years later after having my world rocked by Reservoir Dogs.)

1989 was the first year of many years in which I picked up a copy of Leonard49f88b938e217bb593378795367434f414f4141-1 Maltin’s TV Movies & Video Guide. This tome was the size of a small brick, and was “the essential reference for home video rental, featuring…18,000 films!” It was the Internet before the Internet.

So I had been marking life milestones by what movie I had seen most recently. (The start of summer vacation was not only Tienanmen Sqaure, but also Weekend At Bernie’s.) One of the many changes wrought by 1989 was that my personal events began being marked more and more by music. The big summer albums, as I recall, were the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing and the Tom Petty solo album Full Moon Fever. The strains of “Love Shack” and “Free Fallin’” saturated the hot, dry Northern California air. One celebratory, one regretful and elegiac. It was kind of the sound of the 80s dying, though no one thought of them that way then.

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For a little bit longer, though, movies were still my markers, and the last movie I saw before high school was The Abyss. It was the night before Locker Day. Locker Day was the first big event before school actually started, and, as the name suggests, it’s when you get your locker assignment in the high school hallways. It’s also when you get your list of classes. Nick made the trek up from Robbins to see the movie, sleep over, and get his locker with me the next morning. But something had irrevocably changed.

He was on the high school football team.

220px-TheAbyssHe was still the amiable, slightly goofy guy prone to malapropisms (he once said “douche” instead of “tush” when someone drew a girl’s backside in a family game of Pictionary — my mom laughs about that to this day.) But practices had already started, and he no sooner set foot in my new Yuba City place than he had to dash off and put on the pads and helmet for the whole afternoon. He barely made it back in time to get changed for the movie. I have to admit, I felt a little jilted.

It got worse. After we got our lockers the next morning, we met up with his new friends — the football team — to walk to Carl’s Jr. for breakfast. Carl’s Jr. wasn’t exactly adjacent to the high school, and over the course of the kind-of long walk, I felt more and more out of place and uncomfortable. By the walk back, I was trailing behind by half-a-block. No one noticed, as they playfully shoved each other and made rude-jock jokes. Nick had found his tribe, almost immediately, and never looked back. As George Gobel once said, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

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I have my 1989-90 yearbook and a scanner, so you get a genuine look at Locker Day

“Blank Space”

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Freshman class pic, Sept. ’89. The amount of hairspray seen here may be solely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer

I didn’t dwell on it, though. I was far too excited about the prospect of starting high school. A clean slate, a chance to reinvent myself. I may not have been on the football team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peddle my own brand of awesomeness. I never lacked for self-confidence (at least, not yet), but I really was just a puppy tripping over his own paws. I received my class list and locator card that Locker Day, and saw that I had English C, Intro to Physical Science (IPS), Geography C, P.E., Computer Literacy, and Integrated Math. I was in the college-prep C-level humanities classes, but math was my Achilles heel, and “Integrated Math” just meant “pre-algebra.” To my horror, I discovered that “Computer Literacy” was basically a keyboarding class. It didn’t take. I’m typing this right now with two fingers and a thumb. And damn fast, too.

In English class one of our first assignments was an autobiographical essay about a meaningful event in our lives. I wrote about the trip I took to Washington D.C. the previous year. I had always been interested in writing, but I mostly wrote fiction. This wasn’t the first autobiographical essay I had written for a class, but it was the first one I tried to make entertaining and resonant, to inject with some of the passion I used for my made-up stories. “This is really good…” the teacher scrawled at the bottom when the paper was returned. The Holy Bee of Ephesus may just have been hatched at that moment.

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Our brand new sign. We really won the mascot jackpot.

I desperately wanted to begin my dating life. After all, here was a guy who already made out with a girl (albeit in a clinical, pre-arranged ritual that could be qualified as “bizarre” — see previous entry — but it counts!) My entire notion of dating consisted of asking someone to the movies. Or possibly bowling. I couldn’t wait to get started. How hard could it be? The second or third day of school I spotted a likely prospect in my Geography C class.

She was incredibly cute. (I didn’t yet grasp the fact that “boxing above your weight class” could be metaphorical and applied outside the sport of boxing.) She was quirky and unconventional. She carried around a clarinet. She wore loud green-and-purple checkered pants that looked like something out of the Joker’s closet. She sometimes wore a beret. The pop-culture term had not yet been coined, but she looked like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

On some pretense, I began a conversation with her. Then I clumsily popped the clutch and lurched into asking her to the movies. I don’t remember her exact response, I just know we did not go to the movies, then or ever. And she did not conceal her disdain in prognosticating, in no uncertain terms, that the possibility of any interaction with her at any point in the future was a highly unlikely proposition. I felt like a dog swatted on the nose with a newspaper. Not really hurt, just chagrined and embarrassed. Manic Pixie Dream Girls aren’t supposed to be mean.

I vowed to do better with the next girl that came along. Maybe lay a little groundwork before proffering the date within five minutes of speaking to her for the first time. I already had a few in my sights, including one I would I would doggedly and ineptly pursue, Wile E. Coyote-style, off and on for the next two years. (Check out This Used To Be My Playground Part 4: Kryptonite and Stomach-Aches for a flash-forward into the early 90s to see how that adventure turned out. She may just as well have painted a tunnel on the side of a cliff.)

YC emblemOpportunities abounded, or at least I thought they did. Sometime in early September, one girl threw a night-time birthday party with a blanket invitation to the entire freshman class. It was at a park — a park one block away from my house! I eagerly trotted over as dusk settled in. It wasn’t exactly the entire freshman class, but it was quite a crowd. And I knew none of them. The ones I recognized from my classes were already talking to other people. I wandered around aimlessly, had a cup of punch, and went back home, wondering what I thought was supposed to happen, and how come it was so easy for everyone else? I realized it had a lot to do with middle school. Most of the freshman class already had pre-existing relationships with people they went to middle school with (a situation that will come up again later.) That made me feel better. I decided at the next high school social event, I needed a wingman that I knew from middle school, a Goose to my Maverick, a Wedge to my Luke. Nick was already skyrocketing to the top of the social strata and had no time to help out. That left my other Robbins friend, Dusty.

The first dance of the year was coming up – the “Beanie Ball,” hosted by the sophomores to welcome incoming freshmen. I convinced Dusty to make the trip up to Yuba City and go in with me, Butch & Sundance-style, guns blazing.

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A typical YCHS Dance, 1989. I don’t know if this was the Beanie Ball or not, but it certainly could’ve been.

The one potential stumbling block to my cunning plan was that neither one of us could dance. Or at least we couldn’t “fast dance,” so our all-out assault consisted of standing stock-still, drinking cup after cup of Pepsi, and going to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. We watched as our classmates did the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit all around us while “Bust A Move” by Young MC or “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals boomed from the speakers.

What we were doing was working up the nerve to ask a girl we sort of knew to let us put our arms clumsily around them and sway-and-rotate to a slow number. That was a dance move we could handle. But finding a partner was nerve-wracking. “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx came and went. “Lost In Your Eyes” by Debbie Gibson came and went.

Then something like “Chances” by Roxette would pop up and no one would know if it was supposed to be fast dance or slow dance song. We were running out time. Finally I spotted a pair of girls I recognized from a class, and had briefly exchanged a few words with. They were even guardedly friendly, unlike mean ol’ Joker-pants. Good enough. Dusty and I locked our s-foils into attack position and moved in.

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This is the real deal, according to the yearbook caption. The Beanie Ball. Dusty & I were in that mass of swaying, sweaty humanity somewhere.

Yelling to make ourselves heard over the likes of “Rhythm Nation” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” we made inane conversation with Brenda and Nikki for just long enough to get to the crucial awkward pause — where we had to ask them to dance, or move on, defeated. I turned off my targeting computer, used the Force, and pulled the trigger…successfully. We got our slow dance. It was “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles.

I spent the weekend swooning over Brenda. (Not her real name, BTW. I used her real name once in a blog a couple of years ago, never in a million years thinking she would ever actually read it, but somehow she did and let me know that the real-life, grown-up woman she became was more than a little embarrassed by the whole deal. Fair enough.) She was on the tall side, with shoulder-length dark hair and dark eyes. She admitted she wanted to be a model, and she just maybe could have pulled it off.

Hurricane Hugo hit a few days after the Beanie Ball, doing to the Carolina coast what Brenda was doing to my psyche.

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I literally cannot remember ever having any further interaction with poor Dusty at any time after that. He had served his purpose.

With thoughts of Brenda spinning in my head, I made another attempt to climb the high school social ladder, with predictable results… Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #12: Tom Doyle’s “Man On The Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s”

It is said that no journalist gets close to Paul McCartney. His naturalman on the run guardedness and evasiveness have been compounded by fifty years of constantly dealing with prying, insensitive, and often clueless “reporters” trying to get a story out of one of the most well-known, wealthiest, and at times, oddest, musicians in the world.

He still gives tons of interviews. But, as Rolling Stone reporter Chet Flippo wrote in an old McCartney bio, when the reporter leaves the glow of being in the presence of a Beatle and actually reviews their tapes or notes, there is a cold realization that they have come away with nothing of any substance.

Does Tom Doyle break through that wall? For the most part, as even he admits, no. But he feels he has been lucky enough to get glimpses of the unguarded McCartney, mostly by virtue of being Scottish (a quality that McCartney seems to love), and the fact he is a long-time writer and editor for the classic rock-worshipping music mag Q, and not some Fleet Street hack looking for an angle on his messy divorce or re-hashing the same Beatles questions for the 10,000th time.

Perhaps to avoid over-familiar territory, Doyle has chosen to focus on the wings19721970s. Under the multi-platinum surface of Wings was a schizophrenic and frenetic decade for McCartney. Less resonant than the cultural upheaval that was the Beatles and the ballyhooed 1960s, but perhaps more interesting to someone who has had their fill of Beatles/60s mythologizing.

Doyle bookends his text with a Prologue and Epilogue from his numerous McCartney interviews of the 2010s. He notes that McCartney’s hair now seems professionally colored, rather than what he suspects were appalling home dye-jobs in the 1990s. (It’s this type of detail written in a clear, informal prose style that makes this book a particular pleasure.) Another reason I really like Doyle: He actually asks about Paul’s goofy, cheery, thumbs-up “Macca” persona of the last quarter century that has led to countless bad Dana Carvey-style impressions and a degradation of his standing among those who fancy themselves “serious” rock fans.

McCartney sighs, and says, “Have you seen me do it [the thumbs-up] in the last ten years?”

Doyle admits he hasn’t.

“I have been chastised by world opinion on that.”

The unguarded McCartney’s speaking voice, according to Doyle, is earthier and more “lovingly profane” than the cartoon Liverpudlian he puts on for most of the public. (Is this a thing? I’ve also heard from many sources that Michael Jackson’s spacey, high whisper was a total put-on, and he had a perfectly normal speaking voice in private.) The world’s third most-famous pot smoker (after Bob Marley and Willie Nelson) also admits he quit the stuff several years ago, citing age as a factor. He noted that friends told him recently “‘Wow, your choice of words has really gone up.’ Before, I’d go ‘It’s like…y’know…it’s like…y’know…good.” Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 4: Ringo Starr

Part 1: John Lennon

Part 2: Paul McCartney

Part 3: George Harrison

OK, this is the one I’ve been dreading. Most folks who lead normal lives are blissfully unaware that the former drummer for the Beatles has released sixteen solo albums. That is not a typo. But the experience of listening to all of them actually turned out not to be excruciating. Read on…

Starr may have been the Beatle who least matched his public persona, a persona created out of thin air by the early-’60s media (especially the American media, who initially had trouble telling them apart) and reinforced by his “Ringo” character in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and especially the ridiculous Beatles Saturday morning cartoon. He was the mascot, the goofy dimwit, condescended to and put upon by the others, but always childlike and cheery. Out of the spotlight, however, the real-life Richard Starkey could be just as cutting and sarcastic as Lennon, as moody as Harrison, and as savvy as McCartney.

He was the oldest Beatle, and the others have all reminisced about how much more cool and sophisticated Starr seemed before he signed on with them. In fact, “Richy” (his spelling) was considered something of a tough customer, rising up from the lowest of the Liverpool slums (a place called “The Dingle”) to become the powerhouse drummer for the hardest-rocking band on the local “beat” scene, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. He drove a sporty car while his future bandmates still scrounged for bus fare, wore flashy jewelry (hence the stage name, which close friends never referred to him by), and cultivated a cool bohemian beard as early as 1960.

The fact that the proto-Fab Three had coveted him and his drums for years should certainly say something about how his skills were regarded at that time, and the fact that the great Ringo Starr ditched his sweet gig with the Hurricanes and deigned to join these upstarts should say something about Starr’s own musical judgment. [ADDENDUM: I’ve recently (Nov. 2013) read the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive three-volume Beatles biography, and it shed a lot of light on this era. Evidently, the Hurricanes were stagnating — Ringo had already quit them once — and the Beatles, far from being “upstarts,” had been top of the heap in Liverpool for some time, and were clearly poised for bigger things.]

Maybe his role as the “runt” stemmed from the fact that he joined the band at the last moment before they skyrocketed in late ’62. Maybe it was the fact that he was three inches shorter than the others, or wasn’t quite as handsome (that nose, y’know.) What seems clear is that the dismissiveness people sometimes projected onto Ringo as a personality began to spill over to his skill as a drummer, and that’s just plain unfair. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 3: George Harrison

Part 1: John Lennon

Part 2: Paul McCartney

As a vocalist, he was nothing special. His voice was not as immediately powerful as Lennon’s nor as sweet as McCartney’s. In fact, it was kind of sub-par. Adenoidal and thickly accented, but I suppose he could carry a tune. As a guitarist, he was admittedly unable to improvise on the fly, definitely out of sync with his flashy Sixties peers, and not criminally underrated the way Ringo was as a drummer. (Relax, we’ll get to him in Part 4).  As a songwriter, he couldn’t hold a candle to the great rock poets like Dylan and Springsteen. Harrison’s talents in all these areas can best be described as “modest.”  One gets the impression that if there were no Beatles, Lennon and McCartney would have found another path and still be known to us in some capacity, but Harrison was in dire need of his Beatles background to launch his solo career.

But wait! Let’s examine all this again. Harrison’s voice was certainly distinctive and full of character (and blended perfectly with Lennon and McCartney’s to create that special Beatles alchemy, usually pinning down the tricky middle harmony). As a guitarist, it may not have been a bad thing to be out of step with his flashy Sixties peers. Some of those wanky, Vanilla Fudge-style blues-worshipers soloed like there was no tomorrow, often forgetting they were supposed to be playing a song.

Harrison did not go down the very well-trodden blues path, but played in a much more country & western-influenced rockabilly style, patterned after guys like Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins. His major concession to R&B was a healthy dose of Chuck Berry, which is the one thing he had in common with all other Sixties rock guitarists. (Hell, even the great Keith Richards spent most of the decade recycling Berry riffs, until he discovered open tuning in ’68.) Every Harrison solo was short, punchy, and served the song perfectly. Re-listen to some Beatles songs (“Can’t Buy Me Love” and their cover of the Larry Williams scorcher “Bad Boy” come to mind) with an ear on the solos, and you’ll see what I mean. As a songwriter, neither Lennon solo nor McCartney solo were on par with Dylan or Springsteen, either, and the best of Harrison’s solo material certainly equals the best of Lennon’s and McCartney’s. As far as being unable to improvise, who gives a good goddamn? The Beatles were never a jam band, anyway (thank God.)

And when, on a whim, he decided to join American R&B act Delaney & Bonnie on their British tour in 1969, he finally embraced the blues, but in his own way, rapidly developing an almost Hawaiian-sounding slide guitar technique that became the defining sound of his solo career. I still doubt there would have been a George Harrison music career without the Beatles, but luckily for everyone, there was a Beatles. And there’s some great stuff in the Harrisongs catalog…and also some turkeys. That’s why we’re here.

Anything else I have to say about Harrison, I said in my 2010 essay “The Quiet One.” In fact, I’ve probably already repeated myself somewhat, so let’s get on with our examination of the solo Harrison. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 2: Paul McCartney

I have a little theory: Paul McCartney is insane. Batshit nuts. I don’t know quite when the cheese slid off his cracker, but I’m guessing about twenty-five years ago. Yes, he’s always been a little goofy, but lately? From his bizarre hair-dying experiments to the interviews that are about equal parts inane platitudes, vegetarian propaganda, and total gibberish accompanied by a cheery thumbs-up, he’s been leaving a trail of crazy wherever he goes since the mid-1980s. It’s not train-wreck, flame-out crazy, like Martin Lawrence wandering through traffic with a  handgun. It’s a subtler crazy, as if during the recording of Press To Play, alien beings had made off with his brain and attempted to replace it with an exact replica, but assembled it from poorly-translated instructions.

That’s not what happened of course. What happened is that his ownership of many valuable song publishing rights kicked in about then, he became a multi-billionaire instead of a multi-millionaire, cut himself off from anything resembling reality, and has been living in a totally self-generated bubble-world ever since. And I don’t blame him. If I became a multi-billionaire, I would reach foaming heights of crazy that would make Andy Dick look like a Presbyterian deacon.

For reasons directly related to his billionaire-induced craziness, Paul has become the most-maligned Beatle. With every misfire album and every cringe-worthy quote, his light dimmed a little more. But make no mistake — he was the driving creative force of the Beatles in the second half of their career, and that’s no small thing. He always valued the concept of being in a band more than the others. Lennon gets credit for being the witty, rebellious iconoclast, Harrison gets credit for being the quiet mystic, and let’s face it, both of them get double-extra-credit for being dead. Everyone loves a corpse, because they never disappoint. They’re not around to release mediocre albums anymore. But both of them tired of the “band” concept long before Paul did. In the 70’s, Paul tried to keep the idea alive by putting together a bunch of hirelings and calling it “Wings,” but even he knew they weren’t a real band — they were his employees, and various members came and went like the clock-punchers they were.

(At the start of his solo career, he followed the example of Lennon and installed his wife as full creative partner. His second solo album is officially credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney.” On John & Yoko’s joint albums, Yoko contributed full songs. Horrible, horrible songs. But songs, nonetheless. Linda’s contributions consisted of 1) hilariously flat backing vocals placed super-high in the mix, and 2) helping to write some lyrics. The conceit fooled no one, but co-crediting songs kept their royalties from becoming “frozen assets” in the morass of the Beatles break-up lawsuits going on at the time.)

At times, Paul seems to be resented by fans for simply still being alive and somehow tarnishing the image of the Beatles by his very existence as a living, breathing doofus, which can’t be helped. This can result in some unfair treatment. (There’s a song buried in the second half of Off The Ground — if you make it that far– called “Winedark Open Sea,” a kind of sparse, dreary piano ballad that I suspect would be hailed as a “classic” if it came from Springsteen or Neil Young. Those guys can get away with almost anything.) Other times, it’s entirely his own fault. The parallels with George Lucas become obvious if you’re petty enough to examine them (which is my stock in trade). The younger creative genius gives us several gifts we all cherish, things that beyond providing hundreds of hours of entertainment, may even have molded us as people. He then ages into the older billionaire crank and starts doing stupid shit, such as going back and futzing with the legacy. McCartney’s bone-headed attempt to change the songwriting credits on “his” Beatles songs from “Lennon-McCartney” to “McCartney-Lennon” a few years ago is the musical equivalent of Greedo shooting first. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 1: John Lennon

Everyone has heard the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s an old chestnut that must predate the Beatles, but it seems to have been coined with them in mind. I won’t waste your time by piling a bunch of effusive praise on a band that receives little but effusive praise (if you want a time-waster, check out “Face-Off #1” from August), but I’ll just plunge ahead on and say the individual Beatles’ post-1969 careers have been a little patchy. Navigating their solo waters is treacherous, and sometimes you wonder what happened to the white-hot, jaw-dropping level of creative genius that fueled the Beatles in the 1960s. It seems to have just faded away when the four individuals were separated. Much like the Sankara stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments of greatness in the Beatles’ solo discography. There are. Many of them. It just requires a little stick-to-itiveness to separate the wheat from the chaff. So, armed with patience, earbuds, a copy of Madinger & Easter’s Eight Arms To Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, and mp3s of each and every Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr song (the fewer questions you ask about how I got them, the better), I listened to every note so you don’t have to, and I am here to report back to you so you can fill your iPods with the cream of the solo Beatles’ output, legally purchased from a reputable vendor. And since it’s way more fun to write about things you don’t like, I’ll also be cautioning you on what to avoid.

The format will be as follows: Best Album, Best Hit Single, Best Non-Hit Song (there’s lots of treasures buried halfway through an album side), followed by the Worst of those categories, and — since I never know when to shut up — runners-up for all categories. Only official studio albums of new material will be considered. No live albums, no albums of cover songs, no bootlegs, no film soundtracks, no compilations. Because that would take forever, and hey man, I have a life.

It’s no real surprise that John Lennon has the smallest solo discography — he was murdered just ten years into his post-Beatles career, and he spent half of those ten years in retirement. His official output shrinks even more when you consider that two of his albums were credited jointly to wife/artistic partner Yoko Ono and were only partially filled with Lennon songs, one was a posthumous release containing leftovers from one of the joint albums, and one was an album of oldies covers (1975’s Rock and Roll). When he was still with the Beatles, he and Yoko put out three “experimental” albums of random noise and Yoko’s charming screeching. (Unfinished Music, Vol. 1: Two Virgins (1968), with the infamous nude cover, Unfinished Music, Vol. 2: Life With The Lions (1969), and The Wedding Album (1969)). Since these are not in any sense of the word “music” (unfinished or no), and even I won’t sit through them, they won’t be considered here. So we’re left with only four true solo albums of new material. Continue reading

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