My Beatles Top 10

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison

Is it just me or we in the midst of a Beatles Renaissance? Each month of this decade offers a 50th anniversary of something surrounding The Beatles. I’ve already attended the 50th anniversary of The Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium. I’ve enjoyed a screening of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week featuring the band’s live tours of the U.S. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their final stadium appearance. I’ve bought the live performance audio CD with reengineered recordings from the new film. I’ve subscribed to the new Beatles Channel on SiriusXM. I’ve marveled at multiple “Deconstructing The Beatles” lectures by my friend Scott Freiman, whose live presentations are now memorialized on DVD.

Okay, maybe it’s just me. Then again, with my new novel coming about how the soundtrack of our lives is inescapable in charting our life paths, The Beatles have never been more in the forefront of my mind.

For many years I have wanted to suggest my own Beatles Top 10 song list, but I have resisted for multiple reasons. First, because it does seem to change from year to year, depending on what’s consuming my attention or memory. Second, because I have been strictly advised by most Beatles luminaries that this is a fool’s errand—to rate The Beatles catalogue is akin to publicly stating the order in which you love your family and friends (a 2017 noble but flawed attempt to force rank all 213 songs is strong evidence of this). Third, because a single omission or overstated opinion might start an argument far more volatile than any around religion or politics, again putting the goodwill of colleagues at high risk. And fourth, because for all these reasons and more, I would undoubtedly be on course to a retraction, apology, restatement, or mass deleting of this post from the digital world, which is of course impossible.

Lists have a sad tendency to become permanent, even if deemed ephemeral.

Well, too bad, I’m doing it, if for no other reason than to defy my own fears, which I am certain John, Paul, George, and Ringo would applaud. I’ve restricted the list to songs written and recorded by The Beatles in their organic whole, without covers or selections from their various solo careers. The list is not in a precise order 1 to 10, because that numeration does ebb and flow with my mood, and so they remain unnumbered out of sheer fear of regret. Directionally this is my set list, and I hope I can stick to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!

In My Life (1965)

Hey, it’s my wedding song. If I don’t put it in first position I’m really in trouble. But it’s my wedding song for a reason, and the lyrics sit in a silver frame on my wife’s dresser because I bought the frame and put them there for both of us to read every day. Have a look at the words sometime. You may want to change your wedding song. “In my life, I love you more.”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968)

This George Harrison tune haunts me unendingly, even more so since we lost George in 2001. I remember walking into a rock memorabilia store in Las Vegas years ago and seeing The Concert for George playing from a DVD on a widescreen and just standing there mesmerized with the sound pouring out in tribute. The guitar licks emerge like spoken lyrics and weave in and out of the simple verses with delicacy and determination. If you wanted to solo within the voice of an originator, this song gives you the chance of a lifetime.

Get Back (1969)

Whenever the word “Beatles” crosses my eardrums, I think of this song. It’s the quintessential tune that harnesses the ethos of the band, emerging from the tension of the end of their career but harkening back to the earliest days at the Cavern Club. If you ever get a chance to see the amazing Cirque du Soleil show Love at The Mirage in Vegas, or simply immerse yourself in the soundtrack mixed by George Martin, note the placement of this song in the early transition of the show from one era to another. The back beat is railroad steady yet quiet, it roars and rumbles without being bombastic. It is sonic, uncompromised rock ‘n’ roll, with Billy Preston on the backing keyboards to bring it home.

Nowhere Man (1965)

Ever have a song you can’t get out of your head because you’re not supposed to get it out of your head? This song, which somehow found its way into the core of the Yellow Submarine screenplay and inspired the character Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D., sings to me at every level of interpretation and inspiration. It begins a capella, offers some of the band’s finest happy harmonies, and tells a story that reaches into our hearts. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

I Saw Her Standing There (1963)

Should you have the poor fortune of walking into a karaoke bar when I’m the leadoff fodder, I will be kicking off with this standard. It’s simple, it’s lively, it’s old school, and it works. It’s my wife’s second-favorite Beatles song no matter how badly I botch it. There is also a bit of sentimentality in it for me, as I remember when Lennon came out of hiding in 1974 after a tough few years, he was brought onstage for this one by Elton John—even more ironic because it’s a McCartney vocal. It’s on the B-side of “Philadelphia Freedom.” If you don’t know what a B-side is, my apologies.

Here Comes the Sun (1969)

How can a song be purely joyous and enormously sad at the same time? George Harrison had a way not only with melody and instrumentation, but with short words as fuses of emotion. Similar to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and for that matter, “Something,” which just barely misses my list), it seems as though this epic was meant to be covered and reinterpreted. Did you see George play it with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live in 1976? Yes, you need to do that.

Come Together (1969)

This is one of those Beatles tunes that sort of doesn’t fit in with the rest of their discography. It’s almost too dark for the lads from Liverpool to pull off, yet they do. The drumbeat cooked up by Ringo is as hallucinatory as the lyrics are caustic and scary. Possibly the only good thing to come out of the disastrous movie adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Aerosmith cover of this piercing track. If John hadn’t envisioned it for The Beatles he might have handed it to Steven Tyler (to be fair, the Earth, Wind, and Fire cover of “Got to Get You into My Life” is the only other decent tune to come out of that movie, but I digress).

All You Need Is Love (1967)

As if it weren’t enough for it to be a perfect anthem for the 1960s and every decade to follow, this beautiful tune debuted on one of the first global satellite TV broadcasts of all time, adding science to art to a community be-in that included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton sitting on the floor. It also was well placed as the denouement resolution to the Yellow Submarine movie in lovingly crushing the Blue Meanies. Love, love, love.

Eleanor Rigby (1966)

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yeah, on many days I’m one of them. When I was in high school the lyrics to this song somehow appeared in our poetry anthology. It was one of the more controversial classroom moments I can remember as a young student of literature and music, and I never forgot it. The question posed in English class was how to differentiate the contemporary (where the root word is “temporary”) from the canon worthy of poetic study. I wondered why that was important. I still do. “Eleanor Rigby” still makes the canon for me.

“Abbey Road Medley” (1969)

As I wrestled with the rest of the catalogue, I honestly couldn’t come up with a tenth song. I argued with myself and couldn’t find a way to win. I know it’s cheating, but I settled on the Abbey Road Medley, which is technically up to eight songs that begin with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and close with “The End.” Some people think it starts five songs later with “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” which is the shorter version Paul has been playing in his latest live tours as an encore. Regardless, it’s a powerful collection that spans the band’s musicality from rhythm solo to storytelling to full orchestration. It finishes big as a rocker. It’s how a lot of people remember the band coming to an end, myself included.

Agree, disagree, or want to chime in? I’m all ears, and always up for a good Beatles chat. Let me hear from you. Pretty soon these 50th anniversaries will have expired and we won’t have such a good excuse.

_______________

Photo: Freda Kelly circa 1962 (a gift to the author)

Advertisements

Records So Good We Bought Them Again (and Again)

Fleetwood Mac - RumoursI guess for me this is turning into The Year of The List! Earlier this year, inspired by a Writers Guild initiative, I catalogued a suggested collection of the Funniest Screenplays of All Time. Right around that time, inspired by the Fleetwood Mac reunion tour, I found myself thinking about musical recordings so beloved I had purchased them multiple times on replacement platforms. While the records stayed largely the same (yes, I will keep calling them records as long as I am listening to them), a series of innovations in consumer technology offered us relatively inexpensive access to personal libraries of vinyl, 8-track tape, cassette, reel-to-reel, DAT, CD, DVD, and MP3-like digital hard drive storage along the lines of iTunes. Here I am considering what I would call three-buy and above purchases for personal use, which of course live alongside AM & FM radio broadcast, satellite play, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and any number of less legitimate ways to file-share.

While I was pondering all thatand readying myself to attend Fleetwood Mac’s current reunion tour at the recently refurbished concert-only Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles (remembering I had attended in 1990 what I believed was the final performance of the farewell Fleetwood Mac Word Tour)what should be playing in our living room but Rumours. Yep, at home in 5.1 Dolby Surround played an album so impossibly fantastic I had bought it at least five times with each subsequent technological improvement, including the remastered scratch tracks on the latest Expanded Edition, which chronicled the development of each song. I sat there listening again to this marvel, no regrets of any kind for the many dollars spent. I have extracted so much entertainment value from this record I would gladly purchase it again. And again.

Thus it occurred to me that Rumours was not alone, and that I was not alone in the three-buy, four-buy, and even five-buy serial record purchases. Rather than pencil out my own list, I went to my social network and asked friends where they had repeatedly dumped their dough buying the same thing over and over. Below you will see an unedited list of those records, some of which I also bought a bunch of times, others of which I have never heard but may sample now. Rather than allow this list to expire in the ephemeral Facebook news feed, I decided to recreate and share it here. I think it’s a cool list, one you should feel free to expand upon in broadening our spirit of sharing.

There is definitely a late Baby-Boomer Bias to these confessions of multiple repurchase, represented no doubt by my circle of social media friends, along with our age and taste. I think you will find the publishing dates stamped for the most part between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s, when the formative years of my contemporaries had disproportionate influence on our modest discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, in the “nifty fifty” albums reported here entirely unscientifically and in no particular order, multiple appearances are logged by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John.

If you’re looking for any connective tissue in all these, I think you’ll need more than the music to draw a speculative conclusion. Here is my one linking observation to the extent that I recognize most of the titles: they are in one way or another albums, curated collections or song cycles of various sorts that weave into and around themselves. Much has been written about the demise of the album in this day of pop streaming shuffles. For a while when we were younger, there was a wild notion that a record album could be something of its own as a form of, dare I say it, art.

I’m not sure I have the intellectual fortitude to plow through the art manifesto, but let me just say that when I play Abbey Road I don’t skip tracks, I play it through beginning to end. Okay, on The White Album I do skip “Revolution 9” most of the time, you got me there. But Dark Side is beginning to end, Hotel California is beginning to end, and Rumours is beginning to end. Remember, when these were vinyl, that meant getting up and switching to the flip side—yes, getting up physically to hear the rest!

There is a “something of substance” in these picks that a lot of us find missing in contemporary LP equivalents that don’t even try to compose, let alone somehow unite, a dozen or more flowing songs. I think that’s why a lot of us miss the days of AOR—album oriented rock—and why we’re willing to spend anew when landmark records with recurring motifs and thematic resonance repeatedly make their way back to the virtual shelves. These albums age well, a bit like fine wine, and seldom seem dated. Absent historical and social context, most of these carefully crafted works could just as well have been recorded today and simultaneously sound modern and classic. They were expertly written, performed, and engineered with creative courage that resulted in textured, lasting impact. Good is good, great is great, and unforgettable is, well, just what the word says.

So here is a compilation of fifty records my friends found so remarkable they bought them on three, four, or even more platforms (not to mention extended or remastered versions), and will probably continue to play until their last days on the planet in whatever form they may become available:

1) Abbey Road by The Beatles

2) Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

3) The Beatles (The White Album) by The Beatles

4) McCartney by Paul McCartney

5) Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings

6) All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

7) Imagine by John Lennon

8) Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

9) The Wall by Pink Floyd

10) Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

11) Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

12) Madman Across the Water by Elton John

13) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

14) Hotel California by Eagles

15) Quadrophenia by The Who

16) Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

17) Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

18) Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

19) What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

20) London Calling by The Clash

21) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie

22) The Joshua Tree by U2

23) Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin

24) Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin

25) Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen

26) Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs

27) The Point by Harry Nilsson

28) After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

29) John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic

30) Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show by Dr. Hook

31) Running on Empty by Jackson Browne

32) Cheap Trick at Budokan by Cheap Trick

33) Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath

34) Candide by Leonard Bernstein

35) The Lady and the Unicorn by John Renbourn

36) Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla

37) The Remains of Tom Lehrer by Tom Lehrer

38) The Doors by The Doors

39) Tapestry by Carole King

40) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

41) Berlin by Lou Reed

42) Wheels of Fire by Cream

43) 21 by Adele

44) Crime of the Century by Supertramp

45) Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

46) Graceland by Paul Simon

47) Dreamboat Annie by Heart

48) Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

49) Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren

50) Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Which “greatest albums of all time” did we miss? Probably a lot. Add your favorites in the comments below and if there is anything you discover new in the suggestions provided, let us know what it sounds like no matter the player you choose as a conduit.

Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.