Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Beatles

I guess you can tell what the depth of an influence is if it continues to inspire and instruct over the decades of your life. I first heard Beatle records on a phonograph, scratchy copies of the Capitol LPs that my older brother had bought. I was around 8 or 10 years old, somewhere around 1969 0r 1970 when I first listened to albums front to back. We always had a box of singles to play, but putting on the LP was a bigger deal, and the Beatles catalog was so interesting that even a pre-teen could actually get through both sides without running outside to build a fort.

The songs work on their most basic level: they entertain as short, catchy pieces of Pop music. That's the magic that created and sustained Beatlemania and still grabs the ear of younger listeners. The tracks are exciting, they are logical and inventive, they are positive and eager, they sound like a bunch of friends having fun. There are not too many contenders in the Perfect Pop Single contest, and "She Loves You" is certainly the front runner. As noted Rock music critic Dave Marsh once said, "It never really got much better than didn't have to".

As I got older, I understood more of the lyrics from the mid-period albums, when the Beatles were morphing from moptops to more introspective young men. Beatles For Sale, A Hard Day's Night, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver. I could hear the difference in the approach. Now they were writing Pop with a conscience, or at least from points-of-view that were not the norm. Bob Dylan's influence helped, but only for musicians that were still searching to find the limits of their talents. Dylan did not seem to influence Freddie and the Dreamers or Gerry and the Pacemakers too much.

When I started learning to play guitar at age 13, I started trying to play Beatle songs, because I "knew" them internally and only had to find the right notes on the fretboard to play them. I had already absorbed the arrangement, vocals, groove and vibe of the tracks, so getting the mechanics down was easier. The first few albums are easy to play on guitar, for the most part, and I had a passable version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" after a short time. That's another thing: the Beatles re-introduced pure Rock and Roll back into American ears when it had been given up for a fad and the Bobby Vees and Bobby Shermans of the world were getting airplay. I first heard Chuck Berry from the Beatles. And Arthur Alexander and Little Richard and Carl Perkins. There was no Oldies radio in the early '70's where I lived. I never heard "Rock and Roll Music" or "Honey Don't" on the radio by the original artists. Bob Seeger commented that "All Chuck's children are out there, playing his licks". I got to Chuck through George. And Rock guitar playing begins with Chuck Berry.

Now that I'm all grown up (hah!), I still get amazed at the Beatles recorded legacy. Someone has finally put the individual tracks from the mixes of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on the internet. You can Google "Beatle multitrack mixes" or something similar and find them for yourself without too much trouble. The separate four-track "stems" (consolidated multitrack mixes) are fun to listen to individually - Ringo singing "With A Little Help From My Friends" acapella, the string and harp arrangement for "She's Leaving Home" - are all amazing.

The real revelation comes when you put these tracks into a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Pro Tools or Cubase. Now you can "mix" the songs yourself, and see what the components were to make the track so appealing. The revelation to me was that by themselves, the tracks are a bit noisy, sloppy in parts and the vocals get a little pitchy. Mixed together by masters like Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick, under guidance from George Martin, and you have the classic Beatle album. Simple and undeniable audio proof that the sum was easily greater than its parts.

I'm quite sure that it is not "legal" to offer these tracks online, but I'm equally sure that having them available to us musicians and fans is not hurting the Beatles in any way. No one will want to re-mix the Beatles and sell the results. There can't be a market for that. In this day and age of "a studio on every desktop..and laptop", what's needed is an unsubtle reminder that having unlimited tracks at your disposal, endless levels of "undo", the ability to align every beat, vowel and note onto a perfect grid and the various "tools" to make "artists" out of posers is not going to help you be a better musician, songwriter and singer.

There's a new book out called "Can't Buy Me Love" that has a nice career retrospective on the music and times of the Beatles. Check it out, along with 'Tell Me Why" and the Hunter Davies and Bob Spitz biographies.


Blogger Willful said...

Hey Tom

A great post as ever. I recently met the engineer for the current Queen + Paul Rodgers sessions which have been happening up the road from me, I was told that they had used 196 channels on their Protools HD system they are using to record their new stuff. While this is in many ways impressive I think it goes to underline the genius of George Martin and the lack of facilities available then proved to be the mother of invention that has seldom been surpassed.

I trust you are well and look forward to seeing you again in the not too distant future


17/2/08 16:27  
Blogger Patrick said...

I've been reading your blog now for awhile (I was searching for info about the Danish band D.A.D.) and found it to be informative and very interesting. From your roadwork with country artists and bands like Aerosmith (I'm jealous of your traveling adventures!), to your insights about home recording, working with your wife, and your gear, I really enjoy it all. This Beatles post is amazing, I'm going to check out the tracks and I can't wait to play with them. Your excitement reminds me of the first time I saw The Who's 'The Kids are Alright' - a total musical revelation!

Thanks Tom!

18/2/08 21:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I check in far too seldom, TS.
Good lord, but you have a nice way with a phrase.

It's like the old Monty Python skit: "well, ...I mean, he thinks well, doesn't he?"

Corey K

12/3/08 00:35  

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