Tuesday, September 29, 2009

...and now, back to The Beatles!


When we last left our heroes, the Beatles had just renounced touring and embarked on a three-month hiatus. This after ushering in the psychedelic era in music with Revolver. Also, no member of the group had yet grown any facial hair of note.

The Beatles spent the rest of their career as a band in the studio perfecting a unique sound that got harder and harder to reproduce live. And lest we forget the true crux of this series of articles, the rest of the songs in The Beatles: Rock Band begin with the fab four sitting around their instruments in Abbey Road studios (except for a brief set performed on the roof of said studios, but more on that show later).

The music they created during this period became increasingly self-referential and allowed each Beatle to develop his own individual voice, musically and lyrically. Don't get me wrong, despite working very closely together, Lennon and McCartney had the ability to be autonomous songwriters from the start. But while it's possible to pick out "Eight Days A Week" as a Paul song and "A Hard Day's Night" as a John song, the subtleties that separate those two don't hold a candle to the massive stylistic differences between Revolver's "Good Day Sunshine" and "I'm Only Sleeping." And don't even get me started on George's eastern influenced music and spiritually influenced lyrics.

The first album undertaken by the group after their break was the double-concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first concept - the one used for the title: The Beatles dressing up as a fictional band and assuming fake identities - really doesn't extend much beyond the album cover, the title track (and its reprise), and an excuse to introduce Ringo as singer Billy Shears for his vocal track "With A Little Help From My Friends." The second (unofficial) concept includes songs with subject matter drawn from everyday life. (cf. John's "Good Morning Good Morning" about a typical workday, and such non-game tracks as "A Day In the Life," "When I'm Sixty-Four," and "Fixing a Hole." This last song, incidentally, introduces the concept of being where one belongs into Paul's lyrical catalog.)

But independently of the loosely-followed concepts, the songs included on the game from this album showcase the blossoming talents of each individual Beatle. George has "Within You Without You" (packaged as a mashup with John's "Tomorrow Never Knows," because how the heck are Rock Band instruments supposed to accurately portray a song consisting solely of sitar and tabla?), the lyrics of which present a fascinating combination of self-realization and ego-death. John's psychedelic leanings and recreational drug use come to the fore in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the initials of which (LSD) of course refer to Lysosomal Storage Disease, a metabolic disorder with which John must have been strangely occupied at the time of the song's composition. And Paul contributed the optimistic rouser (and favorite for use in commercials) "Getting Better."

"Getting Better" is a good example of one of those self-referential songs I mentioned earlier. While unabashedly optimistic at times, the song opens up the Beatles' closet door, so to speak, and exposes some pretty interesting skeletons hanging there. Although principally written by Paul, John contributed some of the more disturbing lyrics, most notably 'I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.' This sentiment hearkens back to a couple of John's old songs: the controlling "You Can't Do That," and the haunting "Run For Your Life," both of which deal with his disapproval of his girl's unacceptable behavior. But another lyric - 'You gave me the word, I finally heard, and I'm doing the best that I can' - chronicles John's repentance from his old ways, referring to his song "The Word" ('Have you heard? the word is Love') from Rubber Soul. Say what you want about John during the later years of the Beatles - that he was egotistical, that he was difficult, that he screwed up the lives of his wife and son - but looking at the progression of his musical themes, I have to believe that he truly didn't have malicious intentions.

The release of Sgt. Pepper gained the Beatles rave reviews and critical acclaim - the album would stay at #1 in the UK for 27 weeks and in the US for 15. The next part of the Beatles' career was marked by personal tragedy following the death of their manager Brian Epstein in August of 1967. News of his death - caused by an accidental overdose of prescribed sleeping pills - came to the band while they were attending a seminar on transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Bangor, Wales. Despite Epstein's official cause of death, speculation still abounds regarding a possible suicide, based on the considerable personal and professional stress Epstein was under at the time. His contract to manage the Beatles was due to expire later that year, and in the wake of a couple of disastrous financial decisions - regarding licensing of Beatles merchandise and publishing of Beatles' songs - the band almost certainly would not ask Epstein to return in a managerial capacity. Furthermore, having to hide his homosexuality (illegal at the time in Britain) and his ongoing battles with drug/gambling addictions took their toll: earlier in his life, colleague Peter Brown purportedly discovered a suicide note written by Epstein and confronted him about it. To this day, I don't know if the book has ever really been closed on Epstein's case.

Despite Lennon's negative response Epstein's death ("we've fuckin' had it now"), the band went right along making music, recording John's next composition, "I Am The Walrus," mere weeks after the death of their manager. Used in the universally panned TV movie Magical Mystery Tour, the song was an exercise in meaningless psychedelia designed to confound and confusticate the over-analyzers who tended to read too much into The Beatles' music. Upon completion of the lyrics - with the assistance of former Quarryman Pete Shotton - Lennon exclaimed, "Let the fuckers work that one out!" Stir in goofy animal costumes and a mind-bending string arrangement by producer George Martin, and Bam! instant classic.

In early 1968, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India for an extended master class on transcendental meditation with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The trip to India proved the old adage that limitations breed creativity, as the band left the country with nothing but their acoustic guitars and returned less than three months later with over 30 ideas for new songs. Many of these songs appeared on 1968's The Beatles (The White Album), including "Dear Prudence," written for dangerously introspective fellow student Prudence Farrow. In fact, the tension surrounding the circumstances under which the Beatles left Rishikesh are captured in John's non-game song "Sexy Sadie" (originally entitled "Maharishi"). The song reflects the Beatles' disillusionment with their guru following rumors (mostly fabricated) that he had taken advantage of his students.

If Brian Epstein's death was the beginning of the end for the Beatles, then the White Album sessions were the middle of the end. Ringo, increasingly frustrated by his limited role in the production of the album, stormed out of the studio during the sessions, leaving Paul to play drums on some of the tracks (including "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Dear Prudence" and possibly other undisclosed tracks). With this in mind, Starr's composition "Don't Pass Me By" seems like a legitimate entreaty to his band-mates.

George voiced his frustration with the group in his composition "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," for which be brought in his friend Eric Clapton to play lead guitar. Although inspired partly by his reading of the I Ching, one could envision the lyrics referring to the internal division among the group at the time. These divisions perhaps culminated in John allowing his new girlfriend Yoko Ono to sit in on the recording sessions, which had, up until this point, been Beatles-only affairs.

While we all know how the Yoko situation turned out - if you don't, I suggest listening to "Don't Let Me Down" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko" - it appears I will require yet another post to conclude the story about the Beatles' career. I always say that if something's worth doing, it's worth writing three posts about. Stay tuned, and I promise I'll finish the story next week...