Tag Archives: John Lennon

“Revolution 9” vs. “Stupid Mop”

 

I once fell asleep to The Beatles “Revoution 9” on repeat and had some pretty fucked up dreams. Nothing seemed to make any sense. People who were talking to me suddenly disappeared into violent colors. At some point, I woke up in a Russian prison – only to realize later I was actually asleep. Needless to say, I don’t recommend falling asleep to this song.

Ever since it was put to wax, “Revolution 9” has been a polarizing piece of work. Many have argued that it belongs on John and Yoko’s infamous Two Virgins album and doesn’t belong on any Beatles album. There’s some certain truth to that. It’s hard to even call it a song – its mash of tape loops, screaming and feedback is starting and disturbing.

I’m certainly no huge fan of “Revolution 9”, but is certainly adds to the myth of The White Album. At that point, each Beatle was so focused on their own individual songs. Many of them are brilliant, others are quite good. Others barely even resemble songs – they’re more like ditties. Each Beatles’ songs on that album are a representation of their mind-set circa 1968. Paul was hammering out songs like nobody’s business, and John was struggling to bring his new-found creativity with Yoko into the fold. George, it seemed desperately wanted to be taken seriously by the other Beatles.

“Revolution 9” represents John at his most caustic – to his bandmates and audience. He had already put on Two Virgins, and only hard-core fans would attempt to listen to that. Putting “Revolution  9” on The White Album was his way of saying that he was done with The Beatles. Even though it would be another year before he was actually out, “Revolution 9” was the sonic equivalent of a middle finger. It practically screams “I’m done”.  It’s a declaration of the now, versus The Beatles of the past.

Pearl Jam have a heavily “Revolution 9” influenced track off of 1994’s Vitalogy called “Stupid Mop”. Like its predecessor, “Stupid Mop” is full of strange noises and feedback. If Lennon wanted to say he was out and showcase his creative side, Pearl Jam (and specifically Eddie Vedder here) use “Stupid Mop” as a way to confront their fans, many of whom they felt were strangling the band. Like Lennon, Vedder was struggling with being seen as a spokesman and trying to maintain what he saw as artistic credibility. “Stupid Mop” is even more alarming than “Revolution 9”. Even if you disagree about the artistic merits of “Revolution 9”, that was clearly in Lennon’s thought process at the time. “Stupid Mop” offers virtually no artistic merit. In “Not For You” off Vitalogy, Vedder directly confronts the casual fans: “This is not you. Fuck you.” 

Ultimately both artists would eventually come to terms with their fans and their own creativity. Lennon would make two more albums with The Beatles, before eventually going solo. Pearl Jam decided to cut down their accessibility, do less promotion and continue to make several more albums.

Maybe that’s why both “Revolution 9” and “Stupid Mop” are both so jarring. They’re not pieces of music – but rather a chance for both artists to exorcise their demons.

 

 

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Why The Early Beatles Albums Are Under-Rated

Chances are, if you ask anyone to name their favorite Beatles album they will probably reply with almost any album from 1965 on. Every single album after Help! was drastically different in its approach and sound. Rubber Soul and Revolver showed a “grown-up” version of the band ready to move beyond songs about love. Sergeant Pepper re-wrote the rules about what an album could be, and for better or worse made rock and form into a viable form of art. The White Album was a stark contrast to the Pepper’s excess as The Beatles embracing every genre under the sun. Abbey Road was a culmination of their entire career – it was an adult album, but the entire second half was a nod to their early pop days.

Since these albums changed popular music and the world, it seems as if their early albums tend to get lost in the shuffle. When was the last time you heard someone say their favorite Beatles album was Beatles For Sale, With The Beatles, or Please Please Me? It might be a bit simplistic, but unless you’re like to complete an artist’s catalog or grew up with the band, their early days seem to be reduced to images of appearing on Ed Sullivan or the singles collected on 1.

The general consensus seems to be that The Beatles really didn’t really make “albums” until Rubber Soul. Rock critics love to hammer this into the ground, as do fellow musicians. When Rolling Stone recruited various musicians, critics and other rock dignitaries to compile the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Sergeant Pepper, The White Album, Rubber Soul and Revolver were all included in the Top 10. Abbey Road came in at 14 and it wasn’t until number 39 that Please Please Me was listed. The American re-hashing and reinterpretation of With The Beatles dubbed Meet the Beatles was included at 59, but after that the early Beatles albums disappear until Help! appears at 332, while A Hard Day’s Night comes in at 388. I could gripe for paragraphs about this list, but is The Neil Diamond Collection really better than Help! or A Hard Day’s Night?  

I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a shock since even The Beatles themselves have gone on record in preference of their later albums. Lennon in particular dismissed their early songs, wanting instead to create music that actually meant something and deal with more worldly problems than simple love songs.

It’s certainly easy to cut their career in two parts – the early “Beatle-mania” years, and the “studio” years. But to overlook their early records undercuts Lennon and McCartney’s early brilliance and enthusiasm for rock and roll.

Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Beatles For Sale, and A Hard Day’s Night all fly by with an irresistible and joyful energy that has rarely been equaled. They may not be as groundbreaking as Revolver or The White Album, but Paul and John’s ability to churn out song after song each one with an impeccable melody is no less than staggering. Even revered pop songwriters should be jealous of Lennon and McCartney’s consistency across these albums.

Now, to the actual albums.

Please Please Me starts with one of the best opening songs ever – the infectious “I Saw Her Standing There”.  There’s no way to not get caught up in McCartney’s yelps and whoops. Harrison also gives one of his best solos from the early period here as well. “Boys” is more rocking fun complete with Doo-Wop backing vocals. While some of the material has dated slightly – “Chains” in particular, the most impressive aspect of Please Please Me is how their original songs stand up to the R&B classic “Twist and Shout”.  Apparently, The Beatles recorded the entire album in a 24-hour period, which makes the performances even more impressive.

With The Beatles follow the same template as Please Please Me, but there are subtle differences.  The rockers are tighter and sharper especially “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child” which contains a pretty impressive Harmonica solo. With The Beatles might be the first Beatles album where they really proved that they could tackle various styles of music, while still maintaining their own identity. There’s R&B (the superb cover of “You Really Got a Hold On Me”), beautiful ballads (“Till There Was You”) straight up pop (“All My Loving”). Like Please Please Me, the originals on With The Beatles easily stand alongside the covers, which is no easy feat when you decide to play Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”.

A Hard Day’s Night (which is actually my favorite Beatles album) is the first album composed entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals.  The title track is one of the best songs the Beatles ever recorded, and a great showcase for the vocal interplay between the two lead singers. On “I Should Have Known Better” there’s a slight bittersweet quality, which would become of Lennon’s trademark qualities as the years went on. Paul displays a great leap in his songwriting with the immortal “Things We Said Today”.  Ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night retains the best elements of their early rocking years while also incorporating a more reflective side further explored on subsequent albums.

Beatles For Sale might be the weakest of their early albums, as the quality slips slightly. There’s still plenty of fun and joy throughout, but Lennon’s songwriter seems to take a slightly darker undertone on such songs, as “I’m a Loser”. Up until this album, The Beatles cover versions had been just as good (if not better in some cases) than the originals, but “Mr. Moonlight” is slightly embarrassing and goes nowhere. The best song on the album is “Eight Days A Week” which remains under-rated as far as I’m concerned, even if it is the most well known song on the album.

Help! is probably the album where The Beatles really tried to escape Beatle-mania for the first time. On the title track, for the first time Lennon shows his genius for combining a serious topic with a sweet melody, a gift that he would take to creative and artistic heights on “Imagine”.  “The Night Before” is one of Paul’s bounciest songs which I’ve always thought of as a sweeter and distant cousin to Bob Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met”). Speaking of Dylan, his influence is all over this record particularly the acoustic based “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.  I haven’t mentioned Ringo yet, but on Help! his personality really begins to shine through. Those who dismiss him a crap drummer should listen again to his inventive drumming on the verses of “Ticket to Ride”. Plus he gets his first chance on lead vocals on the hilarious “Act Naturally” which acts as a counter-weight to the heavier songs like “Yesterday”.

After Help! The Beatles would shed new skin and completely come into their own and continue a string of creativity that has never been rivaled in popular music. But if they had stopped recording after Help! there’s no doubt in my mind that they still would be considered the greatest band to ever exist.

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Literature in Music: “Tomorrow Never Knows”

 

 

When The Beatles Remasters came out in 2009, I bought a copy of Abbey Road and Revolver. Anxious to hear the sonic upgrade, the first song I played on my stereo was “Tomorrow Never Knows”. If any song would benefit from remastering, it would certainly be Revolver’s closing song with its tape-loops, John Lennon’s distorted voice, and Ringo Starr’s non-traditional drum pattern.

And I was not to be disappointed. The drums wrapped themselves around the room, the odd sounds that are the song’s trademark came from every angle, and George Harrison’s guitar break cut through the chaos like a knife. Lennon’s call to “surrender to the void” was an announcement from a hidden Buddhist Temple. Moments like this are why I love music so much. Songs can take you places you never thought existed, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of rock’s wildest trips.

It should be no surprise then the song’s lyrics were adapted from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert.  As its name suggests, the book is a manual inspired by the Buddhist funerary text Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State, more commonly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Eastern philosophy became en vogue during the mid-1960s and Lennon became attracted to its themes of death, rebirth, and “clear light of reality”.  Most of the book focuses on the interval between death and the next reincarnation, known in Tibetan as “Bardo”.

Many of Lennon’s lyrics on Revolver deal with death and fatigue (“I know what it’s like to be dead” in “She Said, She Said”, and apathy of “I’m Only Sleeping”). “Tomorrow Never Knows” paints a different picture, though.  It is surrender to the void and an acceptance of the afterlife. Even though Lennon’s voice is pushed to the background of the song, it seeps into your sub-consciousness. He half-sings the lyrics like the prayers they are.

I’ve always thought of Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” as foils. The first deals with inner-peace and the second deals with world-peace and equality. They are both mantras of sorts – a call to arms. In “Imagine”, Lennon invites the listener to envision a world with “no heaven, and no religion too”. While there’s a certain cynicism to the lyrics, it’s still inviting. No such luck on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It’s a command. “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,” Lennon enthuses in the opening line. You’re either going to take this trip with him or you’re not.  Even in “Imagine” Lennon know that he will have his critics. “Tomorrow Never Knows” offers no respite. Your mind will be expanded, and the music only reinforces this.

Clearly the Beatles knew the significance of this song, and that’s why it was the last track on Revolver. They were no longer boys, but grown-ups. And if you didn’t figure it out, you would be the time Sergeant Pepper came out

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Is The Cover For “Born This Way” Inspired by Bob Dylan?

So, I was reading a Bob Dylan criticism book and the line, “the motorcycle black madonna, two wheeled gypsy queen” from “Gates of Eden” was mentioned.  Without the rest of the song to anchor the line, I somehow thought of this terrible album cover.  Make of it what you will.

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The 5 Best Songs of the 80s

5. “Mother” – Danzig

Best hard-rock song of the 80’s bar none and also the best song named “Mother”.  John Lennon and Pink Floyd’s respective songs are too inward and depressing.  On his “Mother”  Glen Danzig warns parents not to listen to his words, or follow him.  And he’s right too.  Because if you find hell with him, he’s gonna show you til your bleeding!  Scary stuff.  All of this would mean absolutely nothing if the music didn’t come across as a song Satan himself could have wrote.  Hide your kids.

4.  “Take on Me” – A-ha

Eat your heart out, “Baba O’Riley” this is synthesizer perfection right here.  The song is also memorable for its iconic video with its sketches that come to life.  However, one should not cross out the cleverness of its lyrics either: “I’m coming for your love, ok?” and  “Take on me” becomes “Take me on” during the chorus.  Classy.  Also, look for Patrick Carney of the Black Keys in the video around the 2:00 minute mark.

3. “Dangerzone” – Kenny Loggins

Does any other movie capture the spirit of the 80s more than Top Gun? And as a bonus you get Kenny Loggin’s masterpiece, “Dangerzone”.  The real genius of the lyrics comes from the double meaning of the lyrics.  It could be about lift-off in a plane, or about a sexual encounter, or both.  Who cares?  Lift-off achieved.

2. “Whip It” – Devo

The lyrics of the catchiest song about masturbation/S&M are just icing on the cake.  What really makes the song is the keyboard during the chorus. Has there ever been a more effective use of one note?  Another iconic video, which has the band “playing” on the set of what looks like a photo-shoot for a Marlboro Man ad.  Despite the use of the whip, in a real situation the man in the cowboy hat probably kicked Devo’s ass with their silly hats and keyboards.  A victory for nerds!

1. “The Final Countdown” – Europe

The best intro to a song ever.  Also worth noting the world’s best magician used this as his theme music.

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5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”

 

 

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Holiday/Christmas Theme Week: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.  With The Beatles, and with his solo works, Lennon remains one of my favorite rock artists. If Phil Spector totally changed the way in which Christmas songs could be heard, then Lennon changed the message of what a Christmas single could be with “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which was also produced by Spector.

Both A Christmas Gift For You and Happy Xmas are tied together not just by Spector, but also the Vietnam War.  A Christmas Gift For You was in November 1963, right after President Kennedy’s assassination.  Though the US was already involved in the Vietnam War, by the end of of 1963, Lyndon Johnson reversed Kennedy’s decision to remove 1,000 troops from Vietnam and ended up expanding the war.   It’s little wonder that A Christmas Gift For You didn’t initially catch on under the circumstances.

Flash forward almost 6 years later to 1969, with the war at its height John Lennon and Yoko decided to rent billboards across several cities with the slogan “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).  Happy Christmas From John and Yoko”.   It would be two years later before “Happy Xmas” would be released, but the slogans served as the basis for the song.

Almost 40 years later it’s become passe to release Christmas singles or exploit the season for charity events.  But it can’t be denied that the concept came from this song. Lennon, ever the political, made sure that his sentiments came through with silver bells.  Here was a song designed to make the listeners think about what they’ve done over the past year.  “So this is Christmas,” Lennon begins as he strums his the guitar, “and what have you done?”

Lennon’s genius shines through by making a very adult oriented theme a form (the Christmas song) normally considered “jolly”.  To drive the point home, the background vocals provided by the Harlem Community Choir who sing the “war is over” slogan.  Children tend to be oblivious to politics, and often see things in gray that adults often do not.  By having the children’s choir singing that particular line, Lennon is making the point that war affects everybody, and not just the troops (and their families) who were fighting in Vietnam.  If Lennon had sung “war is over, if you want it” the song wouldn’t be nearly as convincing.  Cynics could easily raise their eyebrows at a famous rock star making flights of fancy about how to end the war.  (Which, right or wrong, has always been a criticism of “Imagine”, particularly the line about imagining no possesions.)

This time of year is about coming together and forgetting life’s troubles.  Lennon reversed that with “Happy Xmas”, and made us remember what was going on.  But the idea of coming together for peace and love is very in the vein of the Holiday season, and in that sense, “Happy Xmas” might be the best representation of those themes.

 

 

 

 

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