Introducing: Postmodern Jukebox

I never heard of Postmodern Jukebox until yesterday.  My son sent me a link on Facebook to this awesome cover of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, arranged in the style of the popular music of 1912. Give it a listen. I thought it was terrific fun, and I got curious. There’s a YouTube station called Scott Bradlee Loves Ya, and I just started watching videos. Before long, I’d tuned out the ballgame I’d been watching, and the next thing I knew, three hours had passed.

One of the awesome things about YouTube is that oddball acts can find an audience and launch a career just by posting there.  I saw an interview recently with Lindsay Stirling where she said that record companies kept telling her that what she did just wasn’t commercially viable; that a cute violinist/dancer chick with a love of fantasy just wasn’t something anyone wanted. So she posted amazing videos of herself on Youtube, and now she’s launched, a big star. Likewise The Piano Guys; likewise Pentatonix.  And dozens of others.  And now Post-modern Jukebox.

Basically, Postmodern Jukebox is the brainchild of a very bright, exceptionally talented jazz pianist and arranger named Scott Bradlee.  On the Postmodern Jukebox website, he declares his intentions:

My goal with Postmodern Jukebox is to get my audience to think of songs not as rigid, ephemeral objects, but like malleable blobs of silly putty. Songs can be twisted, shaped and altered without losing their identities–just as we grow, age and expire without losing ours–and it is through this exploration that the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art can be bridged most readily. I want to contribute to the pop music lexicon in the best way that I can. I want to encourage others to push the boundaries of genres, and give them the tools to do so. Together I want to create an alternate universe of popular music.

High minded goals, though, of course, not really all that new. From Paul Anka’s cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to the stylings of Richard Cheese, this kind of project is not unknown. Aren’t mind-altering covers of pop songs essentially what Pentatonix does?

Still, what Postmodern Jukebox does is reinvent popular songs of today based on a thorough immersion in the popular music of the last century or so, done with consummate musicianship, wit and thoughtful attention to detail. And, at times, including vocals by a seven-foot tall weeping clown. As with their cover of Lorde’s hit, Royals. Ah, Pagliacci.  Or, in the same spirit: Smokey.

So Bradlee isn’t really doing anything quite that unique. Pop music is always a pastiche, echoing over periods and styles. But he’s also terrific. Say a swing version of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. Or a smokin’ New Orleans Jazz cover of Sweet Child ‘O Mine. Or a bluegrass barn dance version of Blurred Lines. Or a terrific country cover of Kesha’s Die Young. Or this torch song created from the unpromising material of Radiohead’s Creep.  Or maybe this: Peggy Lee’s Fever, sung in twelve different styles. Or a mashup of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The singers he uses are tremendous: Robyn Adele Anderson, Miche Braden, Karen Marie. Not to mention, of course, Puddles the Clown. In fact all the Postmodern Jukebox musicians are terrific.

For an ensemble with ‘postmodern’ in the title, their videos are remarkably pedestrian. A lot of them look like they were recorded in the same corner of the same living room. The emphasis seems to be on musicianship, on musical originality. Basically, the singers wear period-specific costuming–that’s the only real visual element. I don’t know if they’re deliberately going for some kind of minimalist statement, or if they just didn’t have a lot of money when they were starting off. They have gotten more visually daring lately, including this video shot in the Cosmopolitan office.

Anyway, they’re terrific. Love their work, love what they’re doing, and am desperately hoping they tour out west sometime soon–their tours have all been back East. Buy their songs, watch their videos.  Love Postmodern Jukebox.

Favorite bands: Gentle Giant

This is something I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a long time now; use it to try to turn people on to favorite bands of mine.  Anyway, I thought I’d start here, with Gentle Giant.

Gentle Giant were the quintessential mid-seventies progressive (prog) rock band. To quote Bob Stanley’s invaluable (and infuriating) new history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah:

Groups used instrumentation, phrasing and rhythms that they had learned playing folk, jazz and blues; inevitably, many of the musicians had been trained in classical music.  Much maligned since, it can be very beautiful.  On the other hand, musical chops were essential, which resulted in some of the most tedious, self-indulgent music ever, and this has led to the whole genre being sharply unfashionable ever since.

And since this is in a chapter that begins with a quotation knocking Gentle Giant, I assume that Stanley intends ‘tedious and self-indulgent’ to refer to Giant, who he otherwise does not discuss at all.  They were the proggest of the progs, the most self-consciously intellectual and show-offy group of musicians perhaps ever assembled (aside from maybe the worst excesses of Frank Zappa, or possibly the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  On the cover of Gentle Giant’s second album, Acquiring the Taste (an album intended to introduce you to the pleasures of their music and genre), we find this pronouncement: “it is our intention to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music, at the risk of being very unpopular.”  They never were afraid.  Their entire approach was very much ‘this is what we do.  Like it, or not.  We don’t much care.” Later, that changed; they wanted to be more popular, to sell more records, to make more money, and their music changed too, became more accessible, more commercial.  It didn’t work, and I think they knew it wouldn’t.  They had the most unique sound in the world, and not everyone was going to embrace it.

And I loved it.  I owned all their albums at one time, and listened to them a lot, and saw them in concert twice, once as the warm-up band for Yes, and the second time, as warm-up band for Jethro Tull.  Both concerts, something very strange happened; thousands of fans came for the warm-up band, and left after Giant left the stage.  We were there to hear Giant.  Fact was, I like Yes and Tull a lot too, and stayed both times, but I was in a minority.  Both times, easily half the audience scarpered after Gentle Giant’s set.

Here’s a song from Acquiring the Taste: “The House, The Street, The Room.” Give it a listen.  It starts with a long bass line, augmented by keyboard, and eventually guitar, but almost spooky, like the sound track to a particularly Grand Guignol horror movie.  We then hear Derek Shulman’s strong voice, with those enigmatic lyrics, harmonized by Ray Shulman with Kerry Minnear’s light tenor on the high notes.  (In performance, Minnear rarely sang). Then comes an instrumental interlude, with everything from pizzicato strings, some glockenspiel, some mandolin, very tight, very focused.  Then out of nowhere, a hard blues guitar solo, with Gary Green rocking out.  This is typical Giant.  Chamber music at times, but also unmistakably rock and roll.

The lineup kept changing, but the heart of the band were always three brothers, Phil, Ray and Derek Shulman.  Their father was a professional trumpeter, and insisted, growing up, that the boys learn multiple instruments: Ray started trumpet lessons at five, then violin lessons at seven.  They were joined by a friend, Kerry Minnear, who played keyboard and percussion; those four, the Shulmans and Minnear, all wrote the songs.  They added Gary Green, a blues guitarist who also could play mandolin, and drummer Martin Smith.  Between the six of them, they could play 43 instruments with professional competence; their musical chops are uncanny.  In concert, half the fun was watching them dash from instrument to instrument.

Most prog bands were British, for some reason, and fascinated by English myth and legend. So was Giant. A thread through many albums is the story of Pantagruel, a gentle giant who goes about the countryside helping (but also inadvertently scaring) the local citizenry.  Here’s Pantagruel’s Nativity from Acquiring the Taste. It starts with mellotron, adds some synthesizer, and is one of the rare Giant songs to feature Minnear’s voice. What I especially love is the three and four part harmonies they create, a Giant trademark.

Here’s a third song from Acquiring the Taste; my son’s favorite Giant song: Wreck. It’s about a shipwreck, and is often the case with Giant, alternates hard rock sections with chamber music; Ray Shulman’s violin is especially lovely in the first instrumental break.

After Acquiring the Taste, they dropped Martin Smith as drummer, and replace him with Malcolm Mortimer. They then recorded a concept album: Three Friends. It followed the lives of three childhood friends who, as adults, each take their lives in different directions.  One of the friends becomes a painter; this song, Peel the Paint is about his life.  Again, Ray Shulman’s violin is featured, but also Green’s shockingly disruptive guitar solos, with Derek Shulman’s powerful vocals, laying bare the turmoil underneath the successful artist’s facade.

After Three Friends, Malcolm Mortimer was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, and although they wanted to keep him, they had just gotten a record deal and were under pressure to record quickly.  They replaced him with John Weathers, which proved an inspired choice; Weathers was another multi-instrumentalist, a fine percussionist in addition to just drumming.  His work added another level of complexity to their sound, and the result was their finest album, Octopus.  Here’s Knots, from that album, inspired by the word games of R. D. Laing.  It begins with their most complex vocal harmonies, then adds Weathers’ percussion.  First time I heard it, I didn’t like it, but it is a song that rewards multiple hearings.  Also from Octopus, another chapter in the Pantagruel extended story, The Advent of Panurge.

Following Octopus, Phil Shulman, who was eight and ten years older than his brothers, decided that his membership in the band was putting too much pressure on his wife and children, and quit.  The other five members carried on, and the result was an album, In a Glass House, that sounds a bit more like rock music.  Not all that much; the rhythmic complexity and multi-instrumental virtuosity were still on display, as per In a Glass House, the eponymous track from the album, which to me has a stronger jazz influence than heard in other albums and songs.

Their next album, The Power and the Glory, was very much a turning point.  They’d signed with a recording label, World Wide Associates (WWA), which was also Black Sabbath’s label.  It was not a good match.  This song, The Power and the Glory, was written by Derek Shulman, who hated it, under pressure from the studio, which wanted, not unreasonably, something commercial.  I know GG fans who like it, and consider it among the band’s best songs.  I think it’s, at best, mediocre Giant.

They quit WWA, and signed with Chrysalis, and Free Hand is the album that resulted. One of the ironies of Giant is that they were a British band, but always more popular in America than in Britain.  Free Hand became their biggest selling US album.  Again, some Giant fans think it’s pretty compromised, but I rather like it.  They certainly sound more polished, and the music is plenty complex, as, for example, the song Free hand.  I love the contrast between the intensity of Derek Shulman’s voice, and Minnear’s playful piano licks.  If this is Giant trying to be commercial, well, that was probably never going to happen.

And it didn’t.  They compromised and compromised, even, eventually, dropping all strings and woodwinds and percussion and reinventing themselves as a typical guitar, bass, drums, keyboard rock band, for the album Civilian.  And yet, even then, they stayed interesting, as per this song, Inside Out.  They’re just too good as musicians to write a boring song.

Finally, they broke up, and the split was fairly amicable. Derek and Ray Shulman got into the business end of the music world, and Phil opened a gift shop.  Minnear went into gospel, and now, by mutual agreement, handles all business matters regarding Gentle Giant.  Gary Green remains a session guitarist, very much in demand.  They have resisted for years calls for a reunion album or tour.

I still listen to their music, and my oldest son has become a Gentle Giant fan. As a nerdy bookworm and theatre kid in high school, they spoke to me as no other band could have done.  I still think they’re remarkable.  Give ‘em a listen.  It may take a little while to get into the sound; they’re not like anyone else. But what they are is amazing.

 

 

 

Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits.  We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over.  At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.

But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix.  I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it.  And I found it disappointing.

Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals.  Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children.  They were movies we loved.  The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling.  It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails.  It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song.  Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler.  It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes.  Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song.  She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.

In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice.  Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed.  After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why.  Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind.  Elsa grows up fearful.  On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now.  She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there.  She’s also not the main character in the story.

The protagonist is Anna.  She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom.  That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.

On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee.  She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer.  She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be.  She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him.  She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler.  Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it.  We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’

Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine.  The little snowman is cute.  His song is funny.  But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm).  This show would close in Philadelphia.

I didn’t hate it.  I loved the Anna character.  She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all.  And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely.  Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney.  It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly.  And that true love can be between sisters.  And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie.  I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun.  But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.

Bad songs

My wife got me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and for my birthday, a Kindle gift card.  So I went on a search for authors I like who might have reasonably priced books available on Kindle. I’ve made all sorts of fun finds (lots of P.G. Wodehouse hilarity, for example, often for less than a dollar each).  I also found some Dave Barry.  He has a new book, a collection of longer essays than we’re used to from him, but also an old fave; Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.  And I’ve been reading it aloud to my wife and my daughter.

Back in the 90s, when Barry was still writing his nationally syndicated humor column, he did a piece about popular songs one hears on the radio quite a bit, which suck. In other words, yes, they’re popular, yes they’re on the radio quite a bit, and usually the tune is quite catchy–often REALLY catchy–but the songs themselves are really terrible, in the sense that he, Dave Barry, hated them, and so, it turned out, did a lot of other people.  And so he wrote a column about it, and tons of people responded with their least favorite songs, and that led to a second column, and a survey, and finally, a book.  Which I just read aloud to my wife, and which we both thought was hilarious.  As he points out, when Neil Diamond sings:

I am, I said

To no one there,

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair.

I mean, why should the chair be listening?  It’s a chair.  Or when Richard Harris wrote (and Donna Summer covered):

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it

Because it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again

Oh Noooooooooo!

We can either contemplate the profundity of that metaphor, and the anguish we’ve all felt when we left a favorite cake out in the rain, or . . . . we can laugh.  In fact, MacArthur Park was selected the worst song in the history of pop music in Barry’s (completely unscientific survey).  And yes, it’s a dumb song. I personally, would have voted for Honey, by Bobby Goldsboro.  I’m not sure if anything can match Honey’s amazing mix of rank sexism and crass sentimentality.  But MacArthur Park is plenty bad too.

But Dave Barry did his survey in 1992.  There have been a whole lot of songs on the radio since then.  So I thought I’d weigh in.  What are some recent very popular songs that (and I mean this scientifically), really suck?  What really awful terrible songs have become popular recently?  Because bad taste is a constant, is it not?  And bubble gum lasts forever?

I’m going to jump right in here: I think Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is the worst song I’ve heard in the last ten years, a song that makes Baby, It’s Cold Outside or Only the Good Die Young (both of which it rather resembles) seem enlightened.  Just a few sample lyrics:

Okay now he was close

Tried to domesticate ya

But you’re an animal

Baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate ya

You don’t need no takers

That man is not your maker

That’s why I’mma take a good girl

I know you want it

Can’t let it get past me

You’re far from plastic

Talk about getting blasted

I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it.

He’s doing her a favor, see. What a good guy.

And those are all from early in the song.  Later in the song, he’s much more explicit:

Nothing like that last guy, he too square for you

He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.

What a charmer.

Now, my link above is not to the seriously R-rated video, which I have not seen, but which, I’ve heard, takes the essentially rapey Neaderthal sexism of the song and Playboy-izes it to a considerable degree.  The lyrics do suggest that the girl to which he’s directing his smarmy attentions either isn’t aware of them, or, more likely, has just decided to ignore the dirtbag. Still, this song is not just the moral but also the tactical equivalent of construction workers wolf-whistling passing female executives on nearby sidewalks; you’re just being annoying, guys.

Really, seriously, why was this repugnant song a hit?  I really, genuinely don’t get it. This song has nothing going for it. At all. Nothing.

So Blurred Lines is sort of uniquely bad. But there are other songs out there nearly as bad.  Which brings us to the Beebs.

I shouldn’t pick on Justin Bieber. Cute little massively marketed/modestly talented boys with high pitched singing voices have been fluttering the hearts of fourteen year old girls ever since David Cassidy, and indeed much much earlier.  I’m going to argue for Bieber’s Boyfriend for my bad song list, not because there’s anything remarkable about it, but because it’s so generic.  Insipid lyrics, a nice dance groove, a video showing JB being (preposterously) good at bowling, and a completely unnecessary and intrusive rap verse (by Ludacris, in this case), make this a standard variety 20-tween pop hit, undistinguished by melodic or lyrical interest of any kind. Also, it’s annoying.  And ubiquitous.  So it makes my list.

Turning my attention from modestly talented/massively marketed cute boys to MT/MM cute girls brings us straight to Miss Taylor Swift, and so I’m putting We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together Forever on the list.  Anymore, it’s difficult to distinguish between songs and the videos for songs, and Taylor’s video for this song combines cuteness with incomprehensibility.  It’s Taylor, in a ‘sexy librarian wearing pajamas’ outfit, joined by large numbers of her friends, who, for some reason, have chosen to dress up like animals, as though they were already in the What Does the Fox Say video shoot and decided to drift over to the Taylor Swift shoot next door. I don’t know what to make of this song.  Is it a ‘breakup anthem,’ Taylor Swift channeling her inner Alanis?  But the extra two ‘evers’ in the title suggests that she’s not so entirely sure about this break-up thing; that she’s protesting over-much.  So is it a ‘you’re bad for me, but you’re also super cute’ kind of ‘break-up wuss-out’ song?  I think the end of the video sort of suggests that, yes.  But the musical mood is strident.  So it’s a strident wuss-out song?  Boy, do we need more of those. Blarg.

I really don’t want to pick on Carly Rae Jepson, or on Call Me Maybe.  If men can objectify women based entirely on physical appearance, why shouldn’t women do the same, or write songs about how fun objectification can be, when the shoe’s on the other foot? (Or when the attractively ripped jeans are on the other set of legs).  If you take my meaning. And the tune is so maddeningly catchy, we’re pretty well all of us stuck with it for the rest of our lives.  That’s what you’ll hear every day if, fifty years from now, you find a job in a nursing home.  Room after room playing Call Me Maybe.

Hard and fast rule; do not, in your song, reference people more talented than you. I’m serious; it just invites unflattering comparisons. I’m looking at you, Maroon Five.  Adam Levine; Moves like Jagger? No. Right Said Fred was not too sexy for his shirt, and you do not move like Mick Jagger.  You probably sing a little better than he did.  Mick Jagger never could sing.  It didn’t matter.  He was (and is) the greatest front man for any rock band ever, and the band he fronted one of the three best in the history of popular music.  And all you front is Maroon Five.  And lyrics like these:

Take me by the tongue

And I’ll know you

Kiss me ’til you’re drunk

And I’ll show you

don’t help.

Maybe one more?  But who?  I loathe Wrecking Ball, but have I already picked on too many female songstresses?  And isn’t Miley Cyrus an easy target? I know some people are going to vote for Pharrell (Skinny Smokey the Bear) Williams and Happy, but I actually sort of like Happy.  One Direction has Best Song Ever, in which the video is, quite possibly, more annoying than the Baba O’Reilly rip-off of a song, but once you pick on the Beebs, it seems redundant to pick on One Direction.  Then I found this: Alison Gold’s Chinese Food. For one thing, Alison Gold looks maybe thirteen.  And the entire song is . . . about how much she likes Chinese Food?  Seriously, that’s the song.  So, yeah, we have a winner. Even though I darkly suspect the song was done by the same people who gave us Friday and Rebecca Black.

I asked my daughter what she thought, and she responded “anything by Kendrick Lamar.”  But I wasn’t about to listen to a whole bunch of Kendrick Lamar songs to figure out which one was the worst.  (Poetic Justice?) So I asked her boyfriend, and he said “anything by Kendrick Lamar or Ke$ha.”  I sort of like Ke$ha, though I find the mid-name dollar sign affectation unnecessary.  But, then, she’s built her career on affectation. She was a straight A student, aced her SAT’s, and is a math nerd par excellence.  But she’s from a dirt-poor family, and by playing the musical role of ‘hard-drinking party girl’ has become a millionaire. Power to her, I guess.  So here’s TiK ToK; enjoy.

So what are your choices?  I don’t mean to suggest that any songs today are quite as idiotic as MacArthur Park. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ sets a standard it will be hard to beat.  But there’s still a great deal of drivel being written, and recorded.  So what songs drive you bananas?

 

 

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?

 

 

A wedding

On Saturday, I went to a wedding.

It was actually a ring ceremony, the couple having been married previously, by Queen Latifah.  Seriously: at the Grammys.  So this was a kind of ‘reading each other our vows’ kind of thing, an exchange of rings, followed by a reception.  But it was really lovely, just a beautiful event.  Many many tears were shed, a few of them by a sentimental old fool of an uncle.  That would be me: my nephew Spencer was half of the marrying couple, marrying Dustin, a wonderful guy we have all grown to love.

The ring ceremony was held at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake, a place I had never previously visited.  It’s sort of an open square, with a small conference center in the middle, next to the skating rink. The skating rink alarmed me, passing it; I had a brief moment of panic, wondering if we would be expected to skate.  I never could ice skate, not even a little bit, and I think if I were try to it today I would just, you know, die.  But no; we were in a nice reception room, with lots of exceedingly uncomfortable chairs, just like most weddings have.

I got there way early.  My son and I had gone out to dinner, but he needed to go home and change, and his apartment is not handicapped accessible, so he dropped me off. So I got there in time to watch Betty Who practice.  Betty Who’s song “Somebody Loves You” had provided the music for Spencer’s Home Depot proposal video, a video that had gone viral and made Spencer and Dustin famous.  She had become friends with them, and was singing at the ceremony.  She finished practicing, and I ended up chatting briefly with her; mostly a ‘you sing beautifully,’ ‘thanks!’ kind of conversation. She was lovely; gracious and humble.

Other guests began arriving. My wife and daughters came; my son showed up, now dressed appropriately. The reception hall filled up. Everyone wearing their finest, looking happy.  As always with wedding events, I knew approximately a third of the people there.

Music started up.  First, an instrumental version of Christina Perri’s lovely “A Thousand Years.”  We didn’t hear the lyrics, obviously, but I know the song well, and rehearsed them in my mind: “I have died, everyday, waiting for you, darling; don’t be afraid, I have loved you, for a thousand years, loved you for a thousand years.”  Beautiful lyric, beautiful song, and perfect for the event.  As the music played, members of the wedding party started coming down the aisles, in pairs.  Lots of them; this couple is very loved, by many people.

Then, another instrumental; this time, the music introduction to Macklemore’s “Same Love,” the song played at the Grammies when they were married there.  Again, a wonderfully appropriate selection.  The lyrics may have seemed tendentious to some, but this was just the music; perfect.

Finally, Betty Who sang.  Her song, “Somebody Loves You” is an upbeat dance groove; for the wedding, she sang it like a ballad, just guitar and vocal.  It was . . . I’m running out of synonyms for beautiful.  Check a thesaurus: it was radiant.  Exquisite, lovely.  Resplendent.

As she sang, Spencer and Dustin came down the aisle.  They read their vows to each other.  And I think probably both of them would say that they’re not writers, not eloquent, but I thought both vows were eloquent and simple and perfect.  Heartfelt.  I can’t remember all they said, but I do remember Spencer saying ‘I will always be kind,’ and I know he will be, he is, that’s him, that’s Spencer.  A kind man, a gentle man, a joyous and generous man. He was weeping, and then Dustin read his vows, promising to be tender with Spencer’s heart, and maybe he was weeping more, and so was I and so were Spencer’s sisters, standing there, and so was everyone else.

And then they were done.  And we sat there a little, not sure where to go, not wanting, really, for the feeling to pass.  And the reception was in another building, and we went, and there was dancing.  But hardly any chairs, and the ones there were uncomfortable, and so we left.  I don’t really dance anymore.

But it didn’t matter.  We’d seen something lovely, we’d been part of something splendid and human and real and moving. Two wonderful human beings joining their lives together forever. And I thought; if ever there was a time to just be happy for people.  Just a time to be joyful.  Completely, wholly, uncomplicatedly, unambiguously happy.

Justin Bieber

There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life.  And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident.  Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music.  It was the only thing this coma patient could hear.  And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player.  Justin Bieber saved my life!”

I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos.  I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon.  I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin.  I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies.  From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls.  There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music.  They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.

Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives.  But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ‘em right,’ we think.  ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens.  She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law.  A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known.  But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.

Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call.  Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.

But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.

When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931′s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”.  I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:

If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age.  But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping.  And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things.  Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value.  What we actually, really, love.

If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value.  They quantify value.  We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak.  But we don’t.  We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.

Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic.  You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher.  You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does.  But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people.  We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us.  We have dollar figures as proof.

By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense.  Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing.  Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.

David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV.  He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible.  I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.

Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important.  But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value.  TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia.  But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money.  Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber.  But we do care, we care a great deal.  We can prove how much we care.  We can put a price on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grammy Awards

Last night, my wife and I and our daughters had a deeply weird experience, watching, for the first time ever, the CBS broadcast of the Grammy Awards.  I essentially never watch awards shows on TV, except for the Oscars, which I watch every year.  And I freely and fully admit that I’m sort of an old fuddy-dud.  But I’m not remotely hostile to popular music, nor to contemporary music. One of my daughters is a huge Katy Perry fan, and I rather like some of her music.  I waited with great anticipation the arrival of the new Arcade Fire album, have listened to it many times, and think it’s terrific.  Nor am I remotely hostile to rap, or hip-hop.  I like Macklemore, for example.  My wife and I discovered Pentatonix this year, and think they’re amazing.  Naively, I assumed that Reflektor (the Arcade Fire release), would be up for Album of the Year, and that Pentatonix would be under consideration for Best New Artist.

And I’m not bitter that neither Arcade Fire nor Pentatonix were mentioned, either of them, ever, at any time.  To me, they were the two musical highlights of the year, but that’s not what the Grammies are about, apparently.   The music honored at the Grammies is, I suppose Top Forty, if that meant anything anymore.  It’s “Music that you would hear on the radio, if anyone listened to the radio, which no one does anymore.”  It’s so strangely anachronistic, this talk of ‘albums’ and ‘records’ in an age where music is almost entirely delivered via digital downloads.

Still, watching the Grammies, what I did not anticipate is how bad the musical performances would be.  I was actually sort of hoping I would hear music by people I didn’t know, and that I would like some of it, and want to buy it.  This did not happen.  For the most part, the musicians who performed were utterly dreadful.  A whole bunch of awards were given out, in obscure and infinitesimally differentiated categories.  Meanwhile, a bewildering array of performers both ancient and modern, or often enough, both together, would perform, either indifferently or catastrophically. And the ubiquitous and sinister presence of Jay-Z reigned over the proceedings, rather like Michael Corleone presiding over his father’s funeral.

Without question, the nadir of the evening’s performances involved the music of Chicago, as butchered by the untalented, smarmy and smirking Robin Thicke.  Chicago sounded terrific. That great horn section had its usual precision and polish, and Robert Lamm’s voice is as strong as ever.  They began “Does anybody really know what time it is?” with Lamm singing, and sounded, well, like Chicago, as good as ever.  Then Thicke put an execrable gloss on the vocal.  It was all downhill from there.  Thicke butchered two more Chicago songs, to complete the medley, and then that great horn section was somehow induced to provide backing for Thicke’s performance of his own loathsome hit, “Blurred Lines.”  I still shudder at the recollection.

This sort of thing kept happening. Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams (unaccountably wearing a hat he stole from Smokey the Bear), joined something called Daft Punk, a French duo who wear helmets, making them look like Boba Fett’s Eurotrash nephews, resulting in an utterly forgettable dance groove.  All the mystery of Imagine Dragons’ terrific song “Radioactive” was wiped clean by a frenetic, baffling and incomprehensible rap intrusion by someone I hope never to hear about again in any context whatsoever named Kendrick Lamar.

It also seemed to be a night for burying hatchets.  Next month, CBS will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut, and so both Paul and Ringo were there, and performed.  Ringo sang his one hit from his one album: I thought “Photograph” held up nicely.  Then he played drums for Paul (and was I the only one wondering if this would be the last time?), as Paul performed his new single (!), “Queenie Eye.”  Paul’s voice is shot, but the man’s past 70, and there’s still that charisma.  And Ringo’s got to be 73, and doesn’t look a day past 60.  But, sitting right there on the same row, about four people down, there she was: Yoko Ono, with I think Julian Lennon as her date.  And in a tribute to the “outlaws of country,” Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson sang “Highwaymen” really badly, then were joined by Merle Haggard for “Okie From Muskogee,” a song which in 1969 was a direct rebuke to country outlaws (and hippies) and to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson specifically.  (Boy was it weird hearing Willie Nelson sing “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”).   But time wounds all heals, and the old guys seemed to enjoy their time on-stage together.  They were joined by Blake Shelton, who’s too young to have any historical ties to the others, but who seemed to be up there so there’d be one person on stage who can still sing and play the guitar.

There were some nice moments. Sara Bareilles and Carole King sat at pianos and sang two songs together, one by each of them: “Brave” and “Beautiful,” and the result was both brave and beautiful.  They represent different generations of women who do the same thing–singer/songwriters.  And they were both clearly thrilled to be up there, and the songs were great.  John Legend was similarly terrific; just sat at the piano and sang a good song really well.  Simple and great. A young country artist named Kacey Musgraves, who I’ve never heard of, sang her new hit, “Follow your arrow,” and I liked it and her some, though I’m not sure who told her that turning her Mom’s Christmas sweater into a short, short skirt was a good idea. But they were wrong.

Lorde won for “Royals,” a terrific song that I like a lot better in Pentatonix’ cover version.  Lorde, channelling Morticia Adams, also performed it, in a twitchy, odd, tuneless performance that made her look nuts. Katy Perry wore a witch costume, all the better to writhe on what seemed to be a hemlock stripper pole; a unifying theme of the evening seemed to be ‘tribute to bad musical theatre choreography’. Whenever things lagged, bring on the smoke effects and pyrotechnics!

I learned some things.  I did not know, for example, that Pink had been working out with the Cirque du Soleil choreographers.  But she has, and either lip-synced or sang while doing acrobatics.  Sadly, she was joined by a completely forgettable band named, if memory serves, Fun; not an inspired pairing.  I discovered that Metallica can still rock, and were memorably joined by the pianist Lang Lang–the result was a cacophonous mess.  I learned that Taylor Swift can fling her head around while singing, but not while singing well, apparently; the overall performance was embarrassing.  And I learned that Keith Urban sang play him some blues guitar; his duet with Gary Clark Jr. was okay.

Meanwhile, the Jay-Z thing just got weirder and weirder.  Beyonce’s opening number was tuneless and ugly.  Jay-Z joined her at the end, and the place went wild, but it rather felt like a soccer stadium in North Korea going wild when Kim Jung Un ‘scores’ a ‘goal.’  At one point, Jamie Foxx went up to present a winner in some category, and made some sort of comment along the lines of ‘gosh, Beyonce is sure pretty.’ An act of lèse majesté; apparently: he back-tracked frantically, babbling incoherently, then racing through his list of nominees.  There was absolutely this whole ‘Jay-Z can and will have you killed if you displease him’ sort of vibe.  Even the CBS producers caught it; the camera kept cutting to Jay-Z after each performance, as though looking for The Godfather’s blessing.

These award shows, like everything else in pop culture, are meant to build to a climax, and last night was no exception.  The climax last night was supposed to be a kind of marriage equality affirmation, in which Reverend Queen Latifah married 33 couples, some gay, some straight, while Macklemore rapped his “Same love” anthem, and Madonna, dressed like Colonel Sanders, blessed the proceedings.  In fact, that was why I was watching; my wife and I know one of the couples getting hitched. Trust CBS to blow it.  We hardly got to see the marrying couples at all; the camera was much more interested in what had been the point of focus the whole night, the spectacle of celebrities applauding celebrities.  (But for what are some of these people celebrated?)  We did not see the couple we’d watched the whole night to see.  What we saw instead was lots of Pharrell Williams’ silly hat and Jay-Z’s baleful glare.  And Taylor Swift dancing to everything.

I imagine that, for the marrying couples, having the whole thing nationally televised was probably kind of fun.  Having Queen Latifah preside was probably pretty cool. Macklemore’s song probably seemed appropriate.  Still, the CBS broadcast turned what genuinely is an important and sacred moment into something star-infested and tacky.  And they didn’t need to.  Let the camera linger. Actually show the couples.  Show them crying, embracing, kissing.  Show something human, for heaven’s sake.

So, yeah, the Grammy Awards of 2014 were kind of a bust.  They honored some mediocre songs and performances, as well as a couple of good ones.  The performances were mostly bad, but not uniformly.  Still, it’s three and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back.  Won’t be watching next year, no matter who gets married.

Why were the Beatles the Beatles?

Nerd fun: get a book at the library, read it, buy it, read it again, buy a copy for your son, then have long phone conversations with him about it. The book, in this case, is Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years.  961 pages.  This is part one of Lewisohn’s proposed three volume (!) history of the Beatles.  The extraneous colons in the title can be explained by the fact that the entire series is going to be called The Beatles: All These Years.  Anyway, you’re either the kind of person for whom the first 961 page volume of a proposed three volume history of the Beatles is the most entrancing thing on the planet, or you’re baffled by the whole prospect; suffice it to say that I am the first kind of person, and so is my son.  And it’s as good as I hoped.  Lewisohn is an indefatigable researcher, thorough to the point of obsession, and he writes with precision, style, and humor.  My only quibble with him is that his book ends in 1962, and now I’m going to have to wait who knows how long before the next one appears.  Darn him.

I don’t plan to review it, though, not here, not now.  I mean, you’ve already decided, haven’t you?  You’re already either going to buy it, like, today, and take it straight home and let the laundry and dishes pile up while you get it read, or you’re not.  No, I want to talk about another issue entirely.  I’m going to talk about Malcolm Gladwell.

In 2008, Gladwell published Outliers, a terrific book about why some people are successful and others aren’t.  I love Gladwell too, and liked that book.  In it, he talks about the Beatles, and asks this: why were the Beatles the Beatles?  Why, in other words, that group of guys, coming out of the unpromising environment of Liverpool–why did John, Paul, George and Ringo get to change the world.  Why not some other foursome?  Of the hundreds of thousands late-50′s/early 60′s groups of teenage friends who wanted to start a garage band, why the Beatles?

The traditional answer is simple: they were geniuses.  They were just more talented than other kids.  Gladwell doesn’t think so.  His answer, though, is equally simple (even simplistic); they were great because of Hamburg.  Starting in August 1960, the Beatles were booked for a long gig in Hamburg, Germany.  They actually had four separate stints in Hamburg, from 1960 to 1962.  That was the period where John, Paul and George developed their style, figured out what they were doing. Their schedule in Hamburg was grueling: seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day.  Gladwell points to research that shows that it takes around 10,000 hours for someone, however talented, to perfect a skill.  Well, Hamburg is where the Beatles put in the time.

I would refine this theory a bit.  The Beatles’ line-up in Hamburg is very different from what it became.  Their bass player was John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe; their drummer was Pete Best.  Sutcliffe was no musician, though he did become an adequate bass player in time. When the Beatles landed the Hamburg gig, they didn’t have a drummer.  They brought Pete Best because he was their one friend in Liverpool who a) owned his own drum kit and b) could get away for four months. But he was never better than mediocre.

Rock and roll is built off the interaction between the bass player and the drummer.  Rock is about rhythm; it’s about a driving bass line and a strong, powerful beat.  For the Beatles to succeed in Hamburg, the other three guys had to compensate for Sutcliffe and Best’s inadequacies.  One way they did it was to stomp.  They became known for stomping their way through their songs–compensating for Pete Best’s lack of rhythm by (eventually) destroying the Kaiserkeller’s flimsy wooden stage.  When Stuart Sutcliffe left the band (to marry Astrid Kirchherr, the fashionable German girl he met there, who left her mark by suggesting the Beatles’ haircut), Paul (reluctantly) agreed to become their bass player.  (Sadly, Sutcliffe never did marry Astrid; he died in 1962 of a brain aneurism).  When they later fired Pete and replaced him with Ringo, they suddenly went from a band without strong bass or drums to a band with a phenomenal bass player and one of the best drummers ever.  But they’d had to learn to compensate for poor bass/drums support, which may in turn have forced John and George to tighten up their guitar work, and John, Paul and George, their vocals.

Okay, so if Hamburg was so important, why did the Beatles succeed while other British bands (even Liverpool bands) playing in Germany did not succeed?  Specifically, why did the Beatles make it big, instead of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes?

Listen to this song.  Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was an exciting band, more experienced than the Beatles, with a more charismatic lead singer.  They got the better Hamburg gig, and played there longer.  They had a better drummer than Pete Best–specifically, Ringo Starr, who was their drummer in Hamburg. I listen to that recording, and I like it a lot.  It sounds to me like an early Elvis Costello song.  There’s a DIY early punk vibe to it that’s really pretty cool. It’s also one of their three recordings ever.

So I don’t doubt that Hamburg was important to the Beatles success.  But they got fantastically lucky in some other ways.  First of all, they got lucky when Brian Epstein agreed to manage them.  I think casual Beatles fans think of Epstein as this ‘gay guy with a huge crush on John.’  No.  I mean, sure, he was gay, but there’s no evidence he ever had a crush on John. More to the point, Brian Epstein was  a very successful businessman, one of the most successful in Liverpool.  He ran a department store, and was a pioneer in design, display, marketing.  He had a job he was very very good at, one that made him a fortune, and one that he’d become bored with.  He wanted a new challenge, and when he heard the Beatles perform in the Cavern, he thought promoting them might be exactly what he wanted to do.

The Beatles had been managed by, essentially, high school friends.  Suddenly, they had a guy who knew how to market, knew how to write a contract, knew and was known by the business community.  His department store sold records (indeed, it was one of their biggest money-makers), so he had professional contacts in the music business.  But Epstein also was new to the management game. He was imaginative and innovative–he was willing to try new approaches.  It’s not possible to imagine a better manager.

And he was able to connect them with George Martin.  Only the single most creative and visionary music producer in the entire British music industry.  One story among many; it was Martin who heard them sing “Please Please Me” and say ‘it’s not a ballad.  Play it twice as fast.  It’s a rock and roll song.’  And the rest is history.

So why were the Beatles the Beatles?  There’s one more factor, one I hesitate to mention.  Because I’m a Dad.

Go back to 1960, or earlier, ’58, ’59.  Imagine yourself in the position of Jim McCartney.  Your son, Paul, your brilliant, talented son, isn’t doing what he’s so capable of doing.  He could ace his A and O levels. He’s easily bright enough to become anything–a doctor, a lawyer, an architect maybe.  He’s got the ability to surpass the genteel poverty of lower-class Liverpool, and what does he do? Blow off school every chance he can.  Waste all his time with that thuggish greaser juvenile delinquent John Lennon.  Waste all that time with that worthless rock-and-roll trashy music.

And here’s the thing: Jim McCartney loved music.  He owned a piano, and played it well.  He’d had a band for years, playing local events; weddings, parties, dances.  He paid money (when money was very tight indeed) for Paul to take music lessons.  Which Paul mostly blew off as well.

You could say the same thing about all the Beatles.  John’s beloved Aunt Mimi wanted nothing more than for her wonderful, smart, talented nephew John to make a success of his life. She got him into art school, basically cajoled school officials until they reluctantly let him in.  She knew he could excel academically.  He couldn’t be bothered.  Same story for George; he actually had an apprenticeship, the pathway to middle-class success.  Quit to be a Beatle.

To become a success, you do have to practice, long and hard, 10,000 hours of pure hard work.  And it helps if you’re really really really really talented.  And, boy, is luck ever important.  Meeting exactly the right people at exactly the right point in your life; man, that’s so crucial, and it’s infuriating because it’s something you can’t control.

But you also have to rebel.  You have to want it so badly that nothing else matters.  You have to reject the well-meaning advice of loving parents.  You have to do things that make no sense.  Like leave Liverpool for four months to play in a bar in Hamburg Germany when you’re seventeen years old (that’s how old George was; Paul was a year older).  Quit your apprenticeship, throw over your entire future, to go to a crappy bar in the worst part of Hamburg, to play six hours a night, except for weekends, when it was ten.

As a parent, as a father, I find this horrifying.  I find it terrifying.  I want my kids to be successful.  I want them to excel.  I want them, above all else, to be happy.  And I . . . did the smart thing.  I didn’t get on a motorcycle and go to New York or LA to make it as an actor or writer or director.  I got a degree, from a good college.  I got a PhD. I was sensible, and I’ve had a career I’m happy with.  I have no regrets for the choices I made.  None.  Really.

But the Beatles had to rebel.  They had to reject well-meaning parental advice.  They had to want it so much that nothing else matters.  And they did.  And they became the Beatles.

And so did Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  And they didn’t get lucky and the Beatles did.  And in 1972, Rory Storm (or rather Alan Caldwell), took an overdose of sleeping pills, his music career having completely disappeared.

That’s what haunts me about this discussion.  So many kids, so many dreams, so few of them fulfilled.  And luck, pure dumb luck intervening way way too seldom. Dangerous thing, ambition.  Great, glorious, exciting.  And terrifying.

 

 

 

Ylvis

So I’ve been sitting here with a cold, laughing my head off, having just discovered a new band.  When I say ‘new band,’ I mean, to me they’re new.  They have a YouTube video, after all, with over a hundred million hits.  It’s what they’re known for.  You’ve all probably all seen it many times over.  It’s the video “What does the fox say?

I’ve heard they did the video mostly as a joke, and that’s quite possible.  But it has all the qualities I’ve noticed in song after song of theirs: an incredibly catchy tune, a fun video, a mock serious lead singer (with a terrific pop voice), and head scratching lyrics.  I mean, what?  What does the fox say?  It’s like a Sesame Street video, as written by Christopher Durang and produced by Weird Al.

But again, boy, is that tune catchy.

Ylvis is basically two Norwegian guys, brothers, Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker.  Vegard’s older by four years; are now in their mid-thirties.  They added a third guy, Calle Helvevang-Larsen for their TV show Ikveld med Ylvis (Tonight with Ylvis).  They’re basically a variety comedy act.  Terrific musicians, with their own off-beat sense of humor.

They’re very Norwegian, though, in their approach to comedy, and often in the subjects they’re attracted to.  I wonder if American or international fans really get a lot of what they’re about.  For example, there’s this. They’re on the set of their TV show, and then the other two leave Vegard alone, and he looks soulfully at the camera and sings “You raise me up.”  You know that song, a favorite of Josh Groban, covered many times by many other artists. Originally, though, it was written and recorded by Secret Garden, a Norwegian band.  Well, Norwegian/Irish.

Okay, so Vegard’s singing, and suddenly he turns, and starts singing to a middle-aged blonde woman (who can barely keep a straight face).  What? Who?  Well, it’s Erna Solberg.  Prime Minister of Norway.  Imagine Chris Rock or Will Farrell singing “You raise me up” to Barack Obama.  I just think that’s a very funny bit.

And the great thing about is that Vegard has a lovely voice.  (So does Bård).  And even when he’s singing this pretty uplifting song absolutely straight, you know there’s a catch; something funny is going on, even if we don’t get it yet.

I also love the satire of their song (and video) “Jan Egeland”.  The real Jan Egeland is one of the most respected politicians in Norway.  Heck, in the world. Here’s his Wikipedia page. An indefatigable worker for peace and human rights. An extraordinary diplomat. Hard to think of an American equivalent, except maybe Jimmy Carter.  But it’s essentially impossible to imagine an American comedy rock band doing a song with these lyrics:

“When he’s sad, he goes to funerals,

in unusually heavy rain.

Large amounts of water in his face, but that doesn’t hide his pain.

He breaks down just like a homo,

And starts crying just like a girl,

But I guess you can cry, and still be a man, when your day job is saving the world.”

 

And no, the song is not a slam on Egeland.  The tone is triumphant, the intent is sympathetic and reverential. With those lyrics. (And Jan Egeland is said to love the song–thinks it’s hilarious).

The Cabin (quick content warning before you link to the video) is similar, though again, I think it’s hilarious; it’s funnier if you know the cultural context.  Norwegians (like Utahns, come to think of it), love their “hyttas“–rustic cabins. They love getting away to the mountains, love the getaway thus provided.  At least Norwegian guys do–it’s no secret that some Norwegian women are less enthusiastic.  The song has a lovely R&B feel, and it’s basically a love song, a paean to rustic simplicity and authenticity.

“Sixty square meters of heaven on earth, a tiny wooden paradise.

My own private pinewood Taj Mahal,

except for the shape and the size.”

The song also, of course, makes abundantly clear why his wife hasn’t joined him there for ten years–it’s tiny, freezing, unsanitary. But it’s his Taj Mahal.  And it’s completely his.  Except for having to share it with, like, eight family members.

I also love their Christmas parody song, “Da vet du at det er jul“, which, sadly, you have to speak Norwegian to get. But it’s great, every Christmas cliche imaginable.  And then quite horrible realities intrude.

More accessible to non-Norwegian speakers is “Stonehenge“. in many respects, it’s like “What does the fox say?”, in that it asks an unanswerable question, and also has an insanely catchy tune. (Bit of a content advisory for that video too, sorry).  I mean, seriously, why did they build Stonehenge?  And wouldn’t you give your car to find out the answer?  Even a really reliable Honda Civic?

Finally, let me recommend “Someone like me.” It’s a really pretty, sort of Burt Bacharach-esque love song. With a really nasty dub-step beat. Really funny stuff.

Who can Ylvis be compared to?  Lonely Island comes to mind, a band Ylvis say they admire, but hadn’t heard of until very recently.  I think more of Flight of the Conchords, the New Zealand comedy rock duo.  Check out their Hiphopopotomus vs. Rhymenoceros. Much of the same goofy fun, combined with musicianship. Or maybe a bit of Stephen Lynch.

But Ylvis isn’t any kind of copycat band. They’re uniquely, goofily Norwegian; internationally minded, sophisticated, exceptionally bright, influenced by musical styles from everywhere, but also with their own take on what’s funny.  Check ‘em out.  Except you already have.