Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Beatles Black Album Meme — Part 2: 1971

To read Part 1, click here.

A good year for the ex-Beatles, at least when viewed from the comfort of 2015. Lennon's Imagine was a commercial hit, McCartney's Ram is now regarded as a masterpiece, Harrison pulled off the wildly-acclaimed Concert for Bangladesh and even Ringo had a top ten hit. In actuality, Paul filed suit against the other three even as the critics were clubbing him over the head, John still couldn't quite believe Yoko wouldn't leave him, George's benefit concert wound up mired in all sorts of accounting and legal tangles, and Ringo was getting black-out drunk every night.

Thematically, there's not much to tie this collection together. While in 1970, John, Paul, George and Ringo were reflecting on what the "ex" in "ex-Beatle" might mean, by 1971 they were already moving in different directions. Musically, Paul is giddy, John's anxious, the holdovers from George's All Things Must Pass are reflective, and Ringo's "Back Off Boogaloo," while a lot of fun, doesn't really fit with anything. I've tried to arrange it all to maximize flow and minimize whiplash.

The Beatles Solo: 1971
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey – Paul (4:51) (A #1 hit for Macca in the U.S., this is the version from Wingspan which is three second shorter. I went back to see whether the contemporary reviews of McCartney's Ram were as harsh as I remember. They were worse. Rolling Stone labeled it "incredibly inconsequential," The Village Voice said it was "a bad record," some guy named Alan Smith called it "unrelieved tedium," and Playboy accused him of "substituting facility for any real substance" — and if anybody would know about substituting facility for substance, it would be Playboy. These days, Ram is rightly regarded as one of McCartney's best solo efforts.)

Apple Scruffs – George (3:09) (As noted in Part 1 of this essay, Harrison wouldn't release another studio album until 1973. He did put together the benefit concert for the refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War and the album of the show hit #2 in the U.S. But let's be honest, the single "Bangla Desh" isn't really very good — at least it's nothing I want to listen to. Instead, George is represented here by five more songs from All Things Must Pass.)

Jealous Guy – John (4:15) (Lennon wrote the tune in India in 1968 and demo'ed it as "Child of Nature" during the Esher sessions at George's house. Repurposed for Imagine as the first of many apologies to Yoko for this that and the other.)

Run of the Mill – George (2:53) (The ever-reliable Wikipedia says Harrison wrote this about the imminent breakup of the Beatles. The title was allegedly muttered during the Get Back sessions by one of George's fellow Beatles as an assessment of his songwriting skills. Wow.)

The Back Seat of My Car – Paul (4:28) (Katie-Bar-The-Door always giggles at the rhyme "pretty" and "Mexico City" — and not in a good way. But, you know, otherwise a fine song. McCartney released this rather than "Uncle Albert" as the single in the UK. It only reached #39. He wouldn't have a number one hit in his home country until "Mull of Kintyre" in 1977. To quote Jerry Lee Lewis, "England can kiss my ass!" No, not really. Lived there, loved it, miss it, would go back if the opportunity presented itself.)

Well (Baby Please Don't Go) – John (4:06) (Not the song Van Morrison and Them made famous in the mid-1960s, but a Walter Ward blues number Lennon covered as a birthday present for Yoko. Reportedly, her reaction was "Meh," either because she wouldn't know good rock-n-roll if it bit her on the posterior or because she was secretly repelled by the stalker-like neediness of the lyric. Possibly both. A live version of this song appeared on Some Time in New York City a year later. This is the studio version on the John Lennon Anthology box set.)

Heart of the Country – Paul (2:25) (A catchy would-be real estate jingle from the man who wrote "Mother Nature's Son.")

Oh My Love – John (2:46) (Written in 1968 during or immediately after the White Album sessions. That's George on the guitar. A personal fave.)

Wah-Wah – George (5:38) (Harrison temporarily quit the Beatles on the morning of January 10, 1969, and wrote this song that afternoon. Lyrically, it's a middle finger aimed at John who dismissed his abilities as a songwriter and Paul who micro-managed his guitar playing. Musically, it's a Phil Spector wall-of-sound that Harrison ultimately criticized as overproduced.)

Back Off Boogaloo – Ringo (3:20) (This was a top 10 hit in 1972 but Ringo recorded it in September 1971, so here it is. Until 1973, there's not a lot of Ringo to choose from so once again, I've cheated in the interests of goodness, which is how we got into the Vietnam war and look how that turned out. What are you going to do?)

Imagine – John (3:05) (Lennon put out his most commercial solo album, Imagine, in 1971 and if it isn't as good as Plastic Ono Band, still, it did give us his most beloved solo song. Beloved, but not a number one, the single topped out at #3 in America. Lennon wouldn't have a number one hit until 1974.)

Dear Boy – Paul (2:15) (McCartney's neener-neener to Linda's ex-husband.)

Long-Haired Lady – Paul (6:04) (Two song fragments welded together. Another favorite of mine.)

Awaiting on You All – George (2:51) (A rocking spiritual.)

I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier – John (6:08) (In the lyrically-simplistic style of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." An awful lot of Lennon's politics boils down to "hey, Nixon, get off my lawn!" See, e.g., "Gimme Some Truth.")

Too Many People – Paul (4:13) (McCartney's dig at John and Yoko for "preaching practices" but oblique enough to work as a song. See my comment on "It's So Hard" below.)

It's So Hard – John (2:28) (No, no "How Do You Sleep?" — sorry — an admittedly interesting little ditty from a historical perspective, and if I'd put it here, a nice juxtaposition with the McCartney song Lennon says inspired his notorious riposte. But it doesn't really fit the mood of this or any other collection, including Imagine, where it floats in the middle of the otherwise inspiring material like the proverbial foreign object in the punch bowl. There's an art to being deeply personal without being transparently autobiographical, and John had mastered the form in such songs as "In My Life" "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Don't Let Me Down," classics all. "How Do You Sleep?" is no classic.)

Let It Down – George (4:57) (Another song John and Paul rejected. No wonder the guy quit!)

Monkberry Moon Delight – Paul (5:25) (Written for Linda's kids, a fun bit of nonsense.)

Oh Yoko! – John (4:17) (I've read there's an alternate version of this bouncy little mash note that makes "Cold Turkey" sound like "Good Day Sunshine," and if one were to read the lyrics with that in mind, "Oh Yoko!" fits right in with the rest of John's paeans to acute separation anxiety. But I've never heard it and I can't confirm it ever existed outside my memories of a session sideman's long-after-the-fact recollections.)

Total running time: 79:36

Seven Lennon's, seven McCartney's, five Harrison's and one Starkey. Overall now, the count is John 15, Paul 14, George 11, Ringo 2.

Next, Part 3: The Beatles Solo 1972, sort of.


mister muleboy said...

I tend to view most of Lennon's policitcal stance as [in Rickles voice]: hey, Nixon, I gotchyer visa right here. . . .

even if the visa difficulties didn't really kick in 'til years later

Mythical Monkey said...

When Lennon made the effort, he could write some truly lasting, significant political songs. He just started to think he didn't need to make an effort.

mister muleboy said...

He just started to think he didn't need to make an effort.

I'm I the only person who thinks that his retirement from music started when he finished Plastic Ono Band, and kicked in as soon as he released the masters to Apple for Imagine?

I don't hear him making an effort at all. SINYC? Mind Games

I agree with you wholeheartedly, but when I think of it, I don't think of hubris and the notion that "if I put it out, it's brilliant" [although there's more than enough of that -- examples abound from Pepper on, sez me]. I hear a stronger sense of

um, I'm a record-maker. It's what I do. I have to go to the office, and I have to make a record. Fuck. What do I say? Fuck? Where's a bumper sticker? Where's a hip, current, soon-to-be-embarrassing phrase? Fuck. What can I say that's gonna sound like I'm part of the movement, and it's not leaving me behind? Fuck -- I don't want to make a record. I'm still having trouble with drugs. Yoko's a twat, and she hates me. Fuck. Maybe if I cover it in reverb and strings, I can fool somebody

I mean, I'm pretty sure that I could listen to "Rocky Raccoon" al afternoon it I could avoid Mind Games. . . .

He might have been enthused and had some fun and cared about his lawsuit-obligation, Rock and Roll. But he was torn apart by differentiation (I'm separate from Yoko. Not separated -- separate. Fuck!, surrounded by drunks, constantly drunk himself, and was being produced by a gun-toting jerkoff crazy man.

He was making the effort with Walls and Bridges, but after making crap records for years and leading a dissolute life, the "lasting, significant" stuff was very personal, and not necessarily easily warmed to [e.g. "Scared," "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out"].

He just started to think he didn't need to make an effort.

I feel like making at effort at songwriting was not really on the radar screen.

You know, except for "Luck of the Irish". . . .

[insert smiley face]

mister muleboy said...

I tend not to close my parenthetical observations (you know, most of the time. . . .