Cry Baby Cry…darkness in the nursery

“Cry Baby Cry” is exactly what we would expect a nursery rhyme to be: a charming sing-a-long with a dark message at its core.

“…I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance.” – John Lennon speaking to Hunter Davies

John said that a commercial gave him the idea for “Cry Baby Cry.”

John, White Album period (image courtesy Eyeglasses Warehouse)

That may be true. We know, however, from both In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works that Lennon was attracted to both fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. What “Cry Baby Cry”  gives us is John playing with the conventions of the nursery rhyme.

All of these forms – the fairy tale, nonsense verse, and nursery rhyme – come from the need ordinary people have to comment on political, social, and psychological issues peculiar to the cultural contexts in which they were written. Fairy tales were ways for children to learn about life’s dark and sad events such as kidnapping, murder, and deadly accidents; nonsense verse allowed writers to explore complex – and often taboo – subjects such as sexual deviance and mental illness; nursery rhymes most often provided common people with clever ways to comment on political issues (such as  the tempestuous rule of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary in”Mary Quite Contrary). Continue reading

In My Life: Lennon remembers…

There’s something Shakespearean about Lennon’s meditation on life and meaning.

“I think ‘In My Life’ was the first song that I wrote that was really, consciously about my life, and it was sparked by a remark a journalist and writer in England made after In His Own Write came out. I think ‘In My Life’ was after In His Own Write… But he said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs? Or why don’t you put something about your childhood into the songs?’ Which came out later as ‘Penny Lane’ from Paul – although it was actually me who lived in Penny Lane – and Strawberry Fields.”  – John Lennon

Outtake for the Rubber Soul album cover (image courtesy “Yer Doin’ Great”

The marvelous Beatles Bible offers four John Lennon quotes about the composition of “In My Life.” Lennon considered it one of his most important songs for several reasons. It was the first song, he says, written about his life – the result, Lennon told multiple interviewers, of a comment by British journalist Kenneth Allsopp concerning Lennon’s first book, In His Own Write.

Another concern Lennon has was his ability to write melodies – something that his writing partner, Paul, was and is particularly adept at. “In My Life” is predominantly John’s melody (though he says Paul wrote the middle eight). Continue reading

Love Me Do – the first one…

“Love Me Do” was their first song, but it was far from perfect…

“‘Love Me Do’ is Paul’s song. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Let me think. I might have helped on the middle eight, but I couldn’t swear to it. I do know he had the song around, in Hamburg, even, way, way before we were songwriters.” – John Lennon

“‘Love Me Do’ was completely co-written. It might have been my original idea but some of them really were 50-50s, and I think that one was. It was just Lennon and McCartney sitting down without either of us having a particularly original idea.” – Paul McCartney

John, Paul, George, and Ringo (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We know now (at least those of us who are American) that it was their first.

Most of us learned about it in that tidal wave of spring 1964 when it seemed that the Beatles released a new record every week. Many of them were fantastic – “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “Twist and Shout,” “There’s a Place,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” It seemed like an endless stream of great song after great song, the releases of new singles coming sometimes only a week apart thanks to the Beatles’ tangled history of American deals.

So it was Tollie, a Vee-Jay subsidiary, that released “Love Me Do” in the US in April 1964.   Continue reading

A Hard Day’s Night…in search of the lost chord

One chord can change your life.

The Fabs tormenting the posh gent in A Hard Day’s Night (image courtesy Neatorama)

“There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch); everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.” – John Lennon, In His Own Write (published March 1964)

“I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms. A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it.” – John Lennon (1980 interview)

“”Well, there was something Ringo said the other day’… He said after a concert, ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ John and I went, ‘What? What did you just say?’ He said, ‘I’m bloody knackered, man, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ ‘Hard day’s night! Fucking brilliant! How does he think of ’em? Woehayy!’ So that came up in this brain-storming session, something Ringo said, ‘It was a hard day’s night.'” – Paul McCartney (1997 interview)

They began filming the movie A Hard Day’s Night only ten days after returning from their frenetic, triumphant first visit to America. Continue reading

Good Day Sunshine…ah, spring, when one’s fancy turns to…

Songs like “Good Day Sunshine” indicate that the wit and whimsy that originally endeared the Beatles to millions would not disappear.

“It was really very much a nod to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Daydream,’ the same traditional, almost trad-jazz feel. That was our favourite record of theirs. ‘Good Day Sunshine’ was me trying to write something similar to ‘Daydream.’ John and I wrote it together at Kenwood, but it was basically mine, and he helped me with it.” – Paul McCartney (as told to Barry Miles)

John and Paul (image courtesy People magazine)

Ah, spring, sweet spring. The sun shines, trees and flowers begin to blossom. It feels great to go outside. It also feels like weather for, as John Sebastian urges us in the song Paul refers to above, “blowin’ the day to take a walk in the sun.

Great Britain is not a sunny place. The warm waters of the Atlantic coming north from Africa mingle with the cool air of Great Britain’s northerly latitude and produce the fog for which the island is justly famous as well as clouds and rain. Lots of rain. John even wrote a song about it. Sunshine, as you’d guess in such a climate, is prized.

The summer of 1966, when the Fabs were working on the songs for what has been called at times their greatest album, Revolver, was exceptional for being sunny and hot.

Paul found that inspiration. As he did The Lovin’ Spoonful song. Continue reading

Chuck Berry and the Beatles: standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that…

According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.

Check that.

What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.

See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there. Continue reading

No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

The scream at the end – “no reply!” – is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre.

Beatles ’65 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“It was my version of “Silhouettes”: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” – John Lennon on “No Reply”

This was going to be another essay.

I had planned to write about what I am convinced is the greatest single ever released – “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.”  But that was going nowhere (though I can see what I want to say, I can’t quite seem to say it yet, which betrays a lot about my love of the Fabs) so I turn to another favorite, the opening song on both the British release Beatles for Sale or, if you were an 8th grade nerd like me, Beatles ’65.

“No Reply” opens both albums. This is one of those rare times that the British album and its American counterpart agree. That makes me very happy. Let’s leave it at that. Continue reading

Rolling Stones

I Wanna Be Your Man…Beatles or Stones?

If what Lennon says is true, “I Wanna Be You Man” has a special place in rock history.

“It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?” – John Lennon

Ringo during his Jean Paul Belmondo look period (image courtesy Pinterest)

Ringo sporting his Jean Paul Belmondo look (image courtesy Pinterest)

The composers of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney, thought so little of the “Ringo song” on the British release With the Beatles (the American release came on Meet the Beatles) that they “gave” the song to the Rolling Stones who released it as their second single.

Neither John nor Paul thought much of the song, though it’s a nifty Beat music rave-up. Paul’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” from the same period, is a song of the same sort – much more familiar to (and popular with) the casual Beatles fan, but “I Wanna Be Your Man” has its own charm. As a tune it hearkens to the early days and is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Cavern shows in its rowdiness and “cellar full of noise” jocular machismo. Continue reading

I Want to Hold Your Hand…and then, America….

It was the first Beatles record I bought, but it wasn’t my favorite Beatles song.

“We wrote a lot of stuff together, one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u… got that something…’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that – both playing into each other’s nose.” – John Lennon

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I’d heard “She Loves You” in the fall of 1963, and, while the buddy I first heard it with (a story I have related before) mocked the song (as did the deejay who introduced it), I’d been immediately smitten, though I diplomatically kept my opinion to myself. Thereafter, when I listened to far away radio stations in big cities like Chicago and New York on my transistor radio at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep, I listened for “She Loves You.”

I think I may have heard it twice between that first time and the advent of what we know as Beatlemania. I freely admit that my memory of this period is fuzzy. I was in my 12th year and between the time I first heard “She Loves You” in mid-November and when I began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and other Beatles songs November 22, 1963 happened. Like most Americans I walked around in a dull daze  for a while, so I hope I may be forgiven for an imperfect memory of the timeline of events. Continue reading

George Harrison’s Don’t Bother Me…and then there were three….

And so The Beatles acquired a third great songwriter…

“‘Don’t Bother Me’ I wrote in a hotel in Bournemouth, where we were playing a summer season in 1963, as an exercise to see if I could write a song. I was sick in bed.” – George Harrison

George Harrison, 'A Hard Day's Night' period (image courtesy imdb.com)

George Harrison, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ period (image courtesy imdb.com)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney have long been ranked among the premiere songwriters of the 20th century. That the pair both wrote for the same band is certainly a central element of the The Beatles’ standing in rock history.  Any band with two great songwriters is certainly very, very lucky.

As we all know, the Fabs didn’t have two great songwriters – they had three. The emergence of George Harrison’s songwriting talent only serves to reiterate that, as in so much of their lives and career,  The Beatles were winners of whatever history’s equivalent of the Powerball is.

George, who was given the moniker “the quiet Beatle,” might better have been denominated “the independent Beatle.” Because he was younger (and remember, Paul, and George got together when they were very young and Paul had to sell John on allowing George to join the band that eventually became THE band), his status was predicated on 1) his guitar playing (which was better than anyone’s, not excluding John or Paul) and 2) his absolute commitment to the cause (which equaled John’s and Paul’s). Continue reading

Election Day. #HopeTuesday. TunesDay.

Three videos for Election Day. Who do we want to be?

Some years ago Sean Kelly of The Samples penned what has to be the election day anthem. It acknowledges what we all know, it notes the reasons we have to abandon hope, and still it insists that we carry on.

It’s Election Day 2016. What choice will you make about the world you want to live in?

Carry on. (Lyrics below.)

Continue reading

#SNRGTR: Sam’s favorite guitar solos

Part 1 in a series.

SNR-GTRI’ll go first. And since it’s my idea, I’ll take the editor’s privilege and cheat a bit by giving you two solos instead of one.

Up first, we go back to 1974 and “Brighton Rock,” the lead track on Queen’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack. The band’s first two releases had been relentlessly self-conscious in their forays into fantasy (check out “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” off Queen II for an illustration).

But SHA opens with a boot to the teeth, highlighted by a Brian May solo that I guess is an example of what William Miller in Almost Famous meant by “incendiary.” Just … damn. Continue reading

RIP Joe Cocker…

Joe Cocker’s soulful shouting was later overshadowed by his pop balladry, but the man could always bring it.

Joe Cocker 1944-2014 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Joe Cocker, the magnificent singer from Sheffield, has died of lung cancer at the age of 70. Cocker’s career divides neatly into two phases – the great run from 1966-71 when he rose to prominence as a legitimate white blues shouter – and a forefather of what’s known as Northern Soul – and took prominent songs from contemporaries and made them his own (“A Little Help from My Friends” by The Beatles; “The Letter” by The Boxtops; “Feelin’ Alright” by Traffic) – and the rest of his long career in which he transitioned into singing more pop oriented material, often to great success (he won a Grammy for his duet with Jennifer Warnes on the otherwise execrable movie ballad “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman).

What made Cocker special, besides that distinctive gravelly voice and his deep infusion of emotion into even the tritest material he sang, was his onstage behavior, an unforgettable experience for those who saw it. At times seeming almost as if struck by spasms, Joe’s windmilling arms, head shaking and air guitar made him a figure occasionally parodied (here’s a killer Joe Cocker/John Belushi duet from SNL’s Golden Age). But there was no denying his vocal talent or his desire to give everything he had to any song he sang.

Here he is at his emoting best doing a killer version of that Beatles’ tune mention above at Woodstock in 1969:

We may not see his like again. RIP Joe….

Dave Bidini attacks Joni Mitchell…why…?

Dave Bidini’s critique of Joni Mitchell seems smilingly petulant in a way that is way too familiar…and reminds us that maybe generational differences make us too readily divisible….

Joni Mitchell (image courtesy Wikipedia)

A recent essay reprinted from The National Post at Crooks and Liars by Canadian indie rocker/writer Dave Bidini (most well known for his work with The Rheostatics) takes folk-rock-jazz icon Joni Mitchell to task for being “difficult.” Bidini’s chief complaints seem to be that Mitchell is critical of another icon (John Lennon), is troubled that her fans don’t always “get” her songs, and struggles with having grown old and fragile in health.

What Bidini believes (or at least gives the impression he believes) is that Joni Mitchell doesn’t have the right to be cranky about her struggle to achieve her artistic goals in spite of the bias against her as a woman artist, her numerous and complex health problems, and her sometimes complicated and difficult personal life because – well, it seems because she’s had great commercial/critical success.

Why Bidini feels the need to make this attack is what puzzles one most in all this.  Continue reading

The Elvis “Coverup”: Nothing to See Here, Move Along…

If the excerpt from the new Elvis biography is an indication of the entire work, readers will learn exactly –  nothing new…

Elvis doing that Jailhouse Rock (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I had a professor who once described sound academic writing as learning to “articulate the obvious.” This in itself isn’t bad advice, and I occasionally pass it along to writing students who seem convinced that scholarly writing of any worth must follow “the three C’s” of turgid writing: it should be convoluted, confusing, and contradictory.

Joel Williamson’s new biography of the King, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, avoids turgidity and, if the excerpt recently published by Salon is any indication, it follows my old professor’s dictum to a degree that readers knowledgeable about the music legend (or about the history of rock and its significant figures) may find downright frustrating. Continue reading

Rod Stewart: Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band…

Rod Stewart’s autobiography shows that knowing too much about cultural heroes might be part of what’s wrong with the culture…

Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart (image courtesy Goodreads)

There have been a spate of rock star autobiographies over the last decade or so from classic rock’s legends. One assumes that after having so much written about them that was true/untrue/somewhere in between they wanted to have their say.

Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton – all have written interesting, if at times slightly self-indulgent, biographies of themselves (how self-written these “autobiographies” are is probably arguable from a strictly literary standpoint). From these we learn that Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend had troubled childhoods and that each has been long engaged in the “search for self” because of childhood trauma. We also learn that Bob Dylan and Keith Richards are never, ever, ever, ever going to give anything away that might break the front or dispel any of the mystique they have long worked at building around themselves. If they can do so, they will die in a way so that we will exclaim “That is so cool!”

And then there’s Rod. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

In the Shadow of Jack Bruce…

Among bassists of the Classic Rock generation, Jack Bruce casts a long, challenging, inspiring shadow…

Jack Bruce (image courtesy All Music Guide)

Jack Bruce, the bassist for the very first “super group,” Cream, died late last week.

There have been many tributes, including a lovely one from S&R’s own Pat Vecchio. Pat is a bass player himself, who, while he pooh poohs his skills, is capable of some decent licks. As he notes in his essay, he plays a Gibson SG because it looks like the Gibson EB-3 that Bruce played during those brief, glorious years of Cream’s  existence. And he even admits that he got the blues outfit he plays with to do one of Cream’s signature tunes, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” so that he could play, as he modestly puts it, “a simplified version of Bruce’s bass line.”

I know something of how Pat feels. I was a much more serious player in my day (I won’t get into that now; this is about Jack, not me). One of the ways the band I played in warmed up was by playing another Cream signature tune…here’s Cream doing the number – with Jack playing that Gibson EB-3: Continue reading

Popular Music Scholarship V: Hip-Hop and its Voice(s) of Protest

A look at hip hop’s forbears, its evolution from black protest music to class protest expression and its relationship with its female artists…

Queen Latifah (image courtesy fashionbombdaily.com)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, hereherehere, and here)

This will be the last essay on the excellent group of scholarly discussions of popular music’s elements of protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social ProtestIt is the essay I have waited until the end to write for a couple of reasons: first, my knowledge of hip-hop is limited enough to be called laughable by most music fans of the last 30+ years (that in itself is amazing to consider—hip-hop is now more than 30 years old); second, the section from which these essays come in The Resisting Muse is called “Monophony or Polyphony?” and covers a good bit of territory. That said, these essays are well worth some review and discussion—so I will do my best to do them justice. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship IV: Pop Stars and Politics

Q: Should pop stars express their political opinions and take political action? A: Only if they’re informed, concerned citizens…

 

Bono of U2, pop star and political activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, herehere, and here.)

For the period covered by the book of essays I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Protest, the “post-Classic Rock Era” we might call it, the political/protest activities of pop stars have not had the same resonance or gravitas as they did during that era of protests against segregation, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution/destruction (the role of classic rock era stars in the women’s movement is, at best, questionable – unless those stars were women, of course).

This week, in the next to last essay in this series, we look at four essays, all in one way or another related to the idea that, to contradict one of the major singers of that classic rock era, sometimes it’s about  the singer, the song – and something else entirely .

The essay titles themselves reveal much about what their authors think of the last 35 years or so. Deena Weinstein’s “Rock protest songs: so many and so few”; Jerry Rodnitsky’s “The decline and rebirth of folk protest music”; Mark Willhardt’s “Available rebels and folk authenticities: Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg”; and, finally, John Street’s “The pop star as politician: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience” offer us a range of explanations for why pop or rock or folk singers have/have not gotten involved in protests against social or political injustice. Some, like Weinstein, take the long view, others, like Willhardt, look closely at a couple of artists. In all of these essays, however, much the same conclusions are reached: in one way or another protest has, too often, been subsumed or marginalized by the co-option of the protester – especially if that protester is a musical celebrity. Continue reading