Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Badfinger - Ass

Here’s how to look at Badfinger’s music.  Pete Ham was the most prolific songwriter of the bunch.  Maybe because he had more practice at that particular craft, his songs are usually the strongest the group had to offer.  Bassist Tom Evans wasn’t nearly as prolific and usually got two songs per album.  But his songs were usually pretty good.  The wild card was Joey Molland.  He could write as many songs as Pete Ham, but he was a better guitarist than songwriter.  Molland’s songs were hit or miss.  If they were good, they were really good.  If not, they were extremely ordinary. And so it goes for Badfinger’s 1973 album, Ass.  And herein lies the problem.  

Like its predecessor StraightUp [1971], Badfinger had a hard time getting this album recorded.  Todd Rundgren started producing the album, but got only two songs done before he left the project.  Then the band tried to produce themselves and quickly found themselves in over their heads.  The songs just didn’t sound good.  Finally, Chris Thomas came on board and got it done.  The album sounds great, but production wasn’t the only problem with Ass.  Badfinger was managed by a guy named Stan Polley, whose financial dealings eventually resulted in Pete Ham’s suicide in 1975.  But more to the point, Solley had a different disagreement with Apple.  Three members of Badfinger had a publishing deal with Apple – not so Joey Molland.  Solley tried to block release of the album because of Molland’s publishing.  Ass was delayed for months, but it eventually came out.  When it did come out, Ass was the last album not recorded by an ex-Beatle to get an Apple release.  And by the time it did come out, the band had already jumped to Warner Brothers, so the album got no support from the record company [it came out at the same time as Badfinger’s eponymous debut with Warner Brothers].  And to top off these problems, most of the songs came from Joey Molland.  When your best and most prolific songwriter [Pete Ham] has only two songs on the album [Apple of My Eye and Timeless], you’ve got a problem.  

Keepers - Apple of My Eye was the single from the album, and it details the band’s mixed feelings about leaving Apple for greener pastures at Warner Brothers.  There’s regret at leaving Apple and appreciation for having been given their big break, but they got to the point where they outgrew the label:   

Oh, I'm sorry, but it's time to move away
Though inside my heart, I really want to stay
Believe the love we have is so sincere
You know, the gift you have will always be…  

Oh, I’m sorry, but it’s time to make a stand
Though we never meant to bite the lovin’ hand
And now, the time has come to walk alone
We were the children, now we’re overgrown…

Get Away [Molland].  This is an example of when Joey Molland writes a good song, it’s really good.  This is his commentary on Pete Ham’s work ethic regarding songwriting.  Oddly enough, for this album Pete Ham’s songwriting well was dry.

Timeless [Ham].  This is Pete Ham’s I Want You [She’s So Heavy].  Like that Beatles song, it’s a long one, there is the first half where there is singing, then there’s an extended coda.  Pete Ham solos like a madman over a noisy, fuzzed out climax.  There is 3 seconds difference in the running time.  

Blind Owl [Evans] – This one from Tom Evans has a heavy beginning, but the heaviness doesn’t overstay its welcome.  This one is strong.  

Headscratcher Constitution [Molland].  This one rocks [or tries to rock] a little too hard for Badfinger.  It’s not bad a bad song, it’s just out of place.  Trying to be Humble Pie was not one of Badfinger’s strengths.

Skip tracks
I Could Love You [Molland], When I Say [Evans].  Both of these are love songs to the respective songwriters’ wives – yawn. 
Cowboy [Gibbins] – the drummer wrote it.  Extremely forgettable.
Icicles [Molland] – another ballad from Joey Molland.  He shouldn’t do ballads.
The Winner [Molland] – Apparently Joey Molland wrote this about John Lennon.  This one kinda bores me.

Ass is the sound of a band that isn’t sure about the direction of its music.  Are they hard rockers, or are they melodic pop stars?  The band got their musical identity crisis sorted for their Warner Brothers album Wish You Were Here.  It’s a very good album, but that’s for another blog at another time.  Ass has good moments on it.  There just aren’t enough of those good moments to outweigh the mediocre moments.  Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Joey Molland since half the album’s songs are his, but Pete Ham didn’t do the band any favors by coming up with only two songs.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Beatles - Revolver


Revolver turns 50 tomorrow!  Shit, I'm old... 
My favorite Beatles album has always been Abbey Road. A close second is Revolver. Many critics have cited Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the Beatles’ creative peak. I argue that Revolver is their finest body of work because all the Beatles were still engaged. Paul McCartney produced some of his finest songs. He was beginning to show he was becoming the Beatles’ musical director. George Harrison finally emerged from the songwriting shadow of Lennon & McCartney. John Lennon had not yet mentally checked out of the Beatles and was still writing prolifically. Of all the experimentation that occurred on Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, it all started with Revolver. Sgt Pepper, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus probably would not have happened had it not been for Revolver. In addition to the fourteen songs that make up Revolver, let’s not forget the single [recorded during the Revolver sessions] that wasn’t included – Paperback Writer/Rain. I think of Revolver and the Paperback Writer/Rain together as a single work. As Neil Young said, "it's all the same song!" The previous album, Rubber Soul, was the quiet acoustic album. The Dylan influence was definitely there. Revolver brought in other elements to include Stax, classical Indian music and a children's song, in addition to orchestral instrumentation and elements of musique concrète. John Lennon and Paul McCartney still got the lion’s share of the songwriting with six songs each. George Harrison normally got to contribute two songs to each Beatles album. On Revolver, he got three, including the lead-off song – Taxman. Ringo got his one song to sing as usual. The Beatles were getting to the stage in their career where they were looking past a life of record/tour/record/tour. Of all the songs recorded during this period, only Paperback Writer was performed live. They had definitely gotten past the “boy/girl” songs of 1963-1965 [well, John and George did anyway]. 

The songs:  The single: Paperback Writer [Paul]/Rain [John] 


John’s songs: I’m Only Sleeping/She Said She Said/And Your Bird Can Sing/Doctor Robert/Tomorrow Never Knows 


Paul’s songs: Eleanor Rigby/Here, There and Everywhere/Good Day Sunshine/For No One/Got To Get You Into My Life 


George’s songs: Taxman/Love You To/I Want To Tell You 


Ringo’s song [written by Lennon/McCartney]: Yellow Submarine 


Taxman – George’s ode to Britain’s Inland Revenue [our version of the IRS]. In the Anthology series, George explained his motivation for writing Taxman:

“It was in April 1966 that we started recording Revolver. Taxman was on Revolver. I had discovered I was paying a huge amount of money to the taxman. You are so happy that you’ve finally started earning money – and then you find out about tax. In those days we paid nineteen shillings and sixpence out of every pound (there were twenty shillings in the pound), and with the supertax and surtax and tax-tax it was ridiculous – a heavy penalty for making money. That was the big turn-off for Britain. Anybody who ever made any money moved to America or somewhere else.” A couple of notes - John came up with the lines “And my advice for those who die/Declare the pennies on your eye” and suggested adding the names of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath when George sings “Don't ask me what I want it for (ah-ah, Mister Wilson)/If you don't want to pay some more (ah-ah, Mister Heath).” Guitar solos courtesy of Paul McCartney, rhythm guitar by George.  In his book Here, There and Everywhere, engineer Geoff Emerick made the claim that George Harrison couldn't play the guitar because he couldn't come up with a guitar solo off the cuff like Paul could.  What a dumb thing to assert.  He may be a brilliant sound guy, but he's an idiot.


Eleanor Rigby – no Beatle plays an instrument on this tale of an elderly spinster. It’s just the voices of John, Paul and George with a string octet. Paul started the song, but others put bits in as well. George came up with the hook "Ah, look at all the lonely people," Ringo suggested Father McKenzie be "darning his socks in the night". John Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton suggested Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie be united at her funeral, then Paul finished the words. 


I’m Only Sleeping – John had no routine away from the road, enjoyed being lazy while at home, usually under the influence of some illicit substance [usually LSD]. When he wasn’t tripping, he loved sleeping.  George plays backwards guitar solos that sound like someone is yawning. They got that idea when a tape operator played something backwards by mistake. 


Love You To – George does his first Indian song. Electric guitars, sitars, and tablas. John Lennon is nowhere to be found. It shows his growing interest in Indian philosophy. It had the working title “Granny Smith.” 


Here, There and Everywhere – Paul’s best love song – period. This was written at John’s house while Paul was waiting for him to wake up. Great vocal harmonies - even John loved it. Perfect!  A note here: Paul reportedly wrote this after hearing God Only Knows from the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. 


Yellow Submarine – This one is mostly written by Paul [with a little help from John]. Standard Beatle practice was to have Ringo sing one song on each album. Since they didn’t record covers anymore, they wrote this one for him. A novelty song? Absolutely, but if you ever need to sing a baby to sleep, this song is a good one. Both Mark and Greg fell asleep in self-defense whenever Carol or I sang it to them [yes, we’re that bad]. Regardless of its musical merits, the boys sounded like they had a lot of fun making it. “Sky of blue and sea of green” came from Donovan.  This song isn’t meant to be taken seriously.  I love it for the sound effects. 


She Said She Said – the genesis of this song came from an encounter the Beatles had with Peter Fonda at a party somewhere in LA. Everybody was tripping on LSD. Peter Fonda told the boys he knew what it was like to be dead because he had died on an operating table several times after accidentally shooting himself when he was a kid. John’s retort was “who put all that shit in your head.” But it was 1966 and you didn’t put such things on records then, so it became “who put all those things in your head.” Bass guitar is courtesy of George Harrison. Paul didn’t play this session. This was the last thing recorded for Revolver. 


Good Day Sunshine – a happy throwaway of a song from Paul. At least it gives one a lift after hearing John singing about knowing what it’s like to be dead.  A note here:  NASA astronauts love waking up to this song. 


And Your Bird Can Sing – Paul had his happy throwaway song, and this one is from John. Guitars [lots of them from John and George], bass and drums are all you hear on this one. I have no idea what this one’s about, but I like it anyway – always have.  A note:  I read an article where Frank Sinatra used to refer to his manhood as his "bird", and maybe this is what John Lennon had in mind when he wrote the song.  If you listen to an earlier version on Anthology 2, John and Paul kept cracking up while trying to sing the song.  Perhaps a bit of marijuana and the "subject matter" was too much for them to concentrate on their work. 


For No One – an unhappy but excellent song from Paul about the end of a love affair and denial. The lyrics are right on the money. This one features a French horn solo from Alan Civil, who actually got a credit on the album.  This is one of Paul's sharpest lyric efforts. 


Doctor Robert – another drug song from John about a New York doctor who had a reputation for administering amphetamines to his patients. I always thought it was about the London dentist who gave John and George their first dose of LSD in 1965. 


I Want To Tell You – a song from George about his inability to communicate. According to George, he later said, it’s "about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit." All guitars are from George, while Paul plays piano and bass. John bangs the tambourine and sings. It had the working title “Laxton’s Superb.” What was it with George and apples anyway? 


Got To Get You Into My Life – for the first time on a Beatles record…brass, Stax-style. I’m not sure who came up with the horn arrangement, but it’s a good one. For those who think this is another Paul song about a girl, it isn’t – it’s about marijuana. Imagine that – a drug song from Paul McCartney. Paul loved it [pot] then, and still loves it 45 years later. John thought it was about LSD.  A footnote:  Brian Epstein had looked into the Beatles recording at Stax in Memphis, but it never happened.  I wonder if this song is an homage to the Stax sound? 


Tomorrow Never Knows – the first song recorded for Revolver, and due to its highly experimental nature, the only place it could go on the album was last. This was as if the Beatles were saying goodbye to the “moptops” and hello to mind expansion, Eastern mysticism, and music one could not possibly play live. This one from John is my favorite from Revolver. The production of the music is the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach. The first half of the vocal track utilizes Automatic Double Tracking, known as ADT. John Lennon hated the process of singing overdubs to his own voice, so he prodded the Abbey Road staff to come up with a technical solution. John told producer George Martin that he wanted to sound like a hundred monks chanting from the Himilayas. He suggested to Martin that he be suspended from a rope and [with a good push] sing into the microphone as he spun around it. George Martin thought that idea was unworkable, but recording engineer Geoff Emerick came up with an idea. He figured out how to route John’s vocal through a Hammond organ’s rotating Leslie speaker. You can hear the effect starting at 1:27 into the song […Love is all and love is everyone…], the second half of the vocal track. That’s just the vocals… The music itself was an Indian drone in C. Usually Western music has several chord changes, but not Tomorrow Never Knows. George Harrison plays a sitar and a tambura droning over the bass and drums. Then there are all the sound effects. These effects were created by utilizing tape loops. Paul McCartney had been listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic music, and thus inspired during this time he experimented on a home tape recorder. He discovered that by removing the erasure head from his tape recorder, he could keep recording over the same piece of tape, saturating it with sound. He brought a bag full of these tape loops for the session for Tomorrow Never Knows. During the session, the Beatles had about five of these loops playing at the same time while George Martin and Geoff Emerick moved the faders of each tape machine up and down at random. Since all the tapes were going at the same time, it was a “live” performance of the mix, which prompted George Martin to state that the finished mix of the song could never be duplicated. The effects ranged from a “seagull” [which is really Paul McCartney laughing, or so I've read], a Mellotron playing on the flute setting, another Mellotron playing on a ‘violin” setting, and an orchestral chord recorded from a Sibelius symphony. They mixed those with a tape of the guitar solo from Taxman, which was cut up, reversed and overdubbed onto Tomorrow Never Knows at a later date. 


Paperback Writer - Paperback Writer is notable because this is the first Beatles song where you don’t have to strain to hear the bass. Credit John Lennon for demanding why American records had far more bass than their own records. At that time, British producers were loathe to record the bass at a high volume for fear that it would make the needle jump off the record during playback. According to Geoff Emerick [the guy responsible for getting the sounds the Beatles wanted], several things factored into the louder bass sound. First, Paul McCartney switched from his Hofner violin-shaped bass to a Rickenbacker. Emerick also used a loudspeaker placed directly in front of Paul McCartney’s amp as a microphone. Emerick stated that the Paperback Writer/Rain single was cut louder than any other Beatles record up to that time, due to a new piece of equipment used in the mastering process, referred to as "Automatic Transient Overload Control." Unlike Tomorrow Never Knows, the instrumentation on Paperback Writer is the standard two guitars/bass/drums. As such, it was the only new song from 1966 to be performed on the Beatles final tour. John Lennon described Paperback Writer thusly: “It's sort of Paul's version of Day Tripper, meaning a rock 'n' roll song with a guitar lick on a fuzzy, loud guitar - but it is Paul's song.” Indeed. It’s also their first single in the UK that wasn’t a “boy/girl” song [in the US, that honor went to Nowhere Man]. Paul McCartney’s reputation as very melodic bass player started with this song. One could make the case that he plays “lead bass” on the song. 


Rain – another favorite of mine from John, which was the B-side of Paperback Writer. According to John, Rain is “about people moaning about the weather all the time.” Like its A-side, Rain had the two guitars/bass/drums. The bass is very loud. It also is not a love song. That’s where the similarities with Paperback Writer end. During the recording of Tomorrow Never Knows, the Beatles discovered they could get different tonal qualities of their sounds if they sped up or slowed down the tape they recorded on. In this instance, they played the song at a fast tempo then slowed the tape to the tempo they wanted. This gave the song a hazy, murky kind of drugged-out quality. The vocals were recorded at a slower speed and sped up [go figure!]. The other feature of Rain is the backwards vocal. According to John Lennon, this innovation was discovered by accident. After a long recording session, John took home a tape of that day’s session. He was a bit stoned at the time and he threaded the tape on his machine backwards. He liked what he heard and wanted it on the record. During the outro, you can hear the words “rain,” “sunshine,” and "If the rain comes they run and hide their heads” all backwards. Ringo’s playing is especially good on this one. According to Ringo: "My favorite piece of me is what I did on Rain. I think I just played amazing. I was into the snare and hi-hat. I think it was the first time I used the trick of starting a break by hitting the hi-hat first instead of going directly to a drum off the hi-hat. I think it's the best out of all the records I've ever made. Rain blows me away. It's out in left field. I know me and I know my playing... and then there's Rain." As for me, I like to play Rain and Tomorrow Never Knows back-to-back.  


Even the cover for Revolver is great.  The cover was a collage created by Klaus Voorman.  He and his then-girlfriend Astrid Kircher met the Beatles in Hamburg.  He won a Grammy™ for his work.