Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Come Together, All Together: Plastic Ono Band: "Give Peace A Chance"

"You see I'm shy and aggressive, so I have great hopes for what I do with my work and I also have great despair that it's all pointless and it's shit."

John Lennon, 1970.

By 1969 it was clear that The Beatles, as such, were over; that their impact on music had been felt and refracted so many times that they were living in their very own echo chamber of themselves, and everyone wanted out, one way or another. George Harrison did a solo soundtrack album Wonderwall Music in 1968, and from that moment onwards there was a rather loud ticking clock in the room that was hard to ignore. The Beatles as a myth, a legend, a force, was beginning to override the Beatles as four musicians, and one by one they began to snatch their lives back, however they could. As anyone who has been in a similar situation knows, when there are divorces and weddings and family life in general comes more to the fore, previous strong alliances can sometimes falter. Paul and Linda got married in March 1969, as did John and Yoko Ono. That The Beatles started up Apple in '68 also put another spoke in the wheel, so to speak, as business, not music, took up more of their time.

But still, they were The Beatles, and with Billy Preston had the biggest #1 of '69, and what they did still mattered, on vinyl and celluloid. Try as they did to get away from themselves, the public still wanted and needed them, worldwide. They were the effective spokesmen for the revolution, mainly because of John Lennon's "shy and aggressive" attitude, which is summed up with this song perfectly. Is it a folk song? A protest song? Can it be judged against anything else?

John and Yoko had been in Amsterdam, doing their honeymoon bed-in** for peace; they wanted to do it again in the US but were denied entry, and so went to Montreal to continue their protest, and on June 1st a throwaway statement by Lennon had evolved to the point where everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Murray the K to Petula Clark to the Smothers Brothers showing up at room 1742 at La Reine Elizabeth Hotel to sing along, clapping and banging on whatever was available. It is a simple a song as Lennon, who loved simplicity, wrote; he wanted to write a new popular protest song, and so he did*.

It should not be judged a failure ("pointless") because there is still war in the world; peacemakers are best involved in what the British call "the long game" wherein short-term successes (despite Lennon's claim in the song that peace could come tomorrow if it's demanded- alas the warmongers don't stop that suddenly, and the Vietnam War, to name one, went on pointlessly for years) are just that, short-term. Lennon wins here as he is self-deprecating, using sharp irony to say, hey, isn't peace worth at least a chance? Try it out, you might like it! So apart from the stompy-stompy sing-a-long aspect, easy enough for anyone to join in, there is the weird feeling that this is a no-bullshit country song, with "Everybody's talkin' bout (insert famous people, actions, etc.)" definitely NOT being the point; the point is peace, and celebrity and such is so much hooey. (That celebrity arose to be the point in the 70s is one of the worst things about the 70s, really, and Lennon wanted out of that circus.)

It also doesn't hurt that the song is insanely catchy, that it was recorded with borrowed equipment for a near-indie roughness (not produced as such, but recorded by Andre Perry - as if Phil Spector would ever record anything outside of a studio) that suits the song very well. This is a happening, a protest, a new anthem; it was picked up immediately not just in shops but in protests, which was the real success - not commercially (though that always helps) but as a song that the people sung, that became a phrase for the revolution, plain and simple. That is what Lennon wanted, and if it's not sung that much anymore, it's because other media - including the one you're reading - have been taken up as new mediums for protest. (Ono says Lennon would have used Twitter to protest, and I don't doubt her.)

At this time, only John and Yoko could have pulled off a cross-Atlantic pop hit that was a direct protest record; but then it was what could only be expected, and it was meant to be a hit. The Beatles were disintegrating, the band caught up in too many things to keep up (their cool response to Ono being one aspect), but Lennon's solo career effectively starts here, with Live Peace in Toronto 1969 to come (where "Give Peace a Chance" is performed, this time with Eric Clapton helping out).

The 60s were nearly over, man had walked on the moon***, and the epochal month of August, with its highs and lows, was about to happen. The cover of Abbey Road was taken on the 8th, the Manson family murders happened the next two days in Los Angeles, and a week later in upstate New York, Woodstock gathered the tribes together for a much bigger sing-a-long. The center, as some noted, could not hold; but the American turmoil was not felt so strongly in the UK, where The Beatles were about to disappear, Abbey Road being their last album, one they knew would be their last. By now it must have seemed as if the 70s could not come soon enough, but here are John and Yoko in bed, singing for peace, like two escaped birds of paradise resting on an ordinary tree branch, with other birds chiming in for the dawn chorus. It is a song to remember.

*It is credited, as Beatles songs usually were, to Lennon/McCartney, when in fact McCartney had nothing to do with it; the credit seems to be a thank-you to Paul for helping out with "The Ballad of John and Yoko" on short notice.

**I helplessly always think of this by Eugenius when I think of bed-ins. I like to think Lennon would have loved Eugenius.

***I also cannot help but think Lennon would have loved The Onion.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Elvis Presley: "In The Ghetto"

And now, a year after he staged a dramatic comeback - as if to remind everyone, including himself, that he was the King and there could be no doubt about it - Elvis nearly reaches #1 again, stopped only by a song that was automatically taken up by the IRA as their anthem. What is going on here? The top two songs in the land are classics - anyone who hears them can tell that - and neither are love songs? Some might find this odd, but this is just what pop music can do - bend and alter to address what the public wants and needs, and from Elvis they had had enough of the songs about girls for now.

This is the King addressing his subjects, singing as if he has to be persuaded to do so, sombre and compassionate, narrating a story that (without having to explain) he knows all too well himself. Elvis grew up poor, he was looked down upon, he didn't fit in - but he had his music as a shield and an escape. A way out: and his way out turned out to be an open door, a door so many walked or ran through afterwards.

If his comeback was all about showing he still could rock the house, this song came afterwards, written by one Mac Davis*. Its original title was "The Vicious Circle" and it depicts a life of misery, first for the mother who doesn't need another child and then for the violent and early end for the young man, who learns about violence young and ends up a victim of it, not even being able to get out of the ghetto, and as he is mourned another boy is born to a mournful woman, possibly his own, though that's not directly inferred...

And yet some don't like this song! Maybe they think beneath it all it's kind of cheesy; there is some distinctly American pathos about it just because it's Elvis and in the real world Elvis is rich and has been for some time, and oh look here he is condescending towards social commentary. But that line of thinking ignores what Elvis actually did, which was rebel and make money on his own terms, and if that let him make a bunch of rather silly movies which barely had any real rock 'n' roll in them, well, he could always make a great gospel album (he did, in 1967), then show everyone that he was still able to justify his wealth by getting down in a way that revived rock 'n' roll all by itself.

If Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper's "Elvis is Everywhere" states that "Elvis is everybody" then it's only rock logic to conclude that Elvis himself had a bit of everyone in him, including this poor ghetto boy who got a gun and a car one night and had high ambitions and desperation, just as Elvis had himself, once upon a time...Elvis mourns that ambition as much as anything else, that waste, and while this song is set in Chicago there are ghettos everywhere, and thus the song resonated in the UK as well, where Belfast was ever in the back of people's minds, and this song too could be seen as an anthem of sorts, a lament, of what had happened before and was now happening again, rooted in sectarianism, this time.

All this has been heard and comprehended from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (a cover of it was their first single) to Three Six Mafia, from Dolly Parton to Cartman from South Park. In truth the song does have a streak of pathos in it, in that the story itself never ends (and is thus pathetic) and yet Elvis is able to take the song on as his own, maybe because he's experienced his own pathetic 60s, as epitomized by his increasingly unnecessary movies; and so he looks at himself here obliquely, remembering his own daring ambition and mourning the death of a symbolic young man. It is like he has come back to first prove he can rock, and then recognize the fact that all are not as lucky as he is, and that this is a cycle which should end, as it brings nothing but misery to those who experience it. And yet it reflects the lives of so many of his audience; he is coming to them, so to speak, to show he does understand, even if in his own life he is removed from the circumstances...that there is a bit of himself here, a bowing down to those who still struggle, a recognition that what separates them isn't that wide a gap as you'd expect. The explosive power of Elvis is toned down here, as if to say: there but for the grace of God...and so it is also a hymn, though a different one from before.

Next up: a bedroom in Montreal and a 'happening' caught on tape, for all time.

*Who also wrote the the "satisfactionin'" "A Little Less Conversation" for Elvis and went on to fame for himself in the 70s, with songs like "Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me" and "Stop And Smell The Roses."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

...In His Hands: The Edwin Hawkins Singers: "Oh Happy Day"

Some songs can take a long time to get into the charts; this song took longer than most, and for a good reason: when it was written, the only way to hear it was to go to church.

Think back, if you will, to a time before the Internet; before compact discs, home computers, those big corporate computers programmed with punch cards; before the advent of television, vinyl, acetates, record players, radios, motion pictures, player pianos...back to a time when there were no planes, cars or trains.

We are in the London of the early 18th century, where Phillip Doddridge was born, the last of twenty children, into a religious household. He grew up to be a nonconformist Christian, a pastor of a congregation, and a hymn writer. The purpose of the hymns he wrote was simple - to summarize the sermon, to be a hummable and singable memento of whatever message he was trying to get across. He was also a teacher (of religion and philosophy) and a writer, his main influential work being The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a book that converted William Wilberforce (the leading antislavery campaigner) to Christianity. For his hymn "O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice" Doddridge wrote the words, and set it to music written earlier by J. A Freylinghausen. Doddridge died of tuberculosis in Lisbon in 1751, admired mostly for his religious writing.

There the hymn sat, words and music printed for congregations, until another man came along: one Edward Rimbault, also from London. He was born in Soho in 1816, son of the organist at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, and thus became a musical prodigy, from what I can figure out. At 22 he was lecturing on the history of music already, founded the Music Antiquarian Society not long afterwards with two fellow music historians, he later edited works by Handel including the Messiah and was offered, but turned down, a job at Harvard, already having gotten honorary degrees for his music scholarship elsewhere in Europe.

By the time he was in this thirties however, he settled down to work in various London churches as an organist, and applied himself to rewriting hymns. One he came across that he changed was Doddridge's hymn, for which he wrote a new melody in 3/4 time, and added a chorus. The hymn was sung, as it always had been, at baptisms and confirmations, in the UK and in the USA, the new 1854 version presumably making its way across the Atlantic before the Civil War. Rimbault died in 1876, the American centennial, a man known mostly to musical antiquarians and his London parishioners, and to anyone who looked to see who wrote the new music for various hymns.

There the song rested for some time, sung in waltz time, until in 1967 one Edward Hawkins, choir master, musician and composer from Oakland, changed the hymn from 3/4 to 4/4 time and discarded everything but Rimbault's chorus, taking the song to its essence, and recorded it with his singers at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, as part of the album Let Us Go Into The House of the Lord. It was recorded in church on a modest budget and they sold the album wherever they appeared, right out of the trunk, just as so many gospel choirs did all over the US. A DJ in San Francisco somehow got a copy and began to play "Oh Happy Day" and it caught on, first a hit in the Bay Area and then spreading outwards, until we arrive here, in June 1969, over 200 years since it was first written, and over 100 since it was re-written, with man about to walk on the Moon, amidst the usual end-of-decade confusion and chaos, most if not all would have been unthinkable to Doddridge and Rimbault.

The influence of this song cannot be overstated; the simplicity of the song - it has, as far as I can tell, two chords - is a relief from the showbizzy songs of late, songs where grown women act like girls and so on. The main vocal here is by Dorothy Combs Morrison, is, amongst many things, the sound of a woman singing, a woman who does not have to be cute or pretty; she is the anchor of the song, the one who has experienced what the hymn is about, that supreme happiness that almost cannot be put into words. She sounds as if she has been through something, something momentous, and oddly enough she is not singing in a way (like Aretha) where you could hear her down the block. That is left to the rest, who are as loud and joyous and unified as a gospel choir should be, lifting the listeners slowly but surely, chord by chord. While Morrison experiences the mercy of being cleansed, the choir rejoices in being taught to sing and pray; it is a hymn wherein those who had been silent before spread the news now, and the happiness they sing of is not momentary or trivial but sits right at the heart and soul of their beings, and is thus transferred to ours (if our hearts and souls are open to it).

To say the least this song's power and simplicity made it an instant classic (I'm sure Doddridge and Rimbault would have approved of that) and no doubt benefited from Aretha Franklin's astonishing leap into the charts, bringing her own gospel style to the charts in an uncompromising and downright refreshing way. I can imagine people hearing this on the radio in complete confusion, admiration and then urgency - in that they had to go find it in a record store, now. It inspired George Harrison ("My Sweet Lord"), Todd Rundgren (his "I Saw The Light" is in the same key, even) and others to turn from psychedelic wig-outs to something simpler and, in some cases, more religious. The musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell had yet to happen, but the whole "Jesus freak" hippie scene was already well underway, as the search for meaning, love and purpose that so many counterculture kids were undergoing led them to Jesus (in part, I tend to think, as he too had long hair and a beard). So this 1967 recording was an anthem of sorts for them, a confirmation of all things good and righteous, as well as being an inspiration to other musicians, in the UK (Primal Scream's "Moving On Up" being the most obvious) and the US.

Its message of acceptance and redemption must have appealed to everyone, at the end of a messy decade, that to sing and pray and participate in celebrating life instead of despairing of it was a way out or through. The happiness here is solid, though, and requires a similar solidity in the listener, as the choir grows louder and louder, the joy absolute, almost overwhelming. This is the beginning of contemporary gospel, gospel that crosses over to R&B and has more or less stayed there ever since, from Mary Mary's light funky soul (this is one of my favorite songs from last year) to Kirk Franklin's R&B swagger (this is another) to Marvin L. Sapp's incredible testifying (this amazing song crushes all competition for most uplifting song of 2010). All of these songs were Billboard hits, not just in the gospel but also R&B charts, and the pop charts as well, and that is a legacy from Hawkins' work, amongst others.

And so we have travelled a long way through time and space, from the misery of Fleetwood Mac to the overwhelming love here. What could come next? The return of the man who embodies these two extremes, in one song...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

He's Got The Whole World... : Fleetwood Mac: "Man of the World"

And now the focus shifts from the loud, sometimes obnoxious world of pop - a world where Peter Noone unfortunately can't find a jukebox - to something deeper, more primal. I am strongly tempted to say this is music coming from the very roots of all this music to begin with, as if the listener just went down a rabbit hole and was cast into sudden darkness, or descended into a cave. Why?

The blues boom of the late 60s in the UK was a reaction against things, as well as a continuation of what made those things possible in the first place. The blues is primal - John Lennon compared it to a chair; I tend to think of it as more like bread - and there were those who started in blues bands before going on to other things, those who remained loyal and those who never really could leave the blues in the first place. For so many UK musicians the blues was their first love, and after the Summer of Love that weirded so many out, that first love asserted itself as both a reaction and a return. Every town worth its yeast had at least once decent blues band, some going on to worldwide fame once they got going (Black Sabbath were a blues band originally, Led Zeppelin obviously came out of the blues, as did Free, Ten Years After, Deep Purple, etc*.)

At this point however, there was one band that held sway, and it was Fleetwood Mac, a band from south and west of London that had a woozy instrumental, "Albatross" already go to #1 in the chart. The blues scene - or at least some of it - might of thought of this as 'selling out' (i.e. having hit singles) but at this time record companies still wanted them to help get the word out and of course to make money, even if the leader and main guitarist of Fleetwood Mac was becoming increasingly alienated from the whole process of recording, touring, recording, touring...

For this is Peter Green's song.

It is quiet; pretty, like the girls he has seen, but guarded, unnerving. And then that line: "I just wish I'd never been born." But there he is, in his cave full of melody and longing, the clamor of life around him as he nakedly sings about how he wishes he was in love. But there is no one there. There is no Other, not even in the past. The pretty girls are just part of the outer world, but not his inner world of experience. That inner world is scarily barren and full at the same time, like a glittering cave of riches that serves no purpose as there is no one to share its beauty with...clearly this is Pluto before Persephone, miserable, alone, wishing he did not exist, living only to tell others how down he is, the wry guitar lines mangled and yet still beautiful, but overwhelmingly different.

That such a cry of anguish got to #2 is remarkable, to say the least; I imagine some bought it as they were fans, some because they identified all too well with the lyrics (not everyone enjoyed the Summer of Love) and some because the song just stood out from the rest of the chart, bracingly intimate and close - no big production here, no cheery message, no real aspirations to pop stardom. One man and his tale of having the world and having nothing; a palpable emptiness that portends something bigger...

For those who wanted the real sourdough thing, Fleetwood Mac were it; but Peter Green's growing alienation (not unlike Syd Barrett's, in some ways) would push the band's fate in ways they would barely comprehend at this time, including a young Californian who was listening to them and copying Peter Green, as if writing his own fate. There are big things afoot here, things that even in the self-mythologizing world of blues/rock are strange, as the 60s relentlessly grinds everything down to its essence, and ordinary songs of love (for the purposes of this blog) are no longer enough.

Next up: we go to the other root of popular music, and the other side of the equation.

*One other band I should mention is Chicken Shack, whose lead singer was one Christine Perfect. She liked Fleetwood Mac and was attracted to Peter Green but sensed he would be a little difficult, so she got to be friendly with their bass player, John McVie.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Play It Again: Herman's Hermits: "My Sentimental Friend"

By the late 60s there were two categories bands found themselves in; one the auteur-led wayward geniuses of what would in retrospect be called Classic Rock (The Big Four being the most obvious ones) and the more-or-less bubblegum contingent, whose claim to any greatness was that nothing they did could smack of pretension or profundity, mainly because their producers were mainly intent not on albums but on singles. Big important bands, whether they were famous or just well-known amongst the cognoscenti, did albums, all the better to fit in new concepts, new instruments, and virtuosic solos. The Bubblegum kids had hooks, heart-tugging or not, songs that were easily hummable and understandable, and a blink-and-you-miss-it sophistication.

I count Herman’s Hermits – whom some of you may have been expecting at this here blog – as bubblegum, because that is where their core audience (and Mickie Most, their producer) liked them to be; they were much more successful as purveyors of what No Hard Chords’ Sally O’Rourke calls “pop junk” on the charts in the US than in the UK, where they paved the way for The Monkees just as much as The Beatles did. The Hermits were an actual band that could write songs and everything, but Most knew what they could do best and that was interpret songs by others (leaving their own compositions to album tracks & b-sides).

And so here we are, dear readers, with a song that John Carter and Geoff Stephens wrote, rubberstamped by Most as he knew that the yearning in Peter Noone’s voice (surprising to hear him with such emotion in his voice, but then bubblegum thrives on naked emotion as much as opera does) would do it justice. Not that this is a profound song, but it walks a very thin line indeed between being about powerful emotions in and around music and then mysteriously becoming what it is already talking (or rather, singing) about.

It is a song about the manipulative power of music, a man wanting his old “friend” to be moved by a song to tears. Because he wants her back, he wants to see her cry? Perhaps, but mainly he wants her to realize what they had together, via the postively Casablanca-style ploy of requesting that old song of theirs which will bring back those old feelings. That she is “over there” implies a huge gulf that he is scared to physically cross, as if he knows that would already be useless; only music has the power to bring her back now, and his song is secondary heart-tugging – he wants the DJ to play something, or perhaps the bandleader – whoever is in charge here has to help him.

So this song has us as a witness, as the DJ/bandleader ourselves, roped into this moment where he sees her and wants her to want him back via the sentimental song…which is clearly in and of itself sentimental. He knows she likes sad songs, and since this is a plea the song itself is sad, as there is no way of finding out whether the ploy works or not. (“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” works on kind of the same lines, with Noone aw-shucksing his way into Mrs. Brown’s heart if not ours.) The song thus doubles up on itself (I don’t know if this was Carter/Stephens’ intention*) and this brought the Hermits’ their biggest hit in the UK. I’m not sure if this was even released as a US single; it’s on the reissue of their US-only album Blaze, and I imagine it's on greatest hits compilations in the UK. In any case I don’t remember hearing it on North American radio – not surprising, as it breaks down that bubblegum wall Most had carefully built, even as Most approved of the song in the first place. It seems no one could escape the positively tidal emotions of 1969, where music itself was the one, the only thing that could possibly bring hearts together.

*There is a unique intensity in John Carter’s work that is hard to describe; hearing him sing the demo for this song is even more affecting than the Hermits’ version, as if he knows already his question is doomed but he has to ask anyway.