Category Archives: Music — 1960s

The Class of ‘66: Scaling Rock’s First Mighty Peak

It is a long-established trope among classic rock aficionados that 1966 has a special place in music history — something was in the air, something that pushed bands and artists to experiment and explore new sonic territory, producing their very best work. Music that made rock, pop, and soul “grow up” and become music for discerning adults, rather than disposable entertainment for the bubble-gum set. Any time there’s a poll in some dinosaur-rock magazine or website, three specific 1966 albums (you know what they are) always seem to swap around the top spots.103751_max

Fifty years down the road, is it time for a re-examination of 1966? Do the vaunted, classic albums actually hold up, or has “1966” just become a lazy shorthand for an incredibly brief period of musical development that will never be replicated in a space of twelve months ever again, while the actual albums themselves grow inflated and overrated, and at the same time, dusty and rarely listened to?

First of all, it must be remembered that in 1966, the rock album was still in its infancy. Bands like the Beatles and solo artists like Bob Dylan were working hard to change that, but even in 1966, the album charts were dominated by traditional, non-rock artists (Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra), soundtracks (Dr. Zhivago), and left-field novelties (The Ballad of the Green Berets).

I had a good time re-listening to these recordings from almost nine years before my birth with an eye on their place in history, and I came to the conclusion that 1966’s reputation is deserved, but should be looked at as the beginning of something, the first of many peaks, at least as far as “good album years” are concerned. (1991, anyone?)

And the albums that made the year’s reputation — and kicked open the door to the format becoming commercially dominant — were actually very few in number. Both Britain and the U.S. each had a group of albums I call “The Big 5.” By general consensus, these are the what made 1966 “1966”:

A note on chart positions: The U.S. has one generally accepted music sales chart — Billboard. (There was also Cashbox for awhilebut it was considered very secondary.) The U.K. had several different publications — Disc, Record Retailer, New Musical Express, and Melody Maker — each with their own method of charting a record’s success, and each considered a viable source. I used whichever was the highest for a particular album.

TEAM U.K.

The Beatles — RevolverRevolver

Release Date: August 5

Highest Chart Position: #1 (U.S. & U.K.)

The “what-is-the-best-Beatles-album” question is as pointless as it is personal. You’ve got the Abbey Road boosters, the Rubber Soul fanatics, the people who love the innocence and energy of their debut Please Please Me, and the people who love the hippie-baroque intricacies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Then there’s people like me, who say Revolver is their best (by a slim whisker — it’s the most formidable discography in popular music.) My group has has been growing larger over the past several years. Sgt. Pepper’s star has faded a little, and Revolver’s reputation has finally clawed its way past it. The swaggering confidence they had as masters of the recording studio has seeped into the grooves of this record. They opened a dizzying bag of studio tricks: varispeed, tape loops, flanging, phasing, everything tried backwards, upside down, and sideways. The sheer musical variety from track to track demonstrates their effortless ear for genre and pastiche. From Harrison’s classical Indian piece “Love You To” to McCartney’s brass-saturated Memphis soul tribute “Got To Get You Into My Life,” to Lennon’s attempt (often imitated, never bettered) to create the audio equivalent of an LSD trip on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver shows off a band at the absolute top of its game. And I didn’t even mention “Eleanor Rigby.” Or “Yellow Submarine.” Or “Taxman.” Or “Good Day Sunshine.” Or “She Said She Said.” Each worthy of an essay of their own. And there’s still more great stuff…it’s a hell of an album.

The Rolling Stones — AftermathRSAftermathUK

Release Date: April 15

Highest Chart Position: #1 (U.K.), #2 (U.S.)

The Stones started their career as a better-than-average R&B cover band, but didn’t truly come into their own until the Jagger-Richards songwriting team kicked into gear in ‘65 with two blistering singles, “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” By the spring of 1966, they were ready to unleash their first all-original album on an unsuspecting public. Their R&B roots were almost nowhere to be heard, replaced by a brittle, bitter form of power pop. The songs perfectly captured the mood of being a young, jaded rock star in Swinging London, and were underpinned by Charlie Watts’ light, jazzy touch on the drums. No heroics yet from future guitar god Keith Richards, who contributes a few stinging, fuzz-pedal lines here and there. The real show is band founder, multi-instrumentalist (and soon-to-be-ousted) Brian Jones, providing exotic textures on sitar, marimba, dulcimer, harpsichord, and a variety of bells, chimes, and random percussion. [Like many U.K. albums, Aftermath hit U.S. shores in altered form – a different cover and shorter track list. Unlike the clearly inferior U.S. version of Revolver, which simply cut the three Lennon tracks that had already appeared earlier in the year on the U.S.-only Yesterday…And Today, the American Aftermath is actually defensible – cutting four tracks (two of which were very sub-par) and adding the first-rate “Paint It, Black,” which had been a stand-alone single in the U.K.]

The Kinks — Face To FaceFace_to_Face_(The_Kinks_album)_coverart

Release Date: October 28

Highest Chart Position: #8 (U.K.), #135 (U.S.)

The Kinks outgrew the aggressive, distorted riffs that made their early reputation (“You Really Got Me,” “All Day And All Of The Night”), and began taking a gentler, subtler approach. Chief writer Ray Davies began focusing on evocative and eccentric character studies (culminating in the awesome “Sunny Afternoon” which closes this album), all steeped in distinctly British pre-rock traditions — music hall, pub singalongs, light classical, and flourishes of Celtic folk. When he wasn’t writing about dandies, session musicians, exclusive residences for sale, or Hawaiian vacations, Davies turned inward, exploring his own fragile psyche (“Too Much On My Mind” “Rainy Day In June”). Sessions for the album began right after Davies’ recuperation from a much-discussed, Brian Wilson-esque nervous breakdown. The album was well-received in Britain, then faded from memory, even going out of print for several years. Its fortunes were revived when people began talking about 1966 in reverent tones, and it has received several deluxe reissues.

The Who — A Quick OneA_quick_one

Release Date: December 9

Highest Chart Position: #4 (U.K.), #51 (U.S.)

By their own admission, the Who’s second album was a patchy affair based on the half-baked idea that other band members should contribute two original songs, rather than relying solely on Pete Townshend. Roger Daltrey coughed up one (the decent “See My Way”), and drummer Keith Moon cribbed the melody from a half-remembered TV theme song (Man From Interpol) and turned it into the brass band instrumental “Cobwebs And Strange.” Moon’s second offering was a haunting little trifle called “I Need You” (supposedly about the ego-bruising experience of nightclubbing with the Beatles), which I suspect received uncredited help from Townshend. A perfunctory cover of “Heatwave” does no favors. Luckily, the strengths of the album are noteworthy. A Quick One did boast some underrated Townshend gems, including the sublime “So Sad About Us,” and showed off John Entwistle’s skills as a darkly comic songwriter in the Ray Davies vein with “Whiskey Man” and “Boris The Spider.” (Every future Who album except Quadrophenia would feature at least one weird and wonderful Entwistle jam.) Finally, the last track on the album paved the way to the band’s future: the first “rock opera” — a nine-minute, multi-section suite about an extramarital affair called “A Quick One While He’s Away.” (The album’s generic “pop art” cover brought it down a notch. It’s quite hideous.)

John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers – Blues Breakers with EricBluesbreakers_John_Mayall_with_Eric_Clapton Clapton

Release Date: July 22

Highest Chart Position: #6 (U.K.), did not chart in the U.S.

Guitarist Eric Clapton had already established such a reputation during his time with the Yardbirds that bandleader John Mayall included his name in the actual title of the album. Mayall was one of the earliest performers to popularize American blues in Britain (second only to Alexis Korner), acting as an inspiration and mentor to younger acts like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. The Bluesbreakers line-up was always fluid, with Mayall switching off between keyboards and guitar, and a rotating cast of musicians backing him. The band that powered Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton consisted of Mayall (mostly on Hammond organ and harmonica), future Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie, drummer Hughie Flint, and, of course, Eric Clapton and his sunburst Les Paul playing those impeccable licks that made him a legend. The songs themselves are tasteful and restrained versions (no side-long jamming just yet — it’s still 1966) of classic blues numbers originally by Otis Rush, Robert Johnson, Mose Allison, Little Walter, and others, along with a couple of Mayall originals. (Clapton shyly gives his first ever lead vocal performance on “Ramblin’ On My Mind.”) Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #14: “Sinatra: The Chairman” (and to a lesser extent, “Frank: The Voice”) by James Kaplan

“Frank Sinatra saved my life once. I was jumped by a bunch of guys in a parking lot. They were beating me with blackjacks. Sinatra said, ‘Okay, boys, that’s enough…'”                                                                                  –Shecky Greene

I have never been a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, but I certainly can’t deny he was one of the foremost musical artists of the 20th century. (I’m not a fan of ballet or musical theater either, but would never deny the skill and talent required to do them well.) I’ve tried to get into Sinatra, but for all the praise heaped on him for his “phenomenal phrasing” and his way of “living the emotion of a lyric,” my rock-raised ears can’t get around the fact that everything he’s done now sounds dated and hokey. It’s grandfather music. Or nowadays, great-grandfather music. It’s polite. Which makes it all the more wonder that it comes from perhaps one of the most impolite human beings that ever existed. Sinatra may have hated rock — and he did, with all the passion his passionate nature could muster — but in personality and demeanor, he was first rock star, maybe even the first punk (although to someone of Sinatra’s generation, “punk” was a grievous insult.)

The post-1954 Frank Sinatra as depicted by James Kaplan (and many others) is, more often than not, a generally unpleasant person. Thoughtless, hyper-sensitive, and supremely self-centered at the best of times, he often melted down into rages that were literally toddler-like: screaming, throwing things, breaking things, hitting people — because he didn’t get his way on some minor matter. When asked why those close to him tolerated it, they usually said something about his formidable charm and bottomless generosity when his mood was lighter…and of course that talent, and “that voice.” But for a reader like myself who isn’t a particular fan of “that voice,” his behavior is inexcusable. His story, however, is fascinating…

Sinatra: The Chairman is the just-published second of a two-volume biography by Kaplan, but the first, Frank: The Voice (2010), feels like nothing more than an extended prologue, chronicling the singer’s early years in Hoboken (as an indulged only child of a lower-middle class family, not the tough street gangster he claimed to be), his rise to fame as a skinny, bow-tied “crooner” singing with the big bands in the 1940s, and finally his temporary plunge into semi-obscurity. (Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography has the opposite issue; the first volume, Last Train To Memphis, is riveting, and the second, Careless Love, feels like a perfunctory denouement.)

Kaplan’s first volume lingers for its entire final third on those wilderness years of 1950-53 — dumped by Columbia Records and MGM, Sinatra limped through hosting a short-lived, low-rated variety show on CBS, sang to half-filled halls, and clung to fame primarily through his rocky marriage to rising star Ava Gardner. Frank: The Voice ends in early 1954 on a note of triumph — it’s Oscar night and Sinatra has just won Best Supporting Actor for From Here To Eternity (he had begged for the role when no one wanted to hire him.) The ink has just dried on his contract with Capitol Records, where his newly-matured voice and partnership with a number of gifted arrangers (Nelson Riddle foremost among them) put him at the forefront of American popular music.

This is where Sinatra: The Chairman begins, and rewards the reader for making the slog through Frank: The Voice. This is where we get the Sinatra we want to hear about — the Mafia ties, the brawls, the womanizing, the Rat Pack, the iconic Capitol albums, the dabbling in Kennedy-era politics…Kaplan does not disappoint. When I call the first volume a slog, that’s not a knock on Kaplan’s writing. In both books it’s wonderful, almost novelistic prose. What I mean is Sinatra’s early years, personally and professionally, are his least interesting. 1954 and beyond is where the real meat is.

Kaplan weaves Sinatra’s story in and out of a larger cultural picture. Like the first volume, a generous portion of Sinatra: The Chairman focuses on a few key years, in this case, 1960 to 1963, when Sinatra parked himself at an exciting and somewhat dangerous intersection of entertainment, organized crime (he was friends with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana), and politics (he lobbied hard for JFK in the 1960 presidential campaign, and even partied with the Massachusetts senator several times early on, before Kennedy wisely began distancing himself.) Kaplan explains and intercuts all of these meticulously-researched threads without ever losing momentum, with a keen eye for the details he knows we want, and never becoming salacious or losing his academic tone. As we move through the 1960s, Kaplan also begins intercutting Sinatra’s story with the rise of the Beatles (by implication declaring them the other great musical phenomenon of the 20th century), and the rapidly-changing face of popular music in that decade. The sands once again shift beneath Sinatra’s feet as he ages out of any real relevance everywhere but Vegas showrooms and the cocktail parties of old Palm Springs millionaires. (Admittedly, it’s pretty cool that the marquees in Vegas would simply say “HE’S HERE” with no further information needed.)

Biographies sometimes find it difficult to strike a balance between telling the story of a life, and examining the work that life produced. They often either dwell on their subject’s psyche, or read like a chronological resume of projects. Kaplan does an excellent job interspersing Sinatra’s films and recordings into the overall picture, giving a good impression of what clicked and what didn’t, both with the artist himself (Sinatra did not care much for “Strangers In The Night,” and absolutely hated “My Way”), and with the public that paid for the results. Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 3)

HELP_logo

Realizing John’s songwriting pen had struck gold, the Beatles raced to Abbey Road on the evening of April 13, 1965 (after spending a long day filming, then doing a lengthy radio interview from a car in the studio parking lot — I’m telling you, their calendars were packed) and emerged with not only a massive hit single, but also the film’s official title.

“Help!” the song is arguably one of the all-time greatest Beatles singles. Its gutsy lead vocal from John, and innovative backing vocals from Paul and George (the lyrics in the backing vocals at times actually precede the lead vocals — a minor but notable twist to the formula), backed by the powerful, Ritchie Havens-like pounding of John’s acoustic rhythm guitar (a Framus 12-string), Ringo’s flawless drumming, and the jangling, descending lead guitar lines of George (played on a Gretsch Tennessean) that almost single-handedly launched everyone from the Byrds to R.E.M, combine to create something that was probably much, much better than a song called “Eight Arms To Hold You” would have been. That name was gratefully relegated to the scrap heap.

The opening title sequence where the band performs the song was filmed on April 22.

The title sequence

The title sequence, Twickenham Studios, April 22, 1965. Lennon’s 12-string acoustic heard on the actual song is replaced by a Gibson 6-string here, but the Framus can be seen in the “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” sequence later in the film.

lennonThere is an eerie, odd moment when the Beatles are in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport (filmed at Twickenham on April 27) fleeing to the Bahamas in disguise. John’s disguise — big beard and round, wire-rimmed glasses — is exactly how he would look four years later — check the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road.

SIDE NOTE: Is Help! racist? Some modern internet reviews display a very laudable 21st-century concern that the film’s treatment of Eastern religion is, shall we say, not the most enlightened. George Harrison’s most recent biographer, Graeme Thomson, sniffs haughtily that “Help! is their least soulful, least committed project, in which alternative spirituality is mockingly played for the broadest of laughs.” Thomson may be overstating the case somewhat (and the remark was a sufficient enough irritant to the Holy Bee to inspire these blog posts.) The unnamed cult in the film does not seem to be a jibe at Hinduism, Krishnaism, or any other form of real religious worship. What they actually seem to be based on is the Thuggee, a bloodthirsty group of thieves and murderers that once terrorized the Indian subcontinent. If that’s Thomson’s idea of “alternative spirituality,” then he certainly has more issues than the film.

Lester directing Ringo and an

Lester directing Ringo and an “Indian” extra. It looks like Ringo has a 21st-century cell phone in his front pocket, but it’s a pack of cigs.

The Thuggee were also the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which has had its own accusations of presenting institutionalized colonial racism as if it were acceptable. The Thuggee were definitely devotees of Kali, but unlike the demon goddess demanding blood sacrifice depicted here and in Temple of Doom, Kali is a loved and accepted (if not always benevolent) member of the pantheon of Hindu gods. In this case, I suppose both films are guilty of fostering a misapprehension.  However, this is Help!, the goofy, written-in-ten-days musical romp that’s a half-century old. Anyone expecting documentary-style accuracy on actual Hindu religious rites should look elsewhere.

And not that any religion is treated with reverence in the Help! universe. “They have to paint me red before they chop me,” Ringo patiently explains at one point. “It’s a different religion from ours. [Long pause]…I think.”

Some also decry the fact that all of the “Indians” are played by lily-white English actors. That, of course, is part of the overall joke, and the English are the butts of it. Despite their Empire being long gone, the English are so childishly pleased with themselves and their way of life that they suspect that everyone, deep down, is really just like them. (As Clang is growling instructions to the henchmen in Hindi, Bhuta looks on helplessly. “I don’t speak the language,” he admits to no one in particular. “Latin, yes, but this Eastern babble…” he concludes with a resigned shrug, like a good British public-school boy.)

In general, the film is just a mild culture clash, with the working-class Scouser/Cockney attitudes toward the “mystic East” tending more toward tolerant befuddlement or innocent cluelessness. If you’re really looking for something to be offended about, I suppose you could find it in Help!, but you’d need to put forth the effort. Keep in mind, Harrison’s and the Beatles’ sincere interest in Indian religion inspired by their work on the film did lead directly to a more educated and informed view in subsequent years.

beatles-help-image1

At some point in late April or May, the band dug out their heavy Austrian ski outfits to be photographed for the promotional materials, including the movie poster and album cover. Photographer Robert Freeman’s original intention was to have them spell out H-E-L-P with their arms in semaphore. That formation looked awkward and didn’t photograph well, so, in Freeman’s words, “we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms.” They roughly spell out “NUJV” or “NVUJ”, depending on which version of the picture you’re looking at.

I had naturally assumed the “semaphore” photos were shot on location in Austria, but soon remembered that was almost a month before the title had been conceived. (Add to that fact that no version of the semaphore photos with an actual Austrian background can be found — they’re always superimposed onto other things: record sleeves, posters, books, etc., which indicates a later studio shoot against a blank backing. There is a brief arms-extended shot in the “Ticket To Ride” sequence that may have sparked the idea.) The official still photographer on the set of Help! was not Freeman, but Emilio Lari.

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Smoke break on Salisbury Plain. I would love to own McCartney’s outfit, but doubt I could pull it off.

The first three days of May were spent creating a visually striking sequence on the windswept Salisbury Plain with a noticably freezing, shivering band playing “I Need You” and “The Night Before.” (In the film, this was an presented as an unorthodox outdoor recording session, so that the Beatles — a national treasure — could be protected from all the nefarious forces out to do them harm by a ring of armored tanks while cutting their latest record.)

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The last few days of the shoot were spent at Cliveden House, a 19th century mansion in the Berkshire countryside, whose large, paneled rooms were a believable stand-in for the interiors of Buckingham Palace.

At Cliveden House

At Cliveden House

Practically as soon as “cut” was called on their last scene on May 11, the Beatles hit the recording studio again (in fact, they had begun the night before.) This time they turned their attention to the second half of the Help! album, the material that would not be in the film. Through May and June, the Beatles bounced between the Twickenham recording studio, doing post-sync sound work on the final cut of Help!, and their regular recording studio on Abbey Road, laying down “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy,” “I’m Down,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “It’s Only Love,” “Act Naturally,” and “Yesterday.” The Vox Continental organ replaced the Hohner Pianet as the keyboard flavor-of-the-week during these sessions. (The Hammond organ, mellotron, and Moog were all waiting in the wings…)

They also recorded the appropriately-titled “Wait,” which would end up on Rubber Soul later in ‘65. “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means A Lot” were shit-canned, until both were resurrected for the outtake-based Anthology project in the 1990s.

help british singleOn June 20, they steeled themselves for another round of touring the world, playing the usual 30-minute inaudible shows into a maelstrom of hysterical screams. On July 23, the “Help!” single was released (backed by “I’m Down”) to whet the public’s appetite for the upcoming film and album.

Help! received a Royal Premiere at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on July 29, 1965, the same day it hit cinemas throughout Britain. The band was on a break between the European and American legs of their tour, and were able to put on their tuxes and attend. It was a box-office hit, although critics, as we’ve seen, were noticeably more lukewarm compared to the raves they gave A Hard Day’s Night.

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

The British and American soundtrack albums were two very different entities, following the pattern established by the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. In the UK, both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were released as proper Beatles albums, with two full sides of original music. The first side featured songs from the film, and the second side featured additional “album-only” songs. The only deviation from standard Beatles recording policy on the British soundtracks was the inclusion of singles, which ordinarily would not be included on a UK album. However, it was considered a commercially smart move to boost movie ticket sales by 1) having the title song of the movie released as a single at the same time as the movie/album, and 2) having the movie/album feature an already-released hit single (“Can’t Buy Me Love” in the case of A Hard Day’s Night, “Ticket To Ride” for Help!).

On the American versions, only the seven songs heard in each film were included on the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! records, spread over both sides and interspersed with sections of the orchestral scores by George Martin and Ken Thorne, respectively. Kind of a rip-off, really, to be paying full album price for what was essentially a half-album of Beatles songs. In fact, the American Help! was packaged as a “deluxe” album with a gatefold sleeve, and priced $1 higher than a standard album when it hit shelves on August 13, 1965.

George Martin was not invited back to provide the score for Help!. Martin later complained that Letser “fancied himself a musician,” and constantly second-guessed Martin’s scoring choices in an undiplomatic and overbearing manner, leading to some bitter arguments. Lester’s choice of composer Ken Thorne to score the film is not without interest, however unwelcome his presence on a supposed Beatles album might be. His score for Help! consists mostly of orchestral and Indian re-workings of the Beatles songs “A Hard Day’s Night,” “From Me To You,” and “You Can’t Do That,” along with a few snippets of classical pieces, and, naturally, the “James Bond Theme.” Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 2)

Help! had no shortage of good actors, although the Beatles would not count themselves among them…

Leo McKern as Clang

Leo McKern as Clang

High Priest Clang was played by Leo McKern, a character actor with a distinctive round face and bulbous nose who already had a long theatrical and film career going back to the 1940s (including an appearance in Lester’s Running Jumping & Standing Still Film). Help! launched him to a higher level, and he went on to give notable performances in A Man For All Seasons, Ryan’s Daughter, and The Blue Lagoon. He is probably most remembered by British viewers (and the American PBS audience) as the barrister Horace Rumpole in the BBC TV series Rumpole Of The Bailey, which ran off and on from 1975 through 1992.

Eleanor Bron as Ahme

Eleanor Bron as Ahme

High Priestess Ahme was played by Eleanor Bron in her film debut. The young actress with a strikingly unconventional look was already well-known for being the first female performer in a Cambridge University Footlights revue (the previously all-male theatrical club was also the launching pad for David Frost, Peter Cook, future Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle, and later, Douglas Adams, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and on and on…) She made a name for herself in the emerging world of modern British satire. With fellow Footlight John Fortune, she created a male/female comedy duo act for Peter Cook’s Establishment nightclub (similar to the sort of thing Mike Nichols and Elaine May were doing in the US around the same time). She also was a performer on David Frost’s Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life (1964-65). After Help!, she continued performing in film, television, stage, and radio, and authored several books.

A lot of sources say her name inspired the title of the 1966 Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” but this may not be so. real Eleanor Rigby has a grave in the St. Peter’s Parish Church cemetery in Liverpool, which the teenage McCartney often used as a shortcut on his ramblings around town.

John Bluthal as Bhuta

John Bluthal as Bhuta

Bhuta, Clang’s long-suffering sidekick, was played by John Bluthal, who had worked with Richard Lester for many years (he was the car thief in A Hard Day’s Night), and would go on to do so for many years more. Modern audiences might recognize him as the blind street musician who owns the chimpanzee (“min-key”) in Return of the Pink Panther, or Professor Pacoli in the opening sequence of The Fifth Element.

Roy Kinnear as Algernon

Roy Kinnear as Algernon

Dr. Foot’s assistant, Algernon, was played by Roy Kinnear. (“He’s an idiot,” says Foot of Algernon. “A degree in woodworking. I ask you.”) Like Bluthal, the rotund Kinnear was a member of Lester’s “stock company,” appearing in most of his films. And like Bron, he was a veteran of Britain’s satire boom of the early Sixties, appearing in David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was in 1962-63. (Frost seemingly came up with a different satirical comedy show for every TV season.) Kinnear’s performance is quite possibly the comedic highlight of Help!. The Behm/Wood screenplay has no shortage of lines that aren’t particularly funny to read, but become funny in performance. Kinnear is a genius in this area. Some examples:

“I’m better with animals than plugs and transistors, Daddy being the local master of the hounds. That’s where I get it from, my love of animals. They trust me. [Long pause, then wistfully] I should have been in vivisection.”

“[To Ringo] You’re a drummer, eh? I’m no mean hand at the ol’ sticks-man stuff myself, you know,” [Then randomly slaps the back of an office chair for several seconds with his hands.]

Victor Spinetti as Dr. Foot

Victor Spinetti as Dr. Foot

Everyone loves, or should love, Roy Kinnear. Most people know him as Veruca Salt’s father in 1971’s Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. He never did much work in the US, but his British filmography is pretty impressive.

The mad scientist, Dr. Foot, was played by Victor Spinetti. Spinetti, described by Wikipedia as a “raconteur,” was a Welsh-born actor who did most of his work writing, directing, and acting on the theater stage (while still managing to appear in over 30 films). He appeared in a major role in A Hard Day’s Night (as the neurotic TV director), and the Beatles loved him so much they insisted he be in their second film. After Help!, he continued his association with the band, appearing on their fan-club Christmas recordings, adapting Lennon’s book of nonsense stories and verse, In His Own Write, into a stage play, and making an appearance in Magical Mystery Tour. Paul McCartney described him as “the man who makes clouds disappear,” and George Harrison told him “you’ve got to be in all our films…if you’re not in them, my mum won’t come and see them — because she fancies you.” (Mrs. Harrison was shit out of luck — like Graham Chapman, Spinetti was openly and flamboyantly gay in an era when it could still be career suicide to do so.) john-lennon-victor-spinetti_01

Patrick Cargill as Superintendent Gluck

Patrick Cargill as Superintendent Gluck

Another flamboyant British theatrical eccentric, Patrick Cargill, played Superintendent Gluck of Scotland Yard. Cargill was a fixture of British stage and television for decades, although his two popular TV shows, Father, Dear Father and The Many Wives of Patrick didn’t get much play Stateside. One of Cargill’s great moments in the film, in addition to his obsession with the word “famous,” is his insistence that he is a great mimic (“James Cagney” he proudly cites among his repertoire), followed by his attempt to do an Liverpudlian impression of Ringo over the phone. “Hullo, this is the famous Ringo speaking, gear-fab, what can I do for you as it were, gear-fab?” (“Not a bit like Cagney,” George remarks acidly.)

The Beatles began the Help! project in John Lennon’s home music room, him and Paul crafting to order the songs that would be heard in the film. They had been playing a winter residency at the historic Hammersmith Odeon theater in London from December 1964 through January 1965. In the chilly afternoons before the performances, Paul would drive out to Lennon’s country home in Weybridge and hammer out the soundtrack for the movie they knew they would be filming in a month or so. (Cynthia Lennon related in her memoir that if deadlines were particularly tight, Lennon and McCartney would collaborate over the phone.)

“We made a game of it. John and I wrote [each of] the songs within two or three hours — our ‘time allotted.’ It hardly ever took much longer than that.” (Paul McCartney.) If a song didn’t at least start to come together in the time allotted, they figured it wasn’t worth the effort and moved on.

After their winter holidays, and well-stocked with several Lennon-McCartney compositions written expressly for the film (and two Harrison songs to boot), the band arrived at EMI Studios on Abbey Road on February 15, 1965. They recorded the basic tracks for “Ticket To Ride,” “Another Girl,” and “I Need You.” Those three songs were completed the following day, along with a song that was not destined to end up the the film, “Yes It Is.”

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McCartney plays the Pianet on “Tell Me What You See”

On February 17, “The Night Before” was recorded, along with another non-film song “You Like Me Too Much,” both heavily featuring the Hohner Pianet electric piano, which they saw one of their opening acts use at the Odeon shows. (Like a lot of the band’s new musical “toys,” the Pianet was briefly obsessed over, then virtually abandoned. Harrison’s just-purchased volume-control guitar pedal, all over the previous day’s “I Need You” and “Yes It Is,” met a similar fate after the Help! sessions.)

February 18 was an epic recording day, with “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” completed, along with the non-film song “Tell Me What You See” and an unreleased Lennon-McCartney song with Ringo on lead vocals, “If You’ve Got Trouble” (which was so awful, the Beatles gave up on it almost immediately, managing only a single take — though they did do a few overdubs and gave it a rough mix, just in case.)

February 19 saw the recording of “You’re Going To Lose That Girl.” The final tweaking, overdubbing, and mixing of the soundtrack songs occurred on February 20, along with an attempt at another song destined for the reject pile, “That Means A Lot.”  Continue reading

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Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 1)

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The original film poster

Help! was a movie, too, you know…

Nowadays, Help! mostly conjures up thoughts of the 1965 album, its driving, brilliant title single, and its Side Two (in the UK) monster classic “Yesterday.”

But Help! was a cinematic entity as well, and the accompanying album was (mostly) intended to be its soundtrack tie-in. Help! (the movie) has always gotten short shrift from Beatles historians, film critics, and even the Beatles themselves. Oh, no one says it’s bad — everyone acknowledges it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — but in most Beatles books it’s dismissively given about a page-and-a-half to two pages out of the band’s whole history. This for a project that the band spent almost four months producing, and four months in those hectic Beatlemania days might as well have been four years. (Even their self-made, self-indulgent psychedelic mess of a TV movie, 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, gets more notice and affection these days.)

There was a time when popular singers, once they’d reached a certain point of  fame, were expected to take the next step and become all-around “entertainers,” conquering other mediums, especially film and television. Guys like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley ended up with just as many films as albums, if not more. Following that mindset, Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed the band up for a three-picture deal with United Artists in late 1963. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (released July 1964) was microscopically budgeted and hastily shot with the belief that the Beatles were a temporary craze with an imminent expiration date. (UA could cancel the remaining two pictures if they chose.) It was intended to be a cheapie exploitation flick, but it ended up a landmark moment in film history.o-THE-BEATLES-facebook

Help!, their second film under the UA contract, was released to British cinemas in July 1965 (a month later in the US). The British and American versions of the soundtrack (two very different animals, as we’ll see) were released a week apart in early August.

“There’s nothing in Help! to compare with…A Hard Day’s Night…This one, without sense or pattern is wham, wham, wham all the way…Some of it is surprising. Richard Lester, the director, has played some witty pranks with his camera. There are some fetching title and color gags, and a lot of amusing tricks achieved with old silent film techniques…The boys themselves are exuberant and uninhibited in their own genial way. They just become awfully redundant and—dare I say it?—dull.” (Original New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, 1965.)

“Unlike their first film, Help! came out uneven, unbalanced. The songs were great (the Beatles never let us down when it came to music) and there were a few genuinely funny moments. But there were some very flat gags and worse, a long dull period in the middle of the film. Reviews were decidedly mixed, with almost every reviewer dubbing Help! a comedown from their glittering debut.” (Actor & blogger Eddie Deezen, via the Neatorama website.) Help!

“The script…isn’t a complete failure, especially for fans of British comedies of the 1960s. There’s some really great funny business between the group…But overall, the story can’t hold a candle to the behind-the-scenes look from A Hard Day’s Night. The issue with Help! is its complete rejection of any realistic element – the moment you see the Beatles living in one large house, you know this is a cartoon world with no sense of reality…Help! turns the zaniness to 11 and it’s just too much to make for a good movie….It makes it pretty clear that while the Beatles were geniuses at music, acting was not their forte. The songs written for Help! are some of the group’s best…but the dated stuff in between make it hard to watch on a regular basis…” (Daniel S. Levine, film critic for The Celebrity Cafe, and evidently a hater of everything non-realistic.)

“I enjoyed filming it. I’m sort of satisfied, but not smug about it. It’ll do. There’s good photography in it. There’s some good actors in it — not us, because we don’t act, we just do what we can.” (John Lennon, damning it with faint praise around the time of its release).

“Looking back on it, Help! isn’t such a bad film. It’s more of a fun romp, but I think that A Hard Day’s Night is the better of the two…we’d really tried to get involved and learn the script for A Hard Day’s Night, [but] by the time Help! came along we were taking it as a bit of a joke. I’m not sure anyone ever knew the script, I think we used to learn it on the way to the set.” (Paul McCartney.) 3834949

Yes, Help! will always suffer in comparison to A Hard Day’s Night, a film-buff favorite. That first film was cinema-verite style look at a fictionalized “two days in the life of” the world’s greatest pop group. Its gritty, black & white cinematography, documentary-style handheld camera work, jittery editing, and energetic performances from the Beatles still in their first flush of mega-stardom make A Hard Day’s Night a bona fide cinema classic. (The music is pretty good, too.)

The lion’s share of credit goes to director Richard Lester, but accolades are also deserved by screenwriter Alun Owen, like the Beatles a native of Liverpool, who traveled with the band on their November 1963 mini-tour of Ireland, and incorporated their personalities and witticisms into his Oscar-nominated script. Also contributing to its success were Beatles’ recording producer George Martin, who composed the orchestral score, and film producer Walter Shenson of United Artists, who stayed hands-off and allowed Lester, Owen, Martin, and the Beatles to create something that wasn’t just “another shitty pop movie” (Lennon’s words) like the kind Presley was cranking out in bulk at the time. Mere days after the Beatles stood on Ed Sullivan’s stage making their iconic US TV debut, they were in front of Lester’s cameras to get the film in the can before their next round of touring…

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SIDE NOTE: The Beatles’ schedule in their first three years or so of worldwide fame was almost inhumanly grueling, as a glance at Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicles will tell you. Consider this: the last day of filming on A Hard Day’s Night was April 24. On the 25th, they were in rehearsals for their ITV TV special Around The Beatles. On the 26th, they played at the New Musical Express Poll-Winners concert. The 27 and 28th was more rehearsing and then taping Around The Beatles. The 29th and 30th were concerts up in Scotland. May 1st saw them back in London recording an appearance for the BBC. And so on…

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #10: Grow Your Own “Flowers”

Flowers

The bastard step-child of The Rolling Stones’ discography. Generally forgotten or ignored by younger fans (i.e, those under 50), it lingers on in the mind of two types of people: those who were actually around when it came out, and music writers. Every time a Stones song missed the mark for the next two decades after its release, critics would say “sounds like it should have been dumped on Flowers,” or words to that effect.

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I have gone on at some length before about the 1960s policy of U.S. record labels chopping up and altering British albums — ostensibly as a money-making measure (fewer tracks per album in the U.S. resulted in more albums to sell), but they seemed to go out of their way to put them together in the clumsiest, most haphazard manner possible. It is folly to try to follow the thought processes of these record executives, but it almost seemed a deliberate attempt to make the worst decisions possible regarding song choices and sequencing. Yes, yes, they were clueless “suits” handling “product”, but shouldn’t a little understanding of their product have crept in by 1967, when the practice finally started dying out?

There was a theory that The Beatles’ famous hastily-withdrawn “butcher cover” on just such a hideous American re-packaging (Yesterday And Today) was their protest against the practice. (It wasn’t. It was just a random photo session, and the photographer, Robert Whitaker, had overly-arty sensibilities. The Beatles had no say in what Capitol Records slapped on the covers of U.S. albums)

The Stones’ American label was, ironically, London Records, and was an enthusiastic participant in these practices. On their ‘65 tour, the Stones were stunned to spot a massive billboard in Manhattan advertising an album they had no idea had been put out under their name — December’s Children (And Everybody’s). A typical collection of leftovers wrapped around a recent hit single (“Get Off Of My Cloud”), but the label didn’t even try to politely call it a compilation — it was presented as their “latest album.” At least by ’67, they weren’t trying to fool anyone.

So Flowers is generally referred to as a compilation album, but most people’s idea of a “compilation” album is a collection of previously released material (e.g., a best-of, or retrospective), and most of Flowers was unheard, at least in America — with three absolutely ridiculous exceptions. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” were two sides of a big single — but also the key tracks from the U.S. version of the album Between The Buttons, released a mere four months earlier. “Lady Jane” was even more puzzling — it was a non-single album track from their year-old album Aftermath. Why stick it on Flowers? Your guess is as good as mine. Continue reading

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The British Invasion Soldier That Didn’t Make It: The 1960s EP (Part 3)

Click here for PART 1

Click here for PART 2

All right, wake up, I’m almost finished…

The Kinks — Kwyet Kinks. (Tracks: 1. “Wait Till The Summer Comes Along.” 2. “Such A Shame.” 3. “A Well-Respected Man.” 4. “Don’t You Fret.” Released: September 17, 1965).

In the late summer of 1965, Kinks lead singer and primary songwriter Ray Davies was heading for a nervous breakdown. Nursing an extremely tender psyche pretty much since the day he was born, he was just not cut out for dealing with pop stardom, early 1960s-style. In addition to the eternal cycle of live appearances, TV and radio spots, interviews with clueless journalists asking the same inane questions about hair length and how long the “rock & roll fad” would last, the bands had to squeeze in recording sessions when they could, and if they wrote their own material, the pressure was even greater. Not only did they have to keep up with a brutal release schedule (their record labels expected at least two full albums and three  hopefully smash-hit standalone singles per year — imagine!), they were pushed by their management to provide songs for lesser-known artists who were not songwriters. (See Part 1 and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.)

After a string of early hits such as “You Really Got Me,” “All Day And All Of The Night,” “Tired Of Waiting For You,” and several others, the Kinks kracked. Led by Davies (and aided and abetted by his rowdy kid brother/worst enemy, 17-year-old lead guitarist Dave Davies), the group attempted to sabotage themselves with an epic string of boorish and unprofessional behavior. Cancelling concerts for no good reason, often storming off stage mid-set when they did deign to show up, telling powerful musician’s union reps to “fuck off,” and becoming the very first band to make a habit of trashing hotel rooms, The Kinks were punks a dozen years before there was any social or musical cachet associated with the term. It all culminated with a disastrous American tour, where their antics resulted in a blacklisting from American venues for the next four years.

Due to Davies’ disappointment and suspicion towards all things American, the Kinks gradually turned away from American-influenced R&B. He soon came up with his first satirical character sketch, and harbinger of the “new” Kinks sound, “A Well-Respected Man.” Poking vicious fun the conservative upper middle-class, the acoustic-textured song was a throwback to old British music hall and traditional pub sing-alongs. These older, very English pre-rock institutions began dominating the Kinks’ sonic palette, giving the band a fey, campy, whimsical style totally unique in the British music scene. The punks became dandies. Continue reading

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The British Invasion Soldier That Didn’t Make It: The 1960s EP (Part 2)

Click here for PART 1

The Rolling Stones — Five By Five. (Tracks: 1. “If You Need Me.” 2. “Empty Heart.” 3. “2120 South Michigan Avenue.” 4. “Confessin’ The Blues.” 5. “Around And Around.” Released: August 14, 1964.)

This was not the Stones’ first trip to the EP well. That distinction goes to their self-titled disc released in January ’64. The Stones would not truly embrace songwriting until the following year, so that first The Rolling Stones EP featured the usual fare of Anglicized R&B covers from the sublime (Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” is given a gorgeous acoustic treatment and one of Jagger’s best early vocals) to the typical (Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny” is sloppily bashed out in a sped-up, amphetamine-drenched tangle similar to most British covers of the era, and both it and “Money (That’s What I Want)” strain the limits of the primitive mics and tape machines used back then), to the forgettable (the Coasters’ novelty hit “Poison Ivy” was once intended as the Stones’ second single — wiser heads prevailed.)

What makes Five By Five much more special than their first EP attempt is not just their growing musical prowess, which was audible with each release, but where it was recorded. At this time, British bands were content to record in British studios, whose limited technology and stodgy engineers simply couldn’t provide the muscle and bottom-end achieved in more forward-thinking American facilities. (How the Beatles wrung such sonic magic out of stuffy old Abbey Road Studios is detailed in engineer Geoff Emerick’s book Here, There, And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles.) The Rolling Stones broke the ocean barrier, becoming one of the first British acts to utilize American studios almost exclusively through this early era.

And what a studio to start with! In the midst of their difficult first U.S. tour, the Stones took two days off to visit 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. This was the home studio of Chess Records. Two vital elements, represented by two legendary studios and their associated labels, blended to become what we know as modern rock: Sun Records in Memphis focused more on the white, country-influenced sound of rockabilly, while Chess Records provided the raw, hardcore African-American blues and R&B. I’m over-simplifying greatly, of course, but I think it captures the essence.

The Chess artists were the ones who most inspired and influenced the Rolling Stones: Muddy Waters (whose song “Rollin’ Stone” gave the band their name), Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry used Chess Studios to record the songs that made them deities. Over the course of June 10 and 11, 1964, the Rolling Stones put their mark on the place, recording sixteen songs — more than enough for an album. Alas, no one thought to take advantage of the opportunity for a full-length “Chess Album,” and we have to be content with this EP of Chess-recorded material. (The rest of the songs were spread out over their next two albums and two smash singles, “It’s All Over Now” and “Time Is On My Side.”).

The upstart band even met their heroes in the process: Bassist Bill Wyman remembers Muddy Waters helping them carry in their gear (Keith Richards insists Waters was also painting the studio ceiling at the time, a story everyone else present refutes), Willie Dixon attempted to peddle them some songs, and Chuck Berry poked his head in during the recording of “Down The Road Apiece” and complimented their “swinging” style, which was a little different than other British bands of the era due to the jazz-based drumming of Charlie Watts. Continue reading

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The British Invasion Soldier That Didn’t Make It: The 1960s EP (Part 1)

In the old days — I’m talking mid-90s — when record companies were riding high, stuffing themselves with money (mostly mine, it seemed) from ridiculously overpriced compact discs, and iTunes was still a gleam in Bill Kincaid’s eye, I would say to anyone who’d listen that the EP was the ideal way to package and consume music, especially from new or unestablished artists. Anyone who’s ever bought an entire CD after seeing one video on MTV’s Buzz Bin should sympathize with me here. Paying $17 (after tax) for an overlong album when you know damn well there will be only about four songs that you really like? Why couldn’t bands and their record companies put out their four or five strongest songs on a $5-7 EP? I would’ve bought a shitload of those.

By this point, the person who was listening to me was hurriedly walking away, so I would grab on to his sleeve (my hypothetical listener is a he — a girl wouldn’t even have let me start talking about EPs) and explain how the humble EP never really caught on in the United States. EP stands for “extended play,” which in the ancient era of vinyl and record players, meant that although the record was seven inches across and spun at 45 rpm like a standard two-sided single, they managed to squeeze an extra song (or even two!) onto each side, and it cost only a little bit more. An interesting format, but one that seemed to leave the American market cold. But across the Atlantic…

1964… The British Invasion was wreaking havoc across the American music scene, and never were the differences between British and American record companies more apparent. If a British band (or “pop group” in the parlance of the time) was lucky enough to warrant a full-length album, they would go into studio and record sixteen or so tracks for their British label. The more ambitious bands would include several original compositions, but there would also be plenty of old American R&B standards that every British band could play in their sleep. Even the Beatles had to pad their early albums with chestnuts like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Money (That’s What I Want).” Ideally, the bands would stockpile enough material for a 14-track album and the A-side and B-side of a single. According to custom, British singles were not included on original albums and considered a separate entity. This rule was informal and not always observed, but in the U.K., if you wanted the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” or the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” you either got the 45 or waited for a greatest hits album.

It would seem simple for the band’s American label (often a subsidiary of their U.K. label) to go ahead and put out the same album for U.S. consumers, but American record companies were a little stingier. They carelessly chopped up and re-ordered the carefully sequenced British albums. Ten- or twelve-track albums were the order of the day, and singles were always included, pushing four to six songs from the original running order. So for every two albums produced in Britain, the Americans squeezed out three or even four (they were not shy about re-using a few songs here and there.) As a result, cobbled-together stateside favorites like Beatles VI or the Stones’ December’s Children were a source of bafflement and irritation to their creators, who viewed them as crass bastardizations and underhanded cheats on their American audience. Even if an American album bore the same title as its British counterpart, it often had different songs (and was, of course, slightly shorter.)

Hey, where are you going? You’re not walking away now, are you? Yes, OK, back to EPs. The thrifty British embraced the format. Early on, they were used as a kind of greatest hits collection (who could envision a pop group having more than four hits in the early ’60s?). Sometimes they featured album tracks as a kind of sampler, to whet the appetites of their intended teenage audience as they saved their shillings to buy the full-length version (or waited until Christmas.)

But every once in awhile, one of the top-tier British bands was so bursting with ideas and material that they put out stand-alone EPs, featuring new songs unavailable in any other format. And what’s more, these provided even more material for the American record companies to cannibalize, so although they wouldn’t sell EPs, they certainly didn’t discourage the artists from making them. Let’s take a look at a few of the most noteworthy:

The Beatles — Long Tall Sally. (Tracks: 1. “Long Tall Sally.” 2. “I Call Your Name.” 3. “Slow Down.” 4. “Matchbox.” Released June 1, 1964). Continue reading

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The Quiet One?

Reading the excellent recent book, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After The Break-Up by Peter Doggett, and the upcoming ninth anniversary of his death, got me to thinking about the Beatles’ “third man.”

“If I was ‘the quiet one,’ the others must have been really noisy.” – G.H.

Six long years before the worldwide cultural phenomenon known as “The Beatles” exploded onto the scene, there were the three individuals that banded together to form its core. History and fate chose two to put on the Mount Rushmore of Great 20th Century Popular Composers. The third, for various reasons, was shut out — absorbing all the pressure, dealing with the all the chaos, but receiving far less reward, materially and spiritually.

George Harrison had been teamed with John Lennon and Paul McCartney since the days of their acoustic skiffle band (“The Quarrymen”) in 1958. By 1961 (at the urging of new manager Brian Epstein), he handled his share — a full one-third — of the lead vocal chores right along with his slightly older cohorts. They were a triple-frontman threat. The Star Club live tapes and Decca audition recordings bear this out. But when they got a recording contract in the summer of ’62, the pop music business of that era was focused on star vocalists and their anonymous backing bands. Beatles’ producer George Martin thought he was being quite groundbreaking for allowing the Beatles to have two star vocalists. That was totally unprecedented, and there simply wasn’t room for George to have the spotlight as much as he did in the smoky basement clubs of ’61. His super-thick “Scouse” accent and lack of songwriting chops sealed his exile from the front line. (The songwriting would come in time. The accent never went away, but once the music world became enamored of all things British, it ceased to matter.)

George was just as opinionated and articulate as the others, but a ferociously ill-timed flu bug on the eve of their first U.S. visit may have cemented his reputation in the popular consciousness. He was fighting a fever and sore throat during the Beatles’ very first American press conference at Kennedy Airport in February 1964 — a few moments that introduced the Fab Four to the world beyond the British ballroom circuit. The news media then as now needed everything reduced to a soundbite, so while the others clowned and mugged, he blearily hung back ever so slightly, and earned the sobriquet “The Quiet One.” Really, he was just trying not to vomit on the microphone bank. By the time they reached the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan that afternoon, he was bedridden. Continue reading

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