Category Archives: Music — 1960s

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.”

hohner pianet

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…

Beatles-help-0513-banner

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.

RollingStones_Flowers_Albumfront_pr

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.

Harrison in the Quarrymen, flanked by those two other guys, c. 1958

George Harrison had been teamed with John Lennon and Paul McCartney since the days of their acoustic skiffle band (“The Quarrymen”) in 1958. In their pre-fame stage performances, 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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