Category Archives: Music — 1960s

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 albums and considered a separate entity. This rule was informal and not always observed, but in the U.K., if you wanted the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” 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 ’65 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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The White Album Show

The Beatles, more commonly known as “The White Album,” is notorious among Beatles fanatics as the Beginning of the End. It was during the tense, fractious recording sessions for this album over the summer of 1968 that the Fab Four began their almost two-year process of breaking up. After four years as the World’s Most Famous Band, and after the much-lauded “Summer Of Love” ended like a wet fart, they were all sick of each other’s crap, and bursting with their own ideas. On the White Album, each primary composer ended up treating the other three like a backing band, and indulging their most out-there, un-commercial fancies. The result was perhaps the most musically diverse and interesting album (double album, of course) The Beatles ever produced. Although not intended as such, it takes the listener on a tour of western music: straight-ahead Chuck Berry rock (“Back In The USSR”–with Beach Boys harmonies for good measure), classical (“Piggies”), country (“Don’t Pass Me By”), blues (“Yer Blues”), proto-metal (“Helter Skelter”), jazz (“Honey Pie”), folk (“Blackbird”), reggae (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), Tin Pan Alley/vaudeville (“Martha My Dear”), and the lush musicals of Hollywood and Broadway (“Good Night”). Plus detours down other paths, dead-ends, and experimental wackiness.

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the release of the White Album, Harlow’s in downtown Sacramento hosted an evening dedicated to this musical milestone on Sunday, November 23, 2008. “The White Album Show” featured 16 (mostly) local Sacramento bands, each assigned two White Album songs. The entire album of thirty-two songs would be performed in sequence, with minimal gaps between artists. (To facilitate this, all bands shared amps and a drum kit.)

It was a good, mellow crowd, skewing a little older and funkier, which is aces in my book. I have a fairly healthy (if realistic) ego, but I’ve been to shows where I’ve been the worst-looking person in the room. Everywhere around me is bangs and cheekbones and self-assuredness, and I keep hearing that old Sesame Street song “one of these things is not like the others” in my mind as I nurse my Newcastle, fully aware that every sip is contributing to the beer-gut that sets me so noticeably apart. No such worries tonight. I felt in my element, jostling cheek-by-jowl with fellow Beatles nerds and Aging Music Enthusiasts. (If I ever become the Gray-Ponytail-Silver-&-Turquoise-Bracelet-Wearing-Extreme-Aging-Music-Enthusiast, feel free to give me a talking-to, or a sharp slap across the mouth.)

It was a night for hats, though. Every third head both onstage and off was adorned with some kind of covering. I spotted only one Ironic Trucker Hat (sooo 2004) to illustrate how time marches on, but a plethora of trilbies and fedoras graced many a hipster noggin. The new rage seems to be the English driving cap. If one didn’t know any better, one would feel the crowd at Harlow’s to be heavily peppered with Cockney cabbies, each eager to give “guv’nor” a lift to Charing Cross station.

In the short time between songs, Jeanette Faith of Baby Grand filled in by playing various Beatles songs on piano. Each act was introduced by the “Tap Dancing Sign Girl” Amber Mortensen, who appeared to do very little tap-dancing, but certainly could hold the hell out of a hand-lettered sign with the band’s name on it.

After a short introductory video clip taken from the Beatles Anthology documentary, the first band hit the stage. The Broken Poet rattled the walls with spirited, primitive versions of “Back In The USSR” and “Dear Prudence.” The start of the second verse of “Back” gave us the first of about 750 lyrical gaffes of the night. I mean, really, it’s not like memorizing Shakespeare soliloquies. And you’re musicians, for Chrissakes. Shouldn’t the Beatles be embedded in your DNA? I know I’m being horribly nitpicky here. John Lennon himself was a notorious lyric-fumbler. (If you watch the Let It Be rooftop concert footage closely, you can spy a P.A. kneeling in front of him with the lyrics to his own songs on a clipboard.) Up next was another power trio, Darling Sweetheart. Like The Broken Poet, they had energy to spare and clearly loved playing the songs “Glass Onion” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which they pulled off handsomely without the sprightly piano and brass section that I originally thought was absolutely integral to the song.

Walking Spanish, a somewhat mellower act sporting a violin-player with the ubiquitous English driving cap was saddled with “Wild Honey Pie,” the fragmentary super-overdubbed doodle of McCartney’s that’s caused me to hit the “skip” button on the CD player every time. They fared better with the surreal Lennon musical comic strip “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill,” with each instrumentalist taking a turn scraping out the melody as the song eased to a close. Bright Light Fever did solid versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” I wondered how the guitarist would handle the famous Eric Clapton guest-star solo from the original “Weeps,” and the answer is: passably. Thus far, most of the bands had not radically re-arranged or re-altered the arrangements, but opted for fairly reverent interpretations, as far as their instrumental line-ups would allow. Only a handful of brave souls attempted to re-create the vaunted Beatles harmonies. (“Warm Gun” rumbled along without its famous “bang bang shoot shoot” backing vocals.)

This trend of staying faithful to the basic structure of the songs continued with Daycare’s “Martha My Dear” and “I’m So Tired.” San Diego’s The Silent Comedy began their two-song set with “Blackbird” performed as a solo acoustic number featuring their vocalist investing the lyrics with a tremulous, over-dramatic sing-whisper that did not do the song a great service. They quickly redeemed themselves when the full band hit the stage, and gave us the first truly radical re-imagining of a White Album song. With their buffalo-hunter locks and handlebar mustaches, they looked like fugitives from the set of Deadwood, or the cover of The Band’s second album. They turned “Piggies,” the George Harrison number based around a tinkling harpsichord and string section, into a barn-burning stomp that was one of the absolute highlights of the show.

Another act that definitely put their own stamp on the songs was Radio Orangevale, whose take on Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” was really the evening’s only low point. The fedora-sporting lead singer looked like he was plucked from the circa-1996 Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, used his own “vintage” microphone (which provided constant feedback squalls), and performed the song as an absolutely shameless Tom Waits “homage” (rip-off?). Like The Silent Comedy before them, Radio Orangevale pulled off a second-song save, turning “Rocky Raccoon” into Killers-style dance-rock, complete with robotic, vocoder-ized vocals. Prieta nailed an extended version of another McCartney toss-off, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” and then turned the gentle, acoustic love song “I Will” into a slow-burn reggae jam. It worked.

Fellow Idle Team trivia team members Jeannie Howell and Gillian Baldwin were up next with their band Ahoy! (also featuring Joy Stern and Julie Meyers). After a tentative start, their version of “Julia” found a sweet spot, making good use of Howell’s and Meyers’ crystal-clear voices as they swapped the lead vocal. They kicked the tempo up with “Birthday” and released balloons into the crowd, and closed out the first half of the show with a bang.

Lynus (who all looked about 15) covered “Yer Blues” and “Mother Nature’s Son” quite nicely, and were followed by San Diego’s Transfer, clad all in white for the occasion. Looking eerily like the droogs from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Transfer’s manic energy and not-inconsiderable chops crushed the back-to-back Lennon numbers “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” and “Sexy Sadie.” Saucer was a welcome contrast to all the rail-thin, frizzy-haired, arty-looking musicians that had heretofore graced Harlow’s stage. This beefy quartet looked like a bunch of steelworkers or longshoremen hitting the tavern after swing shift. They played the hell out of “Helter Skelter” and turned the delicate “Long Long Long” into an electric 4/4 rocker. Elder statesmen of Sacramento rock, Tattooed Love Dogs, gave the crowd a version of “Revolution 1” that straddled the fence between the slower, acoustic album version and the fuzzed-out rocker that was the flip side of the single “Hey Jude” (released a few months before the album.) Their version of the 1920s jazz pastiche “Honey Pie” was also pretty stellar.

And the snake-bit Stragglers. Victims of a snafu not of their making, they spent the week rehearsing “Martha My Dear” and “I’m So Tired,” which you know if you’ve been reading carefully was already ably performed by Daycare. Two hours or so before showtime, it was discovered that they were listed in the program as performing “Savoy Truffle” and “Cry Baby Cry.” They had about 90 minutes to learn two new songs, which was about one too many. Did I mention the Stragglers features Idle Timer Erik “3Dchain” Hanson? Old 3Dchain had to think fast. He solved one problem by inviting his sister, the aforementioned Jeannie Howell, onstage to perform “Savoy Truffle” with him as an a cappella duet. Sharing iPod ear buds pumping the actual song into their heads, the Hanson sibs succeeded in turning crowd bemusement into amusement, and got a pretty good clap-along going.

[An aside, if I may, about “Savoy Truffle.” Will Howell sniffed condescendingly to me that it was a “good thing” the improvised a cappella performace was “only” “Savoy Truffle,” and thus not much of a sacrifice. Will is not the only one I’ve heard look down their nose at this George Harrison-penned track which warns of the dental dangers of eating sweets. Despite it’s goofy lyrics, it has a propulsive beat, a saucy little electric piano lick, a heavily-distorted brass section letting it rip, and a stinging guitar solo. What’s not to love? I consider it a highlight of the White Album and don’t understand all the haters.]

The Stragglers solved the “Cry Baby Cry” dilemma by performing it in a very simple, stripped-down acoustic arrangement that placed the focus on Erik’s voice. I may be biased because they’re my friends and all, but I really do think Erik and Jeannie had the best pure singing voices heard all night. It doesn’t hurt that the bearded Erik looks a little like Let It Be-era Paul McCartney.

I wish I could report that your Humble Narrator saw the last two performances of the evening, but he is reaching a Certain Age. The age where home, sweatpants, and David Letterman are more attractive than seeing a crowded club show through to the bitter end. My back was starting to ache from standing amongst the crowd for over three hours, my ears were going all cotton-y, and I had to work in the morning. So the free-jazz version of the entirely non-musical sonic collage “Revolution 9” by Race!!! and and the version of “Good Night” by David Houston & Sal Valentino that saw an actual string section take the stage went unwitnessed by me. (Will, who stuck around, said the twenty-five minute set-up for the strings before the last song was a “rhythm breaker” and pushed the show to an ungodly length, but the performance was impressive.)


Overall, it was the best evening of music I’ve seen in quite some time. Most of the bands I’ve never seen live before, and I was impressed by pretty much everyone. Kudos to Sac’s finest music rag Alive & Kicking and Jerry Perry for organizing the whole shebang. Follow the links above for more info on the artists, and if they come to your neck of the woods, check them out.

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Filed under Music -- 1960s, Music -- 2000s