Category Archives: Music — 1970s-80s

The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 3: George Harrison

Part 1: John Lennon

Part 2: Paul McCartney

As a vocalist, he was nothing special. His voice was not as immediately powerful as Lennon’s nor as sweet as McCartney’s. In fact, it was kind of sub-par. Adenoidal and thickly accented, but I suppose he could carry a tune. As a guitarist, he was admittedly unable to improvise on the fly, definitely out of sync with his flashy Sixties peers, and not criminally underrated the way Ringo was as a drummer. (Relax, we’ll get to him in Part 4).  As a songwriter, he couldn’t hold a candle to the great rock poets like Dylan and Springsteen. Harrison’s talents in all these areas can best be described as “modest.”  One gets the impression that if there were no Beatles, Lennon and McCartney would have found another path and still be known to us in some capacity, but Harrison was in dire need of his Beatles background to launch his solo career.

But wait! Let’s examine all this again. Harrison’s voice was certainly distinctive and full of character (and blended perfectly with Lennon and McCartney’s to create that special Beatles alchemy, usually pinning down the tricky middle harmony). As a guitarist, it may not have been a bad thing to be out of step with his flashy Sixties peers. Some of those wanky, Vanilla Fudge-style blues-worshipers soloed like there was no tomorrow, often forgetting they were supposed to be playing a song.

Harrison did not go down the very well-trodden blues path, but played in a much more country & western-influenced rockabilly style, patterned after guys like Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins. His major concession to R&B was a healthy dose of Chuck Berry, which is the one thing he had in common with all other Sixties rock guitarists. (Hell, even the great Keith Richards spent most of the decade recycling Berry riffs, until he discovered open tuning in ’68.) Every Harrison solo was short, punchy, and served the song perfectly. Re-listen to some Beatles songs (“Can’t Buy Me Love” and their cover of the Larry Williams scorcher “Bad Boy” come to mind) with an ear on the solos, and you’ll see what I mean. As a songwriter, neither Lennon solo nor McCartney solo were on par with Dylan or Springsteen, either, and the best of Harrison’s solo material certainly equals the best of Lennon’s and McCartney’s. As far as being unable to improvise, who gives a good goddamn? The Beatles were never a jam band, anyway (thank God.)

And when, on a whim, he decided to join American R&B act Delaney & Bonnie on their British tour in 1969, he finally embraced the blues, but in his own way, rapidly developing an almost Hawaiian-sounding slide guitar technique that became the defining sound of his solo career. I still doubt there would have been a George Harrison music career without the Beatles, but luckily for everyone, there was a Beatles. And there’s some great stuff in the Harrisongs catalog…and also some turkeys. That’s why we’re here.

Anything else I have to say about Harrison, I said in my 2010 essay “The Quiet One.” In fact, I’ve probably already repeated myself somewhat, so let’s get on with our examination of the solo Harrison. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 2: Paul McCartney

I have a little theory: Paul McCartney is insane. Batshit nuts. I don’t know quite when the cheese slid off his cracker, but I’m guessing about twenty-five years ago. Yes, he’s always been a little goofy, but lately? From his bizarre hair-dying experiments to the interviews that are about equal parts inane platitudes, vegetarian propaganda, and total gibberish accompanied by a cheery thumbs-up, he’s been leaving a trail of crazy wherever he goes since the mid-1980s. It’s not train-wreck, flame-out crazy, like Martin Lawrence wandering through traffic with a  handgun. It’s a subtler crazy, as if during the recording of Press To Play, alien beings had made off with his brain and attempted to replace it with an exact replica, but assembled it from poorly-translated instructions.

That’s not what happened of course. What happened is that his ownership of many valuable song publishing rights kicked in about then, he became a multi-billionaire instead of a multi-millionaire, cut himself off from anything resembling reality, and has been living in a totally self-generated bubble-world ever since. And I don’t blame him. If I became a multi-billionaire, I would reach foaming heights of crazy that would make Andy Dick look like a Presbyterian deacon.

For reasons directly related to his billionaire-induced craziness, Paul has become the most-maligned Beatle. With every misfire album and every cringe-worthy quote, his light dimmed a little more. But make no mistake — he was the driving creative force of the Beatles in the second half of their career, and that’s no small thing. He always valued the concept of being in a band more than the others. Lennon gets credit for being the witty, rebellious iconoclast, Harrison gets credit for being the quiet mystic, and let’s face it, both of them get double-extra-credit for being dead. Everyone loves a corpse, because they never disappoint. They’re not around to release mediocre albums anymore. But both of them tired of the “band” concept long before Paul did. In the 70’s, Paul tried to keep the idea alive by putting together a bunch of hirelings and calling it “Wings,” but even he knew they weren’t a real band — they were his employees, and various members came and went like the clock-punchers they were.

(At the start of his solo career, he followed the example of Lennon and installed his wife as full creative partner. His second solo album is officially credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney.” On John & Yoko’s joint albums, Yoko contributed full songs. Horrible, horrible songs. But songs, nonetheless. Linda’s contributions consisted of 1) hilariously flat backing vocals placed super-high in the mix, and 2) helping to write some lyrics. The conceit fooled no one, but co-crediting songs kept their royalties from becoming “frozen assets” in the morass of the Beatles break-up lawsuits going on at the time.)

At times, Paul seems to be resented by fans for simply still being alive and somehow tarnishing the image of the Beatles by his very existence as a living, breathing doofus, which can’t be helped. This can result in some unfair treatment. (There’s a song buried in the second half of Off The Ground — if you make it that far– called “Winedark Open Sea,” a kind of sparse, dreary piano ballad that I suspect would be hailed as a “classic” if it came from Springsteen or Neil Young. Those guys can get away with almost anything.) Other times, it’s entirely his own fault. The parallels with George Lucas become obvious if you’re petty enough to examine them (which is my stock in trade). The younger creative genius gives us several gifts we all cherish, things that beyond providing hundreds of hours of entertainment, may even have molded us as people. He then ages into the older billionaire crank and starts doing stupid shit, such as going back and futzing with the legacy. McCartney’s bone-headed attempt to change the songwriting credits on “his” Beatles songs from “Lennon-McCartney” to “McCartney-Lennon” a few years ago is the musical equivalent of Greedo shooting first. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 1: John Lennon

Everyone has heard the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s an old chestnut that must predate the Beatles, but it seems to have been coined with them in mind. I won’t waste your time by piling a bunch of effusive praise on a band that receives little but effusive praise (if you want a time-waster, check out “Face-Off #1” from August), but I’ll just plunge ahead on and say the individual Beatles’ post-1969 careers have been a little patchy. Navigating their solo waters is treacherous, and sometimes you wonder what happened to the white-hot, jaw-dropping level of creative genius that fueled the Beatles in the 1960s. It seems to have just faded away when the four individuals were separated. Much like the Sankara stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments of greatness in the Beatles’ solo discography. There are. Many of them. It just requires a little stick-to-itiveness to separate the wheat from the chaff. So, armed with patience, earbuds, a copy of Madinger & Easter’s Eight Arms To Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, and mp3s of each and every Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr song (the fewer questions you ask about how I got them, the better), I listened to every note so you don’t have to, and I am here to report back to you so you can fill your iPods with the cream of the solo Beatles’ output, legally purchased from a reputable vendor. And since it’s way more fun to write about things you don’t like, I’ll also be cautioning you on what to avoid.

The format will be as follows: Best Album, Best Hit Single, Best Non-Hit Song (there’s lots of treasures buried halfway through an album side), followed by the Worst of those categories, and — since I never know when to shut up — runners-up for all categories. Only official studio albums of new material will be considered. No live albums, no albums of cover songs, no bootlegs, no film soundtracks, no compilations. Because that would take forever, and hey man, I have a life.

It’s no real surprise that John Lennon has the smallest solo discography — he was murdered just ten years into his post-Beatles career, and he spent half of those ten years in retirement. His official output shrinks even more when you consider that two of his albums were credited jointly to wife/artistic partner Yoko Ono and were only partially filled with Lennon songs, one was a posthumous release containing leftovers from one of the joint albums, and one was an album of oldies covers (1975’s Rock and Roll). When he was still with the Beatles, he and Yoko put out three “experimental” albums of random noise and Yoko’s charming screeching. (Unfinished Music, Vol. 1: Two Virgins (1968), with the infamous nude cover, Unfinished Music, Vol. 2: Life With The Lions (1969), and The Wedding Album (1969)). Since these are not in any sense of the word “music” (unfinished or no), and even I won’t sit through them, they won’t be considered here. So we’re left with only four true solo albums of new material. 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 Holy Bee Recommends, #5: "The devil is waiting for them…the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out*…"

The 1950s and 1980s had some similarities. During both decades the country was in the hands of a slightly doddering, grandfatherly president, we were economically stable (if you ignore the skyrocketing – pardon the expression – defense spending), and American society swung toward the conservative. One of the side-effects of this swing was the screeching, reactionary killjoys who were obsessed with the damaging effect rock music was having on the younger generation. It was…the devil’s music.

In the 1950s, it was the jungle throb of the rhythm – of African-American origins – and the blatant sexuality it seemed to invite, that upset people so. Racism aside, their reaction was understandable. It was sex music. The 1980s were actually a little more hysterical. They had come to terms with the sex (mostly), but now it was the devil himself they were wringing their hands over. The cartoon Satanism espoused by second-tier heavy metal acts as a way to be provocative did just that. The 1980s were steeped in media stories about “Satanic cults” and “ritual murders.” Don’t hear too much about those things these days, because society eventually grew up and realized it was all a load of shit. There were a few blips on the radar later (Marilyn Manson, gangsta rap), but it was those two decades in which the most people got their knickers in a twist about the “devil’s music.”

Ferriday, Louisiana’s own demon-child, Jerry Lee Lewis – often referred to simply as “The Killer” – burst onto the scene in the first wave of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. From behind his poor, abused piano, Lewis bashed out the fastest, harshest, most defiantly alive music of that repressed decade. His 1957 single “Great Balls Of Fire” lasts one minute and fifty seconds, but it seems eternal – in the same way someone who holds on through a thirty-second earthquake swears it lasts forever. Just before that, his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was a blatant come-on, a declaration of sexual prowess only slightly couched in metaphor. (Only Billy Ward & The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” from 1951 was more explicit in its bedroom bragging, and guess what? Lewis covered it later.) Lewis was a howling, leering, stomping madman, and the only reason he wasn’t lynched for the length of his hair was because he kept it brushed back (unlike those Liverpool fruits who came over a few years later). All you have to do is watch the YouTube clips linked above to understand what a bomb had been dropped on the 1950s. He was an untamed force of nature, like Keith Moon and G.G. Allin. Of course, unlike those two, The Killer still lives and breathes. Continue reading

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Holy Bee Recommends, #3: "Make every song you sing your favorite tune"

Today, May 18, marks the re-release of the greatest rock n’ roll album of all time, The Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile On Main Street. The Institute of Idle Time ranked it #12 in our Decades book, and the fact that it was edged out of the top ten to make room for two Radiohead albums still gives me stomach cramps.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote about it in Decades: Continue reading

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