Monday, July 17, 2017

VIDEOS: Pink Floyd Performs on US Television for the First Time: American Bandstand, 1967

by Josh Jones, Open Culture:

Pink Floyd - Apples And Oranges - 1967 American... by pentathlonstart
You may have noticed we’ve been in the midst of a mini-sixties revival for the past decade or so—what with the retro soul of Alabama Shakes or the late Amy Winehouse, the garage rock of Ty Segall, and the California psych of Australia's Tame Impala. That’s to name but just a few students of sixties’ sounds; many hundreds more populate events like the Psych Fests of Austin and Liverpool. And before these bands, late eighties/early nineties brought us a British re-invasion of sixties garage rock and pop like the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Chameleons, the Stone Roses, Oasis, and many other jangly, fuzzy, dreamy bands.
All of that is to say it’s nearly impossible to hear anything sixties rock with fresh ears. Not only has the incessant nostalgia dimmed our senses, but we’ve seen the ideas of the sixties evolve into myriad subcultures variously indebted to the decade, but no longer even in need of direct reference. What would it mean, however, to hear the far-out sounds of a band like Pink Floyd for the first time, a band who may at times sound dated now, but much of whose more obscure catalog remains shocking. And it’s easy to forget that when Pink Floyd—or “The Pink Floyd” as they tended to be called—got their start with original singer and songwriter Syd Barrett, they made a much different sound than those we’re familiar with from The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon.
If you haven’t heard the sound of the band circa 1967, when they recorded their first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, then you may nod along with Dick Clark’s ambivalent introduction of them to U.S. audiences in the ’67 American Bandstand appearance above---their first visit to the States and first time of TV. They do indeed make “very interesting sounds”: specifically, “Apples and Oranges,” the third single and the final song Barrett wrote for the band before he suffered a psychotic break onstage and was replaced by David Gilmour. There isn’t much in the way of performance. (But stick around for the interviews around 3:25.) As pretty much everyone did at the time, Barrett, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright mime to a prerecorded track. And Barrett looks particularly out of it. He was close by this point to the crippling mental health crisis that would eventually end his career.
But Syd Barrett did not disappear from music right away. The unreleased “Scream Thy Last Scream,” slated to be the next single released after Piper at the Gates of Dawn, gave much indication of the musical direction he took in two 1970 solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Like later Barrett, early Pink Floyd is not music for everyone. Instead of the familiar stomping funk of “The Wall” or the soaring blues of “Comfortably Numb,” the songs meander, twist, turn, and wobble, often indicating the state of Barrett’s troubled soul, but just as often showcasing his brilliant compositional mind. Barrett is gone, as is keyboardist Richard Wright, and Pink Floyd is no more. But their legacy is secure. And we still have mad geniuses like Austin psych legend Roky Erickson to kick around, as well as all the many thousands of musicians he and Barrett inspired.

Friday, July 14, 2017

VIDEOS: Frank Zappa Explains the Decline of the Music Business (1987)

by , Open Culture:

“Remember the 60s?” says Frank Zappa in the interview above, “that era that a lot of people have these glorious memories of?... they really weren’t that great, those years.” Ever the grumpy uncle. But Zappa does get nostalgic for one thing, and it’s an unexpected one: the music business. “One thing that did happen in the 60s,” he says, “was some music of an unusual and experimental nature did get recorded, did get released.” The executives of the day were “cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product and said, 'I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, alright!'”
“We were better off with those guys,” says Zappa, “than we are with the hip, young executives,” making decisions about what people should hear. The hippies are more conservative than the conservative “old guys” ever were. This Zappa of 1987 recommends getting back to the “who knows?” approach, “that entrepreneurial spirit” of the grand old industry barons of the 60s. One can almost imagine Zappa—in the 60s—pining for the days of Edison, who refused to give up on the wax cylinder but would also record virtually anything. If both the time of Edison and the time of Zappa were bonanzas for makers of novelty records, so much the better. Zappa was novel. 
Still it seems like a funny sentiment coming from a guy who built most of his career in opposition to the record industry. But it was in the period of alleged decay that Zappa broke with Warner Bros. and founded his own label in 1977, making a deal with Phonogram to distribute his releases in the U.S. When Phonogram refused to release his 1981 single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted,” Zappa created another label, Barking Pumpkin Records, making sure he got to make and sell the music he wanted to.
In many ways people like Zappa---or later Kate Bush or Prince---anticipated our current music industry, in which we have artists starting labels left and right, controlling their own production and output. But those artists are mostly a tiny handful of hugely successful stars with mogul-sized ambitions. Does this help or harm the music economy as a whole? Independent musicians very rarely get the smallest window on how things work at the level of Beyonce, Jay-Z, or Taylor Swift (who "is the industry," Bloomberg once breathlessly proclaimed). But as Zappa notes, “the person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste for the entire population.” Even if those executives are themselves artists, we may greatly benefit from a wider range of "unusual and experimental" sounds in popular culture. Zappa suggests the way to do that is to get the "cigar-chomping old guys" (and they were all guys) back in charge. 
The rest of Zappa’s interview concerns the bogeyman of 80s and 90s music, the PMRC, and his very strong feelings about censorship, social control, and sex. It’s classic Zappa and won’t raise any eyebrows now, but it is interesting to hear his take on the decline of the music business since the 60s. We use different criteria to measure the apex of the industry---often depending on whether the labels or the artists made more money. Whichever period we lionize, for whatever reason, within a hundred-year window a tiny handful of musicians and record executives made enormous, dynasty-making fortunes. It just so happens that these days it's an even tinier handful of musicians and executives at the top, making even huger fortunes. And there's a lot more synergy between them. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Crooked Path to Badfinger’s “Straight Up”

Badfinger — the band that first found fame with the Paul McCartney penned “Come and Get It” — was riding high in 1971 following the recent release of its well-received album No Dice on the Beatles’ Apple label and its breakout hit “No Matter What” (written by band front-man Pete Ham). But when the band returned to the studio to record their follow-up, no one could have anticipated the twists and turns it would take to complete this next project. Working at first with Geoff Emerick, the producer-engineer for No Dice, who’d also worked on the Beatles’ Revolver and Abbey Road, the band was under a super-tight deadline, what with a pending US tour.
Yet despite the intended quick turnaround, when the completed tracks from the sessions were presented to Apple execs, they were uniformly rejected. Even a remix of “Name of the Game,” drawing on the talents of Phil Spector (working for the label at the time) and George Harrison, who were looking to repackage it for release as a single, was turned down. Eventually, six of these discarded tracks would be re-worked for Straight Up while a few more would be generated from scratch and added to the track list, but only after the band spent even more time in the studio. For much of the next phase on the album, Harrison worked closely with the band to help them craft their sound, even going so far as to sit in on a couple of tunes — playing guitar on “I’d Die Babe” and participating in a slide guitar duet with Ham on “Day After Day.” That memorable tune, which also featured piano work from Leon Russell, became the band’s biggest US hit.
But just as things were coming together for Badfinger, Harrison got pulled in another direction, preparing the live album and film of his Concert for Bangladesh at which Badfinger had actually performed. Busy with other concerns, Harrison told the members of Badfinger that he wouldn’t be able to finish his work on the album, so Apple then brought in Todd Rundgren. The multi-talented Rundgren fostered the band, as they fine-tuned some songs, including Ham’s Bangladesh tribute “Take It All” while also assisting them as they re-recorded several tunes from the previous sessions. One of the new songs that resulted was “Baby Blue,” written by Ham as a tribute to a girl he’d dated during the band’s US tour. (While a hit for the band at the time, this song is now best known for its use in the series finale of Breaking Bad)
There were some other new songs completed during this period such as guitarist Joey Molland’s rocker “Sometimes” and now-bassist Tom Evans’ elegiac closing track “It’s Over.” What had been a drawn out process was wrapped up in a mere two weeks with Rundgren. The results are remarkable. While the band members sometimes clashed with Rundgren during their sessions, there’s no doubt he was a key factor to the record’s success. His polished production and pop sensibilities combined with the excellent songwriting and instrumentation to create an acknowledged power pop classic.
PS. Badfinger and Straight Up are included in our post about bands following in The Beatles’ footsteps. Read more about the others like them here. Plus, for some more thoughts on George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, check out our posts The “Quiet” Beatle’s Huge Influence and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: And the Nominees Should Be…

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

VIDEO: Animated Interview: The Great Ray Charles on Being Himself and Singing True

by Mike Springer, Open Culture:

"You know," says Ray Charles in this new animated interview from Blank on Blank, "what I got to live up to is being myself. If I do that the rest will take care of itself."
Charles always sounded like no one else. When he played or sang just a few notes, you would immediately recognize his distinctive sound, that unique blending of gospel and blues. As he explains in the interview, his style was a direct reflection of who he was. "I can't help what I sound like," he says. "What I sound like is what I am, you know? I cannot be anything other than what I am."
Blank on Blank is a project that brings lost interviews with famous cultural figures back to life. The Charles video is the 12th episode in Blank on Blank's ongoing series with PBS Digital Studios. The audio of Charles is from the Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress. Smith is a former record company executive who recorded over 200 interviews with music industry icons for his book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. He talked with Charles on June 3, 1987, when the musician was 56 years old. You can hear the complete, unedited interview at the Library of Congress Web site.
In the interview, Charles says that being true to himself was a night-by-night thing. "I don't sing 'Georgia' like the record. I sing it true," he says. "I sing what I sing true. Each night I sing it the way I feel that night." For an example of Charles being true to himself, here he is performing "Georgia On My Mind" on the Dick Cavett Show on September 18, 1972:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Ken Kesey Talks About the Meaning of the Acid Tests

For me, there have always been at least three Ken Keseys. First, there was the antiauthoritarian author of the madcap 1962 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s NestInspired by Kesey’s own work as an orderly at a Menlo Park mental hospital, the author’s voice disappears into that of the narrator, Chief Bromden, and the dialogue of the most memorable ensemble of troubled personalities in twentieth century literature. Then there’s the Kesey of the 1964 Sometimes a Great Notion, a Pacific Northwest epic and the work of a serious novelist pulling American archetypes from rough-hewn Oregon logging country. Finally, there’s Kesey the Merry Prankster, the mad scientist who almost single-handedly invented sixties drug culture with his ‘64 psychedelic bus tour and acid test parties. It’s a little hard to put them all together sometimes. Ken Kesey contained multitudes.
The acid test parties began after Kesey’s experience with mind-altering drugs as a volunteer test subject for Army experiments in 1960 (later revealed to be part of the CIA’s mind control experiment, Project MKUltra). Kesey stole LSD and invited friends to try it with him. In 1965, after Hunter S. Thompson introduced Kesey to the Hell’s Angels, he expanded his test parties to real happenings at larger venues, beginning at his home in La Honda, California. Always present was the music of The Grateful Dead, who debuted under that name at one of Kesey’s parties after losing their original name, The Warlocks. The cast of characters also included Jack Kerouac’s traveling buddy Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and Dr. Timothy Leary. Out of what Hunter Thompson called “the world capital of madness,” the psychedelic counter-culture of Haight-Ashbury was born.
In the interview above, Kesey talks about the acid tests as much more than an excuse to trip for hours and hear The Dead play for a buck. No, he says, “there were people who passed and people who didn’t pass” the test. What it all meant perhaps only Kesey knew for sure. (He is quoted as saying that he and his band of compatriots, the Merry Pranksters, were trying to “stop the coming end of the world”). In any case, it’s a strange story—stranger than any of Ken Kesey’s works of fiction: covert government mind control program turns on one of the generation’s most subversive novelists, who then masterminds the hippy movement. The video below, from the Kesey documentary Magic Trip, takes us back to where it started with animation of a tape recording of Kesey narrating his first government-sponsored acid trip.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

Monday, June 12, 2017

VIDEOS: The History of the Blues in 50 Riffs: From Blind Lemon Jefferson (1928) to Joe Bonamassa (2009)

If you’ve ever had any doubt, for some reason or other, that rock and roll descended directly from the blues, the video above, a history of the blues in 50 riffs, should convince you. And while you might think a blues history that ends in rock n roll would start with Robert Johnson, this guitarist reaches back to the country blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” from 1928 then moves through legendarily tuneful players like Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis before we get to the infamous Mr. Johnson.
Big Bill Broonzy is, as he should be, represented. Other country blues greats like soft-spoken farmer Mississippi John Hurt and hardened felon Lead Belly, “King of the 12 String Guitar,” are not. Say what you will about that. The recordings these artists made with Okeh Records and Alan Lomax, despite their commercial failure in the 30s, midwifed the blues revival of the fifties and sixties. Hear Lead Belly's version of folk ballad “Gallows Pole” above, a song Led Zeppelin made famous. Lead Belly’s acoustic blues inspired everyone from John Fogerty to Skiffle King Lonnie Donegan, Pete Seeger to Jimmy Page, as did the rootsy country blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, who is included in the 50 riffs. As are John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and BB King’s electric styles---all of them picked up by blues rock revivalists, including, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix’s “Red House” riff makes the cut here, as we move slowly into rock and roll. But before we get to Hendrix, we must first check in with two other Kings, Freddie and Albert—especially Albert. Hendrix “was star struck,” says Rolling Stone, “when his hero [Albert King] opened for him at the Fillmore in 1967.” For his part, King said, “I taught [Hendrix] a lesson about the blues. I could have easily played his songs, but he couldn’t play mine.” See King play “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1981, above, and hear why Hendrix worshipped him.
Mississippi blues moved to Memphis, Chicago, New York and to Texas, where by the 70s and 80s, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan added their own southwest roadhouse swagger. (No Johnny Winter, alas.) Many people will be pleased to see Irish rocker Rory Gallagher in the mix, and amused that The Blues Brothers get a mention. Many more usual suspects appear, and a few unusual picks. I’m very glad to hear a brief R.L. Burnside riff. The White Stripes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Joe Bonamassa round things out into the 2010’s. Everyone will miss their favorite blues player. (As usual, the powerhouse gospel blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe gets overlooked.) I would love to see included in any history of blues such obscure but brilliant guitarists as Evan Johns (above), whose rockabilly blues guitar freakouts sound like nothing else. Or John Dee Holeman, below, whose effortless, understated rhythm playing goes unmatched in my book.
Like so many of the bluesmen who came before them, these gentlemen seem to represent a dying breed. And yet the blues lives on and evolves in artists like Gary Clark Jr.The Black Keys, and Alabama Shakes. And of course there’s the prodigy Bonamassa, whom you absolutely have to see below at age 12, jamming with experimental country speed demon Danny Gatton’s band (he gets going around 1:05).
If you’re missing your favorites, give them a shout out below. Who do you think has to be included in any history of the blues—told in riffs or otherwise---and why?

Monday, June 5, 2017

VIDEO: The Grateful Dead Play at the Egyptian Pyramids, in the Shadow of the Sphinx (1978)

by Dan Colman, Open Culture:

In September of 1978, the Grateful Dead traveled to Egypt and played three shows at the Great Pyramid of Giza, with the Great Sphinx looking over their shoulders. It wasn't the first time a rock band played in an ancient setting. 

Pink Floyd performed songs in the middle of the Amphitheatre of Pompeii in October 1971. But
Floyd performed to an "empty" house, playing to no live fans, only ghosts (watch footage here.) 

The Dead's shows, on the other hand, were real gigs, attended by Deadheads who made the journey over, and they could thank Phil Lesh for putting it all in motion. Lesh later said, "it sort of became my project because I was one of the first people in the band who was on the trip of playing at places of power. You know, power that's been preserved from the ancient world. The pyramids are like the obvious number one choice because no matter what anyone thinks they might be, there is definitely some kind of mojo about the pyramids."
Logistically speaking, the concerts weren't the easiest to stage. Rolling Stone reported that an "equipment truck got stuck in sand and had to be towed by camels." Because the electricity in Egypt was an "a winkin', blinkin' affair," Bob Weir later recalled, the jetlagged band had difficulties recording the first of the three shows. But, as with most adventures, the inconveniences were offset by the wondrous nature of the experience. Weir captured it well when he said: "I got to a point where the head of the Sphinx was lined up with the top of the Great Pyramid, all lit up. All of a sudden, I went to this timeless place. The sounds from the stage — they could have been from any time. It was as if I went into eternity." The Sphinx and Great Pyramid date back to roughly 2560 BC.
The Dead were joined on this trip by the counterculture author Ken Kesey (not to mention Bill Graham and Bill Walton) who apparently captured footage on Super-8 reels. (Watch it above.) Kesey himself later tried to explain the symbolism of the visit, saying: "The people who were there recognized this as a respectful and holy event that went back to something we can all just barely glimpse, them and us both. Our relationship to ancient humans. To this place on the planet. To the planet's place in the universe. All that cosmic stuff is what the Dead are based on. The Egyptians could understand that."
At the very top of the post, you can see the Dead performing "Ollin Arageed," with Egyptian oudist Hamza el-Din and other local musicians, before seguing into "Fire on the Mountain." The clip gives you a good feel for the awe-inspiring scene. Just above, we have a longer playlist of performances that took place on September 16, 1978 -- the same night there was a lunar eclipse. The complete 9/16/78 show can be streamed on, as can the shows from 9/14 and 9/15. A 2CD/1 DVD package (Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978) captures the Dead's visit and can be purchased online.
To get more on the Pyramid concerts, read Chapter 43 of Dennis McNally's book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Rolling Stones Introduce Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf on US TV, One of the “Greatest Cultural Moments of the 20th Century” (1965)

by Josh Jones, Open Culture:

Josh is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Howlin’ Wolf may well have been the greatest blues singer of the 20th century. Certainly many people have said so, but there are other measurements than mere opinion, though it’s one I happen to share. The man born Chester Arthur Burnett also had a profound historical effect on popular culture, and on the way the Chicago blues carried “the sound of Jim Crow,” as Eric Lott writes, into American cities in the north, and into Europe and the UK. Recording for both Chess and Sun Records in the 50s (Sam Phillips said of his voice, “It's where the soul of man never dies”), Burnett’s raw sound “was at once urgently urban and country plain… southern and rural in instrumentation and howlingly electric in form.”
He was also phenomenal on stage. His hulking six-foot-six frame and intense glowering stare belied some very smooth moves, but his finesse only enhanced his edginess. He seemed at any moment like he might actually turn into a wolf, letting the impulse give out in plaintive, ragged howls and prowls around the stage. “I couldn’t do no yodelin’,” he said, “so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.” He played a very mean harmonica and did acrobatic guitar tricks before Hendrix, picked up from his mentor Charlie Patton. And he played with the best musicians, in large part because he was known to pay well and on time. If you wanted to play electric blues, Howlin’ Wolf was a man to watch.
This reputation was Wolf’s entrĂ©e to the stage of ABC variety show Shindig! in 1965, opening for the Rolling Stones. He had just returned from his 1964 tour of Europe and the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival, playing to large, appreciative crossover crowds. He’d also just released “Killing Floor,” a record Ted Gioia notes “reached out to young listeners without losing the deep blues feeling that stood as the cornerstone of Wolf’s sound.” The following year, the Rolling Stones insisted that Shindig!’s producers “also feature either Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf” before they would go on the show. Wolf won out over his rival Waters, toned down the theatrics of his act for a more prudish white audience, and “for the first time in his storied career, the celebrated bluesman performed on a national television broadcast.”
Why is this significant? Over the decades, the Stones regularly performed with their blues heroes. But this was new media ground. Brian Jones' shy, starstruck introduction to Wolf before his performance above conveys what he saw as the importance of the moment. Jones' biographer Paul Trynka may overstate the case, but in some degree at least, Wolf’s appearance on Shindig! “built a bridge over a cultural abyss and connected America with its own black culture.” The show constituted “a life-changing moment, both for the American teenagers clustered round the TV in their living rooms, and for a generation of blues performers who had been stuck in a cultural ghetto.” One of these teenagers described the event as “like Christmas morning.”
Eric Lott points to the show's formative importance to the Stones, who “sit scattered around the Shindig! set watching Wolf in full-metal idolatry” as he sings "How Many More Years," a song Led Zeppelin would later turn into "How Many More Times." (See the Stones do their Shindig! performance of jangly, subdued "The Last Time," above.)  The performance represents more, however, than the "British Invasion embrace" of the blues. It shows Wolf's mainstream breakout, and the Stones paying tribute to a founding father of rock and roll, an act of humility in a band not especially known or appreciated for that quality.
“It was altogether appropriate,” says music writer Peter Guralnick, “that they would be sitting at Wolf’s feet… that’s what it represented. His music was not simply the foundation or the cornerstone; it was the most vital thing you could ever imagine.” Guralnick, notes John Burnett at NPR, calls it "one of the the greatest cultural moments of the 20th century." At minimum, Burnett writes, it's "one of the most incongruous moments in American pop music"---up until the mid-sixties, at least.
Whether or not the moment could live up to its legend, the people involved saw it as groundbreaking. The venerable Son House sat in attendance---“the man who knew Robert Johnson and Charley Patton,” remarked Brian Jones in awe. And the Rolling Stone positioning himself in deference to “Chicago blues," Trynka writes, "uncompromising music aimed at a black audience, was a radical, epoch-changing step, both for baby boomer Americans and the musicians themselves. Fourteen and fifteen-year-old kids… hardly understood the growth of civil rights; but they could understand the importance of a handsome Englishman who described the mountainous, gravel-voiced bluesman as a ‘hero’ and sat smiling at his feet.”
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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sgt Pepper's at 50: the greatest thing you ever heard or just another album?

File 20170510 21596 13cqs18
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band : is this the best popular music has to offer? Paul Townsend, flickr, CC BY

Liam Viney, The University of Queensland; Adam Behr, Newcastle University; Catherine Strong, RMIT University; Christine Feldman-Barrett, Griffith University; James Arvanitakis, Western Sydney University, and Stuart Medley, Edith Cowan University

The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 on June 1 and the anniversary of this legendary album will be celebrated in style. But has this classic work - named the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone - stood the test of time? We asked six writers for their perspectives. The Conversation

More than just mythology

While the cultural impact of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is hard to ignore, “greatest of all time” debates have the potential to obfuscate as much as clarify. White noise over Sgt Pepper’s place in some kind of dubious canon distracts us from its musical qualities, and its well-documented radical experimentation can be over-hyped in the melee. Thankfully, there’s more to the album than novelty and mythology.

Sgt Pepper’s outsized reputation stems partly from the sense that it paved the way for rock and pop’s subsequent expansion into more “lofty” realms of artistic expression. The album captured the world’s imagination thanks to its central conceit (the band’s alter ego that in truth only relates to the first two songs plus a reprise near the end), the creativity and variety of its psychedelic song-writing, production techniques and striking cover art, and its bold forays into territory such as avant-garde aleatoricism and Hindustani classical music.

Yet for an album considered so forward-looking, it drew heavily on its time, place and even past. Frequently (and somewhat misleadingly) labelled the first “concept album”, Sgt Pepper’s was not so much a trailblazing bolt from the blue as a direct response to the Beach Boys’ brilliant Pet Sounds (1966) - itself inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, (1965).

While the album’s palpable drug-haze augured the “Summer of Love”, the Edwardian flavour of the eponymous military/variety band thread could hardly be more disjunct with the times (at least on the surface). Both When I’m Sixty-Four and She’s Leaving Home are imbued with affection and empathy for older generations, a decided break from the norm in 1960s rock and pop.

Perhaps due to the combination of such idiosyncrasies with genuine experimentalism, the idea prevails that Sgt Pepper’s value lies in a perceived contribution to advancing musical “progress”. Some critics detect pretension and a kind of clinically manufactured zaniness to the whole project. So it’s worth examining at least one track - the very last one, A Day in the Life - to find something from the world of emotion in Sgt Pepper.

Famously a hybrid of two separate song ideas – the melancholic opening coming from John Lennon, the middle section from Paul McCartney – the song is widely considered the album’s best. Its epic feel arises from the juxtaposition of contrasting mood and tempo, along with the experimental “end of the world” orchestral crescendos and the ten-hand/four-keyboard power chord that closes the album.

While inventive within the context of commercial music at the time, these novel elements alone fail to explain our constant returning to the song. It could equally be subtleties such as the way Lennon’s poignant lyrics, drawn from a newspaper, manage to evoke the universal through the particular. It could be the opening melody circling through a major-minor progression (bright to pensive), the sadder harmonies corresponding to wilting lyrics such as “I read the news today, oh boy”, or the way Ringo Starr’s sensitive drum fills seem as much concerned with gently reflecting the text as laying down a beat. For this listener, these countless details of songcraft put Sgt Pepper’s into a category of music that never gets old, tired or boring - ultimately, the most likely reason for its longevity.

-Liam Viney

Can we please move on?

Sgt Pepper’s is a very good album. I like it; most people like it. It was undeniably innovative, and helped to change the idea of what a rock album could do. That said, the way this album, and this band, along with a small group of their (white, male) peers from the same era, have come to dominate the rock canon and discussions of what constitutes good music needs to be challenged.

The famous Sgt Pepper’s album cover. EMI/CyberFatal01, Wikimedia Commons
The constant refrain that this is the best that popular music has to offer not only erases the African influences that led to The Beatles in the first place, but serves to devalue everything that has come since. The fact that we return so often to this band, and this era, also means there is so much less space for the music of today’s youth.

It is often said these days that rock is dead, or at least dying, and our increasing tendency to look backwards musically, and to fetishise the past, is part of what has brought this about. The initial spirit of rock and roll was supposed to be about rebellion, change, and a celebration of not doing things the way they had always been done.

But the deification of The Beatles is the opposite of this. No band could possibly be as good as the myth of The Beatles has made them out to be. It’s time to find some other music to talk about.

-Catherine Strong

Forever young

Fifty years since the release of Sgt Pepper’s, The Beatles continue to attract new fans. Though their role as contemporary symbols of youth culture has long since passed, one of the band’s most significant legacies is how their music, style, and sensibilities continue to encapsulate the verities and complexities of “being young”. It is this album that showcases that legacy most eloquently.

Though Sgt Pepper’s reflects the ethos of 1967, the reveries of youth spring eternal through its songs. Young people’s search for both belonging and independence sound out in With a Little Help From My Friends and She’s Leaving Home. The psychedelia of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life mirror the fearlessness of youthful adventure and risk-taking. Questions of identity and life’s meaning (present and future tense) are expressed in the wildly different Within You Without You and When I’m Sixty-Four. And just as Getting Better speaks to the optimism of youth, Good Morning Good Morning depicts the presumed dullness of adult life.

Trailer for the 2007 film Across the Universe, which is built around Beatles’ songs.

These ideals and imaginings are embedded in a diverse soundscape that encompasses the carnivalesque and the sober; the flirtatious and fantastical. The inclusion of flanged vocals and notes that seem to echo forever demonstrates this experimentation best. Such sonic explorations created “young sounds” that endure.

As a Gen-X Beatles fan, this was the first of their LPs that I heard and it remains one of my favourites. As a youth culture scholar, it is clear to me that this album speaks a language that translates across the generations. So whether 17 or 70, today’s Beatles enthusiasts are all part of Sgt Pepper’s band.

-Christine Feldman-Barrett

A change blowing in the wind

Sgt Pepper’s 1967 release represented, as music scholar Martin Cloonan notes, “pop’s slow climb out of a cultural ghetto”. This explosion of musical colour was significant in foregrounding the album as a statement of artistic intent. The creative strides that the Beatles made were an apogee of a larger shift that also saw musicians making use of the studio as a creative tool, not just a place to set down their songs. Sgt Pepper is, however, also an important illustration of a wider cultural and political context.

Changes in education saw the rising influence of art schools, with popular musicians conceiving of what they did as more than just entertainment. As post-war austerity (and national service) receded, the “Summer of Love” also aligned with the ascendancy of a more open, political culture and came amid Harold Wilson’s socially reforming government. 1967 saw the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion following on from 1965’s abolition of the death penalty and Wilson’s attempt to take Britain into the European Economic Community.

Sgt Pepper’s success was in hooking this forward-looking attitude to a sense of the past. The mysticism of Within You Without You and overt psychedelia of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sat alongside echoes of music hall and cross-generationally accessible songs such as When I’m Sixty Four. Its experimentalism pushed forward pop’s boundaries but simultaneously spoke to a country that was shaking off the dustier aspects of a more deferential and restrictive post-war culture.

As John Lennon was to put it:
Whatever wind was blowing at the time moved the Beatles too. I’m not saying we weren’t the flags on the top of the ship. But the whole boat was moving.
-Adam Behr

A still powerful concept

In December last year, I purchased a record player for my wife as a birthday present. It had been two decades since I owned one. Buying vinyl is a very different experience from CD: the art counts. It’s the classic listening experience of this format that contrasts with CDs, playlists and even streaming services, which now invite songs to be skipped and shuffled out of their original order.

The key to vinyl is that we listen to the album the way the artist intends: the order matters to the musical and lyrical story that unfolds. This was certainly the case when The Beatles released Sgt Peppers. What makes a concept album is a larger meaning that unifies the order and themes of the music. The collection is more than simply a range of individual tracks.

Concept albums became a scarce commodity as vinyl sales all but evaporated with the rise of digital. But with vinyl’s recent resurgence, we are reminded that music can still be presented as an immersive story.

In Sgt Pepper’s, The Beatles take us on this rather experimental journey – perhaps more so because it was never meant to be toured. (The band actually planned to stop at the conclusion of their final August 1966 US tour after tensions were mounting). The reprisal of its title track towards the album’s close (known as bookending), and the thematic “military band” alter egos walk us through the album’s various stages. Listening to it, you can sense the specificity of the concept they imagined. Now, 50 years on, it is no less powerful.

-James Arvanitakis

The album as (dated) art

If Sgt Pepper’s towers over the landscape of modern music, it’s not as the pinnacle of pop. It’s for predicting progressive rock: that loose genre praised and derided in equal measure for its musical, lyrical and, importantly, visual concept albums. Its lush arrangements and overwrought production, along with its celebrated album art, pointed the way to the sights and sounds of the Moody Blues, Yes and Genesis.

But Sgt Pepper’s concept is thin and was actually contrived after recording commenced. Its elusive Edwardian threads connect only the title track and its reprise to the vivid circus imagery of Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! and the fusty When I’m Sixty-Four, but are woven large by designers Sir Peter Blake and Jann Haworths and donned by the band on its cover.

The vinyl and album art for Sgt. Pepper’s. badgreeb RECORDS, flickr, CC BY

The sleeve’s gatefold cover with lyrics was an immersive canvas that invited train-spottery. In matching visual detail to multi-layered sounds, the concept of connecting audio to art soon became de rigueur. The big bands of the 70s were especially monogamous with their preferred designers: Pink Floyd had Hipgnosis; Yes had Roger Dean.

However, the sleeve-as-canvas was mortally wounded by the introduction of the CD in 1982. The rise of the immaterial MP3 then delivered the fatal blow. Sgt Pepper’s visual imagery has not survived these ravages well. Rather, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – which owes a massive audio engineering debt to The Beatles – bears a comparatively simple sleeve that predicted the nexus of shrunken packaging and time poverty. Sgt Pepper’s cover was nostalgic in its own day, but it’s merely obscure and arcane now.

- Stuart Medley

The Beatles will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with several reissue packages on May 26th.

The authors of this piece will be available from 11am to answer your questions - post them below

Liam Viney, Piano Performance Fellow, The University of Queensland; Adam Behr, Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University; Catherine Strong, Senior Lecturer, Music Industry, RMIT University; Christine Feldman-Barrett, Lecturer in Cultural Sociology, Griffith University; James Arvanitakis, Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis, Western Sydney University, and Stuart Medley, Associate professor, Design, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017

Classic Album Series #18: Led Zeppelin – "Led Zeppelin IV"

led-zeppelin-iv-53d7c2dc62c11by Tom Caswell:

In the 18th instalment of my CLASSIC ALBUM SERIES I’m yet to cover a Led Zeppelin album, but that changes now with the incredible Led Zeppelin IV. Released in 1971, their fourth album is my favourite of theirs and features eight incredible songs. Every album after this in my opinion struggled to match the greatness of the songs on this album, aside from perhaps Physical Graffiti. But there’s no doubt when I say this one album contained their best work, their most consistent songs and their most focused and driven playing.
The song Black Dog opens the album which features one of the most complex and exciting riffs that Led Zeppelin ever came up with. It was John Paul Jones that initially thought of it, having wanted to compose a riff that people found hard to dance to. You take away the drums and he succeeded. The band came up with so many infectious riffs in their career and Black Dog, along with the following song Rock And Roll, are two of their all time best. Rock And Roll is a song all guitarists should learn to play at some point. The song is a pretty straight forward blues number but the opening drum sequence can really throw you off when you’re trying to play along. It’s almost like they deliberately tried to throw a spanner in the works with that one, but it fits the song perfectly. Looking back at their entire catalogue it’s easy to say that this song stands out as one of their most explosive. And it’s as addictive as hell.
  1. Black Dog
  2. Rock And Roll
  3. The Battle Of Evermore
  4. Stairway To Heaven
  5. Misty Mountain Hop
  6. Four Sticks
  7. Going To California
  8. When The Levee Breaks
Things head in a more mellow direction with The Battle Of Evermore which features singer songwriter Sandy Denny on guest vocals. The song has a distinctive folk feel to it with Jimmy Page playing mandolin on the song which resulting in John Paul Jones playing acoustic guitar. It’s a song that doesn’t stand out initially compared to the others but the more you listen to it the more you fall in love with it. Stairway To Heaven comes next which is probably my least favourite song on the album, yes you read that right. I’ve always considered this song overrated especially compared to the other songs on the album. I know it’s seen as one of the greatest songs of all time but I’ve never bought into that. While the guitar solo section in the final third of the song is exciting to listen to, everything else really doesn’t do that much for me. Just my opinion.
Things return to excellent form with Misty Mountain Hop. The song begins with John Paul Jones on electric piano and it’s yet another Zeppelin riff that latches itself onto your mind and refuses to let go. Plant is exceptional here. Four Sticks comes next but for me it’s always been the one track on this album that doesn’t seem to quite fit. Based around a riff that continues from start to finish with not much else going on, the song ends up feeling repetitive. Everything is righted with the next song, Going To California which is one of the best songs in the Led Zeppelin catalogue. The song doesn’t feature Bonham at all, instead going down the folk route the band had previously visited in The Battle Of Evermore. The song is absolutely beautiful and doesn’t need a catchy riff to stay in your head. The blend of Plant on vocals with Page on guitar and Jones on mandolin is exquisite, resulting in one of the best songs on the album.
When The Levee Breaks is the final track and I don’t think the band could have picked a better song to end on. Anchored by Bonham’s incredible drumming, which was recorded at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grande in Hampshire, which is where the band recorded a lot of the album. The unique sound of the drums were created by the natural reverb located at the bottom of the stairwell. That combined with the vocals, guitar, bass and harmonica create one hell of a song and one of the greatest songs of all time, period. I also consider it the best Led Zeppelin track by a country mile, and that’s saying something because their entire catalogue is full of so many gems.
Overall Led Zeppelin IV is a masterpiece even though I’m not a massive fan of Stairway To Heaven, at least compared to the hype surrounding it. When looking at their whole catalogue this is probably their most consistent album from start to finish and at eight songs in length it really hits the spot quickly. There’s no messing around, it’s to the point. The band would go on to reproduce the greatness found on this album on their 1975 album Physical Graffiti, which will be the focus of a future CLASSIC ALBUM SERIES article without a doubt, but Led Zeppelin IV really sums the band up perfectly. Catchy riffs, screaming vocals, beautiful playing and exciting ideas. It’s a must have for any record collection.