Monday, November 27, 2017

They Got High With a Little Help from Their Friends

by Holden McNeely, Culture Sonar:

One of the most important traits of The Beatles was their ability to embody the zeitgeist. The swinging ‘60s, the hippie movement, the Summer of Love, and recreational drugs all came into play in their music at the pinnacle of their career – the primary mind-altering substances being marijuana and LSD. 

Who turned them on to pot? None other than Bob Dylan! According to Peter Brown’s The Love You Make, Dylan had misinterpreted the lyrics for “I Want To Hold Your Hand” — by mistaking “I can’t hide” for “I get high.” And so he brought a big bag of weed to the band during one of their NYC visits.

In George Case’s Out of Our Heads, Ringo recalls, “That was the first time that I’d really smoked marijuana and I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.” Per The Quotable Stoner, Paul McCartney also reminisced about that encounter: “Bob came round to our hotel, and he said to us, ‘Here, try a bit of this.’ It is very indiscreet to say this, because I don’t know whether Bob is telling people he turned the Beatles on to marijuana. But it was funny.”

For the next stretch of their careers, The Beatles were, well, periodically stoned. Don’t believe us? Here’s a quote from Jacqueline Edmondson’s biography John Lennon about their performances in the hit movie Help!: “The movie was out of our control. With A Hard Day’s Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, [director] Dick Lester didn’t tell us what it was about… partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast… Nobody could communicate with us; it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time.”

The influence of marijuana on their music became pronounced in 1966, via their album Revolver. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Brian Roylance’s The Beatles, their personal assistant/road manager Neil Aspinall said of pot during the recording sessions, “I guess it made recording a bit slower, but it didn’t affect the quality of the work.” At points, the influence was stronger than others: Lennon attributed the backwards guitar effect in the song “Rain” directly to being high.

“I got home from the studio stoned out of my mind on marijuana and, as I usually do, I listened to what I’d recorded that day. Somehow I got it on backwards and I sat there, transfixed, with the earphones on with a big hash joint. I ran in the next day and said, ‘I know what to do with it, I know…Listen to this!’ That one was a gift of God – of Jah, actually, the god of marijuana. Jah gave me that one” (from David Sheff’s All We Are Saying).

Around this time, the “Wicked Dentist” (revealed in Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll to be John Riley) famously introduced George Harrison and Lennon to LSD. It’s a sprawling story, but the long and short of it is that Riley invited the two Beatles and their wives over for dinner one night and dosed their coffee. He had intended to try and spark some kind of orgy but instead the foursome ended up in an elevator at a London nightclub shrieking madly as they hallucinated that their transport was engulfed in flames. Lennon remarked on this moment that, “The lift stops and the door opens and we’re all going ‘Aaahhhh’, and we just see that it’s the club.” As bad trips go, it could’ve been worse.

Yet the after-effects were profound. Quoted in Rock ‘n’ Roll Myths, George Harrison had this to say: “The first time I had acid, a light-bulb went on in my head and I began to have realisations which were not simply, ‘I think I’ll do this, or ‘I think that must be because of that.’ The question and answer disappeared into each other. An illumination goes on inside: in ten minutes I lived a thousand years.” The band mates’ subsequent experiences on acid led to several songs such as “She Said, She Said” — inspired by a trip at an LA house party where a young Peter Fonda whispered in Lennon’s ear, “I know what it’s like to be dead.”

Other trippy examples abound: tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Strawberry Fields” have hallucinatory qualities; albums like Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour are entire odes to the psychedelic experience. Ironically, The Beatles were largely turned off to further experimentation after a visit to Haight-Ashbury, arguably the countercultural capital of the time. In fact, The Beatles cleaned up for a time after that in a big way. They traveled to India where they gained sober enlightenment with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Drugs aren’t the only way to get high, you know.

Holden McNeely

PS: We dig into some other concept albums worth another listen. Plus, a look at some more recent projects keeping that ’60s vibe going.

Photo: Jim Gray/Keystone/Hulton Archive, courtesy of Getty Images

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

VIDEO: 23-Year-Old Eric Clapton Demonstrates the Elements of His Guitar Sound (1968)

by Mike Springer, Open Culture:

In the fall of 1968, Eric Clapton was 23 years old and at the height of his creative powers. His band, Cream, was on its farewell tour of America when a film crew from the BBC caught up with the group and asked the young guitar virtuoso to show how he created his distinctive sound.

The result is a fascinating four-minute tour of Clapton’s technique. He begins by demonstrating the wide range of tones he could achieve by varying the settings on his psychedelically painted 1964 Gibson SG Standard guitar. His wah-wah pedal (an early Vox model) was critical to the sound of so many Cream classics, like “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” In the film, Clapton really has to stomp on it to get it working.

One of the most difficult skills to master, Clapton says, is the vibrato. In a 1970 interview with Guitar Player magazine he goes into more detail: “When I stretch strings,” he says, “I hook my thumb around the neck of the guitar. A lot of guitarists stretch strings with just their hand free. The only way I can do it is if I have my whole hand around the neck—actually gripping onto it with my thumb. That somehow gives me more of a rocking action with my hand and wrist.” If you watch the BBC clip closely you will see this in action.

The interview was conducted with Clapton seated in front of his famous stack of Marshall amplifiers. In the Guitar Player
interview, however, he admits he rarely used both at the same time. “I always had two Marshalls set up to play through,” he says, “but I think it was just so I could have one as a spare. I usually used only one 100-watt amp.”

Clapton’s demonstration (along with interviews of bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker) was incorporated into Tony Palmer’s film of Cream's Farewell Concert, which took place on November 21, 1968 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The original six-song version of Cream's Farewell Concert is available on YouTube. An extended 14-song version is available for purchase here.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The 10 Best John Lennon Songs You May Have Never Heard

Because his life was cut so short, and also in part due to his long “house-husband” phase in the late ‘70s, John Lennon released only seven post-Beatle studio albums — some in conjunction with wife Yoko Ono. It’s impressive that during that short span and with a relatively small output, so much of Lennon’s solo material made a significant impact. Yet there are still album tracks whose airplay and exposure pale in comparison to the mammoth hits still ingrained in the culture. In that spirit, here are ten John Lennon songs which deserve a little more recognition than they currently enjoy.
1. “Isolation” (1970)
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was the album on which Lennon finally got to say everything he wanted without having to worry about operating under the Beatle banner. He used the opportunity to lay bare his demons in harrowing, haunting songs that were often screamed more than sung. But on this restrained (for the most part) track, he sings almost meekly over somber piano chords about his all-encompassing fear (“We’re afraid of everyone / Afraid of the sun”) and loneliness, his cries for help made clearer without any Beatlesque exuberance to hide them.
2. “Crippled Inside” (1971)
On his second proper solo release, Lennon was canny enough to realize he needed more than just critical appreciation, which is why Imagine is filled with accessible melodies and lush production. In many ways, “Crippled Inside” deals with similar subject matter as the songs on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. But it’s delivered with saloon piano (played by studio ace Nicky Hopkins), a frisky dobro solo (from George Harrison) and cheeky enthusiasm from Lennon. The end result is as catchy a song about inner torment as you’re likely to encounter.
3. “New York City” (1972)
Well-intentioned as it might have been, Some Time in New York City was a misstep, as Lennon proved a surprisingly heavy-handed protest singer. But this playful rocker survives the wreckage with its humor intact. The music is a bit shambolic, but achieves some excellent forward momentum; Lennon’s recounting of his time in the Big Apple, complete with bizarre characters and welcoming landmarks, proves that he could do a Chuck Berry homage as well as anybody.
4. “Tight A$” (1973)
Mick Jagger gets all the credit for songs with salacious intent, but Lennon was no slouch in that department. This funky rocker from Mind Games shows him indulging in some naughty wordplay and barely-couched innuendo. That’s not enough to make a song, which is why the excellent chemistry from the studio band (with the invaluable Jim Keltner providing the backbeat) is so important. The Carl Perkins influence is palpable — even if Carl might have blushed at the lyrics.
5. “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)” (1973)
Lennon’s separation from Yoko Ono (around the time that Mind Games was recorded) seems to be the inspiration for this ballad. It strolls along at a measured pace, giving ample room for Lennon to emote with his lead vocal. There’s nothing too fancy going on here, yet Lennon’s uncanny ability to evoke pain and vulnerability is enough to push this song a long way. This one is largely forgotten, coming as it did on an uneven album, but it has soul to spare.
6. “Steel and Glass” (1974)
Beatle fans might not have been too happy to hear Lennon savaging Allen Klein, since the lawyer took hisside over Paul McCartney during the Fab Four’s breakup wars. But there’s no denying how effectively he takes Klein apart in this song from Walls and Bridges. The fact that he reuses many of the same riffs that he used in “How Do You Sleep?” (his takedown of McCartney from a few years earlier) seems like Lennon’s tacit admission that he may have backed the wrong horse.
7. “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” (1974)
Lennon allegedly wrote this song with Frank Sinatra in mind, but he actually provides a telling snapshot of his own emotional health (or lack thereof) in this after-hours ballad from Walls and Bridges. It reflects both the emptiness of fame (“It’s all showbiz,” he drily laments) and his loneliness without Ono. Jesse Ed Davis adds a weeping guitar solo that plays beautifully on the drunken horns. Mid-‘70s Lennon often gets overlooked, but this stunner is evidence that that era should get another glance.
8. “Just Because” (1975)
This 1975 album (Rock ‘n’ Roll), with production by Lennon and Phil Spector, casts a hazy cloud on many early rock chestnuts. However, they get it right on the album’s closing track, largely by getting out of the way of this Lloyd Price classic and letting Lennon (or “Dr. Winston O’Boogie” as he calls himself here), wringing every last bit emotion out of the descending melody. It’s far and away his finest interpretation on the record.
9. “I’m Losing You” (1980)
Many people forget that Double Fantasy was actually an album split right down the middle, between performances by Lennon and Yoko Ono. As a result, most of Lennon’s songs on the project either became huge hits in the aftermath of his death or have become well-known since. “I’m Losing You” sort of slips through the cracks,  perhaps because it bucks the perceived notion of the album as one filled with marital bliss. Instead, it’s a bluesy rocker that includes some of Lennon’s grittiest vocals since the Plastic Ono Band days.
10. “I Don’t Want to Face It” (1984)
Right before his death, Lennon was clearly energized to re-enter the recording world, so much so that he had recorded nearly enough material for a follow-up to Double Fantasy. Those songs were collected on a posthumous release in 1984, entitled Milk and Honey. “Nobody Told Me” became a hit, and “Grow Old With Me” became one for the ages. But this rip-roaring track, complete with Lennon’s faux-German count-in and his falsetto vocals, features him dissecting hypocrisy with all of the old humor and insight intact.
PS.  Read about some great, underrated solo tracks by Lennon’s Beatle bandmates George Harrison and Paul McCartney.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images