30 July, 2013

Classic Albums Augmented VI: The Beatles

The Beatles: The Beatles
This is an album I'd heard so much about before I'd actually listened to it for the first time back in 1975, that even my callow 16-year old self was worried the build-up might destroy any hope of this two-record set meeting expectations. That was a bit silly.

I was already thinking it was the best album I'd ever heard even before side one was finished. Sure, there was a little dross to come, but the album as a whole was just irresistible. Even now, I try to imagine what it would have been like hearing it upon its initial release in November 1968.Although it is usually referred to as The White Album, this double-LP is actually eponymous, its plain cover the only sleeve of a Beatles studio album to not feature a depiction of the group on the front. But iconic individual portraits of the Fab Four by John Kelly are included as part of the packaging in a way that's particularly apposite.
You see, the album's recording sessions were characterized by the Beatles bringing their various compositions to the studio almost fully formed. So the remaining three Beatles would effectively be the backing band for whoever composed each song.

I know it doesn't sound like a winning formula but there's a reason why hardcore fans think everything the Beatles did was good. To near ridiculous levels. And it's because in actual fact, pretty much everything the Beatles did WAS good. I kid you not.

These sessions provided the backdrop for growing friction, culminating in Ringo abruptly leaving the group for two weeks before reappearing in the studio. That's why it's Paul McCartney playing drums on Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence
Much of the song composition occurred during the Beatles' Indian sojourn in Rishikesh to learn Transcendental Meditation at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
This highly publicized retreat would prove a very fertile inspiration for the Beatles. Opening side one is Back in the USSR, Paul McCartney's lyrical Chuck Berry homage, replete with Beach Boys-style vocals and references to girls in Soviet locations, thanks to a suggestion from fellow ashramite Mike Love. A great rock song and very witty, McCartney at his best.

Dear Prudence was Lennon dreamily pleading with Prudence Farrow, Mia's sister, to take a break from meditating. You've got to credit its ringing emphasis on the major third, a rarity in rock (and cheerio to anyone who remembers the great cover version by Doug Parkinson In Focus that charted in Australia in 1969). Lennon's self-referential Glass Onion contains great guitar playing from Lennon himself. And come on, McCartney's reggae inspired O Bla Di O Bla Da is still a good song, despite everyone you know hating it. By the way, the Desmond referred to is Desmond Dekker, whose 1968 hit The Israelites was the first reggae song to reach the charts. And just as an aside, don't be afraid to check out the alternate version on the Beatles' Anthology 1, which is played at a faster tempo and with a heavier acoustic guitar presence. 

George Harrison's best-ever song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is his warm and heartfelt tribute to their late manager, Brian Epstein. Harrison's best mate Eric Clapton plays the guitar part everyone loves so much and it was his presence in the studio that helped alleviate the tension, as the Beatles were on their best behaviour for their illustrious guest. Closing out side one is Happiness Is A Warm Gun, inspired by the cover of a US gun magazine, might be whimsical, but Lennon could do whimsy and nail it.

Side two contains McCartney's Bach-inspired acoustic ballad Blackbird, like many other McCartney songs in that it is inexplicably simple to play despite sounding quite complex. And beautiful. Another inspiration from the ashram is Ringo's first composition, the organ-driven Don't Pass Me By, but the side closes with a song of Lennon's poignant yearning for his late mother, Julia - and using a guitar-picking style he learned from Donovan.

Standout tracks on side three begin with Lennon's Yer Blues, a challenge to himself to see if he could write an authentic blues song. The performance of this number with the Dirty Mac ensemble (Lennon; Clapton; Keith Richard on bass and Mitch Mitchell) is the highlight of the Rolling Stones' Rock 'n' Roll Circus TV special. McCartney's Mother Nature's Son is a lovely, wistful ballad that serves as a companion piece to his earlier Blackbird, while the sardonic Sexy Sadie expresses Lennon's disaffection with the Maharishi, and explains Lennon's abrupt departure from the Ashram.

Harrison's Savoy Truffle is a tribute to Eric Clapton's sweet tooth and the sad, dreamy Cry Baby Cry, originally driven by Lennon's distaste for all-pervasive advertising, (Buy Baby Buy) rounds off a superb album.

Revolution; Hey Jude

Both Hey Jude and Revolution were recorded during the white album's sessions but as was common during the 1960s, they were released as a double-A sided single two months before the album hit the shops.

Hey Jude started life as Hey Jules, a tune Paul McCartney sang to himself in the car on the way to comfort John Lennon's son Julian, after Lennon had left the family home to be with Yoko Ono. Jude fitted better, hence the change. The Beatles' biggest-selling single was a risky venture, running in excess of seven minutes and with a very lengthy fade-out. But with its intertwining, almost hymn-like melody, subtle harmonies and anthemic denouement, it was certainly a moving piece that still tugs at the heart-strings no matter how often cynics dismiss it as wallpaper.

Beatles apparatchik Peter Brown in his memoir The Love You Make (1983), describes how Lennon and some companions daubed the title on the front windows of the Apple Boutique in Marylebone, not realizing the sensitivities of local Jewish shop-keepers, who concluded there was an anti-semitic point being made.

This clip features the song's public debut on a 1968 episode of The David Frost Show.

Revolution was a re-recorded, more chart-friendly version of the loping Revolution 1 from side four of the album. It's faster, very heavy on the fuzztone and vindicates the decision to re-record it for the single release. The lyrics point to Lennon's caution and ambivalence towards various protest and revolutionary movements gaining momentum in 1968.

The guitar sound might be dated, even for 1968, but the sentiments and feel of the song are not. And Revolution proved the Beatles could produce a fine example of the emerging contemporary hard rock sound.

So Which Tracks Would Miss Out? 
Okay, there's a little editing to be done here. Hey Jude clocks in at 7:11 and Revolution at 3:21. The album's running time is 93min 35s, which is already 3:35 over my arbitrary 45 min per LP limit, and making it one of the rare double albums that actually contains MORE than two records' worth (talkin' 'bout you, Basement Tapes [76:41] and Electric Ladyland [75:41]) 

Excising the expressionistic soundscape Revolution 9, at 8:22 and the string-soaked Ringo-led lullaby Goodnight at 3:13 (apparently no other Beatles play on it! Really, you could have knocked me over with a feather). This makes plenty of room to fit them both in. It's a shame, but not a tragedy. I feel the album suffers only a smidgin from their loss and makes Cry Baby Cry, a personal favourite, a winning album closer.

10 July, 2013

Rock Biopic Film Review I: Stoned (2005)

I’m the kind of trainspotting Rolling Stones aficionado who really wanted to believe all of those 1994 rumours about Mick Taylor rejoining the Stones and Ronnie Wood switching to bass when Bill Wyman departed. I would have considered that the happiest of happy endings. Yep, I'm a fan, no two ways about it. That said, I’m not entirely uncritical when it comes to their output and I’m eternally grateful that the only time I saw them live, at their second Melbourne Cricket Ground concert in 1995, it was on a “good” night.
So I’m inclined to the view that the whole Brian Jones issue is likely to be one of those six-of-one and half-a-dozen-of-the-other situations when I think about who might have wronged whom among the Stones themselves: that Jones was equal parts perpetrator and victim in his demise within the Rolling Stones. But it really is a fascinating (and amongst fans, controversial) part of their rich history, and one that I was absolutely thrilled to learn was to be the subject of a biopic back in 2002. A biopic that would attempt to shed some light on how Jones might have come to drown in the swimming pool of his Cotchford Farm home on a hot July night in 1969.
The original title for Stephen Woolley’s Stoned (2005), was The Wyld and Wicked World of Brian Jones, and some packaging displays that as a sub-title, but the name recognition for the Golden Stone isn’t quite what it was in the 1960s, so the producers opted for a more obviously evocative play on words: Stoned. Woolley, who had produced the 1994 Hamburg-focused Beatles biopic Backbeat; as well as The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996),  became the director of a film he only intended to produce when he couldn’t find anyone to step in. And from my point of view, all’s well that ends well when someone who really wanted to tell the absorbing story of such an intriguing individual finds himself in the director’s chair.
And the film constructs a compelling narrative: of Jones’ place in the Rolling Stones from his early leadership to eventual disenfranchisement; and the events surrounding his death. According to what is on the record about him, Brian Jones was very charismatic, but this was offset by a hefty dose of narcissism. So he was often an uber smart-arse who took delight in going out of his way to piss people off. The film captures this very nicely without overplaying it. While Jones is invariably described as sensitive, running through most of the anecdotes from people close to him is the perception that his sensitivity was limited to his own feelings and stopped well short of sensitivity to the feelings of others.

However, the major coup for the movie was to be Woolley's meticulous research: he tracked down and interviewed Janet Lawson, one of only four people known to be present when Jones drowned. The film's depiction of Jones' last night at Cotchford Farm is based largely on what she told Woolley. But it also matches up with the description Jones' girlfriend Anna Wohlin provided of the events of that night in her book.

Stoned isn't a masterpiece by any stretch, but there's a charm about it reminiscent of Blow Up (1966), in the way that cinematographer John Mathieson captures the ambience of the era. And you'll probably pick up that it's been influenced by such seminal movies as Sunset Boulevard (1950) in its treatment of an isolated, declining star whose world is closing in. And there's also a nod to The Servant (1964), which causes Stoned to treat Jones' eventual nemesis, the builder Frank Thorogood, as the working class brute who eventually assumes the ascendancy in the twisted household.

With that in mind, the film portrays the decadent rock star as a 60s version of the 19th Century English rake and as such, is more than a straight rock biopic.

Lead actor Leo Gregory comes close to looking the part and he manages to highlight the qualities Jones possessed that would bring about his downfall, while the actors playing the other Stones fit the mold in both appearance and mannerisms, without coming across as impressionists. It's also a really clever touch to have them subtly duplicate poses from contemporary films and photographs.

Monet Mazur plays Anita Pallenberg as the only "nice" character in the film, which goes against the more common anecdotage surrounding her character and demeanour. But this may well be Woolley sacrificing accuracy for dramatic effect, serving to heighten the audience's appreciation of Jones' sense of loss when she leaves him for Keith Richard. We're left in no doubt that Pallenberg is the deserving love of Jones' life.
Paddy Considine as Frank Thorogood almost comes across as too much of an ordinary bloke to be the villain but that at least makes the film's take on the events surrounding Jones' death more understandable. Considine's is a multi-layered performance that shows how people seduced and belittled by the rich and famous sometimes bite back. The link between the two contrasting worlds of Jones and Thorogood is provided by David Morrissey, who gives Stones' Mr Fixit Tom Keylock just the right kind of understated menace, while David Walliams from Little Britain has a small part as a snooty Stones office apparatchik.
Woolley had little hope of getting permission to use actual Rolling Stones music on two counts: his budget was never going to allow the purchase of very expensive rights; and the Stones probably wouldn’t have come to the party anyway. The film doesn’t lose much by it, although it does prevent Stoned from exploring Jones’ significant musical contribution to the Stones' catalogue. All the same, there’s a scene of the early Stones c.1964 depicted at a gig performing Willie Dixon's Little Red Rooster, when things are starting to go very well for them, which sounds like an authentic rendering of their live sound from that era.
You'll probably appreciate the delightful attention to detail in the costuming - Roger Burton must have pored over a lot of images to accurately reproduce outfits Jones and his fellow Stones were photographed in at the time.

And there’s also an illuminating interview on the DVD extras with the movie’s hair stylist, Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou, (alas, not included on my copy) where she explains that it would have been much more accurate to use wigs, but again budget considerations were prohibitive so she just had to do the best she could with actors whose hair type was a lot different from the people they were portraying.

There are some telling lines in the film too, such as when Jones and Pallenberg first meet after escaping a chaotic 1966 concert together.
“Hi, I’m Brian.”
“But everyone knows who you are.”

At that time, everyone really did know who Brian Jones was, but these days of course, hardly anyone does.

And when Jagger and Richard terminate Jones' tenure in the band, Keith's phrasing is identical to what he said of the occasion in an interview on the documentary 25 X 5:
"You're out, cock. You're fired."

But it's the film's final lines, when Jones' ghost appears to Tom Keylock, that serve to sum up Jones' diffident, fatalistic persona:
Keylock: "You just had to go and screw it up, didn't you? Your problem is, you were never happy."
Jones: “You're wrong you know Tom. I was happy. Somewhere in the middle there. The thing with happiness was... it was boring.