ILLUMINATION AND ALL THAT…THE BEATLES IN THEIR TIME (Segue of the Day: 11/8/15)

Or, what might this…

beatlespleasepleaseme

have to do with this…

19622nd

and this…?

1962stillrockin3rd

More than I would have guessed.

It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.

But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.

How much of an ear?

Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.

Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”

Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.

Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)

For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.

Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.

But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.

Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”

Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?

That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?

Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.

The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating

Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.

In the first place, I learned something.

Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.”  There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.

Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.

That really shouldn’t be surprising.

These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.

The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).

But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.

All to the good.

Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.

By the end, with this…

and this…

closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.

That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.

But then I put on the second Time Life disc.

And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…

bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…

And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.

In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.

Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.

By which time they probably would have had other jobs.

*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.

 

RECORD MAN (Bob Crewe, R.I.P.)

BOBCREWE2

(Bob Crewe, left, with Frankie Valli in the recording studio. Bob Gaudio, Crewe’s frequent Four Seasons’ writing partner with the beard in the background, circa 1960s)

If the particular style of writer/producer who emerged in the late fifties/early sixties were to be judged only by the quality and importance of the records he made (as opposed to the will and ability to self-mythologize), Bob Crewe would be as well known and respected as Phil Spector.

Alas, he never managed to lock his wife in the house for five years and make her watch Citizen Kane every night or, better yet, commit a murder, so Crewe’s death this week at age 83 did not elicit the kind of front-page headlines Spector’s will when he shuffles off this mortal coil.

That’s a shame, because as a record man and talent scout–as the things that should matter–he was pretty much Spector’s equal.

Whatever modern notoriety Crewe had attained at the time of his passing was by virtue of being a minor–if flamboyant–character in Jersey Boys, the story of the Four Seasons that was lifted off the ground a decade back by beat cops and waitresses, unused to having what they cared about celebrated, who took to paying Broadway prices to see it ten and twenty times and has been running ever since. Evidently in real life, Crewe–besides being adult, urbane and sane (Mortal Sins all, in the eyes of the crit-illuminati)–was actually pretty discreet about being a gay man in a macho industry. Discreet enough that I certainly have no idea how he felt about being so often criminally ignored. (And I know I sound like a broken record, but, no, he isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Perhaps he felt the records themselves were the best revenge.

It’s certainly interesting to note that his genius productions with the Seasons are more likely to annoy the right people these days than anything the Beatles or the Stones ever did.

I perhaps owe him a special debt. The Four Seasons were my way into rock and roll and it takes nothing away from their own genius to admit they wouldn’t have been anybody’s way into anything without him.

And they were only a small part of his achievement, which–as writer, producer, or both, covered everything below and much, much more. Phil Spector need not be ashamed that he didn’t best Crewe’s achievements.

Few did.

As writer (warning, the second one might make your head explode):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBHkJyj5vj4

As producer:

As writer and producer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3If8GOKirU

And his signature achievement…as co-writer and producer…As I like to say…Hey, Time? You think you caught Bob Crewe?….Catch this:

Hope freedom’s ringing wherever you are man, because you sure left a lot of it here.

(NOTE: Regarding the link in the text above, I’m always looking to add lifetime memberships to the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade. Anyone who prefers the Tremeloes to the Four Seasons certainly qualifies. Welcome Kathy Shaidle!)