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.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.