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Friday, Sep 19, 2008

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).


It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.


Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd


To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.


About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.


Perhaps his penultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.


Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.


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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

John Lennon was famously battling a cold during the recording session for Please Please Me. While the illness wasn’t major, even a pedestrian cough might have derailed his vocal efforts. Not so in this case. Instead, John’s at times hoarse and untamed delivery proved a fitting complement to the energy of the Beatles’ musical backdrops.


“Twist and Shout”, of course, is the most memorable instance of this. But even on the emotive mid-paced ballad “Anna (Go to Him)”, which was recorded before the effects of his cold were so strikingly evident, the dash of roughness in John’s voice seems to add enlivening texture. Written by Arthur Alexander, a country-soul artist of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Anna” centers on a relationship that is failing because the girl (Anna) has found someone whose love for her surpasses that of her current man’s. The spurned boyfriend ultimately declares his willingness to part from Anna (not the typical reaction of a lover in a pop song) but not before he lays bare his imperishable love for her (much better). The lyric is thick with desperation: “But every girl I’ve ever had / Breaks my heart and leave me sad / What am I / What am I supposed to do”. In the original version, Alexander sings in a clipped fashion, which lends his rendering an almost matter-of-fact quality. John, conversely, stretches out and emphasizes more notes to arouse greater conviction from them. Especially on the segment between the standard verses (sampled above), his less-than-silky delivery injects the song with an aching passion that might not have come through so stirringly if not for the illness. Pain seems to dwell in the husky edges of John’s voice.

Overall, the Beatles’ version is an improvement on its source. The original features a jangling piano line at the lead which gives off too much playfulness for a song about inner conflict. George’s guitar-work is a better match: less spry and excitable but still tuneful. It combines with Ringo’s offbeat percussion and Paul’s stingy bass to construct a groove that, light and limber, doesn’t get in the way of John’s bruised vocal.


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Saturday, Sep 13, 2008

Coming off the lively snap of “I Saw Her Standing There”, a song with a melodramatic title like “Misery” seems almost bound to be a non-starter. And, to a certain extent, that’s true of “Misery”. It’s a pained account of love lost that heavily wallows in neediness and self-pity (“The world is treating me ba-a-ad / Misery”). Based on his lyrics, John Lennon is positively inconsolable. Oh that his dearest would undo the hurt. Though certainly not always the case, cheerless and rather dull subject matter of this kind can have a deflating effect on a song and, as follows, the listening experience.


Even so, “Misery” is a more compelling number than its drab lyric might indicate. First, there’s the backstory. As it turns out, John and Paul did not write “Misery” for the Beatles themselves. It was originally intended for a young British pop star named Helen Shapiro who was in need of potential country/western material for a future release. Shapiro, however, never recorded the song (although another British artist, Kenny Lynch, later would). Eventually, when George Martin was compiling tracks for Please Please Me, he had the Beatles record, effectively, their entire backlog of songs, one of which was “Misery”. 


Side note: I’d be curious to know to what degree John and Paul consciously designed “Misery” as a song for a female performer and how the initial version and the Beatles’ own rendition may have diverged.


Within the song itself, the Beatles made several interesting decisions concerning its mechanics and structure. What stands out most is the song’s moderately crisp pace. Though “Misery” is nothing if not a bummer tune, the Beatles don’t match that feel with a plodding, despondent tempo. After the slow intro, they proceed into a steady gallop, with Ringo’s bouncy percussion as the dominant presence. Throughout, the three guitarists don’t really assert themselves but the pace remains active enough to prevent “Misery” from becoming a total mire of melancholy.


The verse/chorus pattern is also of note. “Misery’s” running time is a brief 1:50, which might reasonably suggest inadequate room for a fleshed-out structure to the song. But that’s misleading. The chorus consists of just one word, “misery”, and, furthermore, the Beatles opted to not include a guitar solo, both of which open up space. To fill that void in a not so predictable manner, John and Paul wrote two modulated verses (only slight variations of each other) to accompany the normal verses. The back-and-forth switch between normal and modulated gives the song a somewhat dynamic flow and hints at the Beatles’ desire, even at their start, to be more than paint-by-numbers songwriters who also happened to be infectious entertainers. They aspired to be serious craftsmen (though, admittedly, “Misery” is a humble offering).


The song’s single best moment, however, arrives at the 1:35 mark. It’s when John lets loose one of the most pitch-perfect and almost comically wounded moans (“oww-o-ow”) that you’ll ever hear in pop music. Few bands could prompt such pleasure with just two seconds of discardable vocal filler.


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Thursday, Sep 11, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Keeley Boyle and Nelson Kempf settle in to share some of their 'strange worlds' with PopMatters 20 Questions.

PopMatters gave The Old Believers’ Eight Golden Greats an “8”. “The Old Believers have built a cozy, comfortable world—strange but at the same time utterly familiar—and it’s one where you want to spend more time,” writes Maura Walz.


Keeley Boyle and Nelson Kempf settle in to share some of their strange worlds with PopMatters 20 Questions.


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Keeley Boyle Dr. Zhivago.
Nelson Kempf I’ve never cried in my life. Horton Hears a Who put me damn close, though.


2. The fictional character most like you?
KB Wendy from Peter Pan.  I’ve always been terrified of growing up.  I started an anti-adolescence club in 4th grade, and swore I wouldn’t go through it.  I also promised myself I’d be playing with my dolls until I was 40. 
NK No way, dudes. Questions like that scare me.


3. The greatest album, ever?
KB Flying Cowboys by Rickie Lee Jones.
NK Ummmm. Trout Mask Replica! and Blood on the Tracks and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Kings of the Wild Frontier and Sexy Back? And Imperial Bedroom.  And also, The Fugs First Album.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
KB Both.
NK Star Trek is great and all, but definitely, definitely Star Wars


5. Your ideal brain food?
KB National Geographic.
NK French New Wave movies at night, Tape Op magazine in the car, weird cheeses at lunch.  But mainly, that peace of mind that comes once a whole moon when life actually seems to be moving at the proper pace and everything seems to fit just perfectly and you know you’re exactly where you should be.  I can write songs like a motherfucker when I tap that shit.


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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008

After recently hearing for the first time the manic Beatles song “It Won’t Be Long”, I realized that I needed to absorb their entire catalogue and write about it. So this is my attempt at it, beginning with the start of Please Please Me and ending at the conclusion of Let It Be. Wish me luck.


+ + +


It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (“one, two, three, fahhh”) puts “I Saw Her Standing There” energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity. Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, unison vocals, high-pitched “woohs”, and, most delightfully, hand claps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable “Twist and Shout”). 


The songcraft is economized and straightforward, if not a bit underdeveloped. Paul’s bass line (which evidently came from a Chuck Berry song) tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a burgeoning talent that still isn’t sure how to creatively occupy all its designated space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n’ roll into something distinctly its own.


Lyrically, Paul projects an innocence that isn’t surprising of early ‘60s pop. This was a period when, in song anyway, a mere exchange of glances could spawn love. As Paul sings, “Well she looked at me/ And I, I could see/ That before too long/ I’d fall in love with her”. How carefree and seemingly puritan. He even vows that this squeeze will be his one and only. Yet examine those lines once more. If you’re swooning over someone after only looking at him or her, the draw is purely physical. And I must confess that my instinctive response to the song’s introductory lines “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” is “No, Paul, I’m not quite sure what you mean”. It’s uncertain how cryptic and suggestive he’s aiming to be. So perhaps Paul was smuggling touches of sexuality into what seems like a sweet, if hasty, courtship. It’s also possible that the lines simply work as efficient pop couplets and are not intentionally fraught with matters between-the-sheets.


So the subtle intrigue of the lyric is amusing. But the rousing rock ‘n’ roll sounds are clearly the magnetic attraction of “I Saw Her Standing There”.


Tagged as: the beatles
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