[23 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We all carry our fandom differently. Indeed, certain cultural loves or obsessions manifest themselves in various ways. All you have to do is look around your house or apartment, your living room or office, and how you express your aesthetic appreciation is everywhere to be seen. In my life, for example, music has been more than important. Ever since I discovered my parents Magnavox portable ‘Hi-Fi’ system in the Summer of 1968, I have fallen for the romance of the record. Weekly trips to Sears to pick up the latest Top 10 singles (as slated by local radio legend, Chicago’s WLS) as well as occasional explorations into a soon beloved ‘long player’ (almost always by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) were part of the routine. As I got older, the parameters broadened: subscriptions to Circus and Cream; a preference for albums over singles; and that glorious day I discovered British imports and the dinosaur-destroying punk of the UK. Today, every room is filled with music—CDs across my office wall, a closet full of vinyl taking up valuable storage space.
But my most fervent sonic fandom remains locked into four lads from Liverpool. I can clearly remember long, pot-fueled arguments with friends over impact, flawlessness, and social consciousness. I actually scolded someone for suggesting that there were “bad” Beatles songs. I remembered my joy at discovering an old original Corgi Yellow Submarine that someone had given me decades before—and my subsequent depression when it was lost again, this time forever. I suffered through the shitty Bee Gees/Peter Frampton failure known as Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band on the off chance that the otherwise horrifically misguided film would live up to their musical reputation. I was wrong…wrong, wrong, wrong. And during my gig as a college radio DJ, more adventurous cuts from the group (like “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Love You To”) were surreptitiously sandwiched in between the latest from Sioxsie and the Banshees or The Anti-Nowhere League.
For me, however, the connection to The Beatles goes far beyond mere sound. It’s more than their mop top image (and my father’s vehement denial of any haircut which even attempted to resemble such a shaggy dog dynamic) or merchandising. Unlike other bands that have come and gone, the actual fabric of my life is laced with unusual—and even eccentric—reminders of the Fab Four’s impact. I’m sure if you look around, you too can notice the way in which your favorite band (or movie, or book) has influenced and infiltrated your life. From the items you cherish to the constants that call your sphere of influence ‘home’, we all carry our devotion in our own unique way. Below, you will find 20 reminders of why, for me, The Beatles forever stay part of who I am. Some of the examples are obvious. Some are downright odd. But together, they argue for an irresistible authority that hasn’t dissipated in nearly four decades. In no particular order, let’s begin with:
The Beatles Cartoon Series
In my elementary school, the debate was relatively simple—which was better: The Beatles cartoon series or the animated adventures of Gary’s own The Jackson Five. Neither show employed the real voices of the musical superstars and both were cheesy in a kind of random, slightly surreal, comically incoherent way. But what did we care—we were kids. For many, Michael and the boys won out—they were fresher, more part of the present popular scene. Other, however, embraced the Fab Four’s pen and ink outing as part of the immediate past. Today, neither holds up as entertainment or art. They exist as mere memories, and historic artifact.
“Hey Bulldog” by Fanny
My father had a friend who owned one of the largest record shops in Chicago – Rose’s—and. every year, he would send us a box of what we’d now call “cut-outs” – LPS, 45s, and those notorious antiques, the 8-track tapes that nobody really wanted. One of the first titles I ever remember obsessing over was 1972’ Fanny Hill, by the all girl band Fanny. Their cover of the Yellow Submarine track, complete with fuzzy guitar, fleshed out female harmonies, and driving rhythm inspired me to dig further into other Fab Four “obscurities. It was from there that I discovered other lost gems like “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song.”
Never Hear the End of It by Sloan
I frequently refer to this exceptional album by the Canadian power pop quartet as the “failed run through for Abbey Road, Side 2”. Indeed, the band follows the Fab For-mula of having all the tracks run together, creating a flawless canvas of classic songwriting that envelopes you in genius. And just when you think the selection couldn’t get better, along comes the last five tracks which turn the otherwise brilliant LP into a masterpiece.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Ritchie Havens
I have fond memories of lying in bed during the Summer of 1971 and hearing Ritchie Havens soulful, elegant cover of this George Harrison classic. The rasp in his voice, the power in his performance, brought out elements in the song that the underappreciated Beatle contributor could only have hoped for. As he did when he appeared at Woodstock two years earlier, Havens took whatever he needed from the current counterculture and reconfigured it in his own image. The results remain electrifying.
The Entire XTC Catalog
As a true music fan, it remains the unlikeliest of Holy Grails—that is, finding a band that comes close to matching the majesty, the invention, the craft, and the pure pop artistry of the Beatles. The first time I heard Drums and Wires by what was then an obscure band from Swindon, England, I knew I had found my replacement. Thirty years later, they are my favorite group of all time, surpassing their obvious inspiration in my book. I have often argued over the similarities between the two bands. Both started out as cocksure rock outfits. They eventually grew more and more enamored of the studio. Both stop touring to become insular and experimental. And both delivered some of the best album-oriented aural bliss ever. Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, I give you your equals—Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Together, you have made my musical life.
“Start!” by The Jam
Paul Weller was never a pure Beatles fan. As the media-appointed “Modfather”, he was more indebted to the work of the Who and the Kinks (which his band, the Jam, frequently covered). Still, when the group released this, its 11th single in the UK, few were ready for the outright “rip” of George Harrison’s “Taxman”. While the bass buoyed along in mock mimicry, guitar solos replayed the inventive “backwards” work of Revolver era mop tops. It was merely a one-off homage, however—but what a great one it was.
All This and World War II
It remains the oddest of oddball ideas—take colorized stock footage highlighting all facets of the last Great War and score it to songs by the Beatles. Since the heavily litigious group would never agree to having their versions of the tracks supply the soundtrack to Hitler et.al, famous mid ‘70s names like Tina Turner, Peter Gabriel, the Brothers Johnson, and Helen Reddy offered up the cover versions. Even today, in bootleg form, the film is a horrifically hot mess—weird juxtapositions, off the mark translations, and just plain sound/cinema cue insanity. I gladly own a copy of my very own—along with the gatefold LP of all the tunes. It’s like treasuring a copy of an autopsy.
“Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life” by the Residents
Long banned because of its singular make-up (the entire track is nothing more than sampled loops from notable Beatles songs reconfigured to create a wholly new aural “experience”), this amazing piece of avant-garde performance art has long used to fuel speculation that the San Francisco noise rockers were actually the Fab Four incognito. Even their first album was called Meet the Residents. To make matters even more confusing, they ditched one of their singular ‘eyeball’ character costume designs when John Lennon was shot, going instead for an equally unnerving (and telltale) skull. To this day, no one knows why the ‘60s cultural icons never sued the Residents over this decidedly dark sound collage. It definitely paints the superstars in a whole new light.
“Sub Rosa Subway” by Klaatu
This was another group that benefited from rampant speculation. It was rumored that this otherwise obscure Canadian band was actually a secret “return” to performing by the Beatles, this track being conclusive proof of same. Radio stations playing the poppy track were convinced that the singers sounded “too much” like John Lennon and Paul McCartney for the tune to belong to anyone else, and such urban mythology propelled the bubbly track to the top of most FM playlists. Of course, if you listen closely, the passable progressive trio sounds little like everyone’s favorite mop tops, but that didn’t stop those of us anxious for any new Beatles material—real or fake—from grabbing our own copy.
The Mosquitoes from Gilligan’s Island
As usual, ‘conservative’ elements in the media thought the best way to handle something they didn’t understand was to mock it mercilessly. In their mind, the more you marginalized or minimized the power of a pop phenomenon, the easier it would be to get things back to the established ‘norm.’ Of course, such a pattern was nothing but a fool’s paradise, as Sherwood Schwartz’s crude comic take on the Beatles proved. While Bingo, Bango, Bongo, and Irving (LOL) were nothing very special (clunky caricatures in bad faux Carnaby Street fashions and even worse accents), the highlight of the episodes remains the comely castaways Ginger, MaryAnn and Mrs. Howell (?) singing the girl group inspired “You Need Us.”
“London Calling” by the Clash
It was the shout out heard ‘round the punk rock world. When Joe Strummer sneered that “phony Beatlemania (had) bitten the dust” as part of the first song on the Clash’s classic double LP, many took it as a snide disrespect toward Britain’s most famous sonic export. In actuality, the band meant it as a comment on their current state, a post-infamy freefall that saw bad business decisions and corporate interference marring the group’s ability to stand for what they wanted and simply create. While others have pointed to the sentiment as signifying a changing of the guard between the ‘60s and the ‘70s, I like to think that, unlike the media driven hysteria of decades past, Strummer and the gang were hoping for a more substance based appreciation. After all, if they could come close to achieving what John, Paul, George, and Ringo did, they might have been able to change the world.
“Fame” by David Bowie
As part of the “Next Beatles” campaign, we kids latched onto almost anything remotely related to the band- including this glam rock titan who, with this release, was entering his commercially viable “Thin White Duke” phase. The fact that a certain Mr. Lennon played a part in crafting the tune (and sang backup) helped sell us on the otherwise uncomfortably androgynous singer. You couldn’t go anywhere in 1975—pool party, roller rink, mall music store, parent’s basement—without hearing this endearing earworm. Who would have thought that an ex-Fab Four’s complaints about celebrity would turn into such an endemic hit?
They were unfairly slammed as “the Pre-Fab Four” a manufactured image meant to sell records, and nothing more. Yet the TV series which spawned the pseudo band remains a true comic delight, an envelope pushing enterprise which sees more counterculture conceits that almost anything the Beatles ever engaged in. Part Hard Day’s Night, with a smattering of Help! and other endemic Summer of Love sympathies, it stands as a truly unique entry in an era mostly know for copycatting and bandwagon hijacking. Sure, Mike, Peter, Davy, and Mickey would never be John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but they didn’t need to be. They forged their own safer, sillier legend all by themselves—and it’s just as potent today.
The Sex Pistols
I always wondered why one of my favorite bands of the ‘70s, the infamous UK bad boys, “sacked” bassist Glen Matlock for the atonal image overdrive of Sid Vicious. John Lyndon used to joke that the prolific songwriter and musical guide “washed his feet too much.” Others argued that he was more interested in turning the sodden safety pin-ups into something akin to the Bay City Rollers. But during one telling interview, guitarist Steve Jones latched onto what may be the real reason: Glen loved the Beatles. And their complex Beatles chords. And for a formidable “chugger” like Jonesy, such a clash of aesthetics didn’t fit. So Matlock was removed and that “fabulous disaster” Vicious came onboard. The rest is unrealized potential and hilarious bits of backwards glancing.
The Ed Sullivan Show
It was a Sunday night ritual in our house, a show that offered something for everyone—Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, sisters and brothers. Intermixed between the opera divas and Broadway stars, button down comedians and unusual international acts, the dour gossip columnist would occasionally offer the day’s hottest bands—and in 1965, none were more scorching than those four lads from Liverpool. I was four years old at the time, and remember staring in abject fascination as the group tore through six sublime sounds in their already impressive canon. It would be their last live appearance on Sullivan’s variety hour and my one and only memory of seeing the legendary act on such a TV showcase.
All You Need is Cash by The Rutles
If anyone could make “mocking” the Beatles cool, it was Monty Python’s Eric Idle. With collaboration from singular songwriter Neil Innes, the fictional band based on a certain ex-pop phenomenon was so spot-on that many of the spoof songs created—“Ouch!”, “Cheese and Onions”, “Piggy in the Middle”—formed their own lasting satiric heritage. To this day, I can’t hear the fake band’s albums without smiling in warm recognition and simulated satisfaction. While the TV special that inspired the music was equally amazing, The Rutles legacy remains their music—just like the four guys they set out to lampoon.
Paperback Writer: The Life and Times of the Beatles, the Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion by Mark Shipper
There was a time when I had to own every book about the Beatles that there was. I poured over exposes on the whole ‘Paul is Dead’ urban myth, marveled at the insightful scholarship that deconstructed every song and album. I adored the artist interpretations of their lyrics and trying to decipher some PhD’s thesis on the group’s musical acumen. But this was the comic novel which taught me to moderate my fevered fandom with a bit more fun. Telling the story of how a fictional version of the band made it big, broke up, and ultimately got back together, there were elements of brilliance, as well as Benny Hill, in the frequently hilarious work. To this date, it rivals the Rutles as the ultimate attempt to humanize the Fab Four through humor. And it definitely succeeds.
In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works by John Lennon
Lennon’s literary side was unknown to most of us when a cocky college professor assigned us these two tomes as part of an ‘Introduction to Modern Fiction’ course. In some ways, he hoped to ridicule the former Beatle by showing that his pun heavy stream of consciousness was not new or novel but part of a long tradition of linguistic acrobatics and British wordplay. For a few, John’s stabs at humor seemed juvenile and far from the noted authors—Wilde, Buckley—he was often labeled with. Others thought he was a genius. Halfway through the second book, his death derailed any fruitful derisive discussion. From then on they became Bibles vs. objects to consider and criticize.
Beatlemania: The Broadway Revue
Billed as “Not The Beatles, but an Incredible Simulation, this 1977 quasi-concert saw actors and off stage musicians mimic the famous band’s career-long look and sound for adoring millions. After a two year run on the Great White Way, it took to touring the country. The closest I ever came to seeing it was passing by a marquee in Chicago: while the day-glo colors and Peter Max like poster art inspired interest, it just wasn’t the real thing. Today, we’d call it a well-produced tribute band. Back then, it was a last gasp hope at seeing history repeat.
Monday Night Football
Like many on that fateful night in December 1980, I was watching the New England Patriots battle the Miami Dolphins as part of ABC’s highly rating sports programming. I’ll never forget that awkward notion of having not paid attention fully as Howard Cosell announced the tragic shooting and death of Beatle John Lennon. As the news barely began to sink in, my father, perhaps the least pop musically cultured and concerned individual on the planet, shouted up to my bedroom. “Did you hear?” he said. “They killed Lennon.” Not John Lennon. Not Beatle John Lennon. Not that (expletive) from England. Just Lennon. Little did I know that in his seemingly limited celebrity purview, at least one member of the Fab Four had left an impression.