Monday, 22 August 2011

1967, part one: Nothing to get hung about…very strange.

A fragile detente exists inside my head at any given moment. My happy domestic order and my eternal discontent with the universe vie for axial ascendancy. I’m afraid for me a sense that good things are temporary and conditional hums like an ever-constant background radiation level reading. I daresay you feel something similar wherever you are to a greater or lesser extent. Outside in the world right now, it seems similar: the national frenzy of the last few weeks rages on, shifting from actual physical conflict on the streets to more socially acceptable verbal exchanges in Parliament and swift, arbitrary sentencing in Courts up and down the land. Only time and hindsight will tell whether anything satisfactory will arise from this.

One thing I suspect most of us can agree on is that things don’t develop in a vacuum. That the malcontent, social disconnection and boredom that fomented the riots had been fermenting for some time goes almost without saying. As I said last week, a close examination of the past and the passage of social history may provide us with forewarning, possible reassurance and — hopefully — some solutions. Meanwhile, life flows on within you and without you, as George Harrison once said — now there’s a seamless segue for you. Let us discuss the late, venerable Hari’s kick-ass combo: specifically, I shall examine two of the 24 astonishing and varied songs that comprise The Beatles’ output in 1967. Anno Domini ‘67 exerts a constant, powerful fascination for historians of pop culture and the mystique that surrounds it seems to have been recognised even as the year unfolded. For The Beatles, the year started on a promising high, with the release in mid-February of their latest single, the double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.

Principally John Lennon’s composition, virtually no detail of Strawberry Fields Forever’s intricacies has been left unchronicled — it is easily the most deconstructed piece of music recorded by the Fab Four up to this date. It’s worth reiterating the highlights: the slightly woozy flute setting on the Mellotron breathing out the intro, Lennon’s dry, slightly slowed-down vocal drifting icily over Ringo Starr’s curt, snappy drum fills, the letters J and L tapped out in Morse code and the oddly folksy guitar picking — and all this in the first 20 seconds. One minute in and we hit the most audacious and astonishing piece of editing in the history of recorded music: the song descends from pleasingly hazy acid-folk pastures into a darker, harder and more threatening sonic landscape. Brass blares in brief bursts, echoing the Morse-tapping of earlier, double bass spreads ominously, like the shadow cast by oncoming storm clouds and Starr’s drumming becomes denser with intent: a busy, syncopated rhythm engine rumble underpinning the song. Faced with two separate recordings of the song and Lennon’s keen request that they be joined somehow, producer George Martin managed to bring the two ostensibly different halves together thanks to a serendipitous discovery: that the pitch and tempo disparity could be reconciled by varispeeding the recordings — one faster and the other slower — until they effectively met in the middle. If George Martin hadn’t already impressed Lennon with his mastery of production and fertile, practical inventiveness, then this single day’s work alone clinched it and gave Martin a highly polished anecdote to dine out on into the bargain — and quite rightly so.

Elsewhere in the song, classy, effective tricks abound. The extensive use of backward-recorded cymbal has since become a virtual psychedelic trademark, but its all-enveloping, whoosh-suck quality remains beguiling, alien, unsettling. The false ending fades out and back in again with sly humour and still retains the ability to wrong-foot the unsuspecting listener. Hidden within the dying embers of the song’s groove can be discerned Lennon playing silly buggers, amusing himself with half-heard voices. One detail, the now-famous words ‘cranberry sauce’, rendered with crisp diction but layered under studio slap and played in a million households on  substandard turntables, soon became widely misinterpreted as ‘I buried Paul’ with a speed that is incredible for a pre-internet age. Unfortunately, this harmless fun would retroactively fuel the flames of sinister rumours in 1968 that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash months earlier, having never even seen in ’67. We shall have to return to this in a later article.

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane share their titles with locations in Liverpool that had vivid childhood significance for Lennon & McCartney — but whereas Lennon’s song created a gauzy, uncertain-yet-epic evocation of childhood, Paul McCartney, as principal writer of Penny Lane, imbues his creation with breezy, brisk confidence. McCartney’s clear ear for melody and  facility for composition also ensures that the recording relies less on studio artifice and more on a deceptively simple band arrangement of drums, guitar, bass, piano, plus a small group of chamber instruments scored with warmth, emotion and a pinch of music hall drama by George Martin.

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of ev’ry head he’s had the pleasure to know…

From the off, McCartney’s bright, chatty delivery of the lyrics outlines a cast of characters with the matter-of-fact liveliness of easy conversation. But there’s a musical spectre in the crowd.

…and all the people that come and go…

It all goes a little dark in the second line of the song as the melody dips into a descending minor key for several bars — the musical equivalent of a worried narrowing of the eyes — before emerging to major for a smiling final line to each verse.

…stop and say hello.

How strange the change, as they say, from major to minor — a tonal pivot of happy/sad encoded in the music that is matched equally, perfectly, in the lyric. Ian MacDonald, in his superb book Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties, neatly outlines some of the wonderful ‘kaleidoscopic‘ contradictions in the lyrics — describing as they do a scene which is both raining and sunny, summer and winter. Again, George Martin brings considerable taste and expressive genius to bear on his score and seals the deal with a beautifully eloquent series of counter melodies, lyrical punctuation and the greatest trumpet solo ever heard in pop music. The final coup-de-grace administered is a leap in key change for one more refrain and a joyous, sudden psychedelic question mark of an ending; blurring, hazing and fuzzing away.

Another marvellous thing about both songs is how little either one is couched in conventional rock syntax. Neither piece is guitar-driven, relying more on piano, keyboards and chamber instruments.  Neither are they wrought from any obvious, potentially predictable Blues-inspired structuring, as so much that had gone before. What you bought on that day in February 1967 was a pair of songs so cohesive and uniformly brilliant that they simply had to be made a double-A side release. This could be interpreted as a way of mollifying two immense, but fragile egos each insisting their song is the leading track, but I prefer to imagine, given the quality of these songs, that a genuine decision of superiority could not — should not — be reached. From an era when B-sides were starting to become more than filler, this double A-side arguably represents the most solid individual example of the complimentary, complementary compositional collusion of McCartney and Lennon — a veritable embarrassment of riches piled onto two sides and seven inches of vinyl. Dark-yet-light, esoteric-yet-accessible, totally full-on psychedelia as weird and obscure as anything found at the time, yet paradoxically performed by the most popular band in the world. And we’re only into February. As we shall see, this is going to become the way of things across the year.

Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane was kept off the Number One slot in the UK singles charts by Englebert Humperdinck’s Release Me — in Beatle terms, a stunning body blow for a group that had grown accustomed to instant peak success. It goes to show if nothing else that the record buying public’s propensity for sentimental crap and mindless pap in vast quantities is not a new phenomenon. Like I said, there are many things great and small that we can learn from history.


Currently watching:
Blake’s 7: series 3 (BBC, 1980)
Man About The House: series 1 and 2 (Thames, 1973-74)
The Hour (BBC, 2011)

Currently listening:
The Medieval Sound (David Munrow, 1969) 

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