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Rocking My Life Away
Writing About Music and Other Matters
By Anthony DeCurtis
Duke University Press Copyright © 1998 Anthony DeCurtis
All rights reserved.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
This piece, as well as the pieces that follow on the Plastic Ono Band, Exile on Main Street, and Blood on the Tracks were all written for a twentieth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone in which a poll of critics determined the hundred best albums of the previous twenty years.
"I just listened to it and said to myself, 'God, I really love this album.' Still, today, it just sounds so fresh. It sounds full of ideas. These guys knew what they were doing. They're good. And they're inventive. I haven't heard anything this year that's as inventive. I don't really expect to."
That's how Paul McCartney describes his response to hearing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band earlier this year, and it's hard to argue with him. The album he and those other "guys" in the Beatles released in 1967 revolutionized rock & roll. The "splendid time" McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr "guaranteed for all" has lasted more than two decades–and that immensely pleasurable trip has earned Sgt. Pepper its place as the best record of the past twenty years.
After the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, they had time to explore in greater depth the possibilities of the recording studio with producer George Martin. And removed, essentially for the first time, from the nonstop hoopla of Beatlemania, they also had time to question their identity as Beatles. A chasm had begun to open between their growing musical sophistication and the public's perception of them as lovable mop tops. The magnitude of the Beatles phenomenon was starting to encroach on the band–and their experience with psychedelic drugs made that phenomenon seem increasingly surreal. Already trapped, in their early twenties, the Beatles had to find a way out. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was born.
"Pepper was probably the one Beatle album I can say was my idea," McCartney says. "It was my idea to say to the guys, 'Hey, how about disguising ourselves and getting an alter ego, because we're the Beatles and we're fed up. Every time you approach a song, John, you gotta sing it like John would. Every time I approach a ballad, it's gotta be like Paul would. Why don't we just make up some incredible alter egos and think, "Now how would he sing it? How would he approach this track?"' And it freed us. It was a very liberating thing to do."
Clearly the Sgt. Pepper concept was more significant for the psychological escape route it provided the Beatles than for its specific use on the album. Apart from some relatively modest touches–the colorful uniforms, the opening theme song, the reprise near the end and Ringo's entertaining turn as "the one and only Billy Shears" in "With a Little Help from My Friends"–the alter egos make no discernible appearances on the album. But one look at the cover ofSgt. Pepper– festooned with the band's wildly eclectic gallery of heroes and with the wax figures of the youthful Fab Four standing next to their far more hirsute and serious-looking real-life counterparts–eloquently tells how greatly removed the group had grown from what they were. Under the guise of alter egos the Beatles had finally allowed their real selves to emerge.
Interestingly, however, the Beatles had freed themselves not merely to chronicle such weighty subjects as the joys of mind-expanding drugs, in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the paradoxical wisdom of Eastern religious philosophy, in "Within You Without You," or the sterile absurdity of mainstream values, in the astonishing "Day in the Life." On the contrary, Sgt. Pepper is filled with sly inside jokes, broad music-hall humor, and completely gratuitous novelties. It is not only the Beatles' most artistically ambitious album but their funniest.
Take, for example, the dog whistle–which humans can't hear–buried on the album's second side. "We're sitting around the studio, and one of the engineers starts talking about wavelengths, wave forms and stuff, kilohertz," McCartney recalls. "I still don't understand these things–I'm completely nontechnical. And as for John, he couldn't even change a plug–he really couldn't, you know. The engineers would be explaining to us what all this stuff was. An ultrasonic sound wave–'a low one, you can kill people with the low ones.' We were all saying, 'Wow, man. Hey, wow.' 'And the high ones,' he said, 'only dogs can hear it.' We said, 'We gotta have it on! There's going to be one dog and his owner, and I'd just love to be there when his ears prick up.'"
And the famous "Inner Groove"–the snippet of pointless conversation that sticks in the album's run-out groove and that was not included in the original American version of Sgt. Pepper– has an equally zany genesis. Around the time of Sgt. Pepper's release, McCartney explains, "a lot of record players didn't have auto-change. You would play an album and it would go, 'Tick, tick, tick,' in the run-out groove–it would just stay there endlessly. We were whacked out so much of the time in the Sixties–just quite harmlessly, as we thought, it was quite innocent–but you would be at friends' houses, twelve at night, and nobody would be going to get up to change that record player. So we'd be getting into the little 'tick, tick, tick': 'It's quite good, you know? There's a rhythm there.' We were into Cage and Stockhausen, those kind of people. Obviously, once you allow yourself that kind of freedom ... well, Cage is appreciating silence, isn't he? We were appreciating the run-out groove! We said, 'What if we put something, so that every time it did that, it said something?' So we put a little loop of conversation on."
These are minor points, perhaps, in the context of the enormous achievement of Sgt. Pepper. But such fun-loving experimentalism–born of the optimistic determination to blow away anything that "stops my mind from wandering where it will go"–is Sgt. Pepper's best legacy for our time. In a decade of political conservatism and stifling musical formats, of sexual fear and obsession with the past, the hopeful message of Sgt. Pepper– that visionary breakthroughs are necessary to strive for and possible to achieve in every facet of life–is much more urgent now than it was twenty years ago today.
Rolling Stone August 27, 1987CHAPTER 2
Plastic Ono Band
Both Yoko Ono, who coproduced it, and Klaus Voormann, who played bass on it, say they believe John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band is "timeless." Indeed, it sounds as if it could have been released yesterday. The instrumentation–Lennon on guitar and piano, Voormann on bass, Ringo Starr on drums–is stripped to the bone. In resonantly simple language–language that deviates sharply from what Lennon dismissed at the time as the "self-conscious poetry" of songs like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"–he takes on basic issues: death, isolation, anger, class, fear. He attacks what he saw as the illusions of the Sixties, bidding goodbye to that decade with the unsentimental announcement "The dream is over." And when he declares, "Now I'm reborn," in "God," it couldn't be any plainer: the Beatles are dead, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono are standing alone.
Plastic Ono Band is dedicated to Yoko, who is also obliquely cited as the album's inspiration in the credits: "Yoko Ono: Wind." Most of the songs on the record were written while John and Yoko were undergoing primal-scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov in California in 1970. Primal-scream therapy, which Janov founded, asserts that people can grow emotionally only when they break through the superficialities of life and express their own personal pain, starting with repressed memories from infancy. Lennon had never resolved his feelings about his mother, who died when he was a teenager, and his father, who abandoned him as a child. He had also recently divorced his first wife, had split up with the Beatles, and had briefly been addicted to heroin. In short, he had plenty of pain to confront–and all of it emerges undisguised on Plastic Ono Band.
After his time with Janov, Lennon was like a raw nerve; with characteristic honesty, he wanted to capture that rawness on record. He contacted Ringo and his longtime friend Klaus Voormann. He also brought in producer Phil Spector, who had worked on Let It Be and "Instant Karma." The album was recorded at EMI'S Abbey Road studio, in London. "As soon as we came into the studio," Voormann says, "we noticed that he was very much taken by that experience he went through [with Janov], and he wanted, as quick as possible, to get this feeling down before it changed. That was his main thing."
For that reason–and also because Lennon wanted to shed the trappings of the Beatles' lush sound, which he associated with Paul McCartney and George Martin–the sessions proceeded rapidly and with little fuss. "He did not want to make a production with lots of instruments and great arrangements," Voormann says. "The main thing was that he wanted to do something as fresh and direct as possible. Just the fact that he asked Ringo and myself to play on the album meant to me that he wanted it to be a real close, intimate atmosphere. He did not say very much about what we played. He just played the song, and Ringo and I played the simple way we both enjoy playing. And it seemed to be exactly what he was looking for.
"The playing itself, to him, was not that important," Voormann says. "It was more important to capture the feeling. We did mostly one or two takes. There's a lot of mistakes on there and timing changes, but it was just like a pulse, exactly what John wanted. He loved it." According to Yoko, the sessions were infused with "an incredible feeling of energy, of starting something new." To keep things moving, Spector was doing mixes while the band was recording.
The simplicity of the arrangements on Plastic Ono Band only increases the power of Lennon's emotion. The anger Lennon had stored up for years–"so much pain / I could never show it," is how he puts it on Plastic Ono Band' s chilling coda, "My Mummy's Dead"–burst forth in his sessions with Janov. This passage from Lennon's interview with Rolling Stone shortly after the album's release demonstrates how extreme the passions were that he was tapping at the time: "One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were, and that's what I resent. I mean I did it, I didn't know, I didn't foresee; it just happened bit by bit, gradually, until this complete craziness is surrounding you and you're doing exactly what you don't want to do with people you can't stand, the people you hated when you were ten.
"And that's what I'm saying on this album–I remember what it's all about now, you fuckers–fuck you! That's what I'm saying, you don't get me twice."
Plastic Ono Band opens with "Mother," a stately ballad about the helplessness John felt at his mother's death and his father's departure. It ends with him screaming repeatedly, "Mama don't go / Daddy come home," as if he were wrenching the words from his guts. The riveting "Working Class Hero," which Lennon plays solo on acoustic guitar, grimly details how class oppression warps the people at the bottom of the social system: "They hurt you at home and they hit you at school / They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool / Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules / A working class hero is something to be."
The merging of Yoko's and Lennon's lives is also an important aspect of Plastic Ono Band. According to Voormann, their intense bond was quite evident during the sessions, as it is on songs like "Hold On," "Isolation," "Love," and "Look at Me." "Ringo was a little confused," Voormann says, "because John's closeness to Yoko was sad to him. John was not one person; John and Yoko were one person, which was very difficult for him to accept."
"God," however, is the album's seminal track and definitive statement. Much as he peeled back the layers of his personality to reach emotional bedrock in his primal-scream therapy, Lennon rids himself in that song of every belief or idol he ever had. The song is Lennon's fervent, determined, almost willful effort to locate a sense of who he is independent of all externals. Over pianist Billy Preston's simple, emphatic chords, Lennon sings, "God is a concept / By which we measure our pain," and chants a litany of abandoned "gods" that concludes, "I don't believe in Elvis / I don't believe in Zimmerman / I don't believe in Beatles / I just believe in me / Yoko and me / And that's reality."
This was tough, uncut stuff, and it didn't send fans of Beatle John scurrying to the record store. "People underestimated it," says Voormann, "and they expected something else. But John couldn't care less." Yoko Ono agrees. Plastic Ono Band is, she says, "just as important as Sgt. Pepper, in terms of being a milestone and in terms of the direction that John took after that. The album characterized the direction we went in together, and because of that, a lot of people resented it. Like 'The dream is over / What can I say?'–and they were saying, 'Please, don't let the dream be over. Let us keep on dreaming.' They didn't want to know
"I don't think that album sold more than Band on the Run or McCartney. We took a chance, in a way. But it was not a calculated chance. John could not be what he was not."
Rolling Stone August 27, 198CHAPTER 3
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
The Rolling Stones
This piece was written for an issue of Rolling Stone in which a poll of critics determined the hundred best singles of the previous twenty-five years. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" was voted number one.
I t is the perfect riff: tough, dramatic, and instantaneous in its impact–the rock & roll equivalent of the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth. Perhaps the only person who wasn't knocked out the first time he heard the unforgettable fuzz-tone guitar line to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" was Keith Richards, the man who wrote it.
"I actually didn't want it to be a single," Richards says about the song that became a Sixties anthem and the Rolling Stones' first Number One single in the United States. "I thought it was just filler."
The modest origins of "Satisfaction" may be one of the reasons Richards initially failed to respond. During their 1965 spring tour of America, the Stones were spending the night in a motel in Clearwater, Florida, when inspiration struck. "I was asleep," Keith recalls. "I woke up in the middle of the night. There was a cassette player next to the bed and an acoustic guitar. IpushedRECORD and hit that riff for about a minute and a half, two minutes. Then I fell back to sleep. The next morning when I woke up, the tape had gone all the way to the end. So I ran it back, and there's like thirty seconds of this riff–'Da-da da-da-da, I can't get no satisfaction'–and the rest of the tape is me snoring!"
Still, Richards liked what he heard that morning, and he turned the riff and key lyric over to Mick Jagger, who wrote the verses in ten minutes that same day by the pool. "It was my view of the world," says Jagger, "my frustration with everything. Simple teenage aggression. It was about America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage."
The Stones–Jagger, Richards, Brian Jones on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass, and Charlie Watts on drums–began working on "Satisfaction" a few days later, on May 10th and nth, in Chicago's Chess Studios. Dissatisfied, they finished it at RCA Studios in Los Angeles on May 12th and 13th, with their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, producing and Dave Hassinger engineering.
Productivity was dizzyingly high in those days. The Stones worked in the L.A. studio for sixteen straight hours, entering at 10:00 a.m. on the twelfth and leaving at about 2:15 the following morning. During that span and an eight-hour stretch on the thirteenth, they essentially completed seven songs, including "Satisfaction."
"When it was by the pool," says Jagger, "it was a rather lilting acoustic melody. It only got to the snarl when we got this fuzz box in the studio, which was the first time we'd used one." The song was released as a single two weeks later, on the twenty-seventh, and quickly became the song of that summer, staying at Number One for four weeks.
With its defiant lyrics about sexual frustration and the vapidity of consumer culture, "Satisfaction" sharpened the Stones' rebellious image and articulated the anger of the youth culture that was just beginning to take shape. Even two years later, Time magazine would fret that the Stones "write songs about 'trying to make some girl,' with supposedly coded allusions to menstruation, marijuana and birth control pills."
Excerpted from Rocking My Life Away by Anthony DeCurtis. Copyright © 1998 Anthony DeCurtis. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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