Thursday, August 10, 2006

How Brian Epstein and George Martin DIDN'T Ruin The Beatles

There's a school of thought that says the leather Beatles with their greasy hair and cowboy boots and Pete Best on drums were the REAL Beatles. And they were ruined after Brian Epstein, EMI and George Martin got hold of them. I've never bought into that. To do so would be to miss the whole message of the Beatles: Learn to swim, and when you do, keep swimming.

I remember in early 1967 when they went psychedelic, grew facial hair and Lennon donned his famous National Health glasses. They stopped touring and became a studio band. Their recordings became more sophisticated and even unsettling.

People didn't like that change either. The Monkees came on the scene and filled the void for the bubblegum crowd . Sure, lots of bands were vying for the title, but the Monkees made terrific records and were so darn likeable they became the new Beatles. It didn't last of course, but that's another story.

The Beatles changed again, in 1968-69. Their hair got longer, they grew beards and ditched the psychedelic gear for more drab, earthy clothes. At that point, the public stopped complaining. They were accustomed to the Beatles evolving with the times and doing their own thing. The music was still great and that's what mattered.

There are four distinct Beatle periods: The Leather Rockers, the Fab Mop Tops, The Sgt. Pepper Acid Kings and the Gentlemen Hippies. They changed because that's just what came naturally to them. Paul and Brian Epstein didn't make John Lennon put on a suit and take the famous Beatle bow after their concerts anymore than they made him grown a Fu-Manchu mustache and wear granny glasses.

This whole argument about the "authentic" Beatles being manipulated into cardboard pop-stars became fashionable around the time punk rock came into vogue. It was an easy position to take considering that at the time, Paul was releasing solo songs like "Silly Love Songs" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb". Perfect ammo for the nay-sayers who decided the Beatles were wimps.

Brian Epstein deserves credit, not criticism. It's a miracle really. A guy without any experience as a manager, he intuitively knew how to present them to audiences, promotors and record companies. And the Beatles trusted and loved him.

Let's look at what happened after Brian died. The Beatles had their first major flop (the Magical Mystery Tour television show) and went into a disastrous business venture (Apple). Brian would've gotten decent production values for Mystery Tour and been a sane voice in the running of Apple.

And look at the one album NOT produced by George Martin, the original "Let it be". It's one of their worst albums. It's still good (hey, don't get me wrong. I love all their recordings and films) but compared to "The White Album" and "Abbey Road", it's weak, man. And the film Let it be is a badly constructed movie and has an ugly, dark look to it. It would've undoubtedly benefited from Eppy's professional touch.

People often speculate on why the Beatles broke up. Was it the wives, the musical differences, the drugs, the fame...? Paul likes to say it was like that old song, "Wedding Bells are Breaking Up that Old Gang of Mine". But I think Lennon nailed it. When Brian died, he thought, "That's it. We're finished." And he was right. From that day on, the band was doomed to self-destruct.

So instead of saying Epstein and George Martin ruined them, I'm convinced they were instrumental in directing them into being the greatest show on earth. 'Nuff said, pilgrim.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What's your Favorite Beatles song?

People often ask me, "Hey, you're such a Beatles fan...what's your favorite song?" And I usually have no answer for them. To me it's always been more about the albums and not the individual songs. I'm an album guy. Which is probably why I'm not into the whole IPod thing. It's like a throw-back to the days of singles where the goal was to be short, catchy and simple.

Albums are much more satisfying than any individual song. I do love singles, and I have been known to put on five CDs and hit "random". But compared to listening to an entire well-crafted album...well, it's a bit like comparing an episode of "Star Trek" to "2001: A Space Odyssey". Both are enjoyable, but one is like an hors d'oeuvre and the other a full course meal.

But to answer the question, what is my favorite Beatles song, I'd have to say that today, at this moment, it would be "Strawberry Fields Forever". This haunting number gets more interesting over the years. The lyrics are complex and thought provoking and Lennon's ability to put a crazy psychedelic frame around a picture of lost childhood innocence is brilliant. Compare it to Paul's attempt to write the same type of tune, "Penny Lane", and you can see what a great work "Strawberry" is. Because "Penny Lane" is brilliant in it's own way and I love it. But it's nowhere close to the beauty and sophistication of Lennon's number.

And a quick nod to "Help!" as my other current favorite. This tune was really overlooked as the theme song to their second film. But the vocals and harmonies are top-notch, the dynamics of the arrangement are exciting, and the lyrics, while certainly about Lennon and his failure to cope with his immense success, also speak to regular folks trying to deal with their grown-up lives in a confusing, contradictory world: The more we have, the more "help" we need.

It's a mini-masterpiece disguised as a pop movie theme song. Bravo, old friend. Wherever you are.