Friday Five: After the Beatles

We’ve been listening to a lot of Beatles this week and my son and I got into a conversation about our favorite “post-Beatles” songs by the Fab Four. We discovered that we’re not as big fans of Paul as the others, and that we still gravitate to George more than most fans. Maybe not surprisingly, most of the standouts are in the immediate post-break-up period–probably the release of the “best” songs from the remaining three. But my boy’s favorite is the grand exception.

So with a little help from my son, here are our five top songs by the Beatles made after the band split up. The order is mine but the influence is ours together.

5. “It Don’t Come Easy” (Ringo Starr)
Our favorite Ringo song, this was an early part of our household because of the live performance of it from the Concert for Bangladesh, was one of my son’s favorite DVDs when he was only 2. I think it’s one of the finest percussion performances by the post-Beatles Ringo, and one of his catchiest tunes overall.

4. “My Sweet Lord” (George Harrison)
My boy used to sing this song, maybe one of the first non-kid songs he took to. His favorite version was from the tribute concert for George Harrison after his death, where Billy Preston leads a band that includes Ringo, Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison, George’s son. The Concert for Bangladesh version was a close second. Harrison was sued for the song, a challenge he lost. Turns out he was ripping off the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” at least inadvertently. It’s still a classic.

3. “Instant Karma!” (John Lennon, or Lennon/Ono with the Plastic Ono Band)
It’s my sentimental favorite. I love how this song brings together all of John’s strengths, the rougher rock ‘n roll traditions he loved, and some great work by Phil Spector. My vote for his best solo song…

2. “Imagine” (John Lennon)
It’s hard to not include this song on a list like this. John Lennon wrote a pop music hymn, straight from the church of the Sixties, that has become an anthem for peace and love. I’m sure it spoke to the time in which it was created and released (1971) but it’s also timeless (unfortunately). What impresses me most is that it’s some of the typical simple lyrics of Lennon but, as he is at his best, they are profoundly deep.

1. “End of the Line” (Traveling Wilburys)
This is a mostly George Harrison penned song by the late-80s super group featuring Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan (who doesn’t sing on this one song). It’s my son’s favorite George Harrison song after the Beatles, and I love it a lot, too.

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Friday Five: 1981

Music is magic. I think of all those times, especially in my youth, when I could put on a record and a pair of headphones, close my eyes, and go somewhere, somewhere that was different that where I was, somewhere where I was different.

Before music can do that, you have to establish a relationship with it. It has to become so much a part of you that it feels like its there for you and you alone. That relationship takes time. The first phase of it, for me, was discovery. I wasn’t ready to go where music could take me. Maybe I didn’t need it yet to take me anywhere. But I started to discover the existence of other places in the music I heard. Far away places. Sometimes even scary places.

I remember learning about the existence of new places, through music, in 1981. It wasn’t all at once; it was a process that lasted for years. As a memory, it fits nicely into the ways I think of those early years of the decade, that is, as years of transition. Part of that is hindsight but some of that was in my 9-year-old mind, too.

We were not a Reagan household. The start of the Reagan presidency felt like an end to how I understood the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate 70s. We saw Raiders of Lost Ark at the Cinerama Dome for me and my sister’s birthday. It felt like a grown-up movie in the visual violence, but one that was made just for me in every other way. At the end of the year, Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, after losing to Trevor Berbick.

The feeling of transition is in the music, too. All times are eclectic, musically, but the early 80s were richly so. Disco flavors from the Village People; Earth, Wind, & Fire; and the Commodores were still around. The Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, and John Lennon continued to make the charts. So did Phil Collins, Rick Springfield, and Juice Newton. And heavy metal continued to grow and grow…

5. “Bette Davis Eyes” (Kim Carnes)
Some songs become hits and then never really go away. This isn’t one of those songs. Kim Carnes reached the top of the charts with this distinctive pop tune in 1981. It finished the year as the most successful single of the year, in addition to the biggest hit of her career. The synthesizer sounds and her raspy voice are what made it a hit, and continue to make it an interesting song now. That it’s largely faded from mainstream radio makes it feel less played out that most hits of the decade. At the time, I remember thinking of it as grown-up, maybe because of the title.

4. “Watching the Wheels” (John Lennon)
This posthumous hit from the legendary musician is really good song. There’s a beauty to it that rests in his middle-aged maturity, a period that really never lasted all that long. It is a bittersweet song, too, released as it was after his December 1980 assassination. The sound of it carries that loss for me, even now. Even though his death wasn’t a profoundly tragic thing for me personally, I knew it was a big deal for everyone else. That realization, and the messiness and confusion of a world where he could be shot dead, are all in this song when I hear it.

3. “Super Freak” (Rick James)
“Super Freak” is soooo 80s. It’s so sexy, crazy, indulgent, offensive, stupid, excessive, funky, and tasty. It’s so, so much of so, so much. How odd that a song could be played at the skating rink, inspiring a bunch of kids to skate in circles, and simultaneously be about a whole bunch of non-kid things. I knew that it was about “adult matters” as a kid, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what those could be at the time. It deserves to be considered as more than sexy trash. Rick James had been hard at work in the world of R&B, soul, and funk for a long time. The song was more than a hit, it was influential. The bass line alone paved the way for a line of copycats. But the hubris of the post-disco, pre-AIDS 80s is also there, all over the place.

2. “Tom Sawyer” (Rush)
Rush is mighty, mighty business. I’ve seen them in concert and they’re as impressive live as they are on record. Three people making all this rich, thick, rock sound. Their complex virtuosity and their lyrical fantasy vibe made them one of “those bands” for a lot of youth older than me. Albums like 1981’s Moving Pictures had a greater mainstream appeal than their earlier work, resulting in a 9-year-old, barrio kid like me learning who they were. There were some skater teenagers around town–hair over the eyes, Vans, and cigarettes–who loved them. They would play them out front of the community center near my grade school. They sounded interesting, magical, and scary to me all at the same time. The drums are a big part of that. Neil Peart is kind of untouchable as a drummer. Alex Lifeson’s licks, and Geddy Lee’s bass, vocals, and keyboards, all round it out.

1. “Crazy Train” (Ozzy Osbourne)
There’s this time before the mid-80s when heavy metal seems more bottom-up than top-down, at least from a corporate angle. That’s probably not true, but there clearly was something lost when big-hair glam rock went Top 40 with bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. Because of Black Sabbath and the persona that he cultivated over more than a decade in rock, Ozzy seemed like something more pure than what came after. Truth be told, he probably paved the way for that mainstream metal thing to happen. After all, he was as much image as rock. He played the market like no other. Hell, Blizzard of Oz was probably the biggest metal album in history, for its time.

“Crazy Train” is known today as the song of (and now for) metal guitarist Randy Rhoades. Rhoades was a great guitar player, and every little bit of his talent is here for eternity. When Rhoades died in a plane crash in 1982, he became a legend, the kind of guy that became greater in death and inspired countless more to become heavy metal guitarists. It’s not an underserved status. The song is one of the best metal songs in history, and Rhoades is the reason. The fact that it stands the test of time is proof of its greatness. Even now it sounds like it’s from a different, more current time than 1981. It’s a standout song on the album, too. Almost so good it makes the rest seem like something less.

For me in 1981, Ozzy was scary. That seems silly to me now, especially knowing that groups like Slayer were emerging at the same time. But then, in my mind, Ozzy was something that teenagers who were up to no good listened to. He was something related to the devil. But I listened to him, too. Saturday nights, on my Toshiba radio that I bought with the money we made from recycling newspapers, there was a station that played LA metal bands in addition to the bigger hits. This was pre-KNAC, the LA/Long Beach metal station of the late 80s. Whatever the station was, I felt like it was some sort of sneak peak into a world that I found interesting and kind of repulsive at the same time.

Here’s a live performance, with Randy Rhoades in all his glory:

Death, John Lennon, and Nostalgia

I don’t want to seem heartless when it comes to the death of John Lennon. While I was only 8 years old when the musical legend was gunned down, I remember it as a sad event, mostly for others, but also for me.

That said, as the 30th anniversary of his murder is being commemorated today in both the mainstream press and blogosphere alike, the thing I can’t get out of my head has little to do with the man and his death and so much more to do with the dominant generational culture.

It’s widely understood that the assassination of John Lennon represented a critical introspective moment for the Baby Boom generation. One follow-through of this line of thought is that the primary significance of his death was for them.

This is simplistic analysis, to be sure. In the big cosmic scheme of things, the story of John Lennon is nothing more than the the story of a man being shot dead in New York city on December 9, 1980. I doubt he was the only man shot dead in New York, or the world, that day. But I am also sure that it was more than one generation’s personal interest that turned this routine death into a story of significance. He had an expansive reach, having lived a life and participated in crafting a culture that touched millions (and continues to do so today).

But the heart of the Baby Boom analysis is, I think, true. His death meant something particular to them, this meaning was critically significant at that moment in history–both our collective one and their generational one.

I don’t begrudge them their nostalgia on this day, nor do I lump all those who are nostalgic and sorrowful today as being Baby Boomers. But the way this commemoration is unfolding says a lot more to me today about that generation than it does the man they remember.

If you read my blog often, you know one of my current obsessions is the way the Baby Boomer generation continues to construct themselves and their sensibilities as something that stand in stark contrast to their actions over the past 30 years. This isn’t about hippies becoming Reaganites as much as it is a core of white, upper class Americans projecting their experience onto the lives of millions who were not them but lived with them; of a generation of senior citizens who continue to live and think in ways that allow them to not confront the fact that they are senior citizens; and a ruling plurality who continues to see themselves as the marginal players in a system they have built and maintained but continue to pretend was dropped in their laps.

This hybridity of amnesia and nostalgia are all over the place today in Boomers’ reflections on the death of John Lennon. In some ways I wonder if their frame of reference and expression aren’t so dominant that many of us outside the generation have no conscious choice other than to recycle it further.

I don’t know.