Remembering the present

Forty years ago today, on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his home in New York City. He had just turned 40 two months before.

There’s a lot of great articles to read today, pieces not only marking the event but also ruminating on the life and legacy of the man and his music. (Here’s one from the BBC and another from Rolling Stone.) There’s a current of nostalgia in remembering an icon like Lennon, and even in remembering a shocking event like the murder of a high-profile figure (I remember where I was when I heard…). That’s a natural way to remember days like this, and an appropriate one, too.

The life and death of John Lennon has been a kind of a surrogate for the baby boomer generation to remember and think about themselves. They’re not a monolithic generation (none of us is) but Lennon and The Beatles—the music they created, the culture they helped define, and the impact they made—played a disproportionate role at a critical period in the lives of this generation. Good music mixed with experiences that define us as people makes the music carry special meaning. It becomes the soundtrack of definitive times in our lives. John Lennon and The Beatles also did more than that. They were, themselves, a definitive experience. It’s only natural, then, for the people who had those emotional connections to John Lennon to think about themselves and their lives on a day like this. In a way, it’s an extension and reflection of his impact.

That nostalgia seems less pronounced today than it was ten years ago, when we marked the 30th anniversary of his murder (and I wrote this). I wonder if it’s because more and more of the people for whom this mattered are no longer with us. I have no way of knowing if the two articles I linked to above are reflective of the bulk of the work published for today but, if they were, we’d probably point out the way they provide a healthy amount of explanation and history mixed in with their nostalgia. And it wouldn’t be hard to understand why.

I was only 8 years old when John Lennon was murdered, and although I remember the news that day and the sadness of the people I saw on TV, it wasn’t as impactful an event for me as other celebrity deaths had been or would be. If my memory is accurate (and that’s asking a lot) I didn’t really feel like I had an emotional relationship with John. I knew him and I knew The Beatles but neither were mine. I don’t remember sensing anything different from the people around me, although I’m sure my memory or my ability to perceive are to blame there. Still, for me, it was sad—it was shocking—but it wasn’t an event related to the things that mattered most in my world.

In a couple of months from now (February 6, 2021 to be exact), John Lennon will have been dead longer than he was alive. Funny thing is, for me he has become more alive over the last ten years than he was for me on this day 40 years ago. My relationship with The Beatles (and their solo work) has grown (really, only emerged) over the last four decades. Whether as the music I love, the personal connection I feel to the art these men created, or my professional interest in the times they helped define, me and John, Paul, George, and Ringo have a thing. And it’s a living thing, one that keeps growing over time.

So today doesn’t bring much nostalgia for me. I don’t really remember where I was when I heard John Lennon had been killed, and the day doesn’t bring me an unavoidable reckoning with the memories of my past. But it is a day for me. Even though the day is about a man’s death, for me, it’s not defined so much by his passing but by his continuing and evolving presence in my life. It’s a relationship almost completely formed since his passing.

As each year passes, more and more of us will be these kinds of people with respect to John Lennon and The Beatles. In a way, that says more about his life and legacy than anything, even more than the impact his death had on the generation who loved him and his music while he lived. Forty years after he stopped living, he’s still creating new and deep relationships with generations of people all over the world.

Abbey Road at 50

Abbey Road turns 50 years old today! The Beatles’s eleventh studio album was released in the UK on September 26, 1969. It dropped in the US on October 1.

Abbey Road was the last studio album recorded by the group (though 1970’s Let it Be–––recorded before Abbey Road–––would be the last studio album of the group ever released). The boys recorded it from February to August of that year, at the same time the group was breaking up. As the story goes, the group was done just before Abbey Road was released. John Lennon had already told the others he was leaving. When Paul made the public announcement in April 1970 that he was done, the world knew The Beatles were over.

Abbey Road is a special album for me and my son. It’s our favorite, and some of the songs–––”Here Comes the Sun,” “Something,” and the ending medley of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End”–––have been a part of his life since he was a newborn. I used to play “Golden Slumbers” to him every night after bath time, while I dried him off and put on his lotion. I still think of those times when I hear it.

But it’s our favorite album for a whole lot of other reasons. It opens with a classic John Lennon song (“Come Together”). Some of the best George Harrison songs are on it (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”). It’s got Paul McCartney at his bluesy best (“Oh! Darling”). And not to be out done, Ringo Starr gives us a classic, too (“Octopus’s Garden”). I think the thing that always brings it all together for us is the fact that it’s the band’s last. They know they’re ending their time together and they use the album to say goodbye, not only to their fans but also to each other.

If I were trapped on the proverbial deserted island, and I had only one album of music with me to play, I would hope that album were Abbey Road. That’s not because I think it’s the greatest album ever made. Heck, I’m willing to admit it might not even be the band’s greatest album. But it is my favorite of theirs and, more importantly, it’s something that has marked the relationship of my son and I in big ways. This album has my heart.

So happy 50th birthday to Abbey Road!

Friday Five: April 1970

We’re in the seventies now! Here’s five songs that cracked the top 5 on the billboard charts in April 1970.

Let It Be” by The Beatles
This is the next to last single released by the Beatles, and their next to last number 1 song. It topped the charts for two weeks in April 1970. It was followed by “The Long and Winding Road” which hit #1 the following month when Let It Be (the album) was released (after having been remixed by Phil Spector).

ABC” by The Jackson 5
It was the second single ever released by the group and their second number 1. By the end of 1970 the Jackson brothers released five singles, all of which hit #1. This song sat atop the Hot 100 for two weeks, knocking the Beatles’ “Let It Be” out of the top spot in the last week of April. It also hit #1 on the R&B charts, a position it held for all four weeks of the month.

The Fightin’ Side of Me” by Merle Haggard and The Strangers
It’s an anti-antiwar song that topped the country charts for the whole month of March 1970 and remained in the top 5 for the entire month of April. This is the apex of the Vietnam antiwar movement, following the three year period stretching from 1967-1969 when 40,000 US troops perished (out of what would become a total of just over 58,000). Haggard ignores most of that, as he emboldens a crowd that wanted to make American great again.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters” by Simon & Garfunkel
While Merle Haggard was sitting on top of the country charts this song was #1 on the Hot 100, a position it held from late February through the first week of April. Viewed as making use of Phil Spector techniques, it’s a snapshot of its moment in time.

“Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” by John Ono Lennon
Billed as Lennon/Ono and the Plastic Ono Band everywhere but the US, this song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono peaked at #3 on the hot 100 in April 1970. The Beatles were done, officially, but their last album was just about to drop. At the same time, The Beatles themselves were moving on with their individual projects. This single, produced by Phil Spector, is one of the best things done by Lennon.

Friday Five: March 1966

5. “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler
An unlikely pop hit to be sure, this song was #1 on the Hot 100 for the entire month of March 1966 and hit the #2 spot on the country charts at the same time. Wikipedia tells me it was written, in part, to honor the first Native Hawaiian killed in the US war in Vietnam, a young man named James Gabriel Jr. The recorded version dropped the direct reference to Gabriel. While the song makes no direct mention of the Vietnam War either, the message was clear as US involvement in the war began escalating. Troop levels more than doubled from 1965 to 1966, from about 184,000 to more than 385,000.

4. “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas
I’m surprised to learn this classic only made it to #5 on the Hot 100. Along with the above, it might be the definitive song of the year. Celebrated as a harbinger of the emerging counterculture and a slice of an equally emergent California sound, it was the first hit for the group and a signature song of the era. (It was produced by Lou Adler, who’s half-Mexican and half-Jewish and raised in Boyle Heights.)

3. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” by Stevie Wonder
This song was #1 on the R&B charts for five weeks from January to February, the same time it peaked at #3 on the Hot 100. By March it was on its way down, sliding from #2 to #7 on the R&B charts. The young Stevie Wonder shared writing credits on the song, his first hit with a writing credit and a sign of greater things to come. Stevie’s voice change is prominent here, another sign of things to come for the future father of nine kids.

2. “19th Nervous Breakdown” by the Rolling Stones
Nancy Sinatra and her boots kept this out of the top spot on the UK charts while the Green Berets did the same in the US. Peaking at #2 in March, this Rolling Stones classic has that signature sound of the early group. I love the mix of the “British sound” with US blues in this era of the band. They were well on their way to legendary greatness.

1. “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles
Talk about on their way to greatness. This song is from the Rubber Soul album, the first album people started to realize this was more than your average pop band. The lyrics of “Nowhere Man” help it stand out. John is experimenting in life and in art, and he’s written a song that is not about boys and girls in love. What is it about? It’s deep, sometimes confusing, and filled with antiestablishment possibility. But who knows?

Friday Five: February 1964

February 1964 was the start of Beatlemania. So let’s start there…

5. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles
I wish I was alive in 1964 (and old enough to remember) to have gone through cultural phenomenon that was the arrival of The Beatles in the US.  It all started here, with the song that hit #1 on February 1 and stayed there for the next seven weeks. It was the Fab Four’s first US #1.  They landed in the US on February 7 and made history with their appearance on Ed Sullivan (they were so big that Sullivan had them on again that same month!).  In March they’d knock themselves out of the top spot when “She Loves Me” started a two-week run at #1.  It was replaced by “Can’t Buy Me Love” which stayed on top for five more weeks. In total, The Beatles had the #1 song in the country for all of February, March, April, and one week of May.

4. “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” by Major Lance
Honestly, I’ve never heard this song before. I haven’t even heard of this song before. But it was #1 on the R&B charts when the Beatles hit the top of the pop charts, so it deserves at least a mention. After listening, I think it was misnamed. Should have been “Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm.”

3. “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earle
A classic tune that really didn’t do much for the mainstream music audiences of 1964.  It only made it to #44 on the hot 100.  But it had some life on the R&B charts, where it peaked at #3.  It didn’t do much upon it’s release in the UK either, but upon its re-release in 1969 it became a top 10 hit in the UK.  The Rolling Stones famously re-made the song in 1986.

2. “Talking About My Baby” by the Impressions
A simply wonderful song by one of the most-under-rated vocal groups of the era.  The Impressions were such a sweet sounding vocal group, with a deep arsenal of talents (including Curtis Mayfield).  This song, a much smaller hit than their bigger tunes, peaked at #2 on the R&B charts.

1. “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen
Wikipedia has a short history of the song, which is important to know.  The Trashmen were a Minneapolis-based garage band. The song peaked at #4 on the pop charts in February 1964. It’s about as raw and frenetic as any song you could imagine. It’s such a nice contrast to hear something like this——a big step in the continual emergence of surf rock that’s also such a messy thing compared to the typical pop traditions of the day——making a huge splash. Maybe the messiness is kind of a harbinger of the coming of The Beatles who are way cleaner in every way but whose edges reflect at least a bit of the core of something like this.

Friday Five: Na Na Na Na

The kids and I were on our way to school this week when we heard “Land of a Thousand Dances” by Wilson Pickett. It’s a great song and an even better performance by the music legend. It reminds me of one of my favorite live performances, which is from the legendary film Soul to Soul, a documentary capturing Pickett and others playing in Accra, Ghana in 1971.

I immediately described it to the kiddos. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure. In it, Pickett preaches the power of soul and R&B to a receptive crowd of Ghanaian youth:

“Land of a Thousand Dances” is most famous for its hook, the “na na na na” refrain originally added to the song by the great Chicano band Cannibal and the Headhunters. (Here’s their classic version from 1965. (And while we’re at it, here’s the cover by the equally legendary Chicano group Thee Midniters, released the same year.))

That simple two-letter utterance, sung again and again, is the inspiration for this week’s five songs. It’s a hard list to make. There are a lot of songs spanning the decades that have used a refrain of “na na na na.” So here it goes…

5. “I’ll Be Your Shelter” by Taylor Dayne (1989)
This is probably the least known song of my selected bunch, but it’s one that stands out for me in the “na na” category. Close to thirty years ago, I was driving back from the beach with my good friend Patrick when this song came on the radio. I remember him liking it so much because of the catchy use of the refrain; I also remember we talked about other songs that used it. It’s only right that it be on the list. While it’s a forgotten song by an artist that only had a few hits, and while it’s massively late-80s-pop sounding (which is not a good thing), it’s got a lot going for it, not the least of which is the talented Dayne at the helm.

4. “All the Small Things” by blink 182 (1999)
I remember blink 182’s ascendency in the late 90s. They felt and sounded like a watered down version of Green Day, almost like they were manufactured for the times. They were a solid MTV favorite that year, one I didn’t think much of until I saw the below video for this song (funny, especially since they’re mocking the boys band MT culture when they were courting the rock end of that same pop spectrum) and until the song started playing everywhere. It was catchy, I’ll give them that.

3. “Hey Jude” by the Beatles (1968)
This is the most famous “na na na na” song. I remember playing my parent’s copy of the album of singles by The Beatles, which is the only record we had with it. I was a sophomore or junior in high school at the time and I just played this song over and over, even counting the number of “na na na” refrains they used (I think it was 27). Here’s the version from the song’s premiere, on David Frost’s “Frost on Saturday.” The vocals are live but the band is playing to previously recorded music.

2. Gettin’ Jiggy wit it” by Will Smith (1997)
Big Willie Style was Will Smith’s first solo album, and his first recordings after he became a major movie star. He hit it big with the album, mostly on the tails of this 1998 hit. It made the word “jiggy” part of the mainstream, too, although I’m not sure most people knew how to use the word.

1. “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by Steam (1969)
This has to be on the top of the heap because it has the key words in its title! So synonymous with the “na na” refrain, it’s often called the “Na Na Song.” It’s also the tune crowds will sing when somebody we don’t like is being kicked off the stage, the field, or some other venue. It’s a pop culture classic, and a pretty good tune, too. It’s also a throw together song of previously recorded tracks and filler lyrics, a classic unintentional number 1 song.

Friday Five: Clapton the Guest

I watched the 2017 documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars on Showtime this week. I enjoy just about anything related to Clapton, and this was a mix of both interesting, sad, and even sadder aspects of his life and career. It’s mostly a story of addiction, really, and you’re left wondering what could have been if one of the world’s greatest guitarists wasn’t constantly at war with himself and his talent.

Anyway, there were some great stories related to Clapton playing guest guitar on amazing recordings by other people. Looking up a bit more of his history as a guest guitarist, I thought it would make an interesting Friday Five.

5. “Here in the Dark” (Taj Mahal, 1996)
Taj Mahal and Clapton–what’s not to like?

4. “That’s the Way God Planned It (Parts 1 & 2)” (Billy Preston, 1969)
Billy Preston was charmed. He doesn’t just have has Eric Clapton on guitar. He has George Harrison (guitar), Keith Richards (bass), Ginger Baker (drums), and Doris Troy (vocals) backing him, too.

3. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (The Beatles, 1968)
Undoubtedly, this is Clapton’s most famous guest appearance, on a song written and sung by his most famous friend for whom he played with and recorded for often. (I don’t know how long this video will be up.)

2. “Wang-Dang-Doodle” (Howlin’ Wolf, 1970)
This might be a bit of a cheat since Clapton was one big reason this album got made. Counted as a “super session” album, Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts (among others) brought the blues master into Olympic Studios in London and got to play blues with him. Here, Howlin’ Wolf sings a classic from the great Willie Dixon. It’s a treat from one of the best blues albums you can buy.

1. “Good to Me as I Am to You” (Aretha Franklin, 1968)
This recording is the inspiration for this list. It’s covered well, in context, in the documentary. What they don’t mention is that this is from the Lady Soul album, the giver of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” It’s a masterful work–for both Aretha and Eric–on a masterful work of an album.

Monday Blues (8.11.14)

Paul McCartney (Liverpool, 1942- ) wrote “Oh Darling!” and recorded it in 1969 for what would become The Beatles last recorded studio album, Abbey Road. It’s a standard blues tune, reflective of the foundation of a lot of popular music of the 1950s and 1960s. This video features the vocals of the song with the music stripped away.

Paul Wasn’t Dead But The Beatles Were Finished

Forty years ago this Saturday, on August 8, 1969, this photograph was taken.

AbbeyRoad

The image served as the cover for the last recorded studio album by The Beatles, Abbey Road, released in the U.S. on October 1, 1969. It is arguably (but closer to indisputably) the most famous album cover photograph in rock history.

The shot was taken by photographer Iain MacMillan, the result of a 10 minute photo shoot session with the band.  They would finish their studio work on the album less than two weeks later.  The four would only be together a few more times in their lives.  Before Abbey Road hit the shelves, Lennon was already touring with the Plastic Ono Band.  When their final album Let It Be was released in spring 1970, McCartney had a solo album released and at least two of the members had suggested the band was done.  They dissolved their business relationship later that year.

I’ll have more to say about the album in October, when the 40th anniversary of the release arrives. Needless to say, it remains one of their most successful, and iconic. As an album, it is my hands-down favorite. In unique and unexpected ways it showcases the talents of each of the four, and that’s not even talking about George Martin, who was behind the controls. The album is something of a disputed artifact within fan and critical circles, seen by some as symbolic of the wave of “overproduction” taking hold of popular music and emblematic of the emerging “progressive rock” movement.

Most famously, of course, the above photograph inspired the “Paul is dead” rumors in late 1969.  The “rumor” began largely after the publication of a joke article written by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour.  LaBour read into every aspect of the photograph, leading others to do the same. The band crossing the street became a funeral procession, with Lennon the clergy, Starr the undertaker, McCartney the deceased, and Harrison the grave digger.  McCartney is carrying a cigarette, and is stepping out of synch with the others.  There’s even more that was said about the license plate of the VW, the cop car, and the back of the album.

When I studied abroad in England in 1992, I bought three posters to hang on my dorm room wall.  One was the picture of Cindy Crawford holding her breasts and looking lovingly into the camera, obligatory for my generation’s adherence to heterosexual norms. One was of Bob Marley’s pained face smoking marijuana, obligatory for being in college.  The other was of the cover of  Abbey Road.

Check out the recently re-released CD of Abbey Road (remastered edition); as for the poster, you can find it here.