Monday, October 19, 2009

The Greatest Band: Part One

There was a time in my life when I enjoyed driving. I had several favorite drives, and they all produced their own groove. Coastal drive, country drives, highway drives--each one had its own feeling, and I knew which one to take depending on how I wanted to feel.

I also enjoyed walking around cities (still do), and Vancouver has to be my favorite. In the space of just a few miles, I could walk through Stanley Park (enormous and beautiful), see the cruise ships at Canada Place, and experience the diversity and vibrance of downtown. There is so much to see in Vancouver that it's hard to even put it into words.

The Rolling Stones. Led Zeppelin. The Who. Pink Floyd. They're all fantastic drives. They all have a groove.

Vancouver is The Beatles.

The Beatles have songs that are spiritual, angry, romantic, sexual, warm, cold, exuberant, sad, sturdy, and fragile. They also have two qualities that have only rarely been found in rock music: whimsy and empathy.

Sure, most groups occasionally write a funny or whimsical song. The Rolling Stones, in particular, have a deep (and dark) sense of humor ("Far Away Eyes" is a good example). No one, though, has ever been as consistently whimsical and downright funny as The Beatles. The White Album alone has more humor than the lifetime output of almost any other band.

It's not fair, though, to say that they were always funny, because their first few albums lacked that quality, and it's another reason why The Beatles are such an astonishing band: their development.

Consider this. Please Please Me, their first album, was recorded in February of 1963. Lennon and Starr were twenty-two years old. McCartney was twenty. Harrison was nineteen.

They recorded eleven songs in less than ten hours. Yes, that's right--eleven out of fourteen songs were recorded in the same day. Incredibly, that first album includes these songs:
"I Saw Her Standing There"
"Please Please Me"
"Love Me Do"
"P.S. I Love You"
"Do You Want To Know A Secret"

No humor, really, just rock-solid, enduring please-fall-in-love-with-me songs.

By October of 1965 (only two and a half years later), The Beatles had released With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale, and Help! Five albums in thirty months, and their next album, Rubber Soul, marked the first time that they had spent more than a hundred hours in the studio on an album.

Rubber Soul watermarks their progress. Fourteen songs, and twelve are love songs, but the diversity and variety is staggering. Instead of entirely straightforward ballads, the songs are now clever and whimsical ("Drive My Car" and "Norwegian Wood"), angry ("Think For Yourself", "I'm Looking Through You", and "Run For Your Life"), desperate ("Wait), even country-fried ("What Goes On"). The more conventional love songs are now lush beyond description ("Michelle" and "Girl").

Out of the twelve songs, the only one that resembles their first album is "If I Needed Someone." In other words, the band almost completely remade themselves in less than three years, and it is clearly recognizable by this point that The Beatles have some of the most distinctive and intelligent lyrics ever written.

The two other songs on the album are one of the first indications of what's coming: "Nowhere Man" is a deeply empathetic character study, and "In My Life" is a reflective, warm remembrance.

For most bands, any of the fourteen songs on this album would be the highlight of their career. For The Beatles, incredibly, they were eclipsed in barely six months, because recording for Revolver began in April of 1966. Revolver still has love songs--half the fourteen tunes--but they stray even further from formula. Most illustrative of this growth are the three songs that open up side two of the album: "Good Day Sunshine", "And Your Bird Can Sing", and "For No One." These songs are consecutive, and they deftly travel from love gained (Good Day Sunshine) to love pursued (And Your Bird Can Sing), to love lost (For No One).

It's our entire lives, really, told in six minutes and eight seconds.

Musically, these songs are so much musicallly adventurous than the early recordings (which, remember, were only three years before) that I can't do justice to their complexity. They were also experimenting with the technical limitations of recording, so much so that twelve of fourteen songs on the album were "bounced down" to fit on four tracks.

Revolver also has "Eleanor Rigby", a poignant and deeply empathetic song about loneliness and despair. When I was younger, I didn't understand this song. Now I think it's one of the saddest songs ever written, and the empathy shown by The Beatles in this and other songs is unmatched.

That's something else that separates The Beatles from everyone else: their humanity. Laugh if you must--and it's easy to trivialize The Beatles today because they have been so incredibly overexposed over time--but there is something deeply personal and human about their music. Real genius is often incapable of real emotion, but three Beatles (sorry, Ringo) were unquestionably geniuses, and this is a very emotional band.

Tomorrow: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

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