Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fab lore

As an early Christmas gift I received the Beatles' Anthology collections, the three double-CD sets that collect odds and sods from various phases of the Fab Four's recording career. The discs' mid-1990s release coincided with the Anthology video series. A lifelong Beatle nut, I'm a little late to this party, I realize, but oh well.

I like the discs very much, especially the track "Real Love." That's the second of two new Beatles songs based on 1970s John Lennon demos and finished in the 1990s, for the Anthology project, by the others. I'd already heard the other new track, "Free As a Bird," but never "Real Love," somehow. I like it much more than "Free as a Bird" -- an expansive, downright spiritual take on L-O-V-E seems a great way to cap the Beatles' recorded output, since it was a theme they touched on a lot, from "She Loves You" through "All You Need Is Love" and beyond. As Ereck can patiently testify, this weekend I listened to "Real Love," or watched the video on YouTube, a dozen times if I listened once.

I'm fascinated by Anthology's outtakes and demos of familiar tunes. I love hearing songs like "Yesterday" and "Mean Mr. Mustard" in their embryonic state. But hearing the demos mostly makes me want to hear the real thing, so I've also played a lot of regular Beatles recordings this weekend. Whenever I do that -- and I'm finally getting to the point of this post -- I consult Alan Pollack's indispensable "Notes On..." series. Pollack has turned a musicologist's ear to the entirety of the Beatles' recorded output, and although I can't say I understand every technical detail of what he's done, his commentaries are endlessly interesting and funny, and because of them I continue to hear new details I've missed. (There are barely audible finger snaps in "Here, There, and Everywhere"???? Omfg.)

I'll share two examples from my listening and reading today. The first is from Pollack's analysis of "Honey Pie," the nostalgic pastiche on the "White Album." (I found my way to Pollack's writing on "Honey Pie" in the course of exploring his various takes on the Beatles' "sentimental" use of minor iv chords in major keys, if you must know.) I'm delighted with Pollack's turn of phrase in describing "Honey Pie"'s clarinets, which "get their big moment in the spotlight during the second bridge where they produce water sprays in parallel thirds." Cue this YouTube clip to 1:56, and you'll hear exactly what he means; durned if those aren't clarinet water sprays. (For good measure, the clarinets make a similar but abbreviated water spray a few seconds later, at 2:04.)

My second Pollack reading today comes from his take on "Within You Without You," George Harrison's Indian-music-derived tune from "Sgt. Pepper." I giggled (appropriately) when I read his speculation on the meaning of the eerie laughter that ends the track:
So what about the laughing at the end? I'm aware of at least two schools of thought on the matter:

* The xenophobic audience (remember there's an underlying element in the "Sgt. Pepper Concept" that at least indirectly connotes a Victorian/Edwardian-era outlook of supercilious Imperialism) is letting off a little tension of this perceived confrontation with pagan elements.

* The bedazzled composer, in an endearingly sincere nanosecond of acknowledgment of the apparent existential absurdity of the son-of-a-Liverpudlian bus driver espousing such other-wordly beliefs and sentiments, is letting off a bit of his own self-deprecating steam in reaction to the level of true courage expended by him in order to come out of the uneasily-anti-materialistic closet.

But, don't you think it's a combination of the two?
I heartily recommend Pollack's voluminous writings, which teach me a lot about the Beatles, and also a lot about music. They're both worthy subjects.

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