Monday, June 06, 2005

Jesus Christ I Love Junk

Can anything compare to the feeling I had somewhere in the early Eighties when I floated joyfully out of a screening of "A Hard Day's Night" with three friends (in the pre-VHS era, it hadn't been seen anywhere since 1965), and we bounced madly down Bleecker Street, Beatling Liverpoodlingly all over everyone and everything in our path, knowing that the noblest and bravest aspiration -- in fact the only honorable aspiration for a young man in the waning days of the Twentieth Century -- was to be in a rock group consisting of two guitars, bass and drums and lots of vocal harmonies?

Anything else -- any other way of making a living! -- came a stupefyingly dull second.

One-a those DishNetwork stations way up the dial has been showing the movie "That Thing You Do" pretty incessantly, and sucker that I am I just can't click past it.

It's that damned song. (Go ahead, have a listen.)

"That Thing" is set in March of 1964, a few weeks after the Beatles' epoch-making invasion of America, and of course tells of the rise and nearly immediate fall of The Wonders, one of the thousands and thousands of little rock bands that immediately formed in the aftermath of that mindboggling event, who rise to near-stardom on the strength of their one Beatlesque hit and then immediately sink without a trace. It's a really touching little movie in a lot of ways, especially in the scene where the lads first hear their song on their local radio station and do a little Liverpoodling of their own in the staid main-street appliance store where they work. We'll never know the Sixties again. All that possibility.

But that scene isn't the one that really gets the old lower lip trembling and puts a mist in the eye for Lost Youth.

No, what sets me off is a tiny little detail shown while they're recording the song in a borrowed church -- nothing more than an establishing shot, really: The song's producer (played by Chris Izaak) and Liv Tyler as Faye are recording the handclaps heard throughout the song as the band plays in the background:

Beat, clap-clap, clap! Clap-clap, clap!

What makes rock and roll so goddamned wonderful, so worth giving your whole life over to, is lurking somewhere right in those stupid bubblegum handclaps. Somewhere in that little syncopated figure, that obvious bit of calculated cultural junk, lies something that's as close as a human being can aspire to Perfection.

I've spent quite a lot of my adult life (seriously -- more than is healthy) thinking about what makes a song deserve to be called Beatlesque. My slavering devotion to the music of Andy Partridge and XTC (and especially their wonderful psychedelic alter egos, the Dukes of Stratosphear), probably the artists most often associated with that adjective, has no doubt fueled that obsession.

Adam Schlesinger, later of Fountains of Wayne, wrote the song to order (he won a competition that Andy Partridge also entered), and it's clear what his brief was: Write a song that will invite immediate comparison to the early Beatles without being a Rutles-ish pastiche or parody. It must be as sincere as possible without being mawkish. Above all, it must invoke the huge quivering shot of amphetamine optimism that the Beatles injected into a country that was plunging into depression over the Kennedy assassination.

Interestingly, if you make a study of early Beatles records, there's no one song that's got all the elements Schlesinger packed into this one. Perhaps most glaringly, the only Beatle song that I can find that overtly emphasizes that stomp-clap-clap, (pause) clap beat is a Motown cover: The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." Play "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (released in the U.S. two months before this movie takes place) next to "That Thing You Do," they're plainly different beasts: They share drive, energy, infectious enthusiasm, wonderfully unpredictable chord changes, great ensemble singing, varied textures -- but Schlesinger is writing with, what, thirty years' worth of hindsight, having absorbed not only the original Beatle texts but everything that came after, from Badfinger to Big Star to ELO to Utopia to XTC.

Some of that stuff is going to rub off.

The background vocals alone are just fantastic, with passing tones created by moving from major to equivalent minor keys. Check the lines, "Just so hard to do," (I-I7-IV-iv yeah!) the "ahhhs" under the second verse leading into the "I've tried and tried" bridge (awww, fuck that's great) and the entire middle eight. Masterful.

The chord tab that I found on the Net gives a little notation -- "Wow!" -- at the end of the middle eight, where the while thing modulates upward a half-step from the B7 that's the V7 of our home key, E, into C ("I just can't take it any more!"). This makes absolutely no sense harmonically -- but yes. Wow.

That is Beatlesque. Breaking rules because you don't know they aren't supposed to be broken.

But maybe that's the bittersweet thing, right there. The Fabs broke rules not knowing they were rules and created magnificent music that we'll never hear again the way we heard it when it was new. But in order to be Fabulous, you have to break the rules in ways that you've carefully studied, having tweezed apart every Beatle record down to its submolecular components to find out what makes it tick.

And how many young men now consider it their sacred, noble duty to form wonderful little two-guitars-bass-drums-lots-of-vocal-harmonies rock bands, for the sheer joy of hearing Beatlesque music coming from their mouths and instruments?

But the fact remains: there is still no more honorable work.


Anonymous said...

Ah, you gave me goosebumps with this post! I've been a huge Beatles fan since I first heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the earpiece of my transistor radio when it first played in the U.S. back in winter of 1964. I suppose in hindsight it was that absolutly naive optimism that permiated their early songs that hooked me/us, then the incredible journey of self-reflection that followed took us places we would never have dreamed of in the strongly Lawrence-Welk-sensibility we all still lived in back then (remember the popularity of Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore, Wayne Newton, the Singing Nun?). I'm convinced had it not been for the Beatles there would have been no youth revolution in the sixties (sure, JFK lit the pilot light, and the drugs- made legitimate for white middle class youth by the Beatles- fueled the movement, but it was all of us virgin white kids witnessing the spiritual path the Beatles followed ("Nowhere Man", "In My Life", "For No One", "Eleanor Rigby", "All You Need is Love", "We Can Work it Out", "She's Leaving Home", "A Day in the Life", "The Fool on the Hill", the closing medley of "Abby Road").

All I can say is I'm a different person because of the Beatles, and I'm certain my life has taken a very differnt path than it would have because of their brief life together.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

I kep' thinking of things to say in response to your On-nee-ders post and then you'd say it in the next sentence.

I love that effing movie. has anyone ever heard the track that Partridge did? Schlesinger lives in Easthampton and the guy at D&D Autoparts babysits his choco lab (!) when they go on the road.

Only thing I can think to add- the sophistication of the song grows over the course of the movie. The first time you hear the harmonies start to really go are at one of those state fair gigs and by the time they get to the T.V. show (sorry girls- he's engaged)it's all dialed in. What a great piece of work. I also dig that blues one they do with the dopey lead guitarist singing on the big map of the U.S. That one is more in the "She's A Woman"/"I Feel Fine" mode.

Also, the way the song starts in the garage as an Orbisonesque dirge and then is "kicked up" by Shades and becomes their "first number one"- gee, can't think of another time that happened.

The harmonies in the phrase "...around with someone new..." are also clitdiddlingly fine.

Oh, never mind. you totally mentioned those.

I like this response above about the Frabs. I like hearing from people who were the right age when it came out.

I Am Spartacus.

Flamingo Jones said...

I thought I was the only person who secretly loved that movie and song! My people, I have found you!

Mike said...

Yes, the junk. I got hooked on Beatles around the bicentennial, when reunion rumors made sense to this 13 year-old when I bought the red and blue albums. I saw "Help!" on TV. Sgt Pepper's, MMT and the White Album soon followed. I was listening to shit backwards, even. I hit the wall with Abby Road and wondered what it all meant.

Then, it hit me -- Revolver. Love! The jangle broke through and it all finally made sense to me. The Gateway. Hard to explain, but it was like the Rosetta Stone -- I could fully appreciate the lot, and I certainly did when all the CDs came out. The early discs especially, and then A Hard Days Night in the cinema. My lovely daughter (name is Eleanor) still hasn't caught on that she can watch that DVD any time she asks -- 2am on a school night, no worries. I'm talkin' Love here.

Let me rant a bit and say something about the beatle-haters, you know who I'm talking about, the ones who have to debunk everything, like bitter anhedonics trying to point out all those Beatle conspiracies of ill-gotten pleasure. Yes, the Boys ruined it for everybody. But they really didn't care who thought what. Couldn't care less. Great thieves, they were. They first stole C&W, then folk, and waited for somebody to notice. They kept going and spun gold from stinkin' hay, blowing everybody away and they didn't give a shit. Somewhere I read, "Streets ahead". Damn straight. Had to break up, they were just fucking naturals, like idiot-savant McCartney and brass-balls Lennon (I'll confess, I'm a George fan).

I get mad at myself for feeling sorry for the haters, because, at their last resort, they start picking on Ringo -- assholes. I don't care if he couldn't keep time, because they just didn't care. No Ringo, no Fabs.
But I do have to watch out for my Eleanor, keep her looking at the possibilities without getting too jaded or too mad at the haters. At 9, she's already getting streets ahead of me!

Bob Dwire said...

Marshall Crenshaw, anyone?

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Ned, you knocked this one right out of the park and through the window of apartment 10B in the building next-door!

I would just add that Fountains of Wayne are a brilliant band. For the uninitiated, I strongly recommend that you go out and buy "Welcome Interstate Managers." That damn record sounds like the radio just before 70's classic rock took the Journey to Boston and Kansas via the Styx express. Their lyrics are deceptively clever - almost a kinder version of Steely Dan's. The songs are character studies and on one level very silly, but on the next deep, sympathetic and most of all, sincere. Even their country song, "Hung up On You" at first sounds like a goof, but later reveals itself as something more. They run right up to the line of parody but never cross it. The musical arrangements are purposefully derivative, but the songs are original and fresh. Tow years later I’m still wearing out the bits on this one.

Neddie said...


>>Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore, Wayne Newton, the Singing Nun

Remember the other acts in the State-Fair Circuit part of "That Thing You Do"? "Mr. Downtown"! Or the Mitch Miller-type song that's sung over the opening credits? "I'm loving you lots and lots/and I'm all tied up in knots"? Desperate times call for desperate music!

Bobby: The song Partridge submitted was "My Train Is Coming." Hardly his A-list stuff -- more Dave Clark 5 than Beatles -- and he'd already had it rejected for "Buster." WTF: He was already a established artist. Schlesinger had way more invested.

Flamingo: No secrets here. Love is Overt.

Miike: Beatle-haters. Did you know Bernard Purdie REGULARLY comments here? The man who did ALL RINGO'S DRUMMING FOR HIM? Check it out.

Bob: I'll take a little Crenshaw mit schlag. But I associate him more with Buddy Holly, n'est-ce pas? As if the, what, four years separating the Sullivan Appearance and the Day The Music Died is much of a significance all these years on. Jesus, George Bush has been president longer than that.

Monsieur Le Compte: Too bad you never got to see Scooby Don't. We did a kick-ass version of "Stacy's Mom." Indeed a great rekkid.

Kevin Wolf said...

Damn, Neddie - great post.

I can't claim to be a big fan of the movie "That Thing You Do" but I did enjoy it the one time I saw it. The scene when they hear their record on the radio comes heartbreakingly close to letting the movie loose in that "Hard Day's Night" sort of way. Guess I wasn't wowed by it like you, but its heart is in the right place and that's rare enough.

RE the title song, though I know nothing about music and can't follow your points on keys and chords, I know a good thing when I hear it. It made one of my personal CD compilations, which is the true test!

I suppose it was the Beatles who got me hooked on jangly guitar / vocal harmony pure pop. Most of my favorite songs fall into this category - and I see from the comments that many of your readers have the same affliction.

There are certain tunes I've heard for most of my life and have never tired of hearing. For the Beatles I'd pick "And Your Bird Can Sing" (good god it's pop perfection) and "Drive My Car," "Eight Days a Week," etc etc. I'd extend the Hall of Fame of Pure Pop to include any number of tunes by XTC, Marshall Crenshaw, Nick Lowe, FOW as well as one offs from Beatles contemporaries like the Knickerbockers, the Buckinghams, etc.

And to think that the Beatles years coincided as well with the golden age of soul music. Jesus, the Beatles and Otis Redding and Aretha all on the radio together, routinely!

There is some really good music around today, I think, though you have to search for it. I don't like to get overly nostalgic. But don't tell me we haven't lost something in the intervening years...

Employee of the Month said...

NP - Rain

blue girl said...

"I don't like to get overly nostalgic."

Ooooooh, I do -- especially when it comes to this music -- as Viscount LaCarte said came right before the Journey to Boston, etc.

It's where my heart is -- I left it back there.

Viscount LaCarte, I will get that CD you wrote about.

My 13 year old son and I share a love of music. He's been into the "Gorillaz" for a couple of years. You guys should check them out. They're good.

Now, I'm going to turn NPR off and pop in a Beatles CD.

Which one? Abbey Road or the White Album? I think I'm in the mood for a little "Black Bird." -- why not just get totally melancholy?

Couple more things:

Does it bug you guys that "Long and Winding Road" is in that spot hawking GPS systems or whatever it is? Bugs me.

(Different band here -- but IT SO BUGS THE CRAP OUT OF ME that they used "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers in that stupid, mis-cast cell phone spot. -- who WAS the creative team on that one? They missed by a MILE.)

And also -- did you enjoy "I Am Sam's" soundtrack?

bernard purdie said...

yeah, yeah-

I used ta love the junk too. Higher Power, baby. Higher power.

ade said...

I'm more than willing to be corrected but I'm pretty sure that the Mitch Miller-type song that's sung over the opening credits "I'm loving you lots and lots/and I'm all tied up in knots" was actually written by the film's director Mr Tom Hanks.
Great post, Nedmeister. Disassembling of minor musical masterpieces; more of them, please!

Neddie said...

Ade: Alone, Tom wrote three songs for the soundtrack (including, as you pointed out, "Loving You Lots and Lots" and "Mr. Downtown"), and collaborated on quite a lot of the rest of it, including some strictly instrumental pieces. Pretty good for a guy with only one arm.

Blue Girl: Ultimately, you have to blame the Beatles themselves for not protecting their publishing rights during their writing careers. They were very badly advised by Brian Epstein, who allowed them to trust Dick James to handle their publishing. Ultimately, when they broke up, they didn't have enough control over their own songs, and lost them.

In everybody's defense, nothing like The Beatles had ever happened before, and nobody knew how to operate.

They didn't lose mechanical royalties, which govern the recordings they made. This is why, when you chew your liver over the rape of a Beatles song in a commercial, you're very likely not to be listening to a Beatles recording but a cover version.

Don Porges said...

I really love your chord-by-chord breakdowns of great songs.

Not to be poppier-than-thou, but Ned, I hope you know The Rubinoos, because if you don't, you'd love them.

ade said...

Thanks Neddie. It's a bit unfortunate that a guy with only one arm has his hand grafted onto his chin.
I saw this film at the cinema and throughout the whole thing I had this sneaking suspicion that the Shades character was really Tom "Basketball for a friend" Hanks, or what Tom really dreamed of being once upon a time.

bunny said...

Neddie - don't miss Andy Partridge's title song to the cancelled series Wonderfalls.

Neddie said...

Fluffy: You're going to absolutely not believe me, and that's OK, but Andy taught me the chords to the Wonderfalls theme over the telephone.

Isn't my name-dropping disgusting?

He's the only semi-famous guy I know. Honest.