Sunday, September 24, 2006

Getting Inside the Skin

Dave Gregory, the preternaturally nimble guitarist formerly with XTC, has a pastime of which I'm quite jealous. In his home studio he crafts these stunningly perfect reproductions of his favorite hits from the Sixties.

Now, I don't mean that he does covers of these songs for fun -- I mean, he does absolutely perfect fakes, every note reproduced with painstaking detail, of everything from "Strawberry Fields Forever" to "Classical Gas" to "Third Stone from the Sun." He did a limited-edition collection of these lifelike forgeries called "Remoulds," a collector's item that brings rich rewards in the bootleg-trading world. You can hear his "Strawberry Fields" on Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3 -- I've just listened to it now, and it's an astonishing piece of work.

I haven't spoken to him about it, but I can't help but imagine that part of his motivation is to get inside the skin of the original song -- to recreate the experience of creation, if you like. If you get to know a recording down to the submolecular level, down to amp settings, guitars used, even microphone preamps and the specific kind of reverb available in the original recording studio, you might gain some kind of insight into how and why the artists and producers arrived at the musical decisions they did.

Since I was a wee lad, I've been occupied with the question, Why do I love Beatle records so much? What exactly is it about them that makes me feel that I'm listening to the best music ever made? Is it that they have an emotional hold on me, an unshakable connection to the gut-wrenching nostalgia I feel for my childhood? I'm sure that some of that must be at work, but it's also objectively true that the Beatles in their prime wrote and performed music that is simply touched with that quality we call genius. A man capable of falling out of bed having dreamed "Yesterday," and who, sure he's simply remembering a tune from somewhere, has to ask everybody he knows if they'd ever heard the melody before lest he be accused of plagiarism, surely has something going on in his creative soul that very few of us are privileged to understand.

One way to approach the question, I reasoned, might be to try to get inside the skin of contemporary Beatle imitators, the countless thousands of little four-piece combos that grew moptops and little uniforms in 1964 to try to conquer the world -- or at least that tiny part of it that the Beatles didn't yet own. They would have listened carefully for the Secret Formula they thought must exist, that skeleton key to the hearts of teenaged girls that guaranteed a theaterful of dampened seats and checkwriting impresarios.

On one of my favorite records nowadays, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, I found a track by The Mascots, a Swedish band that formed in October 1963 when they saw the Beatles in concert. (You can hear what inspired them -- go get your copy of Anthology, Vol. 1, and catch the blazing October 24 '63 live recording from Stockholm. Now try to tell me that the Savage Young Beatles weren't a fierce, fierce, fierce little rock band!) Inspired by this experience, like so many of their contemporaries around the world the Mascots bought some Rickenbacker 12-strings and grew some hair and cut some records -- one of which, "Words Enough to Tell You," wound up in this mindbogglingly great collection of psychedelia.

When I heard the song the very first thought was that, though a valiant attempt, it fell just short of actually being a Beatles song -- an astute application of that Secret Formula, but just not quite astute enough -- and thus I thought it might be a perfect candidate for a Gregorian "Remoulds" kind of treatment. I'd get inside the skin, try to make a forgery of the song like Dave, try to see what makes it Beatlesque-but-not-perfectly-Beatlesque, and perhaps learn something.

Here's the result of my experiment. (Pops.)

I'll leave you with this just now. Tomorrow, when I'm not quite so tired, I'll try to tap out a
little essay about this sweet, romantic little pop tune, and get at the nub of the question, "What does 'Beatlesque' actually mean?"


fgfdsg said...

I dug out the Nuggets Collection to compare. Oddly enough, yours sounds more of the time than their recording.

You're right. It's interesting how the Mascots kind of rub up against the Beatles and just somehow fall short. Be interested to read the essay.

And take it from me, someone how grew up being horribly burnt by record review after record review as a kid, from rushing out to buy anything labelled by lazy reviewers as 'Beatlesque': it usually just means they've got a String Quartet in and have decided to have Orchestral Pretensions for their latest batch of songs.

(They're always talking 'All You Need Is Love' / 'I Am The Walrus' period Beatles, not the earlier stuff). There's usually that stiff rocking back and forth piano playing, sometimes harmony vocals.

I was told this was 'Beatlesque'. Other than the motion of the Electric Piano and the Trumpet Solo I don't hear it.

Getting the orchestra in to support weak writing is *still* common: check this out. Listen to that over-arrangement. Talk about sound and fury. Still, people call *that* 'Beatlesque'.

For me, it's usually about how the vocals are recorded and how harmony singing isn't a straight following of the melody line.

Which means this strikes me as 'Beatlesque'.

And especially, this Crowded House one, who got tagged with the Beatles thing, despite the majority of their songs sounding nothing like them.

Ignore the Optigan Loop that drives the song and concentrate on the sound of the vocals. It's pure Lennon to my ears, and probably the only song of theirs I'd truly consider 'Beatlesque'.

fgfdsg said...

Failing any of those, there's always this .

Man, I can just imagine the Under 10 Set sitting in front of their televisions *tripping out*. Now they've got the Wiggles. I guess every generation has its own Rolf Harris.

Kevin Wolf said...

In the end, Beatlesque may just be one of those meaningless term that one wishes never were coined.

I like your tune, Ned. Only obtained the Nuggets II set recently when I came across a used copy. It does set in bold relief the Beatles' impact on the world of pop music. One imagines there were so many bands in 1963-64 that they were tripping over each other on stages and in streets the world over.

If I had to peg what I think keeps records like this from matching the Beatles, I'd blame the harmonies - which the Beatles were particularly good at - and the mundane lyrics - which the Beatles managed to transcend very quickly, leaving those "yeah yeah yeahs" other juvenilia behind.

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Steve said...

Hmmm... not sure your mp3 sounded Beatlesque to me (I am in my early 50's, and definitely grew up with the Beatles). I'd say it sounded like more of a cross between early Byrds and the Monkees.

You've gotten me to thinking about this whole "Beatlesque" thing. Very hard to put one's finger on it!

There are, no doubt, musicological points to be made about melodies and harmonies and progressions - I mean, I'm sure you've read some of the erudite musicological analyses of various Beatles songs. But there is also the issue of attitude. And just the vocal qualities of the Boys.

All of the wannabe Beatlesque acts seem so insipid and pretty compared to the real thing. Too obviously derivative and formulaic. Lacking in the quality that I can't quite define, but refer to as "crunch". Maybe it was those years in Hamburg...

Of course, the Beatles had the advantage that every song they recorded defined "Beatlesque" :-) But seriously, now that you've brought it up, I must admit it's a tough thing to talk about with any precision.

- sgage

Neddie said...

Simon: God, I hate music videos. Hate, hate, HATE them. All. That Silverchair one made me want to kill something. Music's too damned important to be relegated to the soundtrack of some asshole's cod-arty "interpretation" of a song.

Wow -- what an amazing disconnect there was between the Fabs' public image and what they were *really* doing while recording "Strawberry Fields."

Steve et al.: You have a point about Beatlesque-itude. I'll have to carefully define it before trying to analyze it. One thing becomes immediately apparent: There's pre- and post-marijuana Beatlesqueness. I'm referring to the Amphetamine Beatles of 1963-65, who knocked out massive, world-altering hit after hit while being jerked around like yo-yos. Magnificent two-and-a-half-minute jewels of songcraft with not a piccolo trumpet in sight. And yes, I did sort of intend to get into a little musicological jabber about keys-n-stuff, but trying to make it clear for the layman.

fgfdsg said...

My thoughts on video are much the same as yours. I personally think the beginning of MTV is when the rot sets in for the standard of musicianship in popular music. 'Visual Interest' justified the existence of non-bands like (shudder) Haysee Fantaysee.

However, the existence of these things on YouTube means I don't have to post mp3's to explain songs. 'Not The Girl You Think You Are' sounds to my ears like it would fit onto 'The White Album'.

Silverchair is worse than you think. It's obviously their interpretation of 'Yellow Submarine', and trying to imply that the song is somehow, you know, *deep* and shit, since the lyrics obviously failed to do the job.

I love the fact that the Beatles were moving with such artistic speed that the animators couldn't keep up with them. I particularly like this one though. I love the fact kids were sitting down cross-legged on the floor with their bowls of cereal and hearing *that*.

Akatabi said...

I did a little digging to look into what might define Beatlesque in their covers of others' songs to eliminate the variable of their writing and came up with this site (maybe already known to the cognoscenti). Plenty of analysis, but for me no real reason why their "Please Mr. Postman" or "Twist and Shout" etc. is Beatlesque (let alone better or worse than the original). Wish I had musical eidetic imagery or could conveniently hear both side by side.

For fun, can you guess the Beatles tune referred to in this somewhat turgid quote from Alan W. Pollack?

"Compositionally, the song is a clever triumph of formal articulation over rote monothematicism by virtue of controlled, subtle variation in a number of departments. That's an excessively highfalutin way of saying, gee, the whole three and a half minute track is played out over the same unvarying eight-bar chord progression, and yet, rather than sounding painfully monotonous, it creates the impression of a something developed with the full formal scale and variety you typically expect from a "song" The secret is in the handling of the vocal style, lyrics, and instrumentation. And it bears some comparison with the way Messrs. Berry and Penniman (et al) know how to create a high-level form out of what is otherwise an unvarying series of twelve-bar frames."


H. Rumbold, Master Barber

Steve said...

"There's pre- and post-marijuana Beatlesqueness."

That's for sure! And pre- and post-LSD...

"And yes, I did sort of intend to get into a little musicological jabber about keys-n-stuff, but trying to make it clear for the layman."

By all means! I am looking forward to it!

- Steve

Anonymous said...

Akatabi - I visited the site and came across this bit describing Eleanor Rigby:

"You can look at this song from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesized. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined."

I believe Alan Pollack somehow gets at the 'Beatlesque' dilemma -- what's difficult to summarize can be more easily but unsatisfyingly caricaturized instead, so would you please pass me that sitar?

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Beatlesque means ""good" - too good for anything to be labeled as such except for maybe some things that these guys have done.