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Beatles thoughts

Wednesday 8/19/20

Someone who listened to the Songs of Note podcast on "Hey Jude" asked me yesterday why I called the final verse a duet between McCartney and Lennon rather than another example of harmony singing which one finds constantly throughout the Beatles' career after I had mentioned that McCartney/Lennon duets were quite rare.

It's a good question. The answer is because they're both singing simultaneously, but not in the accentuation style of harmony. Nothing is decorative. Which doesn't mean that cues and reactions don't inform the vocal of each singer. There is less in the way of tailoring and filigree. A duet has a kind of dyadic autonomy to it. That is, two people are on their own track, singing. Almost as if they happen to be singing the same song, or a part of one, at the same time. They each have their own course. With harmony singing, the harmonizer is shadowing the course of the other singer. They may be shadowing each other. So while the duet singer can react to what the other singer is doing, this isn't a lot different than if you were reacting to your own voice, hearing something in it, and altering as you proceed. Maybe the way you pronounce a word or something. There is also the location of this item in question in the song. A harmony vocal tends to run throughout a work or appear at various points in it. That's not the case with "Hey Jude"--they've singled out this portion, localized the duet.

There's the same idea in "The Ballad of John and Yoko." Listen starting at 2:04 for another McCartney and Lennon duet.

Listening to opera and oratorio singing will give one a ready understanding of duet singing. If you've ever been to Handel's Messiah, think about how when two singers step forward to the front of the stage and sing the same words at the same time--they're not harmonizing with each other. Think of it this way--in a duet, both singers go for it. It's on them. They're just going for it at the same time.

I was also asked what I thought of Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, given that it received mixed reviews. MacDonald published this book in 1994, in which he went track-by-track, breaking down the catalogue of the Beatles. His comments could be withering, but it was never ad hominem. I answered that the book was one of the very best on the band, a legit work of art of sorts on its own. The reviews are mixed--and it's latter day reactions to the book that are more negative than the reviews from 1994, which should be telling to you, here in the era of feelings and safety spaces--because MacDonald was smarter than other Beatles writers (he killed himself in 2003, on August 20, strangely enough), wrote better, and the book is not "fan service" puffery, which, ironically, does fans and any prospective reader a disservice. I am almost completely disinterested in MacDonald's "right or wrong," in terms of his concluding judgments. I look for compelling argument, meaning. Many people want a cheer leader for what becomes this vessel of nostalgia. I disagree with quite a few of his appraisals, but that's irrelevant to me. The reading experience is what matters.

If you think a work of art I think is astounding is in fact highly flawed, or not a work of art at all, and you make your case in an artful way yourself, I want to read that. What a lot of other people do is get hurt by any input or viewpoints that are not the exact same as their own, which are often quite simple. They see critical thinking applied to a song or whatever that they really like as an attack on them. That's how insecure we are now, how fundamentally friable we are. I'm not talking about troll jobs. Uncut used to have this column called Sacred Cows, which was a troll job. They'd pick an album like the Stone Roses' debut and tell you why it was awful, but the effort wasn't sincere. It was to be sensationalistic.

Here's something I've learned about reviews. They're usually determined based upon who the work is by. Certainly with almost all book reviews. In that sense, they are written before they are written, if you know what I mean. They are puff pieces. They are to fellate and promote. They are to shill for people that the system wishes you to know is their upper class. They are all sheen, ripped from the bullet points of the PR flyer that comes with the advanced copy. The books are often not even read. They are certainly not vetted or thought about. There's no standard of earned honorific via the prose.

At some venues this is different--The Wall Street Journal and The New Criterion will give you work in the critical vein worth reading. But when you see a book that has uniformly positive reviews, it's always awful. That's not real. Those are not authentic reactions and appraisals. That's the system meat grinder in action. These people in publishing are very sensitive. Many of them cannot handle truth, reality, or even beauty. They need canned effects, the safe space, the cod laughter, which is to say, no real laughter at all. If you give them truth, meaning, beauty, consequence, a lot of them will flip out. The most benign, plastic, soulless works, from the right people, garner the uniform praise. A truly great work right now, or any work worth your time, will either be ripped, get very mixed reviews, or no reviews at all. I am working to change this. As I am working to change many things.

But to bring this back to the Beatles, when I go on Beatles Facebook pages, you'll see people who simply want you to say that everything is the best thing ever. It's kind of sad, really, and pathetic, that so many people are that insecure. Now if someone thinks "Ticket to Ride" is a weak or lazy song, why should that threaten or hurt you? It's not even your song. What do we want to happen here? Do we really just want platitudes and the exact same reaction every time to every single thing? Does that sustain you? Entertain you?

There are people that grind axes with their subjects. They have motive. That's not MacDonald with the Beatles. He calls "Dizzy Miss Lizzy"--I believe it was that one--"pressurized hack work," or maybe it was "Bad Boy." Either way, I think each performance is top-flight, and actually underrated; not much attention was ever paid to the band's three Larry Williams covers. But he also understands the mood of Sgt. Pepper better than any other Beatles writer, and through his analysis of that (often flawed) music he distills the spirit of that record as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Now, the introduction to the book is needless and it's prolix and boring and I don't know why he insisted upon it or no one talked him out of it. But really it's probably the best Beatles book. The thing about Beatles books is that they don't stand alone as art. That's not what I want to do with mine.

But I had also mentioned on here giving Radiohead the Revolution in the Head treatment, and maybe people didn't know what I meant, but this isn't about spelling out everything. It's a diary of a life, a journal of a mind, and if you've read diaries or journals in the past--take Thoreau's, for example--you know that not everything is introduced and spelled out for you, broken down. Some things are just referenced. What a reader can then do--and it's easier than ever now--is say, "huh, what does he mean by give them the Revolution in the Head treatment?" and type that title into the Google search engine. Then you'll know. MacDonald--who wrote for Uncut, actually--was also an expert on Nick Drake, and I'd encourage anyone to read his essay on that musician. MacDonald had a background in classical music, and he just knew more about music and how to write about music than, well, I'm not going to name people who write about the Beatles here, because that doesn't serve any purpose, but MacDonald was really good. It should be fun to read something that's well done when the author has an antithetical position on a subject than your own.

I was saying to a Da Capo editor the other day that Radiohead is perfect for this, because it has to be a band that's stylistically diverse, with a decent-sized catalogue but not a huge one with a lot of dreck or humdrum material. You need a band whose work was at the level such that each album release was like an event. The Stones would be a tough one to do this with because you'd be writing about all of the tracks on middling records, but the Stones from 1963-1978 would be a different proposition. For Radiohead, you'd also need someone who has a background in classical music and jazz, and even aleatoric music.


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