Saturday, December 10, 2005

I get high / I get high / I get high…

Johnny, Johnny….what a bloody waste. The world is a lesser place because of the existence of certain people. One of those people was the now globally infamous Mark David Chapman. He wanted to become famous and the fucker did…he’s a household name. It worked.

Damn him…

I wasn’t going to write anything particular on the death or life of John Lennon, so many words, worthier than mine, although no more heartfelt to be sure, have been written and I’ve written a few that I’m a little proud of.

But this sad little piece by fading UK hack Robert Elms made me change my mind. I often wonder what certain people have done to repeatedly get published. Who they have slept with or what connections they have to keep on getting their opinions in print. A blog is one thing, hundreds of thousands of us burble on and on, and opine which is neither here nor there, and despite the social revolution that it may be, it is still recognisably a blog and should be viewed accordingly.

However Elm’s unworthy burst was on the BBC’s web site. I guess, to steal a phrase from George Galloway, standards have slipped.

The British have always have an attraction to these sort of know nothing, ego ridden overly verbose twats and Elms comes from an era that was particularly plagued by them: the late seventies, early eighties, NME, Face, ID era. They sounded smart, obnoxiously opinionated and connected then but later you realise that they knew no more than we did, perhaps less because they were sheltered by the need always to be, to use the term of the era, “crucial”. Elms aside there was Parsons, Burchill, Morley (Morley at least did something with ZTT and FGTH) and a whole bunch more.

These people all claim to have been where it mattered when it happened but in reality were largely peripheral accessories, unlike the truly great journalists of their era, the likes of Nick Kent or Charles Murray, and their “claim” is largely by association rather than action…they hung out with the doers rather than ever actually doing; they may have been in the car but they were neither driving nor navigating, and Elms is more guilty of this than anyone.

It’s not just this piece that’s annoyed me but the last 25 years of accidentally bumping into this man’s opinions. He may well be a pleasant enough guy in person, and all indications from people that I know that've spent time with him, are that he is, if a little over forthright.

so, moving up to said BBC piece, Robert ventures forth with a badly argued opinion that the fabulous four, were not all they were cracked up to be, were a lesser “blues boom” act than The Rolling Stones or Them, both bands who made some killer singles and were, by all accounts astounding live in the early to mid sixties. Them, however, as magnificent as those records are, were largely out of step with their incredibly fast moving times and The Rolling Stones, once they got in their stride about 65 made some wonderful records but only on 45. Their albums, until the end of the decade were largely nothing affairs, often in the shadow of The Beatles, with perhaps the exception of their debut, even that pales beside With The Beatles, arguably the first Rock album ever. I say arguably because it’s a toss up between that and A Hard Days Night and Live at The Apollo....there are no other real contenders.

To imply The Beatles were a lesser “blues boom” act is indicative. This is the first time, ever, anywhere, in all the verbose screeds I’ve read about The Beatles where they were called a “blues” band or alleged to be part of that movement. As I said, it’s indicative that he says that as it indicates a vacuum of historical knowledge and perspective which is even more strongly indicated elsewhere. But it begs the obvious question…how can one be a social commentator if one has no understanding of the context?

And go and listen to the extraordinary live version of Money on the first Anthology and tell me that The Beatles couldn’t cut it as a live beat act. Or ask the thousands who queued in Liverpool or the north before the frenzy took over whether they could cut it. Statements like that just make Elms look silly and I guess are made for effect…we all do it , but if you can’t at least make a stab at backing it…

A fair argument could be made that without Lennon et al no-one would ever have heard of Them or The Rolling Stones beyond a few smelly bars in Belfast or Richmond. And that brings me to the crux of the failure of his arguments.

The social and musical revolution that the Beatles drove....

Without The Beatles, The Rolling Stones could never have become “The Rolling Stones”, The Band, who he obviously rates, could never have become “The Band”, Little Feat, likewise would not have been who or what they were if Roger McGuinn hadn’t, after A Hard Days Night, added the jangle to Dylan. In Dylan’s own words, it was listening to I Wanna Hold Your Hand on a car radio that took him in the direction that led to Blonde On Blonde. He may well have gotten there via another route but The Beatles were his self admitted catalyst that took him to Newport and to shouts of Judas in the UK. And opened a new world to everything that Bob Dylan inspired thereafter….

Likewise, after With the Beatles and A Hard Days Night we were given the concept of the album as an album. Rock’n’roll records became more than two hits and a few fillers (12 in the UK and 8 in the US). Go and look at the album charts pre and post A Hard Days Nights. Other acts wrote their songs…Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, but none were ever album forces. In a flash the Beatles invented the force which drives popular music, the artist album, oh, and tossed in a concept called “rock” at the same time.

There were, at the same time countless studio innovations led by a belief that the word “no” didn’t matter anymore...anything was possible because and you could at least try. The power of musical invention was given a new, ruthlessly inventive voice. The studio innovations that revolutionised popular music didn’t all come from The Beatles (although many did), but the motivation and ethos to drive forward most certainly and inescapably did.

The Beatles were able to take what was being done in the US and toss it back at them, saying...look, this is where you can take it. It was the power of The Beatles and the voice it gave the “British Invasion” that filled the garages of the USA with thousands of bands, not the least of whom were likes of The Stooges. That the Velvets could have existed without The Beatles is simply naïve.

Naïve….like statements like “truly great bands don’t make terrible records”…which is then followed by the incredible line “that lack of editorial control and judgement is a large part of what I have against them…”. What lack of “editorial control” allowed a line like “truly great bands don’t make terrible records” to even make it to the screen.

What insipid nonsense….what, like The Rolling Stones, Rob? Like Their Satanic Majesties or like a few of the Miracles’ lesser moments, or Coltrane’s drug infused indulgences or Miles Davis’ rather embarrassing attempts at hip hop…these people aren’t truly great? What a silly thing to say…

Whole concepts changed courtesy of The Beatles. The Beatles gave the UK a musical voice that it had never had before and a music industry that mattered internationally, it was the Beatles that made The Gang of Four or The Clash or Oasis¸ or The Chemical Bros possible. It was The Beatles and their momentum that made Robert Elms possible.

Musically, you won’t get much argument from me about the slippery road to bloated indulgence that Sgt Pepper opened the doors to. But that is like blaming Steve Silk Hurley for Lola’s Theme…it’s a silly stretch of logic.

They recognised the drift themselves, they were after all still northern lads, and within a few months were retrenching towards the magnificence of the White album. A Day in the Life and Mr Kite aside, I don’t think its one of their finer moments, Revolver, With The Beatles , A Hard Days Night, Rubber Soul, The Beatles and Abbey Road all eclipse it and are pretty much universally regarded as doing so. As I said earlier, understanding your subject before you write about it is important.

Elms says that punk was needed to burn away the excesses of Pepper, but punk was just a return to the place where The Beatles were at in 1963, and it was a place that they had returned to themselves by 1969. If you don’t think Cold Turkey or Ballad of John & Yoko aren’t punk records then you aren’t listening. But then again, I think it’s pretty evident that Mr Elms hasn’t listened.

Lennon was still there at the end. The unreleased rock version of I’m Losing You is a magnificent beast, but more to the point, his last recording (and it was more him than Yoko despite the name on the sleeve), in his hand as he was shot, was Walking on Thin Ice, a revolutionary record on its release in 1981 (although maybe not as revolutionary as Spandau Ballet whom Robert was involved with then…Spandau Ballet…oh dear) and an underground and club anthem for years that inspired the No Wave movement in NYC.

How can a truly great songwriter write a song like All You Need is Love, a song that went around the world and engrained itself in the global consciousness as a part of mankind’s vocabulary until this day? Easy….when it’s written in the same twelve month period that he wrote A Day in The Life, I Am The Walrus and Strawberry Fields.

Yellow Submarine is dismissed and yet it appears on the same album as Tomorrow Never Knows, a song that set the blueprint for much of the next forty odd years. Yellow Submarine, rather than reflecting poor song writing or editorial control blatantly reflects exactly the obvious. It is indicative of a wry sense of Northern humour, a sense of understanding exactly where they come from, of a sophistication that Little Feat or The Rolling Stones could never aspire to. The Beatles were never monochromatic. Those other acts made some fine records but, seriously, even a superficial overview and a little knowledge of popular musical history, and indeed history itself, dismisses any fantasy that they had the same impact or musical vision as Lennon—McCartney-Harrison-Starr.

not your finest moment Robert…

1 comment:

thewalker said...


rythim is rhytym


and more.

simon, i think you would enjoy this "top 100 rekords list"