Ringo Starr…What’s My Name (review)

John Lennon was right.  In 1980, when he was starting to record a rough demo of his song “Grow Old With Me” he said…”This will be great for you Ringo”.  Ringo Starr only heard that tape recently, as he was about to record his new album What’s My Name.

Ringo recorded “Grow Old With Me”, and nearly 40-years on, we finally have the definitive version of the song.  Lennon’s demo unfortunately was recorded on a very low-quality cassette with poor audio.  There’s a good version by Mary Chapin Carpenter that was recorded for a John Lennon tribute album, and others have recorded the song, but Ringo’s version sounds like it’s the way it was meant to be.

”Grow Old With Me” is a sentimental ballad that would have fit nicely on a Beatles album, the way “Good Night” finished The White Album.  John Lennon also wrote that song, and Ringo sang it.   For “Grow Old With Me”,  Ringo got by with a little help from a friend.

Ringo recruited Paul McCartney to play bass and add a light background vocal.  The string arrangement by well known producer Jack Douglas includes a slight nod to George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun”.  So, there’s a bit of all four Beatles in this recording.

In a recent interview, Ringo talked about what it means to record Lennon’s song.  “The idea that John was talking about me in that time before he died, well, I’m an emotional person.  I do well up when I think of John this deeply.  We’ve done our best.”

The second-best song on Ringo’s new album is the title track “What’s My Name”.  It’s a fun rocker just right for Ringo’s performances with his All Starr Band.  The song came about from Ringo introducing the band members on stage, and then instead of introducing himself, he just asked the audience “What’s my name?”, and of course they shouted back “Ringo!”.  Now it’s in a song.  It was written by Men At Work’s Colin Hay.  He had been touring with the All Starr Band, and wrote it after hearing Ringo’s exchange with the audiences.

You can check out both songs on YouTube and other streaming services, and the whole album on some of them.

The overall album is good.  Here are the songs:

  1. Gotta Get Up To Get Down
  2. It’s Not Love That You Want
  3. Grow Old With Me
  4. Magic
  5. Money
  6. Better Days
  7. Life Is Good
  8. Thank God For Music
  9. Send Love Spread Peace
  10. What’s My Name

Here’s a ranker of the songs by quality:

  1. Grow Old With Me
  2. What’s My Name
  3. It’s Not Love That You Want
  4. Send Love Send Peace
  5. Life Is Good
  6. Thank God For Music
  7. Money
  8. Better Days
  9. Magic
  10. Gotta Get Up To Get Down

The songs have a lot of peace, love, and positive thoughts.  Maybe a little corny, but sincere…like Ringo.

Abbey Road Remix (Review & Perspective)

The Abbey Road 2019 remix by Giles Martin is excellent, but if there’s a Beatles album that didn’t really need remixing, this is it.  The album was recorded on new equipment with eight tracks instead of four.  The result was higher quality audio than previous Beatles albums.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road (1969), and Apple has given it the special treatment they gave Sgt. Pepper and The White Album.  Too bad they didn’t start the 50th anniversary series earlier.  We’d have Rubber Soul and Revolver remixes by now.  Next up should be Let It Be, which was released in May of 1970.

I bought the 2-CD Anniversary Edition as shown above, and have done a lot of A-B comparisons with this and the 2009 Remaster.  The new remix has better depth and clarity.  If you have a good stereo system, it’s the one to go with.  More casual listeners will not notice a major difference between the mixes.

So what about the extras?  There’s a nice 40-page booklet with added information and many photos like those above, mostly by Linda McCartney.  The second CD contains an alternate version of each song.  Even though they’re interesting, there’s not a must-have track.

Also available is a Super Deluxe version with more alternate takes which I listened to online.  The only track I decided to purchase was George Martin’s instrumental accompaniment for “Something”.  He was brilliant at adding instrumentation that enhanced a song without overpowering it.

Other reviews of the remix have also been positive, but mostly they just talk about Abbey Road as one of The Beatles’ best albums.

So let’s go back and take a closer look at the album we’ve known for all these years.

The top four songs being downloaded from the remix on iTunes are “Come Together”, “Here Comes The Sun”, “Something”, and “Oh! Darling”.  Good choices.  John Lennon’s “Come Together” has a great groove, and is a reminder of how well The Beatles played together as a band.  “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” may be George Harrison’s two best Beatles’ songs.  Paul McCartney sang a soulful “Oh! Darling” that has held up well.  Add in “Because”, and you have a list of the best individual songs on the album.

But, it’s the medley of songs on side-two of the album that sets it apart.  Cynically, one could look at the medley as a way for The Beatles to simply use up some song fragments.  The reality is, the arrangement is rather brilliant.  It’s similar to classical music with recurring melodies and themes.  They got great help from George Martin, who orchestrated “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” perfectly.  The remix of the medley sounds great.

(Good use was made of this early Moog synthesizer.)

If there’s a weakness to the medley, it’s that the songs have many lyrics that are light, or even non-sensical.  Had the songs included more relatable and serious lyrics, the medley would have elevated Abbey Road even higher.

The medley has a strong finish with “The End”.  It’s the last full song on the last album The Beatles recorded.  It has short but rocking guitar leads by John, Paul, & George, and a solid drum solo by Ringo.  The last line is… “And In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  That’s the way to go out.

Interestingly, they debated having side-two be side-one.   And in the end, they made the right decision.

It was recently revealed that The Beatles were heard on tape discussing the possibility of doing another single and another album after Abbey Road.  Even though that’s true, it’s very likely The Beatles still worked on Abbey Road as if it could be their last album.

Bonus: Cover Story

Iconic covers for The Beatles’ albums didn’t just happen.  The Beatles always trusted artists to help them.  The art director for Apple in 1969 was John Kosh, seen below with some other covers he helped develop through the years.

The photographer for Abbey Road was Iain Macmillan, who said the idea for the photo came from Paul McCartney.  Once Macmillan had taken the photos and helped select the best one, it was turned over to John Kosh to finalize the actual cover.  In an article in U.S.A. Today, Kosh says he touched-up the sky to be bluer than it was, and then decided the album cover should not include the title or the name of the group.

As the album was about to be printed, Kosh says he received a call at three o’clock in the morning.  It was from the Chairman of EMI, Apple’s parent company.  Kosh, who was just 23 at the time, says the call included yelling about how the album wouldn’t sell if The Beatles’ name wasn’t on it.  Kosh said he was shaking after the call, and was worried as he went into Apple the next day.  He told George Harrison about the problem.  According to Kosh, George said…“Screw it.  We’re The Beatles.”

David Crosby: Remember My Name (Review)

David Crosby is 78, and knows he’s living on borrowed time.  Most of his friends expected him to die over 30 years ago.

The documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name, is not exactly a biography.  It’s more of a portrait of the man and the artist as seen through his memories.  The title is a take-off of Crosby’s 1971 solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name.

In the film, we see David being interviewed recently, and quickly find out he has alienated almost all of his longtime friends.  Crosby had a very unhealthy Rock Star drug-addicted lifestyle that nearly killed him many times.  He’s still performing, but when he goes out on the road, both he and his wife, Jan, think he might not make it home.

The film takes us back to David Crosby’s breakthrough time with The Byrds.  There are some great photos and film clips from that time, but he was eventually fired from the group because of his erratic behavior.  David admits it was his fault.

The interview and the film are not chronological, but we all know Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young came next.  It was a true “Super Group” made up of singer-songwriters from several excellent bands.  We see how extremely popular they became, but that after 45 years of harmony (and disharmony), David Crosby is no longer on speaking terms with any of them.

Although Crosby had a musically successful career, we see how drugs and his own bad choices almost killed him, and robbed him of what should have been a much better life.  He says he has had multiple heart attacks, and 25 years ago a liver transplant saved him.

The documentary is filled with fascinating stories, many interviews with other artists, and even some good humor.  If you’re a fan of The Byrds, CSN, and other musicians from that era, the film is definitely worth seeing.  Incredibly, David Crosby’s voice still sounds like it always has, and he’s recently put out several new albums of original songs.

Near the end, Crosby talks about maybe being able to somehow rekindle some of his old friendships, but he’s very aware time is running out.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice (Review)

The Linda Ronstadt movie has an audience approval rating of 99%.  After seeing the movie, I can only imagine the other 1% must have thought the problem with the movie was that it was too short.  It’s so good!

The 2013 documentary History Of The Eagles includes a scene that has some historic footage of Linda Ronstadt.  The wonder was why we hardly ever saw classic film of Ronstadt.  The new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice finally fixes the situation.  My wife and I could have watched a lot more than was included in the 95-minute movie.

The documentary shows Ronstadt from childhood, with all the musical influences she experienced in Tucson, Arizona.  Her father sang and arranged Mexican music for public performances, and her mother sang American Standards for the pure enjoyment of it.  Linda also listened to a wide variety of music on the radio…Rock & Roll, Country & Western, and even Opera.  In the mid-sixties, she and her two brothers formed a local Folk Music trio.  It all became the foundation for one of the most diverse careers in music history.

The film includes old family photos and rare videos of her early performances.

One important moment came very early in her career when Ronstadt was appearing at The Troubadour in L.A.  It showed another beautiful brown-haired young woman performing at the same venue.  It was Emmylou Harris.  Instead of Ronstadt being jealous or looking at her as a competitor, Linda decided they should be friends.

That friendship became lifelong, and the two helped each other throughout what became stellar careers.  Similar friendships were formed with Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, and Karla Bonoff.

As her career progresses, we see so many of the top musicians she worked with, and there are enlightening interviews throughout the documentary.

Linda Ronstadt became far and away the best-selling female artist popular music had ever known.  She sold out arenas, and had 8 platinum albums in the 70’s and into the 80’s.  Then she abruptly stopped her Pop/Rock career.  Instead, she moved on to musical projects that those around her said were doomed to fail, but Ronstadt chose to follow her own instincts.

In 1983 she decided to perform in an operetta ,The Pirates Of Penzance, on Broadway.  She was nominated for a Tony Award as lead actress in a musical, and her show won Best Musical!

She recorded albums of the American Standards her mother loved, and the Mexican music her father loved.  Despite all the naysayers, the albums were multi-platinum successes!  Linda Ronstadt said she had felt compelled to record the musical influences from her childhood.

She eventually returned to mainstream music and continued winning Grammys and selling albums (11 total Grammys and 13 platinum albums during her career).  You’ll find much more career details in the article Linda Ronstadt…Queen Of Rock & Roll that’s also on this website.

By now, everyone knows that Linda Ronstadt’s singing career ended (in 2009), because she has Parkinson’s disease.  The film revealed early on that her Grandmother suffered from the same affliction.

Near the end of the movie, Linda Ronstadt (age 73 in 2019) courageously tries to sing with her brother and her nephew.  It’s sad to hear the sound of her voice has been almost completely silenced.

For all but that one scene, the movie captures Linda’s voice as it ranges from subtle beauty to amazing power.   There are hardly any studio recordings in the film, instead it’s mostly the audio of her live performances.  She successfully conveyed any musical style she chose to perform.

If you like Linda Ronstadt, the movie is a wonderful must see.  It’s playing in independent theaters now, and because CNN is one of the producers, the documentary will be airing on the network sometime in 2020.  We couldn’t wait.

Country Rock

Country Rock was developed during the ‘60’s, and flourished in the ‘70’s.

Many early rock artists were heavily exposed to country music, and began their careers by perfoming it.  Some of the songs by artists like Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, and Carl Perkins were big hits on both the popular music charts and the country charts.  Back then, the label applied to the music was usually “Rockabilly”.

American country music was also popular in England.  John Lennon said that even before he played guitar, he imitated songs by Hank Williams.  The Beatles played country songs as part of their early performances.  There’s a 1962 recording of them performing the Carl Perkins’ country ballad “Sure To Fall” for BBC Radio.  The Beatles also covered country songs, such as “Act Naturally”, “Matchbox”, and “Honey Don’t” on their early albums.

The change to “Country Rock” started when The Beatles began using country elements in their own original songs.

In late 1964, The Beatles For Sale album (called Beatles ‘65 in the U.S.) had their first original song with a very country arrangement, ”I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”.  Twenty-five years later, the song went to #1 on the country chart for Roseanne Cash.  Also on Beatles For Sale was another original song done as a country waltz, “Baby’s In Black”, plus “Honey Don’t”, and the Buddy Holly song “Words Of Love”.

According to Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of The Byrds, The Beatles doing country music influenced them to do the same.  First, Chris Hillman convinced The Byrds to cover the country song “Satisfied Mind” in 1965.  Then, he wrote three songs for their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday.

Those songs…”Time Between”, “Have You Seen Her Face” and “The Girl With No Name”…are great examples of Country Rock.  The Byrds continued using country arrangements in 1967 and 1968 with popular songs like “Wasn’t Born To Follow” (country and psychedelic) and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (which featured pedal steel guitar).  That one was on the highly influential album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo in 1968.

The Byrds had added Gram Parsons to their group, and one of the album’s best tracks is Parsons’ classic “Hickory Wind”.

Another pioneering ’60’s band to do multiple country-oriented songs was The Lovin’ Spoonful.  They had the Top 10 hit “Nashville Cats” in 1966, plus Johnny Cash & June Carter covered two of the group’s songs, “Darlin’ Companion” and “Lovin’ You”.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Springfield used country arrangements for some of their Rock songs from 1966 to 1968.  From the ashes of the band’s breakup came Country Rock band Poco with Jim Messina and Richie Furay.  Stephen Stills helped form CSN, and they recorded the now classic Country Rock song by Graham Nash, “Teach Your Children”, in 1970.  It featured a pedal steel guitar played by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.

One of the most popular bands in the late ’60’s and early 70’s was Creedence Clearwater Revival.  They really fit in with the Country Rock sound, even though their style of music is most often called “Swamp Rock”.

Also in the late ‘60’s, other Country Rock bands formed.  They included…The Flying Burrito Brothers, Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, and Pure Prairie League.

The singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970’s featured the more laid back side of Country Rock.

James Taylor certainly added to the appeal of country in popular music with such songs as “Sweet Baby James” and “Country Road” in 1970.  Many other singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan (recorded in Nashville in the late ‘60’s), Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne, and J.D. Souther also contributed to the Country Rock sound.

The biggest breakout for Country Rock happened in 1972.

That was the year of the Eagles’ first album, which included “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling”.  Neil Young had a #1 single with “Heart Of Gold” and the country-leaning #1 album Harvest.  1972 was the year of the band America’s first album featuring “A Horse With No Name”, another #1 hit.  That year also gave us the The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen To The Music”, and one of the favorite Country Rock songs of all time, “Amie” from the Pure Prairie League album Bustin’ Out.

A little later came the reign of Country Rock leader Linda Ronstadt, who had been recording country-influenced albums and songs since 1967 (“Different Drum”, “Long Long Time”), and finally broke through big time in late 1974.

Country Rock artists successful in the ’70’s included Firefall (“You Are The Woman”, “Just Remember I Love You”), Little Feat (“Willin'”), Loggins & Messina (“Your Mama Don’t Dance”), The Band (“The Weight”, “Up On Cripple Creek”), and Poco (“Crazy Love”).  Sometimes placed on Country Rock collections are songs by bands that fall under the label “Southern Rock”…Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, etc.

The most popular (best selling) album of all time is Eagles Greatest Hits (1971-1975).  A testament to the power of Country Rock!

The Beatles…Singles Ranked

What are the best singles by The Beatles?  They’ll be ranked two different ways.

(Some of my old Beatles singles.  Click to enlarge, then zoom.)

Albums by The Beatles are often ranked, but let’s consider their singles.  First, we’ll look at them as 2-sided collections.  Which 45’s gave us two great songs?  Only singles released by The Beatles in the U.S. during their active years, 1962-1970 will be considered (all songs were recorded in the ‘60’s).

10.  And I Love Her / If I Fell  This one might normally be overlooked, but it gives us two great ballads.  Paul McCartney’s “And I Love Her” backed with John Lennon’s “If I Fell”.  These two songs from the film A Hard Day’s Night have only grown in stature.  In fact, “And I Love Her” is one of the top 10 most recorded songs of all time.  It’s a tender straight-forward love song with one of McCartney’s great melodies.  He credits George Harrison with adding the famous acoustic guitar riff.   “If I Fell” has Lennon writing as if he’s unsure of himself, hoping his new love won’t treat him the way his ex-love did.  He sings “Don’t hurt my pride like her”.  Leave it to John Lennon to write a love ballad from a slightly skewed point of view.  Both songs were included on United Artist’s A Hard Day’s Night album, and Capitol’s Something New album.

9.  Can’t Buy Me Love / You Can’t Do That  “Can’t Buy Me Love” was the big #1 single released in 1964 prior to the movie A Hard Day’s Night.  Paul McCartney’s song packed so much energy it was used multiple times during the movie.  The flip side is an underrated rocker by John Lennon…”You Can’t Do That”.  It gave The Beatles another solid rock song for their live shows.

8.  Paperback Writer / Rain  As The Beatles moved into more adventurous recordings during their Revolver sessions, they created this great single.  “Paperback Writer” is another #1 from Paul McCartney, with an unusual topic and excellent sweeping harmonies.  John Lennon’s “Rain” is a psychedelic song.  It fit in with similar pioneering recordings by other groups in 1966.  It features variable speed tape effects, a backwards vocal at the end, and some creative drumming by Ringo Starr.

7. Yesterday / Act Naturally  It’s hard to know where to place this one, because the A-side is so strong.  “Yesterday” not only was #1, but it’s the most recorded song of all time (cover versions).  “Act Naturally” is not nearly as good as the other B-sides, but it’s a fun Buck Owens tune that let’s Ringo’s love of country music shine through.

6.  We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper  These two A-sides are both extremely strong.  “We Can Work It out was another #1 with Paul McCartney as the main songwriter.  John Lennon’s “Day Tripper” was not far behind at #5.  It’s a great rocker, and it might have hit the top of the chart if it had been the only A-side, with a weaker song as a B-side.

5.  Something / Come Together  Another double A-sided single.  “Something” was George Harrison’s first A-side on a single, and in 1969 it went to #1 in both the U.K. and the U.S.  John Lennon also had a #1 with “Come Together”.  This collection is kind of like Beauty and the Beast.  A truly beautiful ballad, and a nonsense lyrics rocker, but with a cool groove and great chorus.

4.  Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine   “Yellow Submarine” was Ringo’s first & only vocal effort to hit #1 (for four weeks in the U.K., #2 in U.S.).  It’s a highly imaginative song that McCartney says was meant to be a fun sing-along for children.  The just-over-2-minutes story of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie is generally considered a masterpiece, and is one of the top 5 most recorded songs of all time.  Paul McCartney was the main songwriter, with some lyric input from John Lennon and George Harrison.  The striking string octet arranged by producer George Martin was the only instrumental accompaniment…something totally new to Rock.

3. I Want To Hold Your Hand / I Saw Her Standing There  This might be the most exciting and important single for The Beatles.  Both songs are bundles of energy that made The Beatles explode into America!  When these songs came on the radio near the end of 1963, they sounded like nothing else.  If you bought this single, you played both sides over and over.  “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was #1 for 7 weeks, and was only moved out of that position by “She Loves You”, which was then replaced at the top by “Can’t Buy Me Love”.  At that time, in April of 1964, The Beatles had the top 5 positions on the singles chart.  “I Saw Her Standing There” started with an excited count-in by Paul McCartney, and then rocked right on through to the end.  Some credit should go to Capitol Records.  Although they badly failed by  letting other labels release some of the earliest singles by The Beatles, choosing “I Saw Her Standing There” instead of the ballad “This Boy” (which was on the British single) added to the initial excitement of The Beatles’ arrival on the American airwaves.

2. Hey Jude / Revolution  When The Beatles launched Apple Records at the time of The White Album in 1968, they chose these two songs as the first Apple single.  Paul McCartney originally wrote “Hey Jude” with Jules in the title, because he was reaching out to Julian Lennon after his parents, John and Cynthia, divorced.  “Hey Jude” remained at #1 for 9 weeks in 1968.  That’s the longest a Beatles song held the top spot.  The song remains extremely popular, and has often been chosen by Paul McCartney to close arena and stadium concerts.  Before “Revolution” became the choice for the single, it was reworked.  The Beatles decided the original version (“Revolution 1”) was too slow.  The song was turned into one of John Lennon’s best rockers!  This combination of songs certainly could be the #1 single, but the next one is also very special.

1. Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever  Of all The Beatles singles, this may be the one that’s hardest to decide which song is the best.  Yes, McCartney’s “Penny Lane” was #1 and Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” was #8, but that’s probably due to “Strawberry Fields” being so original and experimental.

Some years later, Lennon looked back on his time with The Beatles and said it seemed like when he introduced songs to the group, they decided it was time to try new things.  By most accounts, it was Lennon himself who requested innovative techniques and experimentation.  In preparation for this article, I found  there are 32 recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles in my digital music collection.  They include demos, alternate takes, various stages of layering instruments, remasters, and remixes.  It’s amazing how The Beatles and George Martin created such an original final recording.

“Penny Lane” also went through many stages, and in its own way is as innovative as Lennon’s song.  The complex arrangement includes four keyboards…3 pianos and a harmonium…all used for different textures.  The song has brass, woodwinds, key changes, unusual melody choices, and some surreal lyrics.  One of the most unique touches is a piccolo trumpet.  It’s high clear classical sound was completely new to Rock.

The original mix of “Penny Lane” sent to radio stations included a final seven-note piccolo trumpet flourish at the start of the song’s long last note.  However, the released single didn’t include that trumpet ending.  You can hear it on the alternate version on the Anthologies.   The early “radio version” was on The Beatles Rarities album, which I bought in 1980.  Once I heard it, my mind added that trumpet flourish every time I listened to the regular version of “Penny Lane”.  When the 2015 remix came out, I placed a digital copy in Garage Band and added the trumpet ending.  It’s the version I listen to the most.

(Some colored vinyl jukebox singles from 1987, plus a picture disc.)

Now…what are the best singles if we look at the songs individually?

  1. Yesterday
  2. Eleanor Rigby
  3. Hey Jude
  4. Let It Be
  5. Penny Lane
  6. Strawberry Fields Forever
  7. Can’t Buy Me Love
  8. I Want To Hold Your Hand
  9. And I Love Her
  10. Nowhere Man

Okay, that’s impossible.  There are so many Beatles singles that could be put on that list.  There’ll never be a definitive top 10.  The Beatles had 21 #1 singles, and a total of 46 Top 40 singles during their active years.

In America, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, and The White Album had no singles released from them.  Plus, other Beatles albums contain so many more quality tracks.

Imagine how many hit singles there could have been!

Bonus List:  Here’s my “No Singles” playlist.  It contains some songs (chronologically) The Beatles did not release on singles in America (1962-1970).

  1.  All My Loving
  2. This Boy
  3. Things We Said Today
  4. I’ll Follow The Sun
  5. I’ll Be Back
  6. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
  7. Drive My Car
  8. Norwegian Wood
  9. Michelle
  10.  In My Life
  11.  For No One
  12.  Here, There And Everywhere
  13.  Good Day Sunshine
  14.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  15.  With A Little Help From My Friends
  16.  Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
  17.  When I’m Sixty-Four
  18.  A Day In The Life
  19.  Magical Mystery Tour
  20.  The Fool On The Hill
  21.  Back In The U.S.S.R.
  22.  Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da
  23.  While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  24.  Blackbird
  25.  I Will
  26.  Two Of Us
  27.  Here Comes The Sun

For more, check out the article:  The Beatles…Singles Left Off Albums.

Sgt. Pepper…Best Album Ever?

For decades, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has topped most lists of the best albums.  Should it?

Some fans don’t even think it’s the best Beatles album, with Revolver and Rubber Soul mentioned the most (articles on those two are also on this site).  But, let’s take a close look at why Sgt. Pepper has been so highly thought of through the years.

The Sgt. Pepper recording sessions started on November 24th, 1966.  By then, The Beatles had stopped touring, and they’d barely seen each other for about two months.  John Lennon said that after acting in a film, How I Won The War, he was especially happy to get back with his friends.  Earlier that year, The Beatles had recorded the extremely innovative Revolver album in which they had cleverly utilized the recording studio in many new ways.  So, what was the next step?

The first song to be recorded was John Lennon’s  “Strawberry Fields Forever”.  It’s now considered one of his best songs, but at the time, it seemed strange.  The song started with a Mellotron (an early synthesizer) , which was a new sound.  It had a varied-speed vocal that sounded a bit weird, and psychedelic elements (backwards cymbals, a swarmandal [Indian harp]) that were definitely foreign to listeners.  “Strawberry Fields Forever” deserves a full article, but we’ll move on to the next major song, “Penny Lane”.

With John referencing a place he played during his childhood (the garden of a Salvation Army children’s home), it triggered memories for Paul McCartney about another place they knew, Penny Lane.  The song turned into an energetic description of the sights and sounds in that area of Liverpool.  “Penny Lane” has a great feel, and an excellent arrangement using a wide variety of instruments, including a piccolo trumpet in a classical music style.

The Beatles kept recording more songs, but EMI and Capitol thought it had been too long since The Beatles had released anything, so they pushed the band for a single.  The Beatles agreed to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a double A-side single (February, 1967).  It’s one of the best 45-rpm releases by The Beatles (along with “Hey Jude”/“Revolution”).  “Penny Lane” hit #1 in Billboard, with “Strawberry Fields” #8.  Producer George Martin said one of his biggest disappointments was that they didn’t hold the two songs for the Sgt. Pepper album.  Today, most people probably add the songs to their Sgt. Pepper playlists.

The title for the album came from Paul’s idea that calling themselves Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would allow them to approach music from a different perspective.  Paul wrote the title song that rocks the opening of the  album, and then introduces us to Billy Shears (played by Ringo Starr).  He sings “With A Little Help From My Friends”, which is probably Starr’s best vocal performance.

Although Sgt. Pepper could be thought of as a concept album, it really was more of a theme.  Some of the songs obviously fit…”Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”, “When I’m Sixty-Four”…but it was mainly that The Beatles really did open their minds (with a little help from their LSD) to extremely inventive musical arrangements with thoughtful lyrics…”She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You Without You”, “A Day In The Life”…and psychedelic visions…”Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, “Fixing A Hole”.

(Even the inner record sleeve was a psychedelic vision.)

The album was released on June 1st of 1967.  Dropping the needle on it was a memorable experience!  If you were musically aware at that time, you knew that nothing like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had ever been made.  It also seems impossible that an album with such complicated and intricate arrangements could have been created using a 4-track recording console!

The most complex song on the album is “A Day In The Life”.  The main part is John Lennon’s “I read the news today, oh boy” lyrics that creatively lay out stories as they were found in a newspaper.  Then there’s Paul McCartney’s middle-eight with the “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” part of an everyday life.  Although John normally gets most of the credit for the song, it’s actually a great example of The Beatles and George Martin working together.

Paul came up with the line “I’d love to turn you on”, as well as the sweeping orchestral crescendo that connects the song’s pieces and provides the big ending.  Of course George Martin turned the orchestral idea into reality, with a 40-piece orchestra overdubbed to sound like 160.  Ringo developed his own creative drumming and percussion that add so much to the underlying feel of the piece.  Some critics think “A Day In The Life” is The Beatles’ finest work.

(All photos can be enlarged with click or zoom)

Capitol Records certainly thought Sgt. Pepper was “The Greatest Ever!”…as you can see in the above promotional ad.  Let’s take another look at the song list:

  1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  2. A Little Help From My Friends
  3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
  4. Getting Better
  5. Fixing A Hole
  6. She’s Leaving Home
  7. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
  8. Within You Without You
  9. When I’m Sixty-Four
  10. Lovely Rita
  11. Good Morning Good Morning
  12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
  13. A Day In The Life

There can’t be any other album that contains no singles, yet has so many songs that are well known.  The imagination of the songs and the complicated arrangements stunned other musicians, because there had been nothing like it.  Many artists said it opened the door to greater musical possibilities and the full use of the recording studio.

Let’s imagine The Beatles did release singles from the album.

If the combination track “Sgt. Pepper/With A Little Help From My Friends” had been released on the same day as the album it wouldn’t have been a question of whether it would hit #1, the question would be for how many weeks.  The flip side could have been “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”.  The next single might have been “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” backed with “When I’m Sixty-Four”.  The final fantasy single would be “A Day In The Life” backed with “She’s Leaving Home”.

Stranger Things:  After this article was complete, I discovered I actually have a couple of singles with songs from Sgt. Pepper.  They were among some colored vinyl records we bought in 1987 that were meant for use in jukeboxes.  We had a jukebox, but never actually played these…they were just collectibles.

The “Sgt. Pepper/With A Little Help” single has “A Day In The Life” on the flip side.  The other one is just like the second single I proposed…”Lucy In The Sky” backed with “When I’m 64”.  They’d have been big hits in 1967!

St. Pepper was the first Beatles album to be released in exactly the same form in Britain and America.  Revolver and Rubber Soul were both missing songs in the U.S.  Now that they’re viewed in their complete forms, they’ve grown in stature.

So, is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the best album ever?  If you look at the impact it had on the culture and the advancement it made in the recording industry, the answer is…yes.  Beatles fans have their personal favorites.  Solid arguments can certainly be made for Revolver and Rubber Soul, and it seems the later generations of Beatle fans often choose Abbey Road.  Of course people who are not Beatles fans will make other choices for best album.

(All photos can be enlarged with a click or zoom)

Still, the quote at the very bottom of the back cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band probably sums up most people’s reaction to the album…”A splendid time is guaranteed for all”.

America…70’s Band Is Back

Something has made America great again.  It’s probably a combination of touring and a recent rash of interviews that’s returning them to popularity.

After their appearance on the CBS program Sunday Morning, I found America had the numbers 3 and 4 positions on the iTunes sales chart with their two greatest hits albums.  That’s pretty impressive for a band that had most of their hits from 1972 to 1976, and their last big hit in 1982.

Americans Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek (l-r above) were in London because their fathers were stationed at an Air Force base there.  After high school, the trio of singers, songwriters, and guitarists formed a band.  They called themselves America, so people wouldn’t think they were a British band trying to sound American.

In 1971, they recorded their self-titled first album at Trident studios in London.  America has ringing acoustic guitars and beautiful harmonies, but the album didn’t take off until they added one more song to it…”A Horse With No Name”.  The song is by Dewey Bunnell, and it went all the way to #1 on the Billboard singles chart in March of 1972.  It sounded amazingly similar to the song it replaced at the top…”Heart Of Gold”.  Honestly, it sounds like Dewey is channeling Neil Young.  America fit in perfectly with the music scene of CSN&Y and singer-songwriters, and the album went to #1 on the Billboard chart.

The second single from the album was “I Need You” (#9) by Gerry Beckley.

America then came back to the United States to record their appropriately titled second album, Homecoming, in Los Angeles.

It was still 1972.  Homecoming featured the singles “Ventura Highway” (#8) by Dewey Bunnell, and “Don’t Cross The River” (#35) by Dan Peek.  America won the “Best New Artist” Grammy at the 1973 awards ceremony.

Unfortunately, the third album Hat Trick produced no hits in 1973.

So, America went to London in 1974 to have The Beatles’ producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick help them with their fourth album, Holiday.

George Martin added the right touches, and America returned to the Top 10 singles chart with “Tin Man” (#4)  by Dewey Bunnell, and “Lonely People” (#5) by Dan Peek & his wife Catherine.  It was the only Top 10 single with Dan Peek as the songwriter and lead singer.  Both singles hit the top of the Adult Contemporary chart.  The album was also successful…#3 in Billboard.

Their hits continued in 1975 with two songs from Gerry Beckley…”Sister Golden Hair” (#1) and “Daisy Jane” (#20).  The album, Hearts, went to #4 in Billboard.  Also in 1975, America released their greatest hits album, History (they were naming all their albums so they started with an “H”).

The album was #3 and a multi-platinum success.

And then things started going downward.  Their 1976 album Hideaway did okay (#11), but didn’t produce any big hits.  The 1977 follow-up, Harbor, did worse (#21), and had no singles chart.  Dan Peek decided to leave the group to forge a solo career in the Christian Music genre.

America’s last real commercial success came 5 years later with the release of “You Can Do Magic”, a song written and produced by ex-Argent guitarist Russ Ballard.  “Magic” went up to #8 in 1982, and was the last big hit for America.

Fast forward 37 years to 2019.  After all those years of on-and-off touring and less than successful studio and live albums, America (with Dewey Bunnell & Gerry Beckley) is popular again.

I recently read a glowing review of one of their concerts (by a professional critic), and saw a very positive interview and profile on the CBS TV show Sunday Morning.  Their efforts have produced a nice bump in sales for their greatest hits albums.

America: The Complete Greatest Hits is the best collection available.  The song list has all 17 of their charting singles, including seven Top 10 hits, four more that made the Top 40, and some popular album cuts like “Sandman”.

(Click or zoom to enlarge the song list.)

If you haven’t listened to the music of America lately, you might want to stream or maybe download this album.  You may also want to go back and enjoy their breakthrough 1st album.  Of course if they’re in concert nearby, you could check them out, because apparently America is great…still.

Echo In The Canyon…Movie Review

The development of “The California Sound” started in the 1960’s in Laurel Canyon, a part of Los Angeles.  On the left side of the below  movie poster, you can see the artists who were interviewed, and on the right side are more current musicians who performed many of the era’s classic songs in a concert that was woven into the documentary.

Laurel Canyon was a neighborhood that was home to some of the most important music artists of the ‘60’s.  They included members of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & The Papas, and more.

The movie starts out with an interview with Tom Petty, who was one of the artists most influenced by the Laurel Canyon musicians and songwriters.  He explained and demonstrated how important the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was to the sound of The Byrds and The Beatles.  It’s so great that they interviewed Petty before we lost him. This film includes a lot of other important artists whose interviews will also be considered priceless someday.

Above is a performance by Jakob Dylan, Beck, and other musicians in front of a large screen showing The Byrds.  The song was “Goin’ Back” a Byrds track that was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.  It was the best performance of the film.  Even though I would have enjoyed more archival footage of the original bands playing their songs, it was good to see another generation adding their own touches to the classic songs.

Musicians being interviewed by Jakob Dylan, such as Roger McGuinn and David Crosby above, provided the best moments.  All of the artists opened up about insightful and often humorous events that humanized the time when magical music was coming from the canyon.

Eric Clapton told the story of hanging out at Stephen Stills’ house along with members of Buffalo Springfield (shown above).  Clapton says when neighbors complained about the music being too loud, police officers stopped by.  Because marijuana was being illegally used, Stills slipped out the back of the house.  Stephen Stills embarrassingly confirmed he had abandoned his friends.  Of course the most interesting part is that English musicians like Clapton, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison visited Laurel Canyon and were friends with many of the musicians there.  There was a lot of sharing of musical ideas between the Brits and the Americans.

Michelle Phillips Of The Mamas & The Papas was very candid.  While married to John Phillips, she had an affair with the group’s other male vocalist, Denny Doherty.  She says “Go Where You Wanna Go” (and do what you wanna do)  was written by John as a response to Michelle’s infidelity.  A decade later in Los Angeles, Lindsey Buckingham wrote “Go Your Own Way” after his breakup with Stevie Nicks.  It would also be appropriate to do Echo In The Canyon Volume 2 that focused on all of the 1970’s artists who lived in that same area…the Eagles, Jackson Browne, CSN&Y, Linda Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, and more.

If you have an interest in the music and artists represented in this film, it’s really “can’t miss”.  The 90-minute run-time seemed a little short, but there was a good sample of all that “California Dreamin’” that emanated from Laurel Canyon.

Yesterday Movie Review (no spoilers)

The trailer for the movie Yesterday came out in February, and the film finally arrived in theaters at the end of June.  (Note:  It’s now available for streaming.)

The main character, Jack (Himesh Patel), is a struggling musician.  After his bicycle is hit by a bus during a world-wide power outage, he wakes up to find out he’s the only one who even knows The Beatles existed.  He uses Beatles songs as if he had written them, and becomes famous (as shown in the trailer).  Besides that high concept, the main story is the relationship between him and his manager/girlfriend Ellie (Lily James).  Both actors are excellent in these roles.

(All photos by Universal)

So how was the movie?   My wife & I loved it.  (We went a second time 3 weeks later with our daughter-in-law and grandson [12]…who’s been listening to a lot of Beatles music lately.)

You can tell the makers of the movie have great affection for The Beatles, and even though this is a romantic comedy, the legacy of The Beatles is never tarnished in any way.

The excitement of The Beatles (”I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “She Loves You”) and the beauty of their songs (”Yesterday”, “In My Life”) are both there.  Of course Jack is not as good as The Beatles, but the songs still shine.

Helping Jack along the way are Ed Sheeran (as a version of himself), and Sheeran’s manager (played by Kate McKinnon).  Sheeran does a great job, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets more acting roles.  McKinnon is funny as the obviously greedy manager.

The movie also has it’s heart in the right place, and there are some very nicely surprising scenes I won’t spoil.  You’ll be glad you didn’t read any spoilers.

By the way, one of the scenes from the first trailer was eliminated from the movie.  You may have seen where Jack is asked to “write something” on James Corden’s Late Late Show.  Of course Jack writes George Harrison’s “Something” right there.  The scene was cut to eliminate the female character (actress Ana de Armas) Jack was singing to on the show.  The writer and director decided they didn’t want to add a romantic figure in Jack’s life who could interfere with his main relationship with Ellie.

There have been some reviewers who wanted the movie to dig into things such as…would The Beatles’ songs still be relevant to today’s young people?…but that’s another movie (maybe a documentary), and this is just a fun fantasy!  This weekend’s movie goers have rated the movie highly (90% approval), and it won the audience prize at the Montclair film festival.

So, if you love The Beatles and good romantic comedies, do yourself a favor, and see “Yesterday”…it’ll make all your troubles seem so far away.