Since my audience is largely American, relatively few people will be reading The Alt Rock Chick over Thanksgiving weekend. My former compatriots will be heavily involved in the two great American sports of eating and shopping, so I thought I’d slip this one in while no one was looking to fix a hole in my Beatles catalog. You know, where the rain gets in . . . my mind has been wandering lately . . . I need to stop that.
While I’ve retained my American citizenship, I can no longer ethically claim a membership in American society. However, I have compensated for that loss by earning membership in a more exclusive group. I’m now one of the few people outside of George Martin’s immediate family who has listened to Yellow Submarine in its entirety three times.
Not counting musicals (most of which I loathe anyway), there aren’t too many movie soundtracks that make for great listening experiences when separated from the film. The two I like most are Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Mishima and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for Milk. Yellow Submarine doesn’t even accurately reflect the music in the film. Why include “All You Need Is Love” and not “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?” The best song on the album was cut from most versions of the initial release of the film, the clip restored thirty years later in the flood of re-released Beatles material. Even the George Martin orchestral contributions are not technically accurate reproductions of what you hear in the film, since the versions on the album weren’t recorded until after the film was released. Only two of The Beatle songs you hear were written specifically for the film; two others were retreads and the last two had been gathering dust in the Abbey Road vaults.
The movie isn’t bad, but I’m sure it meant more to the people who grew up in that era than it does to a millenial looking backwards. It presents highly sanitized versions of the lovable moptops as they embark on a quest to free an undersea paradise called Pepperland from the anti-music, anti-happiness, anti-beauty Blue Meanies. The Beatles save the day by playing music and the Blue Meanies are defeated. I suppose the Blue Meanies represented the straights, The Establishment and/or the pigs and The Beatles everything that is right with the world. The animation is clever and quite advanced for the time. It’s really a film for children and for the inner child lurking about in the psychological clutter of the adult population, a psychedelic version of The Wizard of Oz. If I had a kid, I would allow it, and I’d give a very honest reply when he or she asked, “Mommy, what do they mean when they sing, ‘Can I take my friend to bed?’ Is their friend sick?”
The album is conveniently divided into two distinct sides, one with Beatle performances and the other with George Martin’s contributions. The Beatle side is bookended with the title track and “All You Need Is Love.” Of the other four songs, two are less-than-stellar efforts. “All Together Now” sounds like something McCartney knocked off in thirty seconds; it’s a simple singalong song that’s neither offensive nor stimulating. “Only a Northern Song” is George Harrison whining about not getting the attention nor the royalties earned by his more talented mates for his relatively weak songwriting efforts, with a few stray metaphysical phrases and weird sounds thrown in for good measure. Originally intended for Sgt. Pepper, George Martin put his foot down, told Harrison it wasn’t good enough and dropped it from the album, a wise decision that left Harrison childishly miffed. The song sucks lyrically, melodically and instrumentally, and George should be grateful that they apparently couldn’t come up with anything else to cover the “Sea of Science” segment in the movie.
The two songs that are worth the price of admission are “Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much.”
Geoff Emerick describes the experience of “Hey Bulldog” as the last time he had any fun working with The Beatles. A few weeks after the recording (made during the filming of the promo video for “Lady Madonna”) they would wander off to India and come back a fragmented, grumpy bunch. While they still made a few good records, they lost their playfulness and began to take themselves too seriously. In spirit, The Beatles on “Hey Bulldog” are The Beatles goofing off on the playing fields in A Hard Day’s Night, but by this time their awareness of musical possibilities had expanded exponentially.
The musical structure of “Hey Bulldog” is fascinating on many levels. Much is made about this being one of the few piano riff songs in The Beatles’ catalog, but I think the more important consideration is that they use the seventh chord (B7) as the root and never resolve it to the tonic chord (B major). Seventh chords are primarily used in blues and rock to create tension that leads to resolution—the listener feels a sense of satisfaction when that last line of a blues song hangs on a seventh chord for a moment before coming back to the tonic, where the song began (B7-E, for example). By maintaining the 7th chord as the baseline, The Beatles gave “Hey Bulldog” an edginess that lasts throughout. The upward chord sequence you hear on the bridge to the chorus (the “You can talk to me” lines) is a simple trick, but a very effective one: all they do is take the Bm chord and move the perfect fifth (the F#) up two half-steps per measure (Bm, Bm5, Bm6, Bm7) then do the same when they shift to the complementary Em (Em, Em5, Em6, Em7). This sequence amplifies the dramatic tension already inherent in the root 7th chord. Another way of explaining the tension is that the song is written in the key of B major but we never hear the B major chord we expect to hear—we only hear its neighbors, B7 and Bm (and variations of Bm).
John’s vocal, especially on the bridge, reminds us that he was one of the great rock ‘n’ roll vocalists of them all, and his energetic piano is an absolute gas. George steps up and nails the solo (Emerick mentioned it’s one of the few times he got it right from the start), and Ringo adds his usual punch and flair. But the centerpiece here is clearly Paul McCartney’s awe-inspiring work on the bass guitar. Some time during The Beatles’ peak creative period beginning in late 1965, McCartney started a practice of remaining in the studio after the others had gone to work out bass parts and experiment with the potential of the instrument. The hard work paid off on many songs during this period, and “Hey Bulldog” is clearly a tour-de-force performance. “Paul’s bass line was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was really well-played,” wrote Emerick. Here’s a version with the other instruments dampened so you can hear how nimble, inventive and still intensely rhythmic Paul could be:
George was apparently in a much better mood when he wrote “It’s All Too Much.” It’s not as complex as “Hey Bulldog” but is nonetheless an exciting piece with a celebratory feel (according to The Beatles Bible it was written under the influence of acid). It’s basically a drone song that sticks pretty much to the tonic G with added fourths and ninths, permitting the melody to float easily over the music. The instrumentation is not as extensive as it sounds; other than the usual Beatle instruments, we hear trumpets, a bass clarinet and a few stray small percussion pieces. The fullness of the arrangement is extensively aided by feedback, from the opening slash of guitar to the sustained high-pitched moan that runs through the “silver sun” verse. One other feature in this song is prominent, a classic Beatles technique, but a very engaging one nonetheless: hand-clapping. “It’s All Too Much” is one of the best feel-good songs in the Beatles catalog, and a perfect ending to a film with such an upbeat message.
George Martin’s contributions have been ignored by the listening public and deserve a better fate. This is not the crap that United Artists stuffed into the U. S. version of Help! “Pepperland” is the most tame of the seven pieces, a lush and rather formal piece that could have fit easily into the soundtrack of an Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy set in an Americanized version of Europe. “Sea of Time” opens with Indian instrumentation and flashes of “Within You, Without You” before shifting to a waltz with interesting syncopation. The piece takes several turns from dreamy and childlike to curious and mysterious before fading on lush strings. “Sea of Holes” is my favorite piece because it implies such striking imagery. Here Martin supplements strings and oboe with the backwards effects common in Beatle music of the period and foreshadows some of the work of Philip Glass with sudden increases in dynamics.
In “Sea of Monsters,” Martin uses the backwards recording technique on instruments like trombone and cymbals to create the sucking effect of the vacuum monster, but the piece loses its feel when he changes the mood by reverting to full strings and inserts a fragment from Bach’s “Air on the G String.” “March of the Meanies” contrasts the sweet tone of marimba with insistent rhythms from strings and brass to create the necessary ominous introduction, then takes a sizable leap in dynamics to intensify the semi-martial air. “Pepperland Lays Waste” effectively recreates the eerie, colorless visuals through slightly dissonant combinations of strings, flute trills and subdued repetitions of “Pepperland” themes. “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” is a rather anti-climactic end to the orchestral diversions.
All in all, I found it quite interesting to listen to the orchestral side while commuting on the Paris Metro. There was one point where the ominous tones of “March of the Meanies” began as we approached a popular stop and people began subtly jostling for position while pretending not to jostle, then BLAM! the door opens and it’s every Meanie for him or herself.
Yellow Submarine will never make any Best of the Beatles lists, but with two of their most exuberant songs and a pleasant diversion in the form of George Martin’s contributions, it’s a long way from being a ripoff.
Happy Black Friday to my American friends, and please try not to get injured in the madness of the season.
My parents and I were having a mid-afternoon breakfast after staying up all night to watch game three of the 2013 World Series. After a summary debate on the interference call against Will Middlebrooks that gave the Cardinals the win, the conversation naturally shifted to music. My dad brought up my recent review of Roy Orbison, waxing lyrical over his golden voice.
What a marvelous phrase: “wax lyrical.” I know it well because my father constantly waxes lyrical. The last album he heard is nearly always the greatest album ever made. Due to his penchant for lyrical waxing, he would be the worst music critic in history, but I do love his enthusiasm.
Anyway, he was talking about The Beatles’ experience on tour with Orbison and how one of them mentioned that they hated following Roy because he would go out there and just “slay” the audience (it was Ringo, I reminded him). Language-sensitive bitch that I am, I was struck by the use of the word “slay” in the context of enjoying someone’s music. After quietly pondering whether the classic sex-death metaphor could be extended to a music-death metaphor, having already established the music-sex link several times in my reviews, I cleared my head and rejoined the conversation with the first question that came to mind.
“Did you ever see a singer who slayed you?” I asked my parents, expecting a pause, a long list or a debate.
“Phoebe Snow!” they immediately cried in unison.
I sat there with my mouth agape, having fortunately swallowed the last bite of omelet before agaping. Though their tastes are generally similar, it’s rare to hear my parents in total agreement about anything having to do with music. My father’s lyrical waxing always butts heads with my mother’s pristine precision. Dad will listen to something like Eldorado and say to maman, “Eldorado was the best thing ELO ever did.” My mother will respond, “Perhaps,” and then remind him how “Boy Blue” repeats the verse pattern over and over to the point of irritation. She might then suggest that On the Third Day could be the better album, and my dad would look at her like she was crazy, largely because he hadn’t listened to On the Third Day that morning, so it couldn’t possibly be ELO’s best album.
Not this time. Total, instantaneous agreement. I let them both wax lyrical about Phoebe for a while, describing the almost orgasmic responses from the crowd when she allowed her voice to rise in a glorious crescendo, and claiming that no popular singer’s vibrato was as strong and consistent. At the end of the wax job, they both insisted that I write a review of her début album.
I didn’t put up an argument. I hadn’t heard the album in a while but I’d always thought it was one of the great debuts of all time. I think the reason I’d avoided it is because Phoebe Snow’s back story makes me feel sad and frustrated. A month before the release of her follow-up album, the superb Second Childhood, she gave birth to a daughter with brain damage. Phoebe refused to place her in an institution, and eventually her sense of parental responsibility forced her to first limit and then temporarily suspend an extraordinarily promising music career. The frustration piece comes from the fact that she had the talent and imagination to cross and combine several genres in her music, yet record companies and critics kept trying to shoehorn her into one or another (The Rolling Stone Record Guide acknowledged her talent but complained, “The question that’s still unanswered is how best to channel such talent.”)
They should have just let Phoebe be Phoebe. She was fucking marvelous.
There are few more inviting album openers than Phoebe’s take on Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Featuring a more swaying and on-beat punctuated rhythm than the original, it feels like you’ve walked into someone’s living room where the musicians are kicking back, sucking beers and having a grand old time. Phoebe’s glissandi are amazing, dashing up and down multiple octaves, balancing exuberance with grace. The backing vocals from The Persuasions are simply outstanding, moving ahead and behind the melody with rich and sometimes surprising harmonies.
Phoebe wrote most of the songs on the album, and “Harpo’s Blues” proves she had much more talent than you hear in her voice. A wistful tune with jazz sensibilities in the chords and supporting instrumentation (Zoot Sims on sax and the great Teddy Wilson on the ivories), Phoebe stays within a fairly narrow range, focusing the listener on her exceptional gift for phrasing and her unique command of vibrato. The lyrics display a gift for thematic unity: when we listen to the first two verses describing a series of wishes, we’re not exactly sure what is motivating the wishing. We get a hint in the bridge, where the music shifts appropriately to the minor key and the lyrics describe feelings of inner rage and fear. The first couplet in the last verse ties all the wishes together, leading to the sad and stark dénouement:
I wish I was willow
And I could sway to the music in the wind
I wish I was a lover
I wouldn’t need my costumes and pretend
I wish I was a mountain
I’d pass boldly through the clouds and never end
I wish I was a soft refrain
When the lights were out I’d play and be your friend
I strut and fret my hour upon the stage
The hour is up
I have to run and hide my rage
I’m lost again, I think I’m really scared
I won’t be back at all this time
And have my deepest secrets shared
I’d like to be a willow a lover
A mountain or a soft refrain
But I’d hate to be a grown-up
And have to try to bear my life in pain
“Poetry Man” was Phoebe’s signature song and big hit, and deservedly so. The musical environment created by acoustic guitar, shimmering bells, bass and piano splashes is as warm and enveloping as a shared sauna on a frigid night. Phoebe’s vocal is as smooth as 100-year old tawny port, even as she rises and falls between octaves. Once again, her songwriting craftsmanship is on full display as she describes what seems to be a romantic and playful relationship where the woman feels herself flipping from giggling teenager to “sultry vamp” in the presence of this intensely alluring man. As in “Harpo’s Blues,” Phoebe saves the twist in the plot for the finish:
So, once again
It’s time to say so long
And so recall the lull of life
You’re going home now
Home’s that place somewhere you go each day
To see your wife, to see your wife
Now we see the giddy and bubbly feelings expressed in the early verses (“You make me laugh/’Cause your eyes they light the night” and “You bashful boy/You’re hiding something sweet/Please give it to me”) through a different lens. As long as the woman gets her fix of “something sweet,” she can survive “the lull of life” when she goes to bed alone. A brilliant piece of songwriting on every level, “Poetry Man” is even better than its billing.
Equally brilliant in a different sense, “Either or Both” describes the love-hate relationship every woman I know has with herself. Sometimes I’ll look at myself in the mirror and say, “Damn, you are one hot fucking bitch!” while at other times I’ll want to smash the mirror in frustration. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll be really “on” and words will leap off my fingers; other times I’ll stare at a screen in the same way John Cleese did at the parked car in that Monty Python sketch where he plays the dumb boxer. Phoebe captures this bipolar state of mind perfectly, with wonderfully vivid contrasts:
Sometimes these hands get so clumsy
That I drop things and people laugh
Sometimes these hands seem so graceful
I can see them signin’ autographs . . .
Sometimes this face looks so funny
That I hide it behind a book
But sometimes this face has so much class
That I have to sneak a second look
Her vibrato on this piece is the best on the album, for the oscillation reflects the wavering in the soul. The slide guitar is nice playful addition to the mix, and the sound of Phoebe harmonizing with Phoebe is one of the most precious human sounds you’ll ever hear.
Next Phoebe covers one-man band Jesse Fuller’s most famous contribution, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” proving she was one hell of a blues singer on top of all her other gifts. Her vertical movement is far beyond the reach of average and above-average singers, and any attempt to emulate her might result in permanent damage to a normal human’s vocal cords. For Phoebe, it’s “natch.” “I Don’t Want the Night to End” follows, a “life in New York” piece from a solitary woman’s perspective. It’s an interesting piece, but there’s a small segment in the middle where the engineers added echo to Phoebe’s voice on the “baby, baby, baby” refrain. Hello? That’s natural vibrato, dickheads. Why did you have to mess with it? Grrrrrrr . . . .
There’s no such interference with the naturally flowing melody of “Take Your Children Home,” a song with a fascinating chord progression that maintains the tension through the verses until we come to resolution in the chorus. The congas give the piece a pleasant Latin feel and Phoebe rides that groove like she’s floating down a gentle river on a warm summer day. This is one of the few songs I’ve heard where I don’t freak out at the sound of a harp, an instrument that causes me to have bad dreams of floating on the clouds with thousands of cleanly-scrubbed white people wearing perpetual smiles. The person responsible for my change of heart is the late Margaret Ross, the greatest harp session woman of all time, who appears on several albums by jazz luminaries such as Gil Evans and Wes Montgomery.
“It Must Be Sunday” is a bluesy-folk-jazz mix with fabulous splashes of saxophone by Zoot Sims. Phoebe Snow was brilliant at capturing mood, and in this song she captures the empty feeling that comes from living in a self-absorbed society, adding a dash of cynicism that such emptiness generates. The musical tenor of the song is dark-of-the-morning before last call; the lyrics are like an animated Dali painting:
There’s a man who loved so hard
He was like a billboard grin
He toasted life and beauty
‘Til his head began to spin
He pressed his cheek
On rainwashed streets
And he wept into his gin
And he came back as himself again
This magnificent début album ends with the up-tempo “No Show Tonight,” introducing a funk variation to this marvelous mix and giving Phoebe one last chance to fly. How she can go from her natural contralto to the unvoiced soprano so fluidly is still a mystery to me, but the secret may be in the effortlessness itself. Phoebe Snow sang as if there were no interference between what was in her spirit and where she wanted her voice to go, a state that very few vocalists manage to achieve.
Like Lou Gehrig, Phoebe Snow got a bad break. Unlike Lou Gehrig, her bad break happened at the start of her career, meaning we can only imagine what she might have achieved in music had fortune gone her way. Although her personal tragedy represented a great loss to music, we shouldn’t downplay her greater achievement: to put her career and her dreams aside to care for the daughter who could not care for herself. Phoebe Snow was a unique, one-of-a-kind musical talent, and also a loving and responsible mother who chose to sacrifice her wishes for someone who needed her. As beautiful as her music is, that choice was even more beautiful.