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.
He’d had so many hit songs and people could sit and listen to him all night. He didn’t have to do anything, he didn’t have to wiggle his legs, in fact he never even twitched, he was like marble. The only things that moved were his lips—even when he hit those high notes he never strained. He was quite a miracle, unique.
In the early 1960’s, there was Roy Orbison and there was Everybody Else.
Everybody Else loved formulas. Everyone Else believed in Henry Ford’s theories of interchangeable parts and standardization. Everybody Else applied those sciences to the manufacture and exploitation of teenage fads from surf music to car music to dance crazes. There was The Twist (plain and peppermint), The Mash (plain and monster), The Loco-motion, The Watusi. Novelty songs exploiting the same market also gained favor. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” sold over a million copies in only two months. R&B still showed signs of life, but rock and roll had lost its edge. All the great early rockers were either disgraced, dearly departed or had disappeared from the scene.
In the midst of this musical wasteland, a song of stunning originality appeared on the airwaves. Teenagers of the time heard the intro and probably thought that The Fleetwoods had come out with another of their soft harmonic hits . . . until they heard a voice like no other.
That voice belonged to Roy Orbison and the song was “Only the Lonely.” It is still one of the greatest male vocal performances in rock history and my personal favorite. I never play “Only the Lonely” in the background; that would be sacrilege. When the urge comes over me, I wrap my headphones around my ears, close my eyes and lose myself in the glorious flow of that heavenly voice with its incredible range.
“Only the Lonely” did nothing to improve the general quality of pop music of the era; its influence would have more impact on the upcoming wave of folk rockers and British invaders. The music gurus of the early 60’s were rather thick and unimaginative, their minds focused on duplication and replication rather than new directions. The problem they faced with Roy Orbison is that his music defied both convention and practicality. First, his songs didn’t follow the tried-and-true structure of hit pop songs. Second, finding singers with a four-octave range was a virtual impossibility. Generally, the moguls considered Roy Orbison’s success an outlier and went back to the manufacture of the tried-and-true.
The experience of The Beatles illustrates the Orbison challenge. Originally, “Please, Please Me” was written in the “Orbison style.” John Lennon specifically cited “Only the Lonely” as the primary source. When George Martin heard it, he told them to speed it up, and the rest is history. Had The Beatles been saddled with a producer with limited imagination and lousy ears, they might have released a pale imitation, a clunker instead of the sound of a new direction in pop music.
The moral of the story is: you can’t copy Roy Orbison, but you can learn from him.
The Playlist contribution to the ever-expanding list of Orbison compilations is an excellent starting point for those who want to begin to explore this fascinating artist. It contains most of his major hits and some minor hits that deserve more attention. The one complaint I have with this volume is that in a lame attempt to cater to people with no sense of history, the album opens with “You Got It” from the late 1980’s. Harrumph! This album should have opened with “Only the Lonely,” period. Some of the other songs are presented out of sequence as well. While this is a problem easily corrected by changing the track order on an iTunes playlist, I would condemn the people who made this decision to burn in the everlasting fires of hell if I believed in such a place. The progression of an artist’s development tells a story best told in a linear fashion; therefore, I’ve started my review with “Only the Lonely” and will now proceed to describe the evolution of Roy Orbison in its proper order.
“Running Scared”: Roy does Ravel! Using the rhythms of Bolero as a starting point, this song is also noteworthy for defying stereotypes and another superhuman vocal performance. First, when Everyone Else depicted males as macho guys who didn’t take any shit from sluts like Runaround Sue and whose primary goal was to tame the Wild One, Roy Orbison played himself: a shy, insecure young man terrified of not measuring up. In this case, he’s worried that his gal’s old flame will show up and steal her away, which only goes to show that the general perception of male-female relationships at the time was essentially Neanderthal: the girl would always choose the guy who could beat up the other guy (I could have said “the guy with the bigger club,” but I don’t think they had sex back then, so the metaphor would be inappropriate). Roy, with his thick glasses and weakling persona, lived in terror of getting sand kicked in his face by the buff beach stud, and that persona resonated with many boys and girls who probably struggled against the taboo forbidding men from showing vulnerability. The other thing that is remarkable is the vocal, best described in this passage from Roy’s Wikipedia article:
Orbison encountered difficulty when he found himself unable to hit the song’s highest note without his voice breaking. He was backed by an orchestra in the studio and Porter told him he would have to sing louder than his accompaniment because the orchestra was unable to be softer than his voice. Fred Foster then put Orbison in the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks in an improvised isolation booth to emphasize his voice. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes, but in the third, he abandoned the idea of using falsetto and sang the final high A naturally, so astonishing everyone present that the accompanying musicians stopped playing. On that third take, “Running Scared” was completed. Fred Foster later recalled, “He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before.”
“Love Hurts”: Well, the good kind hurts! Sadly, Roy was not an early proselytizer of BDSM, but he delivers another mesmerizing vocal anyway. This old Everly Brothers tune was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who, like Roy, loved to mess with the formula: verse/brief refrain/verse/brief refrain/bridge/half a verse/refrain. It may not be standard structure but it’s a great example of poetic economy creating a satisfying whole.
“Crying”: I’d rate this one #2 behind “Only the Lonely” and give him extra kudos for adding a post-chorus to the chorus. Roy was obviously not trained in proper composition, praise the lord, and his intuitive feel for the direction a song needs to take always evokes my deepest admiration. Though this vocal uses more falsetto than usual, and defies structural expectations, it still flows like long blonde hair in a soft breeze. Gorgeous.
“Dream Baby”: A cover song written by a country gal named Cindy Walker, Roy spices it up with a touch of soul and a tiny bit of macho moxie. The slightly peppy tempo is a nice break for him. Sometimes the arrangement sounds a little too canned, but not intolerably so.
“In Dreams”: It is impossible to separate this song from the sociopathic disturbance of a film called “Blue Velvet.” Dean Stockwell gives a thoroughly slimy performance lip-syncing Roy for the seriously demented Dennis Hopper, eerily echoing Charles Manson’s gross misinterpretation of “Helter Skelter.” I hate the movie for its pointless violence and distortion of sadomasochism, and I hate it all the more for ruining a lovely song with tremendous build and a paradigm-smashing structure of seven non-repeated movements. Fuck you, David Lynch . . . but I’ll play the damned video anyway.
“Blue Bayou”: Talk about idealization! Hot, humid, thick with mosquitoes and all forms of slimy creepy crawlers, the Louisiana bayous are the last place on earth I’d want to spend my time. In that sense, the song speaks to the enduring pull and allure of one’s home, even if it is a muggy, fish-stinking shithole filled with people speaking distorted French. I think Roy’s version communicates more homesickness than Linda Ronstadt’s take, but hers does have greater power.
“Borne on the Wind”: Roy switches songwriting partners, dumping Joe Melson for Bill Dees. Let’s just say that the partnership hasn’t quite gelled yet. The song mingles Ravel with flamenco in a horrid arrangement of Ray Conniff-like strings and angelic vocals. It might have worked for Jay and the Americans, but here it almost sounds like a spoof of the great man. Where’s “Leah,” or “Mean Woman Blues,” or “Candy Man?” Bad choice, guys.
“It’s Over”: This made it to #1 in the UK and #9 in the states, but damned if I know why. While Roy projects much more energy than on “Borne on the Wind” and the dramatic aspect of the song is there, those sappy strings and angelic choruses reappear like a bad dream. Perhaps it connected with the audience because it has a similar feel to the earlier operatic performances, but It leaves me flat. Gee, I really think it’s time for Roy to shake things up a bit and maybe do something other than the self-fulfilling prophecies of the guy who always winds up going home alone.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”: Roy gets the girl! Roy gets the girl! Even more surprising—because it’s difficult to conjure up an image of Roy Orbison without a big fat guitar—this is the first song on the album that starts with a guitar riff (and a memorable one to boot). Once again, Roy stands out from the crowd (at that time the British Invasion bands who were filling the airwaves) and knocks it way, way out of the park. Bob Dylan described Orbison’s songwriting style as “songs within songs,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” is a classic example. The internal dialogue that forms the narrative describes a range of emotions, from attraction to hope to despair to confidence. The structure is typically complex, with a double bridge and a beautifully theatrical, slightly varied extension of the verse as the pretty woman seems to be departing into the night. Up until the very end, every Orbison fan of the time just knew he had no fucking chance whatsoever of landing the lady and would wind up going home for a late night session with his right hand and a copy of Playboy.
“But wait!” The band goes quiet and all we hear is the steady drum beat, like a throbbing heart. “What do I see?” Then the riff returns, and in this context its rising notes sound like a question, or a faint sign of hope. “Is she walking back to me?” YES! Go for it, Roy, go for it!
Postscript: I don’t think much of the tiger growl, but I love how he belts out “Mercy!” after seeing this paragon of female beauty. I read that this was his typical outburst when he missed a note, but in this context, it’s pure libido. I often react that way when I see a hot bitch, which brings up a feature of bisexual women that is often overlooked. Guys! When you’re with a bi-chick, you don’t have to pretend that you’re not checking out the babes. She’ll be checking them out, too! There’s no harm in looking when your girl is looking, too! Free yourself from guilt and find a switch-hitting sweetheart!
“Goodnight”: I guess it was impossible for Roy to see himself as a lady-killer for long, so he gives us this song about a girl who cheats on him. Well, he deserved it, calling her a “woman child.” What the fuck is that? Too many Orbisonian conventions on this song, so skip it.
“(Say) You’re My Girl”: A song that definitely shows that this first stage of Roy Orbison’s career has run its course. Driven by a terrible beat that calls up images of go-go dancers on Hullabaloo, this tune shows that Roy is now a follower, and not a very good follower at that.
“You Got It”: His reputation revitalized by the ghoulish Mr. Lynch, his confidence restored by the experience of The Traveling Wilburys, Roy finds himself back on top with his first hit in twenty-four years. Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty played on this tune, and though it is a tad overproduced, the energy in Roy’s voice is unmistakably joyful. Good for him!
“She’s a Mystery to Me”: Written by that dreary narcissist Bono, Roy delivers a passable performance with a song that really doesn’t flow very well and leaves Roy in the low register for too long. Instead of a smooth build to the higher register where he has more room to maneuver, the transition is a flying leap. Roy can handle it, but it’s typical of the faux drama of a U2 song rather than the dramatic build of an Orbisonian opus.
Roy Orbison would die shortly after these releases, and I’m grateful that he did get to experience a comeback before he left us. A true American original on so many levels, he did not deserve to be lumped with the other forgettable performers of his heyday. Because he failed to fit the mold in so many ways, from his geeky looks to his anti-formulaic approach to composition, I find his success extraordinarily inspiring.
Although you’d never know it by listening to the vast quantity of formulaic crap that comes out today, Roy Orbison is evidence that sometimes, talent and originality count for something.