A Beatles roundup

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Under the Beatles tag in the sidebar are several posts on particular albums, based on the insightful comments of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online: see his guide to the whole series, as well as a useful overview by Ger Tillekens). I began writing what turned into a series in non-chronological order, so now I’ve tried to re-edit them more logically, with this as the introductory post.

From the age of ten—though with my sheltered, genteel, classical upbringing I was quite immune to a lot of pop music—I avidly spent my pocket-money on the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album, and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars. I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

* * *

Wilfrid Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music. And with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect, published in 1973, quite soon after the Beatles had disbanded, he was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles  seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Clearly, popular music is not dependent on such complex skills for its efficacity; but neither are folk or art musics. Many, even most, popular songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. In his Preface Mellers qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, he moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

Far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time, the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) would refine elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

So some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road, for instance. Others, notably Pollack, have taken analysis further.

Great as the songs on the other albums are (and Revolver has been much praised), I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road most cohesive as orchestral song-cycles (for wonderful examples of which, see here), like unstaged operas—whether or not they were designed as such. So whereas I can select some individual songs in the earlier LPs, in discussing these final masterpieces I have to give them all equal weight in the total effect.

* * *

So here’s a roundup of my main posts:

In his page on Here, there, and everywhere Pollack makes a wonderful observation:

I save my favorite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterized by the following gesture that opens each verse: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent in the tune, as in—”Here (pause) making each day of the year …”

He lists other songs by Paul that share this feature:

  • Listen (pause) do you want to know a secret
  • Eleanor Rigby (pause) picks up the rice
  • Day after day (pause) alone on a hill
  • Hey Jude (pause) don’t make it bad
  • Hold me tight (pause) tell me I’m the only one
  • Honey pie (pause) you are making me crazy
  • The long and winding road (pause) that leads to your door
  • Michelle (pause) ma belle
  • Oh darling (pause) please believe me
  • Try to see it my way (pause) do I have to keep on talking
  • Look (pause) what you’re doing
  • When I call you up (pause) your line’s engaged
  • Yesterday (pause) all my troubles seemed so far away.

The vocal melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, and their technological innovations, are so entrancing that one may underestimate their instrumental skills. So I may also mention pleasingly technical discussions of their guitar technique, such as this and this.

* * *

In his final chapter, “Elegy on a mythology”, Mellers reflects on the whole trajectory of Beatle music, pondering on the relationship between music and myth.

As pop musicians they are simultaneously magicians (dream-weavers), priests (ritual celebrants), entertainers (whiling away empty time), and artists (incarnating and reflecting the feelings—rather than thoughts—and perhaps the conscience of a generation). If this multiplicity of function is a source of much semantic confusion, both on the part of the Beatles themselves and of those who comment on them, it is also a source of their strength.

He observes

Only in a very partial sense can we dismiss the teenager’s orgiastic dancing as a tipsy escape from the hard realities of life. On the contrary, as compared with the romantic unreality of the previous generation’s ballroom dancing (which is in turn related to the fairy-tale myth of classical ballet), one might rather describe teenage dance as practical and functional in Collingwood’s sense: an inchoate attempt to rediscover the springs of being.

On revivalist movements he cites Mary Douglas, who notes that

it is not quite true that effervescence must either be routinised or fizzle out. It is possible for it to be sustained indefinitely as a normal form of worship.

Mellers goes on,

The magical-religious and the art-entertainment functions of Beatle music don’t cancel each other out; they do, however, in their interrelationship, contain an element of equivocation: which is part of the Beatles’ “representative” fascination.

He returns to Collingwood, citing his distinction between hedonistic amusement (entertainment) and utilitarian magic. And he disposes of red herring of the profit-motive. He stresses:

To deplore the illiteracy of the Beatles—or of any pop or jazz group—is nonsensical: for the essence of their achievement is that it is a return from literate and visual to aural and oral culture.

He considers their creative process (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”); however important the contribution of George Martin, he recognised himself as an intermediary. And

if they guffaw at intellectuals (like me) who discover “hidden meanings” in their songs, they’ve given plenty of evidence that these meanings are not hidden at all but merely, like 80% of the meaning in all art, in part unconscious.

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

Though my later path has intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.

Like the audiences of Bach and Mahler, we didn’t know how lucky we were… But beyond any personal identification with the zeitgeist that the Beatles express, all this is significant not only because of the Beatles’ central place in modern Western culture, but in view of the whole incorporation of popular culture into our perspectives on musicking around the world

Given my whole argument about society and soundscape, I’m aware of the irony of my celebrating “great works” mostly created in the recording studio without an audience. So I’d like to stress again that stunning as all this artistry is, efficacity, generally, doesn’t depend on complexity, or on narrative development; not only does the logical flow of Indian raga or Messiaen work within very different parameters, but more static sound-worlds are also valid—such as punk, Northern soul, Aboriginal songsNote also What is serious music?!

Revolver

Revolver

In 1966, only a year after Rubber soul, the Beatles released Revolver. In a 1996 interview, George found the two albums quite similar: “to me, they could be Volume 1 and Volume 2”. But it is Revolver that is increasingly recognised as one of the greatest and most innovative albums in popular music.

Here it is as a playlist, again in the 2009 remastered version:

Studio technology and psychedelia are coming to the fore; love songs are becoming subsidiary. Yet again I’ll cite Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Mellers opens:

Though Revolver still contains ritual elements, one can no longer discuss it in terms of adolescent ceremonial, nor is it relatable to the conventions of commercialized pop music. Halfway between ritual and art, it’s both verbally and musically an extraordinary breakthrough; and since the songs complement one another without forming a sequence, one cannot avoid some comment on each.

I won’t do so, but some songs most dear to me are;

  • Eleanor Rigby, the polar opposite of the satirical opening Taxman, is accompanied only by string octet—an innovation that one might hardly notice (cf. She’s leaving home on Sgt Pepper). Mellers is in fine form again:

It is about compassion, loneliness, and implicitly about the generation gap—three basic themes of second period Beatle music—and there is no precedent for its musical idiom, which has nothing to do with jazz, but is an amalgam of rural folk and urban music-hall. The tonality is a dorian E minor, though the initial invocation of “all the lonely people” is a rising and falling scale (with sharpened fourth) over a C minor triad, with a rocking and chugging accompaniment. The song proper is narrative ballad, and the words are poetry, evoking with precise economy Eleanor Rigby, the middle-aged spinster who picks up the rice at somebody else’s wedding, lives in a dream, keeps her face “in a jar by the door”; and Father Mackenzie, the priest who lives alone, darns his socks in the empty night, writes the sermon that no-one wants to listen to, wipes off his hands the dirt from the grave where he’s buried Eleanor Rigby after administering the last rites by which “no-one was saved”. The words reverberate through their very plainness; and manage to characterise not only those two lonely people but also (as George Melly has put it) “the big soot-black sandstone Catholic churches with the trams rattling past, the redbrick terraced houses with laced curtains and holy-stoned steps” of the Beatles’ boyhood Liverpool. The tune, lyrically sung by Paul, never modulates but has a tentative, groping tenderness as it stretches up the scale to those modally sharpened sixths, only to droop again, in a flexible rhythm that often overrides the barlines; so when it returns to the choric introductory phrase as a refrain, the scope of the song is marvellously extended. Miss Rigby and Father Mackenzie, the soaring refrain tells us, may be founded on real characters from the Beatles’ childhood, yet none the less represent all the lonely people; and that includes us, and the young Beatles (who were soon to be members of Sgt Pepper’s LONELY HEARTS club band). Yet there is never a suspicion of emotional indulgence in this song; that is belied by the rigidity of the chugging accompaniment, even though it is given to emotive strings. Occasionally (after that dismayed octave leap for “where do they all come from”) the violins wing up scalewise; more often they reinforce the thumping crotchet pulse, or the rocking quavers. In the final phrase of the tune and in the coda the “where do they all come from” query reaches up not through an octave but through a tenth. This makes something like a climax, and the song has an end which is not, however, decisive. The final cadence is the only V I progression in the piece, and even here the dominant chord is in second inversion. All the other cadences reinforce the tonal ambiguity of the submediant introduction, an effect the more disturbing because the C major triads conflict with the sharpened Cs in the modal tune.

Pollack notes:

You can look at this song from at least two angles and try to pull it apart with great clinical precision; the Verismo lyrics and grainy, tintype backing arrangement for strings on the one side, and the more familiar bluesy, syncopated, boxy form on the other. But the truth here is even more elusive than usual, and I dare say that the real irony of this song is to be confronted in the extreme to which the otherwise analytically separable elements within its blend are so well synthesised. Think of it as an amalgam whose elements can no longer be so easily separated ever again once combined.

Having first played sitar for Norwegian wood, George now developed the sound more prominently—the soundscape now augmented by tabla:

  • Love you to was “the Beatles’ first unambiguous exploration of orientalism”. Their use of Indian timbres was influential; indeed, it only strikes me now that this was the beginning of my own youthful fascination with raga. Introduced by the briefest quasi-alap, the song soon launches into a regular metre. Mellers:

The vocal line oscillates around G, moving up to B♭, the flattened seventh, down to F♮; and the music convinces not because it is “like” genuine Indian music (it is by Indian standards rudimentary), but because it is an extension of the anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-action theme we have seen to be endemic in Beatle music. Though George seems to be singing (as did all the early Beatle songs) of sexual love and presumably of coitus itself, his point is that the act of love can destroy the temporal sense (“make love all day, making love singing songs”) which is what happens in the drone-coda and fade-out.

Pollack comments:

At the time it seemed like many people who, just the week before, had never seen a sitar or heard of Ravi Shankar, were running out, overnight, to buy what we nowadays call “world music” recordings, tickets to rug concerts, and even authentic instruments.

But as he goes on to note, it was a rather fickle fad:

It’s a chutzpah for the Westerner to expect to confront this stuff without sincere and patient preparation.

The only merit of attempts to suggest a specific raga as the basis for the scale of George’s Indian-based songs (such as Within you, without you on Sgt Pepper) is to draw us to the complexities of raga in its native form. Much as Pollack admires the experiment, he’s not entirely convinced by the result here; the connoisseur of raga may be still less convinced by some of these Indian-inspired songs.

And George was still a beginner on sitar; even supposing that he might have played the opening, the player for the rest of the track remains unidentified; it seems most unlikely that it is George that we hear.

As Mellers notes in a later chapter,

The Beatles’ tinkering with oriental metaphysics, even if sincere, as was certainly the case with George, hardly amounts to more than an alleviatory game if contrasted with the late music of John Coltrane, who might genuinely be said to have prayed with and through his horn.

Ravi Shankar liked both Trane and George; but he was perplexed by the disturbed results of the former’s immersion in Indian music and philosophy, whereas he seems to have looked more favourably on George’s experiments (for more, see e.g. here and here).

Love you to is followed by the gorgeous ballad

  • Here, there, and everywhere—as Mellers observes, deceptively simple: love as revelation, with tonal as well as metrical metamorphosis, further unpacked by Pollack.
  • Yellow submarine (cf. Octopus’s garden in Abbey road) is too easily taken for granted. Mellers hits the spot again:

Typically, the Beatles then torpedo this lyrical tenderness… Ringo’s blunt Liverpudlianism brings us back to earth, or anyway to “the town where I was born”, in a rhythm as strictly circumscribed, a diatonicism as plain, as that of the Celebrated Working Man’s Band. Yet the banality is as deceptive as was the simplicity of Here, there, and everywhere. For the song turns out to be a revocation of childhood memory that is also a liberation into dream—an “instant nursery rhyme”, as George Melly has put it, “as unselfconscious as a children’s street song, but true to their own experience… It’s not American comic book heroes who climb aboard the Yellow submarine but Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty and his pals. The departure for the Sea of Dreams is from the Liverpool pierhead.” On might even say that the song’s human triviality sets off the mystery of the “acquatic unknown tongues” we then hear bobbing on and in the waters; in which sense regression is prelude to another rebirth. If there’s nothing in the music that is memorable in itself—except the fact that it’s easy to memorise and so stays in the mind—we’re soon aware that the experience isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, purely musical. A hubbub of friends is heard on the quay, the town band blasts its blatant farewell, and we’re in a mythical world—to be more deeply explored in Sgt Pepper—which cannot be adequately realised in concert hall or on stage. The music has, again, a talismantic function, recalling a Liverpudlian childhood, launching the Beatles on a submarine voyage into the unconscious: out of which their later and greater music was to spring.

As Pollack observes, the musical simplicity

provides the firm platform needed to support the campy-yet-futuristic collage of sampled sound-bites overlaid upon it.

The extraordinary final track

  • Tomorrow never knows is again tinged with the Indian influence. Mellers:

Drums and a tambura drone on C re-establish an oriental atmosphere, while the melody alternates a non-metrical phrase on the triad of C major with a triplet on the fifth, rising to the flat seventh, then to the tonic. “It is not dying, it is shining, it is the end of the beginning”, we’re told, with sundry references to the Tibetan Book of the dead culled from Timothy Leary. […] The singing voice, which is here the mind alone, is gradually engulfed in an electronic hubbub emulating the cries of birds and beasts, the hurly-burly of the natural world. Having begun with adolescent regression, the Beatles conclude the first work of their young maturity with an almost-literal aural synonym for return to the womb. There are parallels to this in avant-garde jazz (the jungle noises possibly derive from Mingus) as well as in “art” music, but this doesn’t weaken the impact of the song.

Listeners may find some of these Indian-inspired songs more successful than others, but here the Beatles create an effective sound-world. Pollack notes that while Tomorrow never knows is a “kitchen sink” of the Beatles’ repertoire at the time, the effect is unified.

* * *

Revolver is indeed a great album. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, Call Me Old-fashioned, but I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road more consistent, and more cohesive as song-cycles—but hey, like Mahler symphonies, rather than making a futile attempt to rank them, let’s just rejoice in them all.

Rubber soul

Rubber soul

As the Beatles grew rapidly, after A hard day’s night came Rubber soul (1965).

Here’s the 2009 remastered version as a playlist:

Again I’ll cite the analyses of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack (and as ever, do bear in mind these reflections on the merits of analysis). Mellers wonders if the prevalence of “anti” songs on the disc may be an inverted positive—a move towards self-reliance. Below I’ll focus on the ballads:

  • Norwegian Wood, unusually using triple metre, was George’s first venture on sitar. Mellers:

The girl in her elegantly-wooded apartment is strong on social, weak on sexual, intercourse; her polished archness is satirised in an arching waltz tune wearily fey, yet mildly surprising because in the mixolydian mode. Here the flat seventh gives to the comedy an undercurrent of wistfulness, and this embraces both John’s frustration and the girl’s pretentiousness—which is pointed by George’s playing the sitar, not in emulation of Indian styles, but as an exotic guitar. The middle section brings us to the crux of the situation (which is, for John, a night spent in the bath) with a stern intrusion of the tonic minor triad and a tune descending, with drooping appoggiatura, to the subdominant with flattened seventh. After this middle the lyricism of the waltz da capo suggests not so much plaintiveness as a comic dismay. The effect of the flattened seventh, followed by a rise through a fifth and a fall through a sixth, pendulum-like, even seems a trifle sinister in context; as perhaps it is, if “I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood” implies a slight case of arson.

For Pollack’s comments see here.

  • Nowhere Man (Mellers: a satire on “the socialite or all-too-civil servant who’s afraid of emotional commitment”), with its unprecedented a cappella opening, and a little guitar riff trailing each verse. Pollack:

Superficially, the melodic material of the song is straight away in the major mode. However, one’s interest in the tune is piqued on a more subtle level by a combination of the large number of appoggiaturas, the pseudo-pentatonic nature of the bridge, and the prominent role given to the flat sixth degree (C♮) in the backing vocals.

  • Michelle, [Mellers:] “harmonically sophisticated […], with tender chromatic sequences and tritonal inclusions”, and the pure pentatonic love call of the refrain. “The subtlety of the song lies in the contrast between chromatic sophistication and pentatonic innocence”, a duality already hinted at in the false relations of the F major and D♭ triads of the first two bars, giving “a tentative, exploratory quality to the tenderness, hinting that the barrier isn’t just one of language, but is inherent in the separateness of each individual, however loving”.

Pollack makes detailed comparisons with Yesterday. More whimsically, he muses

How can anyone be as desperately in love with someone with whom they cannot hold a decent conversation, no less an email correspondence?

Discuss

  • Girl, largely acoustic, is another instance of [Mellers:] “the interdependence of ‘reality’ and wit”, its tune “in an aeolian-sounding C minor, […] with an almost-comic pentatonic refrain sighfully and unexpectedly drooping to E♭ major. The middle section “veers abruptly to the minor of the supertonic of E♭ (or the subdominant of C minor), the fetching tune abandoned in favour of regularly repeated quavers on the syllable tit-tit (which sometimes sounds like tut-tut!).”

As the lyricism is banished, so the girl is deflated: from being a girl in a storybook she’s become a flesh-and-blood, immensely desirable young woman. […] The melismata are “cool”, the sighs verge on the ludicrous; yet this paradoxically intensifies the loving pathos of the lyrical tune when it’s sung da capo, since life is a tangled mesh of hopes and disappointments. […] The hurt inherent in living, as well as loving, is accepted without pretention, yet without rancour.

Pollack’s comments are here.

  • In my lifePollack notes the balance between intimacy and unease; and George Martin’s pseudo-baroque keyboard solo contrasts with the mood of the rest of the song.

And then came Revolver

A hard day’s night

Following my tributes to Sgt Pepper and Abbey road, the earlier work of the Beatles deserves celebrating too (cf. Yesterday…). For an introduction to the series, see here.

Setting aside my personal attachment to the soundtrack of my youth, their 1964 LP A hard day’s night remains moving. Here it is as a playlist:

Again, Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the Gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) make perceptive guides for those who care to supplement sensuous experience with discursive analysis. Both writers combine technical analysis with thoughtful comments on the Beatles’ emotional world. For all the sophistication of the Beatles’ later albums, the equivocal roles of innocence and experience are clear in their early years too.

The album—like the film—opens with the most recognisable opening chord in all the world’s music! It’s been much analysed—e.g. wiki, and here’s Alan W. Pollack:

I’ve seen better people than myself argue (and in public, no less) about the exact guitar voicing of this chord and I’ll stay out of that question for now (what a cop-out, Alan!), and merely state that its sonority is akin to a superimposition of the chords of D minor, F major, and G major; i.e. it contains the notes D, F, A, C, and G — to my ears, only the B is missing. Even if you don’t know a thing about harmony or musical dictation, you can at least hear the G as a suspended fourth over the D on the bottom. Hullaballoo aside, this chord functions as a surrogate dominant (i.e. V) with respect to the chord on G which begins the first verse.

As often, it’s the ballads that continue to entrance, such as

  • If I fell in love with you, tinged with pain: after the complex chromatic intro, harmonic variety continues to decorate the melody, like the surprise of the 9th chord in the second verse at “Don’t hurt my pride like her“. With the elliptical, ambiguous word play of the lyrics, Pollack observes:

beneath the mere cleverness of it all, what makes this song so potent is the desperate vulnerability it manifests; a veritable obsession with the subjunctive “iffy-ness” of love, described as a state in which people might run and hide and pride be hurt. For me though, the greatest ambiguity of all here is in the tension between the hero’s begging for love’s being requited on the one hand, while at the same time holding back from freely offering it for fear of being rejected. Is this ingenuous realism, such a lot of chutzpah, or likely a bit of both?

  • And I love her, with characteristic ambiguity between major and minor, and the half-step modulation for the guitar break. Pollack notes the similar tonal design of the opening song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
  • Things we said today—for Mellers, their most beautiful and deep song up to this point. Again it’s enriched by subtle harmonic language.

The rhythm is grave, the percussion almost minatory, the vocal tessitura restricted, while the harmony oscillates between triads of G minor and D minor. The flavour is incantatory, even liturgical, a moment outside Time. The second strain hints at the possibility of loss, with a weeping chromatic descent in triplet rhythm, and with rapid but dreamy tonal movement flowing from B♭ by way of a rich dominant 9th to E♭: the subdominant triad of which then serves as a kind of Neapolitan cadence drooping back (without the linking dominant) to the grave pentatonic G minor. […]

Whether or not you’re aware of such harmonic language, it registers with the listener.

The film is also wonderful. And so, by way of Rubber soul and Revolver, to the genius of Sgt Pepper, The white album, and Abbey road. Incredible…

* * *

Meanwhile, in the great tradition of English satire, here’s the priceless narration of the great Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics of the title song in the Shakespearean style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III:

Cf. Balham—gateway to the south, Alan Bennett’s Sermon, and Marty Feldman’s chanson to the HP sauce label. And don’t miss Cunk on Shakespeare!

The genius of Abbey road

Abbey road

Abbey road album cover: no title, band unnamed.

You can go for ages without paying attention to some of the most iconic works of music, while they lie dormant in the soul. Or, as a counterpart to my more obscure posts, we may just consider this the latest in my extensive series “Pieces that everyone knows are totally brilliant—that I now find are totally brilliant”. So it may be a case of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (cf. here), but hey. You might begin with the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums.

Abbey road (1969) was the Beatles’ final masterpiece, created (like Sgt Pepper) in the recording studio as they took refuge from the frenetic touring life. Given my constant stress on musicking as a social activity, I’m aware of the irony of paying tribute to such disembodied creations (see also n.1 below).

Just in case you’re on another planet, here it is as a playlist, with the songs individually—it’s far better just to put on the LP (or CD), listening to the two sides whole, with the original transitions—and silences—between tracks. [1] You can find the lyrics on sites such as this.

Both Sgt Pepper and Abbey road are full of extraordinary variety, nuance, and (even within single songs) contrast, with multiple layers and homages to the whole gamut of popular culture. Even the lighter, seemingly jocular songs contribute to the panorama. As I will comment in a general post on the Beatles, both albums make cogent sequences, resembling unstaged operas, or orchestral song-cycles, even if only Side 2 of Abbey road seems to have been so designed.

  • In the opening song Come together, “a portrait of a kind of hobo-outcast messiah”,

the screwed up vocal line […] attains a near-miraculous release in the refrain, when the reiterated minor third suddenly swings up a fifth, then down to the major third—harmonised, however, with the submediant triad.

  • The exquisite, soaring Something (George’s composition—Pollack’s analysis worth reading as always, suggesting parallels with Beethoven), punctuated by the intoxicating key shift of the hook, and a gorgeous guitar break;
  • Maxwell’s silver hammer, an unsettling black comedy;
  • Oh! darling, with Paul’s amazing gutsy vocals, the song’s “passionate intensity undimmed by its parodistic elements”. (On another autobiographical note, such was my classical snobbery in the 60s that the concurrent explosion of blues and soul was lost on me; so they could only tinge my consciousness through the benign filter of the Beatles, rather than through the hardcore medium of the Stones);
  • Octopus’s garden (Ringo!), “a child’s dream-song” (cf. Yellow submarine), though I don’t pick up on Mellers’ “hiding something blackly nasty in the woodshed“—far more applicable to the dark comic songs of Side 2;
  • In I want you (she’s so heavy), Mellers notes how the the zany vocal melisma modifies our response to the hammered dominant ninths that create the frenzy; and the refrain, “apparently in D minor but with dominant ninths of A (changing to German sixths on B flat), so that the A major triads are uncertain of their identity, wobbling between dominants of D and tonics of A”, becomes a long (over 3 minutes!) relentless 10-beat ostinato for the coda, “on the threshold of a scream”—ending the track, and Side 1, with an abrupt cut-off.

If these six songs of Side 1 themselves constitute a cohesive thread, the fragments assembled for Side 2 are still more of a continuous suite (see e.g. Pollack’s thorough discussion)—starting again on an innocent note after the preceding menace:

  • Here comes the sun (George again), its phrases linked by additive rhythms (3+3+3+3+2+2), leading into
  • Because, inspired by the Moonlight sonata, is entrancing, “runic” (again reminding me that I didn’t do nearly enough drugs—”just couldn’t seem to find the time”…). Beneath the spacy, soaring choral harmonies, suspended in the void, the keyboard arpeggios (the intro—George Martin on harpsichord!—seemingly continuing the 3+3+2 rhythm), are “like a lulling of the cradle or even a swaying of the amniotic waters”. To cite Mellers at length:

The eight-bar first strain rocks slowly in dotted rhythm through its minor triad (“Because the world is round it turns me on”), dropping rather than drooping on to the subdominant triad, and dreamily fading in a melisma. The effect of this sudominant is unexpectedly emotive, perhaps because the triadic harmony has been so static. The answering strain extends and deepens the feeling, since the melody is protracted into dotted minims, and instead of the subdominant we have a submediant chord of the ninth, the melismas wafting longer and more hazily. The resolution of this ninth chord on to the supertonic is delayed because we shift abruptly back to C sharp minor for the second stanza, which tells us that “because the wind is high it blows my mind“. When, after the second stanza, the dominant ninth does resolve on to a D major triad, it’s hardly a real modulation establishing a new, and remote, key. Its harmonic function is “Neapolitan” but the triad, on the exclamation “Ah“, immediately pivots back from D not to the dominant but to F sharp, C sharp’s subdominant. This initiates the middle section which, changing the subdominant minor to major, creates with inspired simplicity the newness and all-embracingness of love. This middle contains four bars only; after which the enveloping arpeggios return and the haunting melody sings da capo,  finally floating away in extended melismata, but without harmonic resolution. Indeed, although that flattened supertonic opens heavenly vistas, the song is virtually without harmonic progression, the only significant dominant–tonic cadence in the piece being the one that returns us to our source, and to the da capo of the melody. […] In the coda the upward leaping sixth—traditionally an interval of aspiration—is pentatonically suspended on the word “Because“; indeed the arpeggiated swaying is replaced intermittently by silence—in the use of which the Beatles betray something like genius.

Because

Slightly skewed screenshot—not the result of the intake of medicinal substances, honest guv.

  • You never give me your money opens wistfully, but successively ramps up the mood, segueing into Out of college (its introductory boogie-woogie only fleeting), an exhilarating guitar modulation into One sweet dream (“tonally rootless, rhythmically exuberant”), before merging into the hazy nursery-rhyme paradise of One two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven—HOWEVER DID THEY DO ALL THIS?!;
  • Sun king, whose trippy feel develops out of Here comes the sun and Because;
  • Mean Mr Mustard, abruptly changing the mood—its brief refrain oscillating between E and C major, leading into a plagal cadence approached by way of the flattened seventh (more additive rhythms at the end!);
  • Polythene Pam (“a mythical Liverpool scrubber”, apud John) and
  • She came in through the bathroom windowboth songs “comically scary portraits, at once within the dream and part of the crazy-kinky scene that passes for today’s reality”, before the brilliant final sequence:
  • Golden slumbers, “an ironic title to an ironic song”, with “Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby“, with soothing strings, contrasting with the raucous refrain, leading into
  • Boy you’re gonna carry that weight—savage, grim, with a memory of You never give me your money, segeuing into
  • The End “abandons words for a furious hammering of percussion, which leads into a long instrumental section, all dominant sevenths in rumba rhythm, but rocking a tone lower than the starting point, getting nowhere [great consecutive guitar breaks from Paul, George, and John!]. Suddenly the hubbub stops; there’s a tinkling of A major triads on a tinny piano; and Paul’s voice returns to sing ‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’. The phrase descends scalewise, harmonised in parallel triads that fall from F major, to E minor, to D minor, to A minor, and so to C major.” And then, just when you think it’s all over,
  • Her Majesty (an unlisted “hidden track”), sung by Paul—a perfect little throwaway fragment, a nonchalant farewell to Beatledom.

Mellers observes that

The seraphic vision of Because was momentary, and the rest of the disc trips away from vision and from Pepper‘s awareness of human relationships into a magical mystery tour that, if it’s a dream, is a bad one, and no escape.

Still, the cumulative effect, with its multiple layers, is supremely life-enhancing.

sessions

 

[1] I trust you won’t be thrown off the scent by the many cover versions masquerading online (to me they sound awful, almost sacrilegious). That’s not to belittle cover versions generally—they’re part of music’s whole creative social afterlife—but they can make us appreciate the craft of the original all the more. By contrast, I want every single guitar break, every tiny vocal inflection, to be faithfully reproduced and worshipped come sta for eternity, preserved in aspic—gleefully aware that this contradicts just about everything I’ve ever written (e.g. under Unpacking “improvisation”). Indeed, the release of the original sessions (with alternative tracks and running orders), and the remixes, remind us that even a studio recording is a living organism, subject to variation: what I regard here as so sacrosanct is just one possible realisation. The songs were recorded individually, and only later arranged into the sequence that we now found so cohesive and definitive.

 

A Shanghai Prom

SSO Prom

I’m not exactly in the mood to celebrate glossy official showpieces for Chinese modernity, but I appreciated the TV broadcast of the recent Prom by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu.

The Beeb still can’t help going to town on the unbeatable cliché “East meets West”—as if even now all this, um, International Cultural Exchange (oops, there goes another one) is some novel discovery, some audacious, exotic experiment (cf. They come over ‘ere, and China–Italy).

One of the most readable accounts of Chinese music,

  • Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989),

gives some leads to the chequered history of the orchestra. It originated in the Shanghai Public Band, founded back in 1879 by a German professor with six other European musicians. In 1907 it became the Shanghai Municipal Symphony Orchestra, and in 1919 they hired the Italian conductor Mario Paci (1878–1946; see also here), a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire; his orchestra included many White Russian and Italian musicians.

In 1922 the orchestra was renamed the Shanghai Municipal Council Symphony Orchestra. Under Japanese occupation it became the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the Jewish refugees from Nazism who swelled the city’s expat population from the mid-1930s were many musicians.

Some Chinese players were admitted from the late 1920s, but by 1938 there were still only four of them in the orchestra; paid less, they had no social interaction with the European musicians. The audiences too were mostly Caucasian.

Among the Russian musicians in Shanghai was the composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who promoted both Western and Chinese music in Shanghai and Beijing from 1934 to 1937. Bach’s B minor Mass was performed in Shanghai.

Paci was a leading light in the founding of the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1927. In 1935 he invited the composer Xian Xinghai to conduct the orchestra for a concert, but they refused to play under the baton of a Chinese. Paci was in charge of the orchestra from 1917 until 1942, when the orchestra had to disband, with many foreign musicians and conductors leaving. After the 1949 “Liberation” it was re-formed in 1950, becoming the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1956.

One of the protagonists of Kraus’s study is the pianist Fou Ts’ong (b.1934), who studied with Paci from 1943. Seeking political asylum after the 1958 Great Leap, he made his home in London, where he became a great friend of my own violin teacher Hugh Maguire.

The orchestra inevitably suffered grievously as the Cultural Revolution exploded in 1966. Whereas Soviet orchestras had managed to maintain high standards, Chinese orchestras, even after the liberalizations from the late 1970s, took many years to develop.

I’m pretty sure most of the band would be bemused by my own tastes in musicking around ShanghaiKunqu, folk opera, silk-and-bamboo, Daoist ritual… Meanwhile the more cosmopolitan aspect of musical life in swinging Shanghai before Liberation is covered in another fine book,

  • Andrew Jones, Yellow music: media culture and colonial modernity in the Chinese jazz age (2001),

It opens with a vignette on the African-American trumpeter Buck Clayton, leader of the Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Back in the USA he worked with Count Basie; Billie Holiday, no less, described him as “the prettiest cat I ever saw”.

Buck

The Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome ballroom.

* * *

The Prom began with The five elements by Chen Qigang, (b.1951), a Messiaen pupil and one of the most meticulous and imaginative of Chinese composers. Eric Lu then played Mozart’s wonderful A major piano concerto.

And a suitable choice, reminding us of Shanghai’s Russian heritage, was Rachmaninoff’s final work, the Symphonic dances (1941). I’ve only been getting know the piece quite recently, but it already ranks with the 2nd symphony in my affections. Among noted recordings are those of Golovanov, Svetlanov, and Kondrashin; but given that the piece was composed in American exile, Mitropoulos’s 1942 version is a popular choice. Here’s Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1963:

Among the glories of the Symphonic dances is a solo part for alto sax—again suggesting Shanghai’s jazz background. As an encore, a smoochy and bombastic arrangement of Molihua (another perennial Chinese music cliché)—strangely endearing as a snapshot of a bygone age of Chinese symphonic writing—led into a stirring rendition of Hey Jude, with fine jazzy solos on sax and trumpet and an audience singalong (for the Beatles original, see Alan W. Pollack’s analysis; cf. A Beatles roundup).

Now I dream of a Shanghai Daoist ritual at the Proms…

Daoists

Summer holiday

Further to my mission to “delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, this is among the most extreme tests of my inkling that musics of the world are equal—in a way that my posts on more fashionable genres like Country or Punk don’t.

With my youthful (1963) awareness of popular culture then submerged beneath Beethoven and—imminently—Euripides, I was devoted to the Beatles but little else in the field. Summer holiday (the wiki entry is unusually frugal—I’m looking for an in-depth musicological analysis, guys) became an embodiment of fatuous kitsch almost as soon as it emerged from Cliff’s immaculate lips. Still, it was pretty much inescapable, even for me.

Seeking a more global comparison, if you google “music 1963”, you only get pop music. Typical! So I’ll just offer Messiaen‘s Couleurs de la Cité Céleste. Hmm. I’ll leave you to imagine new songs emerging from Lagos, or Jakarta.

OMG, I’ve just realized that my mother (who didn’t exactly have her finger on the pulse of popular culture)* must have taken me to Cliff’s film soon after it came out in 1963! However could she have done that—surely I couldn’t have begged her to take me? That would be hard to live down—a skeleton in my closet such as Bachelor Boy Cliff may or may not have.

Now I hear it again—actually listening—it’s fascinating. Those irritating catchy syncopations that Cliff seems makes a token effort to rescue from cliché, the casual triplet on “sea is”, the instrumentation (great little instrumental opening, later used insistently as an interlude, worthy of Chinese shawm bands!), the classic upward shift in key. There is some serious, um, craftspersonship going on here.

After post-war drabness, that 60s’ spirit of optimism that most of the really brilliant bands, including the Beatles, were soon to undermine… Summer holiday is a major document in the social history of the day—and one that still means a lot to many people.

 

*Talking of the Beatles, in my book on the Li family Daoists I describe our 2009 Carnegie Hall gig:

The Daoists know nothing of the Carnegie Hall, and have to take it on trust that it’s a big deal. As my mum said of the Beatles, “Well I’ve never heard of them—they can’t be famous!”

Sgt Pepper

*Substantially revised and augmented!*

Sgt Pepper

Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting; but their later studio albums took our admiration to a new level. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, of course we didn’t—and don’t—need to “analyse” such work, any more than most audiences do when they attend a performance of a Brahms symphony. But studies like those of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.

* * *

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was born out of the Beatles’ frustration with touring—an exhausting schedule through which they had to churn out the old numbers almost inaudibly beneath the hysteria. As they retreated to Abbey Road studios, the process of composition with George Martin (“collective creation”, as was all the rage in China at the time) lasted five months.

The Beatles’ previous albums contain many wonderful individual gems, but for me both Sgt Pepper and the following Abbey road are “choral symphonies”, song cycles, seamless wholes—even if only Side 2 of the latter was conceived thus. Individually he songs are gems, but with their themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, loneliness all in balanced contrast, they work as one long suite. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.

So while I introduce A hard day’s nightRubber soul and Revolver selectively, here I just have to go through the whole sequence. Wilfred Mellers considers Sgt Pepper:

We have seen how Beatle music began as a communal activity of danced song: and how in their second phase—as verbal developed alongside musical interest—it became concerned with human relationships in a social context. The songs were now to be listened to, rather than danced to; and by the time of Penny lane and Strawberry fields it was improbable that the numbers could even be “participated in” in live performance, since they were dependent on electronic equipment. This does not necessarily mean that the songs have ceased to have ritual significance, for the long-playing record is a more radical innovation than we once realised. It transplants ritual from temple or theatre to any place where two or three may gather together, including the home or commune, as well as club or discotheque. This is why the supreme achievements of pop so far are halfway between ritual and art. With remarkable verbal articulateness, though at a poetic level beyond intellectual formulation, the Beatles’ next disc, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, explores the perennial as well as current problems of adolescence—loneliness, friendship, sex, the generation gap, alienation, fear, nightmare; and perhaps could do so because the Beatles’ early “corporate identity” was always a synthesis of four different individuals. Yet if Pepper is, in this relatively traditional sense, art, it is also a ritual involving the young—through its electronic extension of musical sounds into the environment of the external world—in a ceremonial togetherness, without the prop of a church or state. This two-way function as art and ritual remains valid, even though the Beatles, in common with most pop groups, disclaim both moral responsibility and artistic technique: for that responsibility and technique may be intuitively independent of conscious volition is the heart of the matter.

No longer do the Beatles offer us a miscellany of songs; we rather have a sequence of intricately related numbers, forming a whole and performed without break. The verses, though composed “orally”, by trial and error, are printed on the record sleeve, so that we may go back and read them again, “like a book”: just as on disc we may repeat bits of the music, as one cannot in a live (especially in part improvised) performance.

None of the songs is a love song; and that the main theme of the songs is loneliness would seem to admit that the Beatles’ early attempts at tribal togetherness had failed—not as music, but as a way of life.

Here’s a playlist for the 2009 remastered version:

  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mellers’ comments, illuminating the transitions and contrasts between songs, reveal just how sequential they are. He continues:

Sgt Pepper himself is an old-world character rooted in the camaraderie of a distant past: “It was twenty years today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. So we open with a “public” number (by Paul), inviting us to the show, and recalling Edwardian military music, the circus and the working men’s club, delivered with extrovert rhetoric, and with approving audience-noises off-stage. Yet if the brisk rhythm, the jaunty fanfares and the military scoring of this first song suggest simple solidarity, the music is far from being what it superficially seems. In tonality it is curiously ambiguous: for while it gravitates towards a smiling G major, the introduction wobbles between dominant sevenths of D and F, and when we reach the tune itself and the Band, having been introduced, plays and sings, the rhythms of the tootling arpeggiated tune are tipsily displaced by cross accents (three against two) and the “open” tonality is clouded by blue false relations. So this public show-piece hides beneath its zest a certain jitteriness. The cosy world of Pepper may embody a truth; but it’s one that is dubiously relevant to young people today. On the cut-out included with the disc the Beatles sport their resplendent Edwardian uniforms as comic fancy-dress.

Referring to this “overture”, Alan W. Pollack reminds us:

Don’t allow any of the overdubbed effects to blunt your sensitivity to the well executed bassline, lead guitar licks, and drumming.

And he observes that the bowed strings in the fade-up ambient noise prepares us for their major role in She’s leaving home and A day in the life.

  • With a little help from my friends. Mellers goes on:

Indeed, the instability of this first song already demonstrates that although Pepper is a military man, very peppery, and runs a band of people playing together, they none the less play to a club of Lonely Hearts. So we’re not surprised when the public junketings fade out, after a reference to the “lovely audience” Pepper hopes we’re going to be, into a sad little song, also by Paul but with help from John, but sung by Ringo, commonest of common men. And he begins by apologising for his incompetence, as contrasted with peppery professionalism. […] The song epitomises the reasons why the Beatles needed one another and reveals why their awareness of “separateness” and “togetherness” was meaningful to the young at large.

Pollack’s analysis is here. Actually, for the first song proper on the album, I find it just too bold in its hamminess: I’m not prepared yet for such irony. But Now For Something Completely Different:

  • Lucy in the sky with diamonds—(Pollack here) psychedelic, as Mellers notes, a “revocation of a dream-world of childhood”, its vivid colours

those of a poetically recreated kids’ comic”. The music, too, preserves its innocence: a lazily wafting waltz tune undulates around the third of the scale (with dreamy flat sixths and sevenths in the accompaniment), and the fairy-tale scoring, tinklingly plangent, helps us to see and hear the lovely landscape as larger than life, the flowers “incredibly high”, the girl’s eyes “kaleidoscopic”.

An abrupt change to a rapid 4/4 brings further tonal refinements, and

the fade-out carries us back from trip, childhood and dream-girl to reality, though again with equivocal irony.

  • Getting better—balancing contrasts, as this album and Abbey road do. Pollack notes how the abstract Lucy is followed by this representational song, judiciously relaxing the tension. Mellers:

a raggedy music-hall song by Paul, evoking school rebel and angry young man. The scalewise-moving, non-modulating boogie-rhythmed tune expresses fury with rule and authority and lovelessness in personal relationships, with perky insouciance. […] Though the language is not only plain, but blunt, the music doesn’t allow us to take the self-denunciation, or even the denunciation of authority, very seriously. At the same time the diatonic simplicity of the refrain makes its optimism somewhat wobbly. This again indicates how the Beatles’ vulnerability is part of their honesty; so it’s natural enough that this emotional frailty should lead into the deepening commitment of the next song,

  • Fixing a hole: Pollack suggests that here the protagonist is actively fulfilling the potential of Getting better. Mellers:

We’ve moved from Sgt Pepper’s old-world club to the dubious potentiality of friendship; from there to a dream-girl or the fairy-world of childhood; from the dream-girl to a remotely possible real one; and from that nervous expectancy to this subtly mysterious little song about the nature of identity. […] It begins in a dorian F, rocking fourths being followed by a pentatonic upward lift, balanced by a descending flat seventh; the end of the first strain creates the mind’s free wandering, as it floats pentatonically upwards, always just off the beat.

  • She’s leaving home—in triple metre, like Norwegian wood. Pollack finds it close to mimicry, but surely it’s one of the Beatles’ most moving ballads. Mellers:

The girl and her situation, though typical enough, were culled (Paul tell us) from the Daily mirror, and the verses evoke the mystery of the commonplace, having the true economy of poetry. How much is conveyed by the reference to the “note that she hoped would say more”; how sadly funny it is that she leaves home for the purpose of “meeting a man from the motor trade”, probably a shady rather than conventional character, but either way one from whose life-style the glamour will soon wear thin. Even the parents’ lamentation (“With never a thought for ourselves … we gave her everything money could buy”), though guyed with falsetto obbligato, is without trace of bitterness.

He observes the irregular, subtle musical structure:

The vocal tune is a corny waltz mainly in stepwise movement, but with a yearning life from the second to the tonic in the higher octave, followed by a descent by way of the flattened seventh. […] The arching cello solo is as beautiful as it is comic; and the irregular structure enacts the story, conveying not merely the fact of the girl’s departure but all the muddled hope, apprehension, and fear in the girl’s heart, the fuddled incomprehension of the parents. There’s failure all round, in both generations; yet the failure doesn’t deny the tune’s heart-felt lyricism, nor lessen the comedy of the falsetto obbligato. That the song makes us laugh and cry simultaneously is testimony of its truth to experience.

This little tragi-comedy of personal relationships is banished with a return to the public world of the circus in

  • Being for the benefit of Mr Kite! Pollack:

The song’s function in the cycle is more important than its intrinsic interest; it recalls our starting point, after the songs have explored the ramifications of loneliness and togetherness; and by ironic contrast it prepares the way for George Harrison’s number

  • Within you without you (Pollack here). “Bringing in the religious implications of the search for identity”, following tracks on Revolver, the Indian sitar again features prominently, its orientalism (Mellers) “re-created in terms of the Beatles’ newborn innocence”. This was one of the main pop creations that were now turning on a generation to Indian music.

In a mixolydian scale with major third and flat seventh, it’s said to be loosely based on rag Khamaj (The raga guide, pp.100–101, CD 3 #6)—although the only point of such a claim is to lead one towards the complexities of raga in its native form. The refrain and middle section also feature additive metres.

Pollack makes an interesting comment on the eerie laughter at the end of the song:

I’m aware of at least two schools of thought:

    • The xenophobic audience (remember there’s an underlying element in the “Pepper concept” that at least indirectly connotes a Victorian/Edwardian outlook of supercilious imperialism) is letting off a little tension of this confrontation with pagan elements.
    • The bedazzled composer, in an endearingly sincere nanosecond of acknowledgement of the apparent existential absurdity of the son-of-a-Liverpudlian bus driver espousing such other-wordly beliefs and sentiments, is letting off a bit of his own self-deprecating steam in reaction to the level of true courage expended by him in order to come out of the uneasily-anti-materialist closet.

But, don’t you think it’s a combination of the two?

Mellers:

From these metaphysical reaches within the mind we’re jerked back by a leery laugh; a deliberate exercise in “trivialisation” which may be self-defensive, though its not self-destructive.

Making yet another contrast, the next song, Paul’s

  • When I’m sixty-four, as Mellers continues,

cannot be adequately described as parody, though we’re back in a suburban terraced house, and in the raggy, twentyish music-hall style of George Formby, with oompahing tuba bass and noodling clarinet obbligato. This reinvokes Dad’s world and era with comic yet touchingly poetic wit. […] Of course the oldies’ little cottage has to be in the Isle of Wight, and of course their grandchildren must be called Vera, Chuck, and Dave. Yet these oldies are at the same time identified with the Beatles.

Talking of unpromising chromaticisms,

64

Meanwhile, Pollack seems rather less convinced. Having been a tad disconcerted by With a little help from my friends early on, I’m well cool with the style by now. Returning again to the present,

  • Lovely Rita (meter maid) makes an earthly balance for Lucy in the sky, as Mellers notes, not pretending that she is more than “an alleviation of loneliness and distress”. As Pollack notes, it’s been quite some time since we heard anything resembling rock. The song ends with what Mellers calls an “indefinite threat”, something of which persists through
  • Good morning Good morning (Pollack: “truly, truly, one of the great songs”), with more additive metres—its euphoria containing a spooky, hallucinatory undertone (Mellers), thus leading into
  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)—which has “now lost its show-biz glamour, or recognises it as illusory”. Pollack discusses it on his page on
  • A day in the life (here), an epilogue transporting us back into the “real” world, both funny and creepy, as Mellers observes; its news items, whatever their source, do indeed constitute “a Day in the Life—anyone’s life, here and now,” with the contrast between the simplicity and frailty of the little tune and the horror and confusion of the events dispassionately referred to. And then a long electronic crescendo ushers in a more urgent middle section, turning hallucinatory. The final da capo is less innocent,

threatened with ferocious percussion, and leading into another and wilder electronic trip that seems to be also an atomic explosion, obliterating both public revelry and private love.

Mellers even considers this song “the Beatles’ deepest exploration of their familiar illusion–reality theme”.

Perhaps it’s an unconscious tribute to the Beatles’ innocent honesty and tough resilience that, after the explosion, the commotion settles into an infinitely protracted if weirdly spaced (with obtrusive thirds) chord of E major: the key which, in the 18th century and after, was traditionally associated—though the Beatles cannot have known this—with heaven!

Which leads us (OK, me) to Bruckner 7 and the north Chinese ritual wind ensemble…

I can’t tell how people listen to an album like this—in a variety of ways, I suppose, like all music: one can zoom in or out on all kinds of music. But however consciously or not one listens, such analysis explains Sgt Pepper’s deep meaning and lasting appeal for audiences.

* * *

For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper in 2017, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution (not currently available, but sometimes reshown). It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.

Goodall gives us illuminating harmonic and melodic analysis, as with his discussion of Lucy in the sky with diamonds. He highlights the empathy, the different perspectives, of She’s leaving home—an insight into the real lives of 60s’ people, by contrast with the glamour of the image; the zeitgeist subsumed the contrasting moods of Ken Loach’s Cathy come home and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in wonderland—both from 1966. Goodall shows the Beatles’ innovative use of technology, as in A day in the life, whose story synthesizes fragments of reportage—and its amazing last chord.

Maestro Goodall also makes a game interviewee in Cunk on Britain.

For Yesterday (from the same period), see here; and note my tribute to Abbey road.

Our modern ears

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Almost anyone knows more than I do about punk, Country, film music, and so on. But when I write about them, however naively, my own narrow classical upbringing only serves as a reminder of what a very basic part of the soundscape all such popular genres are for anyone born since around 1900. This is just as true for WAM performers and the Li family Daoists—and even for scholars who interpret them. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer, or unhear the sounds all around us.

But that’s only one rationale for the growing role of popular music in ethnomusicology since at least the 1960s—from Wilfrid Mellers on the Beatles or the wide-ranging studies of Susan McClary, to all the important work on genres in Asia and Africa, and so on. More fundamentally, I return to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: all kinds of musicking in all societies  should be treated on an equal footing—Amy Winehouse, Erbarme Dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration (for a great playlist, see here).

* * *

That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t (see here, and here): in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension, with music (and culture generally) delineating barriers as much as commonalities—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.

Viola jokes and maestro-baiting

Cottrell

  • Stephen Cottrell, Professional music-making in London: ethnography and experience (Ashgate, 2004)

takes a proud place among studies of more “exotic” cultures in the splendid SOAS Musicology series. Complementing the work of Bruno Nettl and Christopher Small, as well as Ruth Finnegan’s classic The hidden musicians, it strikes many a chord with my work on Chinese ritual groups.

As I noted under WAM, it’s not that Western cultures, of any kind, should be a benchmark for discussing other societies; to the contrary, it’s fruitful to integrate them into a “Martian” view of world cultures, wearing both emic and etic hats. Many of Cottrell’s themes resemble those that an ethnographer like me would explore in studying Daoist ritual specialists:

  • The practical aspects of earning a living
  • The importance of “on the job” training, sociability, and oral/aural experience in what seems like a narrowly text-based tradition.
  • The importance of timbre (44–55), little theorized even in WAM but quite prominent for the qin, deserves recognition in Daoist ritual and shawm bands.
  • His account of “depping” (pp.57–76) augments the parallel that I draw for household Daoists (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.319–26), not least the insecurity of the freelance living—and it’s fascinating to read (Cottrell p.60) an account of depping from 1760s’ Britain.
  • The modification of dreams: the tensions or discord between early training and ideals (based on solistic individualism and creativity) and the delicate social/practical negotiations, frustrations, and grinding routine of professional orchestral life (42–4, 103–21; cf. also Scunthorpe and Venice, and Ecstasy and drudge); personalities and crisis management within an ensemble (89–90). I should add that household Daoists, as hereditary (almost ascriptive) artisans, don’t experience such a conflict, never setting out with such a spiritual ideal; but the practical exigencies of occupational routine are shared. Here I also think of Yang Der-ruey’s study of the changing training of Shanghai temple Daoists. Cottrell cites a telling comment:

We’re artisans rather than artists. What an orchestral musician is doing is taking someone else’s creative idea which they put down as dots on paper and actually turning it into sound. So we’re more like bricklayers—the architect would do the plan and then they actually put the bricks into place.

  • And his dissection of the performance event, subsuming ritual, theatre and play (149–82)—continuing from Small’s account, about which he expresses reservations. He observes diversity within the audience and in their responses (159–64)—a feature that for Chinese ritual is clearly germane, not only today but even in (supposedly more homogenous) pre-Liberation society.
  • Cottrell’s discussion of myth and humour (123–47), citing Merriam’s paradigm of low status, high importance, and deviant behaviour—“licence to deviate from behavioural norms” (137, cf. 143)—often reminds me of the Li band (cf. my book p.23); one might also think of other embattled freelancers like actors (“luvvies”). Like household Daoists, musicians are poorly paid. I might add that muso humour (particularly that of the classical muso—or the ritual specialist?!) further serves both to defuse pressure and to deflate pretension. A lot of our stories immortalize hooligan behaviour on tour. Such deviant behaviour—or at least deviant self-image—is a kind of “No, I won’t be a paragon of elite culture for you”, however childish.
  • Good too to see Cottrell drawing attention to “conductor-baiting”—better described as “maestro-baiting” (cf. his discussion of musos’ sarcastic use of the term maestro, p.139), recounting the famous story “You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!” (135–6) (for variations, see my post on Visual culture). He attributes it to Celibidache, but I’ve heard it about Böhm (both are perfect candidates!); and outside the orchestral context it is usually attributed to director Michael Curtiz. Conductors are an authority figure par excellence. Here’s another story about George Szell:

Talking to Peter Gelb, General Director of The Met, someone was defending Szell against the charge of being a bully, remarking “Of course Szell is his own worst enemy”—to which Gelb replied “Not while I’m alive he isn’t”.

  • He cogently discusses viola jokes (131, 136, 142, 144–6)—for which whole websites have arisen, of course. In Plucking the winds (p.233) I cited this one:

What two things have the Beatles got in common with the viola section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra?
Most of them are still alive; and they haven’t been together since the 1960s.

This dates from a time in the 1980s when at least the first part of the punchline was more applicable; though still funny, the joke now has an added period charm (cf. Musical joke-dating). I’ll limit myself to one more:

What’s the difference between a viola player and a supermarket shopping trolley?
The trolley’s got a mind of its own.

Anyway—in all, such ethnographic enquiry is routinely applied to all kinds of world societies, and scholars of Daoist ritual can of course learn much from studies of the “usual suspects” like south Asia or Africa. But it may be stimulating for us to see such approaches applied to an apparently familiar (prestigious? literate?) culture that is easily taken for granted. As with the “great composers” myth, reified ancient Daoist texts can also somehow be taken for granted, tending to dominate scholarly attention at the expense of real changing social performance and experience.

See also Mozart in the jungle.

Yesterday…

I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It’s a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.

In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言, more commonly known here by the melodic label Wailing to Sovereign Heaven, Ku huangtian 哭皇天) is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.

It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) gives the sixth verse:

Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.

kulou-2kulou-1
From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).

* * *

For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Performative tears feature in many posts on this blog—links here.

Some common versions open:

昨日去荒郊玩游        Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…

So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney heard his own version in a dream, like Aboriginal singers.

Yesterday

Though secular, it’s deeply moving. Here’s an early solo rendition, live (and Paul’s unaffected style is a major element of the song’s impact—no cover versions come close):

Here’s the remastered version from 2009:

As I observe in the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums, analysis, while optional, can supplement our response; again it’s instructive to read Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Dating from the same period as A hard day’s night, Mellers considers Yesterday a “small miracle”:

Although the opening words tell us that yesterday his troubles seemed far away, the music in the second bar immediately enacts these troubles with a disquieting modulation from tonic, by way of the sharpened sixth, to the relative. The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles “return to stay” with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B♮is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence. […]

The immediate nostalgia of the song is without suspicion of sentimentality, and the corny accompaniment of string quartet can be employed, with validity, to reinforce the music’s frail bewilderment.

Pollack’s analysis is also insightful.

I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about the responses of various types of Chinese mourners to the Skeleton, over time.