I’ve been on a blogcation. Apparently.

There’s a lot of news in different areas of life to be explored. Come May 2013, I will be teaching Vedic Meditation. February I will be in India. Music will be taking a different form than before, not sure what, but it will be good. Meanwhile, have a beautiful holiday season, I will do the same, and I promise updates on a more regular basis.

peace and love, clb

Diversion 3 3/4 • “Help” the songs part 2

Act Naturally

Ringo sings Buck O! (see Feb 3 blog entry on Buck) Just like a drummer that can play in the back end of the pocket but never actually slow down, Ringo can sing flat but somehow make it work. His personality comes through. George channels Carl Perkins, and this is his best playing on the album. Note on the digital remaster; I swear I can hear foot stomping in the bridge rhythm guitar track “I can play the part so well”. Beautiful cover.

It’s Only Love

The boys always did this schmaltzy take on “latin” rhythms, Besame Mucho, Mr Moonlight, etc. and here John does his usual wink and nod toward that form, extending the joke with fake tongue rolls, bizarre rhyme scheme, etc. Yet something real comes through in his voice and slays me. George adds a weird tremolo hook, under 2 minutes and out.

You Like Me Too Much

George song. A little bit weak sauce, the lyric hook itself is awkward, but that’s its charm. What the lyric describes is subtly horrific. I will be a bastard, but if you dare leave me, I will catch you and put you back in the nest. I can, cause I’m a damn Beatle. The solo break is a piano-guitar trade off old timey chromatic ascend-descend thing that I hate from the sixties. It spells “good times” in a way I find depressing.

Tell Me What You See

Kind of a throwaway by John and Paul. Lyrically starting down that slightly gurujy path of spiritual-sounding nonsense. Things go blandly along until the bridge, then they open up with beautiful three part harmony, then they kill, gorgeous. Like crawling in the desert for days, stopping for the best cool water ever, then crawling on.

I’ve Just Seen a Face

Paul’s. Catchy, hooky, uptempo. Beautiful little simple acoustic parts dovetail together, and the words describe innocent new love and euphoric rush. What’s not to like? And if it’s too happy for you, it’s only 2 minutes.

Yesterday

Way too much has been written about this song. One of Paul’s great strengths, and paradoxically, great weaknesses is his uncanny ability to write, play and sing things that sound like they should be hooky and eternal, but don’t stand up to much scrutiny. This song has a pleading, yearning quality that hits me over the head and boxes my ears, not pleasant. Yet if I could write a song half this good, I would be ecstatic. And probably rich. Paul’s input to George Martin on recording the string quartet (close-miked, with bowing noises intact, and less vibrato than traditionally used at the EMI sessions) has had a huge impact on recording classical ensembles.

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

John closes with a barnburner cover, like on the first record with Twist and Shout. He rips his voice out, like the last set on a Saturday night. George plays the same clunky bendy riff all the way through, and it gets irritating. I’m not buying this one. I think this was the last of the Beatle cover songs, and it shows. Hamburg days are truly over.

Next: Back to the album.

Diversion 3 1/2 • “Help!” the songs

Help!

The movie’s title song is fragmented, with a key that deliberately shifts around, avoiding commitment, until the first verse hits with a ringing A. But the lyrics are a paean to uncertainty. Lennon continues the self loathing theme he first started exploring on Beatles for Sale: No Reply, I’m a Loser, I’ll be Back. Not exactly typical fodder for a pop song. The song is perversely peppy, a hyped-up admission of Lennon’s own depression in the face of unheard of pop stardom and adulation. Listen to the desperation in his voice, tucked into the folds of a 2:20 single. They even end with a cheesy sixth chord vocal harmony. Brilliant.

The Night Before

I am not a fan of Reverb or Echo on vocals. Except on this song. Paul’s lead vocal is drenched in a very natural, very complex-sounding chamber echo. To me it is the hook of the song, along with George and John’s “Ahhh, the night before” answer backs on the verse. The basic track is a wurlitzer or electric piano with Paul’s ompah bass and Ringo’s charmingly rushed tom fills, nary a guitar in sight, until George’s strangely double tracked octave solo, with clunky bends and no sustain. The lyrics are forgettable, but the track’s sound and mood is the star.

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNMhPQoEbJE

Luckily, the film footage clearly shows Lennon’s unusual rhythm guitar fingerings. I devoured this as a kid, the way his “drone G” has a tough-to-play fretted D note at the top, and he keeps shifting the same ‘G-B’ fingering base up the circle of fourths in the low end. More self-loathing in the lyrics, supposedly Dylan’s pot-fueled influence on John. Ringo smacks a tambourine on the two and four, and plays the ride eighths on a maraca in the chorus. I’m not a fan of the flute solo at the end, but it’s mercifully brief. The hook here for me is Lennon’s Dsus, D, Dsecond, D rhythm figure in the chorus.

I Need You

Not the greatest George composition, but serviceable. The hook sound is a volume pedal, available to country pedal steel players of the day, but played a little timidly on this track. Luckily the background vocals are godhead, and Ringo works the claves in the bridge.

Another Girl

More clunky bends from George, all the way through the damn song, distracting from Paul’s slightly misogynist ode to womanizing. Somewhere Ernie Ball heard this track and invented the slinky uncoated string as a service to humanity. The song ends, but George continues before skidding to an abrupt halt. Weird.

You’re Going to Lose That Girl

Backgrounds kill on this song. John hits a little cool falsetto in the chorus, more clunky-bendy from George, and Ringo gets a little carried away on the bongos. Lyrics are: “You treat your girl like shit, so shape up or I’ll steal her ’cause I can. I’m a damn Beatle.”

Ticket to Ride

So many cool things about this track. Foremost is the start-stop drum figure, supposedly dreamed up by Paul and taught to Ringo, who nevertheless swings it like crazy against the steady and simple tambourine. George hits a beautiful picky 12 string hook, pealing like churchbells, no doubt making Roger (then Jim) McGuinn of the Byrds take notice in Los Angeles. The bridge and ending kick it double-time, bringing relief and contrast against the main rhythm hook.

Next: Back to the album, then more from “Help!”

Diversion 3 • What means “Lead” guitar?

OK so I’m a sucker.

As a kid, for me, the role of lead guitarist was given to the fastest, most advanced guitar student, or the guy with the most expensive guitar, or the loudest amp.It usually had nothing to do with soul, magic or even personality. It led to masturbatory self-excess, aimless noodling. It culminated in that horrendous crap that emerged from the Sunset strip in the 80s. Walk into any Guitar Center, and as long as you can stand it, listen. That is the legacy of the church of the lead guitar.

I went out and bought the Help stereo remaster like a million other lunkheads. Why? It had a lot of strikes against it.

Help wasn’t the COOL Beatle movie. It was the other one. Life for the fab four had already accelerated to a frenzied pace that left little room for creativity except “on the fly”.

Richard Lester, who had gotten his breakthrough shot as a filmmaker in Hard Days Night had an amazingly happy accident with these four then unknown lads on that first film. Chemistry was with them, and the blissful charm of low expectations brought hosannas upon all.

Now, Beatlemania was in full flight. and the game had changed. Lester didn’t have access to the boys as he had before. He also picked up the mistaken impression that he could show up at the studio and throw his weight around. George Martin and the band presented a united front and shut him out of the process. So they scripted a preposterous adventure movie, and shoehorned the musicians into it. Then, they came up with songs for said movie. Not necessarily an inspired formula for great art. You can hear the strain on the over stretched capacity of the band. All this being said, it is one of my favorite Beatle albums.

One of the reasons is the public deconstruction of George Harrison. George’s strengths as an artist were easily eclipsed by John and Paul.

Paul’s uber talent and presence on record is easy to track. He was like Michael Jordan in Lead boots, or Michael Phelps leading a pack of average swimmers with his arms tied back. His uncanny ear for quality in pitch, rhythm, and arrangement, his ease in mastering instruments, and his amazing voice (able to shred Little Richard and croon like Presley, but without schmaltzy techniques like vibrato) made him a star player. Yet his first instinct was toward band solidarity. And he had to contend with John.

John was the soul of the Beatles. He did not have the glib shape-shifting ability of Paul, but there was a beautiful gravitas and completeness in his presence. His rhythm guitar playing has an earnest physicality, sturdiness and a willfully crude honesty that I (for one) have spent a lifetime trying to emulate. And his voice, very subtly soulful and honest, happened to blend perfectly with Paul’s. When John had to decide on whether or not to include Paul in the Beatles, someone who could steal his spotlight, John fortunately chose improving his band over eliminating possible rivals.

Ringo was the beautiful sound of someone straining to exceed their limitations, always game, always playing with total commitment to the moment. That ride cymbal on those early records sounds vicious and unapologetic. Listen to the attack on “Ticket to ride”, make no mistake, Ringo rocks.

Then there’s the problem of George. Burdened with the role of junior songwriter in the firm, his voice was the perfect “x-factor-missing-ingredient” in their fantastic harmonic blend, and his songs at this point were clunky and unconfident. But the biggest factor for me that dominates “Help” is the desperate sound of his guitar playing. On all their previous recordings George was either:

  1. Imitating Carl Perkins (wonderfully)
  2. Playing almost a second rhythm, little accents and comments rounding out Lennon’s fat bedrock chunking. Or
  3. Swooping in to save the day with a cool hook (“She Loves You”).

George doesn’t seem to fill any of these roles on “Help”. He seems to be floundering, at a musical cul-de-sac. His playing sounds tortured, like he’s struggling with too-heavy strings or too-high action (distance of the strings from the fretboard). Later on in their career, Paul might have grabbed the reins and played lead (as he did later on “Taxman”), but on these songs George is allowed to stand in his own. His playing sounds distracted, tossed off, with a scabby hesitancy. Biggest band in the world, and they let all sorts of clunkers stay in the mix. In the proTools sanitized recording world of today, such honesty would never stand. This is right before his transformative immersion into Indian music, and his later redemptive reinvention as a solo artist.

With the new mastering job, these elements are popping out with 3D clarity.

Next: Still more on “Help”.

Another momentary diversion • Buck Owens and Leo Fender

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for PepperAlley in 2005, Gus Austin’s great Drupal-based newssite.

Buck Owens changed music. Not just country music, but almost all popular music changed as a result of the innovations Buck brought about in his sphere of influence.

Like most music fans, my awareness of Buck began with the Beatles cover of “Act Naturally”, a droll little vehicle for Ringo, performed as close to note-for-note as possible. (British: “Help!”, American: “Yesterday and Today”) As a kid, my reaction was typical. The Beatles were godhead, and how amusing to hear their little goof on American “hick” musical forms. Little did I realize that the devotion was real, heartfelt, and couldn’t have been more serious. Although Buck didn’t write “Act Naturally” (Jon Russell/Voni Morrison), it contains all the classic elements of a great Buck single.

  1. Under 3 minutes
  2. Close (mountain style) harmony
  3. Pared-to-the-bone arrangement, simple song structure
  4. Intelligent, unpretentious lyrics
  5. Bright guitar tone
  6. Hot mix
  7. That “Freight Train” sound (2/4 time sig., lots of snare drum)

1. Under three minutes: On my well worn copy of “The Best of Buck Owens” (Capitol ST2105-vinyl) the longest track is a luxuriant 2:41. Gets right to the point.

2. Close mountain-style harmony: Buck and second guitarist Don Rich sang like brothers, and their choices in harmony had that sweet “mountain” sound borrowed from bluegrass and earlier folk forms from Appalachia to traditional Irish music, sometimes called “high lonesome.”

3. Pared-to-the-bone arrangement, Simple song structure: Buck’s song forms rarely have verse-chorus, let alone bridge. What functions as a “chorus” is just a tag line to the verse, usually consisting of the song title itself. There is usually a “B” section, that functions like a bridge or a “middle eight.” Structure is usually something like A-B-A-B-A. The Beatles loved this guy. Buck wrote for the club performer using  easy-to-remember songs that could be learned and taught quickly, but stood on their own. Chords are Tonic, fourth, fifth.

4. Intelligent, unpretentious lyrics: Like all great country music, Buck kept it simple. A hard-working citizen doesn’t want to hear philosophy coming through the AM car radio, just honesty and maybe some humor. Like Hank Williams Sr., Buck tried to stick to universal themes that his audience had lived.

5. Bright guitar tone: Buck and Don played matching Telecasters, usually through Twin-reverbs. Both products were the babies of one Leo Fender of Fullerton, California. Both stressed clarity and purity, but had a fat, full range of tone underneath. Leo couldn’t carry a tune in a bag, but he could hear and steer away from crappy tone in an instrument or amplifier, unlike modern manufacturers, even his namesake’s. The way Buck’s guitar sounded on record changed forever the way people thought of the instrument.

6. Hot mix: Buck knew that the tube AM radios of the day favored “boomy” round tones, so he kept his arrangements and mixes spare, and rolled off bass in mastering, favoring upper frequencies. This is normally against my personal religion, but it worked in Buck’s case, because it set his records apart from everything else out there. Buck played a lot of his rhythym guitars capoed up, the drummer’s snare is tuned up, and the kick is tight, and vocals and solos are compressed nicely, so they pop out of even the shittiest speaker. In his excellent biography, “Buck Owens… Catch a Legend,” Rich Kienzle wrote, “Having worked in AM radio, Buck knew its sound properties. He and Ken Nelson (Capitol producer/engineer) mixed his recordings using small speakers to get optimal projection on AM radios and car radios.”*

7. That “Freight Train” sound (2/4 time sig., lots of snare drum): Lots of performers used this one, but in combination with the other elements listed above, Buck stacked the deck in his favor away from the factory that Nashville had become. He had a vision and he stuck to it. He changed the world.

Mixed Blessings

When Buck signed on to do “Hee Haw” (basically a redneck re-working of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in) in 1968 he cemented himself in the TV audience’s mind as an affable clown. His wide-eyed humor spelled “ignorant hick” to those unfamiliar with his great records. Just like Louis Armstrong before him, he became a celebrity based on a caricature of himself. (I remember the shock of hearing the “Hot Five” sessions, where Armstrong’s mastery of the form and scary chops charted the course of jazz forever. This from the guy who sang “Hello Dolly”? But I digress. What else is new?)

Nevertheless, Buck got before a wider audience, as did bluegrass legend Grandpa Jones and others, who deserved to make a decent living after all. History will sort out the real players, and future historians will treat Buck with true deference and respect.

Biography
Take some time to check out Buck’s own website and get the full story straight from the man. As a fan, I’m not the most accurate source for facts, but I have some crackpot opinions I am always willing to share.

I’ll sum up his background in the context of the Great Depression. Young *Alvis Owens Jr. (he re-named himself “Buck” at age four) was born into a sharecropping family on the Texas/Oklahoma border. Like most depression-era families, hard work wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was life, period.

Like so many of the great innovators (Leo Fender parallel again), Buck wasn’t trying to create great art, he was opportunistic and inventive, and tried to create a product that was an honest value for the dollar. Along the way, great art happened.

Buck’s journey took him through stints as a cottonpicker, potato digger, truck driver, deejay and finally as a unique and sought after guitar player. His lead style was enough to draw the attention of Ken Nelson at Capitol, who put Buck under contract. After a series of misses, they scored with “Second Fiddle” featuring the beautiful fiddle playing of Don Rich, Buck’s alter ego (who rates his own Hidden in Plain Sight article, truth be told). Buck lost Don in 1974 to a tragic motorcycle accident.

After a lengthy run of consistently chart-topping hits between 1956 and 1976, Buck’s star faded from view for a time before being lauded by a new generation of country fans and artists, notably Dwight Yoakam, who recorded a duet with Buck, “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1988. Along with fellow Bakersfield artist, Merle Haggard, Buck’s California assault on the Nashville country music establishment still sounds vital and potent and close-to-the-bone.

Although he took on several proteges over the years, it was Buck’s own will to succeed, born in the adversity of the Great Depression, that proved impossible for his students to emulate.

Leo Again
Although he had a good twenty years on Buck, Leo Fender’s life course was shaped by the Depression as well. Leo was an accountant until he lost his job in the ’30s, and started a radio repair shop with a borrowed $600. Always searching for new ways to bring money in, he tinkered his way into amplifier design and the (then popular) Hawaiian steel guitar.

Leo loved country and western music, and would hang with musicians and ask them what they wanted in a piece of equipment. Unlike the manufacturers of today, Leo listened, and put the suggestions into practice. He eliminated the non-essential, and stressed reliability, style and repairability. He designed his amps to be simple and durable enough to be repaired by the average radio shop.

And the tone? Clear and sweet and loud enough to cut through the chaos of a crowded honky-tonk on a Saturday night. This is the reason these early amps and guitars fetch as much as a new car. The tinny crap that replaced them doesn’t fare as well.

The parallel with Buck Owens is another example of how a modest goal, pursued with tenacity and integrity, can effect unprecedented results. Together, Buck and Leo changed recorded sound, popular music, and the musical instrument industry all at once.

Postscript: Before Buck passed in 2006, Gregg Sarfaty and I made the pilgrimage out to Bakersfield and got to catch him live. Buck was pretty sick, but he really worked hard and put on a good show. The crowd was pretty “Bransonesque”, and some in the crowd had no idea who he was, but he was game, taking ALL requests the audience threw at him (Wooly Bully? Really? You’re asking the great Buck Owens to cover Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs?).

Despite his age and illness, occasionally that old spark of brilliance and gravitas would kick in and Gregg and I grinned at each other, “Oh yeah. It’s HIM.” That sound was unmistakable.