Sunday, July 3, 2011

Style and Idea

That is the title of a book by Arnold Schoenberg--a very influential collection of essays. But this is going to be about the Beatles, not Schoenberg. Sorry! I put up a post about rules and I wanted to look at something that might challenge the idea of coherence and rules. Hey, you need to always test what you think. It might lead to greater understanding. Heh. So here's the thing: Revolver, one of the best albums from the Beatles and the one, along with Rubber Soul, that really put them on the map, begins with five songs, each in a very different musical style. I still think it is a great album, but I want to see how that fits with the idea of musical coherence. Here is the first song:

George Harrison song--I think this is the only album that doesn't start with Lennon/McCartney. Straight ahead rock and roll. This one is about the lyrics, really. A nice touch at the beginning, the countdown is a reference to the countdown to the first song on their first album, Please Please Me. The song is "I Saw Her Standing There":

The next song on Revolver is totally different. Paul McCartney and George Martin in their "Yesterday" mode. It was Martin's idea to accompany "Yesterday" with string quartet and that worked out pretty well, so they did this one with string octet. Simple song, just two chords really, but very effective arrangement. But the point is, that this song is in a very different style from "Taxman".

Next is a Lennon dream song featuring a guitar solo that was played back with the tape reversed.

Next something really different. George Harrison had become very involved with Indian music. The first appearance of it was in the addition of a sitar track to the song "Norwegian Wood" from Rubber Soul. This song, with the aid of an ensemble of Indian musicians in London, is completely given over to the sounds and rhythms of Indian music:

Next, a terrific song by Paul McCartney in classic Beatles style, but with real harmonic sophistication and grace:

Wow, in just five songs, all 2 to 3 minutes in length, the Beatles have covered five utterly different musical styles: Rock and Roll, Chamber Music, Lennon electronic dream music, Indian music and classic McCartney lyrical. Incoherent? Or not? Certainly pop music groups today have nowhere near this kind of range of styles. Tempos hardly vary from song to song, let alone anything else. I think this works, though. Not only works, Revolver may be the best popular music album of the last fifty years. Rolling Stone magazine has Rubber Soul at number 5 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and Revolver at number 3. The Beatles have four in the top ten, the others are The White Album at number 10 and Sergeant Pepper's at number 1. The only other artist with more than one place in the top ten is Bob Dylan with two.

So what makes this work? I've thought and thought and the only conclusion I can come up with is that the Beatles' style--their unique compendium of rules--is so strong that it can stretch to include styles as various as what we hear here. Take the most extreme example: "Love You To". After the free-form introduction this settles into a standard four beats in the bar. These are all Beatles songs, are they not? And what makes a song a Beatles song? I think one thing is the rhythmic urgency: whatever else is going on, there is an attention to the rhythm that is always compelling. They also do certain things, such as double-track the voices, that puts a different stamp on their songs. There are a lot of subtle things behind the scenes like vari-speeding the tape recorders so they can 'fatten' the instrumental sound and heighten the voices. They were always striving for a certain intensity of treatment. For example, on The White Album when George Harrison asked Eric Clapton to come in and play the guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" after listening to the playback, Eric commented that it didn't sound "Beatley" enough. So they put the guitar solo track through a Leslie--a special speaker cabinet that has speakers inside that spin on a disc, giving the sound a fluttery effect. They used it on Lennon's voice in "Tomorrow Never Knows" as well. There is a certain sound, a combination of a number of details, that creates a Beatles song. Unmistakably. There are also certain structural things, but that is a very complex subject and this post is too long already...

No comments: