Thursday, September 24, 2009

Album project: Please Please Me

The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963); The Beatles, The Early Beatles (1965): As noted in my last post, I bought the entire set of Beatles remasters not long ago. My original intent was to just fill some holes in my collection, but Barnes & Noble gave me an additional 20% discount to go with the 10% I already received with my card, and I couldn't pass that deal up. The Beatles had already been remastered for CD in 1987, but the results were generally considered to be poor. The latest remastering effort represents four years of painstaking work, finally providing rock music's most important body of work with the sound quality it deserves.

It is presumed that those who have had an interest in the album posts possess at least a general knowledge of the Fab Four's career highlights. The Beatles' Wikipedia entry is a good place to start for those unfamiliar with the group's history, and Google will lead you to dozens of Beatle-related sites dealing with their discography, lyrics, recording notes, etc.

Having cut two previous singles, the bulk of Please Please Me was recorded in a marathon session at Abbey Road Studios on February 11, 1963 in which producer George Martin requested that the group play him virtually everything that had. These Beatles were not yet the all-conquering maestros of myth and legend. John Lennon and Paul McCartney's songwriting skills were not fully polished, still-teenaged George Harrison at times sounded tentative on lead guitar, and Ringo Starr had only been behind the drumkit for a few months. Yet the group laying down these tracks at Abbey Road had some things going for it: boundless enthusiasm, a raw, aggressive style honed by night upon night of woodshedding in the sweaty basement pubs of Liverpool and the seedy waterfront clubs of Hamburg, and perhaps most importantly, a burning ambition to be the most successful artists in pop music history.

The "one, two, three, fuh!" that opens the lead track, "I Saw Her Standing There", sets the tone for the rest of the LP. Martin had set out to capture some of the ambiance of The Beatles' club gigs, and one way to hear the record is as a non-stop dance party disc. From the beginning to the final chord of "Twist And Shout", Please Please Me bristles with irrepressible energy. Yet some of the group's more notable talents were already starting to show. Eight of the fourteen tracks were written within the group, which was quite unusual and audacious for pop acts in 1963. The six covers highlight The Beatles' fondness for American R&B. Lennon sings heartfelt lead vocals on "Anna" and "Baby It's You", McCartney's romanticism begins to flower on "A Taste Of Honey", and Starr turns in one of the record's most surprising performances with his strong vocal on "Boys".

"Love Me Do" and the title track, The Beatles' first two British hit singles, also made it to the debut LP. "Love Me Do" reached #17 in the British charts, a respectable first-time showing for an act that was then unknown in most of the UK. The song is built around Lennon's harmonica riffs, which he picked up from Bruce Channel's worldwide hit "Hey Baby". When Channel visited England, The Beatles landed a spot on the bill. Lennon took advantage to receive tutoring from Channel's harmonica player Delbert McClinton, who hit on his own in 1980 with "Givin' It Up For Your Love". "Please Please Me" was the first Beatles single to hit #1 in the UK. It is one of the group's all-time finest moments, arguably one of the greatest odes to sexual frustration ever recorded. Few moments have ever reflected a guy's desperation to get some from his girlfriend like Lennon's guttural "come on"'s echoed by McCartney and Harrison in response. Had the radio programmers understood the depths of unrequited lust conveyed here, this song would have been banned.

Their version of The Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout" captures the early Beatles at their most raucous. Producer Martin saved this for the last number to be recorded at Abbey Road that day, as John Lennon's throat-shredding vocal left him too hoarse to do any more singing; the problem was compounded by Lennon spending the day of the sessions fighting a cold. Martin recalls Lennon sucking on throat lozenges all day in order to keep his voice in shape for the grueling finale. The end result closed the album with a tour de force, with Lennon's vocal backed by driving rhythms, capped by the soaring three-part "Ah-ah-ah-ahhh!"'s and piledriver guitars of the bridge.

With The Beatles' popularity soaring to unprecedented heights, Please Please Me smashed into the UK album chart upon its release, reaching #1 in May and holding the top spot for 30 weeks, finally displaced by its successor, With The Beatles. In April, the non-LP single "From Me To You" also topped the British chart, taking the Fab Four to the brink of the greatest success any British recording act had ever known.

The Early Beatles is the US version of Please Please Me, leaving off three of the 14 tracks. Capitol released this LP in early 1965 after reacquiring the rights to the group's first recordings from Vee Jay and other independent labels. Capitol, the owners of the rights to EMI's releases in the States, originally sold the rights to The Beatles' releases to these minor labels noting that few British groups had ever had success in America at that time except as novelty acts. One of the frustrating aspects of writing about The Beatles is the variation between UK and US album releases. UK album releases often left off singles; the thinking being that if listeners would buy the album with the single on it, they wouldn't buy the 45 version, which could be disastrous in a market the size of Great Britain. Also, extended play records, or EP's, which were 10-inch maxi-singles with two or three tracks per side, were popular in Britain but never caught on in the States. In America, Capitol sliced and diced the British releases in order to get the most mileage out of them that they could. In the end, 12 UK LP's were released during the Fab Four's career, along with 13 EP's. In the US, there were a total of 19 album releases during the same period. Not until Sgt. Pepper would their be a Beatles LP release with identical tracks on both sides of the water.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Third anniversary

The official third anniversary of Pole Hill Sanitarium was yesterday, but we had company arrive unexpectedly a day early and I didn't get to post anything. So I'm going to sneak in some observations during a few minutes' break from work.

Like many of you, I've noticed some changes at this end of the blogosphere in the past year. Some old friends are visiting and writing less, others have given up their blogs altogether. Facebook seems to have had a lot to do with this. For people who come to the internets primarily for networking, Facebook is arguably a better solution. It takes up less of your time, gives you access to a larger network, and there are plenty of games and memes that are fun and provide opportunities to meet people. Facebook probably serves most peoples' needs better than a blog. Several years ago, blogging was the only game in town, so everybody got into it. But good blogging is hard and time-consuming. You can scattershot your thoughts around if you want, but few people will read that sort of blog. The best and best-read bloggers know how to write and tell a story. If all you have is fifteen minutes at the end of the day after the kids are in bed, blogging can get frustrating in a hurry, and a lot of those folks are now dropping out. A lot of them are turning up on Facebook.

My traffic is about the same as it's been for the last year or so, but now it's more Google searches and fewer regular readers. A lot of this is my fault, since I haven't been visiting and commenting on your blogs as much as in the past. As life is slowly becoming more settled for me as I adjust to new routines, I hope to start getting around the neighborhood a little more often.

I've always said that I don't have the most readers, but I have the best readers. I still feel that way, and that's the reason Pole Hill keeps going, even if the visits come less frequently these days. I understand. I have gotten to know a wide assortment of people through this blog, a number of you who I like to think of as friends. I was most fortunate to have my blogging friends with me through one of the darkest hours of my life, and I will be forever grateful for that. Every day I am especially grateful for Jenn, for being able to reach out to each other when we needed a friend, and through our shared interest in blogging began a special love that continues to grow with each new day.

So, where to from here? As blogging becomes less a way to communicate among friends, it seems as though a good blog needs to be about something. But as I said, good blogging is hard. One of my challenges right now is finding the time to write good posts. I'm somebody who feels it necessary to find facts to back up my opinions, so a lot of political opinion that comes to mind never gets posted here because I don't have the time to explain what I believe. I'm hoping to change that a bit in the next year. The Album Project will slog on; I hope to get into some sort of rhythm with that, so I can do at least one album post a week. (I haven't started on The Beatles yet because when the remasters came out a couple of weeks ago, I bought the entire set, and I'm now in the process of hearing the old Beatle classics fresh, as well as being reminded of some tracks that I'd forgotten.) The obits will continue, though I want to focus more on the people that impacted my life and tastes, and not necessarily write on someone because they were famous. That's why you see Jim Carroll but not Patrick Swayze.

The key is time. Because of shorthandedness and a city-wide hiring freeze, my typical work week is closer to 50 hours than 40. Also, I'm helping to raise two children now, which I'm finding to be far more enjoyable than I first imagined, but, as you know, they need time and love. I threaten Jenn with quitting often, but I've got too much in this blog to hang it up now. I'm going to do the best I can to finish my album blogging within my lifetime, if nothing else. I'll continue to move along as I can, but I'd rather do three or four well-thought out posts a month than a bunch of quick hits.

But if I find more funny cat videos, I'll post them too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Washing out the gray

I poached this from Lambert. This cat kinda looks like Alvin. Kinda looks like something he'd do, too.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jim Carroll

Poet, author, and musician Jim Carroll passed away Friday at age 60. According to his ex-wife Rosemary, the cause of death was a heart attack.

Jim Carroll was born and raised in Manhattan. He was a talented basketball player in his youth, which won him a scholarship to Trinity, an exclusive private school on the Upper West Side. While playing for Trinity, he was named to a number of NYC-area prep all-star teams. He also displayed a talent for writing at a young age; while in high school he wrote poetry that attracted the attention of the likes of William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and began keeping a diary that would later win him fame. While still in his teens, though, Carroll had already developed a heroin habit, which he supported by prostituting himself. By the end of his teens Carroll had a collection of his poetry, Organic Trains, in print, excerpts of his diary had appeared in Paris Review, and was hanging out with Allan Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Patti Smith.

Carroll left New York in 1973 for the West Coast, in part to rid himself of his heroin habit. During the mid-70's, he wrote poetry and song lyrics, toying with the idea of starting a rock band. Little came of that idea until 1978, when Carroll accompanied Patti Smith as she toured California. In San Diego, her opening act cancelled, so Smith invited Carroll up on stage to rap with her, introducing him as "the guy who taught me how to write poetry". Inspired by the experience, Carroll returned to San Francisco, hooked up with a group called Amsterdam, renamed them the Jim Carroll Band, and moved them to New York. Also in 1978, Carroll's high school writings were published as The Basketball Diaries. A riveting account of basketball, poetry readings, sex, and heroin addiction, the book received instant critical acclaim.

Carroll's recording debut, Catholic Boy, released in 1980, became an instant classic of punk and New Wave. Anchored by the radio hit "People Who Died", Carroll's lyrics painted a stark picture of the gritty netherworld of New York City, a landscape dominated by sex, drugs, and sordid dealings. "People Who Died" was a fine example of Carroll's vision; the song is a rapid-fire list of all his friends who died young. Catholic Boy was a surprise success, which Carroll followed up with two further discs, Dry Dreams and I Write Your Name. These records failed to sell well, though, and by the mid-80's Carroll had ceased recording and went into semi-retirement.

Carroll spent the rest of his career maintaining a low profile, writing poetry and mentoring young artists who he had inspired. His influence has been acknowledged by a wide range of artists, including author Danny Sugarman, filmmaker Harmony Korine, and singer Eddie Vedder. Carroll would return to prominence for a time in 1997 when The Basketball Diaries was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He recorded one more album, Pools Of Mercury, in 1998, and made several spoken-word recordings in the early 2000's.

One of my favorites from my college-radio days, Jim Carroll shone a light on the dark side of the American experience, and gave inspiration to a generation of artists making their own excursions on the edge of our culture.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to discuss popular music

For anyone who has ever discussed music at Pole Hill, or whoever might in the future.

Via Basic Instructions.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor Day: Joe Hill

On this Labor Day, let us take a moment to commemorate Joe Hill, the early labor leader, rabble-rouser and songwriter who remains an inspiration to union members and workers throughout the world.

He was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden on October 7, 1879, the fourth of six children. His parents loved music, often leading the family in song and passing their musical interests on to their children. When Joel was nine his father, a railroad conductor, was killed in an accident and the Hagglund children were forced to leave school in order to support the family. Young Joel found employment in a rope factory, and later became a fireman on a steam-powered crane. His mother died in 1902, and soon after Joel and a younger brother emigrated to America.

Landing in New York, Joe Hill worked his way across the country performing a series of odd jobs, eventually settling down for the time being in San Pedro, California. There, he joined the Industrial Workers Of The World and became active in the union's organizing efforts. The IWW's goal was to unite the working class worldwide into "One Big Union", and Hill became known throughout the West for his dedication towards that goal. In 1911 he went to Tiajuana as pae of a band of radicals seeking to liberate Baja California from Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. The next year he was active in a coalition that fought a decision by San Diego police to close the downtown streets to meetings, and later that year participated in a rail workers' strike in British Columbia. Back home in San Pedro, he was arrested in June 1913 while participating in a dockworkers' strike; in Hill's words, he was "a little too active to suit the chief of the burg".

Hill's biggest contribution to the labor movement was as a writer of songs that inspired workers throughout the country fighting for their rights. He would take the popular melodies of the day and outfit them with original lyrics that sought to inspire workers and spur them to organize for their rights. In this manner, Hill wrote "The Tramp", "There is Power in the Union", "Rebel Girl", "Casey Jones: Union Scab", and "The Preacher And The Slave", which coined the term "pie in the sky".

Early in 1914 Hill was working at the Silver King Mine near Salt Lake City. On January 10, butcher and retired police officer John G. Morrison's shop was attacked by two armed men covering their faces with red bandannas. Morrison fired his pistol and wounded one of the attackers, who in turn shot and killed Morrison and his son. Later that night, Joe Hill showed up at the door of a local doctor asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said he received while in a fight over a woman. Police searched Hill's hotel room and found a red bandanna; that, along with the wound and his reputation as an IWW organizer, was enough to have him arrested for the murders of the Morrisons.

At his trial, Hill steadfastly maintained his innocence in the murders. He refused to name the woman whose company he had been in that evening, which would have provided him with an alibi. Some have speculated that Hill risked a murder conviction in order to preserve the reputation of a married woman. The prosecution's star witness, Morrison's 13-year-old son Merlin, who had originally told police "That's not him at all" when he first saw Hill, testified that Hill was the murderer. The jury only took a few hours to find him guilty.

A worldwide effort began to exonerate Hill. Helen Keller, AFL president Samuel Gompers, the Swedish minister to the United States, and President Woodrow Wilson all spoke to the governor on Hill's behalf to no avail. To the last, Hill claimed that the state of Utah was framing him due to his IWW activities. In one of his last letters, he wrote to IWW leader Bill Haywood, "Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning, organize!" Joe Hill was executed on November 19, 1915; his last request, reportedly to the firing squad, was "Fire!" Hill's body was transported to Chicago, where more than 30,000 paid their respects. Afterward, his body was cremated, and the ashes sent to labor leaders around the world and in every state except Utah.

Over the years, the labor movement's great songwriter has himself been commemorated in song. "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", written in the 30's, became something of a standard, and has often been performed by Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Joan Baez, among many others. During the 60's Phil Ochs, in the manner of Joe Hill himself, wrote lyrics that celebrated Hill's life and set them to the melody of the folk ballad "John Hardy". Billy Bragg, one of the most socially conscious performers of our era, brings the memory of Joe Hill back to life.

Hill's final will and testament has long been a source of inspiration to activists throughout the world:

My will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide
My kin don't need to fuss and moan
"Moss does not cling to a rolling stone."
My body? - Oh. - If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again

This is my Last and final Will
Good Luck to All of you.

Happy Labor Day.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio and They Gave Us A Republic.)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Ted Kennedy

Belatedly paying my respects to Ted Kennedy. I haven't had much time for writing the last few weeks; also, given the changes I've seen take place in the blogosphere in the last year, I've been thinking some about what the future of this particular piece of cyber-landscape should be.

Odds are that if you've turned on the news at any time in the last 50 years you've heard the Kennedy name; therefore, I am not providing a detailed biographical sketch. I did have a near-brush with Senator Kennedy back in 1980 when he mounted his primary challenge to President Carter. Kennedy scheduled an appearance at Wichita State during his campaign. The university administration hosted his speech at Wilner Auditorium, an old firetrap seating only a few hundred. On the day of Kennedy's arrival, naturally, the lines formed quickly, and by the time I made my way across campus to Wilner, the doors had long since been shut, leaving a line of hundreds of angry students who knew that more suitable facilities were available at WSU. In contrast, when Ronald Reagan came to speak a few weeks later, he was allowed to use the modern facilities at Hubbard Hall, where closed-circuit cameras connected a network of auditoriums that seated nearly 2000. Anyway, I did get to see Reagan that day; after which he came through and shook everybody's hand, from which I make my claim to meeting a President - if only for a couple of seconds.

Ted Kennedy was one of the Senate's fiercest advocates for the poor and disadvantaged; his steady support for expanding the health insurance system to cover all Americans is well-known. Sadly, many will remember him mostly for the incident at Chappaquiddick that probably cost him any realistic shot at becoming President. I can't say what happened on that day, but I can imagine that there were many days following that incident where Ted Kennedy wished that the assassins had come for him and spared his brothers. This seems to be a bit of a problem for us liberals - our most prominent spokespeople seem to be either decent souls whose desires for consensus often leave them appearing weak and indecisive (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama), or forceful advocates that appear morally compromised (Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy). When amplified by the media, these faults end up giving undeserved credence to dubious conservative arguments.

This Boston Globe series gives excellent insight to Kennedy's life and times.

There's no doubt we must do a better job of looking within ourselves and speaking
out for the principles we believe in, and for the values that are the foundation of
our actions. Americans need to hear more, not less, about those values. We were
remiss in not talking more directly about them - about the fundamental ideals that
guide our progressive policies. In the words of Martin Luther King,
"we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope."

Unlike the Republican Party, we believe our values unite us as Americans, instead
of dividing us. If the White House's idea of bipartisanship is that we have to buy
whatever partisan ideas they send us, we're not interested.

In fact, our values are still our greatest strength. Despite resistance, setbacks, and
periods of backlash over the years, our values have moved us closer to the ideal
with which America began - that all people are created equal. And when Democrats
say "all," we mean "all."


Our progressive vision is not just for Democrats or Republicans, for red states or
blue states. It's a way forward for the nation as a whole - to a new prosperity and
greater opportunity for all - a vision not just of the country we can become, but of
the country we must become - an America that embraces the values and aspirations
of our people now, and for coming generations.

A newly revitalized American dream will, of course, be expressed in policies and
programs. But it is more than that. It is a challenge to Americans to look beyond
the next horizon, remove false limits on our vision and needless barriers to our
imagination, and open the way for true innovation and progress.

It is a commitment to true opportunity for all - not as an abstract concept, but as a
practical necessity. To find our way to the future, we need the skills, the insight,
and the productivity of every American, in a nation where each of us shares
responsibility for the future, and where the blessings of progress are shared
fairly by all our citizens in return.

-Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

The entire speech is excellent; if you're one of those Democrats disillusioned by recent actions of the Obama Administration and Congress, I highly recommend that you read the whole thing. You will find few better examples of what a fighting liberal sounds like.