Archives for posts with tag: The Beatles

StepAfter all those years of prime time telly, Cilla Black is a somewhat unfashionable figure today – but look back at her music catalogue of the 1960s and 1970s and a lot of it is still remarkably fresh and interesting. The best of all for me is the stripped back demo version of “Step Inside Love” with composer Paul McCartney accompanying on guitar (and contributing the occasional vocal during the guitar break).  It was recorded in Chappell Studios (by then located at 52 Maddox Street, London) on November 21 1967, the same venue where the Beatles had recorded “Your Mother Should Know” three months before, and also where McCartney joined Chris Barber and his Band for the recording of “Cat Call” in July – another of the songs he “gave away”.

The take shows that Cilla doesn’t need big orchestral backing to support her, and nor does she need the power of her upper register to get across the emotion of the song – in fact when the single version came out it had been transposed up a full fourth (from D to G) for that reason. The deeper register of the demo – it’s really as deep as her voice will go – makes for a much mellower atmosphere.  All the elements used in the single are also in the demo.  McCartney told Barry Miles later on: “I quite like the song, it’s very cabaret. It was just a welcoming song for Cilla”.  And that’s the point – it was written specifically to open her 1968 TV series, Cilla, though in this demo version it retains a more personal intimacy.

That cabaret feel comes from the use of bossa nova rhythm, something that’s more evident in the Beatles’ own demo, made a year later using exaggerated percussion (not one of their finest moments). The most distinct harmonic aspect of the song is the chromatic slide down to the next full tone after “let me find you a place” (G, Gb to F in the example above, which has been transposed to C major), repeated after the following phrase down another tone (F, E, Eb), and echoed in the descending motto of the chorus:  ”Step-In-Side-Love”. Hard to notate in guitar chord symbols but entirely natural to play.


gypsyIt is fascinating to trace the connections the light music bandleaders and composers who flourished just after the war and into the 1960s had with the pop music world that eventually superseded them. Ralph Elman’s name is not well known today, as he made no LP recordings with his 14 piece orchestra Ralph Elman and his Bohemian Players – they were mostly a broadcast band. (There is, however, a complete transcription of a live Music While You Work broadcast made in 1963 available here).

Born in 1907 in London, he had links with the world of classical music as well, being the nephew of the Russian violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967) and was a virtuoso violinist himself. He called his players “bohemians” presumably because of his love of gypsy music, and his most famous composition is a violin showpiece called “The Gypsy Fiddler”. As well as leading his own band Elman was also the leader of the Ron Goodwin Orchestra. He also played violin for Burt Bacharach and for Barry Gray (composer of the soundtracks for Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet).

It’s the Ron Goodwin connection that links Elman with the Beatles. George Martin began producing Goodwin’s instrumental LPs in 1953, and when Goodwin resumed recording for EMI in 1966 for the well-known Studio 2 stereo series, Martin was again the producer. 1967’s Gypsy Fire LP included Elman’s “Gypsy Fiddler” with the composer as soloist. It seems to have prompted Martin to use Elman as a session player on two Beatles tracks: “Within You Without You” (recorded in March/April 1967 for Sgt. Pepper) and “I Am the Walrus” (recorded in September 1967 for Magical Mystery Tour).

However, Elman’s biggest influence on the pop music world wasn’t through the Beatles. It was his setting up of the Tin Pan Alley Studios (TPA Studios for short) at Denmark Street in 1954 that had the most lasting impact. One of the first independent recording studios in the UK, TPA was where many of the early rock and rollers, including the Rolling Stones, made their early demos – though most then crossed Denmark Street to the Regent Sound Studio to record their actual hits. TPA was re-opened in 2013 as the Denmark Street Studios by producer Guy Katsav.

Ralph Elman retired in the early 1970s and went to live in Spain, where he died in January 1983 at the age of 76, apparently while listening to a recording of Ravel’s gypsy-influenced violin piece Tzigane, as played by Jascha Heifitz – a piece (and a performance) that clearly influenced “Gypsy Fiddler”.

RatherBeWhen I first heard this song, in passing on the radio, I immediately honed in on the bubbly synth accompaniment as its most interesting element. It was a while before I heard enough of the complete song to notice that this material is also used as the introduction, played by a string quartet – and played convincingly. This isn’t a typical pop string arrangement. It makes full use of the independent voices and is also written idiomatically for the instruments, clearly by someone who knows what a string quartet can do. And it converts surprisingly well to the video game sounding electronic bleeps that alternate with strings throughout the song to play this music. (Note: the sheet music suggests it’s a trio rather than a quartet – it sounds fuller to me on the recording).

Researching into the song, I found that the band Clean Bandit was formed out of a real classical string quartet from Cambridge, the Chatto Quartet (named after cellist and band member Grace Chatto). This sounds exciting. I can only think of a handful of pop songs that make the most of a string quartet – “Yesterday”, of course springs to mind, but also “For You” by Judie Tzuke, on which the quartet arrangement was made by Paul Hart.

I’m still listening to Clean Bandit’s just-released album New Eyes to hear what else they can do with this combination. I have to say that, so far, I’m not entirely convinced. For instance, while “Mozart’s House” uses a chunk of Mozart’s String Quartet No 21 (a less obvious choice than most Mozart “samples”), it’s not really integrated into the rest of the song, and at one stage it sounds disconcertingly close to the Hooked on Classics approach – an unforgiving regular beat dominating the music and draining out all of its life. I do like the use of strings in an earlier Clean Bandit track called “UK Shanty” – not included on the new album – where folk music elements are more in evidence. And the videos I’ve seen are very inventive.

However, the album, and the song “Rather Be”, both indicate that the songs themselves are mostly generic, and that it’s the textures where the main interest lies. At its core, “Rather Be” is very simple as a straight song. It seems as if the songs are mostly written by outside writers and the band then adds the quartet textures – so we don’t get a lot of classical influence in the basic material itself, which is a shame. The band’s personality is also weakened by the use of different guest vocalists for every song. I also didn’t like the way that in the two dance remixes of “Rather Be” the strings seemed to be excluded altogether, indicating that for the hardcore clubbers that strings perhaps aren’t what they want to hear. Despite all that, it’s catchy enough to have made the charts, and I think its appeal comes from a combination of both the song itself and the unusual instrumental textures.

joemeekLonnie Donnegan’s skiffle cover of Rock Island Line, recorded with the Chris Barber Jazz Band in July 1954, is often credited as the cornerstone of the boom in UK blues and rock that emerged in the 1960s. That interest was also marked by Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock reaching the UK charts in January 1955, four months before it made the charts in the US. But a year later came a third landmark, which like Rock Island Line came from the jazz world. Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues was recorded in London on April 20, 1956 at Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park. After the recording, Lyttleton promptly went on holiday and left the mixing of the record to producer Denis Preston – who in turn left the work to his engineer, Joe Meek (shown above at the Lansdowne Studio mixing desk).

Meek – who went on to become a seminal producer of pop records in the 1960s – boosted up the bottom end of the distinctive piano riff played by Johnny Parker, and also pushed Stan Greig’s brushes right up in the mix. Lyttleton says he would have stopped the recording going out if he’d heard a test pressing, but by the time he got back from his holiday it was number 19 in the charts, and stayed there for six weeks – the first British jazz record to reach the Top Twenty – so he kept his mouth shut.

The immediate thing that strikes you on listening to the piece today is the resemblance of the piano riff to Paul McCartney’s playing on Lady Madonna. McCartney always cited Fats Domino as his main influence for the song. But Bad Penny Blues came out on the Beatles’ Parlophone label, where George Martin was the A&R man at the time. And British jazzers Ronnie Scott and Harry Klein were also brought in to play saxophone on Lady Madonna.

WizzardThis is a fascinating CD to revisit. Wizzard was Roy Wood’s post Electric Light Orchestra Project, and it was released after the success of a couple of singles – “Ball Park Incident” and “See My Baby Jive”. These were admittedly “heavy” in some respects, but Wood’s in-built pop sensibility showed through nonetheless, and they both ended up high in the charts. In retrospect, there are hints in these two singles of what was to come on the album, but it did nothing to prepare me for the shock when I bought Wizzard Brew in March 1973, lured by the singles and by the splendid cover. In those days buying a record was a fairly big investment, and for me the guilt factor of money not wisely spent soon kicked if I didn’t immediately like what I heard.

The opening track “You Can Dance the Rock and Roll” takes us straight away into very hardcore guitar rock territory, and then turns disconcertingly to dissonant free jazz for the second track, “Meet me at the Jail House”, with its extended passages for savage saxophones at the opening and closing. After that, another complete contrast: “Jolly Cup of Tea” is a Sousa-like piece for brass band, massed male voices and whistling that might easily have been recorded by the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, or the Beatles in “Yellow Submarine” mode. Roy also gets out his 1950s Elvis Presley rock and roll impersonation on “Gotta Crush (About You)” complete with anarchic instrumental interpolations.

The one track I did latch onto at the time was more in Wood’s epic melodic style, familiar from the Move and (particularly) ELO. “Wear a Fast Gun” is still the album’s highlight for me with its accessible pop melody mixed with florid classical horn solo lines and everything-but-the kitchen sink orchestration. Best of all is the lengthy coda where the hymn “Abide with Me” is introduced as a counter melody to powerful effect, either side of an elegiac orchestral interlude led by the cellos.

Those who buy the CD version nowadays get extra tracks – the four Wizzard hit singles plus the intriguing “Ball Park Incident” instrumental B-side called “The Carlsberg Special (Pianos Demolished)”. As if the original music on Wizzard Brew wasn’t diverse enough, the CD now ends with the pop novelty classic “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday” – arguably one of the catchiest songs of all time, though still featuring massed horns, children’s choirs and whatever other instruments Roy Wood had to hand.

Ash and KleinBritish jazz, like British rock and roll, often gets a bad press, or no press at all. Rob Young’s excellent book on folk music, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, includes a chapter on the rise of the outdoor music festival, culminating in Glastonbury. These now blockbusting events evolved from early jazz meetings in the 1950s and early 1960s such as the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. Young recounts that the fifth Beaulieu Festival, held over the Bank Holiday weekend in July 1960 (on the private grounds of Lord Montagu’s Hampshire estate) was the scene of some agitation over the so-called “jazz wars”, prompting Lord Montagu to discontinue the festival and Melody Maker to accuse some audience members as being “weirdies”. He writes:

It’s hard to credit now, but the riot that gave rise to the Maker’s condemnation was a clash between fans of trad-jazz clarinetist Acker ‘Stranger on the Shore’ Bilk and adherents of the foundation-shaking new thing of …Johnny Dankworth.

Accounts differ, but it seems that the band that initially sparked off the trouble was not in fact Dankworth, but the Jazz Five, headed by tenor sax player Vic Ash and baritone player Harry Klein. Teenagers stormed the stage and tried to grab hold of Klein. Acker Bilk’s trad band was called on to play for over an hour to pacify the protestors. Two months later, the Jazz Five recorded The Five of Us in London, so we have a contemporary record of the music they were playing at Beaulieu. The group (which also included Brian Dee on piano, Malcome Cecil on bass and Tony Mann on drums), were influenced by Horace Silver, and used the interplay between Ash’s tenor sax and Klein’s surprisingly agile baritone as their distinctive calling-card. These extended, inventive sets include plenty of originals, such as “Hootin’ (from Ash), which inspired the retitling of the LP for its US release as The Hooter.

Although largely forgotten today, The Jazz Five were the most prominent jazz group in the UK after the demise of the Jazz Couriers. They lasted until 1962, playing on the UK tours of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1960 – Davis apparently commented “I dig your group” – and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Later in their careers Klein and Ash made their livings as fairly anonymous session musicians. Klein was one of the sax players on “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles, and Ash played for Frank Sinatra on his European and Middle Eastern tours from 1970 up until Sinatra’s death.

Ironically Bilk (supposedly representing the fading music of the past in the jazz wars), is still well known to this day. In January 1960, a year before Stranger brought him international fame, his more typical trad style single “Summer Set” (word play referring to his home county, Somerset – Bilk’s nickname ‘Acker’ is Somerset slang for ‘friend’), reached number five in the British charts. It was the first of a run of eleven Top 50 hit singles. Now in his eighties, Bilk continues to tour today, despite some ill health recently.

Update 1 This neglected period of British music is covered in-depth by the book Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975, by Duncan Heining. Unfortunately it’s very expensive and (one year after its original publication) there’s no indication that a paperback is on its way.

Update 2 Acker Bilk sadly died on November 2, 2014. His last concert was in August 2013.

Fifty Modern Classics This is an electro-acoustic work featuring Lucier recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recording it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated. It explores both the acoustic properties of enclosed spaces and the complexities of the human voice. The text itself describes the process:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

I first heard I Am Sitting In a Room during a lecture at Keele University in the late 1970s – and remember we listened to the whole 15 minutes of the piece. I’ve rarely done that since then – in a way you don’t need to hear it more than once. But coming back to it again after many years, I was struck by Lucier’s pronounced stutter, and wondered if he’d deliberately emphasized it to provide more rhythmic interest – however, the last line of the text suggests self-consciousness over the stuttering that adds a more personal dimension to the work. And although this type of process can seem cold and mechanical, the voice does add an emotional element.

At the 1999 Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, which Lucier attended in person, I saw a performance of Nothing is Real: Strawberry Fields Forever (1990), a piece that explores some of the same ideas. The melody of “Strawberry Fields” is played on the piano using many different registers with the sustain pedal on. The sound is recorded on a miniature cassette recorder, and the recording is played back through a small loudspeaker placed inside an amplified teapot on the lid of the piano. The teapot lid is raised and lowered during the playback and the teapot itself is moved from the lid, altering the resonance. The effect is startling, and incredibly apposite to the source material, unexpectedly evoking the original psychedelic sound mix of Sgt. Pepper. There’s a very good video performance here.

buckOn the plane over to San Francisco on Saturday (I’m over for a week on a business trip), I had the chance to watch the new documentary Sound City, about the Sound City recording studios in Los Angeles. The film was made by drummer Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) and is excellent throughout. But one part was particularly interesting for me. It focused on the recording of Buckingham Nicks, the album that led to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s, starting with Fleetwood Mac (1975) and then Rumours (1977). It’s a great record and like a blueprint for the subsequent Fleetwood Mac releases, though little heard today because for some reason it never made it onto CD. I have an old vinyl copy but can’t play it any more.

A standout track for me is the instrumental “Stephanie”, composed and played by Buckingham – whose distinctive guitar style pervades all the tracks. Buckingham uses his thumb to pick out the bass and lower parts (like the left hand for a pianist) while using the rest of his fingers for patterns, arpeggios and the melody on the upper strings in a highly independent way. And to make this work more effectively he also changes the typical guitar tuning – something he apparently tried to keep secret in his early days so that other guitarists wouldn’t copy him. It sounds so full it’s hard to believe there’s just one player or no overdubs – except for the electric guitar melodies on the record, but these aren’t really needed, this is essentially a solo piece.

“Stephanie” reminds me of the folk-influenced finger-picking guitar style Paul McCartney used on “Blackbird” taken up a few notches, and it’s evident again on the Rumours track “Never Going Back Again”. Although the original is still hard to find, Buckingham has been playing the piece live recently and there are performances available on YouTube. But if you are interested in how it is played, take a look at this fascinating tutorial by Sara Carter. The prospect of a cover version on YouTube is typically something to avoid at all costs, but not in this case – she absolutely nails it here.

ImageThe Beatles played an important part in my musical education – not directly, at the time when they were releasing records (I was only dimly aware of this at the time), but in the early 1970s, when I first began exploring the back catalogue seriously and sought out the sheet music to try and work out what was going on.  The first music I bought was hopelessly simplified – I remember in particular that the rhythmical irregularities of “Blackbird” had been ironed out completely, rendering it impossible to play because it was so wrong. Then I discovered the “50 Hit Songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney” series, where the music was unusually detailed for sheet music of the time.

“Martha My Dear” (from The White Album) was one of the first pieces I wanted to look at. That long piano-only introduction, said by most commentators to be in “music hall” style, for instance – what was that magnificently scrunchy chord in the eighth bar?  (Answer: Ab with major seventh and ninth, not correct in the example from Wikipedia, shown above). Where do the bar lines fall? (Answer: still open to question, various editions do it differently, once again like the example above. To me, the simplest solution is to keep it in 2/4 except for the second bar in 3/2. But however accounted for, those extra beats at the start are enough to keep everything else out of kilter).

There are other excellent things about this song as well. Look at how the more conventional but soaring bridge passage (at “Hold your head up, you silly girl” leads into an “extended bridge” (on the words “Take a good look around you”), which at its end re-introduces the four-square marching rhythm of the introduction (on the words “for each other”) in advance of the verse itself returning. And everything is subtly re-enforced by George Martin’s chamber ensemble arrangement, for eight string players and seven brass players (including trumpets, French horn, flugelhorn, trombone and tuba), in addition to McCartney’s vocals, piano, guitar, bass and drums – no other Beatles were involved. I’m not saying this is the greatest Beatles song ever, it’s just that its sheer uniqueness of style and musical inventiveness stand out for me and make me want to listen again and again.