Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Play You Are Staging by Robert Rodriguez

The Play You Are Staging by Robert Rodriguez

It was spring when John, Paul and George convened at the home of one of the band members, each armed with material they’d been working on. The room they gathered in contained a reel-to-reel tape recorder, with which the assembled musicians had come to lay down their music, which was than in more of an aspirational state of being. United in purpose, they’d been looking forward to this day for weeks. It was an opportunity to showcase material informally, to hear what the songs sounded like, in an effort to craft a blueprint for their path forward. What we as fans have heard on this widely bootlegged tape through the years captured the sound of lighthearted camaraderie. They sounded relaxed and engaged - and if the occasional cock-up diminished the perfection of the moment, the spirit of exploration kept the vibe on a positive note.

It was only in the 1990s when excerpts from this tape reached the public at large with the release of the Anthology series. Only then did widespread awareness come of the recordings made at Forthlin Road in 1960, revealing a musical richness inherent in these teens. It was eight years later, at George’s in home - that John, Paul and George - now joined by Ringo - revisited an astonishingly similar situation. Back in 1960, they faced an uncertain future, with no Brian Epstein to guide them forward. Likewise in May 1968 - the manager who had presented them to the world and gave them the opportunity to feel the magic he had first felt in November 1961 at the Cavern - was no longer there for them. Just as eight years earlier, the path forward was unclear, as Hamburg had yet to materialize at that point in 1960; eight years on and with their place in popular culture assured, they were faced with the challenge of following up what had become the most acclaimed work of their career: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If they were uncertain of what was the right move, who could blame them?

In 1967, they still had the guidance of their manager - to whatever degree they still followed it - and a producer whose role had risen to the level of co-explorer, rather than the trusted guide who laid down the law in the beginning. But much had changed during the past year: everything from the decision to take charge in both the studio AND in business matters, which included the running of their own record label - as well as the personal lives of John and Paul, which saw the shedding of long time romantic partners for new love. The group had embraced - and then rejected - the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as their TM guru, though they would remain adherents to meditation to varying degrees ever onward. But a year that saw them reach the absolute pinnacle of near-universal media embrace with Pepper had - by years end - turned on them with the scorn accorded their self-made holiday season TV special, Magical Mystery Tour. For the first time during their years of success, the act that could do no wrong suddenly found themselves accused of creative overreach.

That 1968 began with The Beatles seemingly in a state of retreat makes complete sense. First, they’d ditched the sonic innovation and trappings of psychedelia for good, presenting a back-to-basics approach in their music going forward that was likewise embraced by their peers. Second, they withdrew from the public eye for a six-week long immersion study of Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh India. Though the intent had been mastery of this new form of self-actualization, to supplant their drug use, of which John especially had been frighteningly in sway to, the practical effect was to unlock their creativity in a way never before seen. 

Let’s assume that you all are better informed than Giles Martin was a few years ago, and are well aware of the existence of the Esher demos. These were the 27 original compositions taped as acoustic run throughs at George’s home in Esher - known as Kinfauns - just before sessions for what is popularly known as the “White Album” began. They have been widely bootlegged for years, and in fact seven of the recordings were officially issued in 1996 on Anthology 3. Some of the demos began life as homemade undertakings on cassette tape at the individual Beatle homes. But George’s ownership of a professional Ampex 4-track recorder enticed his fellow Beatles out to take advantage of the capabilities of this multi-track machine, transferring over their cassette recordings and double tracking guitar and vocal parts - a method they’d become accustomed to during their years at EMI, laying down songs for release.

Rather than a song by song description of what was recorded, I am here to explore the backstory: what these sessions represented in terms of group unity, in the wake of the disruption of established order that the past year had been for them. In December 1970, John Lennon gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, at a time when the group’s split was fresh and discord between the band’s two creative spearheads was beginning to crest. In it, he described the “White Album” as the sound of group alienation: himself and a backing band, Paul and a backing band, George and a backing band - as if all collaboration had ceased, and that they were no longer interested in working together as they had in the past, as editors of each other’s work, at least. His words throughout the Lennon Remembers interview have carried an inordinate amount of weight ever since: Jann Wenner did not challenge him, and far too many writers accepted the veracity of his declarations at face value for decades to come.

But it is possible now to examine what the evidence is to uphold or dispute John’s claims. Newly-unearthed session audio between takes reveals that, even in songs requiring only one Beatle, such as Paul’s “Blackbird” or John’s “Julia” - another Beatle was usually around in support, offering encouragement and suggestions for developing the material. But something else was at work in their approach to recording this album: for the Sgt. Pepper sessions, there was a far greater emphasis placed on production rather than band interaction. Individual parts were laid down piecemeal, not always with full band participation on the backing track, before layer upon layer of extra instrumentation, effects, and vocal parts were slathered on. It was a suitable process for achieving sonic perfection - and eminently empowering to producer George Martin as well as Paul, who reveled in the prospect of breaking new artistic ground while staying ahead of the competition. But it left the others estranged from the results, lacking in perceived “authenticity” or group ownership.

The new project would be different. In taking back control of the recording process, The Beatles were asserting their autonomy, re-claiming their status as a working band, nearly two years after they’d quit performing live. This necessarily meant a diminished role for producer George Martin, who naturally would’ve been expecting to build upon the triumph of Pepper. But the Beatles were adamant: there would be no alter ego this time, and no attempt at sustaining any concepts, no matter how illusory. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the collection of new songs would be entitled The Beatles, presented in the purity of an all white album jacket, strikingly contrasting with Pepper’s elaborate motif. In the studio, there was a further departure from established practice when they decided that they would tape their rehearsals of the new material, in the hopes of capturing the take. Only then would they build upon this satisfactory group performance, adding any production touches required to create the finished master. It was an exciting concept, requiring them to scrape off the rust of group performance inactivity and retrieve the muscle memory of performing as a unit that had sustained them during the years of stadium shows where they could not hear each other. 

To that end, they decided to lay down embellished demos of 27 songs - that we know of - at George’s Esher home. Putting new or developing songs to tape was something that The Beatles had long been in the habit of doing; the earliest surviving evidence of composing tapes during the EMI years date back to 1963, with the song’s primary composer usually laying down an acoustic sketch, to varying degrees of completion. Presumably, these tapes were shared with the others and George Martin, in order to present an idea of where the song was going and what was needed. This was very much an individual - not a group - pursuit. That the tapes were then shared, we know: what exists of Paul’s home demo for “We Can Work It Out,” for instance, has been bootlegged; the extant recording is marred by John reusing the taping, wiping out most of Paul’s performance by taping some stream of consciousness nonsense over it. Group recording of demos were largely unheard of to this point with the Beatles, though anecdotal evidence that Paul at least had taped some multi-track demos on his own, overdubbing assorted guitar, bass and drum parts, ala Pete Townshend.

That the Beatles made the decision to gather as a group to lay down on tape their various new compositions before commencing work on the follow-up to Sgt. Pepper draws our notice for the out of the ordinary occurrence that it was. Why would they take the time now to do this, presumably sharing songs that the others may have already had some familiarity with, as they were all in the same place when most of them were written? Was it about formalizing arrangements in advance of their entering the studio to tape their group performances? Or could it have been in some way - consciously or not - an intuitive effort to reclaim some group mojo as a performing band? A way to reconnect with each other, especially in light of the Rishikesh experience ending roughly?

It did not begin that way. In February 1968, The Beatles flew off to India in pairs, accompanied by their wives and in Paul’s case, fiancee. And though it was intended as a remote study experience, taking them largely away from the distractions and pressures of the pop star life in London, there wasn’t the complete isolation from life as they knew it. To begin with, a couple of other rock stars were among their entourage: their friend Donovan, as well as Beach Boys singer Mike Love. Also, a film star - Mia Farrow - who happened to be in the process of divorcing her husband, Frank Sinatra. Also, along with the Beatles came guitars. Whatever expectations the group may have had going in for this to be a focused study could not have been fully sincere. It should be noted that the perception of a small group: the Beatles and their partners, the aforementioned notables - was in fact much larger, including dozens of lesser known students. Furthermore, a number of people came and went during the period between the first Beatle’s arrival and the last Beatle’s departure from the retreat.

Still, The Beatles found themselves removed from their comfort zone in a way that they hadn’t been in years. The change in environment could not but help but inform what would emerge musically in the songs written in Rishikesh. Another element that made the experience unique should be noted: for the first time in years, they were all but completely weaned off of the self-medicating they’d come to rely on. Though unsubstantiated rumors of their LSD use in India have circulated, it should be noted that the Beatles saw TM as a replacement for acid use, and publicly said so. Whatever enlightenment they thought it could provide proved to be illusory, or at least finite in effect, hence their commitment to the Maharishi’s teachings. While the effect of abstaining from alcohol, weed and whatever else seemed to be less obvious on the music produced by Paul and George, something more noticeable was stirred in John. Though he would offer up his romantic and artistic relationship with Yoko Ono as the cause of anything good that emerged from him from 1968 onward, it is hard not to conclude that being left psychologically raw in India without his usual coping mechanisms opened the floodgates to self-expression and productivity not seen in years. Yoko was nowhere in sight when these songs were written, although she was undeniably in mind for at least one of them.

So what is it that we can glean from the 27 songs committed to tape at George’s Esher home, Kinfauns? Here is the breakdown by numbers:

The resulting double album, known as the “White Album” contained 30 songs; 31 if one counts Paul’s “Can You Take Me Back?” link between “Cry Baby Cry” and “Revolution 9” as a composition. Additionally, “Hey Jude” was recorded and issued during the sessions, while a George Harrison song demoed at Esher - “Sour Milk Sea” - was recorded during the “White Album” sessions and featured three Beatles as backing band behind Apple artist Jackie Lomax.

There were 27 songs - that we know of - demoed at Esher. Of these, 19 made it to the “White Album.” Of these 27 songs, 21 were written or started in Rishikesh. 5 were written after India, and in the case of “Piggies,” a song originally started in 1966 - around the time of “Taxman” - was finished and demoed.

Of the 27 demoed songs, 2 were passed over for the “White Album” and eventually taken up for Abbey Road: John’s “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” 1 of the 27 - the aforementioned “Sour Milk Sea” - was handed off to an Apple act; 3 ended up on Beatles solo albums: John’s rewrite of “Child of Nature,” recast as “Jealous Guy”; Paul’s “Junk” (then known as “Jubilee”) and George’s “Circles,” only resurrected in 1982 for Gone Troppo. The final two - John’s “What the New Mary Jane” and George’s “Not Guilty” - were actually attempted for the “White Album” but neither made the final cut. The latter of the two was eventually dusted off and re-recorded for George’s 1979 self-titled album.

There were an additional 9 songs that we know of that were written or started in India that were not demoed at Esher - as far as we know:

“Don’t Pass Me By” - Ringo (started in 1963, finished in India)
“I Will” - Paul (finger picking)
“Long Long Long” - George
“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” - Paul
“Wild Honey Pie” - Paul
“Cosmically Conscious” - Paul (recorded and released in the expanded Off the Ground)
“Dehradun” - George (recorded during ATMP sessions, remembered in Anthology)
“Look At Me” - John (Plastic Ono Band album)
“Teddy Boy” - Paul (McCartney album)

Of these, 5 would make it to the “White Album,” while of the remaining 4, 3 made it to solo release and 1 - George’s “Dehradun” - would be recorded but never officially released - yet.

Finally, there were 7 more songs written after the Esher demo sessions that ended up released that year: 6 on the “White Album,” plus “Hey Jude.” Of these, perhaps “Revolution 9” ranks as less of a composition than a mapped-out studio creation, for which a demo would not be expected. “Goodnight” - written for Ringo by John - is believed to have been demoed by John but the tape has not emerged. “Birthday” was more or less created on the spot, and if demos were recorded for “Martha My Dear” or “Savoy Truffle,” we have not yet heard them. This leaves “Helter Skelter” - a song that like “Revolution,” exists in a heavy fast version - a slow version - and an acoustic version.

If we count the 4 songs recorded by The Beatles at the beginning of the year: “Lady Madonna” - “The Inner Light” - “Across The Universe” - “Hey Bulldog” - plus the “Hey Jude” single - the Jackie Lomax giveaway - two compositions Paul is known to have produced during this time, “Step Inside Love” for Cilla Black, plus the mysterious “Etcetera” - recorded midway through the sessions and gone unheard publicly ever since; we have a staggering 49 songs recorded or demoed by the group between the end of 1967 and the release of the “White Album” - a staggering degree of productivity unmatched in any of their years of working together.

Apparently, isolation and meditation agreed with them. With the taps of creativity running at full force, it is not surprising that the Beatles would assert early on that they would record them all. It is a sign of George Martin’s diminished influence that his efforts to get them to agree to record just a single album of the quote unquote best material fell on deaf ears. They were no longer on the same page, artistically. Despite - or perhaps because of the critical slap they received after Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles doubled down on their belief that only they knew what was best for them. Taking on the roles of businessmen proved to be a bridge too far, as events would prove in due course, but when it came to their music, no one could tell them what was what. Whatever internal squabbles they may have endured to this point, if challenged from the outside, they would circle the wagons and keep outsiders at bay. The mythical 4-headed monster was still alive and well in May 1968 - what came in the months ahead would test the sprit de corps like nothing else they’d endured to this point. That’s a discussion for another time.

In a way, Paul’s off-the-cuff hidden track that bridged “Cry Baby Cry” to “Revolution 9” served as a statement of purpose for the album they created that year. “Can you take me back where I came from” wasn’t just a plaintive expression of nostalgic longing: it was a cry for a return to the spirit of something powerful that bound the group together back in the days when they had nothing to lose. By making the choice to record their music informally as a collective in the spring of 1968, just as they had in spring 1960, The Beatles showed that, consciously or not, the desire to get back to where they came from wasn’t just a wistful desire - it was an actionable response to times of challenge that had sustained them always.

© 2018 by Robert Rodriguez (All Rights Reserved)