Category Archives: Amy Hughes

Book Review: “The Beatles On Screen: From Pop Stars To Musicians” by Stephanie Fremaux

This review is by Amy Hughes

the_beatles_onscreen_cover

The lens through which we see The Beatles can be a prismatic collage of idol worship, fan participation, and undying gratitude. For most, the forming of those perspectives – beyond the music – was through the medium of film.

As a scholar and author, Stephanie Fremaux demonstrates in The Beatles On Screen: From Pop Stars To Musicians (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), how the band portrayed numerous versions of themselves that helped convey their image as witty moptops, groovy guys, psychedelic creators, and gutsy soul-baring artists.

Of course, from a realistic standpoint, most of the above descriptors have a caveat attached. Fremaux brings us through a studied course of their films (including Ron Howard’s ‘Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years’) and illustrates several touchpoints within the media. Most notable is how each fits within a specified genre and timeframe and pointedly, how their film image interacted with the fans.

1964’s ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was not the success or ground-breaking film it set out to be. Conceived before the group hit big in the US, director Richard Lester shot the film with the idea, as Fremaux notes, of a fictionalized account of what it was like to be The Beatles at that time. The advantage of the big screen brought the devoted as close as possible to their idols, highlighting the close-up, stylistic camerawork (mostly handheld) Lester thought necessary to convey their fast-paced lifestyle.

With the tide of Beatlemania shifting to closer examination of each ‘personality,’ Fremaux dissects the ‘real’ from the ‘fantasy,’ comparing and contrasting several notable scenes including the surrealistic sequence of The Beatles running/cycling alongside the train, taunting an old veteran (“Hey Mister, can we have our ball back?!”) to the film-within-a-television broadcast-within-a-film (‘And I Love Her’), surrounded by schoolgirls intercut with a performance (‘I Should Have Known Better’) and creating general calamity (with broad Liverpool humor) throughout the movie.

As Starr emerged as the film’s protagonist, 1965’s ‘Help!’ further showcased his persona as the centerpiece of the plot. Fremaux correctly points to several problematic aspects with the follow-up: as a mirror of the moment, the premise is non-tangible and moves their fans away from the center of attention. The plot is of the day (James Bond-ish), the locales are removed from the storyline and The Beatles themselves have no other job than to lip-sync to their songs (albeit wonderfully filmed by Lester) to avoid a sacrificial sect bent on killing Ringo.

While Fremaux notes that ‘Help!’ as a whole is weak, the individual songs used as connecting links hold up over time apart from the film. Considered among the first ‘music videos’ the segments were a showcase for what was coming in the next year as The Beatles moved away from live performances and into the studio to craft their future.

There would be no feature film in 1966, however several songs would make their debut for television broadcast as filmed shorts, the most noteworthy being ‘Rain’ and ‘Paperback Writer.’  Insofar as the band appears disenchanted or mocking in other versions (or as in ‘We Can Work It Out’ going off the rails in lip-sync laughter), the two color videos (directed by Micheal Lindsay-Hogg) helped to break the monotony, while furthering the experimentation that was on the horizon.

As The Beatles cartoon series chugged along in the US (much to the disdain of the band), Fremaux exams the seismic shifts happening as 1966 yielded to the iconic year of 1967. The ‘lads’ were morphing into serious musicians and their individualism – first noticed in the Lindsay-Hogg videos – were ignited full force with the release of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane.’

A notable characterization study, both films find the foursome further removed from ‘performing:’ recasting themselves with ‘Swinging London’ apparel, moustaches (!) and no instrumentation, their perceived aloofness mixed with a creative detached air of avant-garde musicianship, gave pause to the young audience they had seized upon only three years hence. That coolness factor – adult, yet child-like in execution – did not serve them well in their next film endeavor.

After the death of Brian Epstein, The Beatles moved forward with ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ despite the lack of planning and some say, script. While Paul McCartney loosely directed, the remaining three were given creative license with their ‘characters.’ Fremaux argues that although the end result was much maligned by the press, in hindsight ‘MMT’ brought about certain far-out visuals that predicted the future of music presentation. However the majority of the public, while making the soundtrack a hit, could not understand the psychedelic freeform narrative, resulting in the first major ding in The Beatles armor of commercial value.

In should then come as a slight surprise that 1968 saw a rebirth of their image to the general record-buying public. As their next feature film ‘Yellow Submarine’ was toiling away in the background without their direct supervision or input, the release of ‘Hey Jude/Revolution’ put them squarely back in favor with their fans.

‘Yellow Submarine’ in spite of the perceived lack of support, was a cinematic feast for the eyes. Although they eventually appeared at the end (minus the planned special effects), this animated image of The Beatles has endured, untethered from the real world and pleasantly living as a creative tribute to the men and women who placed their lives on hold because of their love for The Beatles.

Fremaux poses some interesting subjective viewpoints on the ‘Hey Jude’ clip, noting that Lennon, Harrison and Starr seem removed from the proceedings while McCartney (on piano, minus his iconic bass) takes the lead, with only the invited audience streaming in for the coda singalong to enliven the scene. This tendency to read into the tense environment that was slowly evolving, cast the next feature as a 50-year-old conundrum that since the publication of this book, has been turned inside out.

The dirge that ‘Let It Be’became known for, the “visual struggle” as Fremaux describes, is now in 2022 something of a misnomer. While Fremaux can only provide insight for the 1970 chain of events and the version available to critique, it’s exactly where most of the public saw the group at the movie’s release: four grown men, struggling creatively or not participating to the fullest degree, on the precipice of fallout and literally removed from the public who could not see the rooftop performance at 3 Savile Row.

The conclusion showcases the long journey The Beatles travelled from Liverpool favorites to global social influence. ‘Eight Days A Week,’ was their most recent film endeavor (until 2021’s ‘Get Back’) involving the approval of everyone connected. As fans and admirers, the celebrities and notables interviewed onscreen nearly reach the same conclusion: that despite what was going in their personal lives, The Beatles had spoken to them through music and film. Fremaux incidentally notes with no irony, that this film should have been the one between ‘Help!’ and ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ an idea not too far flung. Director Ron Howard was able to paint a portrait that encapsulated the enormous influence and reach they had during those hectic years criss-crossing the world (not altogether satisfactorily sometimes), while maintaining a connection via concerts and movies for their audience.

“It is interesting to think that some fifty years before social media, before the idea of collective individualism that such platforms encourage, and before the extent to which anyone can be celebrities today, the Beatles used their films to project their ordinariness even at the height of their success.”

Fremaux’s words are in the end, worth a rating of 4 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “Take A Sad Song: The Emotional Currency of ‘Hey Jude'” by James Campion

This review is by Amy Hughes

Take A Sad Song Hey JudeIn the Beatles canon, there is one composition, one performance that stands up and takes notice of the world. Since 1968, that song has been ‘Hey Jude.’

Author James Campion elongates the timeline from then to now with Take A Sad Song: The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude” (Backbeat Books, 2022). If one questions why this song has come to define how we feel – deeply – about ourselves and globally, each other, he details those passages to great effect and empathy.

Campion brings together several noted musicologists, journalists, and musicians whose love for and knowledge of The Beatles helps to describe the far-flung reasons and reactions that bind ‘Hey Jude’  to our collective DNA and the shared elements of the individual who miraculously brought it all together.

Paul McCartney’s childhood is well documented with the loss of his mother to cancer and the hardships that followed. The ensuing years saw the rise of The Beatles with not only their popularity as a band, but as songwriters, Lennon and McCartney ascended to the top of the charts with their catchy memorable tunes and distinctive sound.

But what really happened went far deeper. While the struggle to maintain a normal life was in fact an everyday occurrence for those involved, McCartney processed his soul into a song. As early-to-mid 1968 has shown, his personal life started to unravel: the trip to Rishikesh proved insightful but fractured his relationship with Lennon, and his longtime girlfriend Jane Asher broke off their engagement. What else could he do but pour all this into an elegy?

Campion’s book is not so much a studious laundry list of how ‘Hey Jude’ came to be and where it went. The uniqueness of the times, as many interviewees noted, demanded to be heard and then have it propelled forward. The mechanics of the composition are unmatchable. McCartney – as has been noted in a previous blog entry – was surrounded and imbibed with music. His mind was constantly spinning, never slowing down in absorbing breath and emotion coming from his environment. Whether he intended to construct what has become an epic, relatable anthem is only up for reflection by McCartney himself.

The frequently told and legendary story surrounding ‘Hey Jude’ is not hard to fathom: as Lennon became involved with Yoko Ono and left behind his wife Cynthia and young son Julian, McCartney traveled out to see them. During the car trip, the germination of the song came to him and while the conversation with Cynthia was lighthearted, he knew immediately the sense of loss and abandonment that was coming soon, especially for a boy whose circumstances mirrored his own.

Instead, the implied autobiographical details infused in ‘Hey Jude’ elicited personal empathy from Lennon. While also losing his mother months after McCartney’s mother’s passing, Lennon refused to live with the scenario that she was gone. Hence his blocked emotion at explicitly revealing this in song… until ‘Hey Jude.’ It was his comment to McCartney about leaving in the placeholder sentence ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’ that gave his junior partner the confidence that this song was relatable to not only him… but anyone.

Two areas that are especially interesting are the recording of the song and the filming of the video. While noting that the band switched over to the then-new Trident Studios (with the intention of using their 8-track recording system), once completed and taken back to EMI Studios, the dissimilar operational logistics and control settings between the two seemed insurmountable. Campion explains those defeating circumstances and the fixes utilized by the team at EMI (including the brief return of engineer Geoff Emerick) to the great relief of everyone who had believed it was a lost cause.

With humor, the story behind the filming of the video is decidedly more intriguing. In fact, there are two filmings that Campion covers. The first was the rehearsals of the song at EMI. Filmed by the National Music Council of Great Britain for the documentary ‘Music!,’ this footage is notable for the fact of George Harrison’s presence in the control room with George Martin and Ken Scott. McCartney’s specific demands led to a spat and Harrison exited the studio below. The bassist’s attitude toward perfection was an open secret that would lead to further friction in the coming months.

Another surprising revelation (to this reviewer) was the Michael Lindsay-Hogg-directed version of ‘Hey Jude.’ As presented to the UK public, one surmised it was specifically done for exclusivity for David Frost – hence his introduction. However, Campion unearths the hysterical reasons why Frost shouldn’t have been there and then delves into the unspoken visual nuances of the performance, the band’s interaction with the invited audience, and the “cosmic kinship’ as described by Campion between Lennon and McCartney.

But what really drives this narrative along are the numerous observations from Campion’s interviewees and his own personal examination of the crucial four-plus minute coda. Initially, told that ‘it just wasn’t done,’ what does one think if you’re The Beatles? You go ahead – and do it.

Na… na… na… na na na na will in fact, become more than an ending to a long song. At the time, it is a rule-breaking, non-conformist leader that disrupts the leftover hippy-dippy AM sounds of summer and reaches out in a soul-searching, personal call-to-arms as 1968 explodes in domestic and worldwide chaos. Several scholars note that where McCartney succeeded was reaching back from childhood and leaning on the Christian hymn ‘Te Deum.’ And to add: a fourth-century canticle that he subconsciously meshed with The Drifters’ 1962 soulful ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ (a Beatle favorite) is not an unreal possibility.

As Campion notes several times (and with the comments and remarks from his respondents), ‘Hey Jude’ is not just about Paul McCartney inheriting a character (one of his songwriting traits) and offering a manufactured tale. This was a Paul McCartney who passionately cared that this creation succeeds on the ‘everyman’ level: from a TV audience in 1968 to the countless world tours to young non-English speaking musicians such as Korean pop band BTS who when asked what their favorite Beatles song was, jumped up and began Na… na… na… na na na na.

The impact of ‘Hey Jude’ from a song to an event is incalculable. By definition or perhaps default, this milestone in music has come to define the personal and professional attainments one feels – whether it be a comforting lyric in a time of mourning or a place that thousands of artists aspire to reach every time they compose. Campion has fashioned a unique testament to the power of one song to countless individuals.

This book rates 4 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “Words, Music and the Popular: Global Perspectives on Intermedial Relations” Edited by Thomas Gurke and Susan Winnett

This review is written by Amy Hughes

Words, Music and the Popular: Global Perspectives on Intermedial Relations Edited by Thomas Gurke & Susan Winnett

Words, Music and the Popular: Global Perspectives on Intermedial Relations’ (Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature, 2021) is a collection of essays disseminating ‘the popular’ as it pertains to the environment surrounding words and music and how comparing and contrasting these studies contribute to our personal interactions within those disciplines.

Specifically, in the context of this review, the focus on popular forms and pop aesthetics is the essay “Which Side Is This Ex-Beatle On? A Reassessment of the 1970s Rock Press’ Framing, Interpretation, and Consideration of Paul McCartney and Wings” by Allison Bumsted, Ph.D.

Bumsted, as with many of the new generation of Beatles scholars, has stepped back in time with the explicit intention to re-examine an argumentative skewed mindset: how did the male-dominated music clique subjugate a performer with such overwhelming force that we have to nearly re-write history today?

More to the point, Bumsted has undertaken the collective of Wings’ releases (and of course, McCartney) with the corrective reconsideration and contextualization that present times offer and also with the advantage of the band’s re-releases in the past few years, now able to move the imbalance to a more equitable position.

Intriguingly, Bumsted speaks to the “belief system” that was inherent in most rock critics’ assessments from that time period. As male writers dominated the columns of reviews in music papers and magazines, the persistent bias of this select circle had a profound and lasting influence on the readership of that generation. With McCartney and Wings portrayed as “flaccid” and “impotent,” their terminology pulled no punches with this privileged position: Wings were nothing more than a lightweight pop band whose leader – once part of a band that changed music forever – was now reduced to a Muzak elevator charlatan.

No one genre such as rock had come to fruition so quickly thru the roots of the politically-charged, counter-culture campfire known as folk and protest music. After the amplification of Dylan and the emergence of songwriters as poets, rock music became the dominant definition of’ important’ while pop was buried in the pages of teen idol zines. Wings came along, as Bumsted points out, at a fortuitous moment in the ‘70s. But where would they land?

McCartney’s standing as the breaker-upper of The Beatles was not lost on the “hyper-masculine” rock press, as Bumsted states. Many encouraged a new McCartney musical venture (such as Wings) in a backhanded way, using The Beatles as their yardstick and John Lennon in particular as the one Beatle to emerge with something meaningful and challenging to say.

It wasn’t until 1973’s ‘Band On The Run’ that Wings as a musical entity drew critical notice and acceptance, despite the continued barrage of subjective opinions from critics up to and including the venerable truth-teller Lester Bangs, whom Bumsted uses in an examination of Wings in 1976 and in particular, the oft-told perspective of whether this was Paul (and Linda) McCartney with hired musicians or an imaginary, democratic gathering known as Wings.

Bumsted, in her detailed conclusion, notes many diametric aspects in accepting Wings within a pre-defined environment, driven by the rock press. While a significant portion of the public embraced the band wholeheartedly as ‘pop’ and acknowledged that time-worn analogy that The Beatles were his ‘old’ group, reviewers and critics did in some way want McCartney to succeed apart from his old bandmates. Contemporary viewpoints do not hold the same “social and political connotations” as Bumsted points out from that timeframe, and while those critiques can still sway a reader, Wings has evolved to a place within the popular.

This essay (and book) rate

4 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “Yoko Ono: An Artful Life” by Donald Brackett

This review is by Amy Hughes

Yoko Ono: An Artful LifeYoko Ono. No two words in the world, past or present, can conjure up such a deep emotional response. No one else in the world of art, music, and literature can rev up enough words to fill a bag as she has always done.

Author Donald Brackett has bravely put together Yoko Ono: An Artful Life (Sutherland House, 2022) by turns refreshing and frustrating (like the subject herself). That the reader will be rewarded with a better understanding of this complex woman is again refreshing and frustrating.

Approaching with an unbiased mind is not its sole purpose. There are enough people on Team Ono in today’s society that will appreciate the balance of life Before Yoko and After Yoko, with regards to the Beatles.

Refreshing: a good first half. Brackett pulls together numerous outside sources – including Ono – to paint her as a rebellious-contained-by-society-privileged-free-thinker who was most certainly ahead of the times. While her father remained distant (physically and literally) with his banking business, Ono’s mother was cold and indifferent in her relationship with her daughter.

These circumstances and her transatlantic family uprooting due to World War II led to the bohemian lifestyle that became her trademark. Brackett’s unflinching narrative, interwoven with Ono’s quotes about these early years is harrowing and dramatic, speaking volumes about her upcoming travails.

New York City became her canvas in the early ‘60s, as she oscillated between a divorce, second marriage, giving birth to her daughter Kyoko and finally involvement in the city’s downtown experimental movement known as Fluxus. Here is where Brackett shines with descriptive and informative details regarding Ono as an outlier, pushing to be accepted by a male-dominated genre.

Her minimalist approach couched with survival instincts brought on by early childhood drama, flung her into a world she felt she had a driven purpose – but denied by the misogynistic environment and with few artistic choices left, she went to London.

Frustrating: second half. As has been written in the last fifty-plus years, the events that brought Ono and John Lennon together are interwoven with well-known stories and numerous anecdotes. Based on this narrative, the point brought home by Brackett is that being with Lennon was the worst thing that happened to Ono’s projected art career and musical endeavors.

The portrait of Ono is one of a domineering witch that ripped a generation’s voice away from the biggest cultural phenomenon of all time. With hindsight (and Brackett being fortunate to include observations from Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’), we can now see the role reversal: he needed her more than she needed him and her last recorded work with him – ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ – showed the eerieness of that future soundscape.

However, Lennon was such an undeniable presence that the book suffers in that context. As a reader, one is left to blip in and out of the next 5 decades, save for a few moments of Ono’s artistic leaps, post-1980. Focusing on the facts, figures, and accomplishments since Lennon’s murder can leave the reader wanting more. And that may be how Ono wants it.

Her greatest achievement by far has been her son Sean. And with the re-telling here of Lennon and Ono’s ‘housebound’ years, weighs heavily on the tone of the latter half of the story. As Sean gained a sense of identity and has recently begun representing his mother in business decisions, we may be seeing a shift to only the listings of Ono’s handiwork – sold-out gallery showings, the Imagine Peace Tower, her purchase of Menlove Ave, and donating it to the National Trust, Number One dance hits – in that he will be the gatekeeper of her legacy.

A casual fan of the Beatles may gain some knowledge of the dynamic yet still elusive Ono, especially in the first chapters up until the Lennon years. For that reason, I’ll give this book…

4 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “A Cozy Beatles Mystery Series” by Kal Smagh

Another review from Amy Hughes:

A Cozy Beatles Mystery Series Kal Smagh

As Beatles literature goes, one can never fully appreciate the care and for want of a better word research, that goes into what is termed ‘fan fiction.’ All the more surprising that an entire full-length series with a strong, funny and multi-layered female lead can leave The Beatles in a secondary narrative!

Author Kal Smagh has done a fine job integrating a fact-based historical narrative, while weaving a mystery/alternate universe character through A Cozy Beatles Mystery Series (independently published, 2021). What I found most entertaining through this 4-volume series (including a short story) was the completely formed universe that we know, and love of The Beatles wrapped around a 60-year storyline that – to be honest – really encompasses the main character, the down-to-earth, disarmingly charming Helen Spencer.

What begins in 1962 Liverpool as Helen begins her journey with Freda Kelly and Brian Epstein, winds it way through the decades as we come to see her lifelong friendship (and employment) with the band expand worldwide. Smagh’s imaginative storytelling is actually told in flashbacks for the entire series – as an elderly Helen (retired and living in Florida) is recounting her experiences to a character we as readers are not quite sure is entirely forthright in their intentions!

As individual ‘stories,’ each holds its own: Helen’s crime-solving beginnings are told in ‘Larceny in Liverpool,’ and given a short nudge in ‘Punching Up,’ then gather steam in ‘Mayhem for Her Majesty,’ ‘The Beverly Hills Burglary’ and finally conclude in ‘The Beatle Car Bandits.’ Smagh has interwoven timely characters and locations pivotal to the band’s story, while taking liberties with their dialogue and interactions.

I can say I found Helen’s story fascinating as Smagh spends a great deal of time with her and her family – and that is a tentative warning for those of you out there that are hardcore fan-fic readers. His series really hangs on Helen and her sleuthing abilities and how certain real-life elements – from the Cavern Club to London to California to Oxford University – can be stretched to fit nearly the entire history of the band’s lifespan – and beyond.

What is also crucial is to the ability to suspend disbelief in certain situations, yet find Helen’s hilarious observations and determined mindset (which is key in linking this series together) believable in this Beatles AU. What I will say – and this is a little tough with no spoilers – is that the narrative is poignantly written and very sweet as Smagh brings us to the present day. I find that in this age of cynicism and social media bashing, the ability to convey a fictional character’s travails (sometimes not altogether perfect and with hints of self-doubt and a smattering of guts) with the real-life Beatles – without graphic blandishment or judgmental abandonment – is refreshing and to be honest, entertaining and readable.

I recommend getting all 4 books (including the short story) for the complete picture and then giving the series 4 out of 4 beetles!

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “What They Heard: How The Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan Listened To Each Other and Changed Music Forever” by Luke Meddings

What They Heard: How The Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan Listened To Each Other and Changed Music Forever Luke Meddings

An astounding thought crosses the mind when even thinking about the title of Luke Meddings’ book. The metaphorical and analytical analysis of these three entities has been decades in the making.

In What They Heard: How The Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan Listened To Each Other and Changed Music Forever (Weatherglass Books, 2021), Meddings has unfolded a heartfelt dissertation on how the three B’s (and for contextual purposes, he also includes the fourth B – The Byrds), with minute clarity, couched in appreciation with the subjects at hand.

Each set out on their own path, yet within the circumstances of the ‘60s music and art scene, diverged at various points along the way. This isn’t a highbrow, how-the-stars-and-planets -aligned tome. It points to the inevitable for the times: Dylan breaking the barriers of folk and be damned; The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson as the troubled genius who saw beyond the accepted musical norms and finally The Beatles whose presence not only affected the aforementioned but occupied a massive, revered space that neither they nor anyone could have foreseen.

The hindsight for this book proves entirely relevant as Meddings intersects the creative influences of that time with the development of his own understanding of musical composition and theory. Translated: he gets us to the core of why we love those unexpected chord changes, why we hear something different every time we listen to every song. And why getting a handle on a note from ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ to ‘Good Vibrations’  to ‘Paperback Writer’ leaves us more confused than ever.

One overall aspect here are the underdogs in this character study: the members of The Byrds. The scattershot pickings when viewed from afar (covering Dylan, influencing George Harrison, conflicting integrations and genres that were amplified by Wilson) is indeed intriguing. I found entire backstories on the individual members enhanced the merit of their music and needed to be brought forth in the context of this narrative.

But while Meddings sets the needle into the groove of where this all began – the very late 50s to be fair – the crux of this book really centers on Wilson. He is living and breathing music. Not content to play in a band and wear the stereotype facade of the perceived groovy  ‘California lifestyle,’ Wilson reaches for stratospheric goals that as we see moved his mind far beyond what Lennon & Co. were tripping to with recreational drug use.

Wilson and the magnum opus of ‘Pet Sounds’ has of course been acknowledged by McCartney as the trigger for ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ start. Dylan on the other hand – in an oblique way – had already pushed the buttons and pissed off the folk purists with his jump into electric-land. Meddings gives us a view that while there had to be changes coming, the face of folk’s movement didn’t have to be nice or polite or meek. And if Wilson placed his Moog-minded, choral-vocal beauty out there, musicians like McCartney had to step out or be run over.

Meddings does conclude ‘What They Heard’ on what I would consider a downturn. As he ruefully reminisces that the paths of the book’s subjects did not cross over much past their heyday and obviously with the loss of Lennon in 1980, that was put to pasture. He does however lend a bit of spark for Dylan in recent years. While McCartney and Wilson have in varying degrees struggled vocally as they age, Meddings puts forth the fact (and I agree wholeheartedly) that Dylan is the one who has aged the best; growing into his voice – the nasal growl – and his learned historical and extensive references for 2020’s epic 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul.’ Dylan with all his work is still a hard act to categorize to this day.

Charting the course from 1961-68 gives the reader a concise snapshot of where they all stood – eyeing each other through music, personal connection and as this book notes, how all of those ingredients combined gave us what we have today, most importantly for the better.

I give this book 4 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band – 50 Years On” by John Kruth

Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band – 50 Years On John Kruth

If for no other reason to obtain this book, I will say with enthusiasm that author John Kruth has given the most extensive read on Yoko Ono and HER version/release of 1970’s ‘Plastic Ono Band.’

The preview of Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band – 50 Years On (Backbeat Books, 2021) had my eyesight focused on the recording, release and retrospective narrative of Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band,’ released in 1970. The cathartic nature, stark production and legacy of this watershed album cannot be lost on those who know Lennon and this soul-baring work.

However, I cannot tread too heavily on how Kruth chose to structure the chapters in regards to context and explanation of influences – past and present. While showcasing a view of Lennon and Ono in that time period, he also dives around in many corners, explaining and expanding on various historical incidents – both in The Beatles and solo Lennon that defies sequencing – and also wades into a good portion of the times that propelled ‘POB,’ some political and some personal. It makes for a challenging, non-chronological read.

Kruth’s own voice is quite unique in that he opines on how various family, ‘characters’ and associates influenced the Lennons’ life story and how and why it drove them to extremes, most notably the time spent with Arthur Janov with his Primal Scream therapy. The narrative here is primitive and raw but what most benefits the reader in “Hold On World”’ is not John Lennon’s transformation from his years in one of the most influential bands of the 1960s to stomach-churning, searing early-70s provocateur. It’s the insightful and haunting life of Ono and how her version of ‘POB’ came to fruition.

Most listeners know that an album takes months to conceive and record. Ono’s ‘POB’ was done in one day. You read it right. Recorded and mixed with the same musicians – Lennon, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman and George Harrison – Ono’s shrieking “like a giant radioactive insect from a 1950s horror movie” had the desired effect: it one fell swoop she was able to stand alongside Lennon as both a collaborator and artist… and also managed to sustain the pure energy needed to keep up with Lennon as a musical supernova.

Ono’s unconventional upbringing – bookended by World War II and her meeting with Lennon – is ripe for dissertation within these pages. As Lennon was channeling his painful past (the abandonment issues brought on by his parents’ separation) into a commercially-acceptable package, Ono was dealing with her private demons, most notably the miscarriages she suffered which were couched in the standout song from ‘POB,’ ‘Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City.’

Moved at a 180-degree angle from her accepted distorted keening, ‘Greenfield’ has a haunting, mesmerizing backbeat (enhanced by Harrison’s sitar contribution), while Ono’s mono-symbolic vocals give way to iridescent bird calls – not unlike Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe.’ Kruth also gives over several pages to the performance of trumpeter Ornette Coleman and Ono’s collaboration ‘AOS,’ recorded in 1968. While Coleman had already embraced free-form jazz, the inclusion of Ono’s vocals helped propel this style beyond what would be musically and culturally ‘acceptable.’

What remains is a final critique on the “Lennon Remembers” interview, first published in Rolling Stone in 1971. The caustic wit, the deep-seated pain he levied against McCartney and producer George Martin and the circus atmosphere known as The Beatles came down like a sledgehammer. While Wenner published the interview in book form (costing him his friendship with the Lennons), the myth-busting conversation contained contradictions that Lennon later regretted. The dovetailing into more political ground with the release of ‘Sometime In New York City,’ a loose collaboration with Frank Zappa, the continuing paranoia and battles with immigration effectively eroded the Lennons high profile prophesying.

Lennon/Ono shared a great love and however their messages came across to the public during Lennon’s lifetime was both unifying and divisive. Kruth has painted a rich mural, which can be a little demanding on the senses, given the textural background that this complex couple projected. While I highly recommend this read for those who would appreciate a deeper delve into Ono, I will say that overall it can be a tricky read.

I tentatively give this book 4 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

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