Category Archives: Amy Hughes

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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