Tag Archives: Amy McGrath Hughes

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: “Paul McCartney and His Creative Practice – The Beatles and Beyond” by Phillip McIntyre & Paul Thompson

Paul McCartney and His Creative Practice

Reviewed by: Amy Hughes

Paul McCartney is his own definition. He inhabits an environment that pretty much everyone else that isn’t him, finds difficult to describe.

Approaching a study of his creative output in all its facets requires an open mind and an affinity akin to a history of sociology, pop culture and the mysterious process called songwriting.

What Paul McCartney and His Creative Practice (Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Culture, 2021) achieves is not solely a critical analysis of how he writes a song or a deconstruction of his life’s work. Instead, authors Phillip McIntyre and Paul Thompson couch the theory of flow with the outside influences of his world into a package that has many layers to uncover.

As an explanation to address this book’s function, it is a serious, academic-minded reader for those interested in McCartney’s one-of-a-kind creative process. And although The Beatles take up quite a portion of the text, the vital connections from the end of that tenure right up through 2020’s ‘McCartney III’ examines how he grew as a musician, songwriter, producer, and engineer with ‘a little help from his friends.’

Owing to considerable forethought, the authors bring to the table one of the more enigmatic, yet common perceptions attached to someone of McCartney’s stature: Romanticism. Like the label ‘genius,’ most people associate the concept of Romanticism with awe and reverence. To hold McCartney to that limited definition – minus the technical and personal achievements he gained from others – belies all the pieces that has formed his personal character and musical artistry.

While there is no doubt few individuals can amass the accolades in their lifetime associated with reverent creativity, McIntyre and Thompson also impart significant import to how McCartney’s sociocultural touch points – listening to his father’s piano playing, gregarious family singalongs, and his uncanny ear in picking out tunes – weigh into a system of interwoven related communal support and geographical upbringing.

Weighing this, one can start piecing together the early structure that brought a teenaged McCartney into the orbit of John Lennon and thru that into The Beatles. Often quoted yet undeniable, is the shared experiences all four individuals had as they grew into their musical roles.

While many outsiders gave them opportunities to test the waters, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison (and later) Starr inhabited their own world as they began in Hamburg – Starr with Rory Storm – and found their footing in the hazardous, grueling schedule that honed their playing skills. Critical to the genesis of The Beatles was the departure of Lennon’s classmate Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. McCartney inherited that position more as a “well, it better be you, then” attitude and thus his future was solidified.

As a bassist, his style is fluid and dynamic. However what the general public considers his greatest achievement is his songwriting. While McIntyre and Thompson address his process in three specific cases, his ultimate masterpiece has been and will be ‘Yesterday.’

Effective as McCartney continues to be in extolling the mystical inspiration of its origin, ‘Yesterday’ as deconstructed by the authors paints a more realistic history: McCartney while living with the Ashers in November 1963 did have the oft-told musical dream, and then awoke to play it on a nearby piano. Doubtful that he had actually concepted this original melody, McCartney played it to several people including John Lennon. All assured him it was of his own making.

Yet what became the driving force was McCartney’s belief that it might have come from somewhere in the past or that he had subconsciously heard it elsewhere. While the persona of his habitus instigated this internal questioning, McIntyre and Thompson adhere to many practical instances where McCartney’s childhood spent listening to the music around him imbibed a sense of familiar, encapsulated memories that stuck in his head where he could conveniently pull them out years later. Hence his dogged nature in pursuing this tune’s origin.

Living the professional musician life, McCartney continued to hone ‘Yesterday’ (most famously fine-tuning the “scrambled eggs” placeholder lyrics) over a two-year period. By mid-1965, he had it complete and ready to go. After presenting it to the band and producer George Martin, the consensus was, beyond McCartney and a guitar, there was nothing more to add. While Martin came up with the idea for the string accompaniment (much to the songwriter’s horror), the arrangement was through McCartney’s intuitive ear for tonality. The only surprise that has surfaced since then was what transpired at EMI Studios the day of the recording: McCartney’s first two vocals were ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and the larynx-shredding ‘I’m Down.’ The strings were overdubbed a few days later and ‘Yesterday’ – finished on June 17 – was infused into the lexicon of songs that will continue to mystify and polarize generations to come.

McIntyre and Thompson also delve into McCartney’s creative collaborations and help to clarify his partnership with John Lennon. As written about in the past fifty-plus years, the duo’s alliance – while popular to imagine as a person-centric perspective driven by mythical free-thinking, self-expression embedded with romanticism – has markedly changed to a more pragmatic, rational-based approach since the dissolution of The Beatles.

Debunking the myths surrounding their singular, isolated genius brainstorming, the authors lay out the dyad of their collaborative partnership. How these two individuals with starkly contrasted backgrounds found their common ground is not unfathomable: both had a shared geographical and sociological connection, a similar interest in songwriting and a love for rock ‘n’ roll.

As their status germinated and grew, both men were forced into tight deadlines and even tighter spaces that had them together with few contacts, except for the inner circle of Harrison, Starr, Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall and Brian Epstein. As the overall arc of their influence permeated the rest of the music scene, the ‘mid-period’ in their alliance afforded more focus, more time in the studio and for McCartney, a more disciplined approach to songwriting.

Although Lennon’s mindset was shifting towards introspective soul-searching, McCartney gave way to taking his fully-formed ideas to Lennon for input and constructive criticism. This worked on many levels, each dovetailing their own unique work habits into the others’ space of works. Each had – through their joined association – the ability to start or finish or bring together the possibilities surrounding them musically. But as they began the transition from simple pop band to respected, critically acclaimed songwriters, the duo drifted apart from their tight-knit bond of collaboration to one of competitive rivals.

Lennon, as the authors note, is one for endless speculative psychological analysis. But McCartney was far less interested in self-examination. While Lennon was the force of nature in the early years, his younger colleague quickly gained speed and surpassed him artistically. From this vantage point, it only seems natural that they would move on personally and professionally. While their global creative world was simultaneously shifting and constraining, it was uncertain at that juncture what was going to transpire for McCartney in the foreseeable future.

What did happen was that McCartney assumed the mantle of jack-of-all-trades. Free from social dynamics and power relationships, he began his complete immersion into the creative system. McCartney was fortunate to have as his mentor a skilled and multifaceted individual like George Martin to learn from. Thus it enabled him to move into a coworker mode, as he worked with Martin on ‘The Family Way’ soundtrack. Independently, he assumed producing duties under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth for The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and then when Apple Records formed, constructing a resume that included Badfinger, Mary Hopkin and The Black Dyke Mills Band.

McCartney moved on after The Beatles to become his own production boss, with gained confidence, and as he was more musically-inclined, trusted the judgment of engineers to help calibrate precisely the technicalities of recording. His esoteric choices in studios were sometimes called into question (cutting the basic tracks for ‘Band On The Run’ in the less-than-hospitable location of Lagos, Nigeria and laying down tracks on boats in the Virgin Islands for ‘London Town’), but no-one could argue that McCartney himself played safe.

He continued to hone his vision through several amalgamations of musical partners – Eric Stewart, Elvis Costello – and then most importantly, McCartney came together with Harrison and Starr to bring back their version of The Beatles (with Jeff Lynne as producer) to re-work demos of John Lennon’s for the ‘Anthology’ project starting in 1994.

Having said that, McCartney expanded his playground of sound to many locations and invited band members throughout the years to give input during those sessions. Even when he built his current studio Hog Hill Mill near his home in Sussex, England he could sometimes butt up against stronger personalities at the board or be at odds with collaborators; as previously mentioned, although Costello was a magical connection, it was a partnership fraught with tension that for whatever reason did not gel with his musical output.

The authors, however, make it crystal clear that despite the metallurgy process, McCartney has deftly blended his vintage leanings – continuing to play his beloved Hofner bass – with the stylistic turns in technology to this day. The authors note in detail McCartney’s musical processes in the studio (he likes to work quickly!) and his laser focus on creating the music at hand with the vast array of instruments he has at his home studio.

McCartney since the ‘60s had shown interest in the esoteric and experimental, in the studio and social situations. As he moved along, his musical output may not have equaled his stellar reputation as he ventured into areas that the general public and critics labeled ‘risky’ and ‘unbearably inept.’ But with his habitus in the singular mode, he forged ahead with electronic music (as The Fireman), orchestral presentations and organizing the Concert For New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Another less ventured avenue are his business practices. While a good portion of the popular media took to task his later struggles with Michael Jackson’s acquisition of his catalog, McIntyre and Thompson see with a keen eye the history of that timeline. Early on, his negotiating savvy took off as he acquired publishing rights to various songs that would generate phenomenal earnings. His foray into scriptwriting and acting wasn’t as successful, however his strong preservationist eye had him restoring his old school Liverpool Institute into the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. He also retains a dedicated team at his McCartney Productions Limited (MPL) to help keep in touch with engaging social media and manage his massive tours.

McIntyre and Thompson have undertaken an enormously complex personality such as Paul McCartney and pieced together the diverse domain that he has inhabited since his childhood. Having characterized his position in the musical ‘ecosystem’ as it pertains to the multiple components that he represents, his fully formed knowledge of music has enabled him to be continually relevant and deeply valued to this day.

I give this scholarly 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: “It’s All In The Mind: Inside The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine Vol. 2” by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D., and Laura Cortner

This review is by Amy HughesIt's all in the mind yellow submarine 2

More often than not, understanding the impact of The Beatles is first formed by our personal experiences and then interactions and collaborations with like-minded individuals. Whether through music or books or films, new and improved impressions help to see what wasn’t available ‘back in the day.’ And as an archaeologist of Beatle-knowledge, I welcome those finds as a breath of fresh air.

Created as a supplemental companion, It’s All In The Mind (Hieronimus & Co., Inc. Publications, 2021) is another deep dive (Volume 1 – ‘Inside The Yellow Submarine’ – having been published in 2002) into one of The Beatles most storied movies: how the animated ‘Yellow Submarine’ was concepted, created and put together in a blindingly fast, short period of time.

Although not known to the general public at the time, there was no finished script, no complete narrative in the timeline for ‘normal’ animation. While those around them struggled to find ways to keep the film on track (chronicled here by impossible deadlines and diminishing budgets), the animators and artists furiously working at their desks at London’s TV Cartoons (TVC) would have little to no idea if a sequence was coherent or how it fit into the grand scheme of the movie. That the film was finished at all (read the passages on the ‘kidnapping’ of the almost-completed footage) is testament to everyone’s emotional commitment to the feature and unwavering dedication to The Beatles.

Historians Robert Hieronimus (affectionately known as “Dr. Bob”) and Laura Cortner have continued the narrative from Vol. 1 and found the people, traveled the avenues and asked the questions that so many of us take for granted when it comes to ‘Yellow Submarine:’ detailing the lives of the creators, animators, their families, the hard-nosed business aspects and the free-wheeling comradery that helped to keep this sub afloat for the 11-month engagement (and for some, beyond). To that end, many of the stories coming from the crew were alternately hysterical (read: “The Distasteful Floating Poop Sign” entry) and touching (an entire chapter devoted to art director Heinz Edelmann from Dr. Bob is revelatory and personal).

In addition, Dr. Bob and Cortner have also included their personal thoughts about the film’s (possible?) hidden messages – were there any and if so, what was the meaning we as an audience should glean from it? Dovetailing into that, there are also passages that showcase alternate storylines and characters that never saw the light of day, providing thought-provoking, what-might-have-been’s had events turned out differently.

Helming all this organized chaos were a group of dedicated visionaries that at the time had no plan or purpose where their ground-breaking work would lead: director George Dunning (unassuming by nature, but determined to push boundaries), animation directors Robert Balser (the creative glue that kept everyone together) and Jack Stokes (a beloved character and one of the few that connected with all four Beatles), special sequences director Charlie Jenkins (his ‘Eleanor Rigby’ segment and the ending scene for ‘It’s All Too Much’ are legendary) and art director Heinz Edelmann (“astonishingly creative” a superlative not uncommon in describing his work.) Among the points to be made crystal clear: Edelmann was the one responsible for the style and feel of the film – from character development to backgrounds – his unique vision and distinctive color palette shaped the flow for all involved. And to be blunt: artist Peter Max (world-renowned in his own right) had ZERO to do with ‘Yellow Submarine.’ The authors make no bones in their opinions about Max’s decades-long fabrications that he invented the ‘look’ or was instrumental in the film’s making. To quote the book “‘Yellow Submarine’ was not his design.”

As mentioned, great lengths are taken to include a dozen or so personnel in Vol. 2 who were involved in the day-to-day creation of the film. Most did not receive screen credit in 1968, yet their contributions were key: Cam Ford (who gives the book added weight from his concise personal recollections and photos from inside TVC), Chris Caunter, Malcolm Draper, Lawrence Moorcroft, Diana Ford, Norm Drew and Ramon Modiano. Their memories – day-to-day activities, inspiration from the co-creators, hijinks, familial gatherings at the local pub The Dog and Duck, visits from notorious producer Al Brodax and their deep love for Edelmann –  are invaluable and insightful, giving new meaning to “hard work” and “fun” over the course of what Drew called “this wonderful graphic banquet.”

As a side note: one group of men who need attention: the voice actors for The Beatles. Despite the Beatles live-action inclusion at the very end, it was John Clive, Paul Angelis, Geoffrey Hughes and Peter Batten (who was later arrested for being AWOL and had his work finished by Angelis) who went almost uncredited for their work. Cleverly disguised for recognition by higher-ups, their talents were “Blue-Meanie-d” at the time and have only become more prominent since anniversary screenings now give them the recognition they deserve.

The film has gained more mileage in the years since it’s release due to the accelerated interest in animation, pre-CGI. To wit: ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ with it’s contributions from animator extraordinaire Bill Sewell’s visuals to Diana Ford’s detailing how she drove the rotoscoping ‘bicycle,’ to the Trace and Paint department’s literal hands-on input is fascinating from a making-of standpoint. With that history, the book makes the argument that a remake or why the almost-happened Robert Zemeckis 3-D motion capture version (which was deep-sixed in 2012) cannot occupy the same space as the original.

Quite honestly, it’s hard to encapsulate in this review all the personalities that saw ‘Yellow Submarine’ through from beginning to end. What is most appreciated from a reader who goes through ‘It’s All In The Mind’ (and Vol 1. ‘Inside The Yellow Submarine’) is the resolve of the talented, global team in making this film something they would be proud of, knowing it was a labor of love for The Beatles first and foremost. Dr. Bob and Cortner should also be given major credit for undertaking this logistical journey, championing the behind-the-scenes innovators, chronicling the imaginative environment and dispelling myths while letting the crewmembers impart their fascinating anecdotes that gave ‘Yellow Submarine’ it’s unmistakable character.

With the appreciation that has grown for ‘Yellow Submarine’ over the past 50 years, plentiful inclusions of color sketches from Edelmann, private snaps from the lens of Cam Ford, stories aplenty in the behind-the-scenes battles (and wins!) and the details of how particular scenes were created…

I’m giving this book: 4 out of 4 beetles

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “The Beatles Era – A Quest For The Secret of The Beatles” by Peter Eijgenhuijsen

This review is written by Amy McGrath Hughes

TheBeatlesEra_Peter Eijgenhuijsen

Dutch author Peter Eijgenhuijsen has independently published an intriguingly titled book on The Beatles. As he states, “This book is not about what happened, but about why it happened.”

In that context, I was introduced to The Beatles Era – A Quest For The Secret of The Beatles (2021). Coming from a historical standpoint, much of this book draws on familiar anecdotes and facts that Eijgenhuijsen cites thoroughly. His reasoning for this publication was a conversation with a friend who made a point of dissecting the band’s career into several distinct sections, which is analyzed in detail in these pages.

Most of the publication is taken with the discussion of how the band revolved around these sections/eras. There are several chronological off-shoots that Eijgenhuijsen heads down and that makes for a somewhat disjointed rendering. The tone is skewed with personal recollections that have a more European slant (and granted, it is coming from his upbringing in the Netherlands), which doesn’t get a lot of attention in say, a global Beatles biography.

While I found this aspect interesting, what I have come away with would be more suited as a ‘primer’ in Beatles lore. While he is very thorough in speaking to his personal likes of particular songs or periods in any given point in their history (which does include the solo years), I would have expected more factual passages instead of a re-tread of well-known stories.

Two entries that felt off-kilter were the introduction of a fictional interview (where The Beatles had not made the impact they did) and another conversational story spinning in an alternate universe Beatles. While well-written, I honestly felt it didn’t have a place within the context of this book.

One standout chapter however holds some weight: The Reduced Solo Years. Here Eijgenhuijsen takes on each Beatle in more recent times (with Lennon referenced since 1980 by the other three). Being able to ascertain each of the three’s ‘later’ musical contributions is always a tricky outing in any Beatles landscape: comparisons are inevitable. But I appreciated Eijgenhuijsen’s dive into Harrison/McCartney/Starr releases/collaborations that critique releases right up the present day. I admit: it’s tough in an epilogue to sum up ‘McCartney III’ so that a reader understands it’s place in history. But he gives it the best summations for a generation that may not be familiar with say, ‘Chaos and Creation In The Backyard.’

‘The Beatles Era’ is certainly not a hefty tome and I would likely recommend this to someone who would want a brief read-through with a sprinkling of symbolistic fandom. I definitely think that Eijgenhuijsen could have a second career in the fictionalized world of The Beatles… perhaps that will be a second book! In the meantime…

I will give this book 3 out of 4 beetles.

 

 

 

 

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Guest Book Review: “Fab Fools” by Jem Roberts

Thank you Amy McGrath Hughes for taking the time to write another fine book review…

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Fab Fools by Jem RobertsThis book is available to pre-order and will be released April 29, 2021.

Right off the top, let me remind everyone that the Beatles were British. From the north of England. With a very different sense of humor.

Plunging into the long-awaited Fab Fools (Candy Jar Books, 2020), I was immediately struck with what can only be described as a ‘new’ take on The Beatles. The term ‘comedians’ doesn’t pop up with regularity when describing their contribution to entertainment, but that is precisely what author Jem Roberts intends to rectify. And I must say, he’s done a very convincing job.

But let me backtrack a bit here: there is a lot of story to cover when going thru the history of The Beatles (hello, Mark Lewisohn). What Roberts has undertaken is an entirely different approach: within the context of their lives, he has placed the band in line with numerous examples (in studious detail) of how their wit and witticisms served them not only during the early years of moptop giddiness and awkward ‘comic’ appearances but gave them a voice – collective and solo – in shaping their character, their travels and their ability to find the silliness in almost every conceivable situation.

(I want to briefly interject that what is referenced in this granular study is heavily reliant on understanding British humor and British comic ancestry. While a casual Beatle fan may know names such as Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore, a more thoroughly invested fan will no doubt appreciate the intricacies of English show biz as Roberts gives over to the voices that shaped ‘Beyond The Fringe,’ the Temperance Seven and the very early noises of members of Monty Python.)

Roberts’ right reading of their producer George Martin (who had his pulse on British comedy long before he began his tenure with The Beatles) is another eye-opener for those only familiar with his steadfast, laidback approach and laconic observations. His ability to not only see the group from a musical perspective but be able to stand back and appreciate their shared humor (see numerous outtakes from any session at EMI Studios), was of course solidified for history when George Harrison responded with the legendary “Well for a start, I don’t like your tie,” in answer to Martin asking if there was anything they didn’t like at their very first recording session.

One must also recall from this far in the future that The Beatles were breaking new ground. As has been said many times, they were making it up as they went along and for the most part, their in-jokes become part of their DNA repartee. One of the first large scale exhibitions (and here we’re treading into the quicksand of 21st century PC-ness) was John Lennon’s ‘cripple’ impersonations. I’m fairly certain that anyone who has seen his claw-hands, tongue-pushing-out-bottom-lip, flailing foot-stomping renditions from the stage (and a few skewered passages from ‘In His Own Write’) knows exactly what I’m talking about. While there is no fair excuse today, suffice to say this was what humor was about back then and farther back to his childhood. And it did indeed become shouted shorthand when they wanted any loathsome individual out of their dressing rooms during the height of Beatlemania: “Crips, Mal!”

If you’re asking how deep can Roberts go and in what direction did comedy take them: the answers are numerous. He ruminates on everything from the band’s early Morecambe & Wise UK appearances, to winning over ‘serious’ journalists in the burgeoning London newspaper scene known as ‘music reporting,’ to ‘Big Night Out,’ ‘Juke Box Jury’ and of course (for those in the know) the king of Scouse humor, Ken Dodd.

As The Beatles moved on to the world at large, so did their witty style in winning over… everybody outside Britain. The JFK press conference, the multi-year Christmas flexi-disc for fan club members, more press conferences and then – ultimately – the highest tribute: a Saturday morning cartoon. Detested (and protested), this indignation to their respective images actually helped launch one of the best-known pieces of (apparent) Liverpool humor: 1968’s ‘Yellow Submarine.’

While not an outright obvious, ‘Yellow Submarine’’s dialogue was brought more into the forefront of in-jokes and Scouse dialect by The Scaffold’s Roger McGough. Being a native Liverpudlian (and 1/3 of the heralded comedy troop with John Gorman and Paul’s brother Mike), the film – with its tale of The Beatles thwarting Blue Meanies in their travels to Pepperland – was filled with the uncredited contributions of McGough, including the oft-used rhyme-y “de do doe don’t de doe?” The Beatles themselves however only appeared in a slightly stilted live epilogue, though none the worse for wear.

While there are several avenues that branch off into the solo years, a large portion of the book has Roberts espousing on the birth of Monty Python – via ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ – and into the 70s with the ultimate tribute/pastiche – The Rutles.

The brainchild of Python’s Eric Idle, the real and long-lasting prankster was ad hoc Python Neil Innes. Innes supplied the music to Idle’s first scripted shorts for the faux group known as the ‘Pre-Fab Four.’ What began as a rudimentary trip down memory lane with a few ‘laffs’ and spot-on impersonations, grew once Idle expanded his vision and Innes formed a band to make the mockumentary what it has become today: a not-serious/hysterical/musical/legendarily quotable/believable/alternate world known as The Rutles. After the 1978 film ‘All You Need Is Cash’ (which tanked in the US despite the inclusion of several ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast members and the heavily disguised cameo of George Harrison), The Rutles took on a life of its’ own. Suffice to say, if you believed in a Beatles afterlife, Innes was your crossing guard into that world. Sadly, he passed in December 2019.

As the book moves to its conclusion (with fascinating passages ranging from Starr’s Mr. Conductor persona in ‘Shining Time Station’ to McCartney’s ill-advised foray into film via ‘Give My Regards To Broad Street,’ Harrison’s work in HandMade Films and Lennon’s last few interviews talking up ‘Fawlty Towers’), The Beatles and the people and industry they inspired along the way is nothing short of fascinating. The education one can absorb from Roberts’ tome and lyrical style of writing is reader-worthy.

For everything above and more, I give this book 4 out of 4 beetles!

 

 

 

 

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Guest Book Review: “Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago and The 1960s” by John F. Lyons

Joy and Fear The Beatles Chicago The 1960s John F Lyons

This guest review was written by Amy Hughs.

As a die-hard Beatles fan, I know pretty much a ton of their backstory on a global scale. What I appreciated about author John F. Lyons’ newly published ‘Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago and the 1960s’ (Permuted Press, 2021) were the personal reminiscences of those in the Chicagoland area during the time period they played there in 1964, ’65 and ’66.

While there is a good deal of time spent analyzing their impact on culture and the media across the globe, the more insightful passages are those that detail the incidents and people that surrounded the band’s performances. On September 5, 1964, they played the International Amphitheater to a screaming throng of 15,000. From Lyons’ colorful descriptions of their landing at Midway Airport, driving to the Sahara Inn at O’Hara, their standard set amidst the chaos and their immediate departure thereafter, one would believe that the band was not a welcome sight for those in charge. And to a large degree, that was the truth. Chicago and it’s staunch Midwest Christian beliefs, coupled with an older political generation – held in check by the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley – kept The Beatles at arms’ length. So far at length that Lyons’ recollections via newspaper and media outlets’ reviews seemed confusingly hostile in hindsight.

Lyons goes on to accurately portray that all-too-real generational gap between teens and their elders. He does pepper throughout various chapters revelatory passages on the negative atmosphere in Chicago towards The Beatles. The joyous occasions that one perceives today in regards to the band’s receptions in the US is juxtaposed with hardline beliefs that The Beatles were to be viewed with disdain and be shown the door as quickly as they entered. Surprisingly, a good portion of these chapters reflect the audience that they were targeting: young females who were the objects of their affection.

1965 was by all Beatle-related accounts, a repeat of the previous year. Live performances for the US tour were scaled back in scope, however Chicago was fortunate to host them again, this time at a much larger outdoor venue – White Sox Park – with 2 shows and a combined audience of 62,000. One of the more amusing and detailed accounts in Lyons’ book are the reminisces of the support acts for the tour, including dancer Denise Mourges (who was part of the Discotheque Dancers with the King Curtis Band) and Sounds Incorporated’s Alan Holmes. However once again the prevalent attitudes – despite accounts of Beatlemania being at fever pitch – were now slipping south.

Although the ‘scene’ was in their favor (and city officials and promoters had gotten hipper in allowing the local DJs from WLS radio to be emcees), the prevailing attitude of negativity continued to spiral downward. However prior to the coverage of the 1966 tour, Lyons does spend a good deal of time focused on the Chicagoland groups that were making names for themselves locally: the New Colony Six, the Shadows of Knight, the Amboy Dukes, the Buckinghams, and all-girl groups including Daughters of Eve and Marie Antoinette & The Cool Heads.

1966 brings The Beatles back to the US and the start of their tour in Chicago. But prior to their August 11 arrival, Lennon’s out-of-context remarks on the group’s popularity eclipsing Jesus Christ had taken hold of media outlets. Chicago became the epicenter of the firestorm, with Lennon (in tears before the press conference) apologizing in every form possible to the assembled gathering at the Astor Tower Hotel. The Chicago press were going for blood, found it and trumpeted it. The numbers only proved in lax ticket sales that their time and popularity were waning, despite the two show outings back at the International Amphitheater. As Lyons writes, the last visit left a mixed impression, mostly conjuring up images of the stockyards, hotels and cars and as George Harrison noted “race riots.”

Whether Harrison’s view was accurate, Chicago’s atmosphere was becoming more politically charged. While Lyons goes on to analyze The Beatles’ influence with the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ it’s worth observing that the group’s influence still had a global stronghold, pop culture-wise, as noted in Chicago with the start-up counterculture newspaper The Seed. Lyons devotes several pages to other timely subjects: free love, drugs, psychedelia and then as 1968 comes into play, transcendental meditation and the arrival of Yoko Ono.

The decline of their popularity thru the remainder of the late sixties (with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy), the Manson murders and of course for this book, the Democratic National Convention is recalled vividly with anecdotes from Chicagoland teens, media outlets and political observers. The volatile atmosphere – partially charged by Mayor Daley and his conservative viewpoints – was not without incident for those in the music business. Venues such as The Kinetic Playground (a popular target of police activity) did their best to give the city notoriety – and as the owners of Head Imports discovered, when they were arrested on obscenity charges for selling ‘Two Virgins’ – Chicago and The Beatles were not on the best speaking terms.

Lyons goes on to chronicle their break-up and gives mention to the post-Beatles visits in Chicago, most shockingly how a frozen Lake Michigan influenced Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ (the last recording of John Lennon) and McCartney’s several shows since 1976. Lyons gives a great overview of the time period covered and Chicago in detail. His global Beatles history (while known to someone who has details galore would find more of a retread), I found to be helpful for those who need a refresh to contextualize the time period. For these reasons and more…

I rate this book 4 out of 4 beetles!

 

 

 

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Guest Review: “A Women’s History of The Beatles” by Christine Feldman-Barrett

This is a guest review by Amy McGrath Hughes for a new Beatles book that is being released today – February 11, 2021.

A Women's History of the beatles Christine Feldman-Barrett

For all the terminology associated with being a female fan of The Beatles, I’m happy to say that “aca-fan” is one I believe needs more press. Accordingly, Dr. Christine Feldman-Barrett’s newly published ‘A Women’s History of The Beatles’ (Bloomsbury, 2021) seeks to inform a wide, multi-generational audience that may not wholly understand the role of women in ‘Beatlefandom.’

The definition of “aca-fan” or academic fan stems from Feldman-Barrett’s research into how we define the span of women (either first generation or beyond) who were deeply affected by The Beatles impact on their lives. Through countless interviews that range from women who saw the band during their brief lifespan or who discovered them through recordings and film or from family members, Feldman-Barrett brings into focus the multi-layered emotions felt by each discovery and life-changing course of action.

However, Feldman-Barrett begins by discussing The Beatles unique understanding of the female fan, especially those they befriended in Liverpool. These girls were their stalwart supporters at a time when ‘young women’ were still expected to finish school, get married and raise a family. Although many did go down that avenue, so too did many seek to break out of the norm, establish an identity and pursue a career. The Beatles in many respects, through their performances or correspondences, helped them to achieve what was considered a fairly lofty, nearly unattainable goal. In return, these working girls from Liverpool (who the group considered friends) set the pattern for years to come: whether they were fan club secretaries (like Liverpudlian Freda Kelly) or journalists (such as the Evening Standard’s Maureen Cleave), these smart women were there from the start and stayed the course helping to spread The Word.

The Beatles also broke rank with how they chose to interact with an audience and the choices of songs they played. While there is considerable knowledge about their upbringing and how their generation viewed women’s role in society (as noted above), the stage presence they achieved through showcasing ‘girl group’ songs (The Shirelles, The Cookies, The Marvelettes) gave them a devoted female following amidst the perception of the rough and tumble atmosphere of club-going, heretofore thought to be a taboo ritual. Although these perceptions proved to be barrier-breaking, Feldman-Barrett ironically notes that although The Beatles showcased these songs to a wide audience, their eventual stratospheric rise in effect caused the demise of this genre.

Another interesting angle that Feldman-Barrett explores is the internal relationships of The Beatles: most notably with Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg and then their early pairings (Cynthia Powell, Maureen Cox, Pattie Boyd, Jane Asher) and consequently as the band starts to disintegrate, the rise of the two most prominent partners: Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. How these two strong female personalities become inextricably tied to their spouses’ outlook on women’s role in society as the 70s begin is examined in detail. Ono in particular was and has been unfairly portrayed in the media and Feldman-Barrett seeks to rectify that trope in these pages.

The dominant narrative that permeates this history though, are the multi-generational women who Feldman-Barrett interviewed; as either a first generation fan (one who was there during The Beatles lifespan) or into later years and even past the death of John Lennon, what comes across is the same passionate involvement they all have: whether they became professional musicians during the 60s (such as the all-girl Nursery Rhymes and The Pleasure Seekers who fought against stereotypical male-dominated ‘rock bands’) or parlayed their interest in The Beatles into a professional vocation (as tour guides in Hamburg, Liverpool and New York City) or as Feldman-Barrett points out, pursued higher education in the actual study of The Beatles, via university courses devoted to their cultural impact on society, and pop culture in particular.

These women gained tremendous insight into what had been up to that time (and even into the 70s, 80s and 90s) a love of The Beatles that moved past the mislabeling of ‘hysterical screaming teenager’ or ‘obsessed fan’ and have turned it into their life’s work. ‘A Women’s History of The Beatles’ is a deep dive scholarly approach that is informative, thought-provoking and should create more open dialogue not only for academia-minded individuals, but also for those who seek unique perspectives on how The Beatles shaped their (and our) generation.

I rate this book: 4 out of 4 beetles!

 

 

 

 

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