Monday, June 25, 2012

Wails From the Crypt (An Occasional Series): Special Vintage Cheap Shot Edition

So I was browsing some back issues the other day, and I chanced across this review from the June '78 issue of The Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review.

I'm not sure whether I think it holds up or not -- and for that matter, I'm not even sure I agree with it at this point -- but the subject matter seemed relevant. I've changed a word or two and some punctuation that I found irksome, but mostly it's the piece exactly as it ran.

I have before me two remarkable recorded artifacts, originally conceived for media other than the LP, that suggest Lester Bangs was right on the money when he observed in these pages..."it's time to let go of the Beatles once and for all."
Some of us aging Sixties types have stubbornly resisted that suggestion even against our own better judgement, but it's time to face it squarely. Fact is, most of the musical and technological grammar the Beatles created has been appropriated whole by those who have achieved mass-market success in the Seventies, from Barry Manilow to Fleetwood Mac. As a result, if anybody is to blame for the Mush Rock that dominates today's airwaves, it's our erstwhile heroes. And while that's hardly their fault, it does, or should, force a reassessment of sorts. What's particularly curious about these two new albums -- the original-cast recording of the Broadway hit Beatlemania and the souvenir of Eric Idle and Neil Innes' March NBC-TV "Rutles" special All You Need is Cash -- is that they vindicate Bangs in totally different ways.
What Beatlemania proves, depressingly enough, is that there are people who are so desperate for what the Fab Four symbolized that they have lost touch with the realities of contemporary life. Either that or there are still suckers being born every minute, people who will pay outrageous ticket prices to see a Broadway show that reduces their most cherished memories to the level of a a drag queen doing Judy Garland impressions. Clearly, those who have made the show the box office hit it is feel the myth of the Beatles hasn't dated, but that's ostrich-ism of the first order. Their music hasn't, perhaps, but the attitudes and styles that surrounded its creation have, and it is an imitation of those attitudes and styles that, at heart, the show is selling, a kind of reassuring retreat into the great rock-and-roll womb that is my generation's equivalent of an earlier generation's nostalgic passion for Busby Berkeley films. In short, it hardly matters whether some of the performances in Beatlemania have an eerie K-Tel authenticity about them (most of them don't, actually); real Beatles music survives only in its original context, and that, as we stand here on the shore of the Eighties, is long gone.
"The Rutles" demolishes the memory of the Fab Four in a more civilized, more affectionate, more fun-filled way, but with just as devastating a thoroughness. What Idle and Innes have created is no less than a warped retelling of the band's entire history, most of the details intact but just enough askew to make you view the whole as slightly less than the sacred high drama we all know it was. The fourteen songs do the job by combining every half-remembered riff, lyric fragment, and banal tune in the Lennon-McCartney catalog into brand new songs that still sound like the genuine article; you can predict every lick, every piece of instrumentation, every studio trick a good verse before it happens. Everything we loved about the Beatles we loved is leveled -- except their humor; I don't think it was an accident that George Harrison himself was involved in the project. While those who have lapped the Broadway ersatz will undoubtedly be offended, for the ex-Beatles themselves and the rest of us in the real world "The Rutles" is liberating as only the most reverential irreverence can be. And of of course it's no more a putdown of the Beatles than this review is, so save your stamps. -- Steve Simels
BEATLEMANIA ARISTA AL 8501 two discs $11.98

Like I said, I'm not sure I particularly even agree with it anymore. I mean, the point about the Beatles being responsible for most of the crap that was then polluting Top 20 radio is at least arguable, but it's also a little unfair and self-righteous. Of course, I wrote the piece in a momentary mood of punk-inspired anti-Beatles icon smashing, and unfair and self-righteous was sort of the game that was being played in 1978.


Kid Charlemagne said...

"No more Elvis, Beatles, and the Rolling Stones in 1977!"

steve simels said...

So I've heard.

edward said...

As we are getting ready to celebrate/endure the 50th Anniversary of what was essentially an eight year reign of The Beatles, I am convinced they will be important as long as one last member of my baby boomer generation holds on to the last dying strand of his/her self absorbed life.
It's almost fifty years people. It's pop music.It's supposed to be fun, not the Holy Grail.
I want to ask if our parents were still fixated on music from the 1910's when The Beatles arrived, but our parents weren't even born yet.

steve simels said...

On the other hand, people are still listening to Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five records. And with good reason.

geor3ge said...

Beatlemania on Broadway?

I'm not sure I feel better or worse that the jukebox musical is an older blight than I'd previously thought.

steve simels said...

A friend of mine was in Beatlemania, which is the only reason I saw it on Bway.

You have no idea how awful it was...the fake beards alone were enough to make me want to guzzle anti-freeze.

Brooklyn Girl said...

Yeah, that George Gershwin really sucks. Frank Sinatra, too.

Having said that, if I never see another cover band, it won't be soon enough.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Other forces are responsible for whatever is played on the radio these days. I wouldn't know, I only listen to NPR, and I avoid Jonathan Schwartz and "Sound Check". Back then we were still hoping they'd "Get Back". I subscribed to the magazine formerly known as Stereo Review, and I probably bought the Rutles because of your column.
It's still fun, and drinking anti-freeze remains preferable to listening to Beatlemania.

Gummo said...

I remember being appalled by the whole idea of "Beatlemania" at the time, but I've never been a fan of necrorock ("cover band" isn't strong enough to describe bands that don't just do covers, but seek to recreate the experience of seeing a better, more popular and more original group) in any form. And I find it even sadder when musicians become their OWN necrorock bands -- i.e., The Doors of the 21st Century (is there a more awkward name in musical history?) or The Dead or Further.

The Rutles, on the other hand, was so inspired, and Neil Innes and friends so talented, that there are people now who obsessively collect Rutles bootlegs the way I and my cohorts collected rare Beatles. And that's because, for The Rutles idea to work, the songs had to be almost as good and almost as catchy as their models, and that ain't easy to do. And Innes succeeds gloriously.

But you know what? The freedom of being in my 50s and being hopelessly incurably uncool, no matter what I listen to, frees me up to listen to whatever I damn well please, whether it's the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Jack White or Adele. And that's a great feeling.

steves said...

I'm fairly confident that the music of the Beatles will live on long after we're gone. There are good arguments to be made--both musically and sociologically--to back that up, but essentially, I think it comes down to a simple matter of infectiousness.

All you have to do to prove this is to play almost any Beatles' song for any five-year-old and watch his/her response. Of course, years later, they'll pooh-pooh it as a lack of sophistication on their part, but facts is facts. ;-)

(Post-Green) Fleetwood Mac and Barry Manilow, music, however, probably has a shelf life of another 10-15 years--tops--however.
The music

TMink said...

I still listen to and appreciate the Rutles. Really fabulous stuff! But I cannot blame the Fab Four for the demise of radio, that blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the bean counters and program directors who changed the industry from dj driven to corporate driven.

With exactly the results you would expect.


buzzbabyjesus said...

By he way, the late, great Ollie Halsell played Paul McCartney on the Rutles album. Wrote the music, sang and played guitar, bass, and piano.

dave™© said...

Greatest. "Beatlemania" performance. EVER!

steve simels said...

Incidentally, if you want to witness some really world-class wretchedness, try and find a copy of BEATLEMANIA: THE MOVIE.

Seriously -- they actually filmed the "Not the Beatles, But an Incredible Simulation" Broadway show and released it, briefly, in movie theaters. I doubt it's ever been on DVD, but there are probably old tape copies floating around.

Thoroughly bad doesn't begin to describe it.

Anonymous said...

Re: Post 60's radio & music-

Don't blame the messengers!


NYMary said...

Wasn't your beloved Rob Laufer in Beatlemania, Steve? I saw it on its tour of the provinces. I think it was my 12th birthday.

There are still people making a nicer living than I do off this stuff: there's a regular show in Branson called "Liverpool Legends"--they tried to make a living in music for years. Now they do.

And how, exactly, is Cheap Trick's regular all-star extravaganza in Vegas different from this?

steve simels said...

Laufer was in the L.A. cast. The guy I knew was a Paul understudy in N.Y.

And the answer to your question is -- I dunno.

Like I said, I'm not sure I agree with this piece with thirty years of hindsight.

Brooklyn Girl said...

It will be interesting to see what happens to this music after all its originators are dead. Whose will survive and whose won't (and I don't mean in "cover band" format)? How much of the music of the past 50 years is completely tied to the people who created it?

JZ said...

I think Marshall Crenshaw was also in Beatlemania if memory serves...As bad as it was, it was brilliant compared to the "Sgt Pepper" movie the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton did around the same time. I didn't listen to my copy of "Bee Gees 1st" again for years afterward (both it "Idea" and "Horizontal" are all great records by the way. Now that I have some distance from The Bee Gees of the late 1970's I can enjoy their early work again).

I am with TMink on this one. What killed the Top Twenty was tightened playlists, which in turn led to the disaster that the Music Business currently finds itself in. Downloads haven't helped. But the Bean Counters and the Lawyers are the enemy here; not The Fabs. Elvis and Frank Sinatra still live on and The Beatles will as well.

steve simels said...


Here it is, to the everlasting discredit of everybody involved...

GLLinMO said...

Cannot comment on Beatlemania. But me thought at the time - and still thinks - The Rutles was a great piece of rock humor. First off - let me scream: TOO MANY TAKE ROCK TOO SERIOUSLY. My god - it t'aint religion. So ANY band - real or otherwise - that can bring a smile to the whole process - gets 2 thumbs up from me.

steves said...

That movie is hilarious (and, to be truthful, the guy playing John has the look down cold--at least for the first 10 minutes)!

Oh...and there's this for anyone who may be curious:

John Fowler said...

Late to this discussion, but, gotta say, my love and respect for the Beatles has strengthened over the years, although I'm a late70's-early80's kid. So, I never had the direct exposure to them as boomers did, just have picked up bits and pieces of history and myth. And, of course, listened to their music over and over.

But here are two bits of data, just happened, indicating how tremendous their music still is:
I just happened to check out CDs for 'Help' and 'Past Masters' from the local library a couple of weeks ago. (My copies were stolen many years ago and I didn't replace them.) Found myself loving them AGAIN. And, playing them the other night, and my wife out of the blue said to me " You know, this music really holds up SO well after all those years." She came to this conclusion and voiced it without any encouragement from me. Now, we are both fans for plenty of years, her slightly less than me, but, still.

2nd bit of data: my son, 11 years old. He's been exposed to lots of music here in the house. His favorite album? The Yellow Submarine soundtrack. He's got 'Hey Bulldog' on repeat on his iTunes, multiple times. Firsthand demonstration of Steve's infectiousness principle...

I think it is astounding what that group of four musicians (+ help) accomplished in their short years together, and I firmly believe that the same will be said by less fan-ish folks in 100 years.

Squints said...

Parody. Homage. Whatever. "I Must Be In Loov" absoLUTEly stands on its own and Shoulda. Been. A. Single. I copped the opening riff to use as my ringtone for calls from She Of The Big Brown Eyes.