Friday, October 24, 2014

When the Dust Bites Back: The Clash's "1977" & The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany (1962)

When Joe Strummer announced the arrival of The Clash in 1977, gleefully joining the Punk Revolution that was launched by The Sex Pistols a couple of years earlier, he did it in a song called, naturally enough, "1977." The purpose of punk was to clean house of the rock dinosaurs that no longer stood for the ideals they once claimed. For the British bands that came out of the rubble of the burst dreams of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other pretenders to the throne, they were worthy of a safety pin through the cheek. Punk proudly stood for nothing, no future, just the bare necessity of pedal-to-the-metal rock. But The Clash refused a claim towards rock nihilism in favour of a new political direction, a tabloid Marxism, to address how England's dreaming had been transformed into an expedient nightmare. To do that, "1977" set out to lay waste to the pioneers of the past who made the mistake of dreaming in the first place. "No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones," Strummer announces off the top like a Depression-era newsboy bellowing the headlines of all the papers he needs to sell. It's a bald claim, one he'd reiterate a few years later in the authoritative "London Calling," when he'd bring forth an apocalypse while telling us that "phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust."

In 1977, one of those dinosaurs, Elvis Presley, had just died. His death likely prompted "1977," as it would inspire Neil Young to write "Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black)" two years later (a song that explicitly linked the story of Elvis's demise with the rise of the Sex Pistols). The King was dead, but what about The Rolling Stones? That year, after a few desultory records, they came out with a live double-album, Love You Live, that was pretty much dead on arrival. The only pulse found on it was heard on one portion of the record, where they played a surprise show at Toronto's El Mocambo tavern on Spadina Avenue, and briefly made a groupie out of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's wife, Margaret. Drawing on the R&B and blues covers of their past, they demonstrated with fiery assurance that they were hardly corpses about to be consigned to the graveyard. Within a year, they would even join the punk brigade with Some Girls, one their sauciest and boldest records in years. As for The Beatles, well, they'd been given up for dead almost a decade by then. Aside from the occasional bleat for a reunion concert, the stores had just stocked a repackaged collection of love ballads – simply titled Love Songs – plus a collection of live sets from the era of Beatlemania that made up The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl. In short, the group was a perfect fossil for the cross hairs of punk's firearm until a lost tape turned up out of nowhere to refute Joe Strummer's claim.

The Beatles at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany in 1962

A few months after the release of their first single, "Love Me Do," in mid–December, The Beatles returned to Hamburg to open a 14–night residency at the Star Club. Between the "Love Me Do" session and the German date, The Beatles had been touring relentlessly throughout England and making glowing appearances on TV shows like Discs A Go Go, and the children's program, Tuesday Rendezvous. As their popularity started to flourish, their arrival in Hamburg was no longer celebrated as young innocents trying to find their chops, but instead a band ready to chop down anything in their path. Their first show kicked off on December 18, 1962, with a flurry of excitement. By the time the week was out, John Lennon was appearing on stage with a toilet seat draped around his head to demonstrate his displeasure with the management. Besides being a piece of dada stagecraft that Johnny Rotten could be proud of, the use of the toilet seat was a clever touch given The Beatles' lavatory beginnings in their early days in Hamburg. It was as if Lennon were telling the crowd: Once you led The Beatles to the toilet, but now we're bringing the toilet to you. They were taking on the world.

On New Year's Eve, they agreed to record the event, employing Ted "King Size" Taylor, who was the lead singer with a band that sometimes opened for The Beatles at the Cavern in Liverpool. For years, the tape had been considered lost, then forgotten, until it was discovered buried in debris in a Liverpool office in 1972. The German label Bellaphon got their hands on the tape and released the record as The Beatles Live! At the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962. On record, the sound The Beatles made that night at the Star Club, and finally heard in 1977, seemed to reduce Joe Strummer's brazen proclamation in "1977" to hyperbole. Besides ripping through some new songs from the pumping "I Saw Her Standing There" to the soulful "Ask Me Why," The Beatles took the crowd through the entire canon of Western pop music. They would jump, from genre to genre, without a care for personal taste, or prejudice. Out of a ribald take of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," Marlene Dietrich's torch number "Falling in Love Again," from The Blue Angel (1929), gets introduced. Here's a song where film critic Pauline Kael once described Dietrich's "smouldering voice" as one filled with "sadistic indifference suggest[ing] sex without romance, love, or sentiment." That indifference was quietly answered by McCartney's earnest romantic interpretation.

The Beatles changed gears all evening: "Red Sails in the Sunset" would shake hands with Carl Perkins' "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby"; Gene Vincent's "Be Bop A Lula" would be on hand to cross paths with Ray Charles on "Hallelujah, I Love Her So." Unlike the future punk bands that would shun romanticism, declaring it ostensibly fake, The Beatles, with their own punk fury, injected romanticism or defeat into any type of song they wished to pack into their ammunition dump. On this evening, from "Twist and Shout" to "Besame Mucho," they would risk total failure to achieve greatness by taking on any song from the pop catalogue – even placing their own in that roster, daring the audience to deny that their songs deserved a place there. "The reason [our later] records were so musically diverse was that we all had very diverse tastes," McCartney had explained. "We'd served our apprenticeship in Hamburg where businessmen would come to the club and say, 'Can you play a mambo? Can you do a rhumba?' And we just couldn't just keep saying no...we had to learn these different styles." Yet they turned those diverse styles into something they could call their own. The Beatles effortlessly fused the past to the present, while simultaneously looking ahead into the future. If they hit a wall, they were determined to turn it into a bridge to cross. Even if they were gone by 1977, The Beatles on Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany reminded listeners that they were always the affirmative "Yes!" to punk's "No!" Both cultural statements, those heard in "1977" and the Star-Club album, had the persuasive power to mark their time even if they are at opposite ends of history. If The Beatles had taken England and the world beyond the dreary commonplace, The Clash reminded us in "1977" that the dreary commonplace hadn't really gone away. Beatlemania had indeed bitten the dust by 1977, but the Star-Club album, heard so many years after it was recorded, shows us how sometimes the dust can bite back.

Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.   

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