Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Artificial Paradise: How the End of the Beginning Sounded

The lads, from The Beatles’ last photo session, in August 1969. (Photo: Ethan Russell)
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
– Lennon/McCartney, “The End” (1969)

“Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah. When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band.”
– David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust (1972)

When The Beatles released the last great pop masterpiece of the 1960’s, they were bringing to a close a remarkable collective waking dream. If only they had allowed their Abbey Road album, possibly one of their three best recordings, to be the band’s final release instead of returning to an earlier fraught effort and letting it out of the studio vault. The self-produced and then Phil Spector-mutilated Let It Be was a mess mostly due to the absence of George Martin, their brilliant guiding light for eight astonishing years together, while Abbey Road had glistened due to his return to the fold as their producer. It also signaled the arrival of a new kind of recording technology, with EMI’s advanced solid-state transistor mixing desk, which would usher in a kind of immediacy the following musical decade would eventually take for granted.

From Cornell University Press.
Kenneth Womack’s book Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles and John Corbett’s Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music each take a look at a major corner being turned in the pop music and cultural world from different vantage points: the first in an elegaic and wistful farewell to an innocent shared dream, and the second in a wild romp through a post-traumatic but exhilarating party-like nightmare. “A decade dies a thousand deaths” is how Corbett decides to launch his roller-coaster chronicle of the dynamic era following the perhaps artificial paradise of the love decade, as he gives a guided tour of the upcoming Me Decade in all its grime and splendor: “Wherever you place the skull and crossbones, the passage into the seventies is most often framed as a departure from idealism, a loss of innocence and the encroachment of corporate enterprise into every pore of human endeavor—including music. A decade is an arbitrary threshold. Let’s say the 70’s decade starts with the Beatles’ fractious demise and ends with the birth chirp of rap.”

In between those three goalposts, an end, a beginning, and another end, some very special music was being made, but it was certainly being made for vastly different listeners and for very different reasons. And these two books are excellent maps to the territorial divides at work globally during these historical eras. You don’t necessarily have to believe that Abbey Road was the best-produced pop record of the 60’s to enjoy Solid State (spoiler alert: it was, along with Pet Sounds, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, of course), or even to be deeply into the fetishistic technicalities of how great records are made, but it doesn’t hurt. It also helps to fully appreciate both George Martin, their longtime producer, and Geoff Emmerick, their then still teenaged engineer savant, as the geniuses behind the geniuses in The Beatles.

Now, the author of a whole book on one single album certainly knows whereof he speaks. And I admire his OCD focusing skills, having written a whole book on one single Amy Winehouse album myself. Kenneth Womack is an acknowledged Beatles archaeologist and archivist, and in this effort he undertakes a fine biography of this fine recording, taking it apart and reassembling it for us along the way. His previous books on this band include Long and Winding Roads, The Beatles Encyclopedia, and a biography of George Martin called Maximum Volume. He has, without a doubt, an encyclopedic knowledge about the band in general and this album in particular, and he shares it generously. It is definitive indeed regarding the writing, recording, mixing and reception of Abbey Road .

He prepares the groundwork for doing so carefully, methodically even, especially focusing on a number of new techniques and technologies which would eventually (after some public debate) render it a received classic (and in my own opinion, their best work since the equally groundbreaking Rubber Soul). He takes us by the hand, and by the ear, back to EMI’s unique Studio Two at Abbey Road and introduces us personally to George Martin’s new best friend, the advanced solid-state transistor 8-track mixing desk. In addition to the sound dynamics of the equipment he also narrates a parallel saga concerning the dynamics of a band that had more or less begun to break up in frustration after their aborted Get Back album, eventually resurrected as Let It Be.

The real star of the Abbey Road Studio Number Two sessions chronicled in the Womack book: the solid-state, transistor-powered EMI TGI12345 Mk2 console board, the new industry prototype for eight-tracking mixing. (Photo: Kevin Ainsworth)

Strangely enough, and as chronicled by Womack, most reviews of Abbey Road were highly favorable, but some were surprisingly muted and mixed. One thing everyone agreed upon, however, was the actual sonics, the soulful technical sound of the recording, an aural environment that resulted from EMI’s decision in the late-autumn months of 1968 to adopt the then-new mixing desk and its solid-state technology after years of working, for the most part, with tube compressor equipment. This piece of awesome furniture, prosaically dubbed the EMI TG12345 Mk1, would change music altogether, much the way this band and their brilliant mentor had altered the soundscape with Rubber Soul in ’65, Revolver in ’66, and of course the Technicolor majesty of Sgt. Pepper in ’67. The TG (a prefix associated with the archaic origins of EMI as The Gramophone Company back in 1898) had three times the microphone inputs as earlier tube compressors and a deeper, heavier, snappier resonance related to its transistorized direct-action solidity.

Once McCartney and Lennon, their proper creative order in actuality, worked out the kinks in their eroding relationship as people and artists after trying to self-produce the abandoned chaos of Get Back the way they had pretended to self-produce The Beatles (better known as The White Album) in 1968, and once Paul re-approached a depressed George Martin to plead with him to come back and give them some professional sonic direction, things picked up considerably. In mid-June of ’68, Paul promised Martin that they would let him do what he did best, would not let their own personal animosities interfere, and looked forward to making their music with him at the helm, as they had done for nine earlier albums and countless hit singles. In mid-June of ’69, the band reconvened at EMI and tried to recapture some of their missing magic.

Womack writes:
When the four lads from Liverpool gathered, the notion of going forward in any capacity as a working unit was tenuous. The January ’69 Get Back sessions had stretched the group’s interpersonal relations to the brink of disbandment. By mid-month Harrison had briefly quit The Beatles, only to be coaxed back via a carefully negotiated Fab Four d├ętente. The fact that Abbey Road came into being in any form was remarkable under any circumstances. Yet when the bandmates made their way back to EMI, when they decided to give it one final go before slipping into the arms of history, The Beatles somehow made it work. Aided by the studio upgrades they had long clamored for, and their own evolving talent and artistry, they willed one last production into being. Flourishing under this remarkable conditions, they honed an improbable musical epitaph for the ages.
This book is the personal and professional history of that epitaph.

* * *

The lads doing a pretty good job of pretending to still like each other . (Photo: Bruce McBroom)
But if the fractured and fragmented tale of a single band in disarray is such compelling reading in Solid State, an epic telling of one album by one challenged pop group, the shaky cultural foundations explored by John Corbett’s book through the following decade in popular music is truly vertiginous reading. To say the least. Appropriately, in the aptly titled Pick Up the Pieces, some 85 separate albums and groups are part of the author’s own personal excursions , all surging forward at breakneck speed attempting to creatively reflect the times in which they lived and worked, all looking for what rare magic, if any, could come next after the decline and fall of an admittedly unique band and the equally dreamy decade before them. Where to now? That is the schematic blueprint for Corbett’s captivating and highly personal musical map. And it works beautifully.

From University of Chicago Press.
The singer Neneh Cherry had a salient way of summing up the impressive style of an author who has been described as the “Carl Sagan of vinyl,” an author whose stated intention is to present music, both “sordid and sublime,” from this most misunderstood of decades, the 1970’s: “This book is a gift and a joy. My own life story comprised a tapestry of tracks that felt just like this, a mind-map of music.” Indeed, with minor alterations, many of us who came of age in the 60’s and 70’s can attest to a similar musical memoir, depending on our own particular tastes. A track here and there might be substituted for another, yet Corbett somehow manages to succeed in a rather challenging feat of fast footwork and attentive listening.

I also wholeheartedly agree with Lars Iyer, a popular culture philosopher who quite rightly identifies this book as a love cry: “A cornucopia of zappy chapters dedicated to the question of what 70’s music means. Deliciously non-partisan, open-eared, Corbett honors cross pollinating musical fusions in a fleet polymorphous prose that wears great knowledge lightly. There are bits of memoir here, but no dull autobiographical drudge. There are famous names, but deep obscurants too. It helps that Corbett is right about everything.” Yes, this book is a heavy-duty personal take, rather than a cumbersome history, and yes, it is polymorphous, as in: having, assuming or occurring in various forms, characters or styles. It might also even be polymorphous-perverse, in the classical Freudian sense: the ability to gain sensual pleasure from objects or activities outside of normative sensual behaviors, in this case, deriving intense sensual pleasure from listening to music so intently that it is almost an intimate physical act.

And Corbett, who is also the author of A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium and Microgroove: Forays into Other Music, certainly does share chunks of the joy and fear associated with close encounters of the musical kind, so they really do feel like love letters to certain songs, albums and musicians who impacted him powerfully. But he never claims that those individual artists should be considered as the only landmarks or groundbreakers in that slightly schizoid decade; he accepts and celebrates the fact that there was more than one decade called the 70’s: “A decade sets a place-marker so we can compare then and now not just as moments whirling past but as distinctive chunks of our collective story. And there’s really no the nineteen seventies. There’s our nineteen seventies, their nineteen seventies and then there’s my nineteen seventies. Someone seeing the decade from another perspective, with different input and experience, will have another point of view and will draw other generalizations. In this book you’ll find my generalizations. My nineteen seventies.” It’s quite refreshing to encounter a pop culture critic who even admits that they make generalizations, let alone celebrates them so ferociously.

My friend the late Kevin Courrier, who co-founded Critics At Large, would have loved the sheer diversity of styles and tastes in this book. In his own tome, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles’ Utopian Dream (part of whose title I robbed from for the title of this article), he examined how The Beatles’ own personal reflection of a collective time was both magical and misleading, and he would easily see, as I do, how seamlessly the dissolving of that cultural fantasy known as the 60’s led directly to the massively cathartic binge party of a different sort (a more corporate sort, perhaps, among other things) in the follow decade, which Corbett chronicles so deftly. “Reggae singer Joe Higg’s memorable phrase, ‘a life of contradiction,’ applies here. My friends and I,” Corbett explains, “loved all sorts of music that was at odds with the prevailing phobias of our tribe—mostly those based on misunderstandings of race, class, sexuality and gender. We idolized people we were supposed to fear or despise. I think we looked for them to show us a way out.” Alas, that way also led into the waiting arms of the 80’s.

Mr. Martin, the secret ingredient who was sadly missing from their earlier Let It Be sessions. (Photo credit: Abbey Road)

A way out of what? Well, ironically, a way out of the cul de sac being explored in Solid State, a dream world as illusory as the creative friendship between geniuses like the Beatles turned out to be. And Pick Up the Pieces also does just that: attempt to pick up the shards of an exploded fantasy: “Contradiction was also at the heart of music production back then. The seventies are sometimes depicted as a big sellout. Stacks of money was made. Piles of cocaine were snorted. Even punk’s DIY revolution at the end of the era, if looked at critically, was seized upon as a get-rich scheme: Malcolm McLaren’s Great Rock and Roll Swindle. Souls were sold, stars were made, and hedonism was on parade. But in all the decadent partying there was immense fecundity. It was the best of times and it was messed up times. We were dazed and confused, also amazed and amused.”

Looked at critically, that’s precisely what Corbett sets out to do with this decade, and he accomplishes his motive with the same aplomb as we see in the paragraph above: “Okay, lots of colorful narratives are possible. Were the seventies actually a continuation of the sixties, the next passage in their death-driven ride into glassy-eyed oblivion? Let’s see what we find by decade’s end. In any case, an overall tonal shift is apparent in the seventies with the emergence of fresh adaptations. Many dynamics were at play in all this musical interbreeding, not just aesthetic ones. Everything was up for grabs, anyone was a possible consumer, narrow target audiences were a thing of the past, and the new idea was to throw the pasta at the wall and see what stuck and who would eat it.”

You can see from this selection alone what I find so entertaining about Corbett’s approach: it is simultaneously reverent (music is a special form of human endeavor) and irreverent (music is a powerful tool of manipulation). It’s a technique that serves him well as he takes us along for a stroll through what 70’s music made him and how, occasionally even why. However, he also keeps us wanting to walk with him by admitting his own frequent confusion, a state of mind we can all relate to, if we’re honest. The song and band, “Lola” by The Kinks, that he chooses to launch the book with in the opening chapter, “1970,” is a good example of this ambivalent sharing of a state of mind induced by and through music: “It began with bewilderment. That and a genuine sense of respect for things I didn’t understand.” The perfect beginning to an examination of a perfectly bewildering decade. As a person who was strongly impacted by being thirteen years of age when I first saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (the ideal age, in my opinion, since that made me eighteen when I first plunged into Abbey Road), I guess I’m a little surprised that Corbett doesn’t delve in depth into either The Beatles’ chronologically last release of Let It Be in 1970 (which I’m still nonetheless happy about since I hate that record so much) or even any of four members’ post-Beatle solo albums (not even the rather extraordinary subsequent adventures of McCartney’s various incarnations, or Harrison’s ascent as a gifted songwriter in the absence of his claustrophobic confinement alongside the geniuses).

It’s understandable, though, since we’re clearly of different generations and his tastes are legitimately his own. The first single he owned was “War” by Edwin Starr, and he doesn’t focus on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust from ’71, or Pink Floyd’s masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon from ’73 (the two technically best-produced ‘70’s recordings after the obvious peak of Abbey Road) and not until Bowie’s Low and Floyd’s Animals, both from ’77, does he approach those great artists. But that’s just quibbling, because he does manage to heap abundant praise on a masterpiece that truly deserves it, Blue by Joni Mitchell in 1971. “What makes a perfect record perfect?” he asks coyly (only because all of us have a different “perfect” record, as well as a different definition of perfection) and he goes on to give an excellent characterization that we can all agree upon, regardless of what stage of the baby boom’s shadow we cast.

Blue, Joni Mitchell (1971, Reprise Records).

“Start with quality ingredients,” he proposes, as he accesses what made Blue her most perfect record (even still perhaps). “There can’t be a weak moment, all the songs must have a gravity of their own, and they need to work together as a unit. Flow is incredibly important, how tracks progress, pacing, contrast between songs, continuities and breaks, the program’s sequence, the crucial flips between sides---which needs to feel urgent, not optional---the way that in the end of the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. If it is indeed a perfect record, when the second side is over the listener should feel compelled without hesitation to go back to the beginning and start over.” This is as ideal a descriptor of the perfect record I have read, ever maybe, since it also includes any song from any album in any style, whether it is James Brown with “Get Up” or Captain Beefheart with “Lick My Decals Off Baby”; whether The Stones with Sticky Fingers or Nick Drake with “Pink Moon.”

It also applies equally to pure, bright and shiny pop like Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren, or soul like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, or jazz like The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Joe McPhee or Carla Bley. He touches upon equivalent masterpieces in this tome, whether Bob Dylan’s ’75 opus Blood on the Tracks or Fleetwood Mac’s ’77 soap opera Rumours, released, weirdly enough, the same year that Elvis died and as punk music was born. I just wish he had included the eccentrically brilliant Lindsey Buckingham’s tour de force ’79 Mac album Tusk to end the decade . . . but that’s just me. His book is almost as perfect as the albums he chooses to drop the needle on, at least until there was no needle to drop, that is. And in the end, anyone who can write this well about music, and so ekphrastically well (as in how the music makes him feel) gets to choose whatever the hell he wants to:
The first half of the seventies brought the apex of the album as a medium. A decade prior, labels had still seen albums as receptacles for already popular songs: take a couple of those, add filler, put them together, throw them in the over and bake. Or half bake, anyway. With watershed albums like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver, The Kinks’ Face to Face, and The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, albums were being treated seriously by the mid-sixties, and by the time Joni Mitchell recorded Blue, the long-playing record album was fully asserted as the true musician’s palette, rather than a clearinghouse for unrelated tracks. By 1971, a record album was a drawbridge, open and extended from our fortresses of solitude to the other side of the moat, whatever mental waterway might encircle us. 
 Yes! Well worth the price of admission to this book right there! And by the time he makes it all the way to bands like The Police and The Pretenders, and then finally ends with a touchdown of the wildest sort with Grace Jones’s Warm Leatherette in 1980, the reader really feels like they have experienced the 70’s musically, whether they were actually there or not. It’s a kind of documentary for your ears, since any reader can easily access in seconds now any song online they want to either experience for the first time or refresh their memory about nostalgically (such a fine book as this one works very well both ways). It also makes a case for what the best music journalists and critics should really consider their primary job description: they should be our earwitnesses to history, as it’s actually lived and listened to.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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