Tangerine Trees and Marmalade Skies

A trip back to ’60s psychedelic music

While it’s quite possible that more than three weeks of social distancing are starting to have an impact, I can say without hesitation that my interest in psychedelic music predates COVID-19 – I would say by at least three decades. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

I guess a good way to start would be to define what I’m writing about. According to Wikipedia, psychedelic music (sometimes called psychedelia) is a wide range of popular music styles and genres influenced by 1960s psychedelia, a subculture of people who used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and DMT to experience visual and auditory hallucinations, synesthesia and altered states of consciousness. Psychedelic music may also aim to enhance the experience of using these drugs.

To be clear, I don’t want to judge people using drugs but personally don’t take any and never had any particular interest to explore stuff. With the exception of alcohol, which I occasionally like to enjoy, I guess the furthest I ever took it was to try cigarettes during my early teenage years. Around the same time, I also smoked a cigar, cleverly thinking that just like with a cigarette, you’re supposed to inhale. As you can see, I was definitely young and stupid. And, yes, I did feel a bit funny afterwards! 🙂

Psychedelic Music Collage 2

Psychedelic music has some characteristic features. Again, Wikipedia does a nice job explaining them: Exotic instrumentation, with a particular fondness for the sitar and tabla are common. Songs often have more disjunctive song structures, key and time signature changes, modal melodies and drones than contemporary pop music. Surreal, whimsical, esoterically or literary-inspired, lyrics are often used. There is often a strong emphasis on extended instrumental segments or jams. There is a strong keyboard presence, in the 1960s especially, using electronic organs, harpsichords, or the Mellotron, an early tape-driven ‘sampler’ keyboard.

Elaborate studio effects are often used, such as backwards tapes, panning the music from one side to another of the stereo track, using the “swooshing” sound of electronic phasing, long delay loops and extreme reverb. In the 1960s there was a use of electronic instruments such as early synthesizers and the theremin. Later forms of electronic psychedelia also employed repetitive computer-generated beats.

Before getting to some examples, I should add that psychedelic music developed in the mid-’60s among folk and rock bands in the U.S. and the U.K. It included various subgenres, such as psychedelic folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock and psychedelic pop. The original psychedelic era, which is the focus of this post, ended in the late ’60s, though there have been successors like progressive rock and heavy metal and revivals, e.g., psychedelic funk, psychedelic hip hop and electronic music genres like acid house and trance music.

Apparently, the first use of the term psychedelic rock can be attributed to The 13th Floor Elevators, an American rock band formed in Austin, Texas in December 1965. Here’s their debut single You’re Gonna Miss Me. Written by guitarist and founding member Roky Erickson, the tune reached no. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became their only charting song.

Eight Miles High by The Byrds is one of my favorite tunes from the psychedelic era. Written by co-founding members Roger McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals) and David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), the song first appeared as a single in March 1966 and was also included on the band’s third studio album Fifth Dimension released in July of the same year. That jingle-jangle guitar sound and the brilliant harmony singing simply do it for me every time!

In May 1966, The Rolling Stones released Paint It Black. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was also included on the U.S. edition of Aftermath, the band’s fourth British and sixth U.S. studio album. Not only did Paint It Black top the charts in the UK, U.S., The Netherlands, Australia and Canada, but it also had the distinction to become the first no. 1 hit to feature a sitar.

One of the hotspots for psychedelic music in the U.S. during the second half of the ’60s was San Francisco. Among the key bands based in the city by the bay were Jefferson Airplane. Here’s White Rabbit, a tune written by lead vocalist Grace Slick. Initially, it was recorded for the band’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow from February 1967. It also came out separately as a single in June that year.

After ten paragraphs into the post, it’s about time I get to the band that probably is one of the first that comes to mind when thinking about psychedelic rock: Pink Floyd, especially during their early phase with Syd Barrett. Here’s a tune I’ve always dug: Arnold Layne, their debut single from March 1967, written by Barrett. According to the credits, this video was directed by Derek Nice and filmed on the beach in East Wittering, West Sussex, England in late February 1967.

March 1967 also saw the release of Purple Haze, the second single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix tunes. The track features blues and Eastern modalities, along with novel recording techniques and sound effects like the Octavia pedal that doubled the frequency of the sound it was fed. The song also marked the first time Hendrix worked with sound engineer Eddie Kramer who would play a key role in his future recordings. Purple Haze climbed all the way to no. 3 in the UK; in the U.S., it only reached no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Two months later, in May 1967, The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It included the psychedelic gem Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds, the tune that inspired the headline of the post:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

While credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney as usual, the song was primarily written by Lennon.

After the break-up of The Animals, lead vocalist Eric Burdon formed Eric Burdon & The Animals in December 1966. The band subsequently relocated to San Francisco. In May 1968, they released their second album The Twain Shall Meet. Among the record’s tunes is the anti-war song Sky Pilot. Credited to Burdon and each of the other members of the band Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar, violin), Barry Jenkins (drums) and Danny McCulloch (bass), the tune also appeared separately as a single. Due to its length, the track had to be split across the A and B sides. Remarkably, Sky Pilot reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and no. 7 in Canada and Australia. Chart success in the UK was more moderate, where it peaked at no. 40.

In June 1968, Iron Butterfly released their sophomore album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The 17-minute title track, which occupied all of the record’s B-side, was written by the band’s keyboarder and vocalist Doug Ingle. Separately, a shortened version appeared as a single and became the band’s biggest hit reaching no. 30 in the U.S. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida not only is psychedelic rock, but is also considered to be an early example of heavy metal. Here’s the single edit.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Shotgun by Vanilla Fudge. It was included on their fourth studio album Near the Beginning from February 1969. “Near the End” perhaps would have been a more appropriate title, since by that time, the original psychedelic era was entering the twilight zone. Written by Autry DeWalt, the tune was first recorded by Junior Walker & the All Stars in 1965.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

 

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 15

Time for another installment in my long-running, somewhat geeky music history feature. I still get a kick out of researching what happened on a certain date throughout the decades in rock & roll, even though it’s such an arbitrary concept. Admittedly, I’m using the term rock & roll loosely here. It pretty much includes all music genres I dig – hey, it’s my blog, so I get to make the rules. Without further ado, let’s get to March 15!

1967: The Beatles began work on Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison. According to The Beatles Bible, Harrison had written the tune at the London home of longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voormann who first had met the band in Hamburg and had shared a flat with Harrison and Ringo Starr in the British capital in early ’60s. Several musicians from the collective Asian Music Circle played traditional Indian instruments during the recording session. They were joined by Harrison and The Beatles’ then-personal assistant Neil Aspinall on tamburas. “The tabla had never been recorded the way we did it,” commented sound engineer Geoff Emerick. “Everyone was amazed when they first heard a tabla recorded that closely, with the texture and the lovely low resonances.” Within You Without You was included on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of Only a Northern Song, another Harrison tune that would later appear on Yellow Submarine.

1969: Cream hit the top spot on the UK Albums Chart with their fourth and final studio album appropriately titled Goodbye. It would stay in that position for two weeks. Here’s one of the record’s tracks, Politician, which also is one of my favorite Cream tunes. Co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, Politician was one of three live tracks on the record that were captured on October 19, 1968, at The Forum in Los Angeles during the band’s farewell tour. By the time Goodbye came out in February 1969, Cream had already disbanded.

1975: Black Water, a classic by The Doobie Brothers, climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only two no. 1 hits the band had in the U.S. The second one was What a Fool Believes in 1979. Penned by Patrick Simmons who also sang lead, Black Water first appeared on the Doobies’ fourth studio album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits released in February 1974. Interestingly, the initial single release of Black Water was as the b-side to the record’s lead single Another Park, Another Sunday. While it’s not a bad song, you still have to wonder about that decision, which seems to suggest that between the band and the record company, they hadn’t quite noticed what a gem Black Water was.

1986: The Bangles reached no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart with Manic Monday, scoring their first hit, which also peaked at no. 2 in the U.S., Australia, Germany and Ireland, and placed in the top 5 in Austria, Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland. Written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher, the tune was included on the American pop-rock band’s sophomore album Different Light, which had appeared in January of the same year. I generally find listening to The Bangles fairly enjoyable. In particular, I like their harmony singing, plus they have some pretty catchy songs. Just please spare me with Eternal Flame, which at the time was hopelessly burned by overexposure on the radio back in Germany and I suspect in many other countries. BTW, The Bangles are still around in almost their original lineup. Following the band’s breakup in 1989, they reunited in 1998.

1999: Curtis MayfieldDel ShannonDusty SpringfieldPaul McCartneyThe Staple SingersBilly Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Sean Combs, Art Alexakis, Elton John, Neil Young, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles and Bono, respectively –  sounds fucking unreal to me! Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band to perform at the ceremony. Here are Bruce and the boys with Wilson Pickett, performing a scorching version of In The Midnight Hour, a Stax classic Pickett had co-written with Steve Cropper in 1965. Watching Pickett say he wants to kick Bruce in the ass but will keep it light since he’s The Boss and Bruce responding ‘Let’s give it a shot’ is priceless –  damn, this wants me to go and listen to some kickass live music, so badly – fuck you, COVID-19!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 2

February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the U.S. and Canada. BTW, I heard that this morning, the groundhog emerged from its burrow and did not see the shadow, which means an early spring! February 2nd also saw the birth of a great songwriter and vocalist, the day before the music died, a recording of a masterpiece and the release of a new album by a Southern Rock staple. Let’s get to it!

1942: Graham William Nash was born in Blackpool, England. Nash, who according to Wikipedia has been active since 1958, is best known for his vocal and songwriting contributions to The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both bands. Between May 1971 and April 2016, Nash has also released six solo albums. Here’s Myself At Last, a pretty tune from Nash’s most recent solo record This Path Tonight, which appeared in April 2016 and was his first new studio album in 14 years. Like all songs on that record, it was written by Nash and producer Shayne Fontayne. Nash who turned 78 today is planning to embark on a tour of the U.S. and Europe in early March. The current schedule is here. Long may you run!

1959: This was the day before the music died. Rock & rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, artistically known as The Big Bopper, played their last gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was the 11th show of the 24-date Winter Party Tour through the midwestern U.S. The next scheduled stop was 365 miles away in Moorhead, Minn. Rather than doing the entire trip by bus in freezing temperatures as the musicians had done up to this point, Holly decided to charter a plane to Fargo, N.D., close to Moorhead. Initially, his touring bassist Waylon Jennings was supposed to be one of the three passengers (in addition to the pilot). But he gave his seat to Richardson who had fallen ill with the flu to spare him a gruesome bus trip. The V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza embarked on its fateful flight from Mason City Municipal Airport in the early morning hours of Feb 3 and the rest is history.

The_Day_the_Music_Died

1967: The Beatles were working on their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Studios in London, according to The Beatles Bible. While it may not be quite as popular as Jesus, this source captures the ultimate truth about The Fab Four in all of its gory details. During the recording session that evening, Paul McCartney added his lead vocals to the album’s title track, joined by Lennon John and George Harrison in the chorus. For the nerds, and yes, I like that shit, The Beatles Bible further points out their voices were captured on track four of the tape. Track three was used to overdub additional harmonies. Afterwards, a reduction mix was created to free up space on the tape. All instruments were now on track one, and all vocals were on track four. I sharply conclude this left tracks two and three to add additional overdubs. And, yes, separately I read Sgt. Pepper was still recorded in four-track since music studios in London did not start using eight-track tape recorders until late 1967.

1976: Southern rockers Lynryd Skynyrd released Gimme Back My Bullets, their fourth studio album and the second-to-last recorded with original members Ronnie Van Zandt and Allen Collins prior to the October 1977 plane crash. Peaking at no. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200, it was less successful than Skynyrd’s two previous records. Van Zant and Collins attributed the performance to the loss of the band’s three-guitar attack that had been one of their early hallmarks. While the album didn’t match the Platinum status of the band’s other pre-crash records, it still earned a respective Gold certification in January 1981. Here’s lead single Double Trouble co-written by Van Zandt and Collins.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day in Music; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Sheryl Crow Goes Out With Big Bang On Final Full-Length Studio Album

Threads features collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks and others from her music bucket list

“Well, I have loved the tradition of making records. I grew up holding the actual physical record and poring over the album notes and just dreaming about doing what I’m doing now. And with technology, it’s a little bit like putting the toothpaste back into the tube. We can’t go back and expect — particularly young people — to listen to albums from top to bottom. It’s almost a dying art form in that people cherry-pick songs and put them on playlists. So, I don’t know that the listening audience really ever gets the sense of the full artistic statement.” (Sheryl Crow)

So this it it for Sheryl Crow? After nine Grammys and more than 50 million albums sold and at less than 60 years of age? Yes and no. The singer-songwriter, who originally hails from Kennett, Mo., is not planning to release any additional full-fledged studio albums. But it should be a consolation to fans that Crow isn’t retiring from recording and touring. What the above Crow told NPR means is the realization that the music business has changed dramatically since she burst on the scene in August 1993 with Tuesday Night Music Club. Back then, selling records still was a rewarding proposition. Today in the age of music streaming not so much.

Sheryl Crow

“We had a great experience last year with Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You,” Crow further explained in that NPR interview, referring to one of the tunes from Threads, which were released ahead of the album that appeared today. “We put out a song that meant something at that moment in the immediacy and didn’t wait for a full length record. And it was kind of liberating to be able to do that. So I think that’s what I’ll aim for. Then, if people want to put together an album, they can do that; they can put together a compilation or their own playlist. But I like the idea of being able to write in the immediate and putting it out when it really matters.”

Sounds like a valid point to me, though I feel the last sentence of Crow’s statement in the first paragraph of the post represents the essence of her decision. In a modern social media-driven, instant gratification culture, most listeners no longer have the attention span to enjoy entire albums. As much as it pains me to admit this, I’m not entirely immune to this mentality either. There’s also the reality that most albums are not like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tapestry and Aja, to name three of my all-time favorite records, where pretty much every song is a gem you really want. Of course, that has always been the case. In the pre-streaming era, you’d still buy the vinyl record or CD, if it had at least two our three great songs. Today, with iTunes, Spotify, etc. it’s very easy to pick and choose only the tracks you like without ever buying an album.

Okay, let’s get to Threads. Saying Crow’s eleventh studio album features an impressive array of guests would be an understatement. Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Emmylou Harris and James Taylor, to name some, are all friends who as NPR put it were “her bucket list collaborators.” With some like Richards, Nicks, Harris and Clapton, Crow had worked before over her 18-year recording career. The catchy opener Prove You Wrong, which was co-written by Crow, Al Andersen and Leslie Satcher and features Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, is an anthem to strong women. Apple Music in their “liner notes” quotes Crow: “Stevie was one of my first calls. Not only has she been a great friend and collaborator over the years, but she was one of the original inspirations for doing what I do…Inviting Maren in just made sense. She’s sort of like a godchild to Stevie and I – super fierce, loves that connection with her audience, and truly has her own perspective on life.”

Since I already previously covered Live Wire, a nice bluesy track for which Crow teamed up with Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, I’m going to skip it in this post and move on to Beware Of Darkness. The cover of the George Harrison tune is one of the gems on the album. And, yes, I may be a bit biased here! 🙂 It first appeared on his 1970 solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass. Quite appropriately, one of the guests on Crow’s recording is Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton. The two other artists are Sting and Brandi Carlile. According to the Apple Music liner notes, “…I wanted to record this as a tribute to George, but also as a message to my children: To let them know while they’re living through what we’re going through, they must witness people either moving towards light or towards darkness. I think that explains a lot about why we are where we are…”

Next up: Cross Creek Road, an original tune Crow co-wrote with long-time collaborator Jeff Trott. The called out guests on this recording include Lukas Nelson and Neil Young. Nelson is sharing vocals, while Young contributes acoustic and electric guitars. A closer look also reveals Don Henley as one of the backing vocalists – interesting why he wasn’t called out. In any case, the track is a nice mid-tempo roots-oriented rocker.

Now we come to The Worst. Blame Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the cheerful title of this tune, which The Rolling Stones recorded for their 1994 studio album Voodoo Lounge. Richards also is a guest in the current version of the country-oriented tune, providing acoustic, electric and nylon-string guitars, bass and piano, as well as some backing vocals. Frankly, I had no idea Richards plays bass and piano! Here’s another enlightening Crow quote from Apple Music: “Not a lot of people know this, but in the late ’80s, I was a school teacher in St. Louis and went to see the taping of [the music documentary] Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll with Chuck Berry and Keith Richards…Cut to 20 years later, I’m recording with Keith Richards, with Steve Jordan producing, so you never now what can happen to a small town girl – a town with three stoplights. It’s amazing what can happen in your life.” Apparently, Crow misspoke, it’s actually 30 years down the road from the above movie.

The next song I’d like to highlight is Still The Good Old Days, which Crow co-wrote with Joe Walsh. He also provides electric slide guitar Walsh kickass style, acoustic guitar and shares vocals. This is a great tune. Here’s the official video, which is also fun to watch.

I’d like to end this review on a quieter note with a beautiful track titled Nobody’s Perfect. Co-written by Crow and Trott, the recording features Emmylou Harris. Gee, the more I hear from this lady, the more I realize I should check her out more closely. “It’s such a joy to sing with her, and she, for me, is my great hope with my career,” Crow told NPR. “I look at what she’s done and who she has constantly been and who she’s become — how she’s still curious, still growing, still rocking, still out there fighting for the things she believes in and still looks like herself and is just beautiful. For me to get to sing with her and to have our voices blend is, I mean, that’s my kind of high.” Harris is 72, while Crow turned 57 this February.

Reflecting on her last studio album overall, Crow in a statement on her website said, “I became inspired to record an album of musical experiences with the legacy artists who inspired me to want to be a great songwriter, musician, and producer. It is a celebration with them, and a tribute to them. Just as importantly, I wanted to work with younger artists on this record, who I believe will pick up the torch and continue to light the way for humanity with their stories and their songs for many years to come. Their music inspires me every day.” I would say, if you officially declare an album is your final full-length record, Threads is a great way to go out with a big bang.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Apple Music, Sheryl Crow website, YouTube

Paul McCartney, Accidental Bassist Extraordinaire

When it comes to Paul McCartney and his accomplishments, where do you even start? Co-founding member of The Beatles, which in my book was the greatest band of all time; a man who has written hundreds of songs, including timeless classics; multiple award-winning two-time inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and great musician who after more than five decades is sill hungry to perform live are some of the highlights that come to mind. This post focuses on something folks outside musician circles may not fully appreciate: McCartney’s significance in pop and rock music as a bassist.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I used to play bass guitar in my late teens and early twenties. As such, the topic should be right up my alley, so what the heck took me so long to write about it? Frankly, I don’t really have a good answer. I included McCartney in a previous post about some of my favorite bassists, and of course I’ve also covered him on other occasions. Still, as one of my all-time music heroes, Macca and his remarkable bass playing certainly deserve more attention.

The interesting thing one may sometimes forget is that McCartney not only started out as a guitarist but did not have any initial intention to become a bassist. A long interview with Macca, which Tony Bacon conducted in November 1994 as part of his research for a book about the bass, provides some great insights. It was published by online music gear and news website Reverb in January 2018. I’m relying on this interview for quotes throughout the remainder of the post.

The Beatles 1960 Lineup
The Beatles’ lineup in 1960 (from left): John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe

“The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back,” Macca told Bacon. [Note: This bassist was skinny, and while he has developed a little bit of the belly over the years, he’s far from fat. In fact, his dear wife still says he’s pretty handsome!😆] “In our minds it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be up front, singing, looking good. That was what we wanted, to pull the birds. There’s no other reason, basically.”

The above photo shows an early lineup of The Beatles. It must have been taken during the second half of 1960, after Pete Best had joined the band as a drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon from art school, had been added in January that year, after John and Paul had persuaded him to use prize money he had won for art to purchase a Hofner bass guitar. “So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could,” Macca said. Ouch…

“The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit,” Macca further pointed out. “He was a smallish guy. But it looked kind of heroic—he stood a certain way, he had shades, he looked the part—but he wasn’t that good a player. And that was the problem with me and Stu. It was always much reported that we didn’t get along. There were two reasons, really. One, I was very ambitious for the group, and I didn’t actually like anything that might hold us back. There’s enough stuff holding you back anyway, without someone in the group who’s not that good, you know?”

Stuart Sutcliffe with Hofner
Stuart Sutcliffe with his 1959 Hofner 500/5 semi-hollow bass

In July 1961, after The Beatles had returned from one of their engagements in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue painting. “So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me,” Macca recalled. “I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then. I don’t think you could have caught John doing it—I don’t think he would have done it. ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker.’ I didn’t have a guitar [at the time], see, so I couldn’t really say, ‘But I want to be a guitarist.’ They’d say, Well get a fucking guitar then—that might be a start! As I say, I’d been playing piano, which was on the stage, and that was quite good for me, gave me a lot of piano practice. I couldn’t really play but I learned. So I was quite glad to get back in the front line.”

Sutcliffe ended up lending McCartney his bass for a short time. “Eventually I saw a bass in the window of a shop in Hamburg, this violin-shaped bass, the Hofner. It was a good price, because my dad, as I say, had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never, but we were earning reasonable money.” And so McCartney essentially became the bassist of The Beatles by, well, accident. “That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there.” Well, he certainly did.

It’s fair to say that McCartney didn’t become a brilliant bassist overnight. He started out largely playing root notes, which probably wasn’t that much different from Sutcliffe. But McCartney liked to push himself forward by experimenting. “The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once,” he explained. “So, I’ll try a capo on a bass…I often used to tune ‘em down, too – tune the strings down a tone, so the E would become a D. You’d have to be careful how hard you hit them, but it was kind of interesting. I would just mess around with any experimental effects, just to try it.”

Macca with Bass and Capo
Paul McCartney on the cover of Beat Instrumental magazine, with his Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a capo, together with George Martin and George Harrison

After The Beatles had stopped touring, the studio became a major enabler for experimentation. Advances in technology also allowed the separate recording of instruments. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, Macca would oftentimes record the bass part as one of the last tracks. This allowed him to hear all other instrumental parts and take the bass beyond it’s traditional role of timekeeper to becoming an additional melody-driving instrument. And this is where Macca’s true magic as a bassist happened. From a strictly technical standpoint, his playing is nothing extraordinary, which he himself has stated in various interviews I’ve read over the years.

When after the breakup of The Beatles Macca formed Wings, many things changed, including his bass playing. Not only did he now consistently use his Rickenbacker 4001S he had been given by Mr. Rickenbacker himself as a freebie during The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour, but his playing became more traditional again. Asked about it, he said, “I think it was OK, but I think I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something.”

Macca Key Bass Guitars
Paul McCartney with his two signature bass guitars, a Hofner 500/1 violin bass and a Rickenbacker 4001S

“See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this,” he went on. “We didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache – that’s difficult. In The Beatles, I’d been free of all of that. We had a manager, we had three other great guys.” Macca also could have added that unlike The Beatles in their later stage, Wings was not set up as a studio band.

Asked about his influences for the bass, McCartney said, “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested. Actually he and Brian Wilson [from The Beach Boys] were my two biggest influences: James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”

I’d like to wrap up this post by highlighting some of McCartney’s great basslines during his time with The Beatles. I apologize to the non-musicians, who may find the following clips a bit geeky. I think the best way to hear Macca in action, especially on a computer or other non hi-fi device, is to listen to his isolated bass parts. First up: Rain, the B-side from the non-album single Paperback Writer, released in May 1966. The song was written by Lennon and, as usually, credited to Lennon-McCartney. This is quite a busy bassline that provides a nice complementary melody to the tune. Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip with the original isolated part, I’m relying on a chap called Norby Hofner, who does a pretty decent job.

With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an example of a melodic bassline where McCartney nicely varies between sparing and busy playing. The tune wasn’t only credited to Lennon-McCartney but was also written collaboratively.

Another great example of a busy Macca bassline is Hey Bulldog, a song off the Yellow Submarine album, primarily written by Lennon and again credited to Lennon-McCartney. I dig how the bass is pushing the tune forward.

The last bassline I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites by Macca: Something. Should I ever go back to playing the bass, this would be on top of my list to learn. This bass part represents such great melodic playing that one can easily enjoy listening to it all by itself. I also think that Something, which appeared on Abbey Road, is one of George Harrison’s best compositions.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reverb, YouTube

To Be Or Not To Beatles

Canadian trio Klaatu took some on magical mystery tour in 1976/77

Just before Christmas, I listened to a refreshing new album that sounded incredibly “Beatlish.” I checked the album, entitled Klaatu, for names or pictures of the musicians but there were none. All credits were given to Klaatu. Curious, I called Capitol Records and was told it was a “mystery group.” 

The above is the opening paragraph of a story written by Steve Smith and published on February 17, 1977 in the Providence Journal, a Rhode Island daily newspaper. I was reminded about the album, when it showed up as a listening recommendation in my streaming music service this morning. While I first covered it in May 2017, I felt it was worthwhile revisiting what I would call one of the more intriguing rumors in rock music in an updated post.

Providence Journal Klaatu Review

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Smith as a writer who seemingly was chasing what would have been a potentially career-defining scoop. British magazine New Music Express, now simply known as NME, was quick to dismiss the piece with a story titled Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatles Rumor. Rolling Stone subsequently called it the “hype of the year.”

I agree while sounding Beatlesque, if you listen closely, it is pretty clear the vocals weren’t performed by The Beatles. Still, Smith made some valid points in his story. For example, I agree with his observation that the tune Sub-Rosa Subway sounds like The Beatles from 1968/69. Plus, something that in my opinion got a bit lost is that Smith didn’t firmly conclude Klaatu were The Beatles. Instead, he identified four possibilities. To quote: 1. The Beatles. 2. A couple of The Beatles with other people. 3. A Beatle-backed band. 4. A completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.

Klaatu 2

Klaatu (from left): John Woloschuk, Terry Draper and Dee Long

Also, let’s not forget the other actors in this story. The obvious place to start here is Klaatu. Named after the extraterrestrial character in the motion picture The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Canadian trio included John Woloschuk (bass), Terry Draper (drums) and Dee Long (guitar).  During a 1980 interview with former Capitol Records editorial manager Stephen Peeples, which is posted on Klaatu’s website, Draper said, “I think we were flattered more than anything. Surprised, though, considering that it was totally regardless of us that it happened. We didn’t perpetrate it. It just sorta came to pass by an article written in Providence [Journal] by Steve Smith. We were surprised as everyone else.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t entirely buy the above. While Klaatu may not have planned the plot, they did not do anything while the rumors were unfolding. The band essentially attributed their silence to a desire to remain anonymous musicians, which is why they had not included their names, photos or any biographical information on the album cover. Did they think they would generate “Klaatumania” with fans running after them wherever they would go? I feel the following commentary Woloschuk made during the above interview is more insightful: “We got more hype out of that than you could have manufactured with 15 promo records directors. I mean, it backfired on us. While we were looking for anonymity, we got more exposure than we could have dreamed was possible.”

Klaatu 3

Then there was Frank Davies, president of Klaatu’s label Daffodil Records, which had a distribution deal with Capitol Records. When Smith called him, Davies reportedly told the writer everything “you’ve summarized is pretty accurately all around” and “everything that is there, can and will be identified even without, perhaps them, the people being seen.” Capitol Records certainly added to the rumor by calling Klaatu a “mystery band.” Meanwhile, they were likely laughing and watching sales of the album pick up.

Eventually, Dwight Douglas, program director at radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C., put the mystery to an end. He checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered the band members’ real names. As soon as Klaatu’s identity became known, the album’s sales started to tumble and started the band’s slow decline. Time for some music.

Here’s the opener of the album, which in Canada was titled 3:47 EST. When Capitol Records released it in the U.S., they decided to rename it Klaatu.  Co-written by Woloschuk and Draper, Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft is one of tunes that have a very strong Beatlesque vibe. While it’s fairly obvious to me that the voices aren’t The Beatles, the singing style definitely is reminiscent of The Fab Four. Even more so is the instrumentation. It’s actually a great song you could imagine on an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Magical Mystery Tour.

California Jam starts out with a George Harrison style electric guitar. The harmony singing is reminiscent of The Beatles and sometimes also sounds a bit like The Beach Boys. The song was co-written by Woloschuk and Dino Tome, a close friend.

Next up is the above mentioned Sub-Rosa Subway, also a Woloschuk-Tome co-write. It strikingly sounds like a Paul McCartney style composition, in particular the melody, the piano part and the bassline.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Doctor Marvello. It has a bit of a George Harrison  feel, both in terms of the singing and the sitar. In his story Smith compared the tune to Blue Jay Way, which I think is a fair comparison.

After 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Klaatu released four additional studio albums and eventually disbanded in August 1982. They had two brief reunions in 1988 and 2005. In March 2011, Klaatu announced the launch of their own label Klaatunes Records. They reissued a 2009 compilation titled Solology. In addition, Klaatu has released remastered editions of their first three albums 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Hope and Sir Army Suit.

What if anything did the former members of The Beatles have to say about the whole Klaatu saga? A December 2013 story published in music magazine Goldmine quoted Long who recalled an encounter with Paul McCartney in the late ’80s while working as an engineer at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. “Later, when I was working in Studio 5, there was a knock on the door, and in comes Paul,” Long said. “He introduced himself (like he needed any introduction) and said, ‘So you’re the chap from The Beatles clone band.’ He explained that he was on a TV talk show and the host played a bit of ‘Calling Occupants’ and asked Paul if that was him singing! Paul had never heard the song and said so…We talked for at least an hour, and I explained that we were never a clone band but just heavily influenced by The Beatles. We talked about music and life…He came back many times to hang out and jam and talk about writing songs. Again, he was just a wonderful person — easy to talk to, and full of positive energy. An experience I will always treasure.”

During another interview posted on Klaatu’s website, which was conducted by David Bradley in September 1997, Woloschuk was asked whether he would have done the Klaatu album again. ” Yeah, I think I would have done it again,” he answered. “When I was 17, I bought my first copy of “Sgt Pepper’s,” and I was blown away by it…And within 10 years, the whole world was claiming the group that I was in was the Beatles.  And that’s got to be looked at as an achievement, I think, one way or the other.”

I think Woloschuk is partially right. There’s no question that musicians who write music that could have been created by The Beatles are talented. The album is a lot of fun to listen to. But why conceal your identities? It was incredibly naive to think they could get away with it. Plus, including their names on the record would not have taken anything away from the great music. Yes, it’s safe to assume Klaatu wouldn’t have received the publicity they did. And while it helped the band in the short-term, unfortunately, it tainted them and eventually led to their demise.

Sources: Wikipedia; Could Klaatu be Beatles? Steve Smith. Providence Journal, Feb 17, 1977; Klaatu website; Goldmine, YouTube