Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Joyful return

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, our family inherited a stack of albums including Introducing the Beatles and Beatles '65; both arrived without jackets, both beat up and scratchy as hell. I loved them immoderately, and learned to love music because of them. I have a distinct memory of listening to Beatles '65 in our basement, under fluorescent lights and a drop-ceiling, and playing "Baby's In Black," recognizing that the heart-sending harmonies in the chorus will return again in a minute. In my mind this was a First Recognition, an Origin Story, a Myth (and likely Precious, to boot), but I'm probably collapsing a series of memories, eliding, composing. None of that matters much: the die was cast. Experiencing the formal beauties of a pop song before you can articulate what structure is, before you can understand sound as song, before you learn what a "sea shanty" is and what it means to rip one off when a band's pressed for product up against a Christmas deadline, before you learn everything there is to know about that band and listening to everything they recorded, from demos onward: a body's pleasure with the mind catching up, panting to know. Those moments are rare but can be eternal. Mine are, as are yours. When I see myself as an eight-year-old in that suburban basement, eyes and ears going mad as the record spins, I see less a moment from my past than a tableau that transcends time and space. Heady stuff, but it starts in the heart.

Label via discogs

Friday, November 8, 2019

What do you hear?

For the January 1973 issue of Creem devoted to the Rolling Stones, Lester Bangs wrote a piece titled "I Only Get My Rocks Off When I'm Dreaming," in which he reassess his take on Exile On Main Street. Like many at the time of its release, Bangs felt that the album was muddy and unfocused, mixed oddly and generally underwhelming; he came around to the album later, eventually loving it. Though he regretted missing seeing the band on the now infamous '72 tour, he was critical of what he saw as the tour's financial crassness and of the growing if inevitable distance between the band and their fans, a "phalanx of concentric circles" made up of "mostly nonuniformed bodies which kept the Stones permanently insulated." He added: "Just like Dante, if a trifle more sleazy and less important." In the process of reevaluating Exile, Bangs quotes some of his favorite lines, filtering his growing dissatisfaction with the band's princely self-regard through the attitude and stances in their songs. Maybe it was tinnitus, but Bangs got some lyrics wrong. Then again, there was no lyric sheet with Exile, and with Mick Jagger's voice mixed notoriously low, it became a party game of sorts attempting to decipher many of his turns of phrase. (She comes every time she pirouettes over me?? Well, that one was right)

At one point, Bangs tosses off an observation, pursuing it no further, but it stuck with me. "Most of us didn’t get the real words, because at their most vulnerably crucial moments they were slurred and buried in the tides of sound," he remarks.
Jagger had to sing it that way, in "Sway” and again in much of Exile, because that is the way his pride works. Besides, anything else would make it all too concise and clear—like putting the lyrics on an album cover, which is the most impersonal thing any rock ’n’ roll artist can possibly do.
That strikes me as an interesting contradiction. You'd think that supplying a lyric sheet to an album would be a personal gesture, an invitation from the band to the listener to get closer, to hear, and share, exactly what the singer's singing. But to Bangs it amounts to impersonality, a kind of neutral intimacy. I guess what he's getting at is that what we hear when we listen to a song without its lyrics at hand, often mangled, misheard, and wildly off, is what means the most to us, is the most deeply personal. What Jagger wrote and then sang might mean something to him—or also, you know, being Jagger, not—but what means more to me is the language that the song spoke with when I heard it, either a snippet in passing or in a sustained, deep listen. Sometimes a misheard lyric is what, in fact, we need to hear, without realizing it, and the "correct" words can feel off, wrong even.

Like the vague disappointment you feel when the person you imagine as a novel's character is played by the wrong actor in the adaptation. (Casting director, get the fuck out of my fantasy.) The graphic artist and writer Scott McCloud gets at something analogous with his take on amplification through simplification: as readers, we more strongly identify with a cartoonishly simple face than with a detailed, realistic face. “When we abstract an image," McCloud notices, "we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details by stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning'." Less my weird uncle or my gym teacher, more a universal man.

So where Hendrix wrote Excuse me while I kiss the sky on the left, you hear kiss this guy on the right. Right? What you wanted or needed to hear, what you giggled at and dismissed or identified with strongly. What's wrong felt true.

The danger here is that a song's lyric—or a poem or essay or painting—might come to mean anything I want it to mean, a kind of relativism that's the death of an artist's agency, That, I steer clear from with urgency. But I'm sympathetic to what Bangs says, as it's a long and mysterious journey from pen to ear.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Shake it some more & some more

Every once in a while, a song will land on you that you didn't know you couldn't live without. In late 1965, Tony Sheridan and The Big Six issued the single "Shake It Some More" on Polydor International. By the middle of the decade, Sheridan was a has-been—had he really been a been? He was, of course, a popular fixture on the beat music scene in Hamburg, West Germany in the early 1960s where he was infamously paired up with a frightfully young Beatles in the studio for a handful of tracks, released in 1961 under Sheridan and The Beat Brothers (and in a million more iterations down the decades). Like so many musicians on the U.K. and northern European rock and roll scenes, Sheridan was laid waste by the Beatles meteoric success, and as the decade roared on was largely forgotten. (Sheridan was visited upon by luck more than once: on tour in April 1960 with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, he'd angled for a car ride with the two headliners but was refused. That fateful ride ended in an accident that killed Cochran and left Vincent badly and permanently hurt.)

Sheridan released several singles, EPs, and the odd album in the 1960s in various styles and approaches, but remained, unfairly or not, in the shadows. He obviously wrote "Shake It Some More" with the pop market in mind. (If you're interested in the story of Sheridan's backing band, The Big Six, Nick Warburton's got you covered here.) The tune bears hallmarks of the Dance Of The Week era, already unfashionable by the time Polydor issued the single, yet to my ears "Shake It Some More" transcends the origin of its composition, to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates. Sheridan and his band get their hands around something eternal in this simple, three-chord-based, garage-cha-cha tune, and play it loosely but with swinging propulsion; it's recorded well, too, with terrific dynamics. "Shake It Some More" does just about everything a rock and roll song has to do: gets you up, moving and grinning, encourages you to forget the shitty things in your life for a few minutes, reminds you that this song's always playing in the background somewhere if you'd only pay attention. Redemptive, that. The words are children's-book simple: one two three four shake it some more, five six seven eight don't you be late, hey shake it baby, shake it right now 'cause I feel alright now. On the right night, one man's nonsense is another's bible verse, not simplistic so much as elemental—eternal, I'd say, in the sense that anyone might've urged those lines, perhaps in a different language, in a different idiom, but with the same cheery invitation: c'mon let's get up.

"Shake It Some More" is, of course, only one of many, many like tunes from the beat group era, and I don't really know why it stuck on me and has become a longtime favorite. Partly its obscurity, partly the Sheridan link, but mostly the perpetual rocking beat, the moving clarity of it all. I arrived at the song in a fun way, as you do. The Swingin' Neckbreakers taught me the tune first on their debut Live For Buzz in 1993. Virtually the next week, it seemed, Lyres issued a version of the tune on a b-side. Serendipity! The needle landing at the same spot twice, which lightning never does, or so goes the myth, anyway. I dug both versions and commenced a fruitless search for the original 45 that lasted many years. I finally tracked down a copy via discogs without paying exorbitantly. Decades-worth of scratches and all, here's a simple, eternal beaut:

Here's a terrific video of Sheridan and his band performing the song on the German Beat Beat Beat television show in 1966. Sheridan's selling it, though the limitations of his charm and idol-esque look are apparent. The dancers? They're an odd blend of eagerness, resentment, and bafflement, but from the looks of it things are loosening up at the end:


Meanwhile here are the Neckbreakers' and Lyres' versions. Who wore it best?

Photo of Sheridan via Alchetron.
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