Music

Rock Bands May Come and Rock Bands May Go, But Music Hall is Gonna Go On Forever….

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Back in reason's June 2001 issue, Charles Paul Freund unveiled some of the Beatles' less-remarked-on origins while discussing their seemingly eternal appeal. He notes first of all that the D.C.-area station to first help break them big in the U.S. was an MOR one, not a rock n' roll one:

The MOR audience had a template for receiving the Beatles that nobody else had, because MOR stations were the only part of the American music scene at all open to British vocal acts. Top 40 rock listeners accepted foreign singers only as sideshow displays; Lonnie Donegan's 1961 novelty "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor?" was a Top 10 hit……….

One of [Revolver]'s chart hits, the sing-song "Yellow Submarine," reaches back beyond rock for its inspiration. A children's song, it pointed in the direction the Beatles were to go: the British Music Hall.

Sgt. Pepper's (1967) may well have transformed the rock world, but it owes nothing to rock's Romantic myth. It is built largely from the music and imagery of the Victorian and Edwardian pleasure palaces of the industrial working class……Though the Beatles approached the material with a literary sensibility, especially irony, songs like "When I'm 64" and "Lovely Rita" are effective evocations of antique Music Hall style, while "Getting Better" and the melodramatic "She's Leaving Home" make sympathetic use of antique emotion. Indeed, the corny, melodic sentimentalism of the Music Hall repertoire was a rich vein for the group, and they were never to abandon it.

A long list of later Beatles songs is drawn, directly or indirectly, from this tradition: "Martha, My Dear," "Your Mother Should Know," "Penny Lane," "All You Need Is Love," "All Together Now," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Honey Pie," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Magical Mystery Tour," "Good Night," and almost everything on the B side of Abbey Road, down to and including the inner-groove run-out, "Her Majesty." While the Beatles continued to write and record rock songs such as "Revolution" and "Come Together," and while they engaged in some entirely different musical experiments on the White Album, the influences that shaped their major, later output—most of the music for which they are best known—emerges from an antique pop style.

All rock n' roll revolutions, well….the word "revolution" does imply turning circles, where the same point keeps coming by us again and again. The Clash, inspired by the Sex Pistols (among others) declared that in 1977 there'd be no more "Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones." Now, the Pistols' leading (well, only) intellectual (McLaren, for this purpose, doesn't count) Johnny "Rotten" Lydon of the Sex Pistols tells Rolling Stone in its latest issue:

[Lydon] was talking about the humor in the Sex Pistols, which he said had been missed by all the people who came after. "We're music hall," he said, his cheer rising. "This is part of British culture. You're brought up, you sing along in the pubs, there's a piano in the corner, it's an ongoing process. You can sing songs from 200 years ago and everyone will know it, just like you can sing something brand-new, everyone will know it, because it fits into a thing. And basically, Sex Pistols songs lend themselves absolutely to"—and by now he was positively beaming—" 'Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the lamppost overnight?' "

By the way, anyone interested in writing a revolutionary rock-world sequel to the Clash's "1977" for 2007 could use the line "No Eno, Donovan, or the Gang of Four!" And please do.

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  1. those were some of my least favorite beatles songs, and the sex pistols were all about attitude, any attempt to discern value from their music is time wasted.

  2. The Clash did also inform us in 1979 that phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.

  3. Looking at the list of Beatles-as-Music-Hall examples, one will notice that the majority were McCartney compositions, while the two ‘rock’ examples were Lennon songs.

    So wouldn’t it be more accurate to lay the Music Hall aspirations to the man who carried that style past the Beatles and still employs it today – Paul McCartney?

  4. Wanted to add – the musical experimentation on the White Album was largely Lennon’s work as well.

  5. Hell, The Kinks’ best albums (the albums from Face to Face to Arthur) were shamelessly laden with Music Hall influences.

  6. Maybe this is blindingly obvious to everyone else, but what’s MOR?

  7. Maybe this is blindingly obvious to everyone else, but what’s MOR?

    MOR = Middle of the Road, as in “Please put some MOR on beacuse I’m a moron.”

  8. MOR = Middle of the road.

    Harmless pop, not really rock & roll.
    It’s a radio format.

  9. Stranger and stephen are absolutely correct. I remember being impressed that Freund’s article could talk at length about Sgt. Pepper’s without mentioning minor songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “A Day in the Life”, and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

  10. Urkobold has a Rock & Troll entry today.

  11. Is this a surprise to anyone? My folks have been telling me this for years, that the Beatles were really a music-hall/vaudeville act. (in a good way)I think Stranger is correct, that’s all Paul.

  12. I don’t think you can draw as neat of distinctions between Lennon and McCartney as people like to. First, McCartney did rock and did do a lot of experimental stuff. Is there a harder rocking Beatles song than “Helter Skelter” or “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” or “I’m Down”? It was McCartney who put the base riff to “Come Together”. Lennon origially wrote it to sound like a Chuck Berry song with a tempo similiar to “Mabeline”. It was McCartney who slowed it down and gave it its signature base line. As far as experimentation goes, I would consider his use of orchastration and his running contest with Brian Wilson for best crafted pop record to be pretty experimental for the time.

    As far as Lennon goes, he did more than rock out and experiment. I would consider “Mean Mr. Mustard” to be as good of an example of the “Music Hall” as any. “Girl”, one of Lennon’s favorite songs would be another example.

  13. John,
    Right on. Lennon & Macca were easy to stereotype as the rocker and the balladeer, but that ain’t right at all. Much more complex than that, as is obvious to anybody who really listens.

    BTW, Sgt Pepper is one of the weakest Beatles LPs.

  14. John – Point taken.

    I guess there’s no way two men could have worked together the way those two did without the lines blurring considerably (and the name of their publishing company, MacLen, pretty much illustrates that).

  15. And while I’m killing most of my afternoon here monitoring this post, let me suggest that the instances of Lennon doing Music Hall or Macca rocking out may have been a residual effect of the friendly competition between the two – sort of each proving to the other that they could do both.

    That’s a competition that turned acrimonious after the Beatles split, when Lennon released ‘How Do You Sleep’ and McCartney recorded the obvious Lennon knockoff, ‘Let Me Roll It.’

  16. I agree about Sgt Pepper. I never got that much into it. I much prefer Rubber Soul or Abbey Road. Actually, I thin Let it Be gets a bad rap. It is if anything underrated. “I Me Mine” “Get Back” and “Two of Us” are three of my favorite Beatles songs.

    I guess what I like about them as much as anything is you can’t pigeon hole the Beatles very easily. People who focus on the experimental stuff, forget that the Beatles were by all accounts an incredible bar band and could do rockabilly as well as anyone. People who concentrait on how they could write pop songs, forget that they could when they wanted to do very heavy 60s rock songs as well as anyone. They really were incredibly versitile. Even people who hate the Beatles have one or two songs that they have to admit they like. That really says something.

  17. Don’t forget stranger, after the band broke, they no longer had Harrison to treat as a junior partner so they turned on each other. Harrison really did get the shaft in the band. There is a bootleg of the Beatles doing the Harrison song “All Things Must Pass” during the “Let It Be” sessions. It is a great song. Better than a lot of the stuff Lennon and McCartney were writing at the time and the band took to it really well. Even for a demo it sounds great. Lennon and McCartney wouldn’t do it. I guess it was too important to get that perfect “Dig a Pony” take to bother with it. Assholes.

  18. I never got into Let It Be until Macca put out the “naked” version. Now, I like that one a lot. I dig “Dig A Pony.” They could have left off “One After 909,” instead.

  19. those were some of my least favorite beatles songs

    Me too. I much prefer the earlier stuff on Rubber Soul and Revolver. Except for “Penny Lane”–love that song.

    So, “music hall”. Lydon’s description reminds me of the sort of poppy, very British stuff that fills Blur albums. I’ve heard that term a lot & wondered what it meant.

  20. Don’t forget stranger, after the band broke, they no longer had Harrison to treat as a junior partner so they turned on each other. Harrison really did get the shaft in the band.

    How true.

    There was a scene in the ‘Let It Be’ movie where McCartney started telling George how to play a guitar part. Harrison’s response, telling Paul to let him know exactly how to play the part so he’d get it right, was so dripping with sarcasm it surprised me. George was, after all, supposed to have been the Spiritual One.

    I’m enjoying this thread, in case you haven’t noticed.

  21. BTW, Sgt Pepper is one of the weakest Beatles LPs.

    I don’t think I could ever listen to it again after watching that godawful “Sergeant Pepper” movie.

  22. Stranger –

    “Yeah, okay, well, I don’t mind. I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.”

  23. Rhywun,

    “Henry the Eighth” is an old music hall number.
    Madness also exemplifies an updated version of the music hall style.

  24. I rarely listen to Sgt. Pepper. Or Revolver for that matter. My favorite stuff is on “The White Album” or their first few records (With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, etc).

  25. That’s rich – The Clash declaring there will be no more Elvis. The London Calling album cover is a direct rip-off of an Elvis one. They knew who was the King.

  26. Rock Bands May Come and Rock Bands May Go, But Music Hall is Gonna Go On Forever…

    The Nice came together in the void, and they’ll be here when the others are in pantomime in Wolverhampton.

  27. There was one award show — don’t remember which one — when Paul was introduced. His first comment was “I used to be a member of a little beat group called the Beatles /pause/ perhaps you’ve heard of them”

    The beatles were never a “rock” band the way the stones were. But that doesn’t diminish the work they did.

    They thrilled me when I was seven and I saw them on Ed Sullivan. The thrill me today when I go back and listen to the albums. For many people, that is a crime for which they should be punished.

  28. If it starts with “Taxman” and ends with “Tomorrow Never Knows” then it must be a libertarian album.

  29. hi#,
    Every see Patty Duke lay that down?

  30. The Clash did also inform us in 1979 that phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.

    I’m pretty sure that they were talking about the Big Star covering power pop bands that were attempting to start something around that time.

    It’s one of those underground jokes that get lost in time.

  31. Dylan – That’s it, exactly.

    I couldn’t believe the animosity those words carried. Harrison nearly spat them out.

  32. Come on now, I the Beatles were clearly a great band, but they most certainly did not “do rockabilly as well as anyone.” There’s a reason Elvis is the king, and there certainly isn’t much doubt that Elvis is more highly regarded among rockabilly folk. These people are pretty much the core of my band’s fanbase (shameless plug), and they spend very little, if any, time talking about the Beatles.

  33. I thought Strummer was referring to the musical.
    I thought I read somewhere that the London production had just closed when they wrote that.

  34. John Rhoads,

    Cool band. If you tour, FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, IL (right outside Chicago) hosts a lot of similar acts. I’ve seen Wanda Jackson there a few times, for example. Great place!

  35. John Rhoads – you’re right, they didn’t do rockabilly very well. They did pretty respectful covers of Buck Owens and Carl Perkins.

    Not exactly the same thing, though.

  36. highnumber: thanks for the tip…we’re working on an album right now, and we’ll probably start traveling more seriously once it’s finished. It will most likely be a while before we can afford a trip to IL though. Of course, my brother lives in Chicago, giving me added motivation to come, so you never know. Glad you like the music.

  37. I don’t even think the Beatles’ rockabilly was bad per-se, just not anything to write home about. Their cover of “act naturally” is quite enjoyable, and I’m pleased with any band that bring more attention to a great artist like Buck Owens. I think the Beatles are great; Beatles fans just have a tendency to overstate how much sometimes. 🙂

  38. My favorite youtube Beatles clip; Rooftop Concert, part 1:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ea6ZcfJspcI

  39. John Rhoads, any chance you’ll be playing here? Seriously, your band looks great and I hope y’all will make it over here some time. (Hint: Please try for some time other than SWSX. It’s now gotten so big we actual residents go out of town during that week.)

    As to the Beatles, yeah, “Act Naturally” is fun but otherwise they weren’t really that good with the country stuff. I say that as a massive Beatlemaniac. I prefer the more musical hall stuff to the harder rock. My favorite songs of theirs is “I Will” from The White Album (I love how they actually sing the instrument lines), “Penny Lane,” “In My Life,” and, well, pretty much all of the ballads. My older son’s favorite CD for a couple of years was “Revolver,” especially “Yellow Submarine.” Which he insisted on playing the point of violating the Geneva Convention. Still, it’s amazing to me that performances from the middle of the last century still captivate.

  40. Sgt. Pepper was not the first major rock album to draw upon antique musical forms; the Beach Boys beat them to it by a year (as Paul McCartney himself has admitted). Pet Sounds borrowed much from folk, jazz and most notably Brian Wilson’s idol, Aaron Copeland.

  41. Well, Brian, it’s been said that you can take the Limey out of the music hall…

  42. Hey Karen,

    Since our band is sort of named after The Broken Spoke in a roundabout way (a song that we wrote before we named the band referenced The Broken Spoke), we’d definitely like to play there sometime…hopefully in the next year or so. Glad you liked the music.

  43. My folks have been telling me this for years, that the Beatles were really a music-hall/vaudeville act.

    You could pretty much say all popular entertainment of the later 20th century was updated vaudeville. What would you call the Rolling Stones, besides a minstrel show minus the blackface? Even today, most popular entertainment is an obvious derivative of vaudeville. It remains the our definitive form of popular entertainment. It gets a new paint job and window dressing every few years, but it still amounts to the same thing: an evening featuring a song, a dance and a few jokes. The names and faces change, but the game is the same.

  44. Karen,
    We had some great singers/musicians from the Old Town School of Folk Music sing “I Will” at our wedding ceremony. Gorgeous.

  45. high#, that sounds like it would have been lovely.

    John Rhoads, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for your show. For the rest of the world, The Broken Spoke is actually a kid-friendly honkey-tonk.

    Also, on a general note, anyone who doesn’t think Lennon did ballads needs to listen to “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” which was inspired, I believe, by a Disney movie song his mother used to sing.

  46. Thanks for stating the obvious: that pop music has its origins in…pop music.

  47. “Also, on a general note, anyone who doesn’t think Lennon did ballads needs to listen to “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” which was inspired, I believe, by a Disney movie song his mother used to sing.”

    Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl” was inspired by “When You Wish Upon a Star”, another Disney song.

  48. “Sgt. Pepper was not the first major rock album to draw upon antique musical forms; the Beach Boys beat them to it by a year (as Paul McCartney himself has admitted). Pet Sounds borrowed much from folk, jazz and most notably Brian Wilson’s idol, Aaron Copeland.”

    When Bruce Johnston played “Pet Sounds” to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, one of them said, “We’d better get off our asses, this may very well be the greatest rock album ever made”. That inspired them to make “Sgt. Pepper”.

  49. Wrong. They got the idea after having a Dr. Pepper. Sheesh.

  50. I’ve always thought the Beach Boys were one of the most underrated popular rock band. (I say popular rock bands, because almost all the people responsible for creating the genre were largely ignored). I haven’t heard a rock band before or since come even close to them in terms of complex vocal harmonies. Brian Wilson is the J.S. Bach of the pop music world.

  51. “I haven’t heard a rock band before or since come even close to them in terms of complex vocal harmonies. Brian Wilson is the J.S. Bach of the pop music world.”

    Right on! If Brian Wilson had released “Smile” in 1967, he would have gotten more of the recognition he deserved back then.

  52. Re The Beach Boys: McCartney himself called ‘God Only Knows’ the most perfect pop ballad ever written.

  53. “Re The Beach Boys: McCartney himself called ‘God Only Knows’ the most perfect pop ballad ever written.”

    After listening to “Pet Sounds” Paul and John hurried back to the studio where they were working on the Revolver album and finished up “Here, There, and Everywhere” while “Pet Sounds” was still fresh on their minds. This is not to take anything away from Paul and John or George. They were all talented writers. Brian Wilson, until recently has not gotten the credit he deserves.

  54. Well, I first heard the Beatles in Australia in early 1963. All my friends and I could talk about for a few days was this “Pommie” group with the strange haircuts (which we had not yet seen, but were widely discussed on the radio).

    Later that year I went with my father to Canada where he was taking a new position. And all the while the “Fab Four” rose in stature coming first (with radio air time and record sales) to Canada and then the US.

    In the spring of 1964 my Mother joined us after taking care of outstanding business in Oz and one of the first things this forty-one year old woman (ie: old lady who up to this point thought that all “our” music was crude*, raucous* and uncouth*) does is start talking about this wonderful new singing group The Beatles.

    Needless to say that completely changed my outlook on The Beatles.

    *Which, of course, was exactly why “we” liked it.

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