A survey of music lovers who possess even so much as a passing interest in the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly reveal “Come Together” to be one of the most universally beloved bullets in their melodic clip. From its swampy bass, its percussive “Shoot me” refrain to its absurdist and almost comically weird lyrics, the song righteously opens the gates to the magnificent Abbey Road album, tantalizing and gratifying most every pair of ears it meets.
It’s almost shocking to imagine the pretzel of nefarious backlash it provoked. “Come Together” may have begun its life as John Lennon’s attempt to pen a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s quest to unseat Ronald Reagan as governor of California, but it wound up inadvertently connecting Lennon with one of the most insidious corners of the music industry.
If only it were as simple as Lennon scribbling a new idea then slapping it onto vinyl with his buddies through the immaculate channel of producer George Martin. For the origin story of the madness that would follow, we need to travel back to 1956, back to when songs about cars were a veritable genre unto themselves. To a little single by rock ‘n roll’s illustrious grandpa, Chuck Berry.
In 1956, Chuck released a song called “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon’s song boasts a similar vocal melody and a set of lyrics (“Here come old flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly” to “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”). The similarity ends there – Berry’s song is about driving quickly whereas Lennon’s is about something called ‘toe-jam football’ and some guy with feet below his knees. But it was enough to snag the ear of music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s song and promptly launched an infringement lawsuit against Lennon. Read more…
The music that roared through the stucco and plaster of Hitsville U.S.A. to become the Motown sound that defined soul music in the 1960’s was crafted by some of the most formidable talent the music world has ever cradled. Unfortunately, while stars like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves are free to bask in the wondrous afterglow of their landmark careers, some of Motown’s elite suffered a premature closing curtain.
Mary Wells, the one-time Queen of Motown who helped to launch the label into the mainstream suffered from an unfairly tragic end, while the unappreciated fuel that fed the funk-tank, James Jamerson, is anything but a household name today. Both deserve to have their story told, if not within the fiery glow of a major studio bio-pic at least with the delicate and reverent touch of a kilograph written by an eternal fan.
By the time I was born, each of these individuals had already ridden the crest of their relative stardom. That means nothing to me – I grew up in an era when people paid actual money to own “We Built This City” on vinyl. The music industry, which has always been a pit of snakes and scammers, had become a wretched den of Milli-Vanillified lies. That’s why the music that rocked my youth was mostly culled from an era I’d never seen. And it’s fair to say that no one rocked my innards quite as much as James Jamerson.
James moved from Edisto Island, South Carolina to Detroit with his mother when he was a teenager, and he learned to play stand-up bass in high school. On nights and weekends he began playing in local jazz and blues clubs, which led to a steady gig at Barry Gordy Jr.’s studio in 1959. I don’t feel it is any measure of exaggeration when I say that James’ bass playing, which appeared on roughly 95% of Motown’s recordings between 1962 and 1968, was the most fundamental ingredient in the label’s extraordinary, genre-defining success. Read more…
As I’m often heard remarking to strangers in the check-out line at Safeway, music is best when it’s either controversial or being sung by the aural euphony of Michael McDonald. In those sepiatone days when rock music was still gathering its struttin’ legs beneath its warbly frame, artists found new and creative ways to bump their product toward the edge of edgy. And when it wasn’t enough to leave sensitive parental ears cringing in their wake, they’d go a step further.
The visual attack. Shake up that pelvis. Grow that hair. And just when the parents are starting to settle into your schtick, brew up an album cover that will send their socks a-quakin’.
The album cover is most certainly a distinctive facet of its contents’ artistic expression. Perhaps not as much so today, now that its predominant form has shrunk from 12-inch vinyl sleeves to 5-inch CD jackets to a tiny thumbprint embedded into an audio file. But when the Beatles looked up from their album covers at a young fan, rabid and anxious for the tuneage within, it meant something special.
Even when the Beatles were covered in blood, gore and severed doll heads.
For the Beatles’ ninth Capitol album, photographer Robert Whitaker thought it was a good idea for a little conceptual art to spice up the band’s image. The piece was called A Somnambulant Adventure, and it had literally nothing to do with “Drive My Car”, “Day Tripper”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, or any other track on the album. After almost four years of mundane pretend-to-be-happy photo shoots, the band was happy to play along. Read more…
The secret to business success lies in making good decisions. I have no doubt that thousands of qualified individuals could offer monumentally wiser business advice than this, but in that most general, inarguable, obvious-even-to-a-schmuck-like-me way, it all comes down to decisions.
Some culture-shaping decisions were outright brilliant, like JVC and Microsoft spreading VHS and Windows around numerous manufacturers while Sony and Apple kept the Betamax and Macintosh systems to themselves, leading to one’s demise and the other’s miniscule 1990’s market share. Other business decisions, like my choice to devote at least two hours of each of my days over this thousand-day period to producing articles for free public consumption online – not so much.
That’s okay, I can live with it. So what if this project floats gratuitously among the ether, leaving no significant residue upon my personal net worth? It’s art. Art that is smattered with Cliff-Claven-esque trivia and poop jokes, so the best kind of art. And besides, as far removed from savvy fiscal acumen as I may be, at least I can pride myself on not having made the bonehead decisions these folks did.
Meet Dick. Dick was a successful producer in the 1950’s. By 1962 he was a proud A&R man (that’s ‘Artists & Repertoire’ – the guy who screens potential acts) at Decca Records in England. On a blustery New Year’s Day, Dick sat in the studio as a hopeful young quartet from Liverpool tried to dazzle him with their sound, one which had already billowed many a swoon into excitable young women (and even men) in the northern towns. Those men were John, Paul, George and Pete Best, and they proceeded to make Dick famous.
Famous for flubbery, that is. Dick Rowe told the group’s manager Brian Epstein that guitar groups were “on the way out”, and he turned them down cold. It would take a few months for the Beatles to become the biggest group in the country and years before Dick was able to scrape away all the solidified egg from his face. Read more…
It was a cold November night in 1966 – or maybe it was January of ‘67, depending on whose account you choose to believe – when a car crash fatality forever changed the course of popular music.
Or did it?
Okay, there’s no real mystery here. The reality is that there was no car crash, or if there was, the bass player and co-creative force of the greatest band in the history of recorded music was most certainly not decapitated. But there was a time when legitimate news outlets needed to point this out to an apprehensive world. And not only was there no fatal wreck, but that band didn’t surgically alter a look-alike to carry on in the artist’s place, fooling throngs of adulating fans for the ensuing 40+ years.
It was a hoax. Perhaps the most entertaining hoax our media has seen outside of a work of fiction, because the so-called evidence supporting it as truth had been seeping into the public’s eyes and ears all this time and no one had noticed. Photos and music that had not only become fully integrated with popular culture, but had come to define the very zeitgeist of the era. Album covers that were iconic upon arrival, songs that hundreds of millions could sing by heart.
And even once the dust of speculation had been billowed away by a cool gust of truth, that evidence remains as a perpetual quirk.
On September 17, 1969, the above article appeared in the student newspaper at Drake University in Iowa. It speculates that Paul McCartney was indeed dead, that the Beatles had cleverly sprinkled clues throughout their music and album packaging, and states that these concerns were spreading rampantly around the campus gossip vine. Three and a half weeks later, Detroit radio DJ Russ Gibb was discussing the rumor over an hour’s worth of airtime, his listeners calling in to pick apart the clues. This continued at various American stations for another couple of weeks before Derek Taylor, press officer for the Beatles and their Apple Records label, issued a statement that insisted that the Paul McCartney in the band today was the same guy who’d been in the band three years earlier. Read more…
When a journalist was dispatched in 1897 to confirm the rumors that Mark Twain was near death, the author – whose cousin was actually the sick one – famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Leave it to the granddad of American humor to reduce bogus speculation and rampant rumor-chasing to a delightfully quotable line of schtick.
There are several reasons why a premature obituary might slither through the fact-checking cracks and splatter into the world. Sometimes the person in question has faked their death. Maybe someone with a similar name passed away and somewhere along the gossip lines the ball was dropped. Mostly it’s merely a question of someone screwing up.
This is why any Facebook post, any tweet or any text regarding a famous person’s demise must be double or even triple-checked before being forwarded to all one’s friends and family. No one wants to be the egg-faced schmuck who peddles bogus info. We all have enough of those on our feeds.
Yeah, I’m talking to you, Uncle Kirby. I looked it up – the male actors from Full House did not die together in a weird orgy in John Stamos’s sauna last weekend. And while we’re at it, quit inviting me to play friggin’ Candy Crush.
Marcus Garvey was a black nationalist, a Jamaican leader, and a Rastafarian prophet. His ideas influenced millions, and his words tickled the depths of his followers’ souls. Then, shortly after he’d suffered a stroke in 1940, the Chicago Defender proclaimed that the man had died “broke, alone and unpopular.” A powerful prickle of anxiety jabbed at Mr. Garvey from his insides when he read this, prompting a second stroke to swoop in and finish the job. Five months later, Garvey was dead. This may be the best example of the importance of double-checking vital signs I’ve ever heard. Read more…