Warning: more Beatles content.
Of course, they’re many people’s favorite band (including, obviously, mine), so it’s not a surprise, but there happen to be a number of Beatle-related events around my life at the moment.
A couple weeks ago I went to an LP listening event—the UK mono version of Revolver was played at the Grammy Museum, at something called the Record Theater. I went as a guest of one of the perpetrators. Beforehand, we had a series of emails that brought writing this column to mind.
His argument was that the Fabs’ earlier songs were the better ones — although Revolver was a truly great album. But Revolver is where my real interest in music starts. And the audience for an article like this is the perfect audience to make my argument to.
I hear songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Within You Without You” as fully within the tradition of the art songs of Schubert, Ives and so many others. I’m pretty sure Lennon and Harrison didn’t know that, and neither did I until much, much later. I first heard that tradition during later high school and college, and although I didn’t relate the form of one to form of the other at the time, I had become aware that there was a long history of songs comprising many kinds of structures and techniques – including pure tape construction.
Yes, you can play “And I Love Her” on similar instrumentation and in similar venues to “For No One”. It will take a wider palette to achieve “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Possibly even playing back a tape for an audience. And that’s where — well, maybe I’m just weird. But this is the “school” I grew up in, so plainly, I ain’t alone.
By the time the Beatles came along, there had already been decades of songs –– small, short works with vocals — breaking free from constraints of form, of venue, of methodology. Whether they knew it or not, they didn’t break new ground, but in ’66 they freed up their works from the standard issue pop constructions and constrictions.
And that’s where my ears grabbed onto it — although I didn’t know that, then, either. It made me a bit of an oddball with some of the folks I used to work with, because they defined songs much more narrowly for the most part. But it meant that I fit right in with, say, Jon Hassell. There aren’t lyrics per se in Hassell’s work, but there are voices. How they are used, and what they say, convey Jon’s meaning every bit as much as, “Bright are the stars that shine“, “The day breaks, your mind aches” or “This is not dying”.
Listen to a song like “The Postman” from David Baerwald’s Triage (1992). There are many voices: Baerwald’s, of course, but many others, “sampled in”, each contributing to the effect of the song. We could play it live — now. I think to pull it off 50 years ago would have required a stripped-down version, just me on 12-string and David singing (as in the studio), or us along with a very creative use of tape.
Of course, my friend’s argument isn’t, what constitutes a song? It’s, what constitutes a really good song? But now we’re into taste, and my taste turns out to be far too wide to feel that ranking one Beatles era-song over one from another era is a worthwhile effort. They are all songs, it’s all music — and some of it, to quote a character from a different art form, “burns very, very bright.”
Dan Schwartz is a parent, sort of a husband, and has been a musician of some years, having played on quite a few records – and even a few good ones. He’s recorded or played with Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan, Jon Hassell, Brian Eno, Bernie Leadon, Dave Navarro, Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow, Stan Ridgeway, and was a member of the Tuesday Night Music Club. In his spare time, he used to write for Harry and Sallie at the absolute sound and the Perfect Vision. Professionally, he keeps trying to leave music, but it keeps coming to get him.