Tag Archives: Beatles

‘Abbey Road’ medley may be secret model for classical writers

AbbeyRoad

We have all been frequently reminded from all the Boomers working at the major media outlets that this month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Abbey Road, the final album on which the Beatles all actually worked together.

It suddenly occurred to me the other day as I heard yet another reminder, this time on BBC World News (available here on PBS at 5:30 p.m. each weeknight), that several of the young composers that I once knew when I was pursuing a musical career 30 years ago cited Abbey Road as a compositional inspiration, and they meant the medley that begins with You Never Give Me Your Money.

The Beatles are just a little bit before my time; my rock era, unfortunately, was the mid-to-late 1970s, but the Fab Four were still the focus of cult-like adoration during that time. I distinctly remember my sister and her friends repeatedly gathering at a neighbor’s house to immerse themselves in the music of the Liverpudlian quartet.

And Abbey Road was the most special of all those records because of that medley, all those catchy song fragments stitched together in high style, some of it symphonic, such as when George Martin’s trumpets reprise You Never Give Me Your Money in the middle of Carry That Weight. What made it stand out for me was the sheer abundance of all those ideas, any of which could have been stretched into full songs.

And that’s what I remember talking about with my fellow would-be composers at music school: how cleverly and beautifully things were stitched together. You couldn’t resist the tunes, even if the record as a whole was marred by that singular English dippiness (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Octopus’s Garden: yeesh!) that comes right out of the music-hall tradition. (We’ve got our own embarrassing traditions, most of them much more maudlin, over here.)

That’s when it occurred to me that a lot of composers in their 40s and 50s today who grew up pursuing classical or jazz careers while not ignoring pop and rock might have as their lodestar not The Rite of Spring so much as Abbey Road, side 2.

Consider: It’s eclectic and constructed with short attention spans in mind, which makes it ideal for today’s multitaskers, and I hear a lot of contemporary classical that has the same multiplicity of pop-style ideas that the Beatles record does. The medley, which Martin cobbled together from Beatles fragment, has the same restlessness and mood shifting that I hear in contemporary classical.

What Abbey Road has that a lot of ear-friendly, eclectic classical does not have is powerful melody, and that’s something that’s just about impossible to teach. If a classical composer should arise who can write good tunes, the world will be his or her oyster (not even Paul McCartney can do it, really).

But that’s wandering off point a little: I’ve got a hunch that at the back of every compositional brain of a certain generation is the medley that features She Came In Through the Bathroom Window. It makes a lot of intuitive sense to me; when we ask contemporary composers for their models, we do them a disservice if we only accept answers that have names such as Carl Nielsen in them.

The great composers of the past stuffed all kinds of pop in their pieces. We’re well aware of Central Europe’s craze for Turkish tunes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries thanks to Mozart and Beethoven, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this durable piece of British pop should be slumbering — like Debussy said of Massenet — in the heart of many of today’s composers.

I don’t know who will admit that, except me, but I know there are a lot more of you out there. Here’s the medley, in the meantime:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZz-2aKaYzA&hl=en&fs=1&]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5i6kGO9ZnqQ&hl=en&fs=1&]

An orchestra’s just a Beethoven tribute band

I’m not sure how long the phenomenon of elaborate tribute-band concerts has been going on, but right now in this area you can hear live renditions of seminal 1960s and 1970s albums such as Led Zeppelin IV, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road, and later this coming season a Pink Floyd tribute band is coming to town.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who go to these concerts were dismissive of classical music as dull, museum-culture stuff, but really, the two groups are essentially doing the same thing. Symphony orchestras and chamber music groups are essentially Beethoven tribute bands, or tribute bands for whatever other composer you want to name.

The beauty of this particular kind of music is that while the notes might have been written down many years ago, the interpretation of those notes changes with the times and the players, so that different meanings can be brought to the same text.

With a band of tribute musicians doing, say, The Wall, which I saw part of the other night on a PBS pledge broadcast, the same kind of reverence for the original concept is observed. Every little murmuring keyboard eighth note in the chorus of Comfortably Numb was just as it is on the record. The text might not be written down (though I’m sure someone publishes it), but fealty to the original is paramount.

The same thing occurs in classical, where players make sure to play the notes as written, and let the composer’s original ideas make their impact before interpretive license is brought to bear. But too much license will earn critical and audience censure. The interesting thing here is that the tribute bands re-creating a classic album beloved by their audience probably have far less leeway to change things.

With the tribute bands playing an album, part of the joy in attending is hearing that album just as you remember it from long ago, thundering through your brain underneath those expensive headphones in your bedroom back in high school. So absolute accuracy in regard to the notes and the tempos on those albums is critical, because plenty of people will let you know about it when you stray.

What could be interesting to see in the future is how long an album like Abbey Road, for instance, continues to have its hold on generations of listeners who don’t remember the Beatles when they were together, and might find that particular band’s distinctive Englishness somewhat hard to get into. If the melodies and words continue to say things to people who aren’t here yet, perhaps the need to re-create it in all its idiosyncratic peculiarities won’t be necessary, and the music can be reinterpreted in different ways for different times.

But if not, it would go the way of a lot of classical music that was once extremely popular but has now been completely forgotten. You almost never hear Meyerbeer in the opera house, though at one time in the first half of the 19th century his music was the toast of Europe, nor do you ever hear anything by Joachim Raff, the Swiss composer whose music immediately vanished from view after his death and hasn’t made much of a return.

Since there’s no way to truly re-create a contemporary Beethoven concert, since no recordings exist, what we have is the notes and the rhythms, the harmonies and the tempi, the colors and the passion. Those speak to us today still, even though their composer is long gone. But a good performance of the Fifth Piano Concerto by a fine pianist and a good orchestra is no less a tribute to its writer than it is for four rockers to get together and make sure they have the chords right for Polythene Pam.

Though they may seem miles apart, in truth, both kinds of performers are in the business of classic, if not strictly classical, music.

Here’s a link to a recent performance by the Beatles tribute band Fab Faux (pictured above) doing Oh, Darling!, which comes from the Abbey Road album.