Tag Archives: popular music

‘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&]

Thoughts on Michael Jackson

michael_jackson

It’s a little off my usual subject, but I did want to weigh in with a couple observations on the death of Michael Jackson.

I was never a big fan of Jackson’s, though his talent was unmistakable. I remember being a young kid and marveling at the power of the young voice that sang I Want You Back, which was a giant hit in 1970. That’s still one of the performances I like best of his: The way he first kicks in with Oh, baby, give me one more chance is a moment of pure pop bliss.

But his death has caused me to think of a couple things, and the first one is something that the New York Times touched on today (which is why I regret not finding the time to write something earlier), and that is the question of his fame. Gore Vidal said a few years back that “real fame is no longer possible for any of us,” or something similar to that, and when I first read it I didn’t understand what he meant.

Yet he was right, I think, though perhaps he called it a little early. Because Michael Jackson was truly famous in a way that is most unlikely to be duplicated, though some people today come close: Barack Obama, Bono, Bill Clinton, perhaps a couple others. But Jackson had Elvis-style fame in that his name alone conjured up an instant image of dance and song that people all over the world responded to.

Which brings me to another aspect of his art, and that was its very conservative nature. Yes, he did break the last of the artificial music color barriers that had been raised by industry and the critical apparatus (though not the fans), but he still was essentially an old-fashioned song-and-dance man, drawing on the heritage of a century of American popular stage art.

That’s one of the reasons his return would have been so cannily accomplished, had he lived. His personal life had cast him in a ruinous guise, but more importantly, he was out of touch with the musical times, which were dominated by hip-hop. But that genre has begun over the past couple of years to fade in favor (probably at least partly through the offices of American Idol) of song rather than the spoken word.

No doubt he would have returned to the studio, seeing that his kind of entertainment had returned to favor, and with the right kind of material he probably would have been able to engineer what would have looked like a brilliant comeback from out of nowhere, but which in reality would have been a most shrewed comeback based on knowing instinctively what a mass audience was in the mood for.

As for his troubled personal life, his death was very much like Elvis Presley’s in that he died during a period of exile with an in-house physician attending to what apparently was a serious involvement with pain medication. Doubtless the aggressive physicality of his dance work is much harder on a 50-year-old body than it is on one nearly 30 years younger, and surely he was in a good deal of physical pain while working hard on his stage show.

One other thing, too, worth mentioning is that Jackson was born in 1958, and as a gay man he would have had much more difficulty expressing that in the 1970s than he would had he been born 20 years later and come to a knowledge of his sexual identity in the early 1990s, when the taboos against homosexuality had begun to crumble. Surely today, as a man of 30, he would be far less worried about maintaining a facade of heterosexuality when the majority of his mass audience couldn’t care less.

Whether that means he would have been more likely to have relationships with fully grown men is something impossible to answer, but in general I think a wider acceptance of same-sex orientation in the culture at large almost certainly would have made his emotional life easier.

Because that’s what happens to entertainers like Jackson and others who are show biz people from the get-go; it’s always about topping yourself and making your audience love you all the more, but it’s also about being almost a prisoner of that same audience. It’s their adulation that provides the air you breathe, and without it, you’re lost.

And Michael Jackson was down, but he was not out. He knew he still had a huge following that would cling to every falsetto hiccup, every moonwalk, every bit of glam and glitter. Had he lived, he would have showed the world just what it really means to be a truly big entertainer, the kind you see maybe once in a generation, and the absence of which makes everyday life a quieter, and sadder, place.