Monday, March 24, 2014

Psychobabble Babbles with Robert Rodriguez About The Beatles' 'Solo Years'!

As the author of Fab Four FAQ, Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Solo Years, The Beatles: Fifty Fabulous Years, and Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, Robert Rodriguez has emerged as one of the foremost Beatles scholars of the twenty-first century. His obsession continues in his podcast with fellow Fab Four freak Richard Buskin (Days in the Life: The Lost Beatles Archives; Beatles 101: The Need-to-Know Guide; Beatle Crazy! Memories and Memorabilia) and his most recent book, Solo in the 70s: John, Paul, George, Ringo 1970-1980, which fills in the cracks of Fab Four FAQ 2.0 with a feast of information on Beatles bootlegs released in the ’70s, songs they covered as solo artists and solo songs covered by others, their promotional films, studio collaborators, legal entanglements, and business associates, as well as an immersive 165-page timeline that places their solo achievements into historical context. Solo in the 70s is the first title on Robert’s new imprint ParadingPress (you are a true Beatles fan if you suss why he chose that name). He is also the creator of Backbeat Books’ FAQ series, of which my own upcoming book The Who FAQ is a part. So thanks again, Robert, for helping me get that job and thanks for Psychobabbling with me here on Psychobabble!

Psychobabble: I have the attention span of a housefly, and about halfway through writing The Who FAQ I started getting a little antsy with writing about the same band every day. You, however, have really committed to being a Beatles scholar, writing five books on them to date and conducting the ongoing Something About The Beatles Podcast. Do you ever find yourself with a serious Beatles hangover?

Robert Rodriguez: Well, it does sometimes blow people's minds when I only half-facetiously say that The Beatles aren't even my favorite band. I'm only partly kidding about that: while there are other artists whose work I enjoy equally as much, there aren't many that I have been so driven to explore in such depth as these guys. But when you've written five books on the same subject – something I never set out to do, by the way – there's often a presumption that that's all you live and breathe, 24/7. Or that my house is completely tricked out with Beatles, as far as the eye can see. No and no.
 Guess Who's one of Robert's other favorite bands.

Now obviously, you cannot steep yourself in The Beatles' history as long and as deeply as I have and not come away feeling like you would toward members of your own family: you always love them but you don't always like them. I think that the capacity for keeping a critical distance helps my ability to do what I do, processing their work analytically and not purely emotionally. It keeps the writing honest, and the readers deserve no less. That said, as John Lennon once noted, you don't fall in love intellectually. So I am quite sure that there are any number of things that I am fond of within their body of work that may strike people as indefensible. I'll cop to that!

A cool question came up the other day at the end of a podcast taping, one we'll probably address on a future show: if you could only listen to either Beatles music, or solo Beatles music, on a desert island for the remainder of your days, which would it be? Without hesitation, I said solo, which drew an incredulous response. Why would I want to listen to songs I already know inside and out, forever? That would be like reading the same twelve books over and over again: no matter how good they are, sooner or later the mystery tends to dissipate, you know what I mean? The Beatles group catalog has been inescapable – it's everywhere, and I am one of those people that will just as likely turn the dial if a Beatle song comes on.

The solo body of work, though – that's a whole other thing. Notwithstanding the fact that there's so much more of it, even my favorite solo albums are still fresher to me personally than The Beatles product. And I haven't even explored every single one in depth yet, truth be told.

So to circle back to your original question: while I may not listen to their stuff all the time, the story and the history I always find compelling. Especially the post-sixties era, which is at once so intriguing and less familiar.

PB: I imagine that there’s more to sink your teeth into with the solo years since there’s more to criticize.

RR: Well, there's that. The whole aspect of the period being unrelentingly fascinating, as well as – to a certain degree - uncharted territory and therefore, a challenge. It's one that I think the free-standing chapters as a structure is very well suited to. I hold onto the hope that no one that reads the book can come away thinking that they have a handle on who my favorite ex-Beatle is: I tried to diss them all equally!

Seriously though, contrasted with covering The Beatles as a group, I think that there's a natural tendency to look for patterns and some sort of arc. We find that when studying The Beatles, a subject whose story is already so familiar. When I was researching the Revolver book, the only real preconception I had was that it was on an undeniably higher artistic level as an achievement than was the much-lauded Sgt. Pepper – especially as a group effort. It was therefore striking to me to step back and see that it not only represented their high-water mark, but it came precisely at their half life: three years after Please Please Me and three years before Abbey Road. It was the end of the four-headed monster and the marking of group dominance passing from John to Paul.

Studying this first post-Beatles decade, one looks for similar patterns. Now George had been on an upward trajectory at least as far back as 1968 in terms of developing as an individual artist, outside The Beatles paradigm. I do believe that once he achieved world validation as this talent who had been hiding in plain sight all these years, he no longer tried as hard. It was as if once the world gave him the recognition that John and Paul had denied him, on some level he felt he'd done it and thereafter, made music for his own satisfaction, mostly. The achievement that was All Things Must Pass completely overshadowed the 1970 debuts of all three of his ex-bandmates.

John had been asserting his independence from The Beatles with his outside excursions well before the official split. I don't mean the experimental stuff with Yoko, but the Plastic Ono Band stuff. “Instant Karma” is as solid a piece of work as any of the singles the group issued during their final few years. But I do think that on some level, John missed facing a direct competition from Paul the way he had when they were in the same band. They paid close attention to each other's work, especially during those early years, but at the same time, they failed to recognize that what made The Beatles The Beatles was that in-house challenge they had to try harder. Furthermore, their respective spouses were, as George Martin was quick to point out, no substitute for what they had in each other.

Assuming that as artists they had in mind the goal of continuous growth and not repeating themselves, I think that they really could have benefited by, at the very least, putting themselves in the company of someone on their artistic level. I really don't think that studio session players, Elephants Memory or the members of Wings really qualify. At least – during that brief shining moment known as the “lost weekend” – John was intuitively seeking out other successful artists to work with: Nilsson, Bowie, Elton, Mick Jagger. He should have done more of that: found people to challenge him. Look at who George worked with, in comparison: Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Gary Wright, the Dominoes, Leon Russell – all artists that had their own identities. It could not help but raise his game.

I don't know that Paul recognized what he lost by working without peers. If ever an artist cried out for the iron fist in a velvet glove, it was him – a man twice as prolific as he needed to be and who had a tough time distinguishing between genius and garbage. Furthermore, at times during the decade he seemed to deliberately cultivate a posture of embracing low culture: “Magneto and Titanium Man,” anyone? This from the guy that a decade before was listening to Stockhausen.

I think that he achieved the kinds of validation that are the easiest to recognize: tons of record sales and triumphant world tours. But I'm not convinced that it ever truly satisfied him, not when the critics were routinely taking him to task for not being the artist he'd once been while in his 20s. Clearly – and this is very apparent in the post-1980 years – his place in history, and especially within The Beatles' legacy – was something that concerned him. Constantly justifying yourself is never fun, and I think that it's obvious that he felt on the defensive far too often. 

PB: John never pulled any punches when running down Paul’s post-Beatles career. The only thing I’m aware of which he was ever complimentary was “Let Me Roll It”— not surprising since Paul wrote it as a sort of tribute to John. Am I missing anything? Did John ever have anything else nice to say about the solo/Wings years?

RR: John did famously praise Band on the Run as a whole, calling it a “great album” in Rolling Stone. But there's always this interesting pattern when you look at John's remarks on Paul's work: even when he praises, he almost always condemns in the next breath. Just after saying what he did about Band on the Run, he went on to call Wings “as much a conceptual group” as the Plastic Ono Band, given its revolving door line-up. I'm not sure that was a compliment!

He did express some admiration for Paul's following through on the “daft” plan he'd intended for The Beatles in their latter days: showing up unannounced at small venues to play. But this was followed by “He's back on his pedestal now.” And on and on and on. Another example: from Ram – the album that John found so much to object to, messaging-wise – he did praise “Uncle Albert,” especially “Admiral Halsey”’s “hands across the water” segment, before then noting that it “tripped off” afterward and that he didn't like that at all.

“Coming Up” - a great live performance by Wings of a rather inconsequential composition – is renowned as the song that grabbed John by the ears and served as a catalyst for his wanting to get back in the game, challenged by Paul's adept way with a single. But then he followed up with saying that hearing “Waterfalls” from the same album led him to think that Paul was sad. It's like he couldn't just say anything nice and leave it at that!

PB: Back to Ram, it’s funny how Lennon poked fun at fans who read too much into Beatles miscellany on “Glass Onion”, but he seems kind of guilty of that too considering his interpretations of some of the Ram material, and more bizarrely, the cover of All Things Must Pass as jabs against him. Should we just assume this is paranoia born of the bitter way the band ended or was he a closeted conspiracy theorist all along who maybe recognized a bit of himself in the “Paul is Dead” crowd?

RR: That's an astute observation that speaks to the tendency of those accusing to be guilty themselves of the very crimes they are calling out. I didn't particularly pay attention, but maybe Paul did sing, “Get back to where you once belonged” directly to the front row during that recent 50th anniversary special – did anyone notice? Certainly John had a history of paranoid pronouncements – both the 1970 Jann Wenner interview and the 1980 David Scheff one are rife with them.

That said, he wasn't always completely off the mark. But he of all people should have recognized that, given The Beatles own history of slipping lyrics with obscure insider references and double meanings into their work, it would've been unnatural for the practice to just stop.
Clearly, George was accusing his ex-band mates of being garden gnomes.

PB: It’s pretty well known that despite the cynicism he often expressed about The Beatles days, John really thought they’d get back together again eventually. However, I was surprised to read that George said he was itching to get the band back together in 1974, since he seemed so reluctant to revisit the past and had a pretty strained relationship with Paul. What do you think was the main obstacle to The Beatles reforming in the seventies?

RR: George ran so hot and cold on that. At the moment he spoke those words about The Beatles “kicking down some doors,” he was clearly up. We know that he genuinely enjoyed the “I'm The Greatest” session with Ringo and John back in 1973 and might've leaped at the chance for that to continue. But placing himself in a situation where Paul could revert to form and dominate him once again was abhorrent. Obviously, it never did happen: the Threetles sessions came closest, and even at that, one can see the tension between them during the “impromptu jam” segment in Anthology. But it isn't hard to imagine a scenario where, if John and Paul figured out a way to work together, that George and Ringo would climb on board, too.

What is interesting to note is how close those Lennon and McCartney came to doing something. We now know that tales of John announcing his intention of joining Paul in New Orleans during the Venus and Mars sessions in early 1975 are a matter of record and not merely urban legends. I think that by late 1974, John had come to recognize that he and Paul had at last reached a place of parity – John now had something he'd never had before: a #1 album with a #1 single, Walls and Bridges and “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” Not to get all pop psychology 101 or anything, but he may have gotten past his sense of underachieving to where he could work alongside Paul again and not feel like he was the one needing help – you know what I mean? They could get together as equals again.

If you look hard enough, there's a track on Venus and Mars that could have totally worked as a fitting collaboration. I leave it to you to figure out which one, but it's there. But the reconciliation closed the door on that. There are many people walking around with this delusion that Yoko Ono split The Beatles up – maybe it's more accurate to say that, once split, she helped keep them apart. During the final decade of his life, John and Paul were never closer than when the lost weekend was in full swing. Once he was back at The Dakota, the drawbridge was effectively back up.

But move forward five years and the dynamic has changed. As I point out in the book, they were all at a particular crossroads where working together would've made sense: Wings was on life support – George had suffered a blow to his confidence when Somewhere in England got handed back to him – John was back in business and, for the first time, about to move Yoko out of his shadow and off his coattails with the pending “Walking On Thin Ice” release. Lastly, Ringo was again soliciting help for a new project, one that each had pledged their support to. Only gunplay ended what was already in motion.

PB: On a related note, I’m glad you got to Watching Rainbows in your chapter on Beatles bootlegs. It was the first bootleg I ever owned, so I have a soft spot for things like the band version of “All Things Must Pass”, which has some great ramshackle backing harmonies, the long “Mean Mr. Mustard” jam, and the title track. I was surprised when none of these pieces were included on Anthology 3—although I suspected that “Watching Rainbows” may have been left off because it sounds like John is singing “Shoot me” toward the end of the song. It makes me wonder if there’s enough worthwhile material for an Anthology 4. What are your thoughts on another volume?

RR: Those Twickenham recordings are one more elephant in the room of conspicuously unreleased recordings, aren't they? There was that worthless teaser disc issued with Let It Be...Naked, but they clearly have the goods – it'll now be up to their coming up with an organizing principle that makes sense for a release or series thereof. Of course, this will all be predicated on their mustering up the will to even face an issue of the conspicuously joyless Let It Be film. The Summer of '69 rough cut could be a terrific Criterion-style bonus disc, perhaps packaged with a disc of the Glyn Johns Get Back album.

As for an Anthology 4, the Apple business model has traditionally been ‘why put out something new when we can keep on re-selling fans the same old stuff?’ Releasing something new and unheard has always been the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, I do not hold my breath. That said, what could they put out? Top of the list would be “Carnival of Light” - the '67 psychedelic freak-out vetoed by George for Anthology 2 that remains in the vault, though I suppose not many would want to hear it more than once. Demos keep surfacing, such as the “World Without Love” one that Peter Asher found not long ago: a collection of them would make a nice thematic release.

I wish that Apple's thinking was more along the lines of a Rhino Handmade or Bright Midnight: a sort of boutique outlet that would get the rareness out in optimum quality with small runs to satisfy the hardcores. Not everything has to be swinging for the fences, and as should be clear by now, to satisfy the widest possible audience is to dissatisfy those who already have everything. The one thing we collectors don't have is the pristine first-generation quality vault material that Apple revealed they had with the year-end iTunes dump back in December. These people are forever leaving money on the table, which they don't need to do. There are any number of obvious omissions they could satisfy fans without breaking a sweat – the Christmas album, complete Hollywood Bowl sets, Shea, the promo films, the Esher demoes complete – that they simply concede to the bootleggers for no good reason. 

You didn't ask, but since we are discussing Solo in the 70s, what about a 'best of' collection collating the singles between 1970 and 1980 from all four of them in the same package? You could easily fill 80 minutes with their collective number ones, though I suppose John would get short shrift and it might then be too Macca heavy – maybe make it Top Tens; another with classic solo album tracks, and still another with non-album B-sides. By trading on the popularity of the better known stuff, the package could serve as a promotional tool for the solo back catalog by showcasing less familiar material, all in a pleasing setting that any Beatle fan would love.

You may say that there's nothing stopping anyone from putting together personally-programmed collections like this now, but I do think there is value in an official package, thoughtfully assembled and contextualized. Personally, I think it's inevitable but within my lifetime would be nice.

PB: You think Yoko would let something like that happen? She maintains pretty tight control over John’s back catalog, and I wonder if she’d not like the idea of his solo stuff sitting alongside Paul’s.

RR: That's a good point. Ultimately, if the demands of the fans and commerce were deemed too strong to resist, her objections might be worn down. But I can't imagine she'd have much on an issue with “Love” or “Jealous Guy” sitting alongside “Maybe I'm Amazed” or “My Love. ” If anything, she could see it as the opportunity for “Out the Blue" or “Bless You” to get a fair hearing alongside Paul’s overly familiar work. That'd be my hope, anyway.

PB: As far as less overly familiar work is concerned, which underappreciated solo album would you most like to see embraced by a wider audience?

RR: John really did himself a disservice by calling Walls and Bridges the work of a “semi-sick craftsman.” As I've said in my books, 2.0 in detail, I think it stands up as a fully realized thematic work, sort of a coming-of-age song cycle, with material as strong as that on the much-lauded Plastic Ono Band. John is in full command of his gift of making the personal universal – singing about the desperation of facing adulthood when living like a teenager doesn't work anymore. There's the sorrow of broken romance but also the joy of newfound love. Even the swipe at Allen Klein, “Steel and Glass,” serves as a statement of recognition that the world's a deceptive place: as much “I Found Out” as it is “How Do You Sleep?” But unlike the stark, un-easy listening approach he took on the earlier album, WAB is engaging, tuneful and accessible. No small thing when so much of what you're singing about is not exactly soothing.

Because he stopped preoccupying himself with pure commerciality – unlike Paul – George's body of work is worth a second look. I think that of the four of them, his work consistently possesses the quality of engaging on a higher level beyond pure ear candy, rewarding repeated listenings. While he always possessed a pop sensibility, I think he also saw in terms of pure sound overall, wedding lyrics to melody as a single piece while not necessarily preoccupying himself with hooks, choruses and the standard trappings of successful AM hits. Thirty-Three & 1/3rd should've been a bigger record than it was, but coming off the heels of back-to-back albums that tended to project joylessness more than anything, it was destined to be a hard sell.

I do think that Ram has been undergoing its renaissance, recognized now for its inherent qualities that, at the time, were overshadowed by the perception that Paul was a lightweight who had broken up The Beatles. Back to the Egg is an album that, while I personally have a hard time fully embracing it, still has a hardcore following. Wild Life does too, only smaller. 

PB: I’m actually a Back to the Egg booster myself, and “To You” might be my favorite of Paul’s post-Beatles songs. That album brings us right to the edge of the period you cover in both Fab Four FAQ 2.0 and Solo in the 70s. Any interest in moving into the ’80s next?

RR: Oh, man. While I believe an excellent book can be put together taking up where I left off and continuing on at least through Brainwashed, covering everything from the All Starr tours and Traveling Wilburys through the latter-day Beatle projects like BBC and Anthology, I'm just not the guy to do it, because that would mean revisiting Reel Music, Broad Street, Stop and Smell the Roses, Sun Country wine coolers, the Michael Jackson collaborations and too much else I'd rather not face twice.

There's plenty of good stuff too: the “Lost Lennon Tapes,” Flowers in the Dirt, Time Takes Time and the Carl Perkins Rockabilly session special come to mind, but to do it right, you can't just pick and choose – you have to cover all of it. I'll defer to someone who loves Jeff Lynne.

PB: Any other titles in the works from Parading Press?

RR: Oh yes. We're going to take a little time now to properly set up the marketing infrastructure of what we have, but there's more in the pipeline to come, not just by me, Richard Buskin (Beatles 101) or Al Sussman (Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped a Generation). Parading Press is an imprint covering pop culture topics of interest, not limited to rock music or Beatle-related subjects but also television, film and anything else worthy that we think a readership would support. Keep watching our space!

PB: Will do, Robert. Thanks again.
 More from Parading Press.
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