HAPPY (belated) BIRTHDAY JOHN LENNON!

john david bailey

(Image by David Bailey)

Author’s Note: I began this post a little over three weeks ago, on John’s actual birthday, but due to schoolwork, interstate trips and mild writers’ block, have taken the better part of a month to finish it. Oh well – at least I published it before November!

Quite a number of musicians I admire had their birthday, on October 9th – John Entwistle; PJ Harvey; Sean Ono Lennon. But most importantly, it would have been the 75th birthday of my favourite Beatle, John Lennon. Wishing John a very, very happy birthday, wherever he may be! I’ve written about John a lot on my blog, and I shall add to what I have already said, today.

For as long as I’ve been a Beatles fan, John has been my favourite Beatle. I cannot remember why I chose him, at first. During this time, I could barely tell each band member apart in the few images I had seen of them – let alone know much about John. Perhaps it was something to do with him being referenced in a novel I was reading at the time, and the fact that I liked ‘Imagine’.

However, it was him I chose, and it quickly became clear – as my knowledge of John and The Beatles quickly expanded – that he would have become my favourite Beatle, regardless of who I had picked first. As I sifted through interviews, read numerous biographies and watched just as many documentaries, John was the Beatle who interested me the most. Of course, I liked the other Beatles, too – George, in particular, has always interested me as well – but it was John who stood out.

At that point in time (the first half of 2013), my knowledge of rock music was limited to its successor in the popularity race: the current incarnation of pop. Rockstars were no longer figureheads of pop culture, instead replaced by boybands and other assorted popstars. So as I gradually became more knowledgeable about both John and The Beatles, perhaps one of the reasons he fascinated me so was that he was so different to the celebrities I had become accustomed to. Instead of singing formulaic songs written by a team of songwriters, John (like Paul and George) mainly wrote his own – accompanied by interesting, meaningful lyrics, and some of the most unconventionally inventive and memorable chord progressions and melodies to ever come out of rock. (At this point in time, I was yet to learn that writing your own songs was commonplace in rock music, so I was especially surprised. However, at the time of ‘Love Me Do’ and Please Please Me, a band penning their own hits would have been somewhat rare, as well – only a handful of rock and pop artists before The Beatles wrote their own songs.) Through reading interview transcripts, and watching both documentaries and Beatles films, I saw that he was both funny and intelligent, qualities that seemingly lacked the personalities of the pop stars that my world was saturated with. His political awareness, too, captivated me – I don’t think I’d ever heard of a politically-aware celebrity before John.

The music, unsurprisingly, was what drew me in first. I had been having music lessons – on both violin and flute – for a number of years beforehand, but my technical knowledge was exclusively limited to the classical concepts I had been taught; and despite being raised on my parents’ wonderful music taste – ranging from Mick Taylor-era Stones and The Doors’ LA Woman, to Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield (both of whom I loved as a small child) – I never showed much interest in rock. The Beatles’ and John’s music was the first that caught my attention, and the first music that I was passionate about. To my classically-trained ears, it all sounded incredibly different to what I knew – even now, with considerably more knowledge of rock and jazz theory, it still sounds “different”. They used chord progressions and fingerings that deviate almost completely from the accepted standards. Sometimes, on John’s songs, there would barely be a melody at all – John’s tunes were traditionally more rhythmic than melodic – but they still managed to be incredibly catchy, and among the best-written songs of all time. Inside their catalogue, which I had only just begun to devour, I discovered everything from tender ballads to psychedelic freak-outs, perfect pop tunes to ear-splitting hard rock, beautiful folk songs to searing garage cuts – sometimes incorporating the values of a number of genres into one. Their musical accomplishments on their respective instruments, whilst not of the classical technicality I knew, were undeniably great – John’s guitar inspired me so much that I began to learn guitar a few months later, something which has now become one of my favourite things in the world. They incorporated elements from classical, jazz and, of course, traditional Indian music into their songs, a concept that I thought genius; and I found their love of experimentalism in the studio – i.e. backmasking, tape loops, etc. – endlessly fascinating. It is this that shows their incredible creativity and inventiveness as a band; it is this that makes them so great. And even then, when I barely knew what a chord was – let alone anything concerning the technicalities of rock music – it was this that I first liked about the music of John and The Beatles. It was this inventiveness that has ensured that they have stayed the kings of rock music for over 50 years, and likely will for many to come.

And through John and The Beatles, I began to receive my education in rock music. As I skimmed through Wikipedia pages for each Beatles song, I discovered the differences between ‘solos’ and ‘instrumentals’; why you don’t have to be technically good to play quality rock’n’roll – just passionate; that lyrics shouldn’t have to rhyme to be among the best ever written (see ‘Across The Universe’). I soon learnt what a chord actually was, and the rules for piecing them together – which, with enough knowledge, are prime for being broken. I learnt how melodies lock together with the rhythm guitar, and drums, and bass; in fact, I learnt about what functions basses and drums serve, full stop. I learnt that there is more than one kind of guitar, and what purpose each kind – rhythm & lead, acoustic & electric – carries out. I soon discovered that John played rhythm guitar incredibly well (see here), so I wanted to pick it up as well – I began learning guitar in the January of 2014, among the best things I ever did, again widening my understanding my understanding (and knowledge) of “contemporary” music. I haven’t prepared for a classical violin exam for over a year, and don’t plan on doing so again, instead replacing the traditional methods with blues fiddle. I began to widen my music tastes and listen to artists other than The Beatles and their solo careers: beginning with The Velvet Underground, The Violent Femmes and the early Stones, and ending up today with tastes in everything from punk to noise rock to psychedelia to blues to folk, and just about everything in between. I dropped my somewhat snobbish opinion that no good music was created after 1980, and discovered a number of favourite artists from each decade, from the ’50s to this year. I began writing songs; I became an aspiring musician; I became a rock music fanatic. And whilst John and The Beatles no longer remain my sole influence – rather a part of an influential melting pot, consisting of everyone from Kim Gordon to the Violent Femmes to David Bowie to Tame Impala – they will always be my first. Rock music has influenced and inspired most of my life for nearly three years, and I can’t even imagine how different it would be if I hadn’t (somewhat accidentally) been introduced to The Beatles, one morning in early 2013.

John’s lyrics, too, had a similar impact. I had never listened to a song’s lyrics seriously before – because, I thought, what was to be taken seriously about them? During a time when the famously eloquent tune ‘Blurred Lines’ (sarcasm intended) was topping the charts, and we had all been subjected to the equally-articulate ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Call Me Maybe’ for the previous year, quality lyrics weren’t exactly a requirement for pop hits. They never had been, I guess, but I liked lyrics – I wrote poetry as a hobby, and I wanted to hear words that actually made sense, and were written about something other than a bad dance that would go viral on YouTube. Again, as I ploughed my way through The Beatles’ back catalogue, I discovered another of John’s talents – his writing. He wrote about love, but it wasn’t his sole subject; he wrote about everything from his politics to friendship, loneliness to happiness. He wrote about his life and experiences, and this added an emotion and passion that couldn’t be there otherwise. He managed to use as few words as possible, and yet convey the point of his song more beautifully than more could have. The fact that same man wrote ‘Across The Universe’, its beautiful lyrics a strong factor of the song’s dreamy atmosphere; ‘Revolution’, somewhat cynical yet still wonderfully idealistic at its core; the melancholia of ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’; the joyousness of ‘All You Need Is Love’ – this amazed me.  His writing revealed an eloquence, an intelligence and the right balance between seriousness and humour that represented what I had been looking for, lyrically.

Of course, John’s writing skills also shine through on his books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works. (Despite having been a hardcore fan for nearly three years, I have not gotten around to reading Skywriting By Word Of Mouth – yet…) I read the two of them a little over a year afterwards, and adored them instantly. They are absolutely hilarious, consisting of clever wordplay and punnery, satirising everything from politics and religion to life in general – and, of course, accompanied by cute illustrations to match each short story or poem! They showcase John’s incredibly unique (and funny) sense of humour, and I don’t think I have read anything like them before – or since.

(By John himself!)

(By John himself!)

Another thing about John that I liked was his political activism. I grew up in a house where we frequently discussed political issues, so I had always been surrounded by a political awareness, and just as I was getting into The Beatles, I had simultaneously begun to develop beliefs of my own. As I listened to more of John’s music, and discovered more about him, I discovered more about his political efforts as well: ‘Imagine’; the catchy and effective ‘Give Peace A Chance’, recorded at his and Yoko’s famous Bed In; the ever-controversial ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’, which – when paired with the definition of the ‘n-word’ that John used whilst defending the song on the Dick Cavett Show – deserves more respect than it gets; the word-ninja criticism of politicians in ‘Gimme Some Truth’; John’s appearance at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, soon after which Sinclair was released; the fact that the Nixon government felt so threatened by John as to attempt to deport him. His outspokenness and passion for political issues appealed to me – not only the fact that, like a lot of young people during his time, he was not afraid to rebel against the mainstream beliefs of the system, but that he spoke up about what he believed in, too. Instead of seeing John’s politics as naive, as many have done in recent years, I see them as incredibly interesting and thought-provoking, regardless of whether I agree. If anything, they encouraged a number of people to think about their views, which is always a good thing. And it was John’s fearless outspokenness on issues he cared about that aided this – the fact that he and Yoko weren’t afraid to publicly disapprove of everything from war to the patriarchy on prime-time chat shows is inspiring. I sometimes wonder what he would think of the world today: where terrorism threats frighten our governments into fighting back with yet more war, where Australia hasn’t seen a prime minister hold a full term since before the invention of the iPhone, where numerous civil wars rage across the world, where 1 in 5 Australian women don’t have anywhere near enough superannuation due to the gender pay gap. It is sad that we don’t have more celebrities like him today, who are willing to put aside their carefully-cultivated images to be loud about issues that affect our world.

(popmatters.com)

(popmatters.com)

Today, a small but vocal number of people have taken it upon themselves to attempt to destroy John’s legacy by creating serious and inexcusable allegations about him, using various ill-informed online sources. This saddens me, and not only because many of these claims can easily be debunked with a little research. I disagree with referring to John (or anyone, for the record), as a saint – John certainly was not one. (He was an incredibly complex man, by many accounts, and to reduce him to a caricature of a perfect “angel” who served solely to protest for peace is erasing all the other interesting things about him.) Seeing one’s role-model as a divine figure and worshipping them blindly is not particularly healthy. But barely anyone is a saint. No-one is perfect, and this is something humanity knows well – so why should we expect the impossible from our heroes and leaders? Whilst some of John’s behaviour shouldn’t be condoned, people need to remember the myriad of good things he did, as well – these outweigh the (truthful) bad. He made beautiful music; he wrote great lyrics, and hilarious books; he was a wonderfully positive political influence, even if just for getting young people to think about the subject; he’s been described as intelligent, witty and a genuinely nice guy by many people who knew him; he was in the greatest band that ever was, and probably ever will be. Our world would be a lesser place if it wasn’t for his contributions.

And so, a very happy – and very, very belated! – birthday to my favourite Beatle, John Lennon. Thank you for inspiring me, and for your wonderful influence on our world. 🙂

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Six Ways The Beatles Changed The World

Do not ask me what they are doing with that plastic sheet, but they look cute, and that is all! :-)

Do not ask me what they are doing with that plastic sheet, but they look cute, and that is all! 🙂

Everyone knows that without John, Paul, George and Ringo, the world would be a very different place – but how many people really know how they changed the course of pop-culture? Today, I thought I’d do a post on how those four lads made the world into what it is today, following on from a speech I wrote for a Public Speaking unit in English earlier this year. So, take a plunge into the Beatles ‘revolution’ (cue crunchy overdriven guitars), and enjoy!

6. Guitar Feedback Usage

Take a listen to the above song (the music clip was filmed in late 1965, by the way) – in particular, that noise at the start, just before that infamous riff begins. That ‘noise’ at the start is called ‘feedback’, and is created by plucking a guitar too close to its amp. Feedback was used a lot in the late-1960s/1970s by artists such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead. But guess who the first artist(s) to use such a thing was (were)? The Beatles, of course! Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about the innovation:

“I Feel Fine” starts with a single, percussive (yet pure-sounding) feedback note produced by plucking the A string on Lennon’s guitar. This was the very first use of feedback preceding a song on a rock record. According to McCartney, “John had a semi-acoustic Gibson guitar. It had a pickup on it so it could be amplified . . . We were just about to walk away to listen to a take when John leaned his guitar against the amp. I can still see him doing it . . . it went, ‘Nnnnnnwahhhhh!” And we went, ‘What’s that? Voodoo!’ ‘No, it’s feedback.’ Wow, it’s a great sound!’ George Martin was there so we said, ‘Can we have that on the record?’ ‘Well, I suppose we could, we could edit it on the front.’ It was a found object, an accident caused by leaning the guitar against the amp.”[3] Although it sounded very much like an electric guitar, Lennon actually played the riff on an acoustic-electric guitar (a Gibson model J-160E),[8] employing the guitar’s onboard pickup.

Later, Lennon was very proud of this sonic experimentation. In one of his last interviews, he said, “I defy anybody to find a record… unless it is some old blues record from 1922… that uses feedback that way. So I claim it for the Beatles. Before Hendrix, before The Who, before anybody. The first feedback on record.” [11]

The other Beatles song to extensively use feedback was the six-minute (or eight, depending on the version) psychedelic work-of-art ‘It’s All Too Much’, which was penned by George. As most people will recall, it was the last song (excepting the reprise of ‘All Together Now’) used in the 1968 animated masterpiece Yellow Submarine, and appears over an equally-psychedelic animation sequence almost bursts off your screen! Feedback was also used in the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival Festival performance of Yoko’s ‘John, John (Let’s Hope For Peace)’. Hmm… I was watching the footage of TR&RF the other day (thank you to my godparents for recording it!), and I absolutely loved it – especially John’s bit – until Yoko started screaming her head off. Now, I like/respect Yoko as an artist (as physical art that you can see) and as someone who made John very, very happy, but her “music” (if you can call it that) is too avant-garde for me – and that’s coming from someone who’s a bit quirky, herself! I’ll put ‘It’s All Too Much’ below, but I’ll spare you Yoko…

 

5. Stadium Concerts

The Beatles playing the first-ever stadium gig in the history of the world - AKA Shea Stadium!

The Beatles playing the first-ever stadium gig in the history of the world – AKA Shea Stadium!

I’m sure that most people reading this have seen a music gig at a large stadium – here in Adelaide, the Stones were coming to open our new Adelaide Oval (our stadium), but Mick Jagger’s girlfriend tragically committed suicide, so they’re playing in October. But the first stadium concert is not credited to the Stones, but to their ‘rivals’ (not really…), The Fab Four! The Beatles – having performed in numerous halls/theatres/clubs for about seven years – played to a full house of 55,600 fans at Shea Stadium (a sporting stadium in the city that would later become John’s home, New York) on the 15th of August, 1965! Brian Epstein almost stopped this milestone from happening, as he was worried that the tickets wouldn’t sell out – but they did! The Shea Stadium crowd – apart from beginning a trend that would go on for decades to come – was the largest crowd The Beatles ever played to. But we all know it’s not the largest crowd they ever received – that’s reserved for my town, Adelaide! Oh, and how could I forget those gorgeous suits – they all look so darn handsome! Here’s a clip from that historic concert – hope you don’t mind screaming girls!

 

4. Heavy Metal

Yes, The Beatles were the first major band to write songs that would now be classed as ‘proto metal’ – all those crashing drums and bass and guitars! No doubt about that. There is, however, an argument between Beatles fans as to which Beatles song was the first heavy metal tune. Most people know about ‘Helter Skelter’ – the heaviest song around at the time of its recording – and its influence on bands like Black Sabbath and Motley Crue, but two other Beatles songs have also been credited with the invention of a genre. The first is ‘Ticket To Ride’ – the first song ever to involve stormy drums and heavy guitar/bass lines, important components in heavy metal. People such as Richie Unterberger, Ian MacDonald and John himself (plus me!) say the record was influential in the evolution of heavy metal, and because it was recorded three years before ‘Helter Skelter’ and four years before ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ (the other song up there), it is sometimes named the first heavy metal record. Now for ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ – this is arguably the heaviest song recorded by The Fab Four, and appears on Abbey Road. The music magazine Guitar World says that it may “have inadvertently started doom metal” – listen to the song, and you’ll see why. It’s heavier than ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Ticket To Ride’ put together, and that ending is very metal-ish. So, as you can see, that although people who favour Paul say argue that ‘Helter Skelter’ began metal, and Lennon Lovers argue back with ‘Ticket To Ride’, The Beatles invented a genre. And the rest is history.

One thing that really irritates me is when people call The Beatles a pop group, when – in actual fact – they rocked dead hard. Even their pop-iest song – ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ – has a rocky rhythm guitar/bass part, and early songs such as ‘It Won’t Be Long’ and pretty much the whole of Please Please Me rock real hard, too. And when people call them poppy, they seemingly forget about every song they recorded after 1964, and those songs I just mentioned. In my (and many others’) opinion, they were just as much a rock band as The Rolling Stones and other 1960s cited as ‘rock’. In fact, those songs above are three of the hardest-rocking songs recorded in that period, if not of all time…

 

3. The Three-Minute Pop-Song (Breach Of)

Ah, ‘Ticket To Ride’ strikes again! In 1965, it was the unspoken rules of music that a pop song must not go over three minutes long. But The Beatles being The Beatles, this didn’t matter (I salute you for not conforming, John, Paul, George and Ringo!). They recorded ‘Ticket To Ride’ in early 1965, which – apart from arguably being the first heavy metal song (see above) – went for a rebellious 3:10 minutes (gasp!)! This was the first pop song to go for an amount of time longer than three minutes, and thus was the basis for all sorts of late-1960s psychedelia!

 

2. “Long” Hair and “High-Heeled” shoes (for men, that is)

The Beatles sporting moptops - or long hair (if only the world could see them in 1969!)

The Beatles sporting moptops – or long hair (if only the world could see them in 1969!)

And an advertisement for Beatle boots from the '60s!

And an advertisement for Beatle boots from the ’60s!

Sure, in the early 1960s, the world’s definition of long hair (for men, anyway) was quite different, but The Beatles were really the first rock band to wear long hair! Their moptops were outrageously long for the 1960s, at first – but of course, they changed that! As everyone knows, their hair got longer and longer as time went by, and because of this, society’s perception of the appropriate length of men’s hair dissipated. This eventually amounted to John and George’s Jesus looks in 1969, and because those two’s earlier pioneering, nobody cared. And as for the Cuban heels… here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Beatle boots are tight-fitting, Cuban-heeled, ankle-length boots with a pointed toe which originated in 1963 when Brian Epstein discovered Chelsea boots while browsing in the London footwear company Anello & Davide, and consequently commissioned four pairs (with the addition of Cuban heels) for The Beatles to complement their new suit image upon their return from Hamburg, who wore them under drainpipe trousers.[11]

 

1. The Music Clip

Those two video clips above were made in 1967, but The Beatles first started making music clips (or ‘promos’, as they were then called) in late 1965, to substitute for live performances. This eventually amounted from black-and-white footage of the band miming to colour clips of them parading around the grounds of an English mansion (and still miming), the latter of which used for accompanying clips for their new single, ‘Paperback Writer’/’Rain’ in early 1966. These clips hit their peak in 1967 when the mad masterpieces used for promotion of ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Hello Goodbye’ were produced. Because of these (and the song-sequences in each Beatles film), the world now has the modern music clip. The rest, as we all know, is history.

 

So there we go – a list of just six of the hundreds of ways the four lads from Liverpool revolutionised the world. I’ll leave you with one final picture of The Fab Four, but good day sunshine for now! 🙂

:-) !

🙂 !