Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Productive sessions?

Forty years ago this week, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr ambled into the drafty, cavernous Twickenham film studios in London, England. After a two-month hiatus following the completion of the sessions for the White Album, the group was re-assembling to commence work on a project destined to polarize fans into two distinctly passionate groups--the enthralled and the totally bored. The Beatles were uncharacteristically working a morning-to-evening shift, eschewing the middle of the night session schedule which had dominated their operating procedure since they had begun work on Sgt. Pepper more than two years before. The intended plan was for the sessions to be filmed as a documentary, outlining the gradual evolution of their new compositions from embryonic acorns to the full-blown mighty oaks they had proven themselves capable of in their past recording efforts.
As the rehearsals progressed, the group planned to work toward the final culmination: a live television concert, their first public performance since they had played Candlestick Park in San Francisco at the end of August, 1966. They had entered the last year of the '60's with a renewed optimism and fresh enthusiasm to do something new, but as the month of January rolled by (along with miles of film through the motion picture cameras), the wide eyes were beginning to squint beneath furrowed brows as the tensions within the group started to work against their hopeful intent. The television concert began to wane, and now the discussions were turning toward the prospect of an exotic locale. McCartney expressed the theory that the QE2 ocean liner would be a perfect venue, an idea which Harrison summarily dismissed as insane. Lennon was frustrated that the newness of the project had somehow morphed into a redressing of the old Beatles routine--locked in a studio again--and ruminated about the concept of working somewhere out of the norm - Los Angeles and France were suggested -- just for the sake of fresh surroundings. Starr was a generally complacent participant in the proceedings, active but not pro-active, but was adamant about not traveling for the sake of the project.

Time and tempers quickly grew short. By late January, George Harrison had left the group after a heated exchange with Paul McCartney. He quickly returned to the fold, but an undercurrent of tension continued to run through the remainder of the sessions. As the month drew to a close, so did any long-range plans of live performance. Exhausted and disheartened, the group rounded out the project with a final, exciting flourish. McCartney had suggested that, in lieu of the nebulous concert, the band should perform in an unusual venue, with the specific purpose of being forcibly ejected, ushered out by the police as the cameras rolled, a suitable non sequitur to close out a frustrating chapter of the Beatles' most recent endeavors. With an unexpected show of group unity, the other three agreed, and the Beatles performed for the last time ever in public on a freezing Thursday afternoon on the rooftop of Apple studios, with the surrounding business district drawn into the streets as the strains of Don't Let Me Down drifted through the frigid London air. As secretaries and bemused passersby strained for a look, the group watched the arrival of bobbies, exactly as McCartney had theorized, and managed one final performance of Get Back despite Harrison's guitar being disconnected from its amp by one of the officers. The song ended, Lennon offered his classic comment about hoping they had passed the audition, and the Beatles stepped away from the fans for the very last time. But, during the spring and summer of '69, they somehow patched the cracks, at least temporarily, managing to overcome their personal differences to write and record what was possibly their masterpiece work, Abbey Road, arguably their greatest showcase as composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists. After its release in the fall of '69, the group reluctantly turned its attention back to the unfinished session tapes from January. Against Paul McCartney's wishes, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr inducted the troubling, aptly-named producer, Phil Spector, to breathe his own odd resuscitation into the work.

The project had traveled a long and winding road from its original inception. The working title of the sessions had been Get Back, but by the time the album and accompanying film finally saw the light of day more than a year later, it had shifted to Let It Be, a fitting commentary on where the group found itself in April of 1970. Three number one singles were culled from the sessions, and the album reached the top chart position as well as winning the 1970 Grammy for best soundtrack album. It was a strangely shallow success, as the group had disintegrated by the time these events unfolded. But, as the decades passed, a stubborn appeal lingered from those troubled times, and even the surviving Beatles weren't immune to it. McCartney and Starr reinvented it once again in 2003 with a remixing of the session tapes (minus the Spector tinkerings) in pristine digital form under the humorous title Let It Be...Naked. A second disc included with the LIBN album was a 20-minute composite of some of the most memorable snippets of music and dialog from Twickenham, including just-this-side-of-arguments. This is a fitting distillation for the casual listener, all most would ever care to hear from the unreleased aspect of the sessions. But then there are those of us who find it all endlessly fascinating (I really don't know why), and I am counted among their number. In the late '80's, on vinyl nonetheless, someone actually released a 100-disc bootleg set of the sessions, with enough crushing minutiae to overwhelm even the most ardent listener.

Sitting here today, four decades after it all went down in London, I still find something strangely compelling about that recorded work. Maybe it was the apparent intimacy it gave, the privileged feeling of being in the inner circle. But the hopeless romantic in me can't help but feel that the great attraction is that there was masterful expression in the midst of dire apathy and frustration. There were endless, tedious jams, and more run-throughs of Two of Us than you could count on an abacus, but then there were the breathtaking moments--the unadulterated, pure emotion of The Long & Winding Road, the exuberance of For You, Blue, t
he soulful groove of Don't Let Me Down. And, in the end, I can't help but feel that some wonderful and lasting musical importance was etched in that long-vanished January when I was three.

Fifteen years after the Beatles came down off the roof at Apple, another band with English leanings convened on another bitingly cold afternoon at the end of January to record a Lennon-McCartney composition. The band was Scotland Yard, and I was one of the three members in attendance. There had been four of us - me, Andy, Snook (we jauntily always called him by his last name), and my lifelong best friend, Mike. Now Andy had headed off to college in the even colder environs of upstate New York. We three remaining members were, just like The Beatles 15 years before us, trying to gasp out a last musical moment together before facing the mundane task of getting on with our lives. We were 18, attending the local community college, and each would be heading off on a different path in the years ahead. We had been good friends and bandmates, but our musical confederacy was tenuous at best. We were completely out of touch with contemporary music trends and didn't care. Synchronicity by The Police was the most current influential sound, and Van Halen was about to rewrite the book on guitar-based rock with the release of 1984. But we were still singing Homeward Bound, obscure Peter, Paul & Mary stuff like A-Soalin', and of course our beloved Beatles. Our life as a band had been little more than a pleasant diversion in our senior year as we commiserated with each other about our rejections by the girls we pined for. There had been a smattering of personal appearances, including being the guest band at the Smithsburg High School Senior Tea, itself a wonderfully archaic social event more in step with our parents' high school days than with May of 1983. And, perhaps, our greatest moment had been when a recording we had made of an a cappella, four-part harmony rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, was played over the PA system at the start of a Hagerstown Suns baseball game.

But, on that cold Friday, it was nearly all behind us. Mike, Snook, and I all had open class schedules on Friday afternoons, so we left school that day and headed to Mike's parents' house in the country, dragging our ramshackle array of second-hand guitars and Radio Shack castoffs into Mike's room to create our own pale copy of Abbey Road Studios. We ate hot dogs and then got to the business at hand, recording our rendition of Dear Prudence, Mike on the battered acoustic we struggled to keep in tune, me on the white Mayfair electric I picked up in a pawn shop (it was intended to look like McCartney's Hofner bass), and Snook on the old Hagstrom bass I had loaned him when we formed the band. We plopped a cassette in my little deck, positioned the couple of cheap mikes I had, and ran through the song. Something flowed that day, something incredible that may have been uniquely reserved for that moment in our lives. We played the cassette back, ignoring the tape hiss and boxiness of the sound, and heard ourselves as if we were someone else. It was breathtaking. I say that with humility, as well as the realization that, if I heard it now, I'd probably cringe and lambaste myself for ever thinking it was good. But I believe it was. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a very accurate cover--the Travis picking and dropped-D tuning that are so integral to the song's structure seemed very elusive to me a quarter of a century ago. But the performance was tight, the harmonies crisp........Mike moved us steadily along, Snook adding a decorative bass riff, me the repetitive progression. It was amazing.

That was twenty-five years ago. To the best of my knowledge, we never played together again. Snook and I tinkered around until about 1986, but never did much. The last time I ever saw him was in '87, when he spent a night at my place, but I don't think we even picked up the guitars. The year before, he had given the Hagstrom back to me, and the neck reeked of his after-shave lotion for about five years. I finally ended up giving the guitar to a missionary visiting my church, and it wound up somewhere in Nigeria, doing good work a universe away from that Friday in January of 1984. We had a wonderful time together on that brief visit in '87, I waved goodbye as he drove off, and now we haven't talked to each other in over twenty years. I rarely saw our missing member, Andy, again, but forged a tight friendship and collaboration with another Beatles fanatic named Andy, and we went on to write and record multiple albums together through the 90's. Mike and I wound up playing regularly together for 10-years in a worship group at the church we were both attending, and it always seemed like old times, like when we were 14 and sang Simon & Garfunkel in my room at night, and called ourselves the Streetlights because that was the only illumination spilling through the window. But Scotland Yard has all but vanished from my mind, and I only occasionally find myself thinking of the old band when I watch Sherlock Holmes and he is enlisting the aid of the police.

Now, I find myself in another January, 40 years since The Beatles played on the roof, and 25 years since Scotland Yard recorded Dear Prudence. Mike and I still talk about the recording, but nobody knows where the cassette ever got to. It's very late at night now, as I sit in my wife's office, and the day when we made beautiful sounds on a primitive cassette deck seems eons removed. In the corner of the room is a digital 8-track with about a quarter of an album I'm writing and recording already finished and stored on the hard drive. It's a collection of praise music, some I penned 15 years ago, others from this new and strange season of life. It's 2:00 wife is asleep in the room above me, the kids down the hall. Even the cats have sacked out. I have to head off to bed for a token five hours, then drag back into the office. At 43, I find myself wishing for the kind of January sessions the past has held. I was going great guns on my album in the fall, even overdubbing exotic things like my grandfather's banjo, acoustic guitars with Celtic tunings, and Irish tin whistles, but now the drudgery of life has draped itself over my creativity. The music is in there, just like it always was, but now it's all but obscured, and I have to find a way to pull it out. I can only hope that, like the Liverpool lads in '69 or the Yard in '84, this version 2009.1 of me can flow in the creativity like I once did. I want to pull something out of this January that is worth listening to next month, and two years from now, and when I'm 64. The longer I live, the more I feel like my life is a series of sessions. You strap on the guitar, turn on the recorder, ramble and meander and drift down streams of sound, and hope that something wonderful, and meaningful, and life-affirming comes pouring out. I want to remember the joy and purpose of the day we laid down that perfect take, and I want to infuse that back into the draggy, wearied life I find myself trudging through far too often. And some day, if I ever get the energy to rummage through the garage, I want to move heaven and earth to find that cassette.....

1 comment:

  1. Hi from Virginia!
    I've never responded to a blog (and rarely read them) but thought I'd tell you that I enjoyed your infinite ramblings. In one of my old photo albums I have a photo of Scotland Yard (I guess) playing a gig in the cafeteria of the high school. I don't know what occasion that was but I think you guys are wearing ties and maybe vests....Your story made me think of it.....OK, just found it and yes, it must be S.Y. because there is the Union Jack behind you. Looks like it's before your Fab Four split up. Spring or Summer 1983.
    Very cute. Happy New Year.