Inside the Biosphere

A photo from this time last year, taken inside Montreal’s amazing Biosphere. Designed by Buckminster Fuller and built in 1967 for the World’s Fair, it’s a geodesic dome, strong, light, and enclosing a huge amount of space. It’s a beautiful building – full of benign faith in the future.

Pet Sounds, a capella

It’s a beautiful sunny morning in London, so this seems like just the right thing to listen to: Pet Sounds, a capella. Despite the fact that it’s a YouTube link, sound quality is terrific. This is probably the first time I’ve really understood just how spine-tingling what music writers refer to as a singer’s ‘phrasing’ can be - check out God Only Knows. Particularly stunning is when the harmonies simply ends, and one of the group says in a very normal voice, ‘how was that?’

Apparently, the original source is a box set called The Pet Sounds Sessions.

Wikipedia’s entry on a capella singing is interesting, relating “a cappella music originally was, and still often is, used in religious music” and that the use of instruments was a matter of debate in the early Christian church.

The end of the 60s is now

Brian Eno, giving his prediction for 2009/the future in general, focusses not on a scientific, technological, political or economic breakthrough, but essentially, the end of optimism as being the default of the west. Unlike Bono’s blethering mass of words in the New York Times, it’s eloquently put, if briskly bleak:

“Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better. The world was rich compared to its human population; there were new lands to conquer, new thoughts to nurture, and new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of human history grew from the feeling that there was a better place, and the institutions of civilisation grew out of the feeling that checks on pure individual selfishness would produce a better world for everyone involved in the long term.

What if this feeling changes? What if it comes to feel like there isn’t a long term—or not one to look forward to? What if, instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise and hazard, we start to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water? Many of us grew up among the reverberations of the 1960′s. At that time there was a feeling that the world could be a better place, and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. But suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world… as something more closely resembling [a] nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion. What happens then?

The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere. There isn’t time for them. Long term projects are abandoned—their payoffs are too remote… Survivalism rules. Might will be right.”

It Won’t Be Long: The Beatles and MP3

I’m a big Beatles fan, and had a post cooked up all about those reports that, thanks to Norweigan Broadcasting (NRK), you could download Beatles MP3s for free, legally. NRK’s site said:

“Some weeks ago, NRK – Norwegian Braodcasting – signed a deal with music rights holder organisation TONO in Norway. The new deal gives NRK right to publish podcasts of all previously broadcasted radio- and tv-programs that contains less then 70% music.

One result of this deal, is that we now can publish “Vår daglige Beatles” – “Our Daily Beatles” in English – as a podcast.

In this series from 2001, journalists Finn Tokvam og Bård Ose tells the story of every single Beatles tracks ever made, chronologically. Each episode contains a 3 minute story about each track (sadly for our international visitors – in Norwegian) and the actual Beatles tune.”

The agreement only covered recent shows, and the Beatles ones were from 2007. So, the feed was pulled pretty quickly.

Part 1: The songs

with-the-beatlesNRK had put up 28 songs by this afternoon before the feed was taken down, sort of sorted in the order they appeared on the LP. They’d got through all of the Beatles’ first two albums, Please Please Me (1963) and With the Beatles (later in 1963). While skipping past some earnest Norwegian chat, humming and excited mutterings of “Ringo Starr!” to get to the songs was a little inconvenient, it was great to listen to the early songs again – I only have from Rubber Soul onwards on CD.

‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist n’ Shout’ (complete with great scouse accents, and a throat shredding vocal that meant George Martin got them to save recording it until the end of the session in case it wrecked Lennon’s voice) were obvious highlights, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed their covers of ‘Rollover Beethoven’ (Chuck Berry) and ‘Baby It’s You’ (Burt Bacharach).

You also get a sense of how eager they were to try things, so while ‘Please Please Me’ is relatively basic, just months later they opened With the Beatles with the terrific It Won’t Be Long, which is just as immediate, but adds the yeah-yeah-yeah harmonies, a desceding guitar bit that sounds like early R.E.M. and lyrices that conflate “be long” and “belong”, much like Smells Like Teen Spirit did1 years later with “Hello, Hello” and “How Low.” Even on the now largely forgotten Don’t Bother Me, George Harrison’s first Beatles song (one he later called crap), it’s amazing how many ideas they cram in; with 13, 14 seconds to go, the song finds the energy to drop its guitars and vocals and shake down into a shuffling, rhythm driven outro.2

Part 2: In which we get to the point

It all reminded me just how odd it is what they’ve done to The Beatles’ music in the last few years. In the mid-to-late nineties, the emergence of the Anthology project, the frequent praise of The Beatles in interviews by popular bands of the day combined with the launch of retro music magazines (Mojo etc) and Paul McCartney’s own increasing willingness to be a pop legend rather than going concern meant that the Beatles went from old to classic. They’d always been above the cheap compilations which recycled 60s hits (Best 60s Album in the World… Ever etc) but they became deified. Problem is, when Napster, iTunes, Guitar Hero etc opened up all the locks and the music started to go free – onto MP3, into remixes, inside videogames, onto podcasts and blogs – the Beatles stayed home, pipe and slippers.

And so now they’re missing. Everyone learns the truth that the Beatles are Important with a capital I. The Best. The Greatest. Whatever is left of the other Apple has done well to build them up. But the music just isn’t there. It’s absent from the places where the kids – the people who live and breathe music – are, and where everyone is increasingly going to be. iTunes is the biggest music retailer now, Guitar Hero is mainstream entertainment. The Beatles are abstract, venerated, protected. Their name is known, but I suspect knowledge – and love – of their songs is dipping lower and lower.  Sure, you can buy them on CD, but those releses are over 20 years old now and when it comes to packaging, presentation, convenience and most importantly sound, they’re just not good enough.3

The Beatles are admired, not loved, and that’s not right; one thing you get from their music – and that the fabulous Revolution in the Head gets absolutely dead right – is what made them great was that they were part of so many things. They weren’t about crystalline artistic genius, they were about connections between things – Delta blues and Blackpool music hall, LSD madness and genuine lovestruck giddyness, smutty jokes and conceptual high-art.

I’ve recently enjoyed watching the early 60s-set Mad Men; series 1 ended beautifully, with anti-hero Don Draper sitting lonely on the stairs as the caustic strains of Bob Dylan. Series 2 hurtled forward and all the time I keep wondering when we’ll hear the Beatles, despite knowing the restrictive licensing means we probably won’t. Kudos to the Norweigans; two guys talking about the Beatles on a podcast is just what we need. It’s off air now, but here’s hoping 2009 is the year they get the Beatles stuff online, in a decent way. There’s always the game, too.

1 Kurt was a huge Beatles fan – in particular John Lennon. Whenever Burch Vig talks about recording Nevermind he mentions how he’d convince Kurt to double-track his vocals because that’s what George Martin did with John Lennon’s. There’s also a good anecdote in Michael Azzerard’s ‘Come As You Are’ Nirvana bio that mentions Kurt wrote ‘About A Girl’ after spending a whole day repeatedly listening to Meet The Beatles, the US album featuring many of the songs from With The Beatles.

2 That said, modern pop songs are no less inventive – Rihanna’s Umbrella easily has enough detail to withstand nine spot-on points of Guardian music critique, for instance:

“[8th reason it's great is because of] the way she pronounces Umbrella with four syllables, which makes it seem implausibly exotic. One of pop’s gifts is the ability to make humdrum words sound deliciously strange. Also, when she riffs on “ella” she sounds half like a playful kid and half like a malfunctioning robot.”

3 As Pitchfork noted, it’s almost worth buying the remixy Love for the fact the material on it is all remastered, and particularly through headphones, it sounds frighteningly fantastic. The opening harmonies of Because are worth the price of admission alone.

Previously on the Wired Jester:

* Barry Miles on counter-cultural London in the 60s
* Links to old soul covers of the Beatles
* Links to a 70s Lennon/McCartney/Stevie Wonder bootleg
* Beatles x Pac Man T-shirt

Barry Miles and International Times: ‘The invisible insurrection of a million minds’

International Times

Last week I went to a panel discussion on magazines; although I took notes on all three speakers, I ended up with loads from the talk by Barry Miles, co-founder of 60s underground paper International Times (Wikipedia). He talked at length about I.T.’s genesis, launch party and development, which I found fascinating. Here are my full notes. Bear in mind these notes were scribbled at pace, so apologies for any errors/omissions.

On the genesis of I.T.:

“We put on a poetry reading at the Albert Hall in 1965. It cost £400 to hire, then another £100 an hour. And bear I mind, I earned £10 a week at this time, and we had only 9 days to publicise it. But we sold the tickets and it went ahead, and we saw that we, youth culture, were a real constituency. It’s very, very difficult now to imagine how straight England was, even in the mid 60s. It was a very black and white world then.”

On I.T. being totally counter to Fleet street and established media:

“The idea of anyone from our community writing for the Guardian or the Times was inconceivable. None of the papers had any popular music coverage in those days. Our group of people needed somewhere to express themselves, so in early 1966, Hoppy (John Hopkins) and I started to put it together. We got the guy who’d been editor of Peace Times for CND, to help, too. He’d gotten freaked out and left London and gone to live in the countryside, but we got him to come back.”

On I.T.’s launch:

“We had the launch party at the Roundhouse in Camden. It had been used for storing gin, and had been abandoned for seventeen years. It was just a big space with a balcony that was apparently unsafe. But it was ideal for IT. Soft Machine and The Pink Floyd played. I remember paying them – Pink Floyd got £15 because they had a light show, and Soft Machine got £12. Although they had a motorcycle on stage, so maybe that was a bit unfair.”

On how I.T. was written and distributed:

“I.T. wasn’t properly edited. It depended a lot on people bringing stuff in. It was the same with distribution – anyone could come in a grab 50 copies, and we just trusted them to bring the money back, and then they could get some more copies. By 1969, I.T.’s height, we were printing about 44,000 copies, and it was going out every two weeks or so, unless we’d been busted or something.”

How I.T. got into advertising and staved off financial collapse:

“The first few issues had a lot of serious articles by William Burroughs about the overthrow of the state. He used it as his platform to work out his ideas. And there was Ginsberg too. All the usual suspects. When we were running out of money, I was talking to Paul McCartney about it, and he said, ‘Well, you should interview me, then you’ll get ads from the record companies.’ And I thought, ‘hey, he might be on to something.’ So I interviewed him, and then George Harrison, and then the next week Mick Jagger called up, demanding to be interviewed too. And Paul was right, we got ads from the record companies.”

On I.T. and the community:

“We’d have these happenings on Tottenham Court Road. Lots of people would come down – The Beatles, Pete Townshend. He’d pay £20 or something on the door, becuase he knew it was going to I.T. It was a community paper, our community’s paper, so people put into it. I.T. was outside normal society in every respect.”