Tag Archives: 1960s

Let it be more Beatles: some notes on the ‘Get Back’ documentary

I recently finished watching the full Get Back documentary, directed and produced by Peter Jackson and released as a miniseries in 3 episodes. With a total running time of nearly 8 hours it may seem a daunting task at first, but true Beatles fans will most likely be craving for more once the viewing is over.

Although it draws material from the 1970 Let It Be documentary, Get Back is a far cry from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s earlier film. Meticulously going through 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio, Jackson and his team have produced an impressive work that accurately captures the subtleties and nuances of the band’s inner relations and tensions, their interaction with friends and collaborators, as well as the broader cultural climate of the era.

A fly on the studio wall

Following the band through 3 consecutive weeks in January 1969, we are literally being transferred inside the studio with the Beatles, following every little chat between the band members and seeing them unravel their musical and creative ideas. The experience is truly astonishing and, for once, exactly what the film’s trailer promises: unprecedented access to the most intimate footage ever shot of the band.

We get to hear Lennon’s hilarious quips and witticisms, see McCartney doing an impersonation of Elvis, or watch Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman chatting casually in the background. More intriguingly, we overhear the conservation between Lennon and McCartney as they are trying to handle a sudden crisis (caused by Harrison’s temporary resignation) via a hidden microphone planted inside a flower pot. Reality TV has rarely been more culturally meaningful or historically informative.

Breaking up can be fun

As the film goes on, we are gradually being immersed in the developments during the band’s fateful final period. And it’s actually a lively and rather joyous picture full of excitement, sparkly music, contagious laughs and that unmistakable Beatles humor, tied to their innate ability of having fun at all times while simultaneously making fun of pretty much everything – especially of themselves.

So, even though the band’s imminent break up is kind of hanging over Apple Corps headquarters like a specter, the boys are still having a great time and some magical moments are born despite, or -more likely- because of, the underlying tension. We watch them as they literally give birth to some of their finest music, going through sketches of songs like Across the Universe, Get Back, I Me Mine and I Got a Feeling (or ”I got a hard-on” as Lennon jokes), in between endless jams, impromptus, and casual conversations over tea and toast.

A particularly revealing moment comes up when keyboardist Billy Preston comes in and starts jamming with the band in the studio. Seeing the refreshing effect his presence brings to the band’s playing and overall vibes, Lennon says: ”I’d just like him in our band, actually. I’d like a fifth Beatle.” In what closely resembles a family discussion about adoption, Harrison agrees: ”We can do that.” McCartney, however, is quick to end the enthusiasm about getting extra band members: ”I just don’t, cause it’s just bad enough with four” (for a small taste of alternate music history, just listen to the amazing performance of Without a Song by Preston and the band during the end titles of the second episode).

To the (roof)toppermost of the poppermost

Along with a priceless view and uncensored access to the Beatles at work during their final days, the film also offers a unique glimpse of swinging London and the surrounding cultural milieu. We see the band discussing daily news, newspaper articles (often about themselves) and contemporary TV programs, while in the last episode the camera moves out of the studio and on to the rooftop that is about to become the stage for the band’s last public performance.

The film culminates with the famous rooftop concert, a show largely spontaneous and improvised, as can be seen by the band’s relaxed and playful attitude. With the blue-gray London skyline as a backdrop, the Beatles go through some of their new songs for an invisible audience, as people start gathering down the street and around the neighboring rooftops, unaware they are witnessing a landmark event in 20th-century cultural history.

The Beatles rooftop concert (Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is hard to miss the irony of the band singing ”Get Back” almost at the face of the police officers who are sent to restore order, ultimately stopping the performance due to complaints for ”breach of the peace”. Indeed, the Beatles had been disturbing musical peace from their early beginnings in Liverpool and Hamburg right up to their final public concert in the heart of London – a fitting epilogue to the band’s cataclysmic career that encapsulates some of the essential traits that made them great: their unique chemistry and charisma on (and off) stage, their unpredictability and unhindered creative spark, and of course an overwhelming sense of the sheer, pure joy of music making.

Rain, tears and dreams: Sounds from May 1968

Rain and tear(gase)s

Exactly 50 years ago, in May 1968, promising Greek musicians Vangelis Papathanassiou, Demis Roussos and Lucas Sideras find themselves in Paris, following a failed attempt to relocate to London. There, caught up in the whirlwind of student riots and amid general unrest in the French capital, the group is christened Aphrodite’s Child and releases the single Rain and Tears.

A lyrical composition based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, the song became an immediate hit and reached No. 1 in the French charts, thus setting the stage for the band’s hugely successful yet short career (their final album and acclaimed psychedelic masterpiece 666 would be released in 1972).

An unlikely soundtrack to the May 1968 events in France, Rain and Tears became widely popular among those fighting and singing out on the streets of Paris, despite its English and seemingly non-political lyrics. According to Demis Roussos, however, its very title was a veiled reference to the ongoing revolt, with “rain” standing for the May rainfalls in Paris and “tears” alluding to the tear gases thrown in the streets of the French capital.

A dream longer than the night

Vangelis, who would later achieve global fame with his music scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, revisited the May 1968 events a few years later in his album Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit (“Make your dream last longer than the night”, a title borrowed by one of the slogans used during the May events), recorded in 1971 and released in 1972.

Only released in France and Greece, this remarkable album (originally subtitled “Poème Symphonique”) is a two-part collage of chants, protest songs, field recordings, sound effects, instrumental passages, as well as news and conversation snippets. Centering on May 1968 and inspired by the French student riots, it can be seen as Vangelis’s personal, highly evocative interpretation and musical reflection on the events.

After all, the spirit of the French May had to do not only with politics, but also the power of imagination and creativity. In the words of prominent film director Costas Ferris, who participated in the street battles in Paris (and would later pen the lyrics for Aphrodite’s Child landmark album 666), the whole May ´68 affair “was not just about street battles, confrontation and politicization. It was poetry”.

Cannibalism, alchemy, and flying saucers: The ’70s Brazilian music scene

I recently had the good fortune to indulge myself in 1970s Brazilian music, after a small treasure ended up in my home: a box full of vinyl records with the very best of the Brazilian music scene of the time, featuring an explosive mix of samba, bossa nova, folk, soul, funk, psychedelia, and experimental rock.

Listening to these records one after another, I started putting together the pieces of a scene incredibly rich and colorful, encompassing artists so diverse and yet characteristically Brazilian as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, seminal composers João Gilberto and Tom Jobim, influential poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, as well as gifted guitarists and songwriters such as Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, and Baden Powell.

A true gem I was delighted to discover was Tecnicolor (1970), an album originally intended to serve as the introduction of the legendary psych-rock group Os Mutantes to the English-speaking world. However, the tapes were lost and the album was only released in 2000 (with artwork by Sean Lennon). It is an absolutely thrilling record, showcasing the group’s talent and creative blend of disparate influences – a signature trait of the Tropicália movement known as antropofagia: a sort of “cultural cannibalism” aspiring to bring together different – often contrasting – elements in order to form a new synthesis.

Other records that left a deep impression on me included the brilliant self-titled debut album by glam rockers Secos & Molhados (released in 1973), as well as the fusion masterpiece Acabou Chorare (1972) by the psych-folk group Novos Baianos (voted first in the 100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records list published by Rolling Stone in October 2007).

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the transcendental dimension of certain seminal works of the era, such as Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), a unique album that illustrates Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism, and alchemy. Another example is Tim Maia’s Racional, Vols. 1 & 2 (1975-76), two albums that were recorded when Maia read the book Universe in Disenchantment and decided to convert to the cult of Rational Culture, spending a lot of his time watching the sky for extraterrestrials and flying saucers.

Although in the end Maia abandoned the cult and went back to his previous lifestyle, his fascinating excursion into Rational Culture provided the inspiration for these incredible soul-funk albums, which, along with the music of the tropicalistas and several subsequent artists and songwriters, became part of the ever vibrant, groovy, and at times transcendental, Brazilian music scene.

Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil in concert

A piece of history

Few artists have occupied such a prominent place in the history of modern Brazilian music as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Guitarists, singers and composers, the two musicians (both born in 1942) were also key figures in the popular tropicália movement in the 1960s, and have been close friends  and collaborators ever since.

Apart from being widely acclaimed as composers and singers, both Veloso and Gil were also involved in various ways with the political developments in Brazil during the second half of the 20th century. They were both arrested and exiled from Brazil in 1969, as the Brazilian military regime viewed their music and political action as a threat. They eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s and, in an interesting turn of events, Gil would even serve as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008.

It is hard to overestimate Veloso’s and Gil’s contribution to Brazilian music and culture in general. They have had an immense influence upon subsequent musicians and songwriters at home, while they have also been active ambassadors of Brazilian music abroad, introducing it to large audiences worldwide through their recordings and live performances over the years.

Parallel paths, complementary voices

Earlier this week, Veloso and Gil came to Barcelona for a joint concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana. Opening with the cheerful Desde que o Samba é Samba, the two artists went on to present an eclectic mixture of songs covering several decades of Brazilian music, including many popular tunes such as Drão, Terra, Super Homem, A luz de Tieta, and Tres palabras.

Their simple, modest appearance and basic setup (two chairs and two guitars) were a striking contrast to the flamboyant and richly decorated interior of the Palau’s concert hall. But their beautiful melodies, excellent musicianship, delicate singing, and tuneful guitar playing were more than enough to compensate for the absence of fancy costumes or large backing bands.

Caetano_Gil

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona (2 May 2016)

Gil’s voice may have lost some of its older sparkle and tonal range, and Veloso may not be quite as active on stage as in the past (although he did try a little dance at some point). However, with both of them well into their seventies, these are just details of minor importance. Their brilliant performance proved that they are still perfectly capable of captivating their audience and creating that unique, magical atmosphere that Brazilian music seems to evoke when played by such exceptional performers.

My only thought (and wish) after leaving the concert was that hopefully Veloso and Gil will continue to share their gifts for many years to come. Having been on parallel paths for more than half a century, the chemistry between them is simply astounding, while their playing and unique voices continue to perfectly complement one another.

The geniuses behind the hits

In the history of popular music there have been certain groups of musicians with a profound impact on the making and recording of hit records. They consist of the session players largely responsible for the sound of many great songs we all know and love, but never cared to look beyond the names of the star performers they’re usually associated with.  So let’s get to know some of these unsung heroes…

Hidden in the shadows

Known as The Funk Brothers, the Detroit-based session musicians who performed on Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972 played on more No.1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined! Despite this astonishing feat, they were essentially uncredited  as Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971.

Consisting of phenomenal talents such as bass player James Jamerson and drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, The Funk Brothers played on a long string of classic recordings including I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Their extraordinary story is told in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002).

Looking back at their list of achievements, one indeed understands why they have been called “the greatest hit machine in the history of pop music.”

Meet The Wrecking Crew

Another group of session musicians that played a big part in how American pop music sounded during the 1960s was The Wrecking Crew. This assembly of highly skilled and versatile musicians, many of whom were formally trained in jazz or classical music, recorded practically every style of pop music in existence and worked with artists such as Nat King Cole, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel.

Moreover, The Wrecking Crew was used by legendary producer Phil Spector for his trademark “Wall of Sound”, while songwriter Brian Wilson also worked with the Crew to materialize many of his sonic visions during the 1960s, including the album Pet Sounds and songs such as Good Vibrations and California Girls.

The remarkable story of The Wrecking Crew was also made into a film, which can serve as a great introduction to the musicians responsible for the sound of some of the most successful pop music the world has ever known (such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine, and bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye – one of the few female session players of that period).

The secret of Muscle Shoals

There are some special places where the conditions for making great music seem to be just right. One such place is Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The musicians largely responsible for what came to be known as the “Muscle Shoals Sound” were The Swampers (aka The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), a group of soul, R&B, and country studio musicians based in Muscle Shoals who have appeared on more than 75 gold and platinum hits in total.

The Swampers worked originally at the legendary FAME Studios, established by American record producer Rick Hall. Some of the artists they recorded with at FAME were Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Paul Anka and Tom Jones.

FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals

Immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Sweet Home Alabama (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”), The Swampers left FAME in 1969 to form The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, becoming first time rhythm section -consisting of Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass)- to own a studio they could use for recording and production purposes.

Several rock and pop artists arrived to record at the new studio, including The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The incredible story of  Rick Hall, The Swampers and a small town that would become the mecca of America’s most celebrated recording artists  is the theme of the recent documentary Muscle Shoals.