Tag Archives: Beatles

Going underground behind the Iron Curtain

I recently came across the very interesting book “X-Ray Audio” – The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone by Stephen Coates. Focusing on the underground culture of Roentgenizdat, also known as “music on ribs” or “jazz on bones”, it tells the fascinating story of bootleg and pirated X-ray music discs that were circulated illegally in Soviet Russia during the immediate post-war era through the 1960s.

Made from medical X-rays that were subsequently cut into 7-inch discs with the aid of special machines, these discs featured music by officially censored artists such as the “King of Russian Tango” Pyotr Leshchenko or Western jazz and rock’n’roll musicians like Bill Haley, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Beatles.

A sort of musical parallel to the samizdat (the underground publication and distribution of dissident literature), the history of these Soviet bone discs is truly incredible as well as illuminating: it reveals how far people were willing to go in order to obtain, enjoy and share the forbidden fruit of inaccessible music. The risks involved were serious: Sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslovsky (1928-2005), a true hero of Soviet underground record production, was sent to prison camps no less than three times throughout his life for cutting Western music onto records that originally contained speeches of Soviet leaders.

Eventually the X-ray record production was eclipsed by the emergence of reel-to-reel tape recorders which became available in the early 1960s and soon grew enormously popular. This in turn sparked the process known as magnitizdat, i.e. the re-copying and self-distribution of audio tape recordings that were not available commercially. According to leading Russian music journalist and critic Artemy Troitsky, “the overall quantity of X-ray records ever produced in the Soviet times would not exceed a million, whereas with reel-to-reel tapes we would be talking about tens if not hundreds of millions.”

In his book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (first published in 1987, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union), Troitsky provides a compelling account of the evolution of the Soviet rock scene since its birth in the 1960s. An insider, Troitsky offers an abundance of first-hand information and anecdotes related to the foremost Soviet rock musicians and groups that are little, if at all, known in the West, such as Time Machine (the “Russian Beatles”) and their founder Andrey Makarevich, Aquarium and their leader Boris Grebenshchikov, guitarist Alexander Lyapin (“closer to Hendrix than any other Soviet rock guitarist”), or the iconic post-punk band Kino and their singer Viktor Tsoi.

Starting with the crucial influence of The Beatles on the genesis of Soviet rock, Troitsky goes on to describe key events, places and moments of its history, such as  the hippie gatherings in Tallin and Crimea (“something of a Soviet California”), the Leningrad and Moscow scenes, the “intense though fairly isolated” rock culture of Estonia, the 1980 Tbilisi festival, the emergence of home-made albums in the early 1980s, and the “Account 904” concert (organized in 1986 by Troitsky and others to raise funds for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).

Troitsky’s commentary is at times both funny (“punk rock with us is something exotic, like an avocado – everyone has heard the name, but very few know what it actually is”) and penetrating: “Meanwhile, nothing at all was happening in Lithuania (…) nothing, that is, if we don’t count having the best jazz and the prettiest girls in the country. Perhaps these circumstances hindered the development of rock music there.”

Apart from its purely historical value, Troitsky’s account also offers some stimulating remarks on the nature of Russian culture and its differences from the West. For example, he writes: “[T]he purely literary level of our rock lyrics is higher, on the average, than in the West. Rock lyrics here have a direct tie to our poetic tradition and reflect its lexical and stylistic heritage.” I find this assertion particularly interesting in the light of the recent Nobel award to Bob Dylan and the related discussion on the relationship between music and literature.

Troitsky’s book closes with a somewhat disheartening remark: “[T]oo few rock bands dare to test glasnost (…) And this is sad. It seems that the long-awaited sunlight has blinded most of the creatures crawling out of the underground.” Thirty years on, the Iron Curtain having long been lifted, the question of cultural and political dissent remains as urgent as ever, both in Russia and the rest of the world. And music can play a crucial role in this respect. As cultural critic Edward Said once put it: “Music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything.”

All you need is love (and ears)

More than a Beatle

If there ever was someone worthy of the title ‘fifth Beatle’, that man could only have been Sir George Martin (1926-2016). The legendary English producer, arranger and composer not only signed The Beatles and produced almost all of their albums, but also played a key role in shaping their sound, especially after the band stopped performing live and focused on recording and experimenting in the studio.

A token of Martin’s ingenuity and creativity can be found in the story behind the recording of Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album: John Lennon had asked Martin to give the song a “carnival atmosphere”, and wanted to “smell the sawdust on the floor.” After putting together multiple recordings of fairground organs and calliope music and a great deal of unfruitful experimentation, Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick finally achieved the desired effect by chopping the tape into pieces with scissors, throwing them up in the air, and re-assembling them at random. Now that’s quite an imaginative recording technique!

But George Martin was much more than the fifth Beatle. A classically-trained musician (he had studied piano and oboe at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), he worked for the BBC before joining EMI in 1950, where he produced numerous comedy and novelty records working with artists such as Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers, and Sophia Loren.

A visionary producer

Following his collaboration with The Beatles, Martin went on to produce many successful records and worked with acclaimed musicians such as Shirley Bassey, Stan Getz, Jeff Beck, and Elton John. He also worked as a producer with the rock band America, the jazz-rock fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra (Apocalypse, 1974) and the experimental jazz ensemble Paul Winter Consort whose album Icarus (1972) was according to Martin “the finest record” he had ever made.

A few years ago I read Martin’s marvelous autobiography All You Need Is Ears, first published in 1979. It is an exciting  account of his personal story and an excellent read I highly recommend not just for Beatles fans or aspiring record producers, but for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 1960s (much like White Bicycles by American producer Joe Boyd).

A true visionary who changed the musical landscape of the second half of the 20th century  and pushed the boundaries of  music production and studio recording, Sir George Martin knew well that, distinct genres and labels aside, all music basically aspires toward the same goal: “Rock and roll has the same function as classical music,” he once said, “to make sounds that are appealing to a mass of people and are of some worth.”

God only knows where pop music would be without George Martin’s unmistakable ears and love for melody…

The -vinyl- music challenge

I was recently challenged to come up with a list of my 10 favorite records. No easy task, especially as one’s musical taste tends (and ought) to change along with -and because of- one’s life experiences and influences. In fact, any such list is essentially a moment frozen in time: no doubt my choices will be different if I try this exercise again in a month, year or decade from now.

Having said that, I tried to think how I could make my -inevitably arbitrary and ephemeral- selection a bit more meaningful. I wanted to make a point and so I decided to consider only records from my vinyl collection. Vinyl still persists amidst today’s technological frenzy, and for a good reason: apart from its full, warm sound it brings with it a whole culture, from the process surrounding its purchase to the actual listening experience and the sheer pleasure of enjoying its artwork.

So here’s some of the most memorable vinyl records I have acquired over the last few years (arranged à la Nick Hornby in chronological order of acquisition):

1) Sviatoslav Richter – J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

The world’s greatest pianist meets the world’s greatest composer. Amen.

2) Neville Marriner – Amadeus [Original Soundtrack Recording]

As if Mozart’s sublime music wasn’t rewarding enough, listening to this record reminds me of Milos Forman’s epic masterpiece, one of my favorite movies ever.

3) The Beatles – Rubber Soul

Someone once said there are three great Bs in music: Bach, Beethoven and… The Beatles. He was right.

4) Jacque Loussier Trio – Play Bach No. 1

I’ve hinted at the artistry of French pianist Jacque Loussier in an earlier post about Vivaldi, but it was with his inspired take on Bach that he made his breakthrough.

5) Baden Powell – Poema on Guitar

I love everything about this record: its title, its beautiful cover, and above all Baden Powell’s tuneful guitar sound and dreamy compositions.

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6) Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert in Central Park

I still get goose bumps every single time I listen to this. Timeless.

7) Led Zeppelin – IV

I bought this in a vinyl shop in Istanbul. Like the Quran in mosques or the Bible in churches, I think it should be freely available at all conservatories and music schools.

8) Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

A deeply evocative work by a remarkable and highly idiosyncratic composer whose music truly makes time stand still.

9) Thanasis Papakonstantinou – Ο Ελάχιστος Εαυτός (The Minimal Self)

The finest and most original composer that has emerged in the last 20 years in Greece. His records are like rays of light amidst a vast darkness…

10) Paco de Lucía – Almoraima

A true miracle of technique, composition, and expression – the more I listen to it, the more I admire Paco’s astonishing skill as both guitarist and musical innovator.

Bachbird singing

While also connected with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Paul McCartney’s Blackbird is said to have been originally inspired from the experience of being woken by a blackbird’s song just before sunrise.

Musically speaking, McCartney was influenced by J.S. Bach’s Bourrée from the Suite in E minor for Lute (BWV 996), a piece often performed on the classical guitar. George Harrison and Colin Manley had taught him how to play Bach’s Bourrée at Liverpool Institute. As Sir Paul later put it: “I bastardized it, but it was the basis of how I wrote Blackbird.”

In this recording I’ve tried to bring the two pieces together, accompanied by the singing of birds on a sunny day…

When the Beatles met the sugar plum fairy

When I was still a little child, my acquaintance with the world of classical ballet (and I suspect not just mine) was made through The NutcrackerIt was love at first sight (and hearing), as the delightful music of Tchaikovsky coupled with a most extraordinary set of characters such as the Mouse King, the Nutcracker Prince with his soldiers, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy.

One of Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated works, the immense popularity of The Nutcracker owes much to a tradition that started in 1954, when the New York City Ballet first performed the ballet choreographed by George Balanchine. The company has since performed the ballet every year during the Christmas season with great success, paving the way for a growing number of performances across the world by several ballet companies in the years that followed.

‘Best of Balanchine’, performed by the Dutch National Ballet in the Amsterdam Music Theater

In 1965, the British orchestral composer Arthur Wilkinson made a very special arrangement of music by The Beatles, blending some of their well-known tunes with movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The result of this peculiar musical marriage was called the Beatle Cracker Suite.

A musical allusion to Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet can also be found  in the film Magical Mystery Tour. It was the Beatles’ producer George Martin who, seeing that the opening strain of All My Loving is almost identical to the melody from Nutcracker’s Pas de deux but turned upside down, decided to arrange the song à la Tchaikovsky for the film’s background music.

The most intriguing manifestation of the unique relationship between the Russian master and the British pop stars was perhaps one not made through notes. It would be, however, captured on record through the soft, rather lazy and yet mysterious-sounding voice of Lennon, as he was whispering “sugar-plum-fairy, sugar-plum-fairy” into the microphone during the intro of the epic A Day in the Life (as can be heard in the Love version of the song).

It appears the little fairy’s dance had taken her all the way from Russia’s imposing music theaters to the Abbey Road Studios in London amidst the swinging sixties. What an honor indeed to have been summoned by The Beatles on such a special day in their life. No doubt Tchaikovsky would not have minded her leaving home!