Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Beatles - 1969 (Part 1)

1969 was a pivotal year for The Fab Four ... just look at what had led them to this point in time:

After a year of COMPLETE European Pandemonium, Worldwide Beatlemania reached its peak in 1964, ushering in the era forever known as The British Invasion ... sales records and television ratings were routinely shattered with each and every new release and appearance.

By 1965, besides a string of nearly 40 U.S. Hits, The Beatles already had two feature films under their belts ... a year later, they would quit touring forever, resigning themselves to the studio where each new release became more sophisticated and involved.

In 1967, they had recorded their landmark LP, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', still considered by many to be their crowning achievement ... the recording that forever changed the criteria for making albums.

Their appearance on the "Our World" satellite special (where they world-premiered their new single "All You Need Of Love") was, without question,
the apex of that night's performances.

They followed that with their first real disaster ... their "Magical Mystery Tour" television special was universally panned by critics in The U.K. ... so much so that it wasn't even shown here in The United States for many, many years.

In 1968 they spent weeks on end in India, studying transcendental meditation with The Maharishi Yogi and writing songs for what would ultimately become known as The White Album. They also started their own record company, Apple Records, and released the biggest single of their career, "Hey Jude", which topped The U.S. Charts for nine straight weeks.

But behind the scenes, they were also slowly beginning to come apart at the seams. The band's two real leaders and songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, suddenly had new distractions in their lives ... each had found the love of their life and, early in 1969, John would marry Yoko Ono and Paul would marry Linda Eastman. Both were VERY strong women who greatly influenced (some might even say dominated) the lives of their men.

The year began auspiciously enough ... The Beatles were not only going into the studio to make a new album, but they were also going to film these activities for theatrical release. Literally hundreds and hundreds of hours of film footage was made, showing the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the band and each of its members. We saw them rehearsing their new material and warming up with songs that they probably hadn't performed since their Hamburg / Cavern days. At various times between 1968 and 1969, each of them had quit the band, feeling that they no longer fit in with the other three. Yoko's presence in the studio only resulted in cramping their style even further ... and soon old pal Billy Preston was asked to join the sessions in the hopes that everyone else would stay on their best behavior with an old friend in the studio.

What started out as the "Get Back" album ... and eventually became the "Let It Be" album a year and a half later ... was an effort to "get back" to where THEY once belonged ... just the four of them in the studio without all the fancy strings and overdubs and special effects that had made their recent albums like "Revolver" and "Pepper" so distinctive. A return to their roots, if you will ... to the raw sound that first captured our hearts all those years ago. In concept, it sounded interesting ... in reality, they were already bored with each other ... and no amount of trying to rally the troops was going to change that.

On January 30th, The Beatles gave whole new meaning to the musical phrase "Up On The Roof" when they moved their equipment to the rooftop of the Apple Records Studios and played ... for the very last time ... live music as a four-piece band (five counting Billy Preston on keyboards) for a live audience (albeit passers-by on the street down below.) Paul McCartney recently revisited this idea when he performed on top of the marquee of The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City on The David Letterman Show. His first song that day??? Why "Get Back" of course!!!

When all was said and done, all these hours of toiling in the studio were shelved, left to be sorted out later by anyone with any interest in doing so ... by this point, The Beatles themselves couldn't have cared less. In fact, it seemed all but over. John was on his honeymoon / bed-in for peace and would soon release a solo record, "Give Peace A Chance", recorded in his Montreal Hotel Room as The Plastic Ono Band. Even a mid-summer single, "The Ballad Of John And Yoko" which, although a great rocker, amounted to little more than a newsreel recounting of what the newlywed couple had been up to lately. Incredibly, it only John and Paul were featured on the record ... George and Ringo weren't even invited to the studio that day. John wanted an immediate release (yes, it pays to own your own record company) but the record was banned on as many stations as it was played, and, as such, only managed a #8 showing on the charts.

The previously mentioned "Get Back" ... to MY ears one of their weakest outings ever ... topped the charts for five weeks the month before and remains one of their biggest recordings ever. (Shows you what I know!!!) A few of us first caught wind of this song ... and the "new look" associated with the band ... when a film clip from that rooftop concert was aired on The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour in April of '69. The actual film "Let It Be" wouldn't hit theaters until a year later, by which time Phil Spector had been brought in to clean up the tracks. Paul was so unhappy with Spector's work that he pushed to have the "naked" version of the LP released for the next thirty years. It finally was in 2003.

But then, when all had given up hope, The Beatles regrouped in the studio one last time to record what would become their swan song LP, "Abbey Road". (Paul reportedly called Producer George Martin and begged him to come back to produce just one more ... "the way we used to do it". Martin ultimately relented and the album that MOST of us today consider to be their greatest achievement was finally realized.)

So, in recapping 1969, it was the beginning of the end ... quite honestly, their final chapter. ALL of their final tracks were laid down this year ... 31 in all (besting The White Album by one, but falling seven songs short of their 1968 total output thanks to the singles Lady Madonna / The Inner Light and Hey Jude / Revolution and the soundtrack music included on "Yellow Submarine".) The music contained in the albums "Let It Be" and "Abbey Road" have been with us for 40 years now ... and sound every bit as fresh today as they did when they were first recorded. Tracks like "Come Together", "Something", "Here Comes The Sun", "Let It Be", "The Long And Winding Road", "Get Back" and "Across The Universe" are considered nothing short of rock classics today. With the entire Beatles Catalog being remastered and re-released next month, generations to come will continue to discover this great music that so shaped our lives back then.