Born on this day in 1938, artist and musician, Klaus Voorman. Those familiar with the legend of The Beatles, will know that Voorman design the cover of The Beatles‘ Revolver Lp.
After 1997’s Blue Sky On Mars, Matthew Sweet just kinda fell off my radar. Although I enjoyed the covers records he did with Susanna Hoffs, I lost touch with his solo work. After hearing rave reviews from friends regarding Catspaw, I thought it might be time to get reacquainted.
Sweet’s voice is in remarkable shape, belying the fact that his ground-breaking Girlfriend Lp is 30 years old. Here, Sweet is stripped back to that era, with in-your-face dry production, framing that evergreen voice. That isn’t the sole reminder of his biggest past success. The songs are really, seriously good.
The opener, Blown Away, is a chugging White Album rocker that blisters with rough guitar and McCartney-inspired bass, both played by Sweet. Opting to cover lead parts himself, Sweet succeeds in pulling off what amounts to an amalgam of all the guitarists who’ve been his sidemen over the years. Challenge The Gods and Stars Explode both get the blood pumping with similar aplomb, chorus hooks and those trademark, double-tracked Sweet harmony vocals.
Catspaw is a strong outing that surprisingly improves with each successive listen. Highly recommended.
For me, one of the joys of listening to and appreciating new music, is that you often get so much more than you originally anticipated. Such is the case with the latest by The Braam Brothers, Landscape.
The brothers were kind enough to send me a vinyl review copy, which is almost unheard of these days. Unpacking the Lp and peeling off the cellophane, I could already feel the anticipation growing. Coupled with a really nicely-designed cover, I hoped that the music inside would be equally as appealing. It would not disappoint.
As I went through the first listen, my mind seriously began to wander. Not because the songs or performances were lacking or uninteresting, but because the overall vibe of the production took me back to a very specific place and time.
In the early 90’s, my best friend lived in a loft in Chicago, with two of his fellow Second City performers. It was everything you’d imagine, from a manikin serving as a coatrack, to a beat-up motorcycle permanently installed in the freight elevator. My friend’s roommates were obsessed with R.E.M., and their first record seemed to be playing in that place, 24 hours a day. It almost had the feel of being on the set of a hip indie film, or stage production. For me, it was always a cool hang, whether we were scarfing down pizza as we took in an old monster movie, or making fun of the Johns nervously trying to pick up the girls that were always, literally, walking the streets below.
The Braam Brothers took me back there, to a place and time that I rarely ever think about these days. Those dusty memories were there in my head alright, though months, even years, go by without their remembrance. I can’t promise a similar experience for you, but I can promise that, at the very least, you’ll get to hear some top-notch music.
My picks to click on this are the stirring title track, and the haunting I Want Your Love, both of which will make this Lp a contender for any year-end best list. These are honest tunes, played with no filter, by real musicians.
The Laurie Berkner Band
Laurie Berkner has covered in the upper echelon of family music for years now. Her songs are always crisp, smart and tuneful, a trend that continues with her latest, Let’s Go!
The title track is a nifty bit of pop set to the hand-jive rhythm, which lists everything that needs to be accomplished before we leave the house. If you’ve got one of those kids that drags his or her feet getting ready for an outing, this one’s for you!
Got a kid that resists wearing a mask during these unique times? The Superhero Mask Song is here to save the day! Without fear or condescension, Berkner explains how every kid can contribute to making their world a better place. This is good, positive stuff! My fave of the set is When It’s Cold, a winter song about keeping warm that’s as fun as it is funky.
Taking in this release just on the strength of how it sounds, it’s expertly produced and lively. The musicianship is top-notch, too. Berkner’s also got a ringer in the band’s line-up, with Brady Rymer on bass guitar. Top-notch.
By Dan Pavelich
An earlier version of this post appeared at Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) on March 24, 2018. It has been updated slightly, but is still prepared to string you along.
Two of the guitars, the electric ones, stand virtually forgotten in a corner of my office at home. The older of the two–a red one I bought shortly after my fortieth birthday, more than twenty-one years ago–is in its hard case, missing a string, maybe two. It’s been missing strings before. A long time back, my then very young daughter Meghan had her Mom, my lovely wife Brenda, bring her to the music store, my red guitar in hand, to have its strings replaced as a gift for Dad. I was touched beyond description. I used to play it. Not very often, never well, nor even adequately. I had no talent, no technique, no musical acumen whatsoever. Still, I plugged in. I knew some chords, mangled as they were in my clumsy hands. I’d forgotten the notes I used to know, but I could still manage an inept G, an approximate C, the odd D, E, A, and D7, and I do mean odd. I turned up, and slammed. The result never quite sounded like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” or Lennon and McCartney’s “I’ll Be On My Way.” It was noise. But it was my noise.
And then I’d usually pop another string. So much for channeling Johnny Ramone.
The black guitar arrived in the mail in December of 2007, I think. It wasn’t a Christmas gift, just something I acquired via incentive points I needed to spend in a hurry. The memory is bittersweet. The day the guitar was delivered, I unpacked it and went upstairs to the office, where Meghan was at the computer with her cousin Stephanie, who was visiting Syracuse for the holidays. It was not the last time we would see Stephanie. She returned for a visit the following summer, when we took her to see The Flashcubes and to the New York State Fair. She was taken from us in October of 2008, the cruelest blow of our lives so far. Thinking of that black guitar makes me think of Stephanie, a pleasant memory that makes me cry, without fail.
The two acoustic guitars are in the garage, accumulating dust, both missing strings, neither played in years. All four guitars are out of tune. I can’t tune them properly, not even the black one with all six strings intact. I can’t play. I can’t make the music I wish I could make.
When I did try to play my guitars, there was a simple chord sequence I used to use, a G-A-D-G-A-D-G-E-A-G-C-A-D-G-A if I recall correctly. It was the presumed melody for a song in my head. The only lyrics it ever had have been with me for decades:
Sometimes in my dreams we still talk to each other
Although in real life I know we’re done with one another
I don’t know if I’d want you to return
I’d just feel better if I could learn
What became of you
Because I remember you
In my head, it was about the people who’d once been integral parts of my life before they slipped away. The high school confidante who killed himself. The teen co-conspirator who later severed her ties with me. The soulmate who was never really my girlfriend, though both of us wondered if we’d be married someday. The enigma who wanted to be my girlfriend, but I wasn’t ready for her. The college bud I discarded in anger. Pals and passersby. Lovers and friends I still can recall; some are dead, and some are living. Family. Regrets? I’ve had a few. I can’t say if they’re too few to mention.
Yet I know I’ve been blessed as well. Brenda and I are still together. Meghan, no longer the little girl who dragged her Dad’s red guitar to the store for mending, graduated with highest honors from Ithaca College in 2017, and snagged a part-time job–in her field!–at Syracuse University Press. I acknowledge the bad. I embrace the good. And I try to keep on playing, in my own fashion.
My daily blog Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) debuted on January 18th, 2016, originally with the less-distinctive title CC Says. It took just under a year to accumulate 50,000 views, and just over another fourteen months to quadruple that figure. It’s over a half a million strong now–just like Woodstock! It’s a modest number still, but one I embrace as good. The road to relevance winds on. You’re welcome to travel along with me.
I can’t play. I can write. I’ll be here every day for as long as I can. Maybe I’ll pick up the black guitar for a bit, just to remember. And just to play, even though I can’t. But the noise I make remains my own.
(Oh, and for the full story of my life-long failed attempts to make music, I refer you to “I’ve Got The Music In Me [And That’s Where It’s Gonna Stay].” Many guitar strings were harmed in the making of this picture.)
Released as a single by Paul McCartney, from his 1986 Lp of the same name, in July of 1986. Cracking the top 4o in The U.S. and U.K., it did nearly as well as his previous single, Spies Like Us.
Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
It was love at first sight.
Teen idolatry–specifically, the sort of starry-eyed quasi-romantic longing that conjures adolescent yearning for long walks in the moonlight hand-in-hand with the teen heartthrob du joir–has been part of pop music for as long as there has been pop music. I mean, I can’t speak for the probability of giggling young girls once makin’ ga-ga noises over noted hottie Ludwig von Beethoven, but Frank Sinatra? King Elvis I? Paul McCartney, Mark Lindsay, Bobby Sherman, and the lads in One Direction? Girls swooned over posters and magazines, LP covers and 45 sleeves, and kissed Monkees bubblegum cards with earnest, whispered wishes to one day become Mrs. Davy Jones: I’ll be true to you, yes I will.
That was the girls. Boys? Not so much.
That’s the image, anyway. In reality, kids won’t always follow the rigid scripts adults throw at them. There were girls who found this whole notion of getting wobbly-kneed over a pretty face just absurd. There were boys and girls whose pop dreams favored teen idols with whom they shared a gender. And there must have been boys dreaming of sweet pecks on the lips from Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las, or Marianne Faithfull, or Chaka Khan. In North Syracuse in 1975, there was certainly one fifteen-year-old boy who saw Suzi Quatro on the cover of a magazine, and promptly fell in love. And yes, of course that boy was me.
The divine Miss Suzi was not my first pop crush; that was probably Nancy Sinatra circa “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” or possibly Lesley Gore when she sang “California Nights.” Expanding beyond the chanteuses who caught my eye, my other pop crushes likely included every pretty actress I ever saw on TV, from Yvonne Craig and Bridget Hanley through Linda Evans and all the women who ever appeared in Star Trek reruns. And Lorrie Menconi, Playboy‘s Miss February 1969. Nor was Suzi my final pop crush, as Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, P.J. Soles, and Vanity were still off in my future when the calendar read ’75. But fickle and fleeting as I may have been, Suzi Quatro always remained my # 1.
I can’t say for certain how that particular issue of Rolling Stone found its way into my living room. Both of my older brothers were married and gone from the household by ’75, so the RS probably belonged to my sister Denise. It could also have come from my Dad, who worked at the post office and occasionally brought home subscription magazines that had been discarded as undeliverable. However it arrived in my suburban home, it was the cover of the Rolling Stone, dated January 2, 1975, that introduced me to this unfamiliar rock ‘n’ roll chick named Suzi Quatro.
Smitten. Immediately, irrevocably smitten.
Why? Man, answering that would be like trying to tell a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll. Some would say she wasn’t conventionally pretty in the way you’d expect a pinup or poster girl to be, but I found her irresistibly cute. It wasn’t even like the pictures of her in Rolling Stone were overtly sexy or deliberately provocative (though the cover and one interior photo did show how her leather pants loved to hug her derriere). I wish I could claim I was a budding feminist at 15, engaged not by Quatro’s looks but by her intelligence and personality, and by her music…but I’d be lyin’. I’d never heard her music, and I don’t know how much of her wit and wisdom could be ascertained from a casual read of a rock rag piece where she discussed the pros and cons of getting a tattoo on her butt. No, I have to admit it was something about her look. I was fascinated. And I was in love with her, as surely as all those girls reading 16 and Tiger Beat were in love with Donny Osmond.
It was a love with no kindling to feed its fire. In the immediate aftermath of discovering her, I didn’t see any more articles about Suzi Quatro. I didn’t hear her music on the radio. I didn’t see her on TV. I’m not sure if I saw any of her records at Gerber Music, but even if I had, I didn’t yet have enough concrete motivation to make a purchase. I was in love with a face, and a body wrapped tightly in leather; I had no idea if that was enough to make me a fan of the Suzi Quatro sound.
On May 1st of 1975, Alice Cooper was scheduled to appear in Syracuse for a concert at the Onondaga County War Memorial…WITH SUZI QUATRO OPENING…?! Glorioski! I thought Alice Cooper was one of the coolest things on AM radio at the time, and with Suzi Quatro on the bill, I knew I had to be there. My parents did not agree with the inevitability of this rendezvous, and refused permission. Years later, I would realize that my Dad was concerned about my seemingly fragile machismo, and was not going to allow his son to see a guy named Alice, no way, no how. I don’t know if Dad would have felt differently if he suspected my potentially prurient interest in Suzi Quatro. I missed my chance to see Alice Cooper, and my initiation into the musical world of Suzi Quatro’s music was likewise deferred.
That initiation finally took place in either late ’75 or in 1976. I’m not sure of the precise time frame, nor the exact sequence of events. Somewhere in there, I found and purchased a cut-out copy of Suzi Quatro, her debut LP. I can’t remember if that was before or after I saw Suzi Quatro on TV. For the sake of the narrative, let’s presume it was after.
Supersonic was a British rock ‘n’ roll TV series, showcasing performers in a cheesy ’70s studio setting, lip-syncin’ their hits and wannabe hits. It was briefly carried on Saturday afternoons by WPIX in New York City, and available to cable subscribers in Syracuse’s suburbs. I watched it when I could, eager as I was for more and more rockin’ pop, whenever and wherever. I saw some familiar acts on Supersonic, from The Hollies to The Bay City Rollers to The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. I saw that loathsome little bug Gary Glitter. I saw a number of other performers my memory won’t surrender. Supersonic looms largest in my legend for one thing only: showing me Suzi Quatro on TV.
There she was. One Saturday afternoon in the ’70s, the date long faded away, but the image still vivid in my mind. Suzi Quatro. She was beautiful. And hey, whaddaya know? She rocked!
I was transfixed. Hey, ya heard about Susie from Baton Rouge? She wasn’t asking me, but I shook my head, jaw agape, as she continued, Well, lemme tell you ’bout it! Guitars and drums, a churning ’70s bop, grinding forward, Suzi Quatro’s bass booming as she not-quite-sneered, not-quite-smiled her way through.
Awright. This deal was sealed as far as I could see. Marry me, Suzi!
It was the only time I saw Suzi on Supersonic, or anywhere else for a while thereafter. And I didn’t catch the damned title of the song! I spent years looking for something called “Little Susie From Baton Rouge,” or “I’m Just Waitin’ For You,” or, I dunno, “Suzi Quatro’s Love Theme From Supersonic,” all to no avail. I bought the above-mentioned eponymous Suzi Quatro album, either before or after seeing her on Supersonic, and that song was not on the album. And the album…aw, the album didn’t do all that much for me, dammit.
Suzi Quatro ain’t exactly a bad record. mind you. It contains not one, but two of her all-time signature tunes, “Can The Can” and “48 Crash,” plus “Glycerine Queen” and covers of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” and The Beatles‘ “I Wanna Be Your Man.” At the time, I only knew the latter as a track on Meet The Beatles, not realizing that John and Paul had originally written it for Mick, Keith, and Brian, or that it had been The Rolling Stones‘ first hit in the UK. At 16 or so, I was intrigued by the notion of a female singing about wanting to be someone’s man, though it really just meant that Quatro didn’t care enough about gender politics to be bothered; she just wanted to sing the song, you stupid boys. Kinda like Ringo singing The Shirelles‘ “Boys” on the first Beatles album. It wasn’t a statement; it was benign indifference.
I like the album more now than I did then, and I didn’t exactly dislike it then. But it never threatened to overtake the top of my pops, not like Sweet or The Raspberries, or like Suzi’s song on Supersonic might have. My Suzi Quatro fandom meandered after that. I picked up a used promo copy of her Your Mama Won’t Like Me album on a visit to Record Revolution or The Record Exchange in Cleveland Heights; other than a track called “Paralyzed,” most of the album’s hybrid hard rock/faux funk posturing left me unimpressed. In the summer of 1978, I purchased an import Suzi Quatro album called Aggro-Phobia; the LP was two years old by then, but I’d never seen it before, and rightly figured What the hell–why not?
I’d never quite stopped searching for that elusive, unidentified Quatro song I’d heard on Supersonic. It didn’t seem to be on her second album Quatro, an album I wouldn’t hear until a few more years thereafter, and it didn’t seem to be anywhere. I’m sure I was hoping it would be on Aggro-Phobia, but it was not. However, Aggro-Phobia did include a track which seemed to be a companion piece, since its mention of “Louisiana Sue” was a direct reference to Little Susie from Baton Rouge. The Aggro-Phobia track was called “Tear Me Apart.”
I’ll make your legs start shakin’ every time you hear my name
There’ll be no heartbreakin’, and you know you’ll never be the same
Don’t talk to me about Louisiana Sue
‘Cause she can’t do the things that I can do
So tear me apart if you wanna win my heart
I loved “Tear Me Apart,” a brash and confident rock ‘n’ roller that moved more fluidly and winningly than any other Quatro track I owned up to that point. Most of Aggro-Phobia was forgettable for me; “Tear Me Apart” was classic.
Although Quatro was originally from Detroit (where she and her sisters started a band called The Pleasure Seekers when she was 14), she found stardom in England, stardom that did not translate back in the colonies. In 1977, Quatro had begun appearing in a few episodes of TV’s Happy Days, playing anachronistic chick rocker Leather Tuscadero. I bought a Suzi Quatro poster at Economy Bookstore in Syracuse, and displayed it proudly in my dorm room alongside my KISS and Sex Pistols. 1979 brought Suzi’s belated American success: “Stumblin’ In,” a duet with Chris Norman, broke through the American Top 40 in early ’79, peaking at # 4. I was happy for her success, while remaining resolutely uninterested in any of it. I tried to get into her hit album If You Knew Suzi…, but it was a lost cause. In the midst of my embrace of punk and power pop, If You Knew Suzi… was, well…boring. I didn’t know Suzi, nor was I about to.
That said, 1980’s Rock Hard had some pretty damned good moments, and I wish I’d been more aware of them at the time. I knew the title track from its inclusion on the cool soundtrack album to Times Square, a film intended to do for new wave music what Saturday Night Fever had done for dat ole debbil disco. I liked that track just fine, but it wouldn’t be until years later that I discovered a couple of other cuts from Rock Hard–the peppy pop song “Love Is Ready” and the way-cool “Gloria” ripoff “Lipstick”–that I liked even better.
I did eventually identify that track I’d seen Suzi Quatro mime on Supersonic years before. I think it was in the early ’90s, rummaging through 45s at a great North Syracuse record store called Knuckleheads (Motto: We ain’t in no mall!), when I found a Quatro single called “I May Be Too Young.” Cash made it mine, and a spin on the ol’ home turntable verified that my search had finally reached its end.
I may be too young to fall in love
But I’m still hangin’ ’round
I’m waitin’ for you
I’m just waitin’ for you
You’re never too young to fall in love. I wasn’t too young to fall in love with Mary Rose Tamborelli when I was five, nor with Suzette Mauro when I was six, and they weren’t too young to fall in love with me. Temporarily. They got over me quickly–a little too quickly in Suzette’s case, if you ask me–but we weren’t too young to fall in the first place. You’re not too young to fall in love with people, whether as friends or potentially something more. You fall in love with all sorts of sparkly things. You fall in love with books and movies, cartoons, comics, favorite meals, art and artifice. You fall in love with stars. At 15, I fell in love in Suzi Quatro.
One Sunday afternoon around 1976 or ’77, I was chatting with another music fan at the flea market. The subject of Suzi Quatro came up, and he insisted that she’d posed for Penthouse, and that she’d released a live-in-Japan album called Naked Under Leather. I don’t know about the latter claim, but the Penthouse thing was nonsense. That was never Suzi Quatro’s image. She never pandered, never tried to be sexy or provocative in that way. She wanted to rock like the boys rocked. She wanted to be your man. It wasn’t a statement of sexuality; her gender was simply incidental to her, another label like black or white, Mod or rocker, DC or Marvel. She didn’t care. Have ya heard about Suzi from the Motor City? She was punk before we knew what punk was. She was Suzi Quatro. She’s still Suzi Quatro. Go, go, go, little Suzi.
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Born In The Suburbs
I should start this by saying that Suburban Urchins will appeal to fans of The Kinks. This rough-and-tumble outfit from Tasmania isn’t about smooth edges, but bringing the goods in the form of an iron-fisted right cross.
4000 Miles Away begins with a wind-up, propelled by big drums and power chords. With literally energy for miles, it leads way to I Don’t Wanna Go, an isolation song that’s a real fist-pumper. Scott Riley’s vocals and guitar are perfectly supplemented by the keys of Ernie Oppenheimer, who deftly sprinkles synth and Farfisa throughout.
My fave of the set is the anthemic No More Black Dogs, which feels right out of The Davies’ Brothers playbook, in all the right ways.
Paul McCartney brings his own namesake trilogy to a close with McCartney III. With most of the world in lockdown mode in 2020, Macca split his time between days at his recording studio, and evenings with his daughter and grandkids.
I’m a big fan of the first two installments of the trilogy, the first producing Every Night and Maybe I’m Amazed, the latter, Coming Up and Waterfalls. Working by oneself can produce results far different that a full band effort, and I think McCartney flourishes in this setting.
The instrumentation, which relies predominantly on acoustic instruments, is the perfect stage for Sir Paul’s now-weathered vocals. Find My Way is a peppy number fuel by harpsichord and guitar riffs that mimmic horn stabs. Lavatory Lil and Slidin’ are a couple of top-notch rockers, and Winter Bird/When Winter Comes is a pretty acoustic musing, and one of McCartney’s best.
All around, this is a really pleasant listen. With vibes to spare and a lot of really strong songs, I can’t recommend McCartney III enough.
Life Gets Strange
The undeniable sign of a great release? Repeat listens. I’ll bet that in the past two days, I’ve listened to this e.p. at least ten times. From the first verse of the opener, the rambling Let’s Pretend, to the fadeout of the pretty Alien Eyes, I was comfortably hooked.
Cliff Hillis sounds remarkably like Bill Lloyd, who you know I’m partial to. These six tracks are nestled somewhere between the feisty Americana of Cracker and the always-reliable Tom Petty, but without any Southern vocal affectation. Hillis’s friendly, warm voice is perfectly accompanied by the contrast of crisp acoustic guitars and rougher electrics. The production is absolutely on-point.
Life Gets Strange was released in 2020, and I sincerely regret not hearing it earlier. It certainly would have made my year-end-best list. Highly Recommended.
By Dan Pavelich
A Classic 60s Philly Band (Gear Fab Records 2020)
Although The Oxfords never netted national recognition, they experienced a great deal of success in and around the Philadelphia area during the sixties. A constantly booked schedule, including holding the prestigious title of house band at a local Hullabalo Club and appearances on regional television programs were among the group’s shining achievements.
The Oxfords also released four singles between 1964 and 1967, along with several tracks that remained in the vaults until now. A Classic Philly 60s Band marks the first time all the band’s efforts have been brought together on one collection.
Fixated on the British pop sounds of the day, The Oxfords executed their influences with raw talent and enthusiasm. The band’s phrasing and inflection, combined with a sharp sense of harmony and exuberant energy echoed the likes of The Searchers, The Hollies and The Swinging Blue Jeans. An earthy garage rock production provided the group’s material with an additional stroke of charm.
Extra points go to The Oxfords for writing a good chunk their own songs, which revealed a fine grasp of melody and motion. Accented by shuffling riffs and rhythms, It Serves You Right sails in as a tasty bite of Mersey-flavored ear candy, and the foot-tapping Help Me (Understand) further celebrates the band’s flair for coupling synchronized vocals with catchy instrumentation.
Stay in school, get a high school diploma and the world will be yours for the taking is the message conveyed on the plucky Don’t Be A Dropout, while Even True Love Can Die jangles with rockabilly flourishes. Illuminated by soft and shimmery textures, Without You registers as a sophisticated slice of sunshine pop splashed with a touch of soul.
Filed in the cover category, an adaptation of Ben E. King’s Don’t Play That Song drips with drama and heartache, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s You Won’t See Me is padded with brass arrangements, supplying the cut with a bit of a slick Motown styled finish.
Composed of fourteen hooky ditties, A Classic Philly 60s Band will not only yield happy memories for those who were there when The Oxfords were storming the scene, but fans of “Nuggets” and “Pebbles” type combos will appreciate the group’s nifty teen beat tunes as well.
An early version of this was originally distributed privately to patrons of Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do). This is its first public appearance. For as little as $2 a month, supporters of this blog receive one bonus private post each month. You can get in on this action with Patreon: Fund me, baby!
Virtual Ticket Stub Gallery is a series of extended reminiscences of my in-concert memories. This is the first (and probably only) fictional entry in this series. The events detailed herein take place in the same make-believe universe as a previous story I wrote about The Flashcubes, A Brighter Light In My Mind.
It was John Lennon‘s idea.
Of the four former members of The Beatles, Lennon often seemed the most publicly opposed to the idea of getting the old band back together. Although The Beatles broke up in 1970, it seemed that hardly a day could go by without someone–a fan, a pundit, a reporter, a fellow rock star, even a freaking head of state–asking when this fabbest of fours would regroup. Would you want to go back to high school?, Lennon would reply, apparently dismissive of the very idea of ever wanting to get back to where he once belonged. Paul McCartney would insist that one couldn’t reheat a souffle; George Harrison‘s disdain for the notion rivaled Lennon’s; one suspected that Ringo Starr would have been fine with a reunion if it were to occur, but he warned all and sundry that it would only happen if and when it happened, if it happened at all. So the chances of a Beatles reunion appeared to be somewhere far south of slim, barely north of none.
So everyone–including Paul, George, and Ringo–was flabbergasted in 1976 to hear John effectively saying, Hey, lads! Let’s put on a SHOW!
But that’s pretty much what Lennon did.
John Lennon was 35 years old, and he’d packed a lot into those years. His father had been absent, his parents ultimately estranged, leaving John to be raised by his Aunt Mimi; Lennon remained devoted to his mother, and was devastated by her death in 1958, when Lennon was not yet 18 years old. Lennon was creative, artistic, musical, mercurial, temperamental, a joker, a troublemaker. He was in a rock ‘n’ roll group. The group was a failure that became a greater success than any other group in history. He got a girl named Cynthia pregnant. He married her, and they had a son named Julian. John was as absent a father as his own father had been before him. John fell, hard, for an exotic, artistic woman named Yoko. One marriage ended, another began, standing in the dock at Southampton. His band broke up. He became more politically aware, more engaged on behalf of social justice. His antiwar activities drew the ire of the established, entrenched power structure. He wasn’t paranoid; they really were out to get him. The U.S. Government tried to deport him, and was nearly successful in that effort. He fought back, waging war on the battlefield of public opinion. He and Yoko separated. He had a famed, debauched Lost Weekend, spanning eighteen months from 1973 to early ’75. He reunited with Yoko; the separation didn’t work out. Their son Sean was born on John’s 35th birthday, October 9th of 1975. This time, John would not be an absent father. This time, he would do things right.
Yeah. So how much did you do in your life before you turned 36?
John settled into a delighted domesticity. He took care of Sean, he baked bread, and he was just Daddy. The infant Sean was perhaps too young to be fully aware of his father’s devotion, but awareness and appreciation would come in time. Life, after all, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
In 1976, Paul McCartney occasionally dropped by Lennon’s apartment at The Dakota in Manhattan. John kind of wished Paul would call before showing up, but their friendship was old and resilient. Over the years, they had bickered and competed, as friends sometimes do; success and recognition magnify the cracks and faults that would appear anyway, so an argument can often become a lawsuit. Sue me, sue you their younger partner George had quipped. Tempers flared, cooler heads prevailed over time. They were friends. The complicated legal knot that had once been The Beatles would take a long, long time to untangle. The friendship would endure.
John and Paul had played together at an abortive studio jam session in Burbank in March of 1974, during John’s Lost Weekend, along with Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, saxophonist Bobby Keys, and Paul’s wife, the lovely Linda McCartney. The hazy, drug-fueled session was emblematic of John’s excess at the time. In Paul’s visits to The Dakota, the musical collaborations were no more serious, but far more sedate.
On April 24th, 1976, Paul was with John at The Dakota. They’d had some drinks, played some songs, and were settled in front of the TV to watch a new episode of NBC’s Saturday Night, a late-night ensemble comedy sketch show enjoying great success in its first season. The show was hipper than hip. This should be a hoot.
But the former Beatles were wholly unprepared when the producer of Saturday Night began speaking directly to them, as they watched him on the TV screen.
The public mania for a Beatles reunion had reached peak silliness by ’76. There had been million-dollar offers–multi-million!–just to somehow get John, Paul, George, and Ringo on stage together again before a live audience. The preposterous truckloads of money could be paid to The Beatles themselves, to their favorite charities, to agencies fighting world hunger, even to failed Apple Corps projects The Fool and Magic Alex, for all any of the would-be promoters cared. Just GET BACK, Beatles! LET IT BE! ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!!
Money was not what The Beatles wanted. They wanted people to stop asking them to reBeatle. You want a new Beatles record? Take a few tracks each off Walls And Bridges, Venus And Mars, Extra Texture, and Goodnight Vienna, put ’em on a cassette, and PRESTO! Instant Beatles album! You wanna see The Beatles in concert? Take a time machine back to The Star-Club or The Cavern, before all the screaming drowned us out. That time is gone. The Beatles are no more.
Lorne Michaels, the producer of NBC’s Saturday Night, saw the humor in these desperate, clawing, failed attempts to reunite The Beatles. And, where there’s already inherent humor present, well, a comedy sketch just writes itself.
John and Paul stared at the TV screen, their jaws dropping like acid in 1967. Hi. I’m Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night. Right now, we’re being seen by approximately 22 million viewers, but please allow me, if I may, to address myself to just four very special people: John, Paul, George, and Ringo, The Beatles.
Sitting there in The Dakota, their smiles growing wider, Lennon and McCartney watched with glee as Michaels detailed his mock offer to entice The Beatles to appear on Saturday Night. Michaels said he’d heard that maybe the group simply hadn’t yet been offered enough money to give any serious consideration to a reunion. Well, Michaels assured everyone, money wouldn’t be a problem for NBC. And to prove it, Michaels displayed a check from NBC, made out to The Beatles, in the princely amount of three thousand dollars.
McCartney spit out his beer, laughing. Lennon guffawed loudly, amused and engaged. But then he stopped laughing. And he turned to his old partner Paul and said:
We should do it!
At first, Paul thought John was daft. But he also saw the appeal of this crazy idea. Alas, it was a crazy, impractical idea. John said they should head right to the NBC studio, just the two of them, and accept half of the $3000 offer as a joke. But it was late. They were tired. And the moment passed.
A few days later, John was still capering to himself a bit, thinking of that moment. And he started to wonder: had the moment really passed?
Lennon considered. He was determined to be an ever-present part of his new son’s life. He’d put music on hold, and would keep it on hold until he felt Sean was old enough to understand. But Sean was still just a baby, six months old–perhaps this was the right time for John to play one more show before devoting himself exclusively to full-time daddyhood.
John thought back to his last live performance: Madison Square Garden, November 28th, 1974. He’d lost a bet with Elton John, and had to join Elton and his boys in concert. He only did three songs: his own “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (itself a recent hit for Elton), and “I Saw Her Standing There,” a song John introduced on stage as “a number by an old estranged fiance of mine called Paul.” So Lennon’s last concert performance to date had been singing a Paul McCartney song. Heh, Lennon chuckled aloud, That will never do!
He’d been terrified to appear on stage with Elton that night; he’d been away from the spotlight too long, he thought. But it was fun. Exhilarating. Maybe he should consider doing one whole show.
Oh, the hell with it–maybe he should consider doing the one show everyone had been after him to do.
John went to the phone. One by one, he dialed each of his three mates. Paul? George? Ringo? I have an idea….
All three of the others were immediately skeptical, though both Paul and Ringo accepted the idea in short order. George was more resistant. Even when The Beatles were still together, he’d felt like a junior member rather than an equal. And he’d chafed under that feeling of confinement, restriction. He had not missed being a Beatle. He saw no compelling reason to become a Beatle again.
One thinks that should have been the end of this absurd idea of a Beatles reunion. John Lennon certainly wasn’t going to beg George, and nor were the others any more apt to persuade or coax him back into the fold. Nice idea. Let’s forget about it now.
On the other hand, Bob Dylan was perfectly willing to intercede.
For years, no one knew for sure how Dylan even found out about this potential reunion. Decades later, we learned that Yoko Ono had contacted Linda McCartney with the idea, and Linda got in touch with Bashful Bobby Dylan. Yoko was concerned that canceling this reunion would have been a disappointment to John. Her motives were perhaps not 100% altruistic–John had promised to be a stay-at-home father to Sean, and a disappointed John could lead to a wandering John, yet again–but nor were they purely mercenary, either. She wanted John to be able to do this; she wanted John to be happy. On top of all that, Yoko felt that she owed a debt of gratitude to the McCartneys; Paul and Linda had played an understated but undeniable role in getting John and Yoko back together after John’s long Lost Weekend. Furthermore, Yoko knew that Paul also wanted to be a Beatle again, even if just for one night, at least as much as John did. John and Paul were brothers–sometimes bickering, sometime infuriating, but brothers. They needed this…closure.
The idea of enlisting Dylan was simply brilliant. Dylan loved the idea of a Beatles show, so he certainly didn’t mind calling his friend George. George respected Dylan’s opinion, shrugged, and went along with the idea of temporarily–temporarily!–becoming a Beatle again. A reluctant Beatle, sure, but a Beatle nonetheless!
Beatles have people. Lots of people. None of us has ever, or will ever, had any freaking idea of what it’s like to be a member of that exclusive club of four. And part of being a Beatle meant that if you wanted something done, then snap! It was done. Emissaries handled logistics. Snap! Madison Square Garden was booked–quietly–and I still have no idea how they pulled that one off. Snap! Backing musicians were secured; Al Kooper would play keyboards, and the live sound would be further fattened by the addition of The Memphis Horns. Snap! And John, Paul, George, and Ringo found themselves at a secure location on Long Island–far from the madding crowd, far from prying eyes and ears–preparing to make music together for the first time in nearly seven years.
For their first day in the ol’ woodshed, The Beatles wanted to start without sidemen, just the four of them, getting reacquainted, learning again how to play with and to each other. There was no agenda that day; just icebreakers, joking, and jamming. Old friends. Guitars. Bass. Piano. Drums. That first day was more party than woodshed, as the once-and-future mates played random favorites as the thought occurred to them, riffing through Arthur Alexander, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Chan Romero, Richie Barrett, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, James Ray, Wanda Jackson, Elvis, The Miracles, The Impressions, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Without You,” even “(Theme From) The Monkees.” They tried their hands at Beatle numbers, too, from “Love Me Do” to “For You Blue.” Paul earned loud snorts of laughter by singing a bit of John’s “How Do You Sleep?,” while John countered with Paul’s “Let Me Roll It.” (John’s attempt at The Chiffons‘ “He’s So Fine” prompted George to roll his eyes, but John made up for it by duetting with George on a heavenly rendition of “My Sweet Lord.”) The proceedings were chaotic, disorganized, start-and-stop…and wonderful. Old friends.
Business resumed in earnest on the second day, as Kooper arrived; The Memphis Horns arrived on the following day. There would be just over a week of rehearsals before The Beatles’ still-secret gig at Madison Square Garden. They needed to figure some things out in a hurry.
Amazingly, there was actually quite a bit of agreement among The Beatles about what they didn’t want. They didn’t want to be a nostalgia act; they didn’t want to do any kind of chronological representation of The Beatles’ story–they were The Beatles, for cryinoutloud, not bloody Beatlemania. They didn’t want to do a smooth, slick Greatest Hits show. They didn’t want to take anyone back to some imaginary glory days of yesteryear. They wanted to play, in the here and now.
At the same time, they also knew they needed to play Beatle songs. It was a delicate balancing act. If you just give the audience what it wants, you’re a whore; if you don’t give ’em anything they want, you’re a prima donna. The four of them agreed they wouldn’t want to go see, say, Roy Orbison, and not hear “Only The Lonely.” Nor would they care to see (or perform) a show played by the numbers. Balance. They came up with a list of about fifty songs, and started going through them. “Yesterday” didn’t work. Early bubblegum material felt wrong. “Hey Bulldog” was awesome, but fell victim to inevitable cuts in the set list, elimination choices which also claimed “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Yer Blues,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Savoy Truffle,” and an ace cover of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” Rehearsals went on. The set list gelled. The band got tighter. All that time spent apart melted away.
They were The Beatles once again.
Word finally leaked out a week before the show, and an official announcement was made: The Beatles would reunite for one single concert. It would be a slight exaggeration to say that the show sold out instantly. It took nearly twenty minutes to sell out. Arrangements were made to also carry a live feed of the concert in movie theaters throughout the country, around the world. A splendid time was guaranteed for all!
On the day of the concert, John was nervous, apprehensive, nauseous. George alternated between wondering if he’d made a mistake agreeing to take part in this circus and…well, looking forward to it. He found his dichotomy of emotion unexpected, but oddly calming. Paul and Ringo took it all in stride. John pulled himself together. Toppermost of the poppermost. It was time.
The massive crowd at Madison Square Garden was giddy, boisterous, and frankly, high as a kite. The lights went out. Gasps. Cheers. Anticipation. Palpable, tangible thrill.
Ladies and gentlemen…THE BEATLES!!
Still in darkness, John counted off, “1-2-3!” The lights came on, brilliant and blinding, dazzling, dizzying, louder and more popular than Jesus. The grinding guitar consumed the arena, as Paul let out a scream and John began to sing:
You say you want a revolution, well you know
We all want to change the world
The Beatles charged through the opening verse and chorus of “Revolution,” Paul and George adding back-up shoo-be-do-wops to the subsequent verses. “Revolution” led into a furious, manic “Helter Skelter,” and The Beatles’ guarantee of a splendid time for all was already achieved.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “You Won’t See Me.” “No Reply.” The Beatles played an eclectic, electric selection of songs from their catalog of wonder. A new George Harrison song called “Crackerbox Palace” followed, and then flowed into the distinctive riff of “Ticket To Ride.” “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” “Come Together.””Here Comes The Sun.” “Penny Lane.”
There was little between-song patter; there was just an easy-going, amiable on-stage ambiance, incongruously tethered to a lit fuse and an ongoing explosion of buzzing musical delight. John told the fans that they all needed to pay tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll that got them there in the first place, and launched into an impassioned cover of Chuck Berry‘s “Johnny B. Goode.” Those guitars like ringin’ a bell segued into John’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” then Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” then “I Am The Walrus.” “Magical Mystery Tour.” “With A Little Help From My Friends.” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” George introduced “Something” as Frank Sinatra’s favorite Lennon and McCartney song. Thank you, Frank! John whooped out a Thanks, Frankie! in response. “Back In The USSR.” Ringo’s “Photograph.” “We Can Work It Out.” Day Tripper.” George’s “What Is Life.” “Let It Be.” “Don’t Pass Me By.”
It was a long show. These aging rock stars, all in their late thirties by now, should have been dragging, but still seemed energized, ignited, as if they were still that impossibly young bunch of punks tearin’ up the Reeperbahn in Hamburg those many years ago. The guitars gathered more volume, the air became thicker, as every inch of space at MSG gave way to the force and fury of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Paul moved to the piano for a climactic “Hey Jude.” The show concluded with John and Paul singing “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” The Nerk Twins, the British Everly Brothers. And The Beatles said good night.
During all their years of insane, unprecedented, hysterical popularity, The Beatles never performed an encore. No. They did their show, and they got out. So tonight would be history on top of history. The arena thundered with the eager noise of delirious fans wanting more!
Back on stage, soaking in the applause, beaming with pride and satisfaction (wait–wrong band!), The Beatles were ready to oblige.
Thank you, Beatle people. It says here we passed the audition! “Get Back.” “A Day In The Life.” “Eleanor Rigby.” And finally, Larry Williams‘ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” The clock struck eternity. The enchantment ended. This amazing, amazing night was over.
Record labels fell over each other trying to secure the rights to release a live album of The Beatles’ MSG show. Paul, George, and Ringo were each already under contract with competing labels, though John was a free agent. But it didn’t matter; the show was not officially recorded, and would forevermore be only the stuff of memories and bootlegs. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.
The Beatles would never again perform together before a live audience. The four discussed the comic merit of taking NBC’s Saturday Night up on its offer, but ultimately decided it wasn’t something they wanted to do. George Harrison did appear on Saturday Night with guest host Paul Simon; Harrison participated in an opening skit about trying to claim the $3000 the show offered for The Beatles to come on the show, as producer Lorne Michaels deadpanned that he thought it was clear the offer was for four people, not just one. Simon and Harrison then teamed up for lovely renditions of “Here Comes The Sun” and Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Homeward Bound.” John and Paul appeared together on a subsequent episode, carrying out John’s initial joke to demand $1500 for an appearance by two Beatles. The former Fabs played two acoustic sets on the show, without outside accompaniment: Eddie Cochran‘s “Twenty Flight Rock” (the first song Paul played for John when they met in 1957), “Norwegian Wood,”and “Blackbird,” then “In My Life” and “Yesterday.” The two harmonized on each song; notably, it was the first time Lennon had ever sung “Yesterday” in public. Later in the same show, John and Paul plugged in with the NBC house band for a blistering medley of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Rain.”
And with that, John Lennon once again withdrew from the spotlight, making good on his vow to be Sean’s Daddy, nothing more, nothing less. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr returned to their own careers. The three of them performed together at Eric Clapton‘s wedding to George’s ex-wife Patti Boyd on May 19th, 1979.
John came out of retirement in 1980 for Double Fantasy, a new album with Yoko. He did a short small-venue tour in support of the album, and enlisted the members of his son’s favorite group The Flashcubes to play with him. Lennon had struck up a friendship with the ‘Cubes when he arranged for them to play for Sean at a private party on December 8, 1980, the same night police arrested an armed individual loitering outside The Dakota; the unidentified man killed himself while in custody, leaving many to shudder at the thought of what might have happened if the Lennons had returned home earlier. Paul joined Lennon and The Flashcubes on stage at Carnegie Hall for the encore of their final show in March of ’81.
Sadly, a rift developed between Lennon and Harrison. John felt that he’d been deliberately snubbed in George’s autobiography I Me Mine. Relations between the two were strained for quite some time thereafter, though they eventually made amends. Ringo generally remained on good terms with each of the other three, though even our little Richard occasionally grew tired of always being viewed as a Beatle, no matter what.
The Beatles declined an invitation to perform at Live Aid in 1985. The group’s 1988 induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame offered the seemingly certain prospect of a Beatles reunion, but Paul did not attend, citing the sticking point of still-lingering business disputes with his former co-workers.
Finally, the morass of The Beatles’ Sargasso Sea of legal complications and intricacies was navigated and left behind by the dawn of the ’90s. John, Paul, George, and Ringo cooperated and fully participated in the making of The Beatles Anthology, a comprehensive video history of the act you knew for all those years. Proposals for a new Beatles album or tour or one-off concert were ruled out immediately, but they performed several songs together on the Anthology video. Although this would be their final full collaboration, all four remained on cordial terms through George’s death in 2001. The others agreed to honor George’s memory by leaving The Beatles in the past. There would be no more public reunions of any kind. In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
As a young band playing bars in Hamburg and Liverpool, The Beatles fantasized of becoming The Toppermost Of The Poppermost. It was a heady, unlikely dream for four ne’er-do-well punks from a rough-and-tumble seaport town. But the dream came true. Decades later, we dream on still.
The dream isn’t over. We do believe in Beatles. And you know that can’t be bad.
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THE BEATLES: LIVE AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN 1976
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
You Won’t See Me
Ticket To Ride
Strawberry Fields Forever
It Don’t Come Easy
Here Comes The Sun
Johnny B. Goode
Whatever Gets You Thru The Night
Maybe I’m Amazed
I Am The Walrus
Magical Mystery Tour
With A Little Help From My Friends
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Back In The USSR
We Can Work It Out
What Is Life
Let It Be
Don’t Pass Me By
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party
A Day In The Life
Dizzy Miss Lizzy