Thursday, June 21, 2012

(25th in a series of) Stepping Stones "A Competitive Spirit"

Song: Paint it Black
Album:  Aftermath
Released: May, 1966

Transitioning beyond the Beatles was a gradual process for me in the mid-70s.  Yes, I had a variety of other album selections back then; including records by Joe Jackson, the Cars, and Super Tramp.  But these, mostly singular forays, were all secondary to my Beatles-dominated collection.  Don’t get me wrong… I was dabbling back then, primarily with the radio.  But my album collection said it all in terms of my knowledge of music at the time:  I was a bit too top heavy to say the least.

Like many of us who eventually weaned off the bottle…I mean Beatles, I had reached a crossroads when my “Beatlesy” (a George Harrison term, as in “Paul told me my song did not sound Beatlesy enough”) ears became saturated, which was not long after I pretty much tapped out on their discography.  Where would I go at this juncture?  Some in my generation hit the easy-listening stuff:  James Taylor, Carole King, Steely Dan, America.  These were typically the folks who enjoyed the Beatles earlier sound more than the later, heavier albums.  Fine enough.  We all must follow our ears to where the music takes us.

I followed the other path:  The harder stuff, which seeped into the mainstream to stay by the late 60s.  It was simply too good to pass up, and I always felt it was more honest in reflecting our times.  Don McLean would lament this harder sounding, innocence-lost era of ours in his song American Pie.  But I don’t think those earlier times (the Buddy Holly 50s that Don McLean pined for) were really all that innocent either.  Things were just covered up much better, veiled, behind closed doors:  The WWII Generation needed time to heal is my thinking.  No negative spin wanted, thank you!  It would take the likes of Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Curtis Mayfield, The Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and, yes, eventually the Beatles (including their solo careers), to break through the log jam to help reveal some of the undertows of hard-reality, inner turmoil, and injustice that loom just beneath the surface of our modern society (I wrote an essay on this 50s/60s dichotomy in college for a class titled ‘History of the Post-War World’).

When it comes to comprehending why I followed this rough-edged path however, I know it was not all simply about clairvoyance and altruism.  In fact, early on, that was but a small piece of the puzzle.  Though sheer enjoyment was the principle driving factor, another big part of what drove me in this direction was my fascination with competition; an allure that can have me acting downright capitalistic at times.  As is often the case though, my competitive interest here was from the perspective of observer rather than participant.  I became fascinated in just who the Beatles chief competition was back when bands of that era began honing their craft.  I wanted to know more about who pushed the envelope from the role of underdog in the early days of British Rock.  I wanted to know more about the musicians who had to play catch up.

From this perspective, it was only a matter of time before I started broadening my horizons.

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Who really likes monopolies?  Even the monopolists must feel this way.  Everyone needs competition.  What would Russell have been without Chamberlain?  Bird without Magic?  Ali without Frazier?  The Yankees without the Red Sox?  The Canadiens without the Bruins?  Coke without Pepsi?  You need something or someone to push you to greater heights.  I’ve always needed this myself.  Bruce pushed my chess game forward way back when.  Dave pushed my table tennis and billiard game (see GMVW # 40).  Mac pushed me with Trivial Pursuit and poker.  Pat Shea did the same with darts.  A handful of scenarios have helped me at work as well.

The Beatles also needed competition, and it came initially in the form of the Rolling Stones.  When you compare the 60s Rolling Stones period (the Brian Jones years) to the Beatles, there really is no comparison.  The Beatles were consistently excellent from ‘Please Please Me’ all the way through ‘Abbey Road’.  The Stones in the early days were very sporadic, sometimes releasing songs the likes of which the Beatles would have left on the cutting room floor the minute they walked in the studio.  But if you dig a bit under the hood, you can see that the Stones had the right pieces in those formative days, which played out very nicely on occasion in the form of hit singles.  By sticking it out, this would eventually pay off in an even bigger way.

Breaking things down the Stones music actually matches up rather well against the Beatles circa ’63 – ‘67.  Yes, the Beatles mastered the craft of penning good songs long before the Rolling Stones.  But the Stones take the prize in other aspects.  Here’s a rundown:

Multi instrumentalist: Brian tops Paul
Drums: Charlie tops Ringo
Bass: Bill tops Paul (at least in the early days when Wyman was more involved in the creative process)
Guitar:  Really can’t compare.  George was a lead guitarist, and the Stones didn’t get one of those until Mick Taylor in ’69.  All guitarists in both bands (Lennon, Harrison, Richards, Jones) were solid, though Jones lost interest in the instrument sometime around 1966, leaving Richards to fend for himself while Jones himself explored other instruments.
Singer: Also can’t compare.  Mick, John and Paul are all excellent singers, but the Beatles were a harmony band, and the Stones were…. something else.
Note: The Who would obliterate any instrument match-up later, coming near or on top the list in virtually every category.

Things were ramping up in 1966 when the Beatles released ‘Rubber Soul’ and the Beach Boys released ‘Pet Sounds’. Though the Rolling Stones were still primarily a singles band, Paint it Black ( ), released in May 1966, was the earliest feel that the Stones could compete, and on occasion, find the Beatles chasing them.  Paint it Black is heavy, and on this front the Stones beat the Beatles to the punch.  I define heavy as a combination of powerful music and lyrics.  Heavy songs started popping up slowly in the mid-60s and would explode by ’68.  As far as I can discern, it started with the Animals cover of House of the Rising Sun in 1964, followed by Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in 1965.  And the Stones were next in line with Paint it Black, a serious sounding song about a man attending his lover’s funeral.  ‘Heavy’ would snowball from this point on, ultimately mastered by the likes of The Who, Jim Hendrix, Crème, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane…. and the Beatles.

This week’s Stepping Stone has much to say besides the lyrics.  Charlie Watts drumming is brilliant (I am starting to enjoy his drums more than ever, listening so much to the Stones over the past months).  Bill Wyman sounds very involved in the studio effects.  His bass playing is some of his best, particularly that aforementioned ‘vrooming’ sound at the end of the song (discussed briefly in Stepping Stone # 3).  Keith Richards strums along very admirably, particularly during several of the instrumental breaks.  Mick Jagger is solid as usual.  And of course, Brian Jones sitar playing just about steals the show.  These were the days when this band didn’t really have a leader.  Everyone contributed equally, with perhaps only Watts not interested in taking control of the situation.  Later, Richards and Jagger would assume dominance, winning the internal competition, but this would have its ramifications, much like the effects that played out in Pink Floyd when Roger Waters took the helm.  I hope to discuss more of that later.  For now, though, I’d rather just enjoy the moment of hearing a 5-piece ensemble working on an even keel.

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All this talk of competition has me itching for a win of some kind.  Hmmm, I hear Mom is the master of on-line scrabble.  I’ll have to challenge her.  See if she’s game.
-          Pete

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