Recently, Peter Jackson’s edit of The Beatles’ epic 60+ hours of material from their Get Back sessions was released on Apple, and I’ve been slowly imbibing it. And for me—pushing 60, and old enough to have grown up listening to this music as the background of my childhood—it’s kind of a weird experience.
We had music on basically all the time when I was a kid. It was either playing in the background in the living room our 6-record turntable (just thinking about those vinyl albums thwacking down onto the surface makes me wince in pain), or on the radio in the card. The Beatles, of course, but my parents had eclectic tastes, so there was also Simon and Garfunkel (and Paul Simon), Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Steely Dan, Seals & Crofts, Harry Nilsson, Jesus Christ Superstar (and other soundtracks), Stevie Wonder, Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, Crosby Stills & Nash, and of course everything else on the radio.
Yes, these actually existed
This was also the case once I left home. My college roommates and housemates were almost all music people, too. The first thing I would set up in moving to a new place—and I moved 12 times in 12 years in Santa Cruz—was my stereo. And before the iPod/iPhone/MP3 digital era, that was a hassle, kids! It wan’t the fanciest stereo in the world, but it had a turntable and a cassette player (ask your granny), and it did the job for me.
21st Birthday gift from my Mum!
But this is a new era. When I had kids, and they got a little older, a couple of things happened. First, they didn’t like my music, and didn’t hesitate to let me know it. They were fine with Ella Fitzgerald (who isn’t?) and ZZ Top’s “La Grange”—which they called “the How How song”—but weren’t so good with, I dunno, Fleetwood Mac or The Nightfly. “Fogey Rock”, my daughter called it. (She was listening to Kei$ha, but I heroically refrained from criticism.)
The second thing was, the iPod came out, and were inexpensive (and easy-to-use and indestructible) enough to buy as birthday and holiday gifts. And so everyone could listen to the music they personally liked, and long road trips could be much more peaceful than Mama or Papa pointing out they were the parents and so if they wanted to listen to the soundtrack of Chicago, that was tough darts, go back to your coloring and LEGOs and make sure the dogs have their treats!
Killer of family music listening
But under the heading of unintended consequences was that we stopped actually having a “family stereo” in the house. Not even a central set of speakers and a plug-in for an iPod. And so my personal domicile stopped having an audio soundtrack all the time. And over time, other than by myself in the car, or (rarely) while I worked with headphone on, I stopped listening to music almost entirely.
A solution might have been to have music playing in my bedroom, but there were two problems here, as well: Our special-needs kids were constantly bursting in, and my partner and my relationship was deteriorating, so it just created another area of conflict. And that was that. Until my kids grew up, my daughter moved out, and my partner and I split up.
Now, with just my autistic son and I, I find myself with a lot more…well, space to listen in. I may still have to use my headphones more often than not, but I’m listening to music a lot more again. My old music catalog, of course, but I went ahead and splurged on the monthly Apple Music cost and am slowly expanding my reach. Right now I’m listening to Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill for the first time, for example. (Hey, I was raising a family!)
Which brings us back to The Beatles and Get Back. (I’m slowly coming around to the point here.) As I was watching, it caused me to look up some detail online, which led me Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” (Which one has to take with a grain of salt from an organization that didn’t include Carole King in its Hall of Fame until this year, but never mind.) So I’m scrolling through the list, with a little perspective, given I’m, as previously noted, pushing 60.
One thing Rock fans often fight over is which genre “counts” or “matters” or “is more vital” or some such rot. eg in the late 70s, punk rock was seen as a reaction to the “overblown excesses” of “art rock” or “progressive rock”. The back-to-basics approach of groups like The Ramones or The Sex Pistols was viewed as a necessary correction to all that silly noodling around with string orchestras and synths those pompous jerks from London (King Crimson; Genesis) and Long Island (Yes) and so forth were doing. Kick over the jams, you dinosaurs!
And watching Yoko Ono scream into the mic—God it was painful—and listening to some of the stuff on John Lennon’s first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which were clearly precursors to punk, it’s pretty clear all these narratives are bollocks. These tensions have always been there in rock and roll/rock music. Pete Townsend wrote some of the most orchestral, art-rocky music ever with Tommy, Quadrophenia, and “Baba O’Reilly,” and The Who also blasted the living crap out of people with “My Generation”. Same band. What is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks but Punk 15 years early? It was always there, just without the clothes pins. (And The Beatles had the leather and smokes in Hamburg, thanks. Lennon wore a toilet seat as a collar, FFS. Don’t talk to me about Sid Vicious.)
What I’m getting from Get Back is just how much the music mattered to those guys, and how much effort they’re putting in—amidst the squabbling and weariness and irritation and pressure and everything—to putting out the best music they can. Will overdubbing do it? The acoustics in here suck; will doing it somewhere else be better? Will playing live give us a better sound? How about Eric Clapton? Billy Preston? They want the best for the music.
And ultimately that’s why the arguments seem silly to me (and why I went on the long digression): To all these artists, they’re doing all this for their music. Pete Townshend managed to fuse synthesizers and hard rock and bitter, cynical lyrics and an anthemic sound into one amazing song for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Who gives a shit he used synths to make his point? The Ramones amped up their beat to 160 per minute because for them, that got their point across. The Clash used the trappings of Punk and a lot of incredibly sophisticated studio techniques in conjunction to kick your teeth in with their songs. Rush managed (somehow) to fuse bizarre time-changes, complex poly-rhythms, eclectic science-fiction lyrics, and almost oppressive virtuoso musicianship with heavy metal stylings to create unheard-of Progressive Metal because that’s the music they wanted. The music. That’s what mattered to them. Neil Peart tossed in reggae rhythms to “Spirit of Radio” because he had been listening to The Police and thought it was cool. THE MUSIC, people.
Just because it’s a really awesome album
So now I’m listening to the music, and there’s a lot of music out there, and what I like I like, and what I don’t I don’t, and I don’t apologize for either one. And when I’m dancing to 30s dance tunes by Duke Ellington I’m loving that, and when I’m listening to Alanis Morissette for the first time, I’m loving that. And I hope you do, too. And to hell with musical political BS.
And BTW: Jagged Little Pill just wound up. Pretty cool; I can see why it sold 30+ million copies.