Monday, June 24, 2013

Joe's Record Collection: Lots of artists try to cash in on Beatlemania

Not quite the Beatles: The Rutles are among the artists featured on Rhino's Beatlesongs!


When I was a teenager, I could spend hours simply listening to music. Every day after school, I'd head up to my room, put on my oversized, padded headphones and turn on my trusty six-disc CD changer (which I still have), then lie on my bed or sit Indian-style on the floor and just commune with the sounds coming through those wires. Other than maybe looking at the album cover or glancing at the liner notes, there was no visual component to this activity whatsoever. As often as not, I'd have my eyes closed. There was no physical component either. I didn't dance to these songs, not even when they were clearly recorded for that specific purpose. The Disco Years, Vol 1 would command the same rapt, serious attention as Sgt.Pepper or Beethoven's Ninth. At most, I might sway a bit in time to the rhythm and involuntarily mouth the words along with the singer.

Music wasn't the accompaniment to some other activity back then. It was the activity. What else could I possibly have needed that the songs themselves weren't already providing?

Today, a couple of decades removed from adolescence, I would say that I listen to as much music as ever. Maybe more. I love my iPod -- and I use that verb unashamedly -- because it allows me to take my entire, unwieldy music collection with me wherever I go, a concept that would have boggled my 16-year-old mind in the days when I had milk crates and filing cabinets full of carefully alphabetized jewel boxes taking up copious floorspace in my cluttered teenage bedroom. Now, thanks to Steve Jobs and his minions, I can listen to Big Joe Turner at the supermarket or Shonen Knife on the jogging path or Sigur Ros at the office. (Trust me, the Icelandic band's grandiose yet soothing music is perfect for cubicle drones.) If I want to dial up Exile on Main Street on a commuter train or Gladys Knight and the Pips' Greatest Hits in a motel room, I can... and frequently do. I can't even remember the last time I bought a physical copy of an album. The first thing I generally do with an LP once I download it from Amazon or iTunes is sync it to my iPod and evaluate the songs as I take a stroll around the neighborhood.

Pioneer PL-990: My savior?
All this is fine, but I kind of miss the days when listening to music was a standalone activity. So that's what I'm trying to regain, one album at a time, with this new recurring feature on the Dead 2 Rights blog. Over the years, without even really trying, I've accumulated quite a few vinyl records in a whole variety of genres, spanning several decades . Some I purchased at second-hand shops and garage sales. Some were given to me by relatives. And some... well, some I just seem to have acquired through a weird form of osmosis.

The great thing about vinyl, at least for the purposes of a project like this, is that it's decidedly not portable. I can't take my turntable to the burger joint across the street or to the park down the block. If I'm going to listen to these records, I'll be very literally tethered via my headphone cord to an appliance, a Pioneer PL-990, which is not going anywhere. That's what this is all about. I don't have any illusions about magically regaining my teenage mindset. Even if that were possible, I wouldn't want it. Too many years have gone by. My brain doesn't work that way anymore. But I do want to take a few moments to slow down, tune out the rest of the world, and really listen to an album from one end to the other. Will it be worth it? I guess I'll find out as I go along. Either way, I hope you'll accompany me.

And now, here's the first entry in the series....

Assassin Mark David Chapman (left) makes an unwelcome appearance on the cover of Beatlesongs!

The record: Beatlesongs! The Best of the Beatles Novelty Records (Rhino Records, 1982 - RNLP 803)

Artist(s): Various, including the Rutles, Casey Kasem, Wild Man Fischer, Allan Sherman, and the comedy team of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore

Rhino Records' Beatlesongs!
History: Rhino Records started out as an actual record store on Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles, founded in 1973 by the eccentric Richard Foos, but they began distributing their own records just five years later. Their first release was "Go to Rhino Records" (1978) by the notorious "Wild Man" Fischer, a schizophrenic ex-Zappa protege who'd been hanging out at the LA shop. Rhino Records issued a few punk and novelty singles after that, but their real forte turned out to be high-quality reissues of classic rock, soul, pop, and jazz records, and they became one of the top labels for such releases in the 1980s and 1990s.

In particular, Rhino became famous for its often quirky and clever compilation albums with distinctive packaging and well-researched liner notes. One early example was 1982's Beatlesongs! The Best of Beatles Novelty Records, a various artist LP with tracks about (but not by) the Beatles. Most of these are comedy songs released during the first wave of Beatlemania in America, circa 1964, but some are tracks recorded well after the group's demise. Unfortunately, the album was quickly taken off store shelves because of its deliberately tasteless cover illustration by William Stout, who depicted John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, as one of the attendees of a fictional "Beatlemania Convention."

I bought this in the 1990s at a real Beatles convention from a vendor who swore to me it would become a collector's item. It hasn't. But it still contains some interesting pop culture debris, mostly ephemeral records that were designed to have a very brief shelf-life. Rhino, meanwhile, was absorbed into Warner Music Group in 2009 and has largely been supplanted in the offbeat nostalgia biz by Shout! Factory.

All Music Guide says: 2.5 stars. "Unfortunately, the selections are not as representative as they might have been and occasionally venture into irrelevant territory." - Greg Adams [link]

Was it a hit: No, but "We Love You Beatles" by the Carefrees crawled up to #39 back in February 1964.

Choice excerpt from the liner notes: Musicologist Ken Barnes summarizes the "low comedy role" played by topical novelty records ("idol worship or idle wordplay, sycophancy or sicker fancies") and gives us background details on the artists, e.g. "Wild Man Fischer was so affected by the Beatles (his favorite group at the time) film Yellow Submarine, that he was moved to write 'I'm the Meany' after one of the cartoon characters. Wild Man says his new favorite group is the Go-Go's." The liner notes also contain an explanatory letter from Dudley Moore (by then a major movie star) to one of this album's producers, Harold Bronson. Moore says that "The L.S. Bumble Bee" was made quickly to capitalize on the druggy notoriety of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" but musically was inspired more by the Beach Boys and the Supremes. "The only thing I can remember about the recording session," Moore writes, "was that Peter Cook had practically lost his voice when we were doing it, and found it very hard to put any tone into it."

Beatles label-mate Donna Lynn.
The listening experience: Quick and fulfilling. These twelve tracks are all brief, mostly in the two-or -three-minute range, and the songs tend to be upbeat and catchy, so listening to Beatlesongs! is a breeze. I must've listened to this record a lot in the '90s because I still knew the words to most of the songs by heart. Side One is fairly sedate stuff.

It starts with "The Invasion," a break-in record by Bill Buchanan and Howard Greenfield. Break-in records, for the uninitiated, are spoken-word comedy bits that are structured like news reports and employ cleverly-edited snippets of popular songs in an early, primitive form of sampling. Buchanan helped start this novelty sub-genre with his former partner, Dickie Goodman, back in the '50s with "The Flying Saucer (Parts 1 and 2)." "The Invasion" is a virtual replay of that record, only with the Beatles in place of aliens from outer space. "AMERICA, THIS IS THE END!" cries one panicked observer over the sound of an air raid siren.

Next up is something quite a bit more reverent: "Hold My Hand" by the Rutles, a late-1970s Beatles parody originally created by Eric Idle (of Monty Python) and Neil Innes (of the Bonzo Dog Band) for their British TV series, Rutland Weekend Television and later featured on SNL and their own feature-length NBC special. "Hold My Hand" is not a comedy number, per se, but rather a loving pastiche of the Beatles' early 1960s sound.

The Carefrees are up next with "We Love You Beatles," a song of devotion with a melody swiped from Bye Bye Birdie and sung with almost militaristic fervor.

Forgotten pop princess Donna Lynn, who recorded on the same American label (Capitol Records) as the Beatles, sings the goofy lament "My Boyfriend Got a Beatle Haircut," one of the rare records in which Beatlemania threatens to take a guy away from a girl, instead of the other way around. (On Side Two, the genders are reversed.)

Side One's craziest record -- by far -- is Casey Kasem's "Letter from Elaina," in which, over an instrumental rendition of  "And I Love Her,"  the famed DJ reads, with great sensitivy and gravitas, a missive from a hysterical female groupie who managed to get by security long enough to hug George for several seconds before he could break away, say, "Hi, bird," and drive away in a limo. ("My girlfriends were -- and are -- very envious," she boasts.) What's amazing about this record is how little actually occurs in the story and how much meaning Casey gives it with his tender tone of voice:

Side One ends with "Beatlemania," an instrumental mish-mash of the group's early hits, by Jack Nitzsche, the famed arranger and film composer, who throws in a bit of "Needles and Pins" -- a hit he cowrote with Sonny Bono -- for good measure. Apart from "Hold My Hand," every track on this side comes from the original 1960s heyday of Beatlemania.

Rhino Records mascot Larry "Wild Man" Fischer
On Side Two, things get a bit crazier. Kicking things off is "Beatle Rap," a "Rapper's Delight"-style novelty tune credited to a one-off group called The Qworymen (a play on John and Paul's pre-Beatle band, The Quarrymen) and apparently recorded exclusively for Rhino. Though the rapping is elementary by today's standards and the Beatle impressions are a bit shaky, this record is a blast for knowledgeable Beatlemaniacs, jam-packed with references -- some quite obscure -- to the Beatles and their careers, including the solo years. (The fake "Paul" mentions his then-recent drug bust.) Musically, it's built around the riff from "Day Tripper," but if you listen through headphones, you'll hear nods to "The Inner Light," "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "I Should Have Known Better." My favorite aside, from "John": "Anybody wanna buy some lithos?"

Cook and Moore are up next with their deliberately twee, pseudo-psychedelic pop song about a consciousness-expanding bumblebee. It's hard to believe that this song has been frequently been passed off as a "real" Beatles song and has turned up on Beatle bootlegs for years. It sounds nothing like them.

Next, Rhino Records' unofficial mascot, Wild Man Fischer, delivers the most out-there, avant-garde track on the whole compilation: his unhinged, off-key a cappella rant "I'm the Meany," which contains the line "She told me she was pregnant, so I hit her in the stomach!"

After that, Allan Sherman's "Pop Hates the Beatles," a parody of "Pop Goes the Weasel" complete with orchestral backing, sounds positively genteel. Sherman brings his usual Borscht Belt crankiness to the topic of the Beatles. The song is actually sung from the point of view of an exasperated father whose daughter is a confirmed Beatlemaniac. The live audience on this record, obviously composed of moms and dads of Sherman's generation, laugh appreciatively. Beatlesongs! ends with two quickie cash-in records from 1964 (or thereabouts).

The album's closer, "The Beetle" by hit songwriter Gary Usher, is an opportunistic attempt to create a new dance craze based very loosely on the Fabs.

It's cute enough, I suppose, but I got much more of a kick out of "Letter to the Beatles" by the Four Preps, a clean-cut 1950s pop quartet, i.e. the type of group largely made obsolete by the British Invasion. Perhaps fueled by jealousy, they released a musical lament about a poor guy whose best gal dumps him when she becomes obsessed with the Beatles and -- after receiving numerous unsatisfactory responses to her fan letters -- finally breaks down and agrees to purchase all the merchandise the group wants to sell her. Even if you love the Beatles so much that you're offended by this song, you have to admit that the chorus of "A Letter to the Beatles" is damned catchy. I think this tune is as worthy as any of closing this article, so I'll leave you with it. Enjoy.

Overall grade: B