1960s

Eight Days a Week — Movie Review

this Ron Howard-directed rehash of the thrills and chills of Beatlemania is pretty much all that you would expect and then some! In a way, this film wasn’t really that much better than the Elvis documentary that I reviewed last month, because it’s all so familiar. Eight Days a Week earns an extra star because it isn’t 4 hours long, Howard doesn’t use the Ken Burns interview technique and there is some new footage, like clips of the band in Manchester in late 1963 (below). Supposedly, this was the first color movie with sound of the band performing and it’s pretty cool by anybody’s standards.

Of course the film is praised in every review because even though there seems to be a retelling of the Beatle story every 3-5 years, every media outlet falls over themselves and each other to say how great! and how new! and unseen footage! This time is no exception:

Still, there was the promise of undiscovered gold. One woman approached the filmmakers with footage she had from The Beatles’ final public concert, the 1966 show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. It had apparently lain under her bed, unviewed, ever since.”

But about that new footage: It actually translates to the Beatles running offstage for the last time. Big whoop, ya know? Except for the above footage from Manchester and a few other snippets here and there, the “new footage” does not equal “performance you’ve never seen”. Even the the performances of She Loves You and Twist and Shout from Manchester are not really that earth-shattering because the Beatles were well-rehearsed and very consistent performers. If you’ve seen footage of them playing these songs before… The footage from their first US gig in Washington DC is great quality, but that performance has been on YouTube for years, albeit at much lower quality.

The PROS: The one aspect of this film I really liked was shots and interviews of regular people: A huge crowd of male Liverpool soccer fans singing She Loves You! Killer! A hilarious group of New York girls talking about which Beatle they loved! Awesome! Sigourney Weaver talking about seeing the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl! Hotness! Whoopi Goldberg, who saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium! Whoopi! Elvis Costello in a cool hat talking about Revolver! Elvis! Dr. Kitty Oliver, who saw the Beatles in Jacksonville when they refused to play to segregated audiences, and it was the first time she had ever been in a mixed race crowd of people! Beautiful! Finally, newsguy Larry Kane, who was a major presence in the Philadelphia market for over 30 years. A pedantic, uncool, almost Howard Cosell-type guy who, through his traveling with the band, became good friends with the Beatles, especially John Lennon. His reports are so unhip, they are completely hysterical! He was always like that…but he was a good news reporter.

The CONS: Not one shot of George Harrison playing a guitar solo, although there is a brief minute of him singing Roll Over Beethoven in a snarly tone I’ve never heard before. Too much Starr/McCartney reminiscing that’s been done before. Instead of a few more restored or colorized clips of the Beatles playing in Washington in 1964 or at Budokan, Japan in 1966 we are treated to endless still photo montages of the Beatles traveling, running from girls, having pillow fights in their hotel rooms, running from the stage, doing photo shoots, doing press conferences, and smoking. They did a lot of smoking and for some reason this film needed to animate the smoke from still photo cigarettes. Then there are the shots of helicopters in Vietnam, rednecks burning Beatle records because Lennon said something about Jesus, people rioting, Oswald’s rifle, Kennedy’s motorcade…Yea, I know context. The problem is the context always seems to overwhelm the music and before you know it, you’re watching another very familiar-looking special on the 1960s. If you know that story or have seen it before, you won’t find much in this movie to celebrate. If you have no idea who the Beatles were, don’t understand what the 60s were about, or are a fan that needs to see everything, you’ll probably enjoy this. I watched this with my girlfriend and she didn’t like it either but we both enjoy watching the old concert footage. We’re going to try to find a collection of the old concerts if something like that has ever been made?? My birthday is in a few months.

Eastern-Flavored Music

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The Beatles, Stephane Wrembel and Ali Akbar Khan

During the past few weeks I have listened to three albums constantly: Revolver by The Beatles, Barbes by Stephane Wrembel, and Journey by Ali Akbar Khan. There is a common thread running through all three discs and that is Indian/Eastern music. I’m a fan of different types of music from the Middle and Far East though I really can’t say my knowledge of the subject is very extensive. There are many different instruments and types of music involved and I favor the more traditional/instrumental. I have heard a lot of Asian pop music and some of it is pretty good, but I find that the instrumentation and the arrangements better and more sophisticated in traditional/classical music.

Like many people, I came to “know” (I use the term “know” very loosely and in it’s most superficial sense), Indian music through bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Beatle George Harrison studied sitar with the late Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar and became one of Indian music’s most vocal proponents. Norwegian Wood, which was written by John Lennon, was the first Beatle song to use the sitar and was basically a western song that employed the sitar for musical effect (the same can be said for The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black). There is some great background at The Beatles Bible (A great site!) on the London scene at the time of recording Rubber Soul and Norwegian Wood. (As I have written on the blog before) Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds were also early pioneers of Eastern-inspired pop music. The original take of Heart Full of Soul actually had a sitar on it! The Davies brothers from The Kinks were also recording music with Eastern sensibilities (See My Friends) at the time. In the States, The Byrds 1965 hit Eight Miles High had a sitar-flavored Rickenbacker guitar sound playing John Coltrane-esque lines, which was pretty far out and groovy for pop music. As the 60s progressed “that Eastern sound” would become synonymous with being stoned and/or altered states of consciousness, much to the displeasure of Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar. Unfortunately, the sound and influence of the music became so popular that it would invade even the most trivial and superficial places by the end of the decade.

When the Beatles’ follow-up album to Rubber Soul, Revolver, was released, it contained the Harrison composition Love You To, which was the first attempt to go “further into the style”. This tune would be a template for later Harrison songs like Within You, Without You and The Inner Light: they are all attempts to play bona-fide Indian music, albeit in a western pop music format. Musically though, I think Love You To is one of George’s best songs ever. Great arrangement and performance and he stays within the confines of the pop style. Other songs from Revolver that are very Eastern, but don’t contain any Eastern instruments, are the fantastic John Lennon compositions Tomorrow Never Knows and She Said, She Said. The former, a drone chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on a cool, repetitive Ringo beat with loads of sounds and tape effects, broke a whole lot of rules for pop music and the guitar lines from the latter echo the Eastern-influenced mixolydian lines and quarter to half step bent-notes that one could also hear from Jeff Beck (Shapes of Things, Heart Full of Soul) and Jimi Hendrix (Love or Confusion, Purple Haze) during this time. As the 60s transitioned into the 70s, these Indo/Eastern influences became less of a thing in pop music, but started appearing in the jazz, fusion and progressive rock music of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Shatki and many more.

In 2006, Stephane Wrembel, Manouche guitarist extraordinaire, who is also a huge fan of prog-rock and student of Indian music, released his disc, Barbes. Recorded when his group was a trio (with bandmates Jared Engle on bass and David Langlois on percussion) the disc is the perfect modern synthesis of three major styles of music: jazz, prog-rock and Indo/Eastern music. I have always dug this disc! Brilliant playing and my favorite of everything he has done. (To see his band live during this time was also a great experience as the clip above proves). Not only are the originals on Barbes fresh and inspiring, the band also covers Django Reinhardt‘s Fleche D’Or, Dizzy Gillespie‘s Night in Tunisia and John Coltrane‘s Afro Blue. The group takes some of these tunes at breakneck tempos and the performances are a dizzying array of chops and melodic invention. Also, the ambient “mood” tunes, including (Introductions, Detroductions) are music of sparse instrumentation and indeterminate origin; world music ragas perhaps?

A Raga is: in the classical music of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, a melodic framework for improvisation and composition. A raga is based on a scale with a given set of notes, a typical order in which they appear in melodies, and characteristic musical motifs.

Manouche music or Gypsy Jazz has strong Indian roots because it is generally agreed that the group of people known as “Gypsies” originated on the Indian subcontinent and first migrated into Europe in the 12th century. There are various sub-categories of these Romani people: Manouche in France, and the Sinti of Central Europe. Sinti/Manouche guitar playing sounds very similar to not only Indian classical music, but some of the progressive rock and jazz of the 1970s. One huge connection is that IMPROVISATION is everything in Indian music, likewise for Manouche music or a lot of 70s rock/jazz as well. A Manouche player must have a very disciplined mind and an aural technique that includes whole tone scales, diminished and augmented arpeggios, altered scales and arpeggios and an emphasis on the “Django-favored” sixths and ninths of the harmony chords. Modern players like Stephane Wrembel have added depth to the sonic palette of the music by combining it with other influences and adding their own touches of musical imagination. There are rhythmic devices and picking patterns found in Indian music that one does not normally hear in a lot of western jazz or classical music and Stephane explores the picking and rhythmic subdivision topics in his book, Getting Into Gypsy Jazz Guitar, which I review here. He advises picking quarter notes up through nontuplets (subdividing by 9 to the beat) with the metronome as warm-up exercises. He explains that, “musicians in India have their own efficient approach to time consisting of singing rhythms using certain syllables. A similar approach may be applied to right-hand technique which will allow for warm-up…” This is a very good way to improve your picking technique and I can say I did it religiously for about six months. In addition to giving my a bunch of listening pleasure, Getting Into… and Barbes are windows into another world and their influence definitely helped make me a better guitar player. Here are some further insights into the nature of Indian rhythm, courtesy of Ravi Shankar.

“…Indian music is also tyrannically precise, with extremely complex mathematical guidelines for how ragas are played. “There are thousands of ragas,” Shankar explains, “and they are all connected with different times of the day, like sunrise or night or sunset. It is all based on 72 of what we call mela or scales. And we have principally nine moods, ranging from peacefulness to praying, or the feeling of emptiness you get by sitting by the ocean.”

Ali Akbar Khan “was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod.” Born in modern-day Bangladesh, he was trained on a variety of instruments under the guidance of very strict family members who had him practicing up to 18 hours a day. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was also an accomplished musician and was, for a time, the wife of fellow student, Ravi Shankar. Over the years Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar would perform many times together, including at The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and were easily two of the most prominent Indian musicians in the western world. After moving to the USA in the late 50s Khan would found a couple of schools, one in California and one in Switzerland and would spend the next 40 years touring and performing until his health failed in the late 2000s.

I’ve been listening to Journey for the past 10 years and find it very enjoyable. As I related earlier, I’ve always liked the sound of Indian music, especially if it’s instrumental. Eastern philosophy doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize like Western thinking and Eastern music doesn’t separate Eastern Mystical concepts (that were the lyrics of western songs like The Inner Light or Within You, Without You) from the music. Some of the best musical numbers on Journey include Morning Meditation, Temple Music and Lullaby. I don’t meditate (perhaps I should?), but the sounds of this music conjure up great feelings of emotion and ambiance that I hear in any other great, sophisticated music. The happy, get up and go riff of the title cut, Journey, is brilliant and fun as is the dark and somewhat stormy Carnival of Mother Kali. The romantic, almost child-like melody of Come Back My Love sounds like mid-60s George Harrison song and the other ballad-type tracks have the pacing and deliberate delivery that one can hear on some of the tracks of Barbes. There is a whole lot of crossover between these three discs is what I’m trying to say! Khan’s Sarod has a stoic depth and darkness even in happy moods, and his soulful playing is augmented by Guitars(!), Tabla, Shakers, Tanpura, Keyboards, Duggi and Dholak. All of the music was composed by Ali Akbar Khan and was recorded in 1990, giving the disc a classic, but very modern sound.

I also own this disc, Traditional Music of India, which is four really long ragas. Very cool, long jams that have none of the more modern arrangements or instrumentation found on Journey, but still a very enjoyable listen. This is the kind of traditional music that one must be a master to play and would probably be impossible for most western musicians or anyone else not raised in the school. It’s amazing that no matter the musical style, or background of the artist, the performance of classic music such as this is basically approached the same way and requires the same skills. The pace and flow of these very traditional ragas remind me of some of the guitar pieces on the Bream and Williams disc I review in the right column, or a Django Reinhardt solo improvisation or Jimmy Page playing White Summer. (Incidentally…sometimes it helps to approximate an “Indian” sound/tuning by using alternate tunings, which I explore here.) Music from the Asian continent has given western listeners and players a very expanded sense of what music (and life) is and I believe any musician can only gain from listening to and experiencing music such as this. There is a nice quote on the cover of Journey that I relate to and maybe other musicians will find it interesting as well:

Music is something I learned all my life and am still learning. Earlier in my boyhood days, I learned naturally—as children learn a language, without deeper understanding of what it can really offer. I kept on learning and playing with rapt attention — with a sense of dedication — but not the deep inner feeling which finally came at the ripe age of fifty! Now when I play, my heart is filled with blissful joy that I can hardly express! I feel a sense of ultimate fulfillment that nothing else in the world can offer me anymore. Indeed, music is a very spiritual experience for me — only through music, I feel I can reach closer to God…”

— Ali Akbar Khan

The Jazz Messengers

Amazing performances of hard bop drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, including trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxman John Gilmore, bassist Victor Sproles, and pianist John Hicks, from a televised special in England in the mid-60s. I love these two videos I’m putting up — Buhaina’s Delight and I Can’t Get Started. All of these guys are monster soloists and very inspirational players to soak up ideas from. I also like the “heads” or “themes” on both tunes. Very cool. I’ve never played Bu’s Delight at a gig, but have played the other a few times. Classic standard from the old days.

Check out Blakey’s drum solo on Bu’s Delight…a jazz drummer with the thunder of someone like John Bonham — I know it pisses some people off to compare rock and jazz players doesn’t it? Blakey is really incomparable, I know. He was a total monster and played like he was on fire for 40 odd years and his Jazz Messengers served up some of the hardest and most soulful jazz ever made. He and his band also served as a training ground for young players and launched the careers of people like Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Kevin Eubanks (guitarist from the Tonight Show), Keith Jarret, Bobby Timmons and Wynton Marsailas. I have the Bu’s Delight album and it’s great! Also hear other stuff all the time on the jazz radio thing. Very hard and dark music with a lot of muscle and a lot of swing.

Both Lee Morgan and John Gilmore were great players too. Morgan played with many jazz greats and released quite a few of his own records before he was killed tragically in the early 70s and Gilmore played with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra until his death in the mid-90s. He has been considered by some to have been an influence on Coltrane!! Both of these guys should be near the top on any list of players of their respective instruments.