Thursday, 23 April 2009

Brand new, you're retro

The other day I bought an album of songs by The Left Banke. I'd seen their records for years at fairs and never investigated but recently I heard "Evening Gown" and couldn't believe how good it was. The song is quite raucous by Left Banke standards, featuring an upfront bassline, a fairly reckless electric piano solo and some very garage rock screams. Most of their songs don't feature much in the way of guitar relying instead on strings and keyboard. While reading around the band the phrase chamber pop cropped up. As in: The Left Banke are performers of chamber pop. I'd heard the phrase before, but thinking about it a lot of my favourite songs are in this style, with possibly the biggest and the baddest being "Eleanor Rigby". "Eleanor Rigby" is the first song I can remember hearing, though I'm sure not the first song I heard. It was certainly my favourite Beatles song for years. It's so different to any other song then or now. Even other songs by the Beatles. I heard an instrumental version of it on one of the anthology albums (the second I would guess) and it sounded eerie, as though the instruments were playing themselves after all the musicians had gone home. It's a powerful song.

Despite loving the song so much I didn't buy Revolver until I was about 17 or 18. Not sure why not, possibly because when I was young I didn't realise that the Beatles had released normal albums like other groups. At around the same time I was going through all their other albums and getting pretty blown away. I would say my acquaintance with the Beatles occurred in three phases. When I was a little kid the simple ones like "I Feel Fine", "Drive My Car" and "Norwegian Wood". Then when I was older but still not a teenager the slightly weirder stuff like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I am the Walrus". And finally things like "Why Don't We Do it in The Road" and "Helter Skelter" which I had trouble believing were by the Beatles. It was probably sometime during the second phase when I saw the Yellow Submarine. I remember my mum explaining to me that the film and the songs were the way they were because the Beatles had been using a drug called LSD. I think I was about ten. She cracks me up.

Back to Revolver. I'm neutral when it comes to the whole Lennon vs. McCartney debate but I think this album would pose a problem for hardcore Lennonists. Three of McCartney's song here: "Eleanor Rigby", "Got to Get You into My Life" and "Here, There and Everywhere" are just awesome and all in totally different ways. After "Eleanor Rigby" though it's one of Lennon's that really caught me: "Tomorrow Never Knows". This is another one of those songs that I could hardly believe was the Beatles when I first heard it. I knew that backwards guitars were a cliche of sixties rock but the bit where they come into this just used to give me a chill, and on a good day it still can. And that reminds me, the post title, when I first heard this it was as fresh to me as any music. I remember Nick Hornby rating "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" on the grounds that, as a little known Bob classic, it gave you some idea of what listeners in the sixties must have experienced. I just don't get that. The first time you hear something is the first time you hear it. Maybe genres grow up around innovators and some of the impact is lost but even though The Beatles are just blowing around in the air the whole time I still found most of their stuff a revelation. They're probably the most famous band in the world but it's not as though you'll ever hear "Long, Long, Long" or "I've Just Seen a Face" on the radio.

Read this book.


  1. Neither of my parents are into music at all, and from that point of view, I grew up in a more or less silent house. I always found this a little odd because they were at JUST THE RIGHT age for the brilliant stuff that came out in the late 60s, being just a little younger than the Beatles. They even lived in London. But no - nothing. My dad had a load of old "Top of the Pops" records that he had acquired from the days when his father used to run a pub. My mum used to listen to a guy called Peter Skellern when in the car. Funnily enough though, one of the records they did somehow have was "Revolver"..... it is thus the first Beatles record that I ever listened to in full. Of course, in those days I focused on Eleanor Rigby, which is a pretty much perfect song. You're bang on to say that it is both timeless and totally different from loads of their other stuff. Perhaps it's because of Revolver that I insinctively fall on the Macca side of the debate, rather than on Lennon's side. It's notable though, that when I finally picked up my own copy of the album when I was a student, it was like listening to it with a wholly new set of ears. Eleanor Rigby stood out, of course, but Tomorrow Never Knows, in spite of having heard it before, was like nothing I'd ever heard before. And what about that searing riff on Taxman?

    Great band. We forget, given how ubiquitous they are, and how over-exposed some of the songs are, quite how good they were.

    That said, they are rather uncritically accepted by most people, and "Revolution in the Head" is so good precisely because of the fact that the author isn't afraid to say when he thinks a song is crap or lazy or just simply average.

    Good post.


  2. Thanks. Both my parents are jazz lovers so there were times (I’m thinking Saturday mornings here) that I wished ours had been a slightly quieter house. No doubt I’ll succumb to jazz eventually like I did to other previously inexplicable parental activities. My mum was in London for the latter half of the Sixties, but just a bit too old for all the grooviness, though there is a snap of her sitting in a kitchen and a Bob Dylan single can be seen peeking out of a magazine rack.