The melding of Dionne Warwick’s voice with songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David was one of the loveliest things to happen to music in the 1960s. Like her younger cousin Whitney Houston, Miss Warwick had a natural elegance and seeming effortlessness to her performances that belied the skill and preparation behind her work. This serene stylishness was played up in studio recordings and TV appearances. In an exciting video of a very young star performing the hit “Walk on By” live in 1964, that cool grace is mixed with a freshness and verve that really makes me wish I’d seen her perform in person.
But we can still enjoy her wit—her Twitter feed shows that the superstar now affectionately known by many as “Auntie Dionne,” still has plenty of humor and joie de vivre to go around.
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.
Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.
As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.
The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.
Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)
To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.
The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.
Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.
If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.
During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.
While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.
If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:
Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:
A lonely maiden from a hamlet small— A boy within a woeful city reared: They both at midnight left their port of call T’ward any destination volunteered.
Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!
Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—
In the 1960s popular music went in a number of different directions. One cheerful subgenre of pop that originated in the U.S. was known as “sunshine pop” (or sometimes “flower pop” or “twee pop”) and was characterized by intricate vocal harmonies, sophisticated production (think of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album) and upbeat warmth. In addition to the Beach Boys, some of the most popular sunshine pop bands were The Turtles (“Happy Together“), The Mamas and the Papas (“Monday, Monday“), The Fifth Dimension (“Up, Up and Away“), Harpers Bizarre (“Feelin’ Groovy“), Spanky and our Gang (“Lazy Day“), The Seekers (“Georgy Girl“) and the Association (“Windy“). A New York-based sunshine pop group of brothers and sisters called The Free Design was never as prominent as most of these bands, but they were among my favorite groups as a child, and I spent hundreds of hours listening to their albums. They were popular with professional musicians like my mother and her friends because The Free Design‘s musicianship was so strong and their compositions were often rigorous and showed evidence of classical training and technique.
Over the past decade, the music of The Free Design has seen a renaissance. One of their songs, “Love You,” appears regularly in a wonderful current ad for Delta Airlines, and has appeared in international ads for Toyota, in the charming Will Ferrell fantasy Stranger Than Fiction and as part of Showtime’s series Weeds. The syrupy sweet, lighter-than-air lyrics of “Love You” are as insubstantial as down and just as soft and appealing—here’s a sample:
Dandelion, milkweed, silky in a sunny sky Reach out and hitch a ride and float on by Balloons down below catching colors of the rainbow Red, blue and yellow green, I love you
Weeds also featured the group’s song “I Found Love,” which was played on The Gilmore Girls as well. Nearly a half century after they first began recording, the group is delighting a whole new generation as part of a sunshine pop revival.
Some classify The Free Design as a “baroque pop” group since they incorporated intricate vocal harmonies and classical elements in their compositions, and they sang some melancholic ballads along with their uptempo hits such as “Kites Are Fun.” Some of their most beautiful songs, such as the heartbreakingly pretty “Don’t Turn Away” and the elegant but cynical song “The Proper Ornaments,” have a darker quality to them, and they expand into surprisingly complex vocal harmonies that certainly take them out of the sunshine pop mainstream and put them into the baroque camp. A terrific example of both their upbeat major-key sunshine pop sound and the baroque complexity of their interlacing close vocal harmonies is their song “Umbrellas.”
Their lovely but strange song “Daniel Dolphin” is an odd mixture of styles, upbeat seeming at first yet in a minor key, and while it begins as a song about a playful dolphin, it grows serious as Daniel carries away a dying old man. When Daniel returns, he is killed by those who misunderstand the reason for his journey, which turns out to have been to facilitate the old man’s reincarnation—a surprisingly arcane and dark twist from a group often mistakenly characterized as nothing but sunny.
The Free Design began as a trio of members of the Dedrick family: Chris, who wrote most of their songs, his brother Bruce and their sister Sandra. Their younger sisters Ellen and Stefanie joined the group later, but it is Sandy’s warm lead vocals that were at the heart of the group. Sandra Dedrick now lives in Ontario, Canada, where she writes poetry, songs and children’s books.
Recently I saw Taylor Swift interviewed on The Graham Norton Show, and she was charming and poised though she seemed a bit ditzy. She held her own, though, when John Cleese repeatedly and rudely interrupted her; she waited patiently as he totally derailed her interview and stole her segment after having had a whole segment of his own, and then she moved on with professionalism and courtesy. She has excellent manners, I thought.
The following day I heard an interview with her on NPR that showed evidence of the articulate, tactful young woman that I’d heard in previous interviews. I was impressed by her self-awareness and by her respect for and deep understanding of her primary audience demographic: teen and preteen girls. The interviewer said, “You have a huge platform among a very vulnerable, impressionable set of the population. And I wonder if you think about turning your lens outward, turning it away from the diary page, and sending a broader message to girls who would be really receptive to hearing about big ideas and the big world that’s outside. … Do you ever think about writing about other experiences, things that might turn girls away from themselves in a different way?”
Swift replied: “We are dealing with a huge self-esteem crisis. These girls are able to scroll pictures of the highlight reels of other people’s lives, and they’re stuck with the behind-the-scenes of their own lives. There’s nothing that’s gonna turn girls away from themselves at age 12. I think that it’s really important that I speak about things in interviews that I’m passionate about. I have brought feminism up in every single interview I’ve done because I think it’s important that a girl who’s 12 years old understands what that means and knows what it is to label yourself a feminist, knows what it is to be a woman in today’s society, in the workplace or in the media or perception. What you should accept from men, what you shouldn’t, and how to form your own opinion on that. I think the best thing I can do for them is continue to write songs that do make them think about themselves and analyze how they feel about something and then simplify how they feel. Because, at that age — really at any age, but mostly that age — what can be so overwhelming is that you’re feeling so many things at the same time that it’s hard to actually understand what those emotions are, so it can turn to anxiety very quickly. I’m 24. I still don’t feel like it’s a priority for me to be cool, edgy, or sexy. When girls feel like they don’t fit into those three themes, which are so obnoxiously thrust upon them through the media, I think the best thing I can do for those girls is let them know that this is what my life looks like. I love my life. I’ve never ever felt edgy, cool, or sexy. Not one time. And that it’s not important for them to be those things.”
In the early 1970s, Harry Nilsson’s pure, beautiful voice was everywhere. He had a great way with a popular song and he composed tunes that were alternately heartbreaking (“Without You”), intense (“Jump Into the Fire“), bubble-gum sweet (“Me and My Arrow,” and the theme to “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father“), tender (“The Moonbeam Song“), silly (“Coconut“) and generally wonderful. One of his biggest hits was a song he didn’t compose but which he turned into an international hit with the plaintive simplicity of his voice: “Everybody’s Talkin‘,” the theme to the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy,” turned him from a composer into a huge star. Nilsson was a famously rowdy and seemingly totally undisciplined mess, a huge drinker and taker of drugs who stayed up for days on end carousing with friends like John Lennon and Ringo Starr. But then he could stumble into a recording studio after having been up all night shouting and smoking and filling his body with poisons and pour out a pitch-perfect performance of a song like “Without You” in a single take. When you listen to this song, pay attention to his extraordinary phrasing: each line unspools in one long, beautiful phrase without a single breath: “No I can’t forget this evening / or your face as you were leaving / but I guess that’s just the way the story goes” is so heartbreakingly effective when delivered as one single, aching, perfect thought. Nowadays it’s rare to hear even the most athletic 20-year-old having enough breath control to hold a phrase that long without breathing between words, and sometimes even breathing between the syllables of a single word, losing continuity, feeling and the meaning along the way. Nilsson always had a soft spot in his heart for pop standards sung by trained musicians, and while he lived like a rock star, he sang with the warmth, control and sweetness of a midcentury balladeer. His story is beautifully told in the 2006 documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson . . . And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?“
She cultivated a wasted party-girl persona when she first made it big, so you could be forgiven for thinking that she’s just a trashy, yodeling Valley Girl, or a rapping, adenoidal lightweight, or that her songs are indeed catchy but too full of drunken, sneering bad-girl behavior to merit much attention.
But don’t underestimate her talent or her power; Kesha has sold over 60 million albums around the world, and she began her music career as a back-up singer and pop song composer in her teens. She earned her first recording contract at 18 after growing up in a Nashville suburb learning about the business from her mother, a country music songwriter. Kesha cowrote every song on her first two albums and has written for other artists including Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.
For several years I thought of her music as a bit of dumb fun providing bouncy background beats on my car radio when I need a mindless dance club-style lift, and I still see much of her music that way. No harm in that. But then I heard the spare, dark and moody version of her nightclub anthem “Blow” from her “Deconstructed” EP and gained a whole new respect for her.
Kesha usually relies on dirty sass and frequent vocal fry crackles along with a sort of grubby, drunken energy to make her songs stand out. In the deconstructed version of “Blow,” Kesha’s intense, breathy vocals are front and center and backed up by keyboard riffs brimming with tension and delicious dissonance. The song begins with a muffled, distorted piano and the layers of vibrating echo build menacingly behind her anxious, slightly frantic soft vocals. I think it’s a beautiful surprise from a totally unexpected source. Give it a listen.
In 1965 Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork and Englishman Davy Jones were chosen to star in a TV show about an imaginary rock band inspired by the Beatles: they became The Monkees. Micky Dolenz came from a show-biz family, Mike Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper (no kidding) and Davy Jones had earned a Tony nomination for his role as the Artful Dodger in the original Broadway cast of the musical “Oliver!” (He originated the role in the London cast.) Talented musician Stephen Stills (who later earned fame with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash) had auditioned for the show but was turned down because his hair and teeth were deemed unsuitable during his screen test. When asked if he knew of another musician with a good “open, Nordic look,” he recommended his friend Peter Tork. From 1966 to 1968 the popular show featured the four young men in endless ridiculous scenarios and scores of musical performances. While considered by many to be a lightweight, manufactured ripoff of actual rock groups, the Monkees’ were actually talented musicians with real charm and their music was hugely popular: they sold more than 75 million records worldwide. After their show was canceled in 1968 they went on to release music for two more years and they had numerous successful reunion tours. At their peak in 1967, the band outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. This compilation of their screen tests shows how fresh and young, boyish and goofy they were, but also shows the confidence and charisma each one displayed well before becoming big TV stars.