This is another 3 CD compilation from Cherry Red records. It is subtitled “Classical and Avant-garde music that inspired the Sixties counter-culture”. There’s a quote from George Martin on the back. He said “The Beatles were eternally curious. They wanted to find new ways; new harmonies, new endings of songs. They would always want to look beyond the horizon, rather than just at it.” The classical and avant-garde music on these three CDs show the inspiration for music by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Scott Walker and Nick Drake. Some of it is instantly familiar and some of it is tough going. It’s all utterly fascinating. I’m going to focus on The Beatles, as I normally do.
The booklet that comes with the CD is extremely informative and the notes about each track are quotes from books, for example Barry Miles’ biography of Paul McCartney, “Many Years From Now” etc.
Most of the instrumentation used in the final version of “Penny Lane” was recorded over seven days in late December 1966 and January 1967. However, Paul McCartney was dissatisfied with the feel of the track and was seeking further inspiration when, watching a BBC broadcast of The Brandenburg Concerto by Bach, he saw David Mason (not the member of Traffic) play a piccolo trumpet. He asked George Martin if he could arrange for David Mason to come into the studio and play a solo. After the first take, Paul McCartney asked if David Mason could try one more take but George Martin told him that the first take was excellent. David Mason was paid £27 for the session (about £500 in today’s value). George Martin is quoted as saying “the result was unique, something which had never been done in rock music before.”
On 28th July 2005, Paul McCartney performed a concert at Abbey Road in which he talked about his music. He explained that he and George Harrison had learned how to play The Lute Suite by Bach as a “show off piece“. He explains that he later turned this into “Blackbird”.
John Lennon is quoted as saying that “Yoko was playing Beethoven’s ‘The Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano. I said, ‘Can you play those chords backwards?’ and wrote ‘Because‘ around them. The lyrics speak for themselves. No imagery, no obscure references.“
“A Day In The Life” is generally regarded as one of the (many) crowning achievements of The Beatles’ recorded output. One of the most compelling aspects of the song is, according to the sleevenotes of this compilation “the spell of ad libitum playing which is repeated at the end of the song with a climax involving a gorgeously strange E-major chord played by three pianos and a harmonium. Players were given a score indicating the register they should have reached in any bar. The last chord was executed in musique concrete fashion, the attack cut off and the decay amplified over a long duration.” This effect took its inspiration from the first three minutes of Iannis Xenakis’ Metastasis. Iannis Xenakis was a Greek composer who fled to France in 1947. He was an early exponent of electronic and computer music and he also used mathematical modelling in his compositions including the application of set theory, stochastic matrices and game theory.
“Musique concrete” makes use of recorded sounds as raw material – in the case of “A Day In The Life”, it means that the sound of the recording studio was incorporated into the song.
Here is a quote from Paul McCartney about unorthodox sound techniques. “Stockhausen used to use those kind of techniques a little bit and he had a thing called ‘Gesang der Junglinge‘ which was my favourite plick-plop piece of his.” The key element that Paul McCartney liked about this piece is that it mixed human voices with electronic sounds. “Tomorrow Never Knows” used this idea in conjunction with lyrics from “The Tibetan Book Of The Dead”, mixing sitar and tamboura with bass, guitar and drums and radically altering the sound of John Lennon’s voice to produce what Howard Goodall has described as “deep unchartered waters, not just for pop, but for any kind of music“.
Another influence for “Tomorrow Never Knows” was Luciano Berio’s piece “Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)“. Barry Miles, a friend of Paul McCartney in the Sixties recalls going to see Luciano Berio give a talk at The Italian Institute. “Paul and Berio had a bit of a talk. He was particularly interested because Paul had been doing tape loops and Berio’s latest work was composed of fragments of tapes which had been speeded up and slowed down and organised. The entire piece he played at the event had no actual instruments on it except the human voice manipulated.”
When Paul McCartney gave some thought as to the instrumentation he wanted for “Eleanor Rigby“, he knew he wanted to use a string ensemble but he didn’t want the sound to replicate “Yesterday” – he expressly didn’t want the “cloying” legato sound which slurs notes together. Instead, George Martin suggested a staccato sound, using notes of much shorter duration followed by short periods of silence. He was inspired by the style of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho”.
“Revolution 9” is generally considered to be the most widely distributed piece of avant-garde culture and, as such, is revolutionary in the assault it makes on the sensibilities of millions of listeners. It was mainly compiled from tapes prepared by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with George Harrison also present when the recording was made. Although Paul McCartney was well informed about avant-garde music, he was in New York when the piece was assembled. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had recorded their “Two Virgins” album in May 1968 and “Revolution 9” was recorded a month later. Whereas a year or so earlier, John Lennon was quoted as asking whether “avant-garde” was French for bullshit, by the middle of 1968 he was an enthusiast. Undoubtedly, Yoko Ono was an influence and John Lennon’s art college background made him a willing receptacle for the new and exciting ideas that she had. Yoko Ono was well versed in the sounds of John Cage. In 1963, she lay on top of a piano while John Cage played. In 1966, she approached John Lennon to ask him for a Beatles manuscript that she could give to John Cage as a present. He declined and suggested she speak to Paul McCartney, who gave her an original copy of the words to “The Word”. There are similarities between John Cage’s “Williams Mix” and “Revolution 9“.
At the end of “I Am The Walrus“, John Lennon decided to mix in some speech from a live BBC radio broadcast. At random, he found King Lear Act IV Scene 6 lines 249-262
George Harrison first saw a sitar during the filming of “Help!” and he quickly became intrigued by the music and philosophy emanating form India. When he met Ravi Shankar he felt that he was the first person that had ever impressed him. Although Elvis Presley had been a hero, “you couldn’t go round to him and say, ‘Elvis, what’s happening in the universe?'” After dabbling with a sitar in “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, George Harrison recorded three songs (“Love You To”, “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light“) which used only Indian musicians and instruments.
When The Beatles were asked to perform live for a worldwide TV audience in 1967, they decided to start John Lennon’s song, “All You Need Is Love” with the French National Anthem in order to give the song an international feel.
The coda at the end of “All You Need Is Love” was meant to represent a freak out and George Martin incorporated other musical pieces into it. The coda starts at 2:57.
A part of “Greensleeves” can be heard at 3:20 and a small part of Bach’s “Two Part Inventions” can be heard at 3:30. There’s also a bit of “In The Mood” but this doesn’t qualify as either classical or avant-garde.
The box set goes on to give examples of classical and avant-garde music that inspired Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Soft Machine, Scott Walker and Nick Drake.