Thursday, January 31, 2008

Time for some Beatles Love

Well, I'm back from rainy California. Turns out sunny California was a myth, in January at least. When you fly south for the winter you're supposed to fly way farther south. Most of the time I was there mini waterfalls gushed off the curbs and each night I'd come back to the hotel and hang up my pants to dry overnight. When I got home Tuesday night I was warmly welcomed by a parade of snow and -31ºC feels like -40 temperatures. Incidentally, -40 is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet to hang out and drink hot cocoa. Yay for Edmonton! Now it's back to work, or rather back to not working. As it turns out, by definition I've not been unemployed for 4 months. I've just not been working. See, I've been out of work voluntarily and if I had known that I might have been able to avoid repeated hassle at Canadian customs where an unemployed single traveller on short trips equals drug dealer. But I cannot tell a lie and the more accurately I would answer questions the higher the customs agents' eyebrows would arch before I would would be hauled away to join the other ethnic folk for full bag checks. Sigh. Anyway, I'll be flying back to Vancouver next week to "settle" and find a job. If only I could pay myself to keep writing Fong Songs! If you're curious, the impetus for all this travel in the past month is an Air Canada flight pass I bought that allowed me to fly unlimited flights anywhere in western North America they fly for one month. There are obviously some catches, but it's a pretty decent deal to check out some places I've never been to before. To get full value though, you basically have to be unemployed (ahem, not working) or retired (like my dad who joined me in Vegas and San Fran).

Now the moment you've all been waiting for, back to covers! And as I rejoin the fray, could it be that I resort to the most clichéd cover source of all-time?? Yes folks, it's The Beatles!

My travels began in Las Vegas, but I'm a pretty cheap gambler. For instance, I placed a bet on the Oilers game at Bally's and sat for the next 3 hours watching that $5 bet play out. Over 5 days, I lost less than $100 mostly on a sad round at the blackjack table. So my dad and I had to find some other sources of entertainment (yes, it was a father/son bonding trip). My dad's primary reason for going was to check out CES, which was a horrible exhausting experience. I got in with dubious credentials and it was awful-- I get a headache thinking about it. Definitely not for your average schmuck like me. In my head I imagined it would be like those first few pages of Popular Science with the coolest, wackiest gadgets and future technology that would wow the most jaded consumers. But instead it was like 50 football fields of iPod covers, digital picture frames, massage parlors, TVs, and bigger TVs. We walked up and down the Strip, collecting those casino club memberships like credit cards (give up your privacy for some cheap souvenirs!). When the glitz started to wear off, we visited Red Rock Canyon (quite cool) and Hoover Dam (Damn you again Michael Bay for Transformers!). We saw Penn and Teller who were not bad, but kind of disappointing since I'm a fan of theirs (the 25% theatre capacity also made for an awkward atmosphere).

...And we saw the Beatles LOVE. While planning our trip, I knew I wanted to see this show if we could get a ticket. My dad is a huge Beatles fan, which has made for some easy Christmas and X-Mas gift decisions whenever a new anthology or Beatles thing comes along. I've never seen a Cirque du Soleil show and I've never been remotely tempted to see one, but an acrobatic spectacle set to newly recontextualized Beatles music definitely intrigued me. My dad's the same way and has been holding out to see Across the Universe on DVD since he thinks it will be too artsy for him. After checking the half-price ticket booths to no avail and blowing off the other shady discount dealers, we just went directly to the box office and bought the cheapest seats possible. We both quite enjoyed the show, which was good if possibly great. The best part is simply having the Beatles blasted at you as your entire peripheral vision is filled with Beatles iconography taken to extremes. The show begins with a wonderfully austere cut of Because (just the a cappella vocals) in near pitch black before the stage explodes visually and sonically to Get Back. One of my favourite moments was the surreal-- most of the show was surreal but this was moreso-- Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite with creepy faceless moptop dancers, live action Jack-in-the-Boxes, fascists, multi-legged freaks in cages, and other carnival oddities Beatles-style (apparently). Another visually spectacular piece involved a massive billowing sheet engulfing half the audience as some kids floated on a bed in the middle of the blanket-y ocean before plunging 4 stories into the middle of the stage. Even though we had the cheap seats, we had a great vantage point above and could see all the action in the theatre in the round. If we were sitting a lot closer I imagine you'd miss things going on behind you and be craning your neck upwards for much of the show. I'm not even going to try to describe the rest of the show, which featured a ton of extremely talented performers and an incredibly dynamic stage that transformed in unexpected ways. I've read that the show is actually shutting down for three days, forsaking $3 million in ticket sales in order to perform 2 songs at the 50th annual Grammies in less than a couple weeks. So if you want a glimpse of the nonsense I'm spouting, check that out.

Of course, the star of the show is the music, the Beatles catalogue reworked by George Martin's son Giles with the blessing of the Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia (not quite the Fab Four, but it'll do). Apparently the soundtrack features elements from 130 individual Beatles songs mixed, mashed, and stripped but never really losing any of the power of the originals. It's astounding to imagine the cultural impact of the Beatles and unbelievable when you think of the short time the band was actively together producing albums... which was (please don't quote me on this) 7 or 8 years. Anyway, the show got me thinking about my favourite Beatles mash-ups, which I present for your listening enjoyment along with some of my personal favourite Beatles covers and miscellaneous related tracks.

Hank Handy - Beatles Mash-up Medley
This is a mash-up tour-de-force, first introduced by the folks at Boing Boing a few years ago. This is amazing fun to listen to and play "Name that Song" as elements from numerous songs are layered so skillfully that it never descends into chaos as one might imagine with about 40 Beatles tracks in 3.5 minutes.

Go Home Productions - Crazy Little Fool [Beatles vs. Queen]
Fool on the Hill vocals over Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Works unexpectedly well with some Dear Prudence in there too.

team9 - Eleanor's in My Head [Beatles vs. Queens of the Stone Age]
This mash-up is stunning in that it recontextualizes Eleanor Rigby as a dark electro-rock number that sounds completely natural.

Lenlow - To the Taxmobile! [Beatles vs. Neil Hefti]
This was the driving force behind the Batman vs. Taxman post I wrote over a year ago, which I self-link to repeatedly. Even though the links are are all dead, I often marvel incredulously at the results that can come about when I get a goofy idea and carry it out with maximum effort.

Jonathan Coulton - When I'm 25 or 64 [Beatles vs. Chicago]
As part of his Thing a Week series, Jonathan Coulton produced his very first mash-up: When I'm 64 clashing with 25 or 6 to 4, which by his own admission is not completely successful. Though I think it works better than I think he gives it credit for. This is a hotlink directly from JoCo's site. The funny thing is he bought both songs from iTunes then he proclaims, "I circumvented the DRM in a blatant violation of federal laws! And I’d do it again!". Probably the most disappointing thing about going to CES in Vegas was that I arrived a day after Jonathan Coulton appeared on a panel with Mark Hosler of Negativland, Samantha Murphy, and Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite! And there was a concert that night, grrrr! I felt better when I got home and in my mailbox was a Thing A Week box set I ordered from CD Baby in a cute tin box with the 4 Thing a Week CDs inside and unexpectedly signed and numbered (#1078) with liner notes by college buddy John "I'm a PC" Hodgman. Curiously this mash-up was Thing a Week #10, but is not in the box set. And yet there are still 52 tracks... I spent 5 minutes staring at the track lists and cross-referencing it with the actual Thing a Week posts to figure out where the extra song came from. I'll leave it to you to do the same thing once you buy the box set too. While I was late in Vegas to catch his show, I was also way too early in San Francisco for a concert DVD he's recording there on February 22nd (now sold out). You should also check out this awesome ukulele cover of JoCo's Tom Cruise Crazy. At this point, I'm just re-hashing links from Jonathan Coulton's blog so you should just go ahead and add it to your RSS feed reader of choice.

Toad the Wet Sprocket - Hey Bulldog
World Party - Happiness is a Warm Gun
Funny thing about these is that they're both pretty straightforward covers, not deviating much from the originals. But I like them both a lot. The Breeders also do a nice cover of Happiness is a Warm Gun.

Jake Shimabukuro - While My Guitar Gently Weeps
There's a studio version of this wonderful ukulele cover by virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro from Gently Weeps (available on Amazon, eMusic, or your best deal on Amie Street... several other covers too). But I love the urgency of this version recorded in Central Park near Strawberry Fields, which I ripped from a video seen here. He really gets into it and his fingers float magically across the uke. It's an beautiful cover and watching it is even better.

Yukio Yung - Free as a Bird
This cover of the 1995 "new" Beatles song is kinda wacky. The original, due to the circumstances of its production, inherently had a melancholic, bittersweet feel to it. Here it's transformed into an upbeat pop song that recalls an earlier era Beatles.

Lulu Hughes - Helter Skelter
Lulu Hughes is a singer from Québec whose self-titled 2002 album I stumbled upon at the library and luckily found this cover. She's also responsible for that wicked cover of Pink Floyd's Time that I love. Her Helter Skelter starts off with a laid-back reggae feel than explodes into a more traditional rock number, but with a bevy of back-up singers and a horn section. I'm a huge sucker for horns. The only mis-step is her laughable snarl of "I've got blisters on my fingers!" which was a startling death scream from Ringo at the end of the original, but here sounds woefully calculated like "Yeah, I'm rocking out!" or "Coincidentally I've got blisters on my fingers too!".

No Doubt - Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (live)
From their Live in the Tragic Kingdom DVD, this silly Beatles song suits their ska stylings. Alliteration, ha!

Jamie Cullum - Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
Last year was the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and to celebrate the BBC brought in a bunch of artists to cover the whole album (like us, the BBC is clearly obsessed with covers). Other artists involved were Bryan Adams, Razorlight, Athlete, Kaiser Chiefs, The Fray, Magic Numbers, Oasis, Russell Brand, Travis, The Zutons, and Stereophonics. That line-up sounds a lot more exciting than the results. The Jamie Cullum cover stood out, though I'm admittedly biased. In general, Beatles covers are best when you're not tackling the sort of songs that show up on every Beatles greatest hits package and it's nice to hear a cover of the underrated BftBoMK!, which coincidentally is also a criminally underused Batman sound effect.

The Beatles - Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey [originally by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller / Little Richard]
Not a mash-up, but a medley from Beatles for Sale, a half-covers Beatles album. This is my favourite Beatles album and is deeply ingrained in my childhood psyche as it was probably the first Beatles album I ever heard. This was the second CD our family ever bought, the first being a 3-inch Chuck Berry one, at Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto. I think it's my dad's favourite Beatles album too so it's sort of hereditary. It kicks off with No Reply, my favourite Beatles song of all-time. In fact I don't think I ever really want to hear a cover of this song, though wikipedia reports (with absolutely no backing) that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have recorded this for their next album. The "If I were you..." bridge just kills me every time. When I was little I used to listen to that part, rewind it and listen to it over and over. Reviews often point out that the album was rushed or banged out with Mr. Moonlight often being called out as possibly the worst Beatles song ever recorded (I don't mind it), one of 6 covers that fill out the tracklist. Probably the most well-known track from Beatles for Sale is Eight Days a Week but it also features a killer cover of Chuck Berry's Rock & Roll Music. I was definitely an unconscious cover lover at an early age.

Elton John - Burn Down the Mission/My Baby Left Me/Get Back
Also not a mash-up, but a medley... a truly epic medley pushing the 20-minute mark from one of my favourite live albums Elton John's 11-17-70. This radio broadcast is from near the very beginning of Elton John's career and captures the wicked energy of his live performance. The sound quality is excellent and you're in for a treat if you haven't really heard him completely rocking out. Hard to believe this is just a trio making all that noise, bringing the house down. Reportedly Elton cut his hand at some point in the show and by the end the piano keys were covered in blood. That's rockin' out.

Geoff Gascoyne - God Only Knows (featuring Jamie Cullum) [originally by the Beach Boys]
I first heard this version on Jamie Cullum's Live at Blenheim Palace DVD. Geoff Gascoyne, an accomplished jazz bass player who tours with Cullum and helped produce his first album, composed a string quartet arrangement inspired by Eleanor Rigby for a cover of God Only Knows. This version is from Geoff Gascyone's 2005 album Keep It To Yourself.

The Beatnix - Stairway to Heaven [originally by Led Zeppelin]
From an Australian TV show called The Money or the Gun, this Beatles tribute band performed a startling version of Stairway to Heaven as if performed by the Beatles. Search youtube for the video, which enhances the performance by uncannily re-staging their Ed Sullivan appearance. A collection of numerous Stairway to Heaven performances from the show were collected on a CD called Stairways to Heaven. The show's host Andrew Denton is also responsible for a couple CD compilations of Andrew Denton's Musical Challenge where on his radio show he would challenge guests to cover unlikely songs. This is where you would hear the Wiggles cover AC/DC, Neil Finn's great cover of Billie Jean, Willie Nelson tackling Nirvana, and more.

Mark Ronson - We Can Work it Out (feat. Daniel Merriweather, Tawiah and Sean Lennon)
Last year Mark Ronson performed at the BBC Electric Proms festival in London with tracks from his cover album Version with many special guests backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. The whole thing can be seen on youtube and would benefit from a DVD release someday. The evening was capped off with Mark Ronson's Favourite Cover of All-Time which is Stevie Wonder's cover of The Beatles' We Can Work it Out. And in a surreal narrative twist, Mark Ronson is joined by childhood friend Sean Lennon who sings along to his dad's song... in the style of Stevie Wonder! So there we have it, a cover of a cover. I love it.

Coincidentally last night I caught the tail end of The Hour where George was interviewing Jerry Levitan who at age 14 in 1969 weaseled his way into John Lennon's hotel room in Toronto (just prior to John & Yoko's bed-in for peace in Montreal) and interviewed him. He's produced a short film directed and animated by Josh Raskin with illustrations by Alex Kurina and James Braithwaite using audio from the original interview. I Met the Walrus has been nominated as Best Animated Short Film at this year's Oscars. While many offers had been made to make use of his recorded material, it was a pitch as an animated short by Toronto animator Raskin that finally grabbed his attention. Check the trailer at the official site. Looks cool.


paul said...

You may also like the three 'Rubber souled' editions by the fabulous funky sixteen corners blog (one of my favorite music blogs):
part 1
part 2
part 3
Do yourself a favor & check 'm out!

Fongolia said...

Awesome stuff, Paul. Thanks for the link!

kimo said...

So, did the Beatles music help with your father/son bonding? Just curious...

Fongolia said...

I thought so, didn't you? Though CES and MacWorld fall distinctly into the category of father/son un-bonding.