By Hans Ebert
The photograph above of Actress Mia Farrow staring or tripping out while looking at the cover of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” album made me realise just how much music- and the music industry- has lost to the digital age, especially when it comes to feeling what was recorded in those grooves- all that creativity that went into the music, yes, but also into everything that made up the creative process- and how we must get that back to that thinking if we’re to move outta the quagmire that has many of us stuck in the middle of nowhere with no particular place to go.
Those album covers by the Beatles told their own stories. And when combined with the music, we believed that “Paul is dead”, and that Billy Shears, or whoever, had taken his place on Sgt Pepper’s. Photographed in 1967 by Michael Cooper and packed with giveaways, a gatefold design, all the lyrics printed for the first time on the back of the album, the cover to Sgt Pepper’s, and that of Abbey Road gave us all the “clues” we needed- the bearded and moustachioed Beatles as their alter ego Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band surrounded by a tableau of celebrities and historical figures designed by British pop artists Peter Beard and Jann Haworth looking down at the Madame Tussaud’s “moptop” version of the Beatles standing in front of a grave lined with marijuana plants. Paul wearing a badge mistakenly read as “OPD” and meant to stand for “Officially Pronounced Dead” was another clue that the Beatle was dead. The badge said OPP- Ontario Provincial Police, but, like hearing Lennon mutter, “I buried Paul” on “Strawberry Fields Forever” when he was actually saying, “I’m very bored”, it all added to the circus of excitement that greeted the release of every Beatles record and the need to dissect every song and the meaning behind every album cover though, often, there was no meaning.
Then again, the Beatles were traveling in their own time zone, they were forcing us to bend our minds with servings of Savoy Truffle, having us embrace the fact that happiness was a warm gun, revealing that The Walrus was Paul, and realising that Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds spelt out LSD.
On 1969’s Abbey Road, with Lennon having already left the band and not appearing on four tracks, the album, designed by Kosh and photographed by Iain Macmillan, was released with no title or the band’s name anywhere on the cover. Though simple enough on the surface, so much was read into these four musicians crossing the road- crossing Abbey Road, which has now become one of the most imitated things to do when visiting London. Come on, we’ve all done it. Why Don’t We Do It On The Road? Some of us have.
When the record was released, there was Paul crossing the road in bare feet- apparently, the Greek way of burying their dead-with George as the gravedigger, Ringo as the priest, John as the archangel and the white Volkswagen parked on the side of the road with its LMW 28IF number plate reminding us that Paul would have been 28IF he had lived. And when Abbey Road ended with a track called The End, it all made perfect sense. Paul was gone.
Robert Freeman’s iconic photograph of the Beatles for their second album dressed in black polo neck sweaters and staring out expressionless was in stark contrast to the cheesy “happy snaps” of their first album. (Their record label- Parlophone- probably didn’t give the band much hope) It was the band starting to take control of their art and commissioning Freeman for the job because of them being fans of his black and white photography of jazz artists.
Freeman worked with the Beatles as their official photographer on album covers for “Hard Days Night”, “Beatles For Sale”, “Help”, and the “psychedelic” “Rubber Soul” before friend, bassist and illustrator Klaus Voorman was brought in to work on the ground-breaking “Revolver”, where Beatlemania was part of a distant past. John, Paul, George and Ringo were no longer popping jelly babies. They were dropping whatever Dr Roberts prescribed and turning off their minds, relaxing and floating downstream knowing they were not dying.
The Beatles were at the height of their creativity with their music needing to be packaged and presented to music fans in ways that were as creative as the work recorded inside the hallowed halls of Abbey Road Studios. It was a holistic one-stop creative product that influenced the thinking of so many bands that followed whatever the Beatles did. And what else they did were produce mini experimental movies for their songs which were produced long before the term “music video” was launched on MTV. “Hard Days Night” was one long music video. So was “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, and it’s always amazing to think how far ahead of everyone else, and how far ahead of the curve, the Beatles were- and still are today. The Magical Mystery Tour continues because the music lives on while all those album covers are part of history- and not just music history.
Today, music is being driven by a tidal wave of importance placed on the streaming of music- and which makes no sense, business and otherwise. But it’s become the topic du jour and elevated to such an overrated point of discussion that it almost seems like corporate camouflage to brainwash music fans into believing that this is something that should matter.
What exists is a delivery platform to listen to music that’s, somehow, become, in many cases, more important than the quality of the music being produced- and how this product should be creatively packaged and marketed. Flashback to the Beatles’ album covers and freeze frame that shot. The interest in vinyl records might these days might have to do with nostalgia and something for avid record collectors, but it should be much more than that. The upcoming television series called “Vinyl” created by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger should make interesting viewing- and give vinyl the importance it deserves. Streaming or vinyl? No contest.
Along with the music- music created using their talent and time and passion and honesty- artists today should demand, own and then price how their music should be packaged, marketed- and sold. Remember actually selling your work as opposed to giving it away? And performing for free? Who came up with the daft concept that art is free, Einstein? If that’s the case, why pay for anything?
Like concept albums, creatively designed and packaged records like the Small Faces’ “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”, Led Zeppelin’s “Houses Of The Holy”, or the the booklet that first came with the release of “Let It Be” or the 3D cover art to the Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” (okay, the music sucked) cannot be streamed. The music can because of how artists’ recording contracts were, and still are, drawn up- one-sided and, ridiculously, seldom questioned before signing away one’s art for pretty much nothing, and allowing this to be streamed and offered as downloads, often with little or no marketing. If a new artist, how the hell does one standout from the clutter even if you have produced a bloody masterpiece?
Technology has been a Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde to music. On the one hand, it offers music fans more of everything than ever before. But is this a good thing? It’s like having access to all the porn one needs- and more. It makes one long to see people with clothes on and holding hands. Too much of anything- even sex- gets boring very quickly.
With music, we have so much of it, but is this enough? Are we satisfied with what we hear?And if we are, for how long? In this nanu second world, there’s also a tendency to settle for Okay Is Good Enough and say things like, “No one listens to lyrics these days.”
Say things like this, think like this and produce music that’s “like this” or because “this is what’s selling”, and you end up with a Me, Too product. It’s like opening anything and trying to sell something with no point of difference. What’s the point? It’s doomed to fail before even having the chance to get it outta the garage.
What the Beatles taught the world then, and are still teaching the world now through their legacy is that for music to travel without any boundaries, and to come together, music must be a one-stop creative product of sight and sound.
It’s about evolution and revolution and how one needs to get back to the bottom to get back to the top of the slide where we stop and turn and go for a ride, and always ensure that nobody takes away what we own, and that, if it’s different enough to stand out from the clutter, financial rewards will come our way.
When this happens, it means music fans love your work and are happy to do “business” directly with you without any need for extra baggage and all of today’s trappings that slow down progress by pretending to be all about progress when it’s not.
The Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin etc etc did okay without streaming through puddles of yellow mattered custard and needing iTunes to be heard.
Taking a few steps backwards to get back, JoJo where you belong has its time, place and offers a different point of view and a new old new way of releasing music. This might be the time.