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With A Little Help From Their Friends: The Beatles At The Movies

Published April 11, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

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It’s the most famous chord in popular music – a clarion call of Technicolor dissonance heralding the birth of a bright new era in pop music. The clanging chord that launched The Beatles’ first movie A Hard Day’s Night (1964) has been the focus of endless debate and analysis for over fifty years. Inscrutable and impossible to duplicate, even guitarist George Harrison could not quite capture its power in live performance, and with very good reason. As with most of The Beatles’ best work in the recording studio, its magic was partly due to the hidden efforts of their legendary producer and arranger, Sir George Martin.

Faced with a last-minute deadline to write the title song that would begin their debut movie, composers John Lennon and Paul McCartney quickly brought their new composition to the recording studio and played the tune for their producer. Immediately, George Martin sensed what was needed to enhance the song, as he recalled in a 2002 interview: “I said, ‘If this is going to be the opening music for the film, we’ve got to start with something fairly sensational. It’s got to attract everybody’s attention.’ So John said ‘What do you reckon?’ I said ‘How about one single chord that’s gonna knock people’s socks off.’ Suddenly he did this ‘twaaaaang!’ I said ‘That’s it! Great! We’ll stick that on the front.’ And, do you know, to this day I still don’t know what that chord was, but it’s a very good one.”

As ever, Martin was being modest in downplaying his own contributions. Listen closely to that chord and what do you hear? A G major guitar chord perhaps, with a suspended fourth or minor seventh added to the mix? In truth, Harrison’s Rickenbacker 360 twelve string electric guitar and Lennon’s Gibson J-160 acoustic are actually both playing a traditional first position F chord with G added as top note (Fadd9). With McCartney’s Hofner bass contributing a sustained high D note, we can hear the familiar sound taking shape, but the real magic comes from producer Martin’s musical input. By taking that simple Fadd9 guitar chord and subtly overdubbing a simple piano triad consisting of D-G-D played below middle C, Martin succeeded in baffling thousands of musicians for almost half a century. His contribution as phantom pianist on A Hard Day’s Night (he can also be heard doubling the low register guitar solo note-for-note on piano) perfectly encapsulated the crucial, unheralded role he played as producer of The Beatles. As he later acknowledged about the killer opening chord: “It set the tone for the song, and for the whole film because we (the audience) knew that what was going to follow was going to be dramatic, wonderful, funny, exciting, and everything else.”

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The role George Martin played in guiding The Beatles’ careers during their early years cannot be overestimated, and his involvement with their material produced for A Hard Day’s Night exemplified his approach and his value to the group. “My job was to parcel the thing up, make it tidy, and tell the boys how long (the recording) had to be,” he remembered, as well as determining other important issues such as “where we would put the song (in the movie), how many times we would do it, where we would have a solo, how the beginning should start, and how to make it finish.”

In one of the key scenes of A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles finally manage to break free from their perennial confines of hotel rooms, transportation and TV studios, and playfully relish the freedom of an isolated field, away from the pressures of fans, managers, and work commitments. Here, McCartney’s classic tune Can’t Buy Me Love provides the perfect musical accompaniment, and offers another instance of George Martin’s musical nous coming into play, where he devised a clever way to open and close the song. “In the case of Can’t Buy Me Love, I didn’t like the idea of going straight in as Paul did (into the verse),” he explained. “I said, ‘You know, you’ve got a good hook here’ (sings chorus). I said ‘Let’s use that and make that an introduction.’ And that makes a beginning – people want now to hear more, so that’s exactly what we did.”

The melodic appeal and harmonic sophistication of The Beatles’ music reached new heights in A Hard Day’s Night. The harmonic friction of the title tune, with its discordant opening and Mixolydian ambiguities (performed in the key of G but littered with F major chords throughout) typified the ear-catching nature of their compositions. Lennon’s If I Fell also demonstrated their appreciation of advanced chords and intuitive musical knowledge. Opening with an eight bar introduction in the key of Db, the composition gradually resolves into the key of D for the verse, and then easily incorporates a vast array of diminished, ninth, and minor seventh chords – unheard of at the time for a pop group writing their own material.

Similarly, McCartney’s And I Love Her continued his favourite device of writing a tune in the key of E major but starting the song with an F# minor chord (as also heard in All My Loving from the band’s previous album, With the Beatles). Here, the verse resolves with an E6 chord, incorporating the C# note from the first chord of the song and leading the way to the interlude in C# minor. The song’s imaginative arrangement, favouring classical guitar and claves over electric guitars and vocal harmonies, also reaffirmed the important role George Martin played in providing the perfect setting for each individual composition.

Aside from his crucial role as producer and musical soundboard to his prodigious young band, helping to bring shape and structure to their cache of irresistible songs, George Martin also scored a handful of memorable underscore cues throughout A Hard Day’s Night. Using the melodies and songs of The Beatles as his working material, Martin’s aim was to showcase their music in the best possible light. “I remember talking to some mums and dads who didn’t like The Beatles,” he recalled. “They didn’t like the moptops image and the raucousness… and they couldn’t hear the music for the noise. So if they got a song like All My Loving, they wouldn’t even start to listen to it. We had to convert them – we had to make them aware that this music was great. And one of the ways of doing that in the film was to underscore with the tunes. “

The eclectic nature of Martin’s fully orchestrated cues proved how flexible The Beatles’ music could be when handled with respect and sensitivity. He transforms A Hard Day’s Night from a 4/4 driving pop song into a jazzy waltz for tenor saxophone, reverting to 4/4 only occasionally to increase the excitement levels. Switching between time signatures with consummate ease, its relaxed manner and rhythmic pulse bears more resemblance to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five than a typical Beatles tune, such is the extent of the makeover.

Conversely, Lennon’s I Should Have Known Better is turned into a brass driven twist number, with pounding, frenetic rhythms and an electric guitar taking the place of the lead vocals. Martin’s underscore treatment of And I Love Her – the major ballad of the movie – sees him retain the classical guitar motif and the clave and bongo percussion from The Beatles’ original arrangement. He also adds a touch of dramatic colour by incorporating shimmering string flourishes, rhapsodic melodies, harp glissandos, and most notably a distinctive high register descending piano arpeggio which dominates the new orchestration.

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In the most acclaimed sequence of A Hard Day’s Night, we find drummer Ringo Starr meandering alone by a canal, accompanied by George Martin’s popular arrangement of This Boy, (subtitled ‘Ringo’s Theme’ for the movie), and scored for orchestra and electric guitar. As he recalled: “(This Boy) was a strange one to choose (for the underscore) but we needed a mood piece for Ringo going off by himself – slightly melancholy. I think it was Dick (director Richard Lester) who suggested using This Boy as a theme song, and I just scored it for orchestra and I used electric guitar – rather like the James Bond (Theme) guitar. In fact we had Vic Flick playing it, who played the original James Bond (guitar theme) – very low down. It seemed to work, I think.”

The James Bond connection is well founded, with guitarist Flick employing a similar tone to his famous work with Bond theme composer Monty Norman. However, the mood here is more subdued, with the long sustained notes – devoid of vibrato – establishing a more plaintive mood, a feeling of isolation and dejection. The guitar is shadowed initially by a brass trio, echoing the original harmonies of The Beatles’ vocal arrangement, when suddenly the chorus arrives and the clouds disperse, the guitar fades away and the brass emerge to lift the melody to higher and higher levels, spurred on by some beautiful rhythmic support from the string section.

This Boy (Ringo’s Theme) is also notable for the identity of the second guitarist who plays on the recording alongside Vic Flick. We all know of Eric Clapton’s famous participation on The Beatles’ 1968 recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, but who could have guessed that, four years earlier, another guitar god had featured on a Beatles soundtrack recording – Led Zeppelin maestro Jimmy Page. Then working as a session musician, the 20 year old Page had entered Abbey Road studios with no prior warning of his assignment, as he recalled with astonishment during an interview in 2010: “I turned up and, lo and behold, there was George Martin.” Driving the performance with a propulsive acoustic rhythm guitar part, Page gratefully acknowledged: “I recognised the music and realised what it was.”

Today, A Hard Day’s Night is considered to be one of the greatest – and most influential – movies of all-time, inspiring countless musicians and film-makers alike from its moment of release. The quality of the music in the film is reflected by the continued success of its accompanying album by The Beatles, which is rightly recognised as one of the seminal albums of their illustrious career. Meanwhile, George Martin’s underscore cues from A Hard Day’s Night proved so popular that his work was nominated for an Academy Award, and the tracks were also given their own release as vinyl singles in August 1964, shortly after the movie’s successful opening. Long out of print, the recordings received a welcome re-release in America last year. As well as producing The Beatles’ regular albums, George Martin would later collaborate with the band on the silver screen again in 1968, writing a celebrated score to accompany their classic animated movie Yellow Submarine.

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As for The Beatles, the success of A Hard Day’s Night quickly led to the filming of a second movie the following year, titled Help! (1965). This time George Martin was not asked to provide underscoring for the new film, even though his work on A Hard Day’s Night had been received with considerable critical acclaim. In spite of producing all The Beatles’ new tracks for Help!, Martin was overlooked by director Richard Lester in favour of rising composer Ken Thorne. It was a decision that would mark the start of an enduring professional association between composer and director, lasting well into the 1980s and including such movies as How I Won the War (1967), The Magic Christian (1969) and Superman III (1983).

In keeping with Martin’s earlier work for A Hard Day’s Night, Thorne made special use of The Beatles’ melodies when creating many of his underscore cues for Help! His From Me To You Fantasia playfully takes the group’s hit pop song From Me To You and reinterprets it as a mood piece of mystery and suspense, with pizzicato strings, droning sitars, hanging celeste chords and atonal brass flourishes. His score is also notable for a number of James Bond pastiches (echoing the plot of the movie), including The Bitter End, where he first creates an atmosphere of espionage by incorporating tremolo violins, pedal point strings, vibraphone arpeggios and celeste glissandos, before the whole work takes off with a James Bond-style guitar arrangement of Lennon’s You Can’t Do That played on the low strings over a jaunty rhythmic accompaniment and piercing brass fanfares.

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In a move that would have far reaching consequences upon The Beatles’ later development, Thorne also incorporated an orchestra of Indian instruments into his score, producing a frenetic raga as accompaniment to The Chase, with sitars intertwining improvisational melodies over a single chord drone. Most memorably, he also devised Another Hard Day’s Night – an ingenious medley of Beatles tunes as played by sitars, bansuri, tamboura, and tabla percussion. With A Hard Day’s Night segueing into Can’t Buy Me Love and I Should Have Known Better, it is perhaps the high point of the movie’s clever, eclectic underscore. The filming of the accompanying scene in the movie, featuring Indian musicians performing in a London restaurant with their native instruments, would also indirectly pique George Harrison’s interest in Eastern music and gradually bring about a fundamental change in the direction of The Beatles’ music.

The handful of new songs contributed by The Beatles to Help! illustrate how the band continued to hone their song-writing abilities, with Lennon borrowing a trick from McCartney’s earlier efforts by launching the title song with a supertonic chord (B minor), before resolving to the tonic chord of A major by the start of the verse. Their love of flatted sevenths led to further usage of Mixolydian modes in the vocal harmonies of songs such as Ticket to Ride and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, while the latter’s arrangement also demonstrates the band’s widening appreciation of orchestral instruments, making novel use of two flutes performing the closing theme in octave unison.

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Over a half-century on from the creation of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the musical legacy of The Beatles remains as fresh and inventive as ever. Time has not dimmed the appeal nor diluted the quality of their work, and it is hard to imagine how the world would be today without their pervading influence. It is somewhat unfortunate that the vast musical contributions of George Martin and Ken Thorne to these two classic movies have been neglected through the years, but at least they can take consolation in the knowledge that their work will live on in the hearts and minds of generations to come. For as long as people continue to watch classic movies, and continue to listen to timeless music, then their place in movie and music history is assured.

Sources:

A Hard Day’s Night”, Buena Vista DVD Documentary, 2002

The Beatles Complete Scores. Wise Publication. Print.

“Jimmy Page Interview by Tony Barrell from 8/22/10 in the Sunday Times.” *. Web.

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New book! The Legend of Booker’s Guitar

Published April 7, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

The Legend of Booker's Guitar book

It’s been quite a while since I added any fresh content to this blog – and for good reason.

Since April 2012, I have been working on a book about a famous blues musician named Booker White – more commonly known as Bukka White.

To say he led an eventful life would be something of an understatement: he was a farmer, a nomadic wanderer, a boxer, a baseball player, a murderer, a convict at the notorious Parchman Farm prison, a pioneer of slide guitar, a recording star, a 9-to-5 manual labourer, a lifelong inspiration to his cousin B.B. King, a kindly grandfather, a world-renowned legend of the blues, and many more things besides. Let’s just say his story would make one hell of a movie.

Anyway, my book is now finally available to buy. It is titled The Legend of Booker’s Guitar and more information can be found here.

Record Collector magazine recently published a short review of the book – click here to read their verdict.

Eric Bibb, who plays a key role in The Legend of Booker's Guitar

Eric Bibb, who plays a key role in The Legend of Booker’s Guitar

When I started writing the book, I did not know a thing about Booker White. I’d never heard any of his music, nor read any books or articles about his life. Three years on, my knowledge of blues music remains patchy to say the least, but the whole experience of researching and writing about such an unfamiliar subject was richly rewarding – full of unexpected discoveries and endlessly fascinating.

Now if only I could write the biography of Conrad Salinger – ah, wishful thinking!

AC/DC star Brian Johnson with his copy of The Legend of Booker's Guitar. "Buy this book," says Brian. "It's cheap and it's fun!"

AC/DC star Brian Johnson with his copy of The Legend of Booker’s Guitar. “Buy this book,” says Brian. “It’s cheap and it’s fun!”

M-G-M’s Folly: The Ice Follies of 1939

Published April 7, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

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It is stating the obvious to say that 1939 was a banner year in the history of Hollywood cinema. Producing three of the greatest movies of all time – The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Gone with the Wind – we can also add to that list such stellar works as Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Wuthering Heights. And we haven’t even touched upon Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dark Victory, The Roaring Twenties, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yet amongst the scores of legendary titles from that monumental year, there is one particular movie that stands out from the crowd – a movie that achieved such immediate notoriety that not even its stars had a kind word to say about it: The Ice Follies of 1939.

Christ. Everyone was out of their collective minds when they made ‘Ice Follies,’” recalled leading lady Joan Crawford. “Me, Jimmy Stewart and Lew Ayres as skaters – preposterous. It was a catastrophe. The public thought so, too.” Contemporary reviews at the time of the movie’s release in March 1939 were just as scathing. “Far be it for us to rap one of Mr. (Harry) Rapf’s more glittering productions,” wrote The New York Times, “(but) the glitter does not extend to the dialogue, the incidents, the characters (for whom “fictitious” is an understatement) or the story, which is the one about the matrimonial clashing of two careers.”

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Over the years, The Ice Follies of 1939 has continued to be derided and ridiculed. It is not a coincidence that Mommie Dearest (1981) opens with Crawford preparing to shoot that particular movie. Yet can the film really be that bad? Surely any “spectacle picture” made at the height of M-G-M’s Golden Age must have something worthwhile to recommend it? Well, thanks to Warner Archive’s release of the movie on DVD, we can see that – yes – the whole concept of the film and its hackneyed plot is indeed flawed, and it can certainly be viewed as the nadir of both Joan Crawford and James Stewart’s illustrious careers. However, the film is not without merit. The two stars both put in admirable performances, and there is an appealing chemistry between the pair that transcends the poor material they are given to work with. And of course we can always rely upon those two great character actors, Lewis Stone and Lionel Stander, to enliven proceedings, along with the typically outrageous costumes designed by Adrian. But the real discovery when watching the movie today is to find that the musical score offers a treasure trove of forgotten delights. We can even hear the exact moment that triggered the birth of the legendary Freed Unit and the classic M-G-M musicals of the 1940s and 50s that followed.

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With a score composed by Franz Waxman, special material adapted by Roger Edens, a theme song written by the ”Queen of Tin Pan Alley” Bernice Petkere, orchestrations by Leo Arnaud and additional contributions from Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the quality of the music throughout The Ice Follies of 1939 was always guaranteed to be first rate. The illustrious composer Waxman, listed as Musical Director along with George Stoll, contributes a handful of crucial incidental music cues at key dramatic points in the movie. “The Drunk Scene” features a haunting melody line consisting of long sustained notes accompanied by a bed of string tremolos, beautiful woodwind trills and judicious use of harp arpeggios, to create a magical mood of mystery and enchantment. “Next Morning” continues with the same combination of melancholy solo violin and rippling orchestral flourishes, while “On A Park Bench” includes a gorgeous, fully orchestrated dance band tune with a lilting string melody and prominent string bass accompaniment.

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The score also expertly incorporates a handful of traditional standards and contemporary pop songs of the era. A kiss at a park skating ring in New York is accompanied by the strains of the 1894 classic “The Sidewalks of New York” while the standout “Ice Follies 1939” segment in the middle of the picture incorporates a medley of popular Scottish tunes including “Comin’ Through the Rye” and “Loch Lomond,” plus a welcome reprise of “Hey, Babe, Hey!” an overlooked Cole Porter waltz that originally appeared in an earlier James Stewart movie, Born To Dance (1936). The 12 minute Follies segment also benefits from a number of tailor made compositions by the multi-talented Roger Edens, with each individual work complementing a specific type of dance on screen whether it be an Indian war dance, a Russian ballet or a Circus parade.

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Although the initial idea behind The Ice Follies of 1939 was to showcase Joan Crawford singing half a dozen songs throughout the picture (the original advertising campaign was intended to proclaim “Crawford Sings!”), in the end we hear her warble only a solitary line from the movie’s theme song “It’s All So New To Me” as she stumbles home drunk following a late night party. The performance of the song at the end of the film was dubbed by an unknown singer, while the rest of Crawford’s singing efforts were left on the cutting room floor. The majority of these rare outtakes are still awaiting an official release, but one notable outtake emerged on the 2006 compilation “That’s Entertainment!,” with Crawford singing a new Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown song called “Something’s Gotta Happen Soon.” Her vocal limitations and affected delivery do not detract from a fabulous arrangement by master orchestrator Conrad Salinger, who contributes a delightfully jaunty counter melody and a typically light, soaring string coda that foreshadows his classic treatment of “But Not For Me” in Girl Crazy (1944). Crawford also re-recorded two of the deleted songs for commercial release in 1939, “It’s All So New to Me” and “I’m in Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So.”

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The highlight of the movie is unquestionably the 14 minute Technicolor finale, “A Song for Cinderella.” Featuring an ambitious, eclectic suite of music composed by Franz Waxman and Roger Edens, with special contributions by Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the centrepiece of the suite arrives with a stunning piano scherzo comprised almost exclusively of dizzying sixteenth note runs. The virtuoso performance by M-G-M Orchestra pianist Lela Simone was all the more remarkable considering she had only been granted one hour to learn the piece, as Simone later recalled to biographer Hugh Fordin: “I said to Waxman, if you gave this part to Rachmaninoff he would have to go home and practice it for three months. Waxman replied, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous; there’s a piano set up for you on Stage 2. Look at it and at one o’clock we record.’ I thought I’d die! Presto! Nothing but runs.”

Faced with such a daunting challenge, Simone rose to the occasion admirably and her performance would have far reaching consequences: “I somehow got it going and came to the stage. It was the first piece to be recorded and Waxman started with ‘Now follow me here and follow me there.’ I said, ‘Mr. Waxman, there is only one way to record this piece. You conduct and I play.’ I got through the first take by sheer nervous energy. After we finished somebody in the back of the stage screamed. Everybody looked. Then a man came up to Waxman and said, ‘Who is this girl?’ Waxman said, ‘This is Mr. Edens, this is Miss Simone.’”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

Edens was instantly smitten by the waif-like, virtuosic pianist. “I knew then and there that this incredible girl had a special talent,” he remembered, and in due course he would invite Simone to work exclusively for the Freed Unit, making the most of her myriad talents by using her as a piano tutor, vocal coach, language translator, music supervisor, sound editor, and general sounding board. She quickly became an indispensible member of the team and was widely considered to be the backbone of the Unit until her departure in 1958, after which the Freed Unit collapsed and Simone went on to marry Franz Waxman.

It is therefore surprising to learn that the celebrated Freed Unit quartet that eventually came to be known on the M-G-M lot as “The Royal Family” – Freed, Edens, Simone, and Conrad Salinger – all made significant contributions to The Ice Follies of 1939, albeit individually and not as the collective team that they would soon become. It serves to demonstrate the huge wealth of talent that contributed to the movie both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. And if the movie itself is still considered to be one of the biggest flops of all time, then at least we should take a second look at the many musical delights it still has to offer, and the significant role it played in the creation of the greatest production unit in Hollywood history. And for that, we should all be thankful for The Ice Follies of 1939.

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The Ice Follies of 1939 is available to buy on DVD from Warner Archive:

Bibliography

Hollywood Rhapsody” by Gary Marmorstein

M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals” by Hugh Fordin

Conversations with Joan Crawford” by Roy Newquist

James Stewart” by Marc Eliot

Catalog of Copyright Entries – Part 3: Musical Compositions 1939” (Library of Congress)

Special thanks to John Waxman