Posts Tagged ‘the beatles’

New York City is considered by many to be the ‘capital of the world’, and whilst others might be more populous or influential in certain aspects, its towering influence over global society continues a decade into the 21st century. NYC is the go-to place for tourists, and I’ve personally had the chance to experience the city’s magic twice in my life: as a tween in December 1999/January 2000, and as a teenager in July 2002. Now it was time for a third bite of the Big Apple.

On both previous occasions, I was a child and accompanied by family, which, as stated in my Nashville post, considerably effects how you remember and perceive a place you’ve visited. Those sojourns were jam-packed with visits to a multitude of landmarks that every traveller needs to experience at least once, such as Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. But returning for the first time as an adult, I realized how many opportunities I had missed, and how much was still out there to be explored in this microcosm of American and global culture.

My 12-hour overnight bus trip from Ohio started things off in unfamiliar territory, bringing us over the border from New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel, and into Chinatown. Waiting for me on the bustling streets was my final host: an American lass whom I had met about one-and-a-half years earlier at a music festival in South Africa, whilst she was visiting her younger sister. We had kept in touch since then, and when it came time to book flights before my trip, I asked her if she had a couch to spare for this intrepid traveller. Fortunately, the answer was positive, and for my last few days in the USA, I could be accommodated in her two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens.

We took the first of many subway rides to her home at the end of the N line, and I quickly acquainted myself with the fascinating electronic information boards on the trains, which inform you of how many stops are left to a particular destination. This was the most advanced system I had seen on all the subways I had used in the States, and would prove to be incredibly useful in the upcoming days. After setting up camp in the corner of her lounge and getting some much-needed rest, we went for a stroll on a cool evening through her neighbourhood. Semi-suburban NYC is full of trees amongst the apartment-lined streets (at least in Astoria), and it felt like walking through a shrunken, more peaceful Manhattan. We grabbed a burger at the proudly-local Petey’s Burger (which gave Five Guys’ heavenly bun a run for its money), and embarked on a bar-hop of sorts through Ditmars Boulevard and the surrounding streets. Everything was within walking distance, sort of like my time in San Francisco’s Haight Street. A pitcher of rum-flavoured beer (?) from Astoria Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden provided a memorable end to my tour of Astoria’s drinking establishments, and we returned home at a respectable hour, ready to traverse the city streets over the next three days. With my meticulously-debated-and-updated bucket list in hand, I was already getting into that NY State Of Mind.

 

 

 

Thursday

On my first day out, my friend didn’t have any shifts at her work, so I was accompanied by an actual New Yorker from start to finish. We arrived in a gloomy Manhattan, caught in the middle of a downpour, and retreated indoors to the breathtaking Metropolitan Museum of Art. My bucket list was tailored for a very tight budget, and the Met obliged with its ‘pay what you wish’ admission policy. The massive museum occupies 190,000 m2, making it the largest art museum in the USA, with some of the most significant art collections in the world. To be honest, I was very much out of my depth as to what determines that significance, but my friend’s extensive art history knowledge and the sheer grandeur of the place ensured me that I was walking amongst very hallowed pieces of art.

Due to my novice status in the art appreciation realm, and the time available to us, we cherry-picked sections that would appeal to me. Starting off with a modern photography exhibit, we moved onto some modern art, where the likes of Monet and Van Gogh had my friend captivated. It wasn’t until we reached some truly epic Renaissance paintings when I began to wander between each piece of work, jaw-to-the-floor. The level of detail was astonishing, especially over some of the larger paintings (and by large, I mean taking up at least 5m of width or height). I couldn’t keep serious for too long; my unrefined, playful approach to art appreciation eventually resulted in the two of us making funny poses in front of our favourite paintings or sculptures. A temporary exhibit devoted to the influence of the punk sub-culture on fashion was a particularly interesting one, blaring music by the Sex Pistols against a backdrop of bizarre works of fashion that would be a little unwieldy to wear on an everyday basis. We also made a stop at a section that presented historical musical instruments, showcasing an assortment of lutes, harps, and other antiquated but ornate tools of the trade. My 10-year-old self wouldn’t have wanted to miss out of the medieval armour and weaponry section, so we made sure to admire some of the exquisitely maintained battlefield equipment before heading back out onto 5th Avenue.

 

 

The sun had finally come out, and whilst meandering through Central Park, I was amazed at how such a large piece of verdant land could be found in the middle of one of the largest cities of the world. There are multiple reservoirs and lakes, playgrounds, running paths, and even a zoo (which I vaguely remember visiting in 2002). Our destination was Shake Shack on the western side of the park, where we’d devour some delicious SmokeShack burgers in exchange for the hard yards we put in roaming the most beautiful part of the city.

 

 

I was a late-bloomer with regard to being a Beatles fan, and whilst I probably have more of McCartney’s optimism, I’ve always admired the soul of Lennon. Ever since I first heard of the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park, it has been a musical pilgrimage I’ve anxiously looked forward to, exacerbated by the fact that I had actually walked through Central Park as an unformed and uninformed teenager in 2002. The 2,5 acre section in the park is dedicated to John Lennon’s memory, opened five years after his assassination outside Dakota Apartments (which is directly across the road). We first visited the Dakota, where John lived for the later part of his life, and where it was taken too soon on the night of December the 8th, 1980. I had read the official reports and seen a few pictures of the building’s exterior, but standing on the very spot where my hero died, tracing his staggered steps to the security hut in front of the building; it was a very solemn and sorrowful experience.

The mood changed to a more happy and placid one when we entered Strawberry Fields itself. Green benches surround the focal point of the memorial, which is a large stone mosaic entitled ‘Imagine’ (after one of John’s most famous songs). The memorial is usually filled with flowers and tributes left behind by Lennon fans, but as it had just been raining, we encountered a single tribute: a solitary flower, with a handful of strawberries. With both of us wearing matching Beatles shirts, we sat on one of the benches, whipped out one of our phones, and quietly sang along to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (from where the memorial gets its name). In that peaceful moment, at the heart of a serene woodland, I tried to reflect on what The Beatles and John Lennon mean to me, and the colossal impact that they have had on this world. As a patron of peace, I’m sure John would’ve been happy with the quiet tranquilty of his own memorial.

 

 

The last part of our afternoon was spent at the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks away from Strawberry Fields on 8th Avenue. Just like the Met, it has a budget-friendly admissions policy, is incredibly large, and is celebrated around the world for its variety of collections (which include specimens of animals, plants, fossils, rocks, meteorites, and human cultural artifacts). We quickly browsed some the natural history exhibition halls, which consisted of many intricate, life-like dioramas, but the section I was most interested in was the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which also housed the Hayden Planetarium. As a child, I was fascinated with astronomy, and still retain a sense of wonder about the cosmos. Tapping into that curiousity, we attended a show inside the huge planetarium that hangs from the ceiling of the centre, where the voice of actor Liam Neeson narrated the formation of the universe, and studied a compelling exhibition called ‘Full Moon’, which consists of high-quality, lesser-known photographs from the Apollo missions to the Moon. It’s just the kind of place to get lost in for a whole day…

 

The Hayden Planetarium inside the American Museum of Natural History

The Hayden Planetarium inside the American Museum of Natural History

 

 

Friday

Who likes to sing a tune when having breakfast? Or have one sung to you? Breakfast at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square was an entertaining start to the day, after which I’d be left on my own to wander the streets of NYC whilst my friend went work at another nearby restaurant, Times Scare. All the waitrons are aspiring Broadway actors and singers, and perform an array of show tunes whilst serving your food. My friend’s flatmate works there, and guaranteed us a fabulous show in addition to a hearty American breakfast. I was thoroughly impressed with her ability to pour a good cup of coffee whilst singing the lead part on a Disney classic, and the same could be said of the rest of the multi-talented and professional waitstaff. They were quick to remind us that many Ellen’s employees actually go on to make it big in Broadway, such as the lead actor in ‘Mamma Mia!’ that was currently showing not far from the diner.

 

 

I had visited New York pre-and-post 9/11, and as a child, I remember the only change that affected me was the increased security checks whilst travelling. We didn’t think to visit Ground Zero in 2002, as it is located in the Financial District quite a few miles south of Times Square and the more ‘touristy’ areas. But a lot had changed in a decade, and the World Trade Center complex had seen the One World Trade Center building (or ‘Freedom Tower’) grow almost to completion, and a beautiful memorial develop over the bases of the old North and South Towers. The time was ripe for a visit, and I set off south down 8th Avenue on a gorgeous, sunny day, temporarily forgetting that miles are more than kilometres – a common traveller’s mistake.

The longer-than-expected route first took me past the legendary Madison Square Garden concert venue, and then through the leafy Greenwich Village. It is now mostly residental, but used to an artists’ haven in the late 19th to mid 20th century, and the quaint, predominately brick buildings contrast sharply with the statuesque pillars of steel & concrete that now dominate the New York skyline. Nearing the Financial District, the gargantuan prism-shaped One WTC building emerged into view, literally scraping the sky. It is so unbelievably tall that when I reached the WTC complex, I had to get on my knees to capture it all in one photo. A temporary tribute centre was located a few streets away, where passes were given out to the actual memorial, and the centre contained numerous artifacts and literature on the terrorist attacks and the subsequent rebuilding, both emotionally and physically.

 

 

As expected, a stringent security check was required before entering the memorial site, as construction is still ongoing. Once inside, the plaza contains a field of trees, but the two massive building footprints of the fallen Twins dominate the area. They have been turned into pools of water, with large manmade waterfalls cascading down their sides, surrounded by memorial space containing the names of victims from the 9/11 attacks, as well as the 1993 bombings. The arrangement of the names was of particular interest: an logarithm was used to place victims together who knew each other, also considering company affiliation, first responder teams, and personal requests from family members. In addition, cutting-edge pedestrian simulations were conducted to test the design of the site to simulate how visitors would utilize the space. The amount of thought that had gone into the layout of this memorial was staggering, and as I circled each pool, gazing upon the thousands of names cast in granite, the name of the memorial (“Reflecting Absence”) definitely rang true. It made me think of my father, who had been in New York on a business trip just one week before the attacks, and had actually stood in the lobby of the North Tower. He fortunately returned home a few days later, but after 9/11, many did not. Even if you didn’t lose a family member or friend, a visit to this memorial puts the everyday trivalities of life into perspective.

 

 

Moving from Ground Zero, another item on my NYC bucket list was the Statue of Liberty. Due to the damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the island on which she stands is still under repair, and ferries to and from it wouldn’t be available for another few months. I approached a friendly New York City cop and asked him where the closest point on the mainland was to Liberty Island, so I could at least get a look at the iconic statue. His helpful response was surprising; he told me of the Staten Island Ferry, which was a) free, b) departing every 45 minutes, and c) as close as you could get to seeing the Statue of Liberty. It turns out that The Strokes were wrong: New York City cops, they are quite smart. Standing on the deck facing New Jersey allowed for some magnificent views of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island (formerly the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States), and Lady Liberty herself, with my 30x zoom coming in handy for capturing that famous face.

 

 

Returning to the mainland, I planned on meeting my friend halfway up the long Manhattan section of Broadway, which is the oldest north–south main thoroughfare in the city, best known for its theatre industry. She got off work in the late afternoon, and decided to take me to see her alma mater. The East Village is the student capital and home of New York University (NYU), and once again, I was amazed at how integrated a young vibrant community like this was with the surrounding area. Starting the evening off with a Brooklyn Lager in a basement bar, we searched for a truly unique dinner option, and found it in Japadog. This quirky and fun takeaway joint, only found in Vancouver and NYC, sold Japanese-style hotdogs, which included toppings such as teriyaki sauce, seaweed, Kobe beef, and shredded cabbage. The fusion of flavours was delicious, and if you pay the New York branch a visit, make sure to get the deep-fried icecream bun!

 

 

 

Saturday

My final day in the United States saw me return to that bustling tourist hotspot, Times Square. On a Saturday morning, the square was teeming with tourists and flashing billboards, and it was a typical example of feeling so alone in such a large crowd of people. But that should be expected from travelling solo, and to be honest, I had grown quite accustomed to self-reliance whilst sightseeing. The weather was really unpredictable on that day, and thankfully, my lengthy walk up 7th Avenue to the Guggenheim Museum was perfectly timed between downpours. The walk might’ve been a bit extreme (it was over 40 blocks), but I’d still rather choose a stroll through the glorious Central Park than take just another underground subway ride. I was to be disappointed when I arrived at The Guggenheim though. After queuing for 15 minutes, I was told that free admission was only from 5pm that evening, and not for the entire day like I had originally thought. Whether I had been misinformed or was uninformed, $22 was far too steep for my limited budget, and I dejectedly left their awe-inspiring atrium. No modern art today, it seems. Faced with some spare time before a lunch meeting, a much more relaxed walk through the park was a decent compromise, and I tried different running paths, visited a few lakes along the way, and passed by an annual outdoor aerobics festival.

My father had put me in contact with a potential South African-American business partner of his who is based in NYC, and the gentleman graciously took me out for lunch at Dallas BBQ in Times Square. He suggested that I get the honey-glazed fried chicken and BBQ baby back ribs, and it was equal parts appetising and overwhelming. After a bit of small talk and business, he suggested that we pay a visit to Harlem, a predominately African-American neighbourhood in northern Manhattan, where he had lived for his first few years in the city. Although the area had experienced social and economic gentrification, he assured me that it was still safe to visit, so we boarded the famous A train, referenced in many jazz and hip hop songs over the years. Our visit, however, was timed with a relentless downpour, which shortened the stay, but we briskly walked through the driving rain to the legendary Apollo Theater. The esteemed music hall used to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson up onstage, and concerted efforts have been made recently to restore the theatre and keep that legacy alive.

 

 

I got back to my friend’s apartment in the little neighbourhood of Astoria that night, feeling the cumulative exhaustion of spending 26 days on the road. The cycle of packing and unpacking my suitcase was soon to be broken; the cycle of moving every couple of days to another lounge or bed. Catching trains, planes, busses and cars, walking along an avenue of stars. The Eagle’s Flight To Coachella was coming to an end, and when I packed my bags that night for the final time, I thought of all the people I’d seen and met, the places I’d been, and the memories that had been made. I reflected on my final few days in New York; a city that never sleeps, and never stops offering up tasty new experiences to sample. I hope to return there again, because there are so many bites still to be taken out of the Big Apple.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Once Coachella was done and dusted, I still had three weeks left before hopping on a plane in New York City to return to my homeland. I have my family’s longtime travel agent to thank for that; she said that if I stayed in the States for just under a month, I’d get a ridiculously cheap deal for my inbound and outbound flights from the country. In between: it was up to me how and where I went.

As stated in my San Francisco post, I had the good fortune of having a place to stay for every leg of my trip, whether it was with friends or with ‘connections’. Before my departure from South Africa, my intended route for my month-long meander had been mapped out, with a friend waiting for me in each city. Los Angeles was still the missing piece in the puzzle, and continued to be right up until I packed my bags to leave San Fran. I had exhausted my list of whatever contacts I had built up in these 24 years of existence, and on a very limited budget, I didn’t have many options. Then I turned to a man who’s been around the block a little longer than me: my father back in SA.

Exasperated, I asked my dad over Skype if he knew of anyone in LA that I could stay with just for a weekend. Finally, we had a breakthrough, and his considerably-longer list of contacts proved far more useful in this accommodation crisis. A friend of his had emigrated from South Africa over a decade ago to start a church in the Los Angeles area, and word was put out through the congregation that I was in need of help. It arrived in the form of Chris, an incredibly kind and hospitable 20-something guy that offered me his couch in his small one-bedroom apartment in Brea. Even though it was at least an hour away from the Greyhound Bus Station in Downtown LA, he also offered to fetch me on the Friday morning, after my overnight bus trip. The puzzle had been solved.

Although accommodation was sorted, the battle of Los Angeles had only just begun. To put it quite simply: the city is GIGANTIC, or more specifically, the county. It’s an interesting bit of nomenclature: Los Angeles the city is actually quite modest in geographical size, but when you look at the greater LA metropolitan region, it sprawls out like roots from an giant redwood tree. People often use the term ‘LA’ interchangeably, and it’s deceptive. Chris’ apartment in Brea wasn’t just down the road from Hollywood; it was pretty much on the other side of this jungle, requiring at least three different forms of public transport to get there. And once I was in Tinseltown, my goal for the weekend could be put into action: see the major sights of Los Angeles from an open-top, hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus over just two days.

Thankfully, I had a chance to rest up in suburbia on Friday afternoon and evening. Chris took me to an authentic Italian market and deli named Claro’s for lunch, and as a big fan of Italian food, I was in awe at the range of products on offer. From fresh Italian sausage, to cheeses, to pasta, and all sorts of other groceries, the place was an ode to Italia, filled with varieties that I had never seen or heard of. Eveningtime saw me pay a visit to a Five Guys Burgers And Fries, home to one of the best burgers I’d ever had the privilege of eating. I had heard of the award-winning eatery through a documentary I’d seen of a typical day in the White House of Barack Obama’s administration, where the president specially ordered from a Washington D.C. branch and went to pick up the burgers himself. If it was good enough for the US president, it was good enough for me, and the In-And-Out Burger I’d tried on the Coachella road trip needed a challenger. It was plain to see how the chain had received so many awards, as there is a strong emphasis on simplicity and freshness. The unlimited free peanuts to snack on whilst waiting for your meal was also an interesting touch.

 

Five Guys Burgers And Fries in Brea, California

Five Guys Burgers And Fries in Brea, California

 

Saturday

The sightseeing bus that I was to take on my tour of LA was the same company that operates in Cape Town, and around the world. In November last year, a group of friends and I spent a day on one of Cape Town routes, and I was excited to see how the hop-on hop-off approach would work in a foreign city. Chris prepped me well and sent me on my way early on Saturday morning. For the first time on my trip, I was actually really nervous about the amount of responsibility resting on my shoulders transport-wise, knowing that if I screwed up just one part, I could be stranded very far from home. But that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling fueled my desire to explore, and after hopping from bus, to Amtrak train, to subway, I emerged from the Hollywood Highland station onto what felt like a movie set – the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

 

Starline Tours has 3 major routes that encompass the touristy parts of LA, and at the time, they were planning to roll out two more in May 2013. The first one I went on, the Red route, comprised of the glitzy and glamourous Hollywood and Beverly Hills. A transfer to the Yellow route was available in Beverly Hills, which takes you down through the beachfront city of Santa Monica to the Pacific Ocean and the famous Santa Monica Pier, before turning back inland and passing through the lavish Brentwood and Westwood. Finally, the Purple route was within Downtown LA to the east of Hollywood, connected by a short transfer through Koreatown.

Wherever you are in the world: if you’re in town for a very short amount of time and you need a superficial yet informative way of seeing a new place, I’d highly recommend a tour of this nature. It ticked off so many places on my sightseeing to-do list, and because you can freely hop on and off busses, you can spend more time investigating a landmark on foot if you wish. This is what I did almost straight away, as I began the Red route’s run through Sunset Boulevard. One of the first stops was at Guitar Center, the world’s largest musical instrument retailer, and the branch on Sunset Boulevard was known for its size and its many famous clients. It was staggering to see the variety of instruments on offer, and how many sections were devoted to each type. As a drummer, I had never seen an entire floor devoted to drums, and upstairs had all sorts of drum equipment, with a wall of signed snares as you wind your way up the staircase. Elsewhere, guitars adorned the walls of room upon room, and acoustic as well as vintage instruments got their own shrines (the latter decorated like a barn, with a man playing an old amp and guitar in the middle of it). Glancing at some of the price tags wasn’t for the faint-hearted (spotted one guitar going for $24 000, yikes). As with any store of this stature, they’ve collected a sizeable amount of rock star memorabilia, including signed portraits, equipment, clothes and concert tickets, and this location also hosts its own hall of fame, known as RockWalk, where I spotted some of my heroes on the plaques.

 

 

Whilst LA, and particularly Hollywood, is known for its world-renowned film industry, the tour I was on was quick to point out music landmarks and highlight the strong influence of music on the area. Other sights along the Sunset Strip included The Viper Room (infamous nightclub previously owned by actor Johnny Depp, and the site where actor Joaquin Phoenix’s brother River died of a drug overdose in 1993), House Of Blues (a chain of live music venues/restaurants) and Whiskey A Go-Go (which started out as a nightclub that popularised the term “go-go dancers”, and soon became the launchpad for the rock ‘n roll scene in LA). After grabbing a quick bite to eat at Saddle Ranch Chop House, I was back on the bus and passing through the retreat of many a silver-screen icon, Beverly Hills. The fashion mecca of Rodeo Drive had many tourists on the bus gawking at the glamour on show, and I took the opportunity to transfer to the Yellow route so I could feel the sea breeze.

 

 

The Beach Boys began blaring through our tour-issued earphones as we cruised down Pico Boulevard through Santa Monica, before I stopped off to browse the end of America’s Route 66 – Santa Monica Pier. On such a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the pier and its surrounding beaches were a hive of activity. Venice Beach was about 5 miles further south, and unfortunately the Green Route there was only rolling out in the next few weeks. But I made a mental note of making a visit there the following day, and caught another bus from the Ocean Avenue (my reference being the Yellowcard song of the same name). When I asked a passerby to take a photo of me below the street sign, it turned out that he was also a tourist (from Australia), and wore a shirt from the entertainment website theCHIVE. Unfortunately our pic together did not make the Daily Afternoon Randomness page!

The rest of the first afternoon was spent finishing off the Yellow route, and catching the second half of the Red route back to where I started – the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The iconic stretch of road has almost 2500 stars over its 2 kilometres (with another 700 metres perpindicular to it), celebrating not only stars of the film industry, but musicians and other entertainers too. Being in the mood for grand ideas, I made it my mission to see every single star on the Walk of Fame, traipsing up and down Hollywood Boulevard obsessively, but it paid off. As I ventured up the quieter Vine Street section, I noticed not one but all four Beatles’ stars in a row. Looking up, I saw that they were outside the landmark Capital Records building (their American record label), with its distinctive circular shape and tall spike on top that makes it resemble a pile of records. With me wearing my Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” shirt, it was an unintended musical pilgrimage for this Stage 5 Beatlemaniac.

 

 

It had been a very long day, exacerbated by me missing my Amtrak train home by just two minutes, leaving me waiting two-and-a-half hours for the last train east for the night. Sometimes you just can’t sync it all up, but thankfully Downtown LA’s Union Station was surprisingly plush and welcoming for this weary traveller. By the time I eventually walked through Chris’s front door at 11:30pm, I realised that I was badly sunburnt from the day’s sightseeing, with my face and arms looking dangerously red. Knowing that it would be much the same setup for the next day, I asked him if he had any sun cream for me. “Hey man, I’m black. I don’t need sun cream!” was his response, and we couldn’t help but laugh at my misfortune.

 

Sunday

With me having booked a flight out of LAX Airport that evening, Sunday was to run on quite a tight schedule, but still allow for me to fill in the gaps of what I didn’t see the day before, and enjoy the places that I had liked. Venice Beach was my main port-of-call, with its interesting and quirky boardwalk, but it required planning an extra bus ride or two. It was well worth the trek though, as it was full of food stalls, art vendors and people just chilling out. Compared to the somewhat ‘plastic’ feel of Hollywood, Venice Beach felt more homely and relaxed, and I enjoyed eating a Greek gyros (a form of wrap) under a palm tree next to the beach, watching the many walks of life parade past me. As a huge fan of the TV series ‘Californication’, I definitely recognized this place as a filming site for the show, and it felt good to see things from the anti-hero Hank Moody’s perspective.

 

 

On the Starline busses, prerecorded audio takes place of an actual tour guide, and I become quite fond of the British man’s voice and his overtly posh-sounding accent. He was a constant companion over the two days; his little anecdotes and facts perfectly timed with each passing landmark. Although I was repeating certain routes, I conveniently managed to be on the bus over sections where I had chosen to walk the previous day, and thus received the best of both worlds, and an encyclopedia-worth of facts about the City of Angels. Music-related sights were less forecoming on Sunday, as I received a thorough education on the film industry, passing Paramount Studios, 20th Century Fox Studios, and a plethora of places devoted to the arts.

 

One of the Starline hop-on hop-off sightseeing busses

One of the Starline hop-on hop-off sightseeing busses

 

Choosing to head to Venice Beach meant that some sacrifices were made, and that was half of the Purple route through Downtown LA. Since I needed to end up at Union Station to catch a bus to the airport, the half that I missed seemed to be the most interesting (at least from a music point-of-view). These included L.A. Live, the Staples Center, and the Grammy Museum, so if I’m in LA again, I know where to go first! It was still an absolute privilege to wind my way through the skyscrapers of LA’s Financial District around sunset, and to see the pecularities of Chinatown to the north.

The whirlwind weekend wound down to a close as I stepped off my last Starline bus at El Pueblo De Los Angeles, home of LA’s historic district. It had been such a humbling experience to witness the grandeur of one of the biggest cities in the world, and I felt like a 21st century explorer hacking his way through the dense urban jungle. But standing on the old plaza (which is the city’s birthplace) and walking the colourful marketplace of Olvera Street, where families gathered together and children played, I realised that there is a lot more to Los Angeles’ history than what is produced in its more famous neighbourhoods of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. You just have to trek through the jungle to find the river’s source.

(This article is taken from the old Eagle’s Nest site, originally published on the 13th of November 2011. As the site was a part-time blog back then, this article was not necessarily written for professional purposes. I consider this mammoth feature the best, most representative music journalism work I had completed before The Eagle’s Nest went full-time in January 2013. Clocking in at almost 10 000 words, this labour of love began in July 2011, and only saw completion five months later, due to the intense full-time work & university schedule I was undergoing at the time. As with any passion project, I worked on this ambitious piece outside of the normal 9-to-5 office hours, which proved difficult when one is a student as well, and there is still varsity work to be done after the close of business. However, I thoroughly enjoyed researching The Beatles’ history in such depth, and the whole process was rather therapeutic, playing a significant role in my decision to go full-time just over a year after its publication)

 

The Beatles are near-universal in their influence over the world. That’s a fact. I often wonder if, in the womb, everyone was indoctrinated with at least one or two of their beloved hits. But I can credit just one source that made me sit up and realise they are a cultural phenomenon to be cherished, admired and, dare I say, worship.

 

The unmistakable 'Fab Four' (circa 1964), when 'Beatlemania' began

The unmistakable ‘Fab Four’ (circa 1964), when ‘Beatlemania’ began

 

Released in 2007, Across The Universe is a musical film that effectively captures the spirit of that band of four men in 1960’s who changed the world of music forever. The plot is superbly linked with The Beatles’ back catalogue of tunes, and the psychedelic romantic drama is set in that time period, mirroring and highlighting contemporary social and political issues in a vivid and exciting style. And this story-through-song opened my eyes, ears and heart to their music more viscerally than anything else in the eighteen years preceding it.

 

Across The Universe - Movie Poster

 

 

Looking at it from a genre point of view, it effectively sidesteps an obstacle that many musicals run into: balancing fun with more serious, weighty issues. Some can only be upbeat and happy, or almost opera-like, full of gloominess and excessive sentimentality. I usually find that any attempts at mixing up the vibe end up feeling forced and clunky. Not so with this Julie Taymor-directed gem. The plot centres on a young Liverpudlian dock worker named Jude (surprise, surprise), who decides to illegally emigrate to the USA in search of his estranged father. Along the way, he meets up with Max, a slacker student at Princeton, and is introduced to Lucy, Max’s younger sister, and a host of other interesting characters, with nearly all of them being named after a Beatles song or song’s character. In fact, Beatles references are soaked into every fibre of the film’s fabric, and it would require multiple viewings to find and appreciate them.

 

Three of the main characters - Lucy, Max and Jude

Three of the main characters – Lucy, Max and Jude

 

Although I like to think of myself as having a decent knowledge of film, it’s the film’s soundtrack that I want to focus on, and how it compares to the originals. I mean, that’s the part that stood out for me for the most upon first viewing. It was an inauspicious start, I might add, there in my dorm room with two of my friends late one night in our first year of university. One even left ten minutes in, during a film I’ve now watched at least ten times! The press surrounding it all at the time labelled it as ‘a Beatles musical’, so when I found myself really enjoying the music, it got me thinking “if they’re singing Beatles’ songs, then this band must be as good as people say they are”. First impressions always count a lot, so it was difficult for me to accept John, Paul, George and Ringo’s versions as canonical, after the modern, cinematic garishness of Taymor’s. Now, after three and a half years of reflection, I think I am ready to make some reasonable opinions. What is really being compared here is not which one is better (that would be blasphemous), but more of whether the style of one version is more appropriate to the lyrics and subject matter than the other, and perhaps which one suits the film better. And there is no harm in debating that. Some songs have a backstory that is a little more interesting than most (particularly late-60’s compositions, found on disc two). Therefore, I feel that it’s only right to dedicate a little more space to their heritage than the others. Also, since it’s a review of the soundtrack, I’ll be careful not to give away too many plot points or focus too much on aspects of the film. It’s really a head-to-head comparison of the music, between the past and the present.  

 

The Facts

All in all, the double-disc soundtrack contains 31 complete songs. A further two brief extracts of other songs (which aren’t on the discs) are incorporated into the score, and one song is repeated; thus totalling 34 individual ‘musical cues’, in film speak. Many are sung by one or two of the main cast members, guest musicians, or an ensemble. One complete instrumental is included as well. At times, songs are interwoven, and to great effect.  

 

Disc one

  1. Girl
  2. Hold Me Tight
  3. All My Loving
  4. I Want To Hold Your Hand
  5. With A Little Help From My Friends
  6. It Won’t Be Long
  7. I’ve Just Seen A Face
  8. Let It Be
  9. Come Together
  10. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
  11. If I Fell
  12. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  13. Dear Prudence
  14. Flying
  15. Blue Jay Way

 

1. Girl

Lennon’s acoustic number about a manipulating, paradoxical girl that he seems irrepressibly drawn to, serves as a perfect introduction to this love story. Shortened to just over a minute, containing only the first verse, Taymor’s version condenses the speaker’s lovesick confusion into a sweeping, ambient lament. Whilst at that length, it fits the movie perfectly, if it was drawn out to the original’s four verses, it would’ve lost a lot of steam.

 

It doesn't get much bleaker than a British beach on an overcast day...

It doesn’t get much bleaker than a British beach on an overcast day…

 

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Overall, the original’s breezy, lush instrumentation and vocal harmonies trumps Taymor’s brief, lonely tale of woe. Cinematically, however, it would be unlikely that the original could have worked for this scene.  

 

2. Hold Me Tight

‘Girl’ segues into McCartney’s oft-forgotten ‘work song’ (as he’s referred to it in the past)Hold Me Tight, along with a brief snippet of ‘Helter Skelter’ before the track starts. The original, from the Beatles’ early days, was deemed acceptable album filler at the time, and carried a tired portrayal of the Fab Four’s bouncy and zesty ‘Merseyside skiffle’. However, lead actress Evan Rachel Wood absolutely nails the lead vocals on Taymor’s version, and the track gets a much-needed spit-and-polish musically. In the film (but not on the soundtrack), the song switches at times to a grungy, Cavern Club-style venue, where the lead actor Jim Sturgess sings to another minor character, showing the simple passion of young love from both genders, and two different musical styles as well.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The attention to detail and modern revamping of a sub-standard Beatles filler definitely fits the mood of this song perfectly. On the other hand, The Beatles were churning out far more successful hits than this at the time.  

 

3. All My Loving

One of The Beatles’ early hits, ‘All My Loving’ is masterfully included in the film’s carefree and innocent opening scenes. Both versions are much the same in arrangement; one of the rare cases, in fact. McCartney’s pop classic (which he originally envisioned as a country & western style track) has upbeat, jangly guitars and simple, yet effective lyrics referring to a relationship where the speaker is away from his love (“and I’ll send all my loving to you”). Taymor’s version differs by having a great a capella first verse and a focus on space-like keyboard effects than guitars.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The ‘puppy love’ lyrics need to be appropriately matched with a rollicking rhythm, and the original takes the cake here. Taymor’s a capella first verse was an inspired touch, and whilst the tempo picks up later in the song, it’s not enough.  

 

4. I Want To Hold Your Hand

The Beatles’ best-selling single gets turned into an odd, slow-moving ballad by Taymor here, and it’s probably the lone total disappointment of the entire soundtrack. A minor female character provides an aching, lustful and curious take on the song, which might sound good in theory, but the execution is very off-the-mark and out-of-place. Her voice is painful t0 listen to, and the excessive vibrato just feels forced.

 

Enjoy the choreography of a dance sequence involving football players

Enjoy the choreography of a dance sequence involving football players

 

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: The all-conquering, catchy original has stood the test of time, continuing to influence and shape music and pop culture. The twin lead vocals, the hand claps, the rush one feels when Lennon croons “I wanna hold your haaaaaaaaaand!” – nothing can match that. The interpretation in the film wasn’t necessarily a bad idea; if the vocalist was changed and the tempo picked up a bit, it could’ve worked out a lot better.  

 

5. With A Little Help From My Friends

The well-loved sing-along from the Sgt Pepper’s days gets a fittingly ensemble-like treatment for the film. The scene shows a group of young lads having a big night out on the town, so the call-and-response lyrics are perfectly suited. The film also chooses to base its version on the radical, rocking Joe Cocker cover version, and once again, get it right. It’s very difficult to resist the urge to scream (not sing!) along to the final minute as if you were there with the boys, having the time of your lives.

 

Party time...with a little help from your friends

Party time…with a little help from your friends

 

Due to the change in arrangement, the guitar is grungier, harsher and starts and stops more often than the original’s light, bopping riff. McCartney’s bass and other backing instruments, such as a piano, organ, tambourine and cowbell are very prominent in the original’s mix, and give it a quaint, friendly feel.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: Whilst the original has a boozy swagger to it, with the speaker feeling down and out about his lover not being there (hence getting by ‘with a little help from my friends’), it just doesn’t capture the laddish brotherhood of a typical group of guys consoling and uplifting their friend. No fault on Ringo’s part in terms of lead vocals; it just needed that extra boost musically, like the previous track on Sgt Pepper’s (i.e. the title song) had.  

 

6. It Won’t Be Long

The opening track off With The Beatles once again has lead vocals by the alluring Evan Rachel Wood in the film. She has this silky touch to her singing that makes every track she appears in a treat for the ears, and this catchy early-Lennon/McCartney composition sounds great with a female voice. But unlike ‘Hold Me Tight’, Lennon’s timeless croon sounds impassioned, sexy and on point. Musically, Taymor retains the call-and-response ‘yeah-yeahs’ (with female backing vocals) and guitar riffs, but tones done the drum parts, which removes some of the original’s punch. But only a little.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Whilst the song is skilfully mixed into the storyline with Woods’ fresh-faced feminine perspective, the original ticked all the boxes first-time round. Twice the amount of versions here means twice the amount of fun.  

 

7. I’ve Just Seen A Face

This twangy, up-tempo country-and-western McCartney number gets a heavier, glossier remake, and it’s tough to choose between the versions of song of love at first sight. McCartney sounds like a smitten cowboy, positively cherubic, with splendid acoustic guitar work to accompany him. Whilst Taymor’s guitars are nice and crunchy, the vocal work from lead actor Jim Sturgess is the highlight here.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: I had to put aside my love for Sturgess’ croon to call this one. The percussion on the film version is literally just a click track, and whilst the song is appropriate for the scene, it needs that crisp foot-tapping beat that the original provides with Ringo’s brushed snare and maracas. Paul’s voice is nigh untouchable on this one, but Sturgess does a fine job trying.  

 

8. Let It Be

Taymor taps into the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning ballad’s spiritual undertones, and produces a soaring rendition, full of soul and emotion. Sung by two minor characters (a little boy and a church choir singer), it really tugs at the heartstrings, and marks a pivotal change in the film’s tone. One would hope that McCartney would be happy with the gospel take on his hit song; he was famously discontented with producer Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ production on the album Let It Be.

 

Across The Universe - Let It Be - Little Boy

The little boy and church choir singer make 'Let It Be' soar with emotion

The little boy and church choir singer make ‘Let It Be’ soar with emotion

 

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: A song such as this deserves the pomp and dramatics of a full gospel choir, paired with hushed revelations from a child’s voice (Paul found inspiration to write the song in the death of his mother, who passed away from cancer when he was only 14). And whilst the original is piano-based, with an orchestral accompaniment, he should’ve gone one step further. It would’ve helped dissolve the thin layer of pretentiousness that the song seems to have wrapped around it.  

 

9. Come Together

Lennon’s widely covered bluesy rocker is one of the film’s first darker, edgier moments. It gets the previously mentioned blues icon Joe Cocker on lead vocals, and his gritty rendition is slow-boiling. His voice is utterly distinctive, and deserved on such a track, but musically, the track feels limp, watery and rather undulating, lacking the punch of McCartney’s distinctive bass-line and spatterings of electric piano that made it one of the highlights of Abbey Road. An ensemble of female backing vocals can’t save it either.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: This dreary re-tread serves merely as an exposition scene in the film, introducing a new main character to the proceedings as he travels the dark streets of New York. Whilst it’s not exactly a bad cover of the song, it does next to nothing to stamp any authority on it.  

 

10. Why Don’t We Do It The Road?

For the first time in the film (apart from a fleeting couple of seconds after ‘Girl’s’ completion), we get to hear the raspy, feisty Dana Fuchs burst through the speakers and rattle our eardrums with vigour. Her contributions to the soundtrack are mostly on The Beatles’ heaviest, most primal outputs, and it’s a match made in heaven. McCartney’s lusty, two-line quickie gets the volume turned up really loud, and Fuchs’s female swagger just oozes out onto a propulsive rhythm, with a wailing guitar, workmanlike drums and a funky organ her raucous companions.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The recording process of ‘Why Don’t…’ parallels the urgent, capricious nature of its subject matter (McCartney found inspiration in seeing two monkeys copulating on a road in India, and later chose to quickly record the entire track alone, except for Starr on drums). And yet such a feral song comes out sounding rather tame. Piano-led, with a hushed pulse of bass underneath, Paul’s vocals take on the lion’s share of the work, quickly morphing into impassioned screams and yelps. But overall it seems skeletal when his demands feel fully fleshed. For that reason, Taymor’s version trumps his by capturing them in 1 minute, 23 seconds of carnal desire, and with the music to match.

 

Young or old, anybody can do it in the road

Young or old, anybody can do it in the road

 

11. If I Fell

The film then back-tracks a little in Beatles history to 1964, and presents a song about vulnerability and hesitance to fall in love, with a mood that matches the tenderness of the lyrics. Taymor’s version is almost unrecognisable from the original, whose sugar-sweet vocal harmonies and mid-tempo grooves are some of the Beatles finest on record. In their places, Wood’s ethereal croon is placed centre-stage, in all its glory, whilst an acoustic guitar occasionally whispers the most delicate of notes in the background. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

 

If I Fell In Love With Evan Rachel Wood (And Her Voice)

If I Fell In Love With Evan Rachel Wood (And Her Voice)

 

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The full-band version that was chosen by The Beatles for A Hard Day’s Night just doesn’t seem intimate enough when compared with what could’ve been (an early demo just had John alone on acoustic guitar). When ‘If I Fell’ came out, the band had yet to explore the idea of performing any songs that didn’t require all four band members on the track. The following year, Paul’s solo masterpiece, ‘Yesterday’, debuted as part of their repertoire, and it was the first song of theirs that relied on the performance of just one band member. I think that if that mind-set was applied to earlier songs like ‘If I Fell’, it could’ve produced a more fitting version of this Lennon/McCartney classic.  

 

12. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Lennon’s obsessive, grinding yet enchanting tale of pure longing gets somewhat neutered for Across The Universe. But thankfully, Taymor attempts to fit as much as the original’s awkward time signatures, overdubbed guitars and massed choir effects in its shortened 3 minute 44 second edit. The result still grinds, but comes out smoother; a sort of gothic hymn. It’s an ensemble outing on this track, with male and female vocals getting their moment to bluesily belt out the simple, to-the-point lyrics, as the lumbering rhythms drag them forwards.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: This one is a particularly difficult song to cover, since the highly experimental original’s length meanders on for 7 minutes 47 seconds (upon which it abruptly ends, mid-chaos and white noise; an avant-garde decision of Lennon’s). You’ve got to admire the courage of Taymor to attempt to condense such a jarring song into a marketable Hollywood film. Her version suits the narrative (the ‘I Want You’ applying more to forced conscription by the US army in the 1960’s than desire for the love of someone else), and for that purpose, it does its job. Just don’t try to say that it matches the aching intensity of Lennon’s desire for Yoko Ono that fuelled the original.

 

Yoko Ono: John's desire for her was strong on 'I Want You'

Yoko Ono: John’s desire for her was strong on ‘I Want You’

 

13. Dear Prudence

Cleverly intertwined with the storyline, this sweet, calming number from the White Album starts off well, but feels a little too murky and underdone. The ensemble’s vocal harmonies are quite soothing though; varied too, because of the female touch. The lyrical interpretation in the film version is interesting too. Lennon originally wrote this song in India about the actress Mia Farrow’s sister, who locked herself in her room, meditating near-constantly, whilst on the band’s visit to the country. In the film, a sexually-confused character forces herself to contemplate her orientation, spending the night in a locked cupboard. So the lines “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?/Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day” are given an interesting twist in that context; a masterful stroke of scriptwriting by Taymor.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: This was heading towards a tie in my mind. But then I realised how well-restrained, yet vibrant, the original’s music was. Finger style guitar underpins the song, with a bass line that doesn’t need to drone all the way throughout to be noticed. Then slowly, layer upon layer, lead guitar, piano, handclaps, even a cowbell, get introduced and the effect seems a lot more sprightly than Taymor’s, despite the song seguing into a protest rally in the film. And that’s what going to bring dear Prudence out of her hiding place: reassurance and uplifting music.  

 

14 & 15. Flying & Blue Jay Way

These two lesser-known ambient psychedelic pieces from Magical Mystery Tour are almost absent in the film, with only a brief few seconds of ‘Flying’ being played as a transition between scenes. To be honest, if it weren’t for the soundtrack, I wouldn’t have known that they were a part of the movie. But each gets a faithful full-length rendition, both by a space-rock band named The Secret Machines. The first is an instrumental, and interestingly one of the few Beatles songs attributed to all four members. Both versions have very trippy, swirling effects, and hints of backing vocals offering up some ‘aahs’. However, considering how old the original is, it’s amazing to hear what effects they were able to achieve back then, including some typically psychedelic tape loops. ‘Blue Jay Way’ is an eerie Harrison composition, detailing the events of a foggy night where one of his friends got lost in Los Angeles on his way to meet him at a house in Blue Jay Way. The Secret Machines imitate the original’s style near exactly, so there’s not much difference between the two.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Just stick with the originals. The Beatles compositions are slightly more distinctive and less watery, but it’s not a world of difference.  

 

 

Disc Two

  1. I Am The Walrus
  2. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!
  3. Because
  4. Something
  5. Oh! Darling
  6. Strawberry Fields Forever
  7. Revolution
  8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  9. Across The Universe
  10. Helter Skelter
  11. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  12. Blackbird
  13. Hey Jude
  14. Don’t Let Me Down
  15. All You Need Is Love
  16. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

 

1. I Am The Walrus

Arguably one of The Beatles’ most bizarre, surreal and talked-about songs, ‘I Am The Walrus’ is Lennon at his most sarcastic, sneering and outright silly. Musically unorthodox, confusing and complex, with a vast hodgepodge of lyrical influences, ranging from acid trips to police sirens to playground nursery rhymes to a Lewis Carroll novel (and more), it surely defies interpretation, even reinterpretation. I mean, he wrote it nauseatingly avant-garde just because he heard about a teacher trying to interpret Beatles lyrics and teach them to his students. Go figure.

 

Having a laugh on set of 'I Am The Walrus' scene in the film Magical Mystery Tour

Having a laugh on set of ‘I Am The Walrus’ scene in the film Magical Mystery Tour

 

The big draw card of Taymor’s version is the distinctive vocals of Bono (of U2), one of rock’s most enduring frontmen. He draws on some of his own band’s more experimental early-to-mid-90’s output to collaborate with The Secret Machines, producing a polished, catchy, dreamy psychedelic rocker, full of cavernous drums and vocals. The track is imbued with sort of shimmery quality overall, and is a rather good song in its own right, used to perfection in a visually jaw-dropping scene in the film.

 

Bono, as Dr Robert, a counter-culture cult leader

Bono, as Dr Robert, a counter-culture cult leader

 

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: But crucially, Taymor’s version loses sight of the original’s intentions. By ironing out its quirks, it strips it of a lot of its character: the droning Mellotron, tambourine, orchestral overdubs and even the live BBC Radio feed that was somehow incorporated (granted the loony backing vocals are retained; more noticeable in the film itself). And that’s just musically. Lyrically, it was freewheeling creativity at its best, delivered by Lennon so tongue-in-cheek, that he was lucky to be able to remove it from there. Accessibility was definitely a no-no on this track, and the modern version comes out a little too clean-cut.  

 

2. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!

The trend towards the avant-garde continues with another Lennon creation (although credited Lennon/McCartney, as most early-to-mid 60’s Beatles songs were). Nearly all of its lyrics were taken from an antique circus poster Lennon found in a shop in Kent, promoting a 19th century show for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, ‘being for the benefit of Mr Kite’. The vaudevillian fairground/circus atmosphere that made the original one of the more musically interesting tracks on Sgt Pepper is faithfully retained by Taymor, who has one trick up her sleeve that steals the show: British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard. His cameo as Mr Kite is absolutely superb, complete with an expressive and quintessentially British accent, which he uses to good effect on this spoken word cover. He ad-libs between the lines with some hilarious remarks, and has a believability about him that makes you think he really is one of those 19th century circus owners, inviting you to join him on an absurd adventure.

 

Eddie Izzard's expressiveness makes his cameo one of the best in the film

Eddie Izzard’s expressiveness makes his cameo one of the best in the film

 

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The big downfall of the original is Lennon’s deadpan recitation of the lyrics. Maybe it was intentional or ironic, as he also speaks more than he sings, but overall it seems very dull. And yet, the music doesn’t feel that way, with a kaleidoscope of chopped-up tape loops of fairground organs and calliope music whizzing about, creating a very authentic experience (Lennon told producer George Martin that he wanted “to smell the sawdust on the floor”). Izzard’s theatrical and showy performance matches that mood rather seamlessly (his stand-up routines are suitably avant-garde too, from what I’ve seen, frequently switching between characters and topics on a whim).  

 

3. Because

After the madness of ‘Mr Kite’, the film immediately transitions into one of the calmest and most serene Beatles tracks. It was inspired by Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, featuring three-part vocal harmonies (later overdubbed three times to give the impression of a choir of nine voices), the first use of a Moog synthesiser on a rock ‘n roll song at the time, an electric harpsichord and no percussion. Once again, it is one of the many fine pieces of music found on their highly-acclaimed final album Abbey Road.

  The Beatles - Three-Part Harmony - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison

 

Both versions are spine-tinglingly good, with Taymor’s version making some tweaks that provide an interesting change in mood. Hers loses the distinctive electric harpischord, deciding to go a cappella for the first 40 seconds (a genius move on her part), with the six major characters and three minor characters delicately combining their voices with aplomb. A deep, slightly ominous-sounding orchestra then begins to drone in the far distance, whilst a gently plucked acoustic guitar provides a more tangible backing, building up to a peaceful conclusion.

 

Across The Universe - Because

 

Verdict: A tie

Reason: This was just too close to call. The Beatles’ version has the famous harmonies and dreamy elements executed to perfection. But there’s something about Taymor’s version that makes it stand really close to the original as an equal. Maybe it’s the mix of male and female voices? Maybe it’s the complementary orchestral backing, a skilful tactic used so often on mid-to-late 60’s Beatles songs? Maybe it’s the slight change of mood that I’m now struggling to put into words? Maybe just because?  

 

4. Something

Through much of The Beatles’ career, Harrison’s compositions played third-fiddle to Lennon and McCartney’s masterpieces. He would sometimes get one or two spots on an album to showcase his work, and the most successful song-writing duo of all time treated him rather harshly and indifferently when it came to his own efforts. But that all changed with ‘Something’: a pure, straight-forward love song that, at the tail-end of their career, became one of their most highly regarded and covered. Even the great Frank Sinatra declared it “the greatest love song ever written” and performed it many times in concert. The ‘quiet’ Beatle finally received the credit he rightfully deserved.

 

George finally gets his moment to shine

George finally gets his moment to shine

 

Taymor doesn’t choose to redesign the wheel, and her interpretation sits as a faithful complement to the original, retaining its sincere and heartfelt strengths. Common motifs that run through many of the slower songs on the soundtrack are a cappella introductions and prudent use of percussion, and this one continues the trend. It really brings out the power of the beautiful lyrics (“Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover”) and vocals (from the male lead Sturgess, who should honestly consider singing professionally). Thankfully these stylistic choices don’t drag on for too long in this song. Another slight difference is the understated orchestral and organ backing; I think it reins in the schmaltz that wants to creep into the original.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The film version is lot more mellowed out than the original, and this breathing room allows Sturgess’ captivating vocals to shine through more clearly. On the other hand, you can really hear the emotion in Harrison’s performance of a lifetime. Both have that special something, staying true to the song’s core message, and it’s hard not to choose the version that launched more than 150 cover versions (second place after ‘Yesterday’, which has in the region of 1600 versions). The problem is that the original has too much going on, with the orchestral backing drowning out Harrison’s tender vocals.  

 

5. Oh! Darling

Usually when there’s an exclamation mark in a song title, you as the listener can expect some aural fireworks. And McCartney’s bluesy ‘swamp-pop’ anthem bursts with enthusiasm, drawing on a New Orleans style of R&B music known for its honky-tonk pianos, lovelorn lyrics and booming backbeats. The film uses the opportunity to showcase this emotional classic by turning it into a duet between Dana Fuchs and another male lead Martin Luther McCoy, whose appearances start to feature in the second half of the soundtrack. In the film itself, this song is extra discordant (f0r plot reasons), but the studio cut balances it out, retaining some of the distortion-heavy wailings and vocal interplay.

 

Tempers flare as Fuchs and McCoy battle it out

Tempers flare as Fuchs and McCoy battle it out

 

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Whilst the male-female duet is a great idea, brimming with sexual energy, Taymor’s version falls rather short of the original’s high standards. McCartney delivers one of his most powerful vocal performances ever on this track, after a patient regimen of trying to record the song only once a day for a week, so as to nail the final take perfectly first-time in a session. This dedication is obvious on the final cut; his voice soars between sweet & tender and heart-pumping-out-of-its-chest desperate. Even the feisty Fuchs cannot match the intensity of his pleas (“Oh! darling, please believe me/I’ll never do you no harm”). Despite the heavier distortion on the film’s guitar, Harrison’s stabbing riffs have a little more bite to them, and overall the original is more faithful to its swampy roots.  

 

6. Strawberry Fields Forever

Surely the pinnacle of the Beatles’ (and specifically, John Lennon’s) creative output, this nostalgic, disillusioned, psychedelic magnum opus is packed full of juicy goodness. Arising from a time in Beatles history of heavy studio experimentation and intense personal problems for John, the song channels his self-doubt and loneliness into a complicated mix of music that is actually two versions of the same song cleverly spliced together. One was a relatively complete band take, piling on the usual instruments along with newfound ones such as a Mellotron and an Indian harp-like instrument called a svarmandal. Typically of their music of the time were also numerous backwards recordings (even Ringo playing the bongos got the treatment). The other take was a George Martin-conducted group of trumpets and cellos. And the catch? Both were in different keys and tempos, and Lennon wanted each of them on the same song. In a stroke of genius (and probably a little luck), George managed to combine the two rather smoothly (but listen carefully for the changeover around the 60 second mark; it’s an ‘a-ha!’ moment for Beatlemaniacs).

 

Their producer George Martin (the unofficial 'Fifth Beatle') played a big part in making this song work

Their producer George Martin (the unofficial ‘Fifth Beatle’) played a big part in making this song work

 

Like its original, Taymor’s ‘Strawberry’ is definitely one of the freshest in the film’s basket, and marries musical and thematic content very vividly, reflecting the conflicting thought patterns going on in the lyrics (the famous “no one I think is in my tree” line comes out sounding rather convincing with Sturgess’ Liverpudlian twang). The mood remains mostly melancholic and accurate music-wise to the original, but irons out the brash bumps of horns and other avant-garde missteps, particularly in the nightmarish ending. Some would say it tones down the creative quality of the music, but I think it possibly lets elements of previous, simpler takes of the song shine through (take one, in particular, had just John Lennon unaccompanied on acoustic guitar, stripped of the wondrous, yet distracting cacophony of noise in the final cut).

 

Although John Lennon's memorial in Central Park, New York is named after this song, the original inspiration came from a Salvation Army children's centre in Liverpool, where he used to play as a child. The centre is closed now, but pictured here are the original gates

Although John Lennon’s memorial in Central Park, New York is named after this song, the original inspiration came from a Salvation Army children’s centre in Liverpool, where he used to play as a child. The centre is closed now, but pictured here are the original gates

 

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: Whilst the original showed the band as avant-garde creative pioneers, I somehow feel that Lennon’s true vision and meaning for the song was lost in the heady haze of experimentation and creative one-upmanship. Even he expressed dissatisfaction with the recording of the final version shortly before his murder in 1980, bitterly blaming McCartney for subconsciously ‘sabotaging’ it. Although great upheaval in one’s personal life can often create moments of brilliance in one’s work, everyone got a little carried away on this number. Taymor, therefore, presents a version just as nuanced, but in a more accessible and representative way.  

 

7. Revolution

During the late 60’s, the world the Beatles inhabited began to experience a social upheaval, and a peaceful yet radical counter-culture emerged amongst the youth that clashed with the increasingly warmongering powers-that-be. A spirit of revolution was rising up, and not just in the prominent USA (whose war in Vietnam was claiming thousands of young men’s lives), but across Europe too, with widespread campus protests. It came to a time when the Fab Four could not keep quiet anymore about what was going on around them. Not surprisingly, out of the four, Lennon felt most strongly about the hubbub of political picketing; or rather, he was equally unsure about what to feel, and wanted to see a reasonable way forward proposed by those that wanted to topple the system. Experiences with Transcendental Meditation had provided him with a sort of spiritual awakening, and ‘Revolution’ was one of the first overt steps he made towards becoming a political activist in the late 60’s/early 70’s.

 

Some lyrics from the song found their way on a t-shirt

Some lyrics from the song found their way on a t-shirt

 

There were two released versions of the song: the fast, hard rock B-side to the ‘Hey Jude’ single (titled just ‘Revolution’), and a slower, swing-like version on The White Album (titled ‘Revolution 1’). Taymor chose the former for the film, and its barking, machine-gun-like guitar riff definitely livens up the mood for revolution. The male lead Sturgess comes off rather mellow in the studio version, but his performance is more persuasive in the film, where he really acts out the song.

 

A promotional clip for Revolution - a rare live performance during that time in the band's history

A promotional clip for Revolution – a rare live performance during that time in the band’s history

 

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: The modern cover is more a grumble than a rebel yell, and any musical revolution is only really evident in its attempt to add some extra fills in the drumbeat. Apart from that, it’s a decidedly average reproduction of a controversial and inspiring classic. The use of the song in the film must be commended though; it’s bound to raise a chuckle.

 

8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The world of guitar music gained a timeless classic when George Harrison’s tale of despondency about the state of the world appeared on the White Album. Featuring the great Eric Clapton as a guest on lead guitar, it has achieved considerable acclaim, ranking very highly on best-of lists (such as #7 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All Time). Harrison’s song writing was beginning to blossom around that time, and his experiences on the band’s pilgrimage to India had profoundly impacted the ‘quiet’ Beatle’s spirituality.

 

George and Eric were very close friends. So close, they both shared marriages with the same woman!

George and Eric were very close friends. So close, they both shared marriages with the same woman!

 

The lyrics are ethereal and reflective, focusing on the metaphor of the speaker’s guitar sounding like it’s ‘weeping’, whilst violence and hate continue to rage on around the world it lives in. He insists that when he looks at the world, he sees “the love there that’s sleeping”, implying that if only people could awaken that love, the hate could be put to rest. That kind of mentality might come across as too idealistic, but it’s a beautifully written song nonetheless. The film’s ‘Jimi Hendrix’ archetype (played by Martin Luther McCoy) plays guitar and sings on the cover, and his performance is an impassioned one, with vocals that match the delicate and airy tones of Harrison. The track itself is another ambient adventure, evoking a similar mood to ‘Something’ from earlier in the soundtrack. Wind chimes start it off slowly, as McCoy’s voice enters the scene alone, followed by a mournful accordion. It’s slow-moving, and meanders towards its conclusion rather plainly.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: For a song featuring the word ‘guitar’ in its title and its lyrics, there’s very little time devoted to its sound in Taymor’s version. Yes, the guitar is ‘weeping’, but surely that should last longer than a brief section of limp and understated noodling? To see how it should be done, have a look at this rendition from 2002’s ‘Concert For George’ (a memorial to George Harrison on the first anniversary of his death). The surviving Beatles are all there, led by Clapton up front. And have a look to his left: that’s Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and the spitting image of his father.  

 

9. Across The Universe

As we begin to round the bend and into the home straight, we arrive at the film’s title track. Much like ‘Revolution’, it has been released a number of times with different versions, takes and arrangements; more so than probably any other Beatles song. Lennon described it as the best, most poetic lyrics that he ever wrote, and frustratingly, the band struggled to find a version of the song that they were truly happy with. Written as early as 1967, but only released on a full-length album on 1970’s acrimonious Let It Be, the lyrics came to Lennon after an argument he had with his ex-wife Cynthia. He kept on hearing her words repeated over and over, “flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup”, and he immediately decided to put that feeling into a song. The song was further flavoured and influenced by the Beatles’ interest in Transcendental Meditation; the link to the chorus is the Sanskrit phrase “jai guru deva om”, literally meaning “glory to the shining remover of darkness”, or figuratively “victory to God divine”. The cover Taymor creates draws on elements from most versions of the song: the Let It Be version’s choral overdubs, the Anthology 2 version’s stronger psychedelic feel of Indian sitar and tambura and Let It Be…Naked‘s stripped-down, cleaner vocals. Sturgess enunciates his words carefully, with a cinematic, unhurried feel, matching Lennon’s mood of enlightenment masterfully. However, the song begins to take on an unexpected darker tone in the final minute; in the film, this song is just before a scene of great conflict and violence.

Verdict: A tie

Reason: It’s difficult to choose the best version of a song that the band was evidently very indecisive about. Despite its exceptionally vivid and beautiful lyrics, the original still somehow feels unfinished and stuck in a ‘demo’ phase. Sturgess presents a great interpretation of the song, trading on the weighty lyrics, and it’d be fair to say that he neither surpasses the original nor falls far behind it.  

 

10. Helter Skelter

Raucous, biting, and chaotic, ‘Helter Skelter’ has been credited as one of the first heavy-metal (or ‘proto-metal’) songs, with its loud, roaring guitars, thudding backbeat and McCartney’s raw hollering (which, along with ‘Oh! Darling’, is probably the most impressive of his Beatles career). Born out of a desire to outdo The Who’s Pete Townshend (who had described their band’s latest single at the time, ‘I Can See For Miles’, as “the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song we’ve ever recorded”), Paul turned up the amps to 11 and went wild. The term ‘helter skelter’ is well-known in Great Britain as referring to the spiralling fairground ride, in which people could climb the inside the top of a wooden tower and slide down. Although McCartney was using it as a seemingly innocent metaphor (such as “when I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide”), sadly the song received massive notoriety when the American psychopath Charles Manson used it as justification for the multiple brutal murders he and his ‘Family’ committed in August 1969. Claiming that ‘Helter Skelter’, along with many other tracks off the White Album, was a coded prophecy for an apocalyptic race war, he tarnished the song’s legacy with his disturbing and appalling philosophy.

 

Just under a year after the release of the song, Helter Skelter's reputation was tarnished by serial killer Charles Manson and his cult 'The Family'

Just under a year after the release of the song, Helter Skelter’s reputation was tarnished by serial killer Charles Manson and his cult ‘The Family’

 

But when not heard through the ears of a madman, it’s a tremendously fun song to listen to, and one where the band really let loose together in the studio, during a time when they were growing apart and beginning to work on songs alone. The recording sessions were said to be full of madness and hysterics, as evidenced on the conclusion of the song, where Ringo suddenly screams “I’VE GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!”. Dana Fuchs takes hold the reins of lead vocals on this joyride in the film, which overlaps with the previous track and, as mentioned before, gets a brief appearance in the beginning of the film. Although only a small portion of it is used, the section is enough to get your attention, as Fuch’s howls are juxtaposed with Sturgess’ quieter, steadfast mantra of “nothing’s gonna change my world”. The full-length version holds up admirably; her overall performance definitely shows Janis Joplin-like strands of sassiness.

 

With serpentine golden locks and a gruff, wolf-like howl, Fuchs' performances are vigorous and animalistic

With serpentine golden locks and a gruff, wolf-like howl, Fuchs’ performances are vigorous and animalistic

 

Verdict: A tie

Reason: On one hand, you have the one of the most white-hot, pioneering rock ‘n roll performances on record, with a relentless panache that borders on overbearing (the song fades in and out twice before collapsing exhausted). And on the other hand, you have a slicker, modern interpretation; a steady torrent instead of a series of powerful bursts, with Fuchs in the centre, simultaneously feeding off and fuelling the storm around her. It’s the plucky young unstoppable force meeting the wise old immovable object, and what a joy is that collision to witness.  

 

11. Happiness Is A Warm Gun

A sultry multi-part symphony in less than three minutes, this gem from the White Album presented the increasingly fractured band as a unified front, in a song featuring frequent shifts in time signatures, tempo, as well as unorthodox lyrics and phrasing. Lennon found inspiration through a gun magazine he was shown which had the words ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ on the cover (“I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say,” he said, “A warm gun means you’ve just shot something”). He then pasted together a pastiche of song fragments from two main sources: his experiences with Apple Records’ publicist Derek Taylor and his sexual desire for Yoko Ono (the gun metaphor is clearly evident when he cries “Mother Superior, jump the gun”). Whilst the song was a challenging one to play (with a mammoth 15 hours and 95 takes devoted to it), its instrumental setup was relatively straightforward. This trend continues on Taymor’s version, where the track’s warmth increases and its complexity gets smoothed out into a languid, soulful stroll. In the film, this scene takes place in a military hospital where the blonde Joe Anderson sings along with his nurse/s, played by sexy Latina actress Salma Hayek. Although the doo-wop style “bang bang, shoot shoot” lines were probably meant in jest by Lennon, they sound quite alluring coming from a nurse providing a shell-shocked solider with his ‘fix’ of morphine.

 

Happiness ain't a warm gun; it's five Salma Hayek's in nurse outfits

Happiness ain’t a warm gun; it’s five Salma Hayek’s in nurse outfits

 

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Whilst Taymor matched the song’s sexual (and possible drug-related) subject matter with its mood, the film’s version seems a little too lumbering and half-asleep. Lacking a strong distorted guitar is one of its main downfalls; instead it gets replaced by a quiet, deep-sounding orchestral backing, and its peaks are only towards the climax, where it finally wakes up and has some decent harmonies from the vocalists. This gun is only lukewarm at best.

 

12. Blackbird

This delightful McCartney acoustic number gets a small feature in the film, with a few bars contributed by the dulcet tones of Evan Rachel Wood. Another fine choice to fit the film’s somewhat revolutionary subject matter, ‘Blackbird’ was inspired lyrically by the Civil Rights Movement in the late 60’s in the USA and melodically by a piece of music by the composer Bach, which Paul and George had learnt to play on guitar at a young age. The black ‘bird’ here refers to a black woman, ‘singing in the dead of night’, with the speaker encouraging her to ‘take these broken wings and learn to fly’; a simple and sweet metaphor that was one of McCartney more earnest ones that didn’t tend towards sappiness or superficiality.

 

Paul's acoustic guitar skills were on display in 'Blackbird'

Paul’s acoustic guitar skills were on display in ‘Blackbird’

 

Apart from its great lyrics, the song is known for its sleek and skilfully written guitar part, requiring good technique to play and match the three different time signatures. Taymor once again goes for a bolder arrangement, focusing heavily on a respiratory-like accordion part and a barely-there guitar backing it up. Thus, the foot-tapping tempo of the original is done away with, and the mood of a rather calm song becomes even calmer.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: One misstep I feel that the original has is the bird sounds which start around 1 minute 40 seconds in. If they were used just to close out the song, then they could’ve slotted in quite smoothly, but whilst being the sounds of an actual blackbird, they come off sounding a little too cheesy and prominent. The accordion is an inspired touch by Taymor, and its slow, droning texture adds to the sad, yet still uplifting feel of the song. Wood’s vocals again are warm, smooth and inviting; a worthy adversary to Sir Paul’s legendary pipes. The modern arrangement soars a little higher than its predecessor, but only slightly.  

 

13. Hey Jude

Think of the ultimate song to cheer someone up with, and you should look no further than ‘Hey Jude’ – the McCartney sing-along ballad that has become synonymous with The Beatles’ image and plucky optimism. Originally written by him to cheer up Lennon’s young son Julian during his parent’s divorce, this piano-based anthem became, at the time, the longest single ever to top the British charts (at a boundary-pushing 7 minutes and 11 sec0nds) and remained at number 1 on the American charts for an incredible 9 weeks. The cheerful lyrics are really front-and-centre on this one, and are complemented superbly by the lead piano part and the slow-building band performance. The appearance of a full orchestra for a four minute-long coda livens up proceedings, and soon arrives the iconic “na na na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey Jude” refrain – one that cements its standing in popular music. The universal quality of its lyrics make it easy to replace the name ‘Jude’ with a person in your own life, such as in the opening lines “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad/Take a sad song and make it better/Remember to let her into your heart/Then you can start to make it better”. Even McCartney toyed with the name during the writing process, switching from “Jules” (short for Julian) to something that rolled more smoothly off the tongue.

 

Follow this flow diagram if you forget the lyrics!

Follow this flow diagram if you forget the lyrics!

 

Taymor bears the weight of expectation quite admirably for a song with a status such as this, and does the inevitable ‘trimming of the fat’ (as she did with ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’). Things start off slower, climax quicker and strangely, one feels that nothing was ever left out. In the film, supporting characters are used to great effect, creating the sing-along and adding some extra…ahem… percussion to the mix! As with the original, it’s a typically bright moment and an emotional high in the narrative.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: It would be very easy in this case to say that Taymor’s version compresses what was great about the original into a shorter length, as has been seen on other songs in this soundtrack. But the original, despite its length, keeps its upbeat smile shining all the way through to completion, and that’s how it managed to be picked up and played as a single, as well as achieve the success it has achieved. Lennon summed up the group’s confidence in the song: when being told by producer George Martin that they can’t make a single that long because disc jockeys wouldn’t play it, he retorted, “They will if it’s us”.  

 

14. Don’t Let Me Down

One of The Beatle’s most underrated songs, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is a personal favourite of mine. A product of the tumultuous Let It Be sessions, it bears much similarity in tone to Lennon’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, showcasing his vulnerability and desperation for Yoko Ono’s affections. Sadly, it was left off that doomed album, relegated to being a B-side to the hit ‘Get Back’. It’s a song filled with anguish, yet it has a warm, soothing feel to it. Lennon’s vocals are strong and when paired with simple soul-baring lyrics such as “I’m in love for the first time/Don’t you know it’s going to last/It’s a love that lasts forever/It’s a love that had no past”, you get a honest and convincing look into the mind of a man well-known for his cockiness and confident persona. The rest of the band pulls together during a difficult time in their history to also give a powerful performance. Billy Preston, collaborating with the band on electric piano, adds to the bluesy aura and Ringo’s drumming stands out on the choruses, his loud cymbal crashes being in sync with each word.

 

Don't Let Me Down was on the setlist of the band's final live performance on the 30th of January 1969, which was infamously held on the rooftop of Abbey Road Studios

Don’t Let Me Down was on the setlist of the band’s final live performance on the 30th of January 1969, which was infamously held on the rooftop of Abbey Road Studios

 

Taymor has another moment of vocalist match-making genius, pairing up Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy to trade lines off each other, and this time it stands very close to the original in quality. Albeit a bit less ragged and bluesy, it provides an interesting twist on the lyrical content: having two lovers sing the words to each other, and not just one-way.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Although Fuch and McCoy’s vocals are some of their most impassioned on the soundtrack, the song itself lacks the punch of original. This is mainly due to the lack of the aforementioned cymbal crashes, and Lennon’s little adlibs midway through, which make his anxious confessions seem raw and off-the-cuff. The electric piano/organ part is much more prominent in Taymor’s version though, which is a rather neat touch.  

 

15. All You Need Is Love

If ‘Hey Jude’ was an anthem about optimism, then ‘All You Need Is Love’ espoused something even simpler: love. It is the song that is invariably used to sum up the band’s core message, and it comes as no surprise considering its composition. In 1967, The Beatles were asked to participate in the world’s first televised satellite link-up. It was called Our World, and it was to be broadcast live between 25 countries worldwide. The BBC naturally chose them to be the musical flag bearers for Great Britain, and their performance would be seen by a potential audience of 400 million people! The song was very much John’s, but received the song writing credit Lennon/McCartney, as the latter contributed a few minor ideas and adlibs. The band began recording the song the week prior to the broadcast, laying down backing tracks and other complex overdubs so that the only live features on the performance would be the vocals, bass, guitar solo, drums and orchestra.

 

For the historic world's first televised satellite link-up, The Beatles chose to perform 'All You Need Is Love', a song written specifically for the occasion

For the historic world’s first televised satellite link-up, The Beatles chose to perform ‘All You Need Is Love’, a song written specifically for the occasion

 

It was a nerve-wracking, history-making occasion, but everyone present took it in their stride, as famous friends of the band (who were seated in the studio at their feet) joined in for the rousing call-and-response finale. Lennon’s lyrics aimed for universal musings, with statements such as “There’s nothing you can do that you can’t be done/Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung” and “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known” being paired with the straightforward chorus giving the way forward: “All you need is love/Love is all you need”. For a song bursting with whimsy and idealism, Taymor’s version begins on an incredibly solemn and ambient note, with Sturgess alone for a weighty 1-and-a-half minutes as he steadily emotes through the first verse and chorus. Backing vocals ghost their way into the second verse, as the song picks up the original arrangement from the second chorus till the simpler ending, removing the brash orchestral blasts and studio tomfoolery.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Unlike with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, the garish, the fun and the bizarre can and should be embraced on an anthem like this. Whilst the former channelled Lennon’s demons, this psalm of peace draws on love divine, and the communal, relaxed setting of its recording matches its subject matter perfectly. Taymor aimed for theatricality with this version (I mean, it is for a soundtrack), and produces an awe-inspiring result, but perhaps by trying so hard to be meaningful and serious, she lost sight of a key aspect of love: fun.  

 

16. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

The credits begin to roll, and one of the band’s most misunderstood songs closes off the soundtrack. This lavish psychedelic daydream sat snugly in Sgt Peppers surreal cocoon, featuring multiple key changes and increasingly complicated underlying arrangement, similar to the album’s other fairground-like song ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’. Although the allusions to the drug LSD are seemingly evident, Lennon constantly stated that the main source of inspiration came from a drawing his four-year-old son Julian had drawn of his school friend Lucy. The ‘strange-looking woman flying around’ in the picture was said to be ‘Lucy…in the sky with diamonds’.

 

Lucy Vodden (pictured at age 43), the inspiration behind the painting John's young son did at playschool, which in turn influenced John to write the famous song

Although it is quite faded, Julian Lennon's mother Cynthia has kept the original painting

Although it is quite faded, Julian Lennon’s mother Cynthia has kept the original painting

 

With that idea in mind, Lennon began writing the dream-like song, drawing on further inspiration from the Lewis Carroll book ‘Alice In Wonderland’, and its bizarre imagery. Opening lines “Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies” lure the listener in with odd visions of unreality, before ‘a girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ is spotted, and the simple euphoric chorus kicks in, echoing the song’s title. It’s a song that managed to straddle the line between experimentation and accessibility rather carefully, and not surprisingly was one of the quickest songs to be recorded on the famed Pepper sessions. The original is known for its drone-like, undulating verses, thanks to the Indian instrument known as a tambura, and an organ part. This is where Bono and The Edge (both from the band U2) really capture and update the sound of this song on the film version. A barely perceptible orchestra arrangement carries Bono’s signature vocals (very clear in the mix, and slightly less ethereal than Lennon’s) towards the catchy chorus, which flows better than the original but lacks McCartney’s passionate vocal harmonies.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Bono definitely has the voice to carry most Beatles songs, but him and The Edge’s reworking of a song heavily reliant on atmosphere seems to drift rather monotonously and does little to brand itself. It is still a modern, great cover, but is stripped of any noticeable innovations.  

 

 

And in the end…

The final score (for those keeping count) is:

  • Originals: 19
  • Covers: 9
  • Ties: 3

In this case, whilst the originals will trump the covers more often than not, some of the cover versions do show enough nuances and new ideas that the originals might’ve lacked. I suppose hindsight is 20/20, and 40-odd years of getting to know them surely will provide some interesting interpretations. It’s still a fine soundtrack nonetheless, with nary a weak song in its catalogue of covers. When watching Across The Universe, one can feel like one is watching an extended music video, since there is an incredible amount of it crammed into its runtime. And for the more jaded of our population, it can be a bit overwhelming to see characters breaking out into song in nearly every scene. But for people that either enjoy The Beatles’ music, a good musical, or like a bit of fun in their film-viewing experiences, then Across The Universe is most definitely a trip worth taking. It’s an adventure; a journey involving love, mystery, humour, conflict, and bizarre things to be seen and heard. It is a film that effectively distils The Beatles’ spirit, and faithfully represents the themes and messages of their music. I hope that my review has opened your eyes and ears to both the film, and the music that inspired it, in the same way that the film did to me. Let’s keep The Beatles’ spirit of love alive. That is all we need.

 

The Beatles - The End - Lyrics And Photo

(This article is taken from the old Eagle’s Nest site, originally published on the 22nd of March 2011. As the site was a part-time blog back then, this article was not necessarily written for professional purposes. In hindsight, this article in particular could do with a significant update, perhaps a ‘Part Two’, in the near future)

 

One aspect of music that I have a particular affinity for is acoustic covers of well-known songs, or by artists that I like. The idea of reinterpreting a piece of music and stripping it down to its core emotions gets me excited. The search to find these gems also makes it all the more worthwhile, as many of these performances are rather rare and difficult to find.

Due to the incredibly high-quality of technology used in music production today, it’s become easy to lose a sense of how good an artist is at performing live, which I’ve always considered a worthy barometer of talent measurement. Studio trickery and layered and/or Auto-tuned vocals can sometimes mask the real truth of an artist’s ability.

This is not to say that technology is bad and has no place in the music industry, because it definitely does have a place. Musical and technological innovations have gone hand-in-hand right from the start. Artists such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix eagerly and meticulously redefined what an artist could do in a studio, and embraced the many changes the recording industry was going through in the 1960’s (definitely enough for a whole other article!), and made music all the more creative and electrifying (excuse the pun) for the following decades. By the 1980’s, it was standard practice to play around with synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, etc, to add to your final mix.

 

Jimi Hendrix was notoriously picky in the studio, meticulously crafting his sound, which often left studio staff exasperated.

Jimi Hendrix was notoriously picky in the studio, meticulously crafting his sound, which often left studio staff exasperated.

 

But if you take a performer out of the comfort of his/her studio, or take away all the wonderful gadgets that make them listenable, will the magic still be there? Depending on what type of music they create (some, for example, make acoustic-based music anyway), this could be a colossal failure or a beautiful spectacle; an unmasking of the true artist within. If someone is worth his/her salt musically, they should be able to convey to you what they’re feeling inside in the simplest or grandest terms.

I saw an extreme example of this recently, when I watched a guitar documentary where Jack White (of The White Stripes) built a ‘guitar’ out of a block of wood, a glass bottle, some nails, wire, and a connecting system of some sort to electrify this poor-man’s attempt at an instrument. He then tried it out for a while, as it emitted a howling surge of noise, and afterwards, turned to the camera and said with a shrug, ‘Who said you even need to buy a guitar?’

 

 

Amateurs also have discovered the importance of the acoustic cover in contemporary music, not just the professional artists. If you search ‘acoustic cover’ on Youtube, you’re guaranteed to find a plethora of people, usually with just a guitar or piano, playing their own ‘unplugged’ versions of popular songs, whether they’re pop, rock, R&B or even hip-hop. It almost seems to be a rite of passage to be able know the chords to some teen pop-idol’s latest hit, and then to give your interpretation of it on the Internet. And you know what? I’m all for it.

Whether a musician is performing an acoustic cover of his own song, or of another’s, a little morsel of his soul gets put into the meal. And when a professional artist does so, there is an even greater chance of that performance turning into an aural banquet for the listener. Oftentimes the mood of the song is completely different from its original: a change from brash and outrageous to perhaps delicate and sensitive, yet still using the same words and chords. So, in addition to showcasing the artist’s actual vocal and/or instrumental skills, their flair for songwriting and arranging can also be given a chance to shine.

Here are some amateur and professional examples of acoustic covers that really sum up the ideals I’ve found in this sphere of music. In some cases, the line between amateur and professional is a little blurred, because some of these people have really good production values and obvious talent that needs to be discovered by a record label or rich investor! Some are studio recordings, but still acoustic versions, which must count for something. This is by no means a complete list of what’s worth checking it out; It’s just what I’ve been exposed to, or have the download links to show you. I’m sure every artist out there has had to do an acoustic recording at some point. What these type of recordings lack in complexity, they more than make up for in passion and emotion.

 

Amateurs:

 

1. Tyler Ward

This guy has built up quite a collection of covers, and guests to perform with him. I was introduced to his work by his cover of Lady Gaga’s latest hit ‘Born This Way’, which he performs with a girl named Alex G. Try out this one out for size:

 

2. Obadiah Parker’s cover of Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’

This folk/pop group catapulted away from obscurity when in 2007, they released an acoustic cover of the hip hop smash hit by Outkast, ‘Hey Ya’. A tender, relaxed take on a very upbeat and funky song:

 

 

3. Boyce Avenue

Like Tyler Ward, this band have become Youtube sensations, with many of their videos having over a million views each. Specialising in acoustic covers, and now writing some of their own material in a similar style, they are an excellent example of how to use modern communication tools like the Internet to get your name out there.

Their most-viewed track, Linkin Park’s ‘Shadow Of The Day’, rightfully deserves that honour:

 

 

Professionals

 

1. MTV Unplugged Series

This MTV concert series began in the early 90’s and had some amazing acts of the day perform ‘unplugged’. Some memorable moments to check out include:

Eric Clapton in 1992, whose set was released as an album, selling over 10 million copies and earning him SIX Grammy Awards! Hectic stuff…

Bryan Adams’s 1997 set, of which that version of ‘Heaven’ will probably end up being my wedding song…

Nirvana’s legendary performance in 1993. Recorded only five months before Kurt Cobain’s death, the grunge trend-setters completely flipped their music on its head, showcasing a more sensitive side of Kurt’s vocals and guitar-playing.

Oasis’s infamous 1996 performance, at the height of their fame. Moments before going on stage, lead singer Liam Gallagher pulled out of the show, citing a sore throat. The band continued to perform despite this, with his brother, songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher, handling all the vocals, which earned him much critical praise. Liam watched the performance and heckled the group from a balcony. Some absolute classics here, such as ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’.

 

The Unplugged series slowed down its recording schedule in the 2000’s, but lately, present-day artists such as Phoenix, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, Vampire Weekend and Paramore have been contributing some lively performances.

 

 

2. An assortment of others that I have on my iPod

Due to the elusive nature of these performances, it’s quite difficult to have a nice catalogue of them on CD’s or on an iPod. Many artists choose to randomly play a hit of theirs acoustically at one of their countless concerts, or record a version on an obscure EP; therefore it’s easy to miss out, even if you’re a fan! So here’s a list of some interesting ones I have collected over the years:

 

  • Aerosmith – ‘Crazy’ (Piano Acoustic)
  • Fokofpolisiekar – ‘Hemel Op Die Platteland’ (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Foo Fighters – ‘Times Like These’ (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Incubus – ‘Stellar’ (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’ (Originally by Nine Inch Nails – one of the best covers ever, off an album of covers he did before he died in 2003)
  • Linkin Park – Pushing Me Away (Live Acoustic – from Underground V6.0)
  • Relient K’s ‘Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been’ and ‘Which To Bury: Us Or The Hatchet’ (Unplugged Versions off various EP’s)
  • Rihanna – Umbrella (Guitar Acoustic)
  • Tupac Shakur – Changes (Guitar Acoustic – rare version)

 

Whew, that’s enough for now! Now it’s your turn to go out there and search for these acoustic nuggets of treasure. Hopefully you’ll find that the magic is still there once the Auto-tune is turned off and the guitars are unplugged…