Saturday, December 31, 2011

50 Years On, We Thank Decca Records For Rejecting The Beatles, Thanks Decca!

January 1st 2012  marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles infamous Decca audition. When Brian Epstein had suggested managing the Beatles in December 1961, he set about securing them a recording deal through his contacts in the record retail industry. Epstein's NEMS store was one of the largest record retailers in the English North, and he used his status to pressure various labels to review his new proteges. One of the labels to respond and send an A&R man north was DECCA. Mike Smith was dispatched to Liverpool, and upon hearing the Beatles play at the Cavern, he agreed that an artists test should be set as soon as possible. 
This was hastily arranged for January 1st, 1962.  
The fact that Epstein had secured an artists test at a large and influential recording company, less than five weeks after first hearing and meeting them, must have impressed the group enormously. Perhaps Epstein's feat dazzled them enough to allow them to trust his judgment in choosing the songs to present to Decca staff. 
On new years even 1961, the Beatles drove south to London in a battered van, enduring brutal conditions, and losing their way several times en route. Arriving just in time for the stroke of the new year, they retired to a cheap hotel in a city they new little about, and appeared at Decca's west Hampstead studios at the arranged time the next morning. Running through 15 songs in just one allotted hour is hardly the best way to showcase your talent, but regardless, that's all the time the group were given.
Of the 15 songs, (while a little rough around the edges) the performances, musically and vocally, were considerably sound, with two Lennon-McCartney originals, "Like Dreamers Do" & "Hello Little Girl" offering potential single material. Others, obviously chosen by Epstein to showcase the group's eclectic appeal, made them sound comedic at best, and inconsistent in style at worst. The playing was tight, although understandable nerves can be detected in the singing. Interestingly, Pete Best's drumming, while a little erratic in time-keeping, was solid, and very different to the imploding mash of patterns he utilized at the EMI session later that year, which ultimately sealed his fate. 
The group left Decca, seemingly assured that enough had been done to secure a deal. So much so in fact that Epstein began to let it leak that his group were now Decca recording artistes. Three weeks later however came the crushing news that they had been rejected, with Lennon furiously blaming Epstein for his selection of the material. Incensed, Epstein traveled to London and demanded a u-turn by Decca executives. Realising this was futile Epstein is reported to have uttered that Decca were out of their minds, his boys would be bigger than Elvis Presley. Decca's reply was polite smiles; a boastful claim indeed. 
Apparently Dick Rowe, head of Decca A&R attempted to smooth the atmosphere by informing Epstein that guitar groups were simply on the way out. We will never have any way of knowing if either statement was ever made. For his part, Rowe denied ever saying such a thing. But of course he would deny it. If he had said it, he proved himself to be the most out of touch music executive in the country at that time, one who had just made a criminal error of judgment. 
Rowe has always been held up as the biggest idiot in A&R history, the man who rejected the Beatles! While George Martin has been hailed as his direct opposite, the man who discovered the Beatles, the genius who recognised the genius. 
This is however just a lazy conclusion, and simply incorrect. Another guitar band auditioned the same day as the Beatles for Decca. Brian Poole and The Tremeloes (or simply The Tremeloes) auditioned for the same staff. In the end it seems Decca signed The Tremeloes, from nearby Dagenham, in favour of the Beatles, from far away Liverpool. Perhaps it was a matter of cheaper travel expenses, or practical geo-logistical artiste management. Perhaps The Tremeloes were more confident in their performance, perhaps they appealed to Decca as the better option for a gamble. Remember, George Martin himself stated that he didn't really think much of the Beatles musically, in June 1962. He maintained it was their charm that encouraged him to take a risk with them.
The risk is also another factor. Decca were a big label with big artists. They would have been expected to turn a new signing into profit, quickly. Parlophone were on the other hand, an unfashionable gimmick label who produced comedy records, and the terms which George Martin initially offered that Beatles were so meager, that he stood to lose little financially. This meant his job was secure if they failed. 
In the end, Epstein's wild boast regarding his group toppling Elvis Presley was proved correct, and he had Decca to thank for it! It was while attempting to cut an acetate from the Decca tapes that Epstein finally ran into George Martin, and the rest as they say, is history. 
The Beatles career, often dazzling and seemingly the result of pure genius, was ultimately, the sum of many, many, apparently small parts. Around the same time Decca rejected the Beatles, they also rejected a request for employment from a 15 year old school leaver by the name of Geoffrey Emerick. Later, the engineer responsible for the sounds on Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 
Dick Rowe later signed The Rolling Stones, on the advice of one George Harrison, and was thus able to recoup some of his losses, and save his skin.
In a final twist, EMI staff (still unable to believe Decca had rejected their new Golden Geese) sent Rowe a plainly packaged acetate of the soon to be released 1963 chart topper "Please Please Me" 7". They were hoping to lure him into rejecting them a second time. No response was received from Decca.
If the Beatles had signed with Decca, chances are they would have recorded a few shallow and hasty singles (possibly covers) that may have flopped, sending them back to Liverpool for a life of anonymity. Fate intervened, and they fell into the hands of EMI and George Martin. I love fate.

Half a century on, I'd like to thank Decca for the 4 best things they ever did for us:

1. Funding and facilitating the Beatles contract with EMI
2. Rejecting The Beatles
3. Rejecting Geoff Emerick
4. Signing The Rolling Stones 

Happy New Year Decca

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Beatles - Please Please Me: The Album Guide, Video Demo

This video demo takes you through the functionality of Dinosaur Album Guides new Beatles iPad App & eBook: Please Please Me - The Definitive Album Guide

Starting with 'Please, Please Me; The Definitive Guide', Dinosaur Album Guides deliver the details you want to know in a style which is objective, interactive, engaging, educational and above all, fun. Each song is broken down into sub-sections of Background, Recording, Analysis, Impact and Discography, as we present you with all the details you ever wanted to know. Who plays which instrument? Which amplifiers were used? How many takes were involved? What were the individual influences behind each song? How were the songs recorded? And much more... In addition, quotes from the band and EMI staff complete the fascinating story behind this seminal album. Just $9.99 for iPad, Kindle and many more devices*

*If you don't have a Kindle or iPad, you can still download this book on most media devices. Amazon provides a FREE Kindle reader which is available for PC, Mac, Blackberry, Android, iPhone & more.
Get your free reader, and you can continue to download this exciting new Beatles guide from Amazon.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Beatles - Please Please Me, The Album Guide

Dinosaur Album Guides launch the first in an exciting new series; a definitive guide to The Beatles debut LP, Please Please Me. For iPad & Kindle

We leave no stone unturned as we trace the history of this seminal rock album. Each song is broken down into sub-sections of background, recording, analysis, impact and discography, as we present you with all the details you ever wanted to know. Who plays which instrument, which amplifiers were used, how many takes were involved, what were the individual influences behind each song, how were the songs recorded, and much more. In addition, quotes from the band members and EMI staff help to flesh-out the story behind each song, as well as the album itself. The perfect Christmas gift for your favourite Beatles fan.
Find out more about this app and eBook here, and get your copy.

iPad app screen captures

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ten Story Love Song - John Lennon's Top Ten

December the 8th is here again (ain't been round since you know when...)

31 years ago today, John Lennon, arguably one of the 20th centuries most interesting, and most paradoxical stars was gunned down by a demon on a New York street.
Doubtless today's papers, magazines, blogs and various online media will be filled with messages of peace, love and understanding...nothing funny 'bout that. However many will present the annual token deconstruction of Lennon's 'genius'. Some will refer to him as Gandhi, Jesus, or even a God- like figure (the irony is not lost), while others will counteract with the usual comments that he was a cruel and aggressive asshole who turned his back on his first family and served his own interests first. None of the former group is true of course, while some of the latter certainly hold water.

Don't listen to any of them. In truth it's all utter bollox.

What the man was, and what he did is irrelevant. His music however will never be such. Not to belittle the compositions of his songwriting partner and former band-mates, but Lennon was in a different league completely because he was cursed. He possessed an internal honesty and filter for bullshit that the careful sensibilities of McCartney, and the distracted spirit of Harrison could never quite aspire to. That's not to say that his lyrical conclusions or suggestions were always right, he was often wrong and too easily misled. However, he was always thought provoking, and has remained perpetually relevant. Lennon has never been passé.

I've taken the liberty to choose Lennon's ten greatest achievements on record. Many of these reflect his brutal honesty about how he saw himself, and the world around him.

But how do you pick 10 of Lennon's most notable songs you say? Seriously? Well, not without pacing the floor and losing sleep, that's for sure. There are far fewer tea bags in the tin than there were when this idea was first suggested to me. But if you're partial to other peoples musical suggestions, and you trust the opinion of someone who has been listening to John Lennon's music for 32 of his 42 years, then please, read on.

10. Imagine (1971)

Overrated? Perhaps. This is not John Lennon's greatest song, and it's certainly not the greatest song of the 20th century. I even toyed with the idea of excluding it from the top ten. I included it for two reasons however; 1. I don't want to hear a tap-tap on my back door only to open it and find hundreds of disgruntled Lennon fans holding a noose in the light of burning torches, and 2. I love how this song gets up the nose of cynics who miss the point. It's not called "Instruction", "Action" or "Do". The hint is in the title folks. It's as relevant today with our world crumbling and those who value possessions over people scrambling to protect their interests, as it was in 1971. I've included the acoustic version to distance this beautiful song as far from the candle carrying mob that I possibly can. 

9. Watching the Wheels (1980)

In the middle of the punk revolution in 1977 England, NME published an edition which featured John Lennon in Hamburg on the cover. The caption read: "Oh no, not another angry punk dressed in leather on the cover...which reminds us...where the hell are you John Lennon?". NME, and the UK wanted Lennon back, they needed him. His answer 3 years later was "Watching the Wheels". The song was the final installment in a career of self searching and self yearning that began with the pained "There's A Place" in 1963. It was followed through with "I'll Be Back", "I'll Cry Instead", "I'm A Loser", "Help!", "In My Life", "I'm Only Sleeping", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "I'm So Tired", "The Ballad Of John And Yoko", "Don't Let Me Down", "Mother", "God", "Working Class Hero", "My Mummy's Dead", "Crippled Inside", "How?" and culminated in "Watching the Wheels", "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over". Placed chronologically, you can almost trace Lennon's life through his introspective habit of writing about what he knew best; himself. "Watching the Wheels" seemingly finds him at peace, two months before his death.

8. I Should Have Known Better (1964)

My own personal favourite from the giddy, bright and optimistic soundtrack to Beatlemania, and the endless possibilities of post-war Europe now that the future belonged to war-babies and not their warring, scrounging, sensible parents. It couldn't last alas, but this fabulous pop song is timeless in its simplicity. My 2 year old sings it enthusiastically, cutely muddling the words, but never the melody which seems to have him possessed. That's the point of pop music isn't it? If aliens landed and had an hour to absorb our culture, this would be the Beatles song I would play them. Sums the entire crazy 7 years up in 2 and a half  minutes. 

7. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)  (1965)

Forget the perpetual stories about sitars and which female Lennon was referring to. Who really cares? What matters here is the sound of Lennon, and the Beatles' coming of age. Possibly the most beautiful acoustic intro sequence ever captured on tape. That Gibson is so rich, so lush. The strumming deliberately held back, escaping from its waltz-like structure through an enthusiastic accent at just the perfect moment. Rhythm guitar playing is an art, here in the hands of one its greatest masters, it can be heard at its best. 

6. Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)

Although this is the manic track that winds up Revolver, providing a perfect cliff hanger, and the missing link that bridges Revolver and Sgt Peppers; this was actually the first song recorded for the album. How they found the energy and enthusiasm for the rest of Revolver after recording this amazing feat of experimentation is a wonder indeed. Sampling, tape loops, and thundering break-beats were all pioneered with this recording. How sneaky of the Beatles to discover and then discard 'Drum n Bass', 20 years before it was 'invented'!

5. She Said, She Said (1966)

Again, a point of opinion on whether this is Revolver's greatest track or not, I've included it because, personally I think its the Fab's coolest albums' coolest track. It's effortlessly cool. And all the more so because while every other track on Revolver was painstakingly and expensively created over months and months, "She Said, She Said" was laid down on the last night of mixing as an afterthought. Interestingly McCartney does not appear on the track at all; Harrison plays bass. Now, I never suggested that's why it might be so bloody cool, you thought that in your own head! 

4. A Day In The Life  (1967)

Another lyrical Lennon trawl through his life of (dis)content in The City of London 'stockbroker belt', even the song's title betrays its origins; a narrative of his post-touring life (reading papers, reading film scripts, reading papers). So much has been documented about the recording of this incredibly beautiful pop song that to regurgitate it all here would be completely predictable and boring. McCartney provides the light relief, and the song wouldn't be the same without it. Starr provides lead drums, roadie Malcolm Evans is on alarm clock and countdown, and several pianos were used to create the crashing E chord at the end. Picture George Martin squirming as he told the 40 piece orchestra that he could give them the lowest note, and the highest note, but that in between, it was every man for himself.  "Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad" 

3. I Am The Walrus (1967)

Conscious of the fact that his old grammar school (which had told him he would amount to nothing) was discussing his lyrics in English classes, Lennon set about composing these Lewis-Carroll inspired lyrics over the course of several acid trips. The anti-establishment lyrics are one thing, the aural landscape they are set within is another. George Martin always maintained that recording a song was like painting a picture in sound. If so, this ranks among the strangest works of Dali. The track contains a darkness and intensity that is unmatched in the entire Beatles catalogue. This is Lennon at his creative Beatles peak. The slope from this point on was ever so slightly downward.

2. Strawberry Fields Forever (1967)

I'm going to leave this one alone and let you enjoy it. I don't want to spoil it. There is nothing I could possibly say which could further enhance it. Pop music becoming high brow art becoming pop music. 

1. God (1970)

God is a concept, by which we measure, our pain.

This is not my personal favourite Lennon song. However, I'm awarding this my number one spot purely because the song contains a revolutionary lyric. The type of vitriolic denunciation contained in Lennon's lyric was previously the privilege of religious leaders, senate hearings, state departments or despotic dictators. As much as popular music had progressed by 1970, this type of honesty and scathing criticism of the failures of the apparent 'progress' of the past 6 years had never been seen or heard before. Lennon not only denounces his friends and the Beatles themselves (sharp intake of breath through teeth), he condemns organised religion, spirituality, politics, the far right, liberalism, and the entire counter culture movement itself. His prognosis accompanied by some tinkering piano parts a la "Love Letters" is that all that matters is you and yours. Everything else is irrelevant. This should be on every school curriculum.

And so dear friends, you'll just have to carry on...

Pugwash, The Olympus Sound

Beautiful harmonies, sumptuous melodies, swirling organs, Mellotrons, chiming Rickenbacker guitars and beguiling chords all mashed together with shades of The Jam, The Who, XTC, ELO , The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Beach Boys and, dare we say it, Peter Frampton: who else could it be but Dublin’s own Pugwash.

The Olympus Sound, released in August 2011, is the fifth offering from Pugwash front man/songwriter Thomas Walsh, and follows Almond Tea (1999), Almanac (2002), Jollity (2005), and Eleven Modern Antiquities (2009). Pugwash have always been something of an oddity, crafting intelligent and honest retro pop within a city, indeed a country, which cares little for the genre.
The Irish music scene has produced some wonderful pop groups over the last few decades, but few have been able to carve out a successful mainstream career with its financial rewards.  Such success seems all too easy for rock bands who take themselves too seriously, or artists with a traditional music variable who can rely on a heavy appeal to a pre-conditioned population. 
Ireland simply doesn’t have a huge tradition in pop, which is not surprising given the special hold trad has within and without the major towns and cities.  This is compounded by the damaging and one-dimensional legacy which followed on the success of the country’s major international rock acts throughout the ‘70s/’80s/’90s and beyond. 
"Dublin Is Dead" was the controversial slogan of one of Dublin’s few indie acts of the mid 90s. The city, and the country has however undergone a regeneration of sorts over the past 10-15 years, producing an eclectic array of pop acts which, while hardly rivalling the output of any major UK city, has still been a vast improvement on its sometimes dull musical past.

Over the past 12 years, Thomas Walsh and Pugwash have been at the core of this renaissance. Walsh, like many purveyors of his particular brand of classic pop (what some call "power pop") was weaned on the giants of the genre: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, ELO, and XTC.
It was his discovery that Andy Partridge of XTC composed in his garden shed which led Walsh to erecting a wooden shed in his parents' back garden, filling it with cheap recording devices and instruments and running a power cable from his home in Drimnagh to his new abode. It was in this same shed that Walsh spent 10,000 hours learning his craft and amassing a wealth of demo tapes.
These tapes eventually led to his discovery by US producer Kim Fowley and hitting the touring circuit with Belfast singer/songwriter Andy White.

Walsh formed Pugwash in 1997, and their debut Almond Tea was released in 1999. Twelve years on, The Olympus Sound and its first single "Fall Down" finds Walsh in familiar pop territory (albeit with a more accomplished and mature sound), but still short of the mainstream success which you would expect this style and calibre of music to deliver. Walsh, thankfully, prefers to focus on what he has than what he has not. 
Commercial success may have eluded him thus far, but Walsh has never been short of critical acclaim. In fact the list of heavyweights who have heaped praise on his talent is, frankly, intimidating. Walsh met his idol Brian Wilson in 2005 following the release of the band's third album Jollity. The album contained the track "It’s Nice To Be Nice" which was a sublime homage to Wilson’s Beach Boys, and unsurprisingly, it caught Wilson's attention.

Not content with the praise of one idol ringing in his ear, Walsh next caught the attention of and befriended Andy Partridge of XTC, who called Walsh "the saviour of modern pop."  Walsh is a rich man indeed. His interest in XTC has been long and formative, with Walsh declaring that the group's 1986 release Skylarking "changed my life." 
Partridge signed Pugwash to his own label in 2009, and has even composed with Walsh. Their close friendship and Partridge’s high regard for the Dubliner's talent is evident in his remark that Walsh is "better than McCartney; fatter than Lennon". 
Walsh however got his closest brush with the high-rollers and mainstream success following his collaboration with The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and their cricket-themed work, The Duckworth Lewis Method (2009). Walsh was nominated for an Ivor Novello award for his contribution.
Following this project, Pugwash returned to the studio and the result is The Olympus Sound. Again, and unsurprisingly, Walsh’s influences shine through on the 12 tracks.

"Answers On A Postcard" contains some wonderful Beach Boys harmonies, and a syncopated rhythm section which is more than a nod to "Good Vibrations."   This single also contains swirling, hurdy-gurdy organs a la The Small Faces and an opening that evokes the intro of The Who’s "Out In The Street."   "There You Are’" contains shades of XTC and ELO, with a little of what The Who might like sound like if they’d been tamed by a spell in Borstal. 
The beautiful "To The Warmth of You" plants Walsh in XTC heaven, and could easily be an outtake from Skylarking itself, while a comparison with Paul McCartney’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard seems fitting. The albums’ second single "Fall Down" is probably its strongest commercial track, sounding just a little like the late output of George Harrison; particularly the Jeff Lynne-stamped solo. 
"Dear Belinda" and "I Don’t Like It But I’ve Gotta Do It" return to XTC territory a la Skylarking while "15 Kilocycle Tone" sounds like earlier Pugwash, with a beat borrowed from Revolver’s "Tomorrow Never Knows."  "Such Beauty Thrown Away" and "Four Days" mirror Wilson once again, while "Be My Friend A While" is inescapably ELO. "Here We Go Round Again" is a sublime nod to ‘70s pop, with a just a hint of Frampton in the melody, yet just the right amount of late 60s Mellotron’s subjected to more XTC-influenced vocal melodies and harmonies.

The Olympus Sound is, overall, more tightly produced, somehow more compressed than its predecessors, with a palpable lack of the brightness of "It’s Nice To Be Nice."  But that darkness gives the album a maturity and consistency which previous Pugwash albums may have lacked. 
Walsh may find the constant comparisons to his idols in his work grating at times, but the truth is that he weaves these into his own songs so well that he escapes their clutches easily. Like their Scottish counterparts of power pop, Teenage Fanclub, Pugwash may wear their musical loves on their sleeves, but Pugwash still sound like Pugwash. In a city that will barely acknowledge beautiful, bright, shiny pop such as this, they will always be unique. 
Walsh isn’t fazed by his lack of international success. “If people are gonna remember me for something, it might as well be a beard. Some people never get remembered, so it might as well be a beard for me.” The Olympus Sound, the band’s four previous albums, and whatever Pugwash may still have up their sleeve ensures Walsh will be remembered for his honest and intelligent approach to pop music, and not his facial hair.

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