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Posts tagged ‘Mark Lewisohn’

Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Hornsey Road’

Abbey Road

When the Guardian ran my interview with Mark Lewisohn about his Abbey Road stage show last week, the piece got 800,000 page views in 24 hours: more than that day’s Brexit coverage, they said. I don’t know what this means, except that the Beatles are still pretty popular. More popular than Brexit, anyway.

Mark had a lot of interesting things to say. What I didn’t have room to discuss in the piece was the use made in the show — which is actually titled Hornsey Road — of the original multitrack tapes, downloadable (astonishing as it may seem) from the video game called Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009. This allows anyone with the necessary equipment to make their own remixes: a dangerous opportunity, but one that Mark has used with care and sensitivity to form part of his two-hour show, which had its first night in Northampton this week and is touring around the country until early December.

I went to a run-through last week, and learnt a lot from his remixes of the original eight-tracks from Olympic, Trident and EMI’s Abbey Road studios between February and August 1969. He brought out a single bar of absolutely sublime McCartney bass-playing on “Because” that I’d never noticed before, ditto the cowbell on “Polythene Pam”. Thanks to him, I was paying closer attention and therefore better able to enjoy the sequence of guitar solos from McCartney, Harrison and Lennon on “The End”: two bars each, then repeat twice. Eighteen quite revealing bars — particularly Lennon’s — in a track that was the last thing they recorded together.

Revisiting Abbey Road was funny for me because it was 50 years ago to the week — on September 10, 1969, in fact — that I’d tipped up at the ICA in the Mall for a screening of several films by John & Yoko, including Two Virgins and Rape. It was a long and gruelling evening, during which an unidentified male and female in a white canvas bag led us all in a chant of “Hare Krishna” that lasted the entire 52 minutes of Yoko’s Film No 5. Was it the Lennons inside the bag? At first we assumed it was. Then we thought, almost certainly not. But it was Bag-ism in action, for sure.

The unexpected treat was a preview of Abbey Road, a couple of weeks ahead of its release. Side one was played in the interval, followed by side two as an accompaniment to John’s film Self Portrait, a 20-minute study of his penis rising and falling. By the time the evening ended, only a handful of the invited audience remained in the theatre.

It was a time when the Beatles — and the Lennons in particular — were in the headlines almost every day. Fleet Street was obsessed with their relationships, their business affairs, their eccentricities. It was also a time when Lennon was happy to sit and talk in the Beatles’ room at Apple HQ at 3 Savile Row, as he did a couple of days later. The following day he was in Toronto for the Live Peace Festival, with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White. On the Monday morning he called me up at the Melody Maker offices to give me the story, and specifically to deny the reports that he and Yoko had been booed off.

“That’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “It was a fantastic show — really unbelievable. It was magical. The band was so funky and we really blew some minds. We only had time to rehearse on the plane going over, and we did things like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy [Miss Lizzy]’, and a new song I’d never played before.” That would have been “Cold Turkey”, which the Beatles were about to turn down as their next single. “Then Yoko joined us,” he continued, “and sang one number [“Don’t Worry Kyoko”] before doing things like our Life with the Lions album. It was incredible because the crowd was howling along with us and they all joined in for ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Everyone was singing — it was like a great big mantra.”

My impression of Lewisohn’s show was that Hornsey Road tells the story in rewarding detail and with a nicely judged sense of how wonderfully absurd the events surrounding the Beatles sometimes were, half a century ago.

* The photograph of the Beatles was taken on the Thames at Twickenham on April 9, 1969 and is from the booklet accompanying the 2009 remastered version of Abbey Road. It is © Apple Corps Ltd.

Christmas with Sgt Pepper, Lovely Rita etc

Sgt Pepper 1For some weeks now Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first part of his epic three-volume history of the Beatles, has been staring reproachfully at me from the top of the to-be-read pile. The time to absorb its 900-odd pages will come soon. Meanwhile on Saturday night I took the opportunity to listen to its author give an illustrated talk on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Centenary Theatre in Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, during an evening in aid of the Pepper Foundation, a locally based charity which provides specialised nursing care for children with life-limiting or terminal illnesses.

As it happens, Sgt Pepper is not in my top half-dozen Beatles albums, but the extent of Mark’s erudition and the depth of his engagement are such that I was fascinated by both the background detail and the close analysis he provided while showing related film clips and playing snatches of tapes from the sessions to show how the songs were built up.

It was an absorbing 45 minutes, and a perfect preparation to what happened after a short interval, when the charity’s founder, Robert Breakwell, took his place on a suddenly very crowded stage as the director of a troupe of dozens of musicians and singers, mostly amateurs, all primed to perform the album from beginning to end.

How bad an idea does that sound? How easy was it at that moment to exchange sardonic glances and make mental plans for an early exit and a quick drive back to London? All I can tell you is that the next hour passed in a whirl of surprise and enchantment as performers of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes tackled the challenge not just with enthusiasm and energy but with a wonderful degree of imagination.

For the opening “Sgt Pepper” song itself, two cheerleaders held up cue cards — “LAUGH”, “CHEER” etc — to enable us to replicate the sounds borrowed by the Beatles and George Martin from Abbey Road’s library of sound effects. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t going to be an attempt to imitate the original. Each song was interpreted in a way appropriate to the material, the talents of the performers and the resources available on stage, and often given a creative twist.

So we heard “Getting Better” done by five young women in a Spice Girls sort of way, “When I’m 64” sung by a group of children and “Good Morning, Good Morning” subjected to a delightfully scatty acappella arrangement. “Within You, Without You” featured not just the sound of a sitar but a haunting snatch of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.  “Fixing a Hole” was sung by Mike Burnett in folk-music style to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar, a double bass and two backing singers. Claire Boulter’s trained voice was applied with exquisitely transfixing effect to “She’s Leaving Home”, accompanied by a string quartet, a pianist and a choir including many of the night’s performers (a clearly overjoyed Lewisohn among them).

And then came the moment when one or two of us were thinking, “Are they really going to have a go at ‘A Day in the Life’?” How on earth would they cope with the ambition of the album’s concluding track, a towering moment in the Beatles’ musical history? Blow me down if they didn’t succeed quite brilliantly, finding ways to emulate the orchestral glissandi and the final piano chord that fades away into an echoing silence.

It was an amazing thing to hear and feel, and it was one of several moments at which Breakwell and his troupe were able to remind us of the Beatles’ special magic, the quality that will surely persuade history that the benign spell they cast over us was the result not just of some sort of passing pop phenomenon, writ extra-large.