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Iconic Instants in Rock Music

 

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No, not Elvis gets his guitar, or Mick and Keef meet at the Dartford train station, but snippets of sound from within songs, that punters sometimes scramble to identify at quiz nights.

A Hard Day’s Night- the Mighty Opening Chord

Revealing a curious etymology, there was both a film and an album ready to go, but the Fab Four were told that it’d be incongruous for there to not also be a song.

With the title originating in a Ringo malapropism, Lennon composed the track in an evening, and the following day, refined the lyrics with help in a taxi on the way to the studio. The song was recorded in three hours. It starts with untouchable majesty.

George Harrison’s Rickenbacker generates most of the moment, but each Beatle contributes to its revered musicology. As with much art there’s a secretive, unknowable complexity behind it. Instantaneously recognisable, but also mysterious in its alchemy, one academic, Dominic Pedler, dedicates a sizable chunk of his 800-page volume, The Song Writing Secrets of The Beatles, to the chord, and lists twenty-one compositional possibilities.

In one theory Pedler deploys a process called a Fourier transformation: the decomposition of a sound wave into its constitute pure tones- as modelled by sine and cosine curves- to come up with a scientific solution.

But, for me, the tale of this thrilling chord is its cultural potent. It’s both a daring announcement and a promise. Innocent and eager, it exemplifies the Beatles’ giddily evolving confidence in both their music and social power.

That the guitars are slightly out of tune only magnifies the charisma, and suggests a bouncing mid-summer walk along London’s Oxford Street, in the bright, blossoming city.

It’s an aural intoxicant.

Paradise City- Whistle Blower

When Elvis first gyrated his hips on TV, I’m sure that in countless homes the first rock obsessions were also born. A few decades later, in the unspeakable 1980’s, a particular Guns ‘N’ Roses fan from Lafayette, Indiana- Axl Rose’s home, too- began investing time and not inconsiderable money touring the world to claim an elusive plastic whistle.

Of course, he’s seeking a concert souvenir: the whistle blown and nightly thrown into the crowd at the 1:21 mark of “Paradise City” from Appetite for Destruction, the album so beloved by aging leather jackets and Triple M music directors. So far, our trophy-hunter’s been unsuccessful. His cabinet remains bare.

In this moment, there’s juxtaposition at work as the song transitions from its opening section and momentum builds. The anthemic tropes are present, but exhilaratingly assembled: pounding drums, driving guitars, and wailing vocals married to shameless subtexts.

Suddenly climbing above this grind and growl is the simplest addition: a lone whistle blast that invests the song with a military discipline, demanding both band and listener focus and follow. It also evokes the urgent start to a football match when the warm-up is done, and we’re in the huddle together, and it’s just us and them.

It’s a riotous call to arms.

The Tourist- The Mourning Bell

Radiohead’s OK Computer is an album of luxurious, sparkling gloom, best listened to through headphones at midnight. Its themes of nagging horror and emptiness are expressed with pristine melodies that seem to bend out through a Kubrick-like universe.

Once described as possessing “… soaring, operatic choruses, and a towering bridge,” the record is closed by “The Tourist.” Its dramatic context is a pending car crash, and over Jonny Greenwood’s guitar Thom York pleads for the driver, possibly himself, to “slow down” and as we wince against the grim inevitability, the roaring doom, instead we hear a tiny bell. What happened? Was there even an accident? And, if yes, of what ultimate consequence?

Again, TS Eliot is right.

What does this bell denote? Some suggest it’s the ding of a microwave, that millennial symbol of mundane gnawing consumerism; for others, it conjures an ancient typewriter in a nameless attic, signalling how this musical story, and our fragile human story is indeed, finished.

Irrespective, it’s a sonic conclusion of poignancy and uncommon beauty, befitting the preceding 53 minutes of searing maelstrom.

It’s a punctuation mark, but also a prayer.

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By George said Ringo to Paul while sitting on the John

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June 9- Michael

Walked to St Johns Wood and to Lords. Elderly tour guide was cheeky and cockney. Long Room, museum and media centre. The playing surface drops eight feet from off to on-side. Whilst certainly attractive is not as naturally beautiful as Adelaide. Bought Dad a souvenir- not Phil Tufnell’s autobiography- and headed across to Abbey Road.

Humble white studio but the front fence is thick with graffiti. Much of it corny: “By George said Ringo to Paul while sitting on the John.” Photo taken at pedestrian crossing. Ambled along Regents Canal. Lots of canal boats which seemed to be houses.

Bought lunch at Pret a Manger- magnificent chocolate cake- and ate in Hyde Park near Marble Arch. Walked through the Park to the Serpentine and had coffee. Continued to Albert Monument and Albert Hall.

Natural History Museum for a few hours. Dinosaurs, animals, birds, great spider and web exhibit and the blue whale. Superb.

Onto Kensington Palace. Saw lots of squirrels. The first one was nearly taken by a swooping raven. The Round Pond was great and then we headed to Oxford Street and our internet café. Back to our hostel, and after a big day walking, to be about ten.

June 10- Michael

Coffee and hot chocolate in Trafalgar Square and then to Buckingham Palace. Enjoyed the changing of the guard: music, colour, ceremony. Entertained equally by French school kids.

Westminster Pier and down to St Katherine’s Wharf. Had lunch. By Christ, it was a poor chicken burger. Tower of London. Enormous crowds. Joined a guided tour with a yeoman warder who’d a superb presence, voice and humour. Learnt more about Anne Boleyn, three blind mice Henry VII and royal history.

Checked out the Crown Jewels, White Tower, wall walk, Cullinan Diamond display, Royal Chapel and The Common. Stood on the steps at Traitors Gate and marvelled at this place which has been palace, fort, prison and site of English history’s most poignant moments.

Called into a supermarket for some supplies and beer- wheat lager (shite) and Stella Artois. Caught parts of a TV show commemorating Prince William’s 18th birthday. (NB- the after-party starring Harry probably more entertaining- Editor)

June 11- Kerry

On the road again. Up early, packed and walking to a location near Euston Station at the Thistle Hotel. After a reasonable delay, it was on the bus and winding our way through London to Dover.

The countryside was lovely. Lots of beautiful scenery (Michael slept). Dover was great but things were a bit rushed as we were late. But the white cliffs were interesting and in all a quaint seaside village with a HUGE port. Our ferry, the Provence, was massive. We walked on and made our way to the deck to wave goodbye to jolly old England.

Went downstairs for an ale and a bit of a look around and before we knew it we had crossed the channel in just under two hours and were arriving at Calais. Met up with our tour manager whose name is Ute, and our driver Giro (if I was a bogan I’d suggest the roles should have been swapped- Editor).

Time was short so we were quickly on the road to our first stop- Brussels, Belgium. Ute talked to us about the tour and other general things and this helped while away a fair chunk of time- looking out the window and taking in the scenery is good- to a point. I did recall however a time travelling from the city to Gawler on the train and someone saying it was like France, and I have to agree.

Arrived at the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of towns across the road from a big stadium about 7pm after winding our clocks forward an hour. After a quick tidy up we were downstairs to get a map then on the train into the centre of town. The main square, Grand Place is cool- lots of very big, very old buildings and no cars.

We quickly found the fountain Mannekin Pis, took some photos then looked for food. Ate at a Greek café called Plaka- the food was superb- falafels and a plate of open lamb yiros. YUM.

Had a bit more of a look around the side streets including one full of seafood restaurants before catching the underground home. TIRED!

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The Beatles and me

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Sunday at the Adelaide Grand Prix. Former Speaker of the House Arthur Whyte and his wife Mary were on pit straight. Respected folk from Kimba, local royalty. Every lunchtime Arthur went to the Kimba pub. Blistering heat or punishing cold, he’d have a stout. Just one. Mostly. Arthur lived to ninety-three.

Being outgoing and with a healthy curiosity in people Mary exchanged pleasantries with the man in the neighbouring seat. He was gentle, possibly even a little shy. Sounded English. He made gracious inquiries, asked about life in Australia, in Kimba, on farms. Nigel Mansell seemed to be leading the race, and with the octane thunder booming about them Mary reciprocated.

“So, what do you do?” Gosh, what was his name again?

“I’m a musician.”

“That’s nice. So which instrument do you play?”

The cars were making astonishing noise. It was hard to hear.

“I play guitar.”

“That’s lovely. Do you play on your own? Or with others?”

Mary took a sip of her tea. He was an agreeable chap.

“I just play by myself now.”

“That’s probably easier. So you were in a group?”

“I was.”

“Oh, yes. What was the name of the group? I probably won’t know them, but you never know.”

“They were called the Beatles.”

*

Mum and Dad had a radiogram. Wooden, heavy, solemn in appearance. The turntable sunken into its teak depths. I remember Creedence Clearwater Revival and Anne Murray and The Carpenters.

But what I recollect most vividly is a 45. In the digital age when artefacts like vinyl are discretionary, these seem primeval, unnecessarily real. It was “Love Me Do” with the B-side “PS I Love You.” Both songs crackled constantly when you dropped the needle, but were exhilarating. John Lennon’s harmonica was rowdy while Ringo’s drumming crashed out of that old radiogram.

I was only five, but I was in.

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The first cassette I owned was It’s a Long Way There by the Little River Band. I’m pretty sure my first record was Ripper ’77; on which the highlights are, “This Is Tomorrow” by Bryan Ferry and, “A Mean Pair Of Jeans” by Marty Rhone. As catchy as it was my cousins Boogly and Froggy and I thought “Blue Jeans” by David Dundas the superior denim-themed pop confection. We’re still right.

Fresh from uni and working on the West Coast I bought my first CD player, second-hand from old school mate Fats with whom I shared a passion for Bush Biscuits, tepid Southwark, and Mondo Rock. Acutely aware of my personal responsibility I went into Allans music along Rundle Mall- just up from the Malls Balls. I bought two CDs- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album.

Living by myself in a big farmhouse I blasted these out into the dusty summer dark; brutally cold July mornings; before cricket; after school. These provided a soundtrack to my early twenties after I’d left home, and was making my way.

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Having spent a week in Penang my girlfriend (now wife) and I then flew to London. It remains the world’s best theme park. Is there a better way to spend a day than walking the ancient streets before flopping exhausted, in a Soho boozer?

In exquisite St Johns Wood, Abbey Road’s frontage appears modest, giving no indication to the history, and the thrilling, unparalleled creativity that’s occurred within. But the fence across the front is remarkable for it’s a giant thank you card to the Beatles, electric with graffiti and black-texta tributes. It’s re-painted every week or so.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” unfailingly takes me back to this time and place.  I especially love George Martin’s cello arrangement; it’s blue skies in Hyde Park, a string of Routemaster double-deckers along Oxford Street, and planter boxes bursting with late spring colour on the façade of a Themes pub.

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What are the most exciting moments in music? Guns ‘N Roses’ “Paradise City” and Axel Rose’s whistle urging his band into the song like a mad football umpire? The Who and Roger Daltery’s apocalyptic scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”?

No, it’s George Harrison’s Rickenbacker guitar opening to “A Hard Day’s Night.” The chord’s undeniable, an invitation, a golden promise. Fifty years on, it’s still rock music’s most iconic grab.

*

My favourite Beatles’ album has changed as I have. Curiously, I’ve moved retrospectively through their discography. Starting at the ambitiously expansive church of The White Album, I moved to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and was then besotted with Revolver, and especially George’s spectacular guitar work on “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Is there a sunnier riff in rock?

Where am I now? Rubber Soul.

The record’s a confident transition by a band sensing that the boundaries might be further than even they’d imagined. It’s a languid listen, but there’s telling experimentation- most notably with Harrison’s use of sitar on “Norwegian Wood.”

But it’s “You Won’t See Me” which is the album’s standout.  At 3.22 it was the longest song the band had recorded. It’s perfectly placed, appearing at track three.

It connects to Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In it the author explores some dark themes that are critical of much in America- the greed, the selfishness, the appalling lack of responsibility, but he delivers these bleak ideas beautifully, in achingly gorgeous prose, and I’m always struck by the poignant contrast between method and message. It stays with me, haunts me. I like art which displays a thoughtful divide.

For me it’s the driving jauntiness of Paul’s piano, Ringo’s tambourine and inventive drumming, and the uplifting harmonies of Lennon and McCartney. “You Won’t See Me” has up tempo hooks in counterpoint to the gloomier nature of Paul’s seemingly autobiographical lyrics, documenting his challenges with then girlfriend Jane Asher, who might still be the most famous former girlfriend in rock music. This song marks a maturation for the Liverpudlians. It’s colossal fun.

In time I’m sure I’ll bow before other Beatles’ albums, other Beatles’ songs. Just like I always have. The labyrinthine beauty of their palace ensures this.

But tonight, as my family sleeps, I slide on my headphones and press play. Again.
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