The Beatles and Rock and Roll

Last week, while watching the PBS History of Rock and Roll series, I was struck by a comment that Ringo Starr made when Sgt. Pepper came out. He said, “ If we would have tried to play that live we would need about 20 people on stage with us. So we stopped playing live.” The next day I picked up a book I had just purchased called “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock N Roll” by Elijah Wald. Made me start to think!!

During the week of an anniversary (I think the 20th) of Sgt. Pepper, my friend and neighbor Don McLeese, the staff music critic for the Chicago Sun Times at the time, wrote a cover piece in the Sunday paper announcing:

1. Sgt. Pepper was not by any stretch of the imagination the greatest album ever recorded

2. It was not even the best album released the year it came out!

He got more hate mail in the weeks that followed than for any other piece he wrote!

This brings up two thoughts I have:

1. To be a real band, you have to be able to play your music live in front of an audience. Too many bands since Sgt. Pepper spend so much time creating elaborate soundscapes in the studio that they can’t ever play any semblance of them live in concert. Last night I listened to a large group of New York Jazz musicians play an hour and 45 minute set in the park in downtown Chicago that was simply astounding. No charts were used, and the musicians improvised much of what they did, in the framework of previously recorded songs. They also seemed to be having a lot of fun on stage (as was the audience)!!

2. Sgt. Pepper spawned what we now know as Prog Rock, casing the New Musical Express to coin a term for the music- “Shoe gazers.” These are people with no stage presence whatsoever, because they are staring at their feet for the whole set, trying to concentrate on playing the intricate music they have created in the studio. When they do play live, they are usually incredibly boring to listen to, and even more boring to photograph! One of the first bands I went on the road with, early in my career was Genesis, right after Peter Gabriel left the band. Their light show was spectacular. One night on the bus, Phil Collins and I were talking about the lighting, which moved and changed colors with the beat of the music. He told me that the band had invested a great deal of money in developing the moving lights (now a standard in the industry). When I asked him why, he replied, “We are the most boring band on the planet, visually. We needed to do something to make our show interesting visually to the audience, or they would just stay home and listen to the records!”

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