Film review: A Family Affair

So, I’ve just watched Angeliki Aristomenopolou’s documentary A Family Affair, about one particular branch of the Xylouris family, a Cretan family of musicians. Aristomenopolou’s film has the misfortune to have the same title as a considerably more easily-found-on-the-internet documentary, Tom Fassaert’s A Family Affair, which I haven’t seen and which this blog post isn’t about.

Ms Aristomenopolou’s film is — what’s the best way to put this? It’s not a great documentary, but it’s a wonderful document. It’s 90 minutes long, but feels a lot longer. I’m going to say that this is her fault. It’s certainly not the fault of her subjects, the family of Giorgos Xylouris and his wife Shelagh Xylouris-Hannan, together with their kids Nikos, Antonis and Apollonia, and Giorgos’s cranky father, also called Antonis, a legend of Cretan music, universally known as Psarantonis (this sort of means ‘Fish-antonis’; it’s a long story, and not as interesting as the music.) The Xylouris family came to fame in the 60s and 70s, when Antonis’s elder brother, also called Nikos, became a star of Greek music and a symbol of resistance to the military regime that ruled Greece for a good chunk of the late 60s and early 70s. Interestingly, the film does not mention the elder Nikos’s political significance at all, although it does tell you that he got famous.

The focus of the film is on the elder Nikos’s nephew Giorgos, a Cretan lute prodigy who has been a hard-working professional musician since he was 12. It follows him from gig to gig, workshop to workshop, country dance to country dance, as he plays the hell out of his lute and strives with all his considerable charm and charisma to pass the tradition on to those willing to receive it. This includes his own kids. The younger Nikos and Antonis, together with their teenage sister Apollonia, have spent half their lives in Australia because Giorgos fell in love with and married an Australian woman, Shelagh Hannan, who is now in the position of being the stoically resigned matriarch of this family of musicians. I could have done with hearing more from Shelagh about the widow-like quality of being married to a professional musician who, as soon as they got off the plane from Australia after being married, was tearing off to play a wedding. But Aristomenopolou tries to do a lot of things at once, one of them being to tell you something or other about the places where this music is being played by having lots of lovely shots of the Cretan landscape or Melbourne’s cityscape. Beautiful as these are, I could have used less of them. A lot less.

Let’s get to the good stuff. The best thing about this film, by far, is the music. Aristomenopolou’s camera catches Giorgos and his kids and other musical partners in many different contexts: public dances, concerts, recording studios, practice sessions, and the music is great. The younger family members, for all that they look like (and sound like, when they speak English) regular Australian young people, are clearly already steeped in the music and are keen to make it live on.

The hidden presence for the first two thirds of the film is Giorgos’s dad, Psarantonis, who is spoken of in reverent terms as being the real musical genius of the family. What comes across in the film is that, however brilliantly talented Psarantonis actually is, his family certainly defers him as the authority. And it’s here that the film is not only full of insight into the life of a musician, but also revealing about the nature of Greek families and Greek masculinity.

The most gripping sequence is when Apollonia has flown out to Australia to join her elder brothers, who are studying sound engineering, and Giorgos and Psarantonis fly out to do a short concert tour, one of which dates will feature all three generations on stage together. At the very beginning of the film, we have seen a sequence of shots of all the principal people: Giorgos, Psarantonis, the younger Nikos, the younger Antonis, and Apollonia. Over this was sung a quiet song with a haunting melody. When we get to the shot of Apollonia, it takes some time to realise that she’s the one who’s actually singing it; her affect is so low-key that it takes you a moment to notice that her lips are in sync with the singing you’re hearing.

Over an hour later in film time, the family convenes in Melbourne to have its only rehearsal for the concert they’re to give. It turns out that Giorgos’s children have never played with music with their grandfather, only with their dad; such is Psarantonis’s celebrity that he never seems to have seen fit to share musical experiences with his own grandchildren. They play a tune; it goes well. Then Giorgos suggests that Apollonia sing a song. She starts singing, but it’s her first time ever performing with her grandfather, and on film, at that. Being nervous, she fluffs a verse, and her dad points it out, but they get to the end anyway.

The song being over, Psarantonis turns to his son and says ‘She forgot the words.’ Giorgos goes into pro-musician mode and insists that it just needs a bit more work; they can print out the words, if they have to. Psarantonis is visibly unimpressed. They take a break, and Giorgos goes over to his daughter and starts running the song again, just him and her. She sings with more confidence, but while she’s doing so, her grandfather shambles into shot, walking up and down behind them. They keep performing, and Giorgos gives her more advice, but then Psarantonis waves an imperious arm and says ‘You’re over-thinking. Keep it simple,’ and throws out a few more gnomic statements, before wandering off again.

Apollonia watches him go, and then asks, ‘So, is it okay?’, meaning Am I doing this song in the concert, or what? She gets no reply, and buries her head in her hands, subsequently admitting how embarrassed she’d been to make a mistake in front of her grandfather.

In the concert itself, however, she sings the song beautifully, and Psarantonis can be seen rocking himself from side to side to her unaccompanied delivery of the end of it; what’s more, it goes down huge with the Melbourne audience, and she tells in voice-over of how it had been the best musical experience of her life. So it all seems to have worked out great.

But somehow, Aristomenopolou’s camera missed that. As often happens with filmmakers who aren’t in full control of their material, there’s an attempt here to do too many things at once. It’s as if Aristomenopolou thought that this film tells its own story, but decided not to tell it herself. The film feels like the best bits of the raw material for about four or five different films about these people, with Aristomenopolou unable to decide exactly which one she wanted to make, which I guess is why it feels like it’s much longer than it is. There’s no narration, which doesn’t help.

On the other hand, it has got me permanently interested in Cretan music, so there’s that. And I would rather have no narration, than a bad one. So on balance, I think Angeliki Aristomenopolou deserves the thanks of the world for such a bare-bones document of the life of a family of musicians. Here’s the trailer, or at any rate a trailer: some of the stuff in this trailer is not in the actual film. Thanks to the Edinburgh Greek Film Festival for letting me see this.

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Film review: A Family Affair

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil: Geeks that Pass in the Night

The story of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil is a weird and curiously inspiring one. Lamarr has been rightly celebrated in recent years as being more than just a beautiful icon of Hollywood’s golden years. She was also a talented inventor, but by far her most influential invention was created in collaboration with someone much less celebrated. That’s why this post begins with the story of her collaborator, George Antheil.

If there were an awkward squad of composers, Hans Pfitzner would be the uptight, humourless medic with the short fuse (think Robert Duvall in the film of MASH); Hugo Wolf would be the pessimistic sidekick who keeps making sardonic jokes about how they’re all gonna die; Carlo Gesualdo would be the psycho sniper that everyone else is scared of, and George Antheil (1900–1959) — ebullient, handsome, untrustworthy — would be squad leader. He never formally finished either high school or college and yet he ended up hanging out with Stravinsky, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Ezra Pound and Hedy freakin’ Lamarr. He could be charming one minute and a colossal horse’s ass the next.

His music isn’t quite as original as he hoped it would be, but it varies from percussive freak-out to enticing and intricate orchestral writing to dissonant cowboy modernism. The temptation is to call him the Bad Boy of Music, except that he had the cheek to get there first when he titled his own highly unreliable autobiography Bad Boy of Music — you’re not supposed to say so yourself, George. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he made one other singular and important but non-musical contribution, with an unbelievably unlikely collaborator, the effect of which is around us all the time — but we’ll get to that later.

Antheil was the son of German immigrants (it’s pronounced ‘AN-teil’, not ‘On-TAY’) and he started out as a pushy but gifted piano player and budding composer. All along, he wanted to write distinctively American music, but the spur to do so didn’t come from American music itself, but from the Russians. The so-called Five were a loose coalition of Russian composers with a strong nationalist streak, determined to write music that would have Russian-ness stamped all over it. On Antheil’s account, one day a critic invited a group of young American composers around for a drink and a chinwag and suggested that something like the Five was needed in America, if a distinctively American music was ever to get off the ground. Antheil was there already. His idol was Stravinsky and he found in Stravinsky’s music the kind of relentless rhythmic pulse that seemed right for a new American music.

Antheil made his way to Paris, where Stravinsky lived and where most of the ambitious young American modernists were going, and he wangled an introduction to the great man. Stravinsky was politely encouraging. Antheil soon got involved in an ambitious project to make an abstract art film called Ballet Mecanique. It’s fair to say that, as avant-garde art films go, it suffered from a lack of project management; the final film was three minutes long, but Antheil delivered an epic, thunderous score for massed pianos and aeroplane engines that lasted half an hour, and which required multiple mechanical pianos to be synchronised with each other.

Result? They weren’t. Embarrassment all round, but Antheil bounced back and managed to get a performance of the piece in Paris, which provoked a gratifying riot in the concert hall. By the time the riot had fizzled out, film cameras had been obtained, and the film-makers asked the rioters if they wouldn’t mind rioting all over again for the cameras, otherwise it would look boring. The Parisian concertgoers, knowing an Art Event when they were involved in one, were happy to oblige. Antheil subsequently revised Ballet Mecanique into a shorter and much more performable piece, scored for regular pianos and tuned & untuned percussion, and this is the version most often played today. It’s as much of a riot as the riot it inspired; a jerky, manic portrait in sound of the early American metropolis, complete with firebells and abstract honky-tonk piano and a blistering workout from the percussion section, who more than earn their paycheque in this number.

Ballet Mecanique was the high point of Antheil’s notoriety, if not of his achievement. He returned to America and put it on there, but staging problems plus the conservatism of the Carnegie Hall audience turned the event into a fiasco. Once again he refused to lie down; he moved to Hollywood and began a long and successful career composing for the movies, abandoning his earlier clattery manner for a more self-consciously measured and lyrical style that’s sometimes very successful. (Among other films, he scored The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper.) Of his later style, the Serenade for String Orchestra is a very dissonant serenade, blending neo-classical structure with unexpected bits of hoedown and shivery noir-ish strings.

Antheil went on to compose operas (including a version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone), ballet music and pieces for orchestra. However, he never lived to see his most influential achievement being recognised and, since it had little do with his music, he probably wouldn’t have been too pleased about its success. It all started when some friends invited him to dinner, and he accepted because it meant he’d get to meet Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr (1914-2000) was an Austrian actress, born Hedwig Kiesler. Her breakthrough role had been in the 1933 German movie Extase in which, as a 19-year-old, she’d done a then-notorious nude scene.

Since moving to Hollywood, she’d been celebrated for a succession of sultry roles in movies such as Algiers, Comrade X and H.M. Pulham Esq.. MGM billed her as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Looking at pictures of her you can see their point: Lamarr’s stills are ravishingly beautiful, but it didn’t always translate into great performances. She found the Hollywood star system annoying, and watching her movies you can sometimes sense her lack of interest.

Lamarr wasn’t uninterested in movies because she was stupid or unimaginative. She was whip-smart, good at math, and her idea of fun was to sit at home and invent things. In 1957 she appeared as the mystery guest in an episode of What’s My Line? and the first question she was asked was ‘Are you a glamorous lady?’ She looked genuinely baffled, and only after much prompting from the host did she finally mumble ‘Mm-hm’.

Hedy Lamarr was, in short, a geek. And her moment was about to come.

An early marriage to a German industrialist had sparked her interest in military technology, and the wartime sinking of the liner City of Benares made her want to contribute something to the Allied war effort. Those dinner party conversations she’d sat in on with her industrialist ex-husband had sparked in her mind the idea of a radio-controlled torpedo, but the same conversations had brought up the problem: radio-control, in the 30s and 40s, was extremely vulnerable to jamming. All your adversary had to do was find out what frequency you were using to control your device, and broadcast a stronger signal on it, ‘jamming’ your signal and removing the device from your control. The problem was how to get around this.

What Lamarr realised was that it would be possible to avert enemy jamming if the transmitter and the receiver constantly hopped from one frequency to another. The time-consuming part of jamming was finding out what frequency the enemy was broadcasting on; once you’d found it, you’d won. If the frequency kept changing, there was no way that the jammer could keep up.

However, there was a problem. In order for the frequency-hopping to work, both the transmitter and the receiver had do it at exactly the same time, which meant that they had to be synchronised with each other. Lamarr didn’t know how to make that happen.

And so, on one particular night in 1940, the 26-year-old actress met the 40-year-old Antheil at a dinner party, and the conversation soon turned to inventions. She outlined her idea about torpedo control and synchronisation, and lamented that she didn’t know how to sync the devices up in the first place.

Bizarrely enough, Antheil knew a good deal about synchronisation, from his work with mechanical pianos. Punched tape, he told her, was the answer. The composer and the actress started working together, and they soon came up with a viable patent. But if Lamarr hoped that she could help the war effort, she was disappointed; as the historian Richard Rhodes pointed out in his wonderful book about Lamarr (from which most of the facts in this article are taken), the US Navy was hardly going to pay attention to the ideas of a Hollywood actress when they weren’t even paying attention to their own submarine commanders.

The Lamarr-Antheil patent was finally picked up by the Department of Defense in the 1960s, by which time Antheil was dead and Lamarr had retired. However, in the meantime it ended up making an important contribution to the spread spectrum technology that’s used today in Bluetooth technology all over the world. Your mobile phone works partly because one night in wartime Los Angeles, an avant-garde composer and a movie goddess had a conversation about torpedoes.

Lamarr’s stardom faded in the 60s and 70s, and she didn’t help her career by getting some seriously pointless and very badly-executed plastic surgery. Her reputation as an actress got a boost a few years ago, when Anne Hathaway learned that Catwoman was originally inspired by Lamarr: Hathaway watched the movies and based much of her performance in The Dark Knight Rises on Lamarr’s presence. Lamarr the inventor finally achieved recognition in 1997, when she was pleased to be given the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, putting her in the company of the inventors of the computer mouse and the Linux operating system.

Hedy Lamarr’s favourite fictional hero was Bart Simpson. She died in 2000.

George Antheil died in 1959, still married to the same woman he’d been married to all along although, at the time of his death, he had an illegitimate eight-month-old son — ever the bad boy. He was still composing, never knowing that the technology he’d worked on with Lamarr would bear fruit in the next century. His reputation dipped after his death, but that happens to every composer. Now that his contemporaries like Copland and Barber are becoming over-familiar, Antheil’s boldness and exuberance deserve to be rediscovered.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil: Geeks that Pass in the Night

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream

spotify:user:1161554209:playlist:2M7LuL4OQYSZme9W9WqpgS

So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1