Thursday, July 7, 2011
The Beatles - Penny Lane EP
For those of you reading this outside of Melbourne, there is an iconic pub called the Esplanade Hotel in the seaside suburb of St Kilda (no one who lives here needs that introduction). A grand old building - open for more than 130 years, I’m led to believe - it reeks atmosphere and is a heavy supporter of live bands. When my previous band The Shambles got a gig there, I felt I never needed to perform again – unfortunately, so did the general public. This venue is truly beloved of music-mad Melburnians.
For the last few years, one of its rooms has been the home of another beloved Melbourne institution - the TV music trivia show, Rockwiz. For those of you unfortunate not to have seen it, features a crack band, local and overseas guests as both performers and contestants, comedians as host and adjudicators, and ordinary punters fuelled by beer and bravado to have a shot at their Warholian 15 minutes as contestants. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have my own 15 minutes.
Before the quiz proper begins, the show’s host, Julia Zemiro, asks each contestant what was the first record he or she purchased, or what was the first concert they attended. I was asked the former. Other contestants could proudly proclaim Cosmos factory, Sgt. Pepper, or Physical Graffiti as their first purchase. On national television, I sweated profusely as I had to confess.....
.my first purchase......
with my own money.....
“100 Years of Strauss Waltzes”.
If I hadn’t been so truthful (and indeed, sacrificed the good value of a laugh), I could have proclaimed my first serious purchase as the four track Beatles EP, Penny Lane. It featured Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby on side 1, with Strawberry Fields Forever and Yellow Submarine on side 2.
It's a dangerous thing to write an article about the Beatles. Millions of words have been written about the Beatles and their music. There's no way I can add anything truly meaningful about their music to the mountains of words already composed in tribute or in smug, revisionist doubt of their true worth. I just want to describe what it meant then and what it means to me today.
After 10 years of listening to (almost) exclusively classical music, a school friend had played me his Twist and Shout EP. I've used the word "epiphany" before in a previous blog entry, but I definitely had one the day I heard Twist and Shout, especially the four-note chord build up to the Lennon scream. This was the music for me. This was the band for me. If only they hadn't broken up 5 years prior.
I bought this Australian-only EP as a 10 year-old, about 8 or 9 years after it was originally released (the Beatles singles and EPs never went out of print). I saved up and went to Pitts Record Bar near my house. The music was completely removed from Twist and Shout, but still sent my 10 year-old brain into a complete spin. Can you remember what it felt like to hear Strawberry Fields Forever for the first time? I recall the first time I heard the horns, the backward tapes, the string section, the words that made that made no fucking sense, the false ending...It's no exaggeration to say I played that song hundreds of times. I used to go over to my neighbour's house to listen to this song. They had a Danish state of the art stereo system. Heaven was listening to Strawberry Fields Forever through headphones on their stereo.
This was different to the music I'd spent my lifetime listening to. It was different to music the Beatles themselves had made 3 years prior. For the record, my favourite music to that point had been Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Dvorak's New World Symphony,and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade. Still listening to these songs, there was the use of orchestral instrumentation, adventurous songwriting, the French Horn on Penny Lane inspired by McCartney hearing the Bach Brandenburg Concertos. Maybe it wasn't so far removed from my previous music listening experience.
The thing that made this EP special was the actual combination of these songs - three "serious" tunes and a novelty tune. The Beatles had a tradition with novelty tunes - "You Know My Name", any of their Xmas fan club records, "Revolution 9" (a song for Australian Idol perhaps?), and Yellow Submarine's own bastard son, "Octopus' Garden". The three "serious" tunes were songs of tribute to childhood memories either in their hometown of Liverpool, or more broadly relating to life in WW2 England.
Still none of that mattered to me as a 10 year old. Forget the lyrics. I just know that these compositions and their brilliant execution set me on the path for a wider love of music than I'd experienced to that point. I approached each Beatles record that I bought over the next few years with the same level of excitement I imagine people that bought them upon initial release might have felt. I got Abbey Road for my 12th birthday, and I still get apprehensive about the approaching cut-off ending on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". Still, it all started with the Penny Lane EP as my first purchase......Strauss notwithstanding.