A different drum

It’s often puzzled me that I’ve never heard a decent cover version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Yes, it’s the Beatles — arguably the best recording act the world has seen, and not to be taken lightly by prospective imitators.

But like many of the Beatles’ best-covered songs (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Come and Get It”) “Helter Skelter” is written from the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll playbook. It has the horsepower that should make lesser bands sound better than they are. With its buzzsaw guitar intro, blood-curdling vocals and the refrain’s killer machine-gun riff, it’s a muscle car just begging for a worthy rock act to test drive. And many have tried. It’s not that they’re bad. They simply are missing something, and I think I’ve figured out what it is: Ringo Starr.

History has been kind in assigning proper belated recognition to Ringo Starr, but he still ranks alongside producer George Martin as an overlooked staple of the Beatles arsenal, a critical piece of their musical machinery in the vein of McCartney’s Rickenbacker bass or Abbey Road’s magical mixing board. Ringo was much more than that, and “Helter Skelter” shows why.

We only need to listen to the aforementioned pretenders who’ve come up short in taking on this formidable classic: Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Motley Crue and, yes, U2. These are no slouches. Yet each one focuses too heavily on the front end of the Beatles’ original — the guitar and vocals — while, you guessed it, overlooking Ringo Starr’s unique contribution on the rhythm side. As a result, the drummers tend to follow the frenetic pace of the song — like that muscle car, it’ll go as fast as you want it to. And that’s where the problem lies. “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to write the loudest, brashest song he could, and the guitars and his vocals do their part to make that happen. But what Ringo adds is the mayhem. He doesn’t pace the song, he bludgeons it. He smashes his way around the requisite fills, abusing his kit with such primitive fury (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) it likely got Keith Moon’s attention. And it keeps the song from gaining too much form, which is exactly the point.

It’s a lesson on how a great drummer can make a song better by working against its grain, becoming a counterbalance of sorts. On the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, Ringo takes the opposite approach. The song opens with an unfathomable soup of organ and strings before he counts in with a steady beat to provide much-needed structure under the wash of instruments and John Lennon’s lyrical stream of consciousness. Many drummers would say “this is a trippy song, I need to be trippy.” Not Ringo. He played straight man to Lennon’s clown in the same way he took a high-octane, quarter-mile McCartney rocker for a punishing off-road ride. It’s a rare talent indeed, and rare talent, especially when unrecognized, defies imitation.

Advertisements

Country market

One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.

Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.

In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.

Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.

Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.

It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.

 

Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.

Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.

A Fab Christmas

One of the pleasures I derive from my Sirius/XM subscription is coming across strange, offbeat musical offerings commercial over-the-air radio wouldn’t touch. I have at my fingertips access to the newest indie releases, deep album rock buried treasures and pre-rock ‘n’ roll blues and jazz to open my mind to a world beyond Boston and Fleetwood Mac. This holiday season, however, it’s been a wacky collection of Christmas songs by the Fab Four that have caught my ear.

As you would guess, the Fab Four is a Beatles tribute act, a dedicated subgenre of which there is no shortage of adherents, but this particular venture is unique. Think of it as the Rutles doing Christmas songs. It’s a musical chemistry experiment of sorts, a blending of melodies into a recognizable variation of a Beatles song while remaining faithful to the original Yuletide lyrics. What results is something between clever and gimmicky, and while my initial inclination leaned toward the latter, it was the warping of “What Child Is This” into a fantastically adept re-invention of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that sort of, well, blew my mind. Well done, lads.