WHAT I’M SPINNING NOW

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Major Lance had a brief time in the sun as a top soul performer.  He owed a lot of his success to the fact that he almost exclusively recorded songs written by his boyhood friend Curtis Mayfield.

His career tapered off in the late 60s and he moved to England in the 70s to take advantage of his popularity there.  He stopped recording in the 80s but continued to tour.

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This compilation of his best work is really terrific — there just isn’t a bad cut on it.  As you can see from the picture above, Paul McCartney was spinning it in 1964 when it was brand new — he brought a copy back to England after The Beatles’ triumphant tour of The States that year.  He knew cool when he heard it.

I tracked the album down, in a new pressing on 180-gram vinyl, after identifying it in this picture, and it was worth the effort.  I strongly suspected that it would be.

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WHAT I’M SPINNING NOW

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When Francis Ford Coppola heard this album of electronic music from 1974 he tried to hire its composer, Tomita, to do the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now.  When Tomita proved unavailable, Coppola got his father Carmine to compose soundtrack cues then had them transposed into electronic versions.

Snowflakes Are Dancing is mostly melodic and lush, but the edgier cuts have an unsettling quality which is probably what got Coppola’s attention.  It’s not really my kind of music, but it has its charms and fascinations.

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QUALITY CONTROL

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. . . at EMI for the newest Beatles album.  Defective LPs were very rare in the 60s, depressingly common in the 80s and 90s, when the music business was boosting the new CD format.  I continue to believe that record companies deliberately abandoned quality control standards for vinyl in order to get people to switch over to CDs.

The quality of pressings is much better today in the wake of the vinyl revival.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Castañeda . . .

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THE SHIRELLES

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When George Martin first encountered John, Paul, George and Ringo, he liked them personally, and he thought their music had commercial potential, but he couldn’t place their act in any convenient industry category.

Successful pop groups normally had a front man with generically named backing musicians — Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Cliff Richard and the Shadows.  Internally, Lennon was the leader of The Beatles, to the extent that they had a leader, but he wasn’t their front man — he and Paul were co-leaders as writers of original material and at the time they shared lead vocal duties and harmony work fairly equally with Harrison.  As an ensemble, with Ringo as the genial fourth wheel, they presented themselves as co-equals, as a genuine “group”.

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But Martin had a conceptual and somewhat visionary breakthrough.  Maybe, he thought, these guys could be the male equivalents of The Shirelles — an up-and-coming girl group that was essentially a group, not a lead singer with back-up support.  That idea, eccentric as it was at the time, gave him a model he could get his head around.

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It proved serviceable.  John and Paul moved to the fore as vocalists as their original songs came to dominate the group’s repertoire, but as personalities the band remained a team of equals.  Martin contributed a lot to The Beatles, musically speaking, but his vision of a white male pop group that was primarily a group was not the least of his contributions to their success.

If he could sell that idea to himself, he reasoned, maybe he could sell it to the industry — and the world.  In the end it became a model for all the pop and rock groups without nominal front men that followed in the wake of The Beatles — from The Byrds to The Band.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

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The reputation of A Hard Day’s Night gained a lot from the film’s being better than it had any right or reason to be.  Made quickly on a relatively modest budget, it was designed to cash in on the astonishing worldwide popularity of The Beatles.  It would have served its commercial purposes adequately by being a bit of mediocre pop fluff.  Instead, it was a bit of superior pop fluff.

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A faux documentary about a day in the life of the lads, it seamlessly incorporated surreal images and transitions, varied and innovative presentations of the musical numbers, daffy Goon-Show humor, and social satire.  In the process it captured the high spirits and self-mocking attitude of The Beatles themselves, making it a perfect setting for their joyful and expertly crafted songs, which were really the point of the whole exercise.

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The Beatles on screen were sometimes quite skillful comedians, sometimes awkward and amateurish, like kids showing off in home movies.  It’s fascinating to watch them in either mode, impossibly young as they were then, the hottest act in international show business, becoming very rich, and enjoying it all as a fab lark.

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It’s depressing to compare them to young musical celebrities today, with their desperate exhibitionism, their inflated sense of their own importance, their demons and their recklessness.  The Beatles, partly by long experience as club musicians, partly by temperament, were already canny professionals in 1964 — brilliant musical craftsmen who took their work seriously and the brouhaha around them with a grain of salt.

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In a sense, their cultural impact and almost unbelievable commercial success were what changed the business of pop music into the spangled corporate cluster-fuck it is today, but it’s hard to blame The Beatles as people for this.  Through all their success they stayed relatively sane — or as sane as any twenty-somethings who suddenly found themselves sitting on top of the world could reasonably be expected to be.

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Their wit and professionalism come through in A Hard Day’s Night — as does their core innocence, which mirrors the relative innocence of the culture they took by storm.  As a pop artifact, the film is both moving and instructive.

And then there are the songs, which sound as fresh today as they ever have — not so much a reflection of the individual personalities of the young men who made the music as of their dedication to their craft, their irrepressible joy in their craft.

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