Tuesday, January 3, 2012

DVD Reviews: Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney 1973-1980

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney 1973-1980
Executive Produced by Rob Johnstone
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Pride DVD, 2005 / 2010
139 minutes, USD $19.95


Perhaps this is a stretch, but if the two ex-Beatles bandmates were Silver Era comic books, arguably McCartney would be DC, and Lennon, Marvel. Whereas Paul is more pop, with straight lines and relatively uncomplicated art and stories, while John was more complex, full of multi-level story arcs and artily crafted jags of lines that push the envelope. One may say that whereas McCartney has had more financial success with hit records, it was Lennon who’s music had more depth in experimentation and true emotion (e.g., “Cold Turkey” or “”Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” compared with “Silly Love Songs” or “Magneto and Titanium Man”).

It is telling, however, that the name of this British documentary series from Chrome Dreams with the usual suspects of music critics and writers, is called “Lennon and McCartney” on the box, and “Lennon versus McCartney” on the film proper.

I remember in 1986, stand-up comic Dennis Blair mentioned how when Paul was in the Beatles, his songs were meaningful, like “Yesterday / All my troubles seem so far away” and later it was more “Someone’s knocking at the door / Open the door and let ‘em in…”

Okay, I realize I’ve just been talking about the subject matter as opposed to reviewing the DVD up to now, so let’s get at it.

This British music-focused Chrome Dreams covering classic bands and musicians – both Brit and American – is pretty solid, and this one is no exception. Yes, I still stand by the fact that they rarely feature any women as either subjects or “experts,” but they do have some interesting talking heads discussing the careers of the these two artists, both in opinions about their lives and even more subjectively, the success or failures of their vinyl output.

Some of the commentators include Robert “D-“ Christgau (as he was known to my crowd), Johnny Rogan (John Lennon: The Albums), Chris Inham (Rough Guide to the Beatles), and Peter Ames Carlin (Paul McCartney: A Life). For me, however, the key interest for the McCartney segments aren’t them but rather Denny Siewell, the Wings’ original Yank drummer (1971-73), Beatles associate Klaus Voorman, and especially the large amount of time given to McCartney's main collaborator, rhythm guitarist Denny Laine, who goes into detail what it was like being in Wings. One of my favorite lines by Denny, and it is quite accurate, is that even though Paul wanted some democracy in the band and even though Denny had some leads here and there, Laine plainly states that if you have an ex-Beatle in the band, you naturally defer to him, which he found as no problem.

The post-Beatle rollercoaster ride of careers of the two exes often seemed heading in opposite directions from each other. For example, right after the disbanding, John’s was hot and Paul’s was limp, and then by the late ‘70s, it was reversed with Paul being at the top of the charts for just about anything. By the very late ‘70s, Paul’s Wings had run out of steam, and Lennon was just on the rise when someone asked him for his autograph, ending the possibility of a discussion of comparison beyond 1980.

There is more on this DVD about Paul than John, but in hindsight that doesn’t surprise me because in the period this covers, McCartney released way more vinyl than Lennon, though one can (again) argue about quantity vs. quality. While Paul was often in the studio or on tour, Lennon was having his excursions with May Pang (a year-and-a-half that Lennon referred to as his “lost weekend”) and fighting off the Republican witch-hunt against him.

One of the great things about this DVD is the sheer number of clips from songs throughout the period, both live and promotional videos, is staggering, even though no clip lasts longer than a minute. Still, there are enough to give one a zeitgeist of their yield. There are also period interviews with the artists.

Smartly, rather than jumping around from musician to musician, the DVD follows chunks of time with one and then the other, and back.

One interesting thing I found about the difference between the two is that Paul was focused on having a band (i.e., Wings), replacing members who left – usually in twos, apparently – to keep it going (though two Wings albums are actually just the trio of McCartney, McCartney, and Laine (e.g., Band on the Run). Lennon, on the other hand, was more a roving spirit. Yes, he’d play with either a who’s who of top talent (which McC also did with “Rockestra Theme”) or with local New York never-going-anywhere burnout musicians like David Peel (the East Coast version of Wildman Fischer?) or the band Elephant’s Memory (who I saw once in Central Park with the much better Brownsville Station; rumor was John would make an appearance, which he didn’t). And I’m betting that Lennon let his co-musicians eat meat.

They also both worked with legendary producers on at least one major project, to varying success, with Lennon flopping with Phil Spector’s hand on Rock ‘n’ Roll, and McCartney booming with George Martin’s help with the smash theme to the James Bond film, Live and Let Die (and ironically, though not stated here, the production on the latter was the bigger wall-of-sound).

For me, much of McCartney’s post-Beatles output has been pretty non-essential. I do own At the Speed of Sound as it was given to me when a friend decided to replace all her LPs with CDs; I believe I played it once. Still, his music was everywhere, even after pothead Paul was busted in Japan, giving his annoying self-righteous, open-mouthed gum-chewing interview to the press (how come no one ever mentions this gum thing?). And yet, on this DVD, I see there was a whole lot of music I never heard before that were somewhat hits, even after the break-up of Wings (in part because of the Japan debacle) such as the awful electronica “Temporary Secretary,” and the actually beautiful “Waterfalls,” the first song I can remember in a long time from him that actually feels like it has some real emotion.

As for Lennon, I do have a number of his solo LPs, even the leaden Rock ‘n’ Roll, though my favorite one is actually Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon. That being said, one thing I learned from this DVD was that when Double Fantasy was released, it actually received mixed reviews until after Lennon’s death shortly after. The album (which I do possess, but not until a couple of years after its release in 1980) didn’t really reach my consciousness until after the Dakota death. Of course, then everyone was simply drowned in “Imagine” for weeks. I firmly believe that Lennon would have been disgusted by the morbid sentimental reaction. On this documentary, I’m relieved to say that Lennon’s assassination is stated for fact rather than made into a monumental OMG, and that the cultural result is the huge success of the final LP.

Though brief, there is a segment on post-1980, which describes how McCartney became more a touring force rather than a recording one, in part, as is posited here, in that he covers some Beatles tunes more than that he also does Wings songs. As for Lennon, it’s pointed out that Yoko had released two albums of outtakes from the Double Fantasy sessions that were rejects and would probably never have seen the light of day if Lennon hadn’t died (not to say that these documents are unimportant).

The documentary feels pretty even-handed in the long run, both looking at McCartney and Lennon with both a critical eye and a strong subjective hindsight view by the contributors, some having very different opinions that the others. There is, however, no real mention of Ringo, or that George, who would flip back and forth about Paul, often referred to Paul as either “Fauxll” or merely “our bass player” (McCartney infamously did not give George the credit he deserved for his work in the Beatles), nor his praise for John.

The extras include bios of the contributors in text that is finally large enough to read on my television, unlike some previous DVDs in this series. But the important one is an 8-minute interview with Denny Laine called “Winging It: Life in Wings,” where he discusses the Moody Blues’ rivalry with the Beatles (which includes a great clip of him doing “Go Now”), writing with Paul, and about the break-up of the band after Japan, both real and rumor.

Even if one is a Beatles fan, there is more than two hours of info here, so odds are you may learn something new. Heck, the music clips alone are worth the view, especially the live ones.

Also, for those interested, there is another documentary, Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney 1967-1972, available from the same company (which I have not yet seen).

This review dedicated to the memory of JoJo Laine (RIP).

Bonus videos

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