Cleveland Museum of Art
January 5 & 6
|Offering sophisticated analysis in an accessible format.|
Thirty-three years after they broke up, the Beatles hold a place in popular culture like no other band – rock, pop, classical, and everything in between. Beyond the standards they added to the musical repertoire and sales records that remain unbroken and enduring technical innovations, the Beatles embody the spirit of the Sixties, an era when old restrictions and boundaries were swept away in an exhilarating wave of openness, experimentation and fresh ideas that still resonate today.
What’s been lost in the intervening years is the artifice behind the art; that is, the breadth and depth of the Beatles’ oeuvre, the influences that informed their music, the intelligence that shaped it, and the enormous work that went into creating a seemingly straightforward, three-and-a-half minute song. Which is where Scott Freiman comes in.
A soundtrack composer for film and television who also runs his own recording studio, Freiman has developed a series of lectures called “Deconstructing the Beatles” in which he takes a detailed look at the group’s creative efforts. After talks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles (aka The White Album) drew big crowds at the Cleveland Museum of Art last year, Freiman was invited back for three presentations this past weekend that focused on the band’s early years and the incredibly productive period in 1966 and 1967 that produced Revolver and seminal works like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.”
For aficionados, there is not much new in Freiman’s talks. Many books have recounted the Beatles’ history, music and recording sessions. What’s compelling about Freiman is the way he splices together sound, visuals and a running patter of commentary and explanation filtered through a geeky but accessible engineer’s sensibilities to show how songs were created in the studio, often starting with a simple demo. This is the best part of his presentations: rare demos and early takes demonstrating how an idea that began with one or two chords and a few rough lyrics on a home recorder could blossom into a masterpiece like “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Freiman also does a great job of putting the music in context. He tosses off endless references – some specific, like Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho strings showing up in “Eleanor Rigby,” and some speculative, like the television “Batman” theme possibly inspiring some of the vocals in “Taxman.” He draws in many of the Beatles’ contemporaries, like Brian Wilson, David Crosby and Mick Jagger, and elucidates the influences of avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. He sets the scene in swinging London and follows John Lennon into the Indica bookstore, where Lennon discovers Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience and the lines “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream...”
Not surprisingly, the central figure in all this is George Martin, the EMI producer who made many of the Beatles’ aural dreams come true. With the help of engineer Geoff Emerick, Martin was willing to work with the band at a time when no one else would accommodate their demands for pushing boundaries. Slowing down or speeding up tracks, adding tape loops, running drum or guitar solos backwards – none of it was too weird for Martin. He could write a string octet arrangement for “Eleanor Rigby” as skillfully as he could expand four recording tracks to eight or even 12, or push Lennon’s voice through a Leslie speaker to get a never-heard effect. Freiman also did a great job recounting Martin’s use of a 40-piece classical orchestra on “A Day in the Life,” which Martin multiplied by five in the final mix to get that ominous, frenetic sound.
Freiman’s attention to detail is such that even the warm-up music playing as the crowd filters into the auditorium helps set the proper mood. For Sunday’s “Trip Through Strawberry Fields,” the selections included prime psychedelia like “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” “Psychotic Reaction” and “2,000 Light Years From Home.”
Space precludes more than this brief recap of a wealth of stories and information – and the sheer joy of watching the promo videos for “Strawberry Fields,” “Rain,” and other songs that changed the course of pop music. Freiman did a brilliant job deconstructing them. But as the capacity crowds at the museum again this year demonstrated, their enduring appeal remains beyond mere words to capture or explain.
For more on Scott Freiman: http://beatleslectures.com
And the official Beatles website: http://www.thebeatles.com