Category Archives: Reviews

20. Across The Universe – A Modern Beatles Homage

The Beatles are near-universal in their influence over the world. That’s a fact. I often wonder if, in the womb, everyone was indoctrinated with at least one or two of their beloved hits. But I can credit just one source that made me sit up and realise they are a cultural phenomenon to be cherished, admired and, dare I say, worship.

The unmistakable 'Fab Four' (circa 1964), when 'Beatlemania' began

Released in 2007, Across The Universe is a musical film that effectively captures the spirit of that band of four men in 1960’s who changed the world of music forever. The plot is superbly linked with The Beatles’ back catalogue of tunes, and the psychedelic romantic drama is set in that time period, mirroring and highlighting contemporary social and political issues in a vivid and exciting style. And this story-through-song opened my eyes, ears and heart to their music more viscerally than anything else in the eighteen years preceding it.

Looking at it from a genre point of view, it effectively sidesteps an obstacle that many musicals run into: balancing fun with more serious, weighty issues. Some can only be upbeat and happy, or almost opera-like, full of gloominess and excessive sentimentality. I usually find that any attempts at mixing up the vibe end up feeling forced and clunky. Not so with this Julie Taymor-directed gem.

The plot centres on a young Liverpudlian dock worker named Jude (surprise, surprise), who decides to illegally emigrate to the USA in search of his estranged father. Along the way, he meets up with Max, a slacker student at Princeton, and is introduced to Lucy, Max’s younger sister, and a host of other interesting characters, with nearly all of them being named after a Beatles song or song’s character. In fact, Beatles references are soaked into every fibre of the film’s fabric, and it would require multiple viewings to find and appreciate them.

Three of the main characters - Lucy, Max and Jude

Although I like to think of myself as having a decent knowledge of film, it’s the film’s soundtrack that I want to focus on, and how it compares to the originals. I mean, that’s the part that stood out for me for the most upon first viewing. It was an inauspicious start, I might add, there in my dorm room with two of my friends late one night in our first year of university. One even left ten minutes in, during a film I’ve now watched at least ten times! The press surrounding it all at the time labelled it as ‘a Beatles musical’, so when I found myself really enjoying the music, it got me thinking “if they’re singing Beatles’ songs, then this band must be as good as people say they are”.

First impressions always count a lot, so it was difficult for me to accept John, Paul, George and Ringo’s versions as canonical, after the modern, cinematic garishness of Taymor’s. Now, after three and a half years of reflection, I think I am ready to make some reasonable opinions. What is really being compared here is not which one is better (that would be blasphemous), but more of whether the style of one version is more appropriate to the lyrics and subject matter than the other, and perhaps which one suits the film better. And there is no harm in debating that.

Some songs have a backstory that is a little more interesting than most (particularly late-60’s compositions, found on disc two). Therefore, I feel that it’s only right to dedicate a little more space to their heritage than the others. Also, since it’s a review of the soundtrack, I’ll be careful not to give away too many plot points or focus too much on aspects of the film. It’s really a head-to-head comparison of the music, between the past and the present.

 

The Facts

All in all, the double-disc soundtrack contains 31 complete songs. A further two brief extracts of other songs (which aren’t on the discs) are incorporated into the score, and one song is repeated; thus totalling 34 individual ‘musical cues’, in filmspeak. Many are sung by one or two of the main cast members, guest musicians, or an ensemble. One complete instrumental is included as well. At times, songs are interwoven, and to great effect.

 

Disc one

  1. Girl
  2. Hold Me Tight
  3. All My Loving
  4. I Want To Hold Your Hand
  5. With A Little Help From My Friends
  6. It Won’t Be Long
  7. I’ve Just Seen A Face
  8. Let It Be
  9. Come Together
  10. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
  11. If I Fell
  12. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  13. Dear Prudence
  14. Flying
  15. Blue Jay Way

 

1. Girl

Lennon’s acoustic number about a manipulating, paradoxical girl that he seems irrepressibly drawn to, serves as a perfect introduction to this love story. Shortened to just over a minute, containing only the first verse, Taymor’s version condenses the speaker’s lovesick confusion into a sweeping, ambient lament. Whilst at that length, it fits the movie perfectly, if it was drawn out to the original’s four verses, it would’ve lost a lot of steam.

It doesn't get much bleaker than a British beach on an overcast day...

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Overall, the original’s breezy, lush instrumentation and vocal harmonies trumps Taymor’s brief, lonely tale of woe. Cinematically, however, it would be unlikely that the original could have worked for this scene.

 

2. Hold Me Tight

‘Girl’ segues into McCartney’s oft-forgotten ‘work song’ (as he’s referred to it in the past)Hold Me Tight, along with a brief snippet of ‘Helter Skelter’ before the track starts. The original, from the Beatles’ early days, was deemed acceptable album filler at the time, and carried a tired portrayal of the Fab Four’s bouncy and zesty ‘Merseyside skiffle’. However, lead actress Evan Rachel Wood absolutely nails the lead vocals on Taymor’s version, and the track gets a much-needed spit-and-polish musically. In the film (but not on the soundtrack), the song switches at times to a grungy, Cavern Club-style venue, where the lead actor Jim Sturgess sings to another minor character, showing the simple passion of young love from both genders, and two different musical styles as well.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The attention to detail and modern revamping of a sub-standard Beatles filler definitely fits the mood of this song perfectly. On the other hand, The Beatles were churning out far more successful hits than this at the time.

 

3. All My Loving

One of The Beatles’ early hits, ‘All My Loving’ is masterfully included in the film’s carefree and innocent opening scenes. Both versions are much the same in arrangement; one of the rare cases, in fact. McCartney’s pop classic (which he originally envisioned as a country & western style track) has upbeat, jangly guitars and simple, yet effective lyrics referring to a relationship where the speaker is away from his love (“and I’ll send all my loving to you”).  Taymor’s version differs by having a great a capella first verse and a focus on space-like keyboard effects than guitars.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The ‘puppy love’ lyrics need to be appropriately matched with a rollicking rhythm, and the original takes the cake here. Taymor’s a capella first verse was an inspired touch, and whilst the tempo picks up later in the song, it’s not enough.

 

4. I Want To Hold Your Hand

The Beatles’ best-selling single gets turned into an odd, slow-moving ballad by Taymor here, and it’s probably the lone total disappointment of the entire soundtrack. A minor female character provides an aching, lustful and curious take on the song, which might sound good in theory, but the execution is very off-the-mark and out-of-place. Her voice is painful t0 listen to, and the excessive vibrato just feels forced.

Enjoy the choreography of a dance sequence involving football players

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: The all-conquering, catchy original has stood the test of time, continuing to influence and shape music and pop culture. The twin lead vocals, the hand claps, the rush one feels when Lennon croons “I wanna hold your haaaaaaaaaand!”; nothing can match that. The interpretation in the film wasn’t necessarily a bad idea; if the vocalist was changed and the tempo picked up a bit, it could’ve worked out a lot better.

 

5. With A Little Help From My Friends

The well-loved sing-along from the Sgt Pepper’s days gets a fittingly ensemble-like treatment for the film. The scene shows a group of young lads having a big night out on the town, so the call-and-response lyrics are perfectly suited. The film also chooses to base its version on the radical, rocking Joe Cocker cover version, and once again, get it right. It’s very difficult to resist the urge to scream (not sing!) along to the final minute as if you were there with the boys, having the time of your lives.

Party time

Due to the change in arrangement, the guitar is grungier, harsher and starts and stops more often than the original’s light, bopping riff. McCartney’s bass and other backing instruments, such as a piano, organ, tambourine and cowbell are very prominent in the original’s mix, and give it a quaint, friendly feel.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: Whilst the original has a boozy swagger to it, with the speaker feeling down and out about his lover not being there (hence getting by ‘with a little help from my friends’), it just doesn’t capture the laddish brotherhood of a typical group of guys consoling and uplifting their friend. No fault on Ringo’s part in terms of lead vocals; it just needed that extra boost musically, like the previous track on Sgt Pepper’s (i.e. the title song) had.

 

6. It Won’t Be Long

The opening track off With The Beatles once again has lead vocals by the alluring Evan Rachel Wood in the film. She has this silky touch to her singing that makes every track she appears in a treat for the ears, and this catchy early-Lennon/McCartney composition sounds great with a female voice. But unlike ‘Hold Me Tight’, Lennon’s timeless croon sounds impassioned, sexy and on point. Musically, Taymor retains the call-and-response ‘yeah-yeahs’ (with female backing vocals) and guitar riffs, but tones done the drum parts, which removes some of the original’s punch. But only a little.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Whilst the song is skilfully mixed into the storyline with Woods’ freshfaced feminine perspective, the original ticked all the boxes first-time round. Twice the amount of versions here means twice the amount of fun.

 

7. I’ve Just Seen A Face

This twangy, uptempo country-and-western McCartney number gets a heavier, glossier remake, and it’s tough to choose between the versions of song of love at first sight. McCartney sounds like a smitten cowboy, positively cherubic, with splendid acoustic guitar work to accompany him. Whilst Taymor’s guitars are nice and crunchy, the vocal work from lead actor Jim Sturgess is the highlight here.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: I had to put aside my love for Sturgess’ croon to call this one. The percussion on the film version is literally just a click track, and whilst the song is appropriate for the scene, it needs that crisp foot-tapping beat that the original provides with Ringo’s brushed snare and maracas. Paul’s voice is nigh untouchable on this one, but Sturgess does a fine job trying.

 

8. Let It Be

Taymor taps into the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning ballad’s spiritual undertones, and produces a soaring rendition, full of soul and emotion. Sung by two minor characters (a little boy and a church choir singer), it really tugs at the heartstrings, and marks a pivotal change in the film’s tone. One would hope that McCartney would be happy with the gospel take on his hit song; he was famously discontented with producer Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ production on the album Let It Be.

The little boy and church choir singer make ‘Let It Be’ soar with emotion

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: A song such as this deserves the pomp and dramatics of a full gospel choir, paired with hushed revelations from a child’s voice (Paul found inspiration to write the song in the death of his mother, who passed away from cancer when he was only 14). And whilst the original is piano-based, with an orchestral accompaniment, he should’ve gone one step further. It would’ve helped dissolve the thin layer of pretentiousness that the song seems to have wrapped around it.

 

9. Come Together

Lennon’s widely covered bluesy rocker is one of the film’s first darker, edgier moments. It gets the previously mentioned blues icon Joe Cocker on lead vocals, and his gritty rendition is slow-boiling. His voice is utterly distinctive, and deserved on such a track, but musically, the track feels limp, watery and rather undulating, lacking the punch of McCartney’s distinctive bass-line and spatterings of electric piano that made it one of the highlights of Abbey Road. An ensemble of female backing vocals can’t save it either.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: This dreary retread serves merely as an exposition scene in the film, introducing a new main character to the proceedings as he travels the dark streets of New York. Whilst it’s not exactly a bad cover of the song, it does next to nothing to stamp any authority on it.

 

10. Why Don’t We Do It The Road?

For the first time in the film (apart from a fleeting couple of seconds after ‘Girl’s’ completion), we get to hear the raspy, feisty Dana Fuchs burst through the speakers and rattle our eardrums with vigour. Her contributions to the soundtrack are mostly on The Beatles’ heaviest, most primal outputs, and it’s a match made in heaven. McCartney’s lusty, two-line quickie gets the volume turned up really loud, and Fuchs’s female swagger just oozes out onto a propulsive rhythm, with a wailing guitar, workmanlike drums and a funky organ her raucous companions.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The recording process of ‘Why Don’t…’ parallels the urgent, capricious nature of its subject matter (McCartney found inspiration in seeing two monkeys copulating on a road in India, and later chose to quickly record the entire track alone, except for Starr on drums). And yet such a feral song comes out sounding rather tame. Piano-led, with a hushed pulse of bass underneath, Paul’s vocals take on the lion’s share of the work, quickly morphing into impassioned screams and yelps. But overall it seems skeletal when his demands feel fully fleshed. For that reason, Taymor’s version trumps his by capturing them in 1 minute, 23 seconds of carnal desire, and with the music to match.

Young or old, anybody can do it in the road

 

11. If I Fell

The film then back-tracks a little in Beatles history to 1964, and presents a song about vulnerability and hesistance to fall in love, with a mood that matches the tenderness of the lyrics. Taymor’s version is almost unrecognisable from the original, whose sugar-sweet vocal harmonies and midtempo grooves are some of the Beatles finest on record. In their places, Wood’s ethereal croon is placed centre-stage, in all its glory, whilst an acoustic guitar occasionally whispers the most delicate of notes in the background. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

If I Fell In Love With Evan Rachel Wood (And Her Voice)

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The full-band version that was chosen by The Beatles for A Hard Day’s Night just doesn’t seem intimate enough when compared with what could’ve been (an early demo just had John alone on acoustic guitar). When ‘If I Fell’ came out, the band had yet to explore the idea of performing any songs that didn’t require all four band members on the track. The following year, Paul’s solo masterpiece, ‘Yesterday’, debuted as part of their repertoire, and it was the first song of theirs that relied on the performance of just one band member. I think that if that mindset was applied to earlier songs like ‘If I Fell’, it could’ve produced a more fitting version of this Lennon/McCartney classic.

 

12. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Lennon’s obsessive, grinding yet enchanting tale of pure longing gets somewhat neutered for Across The Universe. But thankfully, Taymor attempts to fit as much as the original’s awkward time signatures, overdubbed guitars and massed choir effects in its shortened 3 minute 44 second edit. The result still grinds, but comes out smoother; a sort of gothic hymn. It’s an ensemble outing on this track, with male and female vocals getting their moment to bluesily belt out the simple, to-the-point lyrics, as the lumbering rhythms drag them forwards.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: This one is a particularly difficult song to cover, since the highly experimental original’s length meanders on for 7 minutes 47 seconds (upon which it abruptly ends, mid-chaos and white noise; an avant-garde decision of Lennon’s). You’ve got to admire the courage of Taymor to attempt to condense such a jarring song into a marketable Hollywood film. Her version suits the narrative  (the ‘I Want You’ applying more to forced conscription by the US army in the 1960’s than desire for the love of someone else), and for that purpose, it does its job. Just don’t try to say that it matches the aching intensity of Lennon’s desire for Yoko Ono that fueled the original.

Yoko Ono - John's desire for her was strong on 'I Want You'

 

13. Dear Prudence

Cleverly intertwined with the storyline, this sweet, calming number from the White Album starts off well, but feels a little too murky and underdone. The ensemble’s vocal harmonies are quite soothing though; varied too, because of the female touch. The lyrical interpretation in the film version is interesting too. Lennon originally wrote this song in India about the actress Mia Farrow’s sister, who locked herself in her room, meditating near-constantly, whilst on the band’s visit to the country. In the film, a sexually-confused character forces herself to contemplate her orientation, spending the night in a locked cupboard. So the lines “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?/Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day” are given an interesting twist in that context; a masterful stroke of scriptwriting by Taymor.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: This was heading towards a tie in my mind. But then I realised how well-restrained, yet vibrant, the original’s music was. Fingerstyle guitar underpins the song, with a bassline that doesn’t need to drone all the way throughout to be noticed. Then slowly, layer upon layer, lead guitar, piano, handclaps, even a cowbell, get introduced and the effect seems a lot more sprightly than Taymor’s, despite the song seguing into a protest rally in the film. And that’s what going to bring dear Prudence out of her hiding place: reassurance and uplifting music.

 

14 & 15. Flying & Blue Jay Way

These two lesser-known ambient psychedelic pieces from Magical Mystery Tour are almost absent in the film, with only a brief few seconds of ‘Flying’ being played as a transition between scenes. To be honest, if it weren’t for the soundtrack, I wouldn’t have known that they were a part of the movie. But each gets a faithful full-length rendition, both by a space-rock band named The Secret Machines. The first is an instrumental, and interestingly one of the few Beatles songs attributed to all four members. Both versions have very trippy, swirling effects, and hints of backing vocals offering up some ‘aahs’. However, considering how old the original is, it’s amazing to hear what effects they were able to achieve back then, including some typically psychedelic tape loops.

‘Blue Jay Way’ is an eery Harrison composition, detailing the events of a foggy night where one of his friends got lost in Los Angeles on his way meet to him at a house in Blue Jay Way. The Secret Machines imitate the original’s style near exactly, so there’s not much difference between the two.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Just stick with the originals. The Beatles compositions are slightly more distinctive and less watery, but it’s not a world of difference.

 

Disc Two

  1. I Am The Walrus
  2. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!
  3. Because
  4. Something
  5. Oh! Darling
  6. Strawberry Fields Forever
  7. Revolution
  8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  9. Across The Universe
  10. Helter Skelter
  11. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  12. Blackbird
  13. Hey Jude
  14. Don’t Let Me Down
  15. All You Need Is Love
  16. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

 

1. I Am The Walrus

Arguably one of The Beatles’ most bizarre, surreal and talked-about songs, ‘I Am The Walrus’ is Lennon at his most sarcastic, sneering and outright silly. Musically unorthodox, confusing and complex, with a vast hodge-podge of lyrical influences, ranging from acid trips to police sirens to playground nursery rhymes to a Lewis Carroll novel (and more), it surely defies interpretation, even reinterpretation. I mean, he wrote it nauseatingly avant-garde just because he heard about a teacher trying to interpret Beatles lyrics and teach them to his students. Go figure.

Having a laugh on set of 'I Am The Walrus' scene in the film Magical Mystery Tour

The big drawcard of Taymor’s version is the distinctive vocals of Bono (of U2), one of rock’s most enduring frontmen. He draws on some of his own band’s more experimental early-to-mid-90’s output to collaborate with The Secret Machines, producing a polished, catchy, dreamy psychedelic rocker, full of cavernous drums and vocals. The track is imbued with sort of shimmery quality overall, and is a rather good song in its own right, used to perfection in a visually jaw-dropping scene in the film.

Bono, as Dr Robert, a counter-culture cult leader

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: But crucially, Taymor’s version loses sight of the original’s intentions. By ironing out its quirks, it strips it of a lot of its character: the droning Mellotron, tambourine, orchestral overdubs and even the live BBC Radio feed that was somehow incorporated (granted, the loony backing vocals are retained; more noticeable in the film itself). And that’s just musically. Lyrically, it was freewheeling creativity at its best, delivered by Lennon so tongue-in-cheek, that he was lucky to be able to remove it from there. Accessibility was definitely a no-no on this track, and the modern version comes out a little too clean-cut.

 

2. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!

The trend towards the avant-garde continues with another Lennon creation (although credited Lennon/McCartney, as most early-to-mid 60’s Beatles songs were). Nearly all of its lyrics were taken from an antique circus poster Lennon found in a shop in Kent, promoting a 19th century show for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, ‘being for the benefit of Mr Kite’. The vaudevillian fairground/circus atmosphere that made the original one of the more musically interesting tracks on Sgt Pepper is faithfully retained by Taymor, who has one trick up her sleeve that steals the show: British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard. His cameo as Mr Kite is absolutely superb, complete with an expressive and quintessentially British accent, which he uses to good effect on this spoken word cover. He ad-libs between the lines with some hilarious remarks, and has a believability about him that makes you think he really is one of those 19th century circus owners, inviting you to join him on an absurd adventure.

Eddie Izzard's expressiveness makes his cameo one of the best in the film

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The big downfall of the original is Lennon’s deadpan recitation of the lyrics. Maybe it was intentional or ironic, as he also speaks more than he sings, but overall it seems very dull. And yet, the music doesn’t feel that way, with a kaleidoscope of chopped-up tape loops of fairground organs and calliope music whizzing about, creating a very authentic experience (Lennon told producer George Martin that he wanted “to smell the sawdust on the floor”). Izzard’s theatrical and showy performance matches that mood rather seamlessly (his stand-up routines are suitably avant-garde too, from what I’ve seen, frequently switching between characters and topics on a whim).

 

3. Because

After the madness of ‘Mr Kite’, the film immediately transitions into one of the calmest and most serene Beatles tracks. It was inspired by Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, featuring three-part vocal harmonies (later overdubbed three times to give the impression of a choir of nine voices), the first use of a Moog synthesiser on a rock ‘n roll song at the time, an electric harpischord and no percussion. Once again, it is one of the many fine pieces of music found on their highly-acclaimed final album Abbey Road.

Both versions are spine-tinglingly good, with Taymor’s version making some tweaks that provide an interesting change in mood. Hers loses the distinctive electric harpischord, deciding to go a cappella for the first 40 seconds (a genius move on her part), with the six major characters and three minor characters delicately combining their voices with aplomb. A deep, slightly ominous-sounding orchestra then begins to drone in the far distance, whilst a gently plucked acoustic guitar provides a more tangible backing, building up to a peaceful conclusion.

Verdict: A tie

Reason: This was just too close to call. The Beatles’ version has the famous harmonies and dreamy elements executed to perfection. But there’s something about Taymor’s version that makes it stand really close to the original as an equal. Maybe it’s the mix of male and female voices? Maybe it’s the complementary orchestral backing, a skilful tactic used so often on mid-to-late 60’s Beatles songs? Maybe it’s the slight change of mood, that I’m now struggling to put into words? Maybe just because?

 

4. Something

Through much of The Beatles’ career, Harrison’s compositions played third-fiddle to Lennon and McCartney’s masterpieces. He would sometimes get one or two spots on an album to showcase his work, and the most successful song-writing duo of all time treated him rather harshly and indifferently when it came to his own efforts.

But that all changed with ‘Something’: a pure, straight-forward love song that, at the tail-end of their career, became one of their most highly regarded and covered. Even the great Frank Sinatra declared it “the greatest love song ever written” and performed it many times in concert. The ‘quiet’ Beatle finally received the credit he rightfully deserved.

George finally gets his moment to shine

Taymor doesn’t choose to redesign the wheel, and her interpretation sits as a faithful complement to the original, retaining its sincere and heartfelt strengths. Common motifs that run through many of the slower songs on the soundtrack are a cappella introductions and prudent use of percussion, and this one continues the trend. It really brings out the power of the beautiful lyrics (“Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover”) and vocals (from the male lead Sturgess, who should honestly consider singing professionally). Thankfully these stylistic choices don’t drag on for too long in this song. Another slight difference is the understated orchestral and organ backing; I think it reins in the schmaltz that wants to creep into the original.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: The film version is lot more mellowed out than the original, and this breathing room allows Sturgess’ captivating vocals to shine through more clearly. On the other hand, you can really hear the emotion in Harrison’s performance of a lifetime. Both have that special something, staying true to the song’s core message, and it’s hard not to choose the version that launched more than 150 cover versions (second place after ‘Yesterday’, which has in the region of 1600 versions). The problem is that the original has too much going on, with the orchestral backing drowning out Harrison’s tender vocals.

 

5. Oh! Darling

Usually when there’s an exclamation mark in a song title, you as the listener can expect some aural fireworks. And McCartney’s bluesy ‘swamp-pop’ anthem bursts with enthusiasm, drawing on a New Orleans style of R&B music known for its honky-tonk pianos, lovelorn lyrics and booming backbeats.

The film uses the opportunity to showcase this emotional classic by turning it into a duet between Dana Fuchs and another male lead Martin Luther McCoy, whose appearances start to feature in the second half of the soundtrack. In the film itself, this song is extra discordant (f0r plot reasons), but the studio cut balances it out, retaining some of the distortion-heavy wailings and vocal interplay.

Tempers flare as Fuchs and McCoy battle it out

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Whilst the male-female duet is a great idea, brimming with sexual energy, Taymor’s version falls rather short of the original’s high standards. McCartney delivers one of his most powerful vocal performances ever on this track, after a patient regimen of trying to record the song only once a day for a week, so as to nail the final take perfectly first-time in a session. This dedication is obvious on the final cut; his voice soars between sweet & tender and heart-pumping-out-of-its-chest desperate. Even the feisty Fuchs cannot match the intensity of his pleas (“Oh! darling, please believe me/I’ll never do you no harm”). Despite the heavier distortion on the film’s guitar, Harrison’s stabbing riffs have a little more bite to them, and overall the original is more faithful to its swampy roots.

 

6. Strawberry Fields Forever

Surely the pinnacle of the Beatles’ (and specifically, John Lennon’s) creative output, this nostalgic, disillusioned, psychedelic magnum opus is packed full of juicy goodness. Arising from a time in Beatles history of heavy studio experimentation and intense personal problems for John, the song channels his self-doubt and loneliness into a complicated mix of music that is actually two versions of the same song cleverly spliced together.

One was a relatively complete band take, piling on the usual instruments along with newfound ones such as a Mellotron and an Indian harp-like instrument called a svarmandal. Typically of their music of the time was also numerous backwards recordings (even Ringo playing the bongos got the treatment). The other take was a George Martin-conducted group of trumpets and cellos. And the catch? Both were in different keys and tempos, and Lennon wanted each of them on the same song. In a stroke of genius (and probably a little luck), George managed to combine the two rather smoothly (but listen carefully for the changeover around the 60 second mark; it’s an ‘a-ha!’ moment for Beatlemaniacs).

Their producer George Martin (the unofficial 'Fifth Beatle') played a big part in making this song work

Like its original, Taymor’s ‘Strawberry’ is definitely one of the freshest in the film’s basket, and marries musical and thematic content very vividly, reflecting the conflicting thought patterns going on in the lyrics (the famous “no one I think is in my tree” line comes out sounding rather convincing with Sturgess’ Liverpudlian twang). The mood remains mostly melancholic and accurate music-wise to the original, but irons out the brash bumps of horns and other avant-garde missteps, particularly in the nightmarish ending. Some would say it tones down the creative quality of the music, but I think it possibly lets elements of previous, simpler takes of the song shine through (take one, in particular, had just John Lennon unaccompanied on acoustic guitar, stripped of the wondrous, yet distracting cacophony of noise in the final cut).

Although John Lennon's memorial in Central Park, New York is named after this song, the original inspiration came from a Salvation Army children's centre in Liverpool, where he used to play as a child. The centre is closed now, but pictured here are the original gates

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: Whilst the original showed the band as avant-garde creative pioneers, I somehow feel that Lennon’s true vision and meaning for the song was lost in the heady haze of experimentation and creative one-upmanship. Even he expressed dissatisfaction with the recording of the final version shortly before his murder in 1980, bitterly blaming McCartney for subconsciously ‘sabotaging’ it. Although great upheaval in one’s personal life can often create moments of brilliance in one’s work, everyone got a little carried away on this number. Taymor, therefore, presents a version just as nuanced, but in a more accessible and representative way.

 

7. Revolution

During the late 60’s, the world the Beatles inhabited began to experience a social upheaval, and a peaceful yet radical counter-culture emerged amongst the youth that clashed with the increasingly warmongering powers-that-be. A spirit of revolution was rising up, and not just in the prominent USA (whose war in Vietnam was claiming thousands of young men’s lives), but across Europe too, with widespread campus protests. It came to a time when the Fab Four could not keep quiet anymore about what was going on around them.

Not surprisingly, out of the four, Lennon felt most strongly about the hubbub of political picketing; or rather, he was equally unsure about what to feel, and wanted to see a reasonable way forward proposed by those that wanted to topple the system. Experiences with Transcendental Meditation had provided him with a sort of spiritual awakening, and ‘Revolution’ was one of the first overt steps he made towards becoming a political activist in the the late 60’s/early 70’s.

Some lyrics from the song found their way on a t-shirt

There were two released versions of the song: the fast, hard rock B-side to the ‘Hey Jude’ single (titled just ‘Revolution’), and a slower, swing-like version on The White Album (titled ‘Revolution 1’). Taymor chose the former for the film, and its barking, machine-gun-like guitar riff definitely livens up the mood for revolution. The male lead Sturgess comes off rather mellow in the studio version, but his performance is more persuasive in the film, where he really acts out the song.

A promotional clip for Revolution - a rare live performance during that time in the band's history

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: The modern cover is more a grumble than a rebel yell, and any musical revolution is only really evident in its attempt to add some extra fills in the drumbeat. Apart from that, it’s a decidedly average reproduction of a controversial and inspiring classic. The use of the song in the film must be commended though; it’s bound to raise a chuckle.

 

8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The world of guitar music gained a timeless classic when George Harrison’s tale of despondency about the state of the world appeared on the White Album. Featuring the great Eric Clapton as a guest on lead guitar, it has achieved considerable acclaim, ranking very highly on best-of lists (such as #7 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All Time). Harrison’s songwriting was beginning to blossom around that time, and his experiences on the band’s pilgrimage to India had profoundly impacted the ‘quiet’ Beatle’s spirituality.

George and Eric were very close friends. So close, they both shared marriages with the same woman!

The lyrics are ethereal and reflective, focusing on the metaphor of the speaker’s guitar sounding like it’s ‘weeping’, whilst violence and hate continue to rage on around the world it lives in. He insists that when he looks at the world, he sees “the love there that’s sleeping”, implying that if only people could awaken that love, the hate could be put to rest. That kind of mentality might come across as too idealistic, but it’s a beautifully written song nonetheless.

The film’s ‘Jimi Hendrix’ archetype (played by Martin Luther McCoy) plays guitar and sings on the cover, and his performance is an impassioned one, with vocals that match the delicate and airy tones of Harrison. The track itself is another ambient adventure, evoking a similar mood to ‘Something’ from earlier in the soundtrack. Wind chimes start it off slowly, as McCoy’s voice enters the scene alone, followed by a mournful accordion. It’s slow-moving, and meanders towards its conclusion rather plainly.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: For a song featuring the word ‘guitar’ in its title and its lyrics, there’s very little time devoted to its sound in Taymor’s version. Yes, the guitar is ‘weeping’, but surely that should last longer than a brief section of limp and understated noodling? To see how it should be done, have a look at this rendition from 2002’s ‘Concert For George’ (a memorial to George Harrison on the first anniversary of his death). The surviving Beatles are all there, led by Clapton up front. And have a look to his left: that’s Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and the spitting image of his father.

 

9. Across The Universe

As we begin to round the bend and into the home straight, we arrive at the film’s title track. Much like ‘Revolution’, it has been released a number of times with different versions, takes and arrangements; more so than probably any other Beatles song. Lennon described it as the best, most poetic lyrics that he ever wrote, and frustratingly, the band struggled to find a version of the song that they were truly happy with.

Written as early as 1967, but only released on a full-length album on 1970’s acrimonious Let It Be, the lyrics came to Lennon after an argument he had with his ex-wife Cynthia. He kept on hearing her words repeated over and over, “flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup”, and he immediately decided to put that feeling into a song. The song was further flavoured and influenced by the Beatles’ interest in Transcendental Meditation; the link to the chorus is the Sanskrit phrase “jai guru deva om”, literally meaning “glory to the shining remover of darkness”, or figuratively “victory to God divine”.

The cover Taymor creates draws on elements from most versions of the song: the Let It Be version’s choral overdubs, the Anthology 2 version’s stronger psychedelic feel of Indian sitar and tambura and Let It Be…Naked‘s stripped-down, cleaner vocals. Sturgess enunciates his words carefully, with a cinematic, unhurried feel, matching Lennon’s mood of enlightenment masterfully. However, the song begins to take on a unexpected darker tone in the final minute; in the film, this song is just before a scene of great conflict and violence.

Verdict: A tie

Reason: It’s difficult to choose the best version of a song that the band was evidently very indecisive about. Despite its exceptionally vivid and beautiful lyrics, the original still somehow feels unfinished and stuck in a ‘demo’ phase. Sturgess presents a great interpretation of the song, trading on the weighty lyrics, and it’d be fair to say that he neither surpasses the original nor falls far behind it.

 

10. Helter Skelter

Raucous, biting, and chaotic, ‘Helter Skelter’ has been credited as one of the first heavy-metal (or ‘proto-metal’) songs, with its loud, roaring guitars, thudding backbeat and McCartney’s raw hollering (which, along with ‘Oh! Darling’, is probably the most impressive of his Beatles career). Born out of a desire to outdo The Who’s Pete Townshend (who had described their band’s latest single at the time, ‘I Can See For Miles’, as “the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song we’ve ever recorded”), Paul turned up the amps to 11 and went wild.

The term ‘helter skelter’ is well-known in Great Britain as referring to the spiralling fairground ride, in which people could climb the inside the top of a wooden tower and slide down. Although McCartney was using it as a seemingly innocent metaphor (such as “when I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide”), sadly the song received massive notoriety when the American psychopath Charles Manson used it as justification for the multiple brutal murders he and his ‘Family’ committed in August 1969. Claiming that ‘Helter Skelter’, along with many other tracks off the White Album, was a coded prophecy for an apocalyptic race war, he tarnished the song’s legacy with his disturbing and appalling philosophy.

Just under a year after the release of the song, Helter Skelter's reputation was tarnished by serial killer Charles Manson and his cult 'The Family'

But when not heard through the ears of a madman, it’s a tremendously fun song to listen to, and one where the band really let loose together in the studio, during a time when they were growing apart and beginning to work on songs alone. The recording sessions were said to be full of madness and hysterics, as evidenced on the conclusion of the song, where Ringo suddenly screams “I’VE GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!”.

Dana Fuchs takes hold the reins of lead vocals on this joyride in the film, which overlaps with the previous track and, as mentioned before, gets a brief appearance in the beginning of the film. Although only a small portion of it is used, the section is enough to get your attention, as Fuch’s howls are juxtaposed with Sturgess’ quieter, steadfast mantra of “nothing’s gonna change my world”. The full-length version holds up admirably; her overall performance definitely shows Janis Joplin-like strands of sassiness.

With serpentine golden locks and a gruff, wolf-like howl, Fuchs' performances are vigorous and animalistic

Verdict: A tie

Reason: On one hand, you have the one of the most white-hot, pioneering rock ‘n roll performances on record, with a relentless panache that borders on overbearing (the song fades in and out twice before collapsing exhausted). And on the other hand, you have a slicker, modern interpretation; a steady torrent instead of a series of powerful bursts, with Fuchs in the centre, simultaneously feeding off and fueling the storm around her. It’s the plucky young unstoppable force meeting the wise old immovable object, and what a joy is that collision to witness.

 

11. Happiness Is A Warm Gun

A sultry multi-part symphony in under three minutes, this gem from the White Album presented the increasingly fractured band as a unified front, in a song featuring frequent shifts in time signatures, tempo, as well as unorthodox lyrics and phrasing. Lennon found inspiration through a gun magazine he was shown which had the words ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ on the cover (“I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say,” he said, “A warm gun means you’ve just shot something”). He then pasted together a pastiche of song fragments from two main sources: his experiences with Apple Records’ publicist Derek Taylor and his sexual desire for Yoko Ono (the gun metaphor is clearly evident when he cries “Mother Superior, jump the gun”).

Whilst the song was a challenging one to play (with a mammoth 15 hours and 95 takes devoted to it), its instrumental setup was relatively straightforward. This trend continues on Taymor’s version, where the track’s warmth increases and its complexity gets smoothed out into a languid, soulful stroll. In the film, this scene takes place in a military hospital where the blonde Joe Anderson sings along with his nurse/s, played by sexy Latina actress Salma Hayek. Although the doo-wop style “bang bang, shoot shoot” lines were probably meant in jest by Lennon, they sound quite alluring coming from a nurse providing a shellshocked solider with his ‘fix’ of morphine.

Happiness ain't a warm gun; it's five Salma Hayek's in nurse outfits

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Whilst Taymor matched the song’s sexual (and possible drug-related) subject matter with its mood, the film’s version seems a little too lumbering and half-asleep. Lacking a strong distorted guitar is one of its main downfalls; instead it gets replaced by a quiet, deep-sounding orchestral backing, and its peaks are only towards the climax, where it finally wakes up and has some decent harmonies from the vocalists. This gun is only lukewarm at best.

 

12. Blackbird

This delightful McCartney acoustic number gets a small feature in the film, with a few bars contributed by the dulcet tones of Evan Rachel Wood. Another fine choice to fit the film’s somewhat revolutionary subject matter, ‘Blackbird’ was inspired lyrically by the Civil Rights Movement in the late 60’s in the USA and melodically by a piece of music by the composer Bach, which Paul and George had learnt to play on guitar at a young age. The black ‘bird’ here refers to a black woman, ‘singing in the dead of night’, with the speaker encouraging her to ‘take these broken wings and learn to fly’; a simple and sweet metaphor that was one of McCartney more earnest ones that didn’t tend towards sappiness or superficiality.

Paul's acoustic guitar skills were on display in Blackbird

Apart from its great lyrics, the song is known for its sleek and skilfully written guitar part, requiring good technique to play and match the three different time signatures. Taymor once again goes for a bolder arrangement, focusing heavily on a respiratory-like accordion part and a barely-there guitar backing it up. Thus, the foot-tapping tempo of the original is done away with, and the mood of a rather calm song becomes even calmer.

Verdict: Taymor (Across The Universe)

Reason: One misstep I feel that the original has is the bird sounds which start around 1 minute 40 seconds in. If they were used just to close out the song, then they could’ve slotted in quite smoothly, but whilst being the sounds of an actual blackbird, they come off sounding a little too cheesy and prominent. The accordion is an inspired touch by Taymor, and its slow, droning texture adds to the sad, yet still uplifting feel of the song. Wood’s vocals again are warm, smooth and inviting; a worthy adversary to Sir Paul’s legendary pipes. The modern arrangement soars a little higher than its predecessor, but only slightly.

 

13. Hey Jude

Think of the ultimate song to cheer someone up with, and you should look no further than ‘Hey Jude’ – the McCartney sing-along ballad that has become synonymous with The Beatles’ image and plucky optimism. Originally written by him to cheer up Lennon’s young son Julian during his parent’s divorce, this piano-based anthem became, at the time, the longest single ever to top the British charts (at a boundary-pushing 7 minutes and 11 sec0nds) and remained at number 1 on the American charts for an incredible 9 weeks.

The cheerful lyrics are really front and centre on this one, and are complemented superbly by the lead piano part and the slow-building band performance. The appearance of a full orchestra for a four minute-long coda livens up preceedings, and soon arrives the iconic “na na na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey Jude” refrain – one that cements its standing in popular music. The universal quality of its lyrics make it easy to replace the name ‘Jude’ with a person in your own life, such as in the opening lines “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad/Take a sad song and make it better/Remember to let her into your heart/Then you can start to make it better”. Even McCartney toyed with the name during the writing process, switching from “Jules” (short for Julian) to something that rolled more smoothly off the tongue.

Follow this flow diagram if you forget the lyrics!

Taymor bears the weight of expectation quite admirably for a song with a status such as this, and does the inevitable ‘trimming of the fat’ (as she did with ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’). Things start off slower, climax quicker and strangely, one feels that nothing was ever left out. In the film, supporting characters are used to great effect, creating the sing-along and adding some extra…ahem… percussion to the mix! As with the original, it’s a typically bright moment and an emotional high in the narrative.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: It would be very easy in this case to say that Taymor’s version compresses what was great about the original into a shorter length, as has been seen on other songs in this soundtrack. But the original, despite its length, keeps its upbeat smile shining all the way through to completion, and that’s how it managed to be picked up and played as a single, as well as achieve the success it has achieved. Lennon summed up the group’s confidence in the song: when being told by producer George Martin that they can’t make a single that long because disc jockeys wouldn’t play it, he retorted, “They will if it’s us”.

 

14. Don’t Let Me Down

One of The Beatle’s most underrated songs, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is a personal favourite of mine. A product of the tumultuous Let It Be sessions, it bears much similarity in tone to Lennon’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, showcasing his vulnerability and desperation for Yoko Ono’s affections. Sadly, it was left off that doomed album, relegated to being a B-side to the hit ‘Get Back’.

It’s a song filled with anguish, yet it has a warm, soothing feel to it. Lennon’s vocals are strong and when paired with simple soul-baring lyrics such as “I’m in love for the first time/Don’t you know it’s going to last/It’s a love that lasts forever/It’s a love that had no past”, you get a honest and convincing look into the mind of a man well-known for his cockiness and confident persona. The rest of the band pull together during a difficult time in the band’s history to also give a powerful performance. Billy Preston, collaborating with the band on electric piano, adds to the bluesy aura and Ringo’s drumming stands out on the choruses, his loud cymbal crashes being in sync with each word.

Don't Let Me Down was on the setlist of the band's final live performance on the 30th of January 1969, which was infamously held on the rooftop of Abbey Road Studios

Taymor has another moment of vocalist match-making genius, pairing up Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy to trade lines off each other, and this time it stands very close to the original in quality. Albeit a bit less ragged and bluesy, it provides an interesting twist on the lyrical content: having two lovers sing the words to each other, and not just one-way.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Although Fuch and McCoy’s vocals are some of their most impassioned on the soundtrack, the song itself lacks the punch of original. This is mainly due to the lack of the aforementioned cymbal crashes, and Lennon’s little adlibs midway through, which make his anxious confessions seem raw and off-the-cuff. The electric piano/organ part is much more prominent in Taymor’s version though, which is a rather neat touch.

 

15. All You Need Is Love

If ‘Hey Jude’ was an anthem about optimism, then ‘All You Need Is Love’ espoused something even simpler: love. It is the song that is invariably used to sum up the band’s core message, and it comes as no surprise considering its composition.

In 1967, The Beatles were asked to participate in the world’s first televised satellite link-up. It was called Our World, and it was to be broadcast live between 25 countries worldwide. The BBC naturally chose them to be the musical flagbearers for Great Britain, and their performance would be seen by a potential audience of 400 million people! The song was very much John’s, but received the songwriting credit Lennon/McCartney, as the latter contributed a few minor ideas and adlibs. The band began recording the song the week prior to the broadcast, laying down backing tracks and other complex overdubs so that the only live features on the performance would be the vocals, bass, guitar solo, drums and orchestra.

For the historic world's first televised satellite link-up, The Beatles chose to perform All You Need Is Love, a song written specifically for the occasion

It was a nerve-wracking, history-making occasion, but everyone present took it in their stride, as famous friends of the band (who were seated in the studio at their feet) joined in for the rousing call-and-response finale. Lennon’s lyrics aimed for universal musings, with statements such as “There’s nothing you can do that you can’t be done/Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung” and “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known” being paired with the straightforward chorus giving the way forward: “All you need is love/Love is all you need”.

For a song bursting with whimsy and idealism, Taymor’s version begins on an incredibly solemn and ambient note, with Sturgess alone for a weighty 1-and-a-half minutes as he steadily emotes through the first verse and chorus. Backing vocals ghost their way into the second verse, as the song picks up the original arrangement from the second chorus till the simpler ending, removing the brash orchestral blasts and studio tomfoolery.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Unlike with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, the garish, the fun and the bizarre can and should be embraced on an anthem like this. Whilst the former channelled Lennon’s demons, this psalm of peace draws on love divine, and the communal, relaxed setting of its recording matches its subject matter perfectly. Taymor aimed for theatricality with this version (I mean, it is for a soundtrack), and produces an awe-inspiring result, but perhaps by trying so hard to be meaningful and serious, she lost sight of a key aspect of love: fun.

 

16. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

The credits begin to roll, and one of the band’s most misunderstood songs closes off the soundtrack. This lavish psychedelic daydream sat snugly in Sgt Peppers surreal cocoon, featuring multiple key changes and increasingly complicated underlying arrangement, similar to the album’s other fairground-like song ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’. Although the allusions to the drug LSD are seemingly evident, Lennon constantly stated that the main source of inspiration came from a drawing his four-year-old son Julian had drawn of his schoolfriend Lucy. The ‘strange-looking woman flying around’ in the picture was said to be ‘Lucy…in the sky with diamonds’.

Lucy Vodden (pictured at age 43), the inspiration behind the painting John's young son did at playschool, which in turn influenced John to write the famous song

Although it is quite faded, Julian Lennon's mother Cynthia has kept the original painting

With that idea in mind, Lennon began writing the dream-like song, drawing on further inspiration from the Lewis Carroll book ‘Alice In Wonderland’, and its bizarre imagery. Opening lines “Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies” lure the listener in with odd visions of unreality, before ‘a girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ is spotted, and the simple euphoric chorus kicks in, echoing the song’s title. It’s a song that managed to straddle the line between experimentation and accessibility rather carefully, and not surprisingly was one of the quickest songs to be recorded on the famed Pepper sessions.

The original is known for its drone-like, undulating verses, thanks to the Indian instrument known as a tambura, and an organ part. This is where Bono and The Edge (both from the band U2) really capture and update the sound of this song on the film version. A barely perceptible orchestra arrangement carries Bono’s signature vocals (very clear in the mix, and slightly less ethereal than Lennon’s) towards the catchy chorus, which flows better than the original but lacks McCartney’s passionate vocal harmonies.

Verdict: The Beatles

Reason: Bono definitely has the voice to carry most Beatles songs, but him and The Edge’s reworking of a song heavily reliant on atmosphere seems to drift rather monotonously and does little to brand itself. It is still a modern, great cover, but is stripped of any noticeable innovations.

 

And in the end…

The final score (for those keeping count) is:

  • Originals: 19
  • Covers: 9
  • Ties: 3

Which goes to show that, in this case, whilst the originals will trump the covers more often than not, some of the cover versions do show enough nuances and new ideas that the originals might’ve lacked. Hindsight is 20/20, I suppose, and 40-odd years of getting to know them surely will provide some interesting interpretations. It’s still a fine soundtrack nonetheless, with nary a weak song in its catalogue of covers.

When watching Across The Universe, one can feel like one is watching an extended music video, since there is an incredible amount of it crammed into its runtime. And for the more jaded of our population, it can be a bit overwhelming to see characters breaking out into song in nearly every scene. But for people that either enjoy The Beatles’ music, a good musical, or like a bit of fun in their film-viewing experiences, then Across The Universe is most definitely a trip worth taking.

It’s an adventure; a journey involving love, mystery, humour, conflict, and bizarre things to be seen and heard. It is a film that effectively distills The Beatles’ spirit, and faithfully represents the themes and messages of their music.

I hope that my review has opened your eyes and ears to both the film, and the music that inspired it, in the same way that the film did to me.

Let’s keep The Beatles’ spirit of love alive. That is all we need.

14. Lady Gaga – ‘Born This Way’ Review

It can be very difficult to see and appreciate Lady Gaga’s incredible musical talent beneath her many layers of eccentricity. A ‘fame-hooker’ in the truest sense of the term, she constantly strives to make these outrageous and extravagant fashion statements that polarize people’s opinions of her near-completely. This kind of behaviour usually leads the dismissive and uninterested types to just ignore her in perpetuity. What a shame, because when all the showboating is stripped away, it’s plain to see that Lady Gaga really knows her way around a tune. Learning piano from the age of 4, and years of experience from performing at cabaret clubs can do that to you.

Added bonus: she can play them whilst they’re on fire

It’s just that Lady Gaga to chooses to meld avant-garde performance art with her music; which for some, can be an off-putting and kitsch sideshow. With the creative Gaga juggernaut (officially known as the Haus Of Gaga) comprising of not just music, but clothing, props, stage sets, and makeup too, she is presenting a complete, saturated image to the public. With this in mind, I’ll try to focus on the musical aspects of her latest work, Born This Way, and dissect one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of the year.

Since the album’s title was revealed in September last year (as she accepted the Video of the Year at 2010 MTV Video Music Awards in that meat dress), the hype for Born This Way has been relentless. The title track’s lyrics alone (“I’m beautiful in my way/’Cause God makes no mistakes/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born this way”) were enough to garner widespread enthusiasm and praise for their positive, self-empowering attitude; the actual song only was released in February 2011, breaking sales and download records with ease.

She sang the lyrics to ‘Born This Way’ whilst accepting this award

Gaga had lofty thematic ambitions for this album, after exploring the effects of fame in her debut (The Fame), and fears in its subsequent EP (The Fame Monster). And while the song ‘Born This Way’ sums up the self-empowerment/finding one’s identity themes quite succinctly (although not subtly), the thread continues through much of the rest of the album. There’s also a restless sense of adventure that hearkens back to 70’s and 80’s American pop music, which borders on what modern ears would call cheesy. Think Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, and her idol she’s most compared to, Madonna. Musically, the album draws heavily from that synthesized era, and adds to it a 90’s sort-of equivalent in sleazy Eurodance/techno club bangers (the slow-burning bass-heavy kind). It’s a beautiful mess, yet still impeccably layered, fine-tuned and executed with an undeniable passion.

Born This Way’s ridiculous album cover of a hybrid Gaga/motor bike. Not my favourite.

This potent cocktail of relentless heavy metal-pop-disco-rave-rock pillages its way through your ears, like a roaring muscle car or motor bike (and with that metaphor in mind, the hideous album cover now makes a bit of sense). The journey begins with ‘Marry The Night’, a song where her intentions are open, honest but vulnerable – a side of Gaga not usually seen so easily. Simple, relatable lyrics of seizing the day (or rather, the night) are paired with a smooth, driving club-beat. It’s a solid start, but it’s likely to be forgotten amongst the hubbub of the rest.

The smash-hit single title track arrives next with gusto. Enough has been said of this unashamedly upbeat anthem of self-empowerment, whose sledgehammer beats drive home the best message she’s put out in her career: “Whether life’s disabilities/Left you outcast, bullied, or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today/Because baby, you were born this way”. I cannot stress  the importance of those words enough, and how much they’ll mean to her fans, and to anyone else needing to hear something positive and uplifting like that in their lives. Who cares about the accusations of her ripping off Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’? The incredible social impact of a piece of music like this from an artist of her standing (10 million followers on Twitter and the most searched-for person in the world, according to Google) should be the focus.

Things take a turn for the slightly weird in ‘Government Hooker’, a thumping, dark and sexy call-and-response critique on metaphorical ‘prostitution’ in both government and the music industry.  After an extended opera-style intro, the sleaze oozes out of every pore of the song, with a Dutch-accented man calling out instructions to her, and her repeated responses of “as long as I’m your hooker”. The line “Put your hands on me, John. F. Kennedy” is particularly biting, and draws allusions to Marilyn Monroe’s supposed affair with JFK.

Religion peers its head for the first time on the album in the mistakenly-controversial second single ‘Judas’. It stomps a lot harder than most tracks on Born This Way, and follows a lyrical path tread before in ‘LoveGame‘ and ‘Bad Romance‘ of being attracted to someone that is not good for her. It partly borrows the biblical metaphor of Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus Christ, and uses it as an analogy of betrayal and forgiveness, and how one should confront the darker problems in one’s life. Understandably, religious circles are up in arms about the use of the imagery, but Gaga has defended her decision, as well as her Christian beliefs, and this bold artistic statement, in my opinion, pays off pretty well. While not as good as the previous two mentioned, it’s still very catchy (in a love it-or-hate it sense) and brings forth some heated and varied discussions about its lyrical content.

Scenes from the ‘Judas’ music video

‘Americano’ sees her tapping into some Latino influences on this mariachi-techno-house track, where she sings about half of it in Spanish (on this album, she sings in French, German and Italian as well; an amazing feat for an English-speaking performer, let alone a popstar). It’s a bizarre, feisty and smartly-written attack on both immigration and gay marriage laws, but in terms of accessibility, it seems like a poorer version of The Fame Monster‘s ‘Alejandro‘.

Like the title track, ‘Hair’ bursts with pride and positivity, using the metaphor of one’s hair as a symbol of freedom. On an interesting side-note: it’s the first of two appearances by the original saxophonist of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band (the other is album-closer ‘The Edge Of Glory’), and his input gives the already-zesty, singing-into-your-hairbrush sing-along a jazzy overdose. ‘Scheiße‘, on a different tone, is an industrial-tinged experiment in the German language (the title is the German word for ‘shit’) and alludes to feminism and strong females.

The second half of the album is my favourite. ‘Bloody Mary’ recalls the religious imagery in a more subdued and slinky style, this time using Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most celebrated disciples (who was also a former prostitute), as the focus. The musical arrangement is fitting of such a topic, with chanting choirs, a loping beat and a sharp string section. And she achieves something she very rarely achieves: being sexy and alluring, with a dose of subtlety.

‘Bad Kids‘ amps up the fun with a slick, sunny and infinitely-danceable melody that channels Cyndi Lauper and spits out a sarcastic, sassy ode to juvenile delinquency and parental guilt. ‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’ rides out the cheerful mood with a surreal, heart-on-her-sleeve, techno-infused Bruce Springsteen tribute, involving unicorns, which somehow pays off with its earnestness.

Gaga settles into a smooth trance-influenced mood for the next two tracks: one (‘Heavy Metal Lover’) seems to nod off to sleep lyrically, as tired and uninspired fetish-themed cliches are thrown about, whilst the the other (‘Electric Chapel’) brings in an awesome guitar riff (with a solo that perhaps raises her rock credibility a few notches), clearer use of religious imagery and the persistent ominous gong of a churchbell in the distance.

And then the curveball country-rock-‘n-roll epic ballad, ‘Yoü And I’ (stylised with the umlaut because the ex-boyfriend mentioned in the song had one over the U in his name). Sampling Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ and featuring none other than Queen’s legendary guitarist Brian May as well, it’s a soulful, heartfelt love song tinged with the warmth of Midwest USA, where she sings “something about my cool Nebraska guy”. Add to it the funky backing vocals and piano, and like her other deliberately rock-inspired masterpiece ‘Speechless’, she strikes a chord that will hopefully resonate deep in the older, rock ‘n roll community.

Sporting a more toned-down look and white wardrobe whilst performing ‘Yoü And I’ live on the Today Show

The journey of Born This Way finally ends on ‘The Edge Of Glory’, the third single released thus far. Concluding the album on a similar upbeat outlook to the one of the opener, this euphoric electro-pop-opera end to this perfect pop pastiche should leave one in awe (or at least, in respect) of Lady Gaga’s massive song-crafting talent. Drawing in a wider range of influences than before and confidently welding them together with an ambitious and committed attitude, she has the ability and the support to go anywhere from here musically and succeed.

So might I suggest a retro-rock revolution, drawing on her professed influences of Queen (whose song ‘Radio Ga-Ga’ gave her her stage name), AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, Guns ‘n Roses and Black Sabbath? Perhaps an acoustic album too, showcasing her talent on piano and giving us stripped-down interpretations of her hits?

That’s how she’ll really take over music, commercially and critically. At the moment, it seems everything Gaga touches turns to gold.

Tracklisting:

  1. Marry The Night
  2. Born This Way
  3. Government Hooker
  4. Judas
  5. Americano
  6. Hair
  7. Scheiße
  8. Bloody Mary
  9. Bad Kids
  10. Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)
  11. Heavy Metal Lover
  12. Electric Chapel
  13. Yoü And I
  14. The Edge Of Glory

Release date: 23 May 2011

12. The Lonely Island – ‘Turtleneck & Chain’ Review

Over the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard at least one song by the dudes who call themselves The Lonely Island. The comedy troupe have become media sensations, primarily through the Internet, thanks to their wacky, satirical hip hop songs, such as ‘Jizz In My Pants’, ‘Like A Boss’, Emmy Award-winning ‘Dick In A Box’, and the Grammy Award-nominated ‘I’m On A Boat’. Poking fun at the genre’s cliches and creating bizarre skits are what they do best, and their second album, Turtleneck & Chain, follows a similar formula to 2009’s hilarious Incredibad: provide a truckload of laughs, and make music videos that are guaranteed to spread like wildfire over video-sharing sites, such as Youtube.

Rockin' the 'Turtleneck & Chain' on the album cover

The struggle with creating comedy skits like these is the visual aspect. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer are primarily writers for the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ TV show, and their ‘Digital Shorts’ segment for that show was the beginning of The Lonely Island’s rise to prominence. Instead of performing their skits live, they’d create music videos, posing as ‘real’ hip hop artists, or just everyday guys rapping about mundane things. The undeniably catchy songs always seemed to work best when paired with a video, and although the trend continues, many songs still work well as stand-alone parodies.

The layers of sarcasm, wit and fake machismo are a lot thicker this time round due to their increased popularity, definitely buoyed by the fact that they were nominated in an actual rap/hip hop Grammy Award category, and not a comedy one; a bit of irony not lost on them. Album-opener ‘We’re Back!’ addresses that issue head-on, where verses alternate between excessive bragging about their importance in the rap industry and…erectile dysfunction and how small and deformed their penises are, all whilst sounding like a normal mainstream hip hop song. The juxtapositioning of the subject matter is just pure genius.

The ubiquitous lead single ‘I Just Had Sex’ (featuring R&B crooner Akon) is by far the album’s highlight. Never has a song about the pure, unbridled joy of having sex ever been put down in such a catchy, awkward manner. Akon (totally in on the joke) belts out a real sing-a-long chorus, and the must-see music video features sexy Hollywood A-listers Jessica Alba and Blake Lively as Jorma and Andy’s love interests. To be honest, I must’ve watched it about 50 times, and it’s no surprise that it now has nearly 90 million views on Youtube.

Some memorable scenes from the 'I Just Had Sex' music video

The celebrity guest stars on the album really put in some great performances. Michael Bolton’s scene-stealing appearance on ‘Jack Sparrow’ will endear him to a whole new generation of younger fans, whose radar the crooner probably had no chance of ever showing up on. Previous Mother’s Day homage from 2009, ‘Motherlover’, featuring close friend of the gang Justin Timberlake, appears on this album, and it’s a well-executed slow jam and a sequel to Timberlake’s other contribution from Incredibad, ‘Dick In A Box’. The absurd premise: both him and Andy’s characters’ mothers are left unsatisfied in bed for various reasons, so why don’t they give each other’s mother the best Mother’s Day present ever? I’ll leave it up to you to work out what that present is!

Nicky Minaj, the female rap phenomenon of the past year, appears on an anthem for all the creepy guys out there (‘The Creep’), and she provides her own female viewpoint on creepiness, which in true off-the-wall Minaj style, is much the same as the guys’! The only other appearance from a legitimate rapper is Snoop Dogg on the title track, who surprisingly does not seem to be in on the joke as he sleepwalks through a repetitive, mildly humourous song. ‘After Party’, featuring Santigold on the chorus, really caught me off-guard with its somewhat-poignant lyrics and subdued electro beats. But it’s back to straight-up humour with Rihanna’s ‘Shy Ronnie 2: Ronnie & Clyde’, a decent track about a bank robber too shy to speak up in front of his forceful female accomplice. It’s quite difficult to follow without watching the music video though. Her hypnotic vocals really do sound funny uttering phrases such as “No one in the bank can hear you/Use your outside voice” and “Just imagine everyone’s naked/Uh oh!/Boner alert, he really pictured them naked”.

All the songs are roughly under 3 minutes, and some ideas work just long enough before they start getting tiring. ‘Rocky’ and ‘Trouble On Dookie Island’ are adequate narratives, but they don’t match the quality of Incredibad‘s many story-related tracks. Album-closer ‘No Homo’ takes the common phrase that heterosexual guys say to make sure they’re not coming across as gay, and amplifies the idea to ludicrous levels; one of the album’s many ‘did they just say that?’ moments.

Once again, these dudes have put together a well-written, funny album, which is what one would hope a trio of successful comedy writers would be able to do. But for them to weasel their way into popular culture with legimately-good hip hop music, which, based on the beats and manner of delivery, could pass off as anything the rap industry churns out weekly – now that’s something to be impressed by.

Just don’t take them too seriously…

Tracklisting:

  1. We’re Back!
  2. Mama
  3. I Just Had Sex (feat Akon)
  4. Jack Sparrow (feat Michael Bolton)
  5. Attracted To Us (feat Beck)
  6. Rocky
  7. My Mic (Interlude)
  8. Turtleneck & Chain (feat Snoop Dogg)
  9. Shy Ronnie 2: Ronnie & Clyde (feat Rihanna)
  10. Trouble On Dookie Island
  11. Falcor vs Atreyu (Classy Skit #1)
  12. Motherlover (feat Justin Timberlake)
  13. The Creep (feat Nicky Minaj & John Waters)
  14. Watch Me Do Me (Classy Skit #2)
  15. Threw It On The Ground
  16. Japan
  17. After Party (feat Santigold)
  18. No Homo
  19. No Homo (Outro)

Release date: 10 May 2011

10. Foo Fighters – ‘Wasting Light’ Review

After fifteen years together, the Foo Fighters have not lost any of their intensity or ability to write hit songs. On the contrary, they have upped the ante, and their seventh album Wasting Light explodes out of your speakers like a bomb just got dropped about five metres away from you.

It’s always hard to follow up on a huge success, especially when that success (2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace) earned you multiple Grammy nominations and awards, including wins for Best Rock Album and Best Hard Rock Performance for the smash-hit-single ‘The Pretender’. That album was incredibly balanced and slightly experimental (by Foo Fighters’ standards), placing them at the peak of their powers. What happens afterwards?

Dave Grohl at the V Festival, England in 2007

For Wasting Light, guitarist and lead singer Dave Grohl wanted to go back to basics. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s real after you’ve gained the ability to sell out stadiums on a fairly regular basis. He has become what most people would agree to be ‘the nicest guy in rock ‘n roll’ – melding a playful, joky persona off-stage, with a rabid, earnest and powerful one on-stage. The same could be said of his band, and the style they embody: post-grunge rock mixed with pop melodies, delivered with a tireless precision. But he felt that they needed to revisit their roots, to tap into their harder, grungier influences and just rock out, old-school style.

So, he converted his own garage at his house in Virginia into a studio and the band recorded the entire album using traditional analogue equipment (with only minor post-production done digitally).  Former guitarist Pat Smear also re-entered the picture permanently, and they roped in former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic for one track, and Nirvana’s producer Butch Vig to guide the process; and thus allowed for the closest thing to a Nirvana reunion since Kurt Cobain’s tragic death in 1994.

Wasting Light album cover

Grohl’s legacy has always been wearily-linked with Nirvana’s, and on ‘I Should’ve Known’, he pens the album’s closest attempt at a ballad, which seems to be a lament for a friend that’s killed himself. Although it doesn’t mention Kurt’s name, it may as well, with lyrics such as “I should have known that it would end this way/I should have known there was no other way/Didn’t hear your warning/Damn my heart gone deaf”. The other surviving bandmate Krist plays bass and accordion on this one, and it’s a somber, heartfelt respite from the brutal, free-wheeling chaos of the other tracks.

Every song on Wasting Light is like being caught in a cross-fire of 3 ferocious guitars (with Smear back in the mix), grinding bass, vicious drumming from the ever-entertaining Taylor Hawkins, and Grohl’s distinctive growls, wails and screams. The fact that they can capture this lightning-in-a-bottle and make it accessible to mainstream fans, as well as metalheads, just boggles my mind. Album-opener ‘Bridge Burning’ makes its intentions known right off the bat: as each guitar enters the fold one-by-one, Grohl declares with gusto “These are my famous last words!”, and the ride begins with a vengeance. Cue fist-pumping and head-banging…

Amidst the reverbs and distortion is a distinct sense of melody, and first single ‘Rope’ is a fine example of this element: the guitars are more chimy, the rhythm is more staccato-like, and it ends with a swirling climax that leaves you gasping for air only two tracks in. Hard luck, friend, the Foo’s are only just getting started with their aural assault on your ears. ‘Dear Rosemary’ continues in a similar vein, albeit with some brash pop harmonies and an almost cha-cha-like rock rhythm. Grohl gets the backing of Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould in the vocals department as well, and his gravelly voice is a great influence.

The album’s most surprising moment for me was the arrival of ‘White Limo’. They have sometimes considered dabbling with the idea of turning the volume dial up to 11, and going all-out heavy metal (Grohl has his own heavy metal side-project Probot, and has been in Queens Of Stone Age, known for their darker, metal tendencies), but never like this. This song delivers aggression and swagger in equal amounts, with thrashing riffs and Grohl literally snarling the vocals out, making it very difficult to pick out any of the lyrics in the cacophonic haze. It’s enough to leave you trembling afterwards in the foetal position.

A scene from the ridiculously-funny amateur music video of White Limo

‘Arlandria’ settles back into a more loud-soft dynamic, channelling a children’s nursery rhyme in some of the verses (believe it!), but still retaining that hardened edge to it. ‘These Days’ and ‘Back & Forth’ evoke the spirit of their magnificent early albums The Colour And The Shape and There’s Nothing Left To Lose: the former going for the gentle, yet booming, simplicity of ‘Learn To Fly’, whilst the latter settles in the catchy groove of something like ‘Monkey Wrench’ or ‘Breakout’, where fun and a sexy chorus are favoured over deep emotions. Both shine brightly here.

‘A Matter Of Time‘ bops along with a familiar crisp style that we’ve come to expect from the band, and this middle-of-the-road number slots neatly into the tail-end of the album. ‘Miss The Misery’ explictly goes for a chugging, mid-pace, stadium-sized roar, and sounds as if it was actually recorded on a gigantic stage in front of 80000 people. Next is the already-mentioned ‘I Should Have Known’, slowing things down further whilst cranking up the emotion. The curtain call finale ‘Walk’ ends matters on an undoubted high: a slow-building triumph, as Grohl begins crooning but soon screaming out the impassioned bridge as the tension builds up to a jaunty end.

Wasting Light is one hell of a ride, and definitely the Foo Fighters’ strongest album in terms of execution since 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. Like a tireless puppy wanting to play ball with you, they continue to produce workmanlike rock records, eager to impress as if each were their first. There are no real drawbacks to this album, once you’ve viewed it in the context of why it was made: they deliberately set out as a band to rock as hard as they could, and should get 10/10 just for that. Next album, we can talk about subtlely and experimentation. For now, embrace the unrelenting power of Wasting Light.

Tracklisting:

  1. Bridge Burning
  2. Rope
  3. Dear Rosemary
  4. White Limo
  5. Arlandria
  6. These Days
  7. Back & Forth
  8. A Matter Of Time
  9. Miss The Misery
  10. I Should Have Known
  11. Walk

Release date: 12 April 2011

9. South African Rock Royalty – aKING

Three albums in, and aKING have undoubtably risen to the status of princes of South Africa’s rock royalty. Balancing critical and commercial success, the boys from Bellville have toured relentlessly since their 2008 debut Dutch Courage, crafted their sound from album-to-album, and now The Red-Blooded Years is a mature and confident claim to the throne.

aKING - The Red-Blooded Years

Combining their well-known catchy rock ‘n roll/country rock style with some sonic experimentations, such as the use of keyboards and synthesizers, the new album has an amalgamation of sounds and influences, whilst still retaining that undeniable aKING vibe. This is mostly due to the unique, brooding, gritty baritoned voice of lead singer Laudo Liebenberg, who once again infuses each track with rousing bravado, passion, sincerity and even tenderness. The band also has a line-up change in the departure of rhythm guitarist Hunter Kennedy (due to his hectic work schedule being in Die Heuwels Fantasties as well). His replacement is Andrew Davenport, whose arrival must’ve prompted the band to reassess their sound, as well as the 3-month rush it took to record 2009’s Against All Odds.

aKING - SA rock royalty. New member Andrew Davenport is on the far right

In certain songs, bassist Hennie Van Halen also contributes to keyboards, and this change is immediately evident on the lengthy synth-heavy intro of album opener ‘Catch Alight’, first single ‘The Runaround’, power ballad ‘Holding On’ and soothing charmer ‘All In The Wind’. These new additions sound rather natural for the band, and they meld with their image quite smoothly. Both Andrew and Hennie contribute immensely to the backing vocals, which gives each track an added boost in the crowd-pleasing stakes.

This was particularly evident in their live show I had the good fortune of seeing at Kirstenbosch this past Sunday (3 April 2011). The band enthusiastically get into the swing of things vocally, and in my opinion, its effect is the markings of a band hitting their stride musically. Drummer Jaco ‘Snakehead’ Venter is one of the most exciting drummers to watch live, and could make a funeral dirge look like a Broadway musical the way he smashes those drums. His eager playing style makes for some seriously contagious beats emanating from behind the kit.

Rocking out at Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts (3 April 2011)

Despite the mostly upbeat demeanour in their music, aKING has always had an intriguingly dark, oftentimes sexual side to them and their lyrics. ‘Cut-Throat Tongue’ is this album’s most obvious example of that side (“Lift that cursed skirt, vicious young jackal/My confidence is coming”), but everywhere else there’s smatterings of songwriter Laudo’s angst-filled, ambigious confessions and musings. They’re the kind of lyrics that might pass over you first time round, but will soon start to resonate with you after a couple of listens. My personal favourite lines are from ‘All In The Wind’: “I don’t drink too much, just enough/To sink my teeth into the evening/And grind through the days”. Not bad for a group of primarily Afrikaans-speaking gentlemen…

The Red-Blooded Years is a thrill-ride from start to finish; something that you can come to expect from this band, whose dynamic is getting stronger and stronger with each release, adding to a bubbling melting-pot of ideas and talent. The only possible negative I can think of is the instrumental ‘The Sleeping Sound’, which finds itself tagged on as the last track. It rocks out really well, however, and closes the album in a similar ambient style to the one that ‘Catch Alight’ opens it with – a beautiful symmetry perhaps?

This is their coming of age. Long live aKING.

Tracklisting:

  1. Catch Alight
  2. The Runaround
  3. Cut-Throat Tongue And Razor
  4. Kick Me
  5. So Close
  6. Holding On
  7. All In The Wind
  8. Weak Man’s World
  9. Any Other Way
  10. First Brush
  11. Red Blooded Years
  12. The Sleeping Sound

Release date: 1 March 2011