By Frank Youngwerth
Anyone familiar with the Beatles' chronology will be puzzled by the cover artwork for their new single, "Real Love." The group photo dates from around 1965, when the average age of a Beatle was less than half of what it is today. They're smiling for the camera, as if to say, "We hope you come to see us play the next time we visit your town and that you like all 30 of the new songs we've written, recorded, and released this year." They're Brian Epstein's carefully groomed, positively charming, overworked foursome. Just one year earlier they included a Broadway show tune in their regular set.
Capitol is pushing "Real Love" as a return to Beatles innocence. The apple that once symbolized the group's own corporate might has been subverted into a heart shape to fit Capitol's sales campaign, which originally had the single slated for a Valentine's Day release. It was delayed, though, until March 5, coincidentally coming out at the same time as Yoko Ono and IMA's Rising Mixes. Predictably the two recordings don't sound a bit alike, yet they're linked by history and technology.
After leaving the Beatles, John Lennon quickly established a new musical identity based on the two loves of his life--old-fashioned rock 'n' roll and his alter ego, Yoko Ono. The new John first surfaces on the "White Album." The song "Revolution 1," a romp to the rhythm of Fats Domino's "I Hear You Knocking," had bluesy chord changes and "om-shoo-be-doo-wah" backing vocals. "Revolution 9," an experimental sound collage, introduced the avant-garde Ono to a mass audience. A similar juxtaposition of styles showed up on Live Peace in Toronto 1969, the first popular Lennon solo album, which starts off with the classics "Blue Suede Shoes," "Money," and "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" and ends with 18 minutes of chaotic wailing by Yoko. Presenting familiar oldies along with his wife's confrontational weirdness onstage and on record, Lennon wanted the public to accept both as two aspects of the same musical entity.
After withdrawing from recording and performing for five years, Lennon reemerged in 1980 with "(Just Like) Starting Over," a charming single that sounded like something from the musical Grease. It was climbing the charts when he was murdered returning home from mixing "Walking on Thin Ice," a single he hoped would build an audience for Ono's music on the new-wave dance club scene. Now, almost 16 years later, Lennon's dual musical concerns are carried on in "Real Love," whose chorus is built with chord changes that guided countless early rock classics, as well as Rising Mixes, which brings Ono together with some up-to-the-minute names on the alternative music scene.
Both projects are the result of Yoko's entrusting master tapes to various teams of remixers. The practice of remixing--changing the proportion of a recording's component tracks to create a new version--used to be done in a lockstep, conservative manner, based on the notion that original treatments were definitive. Remixing was used to adapt originals for different formats: LP or single, mono or stereo, broadcast or film. In the 80s, as dance versions of rock records gained in popularity, specialists like Arthur Baker became known for radical remixes meant to sound dramatically different, sometimes as far from the original as possible. Now it's routine for a remixer to start with just a bare vocal track from the original before building up an altogether new sonic context.
Late last year, Ono released Rising, which contained songs based on her childhood memories of Tokyo during World War II. Musical backing was provided by Sean Lennon and his band IMA. Six of their songs were remixed for Rising Mixes. The New York-based Japanese duo Cibo Matto and British trip-hopper Tricky seamlessly integrate Ono's idiosyncratic vocal style with their own eclectic approaches to sample- and rhythm-heavy pop. A standout is Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore's bizarre remix of "Rising," in which he gleefully treats Yoko's solemn pronouncements ("Listen to your heart / Respect your intuition / Make your manifestation / There's no limitation") and trademark vocal convulsions with disruptively jarring hot blasts of white noise. These efforts, plus others involving Ween and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, create an atmosphere of frenzied playfulness that would appear to clash with Rising's serious theme of a child confronted with the ravages of war. But Rising Mixes seems meant to demonstrate that contemporary rock styles have taken up where Yoko Ono was at 30 years ago.
The eager wait for a Beatles reunion was well into its third decade before finally being answered by Paul, George, and Ringo's treatments of two old Lennon work tapes. The recordings, as well as the public's response, have been characterized by tentativeness. Where something special was implicitly promised by a Beatles reunion, something merely nice has been delivered so far. The impeccable craftsmanship that went into "Free as a Bird"--nuanced slide guitar, chord changes cleverly wrung for every last drop of pathos, producer Jeff Lynne's trademark vocal harmonies--belies its lame attempt to wrest meaning from mush. Like a catchy TV commercial, it enchants as it dutifully sells, the product here being the idea that Chairman Paul still has something to say ("Where did we lose the touch / That seemed to mean so much?"). Of course he doesn't, but that won't make him a stranger to the current scene. "Real Love" has the slow-but-not-dragging tempo and straight-four feel that's crucial for radio programmers. Paul at least stays in the background, giving John's optimistic little melody room to breathe and trade off with George's thoughtful guitar counterpoint. It's guaranteed to raise a smile.
The connection between the four Beatles produced results that amazed at nearly every turn, and they gradually amassed a body of work that's taken on a life of its own, a whole that's obviously greater than the sum of its parts. The plug was pulled on the band's connection after too many blown fuses. And now after all this time, politeness and technology have combined to yield two token gestures of self-tribute, but both fall short of revitalizing a current that once rode on youthful passion.