Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Beatle echoes, Simon and Garfunkel, and a festive English symphony

I recently saw some of the new documentary film about George Harrison, Living in the Material World, which was interesting and enjoyable. Coincidentally, I was reminded of the fact that all four Beatles had memorable solo records in 1970-71: George with singles such as ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘What Is Life’, John and Yoko with ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Instant Karma’, Paul with ‘Another Day’, and Ringo with ‘It Don’t Come Easy’. I thought I would mention some songs by the group Badfinger who were signed to the Apple label. Few bands had such a tragic history, as a read of their Wikipedia page will make plain. If Badfinger are unknown to you, Beatles fans should try to listen to the songs ‘Come and Get It’ (their first hit, written by McCartney), ‘No Matter What’ and ‘Day After Day’, the latter two songs being superb variations on the late 60s Beatle sound. The vocal on ‘Day After Day’ (sung by Pete Ham?) is very McCartney and the slide guitar is very much in the Harrison mould (maybe it was Harrison?).

Badfinger’s other claim to songwriting fame is that they wrote ‘Without You’ which Harry Nilsson had a huge hit with. I know of few more revealing comparisons between an original and a cover version, in terms of changed harmony and arrangement and feel. The Badfinger version seems a bit ramshackle and would never have been as bit a hit, but has its charm and may appeal to those who think Harry’s version is over-dramatic and slick.

I also watched an interesting documentary on Simon and Garfunkel. Readers of my book Inside Classic Rock Tracks will know that I hold the heretical view that ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ is not as great a song as ‘America’. But the song that stood out in the film was ‘Only Living Boy In New York’. This is one of those songs which has a strange power which seems unaccountable given the relative simplicity and undramatic nature of its materials. Partly it is a classic example of the poetry of reverb – something which has been undervalued for a long while in popular music because there has been a fashion for in-your-face dry productions (a trend Fleet Foxes bucked to great success with their debut album). The other aspect is that it is a touching song about friendship rather than romantic love. Unlike ‘You Got A Friend’ (or ‘Bridge OTW’), there is no sense that the speaker is congratulating themselves for being A Friend You Can Depend On, which lends those songs a slight whiff of egoistic self-approval. Instead, it is almost as if the singer of ‘Only Living Boy’ seems touched and startled to discover how much this friendship meant and its value.

Meanwhile, in the world of orchestral sample libraries, the chaps over at Vienna Symphonic Library continue to perform wonders in the world of computer sample music for composers such as myself, having just released an upgraded version of their software Vienna Instruments Pro with its nifty ‘auto-humanize feature’ whereby you can deliberately add a hint of mis-tuning and mis-timing to make your sampled string quartet or orchestra sound more realistic. Fantastic stuff. If you visit their website they have music examples you can listen to, including an astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring using only orchestral samples.

Christmas is fast approaching. One of the pieces of music I save for December is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.8. written when he was in his early 80s in about 1956. He added a number of bells, etc to his orchestra for this piece, making it great for winter, though it has no actual winter programme. It has many of the beauties of his music with a slightly unworldly twist here and there which is typical of his last two symphonies. I’m delighted to learn that a DVD of a performance of it from 1972 has just been released. Sir Adrian Boult was the conductor. I don’t know what the sound quality will be like but it should be worth a watch.

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