This week, I try to simply enjoy the music experience without too much judgement: whether it's marveling the beginning of the stadium-concert era on the 50th anniversary of The Beatles at Shea Stadium, mellowing out to the goofball prince of indie pop-rock Mac DeMarco, or falling prey to the giddy rhythms of dance rock pioneers New Order.
- Footage of The Beatles performing at Shea Stadium in 1965 can be found in bits and pieces on Youtube. The band's official page has a video of them entering the stadium here. Also check out The Beatles Anthology video series for more fascinating clips of that performance.
- Mac DeMarco's 2015 album Another One can be downloaded from iTunes here. His April 2015 performance on Seattle's KEXP radio station is also comedy gold.
- New Order's 1983 album Low-Life can be downloaded from iTunes here.
- New Order's 1985 album Brotherhood can be downloaded from iTunes here.
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Hello everyone and welcome to yet another addition of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host The Eagle, and this week we have a bumper show for you, so let's dive right in.
For our first segment, we're analysing a pioneering moment in music history that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this week. On the 15th of August 1965, The Beatles performed a sold-out concert to approximately 56,000 people at Shea Stadium in New York City. The event was the first of its kind and never before had an artist performed to such a huge crowd. It was a catalyst and water shed for the stadium-sized live concert experience that we've come to love and sometimes loathe.
Looking back, it's almost a miracle how they managed to pull it off without any serious hitches - especially considering how rudimentary some of the event-planning measures were. The concert itself was billed as an ‘all-star show’ by promoter Sid Bernstein. He had been the original guy that broke The Beatles into the USA a year earlier, when they had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show to a combined TV audience of 73 million people. The Fab Four had also proven this selling power with two sold-out shows at the famous Carnegie Hall. And Bernstein conceived his grand idea for a stadium gig after the ticketing manager at Carnegie Hall once joked that “they should’ve booked The Beatles for thirty concerts, instead of just two”.
Still, filling an entire stadium was an absurd idea at the time. The closest historical precedent for a rock artist was the King of Rock ‘n Roll himself, Elvis Presley, on his 1957 tour of the Pacific North-West. Those small venues paled in comparison to Shea Stadium - a full-size baseball stadium, which sold out seven months before the actual concert. The world was still coming to terms with the level of hype and hysteria that Beatlemania had created, and there was a genuine concern for the safety of the band members in getting to the venue. So the stereotypically rock-star move of traveling by helicopter from the hotel to the stadium seemed perfectly justified.
By 7:35pm, several opening acts had begun the concert, including Brenda Holloway - a Motown singer - and King Curtis – a saxophone player. But when the main act emerged from the third-base dugout, what happened was equally awe-inspiring and horrifying. The mostly-teenage crowd began a roar so loud that even the police officers who'd been stationed as security are seen to block their ears in the official footage. It was utter madness; everywhere you look; you see women crying and screaming - and in some cases, fainting or passing out.
The relentless din continued into their 37-minute 12-song set on a tiny stage in the middle of the baseball diamond. They may as well have been in a Roman Coliseum. Their music was projected through the stadium’s tinny and garbled-sounding public address system, meaning that no one - including themselves - could hear what they were playing. It was a spectacle, and the band stepped up the stage banter and showmanship in front of a swarm of thousands hanging on their every movement. The band's jokester John Lennon really rose the occasion, and made frequent sarcastic remarks on the mic, including making wild gestures to fake conversation and gibberish.
Despite the immense pressure, the band still seemed to be having fun. This was particularly evident on the loose, silly rendition of ‘I’m Down’, which sees John play the organ for the first time on stage. His wild stabs at the keys like a mad scientist, causes a fit of giggles for fellow guitarist George Harrison and bassist Paul McCartney - who gives a thoroughly throaty performance on vocals. It was almost as if they had stepped back a few years into The Cavern Club in Liverpool, or the seedy night clubs of Hamburg, where they were the young, sweaty bar band, playing marathon gigs for anyone willing to listen.
Oh, how times had changed. Now they had a thin line of police officers protecting them from their own fans who were trying to break through on to the field. These sort of logistical and security concerns seem so obvious nowadays, and it's something that we take for granted in the modern stadium concert experience. But back then, organisers were dealing with these issues for the first time, and it seems that at Shea Stadium, they were woefully underprepared for a full-on stage invasion. There were no traditional stage exits: just two distant dugouts to leave the field in a hurry. There was no easy escape and one shudders to think what would've happened if Beatlemania had truly swept through the field.
Beyond crowd-control measures, much has improved since ‘The Battle Of The Shea’. The Beatles were stuck with a poor-quality, mismatched sound system that was (mimics megaphone) meant to announce baseball players’ names like this. Yeah, not a great way to convey the subtleties of your music and vocals. On the whole, modern-day live music gets projected louder and crisper than before, and sound engineering is a science in itself for stadium gigs. But in my experience, hearing an artist in a large stadium can be a sonically-disappointing and hollow experience when you strip away all the spectacle. Hey, I’m just as appreciative as the next guy to be seeing some rock ‘n roll legends live, but oftentimes inclement weather and echo-chamber acoustics play havoc with these cavernous arenas. But that's just the price of admission.
Speaking of admission, that's one thing that's gone up drastically since the heydays of the Sixties and Seventies. The average ticket price for Shea Stadium was about five US dollars, which in today's money is about 38 to 40 dollars. The adjustment for inflation is understandable, but nowadays concertgoers can be set back hundreds of dollars for just one ticket. Maybe we're getting more bang for our buck? Looking at the elaborate, gigantic stage and lighting designs - as well as tiered seating plans - it's hard not see why. This is definitely not the carefree concert experience of our parents’ - or even grandparents’, if you're young enough - generation. As it is with any large public gathering, you can expect strict security checks before you're allowed to catch a glimpse of your heroes on stage.
But if it sounds like I've been complaining for the past minute or so, I apologise, because it’s not all that bad. Artists performing in large stadiums and arenas have this rare opportunity to bring so many people together in unison. Despite the seemingly-impersonal environment, if they're really good, they'll have that ability to speak directly to the heart of someone on the fringes of the concert. Bruce Dickenson, the operatic lead singer of Iron Maiden, known for their stadium-sized prowess confirmed this in a quote in a heavy metal documentary where he said:
“My intention as a frontman is to try and find the guy who's right at the back of 30,000-capacity festival and go ‘You! Yeah, you!’, and the guy goes “Me?”, and you can do that. You can actually do that”.
But not every artist wants that responsibility and public scrutiny. Whilst concert promoters realised the profitability of these gigantic music events, The Beatles were subsequently freaked out, and the weight of Beatlemania had become a heavy toll on them. They even toyed with stopping touring entirely; something which later artists managed to do - at least just for a while.
Good examples would be the weird and wonderful Kate Bush, who stopped touring from 1979 until 2014, citing “total control of her final product” as the reasoning, as well as family commitments. This was also an issue for country superstar Garth Brooks, who from 2001 to 2009 ceased all touring and recording activities in a desire to live a better family life. Sometimes personal issues and stress prevent the artist from getting back on the road, and Michael Jackson is a good example - who from 1997 until his death in 2009 appeared in public for all the wrong reasons, and his 2009 comeback tour of 50 dates at London's O2 Arena was going to be a dramatic return. A lot of artists toy with retirement, flirting with endless farewell tours and comeback gigs. But Motley Crue, the heavy metal band from the Eighties, is getting contractually serious about stopping touring. In an attempt to retire with dignity, all the band members have signed a ‘Cessation Of Touring’ agreement, which will prevent them from touring under the Motley Crue name from 2016 onwards. Good luck gents.
As for The Beatles, they were moving into a more studio-band territory; they started to mature and pursue more different approaches to song writing. Drummer Ringo Starr also admitted in later interviews that they were getting sloppy as a band during this time, and needed a chance to flex their creative muscles. But they could barely have the ending that they wanted, on their own terms. On the 28th of August 1966, at the LA Dodgers Stadium, the crowd actually broke through the police barrier and rushed the field. Unsurprisingly, the band's final tour date was a day later at San Francisco's Candlestick Park.
Our next segment features a new release from the indie pop-rock artist Mac Demarco. He has a new mini-album out called Another One, and he refers to his latest work as a “concept album about love”.
Now to be honest, I only discovered this endearingly-goofy and odd person a couple weeks ago, thanks to a hilariously-entertaining performance on Seattle’s KEXP radio station. Very rarely do you see such chilled-out songs performed with the gusto of an arena rock band. But Mac and his group of merry men captured my attention with their wacky outfits, strong personalities, and silly senses of humour. Listening to the 25-year-old’s recorded output, however, reveals an unusually-sensitive songwriter.
He has a charming, scruffy approach to romance - sort of like the Ramones - and in his latest album, he has a breezy, bruised wistfulness to love. Another One takes a look at love that is just out of reach - whether it was doomed from the start, or its run its course. That's not to say it's pompous or has some grand narrative arc; it's just a mini-album that feels like a stop-gap in some way, only because he's such a prolific writer. Mac has continued his simple, down-to-earth approach to recording, and it’s borne him four albums in the past three years only. Another One hardly tampers with the winning formula, and hasn't got many huge innovations, but is a low-stakes great-rewards exercise.
The album was written in one week, and recorded in a week and a half at his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York. The place is hardly a rock ‘n roll haunt, and the peace and serenity he got from looking out of his bedroom window over Jamaica Bay fitted in with his seemingly-slacker persona. But Mac has slightly refined the formula, adding subtle layers of keyboards and synths to his trademark slightly-funky, jangly guitar pop. You see, he’s honed down a particular style of guitar in his past few albums, which is a sort of dreamy calypso-sounding fusion of Fifties rock ‘n roll - but even then, I'm probably doing it a disservice; you should just hear it for yourself.
He got this guitar style from tuning his strings in such a way to prevent him from being able to find the normal chord shapes. It forced him to experiment and find sounds that worked for him, and he's taken that same approach across to the keyboard or piano. He confirms this when speaking of the title track, when he says:
“This is my favourite song on the album because I'm kind of a ‘guitar player guy’. So to write songs that are all keyboard and no guitar is a new thing for me. I'm not a great piano player or anything, but I can try bang away a little bit. Sitting down at a piano to write songs, for me, is pretty interesting”.
What manifests from this is a hazy, R&B feel to the songs, with sparkling melodies - particularly in the song ‘Without Me’, which would’ve fitted nice and snug on a Seventies AM pop radio station back in the day. Speaking of the intriguing instrumentals, at the same time Mac has released a self-described “barbecue soundtrack” of instrumental-only songs called Some Other Ones. When you take these into account, you see for the first time some acoustic plucking added to the songs, such as on ‘Hachiko’ and ‘Hoso Boyo’. Don’t look at me – I didn’t come up with the names. And these little ditties do sound like a great soundtrack to your next barbeque, but Mac’s already beaten you to it, when he threw a free, impromptu barbecue listening party for his new album. And if you wanted to get a hot dog, all you needed to do was make a donation to the local food bank. For a guy that decided to give out his actual home address on the final song of his album, this is perfectly normal down-to-earth behaviour.
For our final segment, we're having a retrospective look at two back-to-back hits from the dance-rock pioneers New Order. The two albums are 1985's Low Life and the follow-up, 1986’s Brotherhood. Now I was trying to choose between them for this retrospective, but I decided to go with both, because they overlap and complement each other in a time of peak New Order in the mid-Eighties.
This was when we had the original line up of Bernard Sumner on vocals and guitar, Peter Hook on bass, Stephen Morris on drums and percussion, and Gillian Gilbert on keyboards and synthesizers. The band is very different now; from 2001, a second guitarist joined them, and in 2007, founding member Peter Hook decided to leave the band due to creative differences with Bernard Sumner. They have continued to perform under the New Order name, and with a replacement bassist, this was the line-up that I saw at the Coachella Music Festival in 2013.
They've gotten very long in the tooth since their Eighties heyday, and that's what makes the Low Life and Brotherhood albums so interesting to look back on. It's when we see New Order make the final transition from post-punk to the new genre of electronic dance-rock. You see, New Order was a band that was birthed from tragedy. The group had previously been known as Joy Division, and had released two post-punk masterpieces with their vocalist and songwriter Ian Curtis. But after Curtis’ suicide in May 1980, the group was left in disarray, both professionally and personally.
Forging on under the name ‘New Order’, the Joy Division trio added Gillian Gilbert to the mix for 1981's debut album Movement – a dark, bleak continuation of the Joy Division sound. 1983’s Power, Corruption, And Lies was where the real movement started to take place, and it contains my favourite New Order song, album-opener ‘Age Of Consent’. During this time, New Order - as it was with Joy Division - were very much a ‘singles band’, and they capitalised on the burgeoning club culture at the time with singles such as ‘Temptation’, and one of the best-selling twelve-inch vinyl records of all time, ‘Blue Monday’. Weirdly enough, they had this practice of never releasing a single from an actual album, but fortunately you can get all these singles that they released during this period on the 1987 compilation Substance.
By the release of Low Life and Brotherhood, the band had finally come into their own. The shy yet unashamed innovators had finally created music with a giddy, sugary rush that was worlds away from Joy Division's gloominess. I think a lot of this was down to the unique approach to bass by Peter Hook. Back in Joy Division, his bass-playing was throbbing and traditional, and it fitted well into their claustrophobic post-punk clatter. But in the transition between the two bands, his bass began to be played as a lead instrument, with melodies on the high strings, with a signature chorus affect. Hooky himself has said that his playing style was born out of the poor-quality bass cabinets that they were forced to use in the early years of Joy Division, where the bottom end was so bad that he couldn’t hear himself, and had to play higher notes to make his bass more pronounced in the mix.
What this translates to in the rampant creative atmosphere of New Order is that songs could have multiple basslines and sequenced effects - which became a defining characteristic of the New Order sound, and made Hooky’s bass a readily-identifiable voice in rock music. So when viewed together, these two albums play like a greatest hits - albeit with a few flops and filler; the albums aren’t perfect.
From Low Life, we have the classic ‘Love Vigilantes’, which is almost a campfire sing-along in a way - influenced by country and folk music, with multiple hooks and a breezy intro on a melodica by Sumner. Interestingly, it's one of the few New Order songs that actually started as a story, and not lyrics just to match the music. So look out for the sad yet catchy ballad of a soldier returning home from the Vietnam War to find that his wife had committed suicide. My other highlight from that album is ‘The Perfect Kiss’ - whose glossy, complex arrangement was a definite floor-filler with pulsating synths and a textbook Hooky bassline.
It's a formula that they replicated and perfected on Brotherhood, starting with the band’s break-out single in the USA, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, with its iconic sequenced-bass part. We also see a fast-paced guitar-heavy approach on ‘Weirdo’, showcasing Morris’ metronomic drum-playing. There’s even acoustic guitars on ‘As It Is When It Was’, which leads to a wonderful ‘unplugged’ feel from a band known for either spiky guitars or synthesizers. They even manage to incorporate orchestral parts without sounding forced, and it was actually during one of the many instrumental passages of ‘All Day Long’ that I nodded my head and decided “Hmm, this is gonna be the retrospective for this week”.
Any hesitation I might have for recommending these two albums would be the lyrics and vocals of Sumner, which are an obvious issue throughout the New Order catalogue. You've got to feel for him as the world's most accidental and reluctant frontman, and in the wake of Curtis’ death, it was pretty much a coin toss between him and Hooky for the lead singer role. Losing your primary songwriter can definitely change the dynamic of the band, and I think for New Order, it's always been about the music and not so much what they're saying. That's what's probably influenced some of their fervent followers, which include Pet Shop Boys, Hot Chip, and The Killers - who actually took their band name from a fake band that was in the 2001 music video for the song ‘Crystal’. With New Order, it’s just about switching off and letting the music flow through you.
Well that's about everything we have to throw at you this week. I'd like to thank you for tuning in and supporting our podcast. Please continue to like, comment, and share with anyone else who would appreciate a weekly dose of musical edutainment. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.