20. The Beatles - Let It Be

Fresh on the heels of "Sugar Mice" by Marillion, a song that was released as a band was breaking up, comes "Let It Be," by the Beatles, released after the band broke up.  But let's get to the real question.  In response to those who might question how only one song by The Beatles made it on this list, it's an easy answer.  Only one Beatles album, Let It Be, was released* during my lifetime (released in May 1970).  There would undoubtedly be more Beatles songs on this list if I were older, but them's the rules.  Okay, let's get on with the entry for "Let It Be."

Paul McCartney isn't your typical bass player.  He's not content to just sit back and lay the musical foundation for songs at the lower end of the sound spectrum.  Bass players are usually the guys in the band photo that look real familiar but you can't quite come up with their name.  They stand to the side of the stage, don't move around much, and usually provide solid backing vocals to go with their solid bass playing.  They're the consummate team players who do what's best for the band, sacrificing their own ego for the good of the band.  So again, Paul McCartney isn't your typical bass player.

Paul McCartney threw all conventions of the "in the background" bass player out the window.  He was the sole songwriter on many of The Beatles biggest hits.  He sang lead vocals.  He played the piano on many of their songs.  When you add in the genius of John Lennon's songwriting, it's no surprise that The Beatles are considered by most as the greatest band ever.  They quote Shakespeare on Star Trek all the time to prove that genius knows no century.  I'm just shocked that they never quoted any Beatles songs, because trust me, we'll be singing "Let It Be" in the 23rd century.  
Starting off with that simple piano refrain, Paul keeps things simple, from start to finish.  John plays a simple bass line, taking over Paul's instrument for a song.  Ringo plays some simple drums, but they're pretty prominent in the mix, so it comes through as a solid backing to the song.  Horns add a bit of punch, and the church organ gives it a bit of gravity.  George's guitar solo isn't flashy in the least, which for most guitarists is maddening.  But if it had been, it would've detracted from the song, so he made the right choice.  Although Phil Spector added his "wall of sound" production to the album version#, the song holds on to its core of simple melody with deceptively simple lyrics.

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

The "mother Mary" that Paul sings about isn't the Mother Mary (mother of Jesus), but rather Paul's own mother, Mary.  She died when he was fourteen and as any son would, he missed her terribly.  During the tense sessions around the recording of The White Album, Paul often had difficulty sleeping.  One night, however, he had a full night's sleep, where he dreamed of his mother.  It wasn't a sad dream, it was a wonderful, soothing dream.  Paul said,  "It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing 'Let It Be'."

As someone who has also lost a mother (at least I had mine for twenty years longer than Paul), I've had the same dream.  It's the one where I'm spending quality time with my Mom and don't know that she's gone.  The few lucky times I've had these dreams, they've been just mundane settings, like eating at a restaurant and then walking down the street together with my wife and family, talking and laughing.  I can close my eyes and still treasure them.  When I wake up, instead of being depressed that my reality has been shattered from the reality in those dreams, I hold those dreams dear to my heart, remembering them with fondness, not sadness.  So "Let It Be" speaks to me on a deeper level than most, I suppose.

The way Paul sings his lyrics, though, speaks to millions, not just me.  And although John Lennon didn't like the misconception that this song was talking about the other Mary and became associated with Christianity, even he had to admire the way Paul delivered the lyrics.  When a singer's story is actually his story, it's so much easier to sing it with conviction and emotion.  And that's exactly what Paul does.  With all of the times that "let it be" are in the lyrics, it gives him a chance to be vocally creative with each utterance.  It's not like Phil Collins' cookie cutter delivery of singing "One more night" twenty-six times in that song (yes, I counted).  Paul can let emotion overtake him as he sings his mantra, or can sing it with a more restrained plea.  Paul sings it as I remember my dreams, with optimistic fondness, even when things aren't going right.

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
shine until tomorrow, let it be.

When my Mom died, my night was indeed cloudy.  I grieved.  I was depressed.  I was in a dark tunnel without any light.  Luckily for me, my wife (who also loved my Mom and was grieving as well) stayed right by me and we made it to the end of the darkness together.  The light on the other side will never be as bright as the light before, but it's still light.  When tragedy strikes, you're given a choice.  It almost always plunges you into an uncertain darkness, and it's easy to just stay there, alone with your grief and sadness.  Escaping this darkness takes a monumental effort that's very difficult by yourself.  That's why many people stay there for a long time.

But there are usually people around you who want to help.  In the dark, though, you can't see them, unless you let them touch you.  Then, if you truly let them in to help, they can lead you, step by step, out of the darkness and into a new light.  Like mine, it'll never be the same, but you'll be able to get on with your life.  So if you're in your own darkness, just reach out and touch someone you trust to lead you out.  No one can promise that there won't be other tragedies and tunnels in your life, but as long as you keep working your way towards a brighter day, your life will be all the better for it.  Mine is.

*The Beatles album Let It Be was, for the most part, recorded in early 1969, before the recording and release on an entirely different album, Abbey Road.  So even though Let It Be was released almost a year later, some critics and fans belive that Abbey Road, and not Let It Be, should be considered The Beatles last album.

+So I got curious.  Who wrote what?  How the heck can you find it out if it's all Lennon/McCartney?  Well, John did a verrrrrrry long interview with UK magazine Record Mirror in 1971 where they asked him about almost every Beatles song.  Luckily for me, somebody else did most of the work, I just cleaned it up and compiled the numbers.  Of the 169 songs John talked about, he wrote 75 of them (44%).  Paul wrote 70 (42%).  They collaborated on the final 24 (14%).  That's a pretty even split. The only other bassist who beats him in songwriting productivity is The Police's Sting, who was sole composer on an astounding 67% of The Police's songs.  Including one's he co-wrote, it's a staggering 80%.  Drummer Stewart Copeland once said, "It's not that Andy (Summers, The Police's guitarist) and I didn't write songs, it's just that Sting's were the best."

#Since there was so much strife within The Beatles during this time, especially between John & Paul, there was no real agreement about how "Let It Be" should be produced and mixed.  Because of that, there are five official versions of "Let It Be" that The Beatles have released.  Check out the Wikipedia page on "Let It Be" to read more about it, if you're interested.  I found it fascinating. 

(Fun Fact #9:  Paul McCartney wrote "Let It Be" early one day.  Instead of resting on his laurels and going to see a movie, reading a book or eating a salad, McCartney decided to ride the creative wave a bit further and buckled down to continue writing.  The result?  Just another little diddy, this one called "The Long And Winding Road."  On the same stinkin' day!  Genius, indeed.)

21. Marillion - Sugar Mice

Some bands are destined to fracture.  Hell, most bands are destined to fracture.  Egos, excess, libidos, money and fame all combine to create an environment that is toxic for the long-term health of most bands.  For every Rolling Stones and U2, there are many more Beatles, Guns N Roses, Led Zeppelins and Talking Heads.  Bands just spend too much time together and have to be so gosh darned collaborative that there are too many opportunities for things to go south.  Just like Ben Franklin's idiom, "Three may keep a secret... if two of them are dead," the only way to keep band strife at bay is to be a solo artist.  That discord often times finds itself smack dab in the middle of the material that the band writes.

"Sugar Mice," by Marillion, is a song that was recorded just before that band fractured into "the band" and "the lead singer."  Fish, a giant of a Scot whose given name is Dereck Dick*, was the lead singer, lyricist, one of the songwriters.  He was the default band leader for Marillion's career, as most front men are.  The internal strife and squabbles within the band could have been smoothed over by their manager, who instead just delved the spike of division deeper.  This lead to Fish's self-medication of the depression he had about the state of the band, the rigors of constant touring and the stresses both of those heaped upon his family life.  His medicine of choice, like all good Scots, was alcohol.  On Marillion's website, they have interviews with the band about each album, so feel free to read more about Fish's side of the story (you've got to scroll down some),  Although he claims that the character in "Sugar Mice" is actually a character he created called Torch, upon reading Fish's thoughts, it's clear that he and Torch share the same barber.

"Sugar Mice" is in my mind, one of the most depressing songs ever written about normal life.  There are no serial killers or people dying in plane crashes, just a family destroyed by alcohol and apathy.  And even before a single lyric is sung, the song begins with a musical sadness.  It starts off with Steve Rothery's guitar, which evokes tremendous sadness with such simple playing.  Pete Trawavas' bass uses a digital effect to give is bass line an almost cello feel to it, augmenting the layers that give the music that melancholy feel.  The band does an amazing job of already setting the mood for Fish's lyrics.

I was flicking through the channels on the TV
On a Sunday in Milwaukee in the rain
Trying to piece together conversations
Trying to find out where to lay the blame

The song is about a man on the road, knowing he's left his family behind and trying to deal with the damage that he's done with his alcoholism.  Like many alcoholics, though, he knows exactly where the blame lies but feels powerless to do anything about it.  "You can blame it on me," Fish sings as Torch, delivering the line with such convincing resignation that it breaks your heart just listening to it.

The song amps up as Torch's self-loathing turns into anger, and the mood of the song follows suit.  You can feel the lament in Steve's guitar solo, during which I picture Torch sitting at some random bar, finishing off his whiskey as the guitar pours out his anger and regret.  Drummer Ian Mosley finally gets to let loose a bit, but his restrained drumming up till now has stayed true to the tone that "Sugar Mice" needs.  Another admirable sacrifice by a rhythm guy+.  With all of his anger expunged, the song slows down and Fish delivers, for me, the saddest verse of the song with such fragility.

Well the toughest thing that I ever did was talk to the kids on the phone
When I heard them asking questions I knew that you were all alone
Can't you understand that the government left me out of work
I just couldn't stand the looks on their faces saying, "What a jerk"

In this economy, so many men are in this position where they feel like a failure and that they're letting their family down with every passing minute.  That humiliation and sadness tears at a man's soul, leaving many to join the ranks of all the self-medicating MDs out there.  They just can't stand things any more and have resigned themselves to the fact that their failure is complete.  Fish sums that mind set up perfectly.

So if you want my address it's number one at the end of the bar
Where I sit with the broken angels clutching at straws and nursing our scars
Blame it on me, blame it on me,
Sugar mice in the rain, your daddy took a rain check

That last rain check part makes my blood boil as a father, since I'd like to think that I'd never let things get to that point with my children.  I take my duties as a father as the most serious ones I'll ever have and the thought of choosing alcohol over my children angers me.  But with the disease in full swing, combined with the stresses of no job to support the family that you promised to support, it's understandable, I guess.  The sadness of this song affected me even before I had children, and now that I have two fantastic sons, it's even more depressing to think of anyone ending up like this.

Great songs are supposed to do more than entertain you, and that's good, because there's nothing entertaining about "Sugar Mice."  What this song does doe, and it does it in spades, is make you think hard about life, responsibility, alcoholism, and family.  "Sugar Mice" isn't a summer blockbuster of a song, it's the indie Christmas film that you think about long after it's over.  Music doesn't always have to be art, but when it is, it has the ability to change people's lives.  Hopefully, the cautionary tale that is "Sugar Mice" can help some man out there on the cusp of going down the wrong path rethink things and decide what's really important.  Even though I've never been close to this actual situation, it does help reaffirm my commitment to support my family in every way that I can.  I hope it can do the same for some of you.

* I'd change my name, too, if it was Derek Dick.  I don't know if I would've picked Fish, but I'd have changed it to something non-dicky.
+ It  hasn't gone unnoticed, Ian.  Good job.

(Fun Fact #415:  Marillion holds a Guiness World Record.  No, it's not for record sales (that'd be Michael Jackson's Thriller, with 110,000,000 albums sold worldwide).  Their record is for the fastest release of a music DVD release.  A mere 63 hours after their March 17, 2003 concert at a fan convention, you could purchase the DVD Before First Light at The Record House on High Street)

(Fun Fact #63:  If you didn't grow up in the UK, chances are you have no idea what a sugar mouse is.  Basically it's the British version of the USA's Peep marshmallow chicks that you get in your Easter basket, only theirs are mice and you get them in your stocking at Christmastime.  So when Fish sings of "sugar mice in the rain," he's referring to fragility of life, that can melt away in a harsh rain.  So if you've never seen a sugar mouse (and I never had) here's a picture just for fun...)

Just in case you're on the verge of some of your own self-medication again after this post, scroll down to the end of my "Jeremy" post and give Katy Perry's "California Gurls" another whirl.  It'll make you feel better, trust me.

22. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run

There are pivotal points in the career of a musician.  Will anyone show up to my gig?  After that, it's the pursuit of the ever elusive record deal, usually cloaked in legalese that harkens back to the days of feudal lords and serfs.  Finally, you get to the point of asking if anyone is listening out there.  "Can I write that great album that everybody loves?"  There are pitfalls along the way, with countless bands and artists swallowed up by the unforgiving and unquenchable beast that is the music business.

 In early 1974, 24 year-old Bruce Springsteen was at the precipice of that last step.  People had come to his shows and liked what they heard, enough so that he landed that record deal that so many never even get a sniff of.  After two albums that resulted in lackluster sales and tepid critical response, Bruce found himself at that final threshold.  To use the ubiquitous (yet utterly appropriate) baseball metaphor, he had swung twice and missed, leaving him with two strikes and only one swing left.  If he missed again, he and his band, the E Street Band, knew they would lose their record deal and their musical lives would be, for all intents and purposes, over.  Not too much pressure, though.

Many other artists have wilted under that kind of pressure, but at 24, Springsteen decided that on his next album he was going to leave nothing in the tank.  He was swinging for the fences.  Go big or go home.  He wanted it to be perfect.  He needed it to be perfect.  If he was going to fail in the music business, it was going to be after giving it the best shot he knew how to give.  And he did.  He said in an interview, “When I did Born To Run, I thought, 'I'm going to make the greatest rock 'n' roll record ever made.”  And he may just have.  That arrogance and confidence is evident particularly in the title track.  The song “Born to Run” took him six months to finish, and instead of sounding like a tired, hashed retread that comes across like it's been overthought, there’s an excitement and freshness to it, with an abundance of energy that is so contagious that you can't help but sing along.
When you're listening to "Born to Run," it's easy to get caught up in the emotion and fast pace of the song.  In that frame of mind, it's also easy to miss the masterful musicianship that helps create that "live" feel.  The guitar starts out pretty standard, with an almost whimsical xylophone matching the melody.  The xylophone, mimicking the toy models of our youth, harkens back to simpler times where the world wasn't so complicated.  The drums pulse and the bass line matches, creating the heartbeat of the song.  Clarence Clemens' saxophone is used throughout the song as a rhythm instrument, which adds a depth to the sound of the song without making you think, "Hey, that's a freakin' sax in the background, isn't it?"  And Bruce pays Clarence back by letting him tear it loose with a sax solo instead of the stock guitar solo.  Ballsy move that pays off big time.

When you listen closely to the drum track, though, which at first sounds pretty standard, it turns out to be very intricate.  There's even been a rumor that to get a unique drum sound, Bruce had drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter play the track backwards (last beat to first), and that Bruce and producer Mike Appel then reversed in the mix.  I wish I could have found confirmation on this, but after an extensive amount of research, it remained only a rumor.  But what a cool rumor!  Much better than the one where Spock killed JFK.

As "Born to Run" transitions to the bridge, they add some flange effects, giving it a dreamlike quality.  As the bridge comes to a close, every single musician just goes nuts as they build up to, and through, the key change.  That trick of taking the song and kicking it up to the next key had been around before "Born to Run," but it had never been used as effectively.  Bruce used it to take the song to that next level that you didn't even know was there, and countless rock bands have cribbed the technique.  It's the songwriting equivalent to Spinal Tap's amps going to eleven.  If you need that extra kick, just add a key change.  Fellow Jersey natives Bon Jovi even paid homage with their own key change in "Livin' on a Prayer."

With such a strong musical base to start from, the lyrics in "Born to Run" had a high standard to reach.  Bruce nailed both sides of the equation.  The lyrics do a wonderful job of capturing the angst and restlessness of a young man who wants to do so much with his life, but has no real idea on how to do it.  He assumes the character of that headstrong greaser who's desperate to leave his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and hit the big time somewhere else - anywhere else. 

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while were young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

So many of us growing up wanted to get out of that environment and move somewhere else that would fulfill our thirst for adventure and satisfy our soul.  Bruce made you want to grow up in Jersey, even if it was to just grow up and then frantically want to leave.  Truth be told, though, for just about as many of us, that place probably doesn't exist outside of our imagination.  The "grass is greener" cliche is there for a reason - it's true most of the time.  That perfect life is an oasis that so many modern-day Don Quixotes chase.

In all honesty, some of the lyrics border on the preposterous.  When he screams out the line "just wrap your legs around these velvet rims and strap your arms around my engines," part of me wants to laugh.  It's that macho, Maxim-magazine poetry where he's trying to be the blue collar Shakespeare.  But to his fellow gearheads, it rings true.  That's how they think, where their cars are the physical manifestation of their libidos, where one is almost inseparable from the other.

But even with the over the top lyrics, there's true honest-to-goodness poetry, where he realizes that they're not going anywhere and have to live with that fact.

Together wendy we'll live with the sadness
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don't know when were gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and well walk in the sun
But 'till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run

So there our hero remains, right where he started, tilting at windmills and dreaming of a bigger, better life.  It's a tale that unfortunately rings true to too many people.  With a wisdom well beyond his years, the twenty-four year-old Bruce Springsteen did, in fact, go on to record one of the greatest records in the history of rock & roll.  And the song that took him six months to craft ended up being the one that shot him into the stratosphere of popularity and critical acclaim that he so longed for.  The song about reaching for the stars and living with the fact of falling short reversed itself in real life, ending with almost all of Bruce's dreams coming true.  It's the life that every rocker dreams of, and Bruce ended up living.

Two videos on this one.  The first is a live clip of "Born to Run" (I looked through hundreds of YouTube videos looking for one with the album version, but couldn't find it.  I highly recommend listening to the fruits of Bruce's six months of work, though, it's pretty amazing).  The second is a great video that Jimmy Fallon did for the start of the 2010 Emmys, doing the song with the cast of "Glee" (plus a few more guests.  Who knew John Hamm had that in him!)  Enjoy!

(Ironic Fact #12:  There was a movement to make "Born to Run" the official state song of New Jersey.  A song where the protagonist longs to be somewhere else...  Bruce Springsteen also had his song, "Born in the USA" appropriated by the 1984 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, using it as a patriotic flag-waving anthem.  In reality, though, the song is about a man coming back from Vietnam who is disillusioned by his government and country, longing for the simpler patriotic lifestyle of years past, but stuck in a present where he despairs over the state of his country's future.)

(Fun Fact #512: You always picture Springsteen on a guitar, rocking out like his life depended on it, but with the exception of the great opening, he wrote the majority of "Born to Run" on a piano.)