Friday, January 1, 2010

The Beatles and musical history: "Cayenne" and other instrumentals

It is often said that a rock band's live performance skills are measured by their ability to be spontaneous. This does not necessarily mean that they must know how to improvise, especially since so many great bands go without such things, but the ability to think on one's feet and cook up something great on the spot with no room for going back and fixing a mistake is, in my opinion, one of the truest tests of a musician's abilities. Even if you play a song straight, just that ounce of liveliness- as opposed to soullessly churning out a carbon copy of a previous performance- is what separates a good live band from a bad one.
Unlike other legendary bands from the '60s, such as Cream and Hendrix, The Beatles have never been known to be a jam band. This is mainly because once they became famous, they couldn't afford to play extended versions of their favorite rockers anymore, like they used to in their Hamburg days. Although unfortunately no recordings of hour-long renditions of "What'd I Say" are known to exist, a variety of unreleased recordings give us a taste of what we may be missing- although none seem to be quite as good as the stories say they were when they played live.

Of all the Beatles-penned instrumentals recorded in Paul's bathroom in the spring of 1960- which are of particular interest because they contain the only known recorded performances by Stuart Sutcliffe on bass- "Cayenne" is the only one to have a proper title. I honestly don't know where the name came from- my guess is that Paul listened to the tape during the making of Anthology and said "Oh yeah! That's 'Cayenne'." I suppose the only reason that it could be distinguished from the rest is because it's in a minor key.
It does stand out from the rest of the instrumentals for precisely that reason- while the rest are of a decidedly bluesy flavor, likely being centered around major chords and the minor pentatonic scale, "Cayenne" employs minor chords except for the V chord- making the chords i, iv, and V- while the lead guitar, curiously, uses mostly Dorian mode. It's highly unlikely that George knew this- all he knew, I'm sure, is that it sounded good. Occasionally, particularly for the V chord, he'll use a major seventh rather than a dominant seventh. At one point, he even strums a minor-major seventh-add 9 chord, which is famous for ending the James Bond theme- and Dr. No would not be released for another two years! Where he got the chord is a total mystery.
George later goes into some standard blues licks, and at one point he seems to run out of ideas and starts using the chromatic scale. It's doubtful that he knew the word "chromatic" at the time- he probably was thinking "this note is one fret away from the last".

"Cayenne" has been frequently compared to the music of The Shadows, a proto-surf band who was the most popular group in Britain at that time. The Shadows, if you haven't guessed yet, play instrumentals. It's been my experience that pre-surf instrumental rock is a curious swamp of uncertainty, because for the life of me I can't figure out where exactly it comes from! The most successful instrumental rockers before people like Dick Dale and The Ventures were Duane Eddy and Link Wray, but you're more likely to hear similarities to surf music in the music by more obscure groups like The Fireballs and The Virtues, which may possibly be what The Shadows were trying to emulate. In the end, it seems as though there were groups who worked at dance halls and normally backed singers that started playing boogie and blues riffs on their electric guitars when no vocalists were available...
Whatever the case, The Shadows were the band that everyone tried to copy for several years before Merseybeat took the throne- and it seems to have spread all over Europe, if the YouTube pages of pomesu and pmouse1 are any indication. Tape echo units, clean tones, and frequent use of one's vibrato arm was the name of the game.

In contrast, the other instrumentals recorded by The Beatles that day tend to be, as I said, much more bluesy, being of a slower tempo than your typical rock song. These are obviously completely improvised, having no repeated phrases that last for more than a few bars. Not to say that "Cayenne" lacks improvisation- quite a bit of it is made up on the spot, in fact- but there are some patterns that George reuses throughout, giving more solidity to it than any other jams recorded on this day. It's difficult to say what sort of music informed these improvised recordings, so I suspect that it's a result of learning by osmosis and not necessarily the result of the influence of any particular artist or artists.
These performances tend to have an awkward and uneven beat, showing that they are far from being the tightest band in Liverpool, as they were destined to be, and are cluttered with mistakes. Most reviewers describe these recordings as being awful, and while they are certainly the sloppiest performances The Beatles ever recorded, they are far from being the worst anyone has ever made (The Shaggs, anyone?). Once I started listening closely, I was actually surprised to hear a great number of phrases in George's lead playing that really caught my attention- they're unlike any I've heard from any other lead guitarist, and I certainly have not heard George play that way anywhere else. Oh sure, he goofs up quite a bit, but I actually intend to pick up some phrases from it for my own guitar playing!
I also admire him for trying to cover his mistakes by repeating them, to make it sound like he did it intentionally. It's rather interesting, really, to hear the sound of a guitarist who knows nothing of scales or boxes, and is only playing notes that sound good. I almost regret that he started emulating Clapton in his later years, because there is still some of that purely intuitive spark that I like in his playing in the years immediately following 1960.
Throughout these recordings you can hear Stuart struggling with- and eventually getting a grasp of- the fundamentals of rock 'n' roll electric bass. He never gets beyond thudding root notes, but he does start playing more notes per measure later on. Stu has often been called an incompetent player by the former Beatles, but some fans who knew them during his stint as the bass player say otherwise. Since Stu here is often slightly out of tune and sometimes plays offbeat, I can only conclude that he got really good at thudding root notes. After all, what good is a garage band without someone thudding the root notes?
A couple of them can't be considered true instrumentals due to the fact that Paul starts making up some bluesy words to them part of the time. It's interesting to note that Paul imitates the Woody Woodpecker laugh at the end of one of them, which was in fact made into a song in 1948, called "The Woody Woodpecker Song". Woody's laugh was created by Mel Blanc when the character first came into being. I don't know what channel on 1950s British television played Universal cartoons, but that's the most likely place The Beatles would've heard it...

The Beatles are probably just as equally unknown for their instrumentals as they are for their jamming- and they often overlap- so it may surprise some that instrumentals took up a small percentage of their repertoire in their early days. This is because the only instrumental they released during their fame was "Flying", and even that had some vocals. This wouldn't be the last time The Beatles would emulate The Shadows, as we'll find out later.

So there you have it- skiffle, rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, instrumental rock, and a hint of the blues.

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