Tag Archives: The Beatles

The other half

Yoko Ono and the modern art audience

Today contemporary art is common fare for everybody from hipsters to grandparents looking for a place for a “nice cup of coffee”. It is so far into the mainstream that whilst it will on occasion stir up controversy, it is generally greeted with applause or at worst a shoulder shrug. It is part of the furniture, but it wasn’t always the case. Indeed up until the 1990’s contemporary art was still seen by many as the prerequisite for pitchforks and burning pyres.

It’s 1969 Television, the audience in the David Frost show has just had an exclusive preview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s new record Two Virgins (1969). You can hear the blue rinse drying in the studio. Yoko then hands Frost a gift, Box of smiles (1967). Frost tentatively opens the box, only to see his face reflected in a mirror.  Frost laughs and so do some of the audience. A little victory.

It’s way back in 2013 and the Yoko Ono retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney collects dozens of such victories for Ono. This is an Australian psyche changed in part by both Yoko and that other  guy John Lennon. Their notion of democratising the arts may have seemed quaint to both 1960’s art literati and tv hosts but it was a movement that actually worked. I’m here at the MCA, recovering from a broken heart and an attempt to get a free catalogue. It’s an essay of 40 years in a changing art world, its title War is over (if you want it) (1969) is an apt centrepiece. The most familiar of Yoko’s collaborations with her husband John Lennon, “War is Over” is seen in a variety of permutations. On the exhibition catalogue the text is placed against the back drop of clouds and sky.  Crimson toned bill posters illustrate the phrase on some Sydney streets. These new representations amplify the double entendre of the original’s black text on a white back ground. Cast against the motifs of heaven and faded blood, there is a sense of ambiguity. They reflect  both death and peace. Or is it just me emboldened to look a little deeper?  “It didn’t stop the war”, I can hear my old art lecturer sneer. He typified a segment of the arts establishment, who (to paraphrase John Lennon), prefer the intellectual manifestos that nobody actually reads. If Ono and Lennon did not achieve peace in their time, they arguably changed the way contemporary art is approached by audiences in mine.

Art and thinking is a great idea, but with not everyone coming from the same back ground in philosophy, history or metaphysics it can often be to a limited audience. Yoko and Lennon may very well have invented contemporary art education on the David Frost show, empowering people holistically not just to be morally aware, but culturally familiar. Today contemporary art is part of the everyday milieu. Ono’s role in this change has gone largely unrecognised. For despite the lampooning of her work over the years, Ono’s persistence has seen the public develop a way of reading her works that other artists would be envious of. You don’t need to be Lennon to see the link between Spike Milligan’s conceptual comedy of a brick wall driven at speed and Yoko’s Balance piece (1998), a large electromagnet pulling your world to the left. Both show an optimism in the face of adversity often lacking in establishment approved artists. This is not an isolated case. Both Ono and Lennon’s personal lives are better analysed than the history of Australia, yet the piece My mummy is beautiful (2004) is an interactive work that positively reinforces the role of the mother in society for everyone.

Whilst the value of Yoko’s early work fits neatly into the Robert Hughes category of “The Shock of the new”, their true value now rests in their familiarity. Apple (1966)Painting to hammer a nail (1961/1966),the Flux films Fly (1970) and Bottoms (1966-67) have been seen in hundreds of Beatles books and films in vignette form. But here witnessed in full, our knowledge acts as an icebreaker in a larger conversation. With Cut piece(1964) The original notion of who is being unveiled through the cut of scissors still exists, but like War is over (if you want it)(1969) the passage of time feeds the message back on itself. This is heightened with two filmed performances, one of the original in 1964 and a repeat in 2003. It is a dialogue between artist and public. Ono is watching us, watching her, watching us, watching her way back when. Something unimaginable 40 years ago. In 1993 when the Simpsons paid tribute with an Onoesque character ordering the beverage of a “plumb dipped in perfume served in a man’s hat”, Moe the bartender accepted the request as de rigueur.

Flash forward not from the 60’s or 90’s, but 2013 into 2017.From then to now I had to buy the catalogue from the MCA, I still have it.As for my heart other things have filled the void. As for Ono she is ironically decried today for not being “cutting edge enough”. Perhaps, but there’s a lot of miserable people in the arts.The contemporary art world owes her a debt for piquing public curiosity. Contemporary art is cool, Ono was one of the figures that made it that way. Get over it art purists. Today a lot more of us will unknowingly be tempted into the mystique, raising visitation figures and filthy lucre at the door.  P.S Don’t forget your box of smiles.

Elements of this article were printed in Artlink magazine in 2014

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Dont let me down : The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 debacle.


Public relations nightmare, cynical marketing and generally a really bad move. I am considering all these things on Christmas Day 2013. This has traditionally been A) time for me to think of a baby in a stable  and  B) to open presents related to the Beatles . At the moment it’s two Beatle shirts and a book of John Lennon letters, later on it should be The Beatles at the BBC volume two.But in the midst of all this joy I am angered by the ridiculous release on ITunes of The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963. This has been made even worse with the rumour that Universal (The Beatles current record label) are intending to release in January a collection of The Beatles US Albums.

In the case of the “Bootleg” recordings some critics have unfairly attacked the material. If you are a fan of Anthology One, you will enjoy  the historic nature of the outtakes, radio recordings and rare demos. You probably won’t enjoy the price.  Both UK and Australian fans have been slammed with charges close to circa $70 Australian. In an era of digital technology , with no liner notes and poor cover art this is akin to highway robbery. To put this into perspective I paid around $50 Australian for the original Anthology Two in 1996. Anthology Two was  the best of the anthology series featuring rare live performances and the development of Sgt Pepper. In that instance it was an old style double jewel case with liner notes and two CD’s, and I have the photographs to prove it!

Whilst I have always wanted a legitimate copy of Bad to Me, and outtakes are always fun. Not for this price. True, fans will pay high prices for real bootlegs. But this is from a legitimate source, not a dodgy geezer  wearing a plastic mac in a deserted car park on a rainy night. With a retail price markedly higher than any other single Beatles release (Including the comparable Anthology series) , the men in the mac’s or the dudes with downloads won’t go out of business just yet. Whilst the release of this material to ensure it can still be legally owned by the Beatles is  a fair case, both Dylan and the Beach Boys have arguably handled recent issues from this era with more sensitivity. Looking at the upcoming box set release of the US albums is also deceptive.  Already attempted using the original US masters in 2004/2006 by EMI but mysteriously left incomplete. This sounds really good, the package to even include the famous “butcher” cover  and Hey Jude album. However, unlike the EMI issue which remastered the original (controversial) US mixes , rumours suggest that the newer box set will be more sonic recreation from the 2009 remasters than historically accurate. If not to make money, what is the point of these releases? As a Beatles fan, I will buy good product at ridiculous prices. But not this time. If Universal continues to market The Beatles in this way, they risk seriously damaging the brand. Perhaps I’ll put  Dylan and the Beach Boys on my Christmas list next year instead.


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Please Please Me: The Beatles live at the BBC volumes one and two

There is always an auspicious entry to any part of the Beatles story. Dick Rowe famously turned them down and George Martin signed them up. That’s historic fact. Well, yes and no. There is a man called Peter Pilbeam you might like to know. He’s the BBC producer that auditioned and signed the Beatles to their radio career, beating both Rowe and Martin in the talent scout stakes. Turned down by Decca records on an infamous New Year’s Day 1962 audition, it was in February that the humble Beeb arguably gave the Beatles their first major career boost.  Pilbeam, auditioning the group, was polite and observed the Beatles “tendency to play music”, favouring John over Paul (slightly). Adding to the Beatles mythology it was the BBC that proved to be the major turning point in the boy’s love of leather smelling of the Cavern club and Hamburg beer to suits more “suitable” for performing live in a radio studio. Meanwhile, George Martin had to wait until June of that year for his role in the history books.

Signing for a series of radio programs, like most things Beatle the BBC would be a gruelling schedule demanding not only stamina but an almost unending catalogue of material. Whilst this may seem an easy task for the greatest songwriters of the 20th century it is important to note that in 1963 when the Beatles had a total of 18 recorded songs to perform the BBC still required 6 fresh performances a week during Pop go the Beatles, a total of 56 songs for that program alone. Whilst the Beatles were able to creatively juggle material recorded for singles, the Please Please me album and some of the covers on the yet to be released with the Beatles  they still managed to fill a deficit of 33 songs with covers from their Hamburg/Cavern stage act. It is this unique era that forms the basis of the Beatles BBC output.

With time at a premium, the Beatles usually performed at the BBC’s Maida vale studios. Away from the technical thrills provided by Abbey road’s two and four track tape decks, the BBC offered the simple joy of Mono recording and a few microphones. Despite this, keen engineering on the behalf of the Beeb created solid recordings. Unlike bootlegs of their Star Club performances which sound as though they were recorded via a telephone booth down the road, most of the BBC material sounds as though it could have been recorded in a live studio session today.  The Beatles at the BBC is a lot more than a curio for the completist fan. The BBC years were highly regarded by John Lennon, who is rumoured to have owned some of the first bootlegs. These were the Beatles 8 years before they first tried to Get Back and before excessive touring had taken its toll on their performances. This is the other side of Sgt Pepper, The Beatles pushing boundaries not through the use of studio trickery but as a tight 4 piece band.

The highlight of these discs are the previously unreleased cover versions. They possess a vibrancy lost on the group when they became “clever”. Treasures on the first volume include the legendary cover of the Barrett and Strong work “Some other guy”, Lennon’s vocal on “Honey Don’t”, Paul on “Clarabella” and George on “don’t ever change”. This is the Beatles, as heard in the Cavern Club not Candlestick park. It is no surprise that when originally released in 1994 this album rose to chart prominence. 20 years later volume two arrives. Deemed unlikely in 1994, volume two suggests a slightly more commerce oriented release. It’s the Beatles so it’s obviously ok, but with most of the rare performances issued on volume one we are left with more chat and originals   better served elsewhere. Universal, the Beatles new record company need not panic; I will still be purchasing Volume two at Christmas. But what has been missed is the opportunity to perhaps relegate both BBC sets to a collector’s box and issue a truly astounding, well priced single disc. Not everyone likes to gift a download, and there has to be some way to get the next generation of Beatle maniacs moving beyond the Pepper and into the grit.

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