Everyone has certain “cultural blind spots”, certain gigantic pieces of pop culture that they’ve somehow managed to avoid their whole lives. Mine tend to be pretty glaring, but I don’t think any are as much the fact that I had not seen a single Star Wars film from start to finish. I’ve watched 15-minute chunks of ’em but never actually sat down to watch one. Of course my life could’ve taken that path, I had plenty of friends who were obsessed with the films but never took that leap to actually get into it myself. I believe I had plans to watch one of the “remastered” releases of the films in the theater in 1999 but they fell through. Could’ve change my whole damn life. When Phantom Menace came out I told myself it would be a cool way to get into the series – watch the prequels first and then the originals, to be one of the few who actually got to see the story in order. Then Phantom Menace got panned so hard that I figured, why bother.
That changed last weekend. Once again, Star Wars is the biggest franchise on Earth, thanks to the upcoming release of The Force Awakens. My 7-year old cousin just had a birthday party where a small local theater was rented out in order to play the original Star Wars from 1977, which was nice because it was about damn time. I have a 1 year-old boy who started fussing during the beginning, so I missed a decent chunk of the start, but still, this is about as close as I’ve been able to get. So I missed a lot of what happened on Tatooine, but then again even without having seen the movie I still know all these scenes so well. This made the whole movie surreal in a way, hearing all these names thrown around that I’ve heard a zillion times before, finally seeing the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” bit and that Death Star tunnel scene that I played through so many times on Rogue Leader for Gamecube. And of course the “Han Shot First” scene, which has (like everything Star Wars) been overblown, but it’s understandable. I mean the movie drives such a hard line between who’s good and who’s evil that it’s good to have at least one character that you can’t quite figure out, and as a result he’s the best character in the movie. Everyone else’s motives are clear as day, which I think is why kids get into this movie so much, it’s easy to follow despite throwing a lot of characters and locations at you early on.
I think that’s why the movie’s done so well, it appeals to so many different audiences and is fun without feeling overly silly, even though it really is. I can think of some modern movies that get it right, such as Guardians of the Galaxy or the various Iron Men, but in general today’s superhero/space adventure movies feel so much more serious, struggling hard to make every character a smirking, unapproachable badass that always has to be the smartest person in the room (and yeah, Downey’s Iron Man is exactly this, but at least he’s funny). In Star Wars, you’ve got Luke Skywalker as an obnoxious 21-year-old with a dorky haircut, worried about everything and constantly pointing out the obvious. For the kids watching it’s not so much “I wish I was that cool” as it is “I wish this happened to me”. And it’s also got charm, what with all the various gizmos floating around, and of course the ridiculous Cantina scene with all the puppets. I mean there’s a reason why every single aspect of this film has made its way into pop culture lore; I felt like I’ve seen the movie dozens of times before, even if I hadn’t actually seen it. And yet I couldn’t help but think, “this is it?”. It sure kept me entertained, but it’s got a number of flaws, most of all the dialogue, which is often hamfisted and flat. The age of this movie is shocking; certainly it was ahead of its time, but not by that much. It absolutely looks like an older film, with all the prosthetics, small scale models and painstaking special effects that go along with it. Which shouldn’t be surprising, but the ubiquity and continued cultural relevance of these movies make them feel like they’re still modern. As it turns out, they were relevant to the tune of four billion dollars, and that’s why Star Wars is going to continue to be a force well into the future. One day I suspect I’ll watch all the movies with my son, all nine of them, and I’ll let him decide if the original trilogy was really that much better than the prequels. My guess is that he’ll like the new trilogy best of all cuz it’s going to look the coolest, and that counts for a lot with these sorts of movies.
My musical blind spot is just as glaring, if not even more so – none other than The Freakin’ Beatles, not only the most popular group ever but also the reason several of my favorite bands exist in the first place. It just seems so boring to get into them now, sorta like deciding that the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys are your favorite team even though you live in Nebraska. There was a time when my CD budget was tight, so I always tended to lean towards acclaimed classic rock – maybe Highway 65 Revisited won’t become my favorite album ever but at least you know it’s not going to suck. But even still, to seek out The Beatles felt like giving up on finding something interesting, as there’s just nothing left to be said about them. Also, I know most of the songs anyway – my parents were fans, their music is played everywhere, and half the bands I like have covered them at some point. Also, the commercial for The Beatles 1 played so many times that when I hear those hits they segue into the next one in my brain the same way they did on the commercial. Hashtag, 90’s kid.
It’s nothing against them, really. I always figured one day when I was older I’d get into them, and lately I’ve been feeling like it’s about time. The topic came up at lunch and a friend of mine said something like, “they’re okay, but they don’t hold up so well today, I’d give ’em a 5/10”, to which I asked how many Beatles songs he could actually name (final count: 3.5, since I gave half a point for “Abbey Road”). Yes, the music is quite old and maybe all that’s good about it has been assimilated thousands of times by other musicians, but there’s a reason why they’ve placed six albums on RYM’s Top 100; to say “meh, 5/10” is nothing but the “this is overrated, maybe I haven’t really heard it, but I’m sure the music I like is a lot better” reaction. Can’t say I haven’t been there myself.
Alright, whatever, time to find out for myself. But where do you even start with these guys? They have at least half a dozen classic albums and I suspect all of them are essential. Normally I like to just go from the beginning, but for the purpose of this article I picked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, because that’s the one I recognized the most songs by, though often not played by the Beatles themselves – Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”, Cheap Trick’s “Getting Better”, Sting’s “A Day in the Life”, William Shatner’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (barf), and Bill Cosby’s “Sgt. Pepper” (double barf).
I tried to listen with a clean mind anyway, attempting to imagine myself hearing it the same way one might have 1967, but that’s impossible. After all, I’ve already heard the extent of the band’s influence spread across the past five decades, not to mention tons of covers, so going back to the source material isn’t going to blow my mind the way a lesser known album like, say, The Kinks are the Village Green Society might. What stands out about this on first listen is how chipper and kistchy the band sounds, picking out some intentionally campy chord progressions, and also filling the thing with strings, swinging horns, kazoos, animal sounds, live crowd noise, and plenty of sound effects. In fact this is more cabaret than rock n’ roll, even by Beatles standards. It is not quite the demented child’s dream that Piper at the Gates of Dawn was, but you can see where Barrett got a lot of his ideas. Of course the band (especially McCartney) are such natural songwriters that they don’t ever find themselves getting lost, which incidentally prevents anything really out there from happening. The closest they get is with Harrison’s trippy, sitar-laced “Within You Without You”, which is pretty far outside the Beatles’ comfort zone, though I feel the band tended to put a song like this on most of their albums. I’m not that clueless about them after all. Otherwise these choruses are usually strong enough to keep the tunes from flying away (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), that is if there’s anything substantial in there at all.
Whatever flaws there are in here are made up for by “A Day in the Life”, easily one of the best songs the Beatles ever wrote, so seamlessly bridging the best sides of Lennon and McCartney in a way they rarely did otherwise. I don’t really need to say much about it, but it does strike me as being most likely the most progressive pop song ever written up to that point, and in some ways it still hasn’t been surpassed. The Beatles certainly have several tunes like that (“Tomorrow Never Knows”, which still gets aped today) and I love how they tend to stick ’em at the end, leaving the audience wanting more. Indeed this album’s gotten criticism for that – why don’t the rest of the songs sound like that? To be fair most of the songs here are different from anything else on the album, which I think has contributed to its popularity in a few ways. One because there’s something for everyone, and two because it makes the disc unpredictable, as The Beatles clearly wanted to evolve into something more than the four-piece rock band they came up as. This is what sets it apart from the artpop scene of ’66-’67 – Pet Sounds, The Doors, Are You Experienced?, Blonde on Blonde and so on. Every song is its own thing.
To recap, I’ll definitely be getting a few more Beatles albums, because they really are can’t-miss prospects, and I don’t wanna be the dude who’s been blogging about music for years without hearing more than one Beatles album in full. Christ, what if they become my new favorite band? As for Star Wars, it’s great to not feel so clueless at a time like this. With a small child at home I don’t know when I’m going to get to see the new movie but I’m still excited about it in some way, if only to hear how many box office records it wound up destroying. I can’t predict the quality of the thing; I do think JJ Abrams is the man for the job, but there’s just too much to live up to, and the fact that Lucas gave it his seal of approval is worrying. It probably won’t take much to satisfy the fans anyway, given how poorly received the prequels were, and how unlikely the fact that we’d ever see a new Star Wars film seemed to be back then. I guess the least I can do is buy a ticket.