A companion blog to my memoir, "Sting of the Heat Bug"
I met Aaron Krerowicz quite by accident. A while back, I attended a Performer Showcase at UConn’s Torrington campus, an event sponsored by Torrington Library. It featured authors like myself, musicians, lecturers and other presenters. The idea was that librarians, museum directors, historical society folks, bookstore owners and other event planners could meet and greet the presenters, sample their wares and, hopefully, book some people for their events. One presenter was Aaron Krerowicz, author of The Beatles & The Avant-Garde, a fascinating study of how the Fab Four used innovative thinking and techniques to become perhaps the greatest cultural phenomenon of the last 50 years. Being a lifelong Beatles fan, I couldn’t resist buying his book and interviewing him. (After all, we can all use a little help from our friends!) Welcome, Aaron; step right this way!
It’s my pleasure – I’m always happy to talk Beatles!
Aaron, first of all, tell me what this book is about. What, for instance, in the Avant-Garde movement and how did it influence the Beatles?
Sure, that’s a question I get a lot. The term “avant-garde” is notoriously difficult to define because its basic gist is “cutting edge,” meaning new and innovative. But obviously what was cutting edge in the past is no longer cutting edge in the present – so it’s a definition that is constantly changing with the passage of time. For the purpose of The Beatles & The Avant-Garde, I define the term as deliberately pushing the limits of what is possible. The Beatles constantly experimented with new ways of writing and recording music, and those methods are what inspired the book.
Who or what are some avant-garde influences on the Beatles?
The most obvious avant-garde influence on the Beatles was Yoko Ono, particularly her effect on John Lennon. But even before Yoko, Paul McCartney was conducting avant-garde experiments by creating what he described as “little symphonies” inspired by avant-garde composers such as American John Cage, Italian Luciano Berio, German Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Brit Cornelius Cardew. All of those composers inspired Paul to try similar things, which occasionally leaked into Beatles recordings, such as the tape loops in “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the orchestral sound masses in “A Day in the Life.”
In addition, though to a lesser extent, George Martin and George Harrison also display avant-garde influence: Martin through his experimental recording techniques; Harrison through his album Electronic Sound.
In presenting these comparisons, I’m in no way claiming any of the Beatles to be integral to the avant-garde movement, but rather illustrating some of the behind-the-scenes influences [on] the Beatles’ recorded output.
It says here that you are one of only two professional Beatles scholars in the world. Who is the other one? And what does it mean to be a professional scholar?
I use the term “professional Beatles scholar” to mean that my Beatles research and analysis is my primary source of income. I regularly deliver educational presentations on the band throughout the USA, which provides me with… well, not very much money, but enough to pay rent and buy groceries. To my knowledge, only Mark Lewisohn and I can claim the title. That allows me to focus on my research and analysis to an extent that I couldn’t possibly maintain if I also had a 9-5 job. Certainly there are many other Beatles scholars out there, but as far as I know only two who earn their living as Beatles scholars.
You’re not old enough to have experienced Beatlemania firsthand, because the band broke up in 1970. How did you become interested in them, and what is it about them that kept your interest?
I was first exposed to the band through my father, who grew up listening to them. He was born in 1953, so he would have been approaching 11 years of age when Beatlemania hit America. When I was approaching 11, I was already familiar with and appreciative of the Beatles’ music because he constantly played them. Then while I was in grad school the remastered CDs came out. I got my hands on those recordings and began listening again, but this time with much more educated and experienced ears. It gave me my own appreciation of the music. Liking the music so much made me want to study it, and the more I studied, the more I liked, which made me study that much more. It’s a cycle that has been going strong for several years now.
What’s your favorite Beatles album, and why?
I go Abbey Road because it’s the most musically sophisticated album they ever made. Sgt. Pepper gets a lot of credit – and certainly Pepper is their cultural peak – but in strictly musical terms, no other album can match Abbey Road (though The White Album comes close).
What kind of research material did you have access to that other scholars perhaps don’t have? Have you conducted firsthand interviews with people who are, or were, close to former Beatles? What was the most surprising finding of your research?
I’m not sure I have research material that others don’t have because all I need are the recordings and books, all of which are easily found online. I’ve never interviewed anybody because the research and analysis I do doesn’t require firsthand interviews.
What I can offer that other authors can’t is accessible analysis. Some academics have conducted detailed analyses of the band’s music, but they are so technical and filled with academic jargon that most readers won’t understand it! Part of my job as a Beatles scholar is to take what is extremely compositionally sophisticated music and explain it in a way that a reader doesn’t need a bachelor’s degree in music theory to understand.
What has been surprising is just how sophisticated the Beatles’ music is. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Beatles were the equivalent of Beethoven for their time.
Ludwig may be rolling over, but I agree with you. Curiously, you omit mention of Ringo Starr when you list the “main characters,” as you put it, in the story of the Beatles and the avant-garde: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, George Martin and George Harrison. Why is that? And now that Ringo is (finally!) in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame with his fellow Beatles, has your opinion of him changed for the better?
Well, no, my opinion of Ringo hasn’t changed for the better because I still regard him very highly. I’ve heard many people claim that Ringo was just “along for the ride” throughout the Beatles’ entire career, and I don’t buy that for a second. But for the purposes of this book, there just isn’t much to talk about regarding Ringo (unlike with John, Paul, Yoko, and even George Harrison and George Martin).
One of the programs I debuted this summer is titled “Starr Time: A Celebration of Ringo Starr’s Contributions to the Beatles” [first presented on June 30, 2015, at the Polk County Library, Bolivar, MO] in which I observe and discuss Ringo’s personality, drumming, singing, and songwriting within the context of the Beatles. The ultimate conclusion is that the band couldn’t have found a better person to fill the position of Beatle drummer. Eventually I’ll turn that into a book, too!
So, Pete would not necessarily have been the “Best”! Some of the recording techniques used by the Beatles were not new, such as slowing down or speeding up the tape. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas, Don’t Be Late)” famously used it in 1958, and it probably wasn’t new even then. The Beatles used the “wind-up piano” technique of recording the piano interludes in “In My Life” and “Lovely Rita” at half speed and an octave lower and then speeding them up for the final mix to achieve a crisp, bright sound – but was this their own idea? What were a few of the truly innovative techniques used – perhaps even invented – by the Beatles?
Right. Most of those techniques were not invented by the Beatles, but they were (one of) the first to implement that kind of studio trickery in popular music contexts. And that comes mostly from their producer, George Martin, who had a history of experimental recording techniques before the Beatles ever set foot in a studio. Martin deserves credit not only for instances when he assisted the Beatles by supplying such recording techniques, but also for not overstepping his authority and instead letting his colleagues (the Beatles themselves, but also his recording engineer Geoff Emerick) find creative ways to record.
One example of something actually invented by the Beatles and the EMI staff is artificial double-tracking (ADT). Lead vocals in pop songs of the early Sixties were often recorded twice and superimposed on each other to give them more sonic presence. The Beatles used the technique extensively starting on their sophomore album, With the Beatles. But, of course, recording the same thing twice is time-consuming, so they invented ADT as a way to save time. It provided the same “thickening” of the vocals without the extra time commitment. But that’s just one of many innovative techniques. Others are detailed in the book.
By the time this blog post goes live, you will have released more Beatles literature. Tell me about them.
Yes, no rest for the weary! I have a Kindle ebook titled The Beatles: Band of the Sixties, released in April, which is a transcript of my most popular presentation – I’ve delivered it many, many times, often to capacity audiences. It is essentially an overview of my research and analysis of the group. I trace the history of the Beatles from their break-through in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960 through their break-up in 1970. Along the way, I supplement that narrative with musical and artistic analysis. So Band of the Sixties is part history and part analysis, and always easy to read. If you want to start learning about the Beatles, this is a good place to start. And you can’t beat the price: just $2.99 on Amazon.com!
The other is titled From the Shadow of JFK: The Rise of Beatlemania in America, just released in June 2015. There is a common theory that John F. Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963 paved the way for the Beatles’ popularity in early 1964. The basic logic states that Kennedy’s death made the nation sad, then the Beatles came along and made the nation happy again. I never bought into that theory until I started researching Kennedy and realized how strongly he resonated with Youth Culture of the early Sixties just as the Beatles did a few years later – it’s a connection that, rather surprisingly, no other author has ever exhausted. The basic gist of the book, then, is that the Beatles were able to replace Kennedy as a leader of Youth Culture and that helps at least partially explain the band’s meteoric rise in popularity in America.
You have a pretty busy lecture schedule, in the United States and Great Britain. On July 30, 2015, at 7 p.m., you will be in Connecticut, at the Gunn Memorial Library in Washington, talking about From the Shadow of JFK. But you are not only about the Beatles. Tell me something about your other interests and how you incorporate them into your lectures.
Well, the Beatles are my primary area of professional expertise – that’s where I contribute original observations, research, and analysis. But I also have several other “glorified hobbies” that I’ve collected over the years: I’m a huge baseball fan, and I’m particularly interested in how baseball history parallels American history. I’m also an origami enthusiast. I got really frustrated with origami instructions some years back and consequently invented a form of origami notation to facilitate the learning process. You can see pictures and download free files on my origami blog on my website. I’ve also taught seminars on piano and astronomy.
I know I must have forgotten to ask you something important. Is there something we missed?
Travel is integral to my career – I’m constantly visiting new places to present my research and programs. If you’re living in the US, I just might be coming to a location near you! My full calendar is available on my website: www.AaronKrerowicz.com/calendar. I also have a free email newsletter, sent the 20th of each month that contains all the latest news and upcoming events. You can register for that on my website, as well.
I’m also always seeking locations where I can present. Anybody reading this who is interested should contact your local library or community center and suggest they contact me. My website has a page titled “Contact.” It also has a PDF document titled “Educational Presentation Repertoire” that contains the full details, descriptions, and histories of all my programs.
How can we purchase your books?
Thanks, Aaron. Goo goo g’joob.
Yeah, yeah, yeah!