Beatles, Oscars, Grammys & Overachieving: The Best Cliché Ever, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Carl L. Hager By

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So... the awards season is over. From the Golden Globes to the Grammys, the Winter Olympics to the Oscars, it's been a long and winding road.

Among people competing for the various honors and annual awards, one of the more popular topics of conversation was: OK, let's say I am the winner—what then? Good question.

Of those who believed they deserve the recognition (which is all of them) only those who had previously received one of the honors knew that the little statue at the top of the mountain doesn't really hold more career opportunities, more money, more love or better sleep at night. But it's okay, because the real payoff is something more valuable than all those things: the admiration of your peers. After a lifetime of being ignored, denied, rejected, underpaid and invalidated, to have your hard work acknowledged at last means that you can go back to liking yourself again.

But some odd things can happen at the top of the mountain. Celebrity, for example, when the artist becomes the object of that admiration, instead of the art.

The nominees for Record of the Year at the 17th Annual Grammys ceremony held on March 1, 1975, were:

Elton John—Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
Roberta Flack—Feel Like Making Love
Joni Mitchell—Help Me
Olivia Newton-John—I Honestly Love You
Maria Muldaur—Midnight at the Oasis

Of the five nominees, only one of the songs failed to survive the 1970s. Four of the five got admitted to the big circus tent of "classic rock," which by now includes nearly any popular music (aside from gutbucket blues or straight-ahead jazz) written in 2/2, 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8 between 1955 and 2005, from jump blues to rockabilly to soul to R&B to rock & roll to folk rock to hard rock to progressive rock to grunge to whatever you call what Beck does. It includes every related musical form—from the sharpest on the edges to the smoothest in the middle—once played on AM and FM radio stations and now on their internet equivalents.

Perversely, it was that very song that history has left behind which actually won the top Grammy honors in 1975 for Record of the Year. It was the sort of marshmallow-soft confection that no one ever seems to want to claim association with in retrospect. Call it pop, short for "popular," or pop as in the sound bubblegum makes when it deflates on contact with anything solid or pointed.

Throughout the snarky improvised shtick during their 1975 presentation, John Lennon and Paul Simon heap the sarcasm and inside jokes on one and all as they read bits of forced cleverness from the cue cards. Seen through the filter of our current age's obsequious political correctness, their unscripted cynicism and snideness about the evening's proceedings can be difficult to read.

More difficult still when Lennon finally announces that "I Honestly Love You" is the winner, followed by Art Garfunkel inexplicably coming out of the audience to accept the Record of the Year Grammy for Newton-John and her producer, John Farrar. The scene feels so surreal that even Fellini would have asked for a re-write if he'd been directing the show (see backstage photo at top of first page— l. to r.: David Bowie; Art Garfunkel, holding one of the Grammys awarded to Newton- John and Farrar; Paul Simon, holding the other; Yoko Ono; John Lennon; and Roberta Flack ... it couldn't have been odder if May Pang had joined them).

It was a meeting of the Sgt. Pepper's No Love Lost Lonely Hearts Club. Garfunkel and Simon had unhappily split up an act they formed in high school, just months after releasing their Bridge Over Troubled Water, for which they eventually accepted six Grammys and sold 25 million copies (by far their most successful album).

In the same year as that notorious dissolution, 1970, John Lennon had of course sundered his famous relationship with his mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, even less amicably. And four months after bidding adieu, the most artistically and commercially successful band in history posthumously released one of their most successful albums, Let It Be.

Learning to Let It Be

On the same day when that final Beatles album hit the streets, a documentary film of the same title was released. Produced by Apple, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and filmed throughout most of January in 1969, it captures the agonies and ecstasies, the realities and unrealities, and the essential tedium of making a sound recording, warts and all. It is probably the first time anyone had ever attempted to make such a document, and it succeeded so brilliantly that no one is ever likely to do it again.

In addition to the expected scenes of songwriting, jamming, rehearsing, improvising, arguing and clowning, the filmgoer is shown the grind of the long, long hours, the ill tempers, the artistic labyrinths, the endless cigarettes and cups of tea. We get to see the dynamics of a real-live, old-fashioned working band: four people who had ridden in the back of a van along with their equipment, stacked on top of each other like cordwood in order to keep warm on the trip to Hamburg; four people who had eaten, lived and breathed the music together, non-stop, for ten years. And we are afforded the rare opportunity of peering under the surface at many of the qualities that defined the Beatles, the most uniquely gifted musicians of their generation, and how they produced music in the studio.

Paul McCartney and his charismatic personality had provided the de facto leadership of the band since manager Brian Epstein's death in 1967. Despite Epstein's strong presence and skilled management, despite the respect he commanded from all four of the Beatles, despite his intention to overcome the growing security issues and PA system difficulties, he had failed to get them to perform live for nearly a year. Indeed, after his sudden death from a drug overdose, the boys were inclined to hang it up altogether. So from that day forward, McCartney cajoled and wheedled them into carrying on, kept them moving forward one day at a time. His often pedantic approach is on full display in the film, as well as Lennon's loyal, vocal opposition and Harrison's introversion in the long shadows that those two cast, plus Starr's somewhat detached but rock-steady presence in the corner.

It was no bed of roses. Camera-shy George Harrison wanted to get rid of the cameras and forgo the whole idea of doing a film. Family man Paul McCartney slightly breached the musician's creed of protected isolation at the recording studio by having his wife and daughter drop by, probably in response to Lennon's flagrant breach of letting Yoko Ono settle down next to him as though she were a participant in the session. Ringo looks alternately disgusted and stoically resigned to it all. And for the first time a guest artist, in the person of Billy Preston, was publicly employed as a participant in a Beatles recording session, though many others had done so anonymously over the years.

Lindsay-Hogg cut out much that deserved expurgation and even more at the Beatles' request, including footage of a short period during which Harrison resigned from the band and the others discussed who to replace him with. But the band had been unraveling for some time— even happy-go-lucky Ringo had quit the band for a while the year before; Lennon would tell the others of his decision to leave the band later in September, after which McCartney would retreat to a home studio and begin quietly recording a solo album.

A few scenes that remain in the film are certainly unpleasant for the way they remind the surviving participants that those final days as a band were difficult at times. But as usual, despite all the drama and chaos, the band was as creatively engaged and exacting in their approach as ever. Lennon's later claims—that the studio tapes' substandard quality was the reason he had hired Phil Spector to do extensive post-production work on what Glyn Johns and Alan Parsons had recorded— could well be true, but from start to finish, everything in the film, from the rehearsals to those last live tunes filmed and recorded on the roof of the Abbey Road studios, documented a masterful chapter in their superb artistry. Through it all, despite drugs and disillusionment and every form of legal thievery and managerial interference known to man, they continued to set the professional standards every musician has been measured against since.

It was quite appropriate that the Beatles then received the Academy Award for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture for the outstanding music they had made for Let It Be. It was a fitting accompaniment to the Grammy they had received for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture a month earlier.

But you would never guess it, not based on the way the Beatles responded to the honors. Note the film clip here from that Grammys ceremony, an earlier Fellini-esque time capsule that captures the moment when a sneaker-shod Paul McCartney, plus wife Linda, minus Lennon and Harrison, accepts the award from... can it be?...

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