the first beatles album — 09/24/15

Today’s encore selection — from The Beatles: Ultimate Album-by-Album Guide by Rolling Stone. In 1963, a young band called The Beatles, forged in the nightclubs of Liverpool, England and Hamburg, Germany, had become the hottest act in British music after performing the song “Please Please Me” on the nationally televised pop showcase Thank Your Lucky Stars. Long play (LP) albums were first introduced in 1948 but still infrequently used by rock groups, and soon after Lucky Stars the Beatles recorded their first LP. Unlike most albums since, which take weeks or months to record, the Beatles completed their first album in twelve grueling hours:

“At 10 in the morning on February 11th, 1963, the Beatles … gathered at Abbey Road studios in London to make a debut album. Twelve hours later, they’d done it. Of all the astonishing things about the album Please Please Me — and there are many — the most impressive may simply be the quick-and-dirty haste with which it was recorded.

“In 2011, it can take a band a dozen hours to mike the kick drum. But in a single long day — with just a £400 budget — the Beatles laid down 10 songs for their album, including some of their most indelible early performances: ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ ‘There’s a Place,’ ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret,’ ‘Baby It’s You.’ The day’s work wrapped up, sometime around 10:45, with a shirtless John Lennon roaring himself hoarse through two takes of ‘Twist and Shout.’ ‘It was amazingly cheap, no messing, just a massive effort from us,’ Paul McCartney later recalled. ‘At the end of the day, you had your album.’ 

first session at Abbey Road

“Coming into that day, the Beatles already had two singles under their belts. In October 1962, they released ‘Love Me Do,’ the blues vamp that McCartney had first dreamed up while playing hooky from school at age 16. ‘Love Me Do’ was backed with another Lennon-McCartney original, ‘P.S. I Love You,’ which offered further evidence of their precocious songwriting gifts and the sheer strangeness — the mixture of rock & roll toughness and old-fashioned tune-smithery, the weirdly beautiful vocal harmonies, the wild left turns of their chord progressions. …

“The session was a testament to the Beatles’ warhorse durability — grinding out song after song, take after take, with unflagging adrenaline. They banged through 13 takes of ‘There’s a Place,’ 12 of ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ three of ‘Anna (Go to Him).’ They nailed Ringo Starr’s vocal showpiece, ‘Boys,’ in a single take. They even made 13 passes at ‘Hold Me Tight,’ a song that was left on the cutting-room floor. When [producer George] Martin, the engineer Norman Smith and the tape operator Richard Langham piled off to a nearby pub for a lunch break, the Beatles stayed behind to rehearse. No one at the session could remember a band playing through lunch.

“Finally, just around 10 p.m., the Beatles had completed nine songs. No one was sure what to do for the final number. Someone suggested the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout,’ a barnburning fixture of the Beatles live act, with Lennon on lead vocals. Lennon was suffering from a cold; after 12 straight hours of singing, his voice was nearly shot. But he decided to give it a try. He sucked on a couple of throat lozenges, gargled a glass of milk and headed onto the studio floor. Two takes later, the album was a wrap.

” ‘The last song nearly killed me,’ Lennon said years later. ‘Every time I swallowed it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that; but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.’

“Even when frantic, the Beatles’ best was awfully good. Please Please Me is now considered a landmark. It captures the group at its scruffiest and most ‘bar band’ — it is a document, as Lennon once said, of the Beatles before they were ‘the “clever” Beatles.’ As their career took off, the Beatles got artier, more sophisticated, more visionary. But they were never purer than on Please Please Me.”


da vinci and brunelleschi failed — 9/14/15

Today’s selection — from The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. As great as it was, Renaissance Florence failed as a republic — as most Italian cities eventually did — and reverted to the control of the Medici family. One problem was military incompetence, and even Filippo Brunelleschi, builder of the legendary Duomo, and the great Leonardo da Vinci failed in their attempts to contribute to military efforts:

“The republic [of Florence] never managed to solve the problem of factionalism, endemic to all city-states except Venice. Ideal theoretical systems were incapable of preventing feuding between groups of powerful families. Thus the republic was usually in a precarious position, and in the 1430s it effectively succumbed to the Medici, as later republics did in 1512, and again in 1530. The humanists despaired at the extinction of their hopes for what seemed so irrational a reason as factionalism. …

Brunelleschi’s Dome

“One reason for the republic’s failure was its military incompetence. While its various wars against Milan may have been defensive ones, the campaigns against its Tuscan rivals were aggressive and, as it, turned out, often farcical. Humiliated repeatedly on medieval battlefields by armies from Pisa, Siena and Lucca, the republic later employed its artist-scientists to combine with its soldiers to defeat the enemy by means of ingenious engineering. Already famous for his as yet uncompleted dome, Brunelleschi was dispatched in 1430 to Lucca, where he began to divert the River Serchio so as to flood the land around the city and force it to surrender. The still more ingenious Lucchesi, however, sallied out and breached Brunelleschi’s new canal, flooding the plain in an unexpected way so that it demolished a dam built by the architect and swamped the Florentine camp. Seventy years later, a new republic tried a similar tactic, although this time the plan was to divert the River Arno away from Pisa so as to leave that city without water. The engineer employed to design the project was Leonardo da Vinci, an even more versatile figure than Brunelleschi, but his miscalculations with his canal were as embarrassing as his predecessor’s. On this occasion the waterway was destroyed not by the defenders but by a storm which collapsed its walls.

Mona Lisa

“Whatever they might say about being the heirs of Romulus, the Florentines knew they were not very good at warfare. They were too prosperous to want to fight and perhaps too individualistic to form a disciplined militia of citizens. As a result they entrusted their defense to foreign protectors (usually Neapolitan) or hired mercenaries, who were mostly brutal, expensive and unreliable. The Florentine hierarchy had a different explanation for the city’s lack of virility the rifeness of sodomy which, it claimed, corrupted and enfeebled its manhood and resulted in a low birth rate. Florence was indeed so notorious for this propensity that Florenzer became a German word for pederast. In response, the government encouraged anonymous denunciations of suspected pederasts and created special magistrates, ‘Officials of the Night’, to enforce new laws against the vice. Niccolo Machiavelli was one of those accused of sodomy, though in his case with a woman, a prostitute known as ‘Curly’.”

The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples

Author: David Gilmour
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 2011 by David Gilmour
Pages 79-80
All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.

mao’s great famine — 9/3/15

Today’s encore selection — from Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 by Frank Dikötter. During Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, which was an effort to use centralized Communist planning to vault China’s economy past those of the Western European powers, China endured one of the greatest tragedies in human history — the death of over 45 million people:
“Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain in less than fifteen years. By unleashing China’s greatest asset, a labour force that was counted in the hundreds of millions, Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors. Instead of following the Soviet model of development, which leaned heavily towards industry alone, China would ‘walk on two legs’: the peasant masses were mobilized to transform both agriculture and industry at the same time, converting a backward economy into a modern communist society of plenty for all.
“In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivized, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food, distributed by the spoonful in collective canteens according to merit, became a weapon to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. Irrigation campaigns forced up to half the villagers to work for weeks on end on giant water-conservancy projects, often far from home, without adequate food and rest. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives. …
Peasant children line up for food during the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-61
“At least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962. The term ‘famine’, or even ‘Great Famine’, is often used to describe these four to five years of the Maoist era, but the term fails to capture the many ways in which people died under radical collectivization. The blithe use of the term ‘famine’ also lends support to the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. Mass killings are not usually associated with Mao and the Great Leap Forward, and China continues to benefit from a more favourable comparison with the devastation usually associated with Cambodia or the Soviet Union. But as the fresh evidence … demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.
“Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed — amounting to at least 2.5 million people. Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. Many more vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work — and hence unable to earn their keep. People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason, by the man who wielded the ladle in the canteen. Countless people were killed indirectly through neglect, as local cadres were under pressure to focus on figures rather than on people, making sure they fulfilled the targets they were handed by the top planners.
“A vision of promised abundance not only motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history, but also inflicted unprecedented damage on agriculture, trade, industry and transportation. Pots, pans and tools were thrown into backyard furnaces to increase the country’s steel output, which was seen as one of the magic markers of progress. Livestock declined precipitously, not only because animals were slaughtered for the export market but also because they succumbed en masse to disease and hunger — despite extravagant schemes for giant piggeries that would bring meat to every table. Waste developed because raw resources and supplies were poorly allocated, and because factory bosses deliberately bent the rules to increase output. As everyone cut corners in the relentless pursuit of higher output, factories spewed out inferior goods that accumulated uncollected by railway sidings. Corruption seeped into the fabric of life, tainting everything from soy sauce to hydraulic dams. ‘The transportation system creaked to a halt before collapsing altogether, unable to cope with the demands created by a command economy. Goods worth hundreds of millions of yuan accumulated in canteens, dormitories and even on the streets, a lot of the stock simply rotting or rusting away. It would have been difficult to design a more wasteful system, one in which grain was left uncollected by dusty roads in the countryside as people foraged for roots or ate mud.”

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

Author: Frank Dikötter
Publisher: Walker Books
Copyright 2010 by Frank Dikotter
Pages ix-x
All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.
About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.