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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Column 158 -- The Better Beatles again...

On top of everything else that's cool about this album -- its history, the music, the liner notes -- is the album artwork itself, which I've seen bring people nearly to tears recalling their youth. The art is a collage of ads for long-gone venues taken from a 1980s edition of The Omaha World-Herald. Among the venues, One Eyed Jacks, The Chicago, Shenanigans, Mr. Bill's, Miss Kitty's Saloon, Club 89, Carter Lake Warehouse and Matt's & Larry's Ranch Bowl. It's a snapshot of days gone by, just like this album. Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away...

Column 158: Better than the Beatles
A legendary band's long lost recordings resurface.

It dawned on me as I listened to their mechanical, dead-voiced interpretation of "Can't Buy Me Love" -- a reinvention of a free-wheeling love ballad into a robotic, bleating nightmare -- that there will never be another Better Beatles.

Thrust into the global consciousness for a few brief moments in the early '80s, The Better Beatles is one of the more colorful footnotes in Omaha's music history, remembered by only the tiny handful who were there. Like most of you, I'm just now learning of their existence, 26 years after their brief shining moment.

Consisting of Kurt Magnuson, Dave Nordin, Jean pSmith and Jay Rosen, The Better Beatles were four teenage punks who tried to tear down a cultural icon. Their weapon of choice was their 45-rpm interpretations of Beatles' classics "Penny Lane" and "I'm Down."

A review in Lincoln's Capital Punishment fanzine said it all: "As their name implies, they are better than the Beatles, reducing those time worn 'classics' to mechanistic rumbling. Gone are the 'Lets make love not War, everything's groovy' emotionalism of the '60s replaced by more realistic rhythms of repetition and emotionlessness. The synthesizer beats out a five-note sequence that makes up the whole song, while Kurt and Jay's instruments are barely audible. The real gem here is Jean's voice. She sings 'Penny Lane' in a stark staccato tone that is half frightening, half bored. This is the way the Beatles would sound if any of them were alive today."

Little did our heroes know that their record would get airplay all over the U.S. and beyond, including a spin by U.K. uber-tastemaker John Peel on his famous radio show. Even Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau gave the single a wizened nod.

The single was supposed to be only the beginning. The Better Beatles had recorded an entire album's worth of their New Wave anti-pop Beatles covers. But as quickly as their musical star rose, it faded. The rest of those recordings never saw the light of day. Until now.

Late last year, Oakland label Hook or Crook Records released the long lost Better Beatles recordings on a full-length album titled Mercy Beat. In addition to the single, that album includes the band's unique take on "Lady Madonna," "Baby You're a Rich Man," "Eleanor Rigby," and five more standards. You can pick up a copy at The Antiquarium record store.

Via e-mail from Berlin while on tour as the guitarist for The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Better Beatles drummer/vocalist Jay Rosen told the story of the unlikely emergence of Mercy Beat. He said the last time all four members of the band were together in the same room was the November 1981 sessions that spawned the album. "Kurt and Jean moved to Seattle right after that in Kurt's old 1964 Chevy, driving across the frozen Midwest and Northwest," Rosen said.

Shortly after the session, a few record labels were interested in releasing the material. "There was a guy at Arista Records who was planning to put the record out," Rosen said. "The only problem is, that would have taken months! That is a long time when you are 19 years old playing in bands that are together for 10 or 12 weeks."

Instead, the band put out the single on their own Woodgrain Records label. "It seems like it was a minor hit on BBC and on some West Coast stations," Rosen said. "We were getting a lot of letters from Europe, due to John Peel playing the single." But the attention was short-lived, and the band members moved on. Years went by. Al Gore invented The Internet, and the next thing you know, new reviews of the single started showing up online. One review, Rosen discovered, included a comment posted by Jean pSmith. "A few days later, I got an e-mail from her," Rosen said. "I nearly fell off my chair. I had not heard from her since 1981."

All the web chatter piqued the interest of Hook or Crook's Chris Owen, who wondered about those lost sessions. "I had the tapes, but I was not sure they would still be intact," Rosen said. "There can be problems storing magnetic tape. It can come apart the first time you play it after years go by."

But the old Radioshack reel survived, Rosen said, and he and Jean set to work putting the album together. "I only had a cassette tape that was destroyed in 1984 by Krishna Copy center in Berkley, so I had not heard most of these for 23 years," Rosen said. "I'm glad to hear them again."

Despite the time that's passed, the recordings still hold their own as a critical comment on commercialism and idol worship from a band that considered The Beatles to be "an oppressive influence."

"I knew people that were riding Big Wheels when the Beatles broke up who still worshiped them like gods," pSmith said in an interview with the band by Jay Hinman from September 2007 (which is included in the album's liner notes). "Omaha has always been slow to change, being insulated by the rest of America's conservative bulk. I felt that the adoration of the Beatles had gone on quite long enough. Better Beatles stripped the songs of their sacred status, like saying 'We're not afraid of your gods!'"

She also said that the band didn't have any other material to play, "and this is just what we pulled out of our asses."

Regardless, the record is a reminder of a time when musical icons still existed for bands to denigrate. That time is long gone.

You can also purchase the album (vinyl or CD) online from the Hook or Crook website. For authenticity's sake, I recommend the vinyl. My last question for Jay Rosen: When is the long-awaited Better Beatles reunion? "I think that question could qualify as a zinger," he said. "I'm still kind of shocked that the record is out."

--Got comments? Post 'em here.--

posted by Tim at 5:15 AM

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