Its name is etched into the minds of anyone who has even a passing interest in music, its cover is oft aped but never bettered and its tracks are carved in the hallowed stones of ROCK HISTORY so that everyone can come and pay due homage when called upon to do so by music magazines or telly programmes. You all know what I’m talking about: Release Me, the 1967 album by Englebert Humperdinck, containing the titular track which beat off some Liverpudlian also-rans to the top spot in the hit parade that same year.
This spring (26th May to be precise) saw the 50th anniversary of said Scousers’ answer to the groundbreaking work of Humperdinck, whose magnum opus was released a whole six days before their psychedelic hatchet job (something about a pepper joining a military band or dating app?). To commemorate being second best, the city of Liverpool curated a ‘unique festival’ bringing together local and international talent. There were thirteen events in total, one inspired by each of the tracks on the album.
On paper this is the kind of the thing that would turn Old Rope right on, though a glance at the event list and attendant prices of some left me feeling like I was in a hole in Blackburn, Lancashire rather than in the sky with diamonds.
One event immediately caught my eye, The Beatles Ragafest and Festival Village at St George’s Hall, inspired by the Pepper contribution from Liverpool’s very own canonised son George. Here is the description from the official site:
It’s the sort of culture clash that this city embraces as it can only lead to great things – so expect nothing less when Neoclassical comes up close and personal to traditional and modern Asia. In a celebration of Indian culture which drew the Beatles to India, St George’s Hall will be filled with ragas throughout the day which will see the very best Indian musicians in the world head to the Hall to perform, including the likes of Grammy Award winning musician Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Rakesh Chaurasia and Anil Srinivasan. Produced by Milapfest – Britain’s leading Indian arts development trust – expect a feast for the senses with a day of dance, music, food and yoga.
Sounds more interesting than fireworks in the park right? Well for whatever reason I didn’t go, but I did make it to George Harrison ‘Within You Without You’ The Story of The Beatles and Indian Music at the Philharmonic Hall.
The premise was to remind us of the unsung or overlooked contributions from George and, more importantly the uncredited Indian musicians who played on the track that too many people skip on Pepper. Those musicians were the late Anna Joshi and Amrit Gajjar (dilruba) along with Buddhadev Kansara (tamboura) and Natwar Soni (tabla). There’s an irony to having a Pepper tribute to Harrison as George himself was bored and not arsed for much of the album (see the quotes on this page). The significance and impact of this track alone, however, is indisputable.
“I felt we were just in the studio to make the next record, and Paul was going on about this idea of some fictitious band. That side of it didn’t really interest me. The trips to India had really opened me up…I’d been let out of the confines of the group, and it was difficult for me to come back into the sessions…It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.” -George Harrison
Along with archive photos and the story of the recording session of WYWY, this night was a tour through the music of the Beatles (and George’s songs in particular) performed by a hand-picked Liverpool-based rock band led by Thomas McConnell and an ensemble of Indian classical musicians led by Jasdeep Singh Degun (sitar) with Kirpal Singh, Pirashanna Thevarajah and Gurdain Rayatt.
For me it was kind of a bit tiring or it was a bit boring because, I mean, I had a few moments in there that I enjoyed but generally I didn’t really like that album much. My heart was still in India you know? – George Harrison
The rock band (uptight and in the corner being all Beatle-lite), though well-intentioned, competent and doubtless thrilled to be part of the event, were a bit bland, like they were designed by committee or had had the edges shaved off. The inevitable outcome for events like this or a damning indictment of contemporary ‘guitar music’? Bleeerugh! Who cares. They plodded through their bits and they were nice enough, though there was Harrison material overlooked that could have replaced Lennon/Macca tracks they played.
Meanwhile the Indian musicians, chilling the fuck out on some rugs on a raised platform on the other side of the stage) were something to behold. Their lengthy contributions were hypnotic, inspirational and helped transcend the boundaries of a Friday night orchestra hall gig with over-priced ale. The extended sitar and tabla breaks were a sight to behold. More of this sort of thing please!
The event had an ace up its sleeve in the form of a guest appearance from the surviving musicians Kansara and Soni, now in their 80s and tracked down by Dr. Mike Jones of the University of Liverpool and John Ball (a renowned tabla and santoor player) who performed a couple of traditional numbers (backed by one of their wives on tambourine). It was touching and a treat to watch, but compared to the youthful vibrant talent on display it was a bit like watching your granddad play the accordion he found in the loft and hasn’t played in years. Miaow Old Rope, don’t be mean. Sorry.
The whole night built to an incredible crescendo with a really really really long version of the song of the evening, in which all the musicians, now with the addition of the Royal Northern College’s ensemble on strings, weaved together the different strands of this compelling and complicated track (it has non-standard timing and mixes instruments with non-transferable keys, as novice Harrison brought fresh eyes to totes tradish music). It was groovy baby and I wish you’d been there. It’s rare to be on the edge of your seat at a concert (or indeed even in a seat) but this was truly captivating stuff.
Can’t wait till the 60th anniversary.
A video from the event I didn’t attend: