Rubber Solo or The Beatles in an Unpopular world

The Beatles, eh? What d’you make of them?

Established readers will know that the Unpopular view of The Beatles is largely in keeping with the blog’s title in being somewhat against the grain of Popular Opinion and Received Wisdom. Such a stance has always been built fairly strongly on a wilful perversity and a barely hidden desire to be obstinately obdurate and it seems to me that this is entirely as it ought to be (the murky realm of cultural appreciation/criticism being built on the foundations of subjectivity and all that). Unless of course you are an academic in which case at this point one would be compelled to remind oneself that this may not necessarily be the case and here are several examples where such is made abundantly clear. And fair play to the academics, for that aforementioned murky world is actually even more impenetrable than we ever thought possible.

But The Beatles, eh? What d’you make of them?

In recent weeks the Unpopular lens has fallen on them again and, perhaps due to Something In The Air, or perhaps due to Old Age and readying ourselves for the end of all existence, we have found ourselves mellowing our previous stance somewhat. Not by much, you understand, but possibly by just enough to be able to begrudgingly admit they were maybe Okay. That perhaps they made Some Good Records. A few. In part. In parts.

There is a strange ubiquitous quality to records by The Beatles which means that although one may approach them as ‘previously unheard’ one inevitably discovers this not to be the case. Certain songs somehow drag memories from within, often ones which are almost entirely mediated in that they are fragments of mementoes of films or television shows. Cracked out of focus snatches of scenes soundtracked by this song or that, this refrain or the other. A chorus. A chord sequence. A jingle jangle morning that comes following you. Oh no, wait, that’s Something/One Else.

Or perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it is just a peculiar echoing radar ping of Pop disorientation seeking to make sense of confusion. Or to introduce confusion to order, whichever feels more appropriate.

But The Beatles, eh? What d’you make of them?

We listened to ‘Rubber Soul’ as an ‘album’ the other week and it sounded like a lot of nonsense. This, for once in the context of an Unpopular statement about The Beatles, is not pejorative.

In The Unpopular world though, the best recordings of Beatles’ songs remain seldom if ever by The Beatles. We have lost track of the number of times we first heard a Beatles song recorded by someone else and then, on investigation of The Original Text been left utterly bemused and disorientated by the gulf between the two. Evidence based researchers at this point will be clamouring to know specific examples, to which we answer simply, ‘oh you know, This One. And That One. And That Other One.’

The specifics are not important because the thrust of this is that time becomes obfuscated. The past becomes faded, leaps to the forefront briefly to impose itself on the present and then drifts away onto another orbit where it is not seen again for another twenty years. If ever. By which time we are decaying matter in the ground or dust on the winds and…

But The Beatles, eh? What d’you make of them?

Matthew Bannister makes a great deal of them, and in turn has made a great deal out of them. We are quite sure that as a member of New Zealand band Sneaky Feelings back in the 1980s Bannister would tell us that The Beatles were a big influence on the group’s sound and songs, and whilst this may be true (and we are pretty sure he does indeed make this point in his excellent ‘Positively George Street’ book about Sneaky Feelings and ‘The Dunedin Sound’) we know at the time we would have found it irrelevant and anyway, we were hearing The Stars Of Heaven in Sneaky Feelings and in turn that meant we heard Gram Parsons and jangled Country Folk Stylings.

Bannister certainly understands that time is confused. He understands that there are more than enough facsimiles of The Beatles to last for eternity but recognises too that this is no reason not to make another. Not content to just do some versions of a few songs, however, he’s only gone and made AN ENTIRE ALBUM. It’s called ‘Rubber Solo’. Oh how we laughed (and again, in an unusual change of trajectory for Unpopular, not in a bitter, twisted and unkind way, either).

Not that the concept of making a variation on an entire Beatles album is an entirely new concept for Bannister, for he’s made one before too, with his ‘Evolver’ remodelling of, well, see if you can guess. We laughed at that one too.

Like ‘Evolver’, however, ‘Rubber Solo’ is a terrific record. Whilst we admit (through teeth only marginally less gritted than in previous years) that the foundations for this may certainly be in the quality of songwriting, credit must also be given to Bannister for his determination to push at the edges of what we might expect Beatles songs to sound like. For whilst it would be easy to either faithfully reproduce or dramatically deconstruct, Bannister instead seeks to strike a balance between the two approaches. And on the whole he succeeds, for whilst this is still clearly The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ it is also categorically Bannister’s ‘Rubber Solo’. This is how the songs go together, but not quite. Cadences shift and focus drifts. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing an older version of ourselves looking back. Strangely strange, but oddly normal, to coin a phrase from another psychedelic text.

So we have ‘If I Needed Someone’ (our personal favourite version is by Jesse Garon & The Desperadoes) doing an oddly dislocated dance, a mis-step stutter that just treads the right side of the pub-singer line. We have ’Nowhere Man’ shuffling uncomfortably along like the homeless in a once opulent cinema turned Bingo hall turned doss-house (whaddya mean that doesn’t sound like something you want to hear! What’s wrong with you?). We have ‘In My Life’ slipping over on itself, unsure of its footing, soaking itself in recognisable psych sounds but always just ever-so-slightly self-conscious, and we have ‘Run For Your Life’ as a Sweet foot-stomping Glam workout bedecked in a sparkling sequinned cloak that’s frayed at the edges and coming apart at the seams.

Best of all is the remodelling of ‘Michelle’ into an instrumental piece that blends surf guitar with fairground Suicide drum snaps before drifting off into a nether world inhabited by subtly creepy string sounds and then abruptly back again. It’s a re-imagining that places the song into a filmic soundtrack context where the movie slips from Spaghetti Western into Noir Melodrama with barely a pause for breath. The filmic suggestion is surely no coincidence for in another life Bannister has recently written a book about “the comedic stylings of NZ filmmaker Taika Waititi” and tutors in cultural theory at the Winter School of Media Arts. So, you know, he knows his stuff.

The filmic reference too is perhaps relevant, for although there was no Beatles film to accompany ‘Rubber Soul’, there is a sense of the English Surrealism that informs so much of their film escapades in the record. Bannister seems to tune into this and if the surrealist edge is muted, that’s perhaps for the best. What remains however is the vague sense of the ridiculous; the sense that this record, perhaps like The Beatles at points in their time, makes a nonsense of itself. Ultimately it is playful, irreverent, aware to its own transience and therefore its own magical and marvellous irrelevance.

‘Rubber Solo’ by One Man Bannister will be released on Powertool Records.

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