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Monday, September 19, 2016

Bill Harry Interviews Full-Time Beatles Music Scholar

10:07 AM Posted by Nicole M
Beatles music scholar and author Aaron Krerowicz ('Days in the Life') was recently interviewed by legendary Mersey Beat founder and Livepool native Bill Harry about his book, 'The Beatles & The Avant-Garde'. The following is reprinted here with permission from Mr. Harry himself.

                  Bill Harry.

              Aaron Krerowicz.

It is interesting to note that your Beatles research is sponsored by universities; does this entail writing in an academic style?

Only The Beatles & The Avant-Garde was sponsored by a university (the U of Hartford in Connecticut gave the university's music library $1,100 to make purchases at my request as I researched for that book). Every other project I've done has been independent - not affiliated with or subsidized by any school, store, or business.

So for that book specifically I felt a certain obligation to adopt a more academic style. Since publishing it in 2014 I've continued academic style analysis (BEATLESTUDY Volume I: Structural Analysis of Beatles Music, on schedule for publication in 2017, is an academic encyclopedia of form in Beatles songs), but I've also consciously implemented more accessible writing styles (my most recent book Days in the Life is a travelogue of my March 2016 tour, written in a purposely anti-academic tone).

I'm an academic at heart. For many years I wanted a career as a professor. But experiencing first hand all the garbage that goes on behind the scenes in academia turned me off that career path. My new career as a Beatles music scholar is an attempt to balance academic research and analysis with engaging and accessible presentation and explanation. I'm aiming for the "best of both worlds". And I'm taking a big risk in trying to strike that balance - I could easily isolate instead of engage both if I'm not careful.

It was John who said ‘Avant Garde is French for bullshit’ and in Weybridge told Cynthia that Yoko’s calls were because she wanted money for “her Avant Garde bullshit”. Was John serious or tongue-in-cheek’?

You know, Lennon's "avant-garde is French for bullshit" quote is perhaps his most famous quote on avant-garde art. Yet despite its prevalence, I have yet to find a reliable source. Many authors have quoted that sentence, but I had to remove it from my book because I couldn't cite it. (Earlier this year I received an email me asking about that quote because he wanted to use it in his own writings but also couldn't find a trustworthy source.) That of course does not necessarily mean Lennon didn't say it, but I'm not convinced he did.

The "wanting money for her avant-garde bullshit" quote, however, is reliable (Ray Coleman's biography, page 336), and so I did use that in the text.


As has been well-documented, Lennon often hid his insecurities behind a caustic tongue. Obviously deep down he was interested in Yoko and her work - he wouldn't have married her if he genuinely believed her and her work to be bullshit. So I suspect lines like "avant-garde bullshit" are his way of masking his true feelings. He didn't want to admit his interest at first to another or to himself, so he made harsh comments as a way to hide his true feelings. Eventually they came out, of course, and Yoko helped give him the courage to show who he really was.

The major figure in the book is not a Beatle, but Yoko. Could the book have progressed without mention of her work?

I'm not sure I would say Yoko is the major character, but she is one of three primary characters in the book (the other two being Paul McCartney and John Lennon).

In any case, Yoko is integral to the story. What I mean by that is that any consideration or comparison of The Beatles and the avant-garde without Yoko would be incomplete. So, no, I don't believe the book could have progressed without her.

Part of John’s early creativity was in writing and drawing, as in his Daily Howl and two books. Did Yoko’s Avant Garde participation end this direction of his talent, apart from ‘Skywriting by Word of Mouth’ which isn’t entirely typical of his early work influences?

I suppose it is accurate to say Yoko ended that more literary side of Lennon's avant-garde interests because he didn't explore that avenue much after they met, but it's a bit counter-intuitive. Kind of like how Jackie Robinson's breaking of Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947 was actually the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. Just as Robinson essentially closed the door on Negro League baseball by opening up a bigger and better door to Major League Baseball, so too Yoko closed the door on John's literary avant-garde avenues by opening up bigger and better doors to other artistic paths.

Was John being sarcastic when he described Paul, George and Ringo as “avant-garde revolutionary thinkers"?

He was famous for his sardonic and sarcastic wit, so in context of that quote, yes, I believe he was being facetious.

John and George were fascinated by the films of Alexandro Jodorosky, and John arranged for Klein to represent the filmmaker with his ‘El Topo’ movie. John then provided the finance for his next film ‘The Holy Mountain’ while George was offered the leading role in it, but was dismissed for refusing the ‘ass’ scene. I thought this would have been interesting for your book...

Well, 'El Topo' was released in 1971. By that time, Lennon's avant-garde period was waning. And 'The Holy Mountain', released in 1973, is even later and thus further removed from Lennon's avant-garde period. So it might have fit aesthetically, but not chronologically.

Paul’s ‘Fireman’ project has been described as ‘Avant Garde’, why isn’t it mentioned in the book?

That was started in 1993, I believe - well after The Beatles break-up, while my book deals with The Beatles years.

Also, Ian Peel wrote an excellent book called The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde, in which he goes into detail on Paul's post-Beatles avant-garde experimentation. It's been a few years since I've read that tome, but I'm pretty sure he deals with the Fireman project.

Since it fell outside of the chronological boundaries of the book, and since Peel had already covered it, I felt no need to include mention of it.

What is the relevance of the entries on ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’ in an Avant Garde sense?

Stylistically, 'Ballad' is NOT avant-garde - it's pretty tame, actually. But lyrically, it documents and describes many of their avant-garde explorations: the mailing of acorns to world leaders, their press conference in Vienna, the bed-ins, etc.

And 'Give Peace A Chance' is significant because, as I wrote towards the book's conclusion, the song "represents a turning point in John's artistic production - the beginning of the end of his avant-garde period. ... Instead of musical emphasis, many of his subsequent songs placed emphasis on extra-musical aspects, such as the political overtones of 'Give Peace A Chance'." So instead of worrying about psychedelic or avant-garde aesthetics, John instead embraced more accessible styles because those styles engaged more people, thus bringing more fans to his call for universal pacifism.

Images enhancing the Avant Garde items mentioned would have been worthwhile. Was their absence due to the fact that images are now getting too expensive for authors and publishers to afford?

I purposely avoided reproducing copyrighted material as much as possible - the images you describe included. But I also made a point of writing in the preface, "I encourage all who read this tome to take the time to listen to the music references (and, for that matter, to observe the extra-musical art referenced, such as the painting and poetry) to help complete understanding."

With this definition: “Avant-garde music may be distinguished from experimental music by the fact that it adopts an extreme position within a certain tradition, whereas "experimental music" lies outside tradition,” does your definition still apply to the Beatles experimental music?

As I wrote in the book, it's impossible to conclusively define the definition of "avant-garde" for the very reason that what was innovative or "cutting edge" last year/decade/century is no longer so at present. As soon as you decide on a definition, an artist will create something that defies that definition. It's constantly changing, like trying to hit a moving target.

For the purposes of my book, I consciously adopted an open-ended definition of "art [that] deliberately breaks with both traditional and contemporary art." In other words, art that is trying to be new and innovative in unconventional ways.

So a distinction between "avant-garde" and "experimental" seems to be somewhat contrived and arbitrary. I've used the terms interchangeably for years.

What do you think is the best Avant Garde work by John and Yoko, and their worst?

I've always been fond of Yoko's White Chess Set, in which opponents play the game on an all-white board and using all-white characters. As the game progress, it becomes more and more difficult to remember which characters are yours and which are your opponents. The ultimate statement is that of pacifism - that conflict is futile and self-defeating. And that theme would reappear even more strongly in her work with John Lennon.

Of their collaborations, I find 'Revolution 9' (actually a Lennon/Ono composition even though it's credited Lennon/McCartney) to be their most substantial. Far from being "random" (as so many have criticized), it has a fascinating three-part structure: After the introduction (0:00-0:24), the first part (0:24-4:59) features a gradual build-up in intensity. Sound effects such as women laughing (1:44-1:47, 1:51-1:54), baby noises (1:56-2:11), playground children (3:28-3:39), and shouts of “alright!” (4:14-4:15) establish a calm character. In general throughout the section, the density (the number of simultaneous sounds) increases, building tension until we reach...
            The second section (4:59-6:39) is characterized by greater intensity and more bombastic sounds. This represents that “violent revolution” Lennon spoke of when describing this piece. It is marked by a dramatic burst of loud static at 4:59. Low D and high A pedal tones add a menacing tonal quality. Other sound effects such as fire crackling (5:43-5:50), crowds shouting (5:11-5:17, 5:26-5:33, 6:10-6:16) and the shooting of guns and lasers (5:52-6:17) help provide an intimidating and unsettling atmosphere. But by the end of this section, the violence has diminished. Clips of children playing (6:38-6:52) and the return of the familiar “number nine” refrain (6:31-6:38) and B minor piano waltz (6:40-6:47) from the introduction help reestablish order and lead to...
            The third section (Part C, 6:52-7:54) is the shortest and features a return to normalcy after the violent revolution subsides. Significantly, the voice of Yoko Ono is heard only in this third and final section. If we interpret this autobiographically (and there's no evidence - much less any guarantee - that Lennon intended that to be the case), then it's as if John has survived the chaos ("it'll be alright") and his reward for making it through all the craziness is the love of his life. Indeed, she's heard almost constantly throughout that concluding section.
            The coda (7:54-8:21) reprises the crowd shouting heard earlier in the second section. It is as if that violent revolution has not been forgotten, and the threat of another is lurking.
            All of this makes for a compelling piece of music.

On the other hand, I don't find their projects from the very late 60s and very early 70s to be compelling - like the films Up Your Legs Forever (1970) or Self Portrait (1969) and the "Live Jam" with Frank Zappa (recorded 6 June 1971 and released as part of their 1972 album Some Time In New York City) - because they rehash old ideas without adding much that's new. And that defeats the whole point of being "avant-garde"! They seem shallow, one-dimensional - nowhere near the depth of 'Revolution 9'.

Paul was influenced by his counter culture friends in the Sixties, but did his interest wane with the passage of time?

Yes and no.

In the late 60s, as Lennon and Ono embraced avant-garde aesthetics, Paul certainly withdrew.

But after the Beatles' break-up, after John and Yoko retreated from avant-garde styles to more accessible production, Paul came back to experimental art. Again, my book covers only through and slightly beyond The Beatles years. Ian Peel's book mentioned above has much more detail on Paul's post-Beatles avant-garde experimentation.