Historians, record nerds and armchair musicologists are just now extensively excavating the dark crannies of American do-it-yourself whatsis that emerged from the bloom of punk in the late seventies and early eighties. Some of the treasures found in mildewing crates and from deceased moms' closets speak volumes about the energy and inventiveness of the USA's bored youth at the time, giving rise to a sub-subculture that found its calling in twisted, art-infused noise & jagged-edge rock, not in “punk” per se - all original, all cleanly cleaved from the past, and often capturing a strange zeitgeist that popular media reckonings of the era seemed to have missed.
Then there was Omaha , Nebraska 's Better Beatles. They sported no originals – just savagely wacked, detuned, deadpan readings of Beatles material in a manner than no one save The Residents could have imagined in 1980. Sure, bands all over the US and the UK were making oddball 45s out of analog synthesizers, primitive recording techniques and decidedly arty leanings at the time, but few approached the deconstructivist beauty of The Better Beatles' one and only single, the self-released “Penny Lane/I'm Down”. To hear this glorious single in the 21 st century, as an increasing number of partisans have (a number sure to blossom with the release of the disc you're holding), is to still stand agog that a group could go to such unforced, random-sounding lengths and not come off in the least as some dumb-ass, Dr. Demento-lite yuk band. The Better Beatles single isn't even “funny”. It's dark and at times transcendent, and it simultaneously lifts the Beatles' unparalleled songcraft to new and even better heights, while destroying the mythos around the band just the same, in as snotty & underhanded a manner as the rottenest rotten punk you can conjure.
And to think – there was a whole tape's worth of weirdo recordings of this ilk just sitting around all this time! You'll probably be the best judge of whether the Beatles' legacy can survive these covers intact, because different aural cavities are going to hear these unique sounds in all sorts of funny and ultimately polarizing ways.
With that, let's let the band themselves have their say about the matter. All questions were posed and answered in September 2007.
How important were the Beatles to you at the time of the recordings? Did you feel at the time like your deconstructions of their songs were more of a punk-era "insult" or a celebration?
Dave = The Beatles were an oppressive influence.
Kurt = I feel that at the time that we recorded, the Beatles had already achieved a place more in the realm of folk music. People that didn't grow up with them, and many that did, could hum or sing along almost absentmindedly without really knowing or caring who the Beatles were. I didn't really think of the band as either an insult or celebration - my emotions about the band were not that strong. I just thought it was funny.Jay = I like the Beatles . I did not really think of the Better Beatles as a celebration or an insult. That would depend more upon the listener or audience member. When I am in a band, I think there is a chance that people will like the music. It is really hard to plan a negative reaction. When you get a negative reaction, well, it can be a good experience in its own way. Like seeing a rainbow.
Jean = I knew people that were riding Big Wheels when the Beatles broke up who still worshiped them like gods. 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!” …. actually we had no material, and this is just what we pulled out of our asses. The important thing to us was to be doing something . We started on the first practice with nothing . Jay had Lennon & McCartney songbooks. I just read the lyrics while the guys plinked around. We ended up liking the formula– so it stuck!
What was the band dynamic like? Did you all contribute to how the songs were taken apart and put back together, and were there sharp disagreements about the appropriate level of reverence or mockery?
Jean = It was usually a democracy. We would sit down and listen to someone's riff or idea and then run through it until everyone felt good about his part. I think most of the time we would see what new sound Dave would come up with– the pace that he played it at set the tone for the piece. Then Kurt would work up a bass line while Jay and I were filling in and refining our bits.
Sometimes Jay would have a specific song he wanted to use, and we would see what we could do with it. I think there were a few songs I refused to do because they had stupid lyrics. “Eight Days a Week”, or maybe Obla-di blah blah blah – both were on my list of insipid drivel that I wouldn't touch. Actually I didn't like doing the “hey-lah hey hello” bit on “Hello Goodbye”. I wanted to leave it off, it didn't really add to the song – but Jay loved that part and so he left it in. I would have edited it out.
Kurt = I would say that the band dynamic was very laid back, and personally, there was not enough emotional attachment to the Beatles to warrant an argument about anything, but we were having a great time. I can't really remember ever disagreeing about anything.
Dave = There was a lot of laughter involved. I think we had a lot of mutual respect for each other.
What sort of decision process went into how each song was arranged? Some feel a little like the originals, while others are wildly different.
Jay = We rehearsed the freshness and spontaneity out of the music. We removed it.
Kurt = For some reason everyone seemed to work well together. For myself I just did what I wanted to, I don't think I ever played any song the same way twice. Sometimes closer than others but never the same way. Jay got the band together and talked everyone into it and perhaps he was just a benevolent dictator, but I never got the felling anyone was in charge. For the most part I believe we were driven by having a good time unencumbered by the thought process.Jean = Arranged? Doesn't that involve musical notation? We just pulled this stuff out our asses. Dave kept notes on his patches; Kurt played some cool non-linear bass lines, semi-freeform. Actually he was the only one in the band that was proficient at his instrument at the onset. Jay and Dave had both taken up new instruments when we formed. You mean like “Eleanor Rigby”? I guess my vocal on that followed the original somewhat. But with Dave playing “ El Paso ” for the melody line I was just trying to concentrate on getting trough the song. It always cracked me up. Dave is such a nut!
Dave = I think we just sort of played until they sounded good.
Was there ever a thought that the " Penny Lane /I'm Down" 45 might reach the ears of John, Paul, George and Ringo ( well - the latter three I guess ), and did you take any steps to make this happen?
Dave = Absolutely. We thought the whole world would hear it. We were truly better than the Beatles. Jay = No, not really. We were in Omaha . I guess they could have heard it on John Peel's show. He played the single a lot. He sent a letter requesting a second copy when his was stolen. Jean = I would have loved to have John hear what we did. Paul, not so much. He seemed like the type to take offense. Actually John was murdered shortly after the band had formed. Maybe that was why people were freaked out by us. You know, I hadn't put that together until now. As for the other Fab Two, I imagine that Ringo and George would probably been amused and maybe a little cheesed off. After all poor George got slapped w/ plagiarism over “My Sweet Lord” – a much better use of the tune than “He's So Fine”. I have always wanted to send a copy of Strawberry Fields to Yoko . (I don't think that made the cut, sorry to reference a non-published title) I love her– she was John's love, I don't understand why she was so hated by his fans. I love her art. I feel it is more closely aligned to the Better Beatles than the Beatles ever were.
Describe the Omaha music scene of the very early 80s, and what sort of music was filtering in that informed your choice of instrumentation and modes of employing it. Did the Better Beatles constitute any part of a "scene", or was your lifetime too short?
Kurt = The music scene in Omaha was very dynamic, innovative and eclectic and for the most part, everyone seemed to have a sense of friendly competition. The crowds were very supportive and went to everyone else's shows, all well attended. There were never any problems unless outsiders started them, and that was usually handled very quickly and successfully. I was disappointed when first moving to Seattle for a few reasons. Believe it or not but the music was at least a couple of years behind what was going on in the Midwest, and there was so much phony, posed competition between followers of different bands. It also seemed that the fans were just determined to shit in their own bed. They wouldn't even listen to the band half the time and seemed to take great joy instead to see who could be the first to tear the sink off the wall, in effect, acting like the spoiled frat boys they said they hated. Then they would complain that nobody was willing to hire live bands. Boo hoo. We were part of a scene that like all great scenes didn't know how good we had it and knew either way it wouldn't last forever.
Dave = I thought the scene was very electric, very exciting, but the true music scene was very small and insular. I thought it was a lot of fun too.
Jean = Anyone that wasn't playing top forties, country, southern rock or straight-up oldies was part of the Omaha Scene. There were a handful of bands playing punk and new wave covers and originals. Back then Omaha had a population or about 125,000, not huge. The venues were limited, so any show that featured a punk or wave-o band sported the rest of Omaha 's receptive in the audience. Hence, we all new and supported each other. Same went for Lincoln . We exchanged a lot of phone numbers, invites and beers with a group of probably less than 100 persons who comprised the Omaha “scene”. There were also friends of friends, a lot of those guys would show up, shake their heads and go back to the ‘burbs, having gained nothing, because what they saw was too different from what they understood. That was how most of Omaha was about everything. Bands that were popular with our crowd at the time: all the LA bands, Black Flag, Germs, Agent Orange, X, British punk and wave of course. I personally loved Japan , Siouxsie, The Cure, Ramones, T-Heads, The Jam, Magazine, Dead Kennedys… too many names really.
Jay = There were some good bands in Omaha and Lincoln at the time. The Better Beatles time was short, perhaps 12 weeks, but the band did have some impact on the scene, I think. Our performances were met with mixed reaction, at best. A few people liked it in a sincere way. I think a lot of people found it either dull or in some way offensive.
I've heard that the band was doomed even before you started, as Jean & Kurt were already planning a move from Omaha before the band even formed. What effect did this have on the band's "planning"?
Dave = That injected bitterness into the Better Beatles.
Kurt = I had become a little disillusioned to playing to audiences and wanted to pursue my interest in painting. I believe it was big disappointment to Jean and perhaps the rest of the band. In fact if it were not for Jay talking to Jean and me about the band, I had pretty much decided to stop playing in bands after our earlier group Richard Nixn. To be honest I don't know if it affected planning; there was no plan - or everyone had a different plan.
Jean = At the onset of the project Kurt & I had already decided on moving out of Omaha ASAP, so we were not exactly dedicated to making Better Beatles a going concern. Besides, how do you keep alive a band that basically fed off the material of a dead superstar band. It was a fun concept but had no real future. Jay really wanted to keep it going, but we had already planned to leave. I don't think he understood how much we wanted to leave Omaha . Jay took the single all over the place anyway. He's a good marketer, he got airplay for a defunct band! My girlfriend in San Francisco wrote us that we had airplay on KUSF. That was fun to hear.
Jay = Kurt and Jean had plans to move. The band never did any planning. Our third gig was canceled at Saner's Lounge because the owner's son could not stand to hear us again. The other two gigs had been at Saner's as well. I was so insulted I had to take my underage drinking elsewhere. I was a regular there.
What's your personal favorite recording from the sessions, and why?
Jean = Paperback Writer. We did it in a more bleak and pleading way than the Beatles did. I felt we had a better grasp on the material. The Beatles original was so upbeat, as if they had no idea what it meant to find a fulfilling job that they could stand to continue to do for three more decades. Hmmm. I also feel we did the best Strawberry Fields ever (again sorry)
Kurt = Paperback Writer. Why? I just do.
Dave = I like them all for different reasons. I sort of liked “A Little Help From My Friends” because of my memory of playing that live and people throwing things at us. After hearing that after such a long time it still sounds fresh. I still think it's something people need to hear, there's a lot of value in it in many ways - socially, aesthetically, musically. It's nice to get the Beatles off our backs.
Jay = “ Penny Lane ”. For sure. Phil Ochs said he wasn't marching any more. This one would have changed his mind.
Were you aware of the Flying Lizards at the time - another group doing deadpan, synth-heavy recordings of 60s songs ( albeit not as weird or raw )?
Dave = Not until afterward.
Kurt = I am not aware of the Flying Lizards now. My apologies to the Flying Lizards.
Jay = I did not hear that band until later but I do remember them. I was still hearing great bands like Styx and Journey on the Omaha radio stations.
How would you like this LP to be received by the youth of today, and what sort of message do you have for them from your 28-years-on vantage point?
ave = I guess they could hate us as much as ever. I'm not sure how relevant the Beatles are any more. My cousin sent me a couple years ago for Christmas "Beatles #1". I couldn't stand to listen to it. I put it on and after a couple tunes...I wanted to play it for my son at Christmas time but he didn't like it. He was begging me to make it stop. Jay = No message at all, but perhaps a new ring tone at www.betterbeatles.com Jean = Well after all this work, I hope that a few people like it. I know it isn't earth-shaking stuff by today's standards, but then we never set out to shake the earth in the first place. We just enjoyed the time we had playing together, we made the most of it. I think far too many musicians and artists focused more on pleasing crowds than making meaningful art. If somebody reading these words has heard a small voice in their soul saying “do this” , I say give that urge some attention . We can't all be huge stars, the world would melt from the heat. Follow your heart and create work that is meaningful to you. You will shine brightly enough to attract the attention of the people that will matter to you. Also, if anyone used our music to create derivative art I would be very proud.
Interview by Jay Hinman
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