articles about pop culture

Month: June, 2016

The Beatles – The White Album



After the success of Sergeant Pepper, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India to stay with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The trip was meant to provide an escape from their daily lives in the form of meditation.

There they began to write The Beatles or – as its popularly known because of its pure white cover – The White Album.

The writing sessions for The White Album took place amidst the of calm of the band’s mediation practices, but the recording sessions at Abbey Road studios could not have been less peaceful. There were major creative differences between the band. This, along with John Lennon’s increasing heroin addiction,  resulted in regular arguments, refusal by the band members to work with each other and even Ringo Starr briefly quitting altogether. (He was eventually convinced to return by George Harrison.)

Because of these differences, the album features less co-operation between the band members than any other Beatles release. In the past, they had worked on songs as a unit, but now songs tended to be written by one band member on their own, who then enlisted the other Beatles to perform instrumental tracks for it.

It’s not surprising, then, that The White Album pulls in so many directions. The only Western instrument available to the band at Rishikesh was the acoustic guitar, so most of the songs are acoustic-based. But the album also features ska music, music hall parody, character sketches, political critiques and pastiches. It’s more diverse than any other Beatles album. Not every song is brilliant, though. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ feels hollow, ‘Birthday’ and ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey’ are less like compositions and more like novelties.

However, The White Album has a lot of gems hiding between the filler. ‘Back in the USSR’ is a stomper that got banned by both the USA and the Soviet Union. ‘Helter Skelter’ is basically proto-metal. ‘Revolution 9’ is the most experimental piece ever heard on a pop album. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is a veritable rock masterpiece.

All this makes the album feel fragmented, as if by attempting to explore so many sonic ideas its tearing itself apart. It’s almost become a cliche to say that, in this way, The White Album is the sound of the Beatles breaking apart. The band would split a year later, after all.

Despite all this – maybe because of it – The White Album is a rock monolith, a key part of the Beatles’ story. While Sergeant Pepper was an exercise in perfectionism, The White Album is a testament to the power of runaway creativity.


The Tales of Dunk and Egg



George R.R. Martin is most well-known for his Song of Ice and Fire series, currently being adapted into probably the biggest show on tv. It’s staggering just how big the book series is, too: the books total 1.7 million words in the first five novels alone, with two still waiting to be published. That’s almost four times as long as The Lord of the Rings.

So it’s refreshing to have something a little lighter from Martin. The Tales of Dunk and Egg are three novellas set in the world of Game of Thrones, about a hundred years before the events of A Game of Thrones.

They’re about a hedge knight from Flea Bottom called Dunk, and his young squire, Egg. Egg isn’t just any squire though: he’s Aegon V Targaryen, and future king of Westeros. You may have heard him mentioned in the series as Maester Aemon’s brother.

Let’s get one thing straight though: The Tales of Dunk and Egg are not A Song of Ice and Fire. There are no epic quests or magic or white walker armies. What they are is a collection of stories about a hedge knight on an adventure, and as that it’s quite a page-turner.

But The Tales of Dunk and Egg also offers an interesting perspective into another period in the history of Westeros. We see the aftermath of a civil war between the Targaryens. We see the political situation that precipitated some of the uneasy alliances that appear in Game of Thrones. We also see a character or two that goes on to be very important to A Song of Ice and Fire: Lord Bloodraven, for example, the Hand of the King in The Tales of Dunk and Egg. In A Song of Ice and Fire we know him as the three-eyed raven.

As an adventure story and as an a history of Westeros, The Tales of Dunk and Egg is great. Martin proves yet again that whether it comes to writing 1.7 million word epics or breezy short stories, he’s pretty hard to beat.

Red Seas Under Red Skies


Scott Lynch is – along with the likes of Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin – at the forefront of contemporary fantasy. His stories intertwine elements of both fantasy and realism. Together, they produce a gripping alchemy.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second in his Gentleman Bastard series. The books are set in a fantasy world much like renaissance Italy, except they occasionally include murderous wizards and monsters that might have crawled out of a Dungeons & Dragons manual. The books follow the lives of con men Locke and Jean, who make a living by tricking nobles while simultaneously trying to avoid the vengeance of the Bondsmagi of Karthain, a feared guild of wizards.

The story’s full of wit and originality. Like a lot of modern fantasy, it is as much a response to the genre as a product of it. Gone are the two-dimensional characters and good/bad dichotomies. Lynch instead deals in grey characters and moral ambiguity. There’s character development.There’s double-crossing, and there’s reversal of fortune.  Heroes are as capable of horrific acts as villains, and villains are just as likely to kill the heroes as the other way round.

Like George RR Martin, Lynch shows us the real implications of a fantasy world on the human psyche. Killing enemies is traumatic business. The lead character, for example, finds himself gripped by grief and guilt after he attempts to save his friends (through violence) and only succeeds in saving a few of them. He hides in his room for days, bottles of liquor his only company. The fantasy setting makes these depictions of depression and alcoholism that much more pressing. Imagine Frodo gripped by PTSD, unable to climb Mount Doom.

This is just one example of Lynch looking at the genre with fresh eyes. He also – thankfully – subverts many of fantasy’s common stumbling blocks like its problematic depiction of gender roles and lack of diversity. All of his characters are well-rounded and possess agency. The women are not damsels in distress or scantily-clad Xenas. They’re  soldiers  and thieves, bodyguards and pirate captains, surgeons and leaders.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is part of a new wave of fantasy that takes cues from both inside and outside the genre in order to, ultimately, transcend it. This is not just a fantasy story: its a hustle story, a pirate story, a romance, a political thriller. It’s  influenced far more by the broader ideas of contemporary fiction than just elves and goblins and magic rings.

For that, we should be grateful.

Game of Thrones: The Power of Symbols


(Warning: Contains spoilers.)

Game of Thrones is back on our screens, and YouTube and Reddit and a billion other social media platforms are buzzing with rumours and predictions. Only Harry Potter and Star Wars rival the show in the way that fans have taken up the task of attempting to tease out the endings to its numerous story-lines.

Some of these theories are pretty bizarre (one names Mance Rayder as secretly being Rhaegar Targaryen) but others have a lot of evidence behind them. Most of this evidence takes the form of symbols and motifs Martin has placed throughout the series.

Martin has repeatedly cited Shakespeare as an influence on the series. With its noble characters, frequent plot twists and many, many deaths, A Song of Ice and Fire would probably have the Bard waiting impatiently for each new episode. But it also prominently features another staple of Shakespeare’s work: his love for symbols.

Martin has said that he’s known the broad outline of the series’s ending for quite some time, and has planted a number of clues throughout the books and episodes to hint at this. From the sigils of the noble houses to prophetic visions and mysterious lines: all of these symbols are heavy with meaning. For example, in the first episode (or chapter, if you’re going by the books) the Starks encounter a dead direwolf, slain by a stag. The direwolf is the sigil of House Stark, and the stag of House Baratheon. A few episodes later, Ned Stark is be beheaded by a Baratheon.

Even seemingly insignificant lines of dialogue often foreshadow major events. For example, in Season 4, when Tyrion tells Bronn about how cruelly his father Twyin Lannister treated him after he married a peasant girl, Bronn replies, “I’d kill the man that did that to me.” Which is, as we see in the final episode of Season 4, exactly what happens.

A symbol causing a lot of speculation is the song of ice and fire itself, the prophecy from which the series gets its name. The prophecy is at least 1000 years old, and perhaps even as ancient as 5000 years. It forms the centre of a religion, the Red Priestesses (of which Melisandre is a member). The prophecy speaks about a Christ-like saviour figure called ‘the prince that was promised’. Basically, the prophecy says that the only person who will be able to save the world from the Others (read white-walkers) is this prince, and “if he fails, the world fails with him.”

Readers and viewers alike have not yet encountered the prophecy in its entirety, only fragments and half-remembered accounts of it. But we do know that the prophecy points out a number of signals that will herald the coming of the prince. One of these is the line the prince will be “born in salt and smoke.” Another line makes reference to a “bleeding star” marking his arrival.

The first part, about the prince being born in fire, is an interesting one. It calls to mind one example: Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s birth. Rhaegar was the son of the Mad King Aerys, and heir to the Iron Throne (at least until Robert Baratheon’s revolt). On the day of Rhaegar’s birth, the Summerhall tragedy took place. Summerhall was the Targaryen’s pleasure palace, and when Rhaegar was born a great fire broke out there. It killed many members of the royal family and razed the palace to the ground. This suggests that Rhaegar may be the prince that was promised, the prince “born in salt and smoke”.

Rhaegar survived the blaze and grew to be a “bookish” boy, but one day – seemingly without warning – he approached the master-at-arms and asked to be trained as a knight. “It seems I am to be a warrior,” he is remembered as saying. The fact that Rhaegar spent so much time reading old texts – which would certainly have contained some mention of the prophecy – coupled with his sudden interest in learning to fight suggests that Rhaegar believed himself to be the promised prince.

It seems he was wrong though. Robert smashed in his chest with a warhammer, after all. So maybe someone else fits the description. Valyrian (the language the prophecy was originally written in) is gender-neutral, so a lot of people suggest Danaerys could be the prince. She’s a Targaryen, after all. She emerged from the salt and smoke of Drogo’s pyre unscathed, there was a comet – a bleeding star – overhead during much of her struggles during Season 2, and she certainly has the dragons for the job.

But it could also be true that the prince is more than one person. The dragon has three heads, as Rhaegar mentions in one Danaerys’s visions.

Its one of many visions Danaerys sees  in the House of the Undying. Another of them is of a blue rose growing out of a wall of ice. It’s been mentioned a few times that Lyanna Stark was fond of blue winter roses. Most notably, at the tourney at Harrenhal Rhaegar Targaryen was victorious. By tradition, the tourney victor gets to crown the next ‘queen of beauty’. On that day, Rhaegar was given a wreath of blue roses to crown his lady with. He caused gossip, and even some outrage, when he rode past his wife, Elia Martell of Dorne, and placed the blue roses in Lyanna Stark’s lap. He would go on to kidnap her (or so we’re told), and they would both die soon after.

The image of the blue rose (associated with Lyanna) and the wall of ice (probably the actual Wall, which is associated with Jon) suggests a link between them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is yet another hint at the R+L=J theory.

Danaerys’s seeing this is important. Maybe there’s some connection between her and Jon and the prophecy. Maybe they’re both the promised princes, and need to find their third counterpart. In that case, they’d each have a dragon to ride. They’d be something like Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters.

At this point, this is all speculation. We’ll just have to watch and find out.Maybe Game of Thrones will shatter our expectations and upturn all our guesswork. It wouldn’t be the first time.






The Magician’s Land



Imagine Narnia, but written by George R.R. Martin. Then imagine Hogwarts, but with sex, drugs and even more dangerous magic.

These are the two settings for Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. The books (starting with 2009’s The Magicians) follow the lives of a group of twenty-somethings studying at a magical university in New York. It’s no Hogwarts, where phoenix tears are always there to save you. People lose life and limb in the pursuit of magic. The magicians have mood disorders and drug addictions, and while they might be able to summon fireballs at will, they are far from well-adjusted.

It’s a fresh take on a pretty tired genre. More than that, the Magicians series works both as a fantasy story and as a comment on fantasy stories.

If you’ve ever wanted to go to Hogwarts but can’t stand their no-alcohol policy, check out The Magicians. 


The Beatles – Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band



After recording Revolver, each of the Beatles headed off on their own for a few months. A break from their lives as working musicians was necessary: the Beatles’ infamous ‘more popular than Jesus comment’ had caused a major public backlash in the states. This  – along with the pressures of their personal lives – had left the band exasperated.

Lennon spent his time off acting in a film. George Harrison went to India with Ravi Shankar to learn the sitar and explore Hindu teachings. Paul McCartney traveled the world and worked on a film score. Ringo spent the time with his wife and baby son, Zac.

This was 1967, and the Beatles were tired of being the Beatles. “We really hated that fucking four little  mop-top approach,” McCartney  said of that time. “We were not boys, we were men … and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”

Fitting, then, that their new album was born out of McCartney’s idea for the band to pretend to be someone else. They would create an album as a fictional band, and be freed from the expectations that came with being the Beatles. And so, they got to work on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Cub Band.

Sergeant Pepper is an extension of the psychedelic rock hinted at on Revolver, but takes it to the extreme. If Revolver was influenced by LSD, Sergeant Pepper takes that influence to its logical conclusion: the record overflows with densely-layered production, colourful orchestral arrangements and trippy sound effects. The most famous is probably John Lennon’s warped voice on ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. These songs are more like sound collages, formed by dubbing multiple recordings over each other.

Sergeant Pepper shows the Beatles venturing far into the avant-garde. But it also shows that no one was better than the Beatles at being simultaneously experimental and populist – the album stayed at Number One on the UK charts for 22 weeks, after all.

In the decades since, Sergeant Pepper has been hailed as a milestone – perhaps the milestone – in the evolution of pop music. Rolling Stone went so far as to call it the Greatest Album of All Time.

This may or may not be the case. Either way, when the Beatles made the album, they probably had  no idea it would achieve such fame and success. At the time, they were just striving to create some good new songs. And what a collection they are.

‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is the greatest Beatles song about drugs that the Beatles claim isn’t about drugs. ‘A Day in the Life’ is an apocalyptic song about a man who “blew his mind out in a car”. ‘Within You Without You’ is Harrison’s take on Hinduism and his attempt at mastering the sitar, all in one. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ is one of pop’s greatest odes to friendship – which becomes all the more heartbreaking when considering how the relationships between the Beatles would fragment the following year.

Whether or not you think Sergeant Pepper is the best album ever, it did mark a shift in the perception of rock. What had once been considered a fad was now seen as art. Fans scoured the album’s lyrics for meaning (sometimes finding it where none existed) and the album became a kind of flower power anthem, the soundtrack to the Summer of Love. With the album, the Beatles had cemented their place as cultural icons whose music had real power, both artistic and political.

Even the cover serves as a mirror for its time. The faces represents major figures in Sixties pop culture. The inclusion of the four waxwork Beatles (in their famous mop-tops and suits) beside the real band in Sergeant Pepper costume is particularly interesting.

It places the Beatles – the real Beatles – not within the cultural pantheon, but apart from it. It seems the Beatles were aware of their place within pop culture, and were determined to be liberated from it.

Sergeant Pepper is the sound of that liberation, without losing any of the Beatles’ rock ‘n roll roar.