The Galaxy – Remembering a Beastie

The Beastie Boys at the 1987 Grammy Awards

The Beastie Boys at the 1987 Grammy Awards

Growing up in Cairo, Illinois, I grew up observing the birth and growth of hip hop.  Run-DMC was wildly popular in my high school, and there were a number of rap songs that seem to me to have been constantly audible in the background (even if such things were situationally impossible – you know how these fuzzy memory things work).  By the time I graduated from high school in 1986 and joined the Army, rap and hip-hop had become firmly entrenched in popular culture.

Right around that time frame, we started hearing about the Beastie Boys.  I remember my first impression of them in regards to their having been touring as the opening act for Madonna.  What I heard was that they were crude, lewd, and vulgar – but the mention was really only in passing – after all, they were some unknown act, a bunch of kids opening for Ms. Blonde Ambition herself.  I didn’t think much about it, and I never had a chance to see that Madonna tour anyway (the Virgin Tour, although I did see some video clips from it at one point).

Cover of "Licensed to Ill"

Cover of Licensed to Ill

Then, at some point in ’86, we get Licensed to Ill, the debut album.  On the surface, there was nothing to change that first impression, given the phallic overtones present in their cover art, and the first single, Fight for the Right to Party.  They certainly worked to solidify that impression, with female dancers dancing in cages and giant inflatable penises.  Rolling Stone magazine headlined the review of the album “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece”.  This sort of personality depiction is captured in a clip from the Joan Rivers Show:

But, while you weren’t looking, something happened.

Really, it started within the Licensed to Ill album.  Buried within the broadly drawn characters was hidden lyrical depth.  Culture references being tossed at the listener right and left.  The music and the beats may have been simplistic (I remember there being a big fuss about their use of the riff from Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks), but there was something there.  Maybe it was the introduction to The New Style (“LET ME CLEAR MY THROAT!”).  Maybe it was the storytelling that was Paul Revere (and I know at least a few people besides me that had the thing memorized).  Maybe it was the silliness of some of the songs (for heavens sake, they sampled the theme from Green Acres!!!!).  But they definitely had something.

Paul's Boutique

Paul’s Boutique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then we get Paul’s Boutique in 1989.  The beats were still good, but the rhymes were more intense, more aggressive, the rhythms were more challenging, the culture references more frequent.  It was somewhat underestimated when it came out, but it is now generally considered to be a classic.  It just kept going from there, a series of albums (Check Your Head, Ill Communication, Hello Nasty, To the Five Boroughs, the recent Hot Sauce Committee Part 2) with infectious songs that makes one want to just jump around, while at the same time chuckling at their pop culture references (“I’ve got more rhymes than Phyllis Diller”; but watch out for Yossi with the fresh muffins…).  They eventually started doing songs with live instruments, and those also proved to be quite good.  Sometimes the instruments were recorded straight, and sometimes they sampled their own instruments.

Adam Yauch

Adam Yauch

The end result of all this, at least in my eyes, is that the world feels just a little bit duller with this weekend’s passing of Adam Yauch.  I’m glad that he was able to enjoy his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even if he was too ill to attend.  It certainly feels appropriate for me to memorialize his impact with a nice set:

  • The New Style
  • Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun
  • Rhyme the Rhyme Well
  • Paul Revere
  • Egg Man
  • Ch-Check It Out
  • Slow and Low
  • High Plains Drifter
  • Flute Loop
  • Right Right Now Now
  • The Sounds of Science
  • 3 The Hard Way
  • Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
Johannes Brahms, c. 1866

Johannes Brahms, c. 1866

We gave the second half of the show to a piece by Johannes Brahms, his Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45.  A large-scale work for baritone and soprano soloists with choir and orchestra, Brahms composed the work between 1865 and 1868.  It is made up of 7 movements, and usually runs between 65 and 80 minutes, making it Brahms’ longest composition.

The work is notable in that it is sacred but non-liturgical, and unlike most requiems is written in German as opposed to Latin.  Brahms assembled the text himself, desiring to write something that would focus on the act of comforting the living, as opposed to simply mourning the dead.  He purposefully omitted specifically Christian references from the text, and he deviated from the standard Catholic practice of opening the Requiem with prayers for the dead, instead beginning with a blessing for the living, a quote from the Beatitudes (“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”).  He also used a Lutheran Bible as the basis for his text, as opposed to a Catholic Bible.  Critics at the time were puzzled by the lack of Christian dogma in the work, but Brahms pointedly wanted the work to be humanist in direction, even telling one director that he wanted the work to be “Ein menschliches Requiem”, or “a human requiem”.

It is difficult to say what exactly inspired Brahms to write the piece.  His mother died in 1865, so it would certainly seem that this played a part.  But Brahms was also greatly impacted by the 1856 death of his friend Robert Schumann.  Brahms’ letters do not say much about this.  What we do know is that he had six movements written by 1866, utilizing some material that had been written in 1854, before Schumann became ill.  The work received its first performance of what was then a six movement work on Good Friday, 1868, a performance that was considered such a success that it is considered a turning point in Brahms’ career.  In May of that year, he wrote a fifth movement, and the completed work was premiered in Leipzig by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in February 1869.

Tonight’s recording is an excellent rendition from 1993, with Angela Maria Blasi, Byrn Terfl, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Sir Colin Davis.

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