meta-scriptLiving Legends: Smokey Robinson On New Album 'Gasms,' Meeting The Beatles & Staying Competitive | GRAMMY.com
Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson

Photo: Derek Blanks

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Living Legends: Smokey Robinson On New Album 'Gasms,' Meeting The Beatles & Staying Competitive

Fresh off the MusiCares 2023 Persons Of The Year gala that honored him and Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson is out with his first album of new material in 14 years. 'Gasms' is about everything that lights up your brain.

GRAMMYs/May 2, 2023 - 09:57 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com presents an interview with GRAMMY winner and lead Miracle Smokey Robinson, whose contributions to the American musical canon — chiefly via Motown — cannot be overstated. In 2023, he was honored alongside Motown founder Berry Gordy at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year Event. Robinson's new album, Gasms, is available now.

Smokey Robinson listens to everyone. If you're on the radio, he claims, he's heard you. It doesn't matter your age, or your genre — as the 83-year-old is still in the ring, he intends to keep his gloves up. "I'm not a prejudiced musical listener," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing."

In the middle of a question about who, specifically, he's enjoying from the new guard, his rep's drive through a tunnel abruptly ends the call. But the Miracles and Motown star's assertion checks out — partly on the strength of his new album, Gasms, his first album of new original material since 2009.

On hot-and-bothered highlights like "I Wanna Know Your Body," "Roll Around" and "Beside You," God's gift to green eyes — to borrow a phrase — proves his writing, vocal and performance abilities remain undimmed.

"My thoughts on it is that you can put it on and be with the person that you want to be with and just kick back and enjoy each other," Robinson told the AP. "It's more of the idea of love."

There's a lot of chatter about Gasms. Of course, that's by design, and Robinson's OK with the album title subsuming the conversation. (When asked about the central thesis of the record during its conception, he responds with one word: "Controversy.")

But by Robinson's assertion, Gasms refers to anything that makes you feel good, and the high-thread-count music signifies far more than horny man is horny. It's a treat to hear that the GRAMMY winner responsible for innumerable culture-shifting classics — who has been around long enough to have met the Beatles when they were playing basements — is still a force.

With the 2023 MusiCares Person Of The Year gala, which jointly honored Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, in the rearview, GRAMMY.com sat down with the man himself about his past, present and future. The results might give you a… well, you know.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How did it feel to be honored along with your best friend, Berry Gordy, at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year 2023 gala?

That was a wonderful experience. They had never honored two people at the same time, and for me to get honored with my best friend like that — it was an extraordinary night.

When you met all those years ago, was there any inkling your relationship would stretch so far into the future — and impact the planet on this scale?

You can't tell about people and relationships, man. We just struck up a relationship. And we were good in the very beginning, and it just lasted. I couldn't be with him then — or he with me — and say, "Oh, well, this is gonna last forever," like it has, because you just never know. Fortunately, for us, it has, and we're still best friends.

How do you keep a relationship like that going on such a grand scale for decades and decades?

You know, people have asked me that many times. Sometimes, it's six months and I don't even talk to Berry. But when I do, he's my best friend, and I'm his best friend. It's never "Let me get to know you again, or feel you out," or any of that. There's none of that happening.

As you've stated, the title of Gasms isn't expressly sexual. Rather, it refers to any number of mindblowing experiences. What was the last big experience in your life or career that gave you a "gasm," as it were?

I've had so many of those. You know, gasms are what makes you happy, and makes you feel good. Recently, I had one when I did "American Idol," because I hadn't been in a long time. I was on the second panel for judges when Simon Cowell was there. I got a chance to see [judges] Lionel [Richie] and Katy [Perry] and Luke [Bryan], and it was a wonderful night.

I've been a mentor; I've been a judge. "American Idol" is one of the main state talent programs in the world, so it's a great thing for the kids. Because before they even made a record or anything like that, from the very first auditions, being seen by millions of people is a great thing for them.

Let's get to the ground floor of Gasms, when you first picked up a pen and made some calls and put together these songs. What was the central idea you wanted to put forth, musically and creatively?

Controversy.

That was it, huh?

To raise curiosity, and have people wondering what it was before they even heard it.

It seems you succeeded.

It worked. So I'm very happy about that, man.

How did you curate the accompanists and producers on Gasms?

Most of the guys are guys I've worked with all the time in the studio. I've been working with them for years, so I didn't have to get to know them. The main guy — my arranger, David Garfield — is a well-known jazz pianist who makes his own albums and stuff like that. We just got together and did the arrangements at the studio.

I'm sure you were raring to get back to original material, as wonderful as the old Miracles songs and your Christmas stuff is, and  flex your songwriting muscles.

I write all the time, Morgan. It's something that I just do. It's not a conscious effort where I set aside some time to write or anything like that. It doesn't happen like that. For me, it just happens.

What are you working on lately?

Well, at the same time we were working on the Gasms album, we were working on one in Spanish. I've got two more songs I've gotta re-record for that. That's what I'm up to musically.

Is it a learning curve to record in another language, or are your Spanish chops sharp?

I've been learning Spanish for probably about a year. My housekeeper is a Spanish lady. She's from Guatemala, and she speaks four different languages, so she's been really helping me with it.

I'm not fluent in it where I understand everything. I watch the soap operas and news shows on Telemundo and stuff like that, trying to get better, but they're talking so fast. I try to get a word in every now and then and then try to pick out what they meant by the rest of the stuff.

But it's a great language, and I enjoy it very much, so I've been trying to write some songs in Spanish also.

**Your voice is so pristine on Gasms. At times, it's like you haven't aged a day. How do you keep your instrument — your voice — sharp as the years and decades go by?**

Well, first of all, I appreciate you saying that, man. Thank you very much.

Your voice is like your instrument, and if you take care of yourself, you have a better chance of it lasting and doing well for a long time. I don't think there's any secret formula — Lipton's tea with lemon and all that stuff like that. I've never done anything like that.

I just try to take care of myself. Occasionally, of course, your body will wear down and get hoarse, because you don't know how to play your instrument. I don't do any special stuff.

What are your habits, or what's your regimen, to keep your physical vessel in shape?

I think that the main one is yoga. I've been doing yoga for about 40 years, and I do it almost every day of my life. Then, I have workout programs I do. I have a half-hour workout program and then an hour one. At home, I do the full monte, because I can do everything; I have weights in the basement and so on and so forth.

When I'm on the road, I have a 45-minute regiment that I do most mornings, and it starts with stretching.

**I really enjoy how you didn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel with Gasms. The songs could have been written 60 years ago or yesterday. What is it about the timelessness of songs about love, romance and sensuality?**

Well, yeah, they all have a connotation; you can use your own ideas of what they mean. For instance, "gasms." That can mean whatever you want it to mean. I try to put that connotation in all of them, so whatever the person means, or who is the listener, it can be that for them.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

*Smokey Robinson performing in 1964. Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images*

Speaking of timeless love songs, you play a huge role in the Beatles' rise. They worshiped you, and beamed you into millions of kids' heads via "You Really Got a Hold On Me" on With the Beatles. And you've covered them, too. Does it feel surreal to look back to your youth, and to these recordings, and say I wrote that?

You know, I don't think about that nowadays, man, unless somebody brings it up. It's not something I concentrate on, or anything like that, but it's a wonderful thing. 

It was especially wonderful — back then, they were the number one group in the world — to pick one of my songs. They were great songwriters themselves. So, to pick one of my songs to record was especially flattering.

What are your memories of those guys?

Oh, they were cool dudes, man. I had met them before they became [Adds air of thunderous significance] the Beatles. We met them in Liverpool; they were singing in a little club down in the basement. They were good guys, and I especially got close to George while he was alive, you know? He was my closest friend in that group.

He sure loved you. He wouldn't have written "Pure Smokey" if he didn't. Can you offer more memories of George?

George was just a great guy, man. He was a nice man. He was one of those people that if you meet him, you like him.

With Gasms out in the world, what do you hope people take away from it?

Oh, take away some enjoyment. I hope they enjoy it with themselves, alone, and with others also. That's what I want them to take away from it. If I can accomplish that, then I feel that I've done what I set out to do.

What has been giving you "gasms" lately? What are you watching, reading or listening to that has been inspiring you?

I listen to everyone, man. 

I'm a music lover, so I listen to all kinds of music. Especially when I'm in my car, and there's no telling what musical mood you're going to catch me in. Weeks happen where I don't listen to anything but classical — Chopin and Rachmaninoff and all that. Sometimes, I listen to hip-hop or jazz or alternative. I just love music, man.

What newer artists have you been checking out?

All of them, that are making music that I can hear on the radio. I listen to all of them, because I'm still making records, too. So, I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing. I'm not a prejudiced musical listener, whereas I think, OK, these are young people, so I'm not gonna listen to their music.

No, they're in the forefront of music right now. So I listen to everybody.

Living Legends: Van Morrison On New Album Moving On Skiffle, Communing With His Roots & Reconnecting With Audiences

The Beach Boys performing in 1964
The Beach Boys performing in 1964

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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6 Things We Learned From Disney+'s 'The Beach Boys' Documentary

From Brian Wilson's obsession with "Be My Baby" and the Wall Of Sound, to the group's complicated relationship with Murry Wilson and Dennis Wilson's life in the counterculture, 'The Beach Boys' is rife with insights from the group's first 15 years.

GRAMMYs/May 28, 2024 - 08:31 pm

It may seem like there's little sand left to sift through, but a new Disney+ documentary proves that there is an endless summer's worth of Beach Boys stories to uncover.

While the legendary group is so woven into the fabric of American culture  that it’s easy to forget just how innovative they were, a recently-released documentary aims to remind. The Beach Boys uses a deft combination of archival footage and contemporary interviews to introduce a new generation of fans to the band.

The documentary focuses narrowly on the first 15 years of the Beach Boys’ career, and emphasizes what a family affair it was. Opening the film is a flurry of comments about "a certain family blend" of voices, comparing the band to "a fellowship," and crediting the band’s success directly to having been a family. The frame is apt, considering that the first lineup consisted of Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl, their cousin Mike Love, and high school friend Al Jardine, and their first manager was the Wilsons’ father, Murry.

All surviving band members are interviewed, though a very frail Brian Wilson — who was placed under a conservatorship following the January death of his wife Melinda — appears primarily in archival footage. Additional perspective comes via musicians and producers including Ryan Tedder, Janelle Monáe, Lindsey Buckingham, and Don Was, and USC Vice Provost for the Arts Josh Kun.

Thanks to the film’s tight focus and breadth of interviewees, it includes memorable takeaways for both longtime fans and ones this documentary will create. Read on for five takeaways from Disney+'s The Beach Boys.

Family Is A Double-Edged Sword

For all the warm, tight-knit imagery of the Beach Boys as a family band,  there was an awful lot of darkness at the heart of their sunny sound, and most of the responsibility for that lies with Wilson family patriarch Murry Wilson. Having written a few modest hits in the late 1930s, Murry had talent and a good ear, and he considered himself a largely thwarted genius.  

When Brian, Dennis, and Carl formed the Beach Boys with their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, Murry came aboard as the band’s manager. In many respects, he was capable; his dogged work ethic and fierce protectiveness helped shepherd the group to increasingly high profile successes. He masterminded the extended Wilson family call-in campaign to a local radio station, pushing the Beach Boys’ first single "Surfin’" to become the most popular song in Los Angeles. He relentlessly shopped their demos to music labels, eventually landing them a contract at Capitol Records. He supported the band’s strong preference to record at Western Recordings rather than Capitol Records’ own in-house studio, and was an excellent promoter. 

Murry Wilson was also extremely controlling, fining the band when they made mistakes or swore, and "was miserable most of the time," according to his wife Audree. 

Footage from earlier interviews with Carl and Dennis, and contemporary comments from Mike Love make it clear that Murry was emotionally and physically abusive to his sons throughout their childhoods. He even sold off the Beach Boys’ songwriting catalog without consulting co-owner Brian, a moment that Brian’s ex-wife Marilyn says he felt so keenly that he took to his bed and didn’t get up for three days. 

Murry Wilson was at best a very complicated figure, both professionally jealous of his own children to a toxic degree and devoted to ensuring their success. 

"Be My Baby" and The Wrecking Crew Changed Brian Wilson’s Life

"Be My Baby," which Phil Spector had produced for the Ronettes in 1963, launched the girl group to immediate iconic status. The song also proved life-changing for Brian. On first hearing the song, "it spoke to my soul," and Brian threw himself into learning how Spector created his massive, lush Wall of Sound. Spector’s approach taught Brian that production was a meaningful art that creates an "overall sound, what [the listeners] are going to hear and experience in two and a half minutes." 

Read more: How Brian Wilson Crafted The Beach Boys' Early Sound: A Symphony Of Inspirations, From Boogie-Woogie To Barbershop

By working with The Wrecking Crew — a truly motley bunch of experienced, freewheeling musicians who played on Spector’s records and were over a decade older than the Beach Boys — Brian’s artistic sensibility quickly emerged. According to drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye, Brian not knowing what he didn’t know gave him the freedom and imagination to create sounds that were completely new and innovative. 

Friendly Rivalries With Phil Spector & The Beatles Yielded Amazing Pop Music

According to popular myth, the Beach Boys and the Beatles saw each other exclusively as almost bitter rivals for the ears, hearts, and disposable income of their fans. The truth is more nuanced: after the initial shock of the British Invasion wore off, the two groups developed and maintained a very productive, admiration-based competition, each band pushing the other to sonic greatness. 

Cultural historian and academic Josh Kun reframes the relationship between the two bands as a "transatlantic collaboration," and asks, "If they hadn’t had each other, would they have become what they became?" Could they have made the historic musical leaps that we now take for granted? 

Read more: 10 Memorable Oddities By The Beach Boys: Songs About Root Beer, Raising Babies & Ecological Collapse

The release of Rubber Soul left Brian Wilson thunderstruck. The unexpected sitar on "Norwegian Wood," the increasingly mature, personal songwriting, all of it was so fresh that "I flipped!" and immediately wanted to record "a thematic album, a collection of folk songs." 

Brian found life on the road soul-crushing and terrifying, and was much more content to stay home composing, writing, and producing. With the touring band out on the road, and with a creative fire lit under him by both the Beatles and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, he had time to develop into a wildly creative, exacting, and celebrated producer, an experience that yielded the 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds.

Pet Sounds Took 44 Years To Go Platinum

You read that right: Pet Sounds was a flop in the U.S. upon its release. Even after hearing radio-ready tracks like "Wouldn’t It Be Nice?" and "Sloop John B" and the ravishing "God Only Knows," Capitol Records thought the album had minimal commercial potential and didn’t give it the promotional push the band were expecting. Fans in the United Kingdom embraced it, however, and the votes of confidence from British fans — including Keith Moon, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney — buoyed both sales and the Beach Boys’ spirits.  

In fact, Lennon and McCartney credited Pet Sounds with giving them a target to hit when they went into the studio to record the Beatles’ own next sonically groundbreaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As veteran producer and documentary talking head Don Was puts it, Brian Wilson was a true pioneer, incorporating "textures nobody had ever put into pop music before." The friendly rivalry continued as the Beatles realized that they needed to step up their game once more.

Read more: Masterful Remixer Giles Martin On The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds,' The Beatles, Paul McCartney

Meanwhile, Capitol Records released and vigorously promoted a best-of album full of the Beach Boys’ early hits, Best Of The Beach Boys. The collection of sun-drenched, peppy tunes was a hit, but was also very out of step with the cultural and political shifts bubbling up through the anti-war and civil rights movements of the era. Thanks in part to later critical re-appraisals and being publicly embraced by musicians as varied as Questlove and Stereolab, Pet Sounds eventually reached platinum status in April 2000, 44 years after its initial release.

Dennis Wilson Was The Only Truly Beachy Beach Boy

Although the Beach Boys first made a name for themselves as purveyors of "the California sound" by singing almost exclusively about beaches, girls, and surfing, the only member of the band who really liked the beach was drummer Dennis Wilson.

Al Jardine ruefully recalls that "the first thing I did was lose my board — I nearly drowned" on a gorgeous day at Manhattan beach. Dennis was an actual surfer whose tanned, blonde good looks and slightly rebellious edge made him the instant sex symbol of the group. In 1967, when Brian’s depression was the deepest and he relinquished in-studio control of the band, Dennis flourished musically and lyrically. Carl Wilson, who had emerged as a very capable producer in Brian’s absence, described Dennis as evolving artistically "really quite amazingly…it just blew us away."

Dennis was also the only Beach Boy who participated meaningfully in the counterculture of the late 1960s, a movement the band largely sat out of, largely to the detriment of their image. He introduced the band to Transcendental Meditation — a practice Mike Love maintains to this day — and was a figure in the Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon music scenes. Unfortunately, he also became acquainted with and introduced his bandmates to Charles Manson. Manson’s true goal was rock stardom; masterminding the gruesome mass murders that his followers perpetrated in 1969 was a vengeful outgrowth of his thwarted ambition. 

The Beach Boys did record and release a reworked version of one of Manson’s songs, "Never Learn Not To Love" as a B-side in 1968. Love says that having introduced Manson to producer Terry Melcher, who firmly rebuffed the would-be musician, "weighed on Dennis pretty heavily," and while Jardine emphatically and truthfully says "it wasn’t his fault," it’s easy to imagine those events driving some of the self-destructive alcohol and drug abuse that marked Dennis’ later years. 

The final minutes of The Beach Boys can be summed up as "if all else fails commercially, release a double album of beloved greatest hits." The 1970s were a very fruitful time for the band creatively, as they invited funk specialists Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar to join the band and relocated to the Netherlands to pursue a harder, more far-out sound. Although the band were proud of the lush, singer/songwriter material they were recording, the albums of this era were sales disappointments and represented a continuing slide into uncoolness and obscurity. 

Read more: Brian Wilson Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Creative Genius. But The Beach Boys Are More Than Just Him.

Once again, Capitol Records turned to the band’s early material to boost sales. The 1974 double-album compilation Endless Summer, comprised of hits from 1962-1965, went triple platinum, relaunching The Beach Boys as a successful heritage touring act. A new generation of fans — "8 to 80," as the band put it — flocked to their bright harmonies and upbeat tempos, as seen in the final moments of the documentary when the Beach Boys played to a crowd of over 500,000 fans on July 4, 1980. 

While taking their place as America’s Band didn’t do much to make them cool, it did ensure one more wave of chart success with 1988’s No. 1 hit "Kokomo" and ultimately led to broader appreciation for Pet Sounds and its sibling experimental albums like Smiley Smile. That wave of popularity has proven remarkably durable; after all, they’ve ridden it to a documentary for Disney+ nearly 45 years later. 

Listen: 50 Essential Songs By The Beach Boys Ahead Of "A GRAMMY Salute" To America's Band

Beatles Let it Be
The Beatles during the 'Let it Be' sessions in 1969

Photo: Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd

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5 Lesser Known Facts About The Beatles' 'Let It Be' Era: Watch The Restored 1970 Film

More than five decades after its 1970 release, Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 'Let it Be' film is restored and re-released on Disney+. With a little help from the director himself, here are some less-trodden tidbits from this much-debated film and its album era.

GRAMMYs/May 8, 2024 - 05:34 pm

What is about the Beatles' Let it Be sessions that continues to bedevil diehards?

Even after their aperture was tremendously widened with Get Back — Peter Jackson's three-part, almost eight hour, 2021 doc — something's always been missing. Because it was meant as a corrective to a film that, well, most of us haven't seen in a long time — if at all.

That's Let it Be, the original 1970 documentary on those contested, pivotal, hot-and-cold sessions, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Much of the calcified lore around the Beatles' last stand comes not from the film itself, but what we think is in the film.

Let it Be does contain a couple of emotionally charged moments between maturing Beatles. The most famous one: George Harrison getting snippy with Paul McCartney over a guitar part, which might just be the most blown-out-of-proportion squabble in rock history.

But superfans smelled blood in the water: the film had to be a locus for the Beatles' untimely demise. To which the film's director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, might say: did we see the same movie?

"Looking back from history's vantage point, it seems like everybody drank the bad batch of Kool-Aid," he tells GRAMMY.com. Lindsay-Hogg had just appeared at an NYC screening, and seemed as surprised by it as the fans: "Because the opinion that was first formed about the movie, you could not form on the actual movie we saw the other night."

He's correct. If you saw Get Back, Lindsay-Hogg is the babyfaced, cigar-puffing auteur seen throughout; today, at 84, his original vision has been reclaimed. On May 8, Disney+ unveiled a restored and refreshed version of the Let it Be film — a historical counterweight to Get Back. Temperamentally, though, it's right on the same wavelength, which is bound to surprise some Fabs disciples.

With the benefit of Peter Jackson's sound-polishing magic and Giles Martin's inspired remixes of performances, Let it Be offers a quieter, more muted, more atmospheric take on these sessions. (Think fewer goofy antics, and more tight, lingering shots of four of rock's most evocative faces.)

As you absorb the long-on-ice Let it Be, here are some lesser-known facts about this film, and the era of the Beatles it captures — with a little help from Lindsay-Hogg himself.

The Beatles Were Happy With The Let It Be Film

After Lindsay-Hogg showed the Beatles the final rough cut, he says they all went out to a jovial meal and drinks: "Nice food, collegial, pleasant, witty conversation, nice wine."

Afterward, they went downstairs to a discotheque for nightcaps. "Paul said he thought Let it Be was good. We'd all done a good job," Lindsay-Hogg remembers. "And Ringo and [wife] Maureen were jiving to the music until two in the morning."

"They had a really, really good time," he adds. "And you can see like [in the film], on their faces, their interactions — it was like it always was."

About "That" Fight: Neither Paul Nor George Made A Big Deal

At this point, Beatles fanatics can recite this Harrison-in-a-snit quote to McCartney: "I'll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you… I'll do it." (Yes, that's widely viewed among fans as a tremendous deal.)

If this was such a fissure, why did McCartney and Harrison allow it in the film? After all, they had say in the final cut, like the other Beatles.

"Nothing was going to be in the picture that they didn't want," Lindsay-Hogg asserts. "They never commented on that. They took that exchange as like many other exchanges they'd had over the years… but, of course, since they'd broken up a month before [the film's release], everyone was looking for little bits of sharp metal on the sand to think why they'd broken up."

About Ringo's "Not A Lot Of Joy" Comment…

Recently, Ringo Starr opined that there was "not a lot of joy" in the Let it Be film; Lindsay-Hogg says Starr framed it to him as "no joy."

Of course, that's Starr's prerogative. But it's not quite borne out by what we see — especially that merry scene where he and Harrison work out an early draft of Abbey Road's "Octopus's Garden."

"And Ringo's a combination of so pleased to be working on the song, pleased to be working with his friend, glad for the input," Lindsay-Hogg says. "He's a wonderful guy. I mean, he can think what he wants and I will always have greater affection for him.

"Let's see if he changes his mind by the time he's 100," he added mirthfully.

Lindsay-Hogg Thought It'd Never Be Released Again

"I went through many years of thinking, It's not going to come out," Lindsay-Hogg says. In this regard, he characterizes 25 or 30 years of his life as "solitary confinement," although he was "pushing for it, and educating for it."

"Then, suddenly, the sun comes out" — which may be thanks to Peter Jackson, and renewed interest via Get Back. "And someone opens the cell door, and Let it Be walks out."

Nobody Asked Him What The Sessions Were Like

All four Beatles, and many of their associates, have spoken their piece on Let it Be sessions — and journalists, authors, documentarians, and fans all have their own slant on them.

But what was this time like from Lindsay-Hogg's perspective? Incredibly, nobody ever thought to check. "You asked the one question which no one has asked," he says. "No one."

So, give us the vibe check. Were the Let it Be sessions ever remotely as tense as they've been described, since man landed on the moon? And to that, Lindsay-Hogg's response is a chuckle, and a resounding, "No, no, no."

The Beatles' Final Song: Giles Martin On The Second Life Of "Now And Then" & How The Fab Four Are "Still Breaking New Ground"

Sean Ono Lennon at 2024 Oscars
Sean Ono Lennon attends the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

Photo: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images

interview

Catching Up With Sean Ono Lennon: His New Album 'Asterisms,' 'War Is Over!' Short & Shouting Out Yoko At The Oscars

Sean Ono Lennon is having a busy year, complete with a new instrumental album, 'Asterisms,' and an Oscar-winning short film, 'War is Over!' The multidisciplinary artist discusses his multitude of creative processes.

GRAMMYs/May 2, 2024 - 02:23 pm

Marketing himself as a solo musician is a little excruciating for Sean Ono Lennon. It might be for you, too, if you had globally renowned parents. Despite his musical triumphs over the years, Lennon is reticent to join the solo artist racket.

Which made a certain moment at the 2024 Oscars absolutely floor him: Someone walked up to Lennon and told him "Dead Meat," from his last solo album, 2006's Friendly Fire, was his favorite song ever. Not just on the album, or by Lennon. Ever.

"I was so shocked. I wanted to say something nice to him, because it was so amazing for someone to say that," Lennon tells GRAMMY.com. "But it was too late anyway." (Thankfully, after he tweeted about that out-of-nowhere moment, the complimenter connected with him.)

It's a nice glimmer of past Lennon, one who straightforwardly walked in his father's shoes. But what's transpired since 2006 is far more interesting than any Beatle mini-me.

Creatively, Lennon has a million irons in the fire — with the bands the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, the Claypool Lennon Delirium, his mom's Plastic Ono Band, and beyond.

And in 2024, two projects have taken center stage. In February, he delivered his album Asterisms, a genreless instrumental project with a murderer's row of musicians in John Zorn's orbit, released on Zorn's storied experimental label Tzadik Records. Then just a few weeks later, his 2023 short film War is Over! — for which he co-wrote the original story, and is inspired by John Lennon and Yoko Ono's timeless peace anthem "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" — won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

On the heels of the latter, Lennon sat down with GRAMMY.com to offer insights on both projects, and how they each contributed to "really exciting" creative liberation.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You shouted out your mom at the Oscars a couple of months back. How'd that feel?

Well, honestly, it felt really cosmic that it was Mother's Day [in the UK]. So I just kind of presented as a gift to her. It felt really good. It felt like the stars were aligning in many ways, because she was watching. It was a very sweet moment for me.

What was the extent of your involvement with the War Is Over! short?

Universal Music had talked to me about maybe coming up with a music video idea. I had been trying to develop a music video for a while, and I didn't like any of the concepts; it just felt boring to me.

The idea of watching a song that everyone listens to already, every year, with some new visual accompaniment — it didn't feel that interesting. So, I thought it'd be better to do a short film that kind of exemplifies the meaning of the song, because then, it would be something new and interesting to watch.

That's when I called my friend Adam Gates, who works at Pixar. I was asking him if he had any ideas for animators, or whatever. I knew Adam because he had a band called Beanpole. [All My Kin] was a record he made years ago with his friends, and never came out. It's this incredible record, so I actually put it out on my label, Chimera Music.

But Adam couldn't really help me with the film, because he's still contractually with Pixar, and they have a lot of work to do. But he introduced me to his friend Dave Mullins, who's the director. He had just left Pixar to start a new production company. He could do it, because he was independent, freelance.

Dave and I had a meeting. In that first meeting, we were bouncing around ideas, and we came up with the concept for the chess game and the pigeon. I wanted it to be a pigeon, because I really love pigeons, and birds. We wrote it together, and then we started working on it.

So, I was there from before that existed, and I saw the thing through as well. I also brought in Peter Jackson to do the graphics. 

This message unfortunately resonates more than ever. Republicans used to be the war hawks; now, it's Democrats. What a reversal.

It just feels like we live in an upside-down world. Something happened where we went through a wormhole, and we're in this alternate reality. I don't know how it happened. But it's not the only [example]; a lot of things just seem absolutely absurd with the world these days.

But hopefully, it points toward something better. I try to be optimistic. In the Hegelian dialectic, you have to have a thesis and antithesis, and the synthesis is when they fuse to become a better idea. So, I'm hoping that all the tension in society right now is what the final stage of synthesis looks like.

How'd the filmmaking process roll on from there?

Dave had made a really great short film called LOU when he was at Pixar; that was also nominated for an Oscar. He and [producer] Brad [Booker] know a ton of talented people; they have an amazing character designer.

We started sending files back and forth with WingNut in New Zealand; they would be adding the skins to the characters.

One of the first stages was the performance capture, where you basically attach a bunch of ping pong balls to a catsuit and a bicycle helmet. You record the position of these ping pong balls in a three-dimensional space. That gives you the performance that you map the skins onto on the computer later on. 

For a couple of years, there was a lot of production. David and his team did a really good job of inventing and designing uniforms for the imaginary armies that never existed, because we really didn't want to identify any army as French or British or German or anything.

We wanted to get a kind of parallel universe — an abstraction of the First World War. We designed it so that one army was based on round geometry, and the other was based on angular geometry.

It was a long process, and it was really fun. I learned a lot about modern computer animation.

Between Em Cooper's GRAMMY-winning "I'm Only Sleeping" video and now this, the Beatles' presence in visual media is expanding outward in a cool way.

I think we've been really fortunate to have a lot of really great projects to give to the world. I've only been working on the Beatles and John Lennon stuff directly in the last couple of years, and it's been really exciting for me.

And a big challenge, obviously, because I don't [hesitates] want to f— up. [Laughs.] But it's been a real honor. And I'm very grateful to my mom for giving me the freedom to try all these wacky ideas. Because a lot of people are like, "Oh, when are you going to stop trying to rehash the past with the Beatles, or John Lennon?"

Because the modern world is as it is, I feel like we have a responsibility to try to make sure that the Beatles and John Lennon's music remains out there in the public consciousness, because I think it's really important. I think the world needs to remember the Beatles' music, and remember John and Yoko. It's really about making sure we don't get lost in the white noise of modernity.

I love Asterisms. Where are you at in your journey as a guitarist? I'm sure you unlocked something here.

Like it's a video game. It's weird — I don't even consider myself a guitar player. I'm just, like, a software. But I think it's more about confidence — because it's really hard for me to get over my insecurity with playing and stuff.

For so many different reasons, it's probably just the way I'm designed — being John and
Yoko's kid, growing up with a lot of preconceived notions or expectations about me, musically.

So, it's always been hard to accept myself as a musician, and this was kind of a lesson in getting over myself. Accepting what I wanted to play, and just doing it.

This is my Tzadik record, so it had to be all these fancy, amazing musicians. It doesn't matter what your chops are: it's more about how you feel, and the feeling you bring to your performance.

Once we recorded, it sounded amazing, because we recorded live to tape. So, everything on that album is live, except for my guitar solos. I didn't play my solos live, because I had to play the rhythm guitar. I was just paying attention to the band and cueing people. Once we finished the basic tracks, it just took us a couple of days, and it was done.

It was the simplest record I've ever done, because there were no vocals, so there wasn't a lot of mixing process. We recorded live to 16-track tape, and it was done.

I caught wind a couple of years back that you were working on another solo record simultaneously. Is that true?

I was working on a solo record of songs with lyrics. I finished it, and — I don't know, I think this speaks to the mental problems I have — but I didn't like it suddenly, and i never put it out. I just felt weird about it. I think I overthought it or something.

Then Zorn asked me to do an instrumental thing, and it was a no-brainer, because I've been a fan my whole life. The idea of getting to do something on his label was really an honor.

I got turned on to so many amazing musicians from Zorn, like Joey Baron, Dave Douglas, Kenny Wolleson, and Marc Ribot. Growing up in New York, that's always been my idea of where the greatest musicians are — Zorn and his gang.

Why'd you feel weird about the other album? Did it just not have the juice?

It's not that I didn't think it had the juice. I just got uncomfortable with the idea of putting out a solo record, and the whole process. I got nervous. I still think it's good. But I don't know if it's good enough to warrant me releasing it.

That's fine playing in bands, like the [Claypool Lennon] Delirium and GOASTT [Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger]. It takes a degree of unnecessary pressure off of making music. But as soon as your actual birth name is on the record, it starts to feel uncomfortable for me.

People are ruthless today, period. But they're especially critical of me with music. So, it's like, Do I really need to do that s—? It's a little more awkward: "I, myself, Sean Lennon, am putting out my art, and here it is." I'd rather be part of the band.

The Beatles' Final Song: Giles Martin On The Second Life Of "Now And Then" & How The Fab Four Are "Still Breaking New Ground"

Photo of Noah Kahan (L) and Olivia Rodrigo (R) perform during the GUTS World Tour in New York City
Noah Kahan (L) and Olivia Rodrigo (R) perform during the GUTS World Tour in New York City

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

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10 Record Store Day 2024 Releases We're Excited About: The Beatles, Notorious B.I.G. & More

In honor of Record Store Day 2024, which falls on April 20, learn about 10 limited, exclusive drops to watch out for when browsing your local participating record store.

GRAMMYs/Apr 18, 2024 - 02:20 pm

From vinyl records by the 1975 and U2, to album reissues and previously unreleased music, record stores around the world are stocking limited and exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2024

The first Record Store Day kicked off in 2008 and every year since, the event supporting independently owned record stores has grown exponentially. On Record Store Day 2024, which falls on April 20, there will be more than 300 special releases available from artists as diverse as  the Beatles and Buena Vista Social Club. 

In honor of Record Store Day 2024 on April 20, here are 10 limited and exclusive drops to watch out for when browsing your local participating record store. 

David Bowie — Waiting in the Sky (Before The Starman Came To Earth

British glam rocker David Bowie was a starman and an icon. Throughout his career, he won five GRAMMY Awards and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. 

On RSD 2024, Bowie's estate is dialing it back to his Ziggy Stardust days to make Waiting in the Sky (Before The Starman Came To Earth) available for the first time. The record features recordings of Bowie's sessions at Trident Studios in 1971, and many songs from those sessions would be polished for his 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The tracklisting for Waiting in the Sky differs from Ziggy Stardust and features four songs that didn’t make the final album.

Talking Heads — Live at WCOZ 77

New York City-based outfit Talking Heads defined the sound of new wave in the late '70s and into the next decade. For their massive influence, the group received two GRAMMY nominations and was later honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.

While promoting their debut album Talking Heads: 77, the quartet recorded a live performance for the New Albany, Pennsylvania radio station WCOZ in 1977. The Live at WCOZ 77 LP will include 14 songs from that performance at Northern Studios, including seven that will be released for the first time. Among the previously unheard cuts are "Love Goes To A Building On Fire" and "Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town." During that session, Talking Heads also performed songs like "Psycho Killer" and "Pulled Up."

The Doors — Live at Konserthuset, Stockholm, September 20, 1968

The Doors were at the forefront of the psychedelic rock movement of the 1960s and early '70s. One of Jim Morrison's most epic performances with the band will be available on vinyl for the first time. 

Live at Konserthuset, Stockholm, September 20, 1968 includes recordings from a radio broadcast that was never commercially released. The 3-LP release includes performances of songs from the Doors’ first three albums, including 1967’s self-titled and Strange Days. In addition to performing their classics like "Light My Fire" and "You're Lost Little Girl," the Doors and Morrison also covered "Mack the Knife" and Barret Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" live during this session. 

Dwight Yoakam — The Beginning And Then Some: The Albums of the '80s

Over the course of his 40-year career, country music icon Dwight Yoakam has received 18 GRAMMY nominations and won two golden gramophones for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1994 and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals in 2000.

On Record Store Day 2024, Yoakam will celebrate the first chapter of his legacy with a new box set: The Beginning And Then Some: The Albums of the '80s. His debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and 1987’s Hillbilly Deluxe will be included in the collection alongside exclusive disc full of rarities and demos. The 4-LP set includes his classics like "Honky Tonk Man," "Little Ways," and "Streets of Bakersfield." The box set will also be available to purchase on CD.  

The Beatles — The Beatles Limited Edition RSD3 Turntable

Beatlemania swept across the U.S. following the Beatles’ first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February 1964, setting the stage for the British Invasion. With The Beatles Limited Edition RSD3 Turntable, the band will celebrate their iconic run of appearances on Sullivan’s TV program throughout that year.

The box set will include a Beatles-styled turntable and four 3-inch records. Among those records are the hits "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," and "I Saw Her Standing There," which the Beatles performed on Sullivan's TV across several appearances. 

Among 23 GRAMMY nominations, the Beatles won seven golden gramophones. In 2014, the Recording Academy honored them with the Lifetime Achievement Award.   

Olivia Rodrigo and Noah Kahan — From The BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge LP

Olivia Rodrigo and Noah Kahan are two of the biggest pop stars in the world right now — Rodrigo hitting the stage with No Doubt at Coachella and near the end of her global GUTS Tour; Kahan fresh off a Best New Artist nomination at the 2024 GRAMMYs. Now, they're teaming up for the split single From The BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge LP, a release culled from each artist's "BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge" sessions. 

The special vinyl release will include Rodrigo's live cover of Kahan's breakout hit "Stick Season." The single also includes Kahan’s cover of Rodrigo’s song "Lacy" from her second album, GUTS. This month, they performed the song live together on Rodrigo’s Guts World Tour stop in Madison Square Garden.  

Buena Vista Social Club — Buena Vista Social Club

Influential Cuban group Buena Vista Social Club popularized genres and sounds from their country, including son cubano, bolero, guajira, and danzón. Buena Vista Social Club's landmark self-titled LP won the GRAMMY for Best Tropical Latin Album in 1998.

The following year, a documentary was released that captured two of the band's live performances in New York City and Amsterdam. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the documentary, the Buena Vista Social Club album will be released on a limited edition gold vinyl with remastered audio and bonus tracks.

Buena Vista Social Club is one of the 10 recordings to be newly inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as part of the 2024 inductee class.

Danny Ocean — 54+1

Venezuelan reggaeton star Danny Ocean broke through on a global level in 2016 with his self-produced debut single "Me Rehúso," a heartbreaking track inspired by Ocean fleeing Venezuela due to the country's economic instability and the lover he had left behind. 

With "Me Rehúso," Ocean became the first solo Latin artist to surpass one billion streams on Spotify, on the platform with a single song. "Me Rehúso" was included on his 2019 debut album 54+1, which will be released on vinyl for the first time for Record Store Day.

Lee "Scratch" Perry & The Upsetters — Skanking With The Upsetter

Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry pioneered dub music in the 1960s and '70s. Perry received five GRAMMY nominations in his lifetime, including winning Best Reggae Album in 2003 for Jamaican E.T.

To celebrate the legacy of Perry's earliest dub recordings, a limited edition run of his 2004 album Skanking With The Upsetter will be released on Record Store Day. His joint LP with his house band the Upsetters will be pressed on transparent yellow vinyl. Among the rare dub tracks on the album are "Bucky Skank," "Seven & Three Quarters (Skank)," and "IPA Skank." 

Read more: Lee "Scratch" Perry Documentary Director Sets The Record Straight On The Reggae Icon's Legacy — Including A Big Misconception About Bob Marley

Notorious B.I.G. — Ready To Die: The Instrumentals

The Notorious B.I.G. helped define the sound of East Coast rap in the '90s. Though he was tragically murdered in 1997, his legacy continues to live on through his two albums. 

During his lifetime, the Notorious B.I.G. dropped his 1994 debut album Ready to Die, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop releases of all-time. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the album (originally released in September '94), his estate will release Ready To Die: The Instrumentals. The limited edition vinyl will include select cuts from the LP like his hits "Big Poppa," "One More Chance/Stay With Me," and "Juicy." The album helped him garner his first GRAMMY nomination in 1996 for Best Rap Solo Performance. The Notorious B.I.G. received an additional three nominations after his death in 1998. 

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