Today I'll ease into a long, lazy week with a little "Cry Baby Cry." Maybe John thought this song was crap, as he said in later interviews, but I'm a little sick of John disavowing his excellent work, aren't you? I can be as self-conscious as anyone, Lord knows, but John-- don't be an idiot. "Cry Baby Cry" rules.
I mean, gees, John-- how can you not love a song so gloriously creepy? I can't help comparing this one to "Strawberry Fields Forever," mainly because that's John's other really great song about childhood. "Strawberry Fields" plays out in this entirely internal space in which John is trying to express his loneliness and frustration and deep, deep alientation. In "Cry Baby Cry," I think it's that same alienated brain that turns its attention outward to the people around it, who move through this absurd landscape doing meaningless things. There's something about the chain of plain declarative sentences, and the complete lack of any feeling for these people, that makes your spine tingle. As for the children, I always picture them kind of like Village of the Damned children, little pale sinister things who stare expressionlessly at the queen, who's only trying to amuse them, and then freak everyone out at the seance. Although the song progresses like a demented nursery rhyme, I can't shake the feeling that John has written himself into this song as one of the children-- I think I don't buy the entirely detached mode he's in. That's because of the chorus, which sounds more personal than the rest-- "you're old enough to know better" sounds like something he would have heard frequently in his own childhood, something that might still be haunting him.
Musically, the song amps up the creepy feel through the harmonic structure. Though the song is definitely in G major, it muddies up our sense of where the home key is by relying heavily on the VII (F) chord on the cadences, and also by spending a hell of a lot of time on e minor, the vi chord in the scale. Almost the entire length of the verse sticks to the e minor chord, though even that feel is muddied up somewhat by both the prominent descending bass line in the piano and by John's vocal melody, which is so simple and repetitive as to sound like he's mocking us with some kind of sing-song nyah-nyah line. Then when the song actually ends on the e minor chord, it's WICKED weird, right? Almost unsettling.
Speaking of that descending piano line, the whole piano part here is great. There's a lot of keyboard going on-- John plays both the piano and the organ, I know, and George Martin is on harmonium. (I can't always tell where the different keyboards are playing exactly, though the bits that might sound like accordion or something weird like that are almost certainly coming from the harmonium.) When the queen plays piano for the children, we hear a tinkly little snippet of it, which is kind of funny. But more than that, the choruses are dominated by the heavy on-the-beat piano sound, a sort of gallumphing in the piano, if you will. It gives the whole song a nice weighty feel. I also need to quickly single out the drumming. You guys, I swear, there are all these songs where I think I never noticed how great Ringo is-- there he is, just quietly being a genius off in the corner on the kit while the others bicker with each other (the "Cry Baby Cry" sessions were particularly nasty-- this is about when engineer Geoff Emerick actually quit, though that might also have to do with the emotional buildup of the very tense "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" sessions that preceded it). Anyway, leave it to Ringo to make "Cry Baby Cry" completely unforgettable. Listen to the way he slowly builds up the intensity of the drums through the song-- on the first verse he's barely a whisper and a backbeat, by the second verse you're really beginning to pay attention to him, and then by the end he's become so awesome, and so much a part of the eerie texture somehow, that it makes your gut hurt. I don't think he ever plays a verse exactly the same way twice.
The "Can You Take Me Back" coda, by the way, is a little doodle of Paul's that was actually recorded while the band was screwing around during the "I Will" sessions. I'm not sure how they came up with the idea to tack it onto the end of "Cry Baby Cry," but it sure does work well, doesn't it? Because who on earth wants to be taken back to a childhood like the one in "Cry Baby Cry"? Or if you hear the doodle as looking ahead to the next track, "Revolution #9," I mean, gees, who wants to get all nostalgic about THAT, either? I love how ironic it comes across as-- or maybe not that, maybe like a forlorn little voice asking to be saved from this part of the White Album. I don't know-- but it's good.
"Cry Baby Cry," released in the U.K. side D track 4 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.