Friday, January 9, 2009

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da

I was talking to a good friend (and probably the only person who ever reads this blog) about favorite Beatles songs the other day. I'm never able to name only one favorite of my own, though I do have some songs that always end up in my list of favorites. She, though, knew exactly what her top three were, and one of them was "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da." To which I said something like, "Oh. Hmm. Wait-- really? Your favorite? Of them ALL?"

I mean, I don't dislike this song by any means. On its own terms, it's just fine. But I've always considered it sort of a romp, sort of too breezy for its own good. I decided I needed to reexamine it and see what I was missing.

Paul wrote this based on the "ob-la-di, ob-la-da" line that a Nigerian conga drummer he knew in New York would chant during performances. It's apparently a real Yoruban phrase that means something along the lines of "life goes on." I guess the happy-go-lucky feel of that appealed to Paul, who was inspired to write one of the most conventional love stories ever, setting the protagonists' march to domestic bliss to a vaguely African/Caribbean beat.

Listening to it again I'm really struck by how clean and well-produced it is. I get the sense that every element here-- from the raucous piano banging at the beginning, to John and George's goofy "Yellow-Submarine"-esque background noisemaking, to the simple-yet-perfect bouncy bass line, to the understated glee of the sax-- contributes to the feel that Paul was going for. That's why it's always been so surprising to me that sessions for "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" were some of the most contentious in Beatles history, with Paul insisting they do about a zillion takes with all sorts of variations to get it JUST RIGHT. The other three Beatles weren't even that hot on this song to begin with, and overworking a light number like this when they had their own songs they wanted to get to seems to have made everyone murderous. It is safe to assume that, cheerful as John and George sound here, they were THIS CLOSE to wringing Paul's neck.

Given all that, it's amazing that the song does achieve such lightness. More than anything, the recording is a testament to the Beatles' professionalism. Plus, I must admit, it's a solid little song anyway-- a strong melody, an excellent lead vocal by Paul, and an all-around good time. It's still not my favorite EVER (I'll never be able to come up with just one favorite anyway), but I get the appeal a lot more now.

"Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da," side A track 4 of the White Album, released in the U.K. November 22, 1968, in the U.S. November 25, 1968.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

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