Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hey Bulldog

If you ever need a pick-me-up-- and lately not a day goes by, it seems, when I don't-- you can do no better than to listen to "Hey Bulldog," an oft-forgotten track that is totally one of the most kickass songs they ever released.

So I have this close friend who I went to high school with, and at the time she was dismissive, if not actually contemptuous, of my affection for the Beatles. It just wasn't her scene, and that was OK, and I never really pushed Beatles on her or anything, at least not too aggressively. And then one day, years after we'd left high school, I was in her car and she put on a mix tape that someone had made her that had "Hey Bulldog" on it. I expressed surprise that she was actually listening to a Beatles song. And she was like, "I listen to this song OVER AND OVER AGAIN," and I was like "ME TOO," and she practically spoke in hushed tones when she said "this song is AMAZING." Thus is the power of "Hey Bulldog," people. Of all the Beatles' songs she'd ever heard, it took "Hey Bulldog" to finally win her over. Respect the Bulldog.

I love the story of this little video too. See, the band got together in February of 1968 to hang out in the studio and film a promotional video for "Lady Madonna," but in the course of messing around John basically wrote a song, based on a little snippet he had in his head. And then they just recorded it. (That means that the "Lady Madonna" promo video shows them actually playing and singing "Hey Bulldog." Which is weird, actually.) It wasn't until years later-- I want to say in the late '90s, when they were promoting Yellow Submarine's theatrical rerelease-- that Apple released a "Hey Bulldog" video, edited out of bits from the "Lady Madonna" video. And that's what's above.

The original title was "Hey Bullfrog," but when Paul started barking at the end and cracked all the others up, it became "Hey Bulldog" instead. And that's really in the spirit of the song, which came together in this absolutely slapdash, off the cuff, relentlessly casual way-- and yet is one of the most mind-blowing songs in the canon as far as sheer crazy off-the-hook rock.

"Hey Bulldog"'s totally rockin' status is only amplified by the fact that for much of its life it lived in unfair obscurity, squeezed onto the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. For a beloved film, Yellow Submarine has a fairly unbeloved soundtrack album, I think it's fair to say. "Hey Bulldog" was one of only four original songs in the movie, but got CUT from the movie in all but the European prints, although these days if you buy the DVD you do get the scene back in all its glory. Behold:

Cinematically, I understand why the scene was cut-- it comes from out of nowhere and kind of screws up the pacing of the epic Blue Meanie chase-- but cutting this scene meant they were cutting what was far and away the best original song in the movie. Oh well. At least they've made it right now.

So how does this song rule? Let me count the ways. It's written on a riff that's almost as infectious as the more famous one in "Day Tripper," but interestingly, it starts as a piano riff-- which might be unique among Beatles songs (at least I'm not immediately thinking of another one). The riff is great on piano, but when George's guitar comes in on it, it becomes kind of euphoric. It's a tremendous riff-- after the refrain when they have piano and bass and guitar all playing it in unison it's NUTS, right? George's guitar on this is just killer all around, really-- it's one of my favorite solos of his. Remember that they were working on this song after most recently doing Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. While those are both albums that I love... it's just so nice to hear George stepping away from the sitar for a second and rocking the hell out of his guitar again, you know?

Actually, that goes for the whole band. You can totally imagine this song as dating back to 1965, before everyone had gotten into the more decadent edges of psychedelia. Please understand that I do really like that stuff, but I also like that they found their way back to rock, too. "Hey Bulldog," historically, is kind of the beginning of the Beatles finding their way back to their roots. It's like the bridge to the Get Back project.

Anyway, I'm digressing again. What else do I love about "Hey Bulldog"? Well, I particularly love Paul's bass, which I think I hear something new to love about each time I listen. At the moment, my favorite bit is that one when John is singing "you can talk to me" in the refrain and Paul is playing this really simple two-note figure, just on a perfect fourth, and it somehow gets tenser and tenser and more drawn out, so that as he gradually adds extra notes it takes on this huge significance. Am I getting too wonky here? Probably. OK. Anyway, I also adore Ringo's stuff, particularly what he plays when everyone else has the guitar/piano riff, which is drumming that you feel in the pit of your stomach. And then there's John's completely perfect vocal. Sigh. He is truly the greatest rock singer ever, and this is one of my favorite performances of his-- the way he makes that word "lonely" all blue gives me shivers.

I know I have gone on and on, but can you believe they threw this song together in a DAY? It's a song any band would kill to have done. Do we need any more proof that they are geniuses? No. Do I need to stop dancing to myself in my desk chair? Probably.

"Hey Bulldog," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Yellow Submarine, January 17, 1969; in the U.S. January 13, 1969.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous


  1. I was wondering when you might cover this one; as I recall it was near the top of the "short list" of favorites for you in yonder days back (and it appears it's still there!). I've long felt that it's a bit like a "sampler platter" of so many of the styles the fellas had throughout their career together, or at least a good blending of those styles, but it's also just a lot of fun to listen to. Then again, I've been known to "hear too much into" music in the same way folks can "read too much into" bits of literature, so don't put much credence into my opinion... that said, I think I'll have this song in my head at least through the weekend!

  2. I agree, Megan, the piano riff is as catchy as the guitar riff to Day Tripper. Once you hear either of them, its in your head for the rest of the day. I enjoyed reading the history you posted, though for some reason i had been under the impression that this was a song that John and Paul wrote together. When this song first came out, i was a student at Univ of Ga, whose mascot is the bulldog. We kinda got off on that. Woof, woof. Do you know anymore?

  3. "Hey Bulldog" is one of my favorites - thanks for the little story.

  4. It wouldn't surprise me if Paul contributed a bit, Frank, considering this was written in the studio (I seem to remember reading about Paul changing a lyric by pretending to not be able to read John's handwriting, which seemed diplomatic or something) but to my ear it sounds 90% John, and I know the seed of it was his. I'm sure Mark Lewisohn or someone knows for sure. One of these days I should look it up.

    Tom, I imagine my Beatles tastes have changed very little... if anything, I have grown only more opinionated and ornery in my dotage. I hear the song as more of a throwback then you do (though it interestingly looks forward too) but I sorta also get what you mean. Like, the bass sound is a bit Abbey Roadish. Or something. Clearly "Hey Bulldog" is a song that defies the space-time continuum, or at least that's how I will refer to it forever now.

  5. For the record, you were not getting too wonky there.

  6. I absolutely love this song. You posting on this made me go dig up my tape of it.