Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oh! Darling

Hey, kids! Here's a Beatles/punctuation pop quiz that I just came up with: which Beatles songs have exclamation points in them? One of them is, of course, "Oh! Darling"-- the others I haven't covered yet. Hint: each is awesome.

But forget those other songs, because today is "Oh! Darling" day, and boy is it ever, man, let's just fucking LEAN into these end-of-March blues, let's hang our heads low before the rock god that is Paul McCartney and jam in whatever way we know how, because spring is coming but man oh man we still got these blues.

I am on the record as adoring Beatles songs that are as driven by the vocal as this one is, and Paul's gut-busting vocal on "Oh! Darling" has an excellent and very famous story. This, like most of Abbey Road, was recorded in the first half of 1969, so it had been four or five years since Paul had gone into full-on Little Richard mode and screamed the shit out of a song. In order to do this one justice, he practiced his scream a lot-- screaming in the bathtub at home, coming in early to Abbey Road Studios to warm up the scream, and Lord knows what else. And if one day's take didn't capture the vocal the way he wanted it, he wouldn't even bother with a second take-- he'd just wait for the next day to start fresh. It sounds like Paul "Maria Callas" McCartney was in total diva mode, which is something I deeply respect. (I love divas.) And with "Oh! Darling" available in an earlier version from the Get Back sessions on Anthology 3, you can tell the diva-attitude was warranted. On that version you can hear poor Paul trying his best, but in trying to sound like a rock star, he comes off more like a game show host. His tone is just so pure when it should be ragged. Luckily, in the final cut, the vocal is exactly as it should be. Paul nails the "tearing flesh" sound that he could be capable of at his rocking best, and all the echo effect just makes it sound that much more retro and funky. He might be singing that he'll never do me no harm, but I don't even believe him. I also don't care. He can harm me as much as he pleases. (In his final interview in 1980, John sneered that he could have sung this song much better. But you know what? John's a dick.)

In John's defense, though, he and George are rocking the doo-wop backing vocals. (There's more of John's vocal on that Anthology track too-- I actually kind of like it played up.) John is on the piano here as well, reiterating the doo-woppy feel with those simple percussive chords. When the middle eights come in, and Paul's vocal gets particularly raspy, George is right there on guitar driving the beat, and Ringo swaggers sexily through his drum line, inserting fills leading into the middle eights that are so hot they're practically snogging the bass.

And, well, it's the bass that shares star billing with the vocal here on "Oh! Darling." If this song sounds like it could have been a solo Paul McCartney song-- and I know that this has been remarked upon-- it's probably because that diva streak that I do kind of love has made Paul emphasize the vocals and bass above all other elements here. I mean, that's okay. He's a genius, and they were breaking up anyway, and the song sounds amazing, so who am I to say anything? Speaking of amazing, WHAT A BASS LINE. It's practically singing a counter-melody, it's got so much personality. We're all clear on Paul's awesomeness on the bass, right? In case you're not convinced, please go back and listen again to "Oh! Darling" so you can properly appreciate the awesomeness of the bass. The line is so interesting, yet sounds so inevitable in the context of the song, that it's totally the work of genius.

All in all, a huge bright spot on Abbey Road-- the Beatles work together (for a change) and come up with this total unique bluesy doo-wop melange with a McCartney vocal so raw it's practically bleeding. Even this late, they still freaking had it, kids. Just imagine what they could have accomplished together if they all hadn't been such divas.

"Oh! Darling," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S., October 1, 1969.


  1. Would I be an insensitive guest if I said I thought John probably could have sung it better? Sometimes, when Paul did something 'different' with his voice, it sounded a bit forced. The best example of this is She's a Woman. I don't even know what he was going for there (although I certainly love it). Even I'm Down sounds a little off somehow, kind of like an 8-year-old pretending to be a man. Maybe the only time I think he nailed his scream is Helter Skelter. I wish I could explain it better. Here, I think he nails the verses, but is forcing the bridges. And the "Wooos!" in the refrains.

    But damned if I can argue with you about the bass work ...

  2. Hmm-- interesting. I don't agree. I mean, I think Paul cultivated the "She's a Woman"-esque screaminess when he was young very much on purpose, so there was always an air of staginess to it, whereas John's vocals seem to come from something more genuine (or else he's just better at faking it). But at their best I don't think this style of Paul's is forced per se. "Oh! Darling" is sort of interesting just because he rehearsed SO hard to make it sound unrehearsed. I might not be articulating this well, but rehearsing isn't quite the same as forcing. Eh, just me. Truly, though, I can't hear John on this. He's perfect on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which is almost like a reply to this song and far more raw.

  3. I have been anticipating and looking forward to the day you chose Oh! Darling. It is one of my all time favorite Beatles songs. It screams (pun intended) to be cranked up LOUD. And that's how i always listen to it. Make the eardrums bleed. I disagree with Troy; i do not think John could have sung this better. Paul obviously cared a lot about crafting this song. Your story of the multiple singing sessions bares this out. And regarding that, I remember reading that for the really raw sounding verses, Paul came in early, ahead of all the others, to "sing his voice raw" in preparation for laying down tracks. So, the recording is a made up of his "normal" voice texture and his "roughed up" voice. He knew what he wanted, and how to get it. And i think it rocks.

  4. Frank, this one was for you! I do take requests from time to time. :) I just had to wait for a day when I had the proper amount of time to devote to this. But yeah, I love it too-- Paul's vocals are capable of making me giddy.

  5. Now that I think about it, I can hear John singing the verses, but not the bridge. And maybe I can hear him sing the verses because, if you listen to the Anthology disc, you can hear him sing the verses ...

  6. Love this song ... one of Paul's best vocals ... and as a type of singer myself (can only say "type" in the same paragraph as Paul, the best rock singer ever), I'd like to add a counterpoint to the prevailing opinion. If you listen to the song on headphones, you will hear that there is no raspiness in the verse(s) part of the song. The screaming/rasp is in the bridge. What Paul was going for was a flat out, full voiced, scream your guts out sound -- THAT WAS STILL PURE -- with no raspiness from overwork. It's a very very hard thing to do - and this is why he only did one take and went home, because 2 or 3 takes into it and the purity would simply be unattainable. His comment about being able to do it in one take years ago goes to the fact that - as a touring live act - he was singing every day and his voice was much stronger, and therefore his voice was able to get that balls to the walls volume dynamic without (again) losing its purity. Listen to it with the bass and treble both turned down, and you'll hear how pure his voice is, while almost blowing away the sensitivity of his AKG microphone. It is his strongest, most naked vocal performance as a Beatle. The wondrous thing for me is to conceive of what Paul McCartney say 1963 would have sounded like doing this song. We shall never know ... unless there really is a heaven. Peace.