Thursday, April 30, 2009

Good Morning Good Morning

As I get older and more boring and more prone to waking up really freaking early (like today, when I'm willingly working an early day in order to leave early for a meeting of a regional choral music consortium, of all things) I am becoming more and more the "you" of "Good Morning, Good Morning." But really, aren't we all?

And I'm convinced it's TOTALLY a masterwork, "Good Morning Good Morning"-- when I'm forced by conversational circumstances to talk about my few personal favorite Beatles songs, this one almost always finds its way there. This is the song I remember coming back to most often on Sgt. Pepper when I was about 13 and playing tracks over and over and over again in that beyond-obsessive way that young people can. I even remember spending an evening in college, when I probably had a paper or something I was avoiding, trying to notate the song's many metrical shifts just for the hell of it. (Others got drunk/high/laid. Me, I sat secluded, transcribing Beatles songs, trying to decide where the 5/4 bars were. Make of it what you will.) I don't think I ever bothered to transcribe any other songs, though, because I'm sure there aren't any songs in the canon as metrically fascinating as this one. The meat of the song, for me, is in its wicked cool rhythmic irregularities, which really just sound written to fit the jagged, snarled edges of John's lyrics. Yow, this is GOOD.

So start with the opening, which, following the rooster, is a giant crash of saxes and horns (courtesy of Sounds Incorporated, Cilla Black's backup band and a fairly successful group on their own too) so rollicking as to be kind of demented, and then the equally demented Beatles' voices singing the "good morning" refrain an irregular (and thus quite jarring) five times. If this hasn't gotten your attention, you're clearly a cyborg. Ringo's crazed drums zoom us out of the intro into the verse, and we're off into John's suburban nightmare.

Alan W. Pollack makes an analogy I've always liked, which is that in terms of lyrical content, "Good Morning Good Morning" is like "Nowhere Man" but less preachy. He's sort of right, but I think I would put it more that it's like "Nowhere Man" but more hopeless. At least in "Nowhere Man" John seems to offer a way out of the misery-- "the world is at your command," he sings-- whereas here there doesn't seem to be any element of hope beyond what's in front of us in the little, little world he's created. Plus, we're actually implicated, since he's singing at "you." That is, me. Why does it annoy me slightly when George does this kind of thing but doesn't at all here? It's not only that this song is better written than George's preachier songs, though it is. It's also that John's not so deadly serious about it. There's a dark, wry humor in the details, even in a line like "I've got nothing to say but it's okay," that makes this whole thing a lot more palatable. (And then there's that, as always with John, he's probably singing about himself as well as us. He was beyond sick of suburban living with poor Cynthia and Julian at Kenwood at this point, itching to move on, as he soon would, to something he could find more meaningful. He might be describing his own fears of mediocrity.)

Anyway, back to the music, and I gotta start by saying that RINGO IS A GOD. This might be one of my favorite tracks of Ringo's, honestly, which isn't surprising in a song so driven by its crazy multiple meters. (All over the internets, I've seen notes and comments from people praying that various of their favorite songs will be available on the Beatles Rock Band game. But this is the song I am personally praying to the Beatle gods for. I want to drum the hell out of this come September.) Everything about what Ringo's doing here rocks, from the resonance he gets when he comes down on those extra beats after verses like "call his wife in," to the intensity he puts into those soloistic fills, and just the way he's relentless on the beat underneath the verses. As relentless as the march of civilization, or something.

I have to also single out Paul, first of all for the guitar solo, which is short but awesomely sardonic (he has the solo, but George plays lead guitar elsewhere). His bass playing here is nothing to sneeze at either-- it variously acts a counterpoint to the vocal melody and to the horn part, always emphasizing the march of the beat and always doing something surprising. It's been a while since I had the opportunity to swoon over Paul on the bass, so: .

The outro might be the most famous part, though. This is where the song becomes clearly a part of the Sgt. Pepper dense-production aesthetic, though it's also hilarious in a way that makes me think it had to have been John's idea. The band and the engineers raided the sound effects archives at Abbey Road Studios, taking the rooster's crow from the beginning and riffing off of it to introduce a very silly series of animal sounds (which John asked engineer Geoff Emerick to arrange in order of who could eat, or at least maul, who). The Beatles continue to sing the chorus, repeating the line three times to keep it nice and jarring and dropping the "morning" for that extra jagged edge, but they're gradually faded out as animals seemingly stampede all over them, chased by what sounds like a pack of dogs on a foxhunt. As they ride past, one lone chicken clucks to itself-- except it's not a chicken, it's a guitar, and it's going to start playing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)." Producer George Martin absolutely deserves all the kudos he's gotten over the years for this, one of the coolest, weirdest edits on a pop album that I've ever been able to think of. Just, genius.

It all adds up to this deliciously twisted, strange, rocked-out ode to boredom-- expressed in the least boring music imaginable. Of course it appealed to teenage me, and of course it continues to do so now. Anyway, back to my boring bourgeois day! Good morning to me!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Wednesday is sometimes All-Day Meeting Day in my infinitely less interesting non-Beatles life, so I'm slacking off with an Anthology 1 quickie today. Don't worry-- I already have something more elaborate planned for tomorrow. Ooo, suspense!

Though these songs are fun in their own right, right? I mean, today's track sounds like an also-ran for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which has gotta be worth something.

"Cayenne" is a gigantic enigma, the rare Beatles track that hasn't been catalogued within an inch of its life. Very little is known about it except the following: it's credited to Paul alone, and not to Lennon-McCartney. It was recorded at Paul's home in Liverpool in the spring or early summer of 1960, along with a couple other random tracks like "You'll Be Mine." It's an instrumental, as were many other early songs by John and Paul now lost to the ether, and it features a four-guitar lineup sans drums (that's Stu Sutcliffe on bass, by the way). The early iterations of the Beatles always had problems nailing down a drummer-- drummers were rare in the Liverpool rock scene, just because most kids were much more likely to be able to afford a guitar than a drum set. Famously, the Beatles tended to book gigs around town without bothering to mention that they didn't have a drummer, and when they showed up without one and were asked, they tended to say breezily, "The rhythm's in the guitars."

Well, it's not like they're exactly making rock and roll here with their drumless texture, but those backup guitars are doing their best to get a driving Spanishy sort of rhythm going, and it's not bad. The playing all around is kind of messy, but that's likely the recording as much as anything else. I like the way the rhythm guitars go into almost a double-time feel (at about 1:04 on the video above), and the way the lead (leads?) gets all improvisatory. I mean, it's very pleasant, you know? It sounds part Spanish, part surf-rock, and just nice and mellow. Though I'm not sure it exactly hints at the level of greatness to come, Paul wrote this at 17, and if nothing else, it's a solid effort that does presage some kind of musical career for our young Paulie. Though clearly he's still finding his voice. "Cayenne" sounds like a lot of things, but to my ear, it doesn't sound much at all like a Beatles song.

So today is one of those days when I just need to have a listen and then get on with everything else. Off I go with it! Woo.

"Cayenne," released in the U.K. disc 1 track 8 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995; in the U.S. November 21, 1995.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

If You've Got Trouble

I love the Beatles as much as anyone, but after covering "Yesterday," um, yesterday, I'm in the mood to burst their bubble a little bit, get them off their high horse. So here's a song that got rejected from the same Help! album that "Yesterday" ended up on, though it was recorded a good five months earlier.

Ringo was given one song to sing on almost every Beatles album, and "If You've Got Trouble" was meant to be his vocal contribution to Help!, and was even at one point slated to be in the movie, I think. But it was scrapped in favor of the far superior "Act Naturally," and rightly so. I like the video below because it pairs this rare Beatles misstep with another crappy Beatles product (which in fairness had nothing to do with the actual Beatles), ABC's Beatles cartoon show, which ran in the States on Saturday mornings between 1965 and 1967 and seems to have made the world a more miserable place through its sheer existence. Huzzah!

"If You've Got Trouble," along with the very few other unreleased Beatles tracks, acquired mystical status far beyond its actual worth in the years before it was released legally on Anthology 2. (See, so if we ever do get to hear the 27-minute "Helter Skelter," it will probably be as disappointing as this, with our luck-- and yet I can't imagine that to actually be the case.) But the Beatles really did leave it off the album for a very clear reason-- it's less strong than the songs that are on Help! Much as people like me would love to hear everything they ever did, well, it's tracks like this that make the Anthologies (as well as all the illegal bootlegs I know of) more curiosities than anything else. While they're interesting historically, you'd just as soon listen to an actual album more times than not.

Ringo famously doesn't have a very wide vocal range, but in the best songs that John and Paul wrote for him, the smaller pitch range sounds completely organic and in keeping with the spirit of the song: think "With a Little Help from My Friends" or "Yellow Submarine" or even "I Wanna Be Your Man," which all work not in spite of, but because of, the limited pitch range in the melody. "If You've Got Trouble," though, sounds like John and Paul (who I'm pretty sure cranked this one out together) feel constrained as they write. The melody isn't just noticeably small, but also pretty awkward, which they must have known, and you can't help but wonder if they made the verses a little asymmetrical just to make it more interesting. And then there are the lyrics, which are dumb ("you think I'm soft in the head"??). Honestly, they just sound out of ideas. They sound tired.

And so does the band as they try to hack it. Had they released this song, they no doubt would have cleaned this up, but this is more like an unintentional racket than any other Beatles track I can immediately think of-- like they're still figuring out how to play it, so they're just trying out every idea they're having at once. George's guitar ostinato is fussy and lends the whole thing an unnecessary thickness, and he can't seem to think of much to do with his guitar solo either. (Though this was the third Help! track they were recording in one day, after finishing up "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Tell Me What You See," so after that long a day maybe any guitar solo would sound uninspired.) I also don't really love what John (I guess?) is doing with that treble drone thing on his guitar. And though I actually do enjoy the way that Ringo is throwing himself into the drumming in a valiant attempt to save the whole thing, I'm not sure his cymbal-heavy approach is doing them any favors.

Honestly, though, I didn't mean to be so negative. (Truth? I'd still rather listen to "If You've Got Trouble" than "The Fool on the Goddamned Hill.") As a Beatles song, it's fairly catchy and stuff. It just pales in comparison with the work they actually released. Still, sometimes it's nice to remind ourselves that even the Beatles had the occasional bad day. Now that you've listened to this, go back and listen to "Act Naturally" so Ringo and the band can acquit themselves-- everything about that track is more fun.

"If You've Got Trouble," released in the U.K. disc 1 track 5 of Anthology 2, March 18, 1996; in the U.S. March 19, 1996.

Monday, April 27, 2009


The recent outbreak of swine flu, while tragic, helped put "Piggies" in my head this morning. But it turns out I've already covered it, and it would probably just be a temptation to indulge in too much irreverence anyway. So what the hell. Instead, today I'll listen to "Yesterday" for the 3,852,063rd time.

We have already witnessed what Paul McCartney can do with only his eyes. Now watch as he makes sweet love to you with the power of only his eyebrows.

Did I even need to throw in a video? Or were you already singing along in your heads before you even got that far? Or maybe you were singing one of the over 3,000 cover versions that have been recorded (for this is the most frequently covered song ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). If you were thinking of a cover, do yourself a favor and play the video again to cleanse your brain out, because you need to be reminded that no one-- NO ONE-- does this better than Paul. (This is actually a good rule of thumb for Beatles covers, period, with very very very very few exceptions.)

Because, see, despite any sarcasm or whatever, I really love "Yesterday." How could I not love "Yesterday?" I'd have to turn in my Beatles fan card if I didn't. It's just that it's so darned DAUNTING to attempt to say anything about this song. That's true of the rest of the Beatles catalog, too, but "Yesterday" is kind of different. It's like it's a miracle that it even exists. And for me, it summons up a weird mixture of reverence and that not-quite-contemptuous contempt that familiarity can breed. (In that way it's sort of like Roman Catholicism for me-- the religion that I was brought up with, but don't have much to do with anymore. Sorry, I can't think of a less clunky analogy.)

In a gigantic nutshell, the story of how pop music's crowning achievement got written is that Paul woke up one morning in the summer of 1964 with it playing in his head. It must be nice to be a genius, right? Although I do kind of understand this. I have obviously never written anything even a little bit on par with "Yesterday" (else I'd be writing this post from my estate in Mallorca) but I do write poems here and there. (I went to grad school for it. Clearly, that degree is being put to good use here in blogland.) And I know from experience that if you're in a period when you're working hard on your writing and just taking the time and making the effort to be super creative, art can sometimes come to you like this, with no apparent effort at all. But it's actually the culmination of all the work you've already done. Your subconscious just had to release the spigot so it could get out there, and that can happen any time, usually when least expected. Sometimes it happens while you're sleeping. Which is why it's smart to keep a notebook by one's bed, or, if you're Paul, a piano. If you do anything creative yourself, you probably already know this.

So anyway, once Paul had recorded the melody that was to become "Yesterday," he made sure as best he could that he hadn't accidentally stolen it from someone else, because even in its infancy the melody sounded like a well-honed classic. When it was clear that it was all his, he dithered with it further, putting off writing real lyrics to it (which is why it was called "Scrambled Eggs" for a long while) and flummoxing the other Beatles when the lyrics were finally written as to how to record the thing. The song seemed so soft and wussy and old-timey that the band just couldn't figure out what to do with it and how to put it into their own idiom, though at least they recognized a killer song when they heard it and decided against scrapping it. (Paul at one point offered the song to some other English pop singer of the time, and the guy turned it down because it was too soft. I don't remember that guy's name. Hey, you know what would have helped me remember his name? If he had been the first freaking artist to record "Yesterday." What an idiot.)

Even if someone had beaten the Beatles to the punch, though, I doubt what's-his-name or anyone at all could ever beat the version that they did finally come up with. "Yesterday" is the first Beatles song that features just one Beatle (there would be more), Paul on his acoustic guitar and an unharmonized vocal. It's also the first strings arrangement on a Beatles song, featuring a string quartet scored by producer George Martin. Every element of the song is a model of a perfect understatement, which is why it all works so goshdarned well. Paul's voice is simple and plaintive. The guitar is a mere whisper. The strings capture malaise with eloquent economy: there's not one note in the arrangement that feels unnecessary, not one painfully yanked heartstring. (Contrast this with "She's Leaving Home" and you immediately hear George Martin's importance to the clean Beatley aesthetic, not to mention his sheer genius.)

Still and all, the other three Beatles vetoed releasing "Yesterday" as a single. (It got a release in the U.S. just because Capitol didn't give a damn about the Beatles' wishes.) The song ended up as the penultimate track on the B side of Help! I know this is pretty much impossible, but try to imagine never having heard this song before. You've been to see Help! with your girlfriends and have been nursing dreams ever since of snuggling with your favorite Beatle in that comfortable looking pit that John sleeps in. And now you're playing your hot-off-the-presses soundtrack album. Right after "I've Just Seen a Face" (which made you swoon to the point of needing to sit down), another acoustic number comes on, much slower... I mean, does your jaw drop? It sounds a little bit like something your parents would listen to, but that's PAUL singing it, and, um, wow. What does it sound like? Does it sound like history in the making? I don't know. But it's interesting to think about.

And, you know, when I really listen to "Yesterday"-- when I'm not just tolerating some crappy version of it playing in a department store-- I can really hear what an achievement it is. It's easy to take for granted, but nevertheless... well, wow.

"Yesterday," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 6 of the abomination known as Yesterday and Today, June 20, 1966.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Don't Bother Me

On this once-again-beautiful HarriSunday, I'm listening to "Don't Bother Me," the first song George ever wrote. I've been sort of an emotional nightmare lately, kind of only barely keeping afloat (and I have mainly the weather, some pretty exciting brunch plans, and as usual the Beatles to thank for keeping me as normal as I have been) but in general "Don't Bother Me" sums up my feelings toward much of the outside world these days. Anyway, let's listen.

No one, including George himself, really seems to like "Don't Bother Me" that much, but I've always been a "Don't Bother Me" apologist. It's actually got a lot of interesting stuff going on in it, especially given that it's a first song, that it appears on such an early Beatles album, and that it's so different from the Lennon-McCartney songs that had so far made up the bulk of the Beatles' work.

For one thing, the song is largely in the Dorian mode, which might seem like a pedantic and meaningless thing to point out. But I always like to think of it, because this song was one of the first times that I was able to apply what I was learning in theory classes in college to my life-- I actually remember being in my freshman dorm room and "Don't Bother Me" coming on, soon after we'd been introduced to the medieval modal system, and all of a sudden I was like "this sounds Dorian!", and I played it on the piano and it totally was. So I guess all my geeking out on Beatles songs might have begun right here with "Don't Bother Me," because after that I tried hearing stuff like that everywhere. (And if you're listening for modal material in Beatles songs, you won't be disappointed-- they particularly like to use a pinch of Mixolydian here and there.)

Anyway, when I say Dorian mode, what I'm really talking about is that it's basically in a minor key, but one shade brighter than a traditional minor key, if that makes sense. And even though George (and all the Beatles) surely didn't know what the modes were when they were writing, Dorian is found in all kinds of music, particularly English music (the textbook example is "Greensleeves"), and surely is something they would have been familiar with on a subconscious level. Actually, what I think is cool is that from the beginning, George and John and Paul had brains that were looking beyond the rock music they loved and finding inspiration in all the music they'd ever heard-- and all the back in 1963 with With the Beatlesway, way pre-Sgt. Pepper and its ilk, you know? This is why they are awesome.

But anyway, there's a lot more here that makes "Don't Bother Me" rock. I've read other commentators say that they hear something almost Latin in this song, which I can relate to-- you can hear Paul playing the claves, which seems a bit salsa-esque, and Ringo's got some bongo stuff going on too, all of which combines to make the percussion sound pretty thick and interesting. And if you listen to George's guitar line underneath his vocal, it's really pretty melodic, which is just contributing to the complexity of the texture.

George wrote this song while in bed recovering from an illness, so I presume the "Don't Bother Me" was a very real ornery feeling that he transformed into a sorta-kinda love song. He has said that he mainly did it to see if he could write a song, and indeed he didn't get into songwriting too seriously until later-- in fact, the world wouldn't hear another Harrison original until Help!, three albums off. But "Don't Bother Me" would have gotten me through those times if I were a teenage George fan, I think. It might be underappreciated, but it totally rocks.

See?! Look how much the people in the club in A Hard Day's Night are enjoying it! Word.

"Don't Bother Me," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of With the Beatles, November 21, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 1 of Meet the Beatles, January 20, 1964.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Words of Love

The Beatles might have been inspired in their choice of a band name by Buddy Holly's Crickets, but they only ever covered one Buddy Holly song on an official release. And even then, not until Beatles for Sale, which was practically the last album on which covers played an important part anyway. But in fact Holly was a favorite throughout their career, and they played a bunch of his songs in the stage shows in the late '50s and early '60s. The very first Beatles (nee Quarrymen) recording was of "That'll Be the Day" (backed with "In Spite of All the Danger"), and "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" makes an appearance as late as the Get Back sessions-- you can hear it on Anthology 3.

But "Words of Love" is what they pulled out for the Beatles for Sale sessions, probably just to get another mid-tempo/ballad kind of thing onto the album, and also because it's just a nice song anyway. Though I don't believe this was much of a hit for Holly in 1957 when the single came out, I've always kind of loved it-- and I probably love the Beatles' version more than Buddy Holly's, if I'm honest. (I couldn't find a video, but you can listen to the Buddy Holly original here.) Fun fact about Holly's recording: it's the first known double-tracked vocal, for he's actually harmonizing with himself. When the Beatles did it, of course, John and Paul sang together in their inimitable way, and mixed the voices so that they're at about equal volume. Whereas the high part on Holly's recording is more of an accent, the Beatles approach the vocals in much more equitable, Everlys-esque kind of way.

The laid-back feel of this track, and sunshiney ringing of George's guitar (which is a complete tribute to Holly's-- as is usual with the Beatles, imitation is the highest form of flattery), made me want to listen to this one on this unusually summery day here in Boston. It sounds like the kind of song that people would just wander into a park and pick out on a guitar, you know? By the way, speaking of the improvisatory feel of the song, Ringo is actually banging a suitcase as well as drumming. How they hit on this as their ideal percussion sound on this track, I don't know, but it's cute, right?

Anyway, now that I've bopped my head back and forth to "Words of Love" a few times, it's really high time I got back outside. You just have no idea how much Boston has earned a day like today, seriously.

"Words of Love," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S. side A track 6 of Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.

Friday, April 24, 2009

End of week playlist: First-80-degree-Boston-weekend

Here are the songs that, for some reason, make me feel springy-- the songs I'm going to spend the weekend blasting from a boombox while I lie post-picnic in the sun on Corey Hill. Musical sunshine, all. Repeat as necessary and enjoy spring wherever you are, or add your own if you think mine suck.

Helter Skelter

Throw some bricks and knock people's heads into walls and smash a motherfucking bottle and threaten somebody with it, because it's "Helter Skelter," kids, and it's coming down fast. And I am angry and wound up, so I'm going to scream and jump around in my living room for a while. Ahem.

Although, if I'm honest, "Helter Skelter" doesn't really help me exorcise these feelings so much as it exacerbates them. I think I need to vote this song "Beatles Song Most Likely to Make Me Cut a Bitch." Which is not at all to say that I don't love it. I love it deeply. Not everyone does, though-- "Helter Skelter" has always had its naysayers. (Ian MacDonald, a roundly respected Beatles critic whose book I like to plug whenever I get the chance, gets this one completely wrong, kvetching about Paul "shrieking weedily" and getting all snooty about how it's just, you know, NOISE or something. His book still rules, though.)

Paul has said that he wrote "Helter Skelter" after reading an interview with Pete Townshend in which he described "I Can See for Miles" as the loudest, dirtiest, most rockingest song that the Who had ever done and, by extension, that the world had ever heard. And Paul thought, "well, I'm sure we can do something even dirtier." I love that Paul works this way, that he is driven by a healthy sense of competition-- it reminds me of the story about how hearing Pet Sounds is what spurred Paul to stop resting on his post-Revolver laurels and get back into the studio to try to do something even better. (Which turned out to be Sgt. Pepper.) And it just shows a sense of musical open-mindedness that's very cool. Speaking as someone who sometimes gives Paul crap for not working hard enough, it's good for me to be reminded of these things. There's the added benefit for Paul of being able to point to "Helter Skelter" whenever anyone accuses him of being a big softy-soppy-pants-- he took on Pete Townshend, and won. (I am sort of covering this song and "Here, There, and Everywhere" in the same week on purpose, for ultimate Paul-swoonage.)

If I remember correctly, I think that Paul had the skeleton of what became "Helter Skelter" already floating in his head even before he decided to make it the heaviest thing the Beatles would ever do. I don't know when the footage below was shot, but you can hear that the song started as a sort of nonsensical noodle.

For comparison's sake, and because I like it, here's the version they released on Anthology 3 as well. You can see that even though they knew they wanted it to be heavy in some way, they were still trying to find the right sound. This version sounds more like a slow, dirty blues than anything else, but in its more stripped-down state, it's easier to hear the bluesy core that's really at the heart of the song. Interestingly, at about 3:43 someone does something on the guitar that sounds exactly like the "Helter Skelter" sound we're used to, but I guess they had to play up till that point to find that sound. Clearly, though, Paul had already decided how he was going to sing this thing. (Could there ever have been another way?)

I should note that Anthology 3's liner notes admit to cutting this track down to 4:40 from a jam that lasted more like 10 or 12 minutes. And in fact, there seems to have been a lot of jamming out on this song. One of the most coveted bootlegs ever, the Holy Beatley Grail, is a possibly mythical 27-minute version of "Helter Skelter"-- it's apparently after that jam that Ringo screamed the "blisters on my fingers" bit, and no wonder. This is one of those tracks that has been lost to time, but hey, in a year in which we got to hear (briefly) "Revolution 1 Take 20," and in which the digital remasters of the canon are coming out in stereo and mono, anything is possible.

So in the end, all the jamming led up to the track on the White Album, which succeeded in being some of the heaviest music ever, certainly that the Beatles had done. And "Helter Skelter" proves that just because a song is loud doesn't mean it has to be dumb. Have you ever realized how killer the intro to this song really is? First there's that guitar snarling the tension-inducing one-note riff thing, and then Paul starts singing, and then the drums are faded in underneath, and then the bass crashes in, and it's all layered so perfectly that your excitement builds along with this even as the chromatic motion is basically downward, like a helter-skelter straight into HELL. And then we stay there for a while. On the verses the bass is like this gigantic drone thing weighing everything down, and Ringo's drums, which pound on the beat with a sinister relentlessness through much of the song, are produced with this crushing weight. There's, of course, a lot more descending motion, namely in that little guitar lick in the chorus, which George is playing (Paul picks up lead guitar on the solo only) and keeps up in the beginning of the coda. I know there's supposed to be John playing the sax, of all things, in here somewhere, but I have a hard time hearing where it is exactly. (Maybe someone else out there can?)

Then there's that long, long outro, which fades out and then fades back in, as if the song is a really pissed-off person who storms out and then storms back in to say "And another thing--". Except, you know, creepier. The whole thing is like a far more demented and terrifying version of the same trick in "Strawberry Fields Forever." "Helter Skelter" sounds so mechanical and metallic that the fade-in always reminds me of the noise of some giant spiked rock and roll death machine rolling into a city and crushing residents pitilessly beneath its weight. (Sort of like the vehicles the goblins use in Labyrinth, except actually scary.) Well, that's just my fancy, anyway.

But the best is Paul's vocal (of course), which is so twisted and bizarre, and so full of screams and screeches, here used less for that "woo-hoo!" Little Richard effect and more for the effect of some kind of scary carnival clown. Look out, indeed, dudes, Paul will EAT you. I want to post just one more video of Paul doing this live-- he doesn't exactly nail the vocals here like he did back in 1968, but, I mean, this is really not bad. And this is from Coachella-- this is from freaking the other day, April 17, 2009. It's an amateur video, but I still wanted to put it up. Paul is almost 67 and far more of a badass than I could ever hope to be. I bow down before him.

"Helter Skelter," released in the U.K. side C track 6 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dig a Pony

Clearly I've been picking out my daily listening routine in my dreams, because this morning I work up with "Dig a Pony" stuck in my head. Or "I Dig a Pony," which is the song title that's printed on my Let It Be LP-- I've never been clear on why the pronoun gets dropped in practically every other iteration of the song title. But, whatever.

My favorite part of this rooftop concert performance, other than the fact that there's a false start so Ringo can put down his cigarette? The fact that there's a production assistant or someone holding up a legal pad so John can read his lyrics. I just find it kind of adorable. For a guy who wrote some awesome lyrics, John often had a hard time actually remembering them-- the rooftop concert also saw him hilariously flubbing the lyrics to "Don't Let Me Down," which you can check out in this video. (They performed "Don't Let Me Down" twice that day, and my original posting shows the second, flub-free take-- hence the extra link here. But I'm digressing.)

Anyway, good thing he had the lyrics in front of him for "Dig a Pony," because they're fairly complicated and hard to memorize. Well, "complicated" might be the wrong word, but they're entirely nonsensical-- I wouldn't even call them "surreal," which is a word frequently used to describe a song like, say,"I Am the Walrus." "I Am the Walrus" is like a series of images being recited by a deranged person, but the language in "Dig a Pony" isn't really imagistic at all-- it's more just playing some kind of rhyme game. John's taking pleasure less in visual nonsense and more in auditory nonsense. If that makes (ahem) sense. But the impulse is kind of the same, in that he's just having fun with words without any of them really meaning a whole lot.

If the words have any meaning at all, they seem to be signifying this expansive, optimistic worldview-- "you can" do various things to "anything" is what the song basically assures you over and over again. And that expansiveness is in the music, too. The vocal melody just climbs and climbs, from the "I--hi hi--hi hi" stuff all the way up the verse to the exuberance of the short "All I want is you" chorus, where Paul rocks his falsetto about as high up as can be imagined. When the instruments cut out from under the voices on that bit, it's sounds almost like actual flight, in a weird way. And then they start over with that gradual climb. In effect, you might not know exactly what the heck they're singing about, but you end up feeling pretty good about it.

I also feel pretty good about the guitar riff of the intro, which sounds pleasantly all over the place even as it keeps the song grounded in a pretty strict (and, for the Beatles, quite rare) triple time. This live version shown here is also the version that made it onto the Let It Be album, and it sounds shuffly and clunky amongst some of Phil Spector's other shiny overproduced tracks. But I'm glad he left it live and just kept his hands off of it. "Dig a Pony" might not be this tremendous masterpiece of the Beatles' catalog, but it's a fun, groovy song meant to be rocked out with guitars and bass and drums, and it seems to me that hearing it live like this would be absolutely the best way to hear it. Although the version on Let It Be Naked (a.k.a., Paul's attempt to rewrite an admittedly unfortunate history) is pretty much the same, they were apparently able to digitally correct a slightly wrong pitch of John's, and although I've never heard exactly where that is, it sort of bugs me to know that they did it. Because, seriously, sometimes you have to just let it be. As someone said once.

"Dig a Pony," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S. May 18, 1970.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Johnny B. Goode

This morning I woke up with "Johnny B. Goode" playing in my head for some reason-- must have had some kind of rock & roll dream. Anyway, I have to keep this pretty abbreviated today, as it's going to be a busy one, so why not tackle one of the most famous, integral songs in rock history? My only consolation is that I'm sure that everything one could say about the song itself has already been said.

(This video has some bonus "I Just Don't Understand" for you-- but that's for another day, so feel free to turn it off at 3:00 or so.)

Live at the BBC, for those who haven't yet read me raving about it, is a way-cool compilation of live performances the Beatles did for various BBC radio shows between 1963 and 1965. Most of these performances were of the covers that were so key to their early live shows, so you get to hear all kinds of things that weren't released any other way, including some obscure offerings that you might be hard-pressed to hear anywhere anymore, like "Clarabella" and its ilk. Of course, "Johnny B. Goode" is maybe the least obscure song ever, so the chief pleasures here are listening to John wail like his life depends on it and George paying brilliant homage to the world's most famous guitar solo.

Like many of the Beatles' covers, this one is an affectionate imitation of the original, though the lads give this song a more shuffly, skiffly feel that makes it sound uniquely Beatley. Berry's original is more manic, and his guitar more pitch-perfect (I swear Berry's guitar solos are the cleanest in the universe-- his guitar really does ring like a bell), but I like the way the Beatles maintain the raw sense of urgency even at their slightly slower tempo. Also, I've decided that John Lennon singing Chuck Berry songs is what heaven is like. And if "Johnny B. Goode" doesn't convince you of this on its own, consider the following: this and this.

There's some note of dead seriousness in the way John sings Berry-- or maybe it's just me, I don't know. Every singer who tackles "Johnny B. Goode" is probably singing it as his or her own wishful autobiography, but that edge in John's voice seems to hint at how very deeply he feels all those rock & roll dreams. This was recorded for the BBC in February of 1964, when the Beatles had just returned to Britain after their triumphant first American tour, and I can't help but feel the poignancy of their choice of song that day-- a day when they must have realized they'd conquered the world.

Finally: some bonus John and Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972. The sound isn't great on this-- it's like John's amp just isn't on or something-- but I still love the way John sings.

"Johnny B. Goode," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 29 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Here, There, and Everywhere

All right, everyone, we're going to slow it down, lower these lights and put the whole room into soft focus here, so find a partner you can spin around and make goo-goo eyes to as we play "Here, There, and Everywhere." For those of you sitting this one out, here are some cute photos of Paul and Jane Asher, whom Paul wrote this one for.

Now, look, I'm as cynical and bitchy as anyone, or at least I like to think so, but "Here, There, and Everywhere" is still capable of reducing me to a sighing quivering mass of girlish jelly. There, I said it. I admit it, okay? Lay off. Thing is, I developed my love for the Beatles at the same time as I was going through puberty, and Paul singing like this can do something to a girl. Of a certain age. Is all.

And here's something else: while it's very easy to make fun of Paul for writing soppy ballads all over the place, there is such a thing as a good soppy ballad. I mean, you're not going to see me getting all weepy listening to "My Love"-- I will mock "My Love" (and much of Red Rose Speedway) with the best of them, because I think it's dreck. (Sorry, Paul.) And you might already have picked up on my at-best-mixed feelings on "The Long and Winding Road." So I'm not entirely a pushover, okay? In fact, a soppy ballad as excellent as "Here, There, and Everywhere" is a hard thing to write, and even when written it's a thing of great delicacy, too frequently wrecked by circumstances beyond its control. (Witness, for instance, Celine Dion's beyond-heinous cover of this song. Actually, don't witness it. It will save you the agony of being driven to claw your own ears off your head.)

I just find everything about "Here, There, and Everywhere" pretty darned perfect. The production is so minimal-- especially considering it falls in between "Love You To" and "Yellow Submarine" on Revolver-- and yet this thing was fussed over for three days in the studio to achieve just the right minimalist sound. If I remember correctly, what gave them particular trouble was the three-part backup singing. But listen to how it came out-- those chords are so smooth and liquid that they sound more instrumental than vocal. And with so little going on in the instrumentation, the backup singing on those gently rising chords becomes really key to the texture. Elsewhere, George is hitting his guitar on the backbeats like it's some kind of sweetly chirping percussion instrument, while Ringo and Paul are both whispering their drum and bass parts. (John isn't playing, only singing.)

And so our ears turn to Paul on the lead, singing some of the highest notes I've ever heard him hit in his career (I can't remember if his vocal is studio-enhanced-- I think if nothing else it might be enhanced for maximum dreaminess). His voice, double-tracked through most of this, seems to drift like a cloud's reflection on a still pond, just so sweet and smooth. The melody is fantastic. The melody is gorgeous, one of his best ever. It's so gorgeous, and the lyrics are written to link together so well, that the neat harmonic tricks-- like the sort of jazzy chords in the verse and the cool deceptive cadences that lead into the repeats of the bridge-- seem completely inevitable, just small perfect flashes of color, perhaps like small sunlit ripples on that pond, if I may torture this metaphor a little further. In fact, in the end it sounds less like a slow dance song and more like a perfect sunny day date-in-the-park kind of sun.

Although the Beatles are frequently myopic about their own work, I think it's fair to note that John said, at some point at the height of his bad relationship with Paul in the '70s, that "Here, There, and Everywhere" was the best song on Revolver. And Paul himself has said as recently as this decade that "Here, There, and Everywhere" is his favorite song that he's ever written. It might be one of mine too; it's just crafted so perfectly, and remains so moving, even after a zillion listens when I was a small teenybopper wishing that Paul and I were closer to the same age. At about that time, had I been watching MTV like a normal kid instead of listening to Beatles records constantly, I might have caught Paul's 1991 Unplugged performance.

I like that one, too, actually. Note that he's still able to hit those super high notes. (He's even showing off on the high notes with that extra riffing, oh that Paul.) And note, too, the accordion standing in for the backup vocals-- which seems appropriate, since it can kind of work that same smoothness.

Paul played "Here, There, and Everywhere" on his 2002 tour as well, though I can't recall whether or not he sang in the original key, because I was too busy turning into a big puddle of goo dribbling down the stadium seat. Man. He has still got it.

"Here, There, and Everywhere," released in the U.K. side A track 5 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side A track 4 of Capitol's craptacular Revolver, August 8, 1966.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I Should Have Known Better

Rarely has a catchier song than "I Should Have Known Better" been written with fewer musical materials. The melody of this one hangs out on just a couple notes for most of the verses, and the chords are your standard pop song variety-- nothing terribly mind-blowing there. So why does it rock so hard? Actually, maybe I've begun to answer my own question.

"I Should Have Known Better" was written for A Hard Day's Night, and it appears in one of the film's best musical scenes, which is below. (The "Can't Buy Me Love" scene is the only other one that can touch it.) Note that young unknown model/actress Pattie Boyd is the only schoolgirl allowed into the intimate little Beatles cage as they play, and note too how she giggles irresistibly at about 2:23. She was not destined to be unknown for much longer.

Anyway, the scene rules for lots of cinematic reasons-- the only space the Beatles have to themselves is inside the cage where the animals on the train ride, which says heaps about the toll Beatlemania was taking on them. And of course the fact that cards turn into instruments says heaps more about their view of making music. It was quite serious, but also just so much damned fun, and of course the only escape they had from the madness around them. The prominence of Pattie Boyd in this scene is really just icing on the cake. (Note, as you watch, that your ears don't deceive you-- Paul does NOT have a vocal on this song. He's lip-syncing along, I presume, to cover the fact that John can't be singing and playing the harp at the same time, as the track would demand that he do. If they ever performed this one live, which I'm not sure they ever did, they probably would have had Paul or George sing along like this specifically to solve this problem.)

And actually, I want to talk about John's vocal here, because it's amazing. It's just him, no harmonies or much else going on, but his voice is double-tracked for most of the song, which gives it that full, rich sound that's so delightful. John, for some reason, never liked his own vocal performances (I've said it before-- he's the worst judge of his own work) and tended to prefer himself double-tracked, and on later albums when they had more time to futz around in the studio he tended to like to futz with his own voice most of all. But even around this A Hard Day's Night period you hear John double-tracked all over the place: on "A Hard Day's Night" itself, for instance, as well as "I'll Cry Instead" and "I'll Be Back" and many others that I just can't think of at the moment. But here's what really cool about "I Should Have Known Better." On the repeat of the bridge, the vocal suddenly shifts into a single tracking, which is a subtle but crucial change. It's actually still capable of giving me a shiver. It's as though John's opening himself up more, or somehow making himself vulnerable, in this small, small way that means a lot in the context of the song. Watch the film again and you'll see that he's also singing at this particular moment with the sweetest smile-- not a trace of sarcasm for once-- and it's just so moving somehow, for lack of a more accurate word. (It's no wonder Pattie can't contain her delight at this moment.) And then, cooler yet, they bring back the double-tracking just in time for the high note John hits in his falsetto, making the tone more rich and powerful at the exact second that it's most necessary. Then we're back to double-tracking for the rest of the song. This is the kind of attention to detail that really made these songs so freaking special, you know? LOVE IT.

Actually, the subtlety at work in the tracking decisions is all over this song. As I mentioned, the melody is only written on the span of a few notes. John holds his initial "I-----" for ages, then spits out a bunch of other words on just a couple of stepwise pitches. As he gets further into the verses-- "and I do-- hey hey hey-- and I do"-- he introduces each step up the scale one at a time, so gradually, and the effect is that each new small step up takes on new significance in the context of the whole song. By the time he gets to that final "do" it's almost ecstatic. The melody seems so slight and so small, but it sticks in your head like crazy, and it's so powerful in this song that John's harp line is basically just incessant noodling on it. Even George doesn't get so much a guitar solo as he gets his own iteration of the melody to play on guitar.

So there you go-- a kickass song built out of a simple melody and little else, except John's awesome vocal and harp skills. This is what the Beatles could do.

"I Should Have Known Better," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of A Hard Day's Night, July 10, 1964; in the U.S. side B track 1 of UA's A Hard Day's Night, June 26, 1964.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nothin' Shakin'

It's a breezy, sunny, drop-dead gorgeous HarriSunday today, but all I want to do is drop dead myself. Apparently I am getting too old for bachelorette parties. I mean, the party I went to last night was amazing, honestly, just heaps and heaps of fun, but I clearly overindulged, and now my head weighs twenty thousand pounds. For most of the afternoon I've been on the couch eating leftover Easter jellybeans and watching Beatles Anthology DVDs and trying to regain the will to live.

So I've been putting off my usual Beatles listening all day, but here I am at last with a Live at the BBC track-- because these songs are light and breezy and easy to listen to, and because I don't have the energy to take on a bona fide masterpiece. "Nothin' Shakin'" is a pretty cool ditty, though.

The song was originally released by Eddie Fontaine, who might be better known as an actor who got caught trying to hire someone to kill his wife than as a rockabilly star-- I'm personally unfamiliar with his work, though his discography seems impressive enough. Anyway, his record came out in 1958. A scratchy rendition for you:

I actually feel that "Nothin' Shakin'" is as solid a HarriSunday song as any other I've done. It's actually one of my favorites of George's early vocals-- you know how sometimes George's vocals sound a little tentative, or something? I don't know, maybe it's me, or maybe it's the inevitable comparisons with John and Paul, who are both (in my opinion) better vocal performers. (Sorry, George.) Sometimes the tentative sound works, e.g. "Do You Want to Know a Secret," but sometimes I don't love it as much, e.g. "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You."

But ANYWAY, there's nothing tentative about this performance. George sings "Nothin' Shakin'" with his gut-- it's just an awesome, awesome vocal. And his guitar work is nothing to sneeze at either. George was a huge rockabilly fan, probably more so than John or Paul (though about on par with Ringo, who couldn't get enough of it), and you can hear it in the way he just nails the twangy, spirited guitar sound. I particularly love the blue treble grooviness of the intro. "Nothin' Shakin'" is a country-fried lament about the travails of teenage love that also happens to have a huge sense of humor, which might make it the song that George was born to sing at this point.  With George rocking the vocals and guitar, the rest of the boys are practically a backup band, which works just fine-- pretty beautifully, in fact.

So yeah, this could definitely make me feel better.

"Nothin' Shakin'," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 13 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey

Let's celebrate a spring Saturday with a totally solid, kickass Little Richard cover cum shout-out to the midwest, shall we?

"Kansas City" was written by Leiber and Stoller, two of the most awesome songwriters ever-- it's thanks to them we have songs like "Hound Dog," "Yakkity Yak," "Jailhouse Rock," and probably 500 other total classics that I'm just blanking on. There have been a ton of versions of "Kansas City," though the gold standard might be the Little Willie Littlefield one from the late '50s, which is a piano-driven boogie-woogie kind of thing. You may have heard many covers in that style in piano bars-- I know I have, and I always like hearing it that way. His version has that "crazy little women there and I'm gonna get me some" lyric, which is cute, and there's lots of room for some good piano improv stuff. Oh, hell, I'm just going to include a video, because it's too awesome not to.

The Beatles, though, did their version in the style of Little Richard, who used somewhat different lyrics and blended it with an original song, "Hey Hey Hey Hey," into a short medley. (I can't seem to find Little Richard's original anywhere online right now, sadly.) During the flustered sessions for Beatles for Sale, when a crazy touring schedule had resulted in too few solid Lennon-McCartney songs to fill an album, the Beatles dusted off some covers that they hadn't played in a while, and this was one of them. In fact, they debuted their rejiggered cover during an American tour stop in Kansas City proper, and apparently the kids went nuts for it. So onto the album it went.

The video above is a live performance in October of 1964 on "Shindig!", a short-lived American variety show of the mid-'60s. Unfortunately, though, Americans wouldn't get to hear the studio recording of "Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey" until July of 1965, about 9 months after they heard it on TV. That's due to Capitol's oft-mentioned-here perverse decisions to screw up the Beatles' discography with their system of fake albums; while this track found its rightful place on Beatles for Sale in the U.K., it had to wait for Beatles VI in the U.S.

As for the song itself, it rules, right? Right from George's killer triplet-infected intro, which sounds like a straight guitar transposition of a piano part, it gets off on this swinging, rollicking beat that's a lot less chill and more rocking than Little Willie Littlefield's. The studio recording adds George Martin on piano (which the live version above doesn't include), which just fills it out and stabilizes the beat a bit more. Of course, Paul rocks his Little Richard voice as well as ever, and George plays a particularly impassioned solo that leads naturally right into the "Hey Hey Hey Hey" bit. I like this second half even better, I think, because of the way John and George are screaming and hand-clapping with such abandon on the backup vocals. For the sake of completism, here's the album track.

And as a bonus, and just because I can't seem to stop listening to this thing, here's a bootlegged recording from the Get Back sessions of the Beatles playing the song as Leiber and Stoller actually wrote it, with Billy Preston (I presume) playing that fabulous keyboard part. Even this one devolves into a medley with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," though, which I guess just goes to show what a versatile tune this is. And also that even when they were on the verge of breaking up, this song was just fun as all hell to play-- and to listen to. Rock on.

"Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey," released in the U.K. side A track 7 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S., side A track 1 of Beatles VI, July 10, 1965.

Friday, April 17, 2009


I don't really want to talk too much here about the Beatles' careers as solo artists-- in my own head, it's just a different body of work completely, and I've never been able to get as interested, though I can be extremely opinionated when pressed. But I did happen to notice that today is the anniversary of the release of McCartney, Paul's first solo album, in 1970. That album is significant because it made the breakup of the Beatles pretty official-- promotional copies included a press release in the form of an interview, which you can read here at DM Beatles, in which Paul makes his feelings on the subject pretty clear.

For an album that signaled such a bombshell, though, McCartney's musical touch is very light, and frankly, what you take away from it is that Paul remains unsure of where he'd like his musical career to go. He experiments with unfinished fragments and nonsensical splicings thereof in tracks like "The Lovely Linda" and "Hot as Sun/Glasses" right alongside complete freaking blissed-out masterpieces like "Maybe I'm Amazed." I'm of the camp that sometimes wishes Paul would apply himself a little more and just FINISH those unfinished bits, and then put out an album full of tracks as strong as "Maybe I'm Amazed," which might have spared him a bit of mockery over the years. But, whatever. The thing with Paul's unfinished fragments is that, since he wrote them, they have no small degree of merit.

And "Junk" strikes me as one of those strong unfinished fragments that I have a kind of frustrated affection for. The version I'm mainly talking about, by the way, isn't the one from McCartney, but the demo version from Anthology 3, though you could be forgiven for getting the two versions confused. See, Paul actually composed this on their trip in India in 1968. A lot of songs were written on that trip, and after they all got back they got together at George's home in Esher to lay down demos of what's they'd written, several of which made it onto Anthology 3 (which is why this one has made it onto my list for the year). Here's that demo version of "Junk."

And here, for the sake of comparison, is the McCartney version, released about two years after the demo was made.

So, in those intervening years, he didn't do any revision or anything to drastically change the song, except to change the key very slightly and to add some minimal drumming and percussion on the later track. Well, okay, and he wrote another verse. I mean, look, I'm not saying I require Mellotron and a twelve-piece string section on every single song, but it's a bit striking how the album version sounds so much like the demo, isn't it? The other Beatles found "Junk" too weak for the White Album, and then too weak again for Abbey Road, but clearly Paul thought it was so fantastic in demo form that it didn't really need to be changed at all. And that is maybe a little conceited. Especially considering that the melody is really, really gorgeous, and it could have been put to use in something that felt more substantial, more finished.

But then I always start to disagree with myself. I listen to the lyrics and they sound like a miniature, pointillistic version of "Two of Us," though the ambiguity of the refrain gives the whole thing a more tentative vibe than in that song. And gees, that melody is really so pretty. The way Paul is singing it, all sweet and breathy into the mic, makes you feel as though he's sharing something secret with you-- like he's speaking in a code only you understand. And, damn it, maybe Paul was right after all-- maybe "Junk" DOES work best this way, because when Paul whispers about brokenhearted jubilees to me I want to nod sagely and tremble girlishly all at the same time.

And yet-- and yet-- even when I quite like "Junk" (which truthfully is most of the time), it never sounds like a Beatles song. This aesthetic of intimacy is just not a mode the Beatles really worked in very much. It's interesting that both Paul and John released initial solo albums that are so very intimate, as if they needed to peel off the Beatles veneer and remind everyone of how human they really were.

"Junk," released in the U.K. disc 1 track 7 of Anthology 3, October 28, 1996; in the U.S. October 29, 1996.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Paul plays Coachella!

Just got word that Paul's gig at the Coachella festival will be webcast live, here. This is tomorrow, the 17th, 10:00 pm PDT-- which means I'll be up past 1:00 am EST watching it. (Which shouldn't be late for me on a Friday, but it is. Shut up, okay?)

Apparently if you do the twittery thing that the kids like to do you can get more updates on Coachella stuff there, or something.

If he plays stuff from The Fireman, which I think it good bet, it should be pretty cool. I dunno-- I've been liking Paul's releases lately, that one in particular.

Glass Onion

"Glass Onion" offers a window into John's strange brain, I think, because it was written to kind of insult his fans-- as in "I Am the Walrus," John wrote this one trying to deliberately flummox listeners. But, see, if you're going to walk around and say you're a genius (which he did), then why get irritated that people try to approach your music with the interpretive, analytical ear that your sense of your own genius would seem to demand? It's in keeping with John's impatience for any intellectual high-fallutin' bullshittiness, but I think he's capable of taking it to the point of not making any sense. You know what else doesn't make sense? Many of the lyrics to "Glass Onion."

When I was young, I had a lot of fun counting the references to other Beatles songs here, as does everyone who first encounters it. And I particularly like the mockery of "The Fool on the Hill," complete with hollow-sounding recorder. (By the way, did you ever notice that the recorder doesn't just go away, but actually keeps playing in a weird repetitive kind of way but very, very undermixed? When I first noticed that I remember thinking it was kind of cool, like John was smothering the Fool out completely. And a good thing too.) Note that the recorder isn't the only musical quotation used to bolster the lyrical quotation: I hear the thick string glissandos as quotes of "I Am the Walrus," specifically the opening thereof, which makes sense to me because that string sound that was so prevalent on their music of 1967 tended to be frowned upon by the time of 1968's White Album sessions.

Those touches like the recorder and strings pop out when you listen, because the rest of the texture kind of thickens into one effective monosound. Well, not too thick-- I actually think that Ringo sounds as though he's leading everyone along, totally in charge with those dead-on drum whiffs. The bits in between verses when the other instruments cut out and his drums come in on -3-4 almost sound like a count-off and restart. And we shouldn't be too surprised if Ringo was giving his all, since he was freshly back in the studio from a brief hiatus. Here's a fun trivia fact for you: Ringo was the very first Beatles to quit the Beatles. It just didn't stick. He stormed out during some particularly nasty moments of the White Album sessions, leaving Paul to handle drumming on "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Dear Prudence." Since this was the first time (and trust me, there would be others) someone had up and left, it kind of freaked everyone else out, and when they got Ringo to come back he was welcomed with flowers all over his drum kit.

Anyway, as for the content of what John was trying to say in "Glass Onion," I'm actually completely okay with him joking me. I prefer to think it was a little more gentle, but you can never be sure with John. In fact, I like to read it as a cornerstone of John's aesthetic: John likes nonsense, period. He just does. You get this from reading his poetry books, too, this sense that what matters most is the musicality of the words, and whether or not it's funny. The rest is meaninglessness, or perhaps obfuscation, but either way he sees it as a waste to try to figure out any other meanings. And that's cool. As a former Earnest English Major, I don't totally agree, but the thing is that I think "Glass Onion" is a cool song (if kind of a minor cool song from John), and I don't want to fight it. Let's just groove to it.

"Glass Onion," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Midweek Playlist: Hidden Gems.

Today: songs you may have forgotten how much you liked.

Listen in any order you'd like, and repeat until your Wednesday afternoon blues just melt away.

Anything I've forgotten?...

George gets a star.

I always thought the whole star-on-the-Hollywood-Walk-of-Fame thing was basically a big racket and essentially meaningless-- and maybe it is-- but it didn't stop thousands of fans from coming out to see George Harrison ceremoniously given one. Here's the Reuters writeup. And Steve Marinucci, the Beatles Examiner, has an even better writeup that links to lots of YouTube clips of people speaking. What Tom Hanks is doing there is a mystery to me, but, I mean, whatever. By the way, Dhani: call me!

We've also been fed more details on the Harmonix Beatles Rock Band game that I have been essentially breathless about from the moment I learned of it. The special bundle will contain a replica Hofner bass as well as some kind of nearly-replica version of the Ludwig drum set. More here. And, see, since I love Rock Band, and since I will need to purchase the Beatles' Rock Band game once it's out, I've been thinking about going ahead and getting the original game (or Rock Band 2, or both) and and an XBox to play them on right now. But now I kind of want the replica Hofner bass too. Ah, decisions.

To Know Her Is to Love Her

Yesterday, I was listening to the Phil Spector news on NPR, and they played "To Know Him Is to Love Him," Spector's first hit with his first group, the Teddy Bears. It was stuck in my head the entire rest of the day, and it's still there. So consider today's Beatles cover of that song some kind of exorcism of this relentlessly catchy thing from my brain.

The Beatles seem to have liked this song a lot-- at least one alternate version that I know of exists on a bootleg, and John liked it enough to try recording it in the '70s in the chaotic sessions for his Rock 'n' Roll album, which was produced by Spector. (It didn't make it onto that album, though it was later released on the 1986 compilation Menlove Avenue.) This version from Live at the BBC is particularly effective, though, in my opinion.

The song has an abashed sweetness with an underlying dark element that only becomes darker when you learn that the title is based on Spector's father's epitaph. I don't know if John knew that when the Beatles first performed it, but I'm sure it would only have made him like it that much more. Though the whole song is performed kind of quietly and understatedly, John's vocal takes on some nice urgency in the bridge-- he might not be tearing flesh here, but he certainly puts some genuine heartbreak into this. Paul and George are well into the spirit of things, too, especially on the bridge when they seem to sound thicker somehow. But I also like the barbershoppy sound they achieve on the verses. And Ringo tatting out the unceasing triple time and driving the beat as they launch into the bridge is all super cool.

The whole thing amounts to a quite faithful cover of the Teddy Bears' original, which is below. I really like the Beatles' a lot better though-- that note of quiet desperation in John's vocal is something that you just don't hear anywhere else, really. Still, though, I could take a slow dance to either. What can I say? I have a soft spot for '50s pop weepers.

"To Know Her Is to Love Her," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 24 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.