Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Fool on the Hill

I've been putting off listening to "The Fool on the Hill." But I was looking at my list of songs, and I was trying to figure out what to do today, and I remembered it was April Fool's Day when I checked my work email and found Shelf Awareness's always-hilarious April Fool's edition newsletter. And I was like, whatever. I have to do this one of these days, and I may as tie it into a non-holiday.

So we kick off April with the song that's gotta be the most self-indulgent McCartney track in his whole Beatles career, and is certainly the most self-indulgent track on the extremely self-indulgent project that is Magical Mystery Tour.

It would be one thing if this were simply not my favorite Beatles song. That would be fine. But the fact that almost everyone else seems to think this song is awesome somehow frustrates me far more than is probably worth it. John Lennon, last seen yesterday sneering that "Oh! Darling" was weaker for Paul having sung it, praises "The Fool on the Hill" in the same interview, specifically for its LYRICS, which, hmm. (I think this is also the same interview in which he dismisses "Day Tripper" as crap, so I think we need to seriously ask ourselves if John was high at the time.)  Most critics seem to totally love this song, with the merciful exception of Tim Riley. And Wikipedia notes that there have been over 100 covers of "The Fool on the Hill," each one, I'm sure, more insipid than the last.

Paul himself seems to think it's a really good song, seeing as how he's performed it live a bunch of times, including on his 2002 tour. And despite the handmade aesthetic of Magical Mystery Tour (the film), Paul decided that this song was worth hiring a professional photographer to film him jumping merrily around Nice, as seen in the clip above. That almost bugs me most of all. Self-important much?

But enough kvetching. Why don't I like this? It's mostly the lyrics, which are lazy. They just are. Tim Riley tries in vain in his book, Tell Me Why, to figure out what exactly this Fool is all about, and ends up comparing him with Shakespeare's fools-- the Fool in King Lear, for instance-- and it's about as unfavorable a comparison as you'd imagine. That's my problem too. There's no substance to this fool. We're meant to take it at face value that he's better or wiser than everyone else, but why? He doesn't do anything to demonstrate his wisdom. And even if we take for granted that the Fool is awesome, the whole sentiment is expressed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: "he knows that they're the fools." Oh my God. It's such a terrible lyric. I feel just as judged as I did in "Piggies," but I get even more irritated about it here, because where "Piggies" is just kind of smarmy, "The Fool on the Hill" has this overproduced, earnest air of musical importance, as if its purpose is to be some kind of Teachable Moment. Paul can write amazing songs about alienation-- "Eleanor Rigby" is about a trillion times more profound than "The Fool on the Hill"-- so it's disappointing that in this song he takes the easy way out.

That said, the actual music content is basically fine. It begins in a major key and then goes into the parallel minor for the chorus, which is something the Beatles liked to do, and which I quite like too. Production is complicated and noisy in the Beatles circa-1967 way, with flutes, recorders, finger cymbals, and a piano so warm and luscious it's practically molten all coming together into a thick texture. Paul's clear, sweet vocal rings with pity for all us stupid squares too busy getting on with our lives to talk to a silent idiot on a hill. 

And that's where I leave it. If you ARE a fan of "The Fool on the Hill," and you likely are, then I'm sorry to have to so vehemently disagree-- but feel free to argue about this, probably my very least favorite Beatles song. Eh, there had to be one. Happy April Fool's Day, anyway-- hope you spend it listening to better songs!

"The Fool on the Hill," released in the U.K. side C track 1 of Magical Mystery Tour double EP, December 8, 1967; in the U.S. side A track 2 of Magical Mystery Tour LP, November 27, 1967.


  1. I don't like the music either.

    This must be how non-Beatles fans feel about us, no? The same feeling we have for people who like this song too much?

  2. If someone were to ask me to name a Beatles song that i could live without ever hearing again, this would be a candidate. I like it so little that i never even TRIED to figure out what the lyrics were saying. April Fools Day is the perfect place for this song. Now, I think I'll scroll down and listen to Oh! Darling again.

  3. Wikipedia says McCartney said the Fool was the Maharishi.

    I have to admit, there's one line I like in this song: "They don't like him." There's something disconnected about it and the lyrics to that point. It's almost like Paul was done writing, but realized that he needed one more line because of the meter. Think of a movie or TV scene where two actors are arguing and one pauses and says "I don't like you." It also reminds me of when Bart Simpson is cranking Moe and Moe's calling out for the customer Bart's pretending to call for, and Moe says to the bar "Uh, hey, everybody! I'm a stupid moron with an ugly face and big butt and my butt smells and I like to kiss my own butt ..." But perhaps I've said too much ...

  4. Meh. That's even more of an insult to the Maharishi than "Sexy Sadie."

    My rendering of Paul's thought process: "Wow, I just NAILED them with that last bit, 'He knows that they're the fools'-- McCartney, you're a genius. Hmm. Still have a few more notes to fill out, though. Oh, hey, looks like Martha needs to go out. And it IS a really nice day. Hell, I'll scribble some crap down and knock off early. Everyone listening will be too high to care anyway."