Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mean Mr. Mustard


I feel like a Mean Miss Meg today.

I should say, for one thing, that I have mixed feelings about breaking up the Abbey Road side B medley to listen to its parts separately on random days. I've already done it once, though, and I'm already trying to pad out the Beatles catalog to fill as much of the year as I can. Besides, each song in the medley contains different musical material and makes you feel a different way, so even if it seems unnatural to not hear "Polythene Pam" come colliding into the end of "Mean Mr. Mustard," each is still a separate entity. At least that's my story.

Anyway, "Mean Mr. Mustard" can be nice to listen to when you're feeling a little ornery, because its portrait of orneriness is so funny. (Maybe it's a little bit like "Misery" in this way. Clearly I'm having a certain kind of week to keep picking songs like this.) John wrote this during their retreat with the Maharishi in India, after reading a newspaper article about an egregious miser, and, as with many songs written in India, made a demo at George's house that you can hear on Anthology 3.

Paul broke out the fuzz bass here, which he didn't do terribly often (the only other Beatles fuzz bass moment I can think of right now is "Think for Yourself," though I might be missing another one or two), but it gives it a nice grumble that drives the whole song. While John grooves through his vocal line, that fuzz bass on the simple 1-5-1 figure sounds like Mr. Mustard's voice to me, growling at us to fuck off. All the instruments keep it pretty groovy, as if they're the voices picking fun-- the little guitar fills that follow "sleeps in a hole in the road" and the other lines like that have a particularly slick, nyah-nyah sound to them.

Even in a one-minute medley-filler of a song, the Beatles like to add clever touches, and here we get an out-of-nowhere move into triple time at the end of the song, on "dirty old man"-- a vocal line that has to stretch out slightly to fit into the expanded meter. (I also like that it's the maracas that are truly driving the triple time, but I also just like maracas.) The metrical shift only lasts 8 bars before "Polythene Pam" starts up at the same tempo, but, almost without our noticing, the new song is back in duple meter. So basically, they closed "Mean Mr. Mustard" in triple time in order to slow the beats to roughly the "Polythene Pam" tempo, even though "Polythene Pam" is in a duple meter itself, making the whole thing sound seamless and free of any gratuitous, glaring tempo changes. Isn't this NEAT? It is just so darned smart. LOVE it.

Anyway, hope you're feeling less mean now-- I know I am.

"Mean Mr. Mustard," released in the U.K. side B track 5 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S., October 1, 1969.


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but i thought the B side songs were little ditties, each one basically a song "unfinished," when Paul decided to "stitch" them together. So, the triple time segue was added by Paul for the expressed purpose of leading into Polythene Pam, as you explained, but done after-the-fact. This has always been my understanding, but i could be wrong.

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  3. Yup, that's all true. This song is John's, though-- he contributed to the medley project, albeit with some reservations. And "Polythene Pam" is John's too, so it could have been John who came up with the triple time thing too-- I'm not sure. But I do think it's true to say that the song wouldn't have seen triple time if John had just finished it and made it into a true song on its own.

    Actually, "Mean Mr. Mustard" might be the only medley track that I kind of wish were a finished song. It just sounds promising. I dunno.

  4. Yea, but what we do have ain't too shabby!