Sunday, May 31, 2009


Before I head out, ten-thousand-pound hungover head in hands, to a post-wedding brunch, I'm having a quick listen to "Shout," the Beatles' cover of the Isley Brothers song that always seems to get played at weddings.

The Beatles performed part 2 of the song as a part of their stage act with some regularity, and also performed it on Ready, Steady, Go in 1964, seen here in the video. You can also hear it on Anthology 1And, you know, this is not a great song for a HarriSunday, considering it's probably the only song on which all four of the Beatles share the lead vocal, but we do get George singing the "little bit softer now" part, at least, and I just felt like listening to it so I was caring less than usual. (This hangover is making me ornery.) My favorite part of the video above is actually when John forgets that he was supposed to be lip-syncing his vocal and does this disdainful thing with his eyebrows as if to say "screw it."

I like the Beatles' song because it breathes some new life into what's become kind of a stale crowd-pleaser of a song-- which is itself a bit unfair, because the original is a barnstormer and cool as hell-- it just happens to have been overplayed. But there's so much to love about the Beatles doing it, from Paul whopping to Ringo singing "louder now" with this huge burst of energy to the Beatley jangly way they're playing everything. And that's about all I have time to say before dashing off, so apologies! More from me tomorrow...

"Shout," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 50 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Today is not only the day of a wedding of a really, really awesome friend that I'm very excited for-- it's also the 40th anniversary of the release of a wedding song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko." So clearly this is the day for me to listen to it.

John and Yoko got married on March 20, 1969 in Gibraltar-- which was not their original choice of location, but the only one they could get a marriage license in, due to a prior conviction for hash possession (a trumped-up conviction courtesy of Norman Pilcher, but clearly enough to screw things up for them). Afterwards, they headed to Amsterdam and had a very public honeymoon in the form of a bed-in for peace, then did another one of those in Montreal (where they recorded "Give Peace a Chance"), and at some point went to Vienna to promote bagism. "The Ballad of John and Yoko" is exactly what it says it is: the story of this little adventure in performance-art-as-political-action, against the backdrop of curious reporters and annoying bureaucratic holdups. John later said in an interview that the song is very romantic, but it's hard for me to hear it that way with all this other stuff going on in it.

Which is not to say the song doesn't rock. It totally rocks. John wrote it in a flash of inspiration, and as frequently was the case with him, he wanted to record it right now. George was away on holiday, and Ringo was filming The Magic Christian (notable for possibly being my husband's least favorite movie of all time), so John got together with just Paul, who helped him put the finishing touches on the song before recording it with him at Abbey Road. The whole thing came together in one long frenetic day, and I think you can hear that-- it sounds fresh, like the two of them are having a really killer time. And it's nice that in a song that's so Yoko-centric, that so clearly heralds an impending Beatles breakup, John and Paul are still working here as the musical soulmates that they always were. (John thought that he and Yoko were better musical soulmates, and sometimes talked about Yoko being his new Paul or something, but clearly he was nuts. Which is something that anyone who's listened to both Double Fantasy and, I don't know, A Hard Day's Night, or any other Beatles album, can attest to. I'm not saying the marriage itself wasn't all rainbows and kittens, but history has not been kind to the John and Yoko musical partnership.)

Speaking of the impending Beatles breakup, this song was recorded shortly before work began on Abbey Road, and I've read suggestions that the other Beatles (who were not always Yoko's biggest fans) let this song go out as a single mainly to woo John into actually participating in Abbey Road. It might have been Paul who publicly broke up the Beatles, but all of the others were mentally checked out a bit in 1969, and John, who found sitting in bags and talking about peace in an airy-fairy way to reporters more fascinating than making Beatles albums, was probably the most checked out of all. And while Paul in particular wanted to make sure they released one last fantastic album before they quit the band, John might very well not have cared either way, so soured was he on the Beatles mythology at this point.

(You'll forgive me, by the way, if I seem a little underwhelmed by the post-wedding activism John and Yoko engaged in. It was a campaign very much of its time, I guess, and even though there are probably a lot of more productive ways to bring about peace in the world, well, whatever. I'll say this: a song as good as "The Ballad of John and Yoko"-- or any number of other Beatles songs-- brings about more good and peaceful feelings in me than almost anything else can. Which is fairly powerful. So John, you know, maybe you needn't have been so quick to write off that Beatles mythology. Is all.)

But I keep talking about everything except the song, so, while I have a couple minutes I'll just get there real quick. John is playing lead guitar and acoustic guitar, while Paul handles bass, piano, and drums. And both are playing super awesomely. I actually love Paul's bass here in particular, with its groovy ostinato line. And John's guitar licks are slick and cool as hell. Everything's overdubbed to the point where you might not realize it's only the two of them playing-- in fact, John's playing actually sounds like George's, if that makes sense, particularly on the little guitar coda at the end there. The song is so good and so well-played that it's a shame that, on its release, the song itself was overshadowed by its story line, and by the "they're going to crucify me" line that got the song banned on a ton of radio stations. But Christ, you know it ain't easy. And you know the world tends to get this stuff wrong. I still love to just listen to this thing and bop my head around to it, because whatever else he might have been, John Lennon could play the shit out of a song like this.

"The Ballad of John and Yoko," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "Old Brown Shoe," May 30, 1969; in the U.S. June 4, 1969.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Polythene Pam

This is a very making-lemonade-out-of-lemons day for me. I'm back home from a business trip, but today is the first day of my week-long unpaid, unrequested vacation. You know, these-dark-times, recession, et cetera. Whatever. For a week I'm hanging out and making the best of it. But what's awesome is that two great friends are coming to visit today-- one from Alaska, and one from Chicago-- and both went to high school with me and saw me through some seriously geeky Beatle times with remarkable patience and fortitude. We've got a friend getting married here in Boston tomorrow, and it's all very exciting, and I've been trying to get the apartment as clean as possible all morning.

For whatever reason, I find that Abbey Road makes excellent music to clean to. It seems to have the right mix of sing-along-able-ness (when alone, I like to get as soulful and stupid as possible with the likes of "Golden Slumbers" and "Oh! Darling") with stuff you can really crank your bass to and jump around as you dust your furniture (e.g. "Come Together"). But as you can see, we've covered those. So just because it's on my mind, let's listen to this quick little ditty in the B-side medley.

I read someone on "Polythene Pam" once-- I think it was Tim Riley-- suggesting that just as Paul gets all nostalgic in "Golden Slumbers," John gets nostalgic in this song, though obviously in a very different way. His nostalgia is expressed by singing a song that's apparently about one of the Beatles' original fans from back when they played the Cavern. She got her name because she ate plastic. (Was this sexy? It sounds mentally ill to me, but whatever.) And John sings her song in as over-the-top a Scouse accent as possible. The lyrics are structurally similar to a limerick, and the whole thing just sounds like something an old drunk guy would scream in a bar. Which is awesome, right?

Note, too, the way that John is thrashing the hell out of his acoustic guitar, and the really interesting drumming that Ringo's doing-- he sticks to the toms, and drums pretty much on the beats, which is weird, and it makes it sound like there's a train going by or something. In a good way. When George comes in with an electric guitar that sings its line over the transition into "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," I think it's the first entrance of an electric instrument, and it sounds pretty sublime. That's a great underappreciated bit of guitar work from George, there.

I mean, "Polythene Pam" is basically a throwaway, but like all the tracks on the Abbey Road B-side, it's a throwaway with no small degree of merit. It's fun. It's funny. It's a minute and a half of a rocking good time. Dig it.

"Polythene Pam," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Bonnie

I need to kind of rush this one (what else is new?) due to oversleeping and other work stuff to do this morning. So here's "My Bonnie," which is interesting historically if not musically. Though it's kind of musically interesting too, in my opinion. Or at least pretty darned listenable.

This historically interesting part is that the single "My Bonnie"/"The Saints" was the Beatles' first commercial release, though it wasn't under their name. They're performing here as the backing band to Tony Sheridan. The Beatles played a few different times in Hamburg, beginning in 1960, and their pill-fueled all-night 7-hour shows in the madness of the city's red-light district have become the stuff of legend. This is where they cut their teeth, really, such that when they went back to Liverpool it is said that no one could believe how amazing they had gotten. They weren't the only English rockers playing there-- interestingly, people in Hamburg really loved Merseyside rock and roll long before the rest of the world took to it, so the Beatles played in seedy clubs alongside other Liverpudlians like Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (Ringo's first band), Gerry and Pacemakers, and several others that I'm currently blanking on because I'm rushing myself. Tony Sheridan, while not from Liverpool, was among this English rock scene, and at the time was a lot more famous than the Beatles-- famous enough that he was all set to record an album with Polydor, a German label. And he liked the Beatles, so he asked them to come play on the record and be his backup band. When the record was released, the Beatles were credited as the Beat Brothers for some reason.

The other historically interesting thing has to do with a kid, Raymond Jones, who one day walked into Brian Epstein's Liverpool record store, NEMS, and asked if he had a copy of "My Bonnie." This for some reason (cosmic intuition, perhaps) sparked Epstein's interest enough that he sought out the Beatles at one of their lunchtime gigs at the Cavern-- and the rest is history. So if not for "My Bonnie," we might never have heard of the Beatles at all.

The song itself is just a rocking cover of the folk song. But it DOES rock-- Tony Sheridan's not a bad singer, really, and the Beatles are backup-singing their hearts out behind him, particularly a frenetically whooping Paul. (They sing as though they knew this was their big chance to impress someone.) And George's guitar solo is genuinely awesome. It just sounds like the whole thing was a blast to record. It's totally danceable, even if it's a little silly.

So when the Beatles got HUGELY famous a few years later, various tracks from the sessions with Tony Sheridan were released under various guises. Some tracks from that session, like "Cry for a Shadow" and "Ain't She Sweet," are Beatles-only tracks, so while I don't think they made it onto Sheridan's original My Bonnie album, you can bet someone at Polydor dug them up and released them later.  At one point in 1964 I think "My Bonnie" was actually #4 on the American charts-- one of the Beatles' famous accomplishments was dominating all 5 slots in the top 5, and I'm pretty sure "My Bonnie" is part of what made that possible. Sheridan suffered the indignity of having these tracks actually released in the U.S. and elsewhere as Beatles' songs "featuring Tony Sheridan and guests." Ouch. Anyway, several tracks found their way onto Anthology 1, which is now the easiest place to hear them, and also the reason why they fit into my version of the official Beatles canon for Year in the Life purposes.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

You Won't See Me

I wonder why it is that I gravitate toward Rubber Soul when I'm traveling? I'm sure the answer would say all kinds of weirdo things about my psyche. Anyway, today I'm in New York hanging out in my hotel room after a day spent talking about my non-Beatles life-- that is, my job, and how to do it-- to a bunch of people who came to be educated. Hopefully they were. Tomorrow it's my turn to listen to people like me talk, which I like better.

I'm listening to "You Won't See Me," a song I would have listened and blogged about earlier today if Amtrak's Acela trains had freaking wi-fi. But that's a rant for another day.

"You Won't See Me" is one of those songs that's probably one of my secret favorites, in that I forget about it half the time among the abundance of riches that Rubber Soul has to offer. Poor "You Won't See Me," sitting on the album in between "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" and "Nowhere Man," both more acknowledged masterpieces-- and probably suffering by comparison to "I'm Looking Through You," the other song on Rubber Soul that's about Paul fighting with girlfriend Jane Asher. But I really, really like it. Like a lot of tracks from this album, it has more to it than meets the ear.

You know what's standing out to me on this particular time around? All the percussion. I don't think I've ever noticed before how intense Ringo's drumming here is-- which I totally acknowledge to be a frequent failing of mine; I am less good at listening for drums than I am for other stuff-- but on the introduction this time it was suddenly ALL I heard. Don't you love the cymbal-heavy opening? Lord knows I do. Then keep listening to it as the song goes-- he is playing some seriously awesome fills, for instance, at the pauses during the verse, after a line like "your line's engaged." It's a much more complicated fill than I think of Ringo ever doing. Then I think he actually simplifies, or lightens the touch on just the hi-hat or something, at the beginning the next verse-- the fill after "should want to hide"-- before coming in with a wallop on the next one. What a killer little detail that is. And of course all the crash cymbal on the refrain is awesome, as is the tambourine in the same spot, banging along with the vocal parts to give them that extra shot of emphasis and venom. Ringo, I apologize, because I truly never realized how much you tore up this track before now.

Of course, lots of other good stuff is happening too. Nice catchy melody, right? Very singable, except for when Paul holds that crazy note out on the verses-- on the last verse especially, when he sustains the "ee" vowel on "feeeeeels like years," it sounds like something between agony and rage. In addition to singing and playing the rocking bass line we've come to expect from him, Paul's also playing the piano, which along with the drums really dominates the texture here to me. I love it in the bridge hitting the block chords on the beat, which also keeps up the angry feel for me. And actually, although a lot of stuff sounds angry, the backup line that George and John are singing in that sweet oo-la-la falsetto very interestingly adds a note of good humor that keeps the song from getting quite as nasty as it could have gotten. There's that bit of irony that I love so well from the Beatles.

Poor Jane Asher-- I can't imagine that Rubber Soul is her favorite album, what with the vitriol Paul apparently needed to get out of his system here, but what a shame, because "You Won't See Me" rocks SO hard.

"You Won't See Me," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 3 of the decidedly suckier American version of Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.

I'll Get You

Did everyone have an excellent Memorial Day weekend? Me, I feel as though I enjoyed a fair mix of productivity and fun-- my weekend included a sausage-themed birthday cookout, coming in second in a brutal bout of bar trivia, watching and cheering as other people ran a half-marathon (I was partially cheering for it not being me), mostly cleaning out my apartment (again) for out-of-towners coming this weekend, and watching my favorite movie in a room packed with other rabid fans singing along wholeheartedly. And, of course, no matter what happened, there was always a Beatles song to listen to every day-- which is a light in the darkness, as it were, a beacon of hope in a potentially cruel world.

And hope is something it turns out I desperately need today. It's a super-busy day-- I'm going to New York again tomorrow for work-- and I have a zillion things to take care of, including finishing up presentations that I pray don't make me look like a moron and delegating all kinds of things, since I won't actually be in the office again until NEXT Friday, which is weird. The fact that I'm taking the time to share all this with you, dear readers, is clearly proof that my already middling time management skills have finally abandoned me altogether.

Anyway, today I need a happy, hopeful song with youthful sexy undertones. How about "I'll Get You"? Rock. John can get me anytime.

Don't mind the weird picture in the video above, as it clears up quickly. This is once again taken from one of our favorite shows, Ready Steady Go!, this time from the closing credits. Check out the Beatles-haircut-sporting, vivaciously dancing kid at about 1:40. That is a guy who knows how cool this song is.

I don't know if this was intentional or not, but "I'll Get You"'s presence as the B-side to the "She Loves You" single makes it sound as though John and Paul (who wrote this together) took inspiration from the "yeah yeah yeah"s of the more famous song as they wrote. "Oh yeah, oh yeah" begins the B-side, once more setting the kids to squealing and the parents to rolling their eyes. But in this one John and Paul, who interestingly sing together in unison on much of this, are speaking directly to us-- none of this "She Loves You" third-person business-- and telling us, with an irresistible swagger, that we will find them irresistible. They will get us. And they do! Zow!

Man, there are so many reasons to love this song, one of which is how damned singable it is. As I'm playing it now, I'm literally having a hard time not singing along as I listen-- it's a more noticeable issue here than I think with any song I've listened to so far for this blog. The verse has such a sweet legato melody, doesn't it? And then they sing "it's not like me to pretend" and it goes someplace you might not have expected. But what makes it really fun to sing is that sly, cocky tone that's telling me that I might as well resign myself to John and/or Paul-- this would be obnoxious coming from anyone else, but it's just adorable here.

The other awesome thing about it is John's harp, which is always a welcome addition to the mix. Rather than give it a real melody, John uses it for a nice sustained sound throughout, which he obviously did via overdub. I also want to point out that it's pretty early in the Beatles' career for Paul's bass to sound as good as it does. Check out how he's doing the fast eighth notes in the lead-in to the refrain ("it's not like me to pretend") and then goes right into the cool "bummmm bum BUM bum" figure (sorry, I can't figure out another way to write it). I like that line. I swear the bass is the most active instrument in this texture at all, which, again, is not exactly typical for Beatles songs this early.

Since John couldn't sing and hold the harmonic notes at the same time, they were hampered from performing it live much (I think), but they did do it at least once, on Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the Palladium, another English TV show. I don't think there's video of this performance, or at least not readily finable on YouTube, but there is a version on Anthology 1. And I love this version. To make up for the lack of harmonica, they do some different stuff with the guitar, and for some reason they're also doing the whole thing in a higher key that seems to make it that much more exciting.

This video combines some tracks from Anthology 1, so you get some bonus "I Saw Her Standing There," but I couldn't find anything more suited to the purpose. Enjoy!

And finally, since we need one more listen before we start out our hellacious day, let's remember that this unlikely little B-side is still one of Paul's favorite early songs. Which means there's some concert footage of him doing it! Yay!

Oh, you sure will, Paul. Sigh. Call me!

"I'll Get You," released in the U.K. as B-side to "She Loves You," August 23, 1963; in the U.S. on the Swan label September 16, 1963.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Revolution #1

Though I personally prefer the fuzzy aggressive madness of "Revolution #2," John Lennon himself favored "Revolution #1," the more laid-back track on the White Album. In fact, this was the version that he wanted to release as a single, and the reason "Revolution #2" exists is that the other Beatles argued that he'd need to rock it out a bit more for it to be single-worthy. There was also, apparently, some alarm from the others about releasing such an overtly political song in the highly charged political climate of 1968-- although I seem to recall Paul backing off this version of the story in recent years and making it sound like the whole thing was totally okay with him, so it's possible too much has been made of a John/Paul split here (or that Paul is afraid of being retroactively seen as uncool, which is also totally believable).

Anyway, today it's "Revolution #1," so numbered because it's the first recorded version.

John wanted to sound super, super relaxed on this one-- because it's gonna be all right, kiddies, at least if you believe his refrain here-- so he experimented with a lot of different ways to sing it before settling on singing lying down. This does lend the performance a certain breathy, mellow quality, as though John's trying to tell the New Left to chill the hell out already. What also helps, of course, is the "shooby doo-wa" backup sung line, the prominence of John's acoustic guitar, and the lazy shuffle of Ringo's drumming, which kicks in a little in the fills going into the refrain but stays (I think) the tiniest bit behind the beat throughout, just to keep it groovy. Note, too, the nice understated use of horns-- I'm particularly into the way they sustain those notes underneath the "when you talk about destruction" bit to ratchet up the tension into the refrain. They never draw attention to themselves, but it wouldn't be as great without them, for sure.

My favorite bit, though, might be George's lead guitar, which is killer throughout, from the juiced up triplets that start the song off to the little bursts of sound that punch up the refrain to every cool flourish in between. I don't know if George overdubbed these riffs over the basic track later, but it almost sounds that way-- as if John asked him to just make it more interesting anywhere that it felt necessary to do so.

This was a song that meant a lot to John, and a lot of ink has been spilled elsewhere analyzing the "Revolution"s as a part of his personal development, or something-- Ian MacDonald has a particularly cogent essay in the book that I recommend here all the time (I swear I read others, but MacDonald's is just so awesome). Suffice it to say for my kind-of-lazy purposes that this was one of those songs that John obsessed over in the studio and devoted heaps of takes to (see also: "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Across the Universe," and many more). In this case, I think it turned out well, and even if I might prefer to rock out to #2, the more I listen to #1 the more I appreciate its production.

I don't think the sessions for "Revolution #1" were the very first ones that Yoko sat in on, but they were among the first, and her contribution to this song lay in the weird orgiastic stuff that she and John wanted to throw onto the last fadeout. While the White Album version of the song went out in essentially normal pop song form, other versions were decidedly weirder. The most famous alternate take is Take 20, of which only two copies existed-- until this year, when the track went out into the world in all its glory! Now that one of the Beatley Holy Grails has been found, you can hear how this slow bluesy thing ended up morphing into the sound-piece that is the world's universally agreed upon least-favorite-Beatles-track, "Revolution #9." I posted this a while ago, and the EMI people pulled it down, but it's made its way back to the internet, because nothing can stop Beatles fans who want to listen to every last thing the band ever recorded. (As John would say, power to the people, you know?) Enjoy!

"Revolution #1," released in the U.K. side D track 1 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Crying, Waiting, Hoping

Since this seems to be the theme (sorta) of the past few days, today I'm observing HarriSunday by listening to George cover "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," a nice twangy Buddy Holly original. Released posthumously as the B-side to "Peggy Sue Got Married," the record was apparently a favorite among all the Merseyside bands, so everyone did a version. I'm going to assume that the Beatles' is the coolest one of all.

This version can be found on Live at the BBC, that treasure trove of cool old live Beatles performances that you can hear legally. But you can also find a different version on bootlegs from the Decca audition sessions, because the Beatles pulled it out for that setlist too. You remember Decca-- the record company that turned down the Beatles because "guitar groups were on their way out"? Right. Ha ha ha!

Anyway, the story behind Buddy Holly's record is weird. He recorded it in his apartment only a few weeks before he died, and after his death his record company got their hands on those recordings somehow and decided to try releasing them. In the case of "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," they brought in a bunch of session musicians and had them lay down tracks over Holly's voice and guitar line. Holly left longish pauses after each word of the title, and the session guys figured that it would sound good to repeat that line with backup singers, but it's hard to know if that's what Holly actually intended. The whole situation reminds me of what the Beatles did with those John Lennon tracks in the '90s for the Anthology releases, where they sang and played on top of "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" and created their own Zombie Beatles songs. (Speaking of Zombie Beatles, I just found this and figured I'd share it without further comment, at least for the moment.)

Anyway, George's guitar work here is killer, don't you think? It has that sweet Buddy Holly clanginess-- I love it, especially the solo, which is really gorgeously lyrical, for lack of a better word. It has a wistfulness, too, that's particularly affecting for a late '50s pop song, you know? It's been a while since I've heard the original record, but I do think George (and the rest of the band too) is pretty much lovingly mimicking his idol here, but he nails it so totally. I love the way he's singing, too. I never noticed it until I first heard this song, because it doesn't happen too much elsewhere, but George sounds good singing Holly, doesn't he? They have a similar resonance to their voices-- it's not that they're nasal, really, but there's some kind of a vulnerable, tentative quality there, like every time they sing they're revealing a tender underbelly to you. Even when Holly was at his most showy, he retained that intimate feel, and I think George does too. Does this even make sense? I don't know-- but I know that I quite like this cover, and even though it's a sad song, you can't really feel too sad listening to it.

"Crying, Waiting, Hoping," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 21 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Teddy Boy

Back in the '50s in Liverpool and Hamburg, the Beatles were all what the English called Teddy Boys. Originally the style was meant to be some kind of Edwardian revisitation (hence "Teddy"), but it merged with a look influenced by the American rock & roll greaser scene, and what you got was kids in huge jackets with velvet trim, super-tight jeans, and pompadours. My understanding is that the Teddy Boy (and Girl) thing was one of the first uniquely teenage trends the Brits had seen, and as in the States, the whole vibe terrified the teenagers' square parents. There's a really good story I read somewhere about how Paul's dad wouldn't let his sons wear the tight jeans that they were dying to wear, and so Paul let his father buy him a pair of normal jeans, but took them to a tailor every single day to have them taken in just the slightest little bit while he waited. So very gradually, over the course of a month, his pants got tighter and tighter, until they were cool. And when his dad railed against him for wearing them, Paul triumphantly showed him the label and proclaimed his innocence.

So the concept of Teddy Boy-ism would have been practically synonymous with just being a teenager, with all the youthful passion/violence that entailed. I read about the existence of the song "Teddy Boy" before I ever heard it, because as a kid I geeked out on reading a lot of Beatles books before I'd gotten into the solo career stuff much, and I assumed that "Teddy Boy" would be kind of an homage to both a youthfully transgressive Paul McCartney and the rock & roll scene that was was so exciting to him then. So you can imagine my disappointment when I actually heard the song.

"Teddy Boy" has never lost this faint sheen of disappointment for me, because I wanted it to be something other than Paul doodling around with a pleasant little melody about a boy who's gonna take care of his mom. Oh well.

We're counting this as a Beatles song because of the presence of the demo above on Anthology 3, so it's in kind of on a technicality. But Paul wrote it during their time in India in 1968, along with a ton of other songs that did make it onto Beatles albums, and Paul played a couple demos during the Get Back sessions. (The Anthology version is an edit of two separate takes. Believe it or not, one of them was a full six minutes or so, which-- argh.) What kept it from getting onto an album was that the other Beatles hated it.

But as with "Junk"-- another song which I feel could have benefitted heaps from more revision-- "Teddy Boy" found a home on McCartney, Paul's first solo album. Here's that version.

I wouldn't mind my own incorrect expectations so much if the whole song wasn't so slight anyway. Whereas "Junk" is at least stronger to begin with, "Teddy Boy" just feels little flimsy. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly. But the domestic drama isn't particularly compelling, and Paul hasn't bothered to flesh out many details. I don't know. Again, it's like, Paul, you know I love you, but you gotta consider finishing all your songs before you release them. Is all.

So, not my favorite. I think I'm going to go back and listen to my covers list again, because that's what a real Teddy Boy would prefer to do.

"Teddy Boy," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 6 of Anthology 3, October 28, 1996.

Friday, May 22, 2009

End-of-week playlist: My favorite covers, part 1.

Memorial Day is the perfect time to celebrate old-school rock and roll, and no one played it better than our lads. This list is just my faves, and it's not even complete, because I haven't written up half the covers I love yet. But it works for now.

Put this stuff on shuffle and play it over and over again this weekend-- it will do you good.

Baby It's You

I was thinking about my favorite Beatles covers last night. Not original Beatles songs covered by other people, which are almost without exception a huge waste of time (I could add a diplomatic "in my opinion" here, but I'm not really moved to do so), but songs that the Beatles themselves covered. As a live band, they had a tremendous repertoire of rock standards and rarities, and only a few of those ended up on studio recordings, which is kind of a shame, though it's a problem that Live at the BBC and the Anthologies attempt to fix, to say nothing of a zillion bootlegs.

Anyway, "Baby It's You" is one of my favorite of the covers, partly because it's just one of my favorite songs anyway, and partly because John is so awesome on it.

Composed by Burt Bacharach and originally released by the fabulous Shirelles in 1961, "Baby It's You" is, unsurprisingly, awesome. And the Beatles perform it awesomely as well. As with a lot of the songs on Please Please Me, John sang this with a bad cold, and though he performs admirably, there's a very cute nasal quality to his singing that, particularly on "Baby It's You," lends his voice a certain vulnerability and angst that can send stronger fans than myself into conniptions of lovey-doveyness. (See also: "Anna [Go to Him].") This isn't to say that the song requires John being sick to rock-- the version on Live at the BBC sung by a healthy John captures a lot of that angst too and just sounds, vocally at least, a lot smoother.

"Baby It's You" was a girl group song originally, so of course the backup vocals provided by Paul and George are a key part of the texture. Sometimes I hear Beatley backup lines as contributing something to the meanings of the lyrics, as in "Help!" just yesterday, in which they sound almost like voices in John's head, amping up the overall stress level of the song. But in "Baby It's You" the "sha la la"s seem to be functioning more like instrumental lines. It's a nice motif, and Paul and George do some key harmonic work, especially on the tenser "ah" bits when John is wailing on "don't want nobody" and so forth. A few other nice touches: In a rare-for-this-album embellishment to the Beatles' typical live performance lineup, George Martin doubles George Harrison's guitar solo on the celesta, which gives the song even more of a bell-like girl-group sound. And Paul is particularly good and thumpy on his bass here-- the line is a great standard-issue pop song one, but it's all about what Paul's putting into it.

I love songs like this. It's sweet and kind of sad but quite danceable anyway, and it has heaps of amazing singing, and it's handled with just the right light touch all around. Plus it gets me all girlish and silly, but not in a way that makes me feel lame. This is a ballad that one can feel cool about loving.

"Baby It's You," released in the U.K. side B track 3 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 2 of Vee-Jay's Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Just because I need it, kiddies. Majorly. Don't we all sometimes? These are my times.

The song is, indeed, helpful, and so is this very silly video.

"Help!" is the theme song to the film of the same name, of course, so John wrote it on demand, once director Dick Lester settled on the name of the new film. (The working title was Eight Arms to Hold You, which is a terrible name for a film and a worse name for a song, so thank God Lester saw the light on this one.) Although it was written to order-- and apparently in just a couple hours, as with "A Hard Day's Night"-- "Help!" is one that John himself thought to be one of his best even years later, in his last interviews. It is frequently thought of as John's first truly personal song, though to make that argument you have to discount "I'm a Loser." I think people go ahead and discount the earlier song because "I'm a Loser" has this (arguable) level of sarcasm or self-mockery, whereas "Help!" sounds far more earnest. Or at least it does to contemporary ears. Back in 1965, the mental exhaustion that came with being a Beatle wasn't yet widely discussed and maybe not known yet even to the Beatles themselves, though it was definitely taking a toll. When he wasn't a-touring and a-whoring, John was lying on his couch at Kenwood in one of the poshest London suburbs, getting high, ignoring his wife and toddler son, and hating himself. At least that's the way he tells it.

So he really did need some help, and later on John admitted that this song was a cry for it. As such, it has little do with the extremely silly movie, the trailer for which I've been looking for an excuse to post.

See, in this context, you just think that "Help!" sounds like a kickass song with one of the vaguely lovey plots that all early Beatles songs are written around. That reading works for me, too, by the way. And I'm really trying not to indulge in too much twenty-twenty hindsight. Even at the time, though, I don't think you could have missed that there was SOME kind of new tension in this song.

It's the opening that does it for me. As in "A Hard Day's Night," they seem to have been trying to open the film's theme song with a wallop worthy of opening an entire fantastic Beatles movie. (In Help!, this didn't work out, because the film opens with a non-musical scene of the cult members in India. Oh well.) This is as energized a song intro as you could want-- George and Paul just wail their "help" line, John's lead is straining with true need, and all the time George is doing this awesome scale downward on the guitar (which becomes one of the song's key motifs), and Ringo manages to infuse this huge sense of expectation into even the tambourine part. And that only sets the stage for when they get going.

Although everyone is playing totally well (especially Ringo, I should point out), I gotta call out the vocals in "Help!" most of all. John more yells than sings a great lead vocal on one of those classically Lennon all-one-note melodies; in fact, this verse has a particularly strong spitting-out-the-words feel that lends John the right air of desperation. But having Paul and George sing their backup lines before John gets his words out is a really inspired decision. They're not really backing him up at all-- they're driving him on. There's something weirdly relentless about the way they're always one step ahead of him on those words, isn't there? That's why when they drop out on the last repeat of the verse, along with the drums, and the song suddenly goes all quiet, it feels like a breath of fresh air that we needed to take. But it's only a short respite before their voices creep in again and whisk John's lead vocal away. I don't know. It's cool, and it keeps things interesting.

Even though contemporary listeners didn't take it for anything other than the Beatles' next awesome single, they still loved "Help!," and the band ended up making it a part of their live performances in the second half of 1965. I like this one from British TV myself.

I always think it's cute when John forgets the lyrics and the others kind of laugh at him. And what's more, he seems to be enjoying performing in this clip, doesn't he? It's no wonder that John's inner torment was still invisible to everyone at this point. That mask is still there, but this, I guess, is about where it begins to chip away.

"Help!," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S., side A track 1 of the stupid Capitol Help!, August 13, 1965.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


It's been updated!

This, combined with the fact that my computer turns out to be OK, has way improved my day.

Wild Honey Pie

I can't even tell you what a horrible day I'm having. My beautiful little computer, Ripley, is on the fritz, I have been in seventy thousand meetings in the past three days, and work is making me nuts, and I've got to crank out tons of stuff before taking last-minute unforeseen vacation time in the next couple weeks.

I got no time, kids, and this time it's for real. But I have made it THIS FAR into the year and posted every day, and I'm determined to not let today bring me down. So let's listen to "Wild Honey Pie."

It sounds like all the Beatles are screwing around jovially in the studio, doesn't it? Well, that's an illusion. This entire track was done by Paul, who was screwing around jovially all by himself while John and Ringo worked on other songs. (George was away on a vacation, perhaps because he was getting sick of the toxic White Album sessions generally-- I don't really remember, to be honest.) Paul layered on all the voices and did funky things with this guitar strings and we have this little ditty to show for it.

"Wild Honey Pie" is fine. But it's also a key pillar in George Martin's argument that maybe they should have released a superb single album instead of a quite-awesome-but-sorta-uneven double album, which is what the White Album ended up being. This is the kind of track that's usually first on people's lists of songs that could have been cut.

Even Paul wasn't that keen on keeping it, but as it happens, Pattie Boyd liked it. So it stayed. (It must be nice to be a woman who looks like Pattie Boyd. Such influence!)

Okay, sorry to hop off again, but I just gotta finish a lot of other things. Hopefully more tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

It's not that I'm feeling that dark today necessarily, I just love this particularly dark John Lennon song. What the hell is it actually about, you say? I don't know. But I don't think it's about anything good.

Man, this has just always been one of my top 10, probably. Just killer. Paul thought he was so awesome and weird with his Abbey Road B-side medley, but John is clearly beating him to it here on the White Album with a shorter but far more twisted mini-medley. To his credit, Paul always really loved this song, and so did the others. In a relative rarity for the White Album, all four of the band members played important roles in the very very involved recording of this one-- which is nice for us fans who might love the White Album but wish that our four favorite people might have, you know, liked each other a little bit more while they were working on it. The recording was so involved, of course, because there's just so much darned STUFF in "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and all of it is awesome.

Some intrepid YouTuber set scenes from Hans Richter's 1928 short film, Vormittagsspuk, to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," which seems neat and demented enough for me to present it to you below. (According to IMDB, the film stars Paul Hindemith AND Darius Milhaud! This is truly bringing together classical music and the Beatles in a way I never would have expected.)

The title of the song came from the headline to an ad for the NRA that John happened to see in a gun magazine. (Remember this the next time you hear an NRA apologist complaining that the NRA isn't actually pro-gun, but pro-Second Amendment, and why is it so misunderstood? or whatever the heck they say-- at one point they actually ran an ad THIS deranged.) The derangement spoke to John, and off he went to write a song that pushes derangement to eleven. There might be deeper meanings to the lyrics-- I've seen readings that make the whole song into a come-on to Yoko, which are maybe backed up by his noodling around her name on the demo that's on Anthology 3-- but since John had a great love of nonsense and preferred in this period to eschew deliberate meanings, especially in his more disturbing songs (e.g. "I Am the Walrus"), I prefer to think that the words are only themselves, and they're plenty effective that way, at least to me.

So let's get into the music. I (as well as the critics that I just took the ten seconds to check out) mentally divide this into four sections: #1 with the "she's not a girl who misses much" and so on, #2 is "I need a fix," #3 with the "Mother Superior," and #4 doo-wop sha-bop "Happiness is a warm gun mama." John, after the fact, called the song a "history of rock & roll," but I don't quite hear it-- it might be a collage of some hip rock sounds of 1968, but even that's a stretch. The sections are just all different, is all. The opening couple bars features a really fuzzy electric guitar that sounds like it's being picked in a folksy kind of way-- if you were straining, you could say it sounds like folk-rock or something, except that it doesn't very much. Added to that, after a moment, comes this tremendous buildup of drums and a sneering guitar chord, and then the texture gets even thicker with Paul (I think) singing a harmony line. Ringo keeps up some truly spectacular drumming in this section. (By the way, there's definitely no point in looking for meaning in these lyrics, because I remember quite clearly that John wrote this part on acid while tossing nonsensical lines back and forth with, if memory serves, Derek Taylor.)

Then the guitar-- which has so far been only occasionally jabbing through the layers of sound, rather like someone nasty would jab a toothpick under your fingernail-- plays the most sinister solo line ever into the "I need a fix cause I'm going down" vocal part, which, by the way, has moved into a lazy triple time, and stays mostly on just one chord for the maximum in droney, coming-down-from-a-buzz feel. (I don't know who's playing that guitar-- Ian MacDonald credits both John and George with lead guitars here, but the whole song is edited together from multiple takes and I'm not sure who plays what on the final track.) I really dig the OOM-pa-pa thing the rhythm guitar and bass are doing in this section, by the way. But we don't stay here too long-- we get jarred into the scary voices singing "Mother Superior jump the gun" as if we've just been zipped around a particularly sharp turn on a roller coaster. And THEN we get zipped again into the '50s doo-wop song from hell. And this is where the lyrics get REALLY creepy, don't they? There are lots of Beatles songs that make me want to, I don't know, do it in the road with them or something, but the way John sings "and I feel my finger on your trigger" makes me feel all icky and foul and like I kind of want to throw up. But he is LOVING singing this way. I love the way John sells this so completely, and just owns his sleazy self and throws his whole being into this weirdo persona. And it might just be me, but I swear the others on the "bang bang shoot shoot" back up line might be on the verge of cracking up.

This makes me think a little of two other John Lennon songs that I happen to have listened to fairly recently here at A Year in the Life-- "Good Morning Good Morning" for the way it plays with multiple meters, and "Julia" for the way it hews fairly closely to the natural rhythm of speech. In "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," there are multiple meters because he wants the song to echo natural speech. In the first section, for instance, beats are added here and there to stretch out the lyrics, and in the fourth section John stretches the "when I hold you" lines over longer bars for the same reason. (The weird thing here is that Ringo actually maintains the same meter while the others all go into a a triple feel, which is totally beyond amazing, and which is why it kind of hurts your brain to listen to.) And in the third section I don't even know what John's doing-- I can't quite hear the hemiola that Alan W. Pollack swears is there, but, I don't know, maybe his explanation works for you. However John has parsed the meter, suffice it to say that it's nuts. But it sounds fairly natural, if unusual, because it's following the text. Speech doesn't conform nicely to the metrical rhythms that we like to impose on our music, after all.

Isn't "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" the weirdest song ever? It's absolutely the product of a demented, ingenious mind-- only John Lennon could have written this. And with a song this good and interesting, it's no wonder the other Beatles were actually psyched to put in all this work and play the holy hell out of it. Pheeeew.

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun," released in the U.K. side A track 8 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Yeah, I don't know-- I feel like I've been giving Ringo short shrift lately, though by no means on purpose. Or maybe I'm feeling bizarrely captivated by 12-bar blues songs. At any rate, here's a cool cover that might count as a rarity, since it was never released on a studio album. Instead, it went out (in the Parlophone universe, anyway) on the Long Tall Sally EP, the first EP the Beatles put out that contained new material that you couldn't also get on an LP. These days "Matchbox" can be found easily enough on Past Masters, but I can't help but feel that its original EP status has relegated it a bit too far back on the back burner. Which is a shame, because it's a pretty solid Carl Perkins cover, and Ringo sings it as soulfully as you'd hope.

"Matchbox" had been in the Beatles' repertoire for a while. In fact, back when they were playing Liverpool clubs with previous drummer Pete Best, they had given it to him to sing, so there's clearly some weird connection between this song and drummers. John took over lead vocals after they sacked Pete, but at some point handed it over to Ringo. I believe they figured that this could be Ringo's song for the A Hard Day's Night album-- they had just finished shooting the film, and were back in the studio working on the album's B-side. As it happened, it went out on the EP ahead of the album, and Ringo ended up without any lead vocals on A Hard Day's Night. Oh well. Didn't matter, though, as fans in those days were sure to pick up the EP as well.

Though we would be tempted to once again call out George's worshipful interpretation of Carl Perkins's guitarwork on the solo, that's actually John on the solo. Although John always acknowledged that George was the better guitarist, John occasionally liked to play something other than rhythm, so in some cases he insisted on covering the lead. And it's good enough, in that raggedy jangly rockabilly way. Meanwhile, George uses his by-then-ubiquitous 12-string Rickenbacker on the rhythm line. Ringo's drums are produced, to my ear, to sound way out front, which is fine because he's rocking this very tight cymbal-heavy sound that I totally enjoy. If there's a problem here, it's the gigantic amount of reverb, which is actually kind of distracting-- but this is a sound that they must have liked at the time, as it's all over A Hard Day's Night too, so, whatever.

Carl Perkins was hanging out in London in 1964 and actually attended this recording session, and considering he was a hero to all of them, I think he probably made the Beatles kind of nervous-- I don't think they're really as into the spirit of this song as they could be, you know? They seem a little stiff, or something. It's hardly fatal, but there's something in the spirit of the music that's usually there that's missing. There's something a little workmanlike about "Matchbox." Later on, Ringo performed it again with Carl Perkins in a 1985 TV special (along with Eric Clapton, who, it seems, always turns up for these things), and he was clearly much, much less nervous. Because by then he was also a legend. I mean, I guess. Or maybe they'd just hung out more in the intervening years and gotten friendly.

One last note: though made famous in the world of rock and roll by Carl Perkins in 1957, "Matchbox" was originally recorded, at least in some vaguely related form, by someone named Blind Lemon Jefferson, all the way back in 1927. I don't know who that is, or anything about the recording, but I think it's important to acknowledge anyone cool enough to be named Blind Lemon Jefferson.

"Matchbox," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of Long Tall Sally, June 19, 1964; in the U.S. side A track 6 of Something New, July 20, 1964.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Non-Newsflash: Harmonix is a tease.

In a Softpedia story linked to by Beatles News, Harmonix basically admits that they are going to torture us by slowly trickling details of the Beatles Rock Band setlist out as painfully as is humanly possible.

That's okay, Harmonix. I can take it. I am, indeed, hanging on your every word, your every press release. It is sweet agony. But eventually 9/9/09 will get here and I will hold a plastic Hofner or something in my hands and I will know the truth. And the truth will be awesome. I hope.

Speaking of which, last week they did release images of the Hofner bass replica, which will probably retail for about the same ($100) as the replicas of the Rickenbacker and the Gretsch-- though of course it will come in the deluxe package as well.

For You Blue

Happy HarriSunday, a day which is a little harried for me because today I'm singing with my chorus in our spring concert, and my head is filled more with that contemporary classical choral sound than with the Beatles. At least for today. If you like reading this blog, and you also like that sort of choral music, then... well, honestly, you're probably me. Or else you're Tom R. (Hi, Tom!) But if there is another person out there whose interests intersect in this way, you should come and hear Coro Allegro.

But enough with sales pitches! Let's check out "For You Blue," a happy little ditty that George and the band knocked off during the Get Back sessions and eventually appeared on Let It Be.

This isn't actually the version that appeared on the album-- it's the part in Let It Be (the film) that they're all working on it. Note that John is playing a lap steel guitar, which has got to be a first-- Lord knows I can't think of another song in which he or any of them pulls one of these out. Note, too, that he's playing it with a cigarette lighter. That's because he's the coolest person ever. As for the song itself, it's one of the only (I think?) straight-up, unmodified 12-bar blues in the Beatles' canon (they tended to take this structure and fiddle around with it a bit). But that's just the structure, because the content is of course all breezy and sweet and adorable. There are a lot of versions of this song out there, and thus a lot of variations in the accompaniment, but unlike "12-Bar Original" the Beatles seem to be at least enjoying the laid-back improvisatory stuff. Or at least enjoying it as well as they enjoyed anything during the Get Back sessions.

Like all the Get Back tracks, "For You Blue"'s recording history is long and complicated-- frankly, more long and complicated than such a light, pleasant little song really deserves to be, but there you go. For instance, the version that appears on Let It Be features a lead vocal laid down almost a full year after everything else, in January of 1970, around the time when producer-of-the-moment Glyn Johns was remixing songs from the Get Back sessions. (Phil Spector, of course, made the final edits, and Let It Be went out with his name on it.) Glyn Johns, bless him, really did try to put together a Get Back album in the spirit of the original project, which was to have the Beatles mixing up covers of the old rock songs they played before they got ridiculously famous, along with new originals written and performed in old school rock and roll mode. (I recently found this internet radio station, Turn Me On Dead Man, which is awesome, and he's got a good summation of what the Get Back album might have looked like had Johns gotten his way-- check it out if you're curious.)

This is all to say that at some point in 1969 while Glyn Johns was still producing this project, an acetate from the sessions somehow made it out into the world and onto radio stations. Kum Back was one of the first Beatles bootlegs, maybe even THE first, but it still stands out for its relatively (in the bootleg world) good sound quality.

I prefer this version of "For You Blue" to the Let It Be official version entirely because of George, who is singing more soulfully and playing his acoustic with a lot more panache too. But in many ways, it's not that different. Which just goes to show what a simple song this was, I guess.

George was fond enough of "For You Blue" to sing it on the 1974 Dark Horse tour, too. He sped the thing up and let his all-star band jam the hell out of it. I can't love it as much-- the fast tempo pushes it to the edge of corniness, in my opinion-- but it's always nice to hear a band that includes Eric Clapton and Nicky Hopkins and Ringo Starr and Billy Preston and God knows who else play pretty much anything.

"For You Blue," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S. as B-side to "The Long and Winding Road" single, May 11, 1970 (and on Let It Be May 18, 1970).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

12-Bar Original

They can't all be "Hey Jude," kids.

You know what? It's okay. Everyone has off days, even the Beatles. I'm having one today too, as a matter of fact, so I'm keeping this brief and then going back to sulking and napping. "12-Bar Original" was recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions, and it's a little unclear why. Most likely they laid it down in case they couldn't meet their 14-song threshold for the album-- as was becoming more and more common at this point, the stress of their lifestyles was inhibiting their songwriting, which is why Rubber Soul also contains really old songs they dug up like "What Goes On." They probably figured, hell, let's knock off some blues jamming and then we'll have an instrumental we can throw on the album if we need to. And off they went. But leaving this track off the album turned out to be a pretty good call.

I mean, there's nothing particularly wrong this "12-Bar Original," but there's nothing particularly great about it either. Maybe the Beatles just weren't the kind of band that did the improvisation thing very well-- or even the blues thing very well. (They could be bluesy, of course, but that's not really the same thing.) Or maybe they just weren't feeling it that day, which I kind of suspect is more the case. Because it just sounds like the guitarists' hearts aren't really into it, right? Paul's bass seems pretty decent, but maybe my ear is making that up because I can totally see Paul being like, "come on, lads!" while everyone else rolled their eyes.

Anyway, "12-Bar Original" had never been released officially (unofficially, of course, there were heaps of bootlegs) until Anthology 2, which stuck on an edit of the original track-- the complete track is almost seven minutes long, and it feels like it. If you're curious, here's the track in its entirety.

Again, nothing wrong with it, makes good background music, maybe, or something, but not my favorite Beatles track by a longshot. I'm taking a nap and going off to think about what better song to listen to tomorrow.

"12-Bar Original," released in the U.K. disc 1 track 16 of Anthology 2, March 18, 1996; in the U.S. March 19, 1996.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Hey Jude

With some of these songs, I just want to throw up my hands and let them speak for themselves. It's scary to try to talk about a song like "Hey Jude," you know. What can be said that hasn't been said already? Can anything of interest ever be said about it again? What does it matter what I think about what is surely one of greatest pop songs ever written? And then, what does it matter what I think about anything? And then if I follow this train of thought for too long I get afflicted with this kind of why-do-I-live sort of anxiety, and then I have to listen to "Hey Jude" to cheer me up. So, you know, here we go, and fuck it, because I love "Hey Jude," and I wanted to listen to it today, and you should listen to it too because this is "Hey Jude" we are talking about, kids, this is NOT just some crappy little song. This song changes lives and stuff.

This is the promo video with a live audience that they made for airing in Britain-- Michael Lindsay-Hogg of later Let It Be fame directed it. Then they brought in David Frost and a couple other TV hosts for the intros so they could each "introduce" the video on their shows. That's why David Frost is here messing around with John and George, anyway.

Since this is such an oft-written-about song, you probably already know that Paul wrote it for Julian, John's son, who was only 4 or 5 at the time and whose parents were divorcing in a fairly dramatic and public way. He apparently began writing it in the car on the way to see Julian and Cynthia, his mother, to see how they were doing, singing "Hey, Jules" to himself. He changed it to Jude just because he thought it was easier to sing.

Paul had a habit of writing melodies first and then trying them out on people with dummy lyrics (see "Scrambled Eggs"), and that's what he did with "Hey Jude." When he first played it for John, he apologized for the lyrics that made no sense, like "the movement you need is on your shoulder" and so forth, but John insisted that everything about it was perfect, and that he absolutely must keep everything as it was. And so he did. That's basically the story of "Hey Jude," except for a couple footnotes: that John for much of his life insisted that Paul had actually written the song for him (John) subconsciously (Paul has denied it), and that John also remained irritated up to his very last interview that "Revolution" was relegated to the B-side of this single. To which I say, get over it, because you're the Beatles and it's not like people were exactly IGNORING the songs that were B-sides. They're both tremendous songs. In fact, the "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" single might be the strongest single ever for them (unless you give it to "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever," which also totally makes sense). This was, by the way, the first single released on Apple, so it definitely got the label off with a bang.

"Hey Jude" works its magic within the realm of super-traditional chords-- it's in F, and there's nothing more adventurous here than a couple of g minor chords in the bridge or something. Otherwise it's basically I, IV, and V all the way. (It was easy enough for me to teach myself to play it on piano in high school, which is saying something, for I was never that great a pianist and certainly not great at playing by ear.) But there's a reason that composers use these simple harmonic structures so often: they are deeply, deeply satisfying. "Hey Jude" makes you feel so good largely because we just innately love these chords. Of course, they can also be handled in a boring way, but Paul avoids being boring in "Hey Jude," partly because his melody is so beautiful and singable, and partly because he's so typically smart about the details. Just a few of the things I love about the arrangement: the gentle entrance of Ringo's tambourine on the second verse, the downward scale the bass plays in the bridge (which becomes gut-wrenchingly awesome if you crank the bass way up), and John's backup vocal on the last couple verses, which starts lower than the melody and ends up higher. These are small things, sometimes just flourishes, but they provide exactly the right color, you know? They're just perfect.

I don't believe "Hey Jude" was ever conceived of as existing without the very long "na na na na" coda that makes it the longest Beatles single ever (the longest Beatles SONG ever-- not single-- is "I Want You [She's So Heavy]"-- hope these factoids prove useful in your next bar trivia game). The coda does introduce slightly edgier harmonic stuff, namely an E-flat major chord-- but I think the flat-major-seventh thing was something the Beatles did a lot, so it wasn't particularly edgy for them, and it sounds quite natural. Anyway, the coda is where the giant orchestra first comes in (again, what attention to detail! the orchestra would have sounded shit during the song proper, wouldn't it?). The voices singing along are also the members of the orchestra-- the Beatles asked them to sing along and clap after laying down their instrumental stuff. (The musicians got paid a double fee for it. Could you imagine getting to sing along to "Hey Jude" and getting PAID for it? Lucky skunks.) Paul whoops and wails it up with total earnestness as everyone na-na-nas, and it's freaking beautiful, isn't it? It's perfection. "Hey Jude" becomes some kind of anthem here, though for what exactly I'm not sure.

As he should, Paul remains proud of "Hey Jude" and plays it live pretty much all the time. I've seen him do it several times now live and on TV and stuff, and he's almost smug about how he can wrap the crowd around his little finger just by playing this thing. But that's okay. Rather than find one of those videos, here's one I like of some "Hey Jude" rehearsals. "Hey Jude," much as I love it, benefits from a little irreverence, don't you think? (I have no idea where this video originally aired, by the way, but I'm really glad it exists.)

"Hey Jude," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "Revolution," August 30, 1968; in the U.S. August 26, 1968.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Golden Slumbers

We're dipping into the Abbey Road B-side medley files again with "Golden Slumbers" today. I was humming it to myself yesterday because, well, this is maybe too much information, but I restarted this medication that makes me super-sleepy if I take it even at just slightly the wrong time of day. So I've been walking around these couple days in a weird dopey fog, waiting for my body to readjust. (It's meds for chronic headaches, by the way-- nothing more interesting or severe or depressing than that. In case anyone was curious.)

And besides, yesterday Paul rocked us out. Today let's give him a chance to sing us to sleep. Oh, the many faces of Paul McCartney.

Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplexed?
O punishment!

As you might know, Paul took some of the lyrics to "Golden Slumbers" kind of loosely from a poem of Thomas Dekker, a contemporary of Shakespeare. This morning I hauled the ol' Norton Anthology off the shelf to look up some other work of Dekker's, just because I realized I knew nothing about him, but there's actually no Dekker at all in my edition. Which struck me as odd. But then I remembered the rest of the story: Paul read the poem in a song-book lying on the piano at his father's house, not in a normal poetry book. And Dekker's bit about golden slumbers has been, if memory serves, written into all kinds of songs. The above lines are the opening lines of the poem they're from, but here's the part we're interested in:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

See, I think that somewhere along the way in my years of being a chorus geek, I might have actually sung a choral version of that text myself. So Dekker is maybe sort of a minor poet who happened to write sung poems, or at least poems that work well as song texts (I found a few more poems here that seem to prove the point-- lots of "hey nonny nonny" stuff).

ANYWAY, so Paul saw this poem in a song-book and, since he couldn't read music (and still can't, so he says, which almost annoys me considering he's now a gazillionaire and has delved into classical music, but I digress once again), he wrote his own little melody to it. Of course he also added that "once there was a way to get back home" thing, which kind of makes it for me. As in "You Never Give Me Your Money," Paul's being wistful-- this time more cryptically-- about the impending breakup. Or at least that's how one is tempted to read it in the context of Abbey Road.

"Once there was a way to get back home" sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale and the end of one all in one sentence. Innocence has been established and then lost in the same moment-- and lost irrevocably, as it doesn't sound like the way to get home will ever be found again. Does that make sense? (I can't tell with this damned haze in my brain.) It is a wicked dark way to begin a lullaby. And that line casts a shadow of a very mature, adult wistfulness over what comes next. Paul might sing that smiles awake us when we rise, but did you notice that on this part he started singing in that showman's voice of his? Like maybe THAT'S the part that's a performance? That he's lying to us, or trying to make us feel better even as the tears hang still in his eyes?

Not to get too deeply into the harmonic stuff here, but the music seems to back this up. It opens with those shifty ambiguous minor piano chords, then pushes ahead-- it sounds like it's going somewhere, but it's hard to say where. It actually hits the tonic, a.k.a. the home key (C, if you're curious), the second time Paul sings "home," but it only stays there for a bar before veering off again into minor territory, so it sounded like just a passing chord. By the time you finally come home, on the syllable "by" in "lullaby," you're almost surprised to find yourself there, but you also can't imagine being anywhere else. It would have killed you to be anywhere else. Paul has effectively caught you before you ever knew you were falling, even as his lyrics doubt that you could ever truly be home again.

Is this a little too bullshitty? Eh. Sorry. I'll just wrap up by saying that normally the gargantuan string sound would bug me here, but it doesn't for some reason. I think it's because the whole song sounds so sincere. You can't call the strings corny because the song is so decisively not corny (in my opinion). I don't know, it works. What might also be helping is Paul's bass coming in to ground everything a bit, to say nothing of Ringo crashing into the wash of piano and strings in the middle section. Like a superhero, he comes at exactly the right time, saves the song from being too boring and string-y, and then flies off nobly when his work is done.

Gees, I sure have gone on. Who knew I could say so much about "Golden Slumbers"? Truly, the Abbey Road medley has more to it than meets the ear.

(And one last thing: I've noticed as I've linked to my past posts recently [like, just now] that there are totally comments back there in months past. Thanks for commenting, kids! I didn't even notice it til now, so my apologies, but I appreciate the insightful and interesting and very kind things you've had to say. And I'm glad you're having fun reading back over what I've listened to this year. This has all been fun for me. I'm writing the kind of blog I would like to read, I think, so I'm glad you seem to like reading it too. If I can yammer on like this about "Golden Slumbers," my posts on the REALLY daunting songs still to come in the canon are probably going to be freaking novellas, so good luck and thanks for sticking around.)

"Golden Slumbers," released in the U.K. side B track 8 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.