Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Baby's in Black

Our mournful song of the day gets mournfully poor reviews from many renowned Beatles critics. But not here. Nope. I'm about as unrenowned as you can get, and I dig the "Baby's in Black." I thumb my nose at all who say differently. I mean, look how adorably they mime the album version on this episode of Ready, Steady, Go.

I believe this song belongs to John and Paul equally-- it must be one of the last few they wrote eyeball to eyeball, most likely on tour in some hotel room with girls screaming outside. If that's true, I swear they must have been intentionally trying to write something that sounded different from what had come before. Because "Baby's in Black" is really quite a weird one in the catalog-- its morbid subject matter, its oft-amusing lyrics ("oh dear what can I do" sounds like some kind of clucking old lady to me, while "though it's only a whim" is delightfully irreverent), and its fast triple time, which is either 6/8 or 12/8 depending on how you hear it. None of it is exactly typical of what they were writing at the time. But the old storyline of Beatles for Sale, their fourth UK album, is that they were beginning to get tired of the grueling touring/recording/songwriting schedule that they'd been keeping for so long. So it makes sense that a feeling of boredom might have crept into their songwriting and pushed them in this weird direction.

I think they must have liked the result, because although "Baby's in Black" was never a single, the band made it a regular part of their live shows. For instance, here's a slower rendition of "Baby's in Blackpool."

And then there's the Shea Stadium rendition, from which lots of cute stills of a sweaty Paul and John sharing the mic have been reprinted. More to love about the clip below: even John can't remember what the heck crazy American album this song is on ("It's on Beatles VI or something," he says incorrectly, before quipping, "I haven't got it"), right before the police tackle a girl who's run out onto the field. (As historically significant as Shea Stadium was, doesn't it always look, well, not all that fun to actually have attended? Can you imagine being some poor dad taking his daughter or something? It's no wonder the older generation thought the Beatles were destroying the youth-- all these thousands of them screeching and rending their garments would have made me panic too.)

I imagine the Beatles enjoyed playing this song live for its weirdness, at the very least, for it does give them all some interesting things to do. John and Paul sing their exuberant two-part harmonies through the whole song, and it might be the only time they do so without ever stopping-- at least, no other song comes to my mind for which that's true. The effect is that you really can't tell which line is supposed to be the primary melody; you could make the argument that it's either or both of them. Most of the time the harmonies are in thirds, which I am on the record as loving very much. But the moments when the voices grow a bit further apart are some of the most tense, interesting moments-- like in the bridge when Paul goes up crazy high for "oh how long will it take." That's good stuff. (And it's extremely fun to sing along with. Whenever I'm doing the dishes or something and this comes on, I end up just standing and swaying and wailing on Paul's high line like an idiot. Try this at home!) And George's guitar solo is an interesting one, isn't it? It's a completely different countermelody, surely a George original, and if it's not the most spirited playing he's ever performed, it's certainly something kind of unexpected and neato. Also of note: Dig how they change up the playing on the last repeat of the verse, only hitting the downbeats of the triplet figures. What a cool and unlikely thing to do-- it keeps the beat from dragging too much toward the end, which would be a danger in a song like this.

So "Baby's in Black" might be kind of sad. It doesn't mean it doesn't make me super happy to be listening to it today. In fact, it makes me way to start swaying in my desk chair. Whee!

"Baby's in Black," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S. side A track 3 of Beatles '65, December 15, 1964.


  1. The trick is to always sing along. Then you'll never be unhappy. Because this is the best song ever.

    I admit that the lows of For Sale are uninteresting, but this album has No Reply, Baby's in Black, Eight Days a Week, Every Little Thing, and I Don't Want to Spoil the Party. It also has I'm a Loser, the bridge of What You're Doing, the performance of Hey Hey Hey Hey, and most people seem to like Rock and Roll Music a lot. So we must conclude that people who call it a 'minor work' are, in fact, dinks. Present company excepted, of course; I don't know, maybe Frank's not a fan, and I respect his rights in that area. Nobody else's, though.

    Critics also seem to fail to see how important this record was in their career. It was really a turning point equal to Rubber Soul and Revolver, in my mind, and none of the albums after it could have happened without it. They completely changed their tone musically, and the introspection John shows in his lyrics freed the band to do what they went on to do. Ticket to Ride doesn't happen without this album (neither, possibly, does Help), and so on and so on.

    Thus endeth the lesson. Aren't you glad I'm here?

  2. You're right about everything, of course, except in that you left out "Mr. Moonlight." Talk about a loathed song. Too bad everyone who loathes it is wrong.

    I think a lot of Beatles music is so perfect that it sounds as though it always existed, and that the band was, as someone said about Mozart once, taking dictation from God. But on Beatles for Sale, you can hear the work-- you can hear them trying to figure out what direction to go in. I like that about it. And there ARE a lot of underrated songs on it, of course.

  3. I actually do like Mr. Moonlight OK, but I'll admit to being swayed by the criticism on that one. I knew it wasn't a masterpiece, but I wasn't aware it was reviled. People seem to focus on its not being a great song, but that means they miss out on the nice moments in it -- the harmonies, most notably.

    Building off what you wrote just now in your comment, the Beatles really ruined everything for songwriters to come. A lot of your pioneers were content to make one lasting contribution; Bo Diddley comes to mind. But I feel like most bands since the Beatles are just trying to rework the ground they broke. (And most of the bands that aren't trying to do that, I'm not fond of.) That's what you remind me when you write that so much of their music sounds like it always existed.