Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Besame Mucho

Some days just break you. It's barely 1:00 and I'm already all set for this one to be over, or to start over entirely, or something. I can't even begin to talk about it. BLECH.

I don't really have the energy or the time to devote to tackling a true Lennon-McCartney masterpiece today. But I would like to see if Paul hamming it up is going to cheer me up at all. So what the hell-- here's "Besame Mucho," a song that appeared frequently in the Beatles' Cavern lineup, and one that they thought highly enough of to pull out for both the Decca and the EMI auditions in 1962.

In fact, they liked playing it so much that you can find a ton of recordings of "Besame Mucho"-- there's at least one version they did live on a BBC show available on bootleg (it didn't make the Live at the BBC album), plus a poor-quality version on Live at the Star-Club, plus the Decca audition tape, which has been bootlegged all over the place. And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind. The so-called canonized version is found on Anthology 1, and it's from their audition for George Martin at EMI. That's the one you'll hear in the video above.

If your question now is a baffled "but WHY?-- WHY were they so enraptured with this song?", you should know that that's kind of my impression too. The song was apparently gigantically popular in its day, but perhaps it just hasn't aged well, or perhaps it's just not up my alley. "Besame Mucho" was written in 1940 by a young Mexican girl, and once someone wrote English lyrics to go with it, several cover versions became hits in the UK (and I guess the US too) throughout the '40s and '50s. So this totally classifies as one of "Paul's granny songs," as John would later deride them. And, I don't know, maybe the rest of them really hated playing this, but like some other cheesy covers Paul sang lead on, they sure as hell played "Besame Mucho" a lot for having hated it. (As someone pointed out in comments recently, it did behoove the Beatles to have a few non-rocking songs like this in their repertoire for the still-stodgy Liverpool club scene, so that's part of it too, I'm sure.)

Then again, I believe the version that really got Paul psyched was the Coasters', who at least have some cred with me (and with Paul). Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the Coasters' version anywhere on YouTube. But having spent a few minutes on YouTube looking for it, I can report back to you that "Besame Mucho" continues to be covered by such mediocre talents as Andrea Bocelli and that kid Sanjaya from American Idol. (Both of whom are far too mediocre to merit links.) And to my ear, the song deserves no more than a mediocre performer.

But of course the Beatles do a pretty damned good job on it. Paul is giving his all, of course, on the corniest vocal ever, but it does show off his pipes pretty well-- the song has a wide range, and he gets to show off how adorable and how light-hearted he is. And George and John are both right there on the quasi-Spanish guitars-- I mean, they really do have the feel of this one nailed. And I kind of like how Ringo comes in at the chorus and does these wicked long rolls. If nothing else, "Besame Mucho" shows off how well the Beatles play-- which I guess is why it makes sense to put it in your audition setlist.

I'm telling you, though, reports of the other Beatles hating this song have been exaggerated in hindsight. They sing the thing again in Let It Be, and as you can see below, everyone's kind of getting into it. In fact, I suspect this kind of hilariously overwrought performance of the song might be more in keeping with the way they actually played it back in the day, especially in Hamburg. But I don't know really. Anyway, hope you like this-- even I like it okay, and, admittedly, it has slightly cheered me up.

"Besame Mucho," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 21 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.

Monday, June 29, 2009

That'll Be the Day

Hey, everyone! I'm back from camping, and, after coming home and dropping off our stuff and going immediately across the street to our favorite Belgian beer and food establishment, I'm feeling really freaking lazy (to say nothing of smelly), so forgive the brevity here. In the last few hours of the day, I'm going to have a listen to "That'll Be the Day," which, awesomely, is the first recording that the band-that-would-be-the-Beatles did, ever.

Just this past week we listened to "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," another Buddy Holly cover that the Beatles attempted during the depressing Get Back sessions. And that cover was one of the more depressing tracks from those sessions, just maudlin as all get out. To compare the band's first recording to one of their last is pretty mind-blowing, because they're clearly so different in feel. Mostly, of course, on "That'll Be the Day" you can hear how much the band (they weren't even really called the Beatles back in 1958 when this was recorded at a random guy's house in Liverpool) is actually enjoying playing with each other. Which is kind of nice.

The band was called the Quarrymen, and at this point the personnel consisted of John, Paul, George, Colin Hanton on drums, and Duff Lowe on piano-- you can hear his piano clanking along nicely on the instrumental break here. John is singing in a fairly straight Buddy-Holly-impression kind of way, which makes sense considering he probably hadn't really developed the confidence in his vocals that would make his work in the years down the line so unforgettable. I also want to single out George, because his solo is pretty darned solid considering he was like 15 playing on this. All round, "That'll Be the Day" sounds like a song that this band played a lot-- even through the piss-poor sound quality (the result of playing into one mic in somebody's house), you can hear that they really, really know and love this song. I can, at least. Although it's all fairly ragged, there's a tightness to it that's admirable. Does it hint at the greatness that's to come? Eh, I don't know. But it's neat to listen to even so.

So back in 1958, the Quarrymen recorded "That'll Be the Day" as well as a little McCartney-penned song called "In Spite of All the Danger," and got back a two-sided 78 rpm disc, which circulated among them for a while. Paul is said to have purchased the original disc from Duff Lowe (who for some reason had it stashed in a sock drawer for decades) for an astronomical but no doubt fair (considering the circumstances) sum. That's how these two tracks ended up on Anthology 1. Ultimately, these things are probably more of a curiosity than anything else, but I don't mind at all-- I'll tune into John doing Buddy Holly any day. And speaking of the master, there's probably not even a need to provide a video for an original song this well known, but why not? This video rules. Buddy Holly rules too. The kids who would turn into the Beatles knew it, and so does anyone with an ear or two.

And with that, bedtime! Thanks for your patience-- something more normal from me to come tomorrow.

"That'll Be the Day," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 3 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Savoy Truffle

Let's just hang out in the land of the White Album for today's HarriSunday track, kids, because "Savoy Truffle" is a fun rich chocolaty song. Although it was written about Eric Clapton's addiction to chocolate, some enterprising YouTuber made a "Savoy Truffle" video of pictures of George eating, which, I dunno. It's pretty funny.

So Eric Clapton's tendency to eat entire boxes of chocolates in one sitting has been forever documented in this song, which was really written just to tease him. Most of the song's lyrics are taken from a box of Mackintosh Good News-- George is essentially listing the types of truffles inside. The ginger sling sounds particularly tasty to me (I'm a spicy dessert kind of person), but I'll never know whether this chocolate was any good, since Mackintosh was an English company and doesn't seem to be making this assortment any more even in Britain, much less here in the States. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong.)

Anyway, this is a good song for a summer weekend, isn't it? A song this rocking and fun doesn't demand much of us other than that we dig some awesome sax and dance around our kitchens. They brought in a bunch of sax players for this, though it's not George Martin who scored their part-- it's his assistant, Chris Thomas. (Thomas would later produce albums for Badfinger and the Sex Pistols and many more cool bands, but at this point he was a young Martin protege.) The sax dominates the song more so than horns do on almost any other Beatles song I can think of, which gives this one a unique sound, especially since George insisted on distorting the horn sounds in the studio for the dirtiest feel possible. But I urge you to also take note of George's shrieky guitar, which is itself pretty dirty-- I particularly love the high on-the-beat licks he adds to the second refrain, and it's a darned solid solo too. I also think Ringo is going above and beyond, especially on the bridges. His fill going into that bit on the bridge under the lyric "when the pain cuts through"-- man, he rolls into that cymbal-riffic part like the master that he is. That might actually be the best part of the whole song for me.

But on this listen I have to admit to really noticing the bass line for the first time. Have I mentioned before that Paul is a god? Seriously, I don't tend to think of "Savoy Truffle" as one of the Paul's most celebrated bass moments, but he really never lets up on this one-- he's got crazy walking-bass-esque stuff all over the verses such that it's possible he's never doing quite the same thing twice (I can't entirely tell). My favorite bass bit might be on the refrains, though, when he just hovers on these two pitches playing this really groovy figure-- though even this he elaborates on slightly when the refrain repeats.

I haven't mentioned John because, well, he wasn't playing on this one, having a tendency at this point in 1968 to work less on everyone else's songs and more on his own (and also to stay in bed with Yoko all day). In this case, it's certainly not hurting for his absence. I don't know if "Savoy Truffle" ever gets the love it merits, though, tucked away on the last side of the White Album between the much-maligned "Honey Pie" and the also-underrated "Cry Baby Cry," but I feel like whenever it comes on it's a pleasant surprise. Like, yes, "Savoy Truffle" rocks! How could I forget!" In fact, as I wrote this, my husband had a similar epiphany, wandering into my study as I blasted "Savoy Truffle" for the fifth time and just saying "God, this song rules." Right on.

By the way, kids, I might be quite late in posting tomorrow-- I'm leaving this morning for a camping trip in central Mass. Did you know that the state of Massachusetts rents entire islands by the week? Well, they do, and I have friends spending the whole week on the one they got. Me, I just have a couple days. But I'll be away from the computer and from Beatles music, God help me, so look for me closer to tomorrow night.

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

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Today is my birthday. Yay for being 30! I feel like I've finally hit adulthood (except, well, I don't really feel that way at all). So anyway, I'm giving myself a gift in the form of a song that is, if I'm ever pressed to name one, probably my all-time favorite. I know, I know. It makes no sense. I can hear you wailing now: "Meg!" you say. "It's a White Album throwaway! What are you thinking?" But readers, no, because whenever I hear those opening percussive guitar sounds and all the crazy handclapping and cowbelling, I get totally sucked into this utter masterpiece of a song. Is "masterpiece" too strong a word, reader? IS it? REALLY? Perhaps you need to listen again.

I mean, I don't think there's a serious critic out there who actually believes this is one of the all-time great Beatles songs. But it just gets to me somehow. I hear John shrieking like that, and all the percussive chaos, it's as though my guts turn themselves inside out it's so damned good. When I say that "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is maybe my favorite, I think I mostly mean that it ALWAYS has the same effect on me-- I drop what I'm doing, my eyes get hazy, and (if I'm really not watching myself) I start jumping around. It's like being high.

Which is notable, sort of, since this is a song that is widely believed to reference heroin (though John denied it). John and Yoko had recently begun using-- heroin was in vogue among the avant-garde art people whom Yoko introduced John to-- and there are some other heroin-induced moments on the White Album as well, e.g. "I'm So Tired" and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun". The reference to "my monkey" is ambiguous, but "monkey" is apparently a term for heroin that dates back to '40s jazz slang. (These are the things you learn if you read a lot of Beatles books, folks.) The other eyebrow-raising moment re: John's new drug of choice is the whole bit about "the deeper you go, the higher you fly." So, you know, take that as you will. It might be there in the words, but the song's off-the-hook rock doesn't sound like it's recalling anything resembling a heroin high as I have always understood that high to be.

When you're listening to the White Album, letting the dulcet tones of the preceding track, "Mother Nature's Son," lull you into sleepiness, the opening crackle of those guitar licks on "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" jolts you awake in the most awesome way possible. George is totally wailing there, but the simplicity of the three opening notes is only the beginning of what he does in this song-- he's completely off the hook on the guitar part underneath the vocals, just all over the place, working this great contrasting line against Paul's bass, which is also nuts. And of course someone is clanging that cowbell, which arguably makes the song. (The cowbell drops out for the second verse, and it's noticeably different for its being absent-- the verse feels cleaner somehow. Then it comes back in for the third verse to up the ante a bit.) This all contrasts nicely with the very tight, simple, snappy drumming that Ringo is doing-- he probably figures that someone around here has got to hold the madness together. But things get a little less mad and a lot more driven when John sings "take it easy" at the end of the verses, and the drumming gets faster and more regular, and Paul's bass falls into the repetitive eighth note figure, and it's up to that rhythm and John's high screaming vocal to push us to the euphoria of the end of the chorus, when George plays the guitar solo line. That guitar moment is probably the thing most approaching a true melody that ever happens in this song, and when it comes it feels AMAZING, like just the best release ever. Neat, right? Even Ringo cuts loose a little bit here, with some nice cymbal explosions.

And speaking of John's vocal, what a work of art it is, utterly one of his best ever. In a way, it gives us the first glimpse of the so-called "primal scream" style that would become central to the sound of Plastic Ono Band, his first solo effort. But whereas on that album the screams come from what is obviously a dark, dark, angst-filled place, the screams on "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" are a natural outgrowth of his previous rock vocals from "Twist and Shout" all the way to "Hey Bulldog." He's screaming because this music is so freaking awesome. You know? I mean, frankly, rock and roll this good can make you high on its own-- there's no need for heroin or anything else. Rock this good does something to your brain.

And that seems as good a way to sign off on this one as any. Please give this one a listen, though-- it's so freaking amazing. I am a total evangelist for this song.

"Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey," released in the U.K. side C track 4 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Paul McCartney: even richer after Michael Jackson's death?

(Note the gratuitous use of "Michael Jackson" in my post title, in a shameless effort to get search engines to pick up this post.) Since no one will shut up about Michael Jackson today, I just wanted to point out that rumors were circulating a few months ago that he had revised his will to leave Paul McCartney rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog. Or at least, the portion of the catalog that Jackson managed to retain-- I believe he had to give some of it up to the bank or something. If this is true, than Paul is even richer now, and he was already the richest man in pop music. So goody for him.

This article was linked to today by Walrus Gumboot and fleshes this out a bit. The article politely leaves out some details, such as, when Jackson bought the catalog from under Paul's nose, it was with Yoko Ono's implicit blessing-- she refused to go in on the purchase with Paul, even though it surely would have been a good investment, and she later said that she approved of the way the sale had gone, noting that the catalog was with a "friend." Presumably a better friend than, you know, the guy who freaking wrote half the songs. I really, really, really try not to be of the Ono-hating variety of Beatles fan-- I happen to think she's talented in her own way, yeah yeah, blast me in comments, I'm too lazy to defend this now-- but this was what I would judiciously call a dick move. For what it's worth, Sean Lennon seems to have made a brief appearance in Jackson's strange child-harem, and was in the movie Moonwalker.

Clearly allegiances had been decided.

Other than that Walrus Gumboot note, the Beatles sites I read are all talking about the Thriller and Pipes of Peace duets from the early '80s, which, God, must we be reminded?

I'm sorry if I sound down on Jackson. I was never a huge fan, but sure, it's sad when people die and stuff. It's just... well, this Heather Havrilesky article on Salon today sums up my feelings clearly enough.

From Me to You

I guess I was feeling like something that was sort of the opposite of yesterday's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"-- something a bit glib where the former is gut-wrenchingly earnest; something hip and swinging where the former is like the musical equivalent of an open sore. Ah! "From Me to You!" Oh, kids, I love this song. And it must be said that I particularly love the studio version, because it's got harmonica, which the Beatles were apt to leave out in live performances. So here it is.

"From Me to You" was written on the bus during the Beatles' 1963 tour with Helen Shapiro, whom they were playing as the opening band for based mostly on the strength of their first two singles, "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me," the latter of which had gone to #1 on all but one of the British charts. It's always been described as being totally co-written by John and Paul, and both of them knew pretty much right away that it was good enough to release as their third single. So they knocked the single they had planned on releasing, "Thank You Girl," to the B-side, and put the thing out. And "From Me to You" was destined to actually go to #1 in all the British charts. So rock on. In fact, measured in terms of weeks at #1, "From Me to You" was to remain their most successful British single of all time. (Though "Hello Goodbye" tied it.) So it's no wonder they performed it live all the time. For instance, for the Royal Variety Performance in November of 1963. As you can see, they lose the harmonica and throw George a very small solo in its place.

Of course, like all the Beatles' singles in 1963, their first year of gigantic fame in the U.K., "From Me to You" was initially ignored in the States. But even after Beatlemania hit the States, I don't think American fans have ever loved this one quite as much as British fans do. Just my unscientific observation, of course. I don't know-- it came out in between "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You," both of which are more rocking and manic. "From Me to You" has a pleasant poppy swing, but maybe hasn't aged as well-- or maybe just sounds more old-fashioned.

Not that that makes it unsophisticated. Paul has cited this one as an early favorite because of its interesting harmonic structure, which he's called a turning point in their songwriting. And it is interesting, because it actually goes into a different key for the bridge-- which, though it would be more common in Lennon-McCartney songs later, was still pretty far out this early on. The modulation from C major into F major happens so seamlessly you almost don't notice it-- in fact, it's a modulation on a common chord, handled exactly like a zillion classical composers before them would have also handled it, which is why it feels so pleasant and neat, even if it is a little unusual in a pop song. Of course, since they play the bridge twice, they're doing this modulation thing back and forth pretty frequently in a song that's barely two minutes, so I'd go so far as to call it kind of daring. But it works, doesn't it? I'm also a huge fan of the chord they end the song on-- I love the unfinished sound of it. It's just cool as hell.

Anyway, I didn't mean to malign "From Me to You"-- I quite like it, as I like any song in which John and Paul sing in unison, and John plays harmonica, and Ringo gets in some good drum flourishes, as he does on the end here. It just makes me feel all sunny and awesome. Hopefully it will do the same for you.

"From Me to You," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "Thank You Girl," April 11, 1963; in the U.S. as a Vee Jay single c/w "Thank You Girl," May 27, 1963.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I Want You (She's So Heavy)

Sorry I'm late today, kids! Considering how obsessed I've been lately with Paul, what with my seeing him live and stuff now actually imminent, and what with his birthday week only just behind us, it might seem weird that I'm listening today to a song that's all about John Lennon and his all-consuming obsession with Yoko Ono. But listen to the sweet, sweet, godawfully sweet bass line on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and you'll hear that there's lots to love about Paul here too. In fact, it's really about all the Beatles-- they totally loved this song, and they all willingly spent a lot of time working on it. And they are all playing like they've found religion. It is beautiful.

At least, that's my take. It continues to surprise me how many people actively dislike this song. I don't know-- maybe you're one of those people. If you are, I implore you to try again once more. Check it out.

I think those who dislike "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" tend to be the types who like their music polished, boasting of structural integrity, and advancing some kind of sophisticated musical idea. Or at least that's my sweeping generalization based on the always-fastidious Ian MacDonald and his disdain for this song. (Tim Riley, my other favorite critic, loves it-- rightly so.) Obviously, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" tends to not do any of that stuff, at least not in an obvious way. But still, can't you hear the genius at work here? I keep listening to this almost-eight-minute jam over and over, such that the verses just meld together beautifully and that repeating bass figure just runs over and over my brain like a gigantic threshing machine that's harvesting awesomeness.

Let's point out all the ingenious weirdness here. For one, there's the sheer repetitiveness of the thing in both the music and the lyrics, which is particularly unusual from the Beatles. One of my favorite John Lennon moments is in that Rolling Stone 1970 interview again, when he's defending this song, which had been criticized by someone or other as unsophisticated, and he explains that it's really just a scream. I'm paraphrasing here, but he says something like, if you were drowning, you wouldn't say "it would be highly desirable for someone to come fetch me out of this deep lake forthwith," or something-- you'd just scream. That's how he felt in his relationship with Yoko, and so he sets about here writing a musical scream, with repetitive and extremely simple (yet still sort of odd) lyrics, and a backbone composed of relatively simple blues chords and rows and rows of arpeggios. I don't know-- it's an interesting project. Earlier on, John and Paul liked to play around with experiments like writings songs on just one note or whatever, and maybe the idea of writing a scream in musical form appealed to John-- at any rate, I think he nailed it.

In an attempt to make this the loudest scream possible, everything here is overdubbed to death, especially the guitar lines on the long coda, which John and George overdubbed endlessly in a separate session. And then John borrowed George's moog (I wish I had friends from whom I could borrow a moog) to make the windy noises on the coda. And since we're listing what's weird here, there's also the funky metrical disjunct between the verse, which is in duple time (4/4, basically), and the chorus, which is in triple time (a slow 6/8 to my ear). There's no easing into that shift-- it just jars you back and forth between the two different meters for the length of the song. It's awesome.

You know, maybe it was just how different this song was that got the other Beatles so into it. They started working on this toward the end of the doomed Get Back sessions, and since they were clearly tired of playing old-school rock and roll with each other (see, uh, yesterday) maybe a song that was so hard and gritty and loud-as-fuck the way rock should be, and yet was still so odd and new and crazy, was exactly what they were in the mood for. Who knows? Anyway, I think it was the first-begun and last-finished track for Abbey Road, which is because they just kept recording track after track after track of it and loving the hell out of it. You can hear this in the way they're playing. Don't even get me started on the thing of wonder that is Paul's bass line-- it works practically as a countermelody to the vocal, but also almost like a commentary track, just because the bass has so much personality here you can probably hear it growling "baby" at you or something. Totally virtuosic. And Ringo with that vaguely Latino drumming bit, especially in the instrumental verse, is killer. George squeezes every last ounce of soul from the endless guitar arpeggios, and John (rather unexpectedly) turns out to be a genius on the Hammond organ.

When the thing cuts off abruptly after almost 8 minutes, it just leaves you gasping for air, right? Unfortunately, it also set me up for one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, which I'm choosing to reveal here for some reason. So I got Abbey Road on cassette tape when I was probably 12, before I ever knew anything about the Beatles really, and before I'd ever read books on them. And I thought the tape was actually defective. The fact that on side B "Her Majesty" also cuts off abruptly absolutely made me think I had an album that had been taped on too short a roll or some crap. (I don't even know if this is possible, but again, I was like 12, and I didn't KNOW that these songs cut off this way intentionally.) So I returned the tape to the store and got a new one. Now, keep in mind that at various stages someone should have stopped me. Both of my parents-- I mean, my father had a college radio show in the '70s, for God's sake-- should have known that Abbey Road has this EXTREMELY famous musical moment as sort of a trademark, but they didn't (they're, frankly, totally square-- love you guys!). But instead my mom just stood there while I returned the tape to the douchey record store guy. And the douchey record store guy should have known too. I mean, what kind of douchey record store guy doesn't get what I'm talking about when I'm complaining that Abbey Road cuts off abruptly? But no. He ran the exchange and that was that. And when I got home and discovered the same problem, I immediately felt really really really stupid. Triply so when I started actually reading about this album and realized it's kind of a defining moment. This might be a story about me being kind of dumb, but it's also a story about how really strange the ending to this song is, isn't it? I mean, it's just the last thing you expect the first time you listen.

But hey. I've got that off my chest, and I'm sufficiently over it to love this song with all the love that it deserves. Have I convinced any "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" haters? Well, never mind. I'm going to listen just one more time before getting back to work.

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)," released in the U.K. side A track 6 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


So although my day sucked this morning, it has gotten amazingly better thanks to the fact that it turned out that yes, as many signs were pointing to, Paul McCartney IS going to play Fenway Park, and also that, yes, I FREAKING GOT TICKETS. Or, rather, my husband did, since I am clearly not good at the internets, and I called him in his office at 10:05 this morning weeping and screeching about how I couldn't log back into the site after selecting something wrong and I needed him to log in too because otherwise the tickets would have been gone and we were losing precious seconds even talking about this. My husband is truly the world's most patient man.

Anyway, yay! So here's my plan: I'm seeing Paul on Wednesday, August 5, and when he plays again the next night on the 6th, I'm going to hang out outside Fenway with a cup of coffee and a flask and listen to it again. Who's with me, Boston kids? Then I'm going to try to stow myself away in his van. Well, maybe not. Depends on the security level. We'll see.

(Deep breaths, Meg. Dial back the crazy just a hair. Ah.)

Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues

It's like I've been thinking for a while: I've got to hit these Anthology demos eventually, given the arbitrary rules I've set for myself. So today, a day when it's raining AGAIN and I'm in a bad mood and I have a day full of meetings, let's listen to "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," because it's a song that I happen to be feeling right now.

I'm feeling the blues today, kids, man, it's like, I don't even know what's wrong with me, maybe the weather, maybe a more generalized malaise, but it's a bad scene. I gotta try to rally to write this for real-- forgive me if I'm brief. Luckily, John seems to be feeling my mood on this track. He and the band are actually performing this one much slower and in a much more melancholy way than Buddy Holly originally did it on his 1957 recording, which made the B-side to "Words of Love." Check out the original below: it's probably stronger, considering it was actually produced for release, whereas the Beatles was a circa-Get Back kind of demo thing.

I mean, Buddy Holly's is sweet and swinging and almost, like, lilting or something, isn't it? Whereas the Beatles do it in a way that makes you feel like they don't believe the mailman is going to actually bring them anything but misery from here on out. Holly manages to put together some kind of a chipper guitar solo, but the Beatles drift in and out of their guitar work in this much more chill, kind of soporific way. It sounds sort of cool, but weirdly, it doesn't sound much like the Beatles. If we may make a crass generalization about their covers for a moment, I think it's mostly safe to say that they are more manic and more rollicking than their predecessors. Sometimes they're also less tight, but that seems par for the course, and I for one never miss the tightness or the perfect musicianship that the Beatles sometimes don't entirely nail. Of course, most of the covers I have in mind in making these generalizations date to the early days, circa Live at the BBC and earlier. You can hear the difference here, because seriously, in "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," talk about less than perfect musicianship-- it sounds like John can barely be bothered to sing vaguely in tune. Then again, he's also trying to do a Buddy Holly impression, and that reedy tone is always a little out of tune anyway.

It might have been the nature of the Get Back sessions that contributed to this, of course. I've spoken about it a little before before, and a zillion historians have written about it too, but in a nutshell, the Beatles' attempt to make a back-to-basics classic rock and roll album in January of 1969 came to nothing, because at the time they hated each other for various reasons involving management disputes and money and so forth. Still and all, a bunch of recordings of classic rock covers survive from those sessions, most of which have been made into bootlegs, and a few of which found their way onto Anthology 3 in 1996. I don't feel that any of these tracks match the verve from their previous covers. You know what else is a little depressing? That 1975 John Lennon album Rock 'n' Roll, which is all covers. You can just TELL he had to do that album because he lost a lawsuit-- his heart's not in it at all. Sad.

Anyway, sorry for not having energy for more than this today. Now I'll slump in my desk chair, work, and enjoy these blues. More and better from me tomorrow, I swear...

"Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 38 of Anthology 3, October 28, 1996.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Every Little Thing

You know what's been missing from just about every Beatles song we've covered so far? Some freaking timpani.

THANK you, Ringo! I was just thinking that we could use some timpani up in here, and I knew "Every Little Thing" could provide. In what is perhaps a fun bit of trivia, this is (I think) the only time the Beatles brought in an orchestral instrument that then got played by an actual member of the band, and not a hired musician. So, rock on Ringo! And that's not even the only unusual thing about today's song, you know: that's John playing lead guitar, which he did only occasionally, as well as acoustic guitar, and it would appear George actually does nothing here. (A little sad, yes.) Also odd is that this is a song that Paul wrote but John sings lead on, which definitely almost never happened by late 1964 when they were recording this. I've never read reasons for either of these phenomena, so if you know why, by all means speak up. Though I will say that John sounds great on guitar AND vocals. Maybe he just really liked the song and elbowed his way in.

And don't YOU like this song too? "Every Little Thing" is an odd one, a bit of a hidden gem, or perhaps your favorite song that you forget about all the time. Whenever I put on Beatles for Sale and "Every Little Thing" sneaks into the lineup, it's just so darned good, but I don't know if I keep it really front of mind, if you know what I'm saying. It's that guitar in the intro that really grabs me, though. It sounds like sunshine, that sweet chime of some kind of folk-rocky 12-string. Gorgeous. But it's only a tease, since we then go straight into a less intense acoustic guitar texture. And it keeps teasing us in the chorus, when it's used only as an accent. (It does get a totally sweet solo, it must be said-- I massively love this solo.) Anyway, the unobtrusive acoustic guitar through much of the song gives space for you to hear the way they're pumping up the bass. The bass line itself is quite simple, though the downward stepwise motion into the chorus is cool. But it stands out quite a lot, thanks to the fact that George Martin is doubling bass notes on piano, and of course later Ringo is boosting the bass feel of the whole track with those awesome timpani notes. "Every Little Thing" nicely matches those high chimey notes of the electric guitar with some heavy bass and a big airy space in the middle, for something that just sounds pleasantly different and sort of subtly innovative. Does that make sense?

Paul wrote this in his bedroom (which at the time was in Jane Asher's London home) some time after all the madness surrounding the A Hard Day's Night premiere, I believe. He was consciously trying to write the next single, he has said, and thought that "Every Little Thing" might have potential. I don't know, maybe he was right, though the oddness of the slightly disjunct melody and the funky mixing of the bass-- both of which are very cool for their oddness, it should be said, but odd nonetheless-- make me think this isn't as commercial as Paul thought it could be. (Once John wrote "I Feel Fine," "Every Little Thing" came out of contention for the single.) But still, this song rocks more than I think some people give it credit for. If you haven't checked out "Every Little Thing" in a while, or ever, today is your lucky day. You're welcome.

"Every Little Thing," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S. side B track 5 of Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I don't even know why I love "Girl" so much-- the girl in question is either some kind of nonexistent dream sprite or heinously charismatic bitch, and both images make me squirm-- but dear Lord this song gets to me. Maybe it's that John is clearly so affected by her. Or maybe I'll find out more about my relationship to this song as I sit myself down here to write about it.

Though "Girl" is generally, I think, agreed to be one of the stronger Beatles tracks and a key point in John's development as a songwriter, it's sometimes overshadowed by some of the other notable moments on Rubber Soul ("Norwegian Wood," "In My Life," even the far inferior "Michelle"), and I tend to give it a higher spot in my personal top 10 (or 15 or 20) more than some people might. So bear with me as I wax all sigh-y and lame about "Girl," because it's so beautiful and intimate and strange all at once. I mean, let's just forget for a minute that John later in his life got a little stupid when talking about this song, saying to Rolling Stone in his 1970 interview that "Girl" is really about Christianity or something, which, what? No, seriously, forget it. It's not worth talking about. In fact, whereas John was more likely than Paul or George to write directly about personal matters (sometimes squickishly so), "Girl" becomes meaningful because of the way John touches at something very universal here-- far more universal than some kind of wry commentary on religion would be. I simply don't buy it, and it weakens the song's power to claim such a thing. It's affecting on a deeper, sadder level. It's not even a love song, really-- it's like a song about longing for something that always proves illusory and disappointing. Maybe the girl isn't even a girl.

Anyway, let me count the ways in which I love "Girl." For one, I love the tension between major and minor keys. The Beatles did this with some frequency-- we just the other day heard Paul playing around with relative minors to such memorable effect in "Penny Lane"-- and here in "Girl" it's particularly nice. The verses are in c minor, while that brief one-word chorus is in E-flat major, which lifts the melancholy even while it significantly differentiates the one crucial word. And that's something else I like-- what tremendously good writing that is, you guys, seriously. You have these sort of wordy, dare-I-say literary lyrics in the verses, punctuated with a chorus of the word "girl" and that deep, intimate inhalation (exhalation?) of breath, which is so weird-- it's as if words have just failed him. (Depending on whom you believe, that breath is meant to be the sound of pot smoke, or else a far more sexual sort of heavy breathing, but whatever its literal meaning was intended to be, it comes across as compacted frustration/world-weariness, which is awesome.)

The verses of "Girl" also boast one of John's lovelier melodies (and John isn't really a natural melodist the way that Paul is), which are then juxtaposed with a much more typical Lennon-ish sound in the bridge, where John sings an almost one-note melody against the thick wash of Paul and George (I think?) singing "tit-tit-tit-tit." (Paul has spoken about how they snuck those dirty words past producer George Martin with no small degree of relish. Hee hee!) So again, the song derives power from the balance of its very different elements.

My favorite bits might be toward the end, though. In the last sung verse, in which John sings the poignant and mysterious lines about a man breaking his back to earn his day of leisure, George is playing a counter-melody in straight quarter notes on a quite bright acoustic guitar, which is a really lovely moment. Then, even better, that melody returns in the very last verse, but instead of John singing we get yet another guitar melody playing straight eighth notes in counterpoint with it. Something about the timbre makes this moment sound like a kind of morose European dance, doesn't it? I don't know. It doesn't sound quite like anything else in the Beatles catalog. On that last verse, by the way, don't you love the boom-swish move Ringo is drumming? Really steams up the ambiance, that does. The drumming is really nice the whole way through, honestly-- the intimate little tapping through most of the verses is perfect for the whole mood here, and then the cymbals in the end really do sound breathy somehow. Amazing.

"Girl" totally makes my gut hurt, it's so good-- which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I always wanted to be John's girl. Sigh. Of course, in the mythology of the song, it would have all ended in tears anyway.

"Girl," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 2 of the far inferior Capitol Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Young Blood

To cheer me up on this very rainy, foul HarriSunday, a day on which I may or may not have a gigantic hangover (my stomach spent all morning arguing with itself over whether or not to commit to the hangover, and still seems ambivalent on the issue), I'm going to listen to one of my favorite Live at the BBC tracks, "Young Blood."

I think it's one of my favorites because "Young Blood" allows George to get a little raunchy, a little snarly, which he doesn't do as often as he should. Early on, George tended to get the lead vocal on songs like "Do You Want to Know a Secret" and "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You," which had this sort of shy adolescent vibe. And in general I think this worked, because his vocals, especially in the earlier years, sounded younger and (sorry, George) a little more out-of-tune than those of John and Paul, so they ended up translating well into the cuter songs. Paul would charm you with his dazzling star quality, John would hump your leg and yell in your ear, but George would sit quietly next to you and try to work up the courage to maintain eye contact, allowing the tension to build up such that each time his hand brushes against yours you just want to scream. At least that's the story their vocals tell.

But not so in "Young Blood," in which George sings us the slightly hilarious, slightly heartbreaking story of picking up a hot chick on the street only to have her father send him packing. This Leiber-Stoller song was originally released as the B-side to the Coasters' 1957 single "Searchin'" (which the Beatles also covered, by the way-- you can find the Decca auditions recording on Anthology 1), and the original recording is slower and bluesier and dare-I-say sleazier than the Beatles'. (I think that sleaze comes from the sax part, which sounds like the musical equivalent of feeling someone up.) It rules, actually.

But I like what the Beatles do with it too. This is a band that can certainly compete with the Coasters in both the raunchiness and the doing-silly-voices arenas. And I think the faster tempo gives it a better swingy feel or something. I deeply love George's guitar work here, which sounds downright jaunty-- definitely a little more country-fried than the guitar on the original. And I really, really love George's vocal. Is he intentionally playing up a Scouse accent here, or is it me? Whether or not he is, somehow the Englishness of George's particular brand of raunch totally appeals to me. And his snarls are swoon-worthy.

Anyway, the version of this on Live at the BBC is only one-- they also busted out "Young Blood" for the EMI audition, and that version is out there on bootlegs. They did a LOT of Coasters covers for that audition-- this one, plus "Searchin'," plus "Three Cool Cats"-- which I guess was because those songs give them ample opportunity to show off their vocals, their excellent group dynamic, and their affable goofiness. But I've said before (see the "Three Cool Cats" link above) that the Decca setlist never seems that well-rounded to me, which might be part of why they didn't get the contract there. I dunno. I wouldn't have cut "Young Blood," though, that's for sure. This is one I like to blast and sing along with when I'm trying to get the dishes done or something. It's just a freaking fun song. Enjoy!

"Young Blood," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 8 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

She Came in through the Bathroom Window

My time is sadly limited on this final day, Day 6, of the Week of Paul-- but that's just as well anyway, because we may as well leave a few more of the true masterpieces for the last months remaining to us, kiddies. Anyway, today let's listen to a piece from the Abbey Road B-side medley. The medley was, of course, one of Paul's high concepts for the band, and the entire album pretty much exists because Paul pushed it. I've heard Abbey Road called "Paul McCartney's first solo album," and although I don't think that's fair (it wouldn't be Abbey Road without "Here Comes the Sun"), it's tracks like "She Came in through the Bathroom Window" that helped put that cliche out there.

This was recorded in a single take with "Polythene Pam," and it's neat how they link them together, isn't it? There's that sweet guitar solo played at the end of "Polythene Pam," along with some robust tambourine and drums, and then that stepwise guitarwork downward somehow seamlessly gets you into "She Came in through the Bathroom Window," which is suddenly in half-time. I love that kind of, you know, musical trickery. Then "She Came in through the Bathroom Window" maintains that same echo-ish guitar sound. Apparently both George and Paul are playing lead guitar on this track, but I don't know who's playing what when-- I've even heard that George takes some of the bass line here, but I'm not sure if that's true, mostly because it would be deeply weird if it were.

But no matter who's playing, Ringo's schooling them all. Absolutely one of my favorite Ringo songs, this one-- from that opening cymbal crash to the thunderous fills he plays into the start of each verse, it's beyond amazing. It's drumming so good it like finding religion or something, you know? I don't have the knowledge to talk intelligently enough about drumming to get much beyond the ARRRRGH IT'S SOOO GOOOOOD writing, so I'll stop there, but, gees. Hey, here's another fun thing to do while you're playing this one: listen for the handclaps. They snap like firecrackers, and although they seem like they're going to come in at predictable times, they frequently come in at really surprising times. It's super clever.

Paul wrote this song about girls actually coming in through his bathroom window. A crew of Apple scruffs used to hang out around Paul's house in London, and some of them, bizarrely, got to know him pretty well. One of them frequently walked his dog. (Though I'm envious as hell, I've always wondered-- did these women have jobs? Classes? Anything else to do? One of them wrote a book, I know, and one of these days I need to read it, because this lifestyle intrigues me. Although I'm totally enough of a fan to have done this, they were there every day, and, I mean, I for one would eventually need to eat. Is all.) Anyway, one day the girls found a ladder in the backyard, and one of them used it to climb up into Paul's apartment through a bathroom window left cracked open. Then she let all the others in, and they stole a few things. One girl stole a photo of Paul's father that was actually fairly meaningful to him, and Paul had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get the thing back. The whole story is kind of weird and stupid, but it did inspire this fun little song that fits so well into the Abbey Road medley, so it's good that something came of it.

Anyway, thanks for hanging out here during the Week of Paul! More Paul is definitely coming down the line as the year plods onward, of course, though tomorrow we're back to a HarriSunday as per usual. Happy belated birthday, Paul-- and everyone, if you like me, please pray to the god of your choice that Paul comes to Fenway. Word is we'll find out for sure in an official announcement on Monday. Squeeeeeeee!

"She Came in through the Bathroom Window," released in the U.K. side B track 7 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ooh! My Soul

The Week of Paul hits day 5 today, so here comes a new Paul persona for us to explore, perhaps the most important one of all: Paul the Kid Who Freaking Loves Little Richard.

Unbelievably, there seems to be no video in the entire internet world of the Live at the BBC version of this song, which is the first time that's ever happened to me. I mean, I have seen some freaking random videos of crazy bootlegs and stuff all over the place, but for some reason this totally legit and also unbelievably awesome track goes ignored. It's just weird. Anyway, on the video above you can hear a bootleg version of "Ooh! My Soul" (I think it might actually be the same version on Live at the BBC-- it sounds similar, and a lot of those tracks were available on bootlegs before their official 1994 release), as well as a few bonus fun bootlegs that I'll leave it to you to check out. Unfortunately, the intro is cut off, but otherwise the track is there in all its glory.

You know, I'm a huge fan of Little Richard as well, and what I love about him is that his songs are not so much songs as they are bombastic exclamations. Lyrics have debatable import in a lot of early rock and roll anyway, but in the best Little Richard songs in particular they're totally just phonemes to scream on. If they have any meaning, it has something to do with let's-all-get-laid, and half the time that meaning is more in the delivery than in the words anyway. "Ooh! My Soul," a slightly lesser-known hit from the summer of 1958, is one of the best examples of that-- the words are a pastiche of rock and roll cliches delivered almost incoherently (I love you, give me money, yada yada) in between the good stuff, which is the "baby baby baby baby baby" sputtering and the whooping all over the place. And it is CRAZY awesome. Or at least Paul thought so.

Although the whole band dug Little Richard, Paul was particularly enamored, and he worked out a pretty solid Little Richard impression as a teenager-- it's part of what convinced John to accept him into the Quarrymen, the Beatles' earliest incarnation. (That, and knowing all the words to "Twenty Flight Rock.") He continued to go into Little Richard mode throughout his career, probably most famously in "Long Tall Sally," which actually got released commercially. But he definitely covered lots of others, including "Ooh! My Soul," which was recorded for the BBC in 1963. One of the more memorable touches in Little Richard's original is that he sings "ooh! my soul" in a weirdly quiet and totally girly way-- perhaps the voice of the female being sung to?-- which Paul just dispenses with completely in favor of a impassioned cry.

In fact, the Beatles' version, believe it or not, is faster and more manic and off the hook than the Little Richard version (which, by the way, there is ALSO not a functional video for, so I apologize). In addition to Paul tearing his vocal chords to shreds screaming all over the place, Ringo is banging the shit out of his drums (his normally steady beat is just on the verge of NOT being steady here-- he's totally on the verge of losing it), and George delivers not one but two fun and messy guitar solos. The Beatles always sound like they're having fun playing this stuff, but really, particularly here, it's just so striking. Doesn't it sound amazing? And that crash of sound on the final chord-- WOMP-- holy crap, it makes me nuts. Tracks like these make you kind of understand where people were coming from when they called this the devil's music, you know. I could completely lose control listening to this. As it is, I'll try to dance my way through the rest of my Friday...

"Ooh! My Soul," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 64 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

When I'm Sixty-Four

"But Meg!" you say. "Paul McCartney doesn't turn 64 today. He turns 67. And it's hardly a birthday song anyway, seeing as how it's sung by a young person about some unknown future time. And it's hardly any kind of masterpiece. What are you, lame?" To which I say, okay. Yes. You're right, oh clever reader. Perhaps a true masterpiece like yesterday's "Penny Lane" would have been the way to go on the actual day of Paul's birthday, which is indeed today. But I sort of like a song as light and frothy as "When I'm Sixty-Four" for a birthday-- it's like musical meringue. Although Paul wrote it quite early on in his career, he dug it out in 1966 when his dad turned 64 and sang it to him as a birthday song. And (as was pretty much inevitable) his own kids made a recording of the song a few years ago for his 64th birthday. So, whatever, I feel like that's a little beautiful, and I'm listening to this one today.

Special note to Paul, in case you're reading: Happy birthday! (Also, call me!)

Day 4 of the Week of Paul, which is also the birthday itself, takes us back to when Paul was a teenager, writing "When I'm Sixty-Four" in his dad's house in Liverpool. That famous love of old-timey music that we discussed the other day is evident again here, and in fact Paul has said that at the time he wrote this, he wasn't even thinking in terms of being a rock star-- he was thinking in terms of being a songwriter, really, and figured this would be a nice one for a musical or something. And don't you love the image of Paul at sixteen, coming up with this strange little tune in his bedroom or something, struggling to realize his secondary dream of being a Tin Pan Alley songsmith? If you hear this song as an early attempt, you realize how promising it really is. This here is a kid with potential. But, since Paul was also doing the rock band thing, he did actually bring it to the Beatles, and they were known to play it at the Cavern before they hit the big time. As John noted later, they could play it on the piano when the amps broke. Paul happened to re-stumble upon "When I'm Sixty-Four" years later when getting ready for the Sgt. Pepper sessions, brought it in, and, with the help of George Martin and the keen orchestration that makes Sgt. Pepper so awesome generally, recorded it for the album.

So Paul takes some flack for his "granny songs," and in the case of shallower stuff like "Your Mother Should Know" or "Honey Pie," that's perhaps justified. But what "When I'm Sixty-Four" has that the other two don't (as much) is wit-- in the lyrics, of course, but also in (especially in) the music. Listen to the countermelody the clarinet has against Paul's vocal on the last verse, and tell me that's not witty as hell. To say nothing of that little clarinet flourish after the "go for a ride" line! I'm not sure if it was George Martin's or Paul's idea to bring in the two clarinets plus bass clarinet that add so much to the arrangement, but it was genius, and you can't even imagine the song without those cheery little clarinet lines. Of course, that's partly because the arrangement is so spare elsewhere. According to the official records of such things, John is playing a guitar, though I don't hear it at all until the last verse. Paul's on bass, and Ringo is playing that bell and drumming (superbly, by the way-- dig the tippa-tappa mini-fills at the verses' half-points), and there's a piano part, also played by Paul, that jumps in occasionally. But that's it except for the clarinets, which is part of why they stand out so much. (George, along with John, sings backup, but doesn't play at all.)

As for the lyrics, they present the pleasures of growing older so lovingly, and with just the right amount of detail, that I find it's kind of winsome. I mean, this is a song that I'll bet a lot of coupled people who are Beatles fans find themselves singing in a happy-lazy way to their s.o.'s on Saturday mornings. (Not that I would know anything about this personally. Ahem.) I want to say, though-- isn't it interesting that neither the lyrics nor the music really seem out of place on Sgt. Pepper at all? I mean, Sgt. Pepper was supposed to be a freaking edgy album, right? What did people think of it when it was new? (I urge anyone who was there to chime in.) It might be that I'm just so accustomed to hearing "When I'm Sixty-Four" on Sgt. Pepper, which is obviously now an icon of an album, that it only SOUNDS like it makes sense. But truly, all the clever musical tricks that make the whole album so distinctive are here on this song as well, and following on the heels of something as different as "Within You Without You" it just sounds like the Beatles are the most ingenious band that ever lived (which, duh). And more importantly, it sounds as though the Beatles are reclaiming the music-- and the provincial attitudes-- of their parents and recasting it into their own psychedelic template. Does that make sense? I don't know.

Point is, "When I'm Sixty-Four" is better than, say, John Lennon ever gave it credit for. And today on his birthday, I gotta give it up to Paul for not compromising his taste in the name of what's cool. Because in this song, at least, his instincts really were right on.

"When I'm Sixty-Four, released in the U.K. side B track 2 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Penny Lane

Here's a third persona of McCartney's to celebrate in this Week of Paul: Paul the Storyteller. Or maybe I should say Paul the Poet, though John would disdain such a term used anywhere near "Penny Lane," especially when his own "Strawberry Fields Forever" is hanging out on the other side of the disc. But I'm going to stick to it-- despite its vivid characters, the text of "Penny Lane" is more of a lyric poem than a real story anyway. And besides, I'm already overthinking it, because don't you just want to listen to the song already? I do!

Don't you love the ridiculous promo video? Filmed in London, by the way, except for some incidental footage of the Liverpool buses. I, for one, am a big fan of Paul's coat.

Paul might have begun writing "Penny Lane" as early as mid-1965, around the time John was working out "In My Life," which was itself originally envisioned as a more specific tribute to growing up in Liverpool. Apparently, Paul liked the idea of a nostalgic song and wanted to write his own version of one. By the time they came back to the studio after the enormous triumph of Revolver, the song seems to have been pretty much done, and it was one of the first ones they started working on. Though it was originally envisioned for inclusion on what-would-become-but-what-was-not-yet Sgt. Pepper, the push from EMI and Brian Epstein to release a new single was so strong that "Penny Lane" was thrown onto a double A-side single with "Strawberry Fields Forever," mostly because they were the only songs that were done. George Martin apparently still regrets that they didn't make it to the album, but the Beatles didn't really love to put their singles onto the LPs, at least not in Britain where they had some control over the matter, and anyway Martin has also said that he thinks the "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Field Forever" single is the best record that's been released, by anybody, ever. Frankly, though "Penny Lane" would have been fine on Sgt Pepper, I agree with Martin that it's perfect as a single too, and its yin-yang relationship with "Strawberry Fields Forever" has been much commented on elsewhere.

Sometimes I think "Penny Lane" might be the best song Paul's ever written, actually. And never mind the production flourishes for the moment (though, doesn't this song sound a little Pet Sounds to you?)-- the melody itself is so unbelievably strong, just this total masterpiece. Melody is funny-- one never knows what to say about it except "WOW," but everyone knows a good melody when they hear one even if they can't say why. (And speaking of which, doesn't the melody, too, sound just slightly Pet Sounds to you? I mean, it's all Paul, but I think you can hear what he's been listening to.)

The melody floats with this inherent optimism and sunshiney-ness which, if handled improperly, might have become cloying after a while, and would have also made the song's characters seem just a little too cute. So Paul sets up a harmonic structure that cleverly vacillates between the song's home key, which is major, and its relative minor (B and g#, if you're interested). You can hear those little shifts into minor in each verse: on "and all the people that come and go," "the banker never wears a mac," and so forth. To my ear, this lends the song some great contrasting color and some, well, depth, for lack of a better word. What's particularly neat about this is that Paul's walking bass line leads us into minor so seamlessly. 

The other really odd thing Paul does is bring the refrains into the very different key of A major, which is not only strange for moving lower down the scale from the home key (in pop music, the opposite is far more common), but because A major is kind of a weird key for a B major song to modulate to anyway, at least in traditional theory. But since the refrain is the "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes" bit, and the only time we hear the singer commenting on himself in this picture he's sketching, the A major key takes on almost a different personality from the B major verses. Even if you don't know or care what exactly is happening here (I sat down at a piano as a teenager to figure it out, because I was obsessed) you can hear the difference between the verses and refrain. I mean, the whole thing is just so SMART. And even smarter is that in the last refrain, when Paul does do the traditional pop music thing and modulate up one key (something the Beatles almost never did, by the way, even if a zillion other pop stars did), he's actually going back to the key of the verses, which just brings the whole thing full circle.

You know what else is really cool and smart about "Penny Lane"? EVERYTHING. But there's only so much time in the day, so just a couple more things from me. Listen to those staccato piano chords on the beat-- they run through practically the whole song, and they sound simple and ringy and kind of old-fashioned, or something. But they're actually the product of painstaking studio tinkering that I've never even completely understood. Paul played the line on one piano, then overdubbed another on top of it, then recorded another line at half-speed and sped it up for overdubbing to change the quality, then had John play yet another piano part on top of it, and then messed around with extra percussion effects on that. Nuts, right? And that's only one instrument in the mix. (It's worth noting that "Carnival of Light," a Holy Grail lost Beatles track that's notorious for being 10 minutes of Stockhausen-influenced noise and madness born of studio tinkering, was recorded during the "Penny Lane" sessions, so clearly they were in some kind of mood to do this. By the way, Walrus Gumboot recently linked to this story claiming that Paul, who has the master tapes of "Carnival of Light," will finally release it this year, but he's said that before, so maintain some healthy skepticism.)

But the most famous musical element in "Penny Lane" is probably the piccolo trumpet that makes commentary throughout before playing that memorable solo. If you listen to the version of the song on Anthology 2, it's incredibly jarring to NOT hear that trumpet. Interestingly, the trumpet was kind of a last-minute addition-- Paul happened to hear a performance of some Brandenburg Concertos one night while working on this, and decided he wanted that trumpet sound in his song as well. And it was he who wrote the solo line by singing it to George Martin, who wrote it down for the trumpeter to play. My understanding is that piccolo trumpets are really difficult to play even for professionals, which is probably why there have been rumors before that the solo was played at half-speed and then sped up in the studio-- but in fact the trumpet part might be the only piece of the song that wasn't mucked about with this way. The trumpeter was just that awesome.

It's a pretty sunny day today after a couple days of rain and gloom, and playing "Penny Lane" over and over like this just freaking swells my chest up, truly. Gotta be one of Paul's finest moments, and one of the Beatles' best tracks. Hope it gets you over the Wednesday hump in this Week of Paul.

"Penny Lane," released in the U.K. as a double A-side single with "Strawberry Fields Forever," February 13, 1967; in the U.S. February 17, 1967.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Till There Was You

It's Day Two of the Week of Paul, and today I thought we'd transition from Paul the Rock Icon (as heard yesterday) into Paul the Twee Balladeer. Now, you might mock him for this persona, but I dig it. One thing I love about the Beatles is that they were equal-opportunity musicians. Even though they were clearly a rock band, a Broadway-ballad-turned-standard was musically valid to them; it's the music they grew up with, and I think they genuinely liked it, even if it tended to be Paul who brought these to them (and later wrote them himself). As someone who likes a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of which might be called deeply uncool or twee or just craptacular by people who don't know what they're talking about, I respect this. And I happen to agree with the Beatles that "Till There Was You" is a good tune. And the fact that they covered it makes the Beatles way cooler than a band who would consider "Till There Was You" somehow beneath them.

Besides, a song like "Till There Was You" was a good song to have in one's back pocket for, say, a first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Let's watch and listen as Paul and the band win over a generation of American kids AND their moms.

Hee! It's the "sorry girls, he's married" bit. Ha ha. Whoever put that up there didn't know John at ALL. But I guess that's part of the point, right? They're putting one over on us. Just because they like sweet songs doesn't mean they're particularly sweet themselves, as any girl who danced around to "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Twist and Shout" could have told you. Also, don't you love Paul's choirboy face in this video? Man, no one sells a song like Paul, I swear.

"Till There Was You" was written by Meredith Willson for his musical The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957; I think it's pretty much the most famous show he ever wrote, and I don't know much else about him (except that he also wrote one of my least favorite Christmas songs ever, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," so, blech). But none of that matters for our purposes-- what's more important is that "Till There Was You" was covered in 1961 by Peggy Lee, a singer Paul's dad (himself a former band leader) probably liked to listen to. The Beatles' cover of the song is based on Lee's, and in fact Paul wasn't familiar with the The Music Man at all until much later. Before today, I admit that I had actually never sought out this recording before, but what the heck-- this is a pretty good track. Here's Peggy Lee.

That sounds kind of exactly like I thought it would-- it's totally pleasant, sure, but there's nothing too unpredictable about it. Whereas the Beatles' cover does actually make the song sound more modern and fun, doesn't it? (And it was released only a couple years later-- the difference is all generational.) For instance, now that I've heard Peggy's version, I can safely say that George's fantastic little quasi-classical guitar solo on the Beatles track is clearly all his idea. Isn't that a great moment? See, Paul has the reputation as the real ballad fanatic in the Beatles, but George would never have bothered to work out such a cool and intricate and completely perfect solo if he had thought the whole song was just stupid. I also enjoy Ringo on the bongos, which gives it this nice sweet whispery feeling for some reason. I'm not sure what he's doing, but it's awesome.

But Paul's vocal is paramount here. It's not too passionate and not too cloying-- it just comes across as very sincere. Paul's clear, expressive voice is really nicely suited for this kind of song, and you can hear that he knows that, that he really likes to do this kind of singing. (I have at least one friend who says that it was Paul singing this song that first got him into the Beatles when he was young, and that it's still a favorite of his. And although I never would have taken this one to be a Beatles gateway song, why not? It's freaking good. And knowing that about my friend has made me like this one even more.)

Before too long, Paul would start writing ballads for himself that are probably even better. "Till There Was You" appears on With the Beatles (and on the inferior Meet the Beatles in the States), but in just a few months on A Hard Day's Night all the Paul-fanatics out there would thrill to him singing "And I Love Her." Paul learned how to write songs like that by listening to and performing songs like "Till There Was You." Which is why we're listening here in the Week of Paul. This kind of music just seems to be a crucial part of who the guy is.

"Till There Was You," released in the U.K. side A track 6 of With the Beatles, November 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 3 of Meet the Beatles, January 20, 1964.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I Saw Her Standing There

Welcome, folks, to a new feature here at A Year in the Life: The Week of Paul! Paul McCartney will turn 67 this Thursday, June 18. And I am a believer in the birthday celebration. Here, we'll celebrate with an awesome Paul song every day this week. Listening to songs by Paul all week will also, God willing, karmically set me up for some good news I'm fervently hoping for: there's a rumor that Paul will play Fenway Park, the venue so beloved to me and my city, in August. It's completely unconfirmed, and it's going to cost me a zillion dollars if it happens, but by God, if it happens I will be there. Because for a guy who's about to turn 67, he rocks-- more this year than ever, frankly, between the very good Fireman album and Coachella and all that.

Now, since I came up with this Week-of-Paul idea last night at about 10:30, I'm a little unprepared. For a true celebration of Paul McCartney we'd have to hit all the really sweet spots, and we've already covered a bunch of the sweetest. So if you'd like, you should have your own Paul festivities by going back and revisiting "Let It Be" and "Hey Jude" and whatever your favorites are-- I'll come up with my own list of faves for later in the week. For the rest of the week, though, we'll hit some key songs we haven't listened to yet this year, starting with the potboiler that was surely his first-ever rock masterpiece, "I Saw Her Standing There."

I wanted to include a slideshow of the studio version for this song, because it's significantly different from many of the taped live performances. "I Saw Her Standing There" was justifiably an important part of their live sets-- they would sometimes jam out to it for 10 minutes at Liverpool clubs, which just makes me weep all the more that I wasn't there-- but when performing it at the height of their fame they frequently cut the repeat of the middle eight, which is like the best part of the song. I'm not sure why-- it's not like the song is too long or anything, at least not to my ear. I also really like the handclaps on the studio version, which I feel lend some urgency, and of course you can't get that on the live versions. More to listen for in the studio version: Paul's bassline (much clearer than on live recordings), which is this complete freaking masterpiece . Does it ruin it if I tell you he stole the line from the Chuck Berry song "I'm Talking About You"? It shouldn't-- Paul's admitted it, Chuck's fine with it, and anyway Paul is playing it with a rollicking enthusiasm that I hear as uniquely Paul anyway. Speaking of enthusiasm, Ringo is also in rare form, isn't he? To say nothing to Paul's swaggering vocal and the way he and John hang out up there in their falsetto ranges... sigh.

When they finally convinced Capitol to release "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the states and kick off their American career, "I Saw Her Standing There" was the super-strong B-side. And that's how most Americans heard it first. The British got to hear it a full year earlier, as the bombastic opening track of Please Please Me, which is really how it works better. The one-two-three-FOUR count-in Paul provides kicks off the entire album and their entire career in this totally magical way. Just another way in which American fans were screwed.

But then again, Americans (or at least a few lucky ones) got to hear them in a really kickass concert at the Washington Coliseum. I love the footage from this show, especially of "I Saw Her Standing There"-- you can see as well as hear all the fun they had playing it. George's guitar solo, which works fine for me in the studio version, sidles up to you more here; it more blatantly wants to get in this chick's pants.

And here's another one I really like, live on Swedish TV in 1963. On this performance, Paul's vocal is off the freaking charts, and so is his adorability. Look at how cute and sweet he looks as he sings raucously about wanting to get into some chick's pants! (He was 21 here, by the way. How old do I have to be before it's gross that I find Paul circa 1963 hot? Hopefully pretty old, because my feelings on this aren't changing any time soon.)

And here's just one more, going further back to the Live! At the Star-Club album, which is really sort of a curiosity (and a brazen cash-in) in the history of Beatles recordings. This, like the other tracks on that disc, is basically a home tape recorder version of "I Saw Her Standing There" as performed on New Year's Eve of 1962, during their last stint in Hamburg. I'm including it because, despite the poor sound quality, the guitar is mixed really prominently, and you can hear some cool stuff George was doing. Which is weird, since this version is also notable for the fact that there's no solo.

But perhaps you don't want to listen to a zillion freaking versions of "I Saw Her Standing There." Perhaps you just want to know how it came to exist already. As to that, all I really know is that Paul wrote "I Saw Her Standing There" with some help from John at his dad's house in Liverpool in 1962. Though the song is almost entirely Paul's, John did give him a bit of crucial assistance. Paul's original lyric was "she was just seventeen, never been a beauty queen," a line whose corniness made John basically laugh out loud. The far superior "you know what I mean," with its gloriously adolescent innuendo, comes to us thanks to John, and thank God for it. It's a key early example of John and Paul keeping each other's bad habits in check-- because you know you wouldn't like this song so much if it wasn't so sexy sexy.

Anyway, "I Saw Her Standing There" is a total classic, obviously, and Paul still performs it pretty much all the time. He's put it out on live albums and stuff, too. So if you're in the mood to listen to lots more versions of this song, they are certainly out there for you to find. For what it's worth, John-- who throughout the '70s tended to badmouth Paul and his songs more often than not-- thought highly enough of "I Saw Her Standing There" to perform it live with Elton John in 1974, when he crashed Elton's concert to play "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" with him (which itself happened because he lost a bet, but that's another story). And it's not a bad version. But ultimately, and obviously, Paul owns this one-- and the world is certainly better for it.

"I Saw Her Standing There," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S. as the B-side to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," December 26, 1963.