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.


  1. Was just reading about this in the Anthology book, and there are a couple of reasons the Beatles played this kind of song, I think. For one, as you know, they didn't have a drummer for a lot of early gigs; they probably liked having this in their repertoire. And two, before they hit, they couldn't just work in rock clubs; there were almost no rock clubs. The Cavern Club was a jazz club before they let the Beatles and The Big Three and Rory Storm play there. So the Beatles got a lot of work in cabarets, and those guys didn't want the same thing that the Hamburg club owners wanted. The Beatles needed to know songs like this to get paid.

    I do love George's solo; not only is it really well thought out, as you noted, but it's also really well executed. Some of George's early solos were pretty choppy, like he was playing out of control. This one features some nice fretwork, but he nailed it at speed, as well.

    There's something 10 percent goofy about the way Paul sings the word "music," and 90 percent fun about how he sings that whole middle eight. I can never not sing along.

  2. Good point, actually, about the clubs being an issue. So not only were the Beatles interested in lots of music, they wanted to play live as much as was humanly possible, in as many venues as they could. I mean, that's actually pretty awesome of them. They were men obsessed.

    The more I listen to it, the more I think this might be one of my favorite solos by George ever...

  3. Wasn't there also something deliberate on the Beatles part, back early on, in singing and writing songs that were "about a girl" in such a way that the listener (the teenage girl!) could pretend they were the focus of the song? Till There Was You would fit this description. I seem to recall reading this somewhere eons ago. Don't know if it is true, but it sounds plausible to me. Or maybe you wrote something about this, Megan.

  4. Well, yeah, it definitely also works for that-- Paul has said that early on they made a point to sing TO the girls in the crowd in songs like "From Me to You" and "Thank You Girl" and so forth. They were clever with the marketing that way. Good call on "Till There Was You" fitting that bill as well!

  5. I agree with these points, but I think that it mostly has to do with Paul's fondness towards these type of songs ("The Honeymoon Song," "A Taste of Honey," "When I'm Sixty-Four," etc.), songs which John didn't particularly like, but was happy to have "when the amps broke down."

  6. Megan, I am *so* glad you made that point about this being a "gateway song" for somebody. That's exactly what it was for me! My taste as a kid advanced along with what the Beatles and other groups were doing, but every time I hear Paul sing the heck out of that song, I have to say it brings me right back there. I love the clarity of his interpretation. And yes, George's guitar solo makes it. Tom R.

  7. Hey Patrick! You're right that Paul genuinely did like these kinds of songs, of course. But sometimes I think John liked them more than he let on. This is a guy who wrote "Do You Want to Know a Secret" based on the memory of the Wishing Well song from Disney's Snow White, so he wasn't adverse to charming little songs. At any rate, count me among those who is glad they did them.

    And Tom, total word. Paul could have been a music hall singer if he'd been so moved. (Or an excellent Coro tenor.)