Friday, July 31, 2009

All You Need Is Love

Well, I've been looking at that lovingly battered Odeon single cover on the blog all month now, so let's close out July with some "All You Need Is Love." Who doesn't love a good hippie anthem? Only straights and squares, that's who. And even if you are a straight or a square, you have to admit that "All You Need Is Love" is kind of the perfect song to feature on Our World, the world's first live satellite TV production, broadcast to most of the world on June 25, 1967 and attracting something like hundreds of millions of international viewers. It's very, you know, world peace-ish. It's lovely.

This broadcast was the first time the world heard "All You Need Is Love," which had been written only shortly before, and the recording of the broadcast went more or less directly out into the world as a single about a week later. ("More or less" because the ever-picky John insisted on redubbing his vocal before release. I'm not sure if the video above has audio from the original broadcast, or if they've overdubbed the single, with John's altered vocal, over the video portion. John, for the record, was by his own admission very very nervous about this performance. Note how he's chewing gum to try to affect indifference.)

Our World was to feature representative acts from various countries of the world, and of course it made sense for the Beatles to represent Britain, so they were asked to provide a new song that would be easily understood by non-native English speakers. "All You Need Is Love" seems to have been one that John had on the backburner anyway, so out it came. (Paul's suggestion was "Your Mother Should Know," but of course "All You Need Is Love" is much more suitable for this kind of thing, and also a better song, in my opinion.) While the refrain is indeed fairly easy to understand, the verses get a little more complex, loaded as they are with the kind of wordplay that John, native English speaker as he is, delights in-- though unlike, say, his books of poetry, it's fairly easy to understand, possibly because it's a little meaningless and relentlessly positive.

And like the words, the music is more complicated than it might appear on first blush as well. John, who as we know likes to follow the natural rhythms of speech in his songwriting, has done so again here, giving the verses in particular a choppy, talky rhythm. The verses are also metrically odd for a pop song, especially a pop anthem like this. Depending on how you hear it, the verses are either in alternating measures of 4/4 and 3/4 (with an extra 4/4 bar where you would least expect it), or in double-wide measures of 7/4 (with a measure of 8/4 thrown in to mix it up). I don't think I even noticed this until I'd been listening for at least a few years, which is kind of neat, isn't it? John just makes this feel so natural. Sometimes when John messes around with multiple meters, you can instantly hear how awesome and jarring it is, like in "Good Morning Good Morning." But in "All You Need Is Love," the effect is pretty smooth-- pretty expertly handled, in fact.

These verses lead us into a metrically simpler chorus (pretty much straight-up 4/4). In fact, the chorus is melodically one of the simplest bits in the Beatles catalog. The chorus stays on just one note for two repeats, which makes the small slide upward on the third "all you need is LOVE" almost unbearably sweet. The "love is all you need" line feels like a little sigh of relief after all that. But I have to say-- as anyone has to say if they've ever sung this song a capella around a campfire with their Girl Scout troop, as I have-- that the melody is actually kinda thin, and that much of what's making this thing at all exciting is the arrangement. George Martin orchestrated particularly effective stuff here. The way the oscillating strings come in after George's languid guitar solo and sweep us back into the chorus, the little shimmy in the horns in response to each "all you need is love" line, and one of my favorite bits-- the triplets in the strings as they climb up to that very high pitch on the last refrain, going into the coda. And then, of course, there's the coda, a pastiche of musical quotations from sources as diverse as a Bach two-part invention to a Glenn Miller number to an early Beatles song. (In the video above, the coda is sadly cut off a little bit; it also cuts off the opening bars of the Marseillaise, which is a shame.)

You know, I would never have called "All You Need Is Love" a favorite of mine per se, though I like it enough-- but listening to it over and over again today, I find I like it much more. Never mind all the dated flower-wreathed hippie weirdness of the video above, and never mind the song's treatment in the psychedelic dreamscape of Yellow Submarine...

No, it's really pretty good, I think. Don't let the datedness get to you, is my point. Love might not be all you need, but it's nice, isn't it? And it's a nice little singalong. Enjoy.

"All You Need Is Love," released in the U.K. as a single b/w "Baby You're a Rich Man," July 7, 1967; in the U.S. July 17, 1967.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sweet Little Sixteen

Once again, just dancing through another furlough day, and finding myself in a very Chuck Berry kind of mood. When am I not?

"Sweet Little Sixteen" was, interestingly, Chuck Berry's most successful single, at least as measured by highest chart position-- this 1958 single got to #2 on American charts, which is the highest Berry ever made it, even with songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven" and all the others in his awe-inspiring catalog. No accounting for taste, I guess. More to the point in a Beatley context, it was also Berry's first major hit in the U.K.-- the first single to crack the top 20 there.

Like a lot of other Berry-penned songs, this one features a teenybopper plotline, a story about a girl obsessed with rock and roll. Or, really, lots of girls obsessed with rock and roll-- the callouts to all the various American cities make it clear that this is Everygirl, or at least Every Rock Fangirl, wherever they might be living. Berry's singing "right on!" to these girls, in a way, but even more so singing "right on!" at every heterosexual male who might think they stand a chance with the little underage wannabe groupies in their high heels at the rock shows. (Berry and the other rock stars, of course, have first pick.) As you can hear in Berry's original, particularly the lines about the shoes, there hardly seems room for any other interpretation but the sleaziest.

What a dirty, dirty song. LOVE. It's like the nasty version of all those other stupid lilting little songs about being sixteen, like "You're Sixteen" and "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" and "Sixteen Candles." Man, what is up with the age of sixteen? I certainly don't remember that year of my life being very sweet at all. I remember it more as another year of prolonged awkwardness, zittiness, bad hair dye, and desperation to get the hell out of high school. I certainly didn't feel like I'd magically become desirable, Lord knows.

But enough about me! Go back up to the Beatles' version of this song for a minute, and you'll hear that John Lennon brings all the awesomeness that he always brings to Chuck Berry covers, wailing his way through all the a capella breaks like the rock star that he is. (Despite the poor sound quality, that is. I believe the video above features the same recording of this song that's on Live at the BBC, but it was taken from a bootleg, and the sound quality isn't nearly as good. Sadly, there seem to be no YouTube videos that sound better.) Note that on the chorus John actually changes the melody such that he's singing some higher pitches than Berry does on the original-- and though he's only singing about a third higher, it makes the song like thirty times more exciting. Of course, I don't ever think that Chuck Berry's vocals are exactly the songs' main selling points-- his flat, talky delivery totally works, especially for these more verbose songs, but it's not like it really makes me zing either. John's vocals, though, as frequent readers of this blog might have noticed before, get me every time, and on the Chuck Berry covers, which he obviously totally loves, he brings it more than ever. "Sweet Little Sixteen" is no exception.

Besides John, I want to single out George for a freaking off-the-hook guitar solo. Since the Berry version is a piano solo made up largely of glissandos up and down the keyboard (which in itself is pretty exhilarating), George seems to get more creative with the solo than he does elsewhere-- sometimes he just transposes other solos, presumably because he thinks they're totally kickass. But I think George came up with a lot of this one on his own, and isn't it tremendous?? The downward motion in the first bit goes into some stuff that's truly melodic and singable, and then seems to actually get sexier as it luxuriates on just that one note, kind of hanging out and rutting there. I'm probably thinking about it too much, but it's a REALLY great solo, especially considering that he worked it all out for a song that they went on to never bother to record commercially.

The "Sweet Little Sixteen" track is, I think, a standout on a whole album of standout live performances. The Beatles maintain the dirtiness but bring this energy and this, I don't know, sincerity or something to all their Chuck Berry covers that's so freaking winning. Yow! Dancing again. Talk later.

"Sweet Little Sixteen," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 10 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lovely Rita

It's a week from tonight that Paul is playing Boston! And though the playlists from the Citi Field shows (thanks to Steve Marinucci for documenting them so thoroughly over at the Beatles Examiner) seem unlikely to change too much, even if there are no surprises at all I couldn't be more excited. Whee!

So today, furlough day #3, I'm just going to dance around my house in my pajamas to some happy Paul songs, of which "Lovely Rita" certainly is one.

This song was actually written based on a real altercation with a meter maid outside Abbey Road Studios. Paul apparently came out of the building as the woman was writing him a ticket for parking illegally, and tried to argue his way out of it, but not in an obnoxious way-- in an apparently very friendly, charming, McCartney-esque way. Still and all, the meter maid was having none of it. And good for her, too. Her reward was to have the best "guess-what-happened-to-me-at-work" story EVER, and also to be immortalized as "Lovely Rita." (Her real name was Mita, or Meta, or something like that.)

So "Lovely Rita" is ostensibly a pretty straightforward rocker, which is kind of nice, but like all the tracks on Sgt. Pepper, it was sent through a ringer of studio effects-- the echo here is so prominent as to, occasionally, annoy me, though of course I'm mostly just used to this song sounding that way. But there's no disguising its rock lineage. It's even about sexual frustration, which is pretty much one of the oldest rock song archetypes ever-- and it's funny that Paul translates his struggle to get out of a ticket into the struggle to get into a chick's pants. Specifically, it sounds as though it's about Paul, or Paul-in-character, torn between his usual method of cutesy-wutesy flirting and just straight-up begging for sex-- he constantly sounds on the verge of descending to the latter. "When are you free to take some tea with me" and "give us a wink" and all that? I don't buy it this time, Paul. Paul is flirting with us here as adorably as ever, but he also sounds, for a change, kind of frustrated that he seems unable to close the deal. He only "nearly" makes it, after all. The on-the-beat backup singing provided by a grinning John and George for much of the song sounds like half impassioned plea and half churlish slap-on-the-ass. And as Paul gets more and more worked up about trying to get with Rita, the whole song literally breaks down-- the singers stop singing and start into the whooping, heavily breathing, and shouting, getting almost, almost, to some kind of climax, all over a reduced instrumental background. But the very end, with the little fizzle of piano, makes it sound to me like Rita left him hanging. Poor Paul.

But at least the whole atmosphere makes it clear that Paul can laugh about sexual frustration. There are some nice funny touches here, like the comb-and-paper that's creating the whistling effect you hear peppered throughout. And George Martin plays a particularly fun honky tonk piano solo-- which I'm pretty sure was varispeeded to sound faster and tinnier than it would have otherwise-- that becomes a part of Paul's musical argument. The piano sounds like another line of commentary in Paul's little musical flirtation here, all wink-winks and nudge-nudges.

Coming as it does after "When I'm Sixty-Four," "Lovely Rita" sort of carries on with the Charming Paul persona a bit, but at least Paul lets himself get a little raunchier here. And that's the kind of Paul McCartney I like the best. (Paul: call me!) Maybe it's not the most impressive song of his career or even on this album, but "Lovely Rita" is just so damned lovable that I can't resist it.

"Lovely Rita," released in the U.K. side B track 3 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dizzy Miss Lizzie

The day of the first Shea Stadium concert was apparently, like today, an extremely hot day. Just look at John sweating through his rendition of "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" in his Nehru jacket. Although he seems to be having a good enough time, he doesn't look super comfortable either. It's no wonder he mangles the words a bit. The heat tends to melt a person's brain.

Although "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" had long been a part of the Beatles' early setlists, they had only recently dug it out again to record-- these American screaming, fainting girls would have recognized the song from Beatles VI, one of the mutant Capitol albums. Interestingly, "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" was recorded specifically for American audiences in a special recording session in May of 1965. Capitol's habit of chopping Beatles albums into little pieces to try to get more albums (and thus more money) out of the same set of songs had resulted in a situation in which Capitol found itself two songs short for another album. And thus the Beatles were dragged by the masters at EMI into the studio to quickly knock out two more songs-- which is why "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" and "Bad Boy" exist. (That "Bad Boy" link explains a little more, by the way, about why the hell Capitol pulled this crap in the first place.) The whole situation with the American record market made the Beatles kind of sick, but there was nothing they could do about it, and no doubt being forced into the studio after a long day of filming Help! to better serve the American jerkwads who maintained this system was quite the indignity.

Still and all, "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" is a pretty good song-- good enough that the Beatles went ahead and put their recording onto the U.K. Help! album, which came out later that year. You can hear the Larry Williams original version here (I'm not going to embed the video, because it's, um, weird). Williams, one of rock and roll's more dodgy and, sadly, more forgotten old schoolers, originally released this in 1958 with "Slow Down" as the B-side.

I don't know if it's knowing too much about the background of "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," or the song's position as the last cover the Beatles ever released, or what, but on this one I think the Beatles actually sound tired. Here's the album version-- I mean, is this just me?

You know, no, it's John, specifically, who sounds tired. Not to be picky or whatever, but he's done better vocals than this-- and it's only because I know this that I can hear the fatigue here. Poor John. Meanwhile, George is rallying gamely on the repetitive guitar riff the whole thing is based on, though I swear sometimes he's playing it just a hair too slowly. Ringo, though, is rallying perhaps even more gamely. And it all comes together into a song that totally works, and is a totally solid album track, but just can't be called their best cover ever, in my opinion. That's okay, though. I'll listen to it anyway. And if it weren't so hot, I'd even dance. Frankly, this is one where I prefer the Shea Stadium version, which I don't say that frequently.

As we saw at Shea Stadium, the Beatles made "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" a part of the setlist on their 1965 American tour. Here's a slideshow video set to a recording of their gig in Houston-- and you get some bonus "Ticket to Ride" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" too!

See, I love hearing the Beatles live, but this "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" makes John sound even MORE tired. He might actually be coming down with something, though he seems to perk up a bit for "Ticket to Ride." But see, I'm going to write off this fatigue to the excesses of Beatlemania, because some years later in 1969-- when John was no longer sick of playing ridiculous live gigs, when he was in fact kind of excited at the prospect of playing live gigs again-- he played "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" with the Plastic Ono Band, which for this gig consisted of Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and Andy White. And this, you guys, is probably my favorite version of the song up here. This one genuinely rocks. Enjoy!

"Dizzy Miss Lizzie," released in the U.K. side B track 7 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 3 of Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cry Baby Cry

Well, kiddies, I'm taking another week of furlough, so if I'm off schedule this week it's because I'm sleeping late and napping a lot during the day. Actually, there's a lot of crap I could stand to do now that I'm home all week, like, say, cleaning my apartment, but I'm not exactly holding my breath that I'll be that productive. We'll see.

Today I'll ease into a long, lazy week with a little "Cry Baby Cry." Maybe John thought this song was crap, as he said in later interviews, but I'm a little sick of John disavowing his excellent work, aren't you? I can be as self-conscious as anyone, Lord knows, but John-- don't be an idiot. "Cry Baby Cry" rules.

I mean, gees, John-- how can you not love a song so gloriously creepy? I can't help comparing this one to "Strawberry Fields Forever," mainly because that's John's other really great song about childhood. "Strawberry Fields" plays out in this entirely internal space in which John is trying to express his loneliness and frustration and deep, deep alientation. In "Cry Baby Cry," I think it's that same alienated brain that turns its attention outward to the people around it, who move through this absurd landscape doing meaningless things. There's something about the chain of plain declarative sentences, and the complete lack of any feeling for these people, that makes your spine tingle. As for the children, I always picture them kind of like Village of the Damned children, little pale sinister things who stare expressionlessly at the queen, who's only trying to amuse them, and then freak everyone out at the seance. Although the song progresses like a demented nursery rhyme, I can't shake the feeling that John has written himself into this song as one of the children-- I think I don't buy the entirely detached mode he's in. That's because of the chorus, which sounds more personal than the rest-- "you're old enough to know better" sounds like something he would have heard frequently in his own childhood, something that might still be haunting him.

Musically, the song amps up the creepy feel through the harmonic structure. Though the song is definitely in G major, it muddies up our sense of where the home key is by relying heavily on the VII (F) chord on the cadences, and also by spending a hell of a lot of time on e minor, the vi chord in the scale. Almost the entire length of the verse sticks to the e minor chord, though even that feel is muddied up somewhat by both the prominent descending bass line in the piano and by John's vocal melody, which is so simple and repetitive as to sound like he's mocking us with some kind of sing-song nyah-nyah line. Then when the song actually ends on the e minor chord, it's WICKED weird, right? Almost unsettling.

Speaking of that descending piano line, the whole piano part here is great. There's a lot of keyboard going on-- John plays both the piano and the organ, I know, and George Martin is on harmonium. (I can't always tell where the different keyboards are playing exactly, though the bits that might sound like accordion or something weird like that are almost certainly coming from the harmonium.) When the queen plays piano for the children, we hear a tinkly little snippet of it, which is kind of funny. But more than that, the choruses are dominated by the heavy on-the-beat piano sound, a sort of gallumphing in the piano, if you will. It gives the whole song a nice weighty feel. I also need to quickly single out the drumming. You guys, I swear, there are all these songs where I think I never noticed how great Ringo is-- there he is, just quietly being a genius off in the corner on the kit while the others bicker with each other (the "Cry Baby Cry" sessions were particularly nasty-- this is about when engineer Geoff Emerick actually quit, though that might also have to do with the emotional buildup of the very tense "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" sessions that preceded it). Anyway, leave it to Ringo to make "Cry Baby Cry" completely unforgettable. Listen to the way he slowly builds up the intensity of the drums through the song-- on the first verse he's barely a whisper and a backbeat, by the second verse you're really beginning to pay attention to him, and then by the end he's become so awesome, and so much a part of the eerie texture somehow, that it makes your gut hurt. I don't think he ever plays a verse exactly the same way twice.

The "Can You Take Me Back" coda, by the way, is a little doodle of Paul's that was actually recorded while the band was screwing around during the "I Will" sessions. I'm not sure how they came up with the idea to tack it onto the end of "Cry Baby Cry," but it sure does work well, doesn't it? Because who on earth wants to be taken back to a childhood like the one in "Cry Baby Cry"? Or if you hear the doodle as looking ahead to the next track, "Revolution #9," I mean, gees, who wants to get all nostalgic about THAT, either? I love how ironic it comes across as-- or maybe not that, maybe like a forlorn little voice asking to be saved from this part of the White Album. I don't know-- but it's good.

"Cry Baby Cry," released in the U.K. side D track 4 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

I actually kind of hate summer. Isn't that awful of me? I mean, yes-- the produce! the beach! the bars relatively free of college students!-- but on days like today when the humidity is like 10,000 percent none of that other stuff matters, and I sit around sweating and swearing and wondering if today is the day when we should install the stupid air conditioner, except we're both too hot and gross and tired to lift anything heavy so of course we're not going to, we're just going to yell at each other and let our bodies slowly congeal to the couches. I grew up much further south than where I currently live and have seen a lot of hot days in my time, but I have never been able to get used to them-- I just get ANGRY.

That's why I really need the Beatles to be at their most adorable today. Nothing else stands any chance of cheering me up. Luckily, it's HarriSunday, and I can listen to George sweet-talk me about some secret he's got. Aw. Who couldn't feel better?

As if "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" wasn't going to put me in enough of a good move, some YouTuber decided to set it to a video that tries to turn the friendship between John and George into tawdry slash. I find this effort hilarious. Brava!

"Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was written by John, according to almost every source I've read-- except, of course, Barry Miles' Many Years from Now, fast becoming one of the books that most annoys me on this blog. That book has Paul claiming that he and John wrote this in a fifty-fifty split, which, fine. I am too tired to fight Paul on this stuff anymore. Believe who you want, but just remember that Paul's version of the story does not, I believe, appear anywhere until this book's 1997 pub date (someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I'm not), whereas there are several instances of John saying he wrote "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" on his own that Paul never seemed to feel the need to correct at the time. Other evidence that it's John's: John spoke very specifically about its inspiration, which was a song his mother Julia used to sing to him when he was little, "I'm Wishing" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (That song's introduction has Snow White confiding to the woodland creatures: "Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell? We are standing by a wishing well.")

The other fun fact about "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is that John recorded a demo of the song with acoustic guitar accompaniment in the toilet of a nightclub in Hamburg, which he claimed to the quietest place he could find. This was in order to present a tape to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, another Merseyside band managed by Brian Epstein, for consideration as their first single. They recorded it, and it ended up being a big hit for them on the singles charts (backed with "I'll Be On My Way"; truly, a pairing of two of the most adorably adolescent Lennon-McCartney songs ever). I don't think that demo still survives, but those who heard it have reported that it ended with John flushing rather dramatically.

At any rate, "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was given to George to sing because, this early on in the Beatles' career, George wasn't really that great a singer yet. And this little ditty doesn't have a very wide pitch range, so he could hit all the notes all right, even if he does (if I'm honest) sound a little awkward and geeky on them. All the better to seduce the squirmy adolescent girls, though, no doubt. More impressive than the vocal is the guitar work, which, though understated, is very nicely crafted around that descending riff that forms the song's framework. The riff, which eventually gets echoed in the heavily reverbed "doo-dah-doo" backup vocal line, hints at some chromatic motion in the chords that might be more interesting that it sounds, which is indeed the case. As cute and non-threatening as "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is, it's still quite a showcase for John's flair for odd chords. Another of my favorite bits is the slow introduction-- not only is this kind of unusual for a Beatles song anyway (it's more of a Tin Pan Alley nod), it's an early example of the seamless yet stirring move from minor to major that will become a Beatley hallmark. So, you know, don't know "Do You Want to Know a Secret?". It's as solid an early song as any other album track, maybe even more so.

And today, it's just what I needed. Still and all, it's too hot to do anything but nap. I'm off for now.

"Do You Want to Know a Secret?", released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 3 of Vee Jay's Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


I really hate to think ill of Paul McCartney, especially when I've been so excited about what he's up to lately, what with the Letterman and the Fireman and the fact that he's playing Fenway Park in less than two weeks. So I want to get today's song out of the way, so the rest of the year can hopefully be filled with positivity for Paul.

Because, look, I know a lot of people really like "Michelle." Especially if you're named Michelle. Or if you're French-- in France, I understand, this was always one of the most popular Beatles songs, and it made it onto one of the Odeon EPs that pepper the Beatles' French discography. Maybe Paul adorably singing to you in a butchered version of your native language was just irresistible, which, hey-- I've been there. Even so, though, I can't get into "Michelle." It's kind of-- I don't know. Icky?

Maybe "icky" is too strong a word. Because compared to my other least favorite Beatles song, "Michelle" at least has some degree of harmonic sophistication and cool chromatic motion. (It's worth reading the illustrious Alan W. Pollack on this one, because he breaks it down very nicely, as always.) It's another one of these songs with a verse in major and a middle eight in minor, which, in a two and a half minute pop song, always lends a nice dose of color. And I'm not so set against the song that I can't acknowledge that the guitar solos at the middle and end are very deftly played, and even lovely in their own way. In fact, a lot of the guitar work is very good. It's all played by Paul, by the way-- George and John are only singing backup, and Ringo might not even be on the track at all. I've read different opinions about whether Paul is handling drums here too, and my ear can't really tell one way or the other.

But none of this saves the song from overwhelming mawkishness for me. It sounds like Paul is too self-consciously trying to charm us, even though he's at his most charming when he's not trying so goshdarned hard. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising given the song's history. Paul wrote the riff from "Michelle" very early on, perhaps in the late '50s, when he and John used to go to parties thrown by John's friends from art school. The art school kids were doing the late '50s bohemian thing, and I guess being French was super-hip, or something, and so was sitting in the corner at a party wearing a black turtleneck and strumming a little quasi-French tune to yourself on your guitar. Paul has described his actions here partly as a ploy to make fun of these people (he would sing the melody to nonsensical French-sounding grunting), and partly as a very serious and, apparently, successful attempt to get laid. More power to him. But is anyone surprised to learn that "Michelle" was originally written for the very transparent purpose of trying to get laid? Alas, it never evolved into anything more interesting than that, at least not in my humble opinion.

Anyway, it was apparently John who, years later, suggested that Paul resurrect the old Frenchy melody and try to write a song out of it, and it was also John who suggested the "I love you, I love you, I love you" hook for the middle eight, basing it on a Nina Simone song that was popular at the time. Also providing help on this was the wife of Ivan Vaughan, the mutual friend of John and Paul who did the universe the biggest favor ever by introducing the two of them when they were all teenagers. Ivan's wife was a French teacher, and helped Paul rhyme "ma belle" to "Michelle" and gave him the French line that he sings. (Paul apparently sent her a check later, which was wicked decent of him if it's true.)

So that's how we got "Michelle," and how it ended up on Rubber Soul, an album that, while certainly groundbreaking, seems marked by songs that the Beatles really had to dig up from the past. Consider this one from way back in the '50s, as well as "What Goes On" and "Wait" and so forth-- plus "In My Life," which is a great song that also has a nostalgic hint to it. Definitely an album that looks backward as well as forward-- the cusp album, I guess. (Still and all, I wouldn't have minded "Michelle" being left off too much, I think.)

Oh, one more thing-- I think I would be more okay with "Michelle" if EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD didn't think it was so great. Doesn't that kind of thing just piss you off, when everyone around you is just wrong? One of the people who clearly thinks it's great is Paul. Here he is singing it just last year in Quebec. Oh no, kids, he NEVER misses a chance to perform "Michelle" in front of a French-speaking audience. In this performance he actually adds an accordion. GAH.

"Michelle," released in the U.K. side A track 7 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 7 of the crappy Capitol Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tomorrow Never Knows

I admit it. I was inspired to listen to today's song mainly because yesterday, when I listed all the new Beatles Rock Band songs, "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the only one that I was unable to link to. And it made me think: why haven't I covered this one yet? I dunno. I guess I just never really felt it until now, you dig?

But it's a good song for how I'm feeling these days, which is antsy and floaty and not-quite-here. I mean, look, I should make it clear that there have been no hallucinogens involved-- I'm just going through something, or something, and anyway my drug of choice (of which this looks to be a tremendous example) tends to be more delicious and more sociable anyway. When John experienced ennui and world-weariness in the mid-'60s, though, he preferred to eat a lot of acid, and write songs like "Tomorrow Never Knows" to try to convey acid-ness in music. Let's listen to how that worked out for him.

My, the psychedelic grooviness of "Tomorrow Never Knows" really brought out the creativity in a bunch of YouTubers. This was just one of several weird ones I could have chosen.

So we were just talking the other day, I believe, about Ringo's malapropisms and the ways they inspired John and Paul on a few notable occasions. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is another good example of that. The working title of this song was "The Void," but at the last minute Ringo's latest misuse of the English language snuck in as the title instead. I like to think it's because "The Void" was deemed too pretentious, because, you know, it is. However, "The Void" had the advantage of being taken from the song's lyrics, which themselves are almost entirely derived from Timothy Leary's The Psychedelic Experience, an influential how-to manual on the taking of acid which John had recently read-- and those words were largely taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Leary's thesis was that psychedelic drugs could create a so-called "ego-death" that would allow you to dissolve into the natural flow of the universe and thus bring you closer to God-- or at least that's the poorly worded summary I've managed to glean in my reading about this in Beatles books over the years, for I've never read the primary source myself. But at any rate, this obviously struck a chord with John.

John wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows," of course, but you can also think of the song as the ultimate magical combination of all the Beatles' different interests in the very interesting year of 1966. John brings his burgeoning interest in psychedelics and their potential to take him closer to some kind of enlightened state inside his own head, which is always where he's most comfortable anyway. George, who is also experimenting with acid at this point but ultimately seeks his own enlightenment in India, brings a droning tamboura and a sitar into the mix-- and perhaps also has influenced John more abstractly just by exposing him to Indian music, such that John has written a song that sits almost entirely on one chord and basically repeats one single melodic line over and over.

Meanwhile, Paul isn't so much seeking enlightenment as he is schooling himself in different classical and artsy and avant-garde musics of the sort that are hip right now in fashionable London circles, and he's developed a taste for Karlheinz Stockhausen in particular. So he brings his personal collection of homemade tape loops, as well as a desire to play around with them in a Stockhausen-esque way to see what kind of funky random sounds they'll add to the song. As for Ringo, well, he brings the song title, which really IS important for the way it keeps things from getting a little too pretentious and heady (Ringo's always good for that)-- and he brings some his most amazing drumming ever, which is no small contribution. When I think of "Tomorrow Never Knows" in this way, I think I finally get what people are talking about when they go on and on about the '60s, you know? John and George and Paul and Ringo were all exploring these whole new exciting worlds of knowledge that would have been so much more esoteric even a few years prior. It must have felt as if there was endless possibility-- in art, in life, just all around. Amazing.

So even if "Tomorrow Never Knows" feels as though all it lacks sonically is the kitchen sink, who are we to complain about the Beatles' lack of restraint? Restraint is absolutely not what this song is about. This one was meant to sizzle with creativity, to explore everything explorable at the same time-- to launch the Beatles into outer space. And it wasn't just about the one song, either. Though it's the last track on the album, "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the first song to be recorded for Revolver, the album that took all the wonder and artistry and promise of Rubber Soul and cranked it up to 11. From here, it must have been clear to them that nothing was going to be the same.

So how does "Tomorrow Never Knows" so blow our minds? By processing just about every sound until it becomes magic. The drums, which are for me the really unforgettable element here, are not only being played admirably by our Ringo, but compressed and echoed to resonate like no drums Ringo has ever played before. I don't know exactly how they're doing that-- or, indeed, any of this-- but that's the gist of it. In that instrumental break, the lunatic sounds we're hearing are (I think-- someone correct me if I've got this wrong) George playing a funkily produced sitar part, plus Paul's guitar solo back from "Taxman" all chopped up and played backwards to sound demented, plus some well placed tape loops. The tape loops, by the way, are all over the place, and randomness seems to have been the order of the day-- I think this was the song in which someone, perhaps ingenious engineer Geoff Emerick, cut a loop into lots of small pieces, threw them into the air, and then repasted them back together to see what came of it.** That might be what's making the seagull-esque noises that so distinctively run throughout. You'll notice that I don't seem very sure about any of these details, which is a fair criticism-- I've read about this a lot of times, but I don't have enough familiarity with studio language to have ever absorbed it in quite the same way that I can absorb the info about other songs. Besides which, I kind of like maintaining some kind of mystery in a song like "Tomorrow Never Knows"-- I'd really rather not know how the trick is being done sometimes. That's just me. Yeah, I know it doesn't help you out if you're really curious, but I urge you to read up more at the Beatles Bible or DM Beatles Site where people who are smarter than I am can no doubt break it down. Sorry to abdicate my responsibilities, but haven't I written too much already anyway?

What I do know is that John asked George Martin to make his vocal sound like ten thousand monks chanting from the top of a mountain, or something insane like that. Although they didn't quite accomplish that, Geoff Emerick did come up with a way to wire John's voice through a Hammond organ's Leslie cabinet, and then found a way to double track his voice mechanically (previously a double-tracked singer would actually record a sung line twice). This is what's giving his voice the particularly wobbly, unearthly quality, especially in the second half or so of the song. It sounds like John has become a cross between a cyborg and a god. Argh, you guys. It is so good. No one ever made psychedelia sound more kickass than this.

**I was wrong on this one-- Troy corrects me in comments.

"Tomorrow Never Knows," released in the U.K. side B track 7 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side B track 5 of the crappy Capitol Revolver, August 8, 1966.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Rock Band song list: it grows!

I'm waaaaay late to this compared to other Beatley news sources, and Troy beat me to it in comments, but I feel the need to point out that there's a new Beatles Rock Band trailer which reveals more of what our Rock Band playlist will look like. Is anyone else bouncing up and down in their desk chair in anticipation? Just me? Oh.

Here are the new songs we now know about:

"Paperback Writer" (oh my God, the fun my choir geek friends and I will have trying to sing the harmonies to this one!)
"Within You Without You" (the version from Love, which has been acoustically intertwined with "Tomorrow Never Knows")

This is in addition to the song choices already revealed in the original trailer, as covered here. All the new ones seem to be good choices, though "Within You Without You" is a little weird. But when you consider that Dhani Harrison has been so instrumental to putting this Rock Band thing together, you start to see how there might be a particular interest in making sure songs by George are well represented, even if they're not the ones that best lend themselves to the Rock Band treatment.

By the way-- the video looks AWESOME. You must watch the trailer. Immediately.

Lend Me Your Comb

Once more, I got no damned time, and I'm slacking off with a sweet little slack-off Carl Perkins cover. "Lend Me Your Comb." Who among us does not like this track? Well, I don't know-- maybe you're not really familiar with this one. But that seems fair. It's not a canonical Beatles release, strictly speaking-- it's from Anthology 1, and as such it's a bit of a one-off. But it's very likable.

The version of "Lend Me Your Comb" heard on Anthology 1 could just as easily have been included on Live at the BBC, since it was performed live for a BBC show in 1963. I believe that a few different people might have actually recorded "Lend Me Your Comb," but the Beatles are definitely emulating Carl Perkins' version, which was released as the B-side to his 1956 single "Glad All Over." That song was also in the Beatles' repertoire, and CAN be found on Live at the BBC.

Anyway, "Lend Me Your Comb" lends more support to what I'm starting to call my Universal Theory of Beatles Covers-- the Beatles almost always play their covers with a sense of deep love and respect for the originals (I swear in this one George's guitar solo might be a note-for-note imitation of Perkins'), with their contribution to it typically being the heaping dose of manic energy they inject. The Perkins version of "Lend Me Your Comb" is awesome, but sounds much more country-fried, due in part to its lazier swing. But the Beatles rock it out, bumping up the tempo and changing the drumming. Ringo's almost doing something resembling a samba beat or some other weird thing I don't know the name for, isn't he? It definitely helps kick the energy up a notch. So do the vocals, which are awesome, especially when John and Paul are whooping it up going into the guitar solo. I love John and Paul on this kind of Everlys-esque vocal anyway (oh my God, I love the Everlys, not matter how dorky that is). It just warms my heart.

Listen to the original, and you'll hear what I mean.

You know, it's a cute song. It might not have the veneer of a rock and roll classic like Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" or something, but I so love it. Hope you dig it too, because that, sadly, has to be it from me today.

"Lend Me Your Comb," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 27 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It's Only Love

Now, here's a case study in the untrustworthiness of John, right here. Or perhaps it's just an example of John's self-consciousness. "It's Only Love" is a song John very strongly and very famously wrote off as crap. But is it? I say that "slight," or, if you prefer, "minor," is not the same thing as "crap." But hey, that's me. And I just like to sing along.

So this one was mostly written by John, with perhaps a bit of Paul thrown in. No doubt it was a bit of a work song-- Ian MacDonald has even speculated that it might have been written with another group in mind, though I'm not sure there's anything to support this except MacDonald's own dislike for the song. John took all the blame for composing the thing, though, when he dismissed it as godawful in later interviews. "It's Only Love" is hardly the only song to fall victim to John's later aspersions, but I believe he referred to it several specific times, which is why I think it (along with maybe "Run for Your Life") is remembered mainly as a song John thought sucked. But if my memory serves, John almost always singles out the lyric as particularly bad without getting into the rest of it. You know what? The lyric is kind of bad. It is most certainly not good, at any rate. But there is more to this song than some crappy words.

For instance, there is the melody itself. I'm not saying it's a masterpiece. But I am saying that the rise of the chorus, which features John's vocal in a rich and strangely echo-ish double-tracking, is a natural sing-along line. The double-tracking, which I tend to swoon about when it's applied to John's voice anyway, is significant here because in production each vocal line was processed differently. I'm not enough of an audio geek to know anything more about that, but can you hear that there's a different timbre to each of John's double-tracked lines, which are in the chorus? I think you can. The melody itself, though, is a good one. I can imagine the chorus being the reason why they kept the song on the album, despite the song's slightness, just because it's really well written.

Otherwise, it's pleasant guitar from George, especially in the intro and at the coda, where the descending line is sort of folksy and sweet. If it wasn't for that nice mid-'60s Beatley guitar sound, this song would be far more slight, as the rest of it is handled in a straightforward mid-tempo slow-dance kind of way. Even Ringo sounds a little bit bored on the drums. The folksy-esque feel of "It's Only Love" convinced the people over at Capitol, EMI's American division, to throw this on onto their version of Rubber Soul, which they were trying to fashion into the Beatles' folk rock album in order to stay on trend, which meant out with "Drive My Car" and "Nowhere Man" and in with "I've Just Seen a Face" and "It's Only Love"-- one of the most egregious injuries to the Beatles' vision of an album that Capitol ever perpetrated.

So I don't have much more on this, because it is so slight. But I think John was a little unfair to it, is all. There's nothing here to be actively ashamed of. If you had to bash out some work songs because you were the freaking Beatles and were recording this in between filming Help! and beginning a new tour and God knows what else, I for one am not going to hold it against you, John-- and I'll still listen to "It's Only Love" over the actively odious Beatles songs any day.

"It's Only Love," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 1 of Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Will

Oh, dear God, I am so late today. I will one day NOT open a blog post with a phrase like "I'm rushing this because I have no time," but unfortunately today can't be one of those days. I barely even have time to invest in choosing a suitable song. So I'm just going to go with the one stuck in my head at present, which is "I Will." Does "I Will" get stuck in your head a lot? It gets stuck in my head constantly. Paul has a knack for writing catchy-as-hell songs anyway (which is not always good-- have you ever walked around for days at a time not being able to shake "No More Lonely Nights" or, worse, "Bluebird"? ARRRRGH), but "I Will" is a particularly catchy little ballad. And even though it sounds like the kind of thing a guy like Paul McCartney dashes off in 5 minutes, I find it impossible to dislike.

I mean, you know, when I was younger I perhaps tried to be a badass and make fun of "I Will" and Soppy Paul and so on, but the melody just wins me over every time, because at heart I am a big Soppy Meg. So now I file this one alongside "Here, There, and Everywhere" as a high-quality, sophisticated song that also happens to be soppy.

And it really is pretty sophisticated-- or at least pretty interesting. You know it took something like 65 takes to get this thing right? (Give or take.) Part what made it take so long is that they were messing around a lot-- weirdly, this is the session they farted around with "Step Inside Love" on, for instance. And apparently Paul was still finalizing the lyrics in the studio as well. It might sound like Paul is handling this one by himself, as he did other White Album tracks, but Ringo and John are actually here, although I'm pretty sure John is just banging pieces of wood together for percussion or something. All the other percussion stuff is Ringo, who's on bongos and maracas and a touch of cymbal. (George isn't playing on this one.) Meanwhile, Paul handles both sets of vocals, a fairly sweet and simple acoustic guitar part, and most interestingly, the vocal bass. Those sounds reminiscent of someone blowing into a milk jug are actually Paul blowing on pitch, very very close to a mic. I don't know how he settled on this approach, but it's a great sound-- it just sounds really airy and light to me, or perhaps folksy, or something.

Also, note that the harmonic motion here is fairly fast and deft-- this might sound pedantic or something, but "I Will" is working with a greater number of discrete chords than a lot of Beatles songs do. You can hear that Paul is really exploiting the harmonic possibilities of his little melody. No one chord sounds too out of the ordinary, though, until that deceptive cadence on the last "I will" line-- you know the one, the one where it sounds like the sun just peeked out through the clouds. I don't know what that chord is and don't have a keyboard in front of me to check-- argh, this is so rushed-- but it seems safe to say that we haven't heard it before now. (For what it's worth, it sounds to my ear like a chord that was previously minor has been made major.) What a fantastic moment that chord is, right? Squee!

When Paul is doing his best work, he combines these lovely melodies, which he's able to compose through sheer intuition and genius, with arrangements that perfectly frame them and lend them greater depth, or a unique color, or some dramatic element that turns his raw material into something really special. Thus we get "Yesterday" and "Hey Jude" and "Penny Lane," and we also get the admittedly slighter "I Will." This one is slight, but its aspirations are modest, and it more than meets them. To me, it works as this little crystalline thing of beauty. It's so lovely.

Notably, Paul set this one high in his vocal range, all the better to sound delicate and so forth, I imagine. Unfortunately, that means he no longer performs the song in its original key, which is rare for him. Still and all, when he played it on his 2005 tour, I swooned a little. Just a little. Sigh. If you want to swoon along to a video whose embedding has been disabled, just click here.

"I Will," released in the U.K. side B track 8 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 2, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rock Band Cinematic.

Have you guys seen the opening cinematic to the Beatles Rock Band game? You've got to check this out. I think it's been there a while, but I only recently noticed it-- I was too busy watching the trailer over and over again initially, I think.

How many fun Beatles references can you spot? If you don't have time to look for them all, this blog annotates the whole damned thing. It was posted back in June, but I only just noticed it. The whole cinematic is a work of genius. Brava, Harmonix. Brava.

There's a Place

Today I really want to go to this place, wherever it is. Oh yeah-- it's my mind.

My own brain reminds me of a lightly wooded area, perhaps a public park, where a gigantic bevy of squirrels scamper nonstop up and down the trees, neurotically wringing their little hands, squeaking irritably at each other, and cocking their heads at strange angles as if they keep forgetting where they were going. When I can get the squirrels to freaking shut up and shove off-- a task and a half-- I can retreat there and lay out a picnic in the sunshine, listening to the Beatles songs my brain plays on constant rotation, while John Lennon (circa 1966) sits beside me feeding me olives and Paul McCartney (also circa 1966) sits on my other side and pours me, oh, let's say a Pimm's Cup. In these rare moments, my brain can actually be a pleasant place to hang out. 

So I think I get what John and Paul are going on about in "There's a Place," a hidden gem of a track if there ever was one. It does, indeed, seem to be written by the two of them together at Paul's family home in Liverpool, though I think John came in with a chunk of it completed, and I feel like I've read some critical disagreement on this-- so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, as it might be all John. The germ of the song comes from the West Side Story soundtrack, oddly enough-- the song "Somewhere" with its opening line "There's a place for us" seems to have struck a chord with the boys. (And, see? Let's not give too much cred to John when he goes on about granny songs, because as a youth he was totally sitting around with Paul listening to West Side Story and getting all moved by it.) But in their song, the "There's a Place" line goes somewhere kind of surprising, which is into the mind and the realm of the internal. It's not like "There's a Place" achieves great poetry, really, but for an early Beatles song the lyrics have some surprising depth. The "place" in question is not anywhere where the girl in question might actually hang out, but inside the mind, where everything is guaranteed to be even better and probably a lot more intense than whatever the reality is. There really is no sorrow, just like in my own little squirrel-free Beatle-filled fantasy. "There's a Place" almost revels in a sense of discovery in one's imaginative power-- it's less a love song than a song about John and Paul figuring out that they're artistic. And there's something so uniquely adolescent about that, isn't there? Definitely something the kids could relate to.

It's also, perhaps, why the song sounds so joyous as to be almost unhinged. There's not a song on Please Please Me that DOESN'T sounds raucous and exuberant and this close to totally falling apart, but "There's a Place" really stands out for me.  The tempo is as solid as ever thanks to Ringo, but I hear an urge to keep pushing it faster-- I don't know how else to describe that, but do you hear it too? Speaking of Ringo, it's one of the album's standout performances. I'm especially talking about the sound he gets on the triplets going into the second half of the verses-- the "and--it's--my--mind" bits. That, combined with the fact that Paul is singing up to the top of his range and hitting this almost-but-not-quite jarring fourth against John's vocal, makes that part so unspeakably kickass I almost can't stand it. Chills, kids. CHILLS. Oh, and speaking of the way that the vocals and the drums are complementing each other, the other really great moment in the song is when the instruments drop out and John and Paul duet on that little melisma "the-eh-eh-eh-ere," and then Ringo comes in on this artful little fill just a hair before the beat as they continue the line. Everything about that moment is so damned interesting, and just really smart. "Smart" is a word I use a lot to talk about Beatley stuff, but frequently I'm talking about production and arrangement specifically, so I think it's worth pointing out that "There's a Place," like most of the songs on the Please Please Me album, was recorded in a marathon session by essentially sticking mics in front of the band and telling them to just play, so there's nothing at all fancy going on here production-wise. They were that smart about arrangements as a live band, too.

There's a lot more I could say about the vocals in particular that I'll just touch on briefly before I dash back off to my picnic. Listen to the way John does those funky little trills on the ends of the verse phrases-- speaking of smart, it's particularly smart that only John and not Paul is doing them, as it just makes it that much more richer somehow. Also very cool is the way that the introductory harmonica-- which John somehow gets to sound almost siren-like-- sounds almost out of place and dissonant, until you realize that it's actually playing John's lower harmony vocal on the "and it's my mind" lines. In writing an introduction for this song, would you have ever thought to quote that particular moment? It's SO COOL. And finally, the resonant octaves that John and Paul are hitting on the bridge bits "don't you know that it's so" sound so clear and bell-like and over-the-top ebullient that I think I smile every time I hear them. Just tremendous. "There's a Place" is clearly another vocal showcase-- man, no one sings like John and Paul together, and they rarely sounded as amazing as they do here. Phew! Yow! I need another Pimm's.

"There's a Place," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S. side B track 5 of Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I Need You

It is such a gorgeous day here in Boston today, but after a raucous weekend with our particularly fun and fabulous out-of-town guests I'm not in a state to do much except vapidly stare at the TV and drink seltzer. All told, it's a great day to lose myself in Help!, one of those movies that's pleasantly brainless, and that I've seen enough times that I can drift in and out of sleep during. I just recently woke up to the opening strains of "I Need You," George's contribution to the film soundtrack.

I can't, to be honest, say that this is one of my favorite Beatles songs. "I Need You" has its passionate advocates, but I can't get that into it-- it's a little too unassuming for me. That said, we're talking about maybe the second song that George ever wrote here-- or at least the second song by George that the band recorded. So it's okay. (I prefer "Don't Bother Me," his first effort, honestly, but I think I'm hopelessly in the minority here.)

The opening two-note guitar figure sets up the simplest of motives to build a song out of-- it's echoed in the guitar responses to the ends of the verse phrases, which themselves become, for me, the real heart of the song. I can't sing along to "I Need You" and not sing those guitar echos (a sample: "you don't realize how much I need you, doot doo"). So that's pleasant. You'll notice that there's very little lead guitar going on other than those flourishes, which gives the song an airy, kind of folksy feel, since what we hear is mostly John's acoustic rhythm guitar and Paul's bass. For me, it gets more interesting with the addition of John and Paul on backup vocals in the second half of the verse. They're just on "ah"s, but there's a thick, lush quality to the singing that not only makes it clear, in case it wasn't already, that "I Need You" is straight-up middle-period Beatles, but also gives an airy song a lot more depth. For me, every time John and Paul sing "ah," the song gets a little better.

Unfortunately, though, this is one of my least favorite vocals from George. George could always be a little out of tune, especially early on, but I hear it more here-- it might just be some messy double-tracking or something, I don't know. It's a shame, though. And the messy vocal somehow highlights the fair-to-middling lyrics all the more. I mean, look, I definitely don't dislike "I Need You" per se-- but these things bug me a little. On the whole, the song just feels kind of slight.

As to how it came to be, it's supposedly about how George missed Pattie Boyd when the band was away on tour, or at least that's how the phrase "I need you" came into his head. As is typical with George's early work, I think he was never able to recall much beyond that, and a lot of the time he was still writing songs just to write them, to learn how to do it, really. I think you can hear some growing pains in "I Need You," but that's fine, and we all know that what would come made it worth all the growing pains in the world. So enjoy this pleasant little tune, and then listen to "Something" and enjoy hearing how far George came along in just a few years.

"I Need You," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 5 of the crappy version of Help!, August 13, 1965.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Honeymoon Song

Sorry this is late and super-short today, kids-- I'm once again putting up out-of-town friends who were, for some unfathomable reason, itching to get out and do something more interesting than watching me type and listen to a Beatles song ten times in a row. Why on earth could that have been? So this is the first time I've been home since early this morning-- too busy out having other sorts of fun to take care of my Beatley obligations. Apologies, too, for choosing kind of less cool song today, but, hey, we've got to slog through all of these, don't we? (Or at least I do.) Let's have a quick listen to an early Paul granny-song-cover-- one of the cutsier tracks from Live at the BBC.

I feel like you are either the kind of Beatles fan who enjoys it when Paul takes the stage and affects his best choirboy voice, or you are not. I am that kind of fan, generally, though it's never my favorite stuff-- and I like to think that my bullshit meter with Paul is always set to high, particularly when it comes to some of his post-Beatles balladeering. Nevertheless, "The Honeymoon Song" is fine for me. Paul clearly has an ear for a nice melody, is all. Okay, yes, it's clearly a show tune, but it's an okay one-- at least in my opinion.

The song is the theme from a 1959 movie that I've never seen, Luna de miel, better known to English-speaking audiences as Honeymoon. The song was composed by one Mikis Theodorakis (hat tip to The Beatles Bible, your top internet Beatlesource, for that-- I'd never have remembered that on my own). My understanding, from what very little I remember about this song, is that Paul never really saw the movie, but just saw an Italian band play this song on TV or something, and liked it enough to adapt for the band. What is notable for me about "The Honeymoon Song" is not only the sweet way Paul sings it-- which can hardly be called surprising-- but also that all the guitar work is pretty damned solid. Don't you think? Just another one to demonstrate the Beatles' cred as equal opportunity musicians-- they would have been a fine music hall band if they'd been so inclined, and no doubt anything else they'd wanted to as well.

So "The Honeymoon Song" didn't make it onto a commercial recording, unlike "A Taste of Honey" and "Till There Was You," but that makes sense-- the latter two are a bit more overtly appealing to the teenybopper demographic, whereas "The Honeymoon Song"'s sort of oblique lyrics about being bound to each other by love probably wouldn't have exactly melted teenage girls' hearts and panties. So I don't believe it stayed in their live set for that long. But Live at the BBC has preserved this little musical curiosity for the ages. So, you know, cool.

I've only had time to barely skim coverage of Paul's set at Citi Field last night, but it sounds like it was AMAZING. Hopefully I'll have time to link to more soon. And hopefully will write more tomorrow-- but now I'm honor bound to head out and do some more drinking. Hurrah!

"The Honeymoon Song," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 28 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Are you seeing Paul in NY this weekend?

If so, or even if not, get yourself pumped with this webcast from CBS. The other night on Letterman, we heard Paul perform two songs on the show from atop the big Ed Sullivan Theatre marquee. But he apparently hung out for a while and did a mini-concert for all those fans gathered on Broadway to watch. (By the way, if I worked in New York you can bet I would have taken a sick day to see this. I look at those people in the video and all I can think of is that the envy must be visibly wafting off of me, like stink lines. Come on, Paul-- isn't there some Boston rooftop that you want to come visit and do a random show on top of?)

Anyway, the video's good-- he does "Coming Up" and "Band on the Run" and some actual Beatles songs too. Squee!

Eight Days a Week

Wouldn't the world have been a lot crappier without Ringo's malapropisms about overwork? We wouldn't have had "A Hard Day's Night," for one. And we also wouldn't have "Eight Days a Week"-- Ringo used this odd little phrase to grumble about the frequency with which the boys were working. Of course, the Beatles turned the phrase into something quite happy-go-lucky.

"Eight Days a Week" seems to have been composed more jointly than some other songs of the time. It was begun by Paul, who, as I recall this, brought it into the studio unfinished so that he and John could tinker with it some more. The idea was that it was to be the next single-- they'd been having problems coming up with a single, but this one seemed promising, until John brought in "I Feel Fine," which had "single" written all over it, and "Eight Days a Week" ended up on the Beatles for Sale album. Honestly, the other evidence that John had a lot more input on "Eight Days a Week" than on some others of Paul's songs is that he's singing lead. I know it's weird to think about now, but at this point, almost all of their singles so far had been sung either by John and Paul in duet or else by John as a clear lead, which probably dates back a little to old times when John was more of a clear leader. But the relatively recent "Can't Buy Me Love" single was 100% pure Paul and made it clear, in case anyone doubted it, that Paul could sell a single as well as anyone. So I think John singing lead is a good indication that he wrote a lot more of this song than he later cared to admit. (He later said the song basically sucked, and tried to pin the whole thing on Paul. I'm not buying it.)

At any rate, I'm quite pleased that John takes the lead vocal, because he sounds just adorable up there at the top of his range. (Also, it sounds like during the recording process he was liking the song quite a bit, actually. So there's that.) John is double-tracked through most of this-- though, when the "hold me, love me" bits are sung in unison, I literally can't hear whether that's still just John double-tracked or whether Paul is singing with him. Point is, there is something about John's voice being double-tracked that makes me all giddy. It just does something to the resonance of his voice. Sigh. One of my favorite parts of the whole song is the way he moans going into the third "hold me, love me phrase"-- isn't that awesome? Like hell he didn't dig this song.

Paul's harmony parts are particularly smart in "Eight Days a Week" as well. The song is just a good example of the Beatles' expertly judicious use of vocal harmonies, isn't it? Paul's in on all the title lines, alternating on the "hold me, love me" phrase, and then in for both bridges. By the way, on the bridge you might hear that Paul and John are harmonizing on open fifths and fourths, which is HIGHLY unorthodox and CRAZY cool. Listen to that part and you'll hear that their voices just sound-- more open. I don't know how else to say it. An open fifth can almost sound droney and mystical, which is not quite the effect here, but I swear that that moment just adds a whole different color to this song. (It helps that the bridge is also visiting some chords that haven't appeared in the song yet, and effectively giving the whole thing a different feel.)

So obviously, we've got a vocal tour de force in "Eight Days a Week," at least in my opinion, and as someone who's a prodigious singer-along to songs, I can vouch for this being super-singable in, say, one's shower. Not that the instruments are necessarily slouches. Listen to the intro again. For one thing, we're fading into a pop song instead of out of it, which might not seem like that big a deal now, but at the time was fairly cutting-edge. More to the point, listen to Paul's bass on the opening. He's just hitting the one note, but have you ever noticed how fast he's playing, how much like a nervous adolescent heartbeat it sounds? What a cool effect-- and the fade-in only makes it that much more exciting. I've become so obsessed with his bass there that I have to admit, I barely hear George's catchy guitar licks in the intro anymore, as lovely as they are. I will say, though, that with no guitar solo, the return of George's guitar in the coda is a pleasant surprise-- but it's because I almost forgot George was there. Similarly, the effect of the large dose of hand-clapping here actually obscures (to my ear) what Ringo's doing on the drums. The hand claps seem to be much more crucial the final texture of the thing, you know? You might not even notice hand claps in some of their other songs, but "Eight Days a Week" seems dependent on them somehow.

Considering that I hear the song as mainly a celebration of singing and clapping (with a bit of bass to ground you), it's no wonder I hear it as so happy. This is almost one of the most winningly exuberant songs the Beatles ever did, in a way. Sometimes it's not what I'm in the mood for-- sometimes I want to curl up under my covers and listen to "Yer Blues" or something. But even if you find "Eight Days a Week" a bit too cheery for your tastes, don't make the mistake of finding it unsophisticated. It rules. And for a sunny summer Friday spent with out-of-town friends, it's just what I was looking for. Thanks, boys!

"Eight Days a Week," released in the U.K. side B track 1 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S. as a single c/w "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," February 15, 1965.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Get Back

You guys, I saw Paul on Letterman last night-- I'd been remiss in reminding you about that, what with lots of other stuff on my mind, so apologies, but hopefully you found out from some of the other Beatles news sources out there, some of which can be found to your right-- and it just put me in a better mood than I've been in for days. Those viewers paying attention might have noticed that Paul Shaffer played out the monologue with "Slow Down," so I'm going to go ahead and assume that he's a reader of this blog and got the idea from my post a couple days ago. Hi, Paul Shaffer! But anyway, the Paul I was actually tuning in to see did not disappoint. He sat adorably through Letterman's kind of asinine questions, then strode up to the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theatre and played a set. The opening song was "Get Back," which kind of makes sense, cause, you know, he was almost on a roof. Kind of like that day he played on a roof in January of 1969.

"Get Back" began life during some of the studio jamming that January, during what are now called the Get Back sessions. Paul just started noodling around with the tune and the lyric (which is lifted slightly from a line of a song George had written, "Sour Milk Sea"), and in a few days had his song. Weirdly, the original lyrics are very political, a response to Conservative M.P. Enoch Powell's so-called "Rivers of Blood" speech, an anti-immigration screed that was apparently galvanizing Britain at the time. Since the band was recording really everything going on in the studio, there are bootlegs out there with Paul singing verses like "Meanwhile back at home there's nineteen Pakistanis living in a council flat," which just sounds bizarre if, like me, you'd been listening to "Get Back" as a happy little riff-driven thing your whole life. Another bootleg recording features Paul singing "don't dig no Pakistanis taking all the people's jobs," which is even weirder-- this is called the "No Pakistanis Song" in Beatles bootleg circles. Paul, by the way, swears that this stuff would have evolved into a satire of anti-immigration sentiment, not an endorsement thereof, but since all we've got are these unfinished tracks without much context, Paul hasn't always come off well among circles of good liberals such as myself. Wisely, he backed off this whole approach completely before too long--choosing to focus on the comparatively less controversial subject of transgendered people-- but those bootlegs are some of the oddest around.

The lyrics we've got left, with their incompletely sketched characters, are fairly surreal and fun, which is just fine with me. They suit the breeziness of the song in all other ways-- "Get Back" is structurally quite simple, a three- or four-chord bluesy jam of a song. I mean, even the melody is basically one line repeated a lot, with a small variation on the chorus lines-- hardly a complete melody at all, you could argue. Out of a so little, though, something pretty special emerges, for "Get Back" is really a study in getting the feel of a song, as Troy might put it, exactly right. A lot of the interest for me derives from the killer accents in the chorus, all of which is perhaps most vehemently accented by Billy Preston on his electric piano. The on-the-beat accents at the ends of the chorus phrases ("Get back to where you once belonged"-- BOM, BOM-- you know the bits), for instance, are really key to this song, providing the most elemental structural framework. 

The other really fantastic element is the slick, almost liquid sound of those guitar licks playing with Preston's piano. This is John on lead guitar, by the way, which is notable, because it's an AWESOME guitar part. John tends to not get props as a particularly great guitarist-- and he was the first to admit that George could play much better than he could, which is why George took most of the solos-- but "Get Back" proves that he could hang when he wanted to. It's gotta be one of this most stellar guitar moments as a Beatle. He takes the first and third solos, while Preston takes the keyboard solo in the middle of the song, echoing the smooth slickness that John established with his own inimitable playing. As tremendous as all of this is, I like that nothing sounds particularly grueling about it-- everyone is settling into the beat really easily, and the guitar solos in particular sound almost lazy. Paul hangs out on some bass drones like he's got all the time in the world, singing in his cheekiest way possible. And even Ringo, who is drumming like mad, seems to be doing so almost by accident. He could drum this well in his sleep. It all just sounds really fun to play, which is nice to hear during the fraught January of 1969.

Speaking of Ringo, some of my favorite bits of his drumming are actually on the coda to the single version. Which reminds me that I should say that the version in the video above is, of course, from the Let It Be movie during the rooftop concert scene, but the single version and what went on to become the Let It Be album version were both recorded a couple days prior. I think the video above might actually be the one that's on Anthology 3, but you'll have to forgive me because I'm absolutely out of time to go check. Suffice it to say that the convoluted history of all the Get Back tracks tends to exhaust me, and I for one prefer the single version in this case anyway (even though the coda is tacked on from a different session). Feel free to disagree! But "Get Back" seems to not want to be thought about too hard, to my mind. It's too easygoing, too freewheeling, too groovy. Just dig it, kids.

"Get Back," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "Don't Let Me Down," April 11, 1969; in the U.S. May 5, 1969.