Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Getting Better

Because it's got to eventually, right?

Hey, it's July, so that's something-- it's supposed to be high summertime, though in Boston we are crying out for some sunshine, which honestly it doesn't look like we're going to get. But surely it's getting better. So hey, look, sorry to be in a mood yesterday, because usually writing the blog is a pleasant part of my day-- I really am convinced that a Beatles song a day is good for your health. I had a fantastic birthday weekend and I refuse to let one crappy day ruin everything. I am determined that July will rock. And we will kick it off by rocking "Getting Better," a fun Sgt. Pepper track.

Ostensibly a sunny, sweet, optimistic McCartney song, "Getting Better" is not quite as sunny and sweet and optimistic as it sounds on first listen-- nor is it entirely a McCartney song. Paul handled most of the music here, but he consulted with John on the lyrics, and they ended up writing them about some vague dark episodes from their teenage years. John has taken credit for the line about how he used to be cruel to his woman, for instance. Of course, the best bit that John contributed is probably the backup line he sings in response to Paul's chorus of "I have to admit it's getting better,"-- "It can't get much worse." It's funny, and it relieves the chorus of its abundance of joy a bit. Truly, this chorus is one of the great Lennon-McCartney moments.

Anyone who writes off "Getting Better" as mere McCartney frippery should listen not only to those verse lyrics, but also to the interesting stuff they've done with the arrangement. As with a lot of the Sgt. Pepper tracks, the arrangement alone is pretty damned masterful and arguably lifts what would be an only-okay song into much higher realms. What's weird is that they seem to be going for a sound that resembles a drone. But by putting the drone pitch into guitars and emphasizing the attack, the guitars sound much more like percussion instruments than they might otherwise. Isn't that clever? That relentless on-the-beat octave on G the guitar plays in the song's opening is its primary building block. Listen to the bass line in the verse, too-- Paul is also octave-hopping on G, beneath the guitar's held G, which is admittedly less obtrusive here. The guitar drops off completely in the second verse, and in the third verse it's replaced by George on a tambura, an Indian instrument that's actually meant to sound like a drone, so some of the intense percussiveness is relieved a bit. (That's the weird mystical rumble you hear going into that verse.) The G that runs through most of the song results in some interesting harmonies, though it's never too dissonant against the song's C major context.

While Paul is mostly just sustaining the G sound on the verses, his bass line in the chorus is lovely-- very understated, but very tuneful as well. I also want to single out Ringo's drumming. Who among us doesn't love what he's doing in the verses? His cymbal moves make it sound like the drums are singing the "ah-ah" bit along with the backup singers. Note that on the third verse, when the tambura comes in, Ringo switches over to conga drums, as if to denote that we're dipping into, I don't know, world music mode or something? (It's a weird juxtaposition with this verse, which is the one about beating women.) Above all the percussion and all the beautiful ringing details, Paul's vocal is as sweet and delighted about how much better things are getting as can be, while John and George sing backup in a way that makes it sound as though they're about to crack up. And those falsettos on "better-- better-- better" on the choruses are divine, aren't they?

So "Getting Better" might not be the best Sgt. Pepper track, or your favorite Sgt. Pepper track, but even when the Beatles weren't working with their most sophisticated tunes they could go for broke on the arrangement and still end up wowing you. Aren't you glad they did? Oh, how I love the way "Getting Better" makes me grin dementedly all day!

"Getting Better," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.


  1. It's almost my favorite Pepper track, for all the reasons you lay out here.

  2. It is *possibly* my favorite Pepper track.