Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Octopus's Garden

As we know, yesterday was Ringo's 69th birthday, but I'm keeping the celebration going today. If you haven't already, do something today to celebrate Ringo!-- get a gigantic sacrificial ring stuck on your finger, or go paradin', or eat vegetarian cuisine all day because of your sensitive stomach (the result of childhood health problems), or become a grandfather (Ringo is the only Beatle grandfather)**, or watch Caveman or Shining Time Station or The Magic Christian (but don't invite my husband to the latter, as that film fills him with rage to the point where it's kind of hilarious for bystanders like myself).

As for me, I'm listening to one of just two songs Ringo wrote as a Beatle (well, there are more if you give him partial credit for the likes of "What Goes On" and "Flying" and "Los Paranoias" and yada yada, but let's leave it at two to keep it honest-- there are two he wrote by himself, after all).

You know, opinions vary on "Octopus's Garden." There are those for whom it is an essential Beatles track, a song that their mothers sang to them, a song that elicits smiles and goosebumps and childlike wonder. I mean, there are people I respect who truly would rather listen to this than, say, "Penny Lane." Then there are those for whom the song is an earsore, an annoyance on the otherwise mostly perfect Abbey Road, a song that can't even be taken seriously. (The wicked elitist music theory books I love are particularly snarky on the subject of "Octopus's Garden.") But, you know, I'm somewhere in the middle. I have no childlike attachment to this song per se, though a kid I babysat for years ago used to be partial to Raffi's cover of the song. (I, for my part, was most decidedly NOT.) But "Octopus's Garden" is too adorable to actually hate. I mean, it's FUN, right? It's just unpretentious and simple and delightful. Just sing along already, all you sniffy music snobs, and tell me that you too don't want to be under the sea at least a little bit.

Ringo wrote this in Sardinia, during his little adventure in quitting the Beatles during the White Album sessions. Actually, my favorite part of the story is that he borrowed Peter Sellers' yacht, of all people's (so, Mr. Megan, without The Magic Christian, we might never have had "Octopus's Garden"!), and the captain told him about actual octopi in the Mediterranean that collect shiny objects and build gardens out of them. Though I've never looked this up, I believe it, especially what with emerging research showing that cephalopods are actually extremely intelligent (I saw a documentary about cuttlefish once that scared the bejeebus out of me-- I mean, those things could probably work a supercomputer).

In Let It Be, we see footage of George helping Ringo with the song-- he's still working out how to end the verse.

Eventually, though, he got it, and the song settles nicely into a simple four-chord structure with an underlying country-song-ish feel, mostly carried by George's sweet melodic guitar. Ringo almost seems to be singing a duet with that guitar, in fact, so singable is the guitar line, and so crucial to the laid-back vibe. The tinkling piano that comes in for the last third of the verse thickens things up quite a lot, but never to the point of me not liking it. (That's Paul on the piano, by the way, and George is playing an electric organ somewhere, though I can't really hear which part is where.) And Paul and George are just as smooth as ocean swells on their backup vocals, aren't they? (John is actually here, too, playing rhythm guitar, but apparently not doing too much else.) Of course, it's worth nothing that the drumming, while it might not take much out of a drummer as solid as Ringo, is exactly right.

And as for the words-- well, they may be a bit simplistic for some, but the whole thing is a really cool pastiche to my mind. It's interesting that the imagery here is less about an incredible undersea adventure and more about home and safety and keeping warm below the storm, don't you think? If you had written a song about playing with an octopus, is this where you would have taken it? And that last line about "knowing they're happy and they're safe"-- I don't want to become a Ringo Starr armchair psychoanalyst in the mold of all the Lennon ones, but it must say something about his state of mind during that fragile period when he was so sick of being a Beatle that he actually fled the country in the middle of recording sessions. Poor Ringo. It would be nice to visit an octopus's garden with you.

Finally, although I almost without reservations hate covers of Beatles songs, even I am not impervious to the charms of this one. Enjoy.

**Argh, I totally got that detail wrong-- Yer Blogger corrects me in comments.

"Octopus's Garden," released in the U.K. side A track 5 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.


  1. I'm somewhere left of you on this. I really don't like it, but it doesn't seem like I should hate it, so I guess I don't.

    Always thought I heard John singing backup. Just another thing your posts always bring to the table.

    I saw Caveman in the theater. There's pretty much no chance of anyone ever figuring out why. I would have been 10, and it would have been the third movie I'd ever seen, after Star Wars and another imponderable, the Karl Malden movie Meteor. But even at 10, Barbara Bach made an impression on me.

    Can't wait to check out those videos when I get home tonight.

  2. Hey, Meg ... I'm with Troy on this one. I hit the skip button to jump past Octopus when listening to Abby Road. But then again, I'm not a huge fan of Maxwell's Silver Hammer. I guess I'm more into songs that deal with romance, life issues, feelings, and such rather than cutesy. The boys should have released a "kids" album and put songs like Octopuss and Maxwell on it. Hey, wait a minute, maybe they did. I think it's called Yellow Something or other ...

  3. First of all - what i like about this song is that George's guitar playing us above and beyond . .quite the elaborate riff - it detracts from the simplicity of the actual structure of the song . .
    and . .um . .
    Paul's a grandfather as well - he's has 6 grandkids (according to Wiki) !
    "Everyone's entitled to two-
    he's the other one" (from AHDN)

  4. I actually hate Maxwell's Silver Hammer far more than Octopus's Garden. I realized today that it's one of very few Abbey Road tracks I have left, but I'm just freaking dreading it. I never file it mentally into my little triad-of-distaste of Beatles songs (of which I've covered two so far), but it's probably my fourth least favorite. Octopus's Garden, though, I tend to think of as Mostly Harmless.

    Jim Henson disagrees with all of us, though, clearly-- the Muppet video here is one of three times that I know of that he covered it. He also used the song on Sesame Street and on the Muppet Show. If for no other reason, I love Octopus's Garden for the way it crosses over two of my very greatest loves.

  5. Oh, crap! I forgot Paul's grandkids. BLUSH.

    I was skimming Wikipedia early this morning to try to derive inspiration for people to celebrate Ringo-- this clearly teaches me to believe what I read there. Mea culpa.

  6. If Octopus' Garden had been "commissioned" for an animated film or such, I would hold it in higher esteem. As a song, out of the blue, for a Beatles album, low marks. But, hey, nice post, Meg. I enjoyed watching the clip of George and Ringo work on the song.

  7. I can't reconcile people's derision of Maxwell with those same people's enjoyment of this one. They seem to me to come from largely the same place (and at least Maxwell is a goofy song about a grotesque serial killer). Not a huge fan of either song, mind you, but I don't see either as worse than the other.