Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I've been thinking about covering "Rain" for a while, actually. But, see, for the longest time here in Boston, just in the past few weeks, we were getting quite a bit of it. It was the kind of never-ending rain/fog/mist/random-hail stuff that makes you want to die, as if despair itself has become a form of precipitation, and it lasted for WEEKS. And I was just not in the mood to listen to John lecture me about how when the rain comes I run and hide my head, because I was doing that, but he would have been doing the same thing if he'd been here. Seriously.

Today, after several days of sunshine and normal summer weather, it's actually raining again (typical), but now I'm in a place where I feel more emotionally okay about "Rain." And there's another reason why today is a pretty good day to cover it: we're celebrating Ringo's 69th birthday! Happy birthday, Ringo! I couldn't decide between today's song and tomorrow's song to celebrate the birthday, so I'm just doing one today and one tomorrow. And the thing is, if you've doubted the awesomeness of Ringo lately, you need to listen to "Rain" again, stat.

The clip above is pulled from the Anthology series, which was the only way I could find this particular "Rain" video, and opens with George on the whole "we invented MTV" bit, which is a little tired but perhaps kind of true, even if the Beatles themselves seemed to not have much to do with the making of their videos. In fact, it was the unprecedented success of the Beatles that led to the development of these promotional videos, as they were made to air on TV shows in place of the Beatles actually playing them live, which they were becoming too exhausted to do. There are actually a couple other "Rain" videos, though neither are as interesting, and one was made specifically for an Ed Sullivan appearance. The "Rain" video above was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who would direct other videos for them later, as well as, of course, Let It Be.

But I'm digressing from the more interesting topic of the song itself. I don't know heaps about how it came to be written except that it was inspired by the 1964 Australian tour and the godawful weather they experienced there-- the rain seems to have impressed even hardened northern Englanders like the Beatles and their entourage. By mid-1966 when he was writing it and-- not coincidentally-- beginning to take acid, John found a hippie-dippie metaphor about states of mind in the material, and there was the song. What it's easy to forget about "Rain," though, is that the song itself is so exquisitely simple melodically and harmonically. I have this memory of being in college and walking by one of the those guys on campus who sits on a bench and plays guitar-- you know those guys, the ones making a really transparent attempt to get laid-- and he was playing "Rain" on his acoustic and just strumming and picking some stuff, not doing too much, and I realized that the song is almost too slight when reduced to its bare bones. (I'm sure the performer wasn't doing the song any favors to begin with, but even so.) Luckily for all of us, John came into the studio with some kind of vision, and since this was done in the middle of the Revolver sessions everyone was in the mood to mess around. And thus we have "Rain," surely the Beatles' most badass B-side.

The key thing that makes "Rain" sound so heavy and weird and otherworldly is the fact that the band was playing around with recording speeds to see what kind of timbres they produced. (They'd already experimented a bit in "Tomorrow Never Knows," the first song they started recording in these sessions.) The rhythm track was recorded faster and then slowed down for that gooey, heavy feel, while John's vocal was actually recorded more slowly and then sped up, which resulted in this funky nasal sound that makes John sound even more sardonic than usual. (They did something similar on "I'm Only Sleeping," though the effect is different in that one.)

And then, of course, there's the backwards vocal line at the end. Both John Lennon and George Martin have taken credit for coming up with that: John's story is that he was stoned out of his gourd and accidentally inserted a tape in backwards one night at the studio, then pronounced it the greatest thing he'd ever done. Martin's story doesn't involve drugs, just ingenuity. Either way, it is the first time this had been done, as John helpfully points out in the video above, and it's totally masterful. I think playing-stuff-backwards is one of those things that seems almost dated now-- it's just so associated with countercultural excess, or something, that it's hard to hear how interesting it really can be when used intelligently. For me, the best part about the backwards vocal line in "Rain" is that it's treated as a musical line like any other-- it's placed against the instrumental track perfectly, and the backup singers sing along to is (forwards) like any other line. In fact, I'm not even sure I initially got that this was backwards-- just that John was singing some gibberish I didn't understand on the coda. Point is, it doesn't draw attention to itself. It's too cool to.

But you know what? That stuff is awesome, but what's most awesome is how well everyone is playing. As I said initially, the reason we're listening to "Rain" today is partly because Ringo has identified it as the best drumming he ever did. Now, any semi-casual reader of this blog knows that I have no idea how to talk about drums (among other things)-- I can hear when Ringo is being amazing, but I tend to have very little insight as to how or why. That's why I'm going to cite what Ringo has said about it directly. This quote is courtesy of the Beatles Bible:
I think I just played amazing. I was into the snare and the hi-hat. I think it was the first time I used this trick of starting a break by hitting the hi-hat first instead of going directly to a drum off the hi-hat.
So there you have it. Although there's gotta be more to it than this-- from that small-yet-tremendous drum opening, to the way he sneaks into those rolls at the ends of the phrases in the chorus, to the thumps he gets in the breaks before each verse, he's just freaking ON FIRE. (Please, Harmonix gods, please give us this one on Rock Band. Please? Pretty please? Ooh, I want to drum it so bad!) Clearly Ringo just got totally inspired. And honestly, he's not the only one. Paul's bass has rarely, up to this point in Beatles history, sounded this great. You'll note that in the verses he's playing this really energized countermelody with John's vocal, and then in the chorus (which stretches out one chord for as long as sounds humanly possible) he contributes to the underlying droney effect by jumping between two pitches, but just slightly, ever so slightly, messes with the rhythm that he's playing them on. It's weird. (And amazing.) With the guitar staying pretty much on arpeggios for most of the song, the bass line comes through all the more and just takes on even greater significance.

So while there's more salivating I could do about "Rain," I really do need to move on, though I might have one more listen before I do. Imagine, though: in 1966, when this came out as the B-side to the glorious "Paperback Writer"-- I mean, wouldn't you have been beside yourself? Wouldn't you have not been able to even stand the wait for Revolver to come out?? I mean, I can barely stand doing anything else at all today, I'm so freaking excited.

"Rain," released in the U.K. as B-side to "Paperback Writer," June 10, 1966; in the U.S., May 30, 1966.


  1. This and She Said She Said might be my two favorite-sounding Beatles songs. They both have great guitar sounds, prominent bass, and -- like another great song, Strawberry Fields Forever -- Ringo doing extended fills that can last (in the case of She Said She Said) three bars at a time.

    I never thought of it until you pointed it out, but yes, this is just a three-chord song, I-IV-V. The bass in the chorus that you're talking about is just triplets of I-V-I, with the first I being high and the second one being an octave lower. You could play it.

    What amazed me when I heard the bootlegs of this song was hearing the takes with the backward vocal and guitar as they were played (forwards, with the song playing backwards in the background). I always wanted to record a backward line, but it seemed like it'd be so impossible to plan out, to be in the right scale for the right chord across each chord change. So what does goofus John do? He's just singing the song. He's singing "Rain" and "When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads" exactly the way he sings it on the forward parts of the song. Maybe everyone else already knew that, but it just blew me away.

    I also like the lyrics more than you do. I think what he's saying is really deep. But I think I've gone on about this topic to excess before.

  2. I have always loved this song. I remember being blown away when it first came out. There'd been nothing like it. Can you imagine, having so much talent that you could send out singles while working on an album, to satisfy folks who were waiting eagerly for the album, AND THEN not even include many of those singles on the albums??? Think of it. Think of some other band's albums and pull off the hits and what are you left with? Most of the time mediocrity. Rain is just a great great song. Gotta go listen to it again. Great write up, Meg. And great insights, Troy.

  3. I really envy your experiencing all this in real time, Frank. It must have been amazing. I can imagine you and your friends debating each twist and turn, like what Magical Mystery Tour meant, or if the White Album indicated a decline, and then ultimately them releasing Abbey Road.

    I'm reading the Beatles Anthology, and George Martin says that was an American thing, having the singles also be on the album. Apparently back then, no bands in Britain did that. I think he was saying it context of them rushing out Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields instead of putting those two tracks on Pepper, which of course would have radically changed the competition for best Beatle album.

  4. Todd ... Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields on Pepper? Be still my heart; it would have been awesome. Regarding the White album, my friends and I loved it. I was a Freshman in college that year and i remember many times heading to one of my friend's dorm room to listen to it between classes, memorize lyrics, try to figure out the guitar cords to different songs, marvel at Paul's vocal range and bass playing, John's magical voice, the whole eclectic feel of the album. Included in the album were four 8x10 B/W head shots of the Beatles, and you would have been hard pressed to find a dorm room that didn't have those pics taped to the wall ---along with a poster of Rachel Welch from the movie One Million Years B.C. Great times!

  5. BTW, I've played Rain from Megan's posted clip about six times today, and it has started raining here with the sun still out. Hmmmm .... powerful song, eh? Even the weather gods like it!

  6. I don't know why i wrote Todd. I meant Troy. Scatter brained sometimes.

  7. That's OK; troy's just a stage name anyway.

    Not that I "know" you based on your comments about someone else's posts about Beatle songs, but I can totally see you digging the White Album right away. I, on the other hand, would have been the idiot saying he "wasn't sure." "I mean, Dear Prudence is good, and Me and My Monkey is great, but it's no Revolver, you know?" Then, five months later, we pass in the hall and I give you a sheepish grin. "So, White Album ... pretty freakin' awesome, huh?" Or worse, I'd probably not really dig it until after Yellow Submarine came out.

    Some sunny rain here in NYC too. Never underestimate the power.

    Poor Megan's gonna see she's got 19 comments and get excited before she sees it's just us ...

  8. No, no, I love it that you guys comment so much! Perhaps this is less a blog than a bar (without drinks, more's the pity) where we're all just Beatle-geeking all day.

    That said, I'm too tired to say much in reply, except this very quickly: I don't love the lyrics to "Rain" because they haven't aged well and don't mean much of anything except "cheer up!", I prefer Revolver to the White Album if pressed but I, too, had those cutout photos and the poster on my wall, I am also a huge fan of Raquel Welch (her Myra Breckinridge performance is deliciously terrifying), and clearly the weather gods responded in Boston a bit too much to this because I'm going to get drenched leaving work. Serves me right, no doubt.

  9. I don't know; you'd probably have loved it. As a musician, you would have recognized how cool their sound was and how versatile.

    As you, or Megan, noted in an earlier piece, it is near impossible to listen to any music and hear it with "clean ears," so to speak. We are the sum of our experiences and we bring all the music we have ever heard over the years to the table with us when we listen to something new (just released or just new to us). It colors how we listen and influences us. I think that is why some young people today do not see "the greatness" in bands like the Beatles and the Kinks (vastly underrated) because they hear some of the "limitations" in the recording technology of the day when compared to now. They hear a thin sound as compared to the fullness of tracks today. They also hear things and don't recognize that those sounds were a "first." I'm rambling again.

    BTW, did it strike you as odd how on the Rain music video, there was never any rain??? All sunshine shots. What a concept ...

  10. BTW again, I've passed your site address on to other folks. I think they read and are too shy or illiterate to contribute any posts. Keep up the great work Meg.

  11. Don't mean anything except 'cheer up'! You can't mean that. He was saying that people complain about the rain, and change their behavior when it rains ... and then, counterintuitively, they go and do the same thing when it's NOT raining. Do they just want something to bitch about? They should do what they want without being governed by something as common as the weather. If you run and hide your head when it rains, and slip into the shade when the sun shines, when will you do anything?

    It also is the precursor to Strawberry Fields, I think, in that he's identifying himself as different from everybody else.