Monday, August 31, 2009

LP Love: Please Please Me

As I'm out of the country until September 15, my normal song-a-day listening schedule is being put on hold. Instead, rediscover your love for the LP format by enjoying a complete Beatles album per day. Try to keep your finger away from the "shuffle" or "skip" buttons for the ultimate retro experience! See you in September to wrap up the Beatles' catalog song by song, remastered-style.

Please Please Me

Release Date: March 22, 1963

After the success of the Beatles' first two singles (both of which are included on this album along with their B-sides), the band was rushed into the studios to make an LP. Their touring schedule allowed them precious little time, and the album was famously completed in something like seventeen hours, which means that all there was time for was basically playing a live set and recording it. Nothing fancy here, no sir. So notoriously awesome were the Beatles as a live band at this point that producer George Martin actually considered going to record them at Liverpool's Cavern club and releasing THAT as the LP-- but complications arose with that plan, and in the end it was easier for them to just come to Abbey Road.

But until the 1994 release of Live at the BBC, Please Please Me was the next best thing for those of us born too late or too far afield to hear the Beatles live. Like a typical live set, the track listing incorporates original Lennon-McCartney songs (eight of them) and rock and roll covers (six), in a wide variety of styles. From the giddy pop of "I Saw Her Standing There" to the husky R&B of "Anna (Go to Him)," from the melodrama of "A Taste of Honey" to the teenybopper awkwardness of "Do You Want to Know a Secret?", from the exuberant weirdness of "Ask Me Why" to the off-the-hook rock of "Twist and Shout"-- the Beatles show off the versatility and their unrestrained love for this stuff. The album knocks you over and leaves you breathless. Best debut ever.

High Points: "I Saw Her Standing There," "Boys," "Please Please Me," "Baby It's You," "Twist and Shout"

My Secret Favorite: "Anna (Go to Him)"

The Song I'm Not Supposed to Love So Much But Totally Do Anyway: "There's a Place"

Track listing:


"Love Me Do"

Friday, August 28, 2009

I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)

Don't cry over me, readers! This is my last post before I jet off tonight to Peru and Bolivia for two fabulous adventure-filled (and probably, sadly, Beatle-free) weeks. But the blog will be updated by Ghost Meg, as it were, so check in for some quick LP lovefests (they will be not QUITE every day, but fairly frequently), plus links to some long-winded essays about relevant movies I wrote for another excellent site, courtesy of my friend Rumsey, who will be checking in occasionally. I'm back in the country as of September 15, when I ASSUME regular blogging will continue. But then again, I might be exhausted. I'm pretty sure I'll be in for 9/15, though.

If for no other reason, keep coming back over the next couple weeks for the newsfeed to the right. Already, interesting press about the magical 9/9/09 date is everywhere. The world is going Beatlemaniacal all over again. If only I had time to link to it all. But seriously, check it out.

Okay-- and now for a Live at the BBC quickie. (And I DO mean quickie. When I come back, I'll resume my usual verbosity, I hope...)

The Beatles based their cover of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)" on the version made popular by Elvis Presley, who released it on his first album. The song is actually pretty old-- it was written in 1953 by two guys named Joe Thomas and Howard Biggs, neither of whom I've ever heard of. (Someone jump in if you have.) And it's been covered by a lot of others, I think, though the only other one I'm personally familiar with is Del Shannon's. Anyway, since it's the Elvis version that matters, let's have a listen.

Elvis's is pretty kickass, isn't it? It just sounds a little more polished, or something, which makes sense since it's an album track, whereas the Beatles were performing live for a radio show. Elvis's also sounds very honky-tonk. But the Beatles did that thing that they do a lot on their covers, which is make a kind of country-fried song and move it firmly in a more manic rock and roll context. I love it when they do that! And that's why I kind of love the Beatles' version more.

It's John's vocal (shock) that makes it for me. Although John was an Elvis fanatic, as were all the Beatles, his vocals sound nothing like Elvis's-- it's all his own thing. I'm not sure he could sing like Elvis if he tried. So instead he sings it like himself, and he spits out all those words like crazy, in that intense way that he has. It helps that this thing is sitting so high in his range, and the falsetto bit on "what I'm gonna doooo....EEEE" is freaking outstanding. Let's also acknowledge Ringo, who is doing what is, for Ringo, some damned athletic drumming. You know what I mean? He normally doesn't go in as much for those really fast rolls, and he's so famously self-deprecating about his own ability to do that kind of thing, but this drumming sounds to my drumming-novice ears quite technically impressive. Don't you think? (I wish I knew more about drumming so that I could talk about Ringo's contributions more intelligently. Maybe my New Year's resolution should be to learn to play the drums.)

Anyway, I love this little song, and it's going to rock me nicely into the southern hemisphere on my iPod tonight. Have a great couple weeks, kids. We'll talk soon.

"I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 20, November 30, 1994.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rocky Raccoon

Today we'll move from a song that I love but that so many people hate, to a song that a lot of people seem to love in a way that I completely can't understand. I want to make it clear that I don't HATE "Rocky Raccoon." How could I? It's kind of cute and guileless, and I like it exactly as much as it deserves to be liked, in my opinion. But are you aware, reader, of the deep, deep love that people have for this song? I've witnessed it. It makes no sense. Perhaps you love it yourself. If you do, I'd appreciate any insight into this love in comments.

"Rocky Raccoon" was something that Paul began farting around with on his guitar during the Beatles' retreat in Rishikesh, inspired, probably, by the folksy guitar picking styles that Donovan was teaching everybody. (It's thanks to Donovan that we have the guitar parts on songs like "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Son" and probably "Dear Prudence," too.) Paul started with the name "Rocky Sassoon" (this always makes me laugh, because it reminds me of Vidal's brother, or something) but changed it to "Raccoon," which he felt better fit the feel of the cowboy ballad he'd written. Like a traditional ballad, the song uses repetitive musical material to tell its complex story of love and betrayal and honor somewhere in the Dakotas.

Maybe that's what makes it feel slight to me, honestly. Paul didn't write this kind of thing very often, preferring to write pop songs with a requisite pop structure-- verses, choruses, middle eights, and bridges and so forth-- so maybe it's that that makes "Rocky Raccoon" feel like it just runs on forever and ever. But the other thing that irritates me is that, if you're going to write a long ballad that tells a story, your words need to be pretty good, because in the absence of a lot of musical variation people are going to fixate on them. And it's clear that Paul never took the song seriously enough to really write good lyrics. The Anthology 3 version is an early take of this song that I actually kind of love, because it's funny, but that take makes it clear that Paul really wanted to retain an improvisatory feel to this thing. (You can hear other lyrical variations in bootlegs versions of the song, too. Paul essentially wrote the lyrics as he was singing it in the studio.)

And, you know, there's nothing wrong with that. It just makes it slight, is all-- "Rocky Raccoon" inevitably reminds me of "Junk" and "Teddy Boy" and other McCartney songs that he wrote around this time that he never felt the need to work that hard at revising. But this is why I don't get the "Rocky Raccoon" love. I have had more people than you might believe tell me that this is one of their favorite Beatles songs, and it just flummoxes me. Am I missing something?

Anyway, the story of poor Rocky ends in tragedy, but the arrangement stars a fun ragtime-ish piano solo courtesy of producer George Martin. We get a bit of harmonica from John as well, and apparently John and George are both doing a bit of backup vocal work. But "Rocky Raccoon" is clearly Paul's baby. And it's cute and funny and certainly pleasant enough, Lord knows. It's a nice song to hum to yourself as you go about your business through the day. I like it. Is what I'm saying.

"Rocky Raccoon," released in the U.K. side B track 5 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mr. Moonlight

Sorry to be so late today, kids. In fact, I have no time at all to write anything decent. But I've ALWAYS got time for a little "Mr. Moonlight!"

What a deliciously weird song. So weird, in fact, that most people seem to hate it. But those people are just being silly, because "Mr. Moonlight" is hilarious. John does a phenomenal vocal on the "on the nights you don't come my way" parts, going for broke with all his usual verve, as well as a touch of game-show-host exuberance. Paul's the one playing that ridiculous Hammond organ part, which sounds like the musical equivalent of glitter, or something. And for some reason George is playing bongos.

The craziness in evidence here makes it surprising that the original "Mr. Moonlight" isn't actually quite as much of a novelty song as the Beatles turned it into. In fact, it's a little bit awesome. Released in the 1962 by the phenomenally named Dr. Feelgood and the Interns (a made-up name for a blues pianist named Piano Red and his band), this was the B-side to a song called "Dr. Feelgood." I suspect no one would remember this if the Beatles hadn't covered it.

You know what's really weird? The Hollies released a "Mr. Moonlight" cover the same year as the Beatles did, 1964. The Hollies. Isn't that weird? I didn't even know this until I was searching around on YouTube for these other two videos, and some Hollies videos came up instead. They make their version all calypso-like. Consider this a free bonus.

Honestly, though, I love that the Beatles chose this completely odd little B-side for Beatles for Sale among all the other covers they could have thrown on. If nothing else, just for the inhuman wail John opens the song with, and for the high comedy on display here. Unfortunately, I have no time to say much more, but I'm in the pro-"Mr. Moonlight" club. Hope you are too. Or that at least one of these versions is one you find lovable!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

All I've Got to Do

I have a thesis about "All I've Got to Do," which is that "All I've Got to Do" is one of the most secretly sexy, badass Beatles songs ever. I think all you've got to do is listen to hear what I mean.

Oh, Lord, kids. For a pubescent girl developing a decided preference for John, "All I've Got to Do" was one of the best With the Beatles tracks bar none. Even now, as a cynical adult fan, it can make me melt a little. The song is a masterpiece of mood, with its edgy beat, its prominent bass line, and a drum part that freaking sizzles. (Ringo, you rule.) It all coalesces into this beautiful little shimmy of a song that makes John and all the Beatles sound like they'd like to hop into bed with you stat.

This is another one of those songs in which John said he was trying to write a Smokey Robinson song, and there are some similarities, sure, especially in the vocal stylings. Whenever John tries to write a Smokey Robinson song, though (as he did elsewhere in "Yes It Is," "This Boy," and others), he doesn't imitate Smokey so much as he taps into some weird dark place inside himself-- perhaps some inner Smokey-ness. Do you know what I mean? Sure, "All I've Got to Do" bears the Smokey stamp (arguably the Arthur Alexander stamp, too, which we may as well pause to note), but it also sounds like John's working out some interesting musical stuff that's uniquely his. He does some things here that he frequently likes to do, such as dapple some minor color in a song that's sort of nebulously in a major key (E major, here), and play around with different textures-- such that the verses are lean and bass-driven, while the bridges become thick with drumming and with sustained backup vocals. It's not like I'm some kind of Smokey Robinson expert, but I feel like John really makes this sound his own here in a way that maybe, by 1963, he hadn't done yet before. In fact, the song is really quite sophisticated for the second track on the band's second album, isn't it?

It all starts with that little guitar flourish that feels, if you know what's coming, like a finger running tantalizingly up your back, before John's unaccompanied (and heavily echoed, which is fine with me in this song) voice, entering on "whenever" before the instruments enter along with him on "I". Those unaccompanied moments remain some of the best vocal parts in a song that's freaking loaded with beautiful singing. He achieves this almost superhuman tenderness whenever he's singing those unaccompanied parts-- it might even be that he's insecure in our affections (silly John), but I also hear a small grin that suggests he might just be teasing us a bit. The bass line is wicked simple but resonant, and the drums provide some jagged punctuation, and it's all a bit spooky in this really pleasant, intimate way. Then John noticeably gets more secure as he gets further into the verse at "call you on the phone" and so on. The guitars and drums pick up the change in mood and fill out the sound.

It's at the bridges when John's feeling the most secure in our affections-- the vocal becomes more determined and even smiles more (it's partly the melody doing that, and partly the fact that we're firmly in major here), and he's got Paul and George backing him up on block chords. It all climaxes with Paul and George joining John on a loud "you've just gotta call on me," which is crucial enough to bear repeating, before we go back to the hushed thin sound we started out with and the tease begins all over again. The last time this happens, John dispenses with lyrics and just hums the verse one last time, and there's something about this that's so sweet that it's as if he's humming in your ear.


Seriously, am I overthinking this? Do you guys love "All I've Got to Do" as much as I do? I don't know if I've ever seen it given all the props it deserves. I just hear a song that's not only masterful, but also just drenched in sex, and not drenched in sex the way "Please Please Me" is. It's more like John is trying to seduce me. And it's working.

"All I've Got to Do," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of With the Beatles, November 22, 1963; in the U.S. side A track 5 of Meet the Beatles!, January 20, 1964.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rainy Day Playlist. (Or number-crunching playlist.)

I don't talk much about my job, because I can't imagine it's interesting to very many people, but I will say this much: before I leave for my two weeks out of the country this Friday, I have a lot of reports and so forth due. I've been crunching numbers and syncing spreadsheets until my head spins. And now that there's suddenly a torrential downpour or something outside, it's making me feel even more, I don't know, Bob Crachit-like or something.

What I need are songs I can wallow and feel heavy and rainy in. Here's what I'm listening to. I don't know if these will feel rainy to you, but they do to me.

2. "Rain" (duh)

Memphis, Tennesse

This was the first track that came up on my iPod's shuffle mode on my walk to work today, and it just made me so freaking happy.

I love this song, as I love so many of Chuck Berry's songs, and as I love so many Beatles covers of Chuck Berry songs. "Memphis, Tennessee" was the B-side to "Back in the U.S.A.," a 1959 single that strangely failed to chart for some reason on, I'm pretty sure, either side of the Atlantic. I think "Memphis, Tennessee" has become more famous in the years since its release just because it's been covered so much, and covered by some heavyweights, too: Roy Orbison, Bo Diddley, the Animals, and Elvis all had a crack at it, among many many others. (I'm quite fond of Orbison's, personally-- you should seek it out.) The Beatles never released a commercial version themselves , but we can hear a good live one on Live at the BBC. In fact, they did several live versions of this song for the BBC (I'm not actually sure which version is above, because it's not marked very well in the YouTube video, but it sounds like it could be a bootleg version of the BBC recording to me). And they apparently liked it well enough to include in their Decca audition setlist too.

Perhaps so many artists were drawn to this song because it's just a good story. Chuck Berry wrote a lot of songs that told good stories, but the "Memphis, Tennessee" story has some interesting twists, with a surprise ending, and of course it's much darker and more adult than the stories in songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny Be Goode." Appropriately, the feel is a little moodier, a little less manic than other Berry offerings, without all the rock and roll histrionics that you can sometimes enjoy in Berry songs. Which is not to say that there's not some great guitar work here, but listen and you'll note that George is keeping his solo fairly monochromatic and rough-edged in the same way that Berry does. Even John's vocal sounds a little more serious than it normally would. But I think this vocal is a great example of the intensity John can bring even to a vocal that doesn't demand the screaming rock persona that he's so good at elsewhere. Because it's definitely intense, and a great listen. Just edgier, somehow. Angrier, maybe. It's harder to dance to than a lot of '50s rock and roll. But it rules.

When John performed with Berry in 1972 on the Mike Douglas show, they busted this one out, and though there's some messiness to this performance (and though Yoko makes Yoko-ish noises for some unaccountable reason, which sounds even stupider on a '50s rock song than in her own songs), I like the rapport they seem to have here. I swear John seems nervous with his idol. It's kind of cute.

Making this brief just to get back to work, where I am having one of those days, but John singing Chuck Berry always perks me up, I gotta say.

"Memphis, Tennessee," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 30 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I suspect that "Something" might generally be agreed to be George's single best Beatles song, and then of course the "Here Comes the Sun"s and "Taxman"s and so forth have won the quiet Beatle deserved accolades as well-- they are songs as solid as any Lennon-McCartney track. But "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is in some ways the ultimate HarriSong. It resonates with so much raw feeling, so much frustration, and so much musicianship, that it's just unmistakably George. Even if it is Eric Clapton's guitar technically doing much of the weeping.

Yup, that's Eric Clapton on the lead guitar line, of course, leaving George to take over on the acoustic rhythm guitar. By the time he brought Eric in, George had already made several attempts to get the weeping guitar sound he wanted, including trying to record a backwards solo as he'd done on "I'm Only Sleeping," but he remained unsatisfied with every attempt. Unfortunately, his bandmates weren't that helpful-- spending as much time as George was demanding on a song that George actually wrote simply wasn't something that John and Paul were very enthusiastic about, especially in these particularly trying sessions. (Their own songs were different matters, of course. Paul had already spent scads of hours during the White Album sessions on the fluffy "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" and squandered much of the group's goodwill in doing so.) In bringing in his good friend Eric to the usually closed Beatles sessions, George accomplished two things: he made the rest of the band shut up and behave themselves in order to make a recording that lived up to his expectations, which certainly was his right as a Beatle. And he also got a really freaking killer guitar line. You have to admire George's humility here-- he tried and tried, but in the end, he couldn't get the guitar sound he wanted, so he called in someone who could. It's kind of neat.

Before "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was a hard rock jam-a-riffic guitar-god classic, though, it was a soft acoustic song that George recorded as a demo, with just a touch of Paul on the harmonium. I don't always include Anthology versions of songs that found homes elsewhere, but this is one of those Anthology tracks that seems to have taken on real notoriety these days, especially after its inclusion in Love. It's easy to hear why-- it's gorgeous. And I think it's preferred by a lot of people just for its sweetness, a sort of purity it has. (Weirdly, this acoustic version sounds more modern to me-- the White Album version with all its guitar-rocking-ness has a dated feel, almost, doesn't it? At least comparatively.)

Anyway, even before it existed in this acoustic demo (we're just traveling backwards through guitar time here, kids), it was written by George in an exercise inspired by the I Ching. George determined that he would write a song based around the first phrase that he read on a random page in a book that he would randomly select from the shelf. That phrase was "gently weeps." And off he went. His brain filled in the gaps with a lot of typically Harrisonian obsessions: he's very worried about us and our souls, or so he sounds. He's looking at us all and seeing a love there that's sleeping. Well, at least he's not chastising us as strongly as he has in the past, but one does feel a little condescended to, doesn't one? Or is it me? Am I being oversensitive? Actually, no, it's not nearly as irritating here as it has been before, though George's serious streak is as on display here as ever.

For what it's worth, I've lately preferred to hear the lyrics as directed not to all of humanity (though it's easy to do so), but as directed to his fellow Beatles. I don't think this would have been conscious on George's part, but it sounds a lot like an affectionate rebuke to these people who were his friends but who had lately been acting obnoxious. It's there in lines like "see the love there that's sleeping" and "they bought and sold you" and so on, and it's there even more strongly in the verse that got left out of the album version (it's in the acoustic demo): "I look from the wings at the play you are staging... As I'm sitting here doing nothing but aging." Tell me that doesn't make you think of the Beatles machine and George's perception that it might be leaving him in the dust.

Whatever this is about, George clearly feels something deeply here. His vocal on both versions is shot through with real emotion, and in the album version in particular I hear something very raw and very sad, as if George still isn't sure he's getting through to whomever he's singing this to. The wails on the coda just cut straight to the bone, don't they? Though everyone is playing awesomely (perhaps a little star-struck by Eric Clapton, even though they were all friendly with him-- who wouldn't be star-struck listening to that?), Ringo in particular plays with an angst that sounds as though he's saying to George, "Man, I hear you." Everything about the drumming is pretty much perfect, from the tinny cymbals in the introduction to the heavy bass-drum-centric sound he gets through much of the rest. (To say nothing of the fine tambourine stuff on the coda.) Elsewhere, that's Paul on the memorable piano opening, and I believe John on the bass, which was a bit odd for him, and might explain why it's a fairly simple (yet effective) bass line. (John was not a natural bass player.) Together, they make for a fairly thick, crunching texture that supports the Clapton solo, which sings its impassioned duet with George's vocal (Paul on the harmony vocal is really just decorative).

So effective was that duet, and so comfortable was George with singing alongside Eric's weeping guitar, that I rarely know of George ever playing it without Clapton. Though it did become a concert staple of his. At the Concert for Bangla Desh, for instance, the organ-inflected live version was a high point.

And then they paired up again in 1987 for a fundraising concert for the Prince's Trust (along with Ringo and Jeff Lynne and, oh God, Phil Collins).

So even if "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is the ultimate HarriSong, it might more fairly belong to both George and Eric Clapton, together. It's become their song, kind of, and, frankly, a tribute to their long friendship.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps," released in the U.K. side A track 7 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cruising with the Beatles.

Fun Beatles fandom events happen from time to time, and I'm sure it would be great fun for me to one day make it one of them. The Fest for Beatles Fans, for instance, just finished up in Chicago this past weekend, and I thought I might go to that (with my awesomely geeky friend who lives in Chicago) before I realized that, lodged as it was between a week of work travel and two weeks of for-fun travel that had been previously booked, it would have been insanity for me to attempt. Eh, maybe I'll make it to the New York metro Fest next year. (And there are other fan conventions too, of course-- I'm too lazy to link, but they're easy to find via the Google.)

But I'm just meandering, as usual. Point is, I've recently heard of one of the more creative Beatles fan events: Woody Lifton, whom fans will know from his legendarily amazing radio show Pop Go the Beatles and from his new wicked thorough site, The Beatles History (alway to your right as well), is actually launching a Beatles Tribute Cruise that departs next March. I don't know how one goes about doing this, but Woody, as usual, was awesome-- he got Royal Caribbean to agree to put a Beatles spin on its western Caribbean 6-night itinerary, and he booked BritBeat, a renowned cover band, to play gigs on board the ship, plus tons of interesting Beatles authors and speakers, like May Pang and Jude Kessler (Beatle-centric novelist) and Shannon (Beatle-centric artist) and Paul Saltzman (author of The Beatles in India) and Lord knows how many more. There are a ton of special events planned, in addition to various things to do at the ship's fun ports of call.

I went on my first cruise last summer, actually. It was a reunion with a bunch of my friends from college-- 10 of us or so keep in close touch via email, but what with significant others and so forth it was getting to the point where there were too many of us to meet up elsewhere in a clean way. It's annoying to, you know, make a restaurant reservation for that many people at once. So the cruise was kind of perfect, because of the way it organizes the various fun things to do, and it was also way fun. By a strange coincidence, we did an itinerary very similar to the one that the Beatles cruise will do, with stops in Belize and Cozumel and some other western Caribbean ports of call. It was fantastic, and quite economical as well. (Or it would have been, if my husband and I were not such lushes. Our bar tab at the end of the week was mildly embarrassing. But hell, it was vacation.)

Anyway, that's apropos of nothing, except that this particular Beatles cruise sounds wicked fun. Here's the website again. I hope to make it myself, though I'm not sure it'll happen-- we're taking a big vacation this year that will make a financial impact on us for sure. But check it out, because it might be just what you're looking for. It's going to ROCK. For sure.

What's the New Mary Jane

I've considered doing "What's the New Mary Jane" a few times this year, but in the end I've never been able to, because at heart I don't really enjoy listening to this. And I prefer not to think this is because it's so self-consciously weird-- I mean, I'm generally a defender of "Revolution #9," which I do enjoy listening to (when I'm in the mood), so I don't think I'm some kind of fuddy-duddy. But "What's the New Mary Jane"... I don't know.

This little bit of weirdness was recorded during the White Album sessions, and John indeed lobbied hard for it to be included on that album. When time constraints got the song voted off, he tried to release it as a single by the Plastic Ono Band, his new band (really just his backing band at any given moment), but his plan to put "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" on the B-side irritated the other Beatles (since it was, you know, their track) and the whole plan got the kibosh. But that might give you an idea of how enamored John was with this song.

I think what was happening here is that John had been hanging out with Yoko Ono and her artist friends, and my admittedly limited understanding of the avant-garde scene at the time is that there was this value of some kind of a "pure" idea being the perfect art, or something. So whatever you thought of first, was necessarily your best idea, at least if you took this to its logical extension. (I think Paul was guilty of this way of thinking too-- I am not enamored of his habit during his solo career of splicing together little musical doodles, just because there's theoretically some kind of purity in the doodles as doodles, rather than just finishing a few damned songs using his powers of revision. But anyway.) So here in "What's the New Mary Jane" John has written basically one musical line-- the line in the verse-- that he repeats over and over again with different bizarre lyrics, all of which I'll bet he came up with in like two minutes, him being John Lennon and all. He threw in this eerie chorus almost just for the hell of it. Then he and Yoko and George (the only three people on this track) started in on making noise, and whatever happened was just going to be awesome and random and art.

So is it? I mean, I don't know. I like a bit of surrealism and weirdness and noise as much as anyone-- what else is "I Am the Walrus," after all?-- but this kind of thing runs a very high (and very obvious) risk of sounding stupid, pretentious, and lazy all the same time. And that's what John's done here, I think. And what kills me is that if he had just finished the song and figured out how to, you know, orchestrate it and structure it and so forth, it might have been awesome. There are moments in the lyrics that are great and creepy (shades of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Come Together," don't you think?), and if he had edited himself a little there too he could have come up with a whole song full of zingers. But no-- John thought this was great enough as it was to release a single. I know he was trying to break free from the Beatles with new and different sounds and all, but I would argue that this wasn't the best way to do it. (His first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, is FANTASTIC, possibly the greatest thing a solo Beatle ever did-- and it sounds like nothing the Beatles would have ever put out. So, I mean, it's possible to dodge the Beatleness and still make a good song, is my point.)

"What's the New Mary Jane" was bootlegged for years in various forms-- there are a few different versions-- before the studio mastertrack became available on Anthology 3. Over the years the song attracted quite a bit of curiosity, probably just because of its weirdness, and one of the legends that sprouted up about it is that Syd Barrett co-wrote it. I think this is based only on the fact that someone realized he was in Abbey Road studios that same day, but it seems to not be true at all, as no one who was actually there during this little jam session has ever brought it up. Besides, it sounds all John to me, much as I would like to have someone else to blame.

"What's the New Mary Jane," released in the U.K. disc 1 track 22 of Anthology 3, October 28, 1996.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sun King

I don't know, I must be feeling hazy lately, or just, like, quasi-mystical. To follow "Flying" with "Sun King" can only mean that my mood is soporific. And God, it's so true. I am tired, kids. I sorely need the vacation that I'm about to embark upon.

But in the meantime, there's "Sun King." So let's all cross our legs and tilt our heads back and have a few deep breaths, shall we?

There are those who would argue that "Sun King" would be nothing without the Abbey Road B-side medley all around it to give it context and meat. But I respectfully disagree. Yeah, you know, without the medley they might never have found room for it on the album. But it surely could have made either a surprising entry to John's solo career down the line, or a delightful bootleg for the fans to happen upon later. It's solid enough to be fine on its own, is what I'm saying, despite the paucity of lyrics and, arguably, substance. This is a song that's all about feeling. And it nails the feeling. Which is cool, because "Sun King" doesn't really feel like any other   song (not even "Flying"), and yet it's utterly realized. It is hugely weird, and hugely lovable, but most of all really well done.

This most mellow of Beatles tracks leads us in from the high drama of "You Never Give Me Your Money" with a fairly seamless transition-- the crickets that chirp through the end of that one stay with us through the first several bars. And then the lazy sounds of George's surf guitar alongside Paul's twanging octaves on the bass, as the crickets gradually fade away. We sort of hang out on this E major chord for what feels like rather a long time, and then go through a few repeats of this little cadence from the ii to the V to the I again-- though all the time there are weird added pitches to assure that we never feel too stable (as if we are sitting on a surfboard in a calm sea rather than on solid ground). Nothing about this is unusual musically, and in fact it lulls us into a sense of musical security that's quite nice.

Which is what makes the entrance of the vocals on "ah" so sublime. They come in on an unexpected chord (it's C major), and the sound is gloriously thick and treble-ized and dare-I-say Beach Boys-esque. And from there John, Paul, and George lead us through these slowly blooming three-part harmonies. There's barely a melody at all, just rippling chords, and the best ripple is on the repeat of "here comes the sun king" in which Paul's voice, the acoustic equivalent of the crest of the wave, leads the vocals into that lovely high flourish. It kind of makes your heart melt-- the texture is so static and slow-moving that that vocal moment sounds like a huge event. Even George's guitar isn't doing anything very active-- and yet it's some of my favorite guitar work of George's possibly ever. The sound he gets is just amazing. When they start in on the Romance language gibberish, they really have abandoned all pretense not just of making sense, but of making melody-- though the vocal clip has picked up to some degree, the stasis is as static as ever.

All in all, the perfect song for a summer Friday, don't you think? Makes me wish I'd played hooky and gone to the beach to let "Sun King" just wash over me through my iPod.

"Sun King," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Playlist for packing for South America (or just for singing.)

This is more of a personal one, but these are the songs that have been keeping me company as I get ready to go off on my jaunt to Peru and Bolivia-- as I hurriedly try to learn Spanish, pack winter clothes (39 Fahrenheit the other night in Cusco!! do you know how awesome that sounds to me here in 90+ degree Boston??), and figure out how to book bus trips in Bolivia on the internet (answer: with difficulty). 

When I'm doing any kind of busy work, I work best by singing along. Yeah, call me freaking Snow White, whistling while I'm working. Make fun. But the fact is, whether or not you've got anything going on, you'll find this to be a great list for SINGING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS. At least I hope so. Try it in the car! Or nominate your own singalong faves in comments, obvs. There are tons of others that could have made the cut-- the Beatles are wicked singable.

Is nothing sacred???

Read this if you want to ruin your day.

Zemekis?? ZEMECKIS???


Just, no. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

Update: Here's a longer writeup in Variety. Even more of the soul-crushing information for you there.


Okay, okay, I'm taking the lame way out today. But I have to cover "Flying" someday. It may as well be today. And I've got it running in my head after spending the weekend watching Magical Mystery Tour a couple times for an upcoming film feature on Not Coming to a Theatre Near You, a site that I help to edit and occasionally write for (yes, that was a shameless plug for an upcoming project-- stay tuned).

Actually, you know what's funny? I think "Flying" is one of my husband's favorite Beatles songs. When I was watching the movie over the weekend, he came into the room at one point and was all like "hey, it's 'Flying!' Rock on!" Seriously, do you know anyone who does that? And my husband knows music way better than I do-- his tastes are much, much cooler. (Lots of Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin and so forth.) So I figured I needed to give "Flying" another listen. Perhaps there was something to it that I had simply never noticed before.

But before we talk about the track, here's a fun fact for you: the scenes featured in the Magical Mystery Tour video for "Flying" were shot by Stanley Kubrick and crew for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Isn't that weird? The Beatles kind of just pillaged them from a film library or something, so it was just happenstance that they were Kubrick's.

Anyway, yeah-- "Flying." It's one of only two officially released Beatles instrumental tracks (here's the other), and also one of the only Beatles tracks that gives a writing credit to all four Beatles, but all in all it feels less than singular. It comes off more as a curiosity than anything else. "Flying" was recorded under the working title of "Arial Tour Instrumental," which makes me think that maybe it was actually written FOR the planned scene in Magical Mystery Tour--I'm not sure of it, but that title seems weirdly prescient. This would have been weird-- rarely did the Beatles actually write a song specifically for use in a film scene, unless you count "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!", which really weren't even for scenes as much as they were for titles. Maybe that's why "Flying" seems so slight.

Anyway, as it sounds like, they apparently came up with this by jamming in the studio for a while. That's John on Mellotron, Paul and George covering guitars, and Ringo drumming. It's clearly been cleaned up quite a bit, so what we're hearing isn't literally a jam, but it has to have originated there. They must have just liked it enough to polish it for a track. So, okay. What could they have liked? "Flying" starts as a guitar number, with the whole first verse dominated by a slow bass groove and some intimate and, really, quite pretty guitar work. Once the Mellotron comes in on the second verse I get distinctly less interested, even though it's introducing what I suppose is the primary melody. And then on the third verse, when the vocal chanting enters, I'm much less into that then I am into the the thickened rhythm texture. Ringo's doing something different here, though I can't quite hear what-- but his drum part is more elaborate and oddly engaging. But you only get enough to be teased before the tape loops come in at the end and the whole thing dissolves in a cloud of meaninglessness.

I don't hate "Flying." I'm pretty much just indifferent. Maybe down the line I'll hear the magic my husband hears in this, but I don't quite yet... Oh well. I'll check out a more interesting song tomorrow.

"Flying," released in the U.K. side c track 2 of Magical Mystery Tour double EP, December 8, 1967; in the U.S. side A track 3 of Magical Mystery Tour LP, November 27, 1967.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Holy Pepperland!

I've been so remiss on posting Beatles news lately-- just swamped, kids, you know, work and so forth, what with being gone for two weeks pretty soon-- but WOW, two news items today demand comment.

The first one comes courtesy of Troy. This year I had actually planned to attend the Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago, which was last weekend-- I was going to live blog it and all such stuff-- but my plans fell through for a few different reasons (I really hope to go next year), so I had to read about the presentation by Bruce Spizer and Matt Hurwitz on the 9/9/09 remasters on, Dave Haber's fine website. This article deserves a leisurely read with your cool refreshing beverage of choice. It sums everything up-- why the world needs remastered editions of the Beatles albums, why having the catalog in both mono and stereo matters, how the whole project came together, and why you should pick up your mono set pretty quickly. Check it out immediately.

And also-- this courtesy of the Beatles Rock Band page on Facebook. They have announced that they are selling whole albums for download on Beatles Rock Band!! RRRRRGH. (That's the sound of me biting off my own hand.) Here's the story on the Rock Band forum page. As I think a lot of us know, "All You Need Is Love" will be available for download for $1.99 (I believe for XBox users only) on 9/9/09 proper, which is the release date. But they have just announced, I think today, that XBox users will also be able to buy Abbey Road (in October), Sgt. Pepper (in November), and Rubber Soul (in December). The pricing for the entire Abbey Road album is $16.98, while individual tracks are $1.99. Pricing for the other two albums hasn't been announced, but will presumably be similar. So I thought to myself: the Rock Band game comes loaded, we know, with at least 5 Abbey Road songs ("Come Together," "Something," "Octopus's Garden," "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," and "Here Comes the Sun.") Is it really a bargain to buy the whole album? Mathematically, yes. PLUS, anyone who buys the whole album will have the option of playing the entire side B medley as one track, in its glorious entirety.

These people are going to take my money for the rest of my life. And I won't be able to resist. Ever. And that's why I feel okay about asking Harmonix: Whither With the Beatles, the album you woefully overlooked on the Rock Band track list? I'll assume Christmas 2010. But don't disappoint me!

Got to Get You Into My Life

There's something about summertime that just makes you think of brass music, isn't there? Maybe it's some vestigial memory of the brass bands that used to play in summertime parades and so forth in some mythical yesteryear. Or maybe it's the brassiness of the unrelenting sunshine. And you know what else? There's something about summertime that seems to make people want to sit back on the porch with a glass of tea and smoke a bowl. I guess maybe it's the laziness, the stupor that the heat has already put you into-- a stupor that one really may as well enhance chemically, seeing as how it's too hot to do anything anyway. Not that any such activities are on my agenda today, of course. No, I'm working, like the good upstanding citizen that I am.

But nevertheless, it seems like a good day to get this song into my life. And yes, kids, "Got to Get You Into My Life" is about pot-- it's been revealed by Paul himself. Of all the songs of the Beatles that people have assumed to be about drugs, I think this might be the only one (except for "Doctor Robert" from the same album, I guess) that unequivocably is about drugs-- or at least the only one a Beatle admitted to. (As usual, someone pipe up if you can think of another, but I'm blanking. And I'm not counting songs that were influenced by drug use, of course, just songs that are totally about getting high.)

Oh, clever Paul. While John gets all angry about the BBC banning "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" because of its acronym, Paul casually whistles and makes his charming goo-goo eyes at the world with "Got to Get You Into My Life," which to my knowledge was never banned anywhere. It's just kind of funny, is my point.

But it's also a kickass song, no matter what it's meant to be about. And you just can't imagine it without all that great brass (which is why the version on Anthology 2 sounds so weird). The timbre is completely dominated by the ensemble of trumpets and saxes, which are being played brilliantly by a bunch of freelance jazz musicians. Paul wanted a really soulful, Motown kind of sound on this one, and he totally got it. He actually scored the brass himself, by playing what he wanted on the piano for the instruments (since, of course, Paul doesn't read or write music). I believe he also oversaw the production of their sound, which I think is particularly distinctive. During the verses in particular, the brass sounds nicely fuzzy, perhaps even a bit dirty. I think they mucked about with the brass sound in the studio, perhaps putting on some weird reverb to make it buzz a bit more-- which I think it does. I tend to think of this song as an early example (this was only the second song recorded for Revolver) of Paul really taking charge in the studio in a way that he hadn't necessarily before-- he and George Martin really almost shared the duties here.

The result is a song that just seems so big. There's a retro appeal to the jazzy instrumentation, sure, but "Got to Get You Into My Life" somehow seems forward-looking at the same time, just for its sheer heft. (This could only have been followed on the album by "Tomorrow Never Knows," don't you think? It's the one song that's indisputably even bigger.) And it's not just coming from the brass, no matter how they dominate. Note the tambourine, which I presume Ringo is playing-- playing particularly incessantly, at that. I hear more tambourine than I hear drum on this, but when the drums do come in between the horn riffs at the refrains, they are some sweet little fills indeed. Paul has also worked out a particularly neat bass line for himself-- it's simplicity itself, frequently just a droned pitch on the beats, but super effective. It sounds to me like he amped up the bass a lot, but maybe that's just because it's all I can hear other than the brass and the tambourine for much for the song. If there are guitars-- and there apparently are, as the record seems to show John and George on this somewhere-- they're mixed way low. Which is fine. When the guitar does come in towards the end, it kind of sneaks in, coming in almost like a rhythm section above Paul's bass in the second-to-last refrain under the horns. Then all of a sudden we have this rich, rich guitar sound on one of the tiniest solos ever, before it starts in playing with Paul's bass again. It's so subtle, and so damned smart-- it's just a splash of color towards the end.

But I can't forget to mention Paul's vocal. In a song that's so artful in terms of its instrumentation, Paul also sings like his life depends on it-- it's one of my favorite Paul vocals. Every time he goes up the 7th to that super high note on lines like "find... THERE" it is awesome. And his voice on that short little refrain makes me nuts. (It's almost a shame that bit is so short before the brass comes a-blazing back in, but I guess that also makes it better.) Actually, the song is written such that Paul just spits out words in this bullet-like way that's totally appealing, and sounds passionate and fun as hell. But for all its spitfire, it's a pretty straightforward G major melody up until the refrain, when all of a sudden Paul is hitting that high B-flat on "got to get you into my life" against all the B-naturals in the chords. It's so good, you don't even need to be high, in my opinion. The song amps me up plenty on its own.

"Got to Get You Into My Life" is so awesome that it's kind of unsurprising that Paul has made it a regular part of his concert sets for years now. Wasn't it even one of the first Beatles songs he started playing with Wings, after sulkily refusing to play the songs that, duh, people totally wanted to hear? I think maybe it was, but my Wings history isn't good enough to swear it. But speaking of Wings, here they are doing it in what I feel to be a pretty killer version from the Concert for Kampuchea in 1979.

And of course he's also been doing it on his most recent American tour. Here's an amateur video of him at Citi Field just a few weeks ago.

You know, I sort of wish that for such a brass-heavy song, he'd have actually brought out some, you know, brass players. But whatever. It still rocked.

"Got to Get You Into My Life," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side B track 4 of Capitol's horrible version of Revolver, August 8, 1966.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I Call Your Name

As anyone who reads this with any regularity knows, I have soft spots for a whole lot of Beatles songs that maybe, it could be argued, are undeserving of my affection. Maybe they're a bit awkward or spotty or somehow less than masterpieces. Oh, but I love them anyway. Because, you guys, I am a fan. It's pretty much the definition. I can be critical as the mood strikes me, but in the end any of these songs are more appealing to me than just about any other pop music, ever.

And so we come to "I Call Your Name," one of the scrawnier Beatles songs-- and yet I won't hear a word against it. Not a word. Because it is adorable.

"I Call Your Name" was actually one of the first songs that John ever tried to write-- it dates back God knows how long but certainly, it would seem, to his teenage years. (Lennon armchair shrinks have speculated that it's about his mother, who died when he was 17. Or at least unconsciously so.) The early date of composition probably explains the song's short (one could say "stubby" phrases) and adolescent lyrics. It's almost sing-songy, this one.

It also explains why they gave the song away to another of Brian Epstein's bands, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. They put it on the B-side of their single "Bad to Me" (which is surely the worst Lennon-McCartney song ever written-- thank God the Beatles never chose to revisit that one). Here's a video of the Dakotas doing it. But feel free to skip it. I've concluded what I pretty much already knew-- the Dakotas were not that great a band.

So anyway, John was apparently unsatisfied with the way the Dakotas did this song-- I can't imagine why-- which is why he decided the Beatles should do it too. Perhaps he had some affection for this song from his youth such that he wanted more control over the sound. (I guess if the song meant something special to John, it's another argument for it being a little bit about his mother.) In the end, the song was still judged too weak to end up as a single or on an LP, and it ended up as the only Lennon-McCartney original on the Long Tall Sally EP.

That's basically a fair distinction, I think. Still, there's some cool stuff going on here. Note that the verses and the middle eight have really noticeably contrasting rhythms happening. Once John starts in on "Don't you know I can't take it," George's guitar part starts in on this really infectious eighth-note line that drives the song a little faster, with Paul giving him solid bass support on the up-beats. This was apparently a conscious attempt to emulate the sounds of ska, which in the early '60s was still fairly unknown outside of Jamaica, but had been discovered by the Beatles thanks to import records. Now, this is one of those Beatles phenomena that I've read about rather than heard myself-- I definitely don't know enough about ska (or, really, enough about music generally) to have noticed this myself, but John called it out in interviews that I've read, and I think I know what he's talking about. That's only the more obvious rhythmic shift, though. In the guitar solo, the beat shifts again into something with a bit more swing to it. Do you hear it? I think it's being driven more by Paul this time-- George takes his solo in characteristically cheerful, bright style, while Paul starts in on a noticeably more percussive walking bassline. And Ringo, who I presume has been responsible for hitting what sounds like a tin bell or other metallic instrument on the beat for much of the song, lets up here, sticking to a simpler backbeat with prominent cymbals. And then they go back to the middle eight for the ska thing, and eventually back to where they started in the verse.

Not all of the transitions are as neat as they could be, truth be told, which is part of what makes the song sound a bit awkward and adolescent. It also sounds a little unserious, what with the teenybopper tragedy in the lyrics juxtaposed with all this fun with rhythm and a particularly smiley-sounding vocal from John. So, you know, not a masterpiece. But even on songs like this, you gotta love the Beatles for playing around with new and different sounds. LOVE.

"I Call Your Name," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Long Tall Sally EP, June 19, 1964; in the U.S. side B track 2 of The Beatles' Second Album, April 10, 1964.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Don't Ever Change

We're getting to that time of the year when I've had to do some some math regarding how much of the year I've got left versus how many songs I've got left, and I've recently concluded that I need to expand songs that George sang beyond HarriSundays in order to fit them all in neatly. Hence today's song, a bit of an oddity from Live at the BBC-- odd in that George and Paul are singing a duet without John in the mix at all. He's just hanging out on the rhythm guitar on this one. I can't think of another time when this happened, ever, at least not on a recording that's generally available.

Isn't that a cute, catchy little number? Well, that's unsurprising, considering that it's a song by the crack songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who wrote a ton of the world's catchiest songs: "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "One Fine Day," "Natural Woman," and "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby," for instance-- and that's only off the top of my head. There are zillions more. They are gods. I love basically everything they did, including "Don't Ever Change," because all of their songs are so damned sing-alongable, and I am a great singer-along when at home and not in too much danger of being heard. And "Don't Ever Change" seems calculated to appeal to me specifically, and probably to a big portion of the contemporary Beatlemaniac demographic who'd be turning in to the BBC Radio shows starring their idols, too. (I am a girl who always wears jeans, even on Sundays. Oh yeah.)

The original version of "Don't Ever Change" was released in 1962 by the Crickets, who are mostly remembered today as Buddy Holly's backup band (and also the band that the Beatles named themselves in honor of, at least a little bit). But they continued to play together after Holly's death, though I don't believe they ever saw anywhere near the same success level again. In fact, this particular song never charted in the U.S. at all. It was a fairly big hit in Britain, though, which is how the Beatles would have heard it.

It always amazes me, the way that the Beatles can so emulate these other timbres, like piano and so forth, in their guitars. I mean, the introductions to these two versions sound almost exactly the same, don't they? You do hear how the drumming is different, though-- the Crickets have, perhaps, a more technically proficient drummer who's doing something more complicated in that opening fill. Ringo smoothes the beat out more and emphasizes the backbeats in a more traditional rocking kind of way.

But that aside, it's quite a faithful cover, with George valiantly trying to make his guitar tinkle as much as the piano does on the Crickets' version-- and frequently succeeding. Mostly, though, I love the vocals, because I dearly love Every Brothers-esque harmonies in thirds. I don't know, they are just awesome for me. Can't explain it. It makes the whole song sound so wholesome and country-fried and innocent somehow. And of course the lyrics, which are such adolescent expressions of affection, are as cute as can be. Sigh. I mean, I like the hard rocking stuff on Live at the BBC and elsewhere as much as anyone, as frequent readers know. But I can get into this teenybopper pop stuff too.

Most of all, though, isn't George giving us a wonderful vocal here? Paul sounds great too on the high part, but we'd expect it from Paul, for God's sake. George, though, might be gaining some confidence from his bandmate on this one, because his vocal is plenty soulful. (Not that I don't want to give him the credit he's due. Live at the BBC features plenty of tremendous Harrison vocals in which he does more than fine on his own.) The whole thing just gels beautifully, which is even more awesome considering that the band most likely didn't have "Don't Ever Change" in their repertoire for all that long when they performed it in August of 1963 for the BBC.

The more I listen to "Don't Ever Change," the more I wonder if John didn't want to sing it just because he thought it was a little too lame for his tough-guy image. You know? I can just see Paul and George duetting on this, Paul making goo-goo eyes at every girl in the Cavern while George blushes and grins in his own shyer flirtatiousness. Oh yeah. You know the girls went wild for this shit. Just like me.

"Don't Ever Change," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 32 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

You Know What to Do

Now, here's a weird little choice for a HarriSunday. "You Know What to Do" came to light for really the first time on its release on Anthology 1-- due to a filing error, I don't think it was ever even really bootlegged before then, but Lord knows someone should leap in and correct me stat if that's wrong.

According to what we know of the song (and thanks to the Beatles Bible for filling in the gaps in my memory here, especially since I can't find my Anthology liner notes at the moment), it was recorded in this demo format in June of 1964, on the same day as the first recording of "No Reply" and of a song that Paul had written for Cilla Black. This would have made it the second song George ever wrote, displacing either of the songs on Help! for that title. Or at least the second song that George brought to the band. Since nothing seems to have been done with this one after the demo recording, and since it ended up being another year before the world heard another HarriSong, it seems safe to say that "You Know What to Do" wasn't received very well. Heck, maybe George himself didn't like it that much.

And you know, that's fair, because it's pretty slight. Though not fatally so, in my opinion. The slightness rests in the very small-range melody (this would have been singable even by Ringo) combined with the conventional chords. I just feel like, in a pop song, either the melody or the chords needs to be a bit more interesting than this, ideally. But that's okay, George. And actually, there's something to that middle eight-- there's some meat in there. It's the best part of the song.

This could have totally gone onto some other pop star's album in 1964 and wouldn't have felt out of place, in my mind, but I guess it might not have been considered strong enough for the Beatles. It sounds like a Buddy Holly doodle more than anything to my ear, but of course that's partly just because it sounds like a demo. It's hard to say how it might have been recorded this had they actually committed to doing so. As is, we can hear it as an interesting step George's development as a songwriter. Obviously better things were down the road, but the odd "You Know What to Do" has got to be written in order to get to the good stuff.

"You Know What to Do," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 19 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Feel Fine

Hey, guess what today is? It's the 49th anniversary of the Shea Stadium concert-- notable for its being the first rock concert in a stadium, and also notable for kicking off the Beatles' 1965 American tour with fun and mayhem and record-breaking greatness. And since we've actually already covered each of the other songs in that setlist, today seems like a great day for "I Feel Fine."

I've said it before, but I'll say it again-- the Shea Stadium concert, for all its historical significance, does not look like it'd be very much fun to attend. Oh, sure, I mean, if I had the chance to go back in time and see the Beatles live I wouldn't be very picky about which show I got to GO to, and I'd be screaming and knocking over police barriers with the rest of the girls, but this show seems so chaotic, so unhearable, and so damned HOT (look at those poor lads sweating through their Nehru jackets) that I'm sure it's not the most fun Beatles show ever. Nevertheless, it has gone down in history, obviously.

Anyway, when they played Shea Stadium, "I Feel Fine" was one of their most recent singles. It was written by John in the recording studio, apparently, right as the Beatles were becoming desperate for a single to release out of the Beatles for Sale sessions. ("Eight Days a Week" was considered the strongest contender so far, but "I Feel Fine" ended up blowing it out of contention.) And indeed, "I Feel Fine" is relentlessly commercial, isn't it? That's not a bad thing, just a statement of fact. There's nothing too fancy in the chords, or in the vague nod to the blues that you can sorta hear in this. In fact, before we go any further, let's check out the single version, from the studio.

Yup-- "I Feel Fine" is a refreshingly unfancy song with a freaking tremendous guitar riff at its heart. Apparently, in many points in the song John and George are playing that riff in unison, which strikes me as pretty rad. It gets transformed and gussied up a bit when it's played under the vocals on the verses, at least to my ear, becoming even cooler for its omnipresence somehow. The melody itself, and certainly the lyrics, is practically an afterthought compared to that riff. And that is, in fact, exactly how John came to write the song-- by mucking about with the riff in the studio.

But the guitars aren't the only thing rocking our lives here on "I Feel Fine." It took me years to realize this, but have you heard what Ringo is doing? Have you? Seriously, what the hell is he doing? He's kind of casually hanging out in the cymbal area and steadfastly, unglamorously being awesome, is what he's doing. (He's a master of unshowy genius.) The syncopations he's hitting are kind of nuts, for real. (You can hear this even easier, in my opinion, on the Live at the BBC version of the song-- they perform that version with an appealing laziness that makes the drumming sound all the more funkily syncopated.) The best part of the whole song is when George is finishing up the amazing guitar solo and then Ringo comes in on top of him like he's just dancing all around where the beat actually is. It's so cool.

The other best parts of the song are the vocal bits, which, aside from John's flippant lead vocal, are of the densely harmonized middle-period Beatles variety that we were listening to just yesterday in "Nowhere Man," and have certainly noticed elsewhere as well. It's risky to do too much categorizing of the Beatles' music into various periods and so forth, especially because their evolution was so constant and so fruitful that they never stayed in one place for very long. But consider that "I Feel Fine" was the first new stuff from the Beatles that fans would have heard since the A Hard Day's Night album, and I think you can make the argument that it's the single that really moved them into the middle-period sound. It just sounds quite different from anything on A Hard Day's Night somehow, you know? A clear turning point, at least from the point of view of the fans.

You'll note that I've refrained so far from discussing the very famous use of feedback to open the track. Well, that's because I think the song is more than a brief moment of feedback, and also because other commenters, especially John himself, have sung the praises of this moment so much that there seems to be little to add. Suffice it to say that they came up with it during the recording sessions after creating some feedback by accident that I think happened to be in tune. Of course, trying to get the feedback to be in tune again in order to record it presented a challenge to George Martin and company, but in the end they got it. The feedback is pitched to an A, by the way, which is the fifth scale degree of the D major chord that the guitar line starts on, which is itself the V in G major, which is the key the song is in. So it's very cleverly done, even classically done, to heighten our anticipation of what's to come and lead us naturally into the otherwise happy-go-lucky song and breakneck guitar stuff. In a song that's one of the best Beatles songs for guitar geeks, it's a great moment, truly.

"I Feel Fine," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "She's a Woman," November 27, 1964; in the U.S. November 23, 1964.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nowhere Man

Last night I had too a little too much to drink. Whatever. And I found myself on the train heading back home singing "Nowhere Man" to myself rather more loudly than is normally considered appropriate on a train. Because that's what I do. I sing wicked loud and sometimes wicked passionately when I'm drunk. It's mortifying, especially to my put-upon (and usually still-sober) husband. At any rate, I'm not sure why this song popped into my head-- I haven't listened to Rubber Soul on its own in too long, honestly-- but there it was in the depths of my psyche. I took it to be kismet, especially since that's kind of how John wrote it.

See, this is the kind of story that would have probably had John labeling me a Nowhere Woman. There's nothing to be proud of about being wasted on a Thursday night just because your workday sucked overmuch or whatever, you know? It's about as ordinary as can be. But I can take any abuse on this point. After all, John apparently wrote "Nowhere Man" about himself, at a point when he was at a moment of crisis about his band, his wife, his ennui, and so on, and he wasn't feeling very pleased with himself either. Actually, he purposely set out to write a so-called "serious" song, a song that would say something important, and after messing around for hours with nothing, "Nowhere Man" seems to have popped out his head relatively complete-- almost they way that "Yesterday" came so naturally to Paul. Isn't it great when this kind of thing happens-- when you work and work, and then when you finally put the stuff away in frustration something just comes to you? Anyway, this seems to make "Nowhere Man" a good one to file away with all the other Lennon armchair psychology songs, if we choose to. Or we can just enjoy a totally solid mid-'60s folk rocker. Either way, I dig it.

I've commented on this before, but one thing the Beatles were really, really good at was a smart and sometimes conservative use of vocal harmonies. So to me, part of why "Nowhere Man" stands out so much is that it milks the vocal harmonies. It's three-part harmonies almost all the way in this song, as if the Beatles have entered, I don't know-- Crosby, Stills, and Nash territory or something, except that it still sounds so Beatley it's unmistakable. That a capella entrance with John and Paul and George singing so thickly is so awesome as to almost be iconic. I rarely bother to post videos from Yellow Submarine here, since the Beatles had nothing much to do with that film, but the sudden entrance of this song is one of the most exuberant parts of the film for me. The sound just blooms from out of the dialogue. (And Jeremy is kind of cute here too.)

But anyway, like John, I enjoy some good dense vocals, and "Nowhere Man" offers some of the best around. The way the three-part harmonies are juxtaposed with the bridges (or verses, or whatever they are), in which John takes the lead with Paul and George la-la-la'ing supportively behind, cleverly gives your ear a break, but all the singing is phenomenal. Between that lush singing and George's sunny guitar-- which had apparently been put up to triple treble or something, with the band pushing and pushing the engineers for more and more treble-- "Nowhere Man" sounds summery and bright, and somehow not as preachy as you would think it should sound if you just read the lyrics. There's a lot of hope here, a lot of smiling and sort of saying "come on, then!" through music. It's lovely. And those musical gestures, for me, rescue "Nowhere Man" from that dirty feeling that some of George's preachier lyrics can sometimes instill in me. (Sorry, George, but the difference just totally stands out.) This is subjective, though. I've read a lot of commentary on the way that John takes himself a bit too seriously here, and maybe that's true, but the sunshine in the music makes the whole thing work for me.

And by the way, it's very unfair of me to brush over George's guitar work as I did above. It surely deserves a few sentences of adulation. This solo is one of my favorites, perhaps-- George works out a pretty countermelody and plays it about as lushly as you can play a guitar (though there's surely echo and so forth to help this out). It sounds laid back and breezy but also earnest enough that you can't hear it as jokey or anything like that. Like the rest of the song, the solo bursts with this underlying optimism. That's the optimism and deft feel that makes "Nowhere Man" one of the strongest tracks on Rubber Soul.

And as such, it was a natural for the Beatles' live act. Here they are playing it in Munich on their last European tour in 1966. Note that they seem to have a hard time nailing the vocals exactly when they do it live-- it's not bad, but it's slightly out of tune. (Which is adorable.)

And here they are doing it at the Budokan in Tokyo. There are similar vocal screw-ups, but I still love it so, especially John's introduction. Anyway, enjoy!

"Nowhere Man," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side A track 3 of Yesterday and Today, June 20, 1966.