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.


  1. We can always trust you to give Ringo his props. This is truly a great beat. Have you read the recent Rock Band news, where they talk about a drum trainer feature that helps you perfect some of Ringo's trademark beats?

    One little thing I like a lot happens with the backing vocals in the ... well, whatever part that "I'm so glad" line begins. The vocals are great, and make the song, for me. But I really love what Paul's doing there; it's something that fascinates me. The progression is G-Bm-C-D, but Paul is singing G-G flat-G-G flat when he's singing "I'm so glad, ooooh-ooooh." So he's singing the same two notes (G-G flat) over two different chord sequences (G-B minor, then C-D), and I think that's the song's finest moment, and the one that stays with you.

  2. Well Meg, both you and Troy about covered everything on this one. All i can add about this song, is I like it a lot. That's kind of a no-brainer; it's such a terrific little number.

  3. Anyone else feel like this song, Day Tripper, and Paperback Writer are a kind of triptych, and that it might be fun to debate which is the best of the three? Or is it Paperback Writer, hands down?

  4. Oh my gosh, you know, I haven't really "listened" to the drumming on the Beatles' early stuff. You're right about Ringo's drumming on this track. Remarkable. I sometimes get the impression on Beatle songs that the musicality,(is that a word?) has been polished and rehearsed to sound a very specific way and it almost sounds artificial because it is so perfect. Yet on other tracks, like this one, it seems there is some communicating musically between musicians, it becomes magic. Nice track today. Bill

  5. Troy ... Funny that you mentioned Paperback Writer and Day Tripper. When i hear I Feel Fine, those are the two other Beatles songs that come to mind since they all open with really great guitar riffs. Of the three, forced to choose, I'd pick Day Tripper by a nose.

    Regarding Anonymous thoughts on so many Beatles songs sounding "rehearsed" or polished, my thought is they were a tight playing band, and wrote material that required tight musicianship, and I love that about them.

    I like some jazz but not heavy improv stuff so much, so perhaps your musical taste leans heavier in that direction. When you listen to the Live at the BBC recordings, the Beatles are playing mostly covers and they are playing so well and tight together than every other band out there should wish they played as well.

    To me, the unpolished sound you are describing is the way i like "garage band" music, coming straight at you, loud and rough. The Beatles didn't play that style, except on rare occasions, IMO.