Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lady Madonna

Tonight-- this VERY EVENING-- I'll be seeing Paul McCartney live from the best seats that I've ever seen him from! See, every other time I've seen him (it's only been three times) I've not had much money, and I've ended up in the crappy seats of various stadiums, and it was GREAT, honestly, but it was total Jumbotron central. I'm not even a little bit wealthy now, but at least I'm feeling okay enough about things such that, if it's called for, I and my husband can drop money on seeing the greatest person in the history of everything up a little closer.

I'll bet he's hanging around in Boston today. I was just reading this article about how Paul likes to occasionally lose the bodyguards and stuff and just walk around like a normal guy-- I wonder if he's doing that today. I wonder if he goes anywhere cool. Hey, Paul! If you're reading, and you want some recommendations on some good vegetarian restaurants, message me and I'll meet you at Picco to split the best veggie pizza in town. I'll even buy you a frappe. Think about it, Paul!

Anyway, I guess I should stop mooning and actually listen to a song. How about a single from the illustrious Paul McCartney? A particularly upbeat, rocking single? Oh yessiree. "Lady Madonna" rules.

Hey, how about that video? If the footage looks familiar to you, there's a good reason why: you might have seen it in the "Hey Bulldog" video a while back. There seems to have been not much of a concept behind the "Lady Madonna" promotional video-- camera-people just brought the lads into the studio to film them playing stuff and farting around. Interestingly, on that day in the studio, John brought in a mostly-finished "Hey Bulldog" for them to record, so all these shots set to "Lady Madonna" are actually of the band singing and playing "Hey Bulldog." Weird, right? (Apple Corps only edited and put out the "Hey Bulldog" video in 1999, to promote the Yellow Submarine film rerelease.)

Anyway, I don't know much about how "Lady Madonna" came to be written, and I suspect the lyrics are fairly meaningless, or at least in a similar McCartney-esque vein of writing about the unseen lives of normal people, albeit more self-consciously and less artfully here than in the likes of "Eleanor Rigby." (I am NOT of the school of thought that claims this is about Paul's mother. It just doesn't seem quite like him, somehow, to write this kind of thing-- not with a heavyweight mother song like "Let It Be" on the way.) No, it sounds to me like the whole thing came out of Paul messing around at the piano trying to do a Fats Domino impression. And, indeed, Paul has basically admitted as much himself.

The piano sound that Paul achieves in "Lady Madonna" is so distinctive in the Beatles catalog that it ends up sounding really quite different from tracks that have come before. And so, to those who have disdained "Lady Madonna" as a throwaway or just fluff (I'm looking at a few critics here, as well as you, JOHN), I just want to point out that writing this kind of song and playing it so masterfully is itself a kind of artistry, okay? I mean, this riff-driven song is built on riffs so awesome that they practically wrap themselves around your legs and beg for your attention. Even if the song is a parody of some other kind of sound, I hold that it's really super clever parody that does manage to coalesce into something truly great. Because "Lady Madonna" is great. You know, fighting the haters on this one reminds me of "Hello Goodbye" or something. You say it's slight, but you sing along, don't you? Admit it. It's pop perfection. That's what it is, but it's not derisive. You gotta be pretty damned smart to write pop this awesome.

But since no one is actually fighting me on this (yet), I'll stop being so defensive for a moment here. When I say the riffs are awesome, what I mean, of course, is that that descending upward riff that gets played at key places by the guitar and by the saxophone is awesome. (The bassline is playing something similar, though you'll hear that it leaves out a few of the pitches on its way up.) It's SO awesome, and so dominant to the sound of this, that I have a tendency to sing along with the riff instead of the lyrics. Like, "dah dah dah DAH DAH da-da-DAH!" You know?

Which is funny, because this catchy-as-hell riff is really just a scale-- I think it's a straight A major scale, essentially, with a flattened seventh played through so quickly that you almost miss it. (Again, shades of "Hello Goodbye," another one in which Paul takes the elements of basic music theory and turns them into pop gold.) On the third scale, though, the one on which the beat slows down, the sixth and seventh scale degrees are flattened, so our major scale has suddenly morphed into something kind of minor and bluesy sounding. The Beatles actually quite liked to flavor their songs with flattened leading tones, and they did so all over the place, but that flattened sixth is MEATY, isn't it? 

Actually there's meat all over this. Paul's piano part, as well as John's and George's fuzzed-up guitar parts, just sound dirty and crazy. Especially on that piano-and-drum only introduction this just sounds like music you could hear in a bar (albeit a particularly great bar). All throughout, it's some of my favorite piano work from Paul, for sure. The sax soloists improvised their parts, which annoyed them because they were used to coming in and reading a part that had been written out for them, but in the end the saxes sound pretty kickass. (The sax players were also annoyed that the sound of John and George blowing into paper horns or something on the instrumental break was mixed in louder than their saxes. Oh well.) And I really love the bits at the ends of the bridge sections, on "see how they run," when the vocals get thick and lovely for a moment while the drums drop out, and then-- CRASH-- in with the guitars on that crazy upward scale. Yow!

For real, this song rules. Maybe Paul will play it tonight! Stranger things have happened-- he just played it last year live in Kiev, after all. This one is totally worth watching. Dig the drumming.

"Lady Madonna," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "The Inner Light," March 15, 1968; in the U.S. March 18, 1968.


  1. I was at the FedExField show and he did play "Lady Madonna" so he'll probably play it tonight. I had never seen Paul in concert before, and it was pretty damn incredible. He was charming and dorky and funny and just so into it. I had my cynical 15-year-old son with me, and every now and then I caught him shaking his head and going "Wow." And I would say, "What?" And my son said, "I can't believe he can still hit that note."

    I think Paul's voice has changed some (how could it not?), it's deepened. But it really is an amazing instrument still for a 67 year old. I must admit, by the end of the show I was exhausted and all I did was dance in my seat; I can't imagine where Paul gets the energy but it's an inspiration. Hope you enjoy the show.

    As for Lady Madonna, I can't improve on anything you've said.

  2. Envious - and hope you have a fantastic night! I'm off on a Paul-hunt. Fortunately this city is just small enough to make success possible, though unlikely.

  3. Hey, Lady Megan, have a grand time tonight!

  4. Thanks, everyone! I brought two LPs with me to work today in the probably all-too-optimistic hopes that Paul is signing things for the fans. I'm praying, though...