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.


  1. It was only last year that I really came to appreciate this song. I can imagine being entirely bored by it as a young teen discovering the Beatles.

    This song kind of reminds me of how John came to hate all the orchestration and arrangement that went into Beatles songs (or his Beatle songs, anyway), leading to the stripped-down solo period. He felt like the production obscured the beauty and meaning of the songs, whether it was the instrumentation or the effects or even the tempo.

    I don't like much of his solo work. I guess I need those effects and production, and this song, I think, demonstrates why. You note how simple it largely is, and I give him credit for writing it. But what are the highlights? My list is pretty much the same as yours. The Leslie speaker they put the guitar through. The lush harmonies, with that Paul moment you mention really making the song -- that decision was genius. The pacing is nice. The only thing I'd add is that I really love John's progression, especially the "Everybody's happy" part. I just went and checked Alan Pollack, and he really wasn't able to do it justice. It has something to do with the major A chord the Beatles are singing on the "king" that precedes it, which goes into what I'm pretty sure is an F major, except the transition to the D major is SO major that it almost makes the F major sound minor. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Or where my pants are? Anyway, I think my point is that this is a great moment, truly, but I probably don't appreciate it without the harmonies to point me in the right direction. Sorry, John, you were a great, great songwriter, but if you think your stuff was so good it didn't need any arrangement or production or other effort beyond the performance, well, there's at least one person who disagrees.

    Oh, and Gnik Nus is awesome. I'm pretty sure it's the Beatle highlight between the second Anthology disc and Sept. 9.

  2. Sorry, just had to add that my Captcha for that comment was 'mismsd,' which I'm pretty sure is what John says at the end of I'm So Tired.

  3. I think Pollack has a hard time with this because none of the chords are all that neat. I can't quite put my finger on what all of them are, but I think there's a lot of weird pitches that color what's going on. (Frankly, I've been putting this off because it's so harmonically daunting for me.) But now I kind of want to listen to what's making the D sound bright to you. Is it just because of the voice leading or the timbre or something, or is there some kind of introduced pitch that's coloring things? Yeah, this is basically a comment that's really a shrug, because I don't know.

    Still, though, it's genius. And John was frequently the worst judge of his own music, as we know. Also, he was utterly capable of overproduction anyway-- I was just listening to "How?" on the Imagine album recently for the first time in a while and the strings just make you want to claw your eyeballs out. I love him, but sheesh, what a hypocrite.

  4. I mean, I can't listen here at work, so I'm recreating it in my head, so take it for what it's worth. But the chord they're singing is F major, I'm sure of that. So it's either whatever instrument that is playing the high F on the F and then the half-step up to F-sharp over the D, or John's doing something with blue notes or something, but I think John's line is just G-F-E-D-F-D, so I don't know why that would make a difference, unless it's that second F ("laugh-")over the introduction of the D chord, when it's F sharp that's actually part of a D chord. It might just be the two chords it's between; the A major is really emphasizing its majorness thanks to whatever chord that is before it -- it's clearly a step in a major direction -- and then you don't get much more major than D major on a guitar. So maybe it's that context that 'flattens' the F some. I wish I knew more about this stuff.

  5. Geez. louise, you guys make my head spin. So, I'll go off on a totally different tangent here. Anyone else ever wonder if there was a creative connection between George's Here Comes the Sun, and John's Sun King? They share a common lyric line, except for one word, and I have always wondered did one provide the creative spark for the other? That make sense?

  6. re: "here comes the sun" + "sun king" ----
    i think the title of "sun king" was changed to avoid confusion . .and no one mentioned yoko's "remember love"-b-side of "give peace a chance" - lennon used the same guitar riff !
    (kind of hard to pick it out here though - however listen @ 2:28 to the end and it's more clear )

  7. That's true, Anon, about the title-- they were calling it "here comes the sun king" but changed it at the last minute. Thanks for sharing that video! I've heard that song before, but not for a while, and I'm not sure I ever noticed the guitar thing.

    Frank, I wonder if John just took the title words of "here comes the sun" as inspiration only to get the thing written. Because lyrically, this song is kind of meaningless, is what I'm saying. Maybe it came out of John just messing around. But I'm not sure it's known for sure.