Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sexy Sadie

"Hey, Meg!" you might say, if you are unversed in the nuances of Beatles history. "Why did someone make a YouTube video to 'Sexy Sadie' that's just a slideshow of the boys posing with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? What does he have to do with anything?" Well, see, Sexy Sadie is the Maharishi. This is a song in which John gets all mean-spirited, basically-- he only even changed the name of the song to "Sexy Sadie" from "Maharishi," its original title, after George basically begged him to not air the band's dirty laundry.

"But, Meg," you might continue to ask, "what could possibly be John's beef with the Maharishi?" Well, after spending some months in Rishikesh meditating with the Maharishi and the other Beatles and a bunch of celebrity friends and fans (among them, most famously, Donovan and Mia and Prudence Farrow), John was joined by Alexis Mardas, also known as Magic Alex, a world-champion con artist and asswipe who had unfortunately worked his way into the Beatles' inner circle. (If you're unfamiliar with Magic Alex, you should check out this excellent article from In the Life of... The Beatles, because he's fascinating.) Alex essentially started a rumor that the Maharishi had been hitting on a woman staying in the meditation camp, which John believed, and which for some reason destroyed John's trust in the Maharishi as anything more than just another douche trying to get laid. John left Rishikesh in a huff, writing the song that was to become "Sexy Sadie" as he waited for a car to pick him up. It was a few years after the song came out on the White Album, I believe, that John revealed whom it was really about, and during the years that followed many others have come to the Maharishi's defense, which is why I now say with some certainty that the alleged sexual intrigue seems to never have happened, at least not according to people who were there. (And even if it had, I've never understood why it necessarily would have mattered-- but that's just me.)

As a Beatles blogger, I'm basically honor-bound to repeat that story when speaking of "Sexy Sadie," but I personally prefer to not think too much about it, because changing the Maharishi to a woman and making the whole thing a lot less specific just makes the song scads more appealing. I mean, when you realize that John wrote "Sexy Sadie" about a real person, it takes on a little bit of a nasty sheen-- but not so much that one can't love it, in my opinion. (This is no "How Do You Sleep?", thank the good Lord. Ever since John's death has turned him into some kind of peacenik "imagine-all-the-people-tra-la-la" icon/martyr in the popular imagination, I feel like people forget how mean John could be. I mean, I can't even listen to the character assassination piece that is "How Do You Sleep?", and that's from the Imagine album, of all places.)

But anyway, just one lovable thing about "Sexy Sadie" is that John's vocal is particularly ingenious, even for him. His singing hits just the right notes of bitterness, amusement, arousal, and even begrudging admiration-- he even manages to make some moments sound a lot like heavy breathing. And his falsetto parts, particularly in the coda, are beautiful, rather like laughter. I think that by the time he got around to making the White Album recording of this thing he'd already become less overtly angry and more just cynical about this situation. It's all in the vocal, which, as usual in John's best vocals, hides nothing that he's feeling. Awesomely, the others sing backup on hilarious "wah-wah-wah" lines that sound as much like "nyah-nyah-nyah" as one could hope for-- while their gleeful rising chorus of "saaay-diiiie" on the bridge sounds like they're egging her on from the sidelines.

And we've got another piano-driven song today, which is kind of cool. That's Paul on the opening piano line, which for some reason has been produced such that it sounds like it's coming from a room down the hall or something. It's also Paul on the bassline that comes in after the piano opening. This is one of Paul's more underrated lines, I think-- listen to it and tell me it doesn't just drip with lazy mockery. I don't know how he manages to infuse basslines with so much personality, but he DOES. Between the piano, the bass, and the drumming--which Ringo keeps fairly lazy and heavy without ever actually lagging behind the beat-- we get a laid-back, sorta hard-rock feel that makes this song a nice breather (or a nice cigarette break) in between the manic rock of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" and "Helter Skelter," which "Sexy Sadie" sits smack in between. Listen to the piano part-- it sounds like it gets almost clunkier as it goes along-- by the time we're midway through, it might actually be just slightly behind the beat.

That piano-and-drum sound on "Sexy Sadie" gives it a totally distinctive sound in the Beatles canon, I think-- I can't imagine ever mistaking this piano part for any other piano part. The whole mood here is a little weird for them, just shot through with a very Lennon-esque cynicism that he'd do a lot more with down the line in his solo recordings. But I find "Sexy Sadie" totally, totally sexy. It's like John's talking dirty to you, or something. So just leave the Maharishi out of it and let him. It rules.

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tell Me What You See

Don't knock the Beatles album filler, is what I say. "Tell Me What You See" is secretly a little bit awesome.

If you listen to songs like this enough-- if you frequently, say, make your way through the Help! B-side on your way to the "I've Just Seen a Face" payoff that awaits on the very next track-- then "Tell Me What You See" starts to grow on you, or at least on me. There's no question that it's filler. I believe it was initially pitched as a song for the Help! (the film) soundtrack, but rejected because it was weaker than everything else. That was probably the right move. It's still a nice little album cut, though.

Of course, whether you like "Tell Me What You See" might depend a lot on how you feel about electric piano. I mean, you might already be a little sick of electric piano after its prominence in the previous track, "You Like Me Too Much," and now right here on the next track we're treated to that little flourish after the choruses that probably counts as one of the more innovative musical moments on the track. Though there are some other interesting things going on. They're downplaying the drums here and doing a bit more with other percussion-- this track features claves, which you can totally hear click-clacking throughout the verses, as well as a guiro, which is that instrument with the ridges in it that you basically scratch a stick up and down-- you might remember it from elementary school music classes, which I'm pretty sure is the last time I played one myself. (And yes, I had to look up that word. I can't remember everything.) So they are trying new things, and combined with the strummed electric guitar sound, it gives the track a folksy feel that's in keeping with the circa-1965 Beatles sound.

And regarding the folksiness, I want to note something that I think few have noted about this song: I think "Tell Me What You See" stands as an example of the kind of maturing lyrics that first started becoming noticeable at least since Beatles for Sale, if not before. Sure, the "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"s and the "I'm a Loser"s get all the credit in this vein. But "Tell Me What You See" is more than just a standard issue poppy declaration-of-love kind of song. The words hint at a backstory that's a little bit dark, probably marred by issues of distrust. "Big and black the clouds may be," the speaker acknowledges. And there's real frustration in the last verse: "Can't you try to see that I'm trying to get to you?" The chorus, Paul's plea to just look at him for God's sake and to tell him what we see, smacks of domestic melodrama-- and in fact all the lyrics suffer from a touch of awkwardness-- but you can hear Paul working his way toward a song about actual adult relationships and the conflicts therein, the kind of songs he contributed to Rubber Soul.

And yes, the song is Paul's-- or at least mostly his, as it seems that John might have contributed sizeable chunks. Here's a fun listening experiment: put on side B of Help!, and then listen to "Tell Me What You See," "I've Just Seen a Face," and "Yesterday," all in a row. It's like listening to Paul actually grow up in fast motion. Of course "Tell Me What You See" suffers by comparison to much of the rest of the album, but I find it strangely lovable nonetheless.

"Tell Me What You See," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 4 of Beatles VI, June 14, 1965.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fixing a Hole

Sometimes it seems all I do these days is fix holes where the rain gets in. You know what I mean, kids? Of course you do. And especially on a day when poor Lucy has passed away (more here), it seem only fitting to delve into the Sgt. Pepper universe.

"Fixing a Hole" boasts not only a wicked pleasant melody, but an arrangement that's so clever and sophisticated that it just gives you a light happy feeling to listen to it. In fact, this might sound strange, but I always detect a whiff of jazz hanging around "Fixing a Hole." This is kind of a hilarious assertion for me to be making, because if there's one thing in the world I know nothing about, it's jazz. (I have nothing against it-- it's just, you know, there's only so much time in the day, and I haven't quite gotten there yet.) But do you hear what I mean? It's in the verses. We begin with that very chilled-out psychedelic harpsichord line-- which sounds almost floral, if it's possible for a line of music to sound that way-- but the first verse gets progressively jazzier, as Ringo peppers the texture with more and more cymbal over Paul's simple one-five-one bassline. The second verse brings in more bass drumming, followed by particularly resonant cymbals, and it ends up sounding so beautifully atmospheric. That persistent keyboard is what roots us to the more contemporary Sgt. Pepper sound, but the jazz is there even so.

But then it kind of slinks that mantle off in the bridge-- again, just gradually. The drums feel like they get more of a swing in the bridge, and then by the time "see the people standing there" kick in, the guitar part (which I believe Paul is playing) has led us back into the pop sphere pretty resolutely. This happens again at the guitar solo (which is George's), whose rough garage-rockish edges seem to have almost nothing to do with the chill jazz of the verses, while at the same time making perfect sense. (This is the Beatley genius at work, right here.) And in the last verse, the backup vocals on "ooh" thicken it up so much that, even though it's otherwise largely the same, I'm not even thinking about jazz anymore. In fact, maybe elsewhere I'm overthinking the jazz thing, or whatever I mean by that exactly, but I swear they're playing around with genre here on purpose. Is all. (And by the way: all of this, especially the cymbals, is particularly noticeable in the new mono version, to my ear.) And they're not just playing around with genre-- they're playing around with arranging generally. All of Sgt. Pepper is obviously checkered with experimentation, but whereas you could say that "She's Leaving Home" or "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" are both pieces virtually defined by their envelope-pushing natures, "Fixing a Hole" is both more subtle and more artful, in a way, because all of the fun is being had in the deft play between timbres. I hope this makes sense, because it does in my head.

Despite my flippancy up top, I don't really know what it means to be fixing a hole where the rain gets in. Paul has said that he wrote "Fixing a Hole" about maintenance men outside his London home who were patching up holes in the road, and he has also said that he was smoking a lot of pot at the time. I totally buy these lyrics being the scribbled ramblings of someone who's gotten high, especially if it's a genius like Paul who's gotten high. Most stuff people write on pot is garbage (if meeting stoner poets in college has taught me anything, it's that), but there's something a little nonsensical here that makes me think Paul might very well have been indulging heavily. It's just a little self-consciously philosophical for Paul, while still not meaning anything in particular, at least not literally. 

But even if we don't know what it means, "Fixing a Hole" occupies a nice little slot on Sgt. Pepper. There are people who swear by this one. Myself, I'm content to just like it a lot. But the playing and the arranging is really super-smart throughout-- Ringo in particular deserves props.  Remember that in November XBox users will be able to buy the entire Sgt. Pepper album for their Beatles Rock Band game. And thanks to the awesome instrumental lines here, this is a song sure to be pretty kickass in Rock Band.

"Fixing a Hole," released in the U.K. side A track 5 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Well, it's a nasty, gloom-inducing HarriSunday here in Boston, with a mellow early Beatles cover to match it. "Chains" has a good swing, but it's still a good one to stay in bed and pull up the covers to, if that makes any sense.

"Chains" is a song from the illustrious Goffin-King catalog, originally recorded by The Cookies in 1962. The Cookies were best known at that point as the backup singers for Little Eva of "Locomotion" fame (to say nothing of "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby"), but they actually backed up several different singers at various points; in fact, "Chains" was one of their rare hits on their own, and a minor one at that. I'm unfamiliar with the original and today am once again unable to find it on the interwebs (if someone else can find a link, pass it along!), so unfortunately we'll have to skip that listen for now. What little I've read about "Chains" suggests that it was a bigger hit in Liverpool than almost anywhere else, a favorite of lots of local bands in the Merseyside scene.

So of course the Beatles had it in their live act too, with George covering the lead vocal. And it apparently seemed like a good one for Please Please Me, the album put together in a marathon 17-hour session to capitalize on the band's newfound fame. The track features the trademark early Beatles harmonica courtesy of John, but not very much of it-- it's in the introduction and really nowhere else, which is almost a little sad. Instead, the rest of the track is dominated by the thick, slowish three-part harmonies in the vocals and a shuffly guitar sound that really does put that Merseyside kind of skiffle sound in mind, doesn't it? I guess maybe it's not so surprising that those bands responded well to this song.

George gets criticized in this song sometimes for not bringing a bit more to it, and also for being out of tune (so says our friend Ian MacDonald, anyway), which-- yes. Okay. It's kind of out of tune. (And not the only Beatles song it's fair to say this about, by the way.) Worse, there's a tentativeness to George's vocal, particularly on the verses where he's singing solo, that can be a little off-putting. I swear "Chains" suffers, too, for its placement on Please Please Me, sandwiched as it is between John's soulful delivery of "Anna (Go to Him)" and Ringo's slightly tuneless but totally, totally spirited vocal on "Boys." By comparison, it's pretty much guaranteed come off the worse. Because on its own, I figure it's not bad. George mostly sounds nervous, or perhaps tired. As we've seen, even on earlier recordings, George is completely capable of delivering a dynamite, energized vocal, but here I think he gets a little comfortable in the laid-back groove of "Chains" and can't quite seem to find his core sound. Listen to Paul on the top notes of the three-part chords on the chorus-- he's giving it his all, as if he can hear that George needs a hand injecting some life into this thing. At least that's how I like to hear it.

So you're not going to hear me trying to argue that "Chains" is the best track ever, or even the best track on Please Please Me, but it's cool enough for my tastes. And speaking of cool, I feel like we need to give Ringo some kind of due here, if nothing else. Not only does he keep everyone in a perfect swing zone, he actually has some pretty killer fills, especially coming out of the verses into the choruses. The second time, in particular, he is doing something with the bass drum that can only be described as sweet. On the coda, too, listen to those cymbals! It's just another moment where Ringo is steadfastly, and modestly, keeping the whole texture really cool and interesting. Rock on Ringo.

"Chains," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Please Please Me, March 22, 1963; in the U.S., side A track 4 of Introducing the Beatles, January 10, 1964.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)

Oh, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)"! How could I have put you off for so long?

Anyone who loves it when the Beatles act all adorable-- and I am, unsurprisingly, one of these people-- has to get behind "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," as bizarre as it is. This little fragment began as a brainstorm of John's, apparently taken from the tagline of a phone book, sometime in 1967. Because these were, you know, the acid years, John decided he would rather repeat the phrase over and over again like a mantra than actually finish a song, basically leaving the work of making the thing to be improvised in the studio. Most of the recording was done in the spring and summer of 1967, just after the Sgt. Pepper tapes had been basically completed. No immediate plan for release seems to have existed at the time-- indeed, I can't imagine that they thought they were doing anything other than farting around during this one-- but at some point a couple years down the road John threatened to release it along with the atrocious "What's the New Mary Jane" as a Plastic Ono Band single, which irritated the band, as it was, you know, a song they had played on.

In fact, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" provides us with a good and wistful look at the deterioration in the Beatles' relationships with one another, doesn't it? Begun as a demented joke made by a bunch of guys who were hilarious, liked each other, and were probably out of their heads on hallucinogens, the song got finished off in 1969 by exactly half those guys (John and Paul), who had a rare day of actually getting along with other decently as they put on the final vocal touches. In the end, everyone liked this track enough that the Beatles seem unable to have given it up completely, eventually slipping it on to the B-side of "Let It Be" in March of 1970, where it nicely deflates any potential self-importance in complementary A-side.

I think half the joke of the song is that it begins so normally. The introductory chords, with the resonant piano and the prominent drumming, make it sound as though this is going to be another typical Beatles song-- I mean, you do wonder where that "Heart and Soul"-sounding piano is going exactly, but there's no hint that it's going to be a ridiculous genre-bender yet. Your first clue is when John and Paul enter on their vocals, screaming as if from way at the other end of the room in as exaggerated a way as they can. Then the abrupt shift into the second section, in which we've found ourselves in a strange club called Slagger's, is doubly surprising, and it just expands in silliness from there.

The four sections are related almost only in that they use this repeating lyric. The melodies in the different iterations share similarities, but this isn't a song that's really built on a melody-- just that little lyric fragment. This frees the Beatles to be about as weird as they want to be throughout. In the Slagger's section, Paul (playing Denis O'Bell) practically licks the mic in his efforts to seduce us with his loungity lounge lizard voice, scatting and bebopping all over the backing samba-esque beat. The piano obligato stuff in this section is something I love a lot for some reason-- I tend to hum along with it without even being aware I'm doing so. When John suddenly screams and applauds over this bit, it feels like Paul is being yanked off the stage with a cane or something-- but that's typical of "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," as none of these sections really end so much as they screech to an abrupt halt before abruptly lurching into something completely different. The third part, in which John and Paul adopt Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion sorts of voices in a convoluted counterpoint with each other, represents some kind of complete breakdown of any sense, loading up the instrumental track with bongos, a chirpy flute, and a piano line played in the style of a nursery school teacher. And while the fourth section's jazz combo styling might make more musical sense that what came before, the guttural rantings of John assure that it's still ridiculous.

A bizarro four-part comedy routine like this isn't going to work unless it's done right, which is why it's so important for me to remind you how damned well everyone is playing. In that fourth section, for instance-- did anyone even know that Ringo could drum that jazzily? (Paul being Paul, one is less surprised, I think, to realize that he's doing all the piano playing in the various genres, but Ringo really nails this one too.) By the way, that concluding sax solo is being played by Brian Jones, and IT TOO is really awesome. Anyway, you'd have to play this stuff really well, or else it wouldn't be funny so much as it would be pathetic. Here we have the most obvious marriage of the Beatles' musical and comedic talent, and I think it works pretty amazingly. Do you? I hope so... I know that, if this kind of thing isn't the kind of comedy you dig, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" might leave you cold, and tastes in comedy (like music) are very personal and deep-set. Still and all, I hope you like it, because if you like it then I would probably like you a lot.

"You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," released in the U.K. as the B-side of "Let It Be," March 6, 1970; in the U.S. March 11, 1970.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Rip It Up/Shake, Rattle, & Roll/Blue Suede Shoes

If it seems like I'm trying to get these Anthology tracks out of the way, it's kind of true-- if one is going to write a blog like this one, one should try to end on a high note, and there are a few tracks that I'd like to get out of the way. Especially on a Friday night after an extremely long day, after a bit of beer. (I know, I know, I'm only barely making it this Friday, but cut me some slack, kiddies! And, um, thanks.)

Anthology 3 gave us a legal taste of all the bootlegged goodies from the Get Back sessions, in the form of this track, which is basically a half-assed medley of three classic rock and rollers. Dig it.

Maybe "half-assed" isn't entirely fair. But I think it's fair to admit that this sounds a little unfinished, don't you? See, here's the thing: January of 1969 saw the Beatles working on an album to be tentatively titled Get Back, which was to include some old-school covers of songs like the ones featured here-- combined with back-to-basics rocking originals. This was all in reaction to the artistic excesses of Sgt. Pepper and, to some extent, to the rampant genre experimentation that found its way onto the White Album. Get Back ended up morphing into the album that became Let It Be, and along the way it kind of lost its reason for being, such that almost nothing of that original mission was left. But at the same time they were trying to record Get Back, they were also filming the movie that was to become Let It Be, so practically every second of those sessions was recorded. And that meant bootlegs to death. I think I read a statistic once that something like 80% (or more) of Beatles bootlegs were all from this one month of recording sessions in January of 1969, which makes sense considering the reels and reels and reels of tape run. And it was only right that Anthology 3 acknowledge the bootleg tradition, even if half-assedly, here.

"Rip It Up/Shake, Rattle, & Roll/Blue Suede Shoes" is typical of the Get Back bootlegs in its fragmented feel. Although the Beatles had this kind of vague idea that it would be nice to put covers on their album, I get the distinct sense that they didn't think it through much beyond that. The Get Back bootlegs (and indeed, Let It Be the film) are full of aimless jamming that seems not to get them any closer to nailing down an album setlist. At no point do the Beatles seem to decide to actually commit to one song over another. They know these songs in their guts. And they're playing them on autopilot. Nowhere in the Get Back sessions do you get the energy that's so palpable in, say, the entire Live at the BBC album. These are guys who have been playing together so long they almost sound bored.

So, here we have a track of some messing around. And the track has more energy than a lot of the bootleg stuff, so that's cool. The majority of this track-- ostensibly devoted to a cover of a Little Richard song, followed by a Bill Haley and the Comets song, followed by a Carl Perkins song (obviously made famous of Elvis, but I like the Perkins version myself)-- is "Blue Suede Shoes." It feels as if the previous songs are warm-ups to "Blue Suede Shoes," really. That one boasts a wicked awesome John Lennon vocal, a hilarious bearish harmony vocal from Paul, and some seriously funky guitar courtesy of George. Paul's sharing keyboards with Billy Preston, but it's Preston who I suspect is carrying that badass solo in the middle. By "Blue Suede Shoes," they're all playing fairly tightly, perhaps remembering when they used to, you know, enjoy playing together, and they do all right by it.

In the end, though, the Anthology 3 editors were perhaps right not to include more stuff like this. On this legally sanctioned album, we get a taste of the bootlegged stuff, and then we quickly move onward. It's just not the best work. And in comparison to their mind-blowingly-awesome work as a live band in their early years (so gorgeously captured on Live at the BBC), nothing on the Get Back sessions lives up. So here we are at A Year in the Life, getting it out of the way. Hell, if they put it on an Anthology, I'm honor-bound to cover it. And anyway, don't try to tell me that John Lennon singing "Blue Suede Shoes," not matter how tired and jaded he might be, isn't at least a little bit interesting.

"Rip It Up/Shake, Rattle, & Roll/Blue Suede Shoes," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 7 of Anthology 3, October 28, 1996.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rock and Roll Music

Do you want to dance with me? Well, you know, it's gotta be rock and roll music. Just sayin'.

This is one of those songs that really sounds great in mono. And that's because it should really be blasted as loudly as possible from a boombox or cheap radio or something, preferably on a hot summer day from someone's car while you dance around on the beach and then kick back with, I don't know, a cold Moxie or something. It's a song for the kids to get crazy too. Listening to "Rock and Roll Music" on your headphones on an early Thursday morning, before you go out to work, which today is not the office as usual but is instead a trade show, which thus requires you to be wearing a freaking suit-- well, this is basically the opposite of how the song is intended to be heard. And yet here I am.

"Rock and Roll Music" is one of those rock and roll icons of a song, one of several such songs written by Chuck Berry, who is a god. It was a hit for Berry way back in 1957, the year that John turned 17, so you can bet that "Rock and Roll Music" left a lasting impression on him and the other future Beatles. In fact, this was featured in their live set with pretty solid regularity, as I understand it, almost from the time they had a live set. Which is why, when they decided to fill out Beatles for Sale with some old school covers, they were able to bang out "Rock and Roll Music" in a single take with minimum fuss. They're consummate professionals.

Here's Berry's original, the one that would have kept the youthful pre-Beatles up at night in rock and roll ecstasy.

Chuck Berry is a master, undoubtedly, but here on "Rock and Roll Music" John adds a level of intensity to the vocal that Berry just never reaches on his own. This is the last Beatles cover of a Chuck Berry song that we've got left in the year, so I invite you to check out some of the others and see for yourself what John does. I mean, John gets Chuck Berry songs, and in many ways I feel like he improves upon them, at least vocally. (See in particular: "I Got to Find My Baby," "Carol," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode.")

Now, that said, there are those who don't love this "Rock and Roll Music" version. (Which reminds me to note that you can find two other versions in the legally sanctioned catalog-- there's an earlier live rendition from a BBC radio show on Live at the BBC, plus the version from the Budokan in 1966 on Anthology 2, which gives us three over a pretty wide time span.) I think that the album recording of "Rock and Roll Music" might get caught up in the mainstream story line on Beatles for Sale itself. You know the story: the Beatles were getting tired, their old style was feeling a bit worn out, yada yada. And in my opinion "Rock and Roll Music" falls victim to that mindset. Because, I don't think John or the band sound tired on "Rock and Roll Music" at all. (Compare this to "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," say, in which I think you can hear the signs of strain.) I think they sound fairly amazing. They are as tight as can be, and though no one's got any particularly sexy guitar solos or anything here, it's all as solid and rollicking and rock-your-socks-off that I for one couldn't wish for anything better. (It's better than either of the two live versions I cited above, for one.)

And even more rocking, I have to say, is producer George Martin, who's playing that kickass piano line, just percussive and loud as can be. He's the only single member of the band who can compete with John for my attention here. John, in his "Twist and Shout" tearing-flesh voice, gives us such an impassioned love letter to the music he's devoted his young life to that I for one can't help but dig it. He takes Berry's song to a new level of rock and roll love. In the context of Beatles for Sale, "Rock and Roll Music" might seem to look backward-- but it's a look backward that I'd miss if it weren't there.

"Rock and Roll Music," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S., side A track 4 of Beatles '65, December 15, 1964.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I Just Don't Understand

Meg's Beatle Gender-Bender Theorem: When the Beatles cover a song originally written for a woman to sing, it rules as much as or, frequently, more than the original. (See: "Boys," "Baby It's You," "Till There Was You," "Please Mr. Postman," "To Know Her Is to Love Her," etc. etc.)** And here comes "I Just Don't Understand" just to drive the point home.

This song was a hit in 1961 for the beautiful Ann-Margret, who was a fabulous dancer but, in my opinion, not the best singer the world has ever heard. I mean, okay, she can carry a tune and she's got a ton of charisma, and she's putting it all to use here-- almost as if she herself knows she's better off snarling than singing. It just all feels a little theatrical. John Lennon, though, can sing the shit out of this song.

See, John just sings this melancholy little waltz with the right mix of despair and palpable danger. Ooh, dangerous John. Do you hear a little bit of a threat in that cool yet quivering way John is singing? This reminds me a little of "You're Going to Lose That Girl"-- the vocal on "I Just Don't Understand" is somewhat more fraught, as John seems to be holding it together less well, but it has the same threat.

Now that I've maligned Ann-Margret (whom I actually am a huge fan of), I should at least give you her version too so you can decide for yourself. Her arrangement is very heavy on the harmonica.

You can hear why the Beatles were drawn to this song, I think. There's a sexy/angry vibe here that I can totally see appealing to John. And they really make it something special, to my mind-- not just because of John's hugely sexy vocal, but because of George's awesome guitar work. Doesn't that rock? It's a nice little riff that he repeats in response to the sung melody, but it's also some pretty cool surf-guitar-sounding warbling in the instrumental bridge. Yet George sounds a little under-rehearsed (for him, you understand-- he's usually SO solid) on his solos, which makes me think that this song might not have been in their repertoire for very long. (There's some barely discernible awkwardness in Ringo's drums-- or is that just me?-- that bolsters the argument for me.) It's great, though, and if they'd wanted to work on this one it could have been even more amazing. John, certainly, has got the feel of the thing down.

"I Just Don't Understand" is here thanks to its inclusion on Live at the BBC, which frequent readers know is a favorite of mine, particularly for these odd little live covers that you'd never hear (legally, that is) otherwise. So love it. And that's it, because for the next few days I'm alternating being in the office with being at a (local, thank goodness) trade show, and (heavy sigh) time is at a premium. More from me soon.

**[Meg's Beatle Gender-Bender Theorem Corollary: When the Beatles cover a song originally written for a woman to sing, but put George on lead vocals, it still rules, but noticeably less so. (See: "Devil in Her Heart," "Chains.")]

"I Just Don't Understand," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 17 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

She Said She Said

FREAKING YES. Today I gotta treat myself. Unlike some people I could name, I've never actually ranked all the Beatles songs in order of my preference. It feels impossible to me, not to mention endlessly variable from one day to the next. But if I were to undertake such a project, there would most likely be two constants in the top slots every time: this one (plus that other unlikely candidate) right at the top of the list. Oh, sweet "She Said She Said." How do you rock so hard?

(These preferences probably reflect badly on me, seeing as how "She Said She Said" is so acid-rock-ish, and how "Everybody's Got Something to Hide," my other silly favorite, is probably about heroin. But I'm not, myself, a drug addict, even a little bit. Clearly, I just like John best when he's using. Oh well.)

If the Beatles had never done a single song other than "She Said She Said," I think I'd still be a Beatles fan, is what I'm saying.

And that's why it's so sad, so totally tragic, that Paul doesn't play on "She Said She Said." You want your favorite Beatles song to be a nice group effort, or at least I do, because I do so idealize this band (see the entire rest of this blog except for when I'm bitching about "The Fool on the Hill") and all of its accompanying mythology. But, yeah, Paul didn't play, and what's weird is that no one seems to remember why not. Paul himself has remembered that he probably was just bickering with the others and left, but hasn't provided any other details. This is completely possible, because "She Said She Said" was completed in just one day, and was in fact the last song recorded for Revolver. Doesn't sound at all like a rush job, though, does it? It's perfect.

The song is one of the more groundbreaking songs on Revolver, both because of the metrical structure-- one of John's most celebrated multi-metered moments, I think-- and because of the way the thing's played. (Though, interestingly, it's rock-and-roll conventional in its way too-- there are barely more than three chords in this.) And the playing is what first sucks you in. That guitar line that opens the song has a beautiful dirtiness that beckons you and sneers at you at the same time. It hooks you right off the bat, so that through the length of the song, as the guitar echoes and elaborates upon John's vocal melody lines, it makes you want to scream it's so good. Rock on, George. And you know why else George rocks here? Because he's covering the bass in Paul's absence. And he more than acquits himself on this bass part, too (though if you're a huge Paul-on-bass fan, as I am, you tend to wonder what a McCartney bassline would have done to this-- how the song could be cooler than it already is is beyond me, but who knows?). Note, too, that Ringo betrays his god-like status here. As usual with Ringo, I'm not at all sure what he's actually doing. But whatever he's doing, he's doing it very loudly and very elaborately, and always, it appears, with the aim of surprising us. There's nothing at all predictable about this drum part, and even listening to it now, I'm noticing new things to love about it. Ringo? BRA-FREAKING-VO. (And, kids? The drums sound kickass in the new mono CDs. Just sayin'.) The drums are crucial to adding interest to this very thick, heavy guitar texture-- it would sound a tad bit dopey or something without all the percussion. All the more so considering they've arranged this around a fairly prominent drone on the home pitch, which hovers in the background for much of the verses.

The mildly soporific and always heavy texture makes the metrical shift at the bridge seem almost, but not quite, actually clunky. What they're doing here, starting from "She said, you don't understand what I said, I said no no no you're wrong," is shifting from a fairly even 4/4 time to a very syncopated 3/4 time for the "when I was a boy" section. (For the hell of it, I just checked that fastidious musicologist Alan W. Pollack, whom you can find on the links list, on this, and he calls it a mixture of 3/4 and 6/4 time-- which also works and is probably more elegant when you get right down to it. Heck, he's the one who's actually a musicologist, after all, though my way still makes the math turn out correctly.) And there are several ways in which this time shift is awesome. Like I said, it's that drag to it that you can almost hear that makes it cool-- there's an art to making metrical shifts kind of seamless and beautiful, but this one seems to be intentionally roughed up. Love. My favorite part is that the descending guitar part that immediately follows "when I was a boy" sounds, in this new meter, suddenly slightly awkward. And this might just be me, but when I hear it I always get this picture of John as a boy in his bedroom or something, awkwardly practicing that same line. It's like, John's not just remembering his childhood, he's giving us a real musical quotation of being a kid. Does that even make sense? I hope so, because I adore it. I have no idea if it was intentional, but it just so deepens this moment for me.

"She Said She Said" was written about a conversation John had with Peter Fonda while they were both out of their gourds on acid, at a house in southern California that Brian Epstein had rented for the band for a brief vacation. Peter Fonda kept saying this line "I know what it's like to be dead," and John kept completely freaking out about it. He turned it into a "she" just to make it less weird, I think, but the conversation and freaked-out feeling is captured so perfectly here. The song is just so lugubrious and so catchy at the same time, it stands as some kind of work of minor genius.

Have I slobbered all over "She Said She Said" enough for you? Perhaps you're surprised. But there are those who appreciate it as much as I do. In fact, one of my favorite Beatles critics, Tim Riley (see also the blogroll to your right) is right there with me-- I was in high school when I read his book, and reading his praises of "She Said She Said" made me feel a little less crazy (so many people would ask what my favorites Beatles song was, and then not even know what song I was talking about when I mentioned "She Said She Said" that I was beginning to suspect my own taste).

Yow! "She Said She Said," ladies and gentlemen. I'm having one more listen and then, probably, a cold shower.

"She Said She Said," released in the U.K. side A track 7 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side A track 6 of the crappy Capitol Revolver, August 8, 1966.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sheik of Araby

I'm off the HarriSunday schedule slightly, and we're thus slipping in a couple George songs on non-Sundays-- if we don't, it's going to throw us off in the last few weeks of our song-a-day schedule. So let's dip into the Anthology 1 tracks once more for a fairly kickass lead vocal from George. "The Sheik of Araby" is one of those weird covers the Beatles used to do to fill out their act at clubs where rock and roll wasn't quite as okay, or whatever, though it also just shows off (again) the fact that Paul wasn't the only Beatle who kind of enjoyed music that their parents listened to.

"The Sheik of Araby" is a true pop standard, originally made famous in the '20s in the New Orleans jazz scene. It's been covered by zillions of people (I've even sung a hackneyed version arranged for high school chorus, cringe), but I honestly don't remember ever reading if the Beatles based their rendition on any particular version. So I don't really know how much originality they're putting into this arrangement, though I suppose that it might not be much. But the thing is, everyone knows this one, so the Beatles brought it out for their audition with Decca on New Year's Day, 1962. It would probably have been a good song for the squares at Decca to hear, especially in the context of the setlist they came up with, which features everything from the crazed rock of "Money (That's What I Want)" to the teenybopper drama of "Take Good Care of My Baby" to the cheesetastic stylings of "Besame Mucho." The Decca setlist demonstrates what to my mind is occasionally questionable taste, but I guess they were trying to show off their versatility as a band as much as anything else. And the Decca recordings demonstrate how tight the band was, certainly.

What I'm sometimes struck by on the Decca auditions is that, not only does George share the lead vocal time almost equally with John and Paul, but that he's singing with all kinds of awesomeness. Remember that "Three Cool Cats" is from this same session, and that one also boasts a freaking terrific George vocal. (And although it's only available on bootleg, you guys should seriously check out the "Take Good Care of My Baby" recording if you can-- George does a spot-on, totally confident impression of a Teen Idol type. It's kind of rad.) "The Sheik of Araby" is no exception. George sings this with all the humor that the song so richly deserves, but his voice also seems to say, "yeah, this is a very silly song, but it doesn't change the fact that I am going to creep into your tent and you are going to freaking love it." He doesn't ham it up, is the point, he just makes fun of himself while still acknowledging that he's a pimp. It's a delicate balance, and somehow his vocal nails it. And even when the vocal is ragged and kind of messy, there's a certain "yeah, I'm not in tune-- fuck you" feeling that I pick up on here as well. Yow. Who is this swaggering lad, anyway? I mean, more than a year later George delivers the much shyer, more adorable vocals on "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" and "Chains" on Please Please Me, which is enough to make you wonder if they consciously decided to muck about with George's onstage persona a little in the intervening months.

So anyway, other than George's vocal, I hear this as a fairly conventional version of a fairly conventional song, with some interest derived just from the cool walking bass, the guitar's syncopated flourishes of punctuation (which help move this '20s song a little more into the pop-rock idiom, to my ear), and John and Paul coming in here and there for some background guffawing, all the better to make the thing straight-up funny. It totally would have been fun to hear performed live, for sure. Gees, the Beatles could have been a pretty okay novelty act if they'd wanted to, you know? (Luckily, their aspirations were grander.)

"The Sheik of Araby," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 17 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Only a Northern Song

Since I seem to have not been in a good mood at all since returning to North America, I'm finding the sardonic strains of "Only a Northern Song" particularly affecting on this HarriSunday.

A lot of people don't like this song, I think, or just feel rather indifferent about it, but I like it a lot. I love that George's songs reveal a personality at war with itself-- on the one hand espousing the mystical truths he was learning through meditation and study of, you know, the space between us all and the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion, and so on. I love that sometimes he very earnestly denounced materialism and, some years after the Beatles' breakup, the entire idea of living in a material world. And then on the other hand he could nurture this bitterness that revealed his own inability to actually let shit go. All the Beatles were ripped off throughout their career to some degree or other thanks to a few early bad decisions, but George just seethes about it, doesn't he? (For more seething, see also: "Taxman.") Some songs see an unattractive melding of these two conflicting worldviews-- as in "Piggies," in which George's motives are surely pure but his ego just can't stop him from making us feel bad about how we're not as enlightened as he is. (It's the song that most makes you want to say "Shut UP, George." Either that one or "Within You Without You.")

But anyway, "Only a Northern Song" falls right there at the bitter end of George's spectrum. Rightly so. I don't hold George's bitterness against him at all-- he's only human, for God's sake, as much as he dearly wished to be on a higher plane than the rest of us. The song is about a particularly shitty publishing deal that George found himself locked into. Northern Songs was the publishing company set up by Brian Epstein to handle all the Beatles' songs. At some point, for tax reasons, Northern Songs head Dick James took the company public, keeping a large chunk of the company for himself and his entourage while giving John and Paul a 15% share each. George, though, wasn't recognized as anything beyond a hired songwriter, and got something under one percent of company shares-- which meant, unfortunately, that both John and Paul were bound to make more money on songs that George wrote than George himself did. (And of course James made even more.) So, you know, that's lame. As soon as he could get out of it, George did so, and set up his own publishing company called Harrisongs. But while he was still stuck at Northern Songs, he let loose his feelings on the matter here.

The joke is that, since George won't make any money on this song anyway, screw the whole thing. "It doesn't really matter what chords I play," shrugs George. The song's production pretty much goes with that philosophy as well. "Only a Northern Song" dates to the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and sounds it. (It got left off that album, because no one could really figure out a place for it there. And although it's a shame that George didn't get his standard two songs on Sgt. Pepper, I do kind of agree that "Only a Northern Song" would have sounded out of place on that album-- I don't know, maybe it's just because I'm not used to hearing it there. Anyway, as an "extra" song, it was thrown over to the Yellow Submarine filmmakers for use on the soundtrack album.) The Sgt. Pepper-era sound effects were deployed all over the place, and since the whole point of the song is, who cares?, they're deployed in a particularly willy-nilly way. Paul is playing a trumpet, poorly (it's one of the only instruments Paul can't play, which is ironic because it's the first instrument his father ever bought him when he was a kid), while the others play glockenspiels and fancy organs and mess around with tape loops. But again, the mood of the song is essentially indifference and sarcasm. Which makes the whole song funny, but also weirdly dark and mildly joyless. The "Yellow Submarine" session this is not, if you catch my drift.

And so, you know, you either like this kind of thing or you don't. But it's hard to love a song that even the author seems so determined to not love. So, I like "Only a Northern Song." Whether or not you do might say something significant about your personality. If he'd wanted to, George could have taken the completely solid pop melody and gone in a different direction with it, changing the words to make it about something other than itself. And the fact that he didn't surely tells us something significant about George's personality too.

(But before I leave off, I want to note parenthetically that, in my opinion, Yellow Submarine-- the film-- gives "Only a Northern Song" a whole new level of interest. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie, even as it's probably ultimately meaningless trickery. Like cubist navel-gazing. Love.)

"Only a Northern Song," released in the U.K. side A track 2 of Yellow Submarine, January 17, 1969; in the U.S. January 13, 1969.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Maxwell's Silver Hammer

Well, I promised a song that I had stronger feelings about than "That Means a Lot," and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" certainly qualifies. Frankly, it's one I should have gotten out of the way a long time ago. Because this was never one of my favorites anyway, and as I get older, I like it less and less.

In fact, what I frequently call my trio of distaste-- the only three Beatles songs I ever skip-- has morphed a little this year. The songs in question have historically been "The Fool on the Hill," "The Long and Winding Road," and "Michelle." But "Michelle" has been sounding better and better to me lately. (Maybe that's partially thanks to Frank in comments. Or maybe it's that Rubber Soul in mono is so neat all over that even "Michelle" is elevated.) And "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" has been sounding worse and worse. I think these days I'm much more like to skip over Maxwell than I am over Michelle.

Why am I growing sicker of this song? Well, for one thing, the more you read about the song the more you realize that the other Beatles loathed it. And us fans, you know, we don't like to think about our favorite lads all being irritable at each other just because Paul's making them go through the zillionth take of this thing. Paul, bizarrely, thought that "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" would make a great single, but none of the others were having it. Call it a rare failure of one of the great commercially savvy minds of our time. At least the others were there to stop the madness.

And one wonders why so many takes were required anyway. The song is a fairly simple number, sorta-kinda in the style of some of the Paul's music-hall songs like "Honey Pie" and "When I'm Sixty-Four," and thus not terribly complicated harmonically. They've veered away from some of the flourishes of timbre that really make those two songs loving homages, though, and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" has a fairly standard rock and roll piano/guitars/drums feel. There's also some Moog organ at the interludes following the chorus, which feels slightly perfunctory (gads, I think I'm just feeling bitchy today), and of course the silver hammer itself, which is Ringo knocking something against an anvil. I should say that a lot of the playing is really quite good-- the song's got a pleasantly bouncy bass line. And the lead guitar work, which is all George, is full of fun licks. One of my favorite bits is that Moog organ again playing a countermelody with Paul's vocal line in the second verse-- that's cool, isn't it? It sounds like Maxwell whistling jauntily as he walks around looking for his next victim.

It's what all of this stuff is in service of that's slight and silly. I love a black comedy as much as anyone, I swear, but somehow it just doesn't come off for me here. It sounds like Paul is trying too hard to weird us out, and I just don't really believe it. The best black comedies are never shallow, if you know what I mean, but there might not be a shallower song in Beatledom than "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." I mean, heck, the adolescent simplicity of "I Saw Her Standing There" and such like are a zillion times more sincere. Or something.

So, yeah. The good news is that from here on out we are good to go. Every single song we've got left is awesome. So keep tuning in for a more engaged blogger.

And you know what else is awesome? Tonight's the night-- my friends are bringing over my copy of the Beatles Rock Band Game!!!! I am beside myself. More to come for sure.

"Maxwell's Silver Hammer," released in the U.K. side A track 3 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Friday, September 18, 2009

That Means a Lot

Today's funny little song dates, like its similarly unsuccessful sister song "If You've Got Trouble," to the Help! sessions. That's why I like this video, which features outakes from the film. (Thanks, Jedalmanko!)

By "unsuccessful," I don't mean to cast aspersions-- I'm just noting that neither of these songs actually made it onto Help! after all. Both songs had to wait until Anthology 2 for an officially sanctioned release, though they were widely bootlegged in the intervening years. I actually find "That Means a Lot" more compelling than "If You've Got Trouble," though I think both suffer from a needlessly thick, echo-heavy texture that makes it sound like the Beatles were, like, out of ideas or something. It's like "Ticket to Ride" was so kickass that they went and applied the same production principles to a few others, but much less successfully. And that's okay. Even the Beatles couldn't be unspeakably awesome all the time.

There's a difference of opinion as to who wrote this, as so frequently happens, with John totally blaming Paul for this song's existence and vice versa. Me, I'm disposed to think of it as a song they likely banged out together, a true work song, at a time when they were rushing to fill out an album. Paul had to have participated if he's singing it, for one thing-- occasionally John would sing a song that Paul wrote in the band's early days, but almost never would the reverse happen. At any rate, my ear doesn't lead me immediately to any all-John or all-Paul feelings. Any disagreements? That's cool. This is just my supposition.

In the end, the Beatles gave this one two good tries in the studio, but gave up and gave the thing away to one P.J. Proby, whose single version is the first track you'll hear below (it's a selection of three "songs the Beatles gave away"). I don't know a thing about Proby beyond what I read in that linked Wikipedia article, but listening to the recording, he sounds like one of those chanteurs that you don't hear any more in quite the same way. He probably recorded some mean Bacharach songs, though. And this single did okay, I think, though it never cracked the top ten.

I will say this: I prefer the Beatles' version. (Obvs.) But I will note that the Beatles seem to not know what kind of song they're dealing with, and the production seems a little labored, and the performance seems a little hesitant, and so on. Proby and his people have perhaps figured out what the song is a little bit better than the Beatles did. They went in the string-centric mid-'60s mid-tempo balladeering direction and stuck with it, and though I don't love it, it sounds like the tune was maybe realized in as good a way as any. I hope that makes sense.

I'm sorry to be too tired and uninspired to say much more. For what it's worth, I feel like the song's not bad as a Beatles song either, and there are those who might argue that it's stronger than some of the stuff on Help!, like "It's Only Love" or "Tell Me What You See" or whatever. But I disagree. In the end, "That Means a Lot" doesn't sound quite like a Beatles song to me in the way that those other so clearly do. So I'm okay with the fate of this one. Though when it pops up on Anthology 2, I don't skip it. Which makes it different from other songs I could name.

Yeah, we'll listen to something I can have stronger opinions about tomorrow. Sorry, kids.

"That Means a Lot," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 6 of Anthology 2, March 18, 1996.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Don't Pass Me By

The first song that Ringo ever wrote appeared on 1968's White Album, as everyone knows. You might also know that Ringo seems to have been working on "Don't Pass Me By" on and off for something like four years. A 1964 BBC interview features Ringo explaining that he's working on a song with this same title, and Paul singing a little bit of it: "Don't pass me by, don't make me cry, don't make me blue." So, that's interesting. There's no question that Ringo had picked up some songwriting fever from his bandmates, and also no question that he seems to have lacked the natural knack that his mates had for composition. But he gave it a good shot. I always think that "Don't Pass Me By" gets maligned a little unfairly-- the song itself might be a little slight, but it's his first song, for God's sake, and with the power of the Beatles' production machine helping the song out it can't help but be almost better than it deserves to be.

YouTube vids for this are mostly of the older stereo versions, but now that I've got my Mono box set (which I promise to one day stop talking about) I'm reminded that the mono version of "Don't Pass Me By" is, for some reason, significantly different than what was on the original CD issues-- it's been sped up so that the whole thing is pitched about a whole tone higher, I think, as well as being simply faster. I believe the stereo recordings are actually of the song's original speed, and that the decision to speed the whole thing up artificially was done after the thing was pretty much in the can. But it was a good decision. "Don't Pass Me By" only has the pop music trinity of I, IV, and V chords, and not too much variation between them. There's also not much to vary the thick keyboard- and percussion-heavy texture, and you have to admit there's a bit of a plod to the melody. Point is, it absolutely does not hurt to pick the pace up a bit just to make it more exciting. Even if it does make Ringo's vocal sound a little funny. (The other different in the mono version that's immediately obvious is that the improvised little fiddle doodle at the end of the song is totally a different line, which is weird.)

The best part of the song is totally that country fiddle line, of course, which is exactly what the song needed. "Don't Pass Me By" benefits from this nod to complete country-fried-ness, don't you think? It's country-ish anyway, but to just freaking push it all the way there makes it all the more special in this case, and on an album as stylistically all over the place as the White Album it doesn't even really surprise you that much to find such a genre exercise as this. (It's unsurprising that Ringo's first song is a country number, I think, given his proclivities in the rockabilly and Carl Perkins sort of direction-- to say nothing of his interest in cowboys.)

Unfortunately, waiting till the White Album sessions to record this meant that "Don't Pass Me By" fell victim to the band's indifference, such that only Ringo and Paul play on this one-- John  and George, presumably, having better things to do. It makes me wonder what would have become of the song had Ringo finished it a couple years prior. It probably wouldn't have been so heavily country-fried, and the guitar work of George and John might have made it into much more of a laid-back rocker kind of thing. Or maybe it wouldn't have been deemed strong enough to make an album at all. (Heck, maybe he HAD finished it years prior, and it was only when they were making a double album loaded with each individual's quirky numbers already that they let him record it at all.) Eh, it's all just speculation.

I hope I'm not damning "Don't Pass Me By" with faint praise, because you can't help (or, I can't help) but find the whole thing pleasant and very singable, and I have to admit that I prefer it to some other of the more self-indulgent White Album tracks. Good on Ringo for getting 'er done, right? Yee haw. And so forth.

"Don't Pass Me By," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In My Life

Late today ONLY because the internet has been out all freaking day. I have no idea how long I have, so I'll try to make this quick...

After playing around with Help! on the mono box set, I went right into Rubber Soul, figuring that the blasts of three-part vocals on this album would be interesting in mono. I was right—and thus “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone” were particularly breathtaking, obviously. But “In My Life” struck me in a different way too.

This is a song that I’ve always felt I’m not appreciating enough. I really, really like “In My Life,” but people, you know, love this song. It’s one of the most frequently covered Beatles songs (a particularly odious Bette Midler version is one that I dearly wish I could get out of my head), and people like to whip it out for graduations and Lord knows what other kinds of solemn remembrances. Maybe that’s why I get into it less. But I can’t shake the feeling that people aren’t entirely getting this song. Although John began writing it as a nostalgia piece, and original versions referred to specific places in Liverpool with almost “Penny Lane”-esque attention to detail, I read the finished version of “In My Life” as anti-nostalgic. It looks resolutely forward. “These memories lose their meaning when I think of love as something new,” sings John—strong words indeed, aren’t they? And the memories themselves have been reduced to vague shadows anyway, all the specificity removed—which has the effect of making it more universal, but doesn’t diminish the song’s direction into the future. “In my life, I love you more”—more than all those people and things that came before, anyway. This is a love whose deepness has eclipsed everything that came before it, and forced the singer to reprioritize, no matter how often he might stop and think about the past. Sounds more appropriate for a wedding than a graduation.

Anyway, my own frustrations with what the song might mean aside, “In My Life” boasts a beautiful melody as well as all the clever production details that are so typical of Rubber Soul-era Beatles. I’ve read that this is a melody that Paul wrote, but John always claimed this song as his own—and neither of them is a trustworthy source much of the time, so I’m not really sure who to trust here. I know that the lyrics are John’s—this seems to be pretty much agreed upon—and I think I want to believe that John wrote the melody too, though he might have had some help from Paul, of course. To my ear, the melody, with its slightly plodding quarter-note rhythm, is very pretty but also sort of inelegant in a way that I hear as more John-like. If Paul had written this, I think it would have sounded a little more polished, or something. This is only my own intuition, though, so feel free to fight me on this. (It’s worth noting that the inelegance suits the serious yet self-conscious tone of the lyrics. It lends the words a good dose of realism. Don’t you think?)

As for clever details, what’s most frequently called out in “In My Life” is that keyboard solo, played by producer extraordinaire George Martin at half-speed and then sped up on the recording, not only because this made it much easier for him to play the ingenious counterpoint he wrote, but because the speeding-up makes the keyboard sound more tinkly and antique. John had asked specifically for a Baroque sound here, if I recall. (And see, there’s another reason for me to believe this song really belongs mostly to John—if Paul had written the melody, I think he would have been the one making requests of George Martin like that, don’t you?) I adore this keyboard solo, which I think brings the whole song up to a whole new level of greatness—so it pains me to admit that I love it less in mono. The clear Baroque counterpoint just doesn’t shine through as clearly in the mono version as it does in the original 1965 stereo version (which has been conveniently recorded onto the same CD, so we can compare the two). The lower voice seems a little clouded by the drumming, or something. It should be said that the drumming comes off better in mono than in stereo (as is the case with most songs I’ve listened to this way so far)—it’s somehow banging a bit harder and clearer, if that makes sense. But it’s a shame we had to lose some of the magic of the keyboard to get more of the magic of the drums. Oh well.

Also interesting about listening to mono and stereo versions of “In My Life” is the level of intimacy. In the original stereo, John seems to be whisper-singing right into my left ear with all the earnestness and near-angst that makes this song so special. (Sigh.) Mono gives you more of a wall-of-sound feel, with less differentiation of the vocal line, which has the effect in “In My Life” of diminishing that intimacy and making John’s double-tracked vocal sound a bit more resonant, a bit more confident, even. It’s as if the song means something a little different. I don’t know how better to express this, but it’s very interesting—the mono version makes me feel differently than the stereo version does. The song is still complex, but somehow brighter. Then again, I swear that falsetto moment at the end, when John’s amazing voice always gives me chills, gives me even chillier chills in mono. That moment seems more crucial, more climactic—it’s almost too intimate in the stereo version.

Anyway, this is what’s so fun about the new releases, right? Whether you prefer mono or stereo, the whole experience of listening to both just enriches the song so much. Not every song will demand as much written on it, perhaps, but “In My Life” is deeply serious for a Beatles song, and has always seemed to be asking a little more of us than some of the others. The simple clarity of the guitar work and the vocal, and even that easy rhythm, are misleading—there’s some kind of love here that we’re meant to feel much, much more deeply than we’re used to in a pop song. You know, I think I’m beginning to get a little better why people love this one as much as they do.

"In My Life," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 4 of Capitol's awful Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Another Girl

Argh, late today, as I should have guessed of myself. Kids, please allow me to ease back into my song-a-day blogging with a pleasantly fluffy little number from Help!, okay? And anyway, it's a fun song, right? Of course it is. Oh, just have a listen.

When I talk about the Help! album (as I recently did here, she said shamelessly) I tend to talk a lot about how John owns side A while Paul owns side B. I don't think there's another album that so clearly and neatly shows off the songwriting dichotomy, except for maybe Abbey Road (whose clearness and neatness is muddied quite a bit by the fact that George stakes his own gigantic claim to that album). But this supposition of mine means that I'm always maligning Paul's contributions to the actual soundtrack of Help! (the movie), which might be unfair. A slight Beatles song is frequently still a fun Beatles song, after all. (See here, here, and here, just off the top of my head.) And so we have "Another Girl," a nice little pop number that I quite enjoy despite myself. The video from the movie helps-- I love it, despite its very silly level of sexism. I can't even necessarily say why. It's just awesome for me. Maybe it's John's cute pink shirt.

"Another Girl" will also go down in my personal history as the first Beatles song that I'm listening to from my brand-spanking-new mono box set. Oh, kiddies, the packaging alone is making me emit squeals of joy! I can't even begin to tell you! Original record wrappers, even, ads for cleaning cloths to preserve my microgroove records!! SQUEE! Oh, kids, don't you miss packaging in this day and age of digital downloads?

Okay, so anyway, listening to "Another Girl" in original mono right now I'm most struck by something other commentators have mentioned about the catalog as a whole, which is the more discernible bass line. And this is good, because I never noticed what a sweet little bass line Paul's got here. I mean, okay, it's not one of his great bass masterpieces, maybe, but it has a pleasant little jumping-around quality that I admit to kind of missing previously. George's little guitar flourishes have never really stood out to me so much before, either. They sound a little richer, perhaps less like more punctuation and more overtly jocular. In fact, those guitar licks sound downright mocking and playful-- as if, yeah, the Beatles are breaking up with you, and are probably aware that they're being dicks, but they're kind of confident you're not going to get too pissed off about it. (Compare the mood here to, say, "You're Going to Lose that Girl," and you can really hear the adolescent unseriousness in this one.) George's moments lighten the tone of Paul's singing, which in the verses is weirdly low-range and kind of mumbly, as if slightly sheepish.

The one move toward a small bit of seriousness is in the bridge, which is totally the song's best moment. The element of the unexpected which Paul introduces here is neat, both in the way the lyrics of the chorus run right into this new musical material which nary a breath, and the way that there's a surprising modulation from A to C, which adds a nice richness. And then there's the fact that the singing in the bridge is so lovely. Not only are the three-part harmonies that John and George help Paul out with here as lush and heartfelt as can be, Paul's letting himself have that moment of wailing away at the top of his range on "through thick and thin," which is a nice change from the mumbly verses. This is a case in which the bridge is probably how "Another Girl" ended up in the movie soundtrack in the first place. What you've got otherwise is a sort of ordinary ditty that lacks meat. The bridge lifts "Another Girl" from such obscurity and gives it a bit more of the air of a classic. And, kiddies, let me assure you that never has this been clearer than right now as I listen to it in the digitally remastered mono.

The Help! mono album features the mono track as well as the original 1965 stereo remastered tracks, which I can now compare. Listening with headphones, as I'm doing, I have to admit that it feels a lot more normal to hear this in stereo-- one is used, in this day and age, to hearing different things in each ear, and the mono version took a very small bit of getting used to this way. Anyway, the studio version is still a fabulous improvement over what we had before. You can hear the bass possibly even better here, for instance, and I'm catching some good cymbal work from Ringo that I didn't expect to be there either.

You know, if you haven't listened to your new box sets yet, I think I have to recommend starting with a throwaway like "Another Girl." If I can hear the differences here, I'm beside myself to hear the rest. Work yourself up to the ones that you know are going to blow your mind, and maybe save all of Sgt. Pepper for last just to draw out the fun. It's probably what I'll do, anyway...

"Another Girl," released in the U.K. side A track 5 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S., side B track 1 of Capitol's Help!, August 13, 1965.