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.


  1. I like it OK, which is apt, because you would probably just like me OK.

    Really bizarre to have put out on a single, but it is nice to hear them having fun.

  2. great Python reference - even though it was pre-Python ! the whole idea of the "skits" ending abruptly recalls Pythons well . . Maybe it was influenced by those pre-Python shows like "Do Not Adjust Your Set" or something (featuring the Bonzo Dog Band - friends of the Fabs, and featuring a future Rutle !) - or possibly the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore show "Beyond The Fringe" ?

  3. Perhaps we would get along well then, since I adore this song more than it has any right to be adored. The first section is sort of a Rolling Stones parody, isn't it? I read that somewhere. And Paul's lounge lizard voice has just the right amount of sleaze. Mostly, though, this song just makes me laugh.

    My daughter is 11 and she loves it, too. Every now and then I hear her around the house singing, "You ... You know ... You know my name." Or doing one of John or Paul's high-pitched voices. So you'd like her, too.

  4. I know I would like all you guys heaps. And re: the Python thing, I believe they're imitating the Goons, who were influentials on the Pythons. Since I know the Pythons so much better than the Goons, I tend to hear Pythonery here where there could not have consciously been any.

  5. The "Brian Jones" credited with playing saxophone on this song is NOT the Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. He was the saxophonist for the Undertakers, a band featuring Apple Records artists Jackie Lomax. He became a session musician. Paul McCartney also used him in the 1970s, particularly for Mike McCartney's "McGear" album. This myth has been perpetuated in even the best Beatles reference books.

  6. Just wondering which version of this song you have heard. (I'm one of those rare people that has heard all 3.)