Sunday, October 18, 2009

A breather.

Well, there we are-- by my count (and it would be hugely embarrassing at this point if I've counted wrong) I've listened to every legally available Beatles song, one by one, since January 1. And hopefully you've listened along with me. If you've missed something, go back and give it a whirl! There's not a song here that's not worth your time. (Except for, arguably, well... you know.)

When I decided to start this project and also start this blog-- which I think I came up with on December 30, 2008, while drunk-- I had no idea it would turn out to be such a great year to be a Beatles fan. But so far in 2009 the various announcements have blown me over, one by one: Beatles Rock Band, Beatles stereo remasters, Beatles MONO remasters, Paul McCartney playing Boston (and, you know, everywhere else), Paul McCartney releasing what I swear is his best album in years, and so on and so forth. I feel like I've been able to share the excitement here with people who care as much as I do, though I obviously still haven't even touched on a lot of these gigantic events. (Look for long-winded posts on those sometime soon, as God is my witness.) But ultimately, the songs are what it's all about, and mostly I've just been listening.

And it's great that it's been a terrific Beatley year, because, honestly? It's been kind of a shitty year for me otherwise. Eh, it's not over yet, and it's looking up, what with me starting a brand new job bright and early tomorrow morning-- it's difficult to communicate exactly how excited I am about this. I hope you guys have all had a better year, though, and if you've been reading, then I hope the posts were fun for you.

Because they've been fun for me to write. The blog has, as I'd hoped, been a beautiful little thing I could keep up in dark times. Even when I halfassed it, the love was there. I feel like I've made friends with frequent commenters and struck up acquaintances with everyone who's reading and not commenting. (I know you're out there. Google tells me so.) Now that we've gone through all the songs, I'm going to continue to blog on Beatley topics and probably (inevitably) a little more on other stuff too-- there's a LOT to blog about, and I'm really thankful to everyone who's given me ideas for topics, many of which I'll be using. The blog is not over. No way. I'm addicted now.

But before we head in that direction, would anyone mind if I, like, took a few days off? I mean, seriously. I think I am more shocked than anyone (except perhaps my husband) that I actually kept up a daily blog for this long, and although it's been great, it's also been a bit draining. It's actually embarrassing how long it sometimes takes me to write even the lamest of posts, and I would like to put a little bit of that time back into my life for, I don't know, say, sleeping-- just for a few days. Anyone who's come to know me at all knows that I can't shut up for too long, and there's no doubt that, as the song says, I'll be back.

Thanks so much for reading so far and caring, for some unfathomable reason, about what one random Beatles fan among millions thinks about things. Keep watching for more. I'm definitely here, listening, over and over and over again-- dancing, sighing, singing along, and writing stuff.

A Day in the Life

The subtitle of this blog, which insinuates that there's a Beatles song for every day of the year, is kind of a lie, because this is it. "A Day in the Life" is the last Beatles song in the catalog for us to listen to. Because if there's an even better ending to this project than a song called "The End" it's an almost-minute-long E major chord. Right? Right. Please sit back for a few minutes and allow this song to blow your mind out one more time.

There's a lot-- a lot-- that's been written about "A Day in the Life," which is not only a complicated track with lots for a critic or critical wannabe to pontificate upon-- the lyrics, the arrangement, the production, the John-vs.-Paul analysis, the drugs, the counterculture, yada yada-- but also generally acknowledged to be the Beatles' best song anyway, making and topping all kinds of lists of such things. It's enough to make a fangirl wonder what she can possibly add. What I can start by adding is that I still remember how I felt the first time I heard this, playing my Sgt. Pepper cassette tape -- one of the few Beatles cassettes that retained the original song order, thank God-- can you imagine "A Day in the Life" being in the middle of the track listing, followed by, say, "Getting Better" or something? But, okay, so I remember how I felt when I first heard this, and I think it's best described as abject terror. I think I was 13 or something, sitting on my bedroom floor and hugging my knees as the famous E major chord receded into the distance, bug-eyed with something that I'd never quite felt before. This was not where I'd expected an album that began with such joyful showmanship to go. But even now I can still get that feeling, which I think is why "A Day in the Life" is one of my personal favorites (in addition to being one of the objectively greatest songs-- the two are different, after all). What can I say? I like being scared. Naysayers (of which there aren't too many) tend to see this song as kind of overblown and pretentious, but given that the song can move me in my gut just as primally as the likes of, I don't know, "Twist and Shout," it's working for me.

A quick recap of The Story of "A Day in the Life": John's song, which became the verses, was written based on a couple different newspaper stories. One was about a young millionaire (a Guinness heir, actually) and acquaintance of the Beatles who died in a car crash, and one was about bureaucrats counting potholes. If "A Day in the Life" is about disaffection and emotional alienation, it's a feeling that seems accidentally illustrated in the very fact that John wrote a song based on newspaper stories at all. His own lethargic habits around this time involved him lying around his gigantic suburban house surrounded by newspapers, which he'd read obsessively until he dozed off (he was apparently a champion sleeper), sleeping for hours only to wake up and get high again. Alienation was practically John's middle name. (See, every song that John writes is kind of about himself. It's like he can't help it.) Anyway, Paul's song, which became the bridge, is less of a song and more of a doodle, a jumpy little thing he wrote about taking the bus to school in the morning as a boy. It's slight on its own (maybe in an alternate universe Paul made it into an interesting whole song), but through the genius of the Lennon-McCartney partnership it was recognized as the perfect foil to the dreamy modernism in John's song.

(That reminds me of something: one of the many pretentious things I've read about "A Day in the Life" is that it's like The Wasteland in rock song form. I don't know whom to credit this assertion to, but I've read it here and there. What a pretentious and annoying thing to say, right? Especially because John's clearly a better writer than Eliot. Yeah, I said it. But I've never been able to get this idea out of my head, this sense that "A Day in the Life" is some kind of modernist touchstone in the same way that The Wasteland is, that they share a sleepwalking narrator and a dawning awareness of the inherent meaninglessness of all things. But if I continue down this path I'll be writing a book, and probably not a very good one. I just thought I'd bring that up, is all.)

Although there's been heaps written about the arrangement and orchestration, which I'll probably be honor-bound as a Beatles blogger to write about a little further down, I want to remind everyone that even with the amazing production effects led by George Martin, "A Day in the Life" is a really excellent song even reduced to its elements-- well-written and well-played by our boys. To say nothing of well-sung by John. Oh, John, how could I possibly make it through one of your songs without fawning over your singing? I love it when John gets all up into his high range-- it makes him sound like he's singing with a smile, though here it's a smile that's a little vacant. It carries notes of amusement and sarcasm, but it's mostly just hazy. Part of the scariness in the song is that John seems to be acting without very much feeling, or at least with feelings that as listeners we have a hard time understanding. The "I'd love to turn you on" refrain isn't so much a call to action or even a mournful statement about how unreachable humanity has become-- it's more of a shrug, something that John might get around to doing if he ever manages to get off the couch. "I'd love to turn you on. Eh, maybe after this cup of tea." It's a speaker as disaffected as everyone else is, only passingly aware that maybe something's a little off. And all of this is just expressed in his voice. For what it's worth, I don't think this is what John would say about this song, but it's what I hear-- more hopelessness that John might necessarily admit to.

But as fantastically as John sings this, most recently I've been almost unable to listen to anything other than Paul's bass. From the first verse on, he's doing one of those countermelodies that he does, in which the bass line is so charismatic that it seems to sing a duet with the vocal melody. The drums are really shining here, too, with Ringo playing fills that have this neat languorous complexity to them. And the fills only get more complicated as the song goes on, perhaps representing an increasing interior tension on the part of the speaker that John continues to not reveal in the vocal. (Or maybe I just so desperately want John's speaker to feel something that I'm making that up.) Too, though, check out the bass and drums in the middle section, the "woke up, fell out of bed" bit-- the repeating downward bass lines and tappa-tappa-tapping sound like something resembling slapstick. It's weird. It's like the instruments are laughing at something here, or at least highlighting the absurdity of this little morning routine, in light of, you know, the meaninglessness of all things. (One of the sadder things about "A Day in the Life," especially if one is going to call it the Best Beatles Song Ever, is that George is barely here. He's playing congas somewhere, I think, but that's it, there being no room for his rock guitar or sitar ramblings in this particular Lennon-McCartney vision.)

Now, as well as the Beatles themselves are playing here, it's what George Martin brought to this thing that have made it the unforgettable rock-and-roll poem that it is. It starts with just the production, so laden with echo-- particularly on John's vocal-- that we seem to be in a kind of unreal landscape. Echo effects are so key to what's going on here that even Mal Evans' guide vocal during what was to become the first orchestral crescendo was heavily echoed as he counted off. (Mal Evans, the Beatles' road manager, frequently did random things like this on their tracks. Since initially they weren't sure what music would bridge the gap between John's section and Paul's section, Mal just counted off twenty-four measures while John played a little piano-- it was later filled in with the orchestra, but since they never took out Mal, you can actually still hear him counting, and you can hear that he's echoing more and more if you listen really carefully. Nuts, right?)

The orchestral interludes, which I've variously read as either Paul's idea or George Martin's idea, involve a smallish orchestra (produced to sound larger) beginning at the bottom of their range as quietly as they can, then crescendoing gradually as they climb a chromatic scale, up and up and up to the very top of their range-- or at least to the topmost pitch in an E major chord, which is where we land. Martin specifically told the players not to listen to the people sitting around them, to ascend up to the scale at their own pace and, rather than worry too much about articulating new pitches, to just kind of slide as they make their way up. The effect of this is where a lot of the horror in the song comes in-- the high chaos and high drama of this climb from the lowest to the highest point contrasts so nakedly with the apathy of John's lyric and shallowness of Paul's that the orchestral interludes end up being the emotional crux of the song. Without them, there's a hollowness to the song that's almost too much to bear. (You can get a taste for this on Anthology 2.)

Although I could go on forever, as so many have done before me, I think I'll just stop there, because it really is a song I'd rather feel (and fear) than analyze too much more. Sure, something this complicated will always beg analysis, but still and all, "A Day in the Life" ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts that it can't help but catapult itself into the realm of what people call genius, and there's only so much that more analyis can tell us about it. I'll say this much more: for a song about alienation, "A Day in the Life" rings with the ultimate Beatley communal spirit. It is the harmonious marriage of the wildly different aesthetics and skill sets of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin. That kind of thing doesn't happen often, not even in the a band like the Beatles-- it's a pretty special day in a pretty amazing life when it can all come together. And you know what else? The very existence of art this fantastic being made, and being so widely embraced and beloved by the masses, might even disprove any dark theories the song propounds about human uselessness. Where art this tremendous can exist, there's always going to be hope for us all.

"A Day in the Life," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The End

Although it's not really, of course, not quite. Those paying attention will note that there's one more song to go after today-- and it ain't stupid "Her Majesty," either. But since we're near enough, and since Abbey Road has given me a taste for epilogues, today it's "The End."

So we get each Beatle in a solo moment here, which is very cool and very unique in the catalog. But this isn't the crazed improvisatory jamming that you hear in some of their contemporaries-- the solos unfold against a tight structure, such that it's clearly not just virtuosity for its own sake. You never have a doubt that this is all going somewhere purposeful. The solos are pieces of one larger musical statement. And as always with the Beatles, no one members stands out. It's the band playing together that blows your mind. (Which is why "Her Majesty," the little McCartney jerk-off that follows as an afterthought, basically diffuses everything.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The opening guitar stuff is practically a fanfare in guitar form, announcing that something profound is about to happen. When Paul comes in in his best Paul-McCartney-the-rock-star voice, it only amps everything up. And then there's Ringo, doing the drum solo that only he would offer up-- intensely and perfectly rhythmic, exciting yet unshowy, and tight as all hell. The story goes that Ringo didn't even want this solo (he still doesn't love to play solos to this day), and that there was a guitar playing alongside him originally, but to give him a solo along with everyone they mixed out the guitar and let Ringo shine alone. It's a tremendous solo, one that makes you hear how affecting drum music can be even when (especially when) the drums aren't being Keith-Mooned to death, but what's interesting is that Ringo has some even more kickass little moments throughout the rest of the song. Listen for the drums, and you'll be wowed by his ear for detail and his little flourishes of awesomeness. It just goes to show that Ringo's best with a band.

Then, the guitar solos begin with significantly less humility and more showiness than we heard from Ringo. Each of the guitar-playing Beatles takes two bars each and then hands off the line to the next guy-- so we get two bars of Paul, two of George, and two of John, in a pattern that they repeat three times. It's been acknowledged by lots of people, including John himself, that he is the weakest guitarist of the band, but based on this section alone I would argue that he's not so much weaker as he is different, less virtuosic-- a Ringo of the guitar, perhaps. Paul and George offer badass, melodic solo lines in the long tradition of guitar gods, just freaking all over the place and off-the-charts amazing-- especially George, who comes off as the best guitarist, as opposed to Paul, whose totally singable solo lines help him come off as, maybe, the best musician. Does that make sense? I think I hear that here, even though I might be imposing my own preconceptions on this. John, however, plays gritty, growly lines that end up grounding the whole thing, or something. And don't anyone tell me that John's syncopated drive that hurls us into the abrupt piano stuff isn't wicked awesome. But you can kind of hear that he's most adept as a rhythm guitarist, because his rhythmic sensibilities are just so terrific. Ultimately, the balance works totally well, and the Beatles end up carrying on a fascinating musical conversation-- one in which they really are saying goodbye to each other with affection that language couldn't have communicated, especially at this point in their career.

Doesn't mean Paul's not going to give the language a try, though. His piano chords interrupt John's guitar with percussive A minor chords that never let the rhythmic drive relax. And then Paul tries to put some of this stuff into a grandiose lyric, and I guess kind of succeeds. "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" is a good line, one of those that sounds simple but might belie a bit of sweat on Paul's part. No doubt he was putting the pressure on himself, trying to come up with, like, The Moral of the Story, or at least The Moral of the Beatles. Though I don't usually like morals, there are a couple musical events happening around the lyric that make me shed most of skepticism: for one thing, the entrance of strings on the second "love"-- particularly noticeable given our guitar/piano/drum context so far. And then, of course, the Beatles are singing together so warmly and so sweetly through this whole last section that a girl could almost die of awesome. And then there's the fact that at the same time the meter slows down into 3/4 on "equal to the love," we're being led with the utmost elegance (supported by Paul's descending bass line) from A minor into C major (its close relative), such that by the time the word "make" comes in on the C cadence it's like fireworks are going off. I don't know how else to describe it. 

If you're going to choose to go out with a gigantic gesture, there's no better one than "The End," is there? That C chord just resonates in the air for ever, the loudest and most resonant and most important cadence you've ever heard (or such is the illusion, anyway). It would be corny in a Broadway/Hollywood kind of way if it hadn't all been written so smartly, and if George's soaring guitar solo wasn't the final commentary we hear. You gotta give it to Paul, and to the rest of the band for following his lead, too. I'm not sure any other band has ended their career more awesomely. Oh, Beatles, if this thing has to end, I'm glad that "The End" is the end you chose.

"The End," released in the U.K. side B track 10 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two of Us

The official story on "Two of Us" is that Paul wrote it as an early love song to Linda Eastman. But if you're a fan, you absolutely can't help but hear it as a song about Paul and John together, as young friends and artists and collaborators, spending someone's hard earned pay. So let's all drink a toast to Lennon-McCartney, kids, and listen to "Two of Us," and hope that all of us have or will have a relationship quite as amazing as this one in our lives. You guys, I love this song, probably more than is reasonable. Excuse me while I swoon.

The album released as Let It Be was, of course, built from sessions of what was to be called the Get Back project, and maybe that's why the song sounds kind of retro. There's that slight Buddy Holly sound in the spare on-the-beat percussion, for instance, and more obviously, there's the Everly Brothers-esque singing-- it all sounds like a throwback to some of the first songs John and Paul played together. The singing in particular is more overtly Everly-esque than a lot of other two-part singing in the Beatles catalog. John and Paul sing in such unvarying thirds that the effect is the classic Everly effect, wherein it becomes hard to tell which line is supposed to be the melody-- you end up hearing the two pitches in each interval as one functional musical unit, each pitch becoming subsumed into the greater whole of that solid third. You might go so far as to say that the two voices become one, and that the whole idea of a unity made of two separate parts is maybe somehow kinda-sorta alluded to in the lyrics of "Two of Us" as well. Isn't that neat?

To further heighten the feeling of two parts uniting, John and Paul are both playing acoustic lead guitar here, eschewing any guitar-driven star quality. In fact, the most impressive guitar work here is done by George, who's playing a pleasantly elaborate bass line, though it doesn't sound very bassy as he's playing it on an electric guitar. He's actually, if I may say so, playing the bass in the manner of someone who's used to playing guitar solos-- it's downright soloistic. The effect in the verses is that Paul and John are strumming in a kind of friendly lockstep, while George on the bassline dances all around at their feet like an eager puppy or something. Does your head hurt yet with all the hammering of the metaphors I'm doing? Ringo, meanwhile, is playing in what might be the most unshowy way he ever has, except for the way that his simple fill holds our hand as we cross from the refrain into the bridge sections. Maybe he figures the rest of them have some stuff to work out.

But anyway, "Two of Us" is obviously not entirely a throwback kind of song-- in fact, there's a beautiful kind of non-symmetry to it that marks it as very Beatley. I'm talking mostly about the fact that the verses do some funky things with meter, and it's all the more delicious for being handled so smoothly that you practically don't even notice it. It's one of those situations in which the metrical shift makes the text sound a little more naturally spoken, so you hear the shift as very natural. In the first bits of the verses, the "two of us riding nowhere" parts are in 4/4, though even this is imperfect, with a little half-measure of two beats that sounds very natural thrown in the middle. But then the refrain slides seamlessly into 3/4, beginning on the word "home," and just as easily slides out of it during the instrumental breaks that come after. There's another big shift that's handled with equal grace when we go from the refrain into the bridge and suddenly go from G major into the parallel g minor. Although the effect is that the entire bridge sounds significantly darker than the verse, it feels totally right, just the way it feels right for the sun to sometimes go behind the clouds. It lends those more wistful lyrics-- "you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead"-- the musical heft they deserve. And of course Paul's singing on his own here. He's a little more inside his own brain. But he doesn't need to say anything more about what the memories are-- John already knows exactly what he's talking about. That's what's so beautiful about this.

I guess most people wouldn't necessarily call "Two of Us" the best Beatles song ever, and I guess come to that I wouldn't either, but I still find it unspeakably poignant. It's Paul writing it that way, of course, just squeezing my gut the way that he's capable of doing with these sweet little melodies the gods apparently whisper into his ear as he sleeps. But it's also the poignancy of the words he's written. I don't want to take them apart too much-- the "burning matches, lifting latches" stuff sounds like half truth-half wordplay anyway and doesn't want to be analyzed much-- but the delight here is all so simple. "It is so fun," says the song, "just to hang out with you. We have so much fun together!" It's a very easy, very youthful sentiment, and it always makes me smile. I defy you not to be cheered up by "Two of Us."

In Let It Be, they show and early rehearsal in which they're playing this one like a rock song, which ends up not working at all. They were wise to scale it back and folksify it, no doubt. But the rehearsal is still a fantastic clip. John and Paul are having so much fun that you feel like you're watching something that's almost intimate. It's gorgeous. It somehow nails the feeling that's at the heart of this band for me. It makes my gut hurt.

"Two of Us," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Let It Be, May 8, 1970; in the U.S. May 18, 1970.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Love Me Do

To be honest, I didn't intentionally put off the Beatles' very first single until now. I just kept not listening to this one, I guess, or not feeling like writing about it. But here we are. And the question of whether or not you can hear a hint of what the Beatles are going to be capable of on "Love Me Do" is an open one, if you ask me. "Love Me Do" is charming, and simple, and swinging, and really almost disarming-- but does it really drip with promise, or break any ground? Unfortunately, as the first single, it's bound to always be saddled with these kinds of questions. I don't entirely know, but I like listening.

Now, there needs to be a quick note here on the variously available versions. The video above is of the original single release, which features Ringo drumming on what was his first session in a recording studio (he had only recently joined the band). You can still hear this version on Past Masters and, nowadays, Mono Masters. More commonly heard, though, is the version that was recorded with a session drummer, Andy White--that one's on Please Please Me as well as later single releases, especially in the U.S. The session drummer had been hired because producer George Martin thought that Pete Best wasn't any good, and was going to use a session drummer on recordings whether anyone liked it or not-- which of course led to Pete being fired and Ringo being brought in. But Martin didn't feel like this version with Ringo drumming was any good either. In Ringo's defense, he hadn't been playing with the Beatles that long and was most likely under-rehearsed; since "Love Me Do" is a Lennon-McCartney original, he wouldn't have been playing it for ages with his previous band (unlike, say, "Boys"). So Andy White played on the second version, with Ringo on tambourine-- and now the presence or lack of tambourine on "Love Me Do" is one of the best ways to hear which version you're listening to right off the bat. That, and the fact that Paul is audibly nervous on the earlier version with Ringo drumming. Which is kind of cute, because nowadays it's hard to imagine Paul McCartney being nervous about anything.

There's also a bit of debate over which version is better, Ringo's or Andy White's (with a third rogue group that sometimes pipes up voting for Pete Best's version, which you can now hear on Anthology 1, and to which my response is, puh-lease). Of course people want to like Ringo's better, but my vote is for Andy White's, unfortunately. Ringo, you do sound under-rehearsed (sorry), and the extra tambourine on the White version is a nice touch, and Paul is singing with more confidence and less of that wobble in his voice (he also gets in a few whoops on the White version). So to my mind, there you have it. Here's the Andy White version so you can decide for yourself.

But this debate always seems so superfluous over such a breezy little song, especially when I get the distinct vibe that "Love Me Do" isn't really loved by that many people. Oh, sure, everyone likes it fine. But you know what I'm saying: the Beatles so quickly outdid themselves with their second single, "Please Please Me," that "Love Me Do" is bound to suffer by comparison.

There's a long history of rock and roll songs relying on deeply unsophisticated lyrics, but for some reason on "Love Me Do" they really stand out, don't they? Maybe it's because the words aren't just unsophisticated-- they're frequently also awkward ("love me, do"-- I know they have some funny expressions in Liverpool, but does anyone actually talk like this?), and they form these little stubby sentences that seem like the height of ineloquence. And, too, some of the rock songs with the dumbest lyrics often rock the hardest, so you get so swept up in the madness of the rock and roll that you just don't care. See, just off the top of my head, "Tutti Frutti." But "Love Me Do"'s not like that-- it's too chilled out, more of a mid-tempo skiffle number than a hard rocker. It tends to remind me more than anything of Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby," that long drawled catcall of a song that also relies so much on harmonica to set the mood and less on its own super-simple lyrics. (Though even Channel's lyrics at least have one fairly complete independent clause at their heart.)

My thesis on "Love Me Do" is that the harmonica line ends up being much more eloquent than the vocal line. There might not be a better harmonica moment in the Beatles' catalog; John is wringing as much soul from that little four-note riff as can be imagined. It's a damned good riff anyway, with its strong emphasis on the flattened seventh (the first and highest pitch John hits) setting up some pleasant dissonance right from the get-go. Every time John hits that first pitch, it wrenches my gut a little bit-- I hear some real emotional resonance, which might mean that John is just a freaking genius on harmonica (possible) or that the song is just written so well and so economically that this moment naturally takes on a lot of heft. Or both.

So the song opens with the head-turning harmonica riff, and then Paul and John come in on the vocal line, which sounds so downright breezy as to sound almost tossed off. Listen to Paul sing "Love, love me do" and the way he just light skips over those last two high notes. He is as casual as can be, as if the song means "well, you know, if you want to go out with me that's cool and all, but no big deal, I mean, right?". Even on the bridge, when Paul is jumping around in between octaves between "someone to love / somebody new," he's doing it so effortlessly (oh, Paul, you SO rule) that he comes off as someone who doesn't care WHAT octave he sings in, cause, you know, it's all the same to him. It's the harmonica that sounds like John and Paul are more emotionally invested in this scenario than they're letting on. It's as if the sung lines are some kind of macho exterior, while the meat of the song, the depth of feeling, is in the harmonica. At least that's how I piece "Love Me Do" together.

I touched on the song's economy already, and to me it's one of the most appealing traits. "Love Me Do" is made from very few musical ingredients-- there are basically two chords, with a third chord (the V) in the bridge providing some good color, and you know you've got a really simple song if your V chord is providing COLOR, of all things. The arrangement shows that even early on the Beatles had a way with a gracefully understated feel to a song-- we've got George on acoustic guitar, Paul just tapping at the bass, John sticking to the harmonica, and the percussion, and that's it. I swear, it's like even as they embark on what's going to be the most successful pop music career ever, they felt like they wanted to say goodbye to skiffle. Because that's kind of what "Love Me Do" is most like. But this song, which John and Paul wrote together (though according to some Paul might have written most of it), has a skeleton strong enough that it doesn't need a lot more than that. It would have been, in fact, completely lame and weird to hang too much more on this. I don't think anyone hearing "Love Me Do" in 1962 could have been prescient enough to predict how great these boys would be, but I also have no problem believing that it was a solid hit in Britain (#17 in the charts, I believe), enough so to warrant the band another single and another shot at fame and fortune. For a really slight little Lennon-McCartney number, "Love Me Do" is oddly lovable. And, you know, they had to start somewhere.

"Love Me Do," released in the U.K. as a single b/w "P.S. I Love You," October 1, 1962; in the U.S. as a Vee Jay single b/w "P.S. I Love You," February 25, 1963.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Carry That Weight

Paul seems to have been the only Beatle playing on Abbey Road to have given a damn about the fact that this was probably the album on which they were saying goodbye to being Beatles. At least if you listen to the songs. John's songs on the album are either about Yoko ("I Want You"), himself ("Come Together"), or nothing in particular ("Sun King"); he was too busy gazing forward (not to mention at his navel) to take a glance back at what lay behind him. Meanwhile, George's contributions to the album were so damned masterful that he was surely realizing that he didn't necessarily have to keep hanging out with these clowns to have a respectable career-- wow them, then get the hell out of here, was perhaps his thought. Even Ringo's song betrays his wish to just escape all of this crap and go somewhere safe. So if any of us want to get sentimental and say a proper goodbye to a band that meant a lot to us, we need to turn to Paul's songs on the B-side of Abbey Road. I'm on the record as favoring John, generally, if I need to pick a favorite Beatle. But Paul is the one who says goodbye the most affectingly, and those last tracks of Abbey Road can choke me up if I'm in the right mood.

"Carry That Weight" is no exception, even if it feels like more of a bridge-the-gap kind of song than any other in the B-side medley, taking us as naturally as it does from the teary pathos of "Golden Slumbers" to the brave face/psychological release of "The End." The within-the-song reference to "You Never Give Me Your Money" increases the effect that this is less an independent song and more, like, the crux of the medley's whole musical argument or something. And what's the lyrics' message as we approach the denouement to an entire career? "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time." It's such a weird message, isn't it? There are a few interpretations of what Paul means by this, and Paul himself hasn't been much help (I've read him try to explain it, and it's just some vague reference to how Allen Klein was stressing him out at the time). I think the most popular interpretation is probably that Paul's talking to all the other Beatles and reminding them that being a Beatle is a weight not easily shed, and that the work they go on to do in the future on their own will never be as great as the work they have done together. To which I say, maybe. We might be attributing too much clairvoyance to Paul to make this assumption, though, considering that it's exactly how history has played out.

I prefer to hear it more universally. Yes, perhaps Paul wrote it for his Beatle pals, about no matter how much they were gunning to run off and do other things, they couldn't run away from their work, their past, their lives together. And when worded that way, it is a universal message. Paul is saying goodbye to all this, sure, but he also is sadly acknowledging that he really can't, just as none of us ever really say goodbye to anything that's happened to us-- we just load it up onto our backs with everything else, where we'll feel the weight for a long time even though we can't actually see it.

Anyway, the loud yet somber (and almost march-like) singalong chorus features all four Beatles singing in unison, which has got to be unprecedented in the catalog, and does indeed make the proceedings feel pretty weighty. So does Ringo, who's banging on the backbeats with a particularly weighty abandon. (Paul's bass is making a stab at jauntiness, but it's not fooling me.) It leads into a bombastic brass entrance on the "You Never Give Me Your Money" melody, which they've just ingeniously threaded into the much simpler "Carry That Weight" melody (it sounds like the most natural middle eight in the world until you realize what it really is).

When the voices come back in, the "I never give you my pillow/I only send you my invitations/And in the middle of the celebrations I break down" bit recasts the melody with lyrics that are more overtly personal and a little more hysterical than what we heard in the original song. Which just goes to show that the weight of all this might be getting to Paul just a little bit. Those percussive chords in the strings that lead back into the "Carry That Weight" chorus sound so much like wagging fingers, or even jabs with a knife, that we could forgive Paul for going kind of nuts at this point. And this seems to be the function of "Carry That Weight"--the seriousness of the choral moments (and this is serious, kids, rightly so-- the Beatles are breaking up, for God's sake) lies one layer above the underlying deep, deep sadness of this song. It all comes to a head here in the last few seconds of passionately played music, which never truly cadences, but instead leads right into "The End." It's going to take some seriously cathartic guitar work to break us out of this melancholy-- but luckily, it's on the way.

"Carry That Weight," released in the U.K. and the U.S. side B track 9 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

That's All Right (Mama)

In any summation of the musicians who influenced the Beatles, no matter how half-assed, it would be criminal to leave out Elvis Presley. So we're not going to. Our final Beatles cover of the year happens to be a cover of Elvis's first-ever single. He recorded this in the studios of Sun Records way back in 1954. And it's a beaut.

Rock and roll, of course, owes a debt to country, and Elvis's version of "That's All Right (Mama)" (which is not the original, by the way, though it's surely the version that influenced the Beatles) takes this blues number in a wicked country-fried direction. Note the absence of drums, for instance, to say nothing of that one-five-one bass line on the verses that always sounds old-timey country/folksy to me. You hear that opening strummed one-chord guitar stuff and you could expect a lot vocal styles to follow it-- perhaps an old drawling guy singing about the Lord, for instance-- but you hear the smooth, earnest-yet-suave stylings of a youthful Elvis telling us how all right everything is, and you start to understand why people got so excited about him. Besides, what a kickass little song it is. Who couldn't get into this kind of thing? I think they called Elvis's early work "hillbilly bop" or something like that-- either because "rock and roll" (along with the more specific "rockabilly") was a term not yet in common usage or because that other term seemed too, you know, black, or something. I'm no scholar here. But I think I'm a giant fan of hillbilly bop.

This first single wasn't a particularly big hit for Elvis beyond the Memphis area, I don't think, and indeed it's the later "Heartbreak Hotel" that the Beatles, when they're asked, remember as being really seminal in terms of getting them excited about rock and roll. But once "Heartbreak Hotel" and Elvis mania had made it to Liverpool, you can bet the boys found a way to get their hands on all the Elvis songs they could. Though they all cite Elvis as a particular hero, there aren't many covers of Elvis songs that are legally available, so it's nice that Live at the BBC allows us to hear Paul doing his best impression of an Elvis vocal.

(By the way, there are a few extra Live at the BBC tracks thrown onto the video as bonuses, so enjoy!)

Of course the Beatles take the thing as full-out rock and roll as it's going to go. It's 1963 when they're recording this, nine years since Elvis put his recording out into the world, and by now rock and roll is here to stay. So although we get that little bum-bum-bum BUM bassline opening, the thing that I really hear first is Ringo's drumming-- nothing fancy there, just as steady on the backbeat as we could possibly want. It makes it much more danceable, and it makes me immediately love the song much more than I already did. I also adore the way that George plays basically the same guitar solo totally differently. The solos here have a pleasantly ragged edge to it that's very George, and very Beatles. As if they'd taken the almost-too-perfect guitar riff from Elvis's version and affectionately mussed up its hair or something.

And then there's Paul on the lead vocal, which I love. I think I've talked before about how I always, always hear an element of performance in Paul's vocals. This doesn't mean he sings in a way that I find to be artificial or tepid or gimmicky-- at his best, he doesn't at all. It just means that even when he's at his most soulful and moving, he seems aware that someone's listening. Does that make sense? See, whereas on some of John's vocals (here and here, just off the top of my head), I feel like I just accidentally stumbled into a private conversation he was trying to have with someone, or into a dark corner of John's brain that he didn't mean for me to find. Even when he's rocking out, his voice sounds like he's trying to communicate something very dark and weird to us that he doesn't know how to say. Sometimes he's even actively making fun of us, his audience. Paul has lots he wants to share with us too, but he's also just hoping that we all have a really great time. So when I say that Paul's doing a pretty good Elvis impression on "That's All Right (Mama)," I do think that was at least a little bit of his intent. And who can blame him? Elvis taught these kids how to sing, and you could do a lot worse than learn from him. (In my opinion, Elvis, to me, is more in the McCartney mold, but always a little more earnest than Paul, who often sings with a wink. Elvis's best vocals sound so earnest that he seems incapable of sarcasm at all. I say this as a decided non-expert in all things Elvis, though-- it's just my impression.) Point is, Paul's singing here is freaking terrific for me. Thank you, Paul, I am having a really great time. And Paul, may I say in particular that the little off-mic whoops that you can't help but let out are exactly the kind of endearing detail that make me love you? May I? Thank you.

Anyway, songs like "That's All Right (Mama)" were the songs that made the Beatles love rock and roll, so without them, where would they (and we) be? I also love this kind of song-- the simplicity, the laid-back groove of the guitars, the way that the whole song sounds like the musical equivalent of a randy grin directed your way across the bar. Old school proto-rock and roll is absolutely where it's at-- a genre that does a lot with very few, and very simple, musical materials. Paul still loves it too, of course. Just because Paul's TOTALLY still got it, I'm including this video of Paul hanging out fairly recently with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, who played as Elvis's band on "That's All Right (Mama)" back in the day. The clip's from a 2001 documentary about Sun Records called Good Rockin' Tonight, which I've never actually seen, but I freaking love this video.

Hope you liked a few days of covers. I mean, I know, right?-- everyone who came before the Beatles, including Elvis, is basically just John the Baptist. But goddamn if they don't get to me anyway. And the Beatles playing Elvis always gets me bopping in my office chair like nothing else.

"That's All Right (Mama)," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 15 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Shot of Rhythm and Blues

Well, I don't know what you kids are doing on this Columbus Day-- my vote for Lamest Holiday Ever, especially given that most of the country seems to not even celebrate it-- but I am in the office, which seems to be where most people are NOT, at least here in Boston, where not a single government holiday, it seems, goes unobserved by the populace. So this is irritating. This is my last week in my soon-to-be-former job, and I'm here when the office is quiet (since it's technically closed) to try to clean up the detritus I've accumulated working here for 6 and a half years. Apparently, I had practically moved in and not even realized it-- I've got a small library of free books I've collected over the years and never taken home (I work in publishing, and this is an occasional benefit), strange bags of thankfully nonperishable groceries that I must have forgotten to bring home God knows how long ago, a folder full of choral music from a concert I sang in 2004, at least three umbrellas, and hundreds of pictures from my wedding (which took place in 2006) stored on my office computer's hard drive. It's all kind of embarrassing, and it's been exhausting to work my way through this while also dealing with the other time-consuming things that, you know, normal people deal with when they change jobs.

So you know what I need? A shot of rhythm and blues. Luckily for me, we're in the middle of a look back at the Beatles' key influences. Yesterday we checked out a Carl Perkins track and heard how George's Perkins-ish guitar is so important to his band's sound. Today, let's enjoy the laid-back yet strangely passionate vibe of Arthur Alexander. (On the video below, only the first track is Alexander's original, so you can feel free to cut it off then, or else hang out and listen to some more covers).

Arthur Alexander-- so little remembered, so wicked awesome. I don't know why Alexander never seems to have gotten his due, but I guess the consensus is that he's a musician's musician--hugely influential but still little known. I don't think I've ever heard one of his originals on a radio station, even. But you can be sure that the Beatles knew who he was. Paul McCartney is the Beatle I specifically remember being quoted on the influence of this guy: "We all," said Paul, "wanted to sing like Arthur Alexander." Assuming that's true, John came closest to approximating his distinct sound, and the three legally available Beatles covers of Alexander songs are all sung by John. (Listen to the other two here and here-- I guarantee it will improve your day.)

"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" is a funny one. If you're like me and didn't get to live through this stuff first-hand, such that your chronology is a little off, you might assume that this is one of the several songs name-checked in Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven." But it's not-- that song was released way back in 1956, and "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" didn't come out until 1961, the B-side to "You Better Move On," only Alexander's second single. So although I have no idea how this song was composed exactly, it sounds as though the author appropriated the line from Berry rather than the other way around. (It wasn't Alexander who wrote this, by the way-- I actually forget who did write it and am too flustered to look it up. Sorry.) At any rate, as a B-side by a somewhat obscure artist that still demonstrated familiarity with Chuck Berry, "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" must have been irresistible to the Beatles early on. It became a part of their live act, and they recorded it a few times for BBC Radio-- which is why we can listen to it now on Live at the BBC.

(By the way, it is my fondest hope that if this blog actually gets anyone to do anything or has an effect on anyone's life, it's that I can get at least one person who wouldn't have otherwise done so to actually buy Live at the BBC and hear all the awesomeness I keep going on about. It saves you the time of going through years' worth of bootlegs by compiling some of the very best stuff, and it sounds pretty good too, considering. Just buy it already. After the kerfuffle about the remasters, I'll bet you can find an old-news CD like this on sale somewhere.)

"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" doesn't exactly have that unhinged feeling that Berry seems to hint at in "Roll Over Beethoven"-- being unhinged is kind of what Berry does. But since this is Alexander, we instead get a cool little swinging number, something that Alexander can easily whip us around the dance floor to, seducing us with such a gentle touch that we don't even entirely notice. Alexander's voice has a ton of personality, as we've come to expect, and here he's offering us his shot of rhythm and blues with an effortlessly smooth leer, as if he knows there's no way we can possibly resist. Listen to the way his voice slides down on the low notes of the chorus, on "a little rock and roll on the side," for instance. That is the sound of a man calmly stealing a look down our dress on the dance floor. (Do I even make sense when I talk like this? It's what I hear, is what I'm saying. But anyway.) The chirping girls singing the title line are stand-ins for girls like me as we gradually fall under his spell.

John pretty much follows Alexander's vocal example here, though on this one he sounds a little less in control than his idol did, a little less smooth and a little more looking-to-get-laid. Which is great-- when he starts screaming on "with your lover by your side" and so forth in the choruses, it kind of kicks the song into high gear for me. The Beatles have also made this swinging mid-tempo thing a bit more rocking simply with their guitar-band arrangement-- I for one rarely shed tears when a sax is replaced by a guitar, especially when it's George playing those cute little flourishes he gets in here; they sound like winks. But still and all, with Ringo holding them all together and indulging in some quietly showy fills at appropriately awesome moments, the band shuffles us around the dance floor with all of Alexander's panache and no less energy than we're used to from them. It's totally impossible for me to resist them.

Yup. Better to rev me back up than some other shots I could think of. Back to work!

"A Shot of Rhythm and Blues," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 9 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Glad All Over

Of course we're not talking about that one Dave Clark Five song that tends to get overplayed on oldies radio station. No way. We're talking about a Beatles song, and since this is our last HarriSunday together, and since we're spending a few days talking covers, we're taking a look back at George's idol, Carl Perkins, the king of rockabilly. This "Glad All Over" is the single that Perkins released in 1957 (backed with "Lend Me Your Comb"), and which the Beatles recorded a couple times for their live BBC radio shows. One of those versions made it onto Live at the BBC, lucky us! But let's start out by listening to Carl's version. It rules.

Carl Perkins was a huge influence on the Beatles generally, but particularly on George, whose own early guitar solos have a total Perkins-esque bright, jangly quality to them. The band went on to cover a couple other Perkins songs in their commercial recordings, "Honey Don't" and "Matchbox," but more importantly (I think) they brought a touch of the rockabilly sound to a lot of their early work, thanks largely to George's Perkins-inspired guitar work. It's just such a cornerstone of what one thinks of as the Beatles sound, isn't it?

Anyway, here's the Beatles' "Glad All Over," with George freaking tearing up the lead vocal.

I mean, it's funny, almost, to hear this country-fried little number sung with such gusto by George and his super-thick Liverpudlian accent, but damn, it's so rad too. Note that the Beatles have actually slowed this down a bit, which seems to make this an exception to my theory that in most cases the Beatles speed up the tempo of the songs they cover to make them more manic and rocking. Here, though, slowing down the almost bluegrass-esque quick talkiness of Perkins' original actually does make it more rocking-- it's just that in this case they had to slow it down a bit for it to sound more like rock and roll and less overtly country. That's what makes sense in my head, anyway.

But this is another early song in which George almost surprises you with his kickass singing. John is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing rock vocalists who ever lived, and Paul has an appealing sweetness to his tone and wicked good intonation-- plus, he's got that Little Richard scream thing that he can pull out at a moment's notice. Compared to these two, George comes off less strongly, and it didn't help that early on the band gave him vocals on teenybopper bait like "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" and so forth. You have to go even earlier than the commercial recordings to hear that George had a great, rough-around-the-edges vocal style all his own, the kind of style that makes you not really give a damn how out of tune he might be. Here on "Glad All Over" he's so good I want to scream. There's that adorable little yee-hah flip he does with his voice on the chorus, for one thing, and then too each time he starts a verse up there at the top of his range is sounds almost giddy. Oh, and the end, when they repeat the chorus as loud as they can, it's George leading the whole band along to a banding, crashing end. It so rules.

Unsurprisingly, George's guitar work in this song also rules, each note played with palpable affection for Carl Perkins. Everyone else backs up George nicely, but more than on most songs, you get the feeling George just owns this one-- that it's his turn to be the bandleader. (It's probably just because there aren't any backup vocals that I get this vibe, but I swear there's also an element to the sound that makes George sound totally in control, if that makes sense.) Everyone's having fun, though, especially Ringo-- check out the way he drives the song in the instrumental break without ever losing control over the beat of the thing. Classic Ringo awesomeness. But most of all, this one belongs to George, and in my opinion, he bests his idol handily. Fantastic live song for them, for sure.

"Glad All Over," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 15 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ain't She Sweet

As we wind down our not-quite-full-year of songs, let's take a few days to look back and remember where the Beatles came from. Bear with me as we work through a small round of early covers and once more hear the songs that made the lads want to be rock stars. As you guys might have noticed, I happen to love songs like these, and I hope I can strong-arm those of you who aren't quite with me on this into loving them too (or at least liking them).

So today, it's "Ain't She Sweet." This is an oldie for sure, one of those songs that was written in the '20s and performed by a ton of jazz bands at the time-- kind of like "The Sheik of Araby." In 1956 Gene Vincent released a version of the song, and that's most likely how the Beatles settled on putting it into their repertoire. For the hell of it, here's the Vincent version, though I for one can't stand it-- and I'm normally okay with Vincent as a rule. He's being a crooning pansy in this song, though.

So anyway, the Beatles played "Ain't She Sweet" as part of their regular set in Hamburg when they worked the nightclub circuit there in the early '60s. And when Tony Sheridan asked them to play as his backup band on the "My Bonnie" single for Polydor, they somehow worked it so that they'd also play a few songs by themselves, and "Ain't She Sweet" was one of them. That's the version we have here, recorded in 1961 in Hamburg, playing under the moniker The Beat Brothers, with Pete Best on drums. You can hear it nowadays on Anthology 1.

Thank the good Lord, they make this a lot more rocking than Gene Vincent ever did, very much in the way that they made "My Bonnie" and some of the other random old songs from these session more rocking. I love the way John is singing, as though he's just leering nastily at every bird who walks by. There are problems elsewhere, though-- George seems a little unprepared when it's time for this guitar solo, and he ends up kind of flubbing it. I think they would have probably rerecorded the solo if they could, but I'll bet this whole session was so rushed and halfassed in the manner of pop music at the time and that it wasn't really an option. There are also those who would say that Pete's drumming isn't great here, because there are people who always criticize Pete Best's drums compared to Ringo's (including the likes of George Martin, so, I mean, it's often people who know what they're talking about). I don't know-- the drum part sounds kind of non-demanding, and it sounds okay to me, but I thought I'd put it out there. But anyway, I still like "Ain't She Sweet" just fine. They make a '20s jazzy number into totally solid Merseyside beat music.

Ah, but there's another version of "Ain't She Sweet" we need to address. During the Get Back sessions, the Beatles played around with a lot of old songs from back when they were a live band, and they returned to "Ain't She Sweet" in the course of messing around. A version made its way onto Anthology 3.

Interestingly, here they make the song sound more like Gene Vincent's-- it's a lot more lolling. It's still better, though, largely because John eschews Vincent's nonthreatening vocal style and manages to sound adorably pervy instead, more like the way he sounds in the old Beatles version. But this time it's in a more laid-back way, like he's seen a lot of girls in his life and he'd like to do them all, but he's not going to scream and whoop about it like he used to either. (I'm not sure he could if he wanted to-- he sounds like he's coming down with something.) The playing is better too. You've just got a much more confident band at this point, towards the end of their career together rather than at its beginning, and you can hear it in George's chilled-out guitar solo moments, and in Paul's beautiful bass work, which he's having a ton of fun with (though he could probably play this kind of thing in his sleep).

Just in case you're craving a little more "Ain't She Sweet," I'll leave you with the very adorable ukelele version that made its way into the Anthology TV miniseries. Oh, Beatles, you are so cute even when you're old guys sitting around drinking tea in a park and reminiscing.

"Ain't She Sweet," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 11 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995, and also disc 2 track 19 of Anthology 3, October 28, 1996.

Friday, October 9, 2009

I Am the Walrus

Hey, kids, it's October 9th, 2009! The 69th birthday of John Lennon! Oh, John, it's hard to even imagine you at 69. But when I do, I try to imagine you a bit edgier than Double Fantasy. I like to think that album was just a phase you were going through, and that there was even more amazing stuff on the way... kind of like how Paul's 2009 Fireman album was his coolest in maybe 20 years. Not like we'll get to find out, though, no matter how many games of Chrononauts we play.

In case you haven't figured this out by frequent reading of this blog, John is hands down my favorite Beatle. We live in a world in which hetero-female Beatles fans get asked whom their favorite Beatle is, so it seems fair to be open about mine-- it was always John. It began when I was, like, 13, simply because I found him the most attractive. In fact, when I was in high school, I fell in love with a guy who resembled John circa Help!-- and, long story short, I eventually married him. So there's the physical thing. But at some point I noticed that my favorite songs were John's, and not just my favorite songs, but the songs that I found myself passionately defending against the haters-- songs like "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" and all those songs that John wrote that are sort of generally agreed to be minor but totally made my gut hurt they were so good. Paul wrote these kinds of minor songs too, but I can't passionately advocate for "I'll Follow the Sun" or "Mother Nature's Song" the way that some people can. This is how you can pick your favorite Beatle: which of the weaker Beatles songs do you find yourself moved by? That's how you know. For me, it's the ones John wrote, in general.

But this is all idle Meg-centric talk, when we need to be discussing "I Am the Walrus," which, okay, we're so close to the end of this year-of-songs that I was relieved to discover the other day I've still got it left. Because even if my love for the minor songs knows no bounds, John deserves to be remembered with a masterpiece. And we've got a particularly excellent one today.

Could the "I Am the Walrus" video be the best video the Beatles ever did, even though it's really more like a clip from a movie? I say it's at least in the top three. And, parenthetically, isn't John dreamy in this video? I say, God yes. (John: call me!)

And, more to the point, could "I Am the Walrus" be the best song the Beatles ever put out? This is tricky territory here, to name a number-one best-of-them-all sort of song, but there's a case to be made. It is so damned original that it surely must be a serious contender, and it's as much a timeless work of art as, say, "Yesterday" in its completely different way. "I Am the Walrus" is one of those songs that's scary for an amateur like me to write about, because it's so complex and rad, and because so many smarter people have commented on it that one wonders what else one might say. Anyway, I'll just try to get on with it, and to be relatively brief.

"I Am the Walrus" was written as a happy amalgamation of several small doodles John had come up with on separate acid trips. The tune was invented when a police siren went by outside his window as John sat at his piano-- he started playing the piano along with the siren, and thought it would be cool to write a whole song based on a siren; he might have actually also written the "mister city policeman sitting, pretty little policemen in a row" here too. It was later acid trips that gave him lines like "I am he as you are he as you are me" and "sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come." And then some lines were appropriated from a children's gross-out playground song that he and his friend Pete Shotton used to sing about yellow matter custard and dead dogs' eyes. In fact, all these nonsense lyrics ended up being fused together because Pete happened to remark to John that back in Liverpool, a teacher at the school they had both gone to as boys was now teaching Beatles lyrics as texts in English class. Though this amused John, it also irritated him, as the teacher (it seems) had been a particularly discouraging one to John himself (who was not much of a student), and for him to realize that John was a genius now struck John as almost insulting. John sat down with Pete and pieced together "I Am the Walrus" mostly in the name of fucking with people-- "Let's see them try and work that one out!" he sneered.

Of course, John loved nonsense anyway, and the two books of poems and stories he'd published at this point proved that his brain was already plenty absurd without any help from psychedelics. In many ways "I Am the Walrus" is a natural extension of the nonsense poetry he'd been writing since he was young-- and really the clearest transposition of that poetry into any of his pop songs. But I'm not going to fall into John's trap and try to analyze the lyrics any more than this, though others have. He seems to think it'd be a waste of my time. I'll only say that for all gorgeous insanity, for all the thickness of the images popping out at you willy-nilly in a way that, yes, is sort of like pigs from a gun, the tone of the lyrics hints at the sardonic darkness that you see in a lot of songs by John. It's all pretty grim, and sometimes gruesome, what with people being senselessly violent to a great American author, and what with the joker laughing at you, and people letting their knickers down in what sounds like a vaguely humiliating way. And let's not forget that John keeps crying.

Musically, George Martin rightly gets a ton of credit here for coming up with the amazing orchestration-- amazing for its complexity, and also for how right the whole things syncs up with the deranged little siren melody that John has come up with. Note that what the band is playing is crazy simple, basically. For most of the song, Ringo pounds on the beat pretty regularly, while Paul plays a bunch of what's basically walking bass lines. It's Martin who arranged the strings that really make John's rant feel so rich and full. That said, though, John was no slouch in terms of sophistication either. I don't know who but John would write such a simple, almost talky melody and then lay the whole thing on top of such a twisted harmonic structure as this-- it's so ingenious and odd that it could only be John. The big ol' weird thing the song does is make you wonder whether it's in A major or E major. The "I am the walrus" chorus lands on an E, but in the verses you're always being led toward A, and it's all very strange.

The other weird thing, which has been widely commented on, happens in the long coda, where Martin's string parts are moving up and up the scale while the bass part moves down the scale pretty much exactly against it. It's all happening in a mechanically percussive way that heightens the already creepy effect of the natural dissonance this is creating-- it always sounds to me like an army of robots is slowly advancing to kill you. Whose idea was this, John's or George Martin's? Don't know for sure, but it's my opinion that John came up with this, because even though I used the word "scale" above, there's no true diatonic scale really anywhere in sight. In fact, the reason I'm giving this to John is because it shows clear signs of being composed on a piano-- as if John basically just played up and down the white keys at the same time. Kind of like playing "Chopsticks," but to more interesting effect. Speaking of creepy, John also threw in a chorus chanting "everybody's got one!" in a manner that makes me think they're a mob of clearly insane people who will take up their pitchforks against you at any minute, and then, for the hell of it, fiddled with the radio. The radio bit was improvised-- they just recorded whatever was on, and as it happened, it was a BBC production of King Lear, which thanks to this moment of cosmic perfection sounds completely right for "I Am the Walrus."

Wow, this song is creepy, now that I actually start to write about it. It's as if John took all the most bizarre crud from his brain that he could find and arranged it into the tight constraints of a three-minute pop song, which keeps the chaos enough in check that it becomes something more than chaos. When he pushed these chaotic impulses TOO far, the results weren't always good. (I'm looking at you, "Revolution #9.") But "I Am the Walrus" is creepier and more affecting and also, strangely, more accessible than it almost has any right to be. It's no wonder a song like this got pushed to a B-side (of the "Hello Goodbye" single, a pairing that I imagine made John just seethe), but it's also no wonder that it's thought of as one of the songs that made the Beatles so special.

Gad, have I talked your ear off yet? Go have a happy October 9th, or a happy evening of October 9th, anyway! And spend the weekend doing things John would have approved of, like sleeping until the late afternoon, or sitting in a bag, or taking naked photos of yourself, or writing poems. Oh, John, you ARE the walrus, I guess, but you are also so much more...

"I Am the Walrus," released in the U.K. as the B-side of the "Hello Goodbye" single, November 24, 1967; in the U.S., November 27, 1967.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Doctor Robert

I feel as though lately-- perhaps ever since I got back from South America almost a month ago-- I've been a bit under the weather, a bit deficient in energy. Hopefully that hasn't seeped into the blog at all, but I suspect it has (for one thing, until today I've been on a later posting schedule, because my ass can't seem to get up in the morning anymore). Maybe I've just been playing too much Beatles Rock Band, which has been ruining my eyes and frying my brain and putting me at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome (by the way, I swear I will actually write about the game here some day, but I think I've been too busy playing it to actually do so yet; there's a similar situation going on with the mono CDs, too). Still, though, there's always hope: I've got some cool things coming up that should reinvigorate me, including Halloween in New York (for this excellent screening, which everyone in the area should check out) and, more significantly, a new job starting soon, which I must admit I am pretty damned excited about. In the meantime, though, I'm dragging. What to do?

Frequently when I'm weighed down with fatigue (as John seems to be, too, in this YouTube still) and feel like I could use a burst in energy-- call it a shot in the arm-- I pay a visit to "Doctor Robert."

Oh, poor "Doctor Robert." Who ever names this one as their favorite song on Revolver? And yet what other Beatles song promises a shot of amphetamine delivered along with your vitamins? Well, "promise" is a strong word. This song more winks and dances around its homage to Dr. Robert Freymann, a New York quack who hooked up all kinds of well-to-do patients with all kinds of interesting stimulants on demand, until the state unsurprisingly revoked his medical license. Before it did, though, John Lennon was a frequent visitor. (At least this is my understanding. I've also read that this song might allude to the dentist who unscrupulously dosed John and George and their significant others with LSD in their coffees at a dinner party, but I think the commonly accepted theory is that it's actually Freymann, though it really might be a bit of both.)

Whomever it's about, "Doctor Robert" is a kickass little song whose only real weakness is that it almost can't help but be outshone by all the mind-blowing songs it shares space with on its LP. How kickass is it? Let us count the ways. For one, there's a slightly druggy feeling introduced from the outset with a kind of a drone sound-- we stay on an A chord about forever and a day, and Paul eschews the more complicated bass options available to him and just hangs out on the root of the chord forever. Above that, George and Ringo play repetitive lines that sound as though they couldn't be simpler, though George's guitar in particular has that ragged, dirty Revolver-esque sound that I love so much. John, you'll note, sounds like he's singing into a bucket or something, at least on the mono version (which is my preferred Revolver listening experience at the moment), but also manages to sound about as snide and cutting as ever. He's amused, though, too. This isn't what I'd think of as one of John's mean-spirited songs, really-- he's just laughing at the hilariously slick ways of the good doctor. Any second now he's going to stop pointing and laughing and say, "no, but seriously, can you help me out here, doc?" 

The best part is totally at the bridge, when all of a sudden Ringo cuts out, John comes in playing sustained chords on a harmonium, and John and George and Paul all break out into angelic three-part harmonies. It's a strange moment of near seductive beauty in the song-- besides providing a change in the texture here that's probably necessary just for us to maintain interest, it gives this sarcastic advertisement for Doctor Robert's goodies a note of sincerity. The more psychedelic tone here doesn't sound like we're just talking about amphetamines anymore, and it bolsters the argument of those who would claim that the song's target is wider than just Robert Freymann. It's probably just all about drugs in general-- the comedy of establishment types who surreptitiously dole them out to those with means, sure, but also the fact that this stuff does, indeed, make John and the other Beatles feel pretty darned fine.

Anyway, despite the droniness of the harmonic stuff here, "Doctor Robert" moves along at a nice little clip, and keeps cadencing on B major chords just to totally wig out all of us who have been grooving to the drone sounds in A. As always, the Beatles are smart as hell and keep us surprised, even in an acknowledged minor song on a masterwork of an album. This is some medical malfeasance that you can dance to. Well well well, I'm feeling fine, suddenly-- "Doctor Robert" always seems to set me right. Woo hoo!

"Doctor Robert," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Revolver, August 5, 1966; in the U.S. side A track 4 of Capitol's loathsome Yesterday and Today, June 15, 1966.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And I Love Her

From angry John to tender Paul we go. "And I Love Her" is a breakout song for Paul, his first really successful romantic standard sort of thing-- and it holds up, doesn't it? It's as sweet and gooey as Paul's fluttery eyes are as he sings it in A Hard Day's Night.

Paul McCartney is obviously widely acknowledged to be an excellent composer of slightly soppy pop ballads. He has a natural knack for melody-- he seems to just dream up perfect little melodies, or pick them out of the sky, or something, such that they emerge from his brain as perfectly crafted, endlessly hummable songs. The melody to "And I Love Her" remains a favorite of Paul's, according to later interviews, and rightly so. It has an earnest yet delicate poignancy about it that can't help but make me smile. Though I should note that nowadays Paul does critique this song for what he sees as sort of lame lyrics-- the "bright are the stars that shine" business, he figures, was adolescent and kind of weak. (I'm not going to disagree with him necessarily, but I think he's being a little hard on himself, particularly in light of some of the lyrics to songs he wrote in the '70s when he was older-- I would rather listen to "And I Love Her" rather than "My Love" 200 times out of 20.)

But Paul's not just a fantastically gifted melodist-- he's also, at his best, a great arranger of ballads. (Again, can I make this blanket statement and just have us politely cough and ignore such later groan-inducers as "No More Lonely Nights"? Oh, good! Thanks.) We've seen this before in the quiet, spare arrangements of "Here, There, and Everywhere" and "Yesterday," but I think he finessed these skills (absolutely with George Martin's help) in "And I Love Her," which is really almost a masterpiece of minimal production. From the introductory, so-simple-it-hurts acoustic guitar riff, to the claves-- which click so gently they sound almost whispered-- to the heartstring-tugging Spanish-flavored guitar solo that George so modestly contributes, the whole thing is just so elegantly produced that it already hints, way back in 1964 on  A Hard Day's Night, just how much good taste the Beatles had.

All the elegance is in the details-- you can hear that not a single detail is here by accident or without forethought. Listen to the way that George's guitar arpeggios enter on the second verse, amping up the action and the texture just enough to make it perfect. Or listen to the way Paul's lead vocal is tracked. For instance, throughout the entire bridge Paul's double-tracked for the lyrics "a love like ours will never die as long as I have you near me,"; the double-tracking adds a layer of assuredness that suits what the words are doing. And then on the next verse, "bright are the stars that shine, dark is the sky" is single-tracked again, and then "I know this love of mine will never die" is back to being double-tracked. This is one of my favorite moments in the song, actually-- that assuredness returns, and in a context that's as spare as this song's, the double-tracking almost constitutes some kind of high drama.

And speaking of assuredness, let's touch briefly on the fact that the song itself seems tantalizingly unsure of what the heck key it's in. We've obviously heard a ton of Beatles songs in which major and minor keys switch back and forth willy-nilly, but "And I Love Her" is a particularly deft handling of this kind of thing. The play between E major and c# minor is quite sophisticated here (even more so than we've seen elsewhere), and the transitions between the two are so smooth that you absolutely cannot imagine anywhere else for the chords to go. (This is one of those songs you gotta check out Beatles musicologist Alan W. Pollack on if you want more detail. He seems as impressed by this as I am.) As if that weren't enough, we get a modulation a semitone up the scale starting at George's guitar solo-- a decision which turns this '50s pop cliche into something different, something more complicated and, weirdly, sunnier, if that makes sense. And then, also weirdly, there's that major chord that finished up the song. In fact, it's a classic Picardy third, and the only reason I remember that term from classes on Baroque music theory is because I am on record as loving Picardy thirds. I feel like they always have the effect of an unexpected lopsided grin flashing out of nowhere on the face of a pensive minor-key piece. I don't even know if that makes sense. But I do have an almost visceral reaction to this kind of last-minute major-key finish-- they make me crazy happy.

So obviously "And I Love Her" is a song that I really, really love. This word "elegant" keeps popping into my head again and again as I write this, and it really is that, I think, that makes it SO special. But it's not an off-putting elegance, or too over stylized. It's more like Paul is whispering earnest sweet nothings into our ears here, sweet nothings that surprise even youthful Paul with how much he means them. It's a lovely little depiction of feeling overwhelmed by a first love, or something. I don't know about you guys, but it makes me feel fifteen again. And I mean that in a good way.

"And I Love Her," released in the U.K. side A track 5 of A Hard Day's Night, July 10, 1964; in the U.S. side B track 3 of United Artists' A Hard Day's Night, June 26, 1964.