Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Run for Your Life

While yesterday's song gave us an early listen to an angry, resentful John, "Run for Your Life" is the ultimate Angry John song. It lets its misogyny flag fly, this one does. As such, it's a very polarizing song-- I know plenty of people who hate it, and I kind of respect that, since I most likely wouldn't love a song that threatens death as a reasonable retaliation for infidelity if it were by a band that I loved less than the Beatles. But since this is the Beatles, I dig this one, creepy undertones and all.

That line that offends so many people from the get-go, though, that "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man," is lifted almost verbatim from an Elvis song, "Baby Let's Play House." In Elvis's song, the line is a little more of a throwaway, and in the context of the song it comes across as almost playful. You can hear it for yourself below, which I recommend because this song is freaking awesome and doesn't get nearly as much radio play as a lot of other lamer Elvis songs.

So anyway, it feels as if John took that Elvis line as a starting point and then decided to try to see how far he could push it, to see how much violence a pop song could really handle. If he had undertaken it as a conscious challenge to himself ("how evil can I make this song sound?") he couldn't have done a more effective job of it. Of course, the Lennon armchair psychologists take "Run for Your Life" as a naked expression of John's issues of abandonment by females (see any Lennon biography for more on this if you're not familiar with his family history), which I guess is likely true. John himself later said that he hated "Run for Your Life," calling it his least favorite Beatles song, and admitted to, in hindsight, being kind of appalled by his own sexism; this was all said in the '70s, some years after he'd shacked up with a feminist artist and about the time he was getting involved in radical leftist politics and releasing feminist protest songs like "Woman is the Nigger of the World," so he probably considered it kind of embarrassing.

And yet "Run for Your Life" is a great song, I think-- it holds up as well as any other track on Rubber Soul. (And it certainly holds up better than "Woman is the Nigger of the World," for what that's worth.) Actually, there's a secondary quibble about "Run for Your Life" that I've read, which is that, whatever one thinks of the misogyny, it's just a weak song in the context of Rubber Soul, with all that album's groundbreaking tracks like "Norwegian Wood" and "I'm Looking through You" and "In My Life" and yada yada. And, you know, maybe that's a fair case too. But I still think it's more musically interesting than, say, "Wait" or "What Goes On."

In general, though, since the contents of "Run for Your Life"'s lyrics tend to dominate discussions, I don't think people have given the music itself a fair shake. This one's got a really pleasant country-fried feel, what with Paul playing the bopping one-five-one bass line and Ringo's spirited tambourine, but especially in George's guitar part, which is great. I mean, have you guys listened to George on this song? Check out that solo! It does Carl Perkins proud and more. It's kind of a short solo, and beautifully unshowy, but he's playing as resonantly and brightly as a mid-period Beatles fan could hope for, which gives the violent sentiments here an almost cheerful edge. I love those little punctuative riffs George is playing between verses, too, that syncopated downward scale line. There's a ton of energy in all of this-- it's as if you can hear that George really loves this song. (Hey, George, I do too!)

And then there's the singing. As usual for him, John sings the hell out of the verses, his voice (for once) devoid of that sardonic grin that characterizes so much of his singing and instead dripping with something like real rage. It's a cold rage, though, a kind of narrow-eyed hostility that's going to bubble up at any moment. On the last verse, when John sings "you won't know where I am" there's just the smallest, the smallest crack in his voice on the word "am," which is all you hear of the real turmoil he's suffering. It's my favorite part of the whole song, and it's funny, because it probably wasn't at all intentional.

But then there's the chorus to distract us from John's agonies with its sheer awesomeness. I, for one, think it's kind of funny that the Beatles saved some of their coolest three-part harmonies for a death threat song, but they did. George and Paul join John in admonition that we should run for our lives in a harmonic part that's very sweet, but also so dense and thick that it's one of the few vocal moments in a Beatles song that I'm still not quite able to parse out exactly. In most other songs, I can sing along with George, Paul, or John just about flawlessly, but this one stumps me a little bit. Still, though, that falsetto is so tight that it is, indeed, almost scary-- it does rather make one want to run. Or else it makes one wish she were the girl who could finally get John to calm down and be a little happier. Siiiigh. The Beatles are just dreamy even when they're threatening to kill me, is the thing. Does that sound weird, like I'm enjoying being a victim or something? Well, I mean, in this case-- I guess I am.

"Run for Your Life," released in the U.K. side B track 7 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 6 of Capitol's inferior Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.


  1. I'm gonna defend this song full-throatedly, so I should maybe start by saying it's not my favorite. I do like it, maybe even a lot, and it's a highlight of the album for me, moreso than, say, Girl or Michelle or anything George or Ringo did, but I'm not saying it's a breakthrough work or anything.

    You're right, of course, Meg; the chief knock is always about the lyrics. And on their face, they're not exactly uplifting. But I think too often they're attributed to John as an expression of his genuine feelings. People are uncomfortable with someone who had issues with women writing these lyrics. But why would we assume he meant them? The Beatles released more albums than this before John got serious about putting more of himself in his songs, and even then, he never abandoned 'meaningless' third-person pieces. Did he really want to hold your hand? Burn down a woman's apartment? Was he, in fact, The Walrus? Do we know? Or do we need to ask Mean Mr. Mustard, who of course is a real person? If someone wants to be appalled about a song threatening a woman, well, I try to stay out of the business of telling people how to feel. But why are we so sure that this was totally autobiographical? Do we really think he was going to kill someone? Or is it more likely that he was exploring that side of his personality, and taking what you might call artistic license?

    I also think the people who complain about the song musically, if pressed, would have to admit to some other songs they like that are less adventurous than this one. And what gets short shrift is the production. Production -- even with the Beatles, judging by reaction to this song -- is like special teams in football: often underestimated. A team that is solid on offense and defense but pays no attention to special teams won't win any Super Bowls, and anyone so focused on lyrics and music that they ignore the production is missing the boat on the Beatles. Fanatics seem to get that in general, but ignore it when it comes to this track. The unusual sound (thanks to reverb?) on John's acoustic, the this-treble-goes-to-11 recording of George's line ... this is what a producer would call a 'hot' song, and that contributes to a feel that transcends its lyrics and chords.

  2. See, you got it exactly. He didn't MEAN the lyrics, at least not literally-- if they were coming from some dark place in his brain, well, I mean, still and all the song is just an exercise. When John talked about hating it, he also talked about how it was basically a work song.

    The problem is that John in later years was so almost squickily OPEN about his issues with his mother, with women generally, with machismo, and so forth that people DO tend to interpret all his songs through that lens. Remember, too, that he himself encouraged this by his talk in the '70s about how his art was always about him and about the truth of his soul, or something-- which was an aesthetic that Yoko espoused-- and that he denounced Paul's overtly fictional stories for not being "real." So, frankly, he does invite people to hear his songs that way.

    And I think the other issue was always the disconnect. Only the previous year, after all, the Beatles had been all about holding our hands. It was weird, and probably still is, to hear this sentiment coming from them, and particularly with all that treble sound-- there's nothing at all dark about the production, which weirdly makes it sound even more demented.

  3. I'm with Troy all the way on this one. It seems to me that some songs are just songs, the lyrics written to explore some emotion, and do not have to necessarily reflect the mind/heart/soul of the person who wrote or sings them. Also, the lyrics in question reflect a commonly used expression that is used everyday by folks but rarely carried out. How many times has someone said "do that again I'll kill ya." They don't mean it; they mean they're serious about not wanting you to do it again. Anyway, enough.

    I love the guitar work throughout. Love the hot high-hat or tamborine or whatever that is at the top end. And love the back beat that just flat out demands you tap your foot at the very least.

    Great points, Troy about production. An element that is overlooked more times than it is given credit. And Meg, you're dead-on about the harmonies being top drawer.

    It's just a cool song.

  4. P. S. Meg ... The Elvis song is pretty awesome. Shame it doesn't get more exposure instead of folks always playing the same circle of hits. What a great inclusion in today's post. You work hard for your money, girl!

  5. Thanks, Frank! It's one of my favorite Elvis songs, actually. :) And quite right on all your points re: "Run for Your Life." It's nice to find that you guys are with me on this one, because people frequently really hate this song. It'll never be my favorite ever, but it rocks.

  6. I like that at least one girl screams in delight when Elvis sings the line in question.