Due to some system issues, writing deadlines and other wackiness, I’ve been lax in updating. The Abbey Road post is in production and should hopefully be done in the next few days. Thanks for your patience!
Due to some system issues, writing deadlines and other wackiness, I’ve been lax in updating. The Abbey Road post is in production and should hopefully be done in the next few days. Thanks for your patience!
Say hello to my other official website/blog, Welcome to Bridgetown!
It’s partly my official author website, but it’s also the official website for my Bridgetown Trilogy as well. It’s somewhat sparse at the moment, but I’ll do my best to keep it updated on a normal schedule.
Hope you enjoy!
In 1969, it was obvious to those around them, and especially to themselves, that the band was splintering badly. The events of 1968, from the good but misguided intentions of the India trip, to managing themselves after Brian Epstein’s passing, to the unveiling of Apple Corps, to the protracted and often solo production of nearly three dozen songs over the course of five and a half months…it was too much, too soon, and too disorganized. Patience and tolerance was deteriorating. John, Paul and George had been best mates and constant companions for over ten years at that point, knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses…and especially what set them off.
The Get Back project had been another of Paul’s ideas; given that their sound’s evolution had expanded as far as it could possibly have taken them by 1967, and that their attempt at a more organic sound for The Beatles ended up more disjointed than cohesive, perhaps it was time to start over again, start from the beginning. Become a foursome again, play simple rock and roll that had influenced them so deeply in the late 50s. It had also been a good couple of years since their last touring performance. The semi-live performances of “All You Need Is Love” in 1967 and “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” in 1968 had somewhat rekindled the happier memories of playing live–just the four of them rocking out and having fun. Upon their next meeting in late 1968, Paul suggested perhaps playing out again. George emphatically nixed the idea–he wasn’t about to relive the frustration of getting mauled by fans and not being able to hear himself play, let alone sing, even if the PA systems had improved since then. John was interested, but in his own way, refused to say yes or no…and he was by this time distracting himself with multimedia art installments with Yoko. Ringo, ever the nice guy, would go with whatever the other three agreed on.
Okay, touring was out. Perhaps a one-week appearance somewhere? A one-off show? A television special?
That last suggestion had merit. It provided the least amount of preplanning and production. It would another fulfillment on their United Artists contract, it would keep them in the spotlight…and perhaps it would force them to behave more maturely in each other’s presence.
Rule Number One: No overdubs (or at least no obvious multitracking). The music would contain only the four members playing, forcing them not just to become a cohesive unit again, but would rekindle their ability to counterpoint each other’s playing, an ability that they had in spades back when they started but had lost over the course of the last few years. Any additional sound effects would possibly be played by their assistant Mal Evans, and any additional keyboards would be played by their friend and labelmate Billy Preston.
As they say, the best laid plans…
* * *
Single: “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down”
Released: 11 April 1969
The Get Back project had pretty much ended by the end of January–not so much with a bang, but a whimper. Jamming and rehearsing at Twickenham Film Studios had been arduous and frustrating; it seemed obvious that the band was not happy at all there. After moving to their new Apple Studios, they worked a week or so more until the end of the month, still disjointed but somewhat more cohesive now. Regardless, there were a good handful of usable songs somewhere in that mess, enough to cobble into an album and perhaps a single or two. Many of the filmed rehearsals included a full-band performance that could be used as a promotional film. Even their semi-planned “live” performance on the roof of 3 Savile Row on 30 January might have carried some gems.
Side A: Get Back
One usable song was a great shuffling jam that quickly became a fan favorite, and it has quite the interesting history. Its genesis came from an untitled bluesy jam on 7 January, borrowing a lyric from George’s “Sour Milk Sea” (“Get back to where you should be”) and changing it slightly. A few days later, inspired by UK Cabinet minister Enoch Powell’s wildly extremist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech from April 1968, Paul wrote a scathing satire of anti-immigration and pro-discrimination. Two versions of these lyrics surfaced, the slower, more Elvis-inspired “Commonwealth” and the more visceral, angry “No Pakistanis”. The latter is much closer to the released final version. By the time a serious full take was laid down, the immigration satire had been dropped, or at least severely dialed back; the final lyrics seem more of a commentary of the band itself, letting go of the extraneous and returning to the source of your happiness.
The single version was recorded on 27 January in their Apple Studios after much studio rehearsing on the 23rd. Many versions were recorded at this time, including an ever so slightly different take that would eventually surface on the Let It Be album. This version would suffice as a tight single until they had something down for their next release. It was quickly produced and released just a few months later, much like their stopgap album-only singles. By this time they knew it would take awhile for the special-turned-movie and album to surface (not to mention they’d washed their hands of it by then). Despite its dark history, to this day it’s still considered one of their biggest late-era hits, and Paul has revived it numerous times on his tours.
Side B: Don’t Let Me Down
Though it’s often commented that John’s role in the Get Back sessions was minimal–in essence, he was pretty much phoning it in at that point–it’s not to say that his songwriting had deteriorated. Personally he was dealing with a hell of a lot of personal demons, many of which were threatening to take over his public life if not his sanity. In this instance Yoko became a saving grace for him, an anchor he’d desperately needed for years. In response, “Don’t Let Me Down” was written as a desperate plea; he was hopelessly in love with this woman who could help him find his inner peace–this song is him down on his knees, begging that, for once in his life, the thing closest to his heart would not break him.
The track is an incredibly sparse blues track (its F#m7-to-E riff influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”, interestingly enough, and used again later in “Sun King” on Abbey Road), with just the four playing their usual instruments and supported by Preston on electric piano. Despite its bare essentials, it still comes across as an incredibly heartfelt track. The vocals are rough in tone yet tight in delivery, and Paul and George’s countermelody in the bridge is phenomenal.
* * *
As this would be the only release to surface (for now) from the Get Back sessions, it was just enough to tide over the curiosity of the fans and the critics, many of whom had heard quite a few rumors about what they were up to but were yet to hear anything substantial. Despite the trainwreck the project ended up being, very few seemed aware that anything was wrong. These two songs sounded like a logical extension of the organic sound of The Beatles, so no one seemed surprised by the bare sounds. It would be a little over a year before they’d eventually hear and see what really had transpired in that month.
* * *
Single: “The Ballad of John and Yoko”/”Old Brown Shoe”
Released: 30 May 1969
Right around the same time the “Get Back” single had been released, John was itching to get back in the studio to record his next song about his ongoing relationship with Yoko. After many setbacks and a long and arduous divorce settlement, the two had finally gotten married in March, recording and filming all along the way. The sounds turned into their third avant-garde outing Wedding Album, their filming turned into Honeymoon, and the story fodder for their next single. It also served as the kicking-off point for their next album project–one that would be their last as a foursome, but one that would be done right this time, back at Abbey Road with George Martin back behind the finally-installed eight-track boards.
Side A: The Ballad of John and Yoko
The lyrics to this song tell the story, pretty much verbatim, of the trials and tribulations of trying to get married when you have so many things going against you. John and Yoko’s quest to tie the knot had been filled with roadblocks. Due to their drug bust earlier in 1968 as well as their vocal anti-war stance, several government agencies were refusing to let them enter their countries, or at least were making it hard for them to do so. Many critics and fans thought John had gone off the deep end, many having seen and/or heard Yoko’s weird performance art. Despite all that, they chose to soldier on, until the band’s assistant Peter Brown (who had been Brian Epstein’s assistant before then) informed them that they could at last get married in Gibraltar. The second half of the song also mentions one of their Bed-Ins for Peace, in which they would stay in bed all day, inviting any critic and reporter to speak with them about their peace movement. An admittedly silly idea for a war protest (they were fully aware of its ridiculousness–that was partly the point), but in the context of the song it also serves as a cutting jab at those same critics and reporters who were already writing them off as whackjobs.
Musically, this is quite fascinating: it’s only John and Paul playing everything here, as George was on holiday and Ringo was in the middle of filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers. It’s a quick song that only took about eleven takes on 14 April, one take which includes a breakdown mid-song where John yells to a drumming Paul “Go a bit faster, Ringo!”, to which he replies “Okay, George!”. It also serves as the return of engineer Geoff Emerick, who had left in disgust during the sessions for The Beatles some months earlier.
Due to its lyrics, it did of course have its own run of trouble; many stations refused to play it because of the use of “Christ” and “crucify” in the lyrics, but that would not stop the single from being a hit, reaching #1 in the UK and #8 in the US.
Side B: Old Brown Shoe
George serves up a rocking b-side to this single, the final version recorded on 18 April. It’s almost his own take on Paul’s “Hello Goodbye”, an exercise in opposites, but more on a metaphorical level. He lets himself go wild here, foregoing his usual oblique lyrics and inserting witty and sly riffs about having a relationship while being a full-blown pop star. A full band plays here, delivering an extremely tight and detailed performance. Most obvious is Ringo’s drumming here, strong and to the fore, playing snare on the unexpected upbeat for nearly the entire song (he switches only briefly on the bridges, where he plays on the downbeat instead). George also delivers a powerful, heavily treated Claptonesque solo. There’s some confusion as to who’s playing bass–most say it’s Paul, but George has also claimed it was him playing instead, but there’s some great tandem bass and guitar riffing going on here. John originally had a rhythm guitar riff on this song, but it did not make the final cut, his only surviving parts being backing vocals.
Compared to many of George’s previous songs, this one sticks out as an incredible leap forward in composition. His abilities had been hinted at, especially on Revolver and The Beatles, but here we finally hear just how strong his songwriting really is. By this time he had quite the backlog of tracks just waiting to be put down on tape, but as most Beatles albums were primarily Lennon-McCartney productions, he was willing to hold back. By the end of 1970, free of his band, he would deliver many of these gems on his first true solo album, All Things Must Pass.
* * *
This single was an unexpected turnaround both for the band and for their fans. Having expected the groggy, spare sounds of the previous album and single, they instead heard a grand production, clear and glorious. It might just be possible that after a year or so of questionable releases, they’d rebounded, found their magic, and were rearing to go again. This was released so quickly after “Get Back”, which was still high in the charts at the time, that perhaps that possibility was a reality. The truth was somewhat different, but no less magical: the fantastic Fab Four had returned.
* * *
The latest single now released, they felt positive about the next project. It would be a true back-to-basics studio record–perhaps not the barebones attempt of Get Back, but more like the albums they’d been recording a few years previous. This would be more like a logical progression after Rubber Soul or Revolver, bypassing the high experimentation and psychedelia of Sgt Pepper and the meandering Magical Mystery Tour. In a way they were going to write off The Beatles and Get Back as steps in the wrong direction, even though many of the tracks on the next project were in fact coming from the sessions for those two albums. The truth, however, was more straightforward: they knew there was a real possibility they were about to go their separate ways, and decided that their last effort would be their absolute best ever. They returned to Abbey Road and asked Martin to produce them one last time, in order to bow out in the best way they could.
Next Up: Abbey Road and the “Something”/”Come Together” single
Hey there! Much apologies for the delay. You’d think with the ending in sight, I’d get this series done on time, but due to having quite the busy weekend schedule over the last month, I haven’t been able to get to them. I will also be afk and busy this weekend, but I should hopefully be back on the high horse by Monday. If I’m not putting out fires and saving small kittens from trees and Timmy from the damn well upon return to Day Job, I may even sneak some work in during the week.
Speaking of the Beatles…I am happy to say that I have picked up Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In – The Beatles: All These Years Vol 1 yesterday and have dropped absolutely everything I’ve been reading just so I can read this book. I’m only about 60 pages in and the four lads haven’t even met each other yet, but I can say it’s quite great reading so far.
[And yes, as an aside, I did in fact also order the "Expanded Edition" that will be around 1000 pages longer. Because I'm that much of a nerd.]
Lastly…in the next month or so, I will be slowly building up a new blog tied here at WordPress that will tie in with my SF trilogy. I won’t go into too much detail now, except that it will serve as a sort-of “official” writing blog as well. More on this later as it unfolds!
After the release of The Beatles on 22 November 1968, the band was at a crossroads. The recording of the double album did have its high points that brought them together as a cohesive unit and as friends, but on the same token there were also many days of frustration, aggravation, and barely-contained animosity. Again–there are many and extremely varied reasons for these cracks to start showing, and each could be valid reasons for the eventual breakup in early 1970. They were no longer the nutty Fab Four of the cartoons and movies, nor were they any longer an endlessly-touring band like they were in the early ’60s. They’d grown and matured, married and split up, had their own ongoing projects apart from the band, and to top it all off, they were also ersatz businessmen running Apple Corps. Things were changing, whether they wanted them to or not.
Having finished everything that needed doing, the four went their separate ways for the holidays, spending time with their loved ones. They would eventually meet up again near the end of 1968 to throw ideas around for their next project. Spirits were flagging, and something desperately needed to be done to turn it around. Paul eventually hit on the idea of returning to touring, which was nixed pretty quickly, though they eventually thought that perhaps a television special might work. When they’d filmed the promotional film for “Hey Jude” in front of a small audience, all four had enjoyed the experience, and felt that might be a possible move.
In the meantime, however, they had a few recordings that needed releasing before they could start anything else.
* * *
Single: The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 20 December 1968
The band of course had always thought of the fans, regardless of their internal squabbles. In late 1968, however, it was time for another fan club recording, and no one was ever around long enough to have the entire group in the studio to record a season’s greetings like in the past. So for this year, each member donated their own separate recordings, this time edited and produced by radio personality and close Beatle friend Kenny Everett, and released the week before Christmas.
The nearly eight-minute recording might seem a bit disjointed at first listen–Ringo seems to be the only one here in high spirits, playing silly recording tricks; Paul donates an acoustic Christmas song, and John reads two of his wordplay poems (the first, “Jock and Yono”, seems to be a veiled grumbling towards the other three about not accepting Yoko’s consistent presence in his life), and George just seems tired, saying little but bringing in a nervous Tiny Tim to perform their “Nowhere Man” in his own strange, inimitable way. The only thing that keeps it together is the studio sound effects brought in by Everett, such as dropping in heavily treated bits of tracks from The Beatles and throwing in a very bizarre “Baroque Hoedown” by Perry & Kingsley in amongst the solo recordings. It’s kind of a sad and somber outing, but at the same time it’s creatively done, just enough to dismiss the prevailing mood at the time.
* * *
Album: Yellow Submarine
Released: 17 January 1969
The band’s next album, the soundtrack to the film of the same name, was released amidst a bit of fan and critic confusion; why had not they released this album in July 1968 alongside the film’s release? And furthermore, why were we treated to only four new songs, two retreads, and a full side of George Martin’s film score? It wasn’t the quality record the fans and the critics had come to expect of the band, and while the film remains wildly popular with fans new and old, the album is considered more of a curiosity piece than anything else. The delay in release was actually the band’s decision–they weren’t all that excited by the film project itself (though they did enjoy watching it), and were more focused on The Beatles and its related singles and wanted those released first. Furthermore, the film would not get a stateside release until late November, a week or so before The Beatles was set to be released.
Regardless, the fans were finally able to hear four of the songs they’d worked on throughout the film’s production in 1967, amidst the Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt Pepper projects. Because of the age of these tracks, they sound more upbeat and lively than the tracks heard on The Beatles, and in effect closer in sound to the other tracks featured on the album (“Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love”) and in the movie (such as 1965′s “Nowhere Man”, 1966′s “Eleanor Rigby” and the various Sgt Pepper tracks used).
The movie itself is quite impressive, given its relatively simplistic plot: an idyllic Eden going by the name of Pepperland, where all is music, peace, love and positivity, is attacked and subsequently taken over by the monstrous and disturbingly psychotic Blue Meanies. It’s up to a lone survivor, Old Fred, to escape in the Yellow Submarine–itself the ship that brought their ancestors to this land–and find help. Eventually Old Fred picks up the four Beatles (and the diminutive but resourceful Nowhere Man who they pick up along the way) and brings them back to Pepperland, where they eventually seize the day and return the land to its glory.
The script is filled with humor, so much so that I personally discover a new joke or line each time I see it, and I’ve been watching the movie since the late 70s. There are a lot of musical puns–Pepperland’s ancestors arrived ‘four scores and thirty-two bars ago’, for instance–as well as a bevy of Beatles references, such as Old Fred’s stuttering pleas using the lyrics to “Help”, and John and Paul referencing “A Day in the Life” while in the Sea of Holes (J: “Hey, this place reminds me of Blackburn, Lancashire.” P: [rolls eyes] “Oh, boy…”). Then there’s the local puns (“Can’t help it, I’m a born lever puller.”) and wordplay (“Frankenstein!” “I used to go out with his sister.” “His sister?” “Yeah, Phyllis.”).
The story isn’t all laughs, of course. If one is familiar with the history of World War II and postwar Britain, there are some rather chilling allegorical visuals going on as well. Post-attack Pepperland is literally a gray and sad place void of color, with many of its buildings and statues destroyed by enemy fire, much like the bombed out cities of Britain. There’s even a hint of Nazism prevalent in the latter half of the film, with many fearsome foot soldiers (literally–they have guns coming out of their shoes) always marching through the area and capturing any runaways. [Perhaps the most visceral use of this is when a Blue Meanie nearly captures the Beatles, staring them down and asking "Are you bluish...? You don't look bluish..."] It’s only when the Beatles release the local version of them–Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–from their anti-music bubble that peace and love, not to mention brilliant rainbows of color, is returned to the land. The allegory here isn’t overt, and most likely does not translate to its younger fans, but it is used here cleverly so that the Blue Meanies are truly believable antagonists and not just weird and scary characters.
The film’s creators were also able to seamlessly integrate the music into the film’s plot without interrupting the events like they may have in the previous films featuring the Beatles. The double-delivery of “Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby”–the hit double-sided single from August 1966–serves as the opening credits and scene setter after the prologue, with the former showing the titular vessel traveling/flying through various landscapes looking for help, and the latter showing a squalid, urban Liverpool and finally finding help in the form of Ringo. A fantastic rotoscoped sequence in the Foothills of the Headlands features John singing and dancing to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Even an outtake snippet of 1965′s “Think for Yourself” gets a quick appearance when the band sings the “Have you got time to rectify all the things that you should” line to wake up Lord Mayor.
The soundtrack may have been an afterthought to the band, but it was quite an important piece to the film itself.
Track 1: Yellow Submarine
The Revolver track and single is used as the theme song here, setting the tone for the entire movie. The song had always been a simply written but effective story-song about a mythical submarine and its inhabitants, but in the context of the movie, it perhaps hints that these submariners may have in fact been Pepperland’s ancestors. If one notices, the entire opening credits are played against a black background, never showing too much color, tying in the war-torn Pepperland in with the dirty back alleys of Thursday morning Liverpool. In effect, the theme song not only lifts the spirits, but brings hope.
Track 2: Only a Northern Song
Interestingly, this track was originally recorded for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band right around the same time as “A Day in the Life”, but left off that album as it did not fit thematically. [Well, it could in a roundabout way, it being a very George-like snide remark about being a contracted writer for Northern Songs Ltd--the band's music publishing company--and could be seen as a Sgt Pepper Band member grousing...but on the other hand, it's too cynical of a song, compared to the others.] Despite its somewhat odd placing in the movie as the musical segment during their trip through the Sea of Science, the movie relies on the song’s aural strangeness to fit in with the scientific visuals of oscillator waveforms, atomic orbits, and mathematical shapes. Only then do we notice how creative the band was with this track; there are dissonant chords galore in the second half of each verse, and with the chorus we’re treated to a lot of minor chords where we’re expecting major ones. We’re also treated to an incredible amount of heavily-treated studio noise from a bleating trumpet played by Paul, an echoed glockenspiel played by John, and a number of tape effects.
Track 3: All Together Now
This short and incredibly simple song from Paul was originally written as a possible contender for the Our World BBC project (“All You Need Is Love” won out), but it catches the spirit of the movie wonderfully. Recorded in a quick nine takes on 12 May 1967, it’s meant to mirror the childlike singalong of “Yellow Submarine”, and is used as an initial sendoff when the boys first head out and familiarize themselves with the ship. It’s used again at the end of the film during the live shot epilogue. The band themselves don’t mime to it, but they do give it a good countoff as the song starts.
Track 4: Hey Bulldog
John’s rocking number was one of the last songs to be recorded before they headed out on their trip to India, and engineer Geoff Emerick recalled that this was most likely one of the last songs they did as a truly cohesive (and content) unit. It’s got an incredibly tight and crisp sound, with John pounding out an a great blues riff on the piano, a searing guitar solo from George (utilizing a recently purchased distortion pedal here), an amazing bass line from Paul, and stellar drum work from Ringo. The song was written specifically for the movie, and shows up in the latter half of the film in an almost vaudevillian sort of way–the Beatles and the Sgt Pepper Band manage to get a three-headed guard dog onto their side while singing this song and playing (and hiding inside) an upright piano. The scene works within the context of the movie, showing how the force of the Blue Meanies is deteriorating, but at the same time it does feel as though it interrupts the flow of the film. Because of this, it was edited out of the US version and replaced by a few other quick scenes, and not seen again in the US until the 1999 restoration and release.
As an aside, Paul’s barking at the end appears to have been influenced by a track he’d recorded with Paul Jones a few days previous called “The Dog Presides” (he played drums on that track, which also features then-Yardbirds Jeff Beck and Paul Samwell-Smith), which features an actual dog barking. Being in a playful mood (and seen on the video created for the song, itself shots from the ‘Lady Madonna’ promotional film), Paul and John riffed on the barking during the fadeout of this track which was kept for the final mix.
Track 5: It’s All Too Much
George’s second donation to the soundtrack is a blissed-out free-for-all firmly cemented in the G chord and refuses to budge, but its true spirit lies in the lyrics and the performance. The lyrics are quite indicative of their 1967 period–it was recorded late May/early June–and it’s another rare song not recorded at EMI (it was put down at De Lane Lea Music in Soho, London). Fitting in quite nicely as the love-and-peace-for-all final theme to the movie, the lyrics are all about just that–there’s just so much positivity here, it’s too much to take in. The emotion is intensified by brilliantly emotive playing from the band, from George’s explosive, feedback-laden intro and the trio’s heartfelt vocal delivery, to the heraldic horn riffs played as the song slowly fades out.
Track 6: All You Need Is Love
John’s song for the Our World special makes a second appearance here on this album (third if you count the US Magical Mystery Tour album), but the song serves as the turning point of the film, where the Beatles finally save Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. A wild tête-à-tête between John and the Dreadful Flying Glove unfolds, as John continually undermines the Glove’s attacks by literally spouting the song’s lyrics at it. It is eventually crushed and chased away by a tangle of a word cloud, the Blue Meanies begin their retreat, and joy returns to the land. It’s a bit of a silly ending, but it’s wonderfully fun and upbeat, mirroring the song’s meaning in the process.
Side B — Orchestral Score composed by George Martin
Track 1: Pepperland
Track 2: Sea of Time
Track 3: Sea of Holes
Track 4: Sea of Monsters
Track 5: March of the Meanies
Track 6: Pepperland Laid Waste
Track 7: Yellow Submarine in Pepperland
While none of these tracks feature any Beatles, nor were any of them written by the band (except the last track, in which the melody to “Yellow Submarine” is used as a motif for the piece), I place them here because they are part of the album proper, and also because they are great examples of the fact that Martin was a wonderful composer in his own right, not just a scorer for Beatles songs. Each track works excellently within the movie, from the pastoral “Pepperland” to the sinister “Sea of Monsters”, the latter of which contains a number of important sound cues within that scene. [This includes a phrase of Bach's "Air on the G String", used in the movie while the Punching Beast lights up a cigar. Cleverly, this was a nod to a series of commercials for Hamlet Cigars in the UK.]
As this album was considered more of a stopgap and a filler release until their next project, it’s not considered one of the band’s more important releases. In fact, the response to the album was so mixed that they contemplated releasing the four previously unreleased songs as an EP, appending the still-unreleased “Across the Universe” as a bonus sixth track. They went so far as to creating a mono mix for these tracks, but as they ended up not following up on this, the mixes were never released until the 2009 box set The Beatles in Mono was released, appearing on the box’s version of the Past Masters release.
* * *
By the time this album was released, the band were already at work on their next project–or the beginnings of one, anyway. At the beginning of January, while still deciding what to do, they convened not at Abbey Road but at Twickenham Studios, where they would start rehearsing while being filmed for the potential television special. Tensions were dangerously high, and despite moments of levity and hilarity, the four men had started getting on each other’s nerves. One infamous moment was caught on film and is seen in Let It Be, with Paul and George arguing about a riff, at which point George glares at him saying “Look–I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all, if you don’t want me to,” in a light voice underscoring just how irritated he is. Despite all the animosity, however, they soldier on, eventually moving over to the brand new Apple Studios in the basement of their Savile Row offices. That last week and a half raised spirits somewhat, especially since they were in a warm recording studio and not a cold and challenging film studio, but the damage had been done.
The project, dubbed Get Back from Paul’s shuffling rocker single which came out that April, as well as a thematic name for their “getting back” to the simplicity of the four of them playing with minimum overdubbing, didn’t so much come to a close as it fell apart. By this time George Martin wanted little to do with the project. The tapes were given to Glyn Johns, who created one version of the album but but was never released, though it did become a well-circulated bootleg, thanks to unofficial copies floating out to the public. Frustrated and unhappy with that version as well, they chose to shelve it until a later time. It wasn’t until 1970 when film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg completed the film and the tapes had been drastically remixed and overdubbed by Phil Spector, that it was released under the title Let It Be.
In the meantime, the band members continued to go their separate ways. A few singles leaked out in the first half of 1969, but that was about it. It looked like it was the end, until the four decided…if they were going to break up–and all signs showed that they were indeed headed in that direction–they certainly didn’t want to go out on a dud like Get Back. They instead chose to reconvene one last time at Abbey Road, and record their last official studio album.
Next Up: the “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” and “The Ballad of John & Yoko”/”Old Brown Shoe” singles
Album: The Beatles
Released: 22 November 1968
[Picture: The collage side of the two-sided poster insert, created by Richard Hamilton, with assistance from Paul McCartney. The reverse side contains the lyrics to all the songs, along with minimal liner notes. The pattern of the collage is that, when it is folded, each of the six segments contains at least one picture of all four Beatles.]
The final side of The Beatles can be seen as the climax of the album’s journey; as listeners we’ve been taken from the straightforward rock and roll of “Back in the USSR” into multiple experiences–the experimentalism of “Wild Honey Pie” and “Glass Onion”, the beauty of “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Julia” and “Blackbird”, the nightmare landscape of “Helter Skelter”, the raw power of “Yer Blues”, and everywhere in between. So how does one tie it all together into one cohesive album?
As mentioned earlier, I’ve always seen The Beatles as a slow descent into hell, only to be brought back to reality on the last track. The first side starts quite normally, slowly sinking into darker territories. Because of this, the tender lightness of “Long, Long, Long” holds a darker edge that isn’t even recorded on the track itself; because it follows “Helter Skelter” on Side C, the listener is left catching their breath and come back to reality, and that leftover tension added to the extremely quiet production gives it that edge.
So when it came time to line up the final six tracks of the album, the tension that had been building over the course of the album comes to the fore. There are tracks here that, on their own and outside the context of the album as a whole, are rather light and playful. But since they’re on what feels like the darkest side of the album and surrounded by two semi-related “Revolution” tracks, they take on a much darker edge. The childlike “Cry Baby Cry” takes on a tone of irritation; the vaudevillian “Honey Pie” feels more melancholic. Even George’s “Savoy Truffle” makes you feel the impending toothaches. And finally, we face the chaos that is “Revolution 9″. Again, even this track on its own might be considered little more than outsider avant-garde weirdness, but in the context of the entire album, it’s the inevitable conclusion to this journey–we have to face what bothers or scares us the most. And finally, after we’re left literally out on the playing fields gasping for breath, we’re brought back to reality.
Track 1: Revolution 1
Sessions for the new album commenced on 30 May with this version of “Revolution”, and it has quite the history. After going over the many demos at George’s house in Esher, they commenced recording in high spirits and with a new outlook. John brought in this track on the first day as a potential single, his first overtly political social commentary on what was going on in the world at the time. As mentioned on the single version previously, he was all in for social change where it was needed; however, he was also questioning whether the “revolutionaries” really had any alternate plans to take the place of the old regime. At first he really wasn’t all that sure how he felt: did he want revolution, or did he merely want change? At the time of this version, he didn’t want to choose sides just yet, and because of that, he claimed “…don’t you know that you can count me out…in”. By the time the highly charged single version came out, he’d made up his mind to “count me out”, but here, that indecision plays with the lackadaisical feel of this version. The song is so laid back in tone that it counterpoints the radical lyrics. Even John’s singing style here–he famously laid down on the floor and sang up to a microphone above him on the 4 June vocal overdub session–feels like he just can’t be bothered. Not that this meant to take away from the message of the song, far from it; it’s more that he did want revolution, but a peaceful one. The end result is a summery jam that sounds both exciting and relaxed at the same time.
This version is a truncated version of Take 20, itself an overdub from 4 June of 30 May’s Take 18. I say truncated because this version, considered the best one at the time, went on for a little over ten minutes. This unedited version, which I’ll comment on later in this post, featured a nearly six-minute jam ending in which John (with assistance from new girlfriend Yoko) delivered a bizarre interpretation of vocalized revolution. After this version was complete, however, they realized that this would not be even close to releasable as a single, and decided to truncate the wild ending. John would take the vocals and other noises from the last six minutes and create another aural revolution over the next few days.
Track 2: Honey Pie
This next track was recorded near the back end of the sessions, on 1 October at Trident Studios where they’d recorded “Hey Jude” a few months earlier. [It's interesting to note that, unlike previous sessions where Abbey Road was completely booked, they chose Trident just for change of scenery this time, which was extremely rare for them.] All four members are here playing Paul’s ode to the Jazz Age: Paul plays a tinkling piano that must be quite reminiscent of his father’s jazz band; George performs bass duties here, playing minimally here to evoke the old timey stand-up bass; John plays short choppy chords on guitar here very similar to how he must have played banjo in his youth; and Ringo delivers tight brush drumming very similar to the 20′s jazz style. They captured the style perfectly, adding Glenn Miller-esque saxophones and clarinets as background, and a nice aural touch, the brief line “Now she’s hit the big time!” is heavily limited and underlaid with a scratchy vinyl sound to evoke an old, worn 78-rpm record. It could be another example of Paul’s “Granny music” that John disliked, but it’s a fun track nonetheless.
Track 3: Savoy Truffle
George’s fourth track for the album is a bit odd in its inspiration: the incurable sweet tooth of his friend Eric Clapton. Basing the lyrics on a number of flavored chocolates in the Good News box made by Mackintosh and the threat of having to visit the dentist after eating the whole box, George delivers a powerful rock track started at Trident on 3 October, with overdubs on 5 October (at Trident) and 11 October (at Abbey Road). It’s a searing track musically, with George delivering chunky guitar riffs and a strong double-tracked vocal (Paul and Ringo doing bass and drum duties respectively; John was not on this track), and a sextet of heavily distorted saxophones delivering not just a strong backing, but one hell of a great tandem solo alongside George’s guitar. An uncredited Chris Thomas (who’d delivered the harpsichord performance on “Piggies”) is present as well, playing a groovy organ riff here. The lyrics are simple, but it’s all about the delivery on this track; it’s one of George’s loudest tracks, and it even hints at some of the more rocking songs he’d deliver on All Things Must Pass a few years later.
Track 4: Cry Baby Cry
John started writing this track sometime in late 1967–it’s one of the last things mentioned in the first edition of Hunter Davies’ official biography, a song not quite finished at the time–and it was inspired by a television advertisement for a children’s toy proclaiming “Cry baby cry, make your mother buy…” Started on 16 July and finished a few days later, John in turn gave the track a very Carroll-esque nursery rhyme feel, where things are whimsical but with a dark underbelly. The lyrics are little more than mise-en-scene passages describing events that may sound exciting and mysterious to children, but to the adults are more tense and irritating. The music on the other hand is quite layered; it slowly builds from completely a completely acoustic John playing solo to a tight and tense full band performance. John’s vocal delivery never ventures further than a light conversation, but it counterpoints the underlying tension that’s slowly building until the song stops cold.
The tension may have been from the atmosphere in the studio at this time as well, as tempers and emotions were rising more and more. There were many and varied reasons for it: the outdated and outmoded office politics of EMI and Abbey Road, the tension of the everpresent Yoko sitting alongside John at every turn, the impatience at wanting to open their own Apple Studios, and just the frustration of four musicians slowly going their separate ways but none wanting to sacrifice their own creativity for someone else’s. During the 16 July session, engineer Geoff Emerick had finally had enough, and quit. He would not work with the band again until many months later when Paul and John whipped out “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, and he would continue to work alongside George Martin on later projects, but the damage had been done.
Separate from the song itself but often assigned to the end of this track on the recording is a brief untitled passage (often referred to as “Can You Take Me Back”) recorded during the 16 September sessions for “I Will” and drenched in reverb to give it an empty, lonely feel. It’s not part of the next track per se, but it’s a fine segue.
Track 5: Revolution 9
Quite possibly their most infamous track, and officially their longest (not including the “Helter Skelter” outtakes or the unreleased “Carnival of Light”), “Revolution 9″ picks up where “Revolution 1″ left off–sort of. John was inspired by Yoko Ono’s avant-garde vocal performances of the time, and the two had just recorded their experimental Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins a few weeks previous, and after the decision to truncate the ten-minute version of “Revolution 1″, he decided to try his own hand at experimentation. As with “Tomorrow Never Knows” a few years earlier, he created a cornucopia of soundbites and tape loops, from bits of classical music (the final chord of Sibelius’ Symphony No 7, Schuman’s Symphonic Studies played backwards, and even the ascending violins from “A Day in the Life”), source recordings from the Abbey Road library (football chants, sound effects, and an unnamed engineer’s test recording saying “…number nine”), new vocal samples from John and George, as well as a good portion of the vocals and sound effects from the back half of “Revolution 1″. To the passive listener, this could be just a bunch of random noise, but again, just like “Tomorrow…”, John wasn’t just throwing random sounds together; there’s a distinct flow to what you hear in this track.
The first thing we hear, quite low in the mix, is a mixing room conversation between Alistair Taylor and George Martin, added on the final day of album mixing:
A: “–bottle of claret for you if I’d realised. I’d forgotten all about it, George, I’m sorry.”
G: “Well, do next time.”
A: “Will you forgive me?”
G: [hedging] “Mmmm…yes…”
A: “Cheeky bitch.”
This short, funny non-sequitur of a prologue quickly turns over to what could be considered the motif of the entire track: the oft-repeated “number nine…number nine” loop, played over a quiet piano piece. At first one might expect this to be an atmospheric piece like “Cry Baby Cry”, but that expectation is quickly changed as slowly, more and more loops are entered into the mix. Thirty seconds in, we’re starting to hear more backwards loops, both from orchestral sources and from a mellotron passage. Tension rises and releases quickly as the loops are faded in, pushed up high, cut short, and faded in and out again over the course of the first minute or so. John comes in very low in the mix about a minute in, talking randomly about day-to-day frustrations (George will come in a few minutes later), perhaps to underscore the theme (so to speak) of an eventual upheaval–an aural revolution. The track becomes denser as it goes on, not always bursting with sound, but always hinting at something more sinister, just lurking a few seconds away. Bits of the original extended “Revolution 1″ finally make their appearance around two minutes in–a blaring siren-like guitar loop, John’s repeated grunts, groans, and hoots of “alright!”, among other things, even Yoko’s “…you become naked” makes an appearance in a decidedly naked part of the song (every sound aside from that line is potted down for a brief second). By the fifth minute it’s a cacophony of sounds, voices, shrieks, and sound effects (including the echo tape stopping and rewinding itself live), counterpointed every couple of seconds by a reversed angelic-sounding chorus. Nearing the end, the sounds start to fall apart; the nightmarish cacophony is disintegrating. By the eighth minute, we’re left high and dry on an American football field with yells of “Hold that line! Block that kick!”…perhaps another non-sequitur used as an epilogue this time.
Love or hate this track, it’s a fascinating piece of art.
Track 6: Good Night
The final track on The Beatles brings us back to reality, with a soothing and beautiful track written by John specifically for Ringo to sing. No members of the band play here (although John recorded a lovely piano and vocal-guide demo for it), the entirety of the music played by orchestral session musicians and given a choral backing, lovingly arranged by George Martin. It’s a fitting ending not just to the final side of the album, but to the album itself; after all the extremes we’ve visited in the course of the past twenty-nine songs, this final track brings us back down to Earth, calming our fears and seeing us into safe and relaxing slumber.
* * *
The final post-recording sessions for The Beatles took place in the third week of October, with last-minute overdubs, remixes and crossfades being worked on, mostly by John and Paul. Ringo took off for a two-week holiday with his family on 14 October, leaving the other three to finish up. George left a few days later for a trip to Los Angeles, and the final mixing editing taking place on a marathon twenty-four hour session on the 16th into the 17th of October. This last session was where John and Paul built the entire album as a cohesive whole–they worked not only on the running order, but how each song would flow into the next one. As mentioned previously, their plan was to have each song flow into the next somehow, either with matching notes or sounds, crossfades, or sharp edits. The album was released a little over a month later on 22 November.
Despite many critics’ (and George Martin’s) misgivings, The Beatles was an instant success and sold nearly two million copies in the first week of its US release. It’s a hard listen, it doesn’t contain a lot of their best work, and it’s also the project that nearly split them up–the exact opposite of intentions when they first started–but it’s also a fascinating listen as well. It could be seen as the Beatles trying their hand at progressive rock–songs for listening and analyzing rather than turning up and partying with. Still, it’s a fascinating piece of work and by far one of their most adventurous, both as the Beatles and as their own.
* * *
Leftovers, Outtakes, and Other Tracks of the Era
The Beatles was known for its plethora of songs, most of them written during their trip to India, but also tracks written during the sessions themselves. Even though an astonishing thirty tracks made it onto the double album, there were still more that were recorded, or at least demoed, and used on later projects. Many of them would show up in the next year for the Abbey Road and Let It Be projects, and still others would show up on solo albums. Here are a few of interest:
Revolution, Take 20
This fascinating bootleg track remained unreleased for decades, until it surfaced in March of 2009 on a European bootleg entitled Revolution Take…Your Knickers Off!. The full ten-minute version of “Revolution 1″ had never been released in its complete form or in such clear quality, and a number of fans rejoiced at finally hearing it. The first four minutes of the track are virtually the same as the version on The Beatles, with just a few unfamiliar overdubs (a high guitar squonk that shows up on “Revolution 9″, and a loop of the band singing a high A note in unison), and Paul and George singing a falsetto “Mama-Dada”. Soon after we start hearing the genesis of the sound effects and vocalisms that make up “Revolution 9″, in effect a more musical version of the aural revolution. The song eventually comes to a close with a breakdown and a bit of AM radio knob tweaking, John continuing to mumble “alright” and Yoko’s “you become naked” comment. Had they kept this extended version on the album, it would still have fit nicely as the starting track of Side D, or maybe even in place of “Revolution 9″.
This track from George, started with rehearsals on 7 August and given multiple takes over a few days, it nonetheless was dropped from the running after they could not decide on the best version. It’s an interesting track, a sweeping and upbeat melody underscored by dark, biting lyrics. It could possibly be seen that this was George’s not-so-subtle way of telling John and Paul “don’t blame me for your personal issues”, but it’s left obscure enough that it could be about anyone. George would eventually return to this track and deliver a much quieter yet no less biting version on his 1979 self-titled album.
What’s the New Mary Jane
Another bizarre track by John and assisted by George, Yoko and Mal Evans, this was started a week later on 14 August. It’s not nearly as weird and sinister as “Revolution 9″, but it could sit alongside that track as one of his more experimental tracks. It’s a simple tune played on piano with multiple sound effects and vocal layers thrown in during the chorus. At about the 2:10 mark, the sound builds chaotically with ringing bells, echoes, and maniacal laughter, only to fall apart a few moments later, ushering in a quiet, murky middle section of sound effects and hints of the melody motif, intended to invoke a descent into madness. Eventually we’re brought back to reality, with a ringing bell and brief return to the melody again, only to disintegrate once again at the end. John punctuates the end with a spoken “That’s it…! Before we get taken awa–” Although this was never officially released until the Anthology 3 compilation in 1996, it surfaced on many bootlegs, and John himself nearly released it as a solo Plastic Ono Band single (with “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” as the b-side!).
This track never got past the Esher demo stage, it’s a meandering spiritual study of the circular pattern of life. It’s not one of George’s strongest tracks, but nonetheless he returned to this one in 1982 for his Gone Troppo album.
Sour Milk Sea
Another track by George, this one didn’t get past the Esher demo stage either, and the band never recorded it elsewhere. Instead it was given to a recent Apple signing, Jackie Lomax, as his debut single (which features Paul, George and Ringo). It was a minor hit internationally, but did hit the Top 30 in Canada.
Child of Nature
John may have left Rishikesh in frustration and disgust, but that’s not to say that the spiritual intentions of the trip didn’t affect him somehow. This track may be a bit cloying–and sung with tongue firmly in cheek, given the overly earnest delivery on the demo–but it’s an interesting take on their India visit. The band never recorded the track, but John did return to the lovely melody just a few years later, completely rewriting the lyrics to create the track “Jealous Guy” off his Imagine album.
Another Esher demo, it has a very similar feel to “Mother Nature’s Son” as a Beatles song, and would have fit nicely alongside that track. Paul never got around to writing full lyrics for this track during the album sessions, but the melody was memorable enough that he saved it for his own McCartney album in 1970.
Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam
These two tracks were written either in India or soon after, and showed up on the Esher demos. They eventually showed up as part of the medley on the second side of Abbey Road.
This curious little pastiche of the Beach Boys’ surf rock sound, mentioned in an earlier post, was recorded most likely sometime in mid-March 1968 while the band was in India, as the latter half becomes a quick singing of “Happy Birthday” to Beach Boys singer Mike Love, who had also come along for the trip. The band never took it seriously and never expanded on it.
Peace of Mind (aka The Candle Burns, Pink Litmus Paper, or Pink Litmus Paper Shirt)
Quite possibly the most controversial bootlegged song attributed to the band, as it has never been proven whether or not it was actually them in the first place. It showed up on a number of early 70s Beatle bootlegs (often alongside other Beatlesque but decidedly non-Beatles tracks such as The Fut’s “Have You Heard the Word” and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “LS Bumblebee” and even given multiple names, as mentioned above), but it has since been dismissed as not being by the band at all. Still, the similarities to many of the other tracks written and demoed around the same time hint that it could possibly be them–the harmony vocal is very indicative of the John-Paul-George triad, and the semi-psychedelic lyrics are similar to their 1967-era releases. Additionally, the sound quality of the tape hints that it could very well have been recorded around the same time as “Spiritual Regeneration” on low-grade cassette. On the other hand, many have dismissed it due to its low quality, the vocals that don’t quite match the band’s in tone, the fact that a large number of sketchy demos arrived at Apple in 1968 during a misguided promotional project (and this could very well have been one of them), many state it’s an early Pink Floyd demo (which I have a hard time believing–it’s not their style or sound), and the fact that none of the surviving Beatles or band associates remember it at all. Nonetheless…it’s a fascinating song in and of itself and its authenticity is still occasionally debated, which is why I share it here.
* * *
End Note: Although The Beatles was a smashing success and continues to be a well-loved album, it also signaled the beginning of the end of the band. The intent was to come together as a cohesive unit, but instead they had grown apart. There are many and extremely varied reasons as to why the band eventually split in 1970, but the seeds were definitely sown during the recording of this album. The 1969-1970 era of the band is a bit confusing chronologically, as their next project after The Beatles was in fact the Get Back project, which started in January 1969, ended in frustration, and eventually returned in a much different form as the Let It Be album and movie in early 1970–but not before the “Get Back” single was released. In between was also the release of the Yellow Submarine album/soundtrack, a number of months after the movie came out in the summer of 1968. The delay was most likely due to the band not wanting it to step on the heels of The Beatles, but it also worked as a stopgap between the delayed Let It Be and their last true project as a band, Abbey Road. Internally they may have been falling apart, but externally they chose to soldier on and give their fans a quality product right up until the end.
Next Up: The Beatles Sixth Christmas Record and Yellow Submarine
Been busy with other writing projects over the last few days, so I haven’t had a chance to finish up with <I>The Beatles</I> today. I’ll try to have it sometime during this week, as I will be away for a friend’s wedding next weekend. Sorry about that! I believe that’s the last of the weekend social plans I have for the time being, so hopefully come October I’ll be able to update this on a steadier basis.
Thanks for your patience!
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