Album: The Beatles
Released: 22 November 1968
[Picture: Inside the gatefold cover of the album. The left side contains the song listing, the right side contains smaller black-and-white images of the John Kelly portrait inserts.]
Production-wise, this album is quite fascinating as a whole. As I’d mentioned in the previous installment, a good portion of the songs had been written and planned out during or immediately after their trip to India, so the outcome was that many of these songs have an acoustic base to them. This leads to many of the tracks feeling deliberately sparse, not quite folk but not quite rock either. The remaining tracks were written either in-studio or in between studio time, and have a more complete and electric sound to them. This lets the entire collection of tracks play off each other, such as the switch from “Bungalow Bill” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. There’s also an emotional dichotomy going on as well, such as the playful “Martha My Dear” to the cranky “I’m So Tired”. There may have not been a specific theme going on here, but they were at least coming up with specific song ideas and working them through.
Once the band had recorded as many songs as they could for this project, they sat down and began the process of preparing the final mixes and working out the running order. There were a few arguments as to what would stay and what would go–George’s “Not Guilty” and John’s loopy “What’s the New Mary Jane?” would not officially see the light of day until Anthology 3 (though both were available for quite some time on bootlegs)–but eventually it was culled down to an even thirty tracks. The mono and stereo mixes were done separately, such as the previous albums. This would be the last album to do so, with all remaining albums and some singles being mixed only in stereo. Due to this procedure, a good handful of the mono tracks have distinct differences from their stereo counterparts; one fascinating example is the mono “Helter Skelter”, which contains more backing sound effects, but omits the final fade-in and “I’ve got blisters…” ending of the stereo version, and is nearly a minute shorter.
The running order, at least to me, is fascinating in that it starts relatively light with the one-two punch of “Back in the USSR” and “Dear Prudence”…only to start getting a little weird soon after. The album soon takes a dive–in a metaphorical sense–and becomes darker and stranger, its songs growing heavier and grittier, until we’re given the nightmare that is “Revolution 9”. Thankfully, we are pulled out of that nightmare soon after with the tender string ballad of “Good Night”, letting us know that everything’s all right in the end, even after all that. This running order was not done randomly, not in the least. In fact, the band had decided to lay down a few ground rules: George’s four compositions that passed the test were each put on one side each, Ringo’s two vocals were put on the second side of each record, the balance of John and Paul songs were to be as even as possible, ensuring that there were no more than two of their songs back to back. Other rules popped up as well: all three “animal” songs were put here on Side B; the loud and the soft songs were also to be as evenly spaced out to achieve balance; there were also to be minimal moments of silence in between the tracks.
All these rules might be hard to implement, but given the breadth of the songs they had on hand, it wasn’t as hard as it sounded. They were even able to segue certain songs either deliberately (John’s “‘eh-up!” at the end of “Bungalow Bill” signaling the start of “While My Guitar…”, or the cold ending of “Cry Baby Cry” switching to a brief unlisted Paul track often referred to as “Can You Take Me Back” which fades into the beginning of “Revolution 9”), or obliquely (the crash ending of “Helter Skelter” giving way to the quiet opening of “Long Long Long”).
For the casual music and/or Beatles fan, a listener might not notice such things, but for an avid music fan and one who understands the importance of segues and balances (such as one who makes mixtapes an artform, or the free-form disc jockey of yore), it’s a highly detailed and nuanced record. The initial reviews were understandably mixed when the album first came out, partly due to critics expecting another brilliant Sgt Pepper but also due to the fact that there’s so much here that it’s a bit hard to swallow in one sitting. Regardless, over the years it’s become a fan favorite and one that’s often studied and listened to over and over. One will always find something they hadn’t noticed before, or finally understand what the band was trying to do with a certain track or mix.
The second side of the album is probably the lightest of the four, given that there are quite a few acoustic-based tracks here. It’s also the side with the least number of songs normally heard on radio (and none that actually show up on post-breakup non-Anthology compilations) and thus probably the least recognized tracks for the casual listener. At the same time, there are a few very personal tracks here that are worth listening to, for quite varying reasons.
Track 1: Martha My Dear
It’s well-documented that the “Martha” in the title is the name of Paul’s sheepdog at the time, but the true subject of the song is apparently Jane Asher. Their relationship was pretty much at an end by the time this was recorded (started 4 October, close to the end of the sessions), but instead of the dynamics of the song matching his emotions, he chose instead to make the song as lighthearted as possible. The end result has his peppy and bouncy piano underscoring a much less positive lyric; the woman in the song is not so much vindictive as she is selfish and perhaps blissfully ignorant of it. In the end, the “be good to me” lyric isn’t a hope that she likes him too (such as their early lyrics)–it’s a plea to stop hurting him.
Musically it’s quite detailed; the song is in E-flat major, though there are liberal chord changes throughout the song, giving it a sense of restlessness. Also of note is the bridge (“Hold your head up, you silly girl…”) is in F major, one full step up, making it sound out of place, especially when the bridge’s end is an abrupt three-note phrase back to E-flat. One final note: this was one of a handful of tracks recorded at Trident House and not Abbey Road, which explains the difference in sound. The Beatles’ tracks at Abbey Road always had a deep, rich sound due to the studio’s original plan of recording orchestras; Trident’s sound tended to be a bit closer and with less natural reverberation, so this track definitely has a tighter feel aurally.
Track 2: I’m So Tired
John reveals his cantankerousness here with a song inspired by insomnia. After weeks in India away from Yoko and being unable to sleep, his natural inclination to write a song about it comes to the fore in a cranky-yet-fun blues track. The lyrics almost harken back to his early Beatles tracks of unrequited love, being unable to cope with his life because his love is far away; in this case, however, he’s revealed that he’s so far gone in love with this girl that it’s keeping him up at night. It’s one of John’s more emotional songs, and yet here he manages to keep everything in check, even when the emotion seeps out of the growing cracks.
Recorded the same night as “Bungalow Bill” (8 October), it’s both lethargic and full of energy at the same time, balancing itself between quiet and meandering verses bemoaning his exhaustion, and the built-up tension of the choruses (“You’d say I’m putting you on…”) that explode with his desperate plea for peace of mind. Each section plays off each other, growing more irritable as the song wears on, until the final chorus has him screaming “I’m going insane!” and belting out a repeated plea before the song stops cold. John then balances his anger with an mumbling “Monsieur, Monsieur, how about another one…?” as the song ends, a tired-out old man falling back in his armchair, his weary butler at his side.
Track 3: Blackbird
Paul’s gorgeous acoustic piece was inspired musically by Bach’s “Bourrée in E Minor” (specifically, the bass strings counterpointing the melody on the higher strings, and a piece Paul and George would try to learn as a “show-off” piece), but lyrically it was inspired by the escalating racial tensions in the United States during 1968. Written earlier in the year in Scotland, he wished not to write a protest song but one of personal and spiritual uplift and hope, even during the worst of times. The main message is perseverance. He didn’t exactly reveal this right away when the song was released, so many may have thought this was a simple and slight folk song, but given its true meaning, it’s become a well-loved and oft-covered piece. Crosby, Stills and Nash would cover this track a year later during their set at Woodstock, much to the audience’s joy.
Recorded relatively early in the sessions (11 June) while John was off in another studio noodling with more sound effects for “Revolution 9”, this one is Paul alone on a Martin D28 acoustic, and using his own shoetapping as a metronome and percussion. In just 32 takes–only eleven of which were complete–he started and finished one of his most stunning pieces ever. To this day he still plays this song live, without any accompaniment.
Track 4: Piggies
George’s wicked sense of humor shines through on another track seemingly based on London’s wealthy bankers and other fiscal conservatives. A biting satire on the blissful ignorance of the upper class, the song is even played in a Baroque style to further the image of their stiffness, though he bends the classical rules a bit by throwing quite a few un-Baroque phrases in there (such as a blues riff on the harpsichord right about at the :55 mark). Interestingly, this also showcases the extent of George’s vocal range during the final multi-voiced verse, one voice hitting a low E-flat, and another voice hitting a high B-flat just a few seconds later.
The track was recorded on 19 September with all four members of the band, though an uncredited Chris Thomas–the producer on hand, as George Martin was then on vacation–had not only suggested the harpsichord piece, but played it himself. One quite fascinating note of this evening’s recording: though they were not recorded and were still being written at this time, George also spent a bit of time that night noodling around with a new composition called “Something”, and Paul jammed between takes on his new song called “Let It Be”. Neither song would be recorded at this time, but would resurface within the next year.
Track 5: Rocky Raccoon
Paul returns with a western story song where you can practically hear the dust and the tumbleweeds. Some might see this track as a pastiche of an old-school country-western ballad, but as always, the band turn it into something dynamically interesting. Starting off as a meandering guitar lick as if he was sitting out on the dusty porch somewhere in the wild west–and even delivering the prologue lyrics in a fake American western accent–he quickly jumps into the story of the strong but tender Rocky, heartbroken by his girl, Lil/Nancy Magill, who’d left him for some brute name Dan, and his attempt to win her back. John’s harmonica makes a very welcome return here, first echoing the “local saloon” line, and then kicking it up at the hoedown. By the second verse, the instruments have started slowly coming in, with bass (played by John here), and Ringo quietly playing snare (and punctuating Rocky’s getting shot with a loud snare hit) before the hoedown interlude kicks in. At this point, George Martin supplies a wonderful honky tonk piano, placed far off in the mix to create a spatial image of the large saloon, the upright off in the corner. After another return to finish the story (and introduce the drunk doctor to help Rocky survive), the song ends with another uplifting hoedown, with the stubborn Rocky refusing to give up.
Track 6: Don’t Pass Me By
Ringo’s first vocal track on the album is also officially his first solo-written song as well. He’d started writing this song about four years earlier in 1964 (in fact, it’s hinted at during a Top Gear episode in July of that year) and finally makes its debut here. It’s a simple three-chord blues song inserted into an almost countrified setting (thus a nice segue from the previous track there), and it isn’t that strong of a song, but it’s as always a fun track from him. Featuring only Ringo on percussion and the occasional piano with Paul offering piano and bass, and introducing local jazz musician Jack Fallon on violin, it was the second track recorded for the project on 5 June, with various overdubs added a few days later. The mono mix is slightly faster and the violin track is different than the more widely known stereo version. Of note is an unused orchestral piece that George Martin scored as a prologue to the track, but ultimately unused on the album; the introduction, later entitled “A Beginning” on the Anthology 3 album, would be used in edited form as a musical cue in Yellow Submarine, specifically during the sunrise and start of day in Liverpool sequence just before “Eleanor Rigby” starts.
Track 7: Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
Paul slipped into the studio on 9 October while George was working on overdubs for “Long Long Long” (and added Ringo’s drumming as an overdub the next day while George worked on “Piggies” overdubs and John on “Glass Onion” overdubs) and whipped out this short track of just under two minutes. It’s a solo experiment track on the lines of “Wild Honey Pie”, it features him riffing on the three-chord blues, singing the sparse lyrics alternately loud and soft. Paul states that this is exactly what you think it’s about–it was inspired by an event he’d witnessed while in India, in which two monkeys in the road stopped and, well, did it in the road…then zipped off a few moments later as if nothing had happened. He was struck by the hilarity of it–why are we as humans so uptight about such things in public, and yet animals don’t care in the least? A completely pointless song, but a fun little filler nonetheless.
Track 8: I Will
The fascinating thing about this track is that it would fit perfectly on Rubber Soul. Written mostly in India and recorded 16 September with Paul on guitar and both John and Ringo on percussion (George was not present at the time), this soft acoustic track is a simple love song reminiscent of his folkier moments from that album or even the latter half of Help!. For such a short song, however, the track took sixty-seven takes, with Take 65 considered the best one, which would then have vocal overdubs–including Paul mimicking a bass line with his own voice–and finished late that evening. In between this session, the trio did meander into a few jams, including a few that would show up on Anthology 3 with their cover of Paul’s “Step Inside Love” which he would give to Cilla Black, as well as the untitled song (often referred to as “Can You Take Me Back”, which pops up on Take 19) that was given heavy reverb and served as a spooky introduction to “Revolution 9” on Side D.
Track 9: Julia
The very last song recorded for The Beatles took place the evening of 13 October, with only John and Paul in the studio at the time. This heartwarming (and heartbreaking) ode to his mother, who had been killed ten years earlier when hit by a drunken off-duty officer, is played solo in the Travis-style picking that he’d learned that spring in India via Donovan. While the style used in “Dear Prudence” is meant to drive the song and lighten the mood, here it’s used more as a way to create a fugue with its strict repetitiveness. It could possibly be seen as one of John’s first personal songs that deal with his relationship (or lack thereof) with his parents, which would culminate with the searing “Mother” off his Plastic Ono Band album. Interestingly, this song also hints at his blossoming relationship with Yoko, especially when he mentions “ocean child”–a roundabout translation of Yoko’s name.
Though Paul is nowhere on this song, it is known that he was in the studio that night, as he is heard cheering John on during one of the takes that shows up on Anthology 3. Clearly Paul was moved and impressed by this track and its delicateness, as he has nothing but wonderful things to say about it on that take.
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Although “Julia” ends with a lovely last strum of an acoustic guitar, this first record of the two-disc set actually ends on somewhat of a hesitant note. Had this been a single-disc album, having two light acoustic tracks finish off the album would have been somewhat of an odd choice. However, as a halfway point between the lighter, more positive tracks of the first disc and the darker, harder tracks of second, it works not just as a good segue but also as a delineator. By the end of Side B we’ve not only heard full band rock-outs but sparse single-player tracks, but each one of them is as organic as possible, with only the lightest touch of experimental tweaking. Each song is built up and produced exactly how it should be, with nary an overwrought track like Sgt Pepper may have been. Even more interesting is the deliberate lack of any theme; each song is written and played for its own benefit without any ulterior motive or preplanned link.
Again, to the casual fan, The Beatles may sound quite a bit of an overindulgent mess of half-baked songs and unfinished experiments. Even more so, one could see it as “four guys recording a solo album together”, as it’s so often described, especially given the history behind it. Despite all that, however, the album remains cohesive as a whole: a band who has decided not to record an album of songs, but a band who has recorded a number of songs to be compiled onto an album. The Beatles, more than anything, is a compilation of sorts. It’s the end result of a social experiment of four musicians detaching themselves from the world for a short time in an attempt to find themselves, both as individuals and as a band.
Next Up: The Beatles, Side C