Album: The Beatles
Released: 22 November 1968
[Picture: The John Kelly portrait inserts as found inside the album, taken in the autumn of 1968. Kelly states that he took the portraits of John, George and Ringo at their new Apple Corps offices in Savile Row, while Paul’s picture was taken at his home in Cavendish Avenue.]
On a more personal note: I believe this was the last album I bought to complete my Beatles album collection. I had nearly every other US release, including Beatles ’65 which I found in the wrong cover (it was hidden inside a copy of the US Hey Jude compilation that I bought for fifty cents somewhere). The first copy of The Beatles I had was only the second disc, found for a dollar sans cover at a tag sale on the Templeton MA commons. I picked a new copy up probably a few months or a year later at the local department store, so in that interim, I got to know the ‘weirder half’ of this album before I’d heard the more straightforward former half. I only knew a few tracks at that point–“Back in the USSR”, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are featured on the 1967-1970 compilation–so hearing them in their proper context was a rather interesting experience.
In addition to that, since I was by then familiar with the Blue Album compilation, it took me a bit of time to get used to hearing those tracks in their proper chronological order. They are in fact so, but I was unaware until much later that “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”, found before the three above songs, were recorded during the same sessions as the album. More so were the singles that appeared after the White Album tracks on that compilation–“Get Back”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, “The Ballad of John & Yoko” and “Old Brown Shoe” showing up before the Abbey Road and Let It Be tracks. While these four tracks weren’t recorded during sessions for The Beatles, they were recorded and released in early 1969, before either of those later albums were released. Even though I would quickly become familiar with and prefer their late 60s output, it was also the era that I knew about least in terms of the band’s history. It was because of this that my Beatles collecting would soon branch into the numerous books that are out there.
Given that pretty much anyone can write about the band at this point, what with the ridiculous amount of information and resources out there to do so, I did pick up a few that were of some help such as Nicholas Shaffner’s The Beatles Forever, and a great book about Beatles bootlegs by Charles Reinhart called You Can’t Do That (this is the book that made me hunger for all the unreleased stuff, even if it was mostly subpar). There’s a lot of chaff and a lot of repeated info–not to mention a lot of contradictory info–that can be found in these. It wasn’t until the late 90s that I came across Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions that I knew I’d hit paydirt–this book, along with his The Complete Beatles Chronicles released soon after, are absolutely brilliant tomes about the band’s whereabouts as well as the major details of what was recorded, and when and how it evolved. Lewisohn could be considered the premier Beatles chronologist, as he is one of the very few who have talked with all four members exclusively about their history, not to mention that he’s also one of the extremely rare few who were given carte blanche on all their session tapes. I’ve been using these two books almost exclusively during this blog series, and they are highly recommended for any Beatles fan who doesn’t own them already. He’s due to release a new book series called The Beatles: All These Years that I am eagerly awaiting.
So without further ado…
Here’s where the band has, for the most part, put away their acoustic guitars (save for a few remaining tracks) and turned up the volume. From here on in, we’re going to hear a harder, edgier band putting down some of the rawest tracks of their career.
Track 1: Birthday
This track seems to have been inspired by the spirit of rock and roll, come to think of it. On paper it’s a simple blues riff in A that Paul made up right there in the studio along with simple celebratory lyrics, but the band simply bashed the hell out of it on 18 September. It just so happened that on that night, the band stopped recording halfway through so they could skip over to Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue (roughly about a quarter mile away and a quick walk) so they could watch the television premiere of the classic 1956 rock movie The Girl Can’t Help It. It must have stirred some memories of their early days starting out, as you can hear the wild party atmosphere they subsequently laid down on this track. Paul and John share dual duty on lead guitar here with George playing bass, and Ringo hammering away on his kit. Paul delivers one of his strongest, loudest vocals since “Long Tall Sally” here. Overdubs include piano backing by Paul, backing vocals from John, Paul and George along with Pattie Harrison and Yoko Ono, and handclaps by everyone involved (including Mal Evans).
It may be a simple blues riff indeed, but it’s one hell of a powerhouse, and still gets heavy play on classic rock radio. It was even referenced in John Hughes’ teenage romp Sixteen Candles (Anthony Michael Hall riffs on it briefly during a scene). It’s even been known to be played and/or sung in lieu of the old standard “Happy Birthday” at certain birthday parties at this point!
Track 2: Yer Blues
One of the most peculiar sessions for this project, and for the band itself, took place on 12 August in a small annex upstairs off the Studio Two control room at Abbey Road. The room itself was actually a large store room that contained various bits and bobs used for recording, which were quickly moved to insert the foursome and the barest of instrumentation. With just John and George on lead, Paul on bass, and Ringo on drums, this track went through fourteen takes (three additional “takes” were actually reductions of previous takes to be used for final editing) and captures the band laying down some fierce blues riffs. John wrote this as sort of a parody of the British blues scene as well as Dylan’s more obtuse lyrics, but on its own it’s a fantastic piece. It’s raw and dirty, it’s sloppy and there’s a horrible edit at 3:17 in, but it’s the band at their live best; even Ringo has mentioned that this session reminded him of their early Hamburg days.
Track 3: Mother Nature’s Son
Paul features on a third solo track here, recorded on 9 August after the rest of the band had gone home for the evening (they’d been working on George’s “Not Guilty” for the last few days, still unhappy with the results). Recorded in one evening in twenty-five takes (number 24 being the best), it featured Paul primarily on guitar, later overdubbing himself on second guitar and minimal drums, and George Martin adding brass to the latter half of the song. With lyrics inspired by one of the Maharishi’s lectures they sat in on while in India, it’s an absolutely gorgeous pastoral track unlike any of the other acoustic-based songs on the album. Paul’s guitar work here is simple yet effective, though the guitar countermelody he uses in the solo starting at 2:12 is breathtaking. Interestingly, this track would fit quite nicely on Paul’s first solo album, McCartney, which would be released a year and a half later, so this track could also be seen as Paul’s true venture into his own sound apart from the band.
The history of the track, however, does carry a downside: during the overdub session on 20 August (the same day he recorded “Wild Honey Pie” alone), he was working solo with Martin, when John and Ringo stopped by for a few minutes while working on finishing up “Yer Blues”. John apparently could not stand when Paul worked alone without the rest of the band, and per engineer Ken Scott, ‘you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.’ It would be one of many moments that would eventually cause an irreparable rift within the band. [Taking this event objectively, neither party is solely to blame. Paul was often impatient, especially when he wanted to try something new and fun, and would often go off and try it by himself. John, on the other hand, could be extremely jealous at times and was often frustrated by Paul’s distractions, making him feel he was not fully in charge.]
Track 4: Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
It’s quite hazy what this song is really about…it could be a reference to one of the Maharishi’s lectures that mentioned “everybody’s got something to hide…”; it could be about John and Yoko’s budding relationship, in which he felt they had nothing to hide but everyone else felt paranoid; it could even be about his growing drug dependency and his slow fall into heroin addiction. Either way, this track from 27 June is quite a wild ride. Playing with their normal lineup here (John on rhythm, George on lead, Paul on bass, Ringo on drums), they manage to lay down a hell of a lot of noise with the overdubs (handclaps by all, and a hand bell played by Paul within an inch of its life). The song is relatively simple, though the bare intro of guitar and drums is played off-beat to catch you off guard.
Track 5: Sexy Sadie
John’s departure from India had not been a peaceful one. Depending on who you ask (and which biography you read), he was either bored and/or disappointed in what the Maharishi had to offer and was looking for a way out, or he left in disgust as rumors began building that the Maharishi had sexually assaulted some of the female guests. Either way, the man had not risen to John’s admittedly heightened expectations, and eventually he wrote a song about his disappointment. It was never recorded or even rehearsed in this form, of course, though on 19 July when they started recording this track, there is a brief passage on the tapes where John shows Paul the original opening lines, starting with “Maharishi, you little twat…” Suffice it to say, he chose to be the better man and made the lyrics more obscure, focusing on a fictional woman disappointing him instead. The bitterness is still quite present, however.
Track 6: Helter Skelter
In late 1967, Pete Townshend had sold up the Who’s latest single, “I Can See for Miles” , as ‘the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song [the band] had ever recorded.’ The Beatles, of course, always took such bravado as a personal challenge; they’d done so with Sgt Pepper as a response to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, among other things. This time out, Paul took the bait and wrote the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song they’d ever recorded. Partly a response to growing comments that he always wrote ballads, Paul set out to write the most sinister song he could. The phrase “helter-skelter” itself is British slang for a chaotic mess, but it’s also the name of an amusement park slide; using the double meaning as a metaphor, the lyrics alongside the noise give the sense that he’s not just warning us of impending chaos, he’s reveling in it.
The recording history on this track is fascinating as well: The first three takes on 18 July were all of epic length: Take 1 was 10:40, Take 2 was 12:35, and Take 3 was a phenomenal 27:11. At this point the song was nowhere near as loud and cacophonous–an edit of the slow, bluesy Take 2 can be found on Anthology 3–but the dark and sinister feeling was definitely present. It wasn’t until 9 September that they tried again and came up with a much shorter but much louder end result with Take 21. Paul is on lead here, with John on bass and George on rhythm. They play so damn hard on this take that, in the last minute or so of the song, it’s clear that their guitars have gone distressingly out of tune, which only adds to the insanity. This was also the final take with Ringo, exhausted and in pain, finally screaming out the iconic “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!!!” at the end of the take. Overdubs containing vocals, handclaps, and Mal Evans creating even more noise with blurts of a trumpet were added the next day, and the final version is possibly one of the scariest songs by any band at that time.
Track 7: Long, Long, Long
Not a second goes by after the last crash of Ringo’s drums on the previous track as we’re dropped into one of the quietest tracks the band ever recorded. Often considered one of George’s most underrated songs, it’s a lovely ballad in a very slow 6/8 time that contains some really fine dynamics. The verses as well as the music contained therein are always delivered quietly and plainly on guitar and Hammond organ, sometimes with beautiful harmony added here and there, and counterbalanced with loud crashing fills from Ringo at the end of each line. The bridge (“So many tears I was searching…”), built up via a stuttering tense drum fill and interestingly underscored by George’s guitar, is an exclamation of emotion; it’s George stating what he had gone through before finally finding love in the person (or deity?) the song is about. He calms down briefly, delivering another few words of devotion. After the final heartfelt “oh, I love you…”, it lands on a quiet C note. What happens next is unexpected and interesting: during this session, the low C that Paul happened to hit on the organ just happened to resonate the bottle of Blue Nun wine sitting on top of it. Fascinated by this unexpected bit of physics, they tried it again and inserted it at the end, creating a coda invoking a swirling chaos of spirit released. Lastly, it ends on an unresolved, sighing D-minor chord–the energy may have seeped away, but that one chord hints that there could have been more. A lovely end to the song, and to the third side of the album.
* * *
By this time we’ve been brought to heraldic highs, demonic lows, and everywhere in between on this album. The listener has either become wary, thinking the Fab Four had finally gone off the deep end and recorded the equivalent of navel-gazing prog rock, or they’ve become fascinated by the sheer breadth and magnitude of their work. They somehow pulled it off on these three sides, with maybe a few fillers but nary a song that falls completely flat. So how the heck are they going to tie this all together? What could they possibly give the listener on the final side?
Next Up: The Beatles, Side D