Blogging the Beatles 47/48: the “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko”/”Old Brown Shoe” singles

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Blogging the Beatles 45/46: The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record and Yellow Submarine

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.

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Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

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.

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Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

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.

Side A

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.

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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

Blogging the Beatles 44d: The Beatles, Side D, plus outtakes and leftovers



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.

Side D

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.

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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.

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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”.

Not Guilty
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.

Spiritual Generation
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.

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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

Blogging the Beatles 44c: The Beatles, Side C



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…

Side C

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

Blogging the Beatles 44b: The Beatles, Side B



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.

Side B

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.

*   *   *

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

Blogging the Beatles 44a: The Beatles, Side A

The spring of 1968 was a turning point for the Beatles, in that they were, possibly for the very first time, going it completely alone.  While Brian Epstein’s position seemed to be receding into the background once they quit touring, he had always been their anchor on the business end of things.  Now they were free to do what they wanted to do…which of course is always a double-edged sword.  The creative freedom they now let them go down any musical avenues they so chose…but with that came the possibility of writing half-baked songs that said little to nothing to anyone except themselves.  Their financial status let them try out different things, such as the Apple Boutique, possible electronics and media interests…but considering that they knew next to nothing about economics, many of those interests fell flat rather quickly.  They soon realized that perhaps it was time to back up and focus on what they did best: the music.

This stretch of time was also an attempt to get their heads cleared as well.  The insanity of the first half of the decade and the frustrations and lack of direction in the previous year were now behind them; with George Harrison’s suggestion, they chose to go along with their “spiritual enlightenment” and head off to India to study under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.  Under more normal circumstances, this may have been a good idea; this extended vacation would not only give them time to “come back down to Earth” but also to refuel themselves creatively and find a new direction.  However, it wasn’t nearly as clear-cut.

John’s relationship with Cynthia was on a dangerous decline.  While Cynthia chose to remain strong, be a mother to Julian, and attempt to stay positive, John on the other hand had grown more frustrated and claustrophobic; it was quite evident that they were two completely different and mismatched people.  John had also started meeting with Yoko Ono at this time, first as friends but slowly becoming lovers.  One telling moment of this change was during the initial train out of the city that would bring the band members and their wives to the airport; at the last moment, just as the train had finished boarding, the band hurried on…but in the rush, John had sprinted ahead and jumped on, leaving Cynthia behind.  Paul, on the other hand, had had enough with Jane Asher’s flightiness.  By the middle of 1968 they had broken up and gone their separate ways.  They had both taken the trip to India, but it was evident that they were hanging in different social circles, and, like John and Cynthia, they weren’t the best match for each other.

That isn’t to say it was all marital difficulties.  At this time George and Patti were getting along well, and Ringo and Maureen were doing just fine.  However, the main issue with the India trip was that, had it been personal decisions by the four members rather than a group decision, there may have been more leeway in the relationship between them.  It was evident that Ringo was not entirely excited about the India trip–he being more of an “I’ll come along because everyone else will be there” sort of person–and left after only a few weeks for personal reasons: Ringo’s delicate digestive system could not handle the rich Indian delicacies, and Maureen could not stand the weather and the constant bother of insects.

Which left John, Paul and George.  Out of the three, it was obvious that George was the most dedicated.  Paul was open-minded but not completely enthusiastic.  John, on the other hand, wanted to be dedicated but could not bring himself to George’s level.  Eventually John and Paul would sneak off during hours they should have been meditating, visiting each other’s cabins and writing songs just like in the old days.  It has never been proven exactly what caused John to leave India so abruptly, though there were rumors that the Maharishi had been caught flirting with (and possibly assaulting) some of the female visitors.  John would eventually dismiss this, stating that he had been wanting to leave earlier anyway and had used that rumor as a valid reason, whether or not it was true.

That said…despite their semi-foiled plans, it wasn’t a complete disaster.  During those few months in India, they had written over three dozen songs and were itching to get back into the studio to record them.  They even had a new focus: this next project was going to be the anti-Sgt Pepper album, full of solid rock songs with no pretext.  They weren’t going to write any more psychedelic songs, nor were they going to head into the studio with no plan “and see what popped up.”  As John would say, they’d done all that already…it was time to record another rock album.

Early in May, they reconvened at George’s house, Kinfauns, in Esher, to record a number of demos of the songs they’d written during their trip.  The backlog of songs was so rich and varied that, even after recording thirty-three of them in the studio, they’d whittled the playlist down to an even thirty.  A number of demos would be held back until the next two projects in 1969, and some would end up on solo albums.  Two songs of George’s, “Circles” and “Not Guilty”, would not see the light of day until he re-recorded them nearly a decade later.  The songs varied from straight-ahead rock to sing-along folk, from quiet balladry to frenzied guitar freak-out and musique concrete.  There would not be any single specific genre here.



Album: The Beatles
Released: 22 November 1968

The Beatles, often referred to as “the White Album”, is indeed a sprawling album and not an easy one to listen to if one is used to the more compact and poppier albums they’d released. It is, however, an interesting work of art, even down to the visual level. There had been a number of names kicked around for this project, but as the sessions wore on, it became evident that having it self-titled would make the most sense. This was a new look at the band: it wasn’t the psychedelic Beatles of 1967 or the moptops of the early 60s; this was a rock band writing and recording songs that were unlike anything they’d done previously. The anti-Sgt Pepper idea had also extended to the point that, instead of the fantastical color splash of that album, this album would be the exact opposite. Hiring artist Richard Hamilton, the packaging would be thus: a completely white cover, with the band’s name lightly embossed, and a unique (but not exactly limited) serial number printed on it. The cover, in fact, looked exactly like vinyl bootlegs of the time, which often had no printed label save for a stamped title or a low-quality photocopy of the track listing taped to it. The packaging included a fold-out poster with printed lyrics on one side and a collage of Beatle pictures on the other (including two semi-nude Beatles, much to many fans’ surprise). Initial runs and some later reprints also included four portraits of the band taken by John Kelly. The album itself, however, remained as simple as possible; the gatefold opened up to small grayscale versions of the portraits, and a simple listing of the songs, nothing more.

All the true magic lay within, on the vinyl.

Side A

Track 1: Back in the USSR
The album starts off with this tight Beach Boys-influenced rocker and possibly one of the strongest songs they’d recorded during these sessions. On the other hand, the sessions for this track–22 and 23 August, much later in the project–were also one of more acrimonious for the band. Specifically, Ringo, having spent a goodly amount of session time for the last few albums sitting around waiting for the other three to finish squabbling and figure out what they were going to play, had finally had enough and quit the band. He would be gone for about two weeks, finally returning on 5 September (to much love and apologies from the band). However, his absence meant that someone else would need to play the drums. In this instance (and with the next track), it fell to Paul. Paul was actually a very adequate drummer with a great sense of time and rhythm, and it shows here. Unlike Ringo’s style, which is more laid back and unobtrusive, Paul lays down a quick-paced thundering beat. The threesome would be overdubbing themselves on multiple parts here, each playing a bit of bass and guitar.

[Interesting side note: it’s said Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love actually suggested singing about the girls in Russia, as a joking reference to their own “California Girls”. Mike was part of the group that visited India and became good friends with the band. Check out the bootleg track “Spiritual Regeneration”, which is another Beach Boys pastiche and a birthday song for Mike.]

Track 2: Dear Prudence
This track, also recorded during Ringo’s absence, is a gorgeous and deceptively simple track written by John. Story goes that Prudence Farrow (actress Mia’s sister) was such a devout follower of the Maharishi at the time she would rarely set foot outside, and this song was written as a way to get her to socialize more, that she needn’t meditate so completely and obsessively. Also of note is a new fingerpicking style that John learned from pop-folk singer Donovan (another India visitor). John enjoyed playing this style once he’d figured it out, and would use it on many future Beatles and solo tracks. Paul is once again the drummer here, with John on the cyclical fingerpicking riff and George playing a wonderful lead melody that complements John’s.

[Another in my top picks of Beatles songs…I love the melody, and it’s some of John and George’s best guitar work.]

Track 3: Glass Onion
When John wanted to be a smartass, he certainly would never hold back; he’d go for the jugular each and every time. This track is a biting response to all the obsessed listeners who would read way too much into the Beatles’ lyrics, specifically the supposed hidden messages sprinkled throughout the Sgt Pepper album. Just as he’d written “I Am the Walrus” as a completely incomprehensible lyric on purpose, this was more direct–he name-drops multiple previous Beatles song here, from “The Fool on the Hill” and “Fixing a Hole” and even the recent single “Lady Madonna”. The line “Here’s another clue for you all/The Walrus was Paul” was originally just another wiseass lyric, but it would soon take on new meaning when the somewhat ridiculous “Paul is Dead” urban legend took hold a year or so later.

Musically it’s not too adventurous, though there’s a lot of sinister-sounding chord changes here that try to evoke tension–a great balance to the admittedly silly lyrics, making one wonder whether John’s being serious or just playing us for fools. An interesting alternate mix, made before orchestral overdubs, is heard on the Anthology 3 compilation, with odd sound effects (bell rings, glass shattering, and sports announcer sound bites) added throughout.

Track 4: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
One of the more jubilant tracks on the album, this one has somewhat of an interesting recording history, starting on 3 July. It being one of Paul’s original songs written in India, its original, more acoustic version is more of a plodding singalong that hints at having been sung live while there. John, on the other hand, openly hated this song (having called it “his granny music shit” at various points), despite delivering tight “la-la-la” background vocals. After five days of attempting this version, John came in wasted the next evening–always a bad sign, as he would be in prime form for relentless spite–and sat down at the piano. Giving Paul a glare, he hollered “This is how we do it!”…and proceeded to play the much faster, piano-driven and reggae-tinged version you hear today.

Apparently this version not only broke the tension that had been mounting, but on 9 July they added a bunch of banter to the mix, including much laughing, clapping and other noises. Of note is a bit of studio silliness: at 1:35 during “…Desmond lets the children lend a hand”, John responds with an “Arm!” and George with “Leg!” nearly off mike; this happens again at 2:27 with Paul’s “…Molly lets the children lend a hand” with George this time responding with “Foot!”

Track 5: Wild Honey Pie
One of the shorter songs in the Beatles’ catalog, clocking in at a mere fifty-five seconds, this was a quickly recorded experiment of Paul’s while John and Ringo were busy elsewhere, and George was away on a quick three-day trip to Greece. Many studio experiments were thrown around at this time, and many of them were shoehorned into other songs (such as Paul’s “Can you take me back…” from the “I Will” session being added on to the end of “Cry Baby Cry”), but this little bit was Paul’s attempt at layering multiple sounds on top of each other. Thus the multiple guitars using the tremolo arm (aka, the whammy bar) and multiple Pauls howling away. It very nearly did not make the cut, but apparently George’s wife Patti enjoyed it so much they kept it.

Track 6: The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Another campfire singalong-style track from India, this track of John’s is an acid comment on an American visitor to the ashram. While John was his usual abrasive self to those he didn’t know well, he took a particular dislike to this person and his mother. Story goes that they completely missed the point of what life at the ashram was about, having brought a ridiculous amount of luggage and having gone out tiger hunting (and being quite proud of a particular kill he’d made)–to put it bluntly, they weren’t there for the spirituality, but to say they hobnobbed with the Beatles and the Maharishi.

The recording for this track was incredibly quick–“I’m So Tired” from Side B was recorded and finished on the same night as well–and includes not just the four Beatles but Ringo’s wife Maureen and Yoko Ono singing background (with Yoko adding the mother’s line “Not when he looked so fierce”), and associate producer Chris Thomas kicking off the prerecorded flamenco riff on the Mellotron that opens the song. It’s played quite loosely–perhaps like many of the other India songs, it retains its organic feel–and with only three takes recorded, it nevertheless feels complete, even as it breaks down into banter and noise at the end.

Track 7: While My Guitar Gently Weeps
George’s first of four (out of six!) compositions for this project makes its appearance here. It’s a haunting track based on the I Ching, specifically the Eastern philosophy that everything is related to everything else (unlike the Western philosophy of coincidence). Taking a book from his mother’s shelf, the first words he saw was “gently weeps” and proceeded to write the song based around that phrase. Lyrically it’s fascinating–upon first listen, it sounds like he’s distancing himself from everyone else–while you’re doing X, I’m doing Y (“…while my guitar gently weeps”). It even sounds downright accusatory (especially the “I don’t know why…” passages). But in the context of spiritual interconnectedness, it’s more of a sad dirge–it’s not he who is distancing himself, it’s everyone else who is distanced because they are unaware (or unenlightened), and he desperately wishes it otherwise.

The released take is actually the third version recorded. The first was a demo recorded 25 July, featuring only George on guitar and harmonium, made specifically as a guide for the rest of the band. A second version was attempted on 16 August, but remains unreleased (even as a bootleg) at this time. The version here was started 5 September, the day after Ringo’s return to the band. There’s a menace behind this version, every instrument played hard and tight to add to the raw tension (even Ringo’s drums are mixed quite loudly). Eric Clapton, a close friend of the band, was asked to play the solo on this track, which was slightly altered with a bit of wobble to make it sound more “Beatle-y”, recorded on 6 September. Due to contractual reasons, Eric was never officially given credit for the solo, but it’s widely known that it was in fact him.

Track 8: Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Side A ends with another John song, this time offering a track made up of four separate song fragments he’d come up with in India, and it’s a fantastic example of just how detailed and complicated their compositions could get. Because of its fragments, the lyrics to the song are itself fragmented; it’s less a linear lyric as it is a metaphorical one. The first segment (“She’s not a girl who misses much…”), played in fingerpicked style and heavily flanged, all while switching time signatures all over the place, adding to the creepiness of the lyrics. This segment gives way to a sudden switch to a short multiple time signature section (“I need a fix…”, sung by Paul and John in a wavering octave) with Ringo keeping a slow but steady 6/8 beat, plodding along for just a few bars before it halts…only to jump back in again in with the faster third segment (“Mother Superior jumped the gun”) lasting four bars but switching multiple times (6/8, 6/4, 6/8, 7/4), then switching smoothly back to a 4/4 time with the final segment (“Happiness is a warm gun…”). Even this last segment is complex, as the band suddenly plays in 6/8 time during John’s “When I hold you in my arms…” passage, while Ringo is still in 4/4. It’s by no means their best song, but compositionally, it’s one of their most fascinating.

*   *   *

The band played a big hand in the production and sequencing of The Beatles, and the first eight tracks could be seen as a hint of what to expect on the next three sides.  While there were some genuine pop hits here, such as “Back in the USSR”, as well as some true gems like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, there were also the extremely experimental tracks such as “Wild Honey Pie” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun”.  Ending the first side with that song in particular (only to open up Side B with the light and bouncy “Martha My Dear”) really puts across the notion that all is not as it seems on this record.  In fact, a full-album listen often hints at a slow yet distinct descent into chaos and unrest.  It may start peppy, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way.  This would confuse many fans and critics back in 1968, and the album initially received very mixed reviews…it would take quite a long time for anyone to warm up to this one.

Next Up: The Beatles, Side B

Blogging the Beatles 42/43: “Lady Madonna”/”The Inner Light” and “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” singles

After the confusion, frustration and lack of direction that ended the previous year, the band started 1968 with a few concrete plans in the works: they would agree to film a cameo on 25 January for the Yellow Submarine movie that would be released that summer (though the soundtrack would not be release well until January of 1969); they would take a few months off to head to India for vacation and Transcendental Meditation; and they would also, on their own, work on various personal projects.

The year started off with George flying over to EMI’s studio in India for five days to continue working on abbreviated ragas for the movie Wonderwall. The movie itself is an extremely trippy film by director Joe Massot about an extremely eccentric British scientist who meets and becomes infatuated by his new neighbor, a flighty model aptly named Penny Lane. It’s definitely of its time, filled with the barest of plots, corny British slapstick humor, and a hell of a lot of psychedelic visuals (you can find it uploaded in parts on YouTube). It’s extremely dated and nonsensical, but it’s also fascinating in that the entire score was written by George. It’s been said that he only composed the music and was not on the album itself, though that’s been up to question, as some of the music credits are pseudonyms (Eddie Clayton = Eric Clapton, Richie Snare = Ringo Starr) and some performers, supposedly including Monkee Peter Tork, are on the album but uncredited. Unlike Paul’s The Family Way score which he only wrote, Wonderwall Music is considered the first Beatles solo album, as he had produced the Indian ragas personally. The rock tracks are relatively inconsequential, though there are a few songs in there (such as the mellotron-heavy ballad “Wonderwall to Be Here” and the flanger-heavy “Party Seacombe”) hint at songs George would have written at the time. At the start of the year, however, he was focusing solely on the Indian ragas for the album, and while there he had come up with the idea for “The Inner Light”. Most of the backing track for that track would be recorded at that time, with more work done on it later.

Given that their planned group trip to India had been postponed a number of times and finally penciled in for March, they found themselves with a bit of extra time, and chose to work on a few new songs. These four songs could not have been more different from each other: the piano boogie “Lady Madonna”, the electric “Hey Bulldog”, the dreamy acoustic “Across the Universe” and the raga-esque “The Inner Light”. Putting these side by side shows just how differing each member’s writing had become. Paul’s “Madonna” was a continuation of his love for American R&B; John’s “Bulldog” is an infectiously groovy rock track; his “Universe” hinted at his burgeoning interest in spirituality; and George’s “Light” was a fast-paced Indian track and is nearly a solo track, only featuring John and Paul singing harmony on one line. Perhaps this was a sign of things to come; by the time they returned from India, they had a laundry list of new songs that felt more like solo tracks rather than band compositions. Perhaps in their attempt to remain optimistic, they may have viewed this is maturing into their own. In a way it did foster more serious attempts at songwriting–especially for George–and in the process they were able to see themselves as individuals rather than a four-man unit. This ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword; on the one hand, during 1968 and 1969 they wrote some of their most memorable songs…but it also caused them to drift further apart from each other.

Despite the troubles on the horizon, the band kept one thing in mind throughout: they were still recording musicians, and it was important that they keep that as top priority.

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Single: “Lady Madonna”/”The Inner Light”
Released: 15 March 1968

With the India trip looming, it was decided that they would release two of these new songs as their latest single. “Hey Bulldog” was out of the running, as it had been written specifically for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, and George’s “The Inner Light” would be the b-side. That left it up to “Madonna” or “Universe”–a Paul song or a John song. After much argument and debate, Paul’s track was considered more radio-friendly and upbeat, and therefore chosen for the A side.  “Universe” would be held until a later time.

Side A: Lady Madonna
Paul’s piano boogie was inspired musically by Humphrey Lyttelton’s “Bad Penny Blues” (the single of which, interestingly enough, was produced by George Martin) as well as by Fats Domino. The lyrics themselves are straightforward: a week in the life of a frazzled, overburdened and possibly single mother trying to make ends meet. It’s not a sad lament like “Eleanor Rigby”, however…this is a celebration of perseverance. Despite Paul’s daily list of things going wrong (papers not coming, socks needing mending, exhaustion of a never-ending day), the mother is strong and carries on the best she can.

Melodically it’s a step up from some of Paul’s previous tracks from Magical Mystery Tour, as if he’d given this track extra life. The melody never stays in one place; even though its home key is A (a note which Paul hits repeatedly on the piano), it shuffles everywhere, blues-like, as if to underscore the constant rush of the song’s subject. It’s played quick and tight with just two guitars, piano, bass, and brush-played drums; the only extra is a sax solo played by jazz musician Ronnie Scott.

There were two versions of a promotional film made for this track, filmed on 11 February at Abbey Road. This was actually the day they were in the studio to record “Hey Bulldog”, so in 1999 when the Yellow Submarine Songtrack compilation was released, the footage for the “Lady Madonna” video was re-edited to match “Bulldog”, creating a new video in the process.

Side B: The Inner Light
George’s new song was the last of his raga-inspired Beatles tracks and is more in the South Indian Karnatak style rather than the North Indian style, thus the lighter sound and the absence of sitar and tamboura (a lot of the tracks from the Wonderwall Music soundtrack are similar in sound, if not in pace). The lyrics were inspired by a suggestion from Sanskrit scholar Juan Mascaro in a letter to George that he might try writing a song based on the words found in the Tao Te Ching. The end result is an almost word-for-word quoting from the “Viewing the Distant” passage (Chapter 47 or 48, depending on which version), a meditation on transcending the physical in order to know the ways of heaven. George took this short passage and repeats it twice–changing the pronoun in the second verse from “I” to “you”, thus including the listener. It’s a simple track melodically and lyrically, but it’s a beautiful piece of work, especially considering that so few English musicians (let alone rock musicians) were recording this kind of music at the time.

*    *    *

This is a curious single, placed neatly between the psychedelia of the Pepper and MMT-era songs and the darker rock of The Beatles. It’s more straight ahead than the former, and much more upbeat than the latter. It could also be seen as a companion piece of their next single, as both were stopgaps between two epic albums. But ultimately it was seen as a stripping away of the imagery that had permeated the band and their music in 1966 and 1967. This was a band fully in rock band territory, without the frills and without the pretension.

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Single: “Hey Jude”/”Revolution”
Released: 30 August 1968

The next single was recorded about halfway through the sessions for their next album, The Beatles, and an unprecedented release on multiple levels. They’d already worked on nearly a single album’s worth of tracks by late July (having started the sessions on 30 May) when Paul had written (assisted by John) one of his most popular and widely loved songs ever. On the flip side was a relentless and overtly political rant by John that was essentially a complete musical overhaul of a much more peaceful earlier version. It was also one of the very first releases on the band’s new label, Apple Records. Both tracks broke multiple rules as well: the A side was an astonishing seven minutes long, almost unheard of for a pop single, and the B side’s guitars were recorded directly into the mixing board and pushed so far forward the needles were constantly in the red, also unheard of (and deeply frowned upon by EMI). It would become one of their best-selling singles ever.

Side A: Hey Jude
Hey Jude was written by Paul about John’s son Julian, who at that time was stuck in the middle of the disintegrating marriage of John and Cynthia. Paul had become somewhat of a de facto uncle to the boy, looking out for him and being there for him when things were getting bad. It’s a tender and simple ballad of caring, telling Julian that things might be bad, but would eventually get better. John was somewhat aware of this, though he had interpreted the lyrics in a slightly different way as well: he knew his relationship with Cynthia had been a miserable mistake, and his new and budding relationship with Yoko Ono was the right thing. John had also read the lyrics to mean that Paul was giving him the go-ahead.

The recording history of the song is about as long as the song itself; it was started on 29 July at Abbey Road, with twenty-three takes between that day and the next. However, these takes were purposely rehearsals. They had already planned on a few days’ worth of recording at Trident Studios for recording proper. The reason for this was that Abbey Road was still functioning on four tracks at this point, and the band was itching to record on more than the limiting four tracks. EMI had in fact purchased an eight-track board a short time earlier, but in its infinite wisdom (or more to the point, its stodginess and not wanting rock bands to play with it just yet) had not set it up. So from 31 July to 2 August they worked at Trident Studios to lay down the finished product. The end result took a surprisingly short amount of time–the basic tracks were laid down on 31 July in one take, with three successive “takes” being overdubs of additional instruments on the first take. Additional overdubs and the orchestral score were added on 1 August. [NOTE: An interesting overdub at 2:59 is due to Paul hitting a bum note on the piano; it’s very faint, but you can hear him say “Oh! Fucking hell…” The band decided to keep it in to see if anyone would notice!] A stereo mix was finished by 2 August.

The dynamics of the song are subtle but fascinating. It harkens back to their simple pop songs of the early sixties in a I-V-IV chord structure with a bridge containing a descending chord progression. The song slowly builds in anticipation and life, starting only with Paul accompanying himself on the piano. Ringo’s entrance is a simple fill in an unexpected place–not until the first bridge–and was apparently due to him being late in returning to his kit, but it works because it adds to the gradual sonic ascension of the track. This section of the song lasts for roughly three minutes and ends on a spirited “better, better” crescendo, and switching to the now-famous four minute “nah nah nah, Hey Jude” coda. The ending is one long musical celebration of spirit and emotion, simple in melody but deeply heartfelt, underscoring the whole uplifting theme.

A promotional film was made for this, again directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. It was a low-key live-with-tape performance with a crowd of well-behaved fans surrounding them, shot at Twickenham Film Studios. The video link above contains the film in addition to an introduction by British tv host David Frost.

[This is of course one of my top favorite Beatles songs for that reason alone–out of all the songs the band recorded, there were few that were as emotionally moving as this. I happened to see Paul live in 2002 (and will be seeing him at Outside Lands this coming weekend), and I can safely say that hearing an entire audience sing along to the last half of this song is one of the most moving things I’ve ever experienced.]

Side B: Revolution
John’s song has an equally storied background. The original was a much slower and more metaphorical version recorded on 30 May (which has its own story, which I’ll touch upon when I cover Side Three of The Beatles). John’s lyrics were his first overtly political words put to tape, though at that point he was still attempting to find his way. Though he was now following his love for avant garde art, he hadn’t quite become the anti-establishment person he became later. Thus the original was more hesitant, more about finding a peaceful answer to his antiwar beliefs. By 10 July, however, he’d become more aware of how he felt about not just the war, but politics and revolution in general. This single version was more confrontational and emotionally raw–it was now an accusation against those who chose to revolt against the establishment: he understood their reasoning, but did they really have a backup plan to replace the old regime? He thought not, and in true vindictive Lennon fashion, he chose to call them out on it.

The band used the original slower version as a template, as both are melodically exactly the same. The difference is that it’s now turned into a no-holds-barred rocker, and the indecisive “count me out/in” of the album version is now the pointed “count me out”. Musically it’s played as loudly and as fiercely as possible, in effect one of the loudest songs the band had ever recorded to date. Two heavily distorted guitars (created via two preamped guitars plugged directly into the mixing console and pushed as high as possible) saturate the entire song along with Ringo’s thunderous drumming, also mixed high and heavy. The result is a wild outburst of anger and raw feeling, and a sign of things to come for the band, both together and solo.

A promotional film was made for this track the same day and location as the “Hey Jude” clip; it’s a simple performance of the four singing along to tape, though there are a few embellishments, such as Paul and George singing the “shoo-be-doo-wah” of the album version, and John once again using the indecisive “count me out/in” lyric.

*      *      *

Both singles could be seen as an introduction to the band’s new organic sound that would be heard on The Beatles, but more to the point, they could also be seen as the beginning of a new stylistic direction in their songwriting. They had tried many different songwriting styles, from the pop of their early tracks to the folk of 1964-1965, to the eclectic pop/rock of 1966, and into the psychedelic sounds of 1967. By 1968, they had decided to return to a pure rock sound, and given their expanding musical knowledge they were able to create their own unique brand in the process. There were hints of old-school influences in the songs again, but they were new interpretations rather than straight imitations.

Recording for The Beatles would continue until 14 October–by far the longest stretch of sessions for one Beatles album. There were thirty-two songs recorded, all but two making it to the final release, with even more songs from the India trip left unrecorded until Abbey Road, or even further on to their solo albums. The sessions were alternately tumultuous and free-spirited; the songs were alternately brilliant and half-baked. Critics and fans alike weren’t quite sure what to make of it, but over time it became a highly regarded (if flawed) masterpiece.

Next Up: The Beatles, Side 1
[As mentioned, since the album is thirty tracks long, I will cover the release in four installments, covering one side at a time.]

Blogging the Beatles 40/41: Magical Mystery Tour EP and the Christmastime (Is Here Again) fan club single

The next project of recording–this of the music for the planned Magical Mystery Tour television film–started before Sgt Pepper had even been released. In fact, it started mere days after the last notes of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” were put to tape, after Paul had returned from a visit to the United States. The movie itself would remain in the planning stages for a good while, as filming would not start until mid-September 1967. The recording of the music for it would be scattershot, the theme song recorded in April alongside the future Yellow Submarine music, the rest being picked up in August and September. Late 1967 would be an extremely trying time for them financially and emotionally, so it may seem that the Magical Mystery Tour project might have been seen in two ways: one, as a financial outlet for their recently-created business partnership Apple Corps, and two, as an emotional outlet (or perhaps an emotional escape) for the devastating loss of Brian Epstein. It seemed that they had finally escaped the insanity of early 60s Beatlemania, only to exchange it for the insanity of running a business with little to no prior experience, and without their longstanding manager. They had great ideas…but they had little to no idea how to expand on them or if they would even work.

As mentioned before, the Beatles were creatively drifting at this point as well–as George Martin would say, they were in their “try anything” phase which was producing mixed results. Musically they were still creative, but it was taking longer for them to achieve their goals–if they in fact had any at that point.

The film itself is a testament to this. The plot was partly inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their traveling bus Further, as well as the charabanc trips of the Beatles’ youth (these were chartered, low-cost day trips via coach, usually to a seaside resort or another tourist attraction). There was no plan and very little script, other than Paul’s pie-chart outline and a few planned performances. It was mainly filmed via an extremely small crew, including the band themselves (I am assuming they used 16mm or 35mm stock, given the quality and the timeframe), and the idea was, like their recorded output at the time, “be at the bus station on Monday and we’ll see what happens.” The finished product is a trippy, disjointed and amateurish film resembling a home movie. It’s quite colorful and has its moments, but as a whole it was understandably panned by critics and fans alike. There are a few creative passages, such as the fabulous weirdness of the “I Am the Walrus” segment, the hilarious (yet sadly too short) cameo of Victor Spinetti as an incomprehensible army drill sergeant, and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s burlesque performance of “Death Cab for Cutie” (yes, that is where the band got its name!)…but much of it is filler. Many fans who saw this on its Boxing Day airing saw it in black and white, and their reaction was quite negative.

The band agreed that the release was subpar and despite further airings in color, it was deemed a misfire. Perhaps it was time to rethink their future plans–or in this case, make some future plans instead of “seeing what unfolds”. They would use their upcoming India retreat as a way to make some concrete goals, write completely new songs, and become a full-fledged band again.

*      *      *



EP: Magical Mystery Tour
Released: 8 December 1967

Given that they did not have a full album’s worth of new songs to provide, nor did they want to release an album half-filled with music they’d released earlier in the year, it was decided to release the soundtrack to their television film as a double EP. The format itself wasn’t nearly as popular as it once had been, and was not popular at all in the US, but it was deemed the only acceptable way to release it. As mentioned in the previous entry, this was released only in EP format in the UK, and the American full-album version (the six MMT tracks on one side and in a different order), the previous three 1967 singles on the other) would not be released in the UK until 1976, at which point it finally became official UK canon and later officially part of their discography.

The original EP–and early vinyl copies of the American version–included a wonderfully packaged 28-page insert that included stills from the film as well as a comic book version of the film itself. The comic book is set up in a children’s story book fashion, one page split into six images with a few simple sentences describing the scene (and obviously omitting a lot of the slower scenes in the film). This insert vanished for a good number of years, but finally resurfaced, much to many fans’ delight, with the 2009 remastered cds.

Side A, Track 1: Magical Mystery Tour
A fanfare opens up the EP (and the film) with the roaring sound of a coach bus and Paul, as barker, calling out to everyone to come and enjoy the trip he’s about to take them on. The first track recorded for the project on 25 April, just a few days after Paul’s return from his US trip, it’s a lighthearted rock song that does its job as an entrance theme. Interestingly the vocals were recorded at a lower speed and played back faster, giving Paul’s lead and John and George’s backup a much different, and much more jovial tone. Of note here, though, is a curious and unexpectedly jazzy fade out…they were known for extending the ends of their songs in the studio around this time (a number of White Album-era songs would get treated this way), even if they were eventually edited out, but this was most likely the first time it would stay in the final mix. It serves as a musical segue from the opening shots to the movie proper.

Side A, Track 2: Your Mother Should Know
The next song recorded for this project popped up on 22 August–a good number of months after most of the Yellow Submarine tracks had been finished and the Our World project had been finished. Curiously this track was started not at Abbey Road but at Chappell Recording Studios, another independent studio in London (like their previous recording at Olympic, Abbey Road had been booked solid at this time). This is another of Paul’s compositions and very similar to his “old-timey” songs he was occasionally fond of writing (and which John would later snipe about, post-breakup). It was also the last song that Epstein would hear them recording, as he would pass away days later.

It’s another simple song, somewhat vaudevillian in its way, and one can hear it in the production. The main chord progression is circular and shuffles along as if played on banjo–in fact, one can hear George’s guitar faintly on the right speaker sounding remarkably like one, specifically near the title refrain. It was used in a Busby-Berkley-style musical scene at the ending of the film, as a celebratory end to their magical trip.

Side B: I Am the Walrus
Previously seen as the b-side to the “Hello Goodbye” single (see the previous entry), it was accepted here on the EP due to its segment in the film. This song was the first track they recorded (on 5 September) after Epstein’s death, after a heady meeting on 1 September at Paul’s house in St John’s Wood (mere blocks from Abbey Road on Cavendish Avenue). Despite their loss and their lack of direction, they’d decided to soldier on with the Magical Mystery Tour project as well as with their upcoming India retreat. They did not want to keep things unfinished, nor did they want to continue without any plan in mind.

Side C, Track 1: The Fool on the Hill
A third Paul song, started properly on 25 September after a brief outtake on the 6th. It’s a ballad similar to “Here There and Everywhere” or “For No One”, based mostly on a piano melody. It could easily be Paul’s answer to John’s “Nowhere Man”–a song about a man blissfully unaware (perhaps on purpose) of the world around him. This song, however, takes on a slightly darker edge, revealing that this “Fool” may actually be a lot smarter than he’s letting on–some have stated that it was based on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. While Paul paints the man as inattentive and oblivious in the light verses sung in a major key, the chorus describes him as seeing the bigger and darker picture, sung in minor. Adding to the childlike quality of the song is a solo played on recorder by Paul. The song shows up in an interesting passage of the movie, a dreamlike segment with Paul walking around Nice, France, which was shot in late October.

Side C, Track 2: Flying
This track is a standard twelve-bar blues riff instrumental–their first instrumental since attempting one with “12-Bar Original” a few years previous, and the first Beatles track credited to all four members. It’s purposely laid back and dreamlike, with John playing the main melody on mellotron, and Paul and George playing the guitars. Originally entitled “Aerial Tour Instrumental”, it was used in what was to be another dreamlike sequence, hinting that the tour bus was flying through these magical clouds as it headed towards its destination. It’s a relatively short blues jam at just over two minutes, but dynamically it’s kind of fun, starting quietly but building up to a vocalized crescendo. It ends with the burbling sounds of mellotron tape loops created by John and Ringo…which, in one of its unedited forms, went on for a further seven minutes. This extended ending was used as incidental music throughout the movie.

The segment of the movie that features this two-minute version was created using unused aerial footage from Stanly Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove and lab-tinted various colors. It unfortunately didn’t translate well into black and white during its initial airing on BBC1 and added to the negative reaction to the film, but in its colorized form (which works much better on the remastered 2012 DVD release than it did on the subpar 80s VHS version), it’s fun to watch.

Side D: Blue Jay Way
George supplied the final track on the EP written at and about a street in the Hollywood Hills where he’d rented a home in 1967, where he’d had to wait for their press officer Derek Taylor to arrive one evening. The opening line “There’s a fog upon LA” refers specifically to the fact that up in the Hills it would get quite foggy and reaching the street (via quite a circuitous route) one could get easily lost. To add to the fog and the trippiness, pretty much every instrument here is treated with some kind of flanging effect, from George’s voice to Ringo’s drums (curiously pushed forward in the mix here) and the swirling organ. It too had its own segment, in the form of a movie-within-a-movie, with the bus riders entering a tent to watch the performance which was alternately shot on a foggy street and in one of the Beatles’ back yards.

*    *    *

The EP (and the US album) concluded what would be probably one of the most peculiar eras in the Beatles catalog. The freedom they longed for came to fruition in late 1966, giving them more creative freedom and time to build more complex recordings. Out of this came two phenomenal releases: the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both considered their finest achievements. Their success however left them unsure where to go from there–they were under a new contract, running a new production company that would make more sense financially (read: would raise them more money while simultaneously avoiding the punishing British tax code for performers), and could do anything they wanted but had no plan. There have been a number of books written about their financial issues from this time forward (Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money is a particularly damning account for everyone involved), as well as their personal and emotional (and health) states at this time, so it’s easy to see that the latter half of 1967 could be viewed as a starting point where it started going downhill.

That said, listening to the EP/album in this day and age, and on its own without the history behind it, it’s a wonderful collection of the band at their most eclectic: they were firmly in “rock” territory by this time, having moved far enough away from their pop origins and their brief foray into folk rock. Many of the songs were brimming with creativity, not to mention a deep knowledge of the songwriting craft, giving their tracks many more layers than one would notice upon first listen. It’s also the band at their most psychedelic–which is understandable, given the era in which the songs were recorded.

*      *      *

Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Single: Christmas Time (Is Here Again)
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 15 December 1967

The Beatles saw 1967 out with one last recording, this time with another fan club message. As with 1966’s self-penned silliness, the Beatles wrote the script (such as it was) for this one as well, this time in the form of what sounds like a Christmas eve BBC broadcast. It starts off with a rocking theme song which is then interspersed throughout the recording, which contains a skewered take on radio entertainment at the time: a game show, a repeating commercial for Wonderlust, an interview with a stodgy politician, and more. Even George Martin gets in on the fun this time, stating “They’d like to thank you for a wonderful year” (echoed by George H, and then the four boys, in deadpan) before the track ends with a reprise of the theme, overdubbed by laughing and hooting. As an epilogue, they’ve also edited a fade-out from 1966’s recording, with John reading a season’s greeting in a fake Scottish accent. While it’s not nearly as slapstick as 1966’s recording, it’s equally as silly in terms of British humor.

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Given all the events that unfolded in 1967–the new sounds, the personal events, the participation in Our World and other projects–the year was quite a rollercoaster, and in retrospect it could have been part of the impetus for their frustrations, failings and eventual breakups down the road. Many books have stated that the band was well aware that they were skirting into unknown territory, and freely admitted that they were not the best businessmen when it came down to it. The times were changing again, and so was the band. They had been a part of the blissful and blissed-out Summer of Love, created a soundtrack to it even, but near the end of the year, it was time to come back down to reality. Still, they chose to remain as positive as they could for the time being, entering 1968 with a few abbreviated recording sessions in January and February for potential singles and another Yellow Submarine track, before heading out to India in April. By the time they returned back to London in May, they had a new slew of songs they had written during their time off, and had even more to record as that new project grew. Those sessions would become quite fruitful, but quite contentious as well.  The result would offer some absolutely stunning and memorable songs, as well as the most argued-about Beatles album in their catalog.

Next Up: the “Lady Madonna”/”The Inner Light” and “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” singles

Blogging the Beatles 38/39: “All You Need Is Love”/”Baby, You’re a Rich Man” and “Hello Goodbye”/”I Am the Walrus” singles

It’s a testament to how seriously the Beatles took their craft when one realizes that even after retreating from the public eye, their cumulative studio time did not really diminish all that much. Back in this golden era of rock music, musicians would not have even entertained the thought of taking months or even years off between albums. Part of it was the perceived need that one’s band had to be constantly in the spotlight, or at least brought back into it after a short time–one can wonder if this might have been a response to Elvis Presley’s nearly two year absence from the public eye back in the late fifties due to his Army stint. When Elvis returned, his music style remained pretty much the same, but the style of popular rock music had already changed, leaving him far behind. In order to remain relevant, one had to constantly stay on top of things, and no popular band wanted to run the risk of irrelevance.

The Beatles’ next projects–there were in fact three recorded in tandem at this time–kicked off even before Sgt Pepper’s was released on 1 June 1967. All were to be multimedia events. One was the band’s next motion picture project, an animated feature named after and partly inspired by their 1966 single “Yellow Submarine”. It was a major undertaking, using over two hundred artists and using multiple styles of animation from limited animation to multilayering to rotoscoping. The band themselves were not interested in appearing or acting in this particular film, but had agreed to record music specifically for it (and later, once they watched a rough cut and loved what they saw, agreed to a short real-life cameo at the end). The small handful of songs for the movie would be recorded at this time. The movie would be released in the UK in summer 1968 (and a few months later in the US), but the soundtrack itself would not be released well until 1969.

The second was another mini-project thought up by Paul on his way back from his trip to the US in late April (if you remember from the last entry, the “Sgt Pepper Reprise” track was the last to be recorded for the previous album just before he took off for this trip). On the flight home he had come up with a short movie somewhat inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus that was currently touring around the US at the time…a decidedly British take on the mystery trip, in which the band and their friends take a chartered bus to an unannounced destination [more on this for the next installment]. Most of the filming for this project didn’t take place well until September, but the music was started at this time.

The third much simpler project was participation in a special television appearance unlike any they’d had before. Our World was to be an international event created by the BBC: multiple countries from around the globe were to take part in what is probably one of the first truly global (physically and politically) television broadcasts. It was to be a two-hour focus on life around the world, looking at culture, sport, health, art, and even the future. The Beatles had been invited to be a part of the “Artistic Excellence” segment, and were asked to write a song specifically for it. Both Paul and John had come up with a song, and though it was never revealed what Paul’s song may have been (Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn posits that it might have been “Your Mother Should Know”), it was John’s offering of “All You Need Is Love” that was used. The band performed the song semi-live (playing against a pre-recorded take) in the early evening of 25 June 1967. The single would be released just shy of two weeks later.

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Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Single: “All You Need Is Love”/”Baby You’re a Rich Man”
Released: 7 July 1967

It’s up to question by the various band members and George Martin as to whether this single had been written for the Our World special, or if it had just been a few songs of John’s he was working on at the time, but it remains a classic single for many reasons. First of all, it could probably considered one of the quickest turnarounds from studio to single yet for the band, even considering the fast release of some of their early singles. But more importantly, it definitely captured the counterculture vibe of the Summer of Love–while all the world was in turmoil, it was a distinct reminder that peace and love were still strong in the minds of sixties’ youth.

Sadly, it would also be the last release seen by their manager Brian Epstein before his untimely death on 27 August. His passing would deeply affect the band in more ways than anyone would have expected. In that respect, it was quite the bittersweet single…Epstein would only witness the band at the peak of their career.

Side A: All You Need Is Love
In another testament to the band’s expertise in songwriting, though the band was well aware that they had been assigned to write a song to deadline, they had put it off until the last possible moment. This particular track was brought in and started on 14 June, a mere eleven days before the live broadcast. The basic tracks were actually started at Olympic Sound Studios in the Barnes neighborhood of London, though overdubs and further vocals were recorded at Abbey Road. Olympic Sound had become one of the top independent recording studios in London, churning out a number of hit songs (including those by the Rolling Stones) and soundtracks.

John would later say this song could easily have been a rewrite of his earlier 1965 song “The Word” (off Rubber Soul, though with much better lyrics and specifically tailored to the current counterculture atmosphere). It’s also a unique track in that, like a small number of Beatle tracks from the 1966-67 period, it contains a number of changing time signatures. The main verses are played in 7/4 time, switching to 8/4 for one bar and returning for one more bar of 7/4, before hitting a 4/4 chorus. Quite evident as well are many borrowed musical themes: the first thing you hear on the track is a symphonic phrase of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”; the callback “ra-tatah-tatah” in the chorus is from Wayne Shanklin’s “Chanson D’Amour”, a French pop hit from 1958; and in the fade out, the symphony plays phrases of “Greensleeves”, one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos (played by David Mason–who had earlier played the piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane”!) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”; even the Beatles themselves ham it up with John singing “Yesterday” and “She Loves You” just as the song fades out. It’s a clever multilayering of both musical chronology and genre to fit the show’s theme, all scored by George Martin.

Lyrically it’s one of John’s greatest achievements thus far–he delivers quite long and unique lines of verse, counterpointing it with a very short and repetitive chorus. The theme itself could have been filled with weak imagery and hippie platitudes (such as he had done with “The Word”), instead pushing himself to make a valid point. He’s not just saying “Love conquers all”, he’s saying there’s nothing so bad in this world that it can’t be fixed or at least remedied with a bit of understanding and compassion. It goes to show that when he truly put his heart into it, his lyrics could have a deep impact on its listeners.

[Note: The video link is to a copy of the actual Our World broadcast, complete with all their friends in studio (including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, and many others). The released single version was superimposed on the video for clearer sound.]

Side B: Baby, You’re a Rich Man
Despite it being relegated to a b-side, this song was actually the first of the small handful of new tracks to be recorded specifically for the Yellow Submarine film project. It’s also the first Beatles song completely recorded and mixed, start to finish, outside of Abbey Road, instead done at Olympic Sound Studios. Recording took place on 11 May for this joint John-and-Paul track; John had provided the main lyrics (under the working titled “One of the Beautiful People”) and Paul provided the main chorus. It’s very similar to “Lovely Rita” in sound, with nearly every sound on the recording given some special effect, either generated or manmade. Paul creates a faux-backwards loop sound with his bass right at the beginning by plucking a dampened bass string; both pianos are heavily treated with trebly double-tracking (and in the mono mix, given a “spin-echo” effect at the end of each verse to further give it a fake-backwards sound); to top it off, a Clavioline (an early precursor to a synthesizer) was used on its oboe setting to create a trippy Indian raga-style feel.

Lyrically no one is really sure who it’s about, though there have been theories by various critics and biographers that this song was about Brian Epstein. Epstein had been from a well-off family and was often seen in upper-class circles, and in typical John fashion, this could have been a response to that, asking him “how does it feel to be one of them?” It’s also been said (in Bob Spitz’s band bio, for example) that Epstein was well aware of his stature and understood John’s good-natured jibe, even if he himself was not all that comfortable in those circles.

As the song was released as a b-side here, it was not assigned a spot on the Yellow Submarine album soundtrack, though it does appear in the movie. A segment of the track is used when Ringo “saves” the Sgt Pepper band from the glass bowl that has entrapped them via the “hole in his pocket”.

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The single itself was an instant hit, especially given its release and its theme, and stayed on the Billboard charts for eleven weeks. “All You Need Is Love” could probably be the most prevalent song in the band’s catalogue pre- and post-breakup; it was not only featured as its own single, it was featured in a major climactic scene in Yellow Submarine as well as on its soundtrack album, was available on the US version of Magical Mystery Tour, and shows up on no less than three pre-Anthology compilations. Its most curious appearance, however, was in the classic sixties science fiction show The Prisoner (of which the band were fans): in its final episode, it is heard while Numbers 2, 6, and 48 begin their final escape.

After its release, the band spent their summer building up more tracks for the Yellow Submarine film project (we will cover those for the soundtrack album), and recording songs for the Magical Mystery Tour EP and filming footage for that project. It was also about this time that George and his wife Patti met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and sat in on one of his Transcendental Meditation lectures at Caxton Hall in London; he soon talked the rest of the band into sitting in on a further lecture. The Maharishi’s words and ideas had taken effect on the band to one level or another, and they would later agree that perhaps an extended vacation to India to meditate and reconnect with themselves might help their future endeavors. According to Bob Spitz’s biography, it was during this particular second lecture that the band had received word that Brian Epstein had died. His passing, as well as the time it took to finish up their current productions, had caused the band to delay their trip to India until early 1968.

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Single: “Hello Goodbye”/”I Am the Walrus”
Released: 24 November 1967

As was usual for the band, their latest single track was written and recorded in tandem with the current projects, but was considered separate and would not show up on either release. [Keep in mind: Magical Mystery Tour was originally released only as a six-track double EP in the UK and was not released as a full UK album until 1976…the current full-album version that is now considered canon is actually the 1967 US release with the EP expanded to contain the previous three singles. Thus, “Hello Goodbye” was at first a non-album single.] Backed with a track of John’s that would appear on the Magical Mystery Tour EP, it’s a single that might not be the strongest song they had at the time, but it was certainly a fitting coda for the Summer of Love.

Side A: Hello Goodbye
This is very much a Paul song, one that is light and entertaining on purpose, with very little depth to it lyrically. It’s said that Brian’s assistant Alistair Taylor had been visiting Paul one evening and had asked Paul how he wrote his music; in response, they both sat down at Paul’s harmonium and had Taylor call out the opposite of a word Paul would say while he was playing. It’s a simple lyric about opposites and differences, all focused on the “I don’t know why you say goodbye / I say hello” chorus.

Musically, however, it’s a feast for the ears! There’s quite a lot of instrumentation here, from maracas and handclaps, drums, pianos, organs, and layered vocals. Paul also deftly has the main melody and the lyric melody playing off each other, always going in opposing directions; the vocals rise as the melody descends, and vice versa. Even the finale of the song is used as a counterpoint; while the majority of the song is in midtempo and always changing and stops cold, the “hey-la, hey-lo-ah-lo-ah” ending is played double-time, repeated ad nauseum, and fades out.

On the surface, this can be seen as somewhat of a slight song dashed off at the last minute, but it’s also a great example of the band’s now-vast understanding of professional songwriting.

[Note: The above link is for another promotional film they created at the time; this one was shot at Saville Theatre and directed by Paul himself.]

Side B: I Am the Walrus
John’s most psychedelic track to date could be both the start of his avant garde period and part of his frequent returns to his childhood during this time. This song was all about sounds and visuals for him. The sound of the wobbly two-note vocal melody was inspired by the sound of police sirens going by his home, and the lyrics were partly inspired by the goofy rhymes he and his childhood friend Pete Shotton would come up with to try to gross each other out (thus the “yellow matter custard” lyric). A majority of the lyrics, however, were also inspired by a letter he’d received from his alma mater, Quarry Bank High School, in which a languages teacher was having his students analyze Beatles lyrics; John’s typically rebellious answer to that was to write them most deliberately incomprehensible lyrics he could think of.

Musically it’s also fascinating; in the main verses there are two separate descending chord progressions that are quite different yet achieve the same result of barely contained tension, and the entire chorus is simply a C-D-E progression played once. The song also changes pace exactly two minutes in with a breakdown both musically and aurally; the accompanying strings fall down to the low E, only to swoop back up a few moments later for the “sitting in an English garden” middle eight. It’s here that the original stereo mix falls into “fake” stereo for the rest of the song, and it’s for good reason: on 29 September, while working on the mono mix of the track, John decided to throw one last touch onto the song, in the form of a live broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear (specifically, parts of Act IV Scene VI) that happened to be playing on the BBC Third Programme. John had wanted white noise in the background, specifically the sound of a meandering radio dial hitting the random stations–it was a nod to the late nights as a kid when he would stay up late, listening to Radio Luxembourg and other foreign stations that only came in at that time. By the long ascending fadeout of the song, the radio stayed on the Lear scene, and became a classic element of the song.  As this effect was recorded straight onto the mono mix, that rendered a true stereo mix impossible at the time, though an attempt was made on the 2006 Love soundtrack/compilation, with the original superimposed on a pre-overdub stereo mix.

The single was, of course, an immediate hit both in the UK and in the US. John half-joked that he felt “Walrus” was the stronger of the tracks and should have been the A-side, but regardless, both songs are strong and are still fan favorites. They also both had a darker edge; they weren’t as jovial and whimsical as Sgt Pepper or as pastoral as the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single. The mood was changing already, and the band could see it. The blissful optimism in both countries was eroding and giving way to dreary frustration. The drug haze was wearing off, and many weren’t liking what they saw.

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The Yellow Submarine project deadline was much farther out at this point, given that the production had just started, and many of the songs to be used in the movie were previously released (mostly from the Revolver and Sgt Pepper albums). By early summer they had “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, “All Together Now” and “It’s All Too Much” in the can along with the Pepper outtake “Only a Northern Song”, with “Hey Bulldog” to be recorded in early 1968. That left them with the remaining Magical Mystery Tour songs and visuals to work on. George Martin has admitted not being entirely happy with this batch of work, as he felt they were still stuck in their “random” phase (“hey, this instrument sounds neat through a flanger and taped backwards, let’s use it!”) and while there were some strong songs during this time, there were also some less than stellar songs as well, their charm lost due to a lack of vision or direction. After their crowning achievement, it seemed they weren’t quite sure how to proceed.

It can also be noted that the evolution of the band, both musically and personally, had changed. All four members were drifting into their own lives…Paul, who was deep into his own artistic phase at this time, was about to break up with Jane Asher and would soon start seeing rock photographer Linda Eastman; John’s marriage to Cynthia was about to end and was working through quite a few personal issues, and he would soon meet and fall for avant garde artist and filmmaker Yoko Ono; George was fiercely dedicating himself to his spiritual studies, whether or not the others were willing to be just as dedicated; and Ringo was busy starting a family with his wife Maureen and two sons Zak and Jason (son Lee would be born in 1970). They had also become somewhat lost emotionally and spiritually, especially since Brian’s death…it had hit them hard, and they were now faced with the burden of finding a new manager, as well as starting up their own company, Apple Corps. It could be said that between the loss of Brian and the lack of direction after the Sgt Pepper project, they were starting to forget what it was they were aiming for, and instead of backing away and taking stock, they started taking part in multiple projects all at once. Nearly all these events and changes took place in late summer 1967, so these projects could possibly be thought of as the a prologue to the next phase in the band’s career. It was only afterwards, a few years later, when it became clear that this might not have been the best of choices.

Next Up: the Magical Mystery Tour EP and the Christmas Time (Is Here Again) fan club single