Walk in Silence: End of Year Wrap-Up and Plans for 2014

Hi Gang!

I’m sure you all are awaiting the next few Blogging the Beatles posts from me, and granted, I will definitely get to them in the next week or so.  You know how the last few weeks of the year are…a lot of last-minute running around, catching up on things, holiday errands and whatnot, and the end-of-year/end-of-quarter insanity that happens at work.

Over the last day or so I’ve also been building up a classic old-fashioned best-of-year compilation: I may not be committing this music to tape or cd like in the past, but considering it’s been twenty-five years since the first year end compilation I did, I felt it prudent to work within the confines of the original: I’d work in batches of forty-five minutes, as if I were creating this mix on ninety-minute tapes like the ones I’d buy at Radio Shack.  I’d also focus more on the sequencing–over the past few years, I’d basically build a file full of mp3s, jumble them up using random shuffle, and do some final tweaking with songs I wanted in certain positions.  This time out, I’m building the playlist song by song, with specific placement for certain songs.

I’d mentioned on Twitter that I’d chosen We Sing and Dance As We Go: The Singles 2013 for this year’s compilation; this is actually a nod to the first one I made in 1988.  The title comes from Wire’s “As We Go” from their Change Becomes Us album from this year, which closes out Tape 1 at 89 minutes 20 seconds.  The first one had the title of Does Truth Dance? Does Truth Sing?: The Singles 1988, which comes from Wire’s “A Public Place” from their A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck album, which ends Tape 1 on that year’s compilation.  This past year has definitely been one of retromania–college rock bands from the 80s releasing new product, new bands from today releasing sounds very similar to the 80s vibe, and a hell of a lot of impressive reissues and box set retrospectives as well.  I will most likely cover a number of these at the start of the new year.

But yes…as noted on Twitter, I will be posting the playlist for We Sing and Dance As We Go: The Singles 2013 as soon as I complete it.  I will also be working on a year-end post as well.

 

So!  In other news, I have a few more posts to go for the BtB series:

No One’s Gonna Change Our World (featuring “Across the Universe”) and The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record

–“Let It Be”/”You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and Let It Be

–The new songs “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” (of course I was going to include those!)

Once those are done, I will, as mentioned previously, be ramping up on the music posts here at Walk in Silence.  I plan on posting some kind of record review, whether it’s from the 80s heyday of college rock or something new that just came out.  I’m hoping to get at least one post up per week, but if I can manage another one at some point, that’s fine too.  I’m looking forward to writing up some new articles in the new year, and I hope you’ll enjoy them.

 

Happy Holidays! 🙂

Blogging the Beatles 49/50: Abbey Road and the “Something”/”Come Together” single

By spring 1969, it was clear that the Beatles as a band was coming to a close.  There were many and varied reasons for this, but in all honesty, it really came down to four guys, three of them close friends since 1957 or so, finally moving on and going their separate ways.  The band, for all intents and purposes, had run its course of a decade-plus years, and now the four men had grown up into separate individuals.  John, having long grown out of the allure of being in a rock band and finding new love and hints of stability, couldn’t wait to move on.  Paul, even though he’d been the de facto manager of sorts in trying to keep the band together, now felt the urge to do his own thing.  George, always in the shadow of his two older and more prolific bandmates and their sometimes volatile relationship, hungered for his own musical endeavors separate from the rest of the band.  Ringo, the latecomer (a close friend since at least 1960, he joined the band in 1962) and friend to all, even had his own distractions: he had a taste and natural ability to acting and had active roles in multiple movies.

Even though the results of the Get Back sessions had been a disaster, they still planned on releasing it at some point; however, they had all decided (but not officially claimed) that if the Beatles were to dissolve, they wanted to go out on a high note.  They asked George Martin to produce, who adamantly stated that he’d do so only if they recorded the way they used to: with direction, creativity, and a distinct lack of volatility.  The band agreed, and returned to the studio.

The new project would be an interesting mix of new, old, and recent-but-unfinished.  Though the majority of the album would be recorded in summer 1969–mostly between 1 July and 29 August, at Abbey Road–a few songs received a kickstart early on.  Despite the slow erosion happening within and outside the band, the group as always had a never-ending itch to create.  The genesis of some songs popped up during the Get Back sessions, such as “Octopus’ Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.  Others dated back to snippets from the India trip and The Beatles sessions, such as “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”.  These were added to a small but significant list of completely new songs as well.  A handful of these songs would be started in fits and starts before July, in between the many various personal appointments going on, such as Ringo’s filming and George’s surgery and recovery of having his tonsils removed.  Even John’s unexpected car accident and recuperation caused slight delays and his lack of input.  Mundane reasons to be sure, but perhaps this signaled that health (both physical and mental) were finally being taken seriously.  The nonstop limelight of the sixties were giving way to the hide-for-awhile-between-releases seventies.

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Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Album: Abbey Road
Released: 26 September 1969

The Beatles’ final recorded album (and penultimate album release) may have been seen as somewhat of a sell-out to some critics of the time, and for varied reasons.  It’s the most lush-sounding and intricately-crafted album of their career.  This was a rarity in that it was recorded only in stereo (any monaural versions are not true and separate mono mixes like their previous works, but fold-downs of the final stereo mix), and on an eight-track mixing board as well, which gave them a lot more aural room to play with.

The title itself is an obvious homage to the studio that had treated them so well since 1962, even as they are walking away from the building on the iconic front cover.  [Abbey Road Studios is behind those trees to the left, just behind George’s head and the “28IF” Volkswagen.]  All four would eventually return to the studio to work on future solo projects, but as a band…privately, it was agreed that this would very well be the last project done as a full band.  It only stood to reason that they go out the way they came in.

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[Note: Due to recent copyright arguments on YouTube, I unfortunately can’t post any video links this time out. Chances are the links for the previous Blogging the Beatles posts are dead too. Sorry about that! ]

Side A

Track 1: Come Together
The album kicks off with a startlingly swampy blues song from John. Originally inspired by Timothy Leary’s run for California governor against Ronald Reagan (Leary’s theme was “Come together, join the party”), this track shows immediately how well the four could play together when they put their hearts into it. The basic track for the final version (take 6) had all four doing what they do best: John singing some of his most offbeat lyrics, George delivering some great blues riffs, Paul slinking away on bass, and Ringo playing subdued yet intricate drums. The song itself really doesn’t have any meaning other than the possible self-parody John was known for, but that doesn’t really matter–the fact that it’s got one killer blues groove going is enough to make it memorable.
[On a personal note, this was probably one of the first Beatles songs I was aware of, having heard Aerosmith’s cover of it on the radio before I went to see Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a kid.]

Track 2: Something
Another relatively new song follows, this time one of George’s all-time best compositions. It’s a gorgeous love song (though per George, not about Patti–his aim was to write a love song with Ray Charles in mind as singer) that takes its own time unraveling, and its deliberate meandering only adds to the song’s excellence. By this time George had become quite adept at song structure, and this one is a great example: it starts quietly and sparsely, most of the tune relying on the lyrics to carry it. It isn’t until the second verse that George Martin’s strings come in to complement the melody. By the end of it we’ve hit the first bridge, the strongest of the sections, with each instrument building up in force and emotion before his second refrain of “I don’t know, I don’t know…”, bringing it all back down to quiet contemplation and a bluesy and Claptonesque slide guitar solo. In the last ten seconds of the song he hints at another bridge refrain, only to end the song on a high positive note instead. All in all one of his best tracks.

Track 3: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
Paul’s first offering for the album was originally a late entry to The Beatles but missed the deadline. It re-emerged briefly during the Get Back sessions (the band performs a run-through with Mal Evans on anvil in the Let It Be film) until it finally popped up in early July. Paul may have gotten a bit of flack from the other three during the sessions for this song, most likely due to his three-day attempt at trying to get as perfect as possible, much to the others’ annoyance. John actively disliked this song much like he did with “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, as it’s a very slight, twee song–another of his “Granny music” songs, as John would say. Still, Paul’s obsessiveness with this song actually makes sense on an interesting level: for a science-y sound he used a recently-purchased Moog synthesizer, which back then was a keyboard surrounded by a confusing bank of knobs, plugs and wires, so Paul must have wanted to take his time to make sure the sound worked with the song rather than it being an intrusive wall of bleeps and blats. [Even rock band keyboardists who were adept at using one, like Ray Manzarek and Keith Emerson, found it unwieldy at times.] It can be somewhat of a cutesy, cloying song, but it still works as an interesting composition, very much along the lines of Paul’s Sgt Pepper era tracks.

Track 4: Oh! Darling
Paul’s next track could easily sit alongside “Come Together” as one of the band’s best blues tracks. It popped up near the end of the Get Back sessions (you can hear a bluesier jam version on Anthology 3), but got a major boost on 20 April. The basic track is a wild and dirty jam–tighter and more melodious than “Yer Blues” but equally as fierce–with a surprising twenty-six live takes with all four playing loud and hard. Paul would then try numerous takes of his vocal, which he did on purpose: he wanted a raw-throat sound to his voice and would come in early so he could belt it out on his own. The end result is a down-on-my-knees heartbreaker of a track that sounds like it could have been recorded late at night in a packed smoky bar.

Track 5: Octopus’ Garden
Ringo offers one of his own tracks here, a light-hearted and fun track inspired by a cruise he’d taken in 1968. As with most Ringo songs for the Beatles, it doesn’t venture too far melodically, though by 1969, he had enough confidence and strength in his singing voice (quite possibly due to his recent foray into acting) that his delivery is quite strong here. It’s a nice summery song with John delivering some lighthearted fingerstyle guitar, Paul plinking away on the piano and minimal bass, and George supplying licks possibly inspired by slack-key guitar. The three also offer a lighthearted (and silly, during the solo) backing vocals that complement the song well.

Track 6: I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
The first side ends with a quite sinister track from John that ends up being the second longest track in their catalog at 7:47. It shares an interesting quality with a few other long tracks in their discography in that, in certain versions, they have an extended final section. “Hey Jude” features its famous four-minute fade out, and the early version of “Revolution 1” featured the same. The only difference here is that, unlike the “Hey Jude” coda featuring a different musical refrain than the rest of the song, we’re treated to the final arpeggiated riff here in the first few seconds of the song. Musically it may sound a bit corrupt and morally questionable–the minimal lyrics pretty much suggest a lecherous need for the focus of his desire–but all that aside, it’s one of the most powerful and dynamic tracks they’ve ever done. George and John both play lead blues riffs here and Paul chases along with a fascinating array of trickling bass lines. Billy Preston also makes an appearance here, playing a wonderful run of riffs on his organ. The song also changes tempo multiple times, going from a rock beat to a rhumba beat to a slithery dirge, until it finally hits the final arpeggio section again. At this point the riff doesn’t let up–it only gets darker and angrier and louder. A wash of white noise slowly enters the picture just past the five-minute mark, adding to the apocalypse until the last few seconds are about to take over and then–nothing. In a brilliant move from John, they chose not an ending or a fade-out, but a cold edit into silence, which leaves us gasping at the end of Side A.

Side B

Track 1: Here Comes the Sun
The second side starts off with a complete one-eighty from where we left off on the previous side, with a joyous, lighthearted song from George. Written on an uncharacteristically warm and sunny April day in 1969 at a house owned by Eric Clapton (and it had indeed been a long and cold winter in the UK that season), he’d decided to play hooky from the tedious day-to-day business at Apple and relax. Everything about this song is bright, from George’s delicate arpeggios and sing-song keyboard work, Paul’s upper-register bass playing (he only goes low during the “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” bridge), and even Ringo’s tight and quiet drumming. [John was laid up in the hospital due to a car accident from early to mid July, so he does not feature here.] It’s not overt, but the arpeggiated triplets are borrowed from the common codas for Indian ragas, especially with the wind-down “1-2-3 / 1-2-3 / 1-2 / 1” phrasing. This track also hints at George’s later solo work, especially from Thirty-Three and 1/3 forward, where he felt free to pursue his lighter, more spiritual side.

Track 2: Because
John’s next offering is a hauntingly gorgeous track featuring some of John, Paul and George’s best harmonies ever put to tape. Supposedly inspired by the chords to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and played on electronic harpsichord by George Martin (with John echoing the melody on guitar), it’s an extremely trippy and strange paean to…something, we’re not sure what. That’s not as important, though, as the vocal delivery by the three men is the most important part of the track. Recorded and overdubbed twice more so it features nine voices, the vocals carry the entire track through its just short of three minutes. The listener is still not entirely sure what the song is about, but that doesn’t matter, because it was absolutely lovely to listen to.

Track 3: You Never Give Me Your Money
The “Abbey Road Medley” official starts here with Paul’s not-so-subtle ode to their new manager, Allen Klein. [While John and George liked the man and Ringo was ambivalent as usual, Paul actively disliked and distrusted him.] That aside, it could also be considered an ode to working class suburbia, the ennui and frustration of being too broke to do anything but wish one was elsewhere. It’s a fascinating song of three separate parts: the slow and pessimistic arguing of lovers–the motif which is borrowed later on near the end of the Medley; the bustling daydream of hopes deferred played almost in boogie-woogie style; and finally the rocking and grooving finale of optimistic escape. Each section sounds completely different from the other two, even though it’s played straight through with very little change of instruments. It’s one of Paul’s strongest and most adventurous tracks of the latter period of the band.

Track 4: Sun King
John returns with a quiet and unassuming song similar to two others of the era: this is the second song highlighting quite detailed harmonies (similar to “Because”), and it also features the lazy F#m7-to-E riff inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”–the same phrase he’d used just a few months earlier on “Don’t Let Me Down”. The vocals are lovely, but the lyrics have even less meaning than “Because”, featuring just a few straight phrases and a lot of ersatz Spanish-sounding phrases. It ends at just shy of two and a half minutes, giving way to the next track in the medley.

Track 5: Mean Mr. Mustard
The next track segues in perfectly, right on beat and key, though it’s one of John’s leftovers from the Esher demos for The Beatles. It’s a slight and silly song about a miserly man who refuses to spend his money on anything (apparently inspired by an article he’d read). It could be seen as a filler track–and John quickly wrote this one off as a dud–but there’s some interesting bits here. First off, instead of a normal twelve-bar blues riff, the back half of the phrase goes up to D instead of down to A, giving it a bit of added flavor. The last few bars of the song are also done in 3/4 time rather than 4/4, as if to speed up the feel of the track. The song ends with a return back up to D–originally to segue into the short acoustic “Her Majesty”, but changed to segue perfectly into the next track instead.

Track 6: Polythene Pam
Another of John’s Esher demos for The Beatles, this one hints back at their early career and lives. There’s quite a lot of silly wordplay here–not the weird and purposely obtuse stuff John would write later, but his earlier, pun-filled works–and it’s sung in a very thick Scouse accent. The four are playing with gleeful abandon here, with a lot of guitar whoops and surfy licks, all with Ringo laying down a rumbling beat. As with the previous, the last phrase of the track changes chord here in order to lead us into the following track.

Track 7: She Came In Through the Bathroom Window
Paul returns with another extremely strong track, this one inspired by their erstwhile fans that hung around the studio and sometimes his house around the corner on Cavendish Avenue, in which one had actually broken into his house at one time. It’s a quirky song, not quite a love song but not quite a story song either; it’s a bit of both, a man and woman at odds with each other and yet entwined in each other’s fate. There’s some great playing here as well (both this and “Polythene Pam” were recorded in one go), with extremely tight vocals and instrumentation.

Track 8: Golden Slumbers
Another song from Paul, partly inspired by Thomas Drekker’s “Cradle Song” (and possibly inspired, though never proven, by Paul’s lingering wish for the band to go on as it once had), it’s a short and simple piano-based piece, but its dynamics are fastinating, as it starts out as a soothing lullaby but turns into an urging plea for a respite. This build from soft to loud carries the song over to the next track.

Track 9: Carry That Weight
Recorded alongside the previous track, it takes off from the heightened power of the previous track with all four members singing the chorus in unison. This is the most intriguing song on the album despite its short length, as it features multiple motifs from earlier tracks on the album: an extra verse from “You Never Give Me Your Money”, and the arpeggios from “Here Comes the Sun.” Though Paul stated the song was about the frustrations of running Apple at the time, John and many others saw it as a commentary on the band themselves–even though they were on the verge of breaking up, they knew that whatever they did separately would never equal what they had done together as a band.

Track 10: The End
A hard edit after the final arpeggios of the previous song brings us to the penultimate track of the album, and the only song that features a solo from all four members of the band, even Ringo, who hated drum solos (and gets his out of the way first thing). Each guitarist then shows off their one of their signature styles: Paul with his bright and full notes; George with his bluesy bended notes; and John with his hard and crunchy riffs. This builds up gradually until it stops short and all instruments drop away except for Paul’s quiet piano, hovering for a few seconds before the final coda kicks in.

And it’s one hell of a heartbreaking coda: it’s a final goodbye to everything that the band endured in the sixties–all its ups and downs, highlights and misfires, pleasures and pains, successes and failures, celebrations and losses, and everything in between, summed up in one line: …and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. One short angelic “ah-aah”, and the song…and the band…is done.

Track 11: Her Majesty
…and not to be left on such a morose note, an almost thrown away track formerly wedged between “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” gets added as a last wink and nod to their fans. Paul’s short acoustic ditty is a bit of an afterthought and thrown on by Abbey Road tape operator John Kurlander and forgotten until the final mix listen. The band enjoyed the surprise, and decided to keep it in. The cover for the first editions of the album had already been printed and did not mention this song, and so was considered an early example of a “hidden track” on a rock record.

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If the Beatles wished to go out on a high note, or at least finish their career as a band with their best work to date, Abbey Road certainly did its job. It’s not considered their best album overall, though it’s quite high up on an extremely high number of critics’ lists, but given their history and the place they found themselves in at the end of the sixties, it can definitely be considered their best output at that time.

Over a surprisingly short stretch as a recording band–just about seven years, from late 1962 to mid-1969–they’d touched upon so many fascinating and disparate musical styles, from Tamla and Motown to blues to country to folk to pop to psychedelia to hard rock and beyond. It only made sense that Abbey Road become a swan song of their own voices and styles–this was the band as themselves. It was also an album similar to The Beatles in a way; it was the sound of four different men’s styles, gelling miraculously where the previous album failed to do so.

All four members would be working on solo releases by the end of the year, and their initial solo work would carry hints of what they’d given to this album. John’s post-avant garde albums would feature both hard-edged and plaintive work, indicative of his personality; Paul would be free to continue on his poppier and more melodic work; George, finally free from John and Paul’s shadow, would shine through with excellent songwriting and guitar work; and even Ringo would shine with some of his best singles–often aided by the other three, in one way or another.

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Credit: thebeatlesbible.com

Credit: thebeatlesbible.com

Single: “Something”/”Come Together”
Released: 31 October 1969

Unlike previous single releases, the band had no leftover tracks they wished to release, and so they chose to feature two of the strongest songs from Abbey Road here.  They felt that George’s “Something” was the stronger track, and gave it the “apple skin” side, giving John’s “Come Together” the “core” side.

Side A: “Something”
As mentioned in an earlier post, this track popped up late in the sessions for The Beatles, but George felt strongly enough about this track that he felt it would work better on their next project (or possibly a solo release, considering the situation).  The phrase “something in the way she moves” was borrowed by label mate James Taylor, but the rest was all George’s creation, and it’s lovely.  An interesting bootleg version lasted a surprising eight minutes, with a lengthy piano coda at the end played by John (whose instrumentation is all but obscured in the final version).  This coda would be dropped, but John would end up using it for the track “Remember” from his Plastic Ono Band album the next year.

Paul would revive this song much later from about 2002 onwards, playing it mainly on ukulele, as a loving tribute to George.

Side B: “Come Together”
John’s great bluesy rocker actually got him in legal trouble in 1973; the line “Here come old flattop/he come groovin’ up slowly” sounded way too similar to the line “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me” from Chuck Berry’s single “You Can’t Catch Me”, and was soon sued by Morris Levy and Big Seven Music Corp, that song’s publishers. Wishing to avoid any further problems, they settled out of court with John agreeing to record a handful of other songs held by that publisher. The sessions for those songs would be infamous and troubled in their own way, mainly by drugs and drink (John and a host of friends, including Harry Nilsson), an unstable producer (Phil Spector), and a relationship breakdown (John and Yoko), but by 1975 he made good on his agreement and released Rock ‘n’ Roll, his last recordings before semi-retiring for five years.

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For the Beatles, these recordings would most likely be considered their last original work as a band. They hadn’t exactly broken up or informed anyone that they had done so, but they had chosen not to say anything for the time being. The wedge had been planted the previous year, but the arrival of Allen Klein had been the final nail in the coffin. They may have met up occasionally for business meetings or Beatles-related issues, but by this time they were no longer a recording entity. The only thing left at this point would be to set their affairs in order–and perhaps release whatever became of the Get Back sessions–but other than that, the band was pretty much over at this point.  All that remained was the music.

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Next Up: No One’s Gonna Change Our World and The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record

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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Credit: thebeatlesbible.com

Credit: thebeatlesbible.com

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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Credit: beatlesbible.com

Credit: beatlesbible.com

Single: “The Ballad of John and Yoko”/”Old Brown Shoe”
Released: 30 May 1969

Right around the same time the “Get Back” single had been released, John was itching to get back in the studio to record his next song about his ongoing relationship with Yoko. After many setbacks and a long and arduous divorce settlement, the two had finally gotten married in March, recording and filming all along the way. The sounds turned into their third avant-garde outing Wedding Album, their filming turned into Honeymoon, and the story fodder for their next single. It also served as the kicking-off point for their next album project–one that would be their last as a foursome, but one that would be done right this time, back at Abbey Road with George Martin back behind the finally-installed eight-track boards.

Side A: The Ballad of John and Yoko
The lyrics to this song tell the story, pretty much verbatim, of the trials and tribulations of trying to get married when you have so many things going against you. John and Yoko’s quest to tie the knot had been filled with roadblocks. Due to their drug bust earlier in 1968 as well as their vocal anti-war stance, several government agencies were refusing to let them enter their countries, or at least were making it hard for them to do so. Many critics and fans thought John had gone off the deep end, many having seen and/or heard Yoko’s weird performance art. Despite all that, they chose to soldier on, until the band’s assistant Peter Brown (who had been Brian Epstein’s assistant before then) informed them that they could at last get married in Gibraltar. The second half of the song also mentions one of their Bed-Ins for Peace, in which they would stay in bed all day, inviting any critic and reporter to speak with them about their peace movement. An admittedly silly idea for a war protest (they were fully aware of its ridiculousness–that was partly the point), but in the context of the song it also serves as a cutting jab at those same critics and reporters who were already writing them off as whackjobs.

Musically, this is quite fascinating: it’s only John and Paul playing everything here, as George was on holiday and Ringo was in the middle of filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers. It’s a quick song that only took about eleven takes on 14 April, one take which includes a breakdown mid-song where John yells to a drumming Paul “Go a bit faster, Ringo!”, to which he replies “Okay, George!”. It also serves as the return of engineer Geoff Emerick, who had left in disgust during the sessions for The Beatles some months earlier.

Due to its lyrics, it did of course have its own run of trouble; many stations refused to play it because of the use of “Christ” and “crucify” in the lyrics, but that would not stop the single from being a hit, reaching #1 in the UK and #8 in the US.

Side B: Old Brown Shoe
George serves up a rocking b-side to this single, the final version recorded on 18 April. It’s almost his own take on Paul’s “Hello Goodbye”, an exercise in opposites, but more on a metaphorical level.  He lets himself go wild here, foregoing his usual oblique lyrics and inserting witty and sly riffs about having a relationship while being a full-blown pop star.  A full band plays here, delivering an extremely tight and detailed performance. Most obvious is Ringo’s drumming here, strong and to the fore, playing snare on the unexpected upbeat for nearly the entire song (he switches only briefly on the bridges, where he plays on the downbeat instead). George also delivers a powerful, heavily treated Claptonesque solo. There’s some confusion as to who’s playing bass–most say it’s Paul, but George has also claimed it was him playing instead, but there’s some great tandem bass and guitar riffing going on here. John originally had a rhythm guitar riff on this song, but it did not make the final cut, his only surviving parts being backing vocals.

Compared to many of George’s previous songs, this one sticks out as an incredible leap forward in composition. His abilities had been hinted at, especially on Revolver and The Beatles, but here we finally hear just how strong his songwriting really is. By this time he had quite the backlog of tracks just waiting to be put down on tape, but as most Beatles albums were primarily Lennon-McCartney productions, he was willing to hold back. By the end of 1970, free of his band, he would deliver many of these gems on his first true solo album, All Things Must Pass.

*    *    *

This single was an unexpected turnaround both for the band and for their fans. Having expected the groggy, spare sounds of the previous album and single, they instead heard a grand production, clear and glorious. It might just be possible that after a year or so of questionable releases, they’d rebounded, found their magic, and were rearing to go again. This was released so quickly after “Get Back”, which was still high in the charts at the time, that perhaps that possibility was a reality. The truth was somewhat different, but no less magical: the fantastic Fab Four had returned.

*      *      *

The latest single now released, they felt positive about the next project. It would be a true back-to-basics studio record–perhaps not the barebones attempt of Get Back, but more like the albums they’d been recording a few years previous. This would be more like a logical progression after Rubber Soul or Revolver, bypassing the high experimentation and psychedelia of Sgt Pepper and the meandering Magical Mystery Tour. In a way they were going to write off The Beatles and Get Back as steps in the wrong direction, even though many of the tracks on the next project were in fact coming from the sessions for those two albums. The truth, however, was more straightforward: they knew there was a real possibility they were about to go their separate ways, and decided that their last effort would be their absolute best ever. They returned to Abbey Road and asked Martin to produce them one last time, in order to bow out in the best way they could.

Next Up: Abbey Road and the “Something”/”Come Together” single

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: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – 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.

*      *      *

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – The Beatles Complete UK Discography site

Credit: jpgr.co.uk – 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.

*      *      *

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

Credit: Discogs.com

Credit: Discogs.com

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.

*   *   *

The final post-recording sessions for The Beatles took place in the third week of October, with last-minute overdubs, remixes and crossfades being worked on, mostly by John and Paul. Ringo took off for a two-week holiday with his family on 14 October, leaving the other three to finish up. George left a few days later for a trip to Los Angeles, and the final mixing editing taking place on a marathon twenty-four hour session on the 16th into the 17th of October. This last session was where John and Paul built the entire album as a cohesive whole–they worked not only on the running order, but how each song would flow into the next one. As mentioned previously, their plan was to have each song flow into the next somehow, either with matching notes or sounds, crossfades, or sharp edits. The album was released a little over a month later on 22 November.

Despite many critics’ (and George Martin’s) misgivings, The Beatles was an instant success and sold nearly two million copies in the first week of its US release. It’s a hard listen, it doesn’t contain a lot of their best work, and it’s also the project that nearly split them up–the exact opposite of intentions when they first started–but it’s also a fascinating listen as well. It could be seen as the Beatles trying their hand at progressive rock–songs for listening and analyzing rather than turning up and partying with. Still, it’s a fascinating piece of work and by far one of their most adventurous, both as the Beatles and as their own.

*     *     *

Leftovers, Outtakes, and Other Tracks of the Era

The Beatles was known for its plethora of songs, most of them written during their trip to India, but also tracks written during the sessions themselves. Even though an astonishing thirty tracks made it onto the double album, there were still more that were recorded, or at least demoed, and used on later projects. Many of them would show up in the next year for the Abbey Road and Let It Be projects, and still others would show up on solo albums. Here are a few of interest:

Revolution, Take 20
This fascinating bootleg track remained unreleased for decades, until it surfaced in March of 2009 on a European bootleg entitled Revolution Take…Your Knickers Off!. The full ten-minute version of “Revolution 1” had never been released in its complete form or in such clear quality, and a number of fans rejoiced at finally hearing it. The first four minutes of the track are virtually the same as the version on The Beatles, with just a few unfamiliar overdubs (a high guitar squonk that shows up on “Revolution 9”, and a loop of the band singing a high A note in unison), and Paul and George singing a falsetto “Mama-Dada”. Soon after we start hearing the genesis of the sound effects and vocalisms that make up “Revolution 9”, in effect a more musical version of the aural revolution. The song eventually comes to a close with a breakdown and a bit of AM radio knob tweaking, John continuing to mumble “alright” and Yoko’s “you become naked” comment. Had they kept this extended version on the album, it would still have fit nicely as the starting track of Side D, or maybe even in place of “Revolution 9”.

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!).

Circles
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.

Junk
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.

*     *     *

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

Credits: covermesongs.com

Credits: covermesongs.com

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

Credits: thewhitealbumproject.com

Credits: thewhitealbumproject.com

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.

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Although “Julia” ends with a lovely last strum of an acoustic guitar, this first record of the two-disc set actually ends on somewhat of a hesitant note. Had this been a single-disc album, having two light acoustic tracks finish off the album would have been somewhat of an odd choice. However, as a halfway point between the lighter, more positive tracks of the first disc and the darker, harder tracks of second, it works not just as a good segue but also as a delineator. By the end of Side B we’ve not only heard full band rock-outs but sparse single-player tracks, but each one of them is as organic as possible, with only the lightest touch of experimental tweaking. Each song is built up and produced exactly how it should be, with nary an overwrought track like Sgt Pepper may have been. Even more interesting is the deliberate lack of any theme; each song is written and played for its own benefit without any ulterior motive or preplanned link.

Again, to the casual fan, The Beatles may sound quite a bit of an overindulgent mess of half-baked songs and unfinished experiments. Even more so, one could see it as “four guys recording a solo album together”, as it’s so often described, especially given the history behind it. Despite all that, however, the album remains cohesive as a whole: a band who has decided not to record an album of songs, but a band who has recorded a number of songs to be compiled onto an album. The Beatles, more than anything, is a compilation of sorts. It’s the end result of a social experiment of four musicians detaching themselves from the world for a short time in an attempt to find themselves, both as individuals and as a band.

Next Up: The Beatles, Side C