Coming Soon: Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper Reissue Edition

Come on, you knew it was coming. 🙂

I’ve been obsessing about this release since hearing about it some months ago, and since it’s such a landmark album — not to mention this release being the only time so far that a full Beatles album has been given a completely new stereo remix — I think it’s only fair that I give it the BtB treatment, now that I have it my grubby paws.  I’d like to go over what one can expect: the differences in sound between the original mono and stereo mixes, and the new 2017 stereo mix.

[Alas, I do not have a 5.1 sound system so I won’t be able to provide any input on that at this time, though it’s part of the big box set edition.]

Stay tuned!

It Was Fifty Years Ago…

You may have heard the BIG NEWS from hither and yon that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is getting a super deluxe edition from Apple in celebration of the album turning 50.  It’s BIG NEWS because this is the first Beatles album to get this kind of remaster/expanded reissue.  The deluxe edition will contain a new remix from Giles Martin, two discs of outtakes, and a dvd and blu-ray of even more goodies — including a 5.1 mix (!!) and the Making of Sgt Pepper documentary from 1987.  The new stereo remix, per Martin, is not the original remaster we heard on the 2009 box set, but a true remix, in which he shifted the sounds to make it sound more like the original mono mix.*

Yer darn tootin’ I pre-ordered it as soon as I heard about it!

Anyway…I’m looking forward to hearing this new mix.  I gave the album a good listen the other day (the mono mix, actually) and it really did break a hell of a lot of rules and boundaries.  Hundreds of other bands who heard the album for the first time were completely blown away by it, even more influenced by it.  When people call songs ‘Beatlesque’, they usually mean it sounds like something from this album.

Me?  I’m looking forward to hearing “A Day in the Life”…it’s what I think of as their finest moment, not just in songwriting but in production.  It transcends being just a pop song and turns into an orchestral piece.  Hearing a new stereo mix of this song should be a treat.

To quote from my ‘Blogging the Beatles’ series from a few years back, plus a few added notes:

Though this track was recorded relatively early in the sessions (19-20 January, with additional work done a week or so later), by the time they finished recording, they knew that this absolutely had to be the last track on the album, no question. It’s long been considered one of their best compositions, and given the amount of time dedicated to it (a total 34 hours, twenty-two more than the entirety of Please Please Me!), it’s by far one of their most complex productions.

There are three distinct parts – the first and third, written mostly by John and taken from recent newspaper articles (the death of friend Tara Browne in a car accident, the report that the roads in Blackburn were filled with potholes, and so on), and the middle section provided mostly by Paul (a simple nostalgic trip of riding the double-decker bus through Liverpool when he was younger), each with its own personality.

The first part is performed with deliberate slowness, starting quietly but growing increasingly louder until we reach the end. [EDIT: Ringo’s drumming here is to the fore, punctuating each line of the verse, mixed high and given a thunderous echo.  The deliberate slowness of this first part adds to its haunting mood, which makes the first orchestral swell sound like a maelstrom.]

The link to part two is via a crazy idea from Paul and Martin, in which an orchestra plays an unscripted rise from the instrument’s lowest E up to its highest in the space of 24 bars. [EDIT: if you listen closely, you can just about hear Mal Evans under the din, counting out said bars, leading up to the alarm clock going off.] That link serves not just to wind up the listener but the speed, as Paul’s section comes in double-time, a bouncy and simple melody meant to evoke a commuter running late.

The second gives way to a third part via an absolutely breathtaking eight bars – it’s not complex, but listen to how Martin takes a simple four-note score and makes it dynamic by gradually increasing the volume of the brass, pulling them from the back to the foreground, while simultaneously pushing John’s angelic ‘aah’s being pushed back into the increasingly echoey mix.  [EDIT: In the mono mix, John merely fades into the mix, but in the stereo mix he pans from right to left as well. This entire section is by far one of my favorite moments of any Beatle song ever.  A few simple mixing and scoring tricks, but they’re done so beautifully.]

In part three we’ve returned to an abbreviated repeat of John’s first section, played double-time as well…only to be brought back to that nightmarish ascension again. This time, once everyone hits that high E, we’re left floating up in the air for a brief second…only to come crashing down – hard – on a final low E chord. That final breathtaking moment is played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans on three pianos and George Martin on a harmonium, and is drawn out to nearly forty seconds via the recording level being brought up as high as possible as the piano’s natural reverberation slowly fades.

The Super Deluxe Edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be released on 26 May, one week shy of fifty years of its original release.

 

* Some background here…the Beatles were present for the original mono mix of the album back in ’67, but were not present for the stereo mix, which was done afterwards.  Audiophiles often say the mono mix is much better, as it’s closer to what the band wanted.  It also has a fuller, tighter sound, whereas the stereo mix feels a bit spacious.  Oh–and “She’s Leaving Home” is at the right speed on the mono mix, and in my opinion makes it a stronger song, where the stereo mix was slower and more maudlin, maybe too much so.

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.

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Leftovers, Outtakes, and Other Tracks of the Era

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

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

Not Guilty
This track from George, started with rehearsals on 7 August and given multiple takes over a few days, it nonetheless was dropped from the running after they could not decide on the best version. It’s an interesting track, a sweeping and upbeat melody underscored by dark, biting lyrics. It could possibly be seen that this was George’s not-so-subtle way of telling John and Paul “don’t blame me for your personal issues”, but it’s left obscure enough that it could be about anyone. George would eventually return to this track and deliver a much quieter yet no less biting version on his 1979 self-titled album.

What’s the New Mary Jane
Another bizarre track by John and assisted by George, Yoko and Mal Evans, this was started a week later on 14 August. It’s not nearly as weird and sinister as “Revolution 9”, but it could sit alongside that track as one of his more experimental tracks. It’s a simple tune played on piano with multiple sound effects and vocal layers thrown in during the chorus. At about the 2:10 mark, the sound builds chaotically with ringing bells, echoes, and maniacal laughter, only to fall apart a few moments later, ushering in a quiet, murky middle section of sound effects and hints of the melody motif, intended to invoke a descent into madness. Eventually we’re brought back to reality, with a ringing bell and brief return to the melody again, only to disintegrate once again at the end. John punctuates the end with a spoken “That’s it…! Before we get taken awa–” Although this was never officially released until the Anthology 3 compilation in 1996, it surfaced on many bootlegs, and John himself nearly released it as a solo Plastic Ono Band single (with “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” as the b-side!).

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 28/29/30: “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out”, Rubber Soul and The Beatles Third Christmas Record

Summer 1965 found the Beatles heading back over to the United States for another round of touring.  These shows were definitely of interest, as they included a return engagement on The Ed Sullivan Show, their first appearance at Shea Stadium in New York, and two shows at the Hollywood Bowl (which were recorded and, along with songs from their 1964 appearances there, were edited, mixed (as much as they could be, at any rate) and released on May 1977’s The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl compilation).  Also of note is their stop in southern California at the end of August–on the 27th, they were driven to Beverly Hills to visit their one-time hero, Elvis Presley.  The meeting was less than stellar, as the story goes–the boys felt Elvis, who was already deep into his B-movie phase, was a bit of a sell-out, and apparently Elvis felt less than impressed by the band that stole his popularity.  The brief but busy tour ended on 31 August with two shows at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.  Thankfully, they were given six whole weeks off between that last show and recording time.

In hindsight, it was definitely one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of things, recording and releasing two albums in one year.  They’d done so since their first albums in 1963, and back then it was considered important to keep oneself in the limelight throughout the year.  This was especially important during fourth quarter, when sales were the highest.  Even though Help! had been released at the start of August, they’d still need to create something new in time for the Christmas rush.  In 1963, this was probably not much of a problem, considering the band’s songwriting and recording were relatively quick and relatively easy.  Now two years later, their songs and recording styles were becoming more complex; they were no longer writing the simple love songs they could dash off in a day or so…they were now writing and recording songs with minute details and intricate melodies.  By 1965 and with about a month and a half to work with, coming up with sixteen completely new songs–fourteen for the album and two for the lead single–was going to be one hell of a chore.

The Rubber Soul sessions took exactly one month: 12 October to 11 November.  They were also a continuation of the nighttime sessions that would become typical of the band in their later years.  While many of the sessions for Help! had started in the early afternoon and occasionally lasted well into the late evening, the Rubber Soul sessions saw even more nights where they entered the studio mid-afternoon and stayed past midnight.  Most of this was due to the ridiculously tight deadline (the last day was a marathon thirteen-hour session lasting from 4pm to 7am the next morning), but at the same time the band (and Martin) had realized they felt more comfortable with a night shift.  This was partly due to the “studio boffins” (aka the house technical crew at Abbey Road, complete with white lab coats) having gone home for the night, leaving the boys to their own devices.  This would actually work well for them, as they could get away with more.  Many of their later sonic experiments–the phasing vocals of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the straight-to-mixing-board overmodulated sound of “Revolution”–would have given these boffins a heart attack, daring to abuse the machinery in such manner.  Of course, there was also the fact that this also left time for the boys to flex their social wings and meet up with friends and celebrities around town during the day.  This was especially embraced by Paul at the time, who had still been seeing socialite Jane Asher at the time.

Still…one month to record what would end up becoming a gamechanger of an album had to be equal parts luck, ability, and insanity.

* * *

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

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

Single: “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out”
Released: 3 December 1965

It had been an agreement between the band, George Martin, and Brian Epstein to have the singles contain all-new songs, or at least songs that had not been released on the album that had currently been released. This was not strictly adhered to, but for the most part they preferred to keep each release as “new” as possible. The end result was that both this single and Rubber Soul were released on the very same day, but are separate entities. Additionally, this is considered the band’s first “double A-sided” single, where both songs are considered the hit, instead of one being relegated to a forgotten b-side. They would return to this type of release multiple times in the future.

Side A: Day Tripper
This track was recorded on the third day of the sessions (16 October), and similar to their previous single-only track “I Feel Fine”, it starts off with one hell of a great guitar lick, courtesy of John, who wrote the majority of the track. However, it’s Paul who sings the main verses, most likely as the melody is more in his range than John’s. John however does come in to sing the lead on the chorus. This is also a good example of where they were at the time in terms of recording style: while the majority of that day’s session was given to this song, there were only three takes recorded, with most of the vocals and extra sounds overdubbed onto the third (and only complete) take later that night. John and Paul both considered this a throwaway song that was written too quickly, but it remains a classic and a great example of their new sound. While the base of this track is a variation on a twelve-bar blues and sped up, with an altered chord progression for the chorus, they make it their own with flair. There’s a delayed build-up of instruments at the intro (guitar, then bass, then rhythm guitar and percussion), the amusing commentary in the lyrics (Paul and John have said this song is mainly about “weekend hippies”, the wannabes of counterculture but only in their spare time), and at the 1:30 mark, instead of a middle eight, we have a glorious build-up-and-release before returning to the last verse and fade-out. All in all, a wonderful song.

Side B: We Can Work It Out
The flip side is equally fantastic, introduced to the group by Paul, with a significant amount of collaboration with John. This was also another example of a song arranged while recording in the studio, nearly all of it on 20 October. It’s mostly Paul’s song, a semi-autobiographical account of his current relationship with Jane Asher. Despite his misgivings in the relationship’s status, he remains positive, expecting everything to eventually work out. John, on the other hand, gives a counterpoint, both in verse and melody: we can certainly have our problems, but life’s too short to avoid fixing them. His short interlude is also in a minor key, adding to the tension. Even George offered something here, suggesting that short waltz-time passage in the midst of John’s section to add a bit of imbalance. It’s definitely a dark song, much more so than the tracks on Beatles for Sale–it’s more personal, and the resolution is left up in the air.

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Credit: discogs.com

Credit: discogs.com

Album: Rubber Soul
Released: 3 December 1965

Whereas Help! (especially the latter half) introduced us to the band’s growing interest in American folk of the sixties, Rubber Soul saw the Beatles fully embracing it and making it their own. There was also continued interest in American soul, especially the newer soul sound similar to Otis Redding and the like. American soul was being fully appropriated by a lot of British musicians at the time, especially the Rolling Stones, thus the “plastic soul” epithet that was given to Mick Jagger at the time. The Beatles, as always, sought not to take the sound and make it their own, but to take certain elements and feed it into their own creations. Thus we have the groove of “Drive My Car” and “You Won’t See Me”, the folk rock of “Nowhere Man”, the Parisian café atmospheres of “Michelle” and “Girl”. Perhaps because of the tight deadline they were forced to find inspiration where they could find it, and in the end it paid off, as the wealth of ideas on this album reach quite far. It’s also the first Beatles album that’s truly a studio album: while Help! was in fact “built up” organically in the studio, there was a certain acoustic sameness to it. Rubber Soul on the other hand embraced so many different sounds that it was not only a much-loved release to their fans, but an inspiration to many musicians, including the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who often said this album was part of his inspiration for their classic Pet Sounds album.

Side A

Track 1: Drive My Car
The first track kicks off the album with another great guitar lick, but the real star here is the absolutely phenomenal bass line throughout–and it’s played by George, who doubles himself on guitar. Previous Beatle songs had the odd bass flourish or two, but it really wasn’t until this track that their bass lines stood out like that. This is a perfect example of their arranging habits at the time as well–there were only four takes of this track, all done on 13 October, but a majority of that night’s session was dedicated to the sheer number of overdubs they put on this track. In an interesting twist of fate, this track nearly wasn’t written, as Paul’s original lyrics, in his opinion were hackneyed and unusable. It wasn’t until he brought it over to John’s house in Weybridge that they settled on a chauffeur theme (again, going somewhere they hadn’t in the past) and it worked out well from there.

Track 2: Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
A lovely folk track written in 6/8 time by John (with help from Paul on the refrains), it’s a personal track of his: he later admitted that this was a song about his extramarital affair at the time and wondered if he could get away with writing a song about it. At the same time, it’s got the very typical self-effacing John being the butt of the joke at the end, with the girl he’s cheating with not really caring about him either way. It features many atypical instruments, including George playing a sitar, the first Beatle track to feature it. He’d been introduced to the instrument during the restaurant scene in Help! earlier that year, found the instrument and the sound fascinating, and double-tracked himself on this song. Ringo’s contribution was not of drums but many handheld instruments such as maracas and finger cymbals. The outcome was a bona fide classic track by the band.

Track 3: You Won’t See Me
Paul offers another track here, another personal song of his up-and-down relationship with Jane Asher; this time she had been either avoiding or ignoring him, and he wasn’t sure why. Recorded on the last day of the sessions, this track is a rather simple melody with few chord changes, but its descending melody and counterpoint vocals are used perfectly as part of the song’s melancholy theme. It tries to be happy, but it’s just not getting there because it has nothing positive to connect to. Even the backgrounds are little more than an “ooh la-la-la” an occasional echoing line, and Ringo’s percussion is quite jittery with high hat triplets and tom fills on the fourth beat. It’s a song of not just sadness, but of irritation.

Track 4: Nowhere Man
A very autobiographical song of John’s–he’s pretty much given up pleading for help, instead giving into stasis and inertia. On the other hand, this is an extremely brilliant song, full of their best work. We’re brought in via an a capella introduction via John, Paul and George’s stellar harmony which stays with us throughout. This too has a descending melody, but while the previous track is melancholy, this one is more relaxed and sunny despite its lyric theme, partly due to the driving beat and the full sound of guitars. George pulls off a simple yet excellent solo here on his Fender Stratocaster, electrified to counterpoint the more acoustic sounding rhythms; there’s a great mix of both chord and melody in that solo, punctuated at the end with a high harmonic E. [Personally, this is one of my top five favorite Beatle songs, partly for that solo alone.]

Track 5: Think For Yourself
George’s first of two contributions to this album, it’s another track typical of his songwriting, full of chord changes and odd musical phrases that seem convoluted yet make sense somehow. He also seems to have gone a more personal route here as well, delivering a song about lies and misdirection–not in relationships, but in life. Paul also introduces a new sound here, plugging his bass into a fuzz pedal to give it distortion. So complex was the song that there’s a well-known bootleg track out there of the vocal session in progress, with John especially having a hard time getting it right (and George finally getting a chance to chide him for it!). They knew they were being recorded, and so much of the tension is played for laughs (though with John, it was real yet played up–again with the self-effacing humor)…but still, the end result is a great example of the dedication they gave to their music. [Trivia: a brief snippet of that recording was used for a scene in Yellow Submarine, when they sing “a bit of a tune” to wake up Lord Mayor.]

Track 6: The Word
John and Paul admit this one was one of the rare occurrences where the song was written amidst the haze of marijuana, which they’d started smoking earlier that year. It’s very much a proto-hippie anthem–John pretty much called this his first attempt at a theme that would culminate two years later with “All You Need Is Love”. It hastily written and recorded near the end of the sessions, so one often notices its relatively simplistic melody and lyrics. There’s not too much going on here, with even the vocal melody repeating itself throughout, only resting when John gives it a counterpoint refrain in between verses. George Martin is featured on the harmonium here.

Track 7: Michelle
This lovely little piece had its origins as a farcical party song from John and Paul’s early days in Liverpool. Story goes that they had gone to a party and met some people who were infatuated with the Parisian Left Bank culture and had started singing Parisian love songs. Paul and John, in their own inimitable way, had created their own take by playing a delicate Chet Atkins-style fingerpicking song high up on the fretboard and making up guttural French-sounding noises in response. Come rush time for the Rubber Soul sessions, they resurrected the melody and put actual words to it, adding a quick French lyric in there (a translation of the previous English lyric “these are words that go together well”), and turned it into quite the romantic track.

Side B

Track 1: What Goes On
Ringo gets his star turn in lead vocals with a song originally written by John back in the Quarrymen days and actually attempted once on 5 March 1963 during the “From Me to You” session, but never recorded. It was resurrected with some minor changes (including a few lyrics by Ringo, making it the only song credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey) and given a country feel to fit Ringo’s current vocal output. Given the age of the song and the limited melody, there’s not too much to say about this track other than that it feels ever so slightly out of place–it probably would have fit better if it had switched places with Help!‘s “I’ve Just Seen a Face”–but then Ringo would be short a vocal track!

Track 2: Girl
John delivers another melancholy love song–this one of longing, of being in love with a woman quite out of his league. It’s similar to “Michelle” with its French bohemian sound, but it also has a bit of a Bertold Brecht arty story-song to it as well. For a Beatles song of its time, it’s surprisingly laid back–so much so that John couldn’t help but insert a quite audible inward sigh of being hopelessly in love for the wrong reasons.

Track 3: I’m Looking Through You
Another of Paul’s songs about his up-and-down relationship with Jane Asher. Like John, Paul was now working out his inner demons with his songs, and this time he’s starting to question whether or not it’s worth staying on at this point. The original take, found on Anthology 2, is much more acoustic and meandering, but the finished version here has more immediacy and anger; perhaps at this point he had already made up his mind on the relationship and had only to act on it now.

Track 4: In My Life
A deeply heartfelt and breathtaking song from John, quite possibly his most personal yet. Inspired by a journalist’s suggestion that he write a song about his childhood, he eventually came up with this beautifully poetic ode to everyone that had ever had an effect on his life. None are mentioned by name, but that isn’t needed; he instead looks at each and every one personally and lets them know that, after everything is said and done, he deeply and profoundly loves everyone that has ever been near to his heart. The lyrics are so important here that the music is purposely muted, leaving only the vocals up front and center. In perhaps one of their most creative moves, the solo was George Martin’s idea, played at half-speed on piano and sped up when inserted back in, to emulate a harpsichord passage, adding to the pastoral feel of the song. [This is also one of my top five Beatles songs, due to its emotional power.]

Track 5: Wait
In a rare moment of using an older recording, the band grabbed this one from the Help! sessions from June and touched it up with a few percussive overdubs and tone pedal guitar to make it sound closer to the feel of the new album. Because of this the song could fit easily on either of the albums; it has the lighter sound of the former album but the moodiness of the latter. It’s one of many relationship songs written around this time about distance and the fleeting hope that the other would be there upon return. This was considered the very last thing recorded for the new album, the additions done in the wee hours of the morning. George Martin would begin the final remixing of the album that following Monday.

Track 6: If I Needed Someone
The second track offered by George on the new album, this one is much lighter in tone. Its composition is uncharacteristically straightforward, so much that it could almost be considered his attempt at writing a Lennon/McCartney song. George plays a beautiful fingerpicked line played high on his Rickenbacker 12-string repeated throughout. He was heavily influenced by Roger McGuinn’s guitar work with the Byrds on this one–which is ironic, considering McGuinn had been influenced by George’s earlier 12-string work when playing for his own band.

Track 7: Run for Your Life
In counterpoint to the cheating man of “Norwegian Wood”, this time John warns his beloved about cheating on him. [Interestingly enough, both songs were recorded on the same day, 12 October.] He admitted soon after that he wasn’t too happy with this song at all, partly due to lifting two lines from an older Elvis track (“Baby Let’s Play House”) and not really putting much work into it. It’s not the strongest way to end an album, but given the short amount of time they had to work with, it goes out with an uptempo track.

Rubber Soul is considered one of the band’s finest records, and was certainly one of their finest to date. They had chosen to extend on their current influences and expand their lyrical and musical boundaries, as well as search even further into their own personal lives for inspiration. They had indeed been given a month and a half’s respite between the tour and the sessions, but they had also given themselves an incredibly short deadline for a new release in the process. Whether or not that was on accident or on purpose is left unsaid, but it proved once again that they could get away with it–just barely–if they tried. It’s by no means a flawed record, although there are a few weak songs that even the band themselves admit were throwaways. Despite that, they produced a wonderful record full of well-crafted songs that excited the fans and further inspired their fellow musicians. It seems the only boundary they really had here was time; one can only wonder what sounds would have evolved if they’d given themselves a few more weeks or a month more to work with. Come 1966, once they officially gave up touring, they would have all the time in the world. The end results would take everyone completely by surprise.

[Addendum:  the iconic album cover was taken by photographer Bob Freeman near John’s Weybridge home, with them standing atop a small hill and Freeman shooting them from below.  The elongated effect of the shot was created quite by accident when he and the band were choosing possible shots, and the projected image had been warped by the square album-sized card falling backwards.  The band loved the effect and decided on that shot right there and then.  Interestingly enough, the original shot has rarely ever been seen since, and only resurfaced online earlier this year.  You can see it on the Beatle Photo blog here.]

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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’ Third Christmas Record”
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 17 December 1965

The boys finished off the year with another holiday message for their fan club, recorded as an afterthought during the session for “Think for Yourself”. This one may have seemed a bit less than inspired, considering they were about to record the same ‘thank you’ message for the third time. They did their best, however, providing multiple quite out-of-tune versions of “Yesterday” and very silly takes on “Auld Lang Syne” and other holiday standards. One would normally think little of these fan club releases, but this would actually be the last of the straightforward Christmas messages; by December 1966 they would be a full-on studio band only, giving them much more time and creativity to come up with new sounds.

Next Up: The “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” single, Revolver and the “Yellow Submarine”/”Eleanor Rigby” single