Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Today in Beatles history

1974: "The Beatles' association is dissolved, with a document signed by each Beatle."

Here's Wikipedia's wide-ranging "Beatles' breakup" page.

New Year's Eve potpourri

From the New York Times: "Hard Day's Night for Beatles Reissues."

Ever the activist, John continues to promote social progress decades after his death. Kinda weird maybe?

Here's an excerpt from a review of Philip Norman's John Lennon: The Life in the Los Angeles Times:

"'What captivated and fascinated Britain in late 1963,' Norman writes about the early bloom of Beatlemania, 'was not just a pop group more extraordinarily and unstoppably successful than any before. It was the new definition of 'pop group' they had created, something closer to the Marx Brothers than any forerunners like the Blue Caps or Shadows -- a gang laughingly on the run from overblown adulation and desire, a brotherhood that in the brightest glare of publicity still kept its own intriguing secrets, the ultimate impenetrable clique.'

That's a great description, and it establishes the key conundrum of the Beatles -- the tension between public image and private life. They spoke to us, but at a distance. Their emergence not only helped usher in the era of pop culture, it changed society at the broadest level by redefining celebrity as a potent social force."

Finally, here's how Yoko has been occupying herself of late.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"The Beatles Game Wish List"

From IGN .

(I very much appreciate that they suggested incorporating harmonies into the game.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Beatles + Guitar Hero/Rock Band= ??

I've been intending to write a post on what Beatles songs I thought would best suit the band's prospective Guitar Hero-type game. Yet even compiling a list of ten has proved far more difficult than I expected. Now The Beatles are undeniably a rock 'n roll band, but much of their music's energy doesn't consistently come from the kind of thick and forceful guitarwork that's associated with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Instead, it more often comes from the shifting interplay between a song's component parts, especially John and Paul's paired vocals.

Consider "She Loves You," for instance. It's a two-plus minute burst of propulsive pop that doesn't feature a commanding guitar part. George's lead establishes a functional and necessary presence but the thrust of the song really takes form in how John and Paul's vocal work maneuvers through the rumbling, Ringo-helmed rhythm. Sometimes they clash and sometimes they weave together. Either way, it's the song's focal point. In short, "She Loves You" boasts the pace, dynamism, and infectious nature that are among the assets of Guitar Hero/Rock Band tunes. Critically though, it lacks an explosive guitar section.

So it goes with much of the Beatles' output. Think "It Won't Be Long," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Help," "Ticket to Ride," "Magical Mystery Tour," etc. These mostly are signature Fab Four songs not without substantial amounts of energy and movement. And none of them, in my estimation, would translate well to the kind of gaming format discussed. They just don't rock out in the right way. It's also worth mentioning, I think, that in their prime, The Beatles handsomely availed themselves of advanced studio methods, which partly resulted in them not touring because their music wasn't conducive to live performances. This logic would seem to suggest similar limitations for a game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. (I should note that I don't think my views would change depending on whether the game is like Guitar Hero or more involved like Rock Band).

As a result, my selections were minimal, hardly enough to comprise a full video game or present a balanced overview of The Beatles' career. They included "Twist and Shout," (though I'm still not convinced) "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Day Tripper," "Taxman," "Back in the U.S.S.R.," "Revolution," and "Helter Skelter." Beyond these, I struggled. Other contenders were "I Saw Her Standing There," (weak solo) "Drive My Car," (maybe) "I Me Mine," (too much quiet-then-loud, slow-then-fast activity/not well known) and "Get Back" (again, maybe). It's possible that I've overlooked a couple obvious choices (Abbey Road material, like "I Want You?"). Even so, accounting for a few misses, I'd barely arrive at ten total.

Perusing The Beatles' albums, I found myself more interested in what songs would allow for a rewarding karaoke-type treatment. After all, from the start, John and Paul were both formidable, and later developed into classic, vocalists. On the guitar side, however, George took much longer to come into his own and foster a distinct sound. And when he did, his style wasn't of the hard, shredding, and incendiary variety (i.e., it wasn't very Guitar Hero-esque). My point is that The Beatles' vocals seem to offer better opportunities for imitation and reproduction than do their guitars because the former are more broadly accomplished than the latter. Among those that came to mind were "Act Naturally," "Run for Your Life," "Sgt. Pepper's," "I Am the Walrus," "The Ballad of John and Yoko," and many more (see below). With the possible exception of "Sgt. Pepper's," I don't think any of these songs would work terribly well for Guitar Hero or Rock Band (and I write this with full awareness that vocals are integral to Rock Band; it's the other parts that might not hold up).

It's arguable then that a more fitting, though exceedingly less marketable and engaging Fab Four video game would focus on the band's vocals and, among other things, task its users with performing the harmonies that elevated so many of their songs ("Please Please Me," "There's a Place," "From Me to You," "If I Fell," "Drive My Car," "In My Life," "Two of Us," etc.). It's obviously a far-fetched idea. But I think there's merit to my reasoning.

So I'll stand by my skeptical approach to this game. That is, until I play it and in all likelihood enjoy it without a word of protest.

Friday, December 26, 2008

(Light) Friday potpourri

Installments three and four of Paste's "The Coolest Beatles Songs You Might Have Missed." Huge props for the "I'm So Tired" pick in vol. four.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Franz Ferdinand's "It Won't Be Long"

One of my favorite bands doing one of my favorite Beatles songs.

It's far from a knockout, but I can't imagine "It Won't Be Long" is easy to play live (especially the echoing vocal parts).

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The Beatles Anthology, disc 1

Random thoughts and bits of commentary:

- Its use of "In My Life" at the outset is disarming.

- It's important that Paul notes how he admired Buddy Holly for writing his own music.

- At one point in their early years of touring, The Beatles went by the name of "Long John and the Silver Beetles." And Paul was "Paul Ramone." Less hip was George's stage name: "Carl Harrison" (in part a tribute to Carl Perkins).

- It's quite something to watch footage of their performances at the Cavern Club.

- I know I've mentioned this elsewhere on the blog, but it bears repeating: George Martin always comes off as a most refined, clear-headed, and agreeable individual.

- "Twist and Shout" (or The Beatles' rendition of it, anyway) is nothing short of a sublime creation.

- Lastly, it can't be overstated how funny and charismatic The Beatles were.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Downplaying "Carnival of Light"

It's encouraging to see that Paul isn't completely hyping the dickens out of the unreleased "Carnival of Light." He recently warned Beatles faithful to not expect "another 'Strawberry Fields.'" Fair enough. Perhaps, then, he should avoid the kind of chatter that will only enhance expectations (i.e."The time has come for it to get its moment"). Almost a tinge of messianic rhetoric there, huh?

P.S. I know it's easy and probably unfair for me to say this so retrospectively. But, in 2008, doesn't "Carnival of Light" sound like the most hugely cliched and paint-by-numbers title for a piece of formless, druggy freakout music?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paul: the political Beatle, part 2

I don't want to dwell on how immaturely Paul came off with his claim of being the first politically engaged or anti-war Beatle. So just a couple more comments and then we can put the issue to rest.

Let's take Paul at his word and concede that he facilitated The Beatles' involvement in the peace movement. So he met with Bertrand Russell once (the news reports only mention one encounter anyway), became concerned about the Vietnam War, convinced his fellow Beatles of its repellent nature, and then what? How exactly did he follow through on his newfound political awareness? In what way did he try to meaningfully participate in pacifist activism? For doesn't that matter more? How you act upon principles and conviction when they've been awoken to great wrongdoing, etc. Now I'm not a Beatles historian but I don't doubt that Paul contributed to the peace movement in laudable ways. However, he's not an anti-war icon. And, of course, John is. For the cause, John wrote songs, arranged concerts, showed up at rallies, battled deportation, attended the Watergate hearings, and even staged "Bed-ins for Peace." He was a foot-soldier, though one with immense notoriety. It's an unavoidable part of his legacy. And it's something that Paul's will always lack, regardless of how passionate his, umm, animal rights activism is (no offense to these pursuits, but I put a much higher value on work that supports human life). So sure Paul*, you might have introduced John to the moral calamity that was the Vietnam War. But his reaction, a decade and a half of spirited anti-war championing, will always loom quite a bit larger.

*- I hate to sound so disparaging of Paul. But in this case, I think he exercised very suspect judgment.

My favorite Beatles song at the moment

There are few lines in pop music that introduce a chorus as memorably and effectively as, "Christ you know it ain't easy."

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Paul: the political Beatle?

Here's an interesting, even if slightly irritating, article which discusses how Paul recently claimed that he, not John, was responsible for spearheading The Beatles' interest in politics (described curiously as the band's "musical foray for pacifism").

Stepping back from the specifics of this issue, I would only say that it's these kinds of remarks, these petty detours into retroactive oneupsmanship and self-justification, that continue to fuel the overcooked schism between Paul-fans and John-fans. I just don't understand why Paul feels the need to prove himself on matters from the 1960s. Because what he's trying to do, it seems, goes beyond simply setting the record straight.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday potpourri

Paste's "The Coolest Beatles Songs You Might Have Missed, Vol. 2."

Maureen Cleave's famous London Evening Standard article on a day in the life of John Lennon. Money quote:

"He is much the same as he was before. He still peers down his nose, arrogant as an eagle, although contact lenses have righted the short sight that originally caused the expression. He looks more like Henry VIII than ever now that his face has filled out-he is just as imperious, just as unpredictable, indolent, disorganized, childish, vague, charming and quick-witted. He is still easy-going, still tough as hell."

Rolling Stone's "The Legacy of John Lennon" article from December 1990

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Oasis' cover of "I am the Walrus"

I was recently at an Oasis and Ryan Adams concert where the Manchester rock 'n rollers closed their encore with a spirited cover of the John Lennon classic. It was similar to this performance from a tour stop in Vancouver last August.

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Monday, December 8, 2008


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Under-the-radar classics

For the next several weeks, Paste's Steve LaBate will be running blog posts on killer Beatles songs that "you might have missed." I'll bite. Lists have a strangely reliable appeal. And one pertaining to the Beatles is almost too easy.

Included in LaBate's first installment were "Cry For a Shadow" (I can't agree with his unbridled enthusiasm: "one of the catchiest songs I've ever heard"), "Act Naturally" (endearing, perfect for Ringo), "I've Just Seen a Face" (it precedes "Yesterday" on Help, making for quite the emotive combo from Paul), "I'm Only Sleeping" (one of The Beatles' most conceptually unique and fully realized songs), and "Rain" (I enjoy seeing Paul's chipped front tooth in the video. It must somehow mean that he died around that time; evidence of an impostor?).

My own list would feature the likes of "It Won't Be Long," "No Reply," "Girl," and "Two of Us." And many more, I'm sure.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

John Lennon: The Life

I starred this article in my Google Reader back in October but only now have unearthed it. It's an insightful and obviously well-informed review of Philip Norman's John Lennon: The Life from David Hajdu, the music critic for The New Republic .

To the heart of the matter:

"There are four thousand holes in John Lennon: The Life, and the one in most dire need of fixing is the absence of illuminating discussion of the creative work that makes Lennon matter. Norman, who has done books on Buddy Holly and Elton John, in addition to his writing on the Beatles, is the rare biographer of musicians who has little evident interest in music itself."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

X-mas list fodder (but not for all of us)

This is the sort of item that a deep recession won't exactly encourage the sale of. But I guess there are only 2500 of them; they should go. Also, consider what its cost might be if The Beatles' musical corpus was available on iTunes. Perhaps the decreased amount of hardware would drive down the full-sticker price of $795.00? And finally, doesn't the notion of receiving CDs (16, no less) as part of a Christmas gift seem quaint? Or at least very 1998? Throw in the iPod and the total package becomes a peculiar mix of past and present.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Smith's (sadly not the Smiths') "Baby It's You"

Here's the highest-charting version of "Baby It's You" (1969). Meh. To me, it sounds confused, like it's somewhere in between soul, funk, and blues but won't commit to any of them. Let's at least say it's the most interesting of the three renditions I've put up.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Shirelles' "Baby It's You"

In my estimation, The Beatles' version of "Baby It's You" was a major improvement on the original. The latter, performed by the Shirelles, isn't without moments of recommendation, such as the rumbling, hollowed-out rhythm during the pre-verse "sha-la-las" or the weirdly electro keyboard/organ solo. But to its detriment, the vocals lack the sort of color and vitality that John, Paul, and George's have. The comparison isn't even close, actually. And the dominant rhythm, the one that anchors the verses, has a thin, almost jabbing quality that keeps the song too grounded. Overall, the Shirelles' version just doesn't feel as fully formed as the Beatles'.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Baby It's You"

One of the obvious delights of surveying The Beatles’ catalogue is coming across unheralded gems, like “Baby It’s You”. Written by Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, and Mack David, this cover of the much-covered 1961 Shirelles’ hit shares the same lazy-groove, R&B gait as “Anna (Go to Him)” and, also like that Arthur Alexander tune, showcases The Beatles in precociously assured form. They sound seasoned and not at all burdened by the pressures of a debut album. And coupled with their casual command, they also come off (to no surprise) as naturally joyful performers who recognize that their art can benefit from an influx of good humor.

As the song’s lead singer, John especially radiates this mix of authority and amusement. Over glinting guitars and a sturdy, medium-boil rhythm (both of which are well-proportioned), he issues a vow of devotion that ranges, in tonal quality, from calmly resigned to mocking to battered. It’s a versatile vocal, and John navigates the changes so loosely, so fluidly, almost as if he’s just engaging in regular conversation. The way he lightly massages the word “heart” in the song’s first line, the spring in his voice on the transitional “uh-ohs”, and his aching confession “Don’t want nobody, nobody” are among the highlights.

Elsewhere, John, flanked by the “sha-la-la”-ing Paul and George, sets aside his straight-up, shtick-free manner in favor of showy flourishes and interjections that might seem somewhat audacious coming from the very green Beatles (as opposed to the more established Shirelles who perform the same parts). But the Fab Four bask in these moments and appear to acknowledge their own youth by almost consciously overacting. To memorable effect, John follows the original’s use of repetition on lines like “Many, many, many nights go by” and “They say, they say you never, never, never ever been true”, but he adds more playful emphasis than the Shirelles did. Such confident poses for a mere 22 year-old. However, his smirkingly clipped delivery of “cheat, cheat”, which Paul and George echo, is probably the finest demonstration of The Beatles’ joy of craft on “Baby It’s You”. It’s an infectious spirit that helps to make for an infectious pop treat.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Friday potpourri (on Saturday)

A contributor to the Toronto Star analyzes the Vatican's revamped treatment of John and his brash tongue.

The "E. Rigby" document nets nearly $177,000 at a London auction.

A new website,, that's all about Beatlephilia.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

I don't know how this couldn't be appropriate for such a warm-spirited holiday like Thanksgiving.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Historical miscellany

While paging through an Uncle John's Bathroom Reader today, I stumbled upon this nugget of obscure trivia:

"People removed at the last minute from the Sgt. Pepper cover: actor Leo Gorcey, Gandhi, and Hitler."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Inspired by the Beatles - "Married with Children"

It's the closing track on Oasis' classic debut, Definitely Maybe. The song's simple and warmly tuneful sonics, comprised of only two guitars, seems Paul-inspired (though he may have added a couple baroque touches) while its cynical, snarky, and possibly women-loathing lyric ("I hate the books you read/ And all your friends/ Your music's shite/ It keeps me up all night") is John through and through. I suppose I could have just as easily written a post entitled "Inspired by The Beatles: the entire Oasis catalogue." But a narrower scope is more advisable, I think.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday potpourri

The Onion measures the public's take on "Carnival of Light."

The Vatican exonerates John, vis a vis his "bigger than Jesus Christ" remark (p.s. let's not credit the Vatican with too much sensible forgiveness and hip taste for issuing this statement 42 years after the fact).

Paul at his most Joe the Plumber.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Electric Arguments" (the Fireman)

The upcoming release from Paul's electro-pop project, the Fireman, is currently streaming on the band's MySpace page. Of the album, Rolling Stone unequivocally (even if tersely) approves.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Side two of "The Beatles," featuring "Rocky Raccoon"

Here's a link to PopMatters' exploration of the second side of "the White Album."

I think my piece on "Rocky Raccoon" slightly exceeded the established word limit (or perhaps parts just weren't necessary) because several sentences didn't make the final cut. So it goes.

Here's the unedited and righteously uncompromised (jk) version:

From the Beatles’ splintering artistic unity came the musical madhouse that is "The White Album." Their 1968 double LP is a generous gathering of experiments, sideshows, and flights of fancy. It’s thirty tracks of creative impulse run wild. And it’s the rare breed of album where eccentricities and curiosities, like an acoustic Western ditty about spurned love and revenge, can fit in simply because they stand out.

The inspiration for “Rocky Raccoon” hit Paul McCartney while the Beatles were visiting India in the late ‘60s. An Eastern influence, though, is not anywhere evident. “Rocky Raccoon” is a thoroughly American number, complete with a backwoods setting, shootouts, hoedowns, a copy of the Bible, and dubious health care. It almost plays like a send-up of a Johnny Cash tune about the failed wiles of a likeable underdog. Its frontier-folk nature even compels Paul into character. He drops the refinement and light Britishness of his usual vocal in favor of rootsy, more roughhewn inflections. The way he mumbles through “black mining hills of Dakota”, his down-home delivery of “that boy”, and his mispronunciation of “Gideon” (“Gidjin”) all insert Paul, as a sympathetic narrator, into the song’s comic theatrics. His bumbling-bard persona is of a piece with the mood and spirit of “Rocky Raccoon”.

The story itself is a well-worn account of shame and jealousy-sparked revenge, or the attempt at it anyway. Young Rocky Raccoon, a good-hearted if impetuous chap, loses Nancy Magill, “the girl of his fancy”, to another guy named Dan. With a shiner on his face and bad blood in his heart, Rocky plots his vengeance. It would be a showdown at the camp hoedown. But once there, Dan proves a quicker draw and shoots Rocky first, leaving him laid up and in the brief care of a boozy doctor. Down and out, Rocky ends his hoped-for reckoning by defiantly vowing a comeback.

Paul collaborated with John Lennon and Scottish folkster Donovan in fleshing out the concept for “Rocky Raccoon”. The broad outline is fairly standard but it’s in the story’s seeming marginalia, its tossed-off narrative details, that this trio of delightfully whimsical and imaginative minds brings the song to life. Like how the divine seems to maintain a watchful presence in the form of Gideon’s Bible or how Rocky intends to harm Dan by shooting off his legs. Perhaps the funniest scene is when the doctor, “stinking of gin”, arrives to aid Rocky and immediately lies down on a table himself. These sorts of quirks aren’t unexpected coming from a late-period McCartney composition but they still surprise with their blithe oddity.

As a piece of music, “Rocky Raccoon” is exquisitely textured, though it takes its time in achieving that form. It develops gradually, with Paul’s acoustic guitar initially at the center, garnished by Ringo’s light high-hat crunches and John’s (unusual) go at a thudding six-string bass, which, when emphasized, sounds like a brass section. The smoky grayness of the song’s beginning then gives way to an inventive flow of lively and colorful instrumentation: short spurts of harmonica, George Martin’s slinky, saloon-style piano on the bridges, and warm patches of an accordion-like harmonium. The story of Rocky’s travails is too screwy for just an acoustic folk backdrop. That wouldn’t have done him justice. And this is "the White Album" where sonic simplicity isn't often the preferred method.

All added up, this is a tune full of charm, wit, and oddball pop pleasure. The Beatles were peerless in their capacity for such songwriting. But can you imagine it without the snappy name “Rocky Raccoon”? Would it have been so lasting and memorable under a different title, like “Rocky Sassoon”, which was Paul’s original idea? He later determined that “Raccoon” was more cowboyish and, thus, a better match. In fact, the pairing of “Rocky” and “Raccoon” perfectly captures the character’s mix of macho bluster and lowly inadequacy. It’s absurdly well-calibrated. Rocky is a lovable buffoon who, from the outset, doesn’t appear likely to prevail and probably won’t learn his lesson after he falters. The name “Rocky Raccoon” renders him an open book. But the details of his story and the baroque sounds that accompany it are far from predictable. That is truly the hallmark of "the White Album" as a whole. It careens, it deviates, it undermines, and it positively wows. The Beatles may have been in collapse, but their art was still soaring.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"They say it's your birthday"

All this week, PopMatters will be running song-by-song commentaries on the Beatles' 1968 self-titled double LP, what we all refer to as "the White Album," in commemoration of the 40 years since its historic release.

The series is detailed, insightful, and passionately written. Much recommended. My own contribution, which dissects and celebrates Paul's foray into frontier kitsch, "Rocky Raccoon," will be up tomorrow.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The storied "Carnival of Light"

In a recent interview with BBC Radio, Paul indicated that he is hoping to soon (or not in the terribly distant future, anyway) release "Carnival of Light," The Beatles' "mythical" 14-minute avant-garde freakout that arose from their "Penny Lane" sessions and made its only public appearance at an offbeat music festival, in early 1967, called "The Carnival of Light Rave."

Some, however, are questioning the wisdom of its potential release, perhaps in too strong of terms, I might add.

I look upon "Carnival of Light" as a simple curiosity, but I'm also not anticipating any sort of revelatory and triumphant composition. For a non-self interested perspective (in contrast to Paul's), consider George Martin's description of the piece as "ridiculous." I, for one, would be more than comfortable standing with Sir George if my opinion matched his. In all that I've seen and read of him, he comes off as sensible as he does stately.

Possible counsel to consider in this matter: beware of myth-making.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Random favorite Beatles line

From the blissful and criminally overlooked "Two of Us" (off Let It Be):

"Two of us wearing raincoats/Standing so low/In the sun."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Elvis' "Soldier Boy," etc.

Another "Soldier Boy," this one from the King (1960). Beyond conveying similar sentiments (with a different gender perspective, of course), it's not in any way related to the Shirelles' 1962 hit. And speaking of pop's greatest voices ....

And why not?

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Beatles potpourri

"Yesterday" came to Paul in a dream.

Top album closers.

Of course Kanye would invoke the Beatles' gold-standard status when discussing himself.

Did ELO's greatness rival that of the Beatles?

Early copy of The White Album for sale on Ebay.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Rolling Stone list: the 100 greatest singers of all time

Both Paul and John are in the list's top twenty, with Paul at #11 and John near the crown (worn by Aretha Franklin) at #5. I'm not sure that Macca deserves a placement above the likes of Al Green, Freddie Mercury, and Roy Orbison. Seriously? How can R.S. justify excluding Orbison, with his effortless and piercing three-octave tenor, from among the ten best. But I won't at all quibble with John's top five ranking. He has one of pop's most natural, vivid, and mysterious voices. Jackson Browne, who penned the commentary on John for this feature, serves his subject dutifully by highlighting the inspired versatility across such songs as "Girl," "I'm Only Sleeping," and "A Day in the Life." Browne also makes mention of another classic vocal from John, on "I'm So Tired," which is easily among my favorite Beatles songs. Off The White Album, "I'm So Tired" finds John switching from playful ("I haven't slept a wink") to desperate ("You know I'd give you everything I got/ For a little peace of mind") to thoroughly aggravated ("And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/ He was such a stupid git"). It's a performance that caresses and crackles, soothes and snarls.

Browne obviously could have continued at length about the many memorable and moving vocals from John. Included on my own list would be such widely beloved songs as "Twist and Shout," "In My Life," and "All You Need is Love" along with less ubiquitous ones like "Run for Your Life," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and "Real Love." Also, I'm not too well-versed in his post-Beatles work beyond John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and various singles ("Imagine," etc.), but I do know how in-the-moment and defiantly alive he sounds on "Instant Karma," especially during its soaring chorus. What a burning spirit he possessed.

(I'm not trying to snub Paul, but his treatment will have to wait.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

One of those lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, revealed?

P.S. It's amazing (though, I suppose, not altogether surprising) the kind of curios that qualify as Beatles "memorabilia" and, as a result, attract high bidders, e.g., a hospital "salary register" from Liverpool, 1911 that includes the name of someone who might have been an inspiration for Paul. Also, why is Annie Mawson, the woman who received the document from Paul in 1990, only now looking to auction it off?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Shirelles' "Soldier Boy"

(Referenced in the "P.S. I Love You" post)

In my view, a fairly unremarkable song. I don't care for its very deliberate, almost dragging pace, and the vocal doesn't seem to go anywhere.

Part of the problem I have in assessing R&B pop tunes from the early 1960s is that many of them just call to mind one of the half-dozen or so classics that I've already firmly latched onto, like "Then He Kissed Me" let's say, and suffer mightily by comparison. Of course, it's not a sound method of criticism. But hey, I'm sorry that the combination of Phil Spector and the Crystals was so gangbusters on that 1963 smash. I doubt that the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Martin Scorsese, and I are alone in this opinion.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

"P.S. I Love You"

Hearing “P.S. I Love You” brings to mind the faulty stereotypes that I once associated with the Beatles’ early songs. Namely that they were mostly negligible from a technical standpoint and didn’t merit much consideration outside the fact that they belonged to a sacred oeuvre and were sometimes impossible to dislike. You know the glib suggestion that the Beatles were basically the Backstreet Boys of the early 1960s, i.e. a group defined by its hysterical popularity, especially among the female youth? In the past, I subscribed to this narrow nonsense and compounded my error by also not crediting the Beatles, circa 1962-1964, with much more than a lowly boy-band level of musical expertise. I failed to appreciate that, from the start, they were gifted individuals equipped with both a studious knowledge of rock ‘n roll and large-scale ambition.

In listening to “P.S. I Love You”, I once again come across the tempting and convincing appearance of fluff that used to distort my understanding of many Beatles songs. That is, the appearance (but not full existence) of an overly simple tune which matches a lightweight lyric with less-than-inspired sonics. Truth be told, “P.S. I Love You” is far from classic and isn’t even terribly memorable. But it’s a song that exudes a likable, let’s-try-this spirit and shows how the wheels inside the Beatles’ collective head were constantly in motion.

The B-side to “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You” is a lightly melancholic and evenly paced jangler that finds Paul, the song’s writer, pining for a girl from whom he is separated. Contrary to rumors, Paul has insisted that he did not have his then girlfriend, Dorothy “Dot” Rhone, or another love interest in mind when he composed the lyric. What’s more significant, though, is its specific styling – as a letter – which John claims that Paul modeled after the Shirelles’ 1962 hit “Soldier Boy”. Paul opens with “As I write this letter/ Send my love to you/ Remember that I’ll always/ Be in love with you”. From these lines, one can gather the sense that his expressions of love won’t likely come without a tinge of heartache. The distance implied by the letter, then, is taking its toll. While not boldly innovative by any means, the use of this format at least demonstrates that the Beatles were thinking about different ways whereby they could depart from the standard lyric. Writing a letter song may have demanded from Paul a certain kind of calculation that he wouldn’t have applied to, say, “Love Me Do”. It’s a minor but not inconsequential point.

“P.S. I Love You” also witnesses more of John and Paul’s developing methods of vocal interaction. Paul is the song’s lead vocalist and, at various times, John joins him in sustained unison, performs spot harmonies, and also fades in and out of several lines, singing every couple words but not harmonizing (or, at least, I don’t think so. On these parts, their voices don’t link up in a way that would highlight any harmony). This last technique creates a melodic texture that softly layers Paul’s vocal. Once again, it’s a means to play around with pop convention and produce a sound that emphasizes its makers’ devotion to craft.

Other details to note…. As with the album version of “Love Me Do”, Ringo doesn’t perform the drumwork on “P.S. I Love You”. He plays maracas while session musician Andy White is on percussion, anchoring a thin, mechanical rhythm that doesn’t seem to ever shift course. Also, near the end of the song, Paul lets out an amusingly hammed-up “You know I want you to” which doesn’t yet sound natural coming from him. It’s easy to imagine the young Macca hoping that he might successfully channel one of his soulful heroes of the era, like Little Richard.

The Beatles, after all, did know their rock ‘n roll. They were creators as well as staunch admirers and students of the art. And even songs like “P.S. I Love You”, which are themselves only middling, can still reveal that fact.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Paul McCartney, R.I.P.

Paul McCartney is, of course, still among the living. But today marks the 42nd anniversary of his hoax death in a purported car accident. This event stood at the heart of the engrossing, even if positively batshit, "Paul is dead" urban legend that took shape in the late 1960s.

I can never get enough of its many details and hidden clues, however far-fetched and contradictory they may be. Like the symbolic album cover for Abbey Road, the loaded lyrics to "I Am the Walrus," the curious figure of Billy Shears, and the effect of playing various songs in reverse, etc. And these only skim the surface of all the intrigue, rumor-mongering, and absurdity that the theory entails. It's just too rich.

Here's one of the most comprehensive "death clue" guides that I've come across. Reading through its analysis is like watching and listening to the mysterious "X" character in JFK divulge his conspiratorial views to Jim Garrison during that fascinating but also lengthy, lengthy scene. When apparent coincidences, chance events, and precarious "facts" all seem to connect as part of a bigger picture, almost regardless of the context, it's a weirdly satisfying feeling.

However, I was somewhat surprised that the article's section on the cover of Abbey Road didn't include what I (falsely) presumed was the conventional interpretation of each Beatles' role: John as God (dressed in all white, with a flowing beard, and at the lead), Ringo as a pastor of some sort (in the black suit with a tie), Paul as the dead man (no shoes, out of step, cigarette in right hand, etc.), and George as the gravedigger (wearing the spartan, all-blue workingman's threads). During its buildup, the hoax evidently reached a point where even its agreed-upon sources of clues didn't elicit the same interpretation. I suppose that's only natural, but it's still indicative of the comically overeager search-for-proof which Paul's "death" inspired.

Also, here's Wikipedia's "Paul is dead" page.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Beatles going digital

Here's an article from Oct. 31's Financial Times about the Beatles' belated entrance into the digital era.

Now I don't know enough about the ins and outs of the situation to get all scathing on Apple Corps for its past inaction on this front. But is it not perfectly reasonable to feel that, say, the marriage of iTunes and the Beatles is long overdue?

Though, in moving forward, I hope that Apple Corps heeds the advice of Michael McGuire, a technology analyst whom the article quotes. He suggests (in the FT's paraphrasing) that "Apple Corps will need to provide new material along with the new offerings, while exploring more creative packaging for new products." The rabid music consumer interprets this as, in part, saying "Reissues need to justify themselves." The rabid music consumer agrees.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Because certain songs just feel so right...

... and who knew that George was so brilliantly nimble?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What are The Beatles' politics?

It's something to consider in the wake of yesterday's historic presidential election. Let's set aside the near certainty that, in view of their backgrounds, general dispositions, noted proclivities, and collective profession, the Beatles were (and its living members remain) firmly on the Left. It's more rewarding, I think, to explore what their music, especially on the lyrical front, offers in the way of political content. Explicit political content, that is. Not just amorphous counter-cultural (or otherwise) sentiments that are easy to locate in their late-period work. No, I mean a blatant reference to, say, those damnable Tories or the wretched empire of yore.

Lyrically speaking, the vast majority of the Beatles' output through Rubber Soul dealt with the peaks and valleys of love. No mammoth surprise coming from a pop group. But as the sound and structure of their music increasingly changed, so did the direction of their lyricism. From tailored to colorfully varied, it went, sappy to often surreal. From the straightforward "Yesterday" (to take nothing away from its heartfelt poignancy) to the wild-eyed "Tomorrow Never Knows." By their latter stage, the Beatles hadn't at all lost their touch for waxing emotively- see Paul's "For No One," John's "Don't Let Me Down," or George's "Something," to cite several sterling examples- but that subject matter was no longer their driving focus.

Unambiguous politics, though, never assumed a central or even secondary place in the Beatles' songwriting. I'm guessing that, in the mid to late '60s, they cared too much about testing the limits of their pop craftsmanship to regularly engage in current-events sloganeering (after all, didn't they want to create timeless music?). And, despite John's often brash opinions and George's attachment to Eastern religions (both of which might have prompted more ethically- or morally-geared songs), the Beatles as a whole seemed too keen on the absurd, the fantastical, and grander notions like love for the banality of day-to-day politics. They certainly weren't detached. Maybe "All You Need Is Love" was John's response to, say, the Vietnam War. But the Beatles didn't name-drop (i.e. Viet Cong, Richard Nixon, etc.) or style their lyrics in a manner that consistently provided a specific window into their specific views on specific topics.

Their limited forays into politics, however, entail several classics and allow us to sketch a partial portrait of what their thoughts on various issues might have been. Two of the most obvious instances are George's "Taxman" and John's "Revolution" (or "Revolution 1"), both of which offer direct messages and also practice some name-dropping (quite memorably, in fact). The former, which expresses George's frustration at entering a higher tax bracket and, thus, having to shell out more to the government, calls out Harold Wilson and Edward Heath (targets that transcend party lines). Superb line: "Now my advice for those who die/ Declare the pennies on your eyes." The latter, in which John upbraids the sinister or, at least, ignorant segments of radical movements, famously includes the line "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow." Do the outlines of an ideology (or an accommodation of ideologies) start to emerge? Anti-overweening taxation and anti-violent revolution. Are the Beatles some sort of left libertarians? Temperamentally liberal but intellectually conservative?

Elements of class commentary are also evident, to varying degrees, in songs like George's "Piggies" and maybe even "Baby You're a Rich Man" ("You keep all your money in a big brown bag inside a zoo/ What a thing to do"). But the more you sift through the Beatles' discography, the vaguer your findings become. Maybe "Think for Yourself" is a call to distrust the government's word. Maybe not. Maybe tunes like "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" operate, on a certain level, as paeans to the nuclear family. Again, maybe (that is, probably) not. If not, all the better. Excessive politics can cheapen art decidedly. The Beatles seemed to fare just fine without the regular presence of such tomfoolery.

To conclude, let's go all in and nuke the fridge. The Beatles were free thought-supporting, anti-cigarette smoking (quite silly, I know), pro-family, guardians of the peace-backing, anti-bourgeoisie, Soviet-sympathizing left libertarians.

Today in Beatles history

According to, on November 5, 1968, Paul McCartney skedaddled off to Scotland on holiday. We're better for such knowledge.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Magical mystery sounds

It seems that my sources for Beatles information/updates are more or less limited to Wikipedia and Wired. Having publicly owned up to this dependency, I feel more comfortable linking to another intriguing read from Wired , this one about the studio machinations behind the "praaannng" part that introduces "A Hard Day's Night." I guess this specific sound had proved indecipherable, from a technical standpoint, until just recently. The code-cracker is an academic from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia named Jason Brown. The article links to his findings in a paper entitled "Mathematics, Physics, and A Hard Day's Night," which delves deep into the song's minutiae. It's opaque material (or was for me, anyway), but I'm down with the fact that such a study even exists. According to Brown, the Beatles "ushered in a new era in pop music with the opening of A Hard Day’s Night."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween, 1951- Beatles history (sort of)

Yesterday I came across this article of interest on about the origins of zebra street crossings, a la the legendary album cover for Abbey Road. It touches on, inter alia, the motivations, experiments, and political players that were involved in realizing this now common safety feature. Apparently the first official use of the zebra crossing was in the London suburb (more or less) of Slough, which was the purported backdrop for the original version of The Office. Killer. Less killer, though, is Sir George Martin's positively gaudy suit of arms, which the article links to. It's of note that Martin's design includes only three beetles. The Wired writer, Randy Alfred, shares his response to this curiosity: "Go figure." I'm honestly not sure what the implication is. Either way, I think a full five (the four plus Martin himself) would've been more fitting.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Love Me Do"

For a debut single, especially from a band of wide-eyed and excitable young rock ‘n' rollers, “Love Me Do” feels like a curious selection. It’s a decidedly mid-tempo and almost drifting amble that showcases patience far more than promptness. The Beatles don’t achieve any sort of boisterous rush within its running time and clearly didn’t intend to. The lyric, which simplifies the pursuit of love down to a mere request, seems underdeveloped and repetitious even by the standards of early ‘60s pop. As Steve Turner points out in A Hard Day’s Write, the word “love” makes over 20 appearances (it’s noted that Paul began writing this when he was just 16 or 17 years old. Even so….). And the song’s focal point, not to mention its most effective asset, is John’s performance on the harmonica, which provides well-measured texture throughout the chorus and verses, a quirky solo that memorably stands in for what might have been a guitar part, and, of course, the fluttering, blues-thick intro. Evidently the harmonica section helped convince George Martin of “Love Me Do’s” potential as a single. He had originally wanted to release the Fab Four’s cover of “How Do You Do It?” (as he would again the next time around before agreeing to “Please Please Me”). It’s a testament to the Beatles’ underlying ingenuity and Martin’s solid pop instincts that they arrived at this oddball-ish tune for the group’s historic entry onto the radio waves. It peaked at #17 on the UK Singles Chart in late 1962.

However, listening to the song in 2008, I’m not certain that it’s among the Beatles’ imperishable classics. It strikes me as overvalued even if not unreasonably so. On Please Please Me alone, I think “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Twist and Shout”, and the title track belong in the first tier of quality, with “Love Me Do” atop the second. Maybe it’s the modern urge for easy climaxes and quick gratification that prevents this inhibited and leisurely paced number from fully satisfying (my ears, anyway). Maybe my sensibilities are more at fault than the song’s casual way about things. Undoubtedly, “Love Me Do” is a charming song with skillful components and passages: the aching unison that Paul and John strike on “Ple-ee-ee-eeease” right before the chorus, Paul’s at times expertly tempered vocal, and the thumpy rhythm that naturally incorporates Ringo’s tambourine hits (Andy White played percussion on the UK album version, which I’ve used for my commentary here). But, overall, it seems slightly less than the sum of its parts and, in my view, lacks the spark to have been fast-tracked for the Beatles’ canon.

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Quote from George Martin

The fifth Beatle on the Fab Four's je ne sais quoi: "But what impressed me most was their personalities. Sparks flew off them when you talked to them". (Thanks again, Wikipedia.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

X-rated take on "How Do You Do It?"

After endorsing the strongly sexualized view of "Please Please Me," it might be grasping if I would attempt a similar treatment of "How Do You Do It?." It's a fair criticism, primarily because there isn't a credible case to be argued. Yet it's at least noteworthy that one of the songs which could have replaced "Please Please Me" as the Beatles' second single contains lines that can easily call to mind the matter of sexual reciprocation (just as "P.P.M" did).

The two chorus-type verses of “How Do You Do It” go as follows:

"How do you do
What you do to me?
I wish I knew,
If I knew how you do it to me
I'd do it to you.

How do you do
What you do to me?
I'm feeling blue,
Wish I knew how you do it to me
But I haven't a clue."

There's a healthy amount of "do(ing) it" taking place here. Alas, just one of the participants possesses the practiced know-how. The other can only fawn over such expertise. But enough of the overkill analysis. It's apparent (especially considering The Beatles' remarks on the subject) that "Please Please Me" is much more convincingly preoccupied with physical satisfaction than is "How Do You Do It?." The tone of the latter is one of almost eager curiosity. The singer might actually want to know how his counterpart does it (as in, how does she keep me so interested or emotionally invested?). Absent is any of the swelling carnal frustration which greatly enlivens "Please Please Me." And, besides, there's nothing (I know of, anyway) in the written record from Mitch Murray, the song's creator, or any critics and experts about “How Do You Do It?” as a Trojan horse for sexual innuendo.

But even so, the not entirely negligible overlap between each song's lyrical phrasing does at least rise to the level of intriguing.

Here's the rest of the lyric.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Important tid-bits to know

One who comes from America = an American.
One who comes from Liverpool= a Liverpudlian.

The term strikes me as even more fictional than Lilliputian. I suppose it's not difficult to grasp why The Beatles were rarely, if ever, described as the greatest and most famous Liverpudlian band in the world. They would've sounded like a fantastical, floating circus act.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Several versions of "How Do You Do It?"

Here's the Beatles' version of "How Do You Do It?" (1962), which George Martin was hoping they would agree to release first as their debut single and then, once that fell through, as the follow-up to "Love Me Do." As mentioned in my last post, the second attempt failed as well. Even so, it's apparent that Martin possessed sturdy instincts for chart-toppers. In the Beatles' handling, "How Do You Do It?" is a sporty and efficient earworm with winning harmonies and a pleasant melody. It's lightweight for sure, but in a likeably breezy way. Though, at the risk of overly harping on an unpolished 19 year-old guitarist, I must point out that George's solo once again sounds slapdash and unnecessary (it's always instructive to bear their youth in mind when assessing their early work). Regardless, I don't doubt that the Beatles would've found success in the song's release.

Gerry and the Pacemakers actually did issue it as a single and, with Martin as their producer, earned a number-one on the UK Singles Chart in early 1963 (need I repeat that Martin had an ear for effective pop). Their rendition isn't considerably different than the Beatles' but there are noteworthy disparities. Though unharmonized, Gerry Mardsen's lead vocal is more jaunty and expressive than John's thinner piece of singing. And, in place of a guitar, one of the (I suppose) Pacemakers performed the solo on a piano which proves more richly rocking and full-bodied than George's guitarwork. But both are entirely worthwhile listens. According to Wikipedia, the song's popularity persists to this day. Enjoy.

And why not? Here's a spirited live performance of the song from G and the Ps. The band is terrific. The crowd? Unmoved; elsewhere, nonplussed?

Update: The second video has been removed. If either of the other two is, go here and here, respectively.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Please Please Me"

“If they had wanted to, they could have found plenty of double meanings in our early work. How about ‘I’ll Keep You Satisfied’ or ‘Please Please Me’? Everything has a double meaning if you look for it long enough.” – Paul McCartney

It’s amusing to consider the harmless sources of inspiration behind “Please Please Me”. As John Lennon was writing what would become the Beatles’ second single, he was working off a Bing Crosby tune from the early 1930s and imagining soulful crooner Roy Orbison on vocals. As a result, “Please Please Me” was a more downcast and sonically tempered song in its earliest forms. Not ideal material for the follow-up to “Love Me Do”. George Martin was pushing for the Beatles’ cover of “How Do You Do It”, written by Mitch Murray, to claim that designation. But to their credit, the young foursome wanted their own songs to be released. Martin later relented and, after treating it to a dramatic studio revamp, which included a harmonica section, beefed-up vocals, and a faster tempo, the Beatles issued “Please Please Me” as their second single. Far from John’s formerly heartsick, bluesy conception, it emerged as an invigorating and sexually charged rush of a pop song.

I haven’t read anywhere that John greatly adjusted the lyric of “Please Please Me” between its initial and final versions. This is noteworthy because it’s hard to imagine that the song could come off as so subversively salacious (by 1963 standards, anyway) in its early Orbison-styled form. Without the fleet pace and bracing harmonica parts, what would have created the brisk energy that so vigorously animates the song’s sexual subtext? Without the call-and-response “come ons” and their tone of escalating frustration, how might John have sounded so desperate for fleshy satisfaction? Overall, the studio changes would seem to have transformed “Please Please Me” into a song whose needs were urgently of the moment.

The lyric of course remains the primary reason that, for instance, Robert Christgau once described “Please Please Me” as about oral sex. The chorus speaks for itself: “Please please me oh yeah/ Like I please you”. To “please” someone strongly suggests an action taking place. In this case, an action has been performed and the performer is seeking reciprocation. The same is true of “You don’t need me to show the way love” or “I do all the pleasin’ with you”. These lines again indicate physical activity much more than any sort of non-carnal exchange of affection. The rousing “come ons”, echoed back and forth between John and the supporting vocals of Paul and George, also factor in heavily. They prompt the question: would John really be shouting “come on” in an effort to elicit greater emotional attention from his significant other? It sounds strange to ask “Oh, come on, why won’t you love me more?” The pettiness implied in that phrase better suits a request for a sexual favor. And, finally, it doesn’t require much gutter imagination to interpret the line “Why do you make me blue?” in a bawdy manner.

In the end, “Please Please Me” is entertaining as a call for equality between-the-sheets but more gratifying as a pure pop pleasure. It’s just over two minutes of impassioned vocals, meaty guitarwork, and shifty percussion, with a bit of scandal to boot.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Significance of song placement and order

I wouldn't want to fetishize the notion of the Beatles' immense contribution to pop music and cast everything genius and ingenious about them as proof-positive of their sui generis status. But it's hard to resist the temptation at times.

Consider something as seemingly commonplace and rote as song order. In pop's early years, when most artists (or their handlers anyway) viewed albums as little more than vehicles for potential hit singles, there wasn't much of a focus on arriving at a balanced distribution of quality or a nimble song-to-song flow over the space of a 12 or 14 track record. The strongest and most bankable material was to occupy the lead positions on each side while many of the remaining songs simply served as filler. It was the practice of the day.

Not so for the Beatles, even on their debut in 1963. Please Please Me contains 14 songs, thus 7 to a side. But on the final spot of the A-side (hardly a flattering placement by the standards of the time) is the rousing title track which, possibly outside of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout," is the album's most insistently catchy and radio-ready entry. I should also point out that the other two songs I mention actually bookend Please Please Me, translating into a further dispersion of the highlights.

The Beatles then were of the view that an album could and, perhaps, should function as a unit of front-to-back strength and quality. This was their aim even if it was far from easily achievable.

P.S. Commentary on "Please Please Me" will arrive soon.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Clarification on "Ask Me Why"

In my previous post, I discussed the superb bridge on "Ask Me Why" and noted that, on the first section of each couplet, it seemed that either John's vocal was doubled or Paul's unison part blended in almost without a trace. On a separate website that runs these commentaries, one person took up this specific point and commented that "A Taste Of Honey" is the only entry on Please Please Me that features a "'trick duet.'" This term denotes a vocal that was recorded twice by the same person, but sounds as if two voices were at work. Thus, John and Paul were in fact singing in flawless unison on the part mentioned above.

It wasn't until 1967 that the more advanced and convenient technique for doubling, ADT (Automatic Double Tracking), was available to the Beatles. Here's an excerpt from the Revolver page on Wikipedia which explains the matter further:

“A key production technique used for the first time on this album was automatic double tracking (ADT), invented by EMI engineer Ken Townsend on 6 April 1966. This technique used two linked tape recorders to automatically create a doubled vocal track. The standard method was to double the vocal by singing the same piece twice onto a multitrack tape, a task Lennon particularly disliked. The Beatles were reportedly delighted with the invention, and used it extensively on Revolver. ADT quickly became a standard pop production technique, and led to related developments, including the artificial chorus effect.”

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Ask Me Why"

“Ask Me Why” was one of four songs that the Beatles played at Abbey Road Studios during their first recording session on June 6, 1962. Afterward, George Martin judged that this abundantly tender song wasn’t best suited for the Beatles’ debut single. That distinction would fall on “Love Me Do”, which is more instantly appealing and pop-wise than “Ask Me Why”. Conversely, the latter is a contained and low-impact affair that draws strength from the intricacy of its vocal arrangements.

On first contact, “Ask Me Why” comes off as little more than an earnest and submissive proclamation of love. Backed by an unassuming interaction of light guitar jangles, ticking percussion, and a lead guitar part lifted from a Miracles song, John Lennon, on vocals, anxiously plays the fool for his dearest: “Now you’re mine/ My happiness still makes me cry”. Why the tears, John? “It’s not because I’m sad/ But you’re the only love that I’ve ever had”. Evidently, he’s fallen hard for this girl. The one line that doesn’t seem vividly in sync with the lyric’s feverish tone is the opener – “I love you/ ‘Cause you tell me things I want to know” – which, far from being an indifferent sentiment, is just clumsily romantic. Otherwise, it’s all over-the-moon devotion. As if to reinforce the song’s intent, John and Paul even wrote its second half as a mere reprise of the first, only without one of the verses and plus an additional chorus.

What elevates the lyric above maudlin fluff is the vibrancy of its actual expression, mainly undertaken by John and Paul. Indeed, the technical prowess and invention of its vocal patterns, which also borrowed from the work of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, keep “Ask Me Why” crisp and pleasantly buoyant.

It breaks down this way. The opening verse begins (I believe) with John, Paul, and George all in unison: “I love youuuu”. I’m not sure who sings exactly what, but at the end of “you”, both a straight “uuuu” and a “wu-wu-wu” are held out concurrently. Then, after John performs the verse’s next line by himself and a similar unison part follows, he does a different and longer section (“That I-I-I-I….”), flanked by “oooos” from Paul and George. Within just that half-minute, the vocals have already nimbly shifted here and there. Next comes another verse, succeeded by an exquisitely subtle bridge. On the first line – “I can’t believe” –, John’s part is either doubled or Paul sings unison and blends in seamlessly. From there to the end of the bridge, the pair fade in and out of harmony, with Paul performing a series of “spot” harmonies: first on “it’s happened to me”, then on “of anymore”, and finally on “misery” (the latter two are in succession but Paul seems to alter his vocal between them, which makes for distinct parts). The “spot” harmony was, in fact, one of the significant innovations that the Beatles brought to pop music. Lastly, the chorus features a unison vocal on “Ask me why” and, again, a couple of lines from John paired with backup “oooos.”

Beyond the draw of its changing patterns, what’s so rewarding and almost endearing about the vocal proficiency of “Ask Me Why” is how it exists in such small moments. Looking at the bigger picture, isn’t it remarkable to consider that part of the Beatles’ historic stamp on the pop world could unveil itself in the singing of just one word, like “misery”?

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ringo, you can drive your car.

A momentous anniversary is upon us. On Oct. 8 1964, a bit more than 24 years after he was born and on the same month and day that would later witness the capture of "Che" Guevara in Bolivia and the birth of Matt Damon, the great Ringo Starr, whose ingenuity as a percussionist would too often play second or third banana to the skills of the other Beatles and who has seemed to navigate the pitfalls of celebrity so sanely and in good humor, yes that Ringo Starr on this day 44 years ago passed! his! driving! test! Congrats, brother.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Inspired by The Beatles

I'm going to start doing occasional posts focused on songs that strongly bear the Beatles' influence. They're great in number and many are superb tunes in their own right. They don't need to be directly linked to one specific song (like the Vines' "Factory" which strongly smacks of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by way of Nirvana on a mediocre day). Some might be more traceable to an era of the Beatles or a certain album. "White Album pop" isn't an atypical phrase to come across in a music review (though one must ask how it's possible to isolate the essence of that wild madhouse of a record). Others might seem inspired by one of the Beatles in particular (Paul with his whimsical and often precious style that John derided as "granny-music" or George with his Eastern-influenced work, etc, etc). As is obvious, the Beatles cast an immensely large shadow over all of pop music.

The first entry is Franz Ferdinand's "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" from their excellent 2005 album You Could Have It So Much Better. It's a lilting, winsome, and lightly melancholic ballad that is Paul McCartney through and through. And I promise that the connection is not so spurious as to be based solely on the fact that Macca wrote "Eleanor Rigby."

Enjoy Franz. They rule.

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Friday, October 3, 2008


Paul McCartney has fondly remarked on the innocence of the Beatles’ early years, a time when they could perform a song that seemed keen on members of the male sex and not, as a result, inspire widespread idle chatter. The song, “Boys”, was in fact a noted crowd-pleaser and, judging by the glow of joy that their recorded version emits, also a favorite of the Beatles themselves.

Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, “Boys” is a busy and rhythmically perky rock tune that features Ringo’s debut as a lead vocalist. Ringo isn’t a natural, polished singer but neither is he entirely dismissible. His technical limitations can serve the purposes of the right material, like on self-mocking songs such as “Act Naturally” and “With a Little Help from My Friends”. On “Boys”, his shouty vocal style brings a spark to the already jaunty song while the accompanying screams, “bop-shuops”, and “yeah yeah boys” from John, Paul, and George make for a boisterous back-up section. The call-and-response dynamic is infectiously spirited. Ringo even delivers a shout-out to a fellow Beatle – “Alright, George” – before the latter proceeds into a guitar solo (which, like his composition on “I Saw Her Standing There”, is strangely patchy and untuneful. I have negligible knowledge of the early history of pop guitar solos. I can’t comment with authority on why George’s guitar-work, circa 1962-1963, might be the way it is beyond the fact of his very unfinished maturation as a musician. Even so, I don’t feel I’m terribly amiss in regarding those two solos as mis-hits).

In adapting the lyric from a female group (the Shirelles, of whom John was a big fan), to four males, the Beatles changed the verses so that, when Ringo alludes to intimacy with his significant other, he sings of kissing “her lips”. Within those lines, a girl is clearly the object of his affection. But the chorus remains unaltered (based on what I’ve read; I couldn’t find the original lyrics), meaning that what follows the claim of a heterosexual relationship are apparent exclamations to the contrary – “Well I talk about boys/Don’t you know I mean boys…/What a bundle of joy”. The effect, from the perspective of a listener, is a confusion of orientations. First Ringo mentions his girl but later he’s convincingly enthusiastic about the subject of boys. Even the song’s opening line is curious in a way. Ringo sings, “I been told when a boy kiss a girl/Take a trip around the world”, almost suggesting that he himself wasn’t practiced at kissing a woman. Perhaps he didn’t want to be. Thus, Ringo had to learn the ins and outs through someone else’s expertise.

It’s hard to resist this sort of line-by-line, innuendo-seeking analysis even when it’s obviously overkill. According to their testimonies, the Beatles didn’t harbor any scandalous intentions with “Boys”. The gay connotations of their cover were just incidental to the song’s addictively exuberant quality that attracted them in the first place.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Cookies' "Chains"

(If the video is removed, go here; if it's taken off of YouTube entirely, my apologies).

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Slight Deviation

Only several posts in, the blog is already trending toward a formulaic approach - song description, then youtube clip. In an effort to prevent this from deeply taking root, I'm not going to post the youtube video of the Cookies' version of "Chains" quite yet. A change of pace is needed. Here is Allmusic's (formerly All Music Guide) lengthy review of "Chains", which considers each interpretation but with an emphasis on the Cookies'. It's both thorough and informed. I was particularly keen on its technical discussion of the handclap patterns that the Cookies deployed to such sugary effect. Handclaps can really do wonders for a song's texture. But I slightly disagree with its more positive take on the Beatles' version. In my view, it's a bit of a snoozer, though a pleasant one. And I'd argue that there's not even a marginal disparity in tone between the two. The reviewer for Allmusic, Richie Unterberger, describes the Beatles' one as having "a little more of a serious, committed (though still upbeat) air." I honestly can't detect a sliver of seriousness in either. But it's unbecoming to nitpick a quality review like this. I appreciate when a sizable chunk of words is devoted to evaluating and, in a way, celebrating a fairly obscure (even if the Beatles did cover it) pop tune.

Also, in going over the Cookies' discography, I noticed a gem of a title for one of their releases. It's an import compilation sassily entitled Don't Say Nothing Bad About the Cookies. Super boss. It's also worth noting that the Cookies changed their name to the Raelettes in the mid 50s when they became the backup band for Ray Charles. But, lest I forget, this is a blog about the Beatles. I absolutely adore John Lennon (that is, some of the time I do).

Sunday, September 28, 2008


“Chains” marks the first time on Please Please Me where I reacted a bit indifferently to what the Beatles were offering. Their version of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King-penned R&B ditty is repetitious (seemingly more so than the original, somehow), musically underdressed, and in need of a swelling, climactic point. The harmonies are buoyant but none of the Beatles seem to find anything inventive to try instrumentally (though the harmonica-led intro is notable as it would reappear, often memorably, in a considerable amount of their songs).

To hear the earlier, Cookies-performed rendition is to realize that “Chains” is an R&B number through and through and perhaps not ideally suited to the Fab Four’s abilities. In translating it to rock ‘n roll, the Beatles opted to shed the original’s sax drop-ins and handclaps (but why?), thereby losing much of its color and looseness. It just doesn’t take flight on the strength alone of their guitar-bass-percussion interplay. And George's vocal, at times harmonized by John and Paul, comes off almost stodgy when compared to the bright, lively chirp of the Cookies. The Beatles, it seems, simply didn’t know where to take the song.

The structure of “Chains”, which remains constant between the two versions, does contain a feature worthy of mention. It’s how the chorus introduces the song and then essentially continues through the space where you’d expect there to be a proper, set-apart verse (several bridge-like, modified verses do arrive later). The chorus and standard verse seem, more or less, merged into one, which facilitates a smooth flow but can also be repetitious.

It’s only a detail of minor interest and doesn’t have much bearing on how effective “Chains” is in the hands of either band. The Cookies’ version really is a blithe confection while the Beatles’ uninspired interpretation serves as a reminder (among others to come) that the future greatest-ever pop band didn’t immediately achieve artistic eminence. They first had to test their evolving skills against the vast and newfangled possibilities of rock ’n roll.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go to Him)"

Here's the Arthur Alexander-performed version of "Anna (Go to Him)".

The slinky piano line, the slightly brisker tempo, and Alexander's soulful but still a touch inhibited vocal all give the original a distinctive feel. I prefer the Beatles' take on it, but both recommend themselves in different ways.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Anna (Go to Him)"

John Lennon was famously battling a cold during the recording session for Please Please Me. While the illness wasn't major, even a pedestrian cough might have derailed his vocal efforts. Not so in this case. Instead, John's at times hoarse and untamed delivery proved a fitting complement to the energy of the Beatles' musical backdrops.

"Twist and Shout", of course, is the most memorable instance of this. But even on the emotive mid-paced ballad "Anna (Go to Him)", which was recorded before the effects of his cold were so strikingly evident, the dash of roughness in John's voice seems to add enlivening texture. Written by Arthur Alexander, a country-soul artist of the 60s and 70s, "Anna" centers on a relationship that is failing because the girl (Anna) has found someone whose love for her surpasses that of her current man's. The spurned boyfriend ultimately declares his willingness to part from Anna (not the typical reaction of a lover in a pop song) but not before he lays bare his imperishable love for her (much better). The lyric is thick with desperation: "But every girl I’ve ever had/Breaks my heart and leave me sad/What am I/What am I supposed to do". In the original version, Alexander sings in a clipped fashion, which lends his rendering an almost matter-of-fact quality. John, conversely, stretches out and emphasizes more notes to arouse greater conviction from them. Especially on the segment between the standard verses (sampled above), his less-than-silky delivery injects the song with an aching passion that might not have come through so stirringly if not for the illness. Pain seems to dwell in the husky edges of John's voice.

Overall, the Beatles' version is an improvement on its source. The original features a jangling piano line at the lead which gives off too much playfulness for a song about inner conflict. George's guitar-work is a better match: less spry and excitable but still tuneful. It combines with Ringo's offbeat percussion and Paul's stingy bass to construct a groove that, light and limber, doesn't get in the way of John's bruised vocal.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008


Coming off the lively snap of “I Saw Her Standing There”, a song with a melodramatic title like “Misery” seems almost bound to be a non-starter. And, to a certain extent, that’s true of “Misery”. It’s a pained account of love lost that heavily wallows in neediness and self-pity (“The world is treating me ba-a-ad / Misery”). Based on his lyrics, John Lennon is positively inconsolable. Oh that his dearest would undo the hurt. Though certainly not always the case, cheerless and rather dull subject matter of this kind can have a deflating effect on a song and, as follows, the listening experience.

Even so, “Misery” is a more compelling number than its drab lyric might indicate. First, there’s the backstory. As it turns out, John and Paul did not write “Misery” for the Beatles themselves. It was originally intended for a young British pop star named Helen Shapiro who was in need of potential country/western material for a future release. Shapiro, however, never recorded the song (although another British artist, Kenny Lynch, later would). Eventually, when George Martin was compiling tracks for Please Please Me, he had the Beatles record, effectively, their entire backlog of songs, one of which was “Misery”.

Side note: I’d be curious to know to what degree John and Paul consciously designed “Misery” as a song for a female performer and how the initial version and the Beatles’ own rendition may have diverged.

Within the song itself, the Beatles made several interesting decisions concerning its mechanics and structure. What stands out most is the song’s moderately crisp pace. Though “Misery” is nothing if not a bummer tune, the Beatles don’t match that feel with a plodding, despondent tempo. After the slow intro, they proceed into a steady gallop, with Ringo’s bouncy percussion as the dominant presence. Throughout, the three guitarists don’t really assert themselves but the pace remains active enough to prevent “Misery” from becoming a total mire of melancholy.

The verse/chorus pattern is also of note. “Misery’s” running time is a brief 1:50, which might reasonably suggest inadequate room for a fleshed-out structure to the song. But that’s misleading. The chorus consists of just one word, “misery”, and, furthermore, the Beatles opted to not include a guitar solo, both of which open up space. To fill that void in a not so predictable manner, John and Paul wrote two modulated verses (only slight variations of each other) to accompany the normal verses. The back-and-forth switch between normal and modulated gives the song a somewhat dynamic flow and hints at the Beatles’ desire, even at their start, to be more than paint-by-numbers songwriters who also happened to be infectious entertainers. They aspired to be serious craftsmen (though, admittedly, “Misery” is a humble offering).

The song’s single best moment, however, arrives at the 1:35 mark. It’s when John lets loose one of the most pitch-perfect and almost comically wounded moans (“oww-o-ow”) that you’ll ever hear in pop music. Few bands could prompt such pleasure with just two seconds of discardable vocal filler.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"I Saw Her Standing There"

It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (“one, two, three, fahhh”) puts “I Saw Her Standing There” energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity.

Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, mid-song screams, high-pitched “woohs”, and, most delightfully, handclaps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable “Twist and Shout”). Overall the songcraft is economized and straightforward, if not a bit underdeveloped. Paul’s bass line (which evidently came from a Chuck Berry song) tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a incipient talent that still isn’t sure how to occupy all its space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n roll into something distinctly its own. Lyrically, Paul projects an innocence that isn’t surprising of early 60s pop. This was a period when, in song anyway, a mere exchange of glances could spawn love. As Paul sings, “Well she looked at me/ And I, I could see/ That before too long/ I’d fall in love with her”. How carefree and seemingly puritan. He even vows that this squeeze will be his one and only. Yet examine those lines once more. If you’re swooning over someone after only looking at him or her, the draw is purely physical. And I must confess that my instinctive response to the song’s introductory lines “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” is “No, Paul, I’m not quite sure what you mean”. It’s uncertain how cryptic and suggestive he’s aiming to be. Perhaps Paul was smuggling touches of sexuality into what seems like a sweet, if hasty, courtship. It’s also possible that the lines simply work as efficient pop couplets and are not intentionally fraught with matters between-the -sheets.

So the subtle intrigue of the lyric is amusing. But the rousing rock ‘n roll sounds are clearly the magnetic attraction of “I Saw Her Standing There."

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