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.