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Friday, December 9, 2016

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite

The story goes that the Beatles were in Sevenoaks, Kent making a promotional film for their new single Strawberry Fields Forever on January 31st, 1967 when, during a break, John Lennon wandered into an antique shop and bought a poster that he fancied which described a circus act in great detail.  The lyrics for the song Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite come almost exclusively from that poster.  For many years, it was believed that Lennon wrote the song alone, but Paul McCartney has rather recently revealed that he and John worked on the song together at John's house while constantly referring to the poster for inspiration.

The song was ready to be recorded on February 17th.  The only instruments on the basic track this day were Ringo's drums, Paul's bass and a harmonium played by producer George Martin.  On Anthology 2, we hear the first two very brief takes, with Paul advising John on how he should sing the song after the second take breaks down.  Take seven was best and two reduction mixes (remember that the Beatles were still using four-track tape at this time!) brought the master to take nine.  John overdubbed a new lead vocal and Paul and George added their brief harmony vocals onto this take.

At this point, John merely told George Martin that he wanted "to smell the sawdust" as a guide to all further work on the track.  Over the weekend, Martin searched high and low for a calliope that could be brought into the studio to help create a circus atmosphere, then opted instead for as many recordings of calliope music as he could round up on short notice.

On February 20th, as the Beatles waited impatiently in the studio, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick cut the tapes of calliope samples into pieces, threw them up in the air and reassembled them at random.  The resulting wash of sound delighted the group once they heard it, though it would not be overdubbed onto the master for more than a month.

Work on the album Sgt. Pepper was nearing completion by the time they returned to the recording on March 28th.  Bass harmonicas were added to the song on this date, with George, Ringo and assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evens all taking turns playing according to various reports.  John also added a Hammond organ and Paul picked out a guitar part featured in the instrumental break.  The calliope tape was overdubbed on the 29th and George Martin added a second organ piece on a Wurlitzer, once again playing at half-speed as he had on In My Life so he could more easily make the chromatic runs.

The recording was finally finished on the 31st with Martin adding yet another swirling organ run and a glockenspiel at the end of the song and possibly pounding out the piano chords that introduce the last verse, as well.  Even on an album noted for the complexity of the recording process for each of its songs, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite stands out as one of the most complex.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Because

John picking out a part on the Moog synthesizer
The very last song that John Lennon offered to the Beatles was this beautifully simple composition.  The story goes that he had been inspired to write it after hearing Yoko sit down at the piano one day to play Beethoven's famous Moonlight Sonata.  Perhaps he already had an arrangement in mind while writing it, because the recording was uniquely suited to the Beatles' capabilities.

Although Ringo does not appear on that recording, he played an integral part in the process, tapping out a beat on a hi-hat that John and producer George Martin could hear in their headphones as they played the basic arpeggios on guitar and electric harpsichord over and over again.  Paul also played a bass line on those twenty-three takes before the tape was rewound and they decided that take sixteen was the best.  The group then moved on to the most intricate part of the track - the three-part harmonies sung by John, Paul and George.  All of the above work was completed on August 1st, 1969.

The group returned to the track on August 4th, overdubbing the three-part harmonies two more times to end up with a total of nine voices on the master.  Getting the vocals just right took a great deal of time, with George Martin guiding the boys as he had in their early days on Lennon's other three-part harmony compositions This Boy and Yes It Is.  The precision they achieved here was so perfect that years later, in 1996, this song would appear on Anthology 3 in a vocals-only version for listeners' maximum appreciation.

The final touch was added on August 5th.  George Harrison had brought his Moog synthesizer to Abbey Road Studios and had it set up in a small room for the group's use.  Wires were run to the control room and George played a few brief parts on the synthesizer's keyboard as overdubs for the middle and end of the song.  This new instrument was introduced with such subtlety that it did not sound out of place among the guitars and electric harpsichord.

Because was not considered to be part of the long medley on side two of Abbey Road, but its final chord hangs in the air in such a way that it perfectly sets up the opening of Paul's You Never Give Me Your Money - yet another brilliant decision by Martin and the group when it came time to select the sequence of songs for an album.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Imagine your one-time best friend saying to you, "I've just written a song about my honeymoon.  Want to hear it?"  Though you might courteously reply in the affirmative, you would probably be cringing inside, especially if the person your friend married irritated you and contributed to the deterioration of your friendship.  If you were a good friend like Paul McCartney, however, not only would you listen to John Lennon's song, you would then agree to help him record it.

This was the situation on April 14th, 1969, when the two old mates got together at Paul's house, then headed over to Abbey Road Studios to produce the next single attributed to the Beatles.  John was impatient and wanted to record the song immediately, but Ringo was busy filming The Magic Christian and George may or may not have been out of the country, so John and Paul took it upon themselves to get the job done.  The fact that they were reunited with both producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick for the first time in many months assured that the process would be quick and efficient.

They recorded eleven takes with Paul on drums as John sang and played acoustic guitar.  Take ten being the best, the duo then proceeded to add numerous overdubs onto it, including piano, bass, maracas and an occasional harmony vocal by Paul, plus two electric lead guitar parts and percussive thumps on the back of an acoustic guitar by John.  The recording was only mixed for stereo - the first by the Beatles to not receive a mono mix. 

Paul clearly saw that, in spite of the outrageous subject material, John had a winning composition in hand, with a catchy refrain and a simple, straightforward groove.  George and Ringo must have agreed in order for them all to affix the group name to the finished product.  And fans in the UK responded, as well, buying enough copies to make the record a number one hit.  The sacrilegious lyrics of the song kept it off the airwaves in parts of the USA, however, where it peaked at number eight on the Billboard chart.    

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Bad Boy

The Beatles were in the final days of filming their second feature Help! when a request arrived from Capitol Records in the USA.  The American record label was assembling a compilation album and was still in need of a couple tracks to make up the usual total of eleven on a standard US release.  So, on the evening of May 10th, 1965, after a full day of shooting, the boys reported to Abbey Road Studios to see what they could come up with on such short notice.

They were not scheduled to begin recording songs for the non-soundtrack side of the Help! album for another month and presumably were not willing to sacrifice any compositions they had prepared for that purpose.  They therefore looked to their pre-fame stage act for any songs that would specifically appeal to their American audience and came up with a pair from one of John's favorite rockers - the relatively obscure Larry Williams.  The group had recorded Williams' scorcher Slow Down the previous year for the Long Tall Sally EP.  They now turned their attention to Dizzy Miss Lizzie and Bad Boy - two songs by Williams that had been part of their lengthy set list in both Hamburg and Liverpool.

The band knew Bad Boy so well that only four takes were necessary to arrive at the master with everyone playing their usual instruments.  They then overdubbed John on organ, Paul on electric piano, a second lead guitar part by George and Ringo on tambourine, plus John's incredible lead vocal.

The song was a perfect choice for its targeted American audience with its references to a hula hoop, a jukebox, chewing gum and a laundromat.  The recordings of Bad Boy and Dizzy Miss Lizzie were quickly dashed off to Capitol Records and they appeared roughly five weeks later on the album Beatles VI, released on June 14th.

Though not intended for that purpose, Dizzy Miss Lizzie was soon added to the British album Help!, but Bad Boy was kept in reserve for a year and a half.  It finally materialized in the UK on the first greatest hits package A Collection of Beatles' Oldies in December of 1966 as a sort of bonus track. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Back in the USSR

Paul McCartney was never shy about telling the other members of the Beatles how he wanted something to be played.  While this perfectionist streak often yielded great results, it also tended to rankle his bandmates more and more as the years went by.  Surprisingly, the first one to decide that enough was enough was the normally unflappable Ringo.  Things came to a head on August 22nd, 1968, and the usually easygoing drummer announced that he was quitting the Beatles.  Though John, Paul and George were initially taken aback by Ringo's departure, they nonetheless carried on, making two complete recordings in his absence.

Back in the USSR was the song that prompted Ringo's walkout.  It's a pretty straightforward rocker, so it's hard to imagine exactly what Paul wanted that Ringo couldn't get.  Paul wound up playing the drums on the basic track, as George played guitar and John picked up the bass part.  Only five takes were required to achieve the master.  The next day, August 23rd, the recording was completed with numerous overdubs including drum fills by John and George, additional bass lines by Paul and George, more guitar from Paul, piano, handclaps, backing vocals and, of course, the jet engine sound which flies in and out of the soundscape.

McCartney had composed the song in the spring of '68 in Rishikesh, India during the group's time there to study Transcendental Meditation.  Mike Love of the Beach Boys was also there and it was he who suggested the idea of referring to Russian women as if they were California Girls.  Those lyrics inspired the wonderful backing vocals in the style of the Beach Boys during the bridge.

When John and Paul laid out the running order for the double album The Beatles in a marathon 24-hour session on October 16th and 17th, they chose this number to open side one.  It immediately signals the listener that this album is a return to basic rock and roll after the group's psychedelic excursions of 1967.

Paul added the song to his live set list years ago and it has generally remained there as one of his mainstays.  And Ringo finally got to play on the song in concert on July 4th, 1984 in Washington, DC with - of all people - Mike Love and the Beach Boys.

As for Paul's drumming on the original recording, most critics rate it average at best.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Baby's in Black

On Ready, Steady, Go! - November 1964
In 1963, Lennon and McCartney had worked together to write a number of songs including a brilliant string of number one hits - From Me to You, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand - but, by 1964, they had already taken to writing alone and collaborating with each other only when one of them required help in finishing off a song or fine-tuning it in the studio.  As they prepared to begin sessions for their fourth album, however, they actually sat down in the same room, "eyeball to eyeball" as John once said, to write a song from scratch for the first time in months.

Musically, they wanted to write a song in 3/4 time and, lyrically, they wanted to tackle somewhat darker subject matter - a woman mourning a lost love.  In addition, once the group convened in the studio on August 11th, there was a deliberate attempt to give the recording a rockabilly feel.  They had begun to explore this style a few months earlier during the final sessions for the album A Hard Day's Night and they would continue to mine it throughout their work on the new album-in-progress.  Perhaps their initial trip to America back in February had inspired this exploration; their upcoming tour of the USA would only serve to strengthen it.

The most noticeable aspect of the rockabilly sound was George Harrison's twangy guitar, prompting producer George Martin's question, "You want the beginning like that, do you?"  Fourteen takes were necessary to arrive at the master, though George made an additional thirteen attempts to get the distinctive opening right.  John and Paul also double-tracked their joint lead vocals in places and Ringo overdubbed a tambourine to complete the recording.

They debuted the song on the television program Ready, Steady, Go! in November a week before its release on the album Beatles for Sale.  Rather than playing live, the group mimes to the record, though John only pretends to be singing about half the time.  Some members of the standing studio audience actually waltz to the song and one female fan creates some interesting arm movements in time to the music.

John and Paul were quite proud of this song, choosing to add it to the band's live set list.  This is perplexing considering the time signature, the comparative complexity of the composition and the difficulty they had hearing themselves in concert.  When introducing it, John always enjoyed pointing out that the song was a waltz, as you can hear on the 1996 EP Real Love which features a performance of the number at the Hollywood Bowl from August of 1965.  Happily, this track has now been added to the new and improved Live at the Hollywood Bowl album released earlier this year.  They continued to play it in concert right up to and including their final show at Candlestick Park in 1966.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Baby You're a Rich Man

Baby You're a Rich Man was the first song to be recorded specifically for the soundtrack of the animated feature Yellow Submarine.  Contracts for the making of the film had been signed by the group's manager Brian Epstein only days before the Beatles convened at Olympic Sound Studios in London on May 11th, 1967.  The Rolling Stones had been recording at that location and Mick Jagger was present on this day to watch his friends in action.  George Martin was there in his usual capacity as producer, but Olympic studio manager Keith Grant served as engineer.

The song was a true Lennon/McCartney collaboration, joining two unfinished songs together to form a whole.  John's One of the Beautiful People provided the pseudo-press-conference-style verses and the rousing chorus came from Paul.  Though the lyrics deal with the question of fame, they do so in a lightweight, even a lighthearted, manner.  This was the middle of the psychedelic era and it was the overall sound of the recording - the texture, if you will - that was paramount, and the sound they achieved on this day was impressive, indeed.

The most unique element of that sound came from a keyboard called a Clavioline, a precursor to the synthesizer.  John Lennon commandeered this instrument, which was only capable of playing single notes at a time, not chords, and utilized it throughout the song in a haphazard way that somehow works to great effect.  All of the other instruments - piano, guitar, drums and bass - have a clean, sharp sound.  The band's usual Abbey Road Studios engineer Geoff Emerick, a true perfectionist, relates in his book Here, There and Everywhere that he admired the sonic quality of the bass in particular when he heard the finished product.

When the single All You Need Is Love required a B-side soon thereafter, this recording was chosen for that purpose and thus was withdrawn from consideration for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.  A brief snippet of the song was eventually used in the film, however.  Only the introduction is heard very quietly as Ringo takes a hole out of his pocket and frees Sgt. Pepper's band from the glass bowl they have been trapped in for most of the action.  The song therefore made it onto the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album released in 1999.