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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Baby It's You

The Beatles, retroactively referred to by some as the ultimate boy band, were huge fans of American girl groups and did not hesitate to incorporate numerous girl group songs into their live repertoire.  Early in 1961, the Shirelles, one of the first great girl groups, had a hit with a song crafted for them by a unique Brill Building team-up of Burt Bacharach, Mack David and Barney Williams.  Producer Luther Dixon of Scepter Records felt that the demo of Baby It's You was so good that he merely had lead singer Shirley Owens record her vocal on top of it.  (Bacharach's voice can still clearly be heard singing the final "Sha-la-la-la-la" before each verse on the record.)

A lead vocal of such smoldering passion was naturally appealing to John Lennon and the song found its way into the Beatles' stage act.  When their producer George Martin was compiling a list of titles from that act to record for their debut album, Baby It's You easily made the cut.  Time was running short during the evening session on February 11th, 1963 when this number was begun, but the group knew it so well that it only took three takes to get it right.  It was one of only a few recordings on the album to be sweetened, with George Martin overdubbing a celeste on February 20th, doubling George Harrison's very simple lead guitar solo, which itself was a note-for-note recreation of a tacky-sounding organ solo on the Shirelles' original.

The boys continued to perform the song on occasion for several months afterwards.  They even recorded it for their radio program Pop Go the Beatles on June 1st.  Of course, the celeste does not appear on this version, but Harrison does add a little extra flourish at the end of his solo and the group brings the number to a complete finish instead of fading out as they did on the record.  This can be heard on Live at the BBC, including a wonderfully silly introduction by host Lee Peters using his "famous James Mason impersonation voice" at the instigation of the Beatles.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Ask Me Why

Even at the time of its release, Ask Me Why sounded like an old-fashioned song, a delightful throwback demonstrating the love the Beatles had for a broad array of popular music.  Yet the inspiration for principal composer John Lennon was actually What's So Good About Goodbye, a recent release by the Miracles on the American record label Tamla Motown.  Lennon wrote the song around April of 1962 with help from Paul, then taught it to George and Pete.

The group felt confident enough about the composition to perform it at their initial session at EMI's Abbey Road Studios on June 6th.  Only days later, on June 11th, they played it for BBC Radio before a live audience in Manchester, thus significantly making it their first original song to be broadcast.  Although it was not chosen to be recorded at the September sessions for their first single, it was still in contention when they reported to the studio on November 26th to record their second.  By this point, the band (now with Ringo in the lineup) had been playing the number in their live repertoire for months and so, after spending quite a bit of time working on the A-side Please Please Me, they perfected Ask Me Why in only six takes - live with no overdubs.

The song is a somewhat complex little crooner.  John's voice is a bit raw at times, yet he also has some lovely falsetto moments, and Paul and George alternate between joining him for some three-part harmonies or supplying backing vocals.  George's lead guitar is busy throughout providing some unobtrusive but beautiful fills while Ringo plays a Latin-flavored drum pattern also inspired by the Miracles' recording and probably not much different from the way Pete Best originally did it.

Before the record was even released, the boys played it at their final dates at the Star Club in Hamburg, West Germany.  The performance on December 31st was taped and has been widely available in various packages for many years.  Paul's bass is more prominent on the version I have, they play at a faster tempo, George's fills are less elegant and they repeat the entire second verse, which does not occur on the record.

After the single was released on January 11th, 1963, the song was played only sparingly as Lennon and McCartney's songwriting abilities rapidly developed and newer material gained favor.  The final performance was recorded on September 3rd, 1963 for their radio program Pop Go the Beatles and is available on On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2.  This lovely rendition is on par with the original, though it is truncated, omitting the repeat of the bridge, and John holds out the word "mine" instead of the usual "mi-yi-yi-yi-yine," confirming that it had been some time since they had last visited the number. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Any Time At All

Working out an arrangement as Dick James and George Martin look on
The first few days of June 1964 saw the band quickly recording several numbers to finish off the EP Long Tall Sally and the non-soundtrack side of the album A Hard Day's Night.  Four titles were started and completed on June 1st.  On the afternoon of the 2nd, the band began to work on this Lennon composition but, as with Paul's And I Love Her back in February, it was lacking a bridge.  After seven takes, they decided to set the song aside and dashed off McCartney's Things We Said Today, then broke for dinner.

Returning for an evening session, they recorded Lennon's When I Get Home before resuming their efforts on Any Time At All.  In this instance, it was Paul who worked out a series of piano chords to serve as a middle eight.  In the master version, take eleven, this section features Paul on piano and George on guitar playing this chord progression with little embellishment.  It is generally assumed that some new lyrics were to be written and overdubbed onto this sequence but, as it happened, Ringo took ill the next day and all work on the album was deemed to be complete.

This song of devotion showcases John shouting out the title in the refrains but adopting a soothing voice for the verses, a model he would revisit in 1969 for Don't Let Me Down.  His lead vocal is double-tracked for effect here as he overlaps the first and second half of the verses by skipping a different word or two in each line to keep the lyrics moving forward.  The only other voice heard is Paul's echoing the title in the refrains.

Some sources claim that Lennon actually had written a third and a fourth verse that were considered unnecessary and not recorded, even quoting some of the supposed lyrics.  Given the need for a bridge and the relatively few mentions of this, I wonder how reliable those sources are.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Another Girl

On February 15th, 1965 the Beatles met at Abbey Road Studios to begin work on a batch of songs for the soundtrack of their second feature film.  The afternoon session was spent on Ticket to Ride, which featured Paul playing lead guitar.  In the evening, the group started rehearsing Another Girl, a song that Paul had written only days earlier while on holiday in Tunisia.  Their new method of working on this day saw them perfect the basic track through much in-studio rehearsal (a luxury no other act was afforded) before attempting an actual take.  Thus, take one was all that was necessary for the master.

Overdubs included a double-tracked lead vocal by Paul and backing vocals by John and George.  A good deal of time was then spent on George trying to do a flourish using the tremolo arm of his guitar for the end of the song.  The seventh attempt (out of ten) was deemed best.  The following day, however, Paul elected to do it himself, even adding a lead guitar passage throughout the song, thus usurping George's role for the second time in two days.

The song itself is a rather lightweight piece, with lyrics that are truly callous in the manner that the singer dismisses one girl in favor of another.  Though McCartney also offered Tell Me What You See for the soundtrack, Another Girl was probably chosen instead due to it being a more uptempo number.

On February 27th, less than two weeks after recording the song, the boys were in the Bahamas miming to it.  It is the final new number to be introduced, appearing quite late in the film.  The sequence shows the band playing on a reef and cavorting with some girls in the water, with Paul occasionally using a girl in a bikini as a stand-in for his bass guitar.  This was the last time the Beatles would ever perform the song in any way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

And Your Bird Can Sing

John Lennon could be brutal in his assessment of any piece of work, even his own, and he never had a good word to say about this composition when asked about it in later years, dismissing it on various occasions as a "horror" and a "throwaway."  It's difficult to understand those remarks, even if he was merely referring to the lyrics, which are a bit sloppy in places, especially in the use of the word "awoken" to force a rhyme.  Yet this is the same man who felt that Be-Bop-A-Lula was one of the best rock and roll songs ever written and who often stated that the overall sound of a recording was more important than the words.  Given those standards, And Your Bird Can Sing is a fine piece of work indeed, with its sonic wash of electric guitars and rich vocal harmonies.

The Beatles first recorded the song on April 20th, 1966 - only a few weeks into sessions for the album Revolver.  Right from the introduction, the two takes laid down on this date sound very much in the style of the Byrds, with double-tracked ringing guitars.  Take two, which can be heard on Anthology 2, was considered to be the master and given numerous overdubs.  While the version presented is most notable for the giggling hysterics of John and Paul as they attempt to add more vocals, this take is a great look into an alternate arrangement of the song.  The long, winding guitar riff is mostly set, but the placement of the third verse and the instrumental break is different, the first verse is repeated then followed by a break and a nifty bass run by Paul before the guitars return and the boys start whistling over an intended fadeout section.

Unhappy with this version for some reason (not, of course, for the giggling overdub which would naturally have been deleted), John decided that a remake was necessary.  Thus, on April 26th, they began anew at take three, laying down several attempts of a new arrangement.  Take ten proved to be the best (out of thirteen total) and overdubbing began.  The guitar riff is extended and even more strident here.  Whereas John and Paul sang the earlier version as a duet, John sings alone in most places now (though his voice is treated with ADT, artificial double tracking) and more forcefully throughout.  And the tempo is a bit slower yet still driving forward at all times.  This proved to be the master used on the US album "Yesterday"...and Today and the UK album Revolver.

Though the Beatles set out on one final tour after these sessions, neither this song nor any other song from Revolver was added to their live act. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

And I Love Her

It's a bit surprising that when it came time to record a fresh batch of songs for the soundtrack of the group's first feature film, Paul McCartney only brought in one new composition.  Yes, his hit Can't Buy Me Love was used in the movie - twice - but it had been released as a single well in advance and was not originally intended for the film.  Yet, while John Lennon clearly dominated the soundtrack in terms of the quantity of songs, the quality of Paul's offering cannot be denied.  And I Love Her is one of his minor gems - his first ballad, in fact.

The song was still unfinished, however, when the Beatles first attempted to record it on February 25th, 1964.  Take two, the only complete take that day, can be heard on Anthology 1.  While John is already playing his rhythm part on acoustic guitar, George's lead is electric and Ringo is on his full drum kit.  It wasn't until midway through the session on the following day that Ringo switched to bongos.  Producer George Martin and music publisher Dick James thought the song was pleasant but repetitive, so they urged Paul to flesh it out a bit.  During a subsequent tea break, a bridge was quickly written by John and Paul and added to the song.  This middle eight plus George's simple but sublime work on a classical acoustic guitar provided the perfect final touches.  The master take was achieved on the 27th with Paul double-tracking his vocal line and an overdubbing of claves played by Ringo.

The song is used only once during one of the television rehearsal sequences in the middle of the film A Hard Day's Night.  It is played at a slightly slower tempo and Paul sings solo...mostly - he is still curiously double-tracked in places.

The boys only played the song one more time.  They recorded it for the BBC radio program Top Gear on July 14th, returning to the original instrumentation of electric guitar and drums on that occasion.  This version can be heard on On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2.  Some sources claim that And I Love Her was part of the 5-song set performed live on the television variety show Blackpool Night Out on July 19th, 1964 but a listen to the surviving audio tape of that program disproves that claim.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

All You Need Is Love

All You Need Is Love is best understood when considered as a song to be seen and heard by the entire world on the first global satellite TV show ever presented.  When the Beatles were chosen to represent the UK on the program Our World, they were told to keep the message simple.  John Lennon did just that, writing lyrics that he felt could not possibly be misinterpreted as anything other than a worldwide call for peace and love.

The group was naturally nervous about performing live for the first time in almost a year, let alone appearing before the largest audience ever assembled at the time.  Leaving nothing to chance, it was decided that a backing track was necessary to ground the performance, thus making the TV spot a fascinating glimpse into an actual work-in-progress.

Work began on the backing track on June 14th, 1967 at Olympic Sound Studios.  John banged out the basic chords of the song on a harpsichord, Paul played a double bass and George picked up a violin for the first time in his life.  Amazingly, all of these parts were kept in the final mix of the recording.  Overdubs of more conventional instrumentation and layers of backing vocals were added at Abbey Road Studios over a number of days before June 25th, the date of the broadcast.

It is worth the effort to seek out the Beatles' segment from the original Our World broadcast on YouTube.  It is presented in glorious black and white and lasts just over six minutes in length, starting with the boys in mid-song adding more backing vocals.  A camera in the control room then picks up producer George Martin and engineers Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush as Martin cuts the singing and orders the tape rewound and the orchestra brought into the studio.  TV announcer Steve Race makes such silly comments as "'ll notice the musicians are not rock and roll youngsters.  The Beatles get on best with symphony men."  Once all is set, the tape plays the backing track and the magic begins.

The pack of friends and rock luminaries sitting on the floor around the Beatles look rather bored during the early parts of the proceedings, but once the orchestra starts playing Martin's clever score and the singalong begins, the party atmosphere kicks in and the Summer of Love officially has its anthem.

Later that night, John rerecorded his lead vocal, Ringo added a drum roll to the introduction and a new mix was made so that the song could be rush-released as a single.  With such unprecedented publicity, it came as no surprise that the record was an instant worldwide number one bestseller.