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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Helter Skelter

Paul McCartney has always stated that he wanted to one-up The Who after reading Pete Townsend describe his band's latest offering as the dirtiest and most raucous song ever recorded.  Yet the three takes of Helter Skelter first recorded by the Beatles on July 18th, 1968 do not back up that claim.  Anthology 3 presents the first four and a half minutes of take two (take one was 10'40", take two was 12'45" and take three ran 27'11" - the longest take ever by the group) and reveals it to be swampy, slow and deliberate, despite some passionate singing from Paul.  Even if one of these takes had been subjected to overdubs, it is hard to imagine it even approaching the version we have all come to know.

On September 9th, the boys returned to the number and began that version.  This just happened to be the first day of producer George Martin's holiday from the protracted sessions for the double album.  That left 21-year-old Chris Thomas in the producer's chair and gave the lunatics the opportunity to take charge of the asylum.  And, by all accounts, the Beatles were clearly under the influence of various substances that evening.  The proof is in the pudding.

Takes four through twenty-one featured Paul on rhythm guitar, George on a distorted lead guitar, John on piano and Ringo pounding away on his drum kit.  Paul persuaded the engineers to push the sound equipment past its normal limits and then some, capturing as much noise as possible.  The final take proved to be the best.  Good thing, too, because Ringo's hands were actually bleeding after that take, prompting his famous cry of, "I've got blisters on my fingers!"  Paul then recorded his screaming lead vocal, as George reportedly ran around the studio with a flaming ashtray on his head.

Overdubs were all added on the following night of September 10th.  These included an occasional, more prominent lead guitar part played by Paul, a thumping bass from John, backing vocals by John, George and Paul, and squealing saxophone from John and an equally amateurish trumpet attempted by assistant Mal Evans.  The resulting cacophony was everything Paul had been hoping for.

The mono mix of the song was made on September 17th while Chris Thomas was still nominally producer, though McCartney was probably present.  It ended at the 3'36" mark - long before the band came crashing to a halt.  It was not until work on the album was nearing completion on October 12th that the stereo mix was prepared.  By this time, George Martin was back at the helm and an old trick that the group had used on Strawberry Fields Forever was revived.  The song faded out completely, slowly came back to full volume, started to fade again then quickly came back up for the chaotic conclusion, including Ringo's scream.  This brought the total time of the track to 4'29".

The "White Album" was released in late November of 1968 in both mono and stereo in the UK, but it was only available in stereo in the US.  Helter Skelter did not appear again until 1976 on the Rock and Roll Music compilation.  In the US, it was also the B-side of a single released a week ahead of that album.  American fans finally got to hear the truncated mono mix of the song on the US version of Rarities in 1980.  And the slow rendition I refer to at the beginning of this entry surfaced on Anthology 3 in 1996.

Saturday, February 24, 2018


For the Beatles, 1965 mirrored 1964 in many ways, especially during the first half of the year.  Once again, songs had to be written and recorded in advance for the soundtrack of a feature film, then the filming itself was begun and, suddenly, in the midst of it all, a title was decided and a new song had to be written and recorded.  And, in both years, it was John Lennon who quickly wrote a song to order.  McCartney did play a substantial role in the arrangement of the song, particularly with the ingenious backing vocals, but the lyrics were pure Lennon.  Not only did they express a very real cry for help at that point in his life, but they remained among his all-time personal favorites.

The recording was relatively straightforward and was accomplished in a single four-hour session on April 13th.  Take nine was the best rhythm track.  By the time overdubs were complete, the number of official takes had reached twelve.  The few overdubs included all vocals, plus Ringo playing a tambourine and George's descending guitar phrases.

Unlike A Hard Day's Night the year before, there were still a few weeks left in the shooting schedule of Help!  Thus, a black and white sequence of the group performing the song was filmed for the opening credits.  The tune is heard again at the end of the film during the final battle on the beach in the Bahamas.

In his excellent in depth article on the song, Dave Rybaczewski may have solved a long-standing mystery.  A session on May 24th at CTS Studios in London for post sync work on the film possibly involved some re-recording of the vocal parts of the song.  This could account for the different mono and stereo vocal versions available.

In addition to its release as a single and the title track of the soundtrack album, the song was also part of the 1966 compilation A Collection of Beatles' Oldies in the UK.  In the US, Capitol Records chose to open its version of the soundtrack album with a short burst of Ken Thorne's score for the film leading into the title song.  This oddity was actually kept for the American version of the Red Album in 1973.

Help! next surfaced in a live version from August 29th of 1965 on the 1977 release The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.  Capitol put the rare mono mix from the single on its Rarities album in 1979.  This was followed by the stereo mix on Reel Music in 1982 and on both the US and UK versions of 20 Greatest Hits in that same year.  Anthology 2 in 1996 gave us the very first live performance of the song from Blackpool Night Out on August 1st, 1965 with John giving a wry introduction, then forgetting some of his own lyrics.  And, of course, the song appears on the worldwide bestseller 1 from 2000.

On November 23rd, 1965, the group met at Twickenham Film Studios to shoot videos for all of that year's singles to be distributed for promotional purposes, thus eliminating the need to appear live on numerous television programs.  The video for Help! shows the boys sitting in a row on a plank between two sawhorses.  John, Paul and George have their guitars and mime singing and playing while Ringo sits at the back holding an open umbrella.  Fake snow falls during the final verse, much to George's surprise and Paul's delight.  This was broadcast on BBC's Top of the Pops on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.  It is now available on the collection 1+.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hello Goodbye

As the year 1967 drew to a close, the Beatles were still learning how to manage their own affairs following the death of Brian Epstein.  They negotiated a deal to have their film for television Magical Mystery Tour broadcast by the BBC on Boxing Day and its accompanying soundtrack would be released a few weeks in advance of that date.  A year-end single was also expected, and one of the soundtrack songs such as The Fool on the Hill or even the title track would have easily sufficed for that purpose, but Paul McCartney had another song in mind.

On October 2nd, with all of the Magical Mystery Tour songs either complete or nearing completion, the group began work on a composition then known as Hello Hello.  Take fourteen, the final take of the basic track, was best.  The line-up for this take featured Paul on piano, John on organ, George shaking a tambourine and Ringo on drums.  The group did not return to the song until October 19th, at which time they added numerous overdubs including two lead guitar lines from George (much of this was deleted from the final version, but it can be heard on Anthology 2), a lead vocal from Paul, backing vocals and handclaps from John and George, plus maracas played by Ringo.

The following evening, October 20th, two viola players were added to the track.  This was yet another of those infamous sessions where Paul and producer George Martin had not worked out anything in advance, so the musicians waited as Paul and Martin huddled at a piano and figured out what they wanted them to play.  The work on the track concluded with Paul adding a preliminary bass line on October 25th and a second on November 1st.

Though the song contained very simple (many would say simplistic) lyrics, it proved to be a huge number one hit.  Much of its appeal comes from the fact that it displays the full array of production elements common to that psychedelic year of 1967 - many layers of sound, multiple instrumental and vocal variations from verse to verse - but mostly because of the irresistibly-catchy coda, which was always referred to as the Maori finale.  This was reportedly in place right from the very first take of the song.

The Beatles were now in the habit of making films to promote their latest single.  Having just made a film without a professional director, Paul decided that he could take the reins once more for this task.  On November 10th, they met at the Saville Theatre, still owned by Epstein's NEMS Enterprises, to shoot three versions of the song for worldwide distribution.

The boys stand onstage in their traditional concert positions and pretend to perform the song, one time in their Sgt. Pepper costumes.  George and John look bored and disconnected until several dancing girls in grass skirts join them for the Maori finale.  The second film is much like the first except that they wear their own clothes and there is a different backdrop.  The third film combines outtakes from the other two, and includes some hilarious dancing by the boys, particularly John.  There are also a few glimpses in the films of the group wearing their old 1963 collarless jackets and waving at the camera.

The Musicians' Union ban on miming prevented any of the films from being shown on British TV, even after George Martin produced a mix of the song without the violas to accompany them.  The version with the Sgt. Pepper uniforms was shown in the US on CBS's Ed Sullivan Show and ABC's Hollywood Palace.  The BBC did film the group working on the edit of Magical Mystery Tour and combined that with various other footage to promote the single on Tops of the Pops.

While the song was never intended to be part of Magical Mystery Tour, the Maori finale is heard during the end credits of that program.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Hard Day's Night

In entries from previous years, I have told the story of how producer Walter Shenson and director Richard Lester heard this phrase late in the shooting stage of production and decided that it would be the title of the film, then told Lennon and McCartney that a song of that title would be required.  When Lennon came in with this composition only twenty-four hours later, a recording session was hastily booked for the evening of April 16th, 1964.

Geoff Emerick was serving as second engineer on that date, and in his book Here, There and Everywhere, he relates that Richard Lester was also present in the booth.  It was Lester in particular who pushed for something big to open both the song and the film, resulting in the famous crashing chord.  He also wanted something "dreamy" to close out the number as it segued into the main action of the story.  Though his suggestions (or rather, demands) were realized, his presence on producer George Martin's turf was not exactly welcome according to Emerick.

On Anthology 1, we hear take one from that session, a sloppy performance, yet one that shows most of the elements already in place.  Take nine proved to be the keeper and overdubs were quickly added, including double-tracked vocals from John and Paul, plus bongos and a cowbell played by Ringo.  The trickiest overdub was the instrumental break played simultaneously by George Martin on piano and George Harrison on guitar.  The entire session lasted only three hours, and this after a true hard day's work shooting sequences running from police for the film.

This  session happened so late in the production process that there was only one week of principal photography left and no plans were made to show the group performing the song in the script.  It was used, instead, to open and close the film, playing at the top under the main titles during the mad rush at the train station, and under the closing credits as the helicopter takes off and still frame shots of the boys fill the screen.

The song's many releases include both a single and the lead track of the album A Hard Day's Night in the UK.  In the US, it was a single on Capitol Records and the title track of the soundtrack album on the United Artists label (George Martin's instrumental version from the score also appeared on this album).  It next appeared on the 1966 compilation A Collection of Beatles' Oldies in Britain.  Of course, it was on the 1973 Red Album (the cardboard insert on early copies of the American version claimed the song appeared on the Capitol Help! album - well, kinda.  The instrumental track Another Hard Day's Night features it in an arrangement by Ken Thorne played on Indian instruments).

The 1977 album The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl features the song in a live performance from 1965.  It surfaced in 1982 on the compilation Reel Music and on both the US and UK versions of 20 Greatest Hits.  It was even included as part of the novelty single The Beatles' Movie Medley released in conjunction with the Reel Music album.  Another novelty occurred during a BBC performance from July of '64 when the piano part was very obviously dropped in from the single since George Martin was not present at the radio session.  This is available on the 1994 Live at the BBC collection.

The song was naturally included on the 2000 worldwide bestseller 1.  And on the more recent 1+, a video from French television shows group performing the song in concert on June 20th, 1965 in Paris.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Happiness is a Warm Gun

Lennon and McCartney had stitched unfinished and unrelated songs together to complete both A Day in the Life and Baby You're a Rich Man in 1967.  Lennon took the process a step further in 1968 by joining three different song snippets of his own to create Happiness is a Warm Gun.

When the Beatles gathered at George's house in May of that year to record demos before beginning work on their next album, Lennon only had the middle section written, as heard on Anthology 3.  He strums an acoustic guitar and sings the "I need a fix" verse, adding a "Yoko Ono no, Yoko Ono yes" part which would not be included in the full version months later.

The sessions for the double album stretched out for so long that it was not until September 23rd that work began on this song, which by now had all three sections in place.  It took much of the evening for John to teach the tricky time changes to the group, yet they still managed to put forty-five takes on tape before wrapping up for the day.  They picked up the next evening and reached take seventy before rewinding the tape and listening to what they had.  Take fifty-three was chosen as the best for the first two sections and take sixty-five was best for the final part of the song.

Overdubbing was done on September 25th, the third consecutive night of work on the number.  The band members had played their usual instruments on the basic track, so they now added organ, piano, a second bass line, tambourine and all of the vocals.  Reportedly, Paul even plays a tuba which just happened to be lying around the studio.

All of this was done with young Chris Thomas sitting in as producer during George Martin's absence from these sessions.  The mono mix was even completed before Martin returned from his extended holiday.  The stereo mix, on the other hand, was one of the last to be made for the album.  This was done under Martin's supervision on October 15th.

Lennon later referred to this song as a "history of rock and roll" reflected in the distinct styles of its three sections.  McCartney loved this track, and it no doubt influenced him a year later when he conceived the idea of stringing together a series of unfinished songs for the long medley on Abbey Road.  He has even continued this practice of combining unrelated song fragments on numerous piecemeal compositions from his solo career.      

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Got to Get You into My Life

In 2015, a letter written by George Harrison to American DJ Paul Drew in 1966 surfaced and revealed that the Beatles had considered going to Memphis, Tennessee to make their next album at Stax Records.  Of course, it never came to pass but, if it had, the sound and content of Revolver would no doubt have been quite different from what we now know.  There is one song on that album, however, that seems to have been inspired in part by the Soulsville sound - Got to Get You into My Life.

McCartney's ode to marijuana succeeds in masquerading itself as a love song.  One has to really read between the lines of the lyrics to uncover his true intent, but the words are not the selling point of this number in any case.  It is Paul's soulful delivery and the overall drive of the track that make this yet another high water mark on what may be the group's best album.

When they began work on the track on April 7th, 1966, it had a distinctly different feel from that finished version.  Anthology 2 gives us take five, which was considered best at the time.  It has a one note drone on an organ played by producer George Martin, simple drumming by Ringo, backing vocals by John and George, and a lead vocal by Paul that is completely unlike his singing on the master.

Takes six through eight recorded on the following day show that Paul had rethought how to perform the basic track.  Take eight was the keeper, featuring John on rhythm guitar and George playing a part on his lead guitar which the horn section would ultimately play instead.  A few days later, on April 11th, the glorious guitar flourish near the end of the song was added for the first time.  In his book The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn does not indicate who plays this part, but many believe that it is Paul's work and not George's.

The group did not return to the track until May 18th, by which time Paul had decided that a brass section was required to fill out the sound.  Session men playing two tenor saxophones and three trumpets experienced what many others would in the coming years, as Paul sat at a piano and George Martin translated his ideas into an arrangement while the musicians waited.  This was also the first time that engineer Geoff Emerick put microphones in the bells of the instruments to capture their sound as never before.

Once the session players had successfully completed their job, Paul recorded his sensational lead vocal.  A mono mix was done on this day, burying John and George's original guitar parts in the process (though they are still present).  Paul overdubbed another chiming guitar line on June 17th, making a new mono mix necessary.  This was done on June 20th, while also doubling the brass section by double-tracking it just slightly out of sync.  Curiously, the stereo mix done on June 22nd does not have this doubling effect.

After the group's career, the song was released as a single in the US in 1976, one week ahead of its appearance on the compilation album Rock and Roll Music.  This single reached number seven on the Billboard chart - an impressive feat considering that disco was all the rage at the time.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Good Night

Julian Lennon claims that he did not know that his father had written this lullaby for him until he was being interviewed for Steve Turner's 1994 book A Hard Day's Write.  I'm not sure how this is even possible since any serious Beatles fan could have told him this information after the release of John's final interview with Playboy in 1980.  In any case, the song is an anomaly, both for Lennon as a songwriter and for the group as a recording entity.

This is not to say that Lennon was incapable of writing tender songs.  He wrote many as a member of the Beatles and in his solo career, but none of them received the schmaltzy treatment lavished upon this number.  When Paul and producer George Martin ridiculed Phil Spector's orchestra and chorus for The Long and Winding Road in 1970 as being over the top and unlike anything the Beatles had ever done before, they clearly had short (or selective) memories.

The entire group gathered along with George Martin on June 28th, 1968, to work on the song, which John had decided would be sung by Ringo, though Paul and engineer Geoff Emerick say that John sang a beautiful version on a demo tape to help Ringo learn it.  Anthology 3 gives us a marvelous glimpse into the process as Martin sat at the piano and everyone present gave the drummer some encouragement and tips on how to sing the simple, lovely tune.  For the proper takes on this day, John accompanied Ringo on acoustic guitar until take five was deemed to be the best.

On July 2nd, Ringo re-recorded his lead vocal and Paul and George overdubbed backing vocals onto the track.  Martin then took a tape copy home so he could write his accompaniment for orchestra and choir.  This is where Lennon sabotaged his own song by instructing the producer to, "Arrange it like Hollywood.  Yeah, corny," according to Nicholas Schaffner in his 1978 book The Beatles Forever.

July 22nd was the date for the orchestral overdub session in the large Studio One at Abbey Road.  Twenty-six musicians and eight members of the Mike Sammes Singers performed Martin's arrangement.  After they were finished, Ringo stayed behind to re-record his lead vocal yet again, as this was now a complete re-make of the song.  John, Paul and George thus do not appear on the track.

Good Night closes the sprawling double album The Beatles in a strange yet satisfying manner.  Though Lennon admitted in 1980 that the strings were "possibly over-lush," there is no denying that his tune is quite lovely.  It is very revealing, however, to compare the two songs written for Julian Lennon at this tumultuous time in his young life as his parents were getting divorced.  John treats his son like a child and presents him with this lullaby while McCartney treats him like an equal and writes him an anthem for the ages in Hey Jude.