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Monday, October 16, 2017

For You Blue

George Harrison was really hitting his stride as a songwriter in late 1968/early 1969, yet Lennon and McCartney continued to treat him as a junior partner in the firm known as the Beatles.  Never was this more evident than during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions at Twickenham Film Studios in January of '69 when George offered such compositions as All Things Must Pass, I Me Mine and Let It Down to the group, only to be given short shrift time and again by the senior partners.  Small wonder then that he walked out of those sessions in frustration on January 10th.

Even after his eventual return and the resumption of those sessions at Apple's Savile Row basement studio, only one of his songs was given serious consideration.  For You Blue had been auditioned on a few occasions at Twickenham, and the band actually returned to it with gusto on January 25th.  Though this would be the final time that they would work on the tune, it appears to have been one of the most enjoyable days of the entire project.  (Note: While keyboard player Billy Preston had joined the proceedings by this date, he was somehow not present for this number.)

The song itself is a simple 12-bar blues except, as George himself has pointed out in interviews, the lyrics are upbeat, running contrary to what a listener should expect of a traditional blues number.  The lineup features Ringo on drums, George on acoustic guitar, Paul on piano and John playing a lap steel guitar and, as can be seen in the film Let It Be, using what appears to be a shotgun shell as a slide.

Anthology 3 allows us to hear an early take of the song from February 25th, possibly the very first (none of the takes at these sessions were properly numbered).  Paul plays an intro on piano (which sounds normal at this juncture) before the others join in.  There are some slight variations in the lyrics and John plays a solo during the instrumental break but Paul does not.

George wanted the piano to have more of a hontytonk sound, and so, at some point, Paul ran strips of paper through the strings to accomplish the desired effect.  In fact, every other version of the song that I have heard has this distinctive piano sound.  George also seems to have been disappointed in his vocal performance for some reason.  Thus, a full year later, on January 8th, 1970, he re-recorded his vocal part as Glyn Johns was assembling his second attempt at a Get Back album.  This new vocal line includes the silly ad libs during the instrumental section of the song.

The first of three versions of the best take comes from that unreleased Get Back album.  Johns uses George's new vocal initially, but opts for the original live one after the instrumental break and completely omits the ad libs.  The Phil Spector version from the Let It Be album sticks with the new vocal line throughout, but oddly buries George's acoustic guitar part for most of the song.  The 2003 Let It Be...Naked version nicely brings everything to the forefront in a fresh mix.

In addition to its appearance on the Let It Be album, For You Blue was chosen by Capitol Records to be the B-side of the single The Long and Winding Road, released a week before the album in the US.  And, of course, we briefly see the group working on the song in the film Let It Be.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

For No One

This brilliant, sad, haunting ballad about the end of a relationship was originally titled Why Did it Die.  It was written by McCartney in March of 1966 while he was in Switzerland on a skiing holiday with his girlfriend Jane Asher.  Like Eleanor Rigby, which also appeared on the album Revolver, it showcases Paul arriving at the height of his powers as a songwriter, even though his subject matter is uncharacteristically downbeat.

Whether or not John and George attended the session on May 9th, there would have been nothing for them to do except watch as Paul on piano and Ringo on his drum kit made ten takes of the basic track before Paul was satisfied.  Onto take ten, Ringo overdubbed some light cymbal work and a tambourine part as Paul added his bass line and played a keyboard called a clavichord, which belonged to producer George Martin and sounds very much like a harpsichord to most of us casual listeners.

Paul returned to the track on May 16th to record his plaintive vocal.  The crowning touch came a few days later on May 19th as French horn player Alan Civil reported to the studio.  Accounts differ as to who came up with the part he played.  Civil claims he came up with it himself after hearing what Paul wanted, but Paul, George Martin and even engineer Geoff Emerick in his book Here, There and Everywhere say that the part was written out for him, with McCartney and Martin jokingly pushing the horn player to hit one note higher than his instrument was supposed to be capable of reaching.  It took several attempts, but Civil delivered an exquisite performance.  For his unique contribution, he received the rare reward of having his name appear on the album cover.

The song appears on both the British and American versions of the LP Revolver.  Though it cannot be deemed a group effort, For No One certainly adds to the eclecticism of this superb album, the Beatles' finest.  After their career, it was chosen for the compilation album Love Songs.  And Paul himself decided to record a new version of the song for his 1984 film Give My Regards to Broad Street.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Fool on the Hill

The song The Fool on the Hill is a pure and simple delight.  The story of The Fool on the Hill, both its recording and the filming of its sequence for Magical Mystery Tour, is a confusing mess.

McCartney had the basic song as far back as March 29th, 1967.  Hunter Davies, the group's official biographer, was present as John and Paul met on that date to write Ringo's song With a Little Help from My Friends for Sgt. Pepper.  At one point, Paul played The Fool on the Hill for John, who merely remarked that Paul should write down the few lyrics he had, to which Paul replied that he would not forget them.

Not long afterwards, on April 11th, Paul was returning from a trip to the USA with the idea for a film called Magical Mystery Tour.  On the pie chart he sketched out on the airplane, he outlined the breakdown of the action with Fool on the Hill followed by a question mark appearing in one of the pie wedges - exactly where it would fit in the finished film, as it happened.  Other than the title tune, it was the only song mentioned by name.

Curious then that it was not among the batch of songs recorded by the group before filming began.  Only a solo demo by Paul was committed to tape on September 6th.  This demo can be heard on Anthology 2, revealing that the lyrics were still in flux.  After two weeks of principal photography, filming was considered to be complete, yet no sequence had been shot to incorporate The Fool on the Hill.

The Beatles then convened to make the first full recording of the song on September 25th, 1967.  Three takes were laid down with Paul on piano and John on acoustic guitar before they had the best.  Take three was bounced down to become take four and overdubbing commenced.  The overdubs included Paul's all-important part on recorder, Ringo on drums and Paul's lead vocal.  According to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, John and George played harmonicas somewhere on the basic track, yet the take four available on Anthology 2 does not have any hint of the harmonica part heard on the released version.  (It does bear noting, however, that the Anthology series featured a fair amount of tampering with the original tapes.)

Confusion reigns over what occurred on the next day, September 26th.  Some parts recorded the preceding day were erased and new overdubs added, according to Lewisohn in his 1988 book, stating that "it was almost a re-make."  According to his liner notes in 1996 for Anthology 2, it was a re-make.  In an excellent blog, Dave Rybaczewski claims that it was not a re-make, etc. etc.  All we know for certain is that by the end of the session the song sounded considerably different from the previous day's attempt, plus Ringo had added maracas and finger cymbals, and Paul had overdubbed a bass line and re-recorded his lead vocal, as well.

On September 27th, Paul double-tracked his vocal in a few places.  Weeks later, on October 20th, the final overdub for the number featured a score for three flutes by producer George Martin to complement Paul's recorder part and the song was finally complete, except for what sounds like a flock of seagulls (another Mellotron tape?) late in the song.  It was wisely edited down from 4'25" to 2'57" in duration at the mixing stage.  And the harmonicas - whenever they were recorded - are very prominent in the finished product, especially in the stereo mix.

The film Magical Mystery Tour was well into the editing stage by this time, but a sequence for The Fool on the Hill had yet to be added.  What happened next is a perfect illustration of the naive manner in which all of the Beatles conducted their business after the death of manager Brian Epstein.  In his book The Love You Make, Apple employee Peter Brown reports that he received a long distance telephone call from Paul on October 30th.  Paul had taken a camera crew to Nice, France and, with no passport and no money, had somehow talked his way through customs in both England and France.  Upon arrival, however, it was discovered that they did not have the proper lenses for the camera and Brown was asked to locate and ship them immediately.  Brown estimates that this one sequence wound up costing 4000 pounds, or 1/10th of the film's total budget.

I must admit that the sequence - showing Paul on a hill or small mountain around sunset - is beautifully shot.  A 2012 reissue of Magical Mystery Tour also contains an alternate sequence for the song, with Paul overlooking Nice, then walking among the locals in a marketplace and spinning about on a busy boardwalk.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Flying

As the Beatles began recording songs for the soundtrack of their film for television Magical Mystery Tour, they knew that they would also need some instrumental music for sections of the program.  In the past, such music had been provided by George Martin (A Hard Day's Night) and Ken Thorne (Help!), but for this particular project the boys had taken it upon themselves to control every aspect of the production.

So, on September 8th, 1967, they met at Abbey Road Studios and laid down the basic track for a tune called Aerial Tour Instrumental.  It would become the first song credited to all four Beatles, though Paul McCartney claims that he wrote the simple theme.  The basic track had Paul, George and Ringo on their usual instruments and John playing chords on an organ.  By take six, they had arrived at the best, so overdubbing began.  George added a mellow countermelody on guitar during the second half of each verse as John played Paul's simple theme on the Mellotron for the second and third verses.  The third verse of this instrumental also incongruously included the voices of all four Beatles singing the melody in unison as a simple "la la la."  According to engineer Geoff Emerick in his book Here, There and Everywhere, it was Paul's idea to have Ringo's voice most prominent in the mix, thus sounding unlike any previous blend of the Beatles' voices.

All of this came in at a little under two minutes, but a jazz saxophone recording found among the Mellotron's many sound effects was added, as well as several minutes of doodling on the Mellotron, some of it recorded backwards.  The group returned to the track on September 28th, adding a bit more Mellotron, guitar and maracas.  John and Ringo then overdubbed a number of tape loops over the swirling Mellotron section of the piece, stretching it out to somewhere between nine and eleven minutes in length.

Once it came to the mono mixing stage, however, the song was cut back to just the three verses and a tiny fraction of the effects section, omitting the saxophone tape entirely and coming in at a modest 2'16".  By the time that the stereo mix was done in November, the song was now known by the title Flying.
It is played early on in the film as the patrons look out the right side of the bus and the countryside changes colors in classic psychedelic fashion.  When the BBC broadcast the film in black and white on Boxing Day of 1967, this sequence was, of course, quite unremarkable to the audience.  Some of the film used, by the way, came from none other than Stanley Kubrick.  Magical Mystery Tour producer Denis O'Dell somehow got the legendary director to give him footage that was shot for either Dr. Strangelove or 2001: A Space Odyssey according to various sources.

The original double-EP of Magical Mystery Tour released in the UK credits the song to Harrison/Lennon/McCartney/Starkey.  My copy of the American LP lists the credit as Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fixing a Hole

This McCartney composition was partly inspired by a farmhouse in Scotland, which Paul had purchased at the suggestion of his long-time girlfriend Jane Asher in 1966.  The farmhouse had not only a leaky roof, but also a dreary wall that Paul, Jane and another friend took the time to decorate with colored pens that Paul bought in the nearby village.  From these unlikely inspirations came a song about states of mind akin to Lennon's Rain.

A little help in the writing of the song came not from Lennon, however, but from the band's assistant Mal Evans.  According to Mal in an interview shortly before his death in 1976, Paul asked him if he would be okay with not getting credit as long as some royalties came his way.  The ever-loyal roadie agreed.

The recording is notable for being the first taped by the Beatles at a studio not owned by their label's parent company EMI.  All three studios at Abbey Road were booked on the evening of February 9th, 1967, so the boys reported to Regent Sound Studios elsewhere in London.  As an employee of EMI, the group's usual engineer Geoff Emerick could not attend this session, but their producer George Martin, now a freelancer, could.  Regent provided the services of one Adrian Ibbetson as engineer for the evening.

Paul led the band through a series of rehearsals, choosing to sing a guide vocal (unusual during the Sgt. Pepper sessions) while playing a harpsichord.  With Paul at the keyboard, John picked up the bass guitar, leaving Ringo on drums and George limited to maracas.  The first proper take had this unusual lineup.  This take was then bounced down onto another four-track machine and called take two.  Another take, called take three, featured the same lineup.  This take is now available on the 50th anniversary edition of the album.  The tempo feels slightly faster than the version we all know, and Paul plays a few different fills on harpsichord as well as singing a number of simple variations in his lead vocal.

They did not return to the song until February 21st at Abbey Road Studios with Geoff Emerick back in the engineer's seat.  They chose to record a new take one, intending to superimpose it onto take three of the Regent tapes.  This idea was abandoned and they went back to Regent's take two (which was actually identical to Regent's take one, remember), with Paul overdubbing his vocal here and there, and supplementing John's bass line a bit as George Martin did the same thing to Paul's harpsichord part.  John and George also supplied some backing vocals, but the most important addition was George's superb lead guitar line.  While it contains some of his best playing on the album, it does have the feel of being rather precisely constructed by Paul.

Though Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band famously took months to record, Fixing a Hole stands out as being one of the simplest and most straightforward pieces on the album.  Yet it fits in seamlessly alongside the much more complex recordings, more for its subject matter than for its not-very-psychedelic instrumentation (the old-fashioned harpsichord is the only "exotic" instrument present on the track).

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby

Like Dizzy Miss Lizzy, many critics have dismissed this song as a weak choice to close out an album, yet the Beatles themselves had a great fondness for their cover of this Carl Perkins rockabilly number, and there are quite a few versions of it available from various stages of the group's career.

The Beatles were familiar with the song, but did not add it to their live act until their stints in Hamburg in the early 60's, when the need to fill the countless hours of performing caused them to play anything and everything they knew.  It immediately became a showcase number for George both as a singer and guitarist.  On the brink of stardom during their visit to West Germany in December of 1962, they played the song one last time for those local fans, as you can hear on any of the multiple releases of the Star Club tapes.  They were notoriously loose and goofy on this farewell night.  After playing the song at a frantic pace, Ringo, still somewhat new to the group at this time, pushes them through no less than four false endings!

As their fame increased, their shows became much shorter, and George found himself limited to one vocal spotlight per performance.  His latest album track - such as Do You Want to Know a Secret or Roll Over Beethoven - became his moment at the microphone.  Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby was still played on occasion on BBC Radio programs like Pop Go the Beatles, but that was about it...

...until the evening of October 18th, 1964.  In an effort to finish work on their fourth album, the boys stayed in the studio all day, churning out eight titles, including the A-side of their next single.  They turned to familiar tunes from their old stage act for the final three songs, rapidly recording them in only a few takes.  Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby required just one take, with a bit of double-tracking on George's lead vocal and a tambourine overdub.

Producer George Martin selected this number to close out the album Beatles for Sale.  Perhaps the tempo of this recording, a bit slower than any live performance, accounts for the disdain many have for it.  It does lack the ferocity of previous album-closers like Twist and Shout or Money (That's What I Want), plus it has a ridiculous amount of echo, making the track sound as if it is being played in an empty, cavernous hall, but Capitol Records in the US agreed with Martin's assessment of the song, placing it at the end of the album Beatles '65.  The American label even included it on the rare EP 4 by the Beatles.

The song soon returned to the group's live act, first surfacing on a November 17th recording for the BBC Radio program Top Gear.  This same recording was reused a week later at a November 25th session for another BBC Radio offering, Saturday Club.  This performance, which is very close to the album version recorded a month earlier, can be heard on the 1994 release Live at the BBC.

It remained George's spotlight number for the 38 performances of Another Beatles Christmas Show from December 24th to January 16th in London, as well as the European and American tours of 1965. The two shows on June 20th, 1965 in Paris were recorded and broadcast, thus providing material for bootleggers.  The band's pace is brisk and George is in fine form both vocally and instrumentally on one such bootleg tape in my possession.

For me, the most remarkable performance of the song is from the historic Shea Stadium concert on August 15th, 1965.  The sonic wash of screaming fans permeates the recording as the Beatles play on, sounding heavier than they ever had up to this point in their career.  The 1996 release Anthology 2 allowed us to hear this for the first time, perfectly capturing the awesome essence of Beatlemania at its peak.

And we have yet another version of the song on this year's Live at the Hollywood Bowl release, which now includes this song from the group's August 30th, 1965 appearance at that venue.  By the time of the December '65 British tour, however, the song was finally retired from the set list and replaced by George's Rubber Soul composition If I Needed Someone.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

On June 26th, 1968, this became one of the first songs to be worked on for the sprawling double album The Beatles.  It was also the first written in reference to Lennon's blossoming romance with Yoko Ono, who was now a permanent fixture by John's side, even in the studio.  While the group had certainly had a number of visitors attend sessions over the years, this was unprecedented, resulting in a considerable amount of discomfort and tension that would not dissipate during the remainder of the band's career.

Whenever the tapes started rolling, however, that tension was set aside as the four individuals who comprised the world's most famous band came together and functioned superbly as a unit, as they always had.  On that first night, they had the luxury of simply rehearsing the number innumerable times, tightening the arrangement over the course of several hours.  They returned the following evening and began a series of proper takes, with John and George on electric guitars, Ringo on drums and Paul alternating between a fireman's bell and a chocahlo.  The previous night's rehearsal paid off, as they required only six takes before arriving at the best basic track.

In his book The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn reports that the song was 3'07" in duration at this point.  Perhaps the most extreme case of the Beatles speeding up a track then occurred as a reduction mix made the track come in at 2'29".  And an additional 5 seconds would eventually be lopped off by a later reduction mix!  This accounts for the furious pace of the finished product as it appears on the album.

July 1st saw Paul overdub his bass line and John record his lead vocal for the first time.  He decided to re-record his vocal on July 23rd.  He and Paul then overdubbed layers of backing vocals, especially near the end of the song with the multiple calling out of the simple phrase "come on."

This raucous number is little-known and often overlooked (how on earth was it not included on the Rock and Roll Music compilation?), yet it stands as one of the hardest-rocking tracks the group ever recorded.  And it remains a testament to a claim that Ringo has made many times over the years - though the "White Album" sessions were often contentious, the Beatles did get back to being a band on quite a few occasions during that tumultuous period.