Follow by Email

Friday, May 19, 2017

Don't Pass Me By

The first solo composition credited to Richard Starkey has a surprisingly long history.  Ringo had at least the basis for Don't Pass Me By when he joined the Beatles, and he reportedly played it for his new bandmates soon thereafter.  When asked if he was interested in songwriting during a radio interview in New Zealand on the group's first world tour in 1964, Ringo had John and Paul sing the chorus.  Yet they never seriously considered recording it until sessions began for the double album The Beatles in 1968.

In his book Here, There and Everywhere, engineer Geoff Emerick recalls that he and producer George Martin were taken aback on June 5th when work began on the number.  Ringo's songs were typically last-minute efforts as an album neared completion, but this was just a few days into the new sessions with only Lennon's Revolution 1 in progress at the time.  The only other member of the band to appear on the recording is Paul, who played a piano miked through an amplifier and a Leslie speaker thus making it sound like an organ.

Ringo and Paul made a mere three attempts at the basic track before the composer was satisfied, even though each of them lost count of the measures and made mistakes every time.  Ringo overdubbed a sleigh bell and Paul a second piano part before Ringo sang his lead vocal.  Unhappy with the attempt, it was erased and Paul added two bass lines instead.  The following day, these bass parts were wiped and Ringo sang and double-tracked a new lead vocal.  Paul then overdubbed a new bass line to complete the day's work.

They did not return to the track until July 12th, at which time a session musician was brought in to provide the distinctive country and western touch that the song required.  The arrival of fiddler Jack Fallon was quite a surprise; the Beatles recognized him as an agent who had booked them for one of their earliest appearances in the south of England on March 31st, 1962.  The irony, of course, is that Pete Best was still the group's drummer on that occasion, yet Fallon was now present to work on Ringo's song.  After his contribution was recorded, Paul overdubbed more bass and Ringo even played a little piano.

The final addition to the track occurred ten days later, on July 22nd, when Paul played an introductory piece for the number.  Once again, the piano was miked as on June 5th so that it would match up with the sound on the rest of the track.  Only eight seconds of his playing were chosen to be tacked onto the front of the song.*

Don't Pass Me By can be heard in several various ways.  The "White Album" was the last to be given a full mono mix, and it is significantly different from the stereo.  The mono is slightly faster, thus making Ringo's voice sound rather high, and Jack Fallon's fiddling at the end of the track is entirely different from what is heard on the stereo mix.  As the mono album was not released in the US in 1968, this version was included on the American album Rarities in 1980.  And the basic track from June 5th is available on Anthology 3 with Ringo's vocal from June 6th (featuring a spoken section edited out of the master), though the song fades out early just before the break in the full recording.

* Also on July 22nd, an orchestra recorded George Martin's arrangement for Ringo's other vocal spotlight on the album, the Lennon composition Good Night.  Furthermore, they supposedly recorded an alternate introduction for Don't Pass Me By scored by Martin, though this is clearly heard in the film Yellow Submarine just before the Eleanor Rigby sequence.  Given the title A Beginning, this piece is used to open the compilation Anthology 3.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Don't Let Me Down

Lennon's first great song of love for Yoko Ono was also easily his best new composition for the Get Back/Let It Be project.  It was rehearsed by the band in the beginning of January 1969 at the Twickenham Film Studios sessions.  The Fly on the Wall disc from the 2003 release Let It Be - Naked reveals that the chords of Lennon's Abbey Road song Sun King and the chorus of Don't Let Me Down are one and the same.  Another snippet on the disc lets us hear John and Paul structuring the song during these early sessions.

After a hiatus due to George's temporary walkout, the group reconvened on January 22nd at their new studio in the basement of Apple headquarters on Savile Row, where George recruited old friend Billy Preston to join in the proceedings.  No further proof of Preston's consummate skill is needed than to listen to the take of Don't Let Me Down that Glyn Johns selected for the unreleased Get Back LP.  This take is from Billy's first day sitting in with the Beatles and his part is already mostly in place.  The only exception is his brief solo after John's call of, "Hit it, Bill," that allows the keyboard player to ad lib his way through to the end of the number.

The take that became the B-side of the single Get Back was recorded on January 28th.  On every other version of the song that I have ever heard, George joins in the chorus, but he either did not sing on this occasion or his voice was somehow lost in the mix.

Phil Spector's decision to omit the song from the 1970 album Let It Be was remedied in 2003 on Let It Be - Naked, which presents an edit of the two rooftop performances of the number from January 30th, 1969.  The tempo here is a little quicker than on the familiar B-side and, though John continues his usual practice of changing lyrics as he goes, the playing by those around him is rock solid.  The film Let It Be includes the first of these two performances, with a group of men on the adjoining rooftop (and one fellow in a blue sweater in particular) making constant comments on the proceedings.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Don't Bother Me

The Beatles had already recorded two songs featuring George Harrison as lead vocalist for their second album With the Beatles when the young guitarist offered his first solo composition to the group.  Harrison had previously received co-credit with McCartney for the 1958 recording In Spite of All the Danger by the Quarry Men and shared billing with Lennon for the instrumental Cry for a Shadow, recorded in Hamburg.  Lennon and McCartney were now at their early peak as a songwriting team so it must have been quite daunting for the junior member of the band to step forward at this moment.

He reportedly wrote the song while sick in bed during the group's week-long engagement at Bournemouth in August of 1963.  Bill Harry of Liverpool's Mersey Beat paper had been urging George to try his hand at songwriting and so, worn down by Harry's insistence and with time on his hands, he came up with Don't Bother Me.  Now, he simply had to convince producer George Martin, manager Brian Epstein and music publisher Dick James to allow him to record his maiden composition with the greatest act in British show business history.

September 11th was the next recording date scheduled for the album-in-the-works.  The band recorded four Lennon-McCartney songs before turning its collective attention to Harrison's number late in the evening session.  According to Dave Rybaczewski's in-depth look at the song, John took up some time trying to play his rhythm guitar through a new toy called a fuzz box before Martin nixed the idea.  This immediately established the lack of focus that John would display toward George's compositions throughout the coming years.  Four takes of the backing track and three of overdubs yielded unsatisfactory results for the time being.

They returned to the number at the start of the evening session on the following day, September 12th.  Beginning with the round number of take ten, they tried a few different arrangements before hitting the right one on take thirteen (you can even hear George say "Too fast" during the intro on the record, but he obviously changed his mind upon hearing it).  Several takes of overdubs brought the total to take nineteen, but the best overdubs were from take fifteen.  These included George double-tracking his lead vocal, Paul on claves, John on tambourine and Ringo on a loose-skinned Arabian bongo (as detailed in Tony Barrow's liner notes for the album).

Young Mister Harrison had learned his new craft well enough to land his number on side one of With the Beatles among those of the hottest songwriting team working at the time.  A few months later, Capitol Records placed it prominently at the top of side two on the breakthrough American album Meet the Beatles.  Though the group never played it live, Don't Bother Me was chosen to be one of three songs used in the discotheque sequence in the film A Hard Day's Night.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Doctor Robert

It has often been stated by music critics that the Beatles did not pad their albums with filler material (the one notable exception being the "White Album," which does have its share), but even the masterpiece Revolver has one less-than-stellar composition by John Lennon.  This is not to say that Doctor Robert is an awful song, but it is clearly not on a par with the other songs on this magnificent album.

It is notable for being one of the first compositions by the group to reference drugs, though most young fans hopefully missed this at the time.  Both Lennon and McCartney admitted that the song was an inside joke about an infamous New York doctor who gave vitamin shots laced with speed to celebrities, though the Beatles implied that he was British with the lyric "My friend works for the National Health."

The recording was made early on during the sessions for Revolver.  On April 17th, 1966, the band laid down several attempts at the backing track with the final one, take seven, hitting just the right groove.  This utilized the usual line-up of drums, bass and two electric guitars.  Overdubs included multiple extra guitar lines from George, maracas (also played by George), piano from Paul (though this was either buried or omitted from the final mix) and a harmonium part played by John for the mock-solemn bridge.

Two days later, on April 19th, they concentrated solely on the vocals.  John's lead was recorded with ADT (Artificial Double Tracking).  Paul provided a strong harmony vocal from the second verse on, and George joined the others for the bridge, completing the job.  All in all, it was a relatively simple recording compared with most others from these sessions.

This song was soon sent along with two other Lennon compositions to Capitol Records for inclusion on the compilation album "Yesterday"...and Today, released in June.  Whether those in charge planned it or not, the recording's fadeout/full stop served to nicely set up Paul's famous ballad Yesterday.  On the UK album Revolver, released in August, producer George Martin deliberately chose to have this faded ending lead into the fade up of Harrison's I Want to Tell You.

Like most of the band's recordings from 1966 on, they never performed the song live. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Do You Want to Know a Secret

George Harrison taped his first official lead vocal during the afternoon of February 11th, 1963 as part of the group's incredible all-day session recording the bulk of the album Please Please Me.  He was understandably nervous and his voice was shaky even on the keeper, take six, but his bashful charm helped him carry the song that John Lennon had written for him.  Overdubs of John and Paul's backing vocals and Ringo tapping sticks throughout the bridge completed the simple recording.

Lennon had been inspired by the memory of his mother Julia singing the song Wishing Well from Disney's first full-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  This may seem to be an unlikely source for a brash young rock-and-roller, yet it only serves to demonstrate that Lennon and McCartney had a broad musical knowledge even at the start of their songwriting partnership.

It was not an automatic choice for George or the Beatles, however.  Lennon famously recorded a demo of the song in late '62 for fellow artist Billy J. Kramer in a Hamburg bathroom stall and pulled the chain on the toilet once he had finished.  Kramer did wind up recording the song with his backing group the Dakotas a month or so after the Beatles, and his version went to the top of the charts in the UK (number one on some charts and number two on others).

After the Beatles recorded the song, they included it as George's vocal spotlight in their stage act for the next few months of 1963.  He also performed it on multiple TV and radio appearances made by the group during this period.  By the summer, they felt the song had run its course and replaced it with George's faithful cover version of Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven.

The American label Vee-Jay Records initially released Do You Want to Know a Secret on the album Introducing...the Beatles.  Once Beatlemania reached the US, the label chose the song as the A-side of a single in March of 1964.  American fans bought this single in such quantities that it went all the way to number two on the Billboard chart, an impressive feat for young Mr. Harrison.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

The second Larry Williams number recorded by the Beatles for Capitol Records on May 10th, 1965 was this screaming rocker.  The boys laid down two satisfactory takes of Dizzy Miss Lizzy before turning their attention to Bad Boy, but they did such a scorching version of the latter song that producer George Martin thought they could do better on the former and so, much to John Lennon's chagrin, they returned to it for several more takes.  The final one, take seven, proved to be the keeper.  Overdubs of John on Hammond organ, Ringo on cowbell and a second lead guitar line by George completed the recording.

Both songs appeared in June on the American album Beatles VI.  While never intended for a British release, Dizzy Miss Lizzy was surprisingly chosen to close the UK album Help!

Though the group had not played the song in years, they displayed a new-found love for it, recording  it on May 26th, only a few weeks after the studio version, for their final BBC program The Beatles Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride.  This performance is available on the 1994 collection The Beatles Live at the BBC.

They then revived it for their historic Shea Stadium concert on August 15th (pictured above) and kept it in the set list for the remainder of the 1965 American tour.  The 1977 album The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl presents a version created by editing together two separate performances from August 29th and 30th of 1965.

The band may have had a great fondness for the song, but this enthusiasm is not shared by many fans.  The repetitive guitar riff played by George can be unfavorably compared with fingernails on a chalkboard after a while.  He does manage to find a bit more variation in the live performances than he did on the studio recording.  In fact, by the time of the Shea Stadium show, he has already figured out that it is not necessary to play the riff incessantly throughout every verse.

Lennon had such an affinity for the song that he once again revived it for his appearance in Toronto with the Plastic Ono Band in 1969.  Though John can only remember about half of the lyrics, Eric Clapton redeems the number by making the guitar riff more palatable than George ever did.      

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dig It

The Beatles were masters of producing well-crafted, highly-polished recordings.  Even in their most experimental works, an overarching structure was usually evident.  When it came to loose jamming, however, their results were often lacking, especially when compared to the inventive instrumental byplay exhibited by many of their freewheeling contemporaries.

This is not to say that they did not let off steam by jamming on occasion.  I have a bootleg of them going on at length after a take of She's A Woman in 1964.  12 Bar Original was a failed attempt at an instrumental album track from the Rubber Soul sessions.  Following the months of concentrated work on Sgt. Pepper, they sometimes wasted entire evenings in the studio during the spring of 1967 playing long unstructured jams, much to the dismay of producer George Martin and other Abbey Road staff members.

During the Get Back sessions, the band and their guest Billy Preston frequently lapsed into idly playing many of their favorite oldies.  But on January 24th, 1969, they did something completely uncharacteristic and launched into an attempt at an extended jam called Dig It led by John.  This version featured a slide guitar, although it would be completely forgettable if not for John's comment, "That was Can You Dig It by Georgie Wood.  And now we'd like to do 'ark the Angels Come," at the end.

Two days later, they had another go at it with John and George on their guitars, Ringo on drums, Paul on piano and Billy on electric piano.  Linda Eastman's 6-year-old daughter Heather joins in vocally early on and George Martin handles a percussive shaker.  Otherwise, the group rambles on tediously for twelve and a half minutes playing the same old riff with John ad libbing and Paul adding a half-hearted, out of tune complementary vocal.  On film, George and Billy, sitting side by side, do seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

When assembling both Get Back albums, producer/engineer Glyn Johns used the final four minutes of the second version, then tacked on Lennon's comment from version one.  This preceded Let It Be on his proposed May '69 line-up and The Long and Winding Road on his revised January '70 line-up.  For the Let It Be album, producer Phil Spector wisely trimmed down this section to less than a minute, using what is truly the only clever wordplay from the entire number.  He then used Lennon's comment to segue directly into Let It Be.

In 2003, the Let It Be...Naked album stuck the final half minute of version one, which includes John's now-famous comment at the end, onto the bonus disc Fly on the Wall.