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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Carry That Weight

The big medley on side two of the album Abbey Road is really only a collection of unfinished songs all strung together.  These song fragments are completely unrelated to each other...with one exception.  Carry That Weight, which occurs just before the aptly-titled song The End, is a continuation of the piece which opens the medley, You Never Give Me Your Money.  It not only contains the third verse of that earlier song, it also briefly repeats the arpeggiated guitar phrase from the fadeout of that number.  By musically tying together the ends of the medley in this fashion, McCartney succeeded in "thinking symphonically" as producer George Martin had encouraged him.

John Lennon had been involved in a car accident in Scotland and would miss the first official week of sessions for the album.  So Paul, George and Ringo convened at the studio on July 2nd, 1969 to record the basic track for Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight (both of these songs were connected right from the start) with Paul singing a guide vocal and playing piano, Ringo playing drums and George playing bass.  A listen to a bootleg of this basic track shows that the song cuts off immediately at the point where it would be joined to The End, making it quite clear that Paul already had a good chunk of the medley worked out in his mind.

Takes thirteen and fifteen were combined (there were only fifteen total takes) to form the basis for the master.  On July 3rd and 4th, George overdubbed his lead guitar and Paul added a rhythm guitar part plus his lead vocal.  Paul, George and Ringo then gathered around a microphone to record the rousing chorus.

On July 30th and 31st, additional vocals were recorded, this time including John (this was his only contribution to the song).  Also on the 31st, more drums were added to the mix, as well as a timpani overdub played by either Ringo or Paul.  The final touch came on August 15th when a thirty piece orchestra conducted by George Martin completed the work.  His arrangement encompassed all three of the final songs of the medley - Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End.

Though the tensions within the group were extremely high during this period, they worked together as well as ever throughout the July and August sessions for Abbey Road.  And the fact that all four Beatles agreed to sing the phrase "you're gonna carry that weight a long time" displays a remarkable self-awareness of what the future would hold for each of them.   

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Can't Buy Me Love

The second Can't Buy Me Love sequence in A Hard Day's Night
The only official recording session by all four Beatles outside of London took place on January 29th, 1964 at Pathe Marconi Studios in Paris.  The boys were in the studio specifically to record German versions of their two biggest hits She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand.  This work was accomplished quickly and so, with a full hour left over in the session, they decided to start recording the A-side of their next single.

Among the songs that John and Paul were writing for the soundtrack of their upcoming feature film was one by McCartney that they felt was a sure-fire hit.  Producer George Martin agreed with their choice.  However, he suggested a different arrangement of the composition, opening it with the chorus instead of the first verse as Paul had structured it.  The tape started running and by take four they had the master.  But the song underwent a few more alterations in that brief time. 

Take two is presented on the 1995 album Anthology 1 along with George's improvised guitar solo from take one. Paul sings in a bluesier style and John and George provide backing vocals which echo some of the lyrics.  By take four, the guitar solo is pre-planned, the backing vocals are gone and Paul sings the song as we now know it.  Back at Abbey Road Studios almost a month later, on February 25th, Paul double-tracked his vocal and George did the same with his guitar solo, thereby completing the recording.

Only a few days later, on February 28th, the group performed the new number for the BBC for their program From Us to You so that it could be broadcast around the time of the record's release.  This can be heard on the 1994 collection Live at the BBC.  As on the record, Paul's vocal is double-tracked here.

The song is featured twice in A Hard Day's Night with the first instance being the famous romp in the field behind the theater where they have been in holding for rehearsals.  Later in the film, it is used again as John, Paul and George rush to the police station to rescue Ringo in time for their television performance.

Can't Buy Me Love became part of the group's stage act for the next two years.  The boys returned in June of 1965 to the city where the basic track had been recorded.  That initial visit had been for a lengthy three-week engagement and the Parisian audiences had been mostly unimpressed by the Beatles at that time.  A recording of one of the two 1965 concerts reveals that the crowds were much more enthusiastic the second time around, even going so far as to echo the chorus of this song during its performance.

This number was part of the set list at both the 1964 and '65 Hollywood Bowl concerts.  The 1977 album The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (and the 2016 reissue Live at the Hollywood Bowl) contains the August 30th, 1965 performance featuring a somewhat heavier-than-usual guitar solo from George and with Paul's voice sounding quite raw.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Boys

Even before the Beatles became famous, John and Paul always dominated the lead vocals, though George was also highly featured in their stage act.  Drummer Pete Best had his own contingent of fans in Liverpool (and still does to this day) so he, too, got his moment in the lead vocal spotlight.  In 1961 and '62, he sang a number by the Shirelles called Boys.

Most people are familiar with the A-side of the single, the hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow, but leave it to the Beatles to focus on the obscure rocker from the B-side.  The lads were great admirers of American girl groups and worked many numbers from those groups into their live act, altering the lyrics as needed.  In this case, they made few alterations to the words, figuring rightly that the drive and energy of their performance was all that was necessary to carry the song.  When Ringo joined the band, he had no trouble inheriting the number, as he had already been singing it himself with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

On February 11th, 1963, the day that the Beatles recorded the bulk of their first album Please Please Me, producer George Martin wanted all four members represented exactly as they were in their stage act.  This insured that Ringo would get his customary spotlight number and he did not disappoint.  The band knew the song so well that they nailed it in one live take during the evening session.

Boys remained in the band's repertoire for most of 1963.  They performed it a total of seven times for the BBC, with the June recording for Pop Go the Beatles preserved on the 1995 EP Baby It's You.  This version features a full stop at the end as opposed to a fade out as on the record.  At the end of the year, Ringo's new vocal showcase I Wanna Be Your Man from the group's second album With the Beatles replaced it in their stage act.

In April of 1964, both Boys and I Wanna Be Your Man were recorded for the TV special Around the Beatles.  The performance of Boys did not make the cut, but you can hear it on the 1995 collection Anthology 1.  They omit a repeat of the first verse as the Shirelles did on the original, and they bring it to a full close after only one chorus at the end.

The song once again became Ringo's vocal spotlight for much of 1964.  The most well-known live version, recorded on August 23rd, 1964, opens side two of the 1977 album The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.  The group plays the song at a breakneck pace with only one chorus at the end, bringing it in at just under two minutes (including Paul's quick introduction).  This version also appears on the revamped 2016 re-release of this album, now titled Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

The Beatles last performed the number in October of '64 for the American television program Shindig.  Of course, Ringo has revived the song multiple times over the years with his All-Starr Band, even playing it for the 50th anniversary celebration of the first appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Blue Jay Way

George Harrison's contribution to the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is one of those songs that fans either love or hate with very few in between.  Many have simply never been able to enjoy his immersion into Indian music and, though not a single traditional Indian instrument is used on this track, the influence is clear, especially in the droning effect achieved by staying on the same chord throughout.

The song was composed in a house on Blue Jay Way in the Hollywood Hills above L.A. on the foggy night of August 1st, 1967.  The house had a Hammond organ in it and, while waiting for friend Derek Taylor to arrive, George put it to good use, writing lyrics inspired by the situation.

The Beatles began recording songs for their upcoming film for television a few weeks later.  On September 6th, after hours of work on I Am the Walrus, the group turned their attention to George's composition.  A good deal of rehearsal resulted in the basic track being recorded in just one take, with Ringo on drums, Paul on bass and George playing a Hammond organ.  The next night, a reduction mix brought the song to take two before the addition of George's lead vocal.  Another reduction mix then brought the track to take three before John and Paul's backing vocals were added.  All of the vocals were subjected to an extreme use of ADT (artificial double tracking).

A mono mix of the song at this point was made on September 16th to assist in shooting the sequence in the film where George sits on the ground and pretends to play a chalk-drawn keyboard.  But the recording was not yet complete.  On October 6th, a cellist was brought into the studio at Abbey Road to add a part presumably scored by producer George Martin, once again getting a classically-trained Western musician to bend notes in an Eastern way, as he had done on his brilliant score for Harrison's Within You Without You earlier in the year.  A tambourine was also overdubbed at this session.

Several more attempts at a mono mix were made on October 12th with John Lennon sitting in as producer, but none of them were used.  The actual mono mix was done on November 7th after George Martin created a unique stereo mix by simultaneously playing the song backwards and mixing it into the forward-playing soundscape from time to time.  A few attempts to make this the mono mix as well were abandoned for some reason, so the two versions are substantially different.

The addition of the cello had also caused some rethinking of the song's sequence in the film.  Thus, the boys met at Ringo's house on November 3rd and shot new footage, with each of them taking turns pretending to play a white cello in the backyard, plus some scenes of them watching the original footage being projected onto the bare chest of assistant Mal Evans.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Blackbird

Though the Beatles spent a total of five months working on the "White Album," a surprising number of its tracks were recorded in single sessions.  The previous entry, Birthday, was one such example - Blackbird is another.  This is also the first of several solo performances on the sprawling double album, most of them by McCartney.

Paul recorded the song on June 11th, 1968 as John worked down the hall compiling sound effects for  Revolution 9.  Producer George Martin was present as Paul rehearsed, but he left before proper recording began, so engineer Geoff Emerick took over the session.  In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick writes that Paul wanted to sound as if he were singing outdoors, so Emerick set up a stool and microphones outside behind the studio's echo chamber.  The engineer actually set up three microphones - one for Paul's vocal, one for his acoustic guitar and one for his tapping foot.

Perfectionist that he is, Paul did thirty-two takes of the song, though only eleven of them were complete.  Anthology 2 presents take four, which has a slightly altered structure though it is not substantially different from the master.  The final take was the keeper, so it received overdubs of a second vocal during the refrains and the sound effect of a chirping bird.  Emerick claims that some of the background bird sounds were picked up live by the microphones while recording.

I have in my possession a bootleg featuring Paul and Donovan chatting and trading songs, Blackbird among them.  Dave Rybaczewski's in-depth article on this song says that this occurred in January of 1969 as they were getting ready to work on a session with Apple artist Mary Hopkin.  Paul jokes that he had recently played the song for Diana Ross and "...she took offense - not really!"  He then goes on to confirm that he had written it about the civil rights movement after hearing about some riots and demonstrates his point by emphasizing the lyrics.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Birthday

On September 18th, 1968, BBC2 broadcast the film The Girl Can't Help It for the first time on British television.  Though it starred Jayne Mansfield, it was most notable for the many rock and roll performers who were featured, including Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.  Each of the Beatles remembered seeing this film when it played in cinemas back in 1956 and, though they had a session scheduled that evening, they were excited about the prospect of seeing it again.

Paul McCartney arrived at Abbey Road Studios around 5pm and began playing a simple riff on piano and building it into a song.  When the others showed up, they helped to complete the basic structure and they decided to record it while it was still fresh.  With Ringo on drums, George on bass, Paul on lead guitar and John on tambourine, twenty takes were laid down until they got it right.  While the Birthday riff is quite simple, the layout of the song is rather tricky, which probably accounts for the high number of takes.  In his in-depth look at the song, Dave Rybaczewski notates the structure as aabcadca, or verse (instrumental)/verse/pre-bridge/bridge/verse (instrumental)/segue/bridge/verse - surprising for a song made up on the spot.

At this point, everyone popped over to Paul's house to watch The Girl Can't Help It.  Returning to the studio a few hours later, energized after seeing so many of their rock and roll heroes, they resumed work on the song.  The first task was to take the unusual step of transferring take twenty, which had been recorded on four-track tape, to eight-track tape to allow for easier overdubbing.

Paul and John recorded their lead vocal parts, John added a second lead guitar line identical to the one Paul had played (except an octave higher), and Yoko Ono and Patti Harrison sang the word "birthday" multiple times during the bridges.  The most interesting overdub, however, was played by Paul on a piano which sounds as if it were an early synthesizer.  Dave Rybaczewski's in-depth article on the session compiles no less than five different stories about how that sound was achieved.  However they did it, it stands out as being absolutely unique.

By 4am, the song was complete and session producer Chris Thomas, who was sitting in for the vacationing George Martin and who had originally informed the Beatles that The Girl Can't Help It was on the telly that evening, mixed the song for mono.  When the double album was being assembled a month or so later, Birthday was chosen to open side three.

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.