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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Golden Slumbers

Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight was recorded as one continuous number right from the very first take.  Since I have already covered Carry That Weight in a previous post, some of this information will necessarily be redundant, and the post itself will be rather short.

Like the other Beatles, Paul McCartney never learned to read music, even though he made some attempts to do so over the years.  While sitting at the piano in his father's house one day, he found a music book with a song called Golden Slumbers.  He liked the lyrics by a contemporary of William Shakespeare named Thomas Dekker, but as they were set to music that he could not decipher, he decided to make up his own tune.  He wrote a single verse to open the song, then used Dekker's words as a refrain before repeating his own verse one more time, the whole composition running only about a minute and a half in duration.

The basic track, consisting of Paul on piano, George on bass and Ringo on drums, was laid down on July 2nd, 1969.  Over the next two days, numerous overdubs were added, most of them to Carry That Weight.  Vocals were also overdubbed, with only Paul singing in the Golden Slumbers section of the track.  He deliberately chose to work against the lullaby aspect of the lyrics, using a strident voice to deliver Dekker's words.

The final overdub featured a thirty-piece orchestra recorded on August 15th, with producer George Martin conducting his own impeccable arrangement.  On the album Abbey Road, the song appears after the only true break in the side two medley, almost as if it is the beginning of a second movement in the overall structure.    

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Glass Onion

John Lennon began writing Glass Onion in 1968 to both mock and confuse those who sought to find deep meaning in the lyrics of the Beatles' songs.  Of course, the group had opened themselves up to such scrutiny when they decided to print all of their lyrics on the back cover of the Sgt. Pepper album in 1967.  They continued the practice later that year by printing the lyrics of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack tunes, including I Am the Walrus, an early attempt to befuddle fans which only succeeded in adding fuel to the fire.

Lennon chose not to be obscure the second time around, making direct references to his songs Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am the Walrus and, interestingly enough, three songs by Paul - Lady Madonna, The Fool on the Hill and Fixing a Hole.  Plus he throws in the deliberately misleading line, "Well, here's another clue for you all.  The walrus was Paul."

When the Beatles met at George's house in May of 1968 to record demo versions of the songs proposed for the "White Album," Lennon only had one verse written as can be heard on Anthology 3.  He plays it three times through, double-tracking his acoustic guitar and vocal, occasionally slipping into gibberish when he forgets his own words, and slowing down significantly in the middle of the verse the last time around.

At some point during the summer, he and Yoko stopped over at McCartney's house for some help in completing the song.  This had been the songwriting duo's process for a few years, though it was now happening much less frequently.  It is, in fact, surprising to learn that it was still going on at all at this late date, but Paul specifically recalls this visit, and claims to have made a few small contributions to the lyrics.

The Beatles did not begin work on the track until September 11th, during producer George Martin's extended holiday from the ongoing sessions for the album.  Young Chris Thomas sat in as producer in the interim.  With John on acoustic and George on electric guitars, plus Paul on bass and Ringo on drums, they recorded thirty-four takes of the basic track before settling on take thirty-three as the best.  The next evening, September 12th, John recorded his lead vocal and Ringo added tambourine.
More drums were overdubbed on the 13th, as well as a piano part played by Paul.  One tiny little detail was added during a session on the 16th by having Paul play a four-note phrase on recorder after the reference to The Fool on the Hill.

John returned to the song on September 26th and compiled tapes of sound effects on four separate tracks - a ringing telephone, breaking glass, a soccer announcer shouting, "It's a goal!" and an organ playing one note.  He inserted these sounds into the song at various points and ended it with the breaking glass and the soccer announcer repeating several times for the fadeout.  The mono mix made of this version can also be heard on Anthology 3.

Once George Martin returned from his holiday and heard the track, he suggested that he could write an arrangement that would serve the song better than the sound effects, and John actually agreed.  So, on October 10th, 1968, a string octet recorded Martin's score, which takes the track to an eerie place unlike the previous version, especially in its ominous fadeout.

We always hear stories of the group's disintegration beginning in earnest during the five-month long sessions for this album, but the basic track on this and many other songs from this period has all four Beatles playing together as well as ever.  John's acoustic guitar can barely be heard in the mix, but the sharp jabs of George's electric guitar and Ringo's drums are tight and precise.  And Paul's bass rarely sounded nastier.  All of this, combined with Lennon's acknowledgement of his partner's work in the lyrics, presented a unified effort on their most disjointed and most fascinating album.   

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Girl

November 11th, 1965 was the last day scheduled for work on the album Rubber Soul - it had to be in stores in time for the Christmas rush! - yet three more tracks were necessary to complete it.  Luckily, McCartney came in with one composition (You Won't See Me), Lennon brought in another (Girl) and there was an unfinished track left over from the Help! sessions in June (Wait).  Plus vocals had to be added to I'm Looking Through You.  The Beatles entered the studio at 6pm with a long night ahead of them.

It was around 11pm by the time You Won't See Me was finished and attention was turned to Lennon's sublime offering.  The basic rhythm track consisted of Paul on bass, Ringo playing his drum kit with brushes and John's acoustic guitar sounding unusually high due to a capo placed well up on its neck.  They managed to nail it on just their second attempt.  For his lead vocal part, John already knew that he wanted his sharp intake of breath to be heard in each chorus, so he made sure that engineer Norman Smith, working for the last time with the group, captured it properly.

Overdubs included Paul and George's naughty backing vocals, Ringo crashing and quickly muffling a cymbal throughout the instrumental section, and three different guitar lines played by George, though one played through a fuzz box was not used.  His simple counter melody on acoustic guitar appears in the second half of the song, but was supposed to play throughout.  A double time counter melody also plays in the instrumental section on acoustic guitar, though for years I thought it was on sitar.  In any case, it adds a decidedly old-world flavor to the number, having the effect of a mandolin.

McCartney helped finish up the composition, but there is no question that Lennon was now at the peak of his powers, writing a world-weary love song that somehow shifted into social commentary.  He acknowledged that the final verse with its "pain would lead to pleasure" lyrics was a jab at the Catholic Church and old-fashioned values.  This new maturity belied the image of the four lovable moptops, and was a part of the transformation of the Beatles from stage performers to full-time studio musicians.

Though it was only an album track, Girl was strong enough to be chosen for the overview of their career on the Red Album in 1973.  Just a few years later, in 1977, it appeared on Love Songs, and was even considered for a single b/w You're Going to Lose That Girl in conjunction with that compilation.  Promotional copies were pressed along with a picture sleeve, but it was never officially released.  Needless to say, these are extremely rare and worth a good deal of money today.   

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Getting Better

"It's getting better," was drummer Jimmy Nicol's standard response whenever John, Paul or George would ask him how things were going during his brief stint filling in for an ailing Ringo on the first leg of the Beatles' 1964 world tour.  Recalling this a few years later, McCartney set about writing a song with that title for the album-in-progress Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

On March 8th, 1967, a day off in the midst of the sessions for that album, Hunter Davies, who had recently been commissioned to write a biography of the group, was present as Paul and John worked on the song.  He witnessed first-hand the unique give-and-take of the songwriting duo in action, as John added lyrics which provided a sobering backstory to Paul's optimistic song.  Though the credit for the composition remains largely Paul's, there is no question that John's contributions to it are substantial.  While most of these are serious, as in the "I used to be cruel to my woman" section, some are humorous, such as the backing vocal response "It can't get no worse."

The group met the day after this writing session to work out the basic track.  With the release of the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper, we can now listen to take one from that day which features Ringo on drums and George on electric guitar, John playing a distorted bass guitar and Paul on an electric piano.  Paul also sings a guide vocal off mike, but this take was clearly just for the instrumental backing.  It breaks down before the third verse and we hear Ringo admitting that he keeps forgetting to play a certain bit, thus revealing that there was rehearsal time before the tapes began rolling.

The group committed seven takes to tape before Paul felt that they had arrived at the best.  On top of that, five reduction mixes were made (bringing the total to take twelve) before he was satisfied that overdubbing could begin.  That process began the next day, March 10th, with the most prominent overdub being a droning tamboura part played by George during the third verse of the song.  Producer George Martin also played a piano at some point, actually striking the strings to make the sharp strident sound heard on the master.  After the other Beatles had left, Paul remained to overdub his bass line, making sure that John's bass part from the previous day was toned down in the mix.

They did not return to the song until March 21st, which turned out to be one of the most infamous recording sessions of the group's career.  Hunter Davies was once again present as John, Paul and George gathered around a microphone to record their vocals.  Davies could not hear the backing track playing in their headphones, only their voices in the room, and he was shocked at how raspy and out-of-tune they sounded.  John became more and more distracted and eventually made his way up to the control room.  Feeling that some spring air would do him good, George Martin took him up to the roof.  When Paul and George learned of his whereabouts, they quickly ran up to retrieve him.  What Martin and Davies did not realize was that John was on LSD and could easily have wandered off the exposed edges of the building.

Needless to say, the vocals were completely redone two days later on the 23rd.  Completing the overdubs on this date were some handclaps, an additional electric guitar and a conga drum played by Ringo which, like George's tamboura part, also first appears during the all-important third verse.

The new stereo mix created by Giles Martin for the 50th anniversary edition beautifully presents each sonic component of this surprisingly complex recording, thus adding fuel to the long-standing debate over whether the mono mix is the only true way to listen to what the group and George Martin originally intended. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Get Back

The stated intention of the sessions of January 1969 was for the Beatles to get back to their rock and roll roots and create a batch of new material, culminating in a live performance which would be recorded and released as an album without any overdubs.  Paul McCartney duly began work on a song with the title Get Back early on during the Twickenham Film Studios portion of those sessions.

The first set of lyrics for this song had a decidedly political bent to them, mocking the anti-immigrant stance popular at the time in England.  John even believed that Paul was directing the line "Get back to where you once belonged" at Yoko, who had by now become a permanent fixture by his longtime partner's side.  Wisely, the easily misconstrued "No Pakistanis" verse was dropped and the lighthearted, nonsensical verses about Jo Jo and Loretta were adopted instead.

Yet the lyrics have little to do with the success of this song.  It is the galloping forward motion provided by Ringo, Paul and George on rhythm guitar, the lighter-than-air lead guitar of John and the superior keyboard work of Billy Preston that help to sell this number as pure, unadulterated fun.  Get Back was probably rehearsed more than any other song at these sessions, and it shows.  By the time they settled on the idea of an abbreviated rooftop concert, this was considered to be the flagship song of the project.  They played it three times that day -  first as a warm-up quickly followed by a full out performance, and as the closing number of the 40-minute set.

In March of 1969, while engineer Glyn Johns was assembling a Get Back album, he found a great take of the song from the rehearsals at Savile Row Studio from either January 27th or 28th (I see differing accounts all the time), which was then chosen to be the A-side of a single credited to The Beatles (with Billy Preston).  Johns also used this take for the two unreleased Get Back albums, even adding more of the coda for the end of those albums.  This picks up exactly where the fadeout occurs on the single and continues through some forced "ho ho ho"s from Paul before fading out again.

For the Let It Be album, producer Phil Spector gave us the same exact take minus the coda to close out that album.  He cleverly added some studio chatter before the song and some remarks from the rooftop afterwards to make it appear as if it were part of that January 30th performance.  We finally did get to hear a bit of that actual performance on Anthology 3, featuring John and George's amps being temporarily shut off and Paul ad libbing about the police shutting down the show.

When the single was released in April of '69, it was touted as being "the Beatles as nature intended," even though Glyn Johns added a bit of reverb to the mix.  The 2003 album Let It Be...Naked presents a pristine mix of the track without the reverb and also without the coda.  The song appears on many more collections including the Blue Album, Rock and Roll Music (the Phil Spector version), Reel Music, 20 Greatest Hits (US & UK), Past Masters Volume Two and, naturally, on 1.

The video compilation 1+ offers two looks at the song.  The first film was made to promote the single in 1969.  According to the liner notes, it used footage from all three performances of the song on the Savile Row rooftop, though all we hear is the single.  The second was created to promote Let It Be...Naked in 2003.  Set to the cleaned-up version of the song from that album, it utilizes footage from the film Let It Be and shows the song being rehearsed at both Twickenham Film Studios and in the Savile Row Studio.  It also manages to use shots featuring many of the other important people involved in the work - Mal Evans, George Martin, Glyn Johns and, most delightfully, a dancing Billy Preston.    

Friday, October 20, 2017

From Me to You

On the morning of March 5th, 1963, the Beatles posed for a number of publicity photographs outside EMI House in Manchester Square in London.  They then reported to Abbey Road Studios to begin the real work of the day - recording both sides of their third single.

Only five days earlier, the letter column From You to Us in the New Musical Express newspaper had provided John and Paul with the inspiration for the song that would turn out to be the A-side of that single.  On a leg of the Helen Shapiro tour traveling from York to Shrewsbury, they crafted this true Lennon/McCartney collaboration before the bus even arrived at its destination.

With the band on their usual instruments, the basic track was achieved in seven takes.  John then overdubbed some harmonica parts at producer George Martin's suggestion since the harmonica had been featured on their first two singles.  Martin also insisted that John and Paul wordlessly sing along with the harmonica melody in order to punch up the introduction of the song.

Upon its release in April, From Me to You truly catapulted the Beatles to national prominence.  It spent seven weeks at number one due, at least in part, to tireless promotion by the band.  They played this song more than any other in their many appearances on BBC radio, in addition to multiple performances on various television programs.  They even briefly had their own radio show called From Us to You, which used a variation of the original lyrics as its theme song.

Though wildly popular in the UK, the song went relatively unknown in the US, even after Del Shannon released a cover version.  As the Beatles' second single on Vee-Jay Records in May of '63, it did next to nothing on the Billboard chart, stopping at number 116.  Once Beatlemania arrived here in January of 1964, Vee-Jay re-released it as a B-side to Please Please Me, but it just missed the Top 40, peaking at number 41.
Capitol Records somehow managed to overlook the song throughout the group's entire career.  In 1973, it finally appeared on the greatest hits package commonly known as the Red Album.  A cardboard insert in that compilation mistakenly listed the song as a track from the American Help! LP (astute observers will note that it is not the only error in that insert pictured above), but the From Me to You Fantasy featured on Help! is merely a deconstruction of the song by Ken Thorne as part of his score for the James Bond parody.  This music plays about midway through the film during the beginning of the small Paul sequence.

In 1994, Live at the BBC gave us the opportunity to hear the From Us to You theme song - a rarity that I'm sure most of us Americans never even knew existed until then.  A year later, Anthology 1 presented a fantastic performance of From Me to You done in late '63 for Swedish radio.  This lacks John's harmonica, but the overall drive is stronger than that on the single thanks no doubt to the presence of an enthusiastic live audience.

Of course, the song appeared on several compilations over the years including A Collection of Beatles Oldies, 20 Greatest Hits (the UK version), Past Masters Volume One and the 2000 worldwide bestseller 1.  And the video compilation 1+ gives us their rendition of the number at the famous Royal Variety Performance from November of 1963, a pivotal moment of Beatlemania.

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.